OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

CHILDHOOD HOME

``To know who you are you have to have a place to come from.''

From Carson McCullers.

Though much of my youth was spent roaming the outdoors, the Irish weather meant that we often had to seek refuge inside the great grey house, particluarly since we had little of the protective outdoor clothing that people enjoy today. Even inside, comfort was not easily obtained for the heating technology in the grey house was quite primitive. When it was first constructed in the mid-1800s, the only heating system available consisted of fireplaces that were built into almost every room. However, the expense, fuel and manpower required to keep these grate fires burning meant that it was impractical to heat more than one or two rooms by this means. The kitchen was neccessarily warmed by the cooking stove but it was seldom that more than one other fireplace was in use. By the time of our occupancy, the house had been equipped with electricity (but not gas). Consequently we made use of electric heaters in some of the other rooms. However, the bedrooms on the second and third floors were rarely heated and the temperature there, in the coldest weather, often dipped below freezing. On those nights, ice would form on the inside of the glass window panes. So it was that our activities in the house tended to be confined to just a few of the rooms on the ground floor and that range of activity would shrink in the depths of winter.

  
The stairs and front door Wilfred & Muriel Brennen in
his chair in the living room

To set the scene, I should describe the overall structure of the house we called "Cranagh Dhu". Like most of the dwellings of its vintage, the house was a cube with a sloping, slate roof. The stone walls were almost three feet thick at the base and this helped to insulate the house though the gaps around the doors and windows offset that advantage. When it was renovated for my parents in the mid-1940s, wartime scarcities had meant that second-hand materials (particularly for the floorboards) had to be scavenged from other locations to complete the job. The rooms on the first and second floors were finished with carpets, curtains and lighting fixtures but the third floor where we, the children, and the maid were to sleep could only be very sparsely furnished and decorated. The floor plan of the original house was quite simple, four rooms in each of the corners with hallways and stairs running down the long axis. Moreover, the 1940s renovation had added a scullery, pantry, cloakroom and toilet to the ground floor at the back. Above this on the second floor, a bathroom and toilet were added. All of this new plumbing required a water supply tank that was installed on the third floor.

Muriel Brennen in her chair in the living room

On the ground floor, the two largest rooms on either side of the front door were the most formal in the house, that on the south side being used as the living room with the dining room on the north side. The former was the most meticulously maintained and almost always the warmest in the house while the latter was rarely heated. The two rooms on the ground floor at the back of the house were the kitchen on the north side and a general purpose room on the south that we called the breakfast room. The latter was where we, the children spent most of our time, where we did our homework and other indoor projects. It was also most frequently heated. On the second floor, the two rooms at the front were my parents bedroom and a guest bedroom that we called the "spareroom". The two at the back were a children's bedroom (where my sister Paula slept for many years) and a room that my father equipped as his office complete with bookshelves and desk. In later years when it became clear to my father that he rarely used his office, I was allowed to adapt it as my bedroom. The third floor rooms occupied the space under the large sloping roof and therefore had substantial sloping ceilings. Those four rooms were basically bedrooms, one of which was used in the early days as the maid's bedroom. Later when the maid was a local girl who lived at home in Magherafelt, that room was used as a playroom and equipped with a table tennis table. My two brothers shared one of the other third floor rooms, I slept in another (before moving downstairs) and the fourth was used for storage. We often wondered what lay in the sealed space below the apex of the roof, imaging a large, dark and unknown void, equipped perhaps with ancient treasure. But when the roof was removed during the renovations of the year 2001, I realized that the space was much smaller and more prosaic than I had imagined.


One summer when I was about 15 years old my parents spotted a house for sale on the coastal road between the resort towns of Portrush and Portstewart. It faced the sea and with a narrow golf course between the road and the sea the view from the house was quite spectacular. The house was named "Silverbay" after the rocky shoreline bay it overlooked. Just across the road from the house was the tee of the fourth hole and the sixteenth green of the Municipal Portstewart Golf Course. Many evenings we would sneek across the road and play three or four holes before the stewards discovered us. Just beyond the fourth fairway on the rough ground between the course and the seashore stood the remains of a small, Second World War observation post. Paula referred to this as "The Tardis" since it reminded her of one of the locations in the famous British TV series "Doctor Who".

The seller seemed most anxious to make a deal and so my parents were able to purchase the three-bedroomed, two-storey house for a mere 7000 pounds. Forty years later with only minor improvements that house would be worth over a million pounds. It was a remarkably perspicacious deal. I remember well the great excitement with which we scraped together adequate furnishing with which to equip this vacation home. Bunk beds would be needed if we were to have sufficient sleeping space and so I manufacturered two sets of bunk beds from the remains of a number of old single beds. In the years that followed those bunk beds were to see yeoman service well beyond the original intention. Thus, for my last two or three years of high school I enjoyed spending at least part of the summer at this house located close to the center of teenage activity in the resorts of Portrush and Portstewart. Indeed, as I relate elsewhere, it was during the last such summer that I met my wife Doreen on the streets of Portrush.

   
"Silverbay" from the front "Silverbay" painted pink

   
Back of "Silverbay". Left: "Tardis" in the left distance. Right: Driftwood collection.

My mother loved this house and the years she spent the summers there were among the most idyllic of her life. Later during my father's disability it became hard to spend even a day there. I do remember the poignant day when, at his special request, we made the effort to transport my father there for one last visit. In the aftermath of his death the following winter, my mother was faced with diffcult decisions as to how to most equitably divide his estate between three sons while also providing indefinite support for Paula (see that chapter). In doing so she made the fateful decision to place her new bungalow in Magherafelt in the joint names of my brother Colin and myself while giving Silverbay to my brother Michael. Somehow the real estate advice she obtained made this division seem equitable though it was hard for me (or Colin) to understand that arithmetic. Whatever its logic at the time, subsequent developments made the arrangement singularly unfair with Michael, the richest of the three brothers, receiving an outlandish share. But the inequity did not end there. It was my understanding and that of my mother that after the conveyance, my mother would be allowed to reside in the house for a reasonable period anytime she wanted. The idea was to permit her to continue the summer residence that she loved. However, Michael and his wife Lesley seemed to have other ideas for, after the arrangements were completed, my mother never slept another night in Silverbay. Indeed, one summer when I brought Patrick back to Northern Ireland to meet all his relatives, my mother, Patrick, Paula and I had to rent a much inferior house in Portstewart in order to spend a week there. Regrettably, my mother never allowed Colin or I to make an issue of this with Michael; she was afraid of the family rift that it would inevitably have caused. Today Silverbay is still in Michael's possession and when we drive past it on visits to the seaside, we sometimes stop and, if no-one is home, we surreptiously peek through the windows to remember those few halcyon summers.


Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen