Achill Island, one of the most spectacular and the largest of our islands off the Irish west coast, was the romantic love-nest for a passionate affair between the British novelist Graham Greene and Catherine Walston the vivacious American wife of millionaire British MP Harry (later Lord ) Walston in the late 1940s.
Graham Greene and Catherine Walston first stayed on Achill in 1947. Greene claims that their first visit that year, coming at the start of their 15 year affair, ensured that it would continue. Writing to Catherine in 1949, Greene says: ‘Somehow I feel an awful reluctance and ache of heart when I address the envelope to Achill. That was where we began.’
Regarded as a serious, and impressively prolific Catholic author, with some 13 publications to his name,* Graham Greene was one of the leading novelists of the mid 20th century. His novels explored the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world often through a Catholic perspective.
The End of the Affair (published 1951 ) examines the obsessive jealousy and lack of discernments within a relationship of three people: a wife, her husband and her lover, and made into a successful film by Neil Jordan in 1999. The ‘lover’ was the author himself suffering the joys and anguish of forbidden love.
Catherine Walston rented a cottage in Dooagh, on the western part of Achill Island. By all accounts it was a rustic retreat for the wealthy society hostess, with no electricity, one outside tap for water, and a corrugated iron roof on the traditional stone cottage. It stands in stark contrast to the other locations at which the affair with Greene was played out - including the Paris Ritz, the Italian isle of Capri, and aboard film director Alexander Korda’s yacht The Elsewhere.
Catherine was introduced to Achill Island by Ernie O’Malley, the Castlebar-born former IRA leader during the 1916-23 uprising. O’Malley, who turned to art and literature after the Civil War, had married the wealthy American heiress Elen Hooker. Elen and Ernie O’Malley lived at Burrishoole Lodge, located between Achill and Newport.
Greene was already married to the long-suffering Vivien, and had had extramarital affairs before this, and was to have many more afterwards. But he was besotted by Catherine. The same could not be said of her. Before and during her time with Greene, she was carrying on with O’Malley. A friend later remarked ‘Graham was her trophy lover, holding him in thrall between rapture and the rack for 15 years.’**
Graham Greene is one of several famous writers and artists which appear in Mary J Murphy’s sweeping account of the people who drew inspiration from this exceptionally beautiful island for a century or more. *** Perhaps no other writer was in more contrast to Greene than the late Heinrich Boll who first came to Achill in the 1950s and bought a cottage, which became a sanctuary for him and his family after life in a broken Germany.
During World War II, as a member of the Wehrmacht, Boll served right throughout the war years in the main theatres of conflict in Poland, France, Romania and Russia. He was wounded several times, and suffered typhoid. He was taken prisoner by US soldiers and spent time as a prisoner-of-war.
Yet, years later, having left his family’s cabinet business, and discovered his talent for writing, he returned to Russia, this time as part of a cultural delegation. It was the first of several trips there where his books were highly regarded as he was seen to be critical of the West.
He befriended Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had just returned from eight years in the gulags for criticising Joseph Stalin in a private letter. Solzhenitsyn then wrote a succession of fiercely critical books on the Soviet Union: Cancer Ward, August 1914, and The Gulgag Archipelago which sold across the world in their tens of thousands, but resulted in his immediate expulsion from Russia. Solzhenitsyn sought refuge with the Boll family in Cologne. He was awarded the 1970 Nobel prize for Literature.
Boll first came to Ireland in 1954 and returned with his family the following year. They drove across the bridge into Achill with joy. They bought a small white cottage on the edge of Dugort village which became their second home. Boll began to write many of his books there, and to publish his impressions of Ireland in the prestigious newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which became his celebrated Irish Journal. Two years after Solzhenitsyn, Heinrich was awarded the 1972 Nobel prize for literature.
His wife Annemarie translated into German the works of Brendan Behan, JM Synge, GB Shaw, and Tomás Ó Criomhthain. The Boll cottage today is used as a guest house for international and Irish artists.
Next week: Artists on Achill
NOTES: * Greene published 13 novels, including Brighton Rock (1938 ), The Power and the Glory (1939 ), The Heart of the Matter (1948, banned In Ireland ), The Third man (1949 ) and The Quiet American (1955 ).
**A famous writer and a Republican hero was not Catherine’s only conquest. She had an eye for priests. Famously she and Fr Donal O’Sullivan SJ, an important figure in the Dublin Arts scene in the 1960s, eventually becoming head of the Arts Council, enjoyed a close relationship for years.
*** Achill Painters by Mary J Murphy, by Knockma Publishing now on sale €20.