Stormy summers on the Clare coast

One of the most interesting hotels in Ireland is the Falls Hotel, Ennistymon, Co Clare. Apart from its spectacular setting overlooking the River Inagh as it cascades over wide ledges almost immediately outside its door, this distinctive building conceals within its walls an 18th century mansion, and a late medieval castle. It was the home of the one-time wealthy Macnamaras, landlords of vast Clare territories. The last of the clan to hold any real status was Henry Valentine Macnamara (known as Henry Vee ), the High Sheriff of Co Clare, and a character to be reckoned with. One December morning in 1919, Henry Vee and friends (who included a British army officer and a Lady Beatrice O’Brien ), set out in a convoy of cars for a woodcock shoot in the Burren.

Rounding a corner the road was blocked with stones. A voice rang out that if they wanted to escape with their lives, they were to leave their shotguns on the road and retire. Henry Vee shouted back something like ‘you can take your demands and shove them’, and opened fire. A raging battle ensued as both sides blasted away at each other. Blood and curses flew, until the ambushers ran off.

Later at a compensation hearing Henry Vee was asked by a lawyer whether the injury to his arm inhibited him from lifting articles. Henry Vee replied that he found ‘lifting a decanter of port difficult’.

Inside the hotel today is a corner set aside to commemorate Henry Vee’s granddaughter Caitlin Macnamara, who married the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas July 11 1937. Dylan’s centenary was marked at the end of last month.

The photographs, taken by Nora Summers, show happy times, but we know that their relationship, fuelled by alcohol, was passionate and destructive. Dylan once famously described their relationship as ‘raw, red bleeding meat’.

Despite their fiery marriage, Caitlin jealously protected both Dylan and his reputation, and tried to protect him from others and himself. Although she was known for her belligerent personality, some writers have shown sympathy for a woman who was at the receiving end of the poet’s sometimes foul-mouthed abuse, and pouting silences. It has been suggested that her free, uninhibited speech patterns probably found their way into Dylan’s radio play Under Milk Wood (1954 ) for which he is best remembered.

London friends

Caitlin’s father, Francis Macnamara, was the eldest of Henry Vee’s seven children. He inherited the lands of his clan, but whereas once the estate had yielded an income of £10, 000 a year, that had dwindled dramatically as tenants asserted themselves, legally or otherwise, as Ireland began to drift free.

Nevertheless Francis was educated at Harrow, one of Britain’s leading public schools, and instead of perusing further studies dropped out to become a philosopher/ poet in London. He associated with a Bohemian set of artists from the famous Slade School of Art. He met a beautiful young woman Yvonne Mary Majolier, from a wealthy half French, half Irish, background, and despite objections from her family (who thought Francis was a waster ), they married at Paddington register office on July 11 1907. Francis was 23 years old, while his bride was 21. A former Harrovian friend, Robert Gregory, invited them to spend part of their honeymoon at his Co Galway home, Coole Park, before the newly weds took up residence at the large, austere, Doolin House. In turn Francis invited all his London friends, headed up by the notorious womaniser and larger-than-life Augustus John, to spend their summers at Doolin; while Robert offered an open house at the Gregory holiday home, Mount Vernon, on the Flaggy Shore.

A wandering existence

The summers leading up to, and during the early years, of World War I were warm and idyllic on the carefree shores of Co Clare. Days were filled with naked swims, picnics, painting, outings, accompanied by noisy and excited children. Augustus and Francis sailed across Galway Bay in his converted Galway hooker the Mary Anne for drinking parties in Galway pubs. They often transferred to high jaunting cars heading out along the coast road to drink poteen and chase women. Free love and open relationships were commonplace. Some couples could take this in their stride, while others were devastated.

Francis and Yvonne, who at this time had four children, of whom Caitlin was the youngest, were growing apart. Yvonne was the more practical of the two. She preferred London to Doolin. Life was more organised in the city. When Francis, in a poetic mood, once remarked that the sight of white clouds over the sea made him think of the white frills of her underclothes, she just replied that all it meant was that it was going to rain.

Francis walked out on his family, and began a wandering existence, sometimes giving Yvonne money, sometimes borrowing money from her; and always finding a new woman whom he believed understood his misunderstood poetic and philosophic impulses.*

‘The father figure’

Into this Bohemian menage came a very attractive couple, Nora and Gerald Summers. They had been students together at Slade. As well as painting, Nora was developing serious photographic skills. Her striking good looks, and modernist dress made heads turn. The Summers both came from wealthy families, and could afford to wander the world at will, while enjoying a London home at a fashionable Chelsea address. They also had a open marriage arrangement which suited Nora’s bisexual nature. She had a brief affair with Robert Gregory (See panel ) and others, but swept poor deserted Yvonne into an intense and long-lasting relationship.

During the next three decades Nora photographed the growing John and Macnamara children, taking a series of iconic photographs of Dylan and Caitlin as their lives unfolded. It appears that Caitlin developed some kind of tolerance for Nora in later years; but as a child she deeply resented Nora’s monopoly of her mother.

Gabriel Summers, Nora’s grandson, describes how his grandmother’s consuming relationship with Yvonne cast a biter cloud over the lives of the Macnamara children. Caitlin later referred to Nora as ‘the father figure of our girlhood, and an evil one’.

Next week: Life with

Augustus John and his family

NOTES: *Francis published one slim volume of poetry Marionettes, in 1909. He became a depressive, and a serial ‘husband’ to several women, finally to Iris O’Callaghan, of Coolreagh, Co Clare. He never published his extensive volume of autobiography, thoughts, plays and poems on which he laboured for most of his life.

In 1936 he transformed Ennistymon House into the Falls Hotel. He died, 10 years later at 8 Sorrento Drive, Dalkey, Co Dublin.

Sources for the above are taken from Caitlin - The Life of Caitlin Thomas, by Paul Ferris, Pimlico Books, 1993; Google, and Dictionary of Irish Biography (Bridget Hourigan and Carmel Doyle ).

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