Tale of two houses filled with memorable characters

Rosenheim & Windermere

Brian Lalor

Somerville Press, €14.99

Review: Alannah Hopkin

Here is an unusual memoir of an Irish childhood, without priests, pubs or paupers. It doesn’t even rain in Brian Lalor’s old-fashioned childhood world, which revolved between the twin poles of his grandmother’s house, Rosenheim, and his parents’ home, Windermere. The memoir, a classic of its kind and a pleasure to read, is written consistently from the child’s point of view, observing the grown-up world with an anthropological detachment.

“Grandmother lay like a jaded odalisque, dying throughout the entirety of my childhood,” is the typically vivid opening sentence. Brian, born in 1941, was the younger of two brothers. Removed from school, and ordered to rest following the diagnosis of a mild case of polio, young Brian spent much of his time at Rosenheim, keeping his widowed grandmother company.

He was an unusually observant little boy, capable of sitting silently without fidgeting for long periods of time. His world was defined by the contrast between the two houses. The smaller, redbrick Rosenheim, had a dark interior with heavy furniture and ornate Celtic Revival décor, with swirling patterned carpets and curtains.

In contrast, the larger, pebble-dashed Windermere was a light-filled house, with plain carpets and light wall colours, its décor minimalist, with few, carefully placed Art Deco ornaments.

As an adult, Brian Lalor studied at the Crawford College of Art, where his grandfather MJ McNamara, a founder of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, had taught. On graduating, Brian travelled and worked as a design architect and archaeologist, before returning in 1973 to set up as a print maker in west Cork. From 2005-8 he was chairman of the National Graphic Studio in Dublin, during its move to larger premises. Ink-Stained Hands (Lilliput Press), a massive history of fine art printing in Ireland appeared earlier this year. Lalor was also the editor of Gill & Macmillan’s monumental Encycopaedia of Ireland (2003), which had over 5,000 entries by some 900 contributors. His other publications include the definitive study of the Irish Round Tower and Ireland’s Blue Guide.

The child’s world contains a small but memorable cast of characters: his mother and father and elder brother, his grandmother, her servants (headed by the formidable Mrs Luby), and “the aunt”, his mother’s elder sister, an unmarried schoolteacher, bossy and sharp-tongued.

Rosenheim was pervaded with memories of the trenches of the Great War, while the progress of World War II occupied Windermere. His father was a Commandant in the Irish Army, and war was a constant topic of conversation among his parents’ friends, dubbed “the Captains and their Queens”, after Kipling by his witty mother, a UCC graduate.

It is an extraordinary book, notable for its vivid descriptions and elegant prose, but also because it is an account of a happy, comfortable childhood.

Strangest of all, in a city of strong local allegiances, is the failure to identify the precise location of Rosenheim and Windermere.

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