OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

IRENE

``I've learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.''

Quotation from Maya Angelou

In the 1989 movie entitled ``Dead Poets Society'', the main character played by Robin Williams recites a poem entitled ``The Ballad of William Bloat'' which was written in 1926 by my uncle Raymond Calvert. The poem reflects the kind of black humor which is characteristic of the folklore of Northern Ireland and particularly of the city of Belfast, the scene of the tale. It was not intended as serious but was composed as a party piece. The occasion was a supper following a stage production in which Raymond was involved and it was traditional on such occasions for each member of the cast to do a ``turn''. Indeed such was the tradition at any party in Ireland before the days of packaged entertainment in the form of record players, radios or televsion. I believe that my mother, my father and my mother's sister, Irene, were probably also present on that evening. If not they certainly heard Raymond recite the poem on many subsequent occasions.

The poem has now passed into the folklore of Ulster and of Ireland. No better measure of this than to observe that it was recorded in the form of a song by the Clancy Brothers, who for so long during the 50s, 60s and 70s were almost single-handedly responsible for spreading Irish folk music throughout the world. The ``Ballad of William Bloat'' runs as follows:

In a mean abode on the Shankill Road
Lived a man called William Bloat.
He had a wife, the curse of his life,
who continually got his goat.
So one day at dawn, with her nightdress on,
he cut her bloody throat.

With a razor gash he settled her hash,
Oh never was crime so quick,
but the steady drip on the pillow slip
of her lifeblood made him sick,
and the pool of gore on the bedroom floor
grew clotted cold and thick.

And yet he was glad that he'd done what he had,
when she lay there stiff and still,
but a sudden awe of the angry law
struck his soul with an icy chill.
So to finish the fun so well begun,
he resolved himself to kill.

Then he took the sheet off his wife's cold feet,
and twisted it into a rope,
and he hanged himself from the pantry shelf.
Twas an easy end let's hope.
In the face of death with his latest breath,
he solemnly cursed the Pope.

But the strangest turn to the whole concern
is only just beginnin'.
He went to Hell but his wife got well
and she's still alive and sinnin',
for the razor blade was German made,
but the sheet was Irish linen.

Raymond Calvert was born in 1906 in County Down, the only son of a well-to-do Belfast stockbroker whose firm, Taylor Calvert & Co., he would eventually join and then inherit. From his early days he showed a great interest in literature and the theater and a considerable talent both for writing and for acting. He studied English Literature at Queen's University, Belfast. After graduating in 1927, he embarked on a career in the theatre and it was at this time that he worked with Hylton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir at the new Gate Theatre in Dublin as well as at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. During this time he met my mother, Muriel Earls, and her elder sister, Irene Earls. Muriel and Irene were the younger daughters of a middle-class Belfast family, their father John Earls being the Principal of Belfast Technical College. Irene was a particularly dynamic young woman of considerable intellectual ability and strength of character. After high school, in 1927 she went to work at Riddells for five years before enrolling at Queen's University to study economics and philosphy. Meeting through theatrical interests, she was fascinated by the charismatic Raymond and they were married in 1934 before she graduated from Queen's in 1936. About the same time the economic conditions endured during the Depression and the prospect of becoming a father, encouraged Raymond to accede to his father's request to help the family stockbroking business.

Muriel and Irene Earls about 1938
But I am getting ahead of my story which is not so much about Raymond as it is about Irene. She remains the member of my family for whom I had, perhaps, the greatest admiration. Throughout her life she seemed plagued with personal adversity and yet, by great strength of character and considerable intellect, she rose above those adversities to contribute in major ways to the welfare of the communities in which she lived and to the family of which she was a part. After graduation from Queen's University, Belfast, Irene worked at various jobs; during the Second World War she was employed as a civil servant resettling refugees, including a large number evacuated from Gibraltar to Northern Ireland. By that time she had made many friends amongst the intellectual community in Belfast who urged her to run for a seat in the Northern Ireland Parliament. Thus it was that at the 1945 General Election, Irene became the second woman to be elected as a Member of Parliament in Northern Ireland. She was, therefore, a true pioneer, a woman born before her time. Indeed throughout her life she was in the forefront of the women's movement though she would never have identified herself in such terms. Instead her attention was fully absorbed by what she saw as badly needed social legislation and welfare reform. During her two terms in the Northern Ireland Parliament she worked tirelessly to effect such legislation and contributed in a major way to improving the circumstances of the poor and the sick in Northern Ireland. As a young boy I remember the awe in which I held the strange woman in those election posters, a woman who, unlike all the others I knew, would argue with men as if she was their equal. A woman who seemed to know much more than any other woman and who questioned me closely about what I was learning in school. I answered only briefly and with great trepidation. It would be many years before I came to understand what I heard and saw.

Irene's life with Raymond was coming apart as she neared the end of her second term as an M.P. Raymond had a very public affair with the wife of a prominent Unionist politician. In fact he went so far as to take her to the Opera. Given her role as an MP Irene felt she had really no alternative but to leave him but she suffered greatly from the breakup of the marriage. In those days divorce was almost unknown in Ireland and Raymond and Irene were not divorced but legally separated. She was penniless after the marriage ended for this was long before the days of the kinds of legal settlements which protect women today. So after a period of recovery living in our home, Irene decided that she must go to work and so joined the Ulster Weaving Company in which she eventually became Managing Director. In this capacity she became the first woman to be elected the President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, the oldest such body outside the United States. She also served for thirteen years as a member of the Senate and Board of Curators of Queen's University, Belfast. In 1964 she decided on a change of jobs and became the Development Manager for the hotel chain owned by the Irish Transport Board. For this purpose she moved to Dublin and greatly enjoyed travelling around Ireland upgrading the level of hotel service. But one more adventure remained before Irene retired (though that word seems out of place when I think of her). About 1970, she applied for and was appointed to the position of manager of the households of Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress and richest woman in the world. Irene travelled to the United States to take up this position only to discover that the job was a nightmare. Doris Duke was a very idiosyncractic old woman who travelled around from one mansion to another in the company of her pack of ill-trained dogs and various other peculiar attendants. It was another disaster for Irene who stayed for only nine months, eventually quitting after she was bitten in the leg by one of the dogs.

After that experience she finally retired - and yet she did not. For one of the first things she did was to purchase a camper or, in the vernacular of the time, a ``dormobile''. This was another extraordinary thing for an old woman to do. And not only did she own it but she actually travelled around the British Isles sleeping in the thing! It allowed her not only to visit her relatives in all parts of Britain and Ireland but also to pursue one of her hobbies, namely researching her family history. As someone who also dabbled in genealogy and who was the beneficiary of all the information she gathered, I can attest not only to the meticulous care with which she carried out this research but also the vast amount of work she did. In these hobbies she cared little what others thought of the value of her activities. It was quite enough that she found the project rewarding and I reflect now that this firm confidence in her own judgement and value system was one of the characteristics that allowed her to accomplish so much during her life.

When I first wrote this piece on Irene in 1999, she was a very vigorous and active 90 years old. She lived alone in Dublin though she and my mother were frequently together. She was still very active and adventurous. Just a few years before she and my mother and my retarded sister, Paula, set off for a vacation in Cyprus. Moreover Irene was still committed to her social and political beliefs. One of my lasting visions of Irene is from the fall of 1990 when, dressed in a purple track suit and sneakers (``I finally decided to dress sensibly'') she walked the streets of her neighbourhood in Dublin campaigning for Mary Robinson. On the 9th of November of that year, history was made and a new era opened when Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland. They were both remarkable people without whom Ireland would have been a much poorer place. Irene taught me of the raw power of logic; she showed me that intellect when combined with conviction could accomplish change when it otherwise seemed impossible. And she left that special legacy with all who were privileged to know her.


Last updated 11/15/00.
Christopher E. Brennen