There Might be a Drop of Rain Yet: A Memoir, by Brendan Lynch, Mountjoy Publishing, 257 pp, €14.95, ISBN: 978-0951366844
There Might Be a Drop of Rain Yet is a revision of a memoir by Brendan Lynch first published in 2006, when it caused quite a stir and became the basis for a RTÉ television documentary on the author’s varied and interesting life. The title is by way of a gift from his mother, who was given to cautioning her devoted son that no matter how brightly the sun might be shining in a blue-blue sky, this might well not last. Taken at face value, the admonition can be dismissed as eccentric pessimism, but on deeper reflection, a profound truism emerges, reminding us that the complacency of happiness and contentment hangs from heaven on a very slender thread, a thread so fine that it can be severed at any moment by an accident here or the calamity of illness there; such is the ephemerality of existence.
Returning from London, after decades of absence, to be with his dying mother, Lynch passes through a Dublin he once knew, but which is now almost unrecognisable to him. Banal buildings obtrude as monuments of shame attesting to the ignorance and complicity of politicians from successive governments that permitted the rape of a city to satiate the avarice of the Celtic Tiger. Or, put another way by Lynch’s close friend, the artist Owen Walsh, who lived for half a century opposite the birthplace of Francis Bacon on Lower Baggot Street: “Those fucking Celtic Tigers are tearing the arse out of the town. Dublin Corporation [has] sold out to the building spivs; you blink and a landmark is gone forever. Handsome shops, intimate streets turned into gated apartment fortresses that would make Ceausescu blush. Swinging their demolition balls is the only way those developers can orgasm … Progress my royal Irish arse. But it’s an ill wind. After burying it in one improvement, they’ve uncovered a mural of mine in Larry Murphy’s latest manifestation. Let’s toast the fucking thing before it gets covered again.”
A “sold” sign announcing the demise of Parson’s bookshop is a sad farewell to the many souls who had sought and found spiritual and literary solace therein. “It was a day to be alive. A day for making grand plans. A familiar figure approached from Wilton Place. Frank O’Connor studied the ‘in memory of Mrs Dermod O’Brien’ inscription on Patrick Kavanagh’s favourite throne of modest bricks and wood. The sun haloed his white head as he turned left for Parsons bookshop.” Baggotonia, as the area would come to be known, was very dear to Lynch. “Writers, actors and artists … packed the throbbing bohemia, which matched his Murger mood and smuggled Henry Millers.”
Disillusioned, he moves onwards to the bedside of his dying mother in Toomevara, where he reminiscences about childhood life, school, and Catholicism. Whereas Proust created Combray to provide the early memories, and the fetishes, to which he would return in his mighty novel, Lynch can ponder the minutiae of childhood existence in the reality of Toomevara, “a village of three streets and eleven shops”. There is the pain and sadness of his mother’s last days in a nursing home, but through her he gains entry to childhood reminiscences of a Catholic childhood in which the rosary, Mass, confession, funerals and holy statues dominated daily life.
Most of Lynch’s childhood compatriots, indeed most of his generation in Ireland, were content to adhere to Vatican dogma and ritual, but for those few who felt intellectually stifled by fervent Catholicism, the struggle to shake off the incubus of baptism would be lifelong. Following the annihilation of free thought in childhood with a school curriculum that did not countenance questioning the one true faith or reading anything that might taint the purity of youth, the Censorship Act, banning literature and art on the grounds of obscenity as interpreted by a cadre of Catholic zealots, enabled a continuing state of ignorance to be perpetuated in adulthood. The effectiveness of this lifelong assault on the intellectual freedom of a nation is a panful reminder of dark days.
Village characters, such as the shell-shocked gunner (who would later become the protagonist of a novella, The Old Gunner and His Medals) are portrayed with tender affection. The installation of electrification and the advent of radio change a way life that had been static for centuries in Toomevara.
Childhood innocence, captured movingly in the opening verses of Thomas Hood’s poem “I remember, I remember”, is marred inevitably by the intrusion of adulthood and the wish that the “night had borne my breath away”. More disturbing for Lynch, as he continues his lonely vigil, is the aptness of James Albery’s epitaph – “he lived a life of going to do and died with nothing done” ‑ which leads him to question his life of exile in London. His mother, who had introduced him to poetry, not only awakened his craving for literature, but by introducing him to Parsons bookshop, she had “paved the way for his estrangement from her”, as was noted presciently by Mary King, one of the founding guardians of that little oasis of literary fame.
Aside from his literary indulgences, Lynch had a notable career as a racing cyclist with successes in Clonmel, Tipperary town and the 100-kilometres 1958 cooper cup at Dublin’s Phoenix Park and he was introduced to the world of motor racing when the Circuit of Ireland “roared into their village”. He would later write a book entitled Triumph of the Red Devil, with a foreword by top racing driver Stirling Moss. As racing correspondent, he brushed shoulders with Emerson Fittipaldi, Alan Jones, Ayrton Senna, Gilles Villeneuve, Graham Hill and Nikki Lauda. To do justice to Lynch’s life as a cyclist, racing driver, journalist and active pacifist is another story, the story of a restless soul who certainly heeded Desmond O’Grady’s exhortation to “Live full lives, leave some record.”
There Might Be a Drop of Rain Yet is a book of conscience – perhaps all memoirs should be. A vignette depicting the obscene proximity of wealth to poverty serves as an example: “He joined the National Association for the Aged. Mrs May led him up the stairs of a buttressed Mountjoy Square tenement. Fanlights gaped as lonely men and women despaired under leaking roofs. The smell of decay and carbolic soap permeated his clothes … ‘Dublin can be heaven with coffee at eleven’. Noel Purcell would sing a different tune if he lived here. A hundred yards away, he passed a couple outside Weir’s Grafton Street window. ‘Jonathan, that silver salver; perfect for the new tureen,’ the woman tugged her husband’s Crombie.”
Humour is invoked to emphasise moments of irrevocability along life’s journey; the loss of the author’s virginity, despite the barrier imposed on his conscience by Catholicism, impresses his alter ego: “you’ve finally broken your duck. A bit more practice and you’ll be giving lessons.” The anecdotes and vignettes in There Might Be a Drop of Rain Yet are so varied that as one wonders if the next can match the last. The inside details of the Tate Gallery heist that that led to the return of the Lane pictures to Dublin are quite hilarious. The pain of emigration to London is depicted with a poignant sadness that captures the mood of a period when the Irish were welcome only as navvies. Following Bertrand Russell in the cause of nuclear disarmament was perilous, especially for a “Paddy”, as Lynch soon discovered in Brixton prison. Then he is back to Dublin for Brendan Behan’s funeral.
Marriage, fatherhood, divorce and the imperative to search for a meaning in life characterise the peripatetic eccentricities of the author: “Jasus will you ever be satisfied at anything? You couldn’t even kill yourself at the racing. You had a nice wife and you left her. What are you trying to prove?” Let us hope that Lynch will keep searching. He has depicted a sorry time in the history of our country with ruthless honesty. His memoir reminds us of the importance of documenting the past “lest we forget” that our present, which we may be proud of or ashamed by, has only happened because of the things we did in the past, and that the blunders and follies of bygone behaviour can only be avoided in the future if we are aware of how they shaped our present.
In his memoir, Lynch’s affection, one might say passion, for a little part of Dublin now known as Baggotonia is touched upon frequently. I share this fascination with him and indeed it was this common interest that brought us together. My love for Baggotonia may be attributable to having spent my early childhood and much of my schoolboy days there. Later I walked, drank, loved and learned in Baggotonia while studying medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons on Stephen’s Green.
The small enclave of Baggotonia extended from the banks of the Grand Canal and its bridges at Baggot Street, Leeson Street and Mount Street, along Baggot Street, dotted at that time with meagre flats and studios, past the park of Fitzwilliam with its little shelter, fountain, and tennis courts, and onwards to Stephen’s Green, with its lake of ducks and swans, to the epicentre of Baggotonia on Grafton Street, and its little side-streets dotted with pubs, cinemas, cafés and shops.
In Prodigals and Geniuses, Lynch presents the writers and artists of Baggotonia in exuberant prose abounding in anecdote, epiphany and humour. Olivia Robertson, a friend of WB. Yeats, was perhaps the first to sense a certain uniqueness about the area: “Dublin,” she wrote, “has its own special colony of bohemia, its ‘Latin quarter’, which I shall call the ‘Baggot street quarter’. The Victorian houses are for the most part transformed into flats; and behind the flats are enticing little lanes with garages. Living over the garages are the artists, whose maisonettes, bravely painted, do indeed remind one of a Chelsea mews.”
Other visitors to Dublin sensed something in the air: “Ireland wasn’t golden always, but it was golden sometimes and in 1950 it was, all in all, a golden age for me and others,” declared Harold Pinter. The mere scale of things led to an intimacy of expression in this tiny metropolis of talent. “Dublin after the war was a human city. With a population of a little over half a million, a native could leisurely traverse its main streets in half a day, with more than sufficient time to browse, gossip and exchange opinions. Its size and pace encouraged social intercourse; everyone knew everyone. And wit abounded.” Nevill Johnson, a visitor from Buxton via Belfast was refreshed by what he saw: “the air was bright, and our hearts pumped with the promise of a new world. It seems that at certain epochs men are possessed of a maverick spirit.”
The diversity of the Baggotonian artists was truly phenomenal, encompassing literature, drama, poetry, music, painting, theatre, and publishing. In prose and poetry: Tony Cronin, Patrick Kavanagh, Oliver St John Gogarty, Thomas MacGreevy, Ethna MacCarthy, John Montague, Louis MacNeice, Con Leventhal, Niall Sheridan, Samuel Beckett, John Ryan, Ulick O’Connor, Ben Kiely, Arland Ussher, Mervyn Wall, Roger McHugh, Liam Millar, Mary Lavin, JP Donleavy, James Plunkett, Flann O’Brien, James Stephens, Liam O’Flaherty and Brendan Behan; in theatre: Denis Johnston, Lord Longford, Michael MacLiammóir, Hilton Edwards, Alan and Caroline Simpson; in the visual arts: Jack Yeats, Nevill Johnson, Robert MacBryde, Gerald Dillon, Patrick Scott , Louis Le Brocquy, Mainie Jellett , Evie Hone, Nano Reid, Nora McGuinness, Leo Whelan, Sean O’Sullivan, Harry Kernoff, Anne Yeats, Dermod O’Brien, Patrick Collins, Tom Nisbet, Estella Solomons, Des MacNamara, Cecil Salkeld, Owen Walsh, Brian Bourke, Camille Souter; in music: Brian Boydell and John Larchet beckoned to a new genre of musicians that would include Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners, and Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers.
The movement created by these innovative minds was first sensed by John Ryan in 1975 with Remembering How We Stood (referred to by one wag as “Forgetting How We Staggered”) and a year later, Tony Cronin, in Dead As Doornails, portrayed the bohemian ambience of Baggotonia and provided an intimate biography of his friend Brendan Behan. Lynch followed these publications with Parsons Bookshop: At the Heart of Bohemian Dublin, which was published in 2006. This evocative account of the literary hub of Baggotonia, apart from providing an entrée to the unusual ambience of what was a place of rendezvous rather than a shop, is a tribute to its proprietors, May O’Flaherty and Mary King. It is a delightful book full of literary surprises, one of which was a revealing vignette of my childhood:
As Parsons entered its closing chapter, one outstanding publication thrilled the owner. That was Eoin O’Brien’s The Beckett Country, which was published in 1986 … “that fine book, which proved so popular with our customers, was a timely reminder that I had done the right thing years ago in opening Parsons. And it was doubly rewarding, as we felt that the shop may have played a part in Eoin’s literary development. He originally came here as a little boy with his father – whom I remember often warning him not to annoy our resident book advisor of the time, Patrick [Kavanagh].”
Indeed, how right she was. The Grand Canal, between the locks at Huband Bridge and Baggot Street Bridge, was my childhood playground. With my sister and neighbouring children, we trod its banks, played, and caught minnows in its shallows and precariously crossed the boards of the lock bridges through which the waters cascaded. We mingled with strange characters. We often met Patrick Kavanagh, his eyes distorted by the dense lens of his glasses, talking gruffly to himself and occasionally to us, flailing his long arms like sails to propel him onwards, or warming him on cold days. We did not regard his mannerisms as strange, but simply as eccentricities of behaviour to which he was entitled, and we welcomed his friendly chatter and concern for our welfare. Little did we know then that the canal at Baggot Street bridge, would inspire the beautiful lines:
O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars …
Sitting in the same place on the canal, Samuel Beckett had shared his mother’s last hours as she lay dying in the Merrion nursing home nearby. In a few lines of what I consider to be his most sublime writing, he captures not only the pain of suffering with his mother, but also the profound sense of loss, and relief that her suffering is over – an acceptance of the inevitability of death, the timelessness of age, and the inexorable cycle of death and birth and life, in short, the melancholy state of existence:
‑ bench by the weir from where I could see her window. There I sat, in the biting wind, wishing she were gone. Hardly a soul, just a few regulars, nursemaids, infants, old men, dogs …
‑ the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs, throwing a ball for a little white dog as chance would have it. I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with, at last. I sat on for a few moments with the ball in my hand and the dog yelping and pawing at me. Moments. Her moments, my moments. The dog’s moments.
Having lived in Baggotonia in the 1950s, I am left with lingering mystical memories about the place. I am not alone in sensing the beauty and solace that being there can evoke, the mistiness of an otherness that embraces the soul, or whatever it is that all too briefly, and all too rarely, elevates existence to realms of transcendent tranquillity. John Banville has shared this uniqueness, this transportation of spirit:
Caught, I pause a moment in memory on Baggot Street bridge and consider the view northwards – is it northwards? – along the grand canal to Huband bridge and beyond. I imagine we all have a particular place that is a kind of private paradise, the heaven we should wish to go to after death, if go somewhere we must. For me, that stretch of placid water, rustling reeds and dark-umber towpath from Baggot Street down to Lower Mount Street is the loveliest acquascape I know of, trumping even that other canale grande, the one with the warbling gondoliers. I consider it among the happier blessings of my life that I was allowed from earliest days to come to know that area, “Baggotonia” as its denizens fondly and proprietorially called it ..
Returning to Lynch’s published books, I have suspected for some time that his publications on the literary heritage of Dublin have not received the recognition that is their due. I first became aware of his writing in 2013 when I was researching the writers and artists of the period for an essay on “The Baggotonian Movement: Nevill Johnson (1911–1999)” as a contribution to Beautiful Strangers: Ireland and the World of the 1950s. More recently, in my capacity as literary adviser to Alan Gilsenan for his film-poem Ghosts of Baggotonia, I have continued to study the phenomenon that constitutes the Baggotonian movement. These endeavours have given me a greater appreciation of Lynch’s books on the period and the people who lived and worked in Baggotonia. At the recent launch of There Might be a Drop of Rain Yet, it was evident that some of the guests, who I would regard as well-versed on Irish literature, were unfamiliar with Lynch’s work, and the gathering lacked, moreover, the representation from academe that such an occasion might attract. I decided, therefore, to look more closely at his literary output to see if there might be an explanation to account for these observations.
Five books authored by Lynch, although not directly relevant to the topic of literary Dublin, provide fascinating detail on his far-ranging interests and how these influenced his own life: Green Dust: Ireland’s Unique Motor Racing History. Portobello Publishing. 1988; Triumph of the Red Devil. Britain’s First Motor Race – The Gordon Bennett Cup 1903. Portobello Publishing. 2002; Yesterday We Were in America: Alcock and Brown, First to Fly the Atlantic Non-stop. Haynes Publishing UK. 2009; Princess of the Orient: A Romantic Odyssey. Mountjoy Publishing. 2018; The Old Gunner and His Medals. Novella. Mountjoy Publishing. 2020.
Four books by Lynch may be classified as being significant contributions to the history of literary Dublin, and in particular to the Baggotonian movement: Parsons Bookshop: At the Heart of Bohemian Dublin, 1949-1989. The Liffey Press. 2006; Prodigals and Geniuses: The Writers and Artists of Dublin’s Baggotonia. The Liffey Press. 2011; City of Writers: The Lives and Homes of Dublin Authors. The Liffey Press. 2013; There Might be a Drop of Rain Yet: A Memoir. Mountjoy Publishing. 2022.
It is apparent from these lists that Lynch has often avoided submitting his books to conventional publishers, preferring instead to publish them under the imprint of his own publishing presses, Mountjoy Publishing and Portobello Publishing. This practice may explain why some of them may have failed to reach a wider readership or to attract the attention of academe. Self-published books undoubtedly achieve the objective of recording scholarship and literary expression without undergoing the rigorous formalities of conventional publishing and the delays that such a course may involve. Having established the Anniversary Press to publish books relating to the history of medicine that would not have satisfied the commercial expectations of conventional publishers, I know that self-publishing may be the only way to record worthwhile scholarship. I am also aware of the sizable obstacles facing such books.
Lynch’s mastery of the many intricacies of the publishing process is impressive. The design, layout, print and paper quality of his self-published books are generally comparable to publications from established publishers. However, the lack of editorial oversight on content and structure can result in untidy and repetitive text surviving in such titles. Additionally, self-published books may have difficulty penetrating the market and may fail to reach reviewers, who generally do not hold such books in high regard. It seems to me, that whereas Lynch has guaranteed his writing an indelible presence by self-publishing, he may also have been denied the readership and critical scrutiny that conventional publishing should assure. As against this, it can be argued that had some of his self-published books been subjected to the stipulations of conventional publishing and the inevitable delays in the process, they might never have been published. With advances in computer assisted publishing, authors are finding it more attractive to publish their own books, and it may be timely to consider how these can be best evaluated.
By raising the issue of self-publication of There Might Be a Drop of Rain Yet, it is not my intention to discredit this fascinating memoir, but rather to draw attention to an author whose significant contribution to literature and to many aspects of Irish life deserves to be brought to a wider readership.
Notes and Sources
Desmond O’Grady. The Wide World. A Desmond O’Grady Casebook. With New Poems 2003)
O’Brien E. “The Baggotonian Movement: Nevill Johnson (1911–1999)”. In: Beautiful Strangers: Ireland and the World of the 1950s. Eds: G Dawe, D Jones, N Pelizzari. Series: Reimagining Ireland. Peter Lang. Bern. Switzerland. 2013. Pp 87-111.
Eoin O’Brien is literary adviser to Ghosts of Baggotonia, a film-poem of the Baggotonian movement by Alan Gilsenan, which had its premiere screening at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2022 in Dublin on March 1st.