Vivid Irish evocation of disappearing rural world

Footprint Upon Water
Barbara Fitzgerald
Somerville Press, €14.99

Barbara Fitzgerald is an authentic voice from William Trevor territory: small town and rural Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. It is an ineffably sad place, both economically and spiritually impoverished.

Trevor, as the son of a bank manager who was moved around the country, has the overview of an outsider. In contrast, Fitzgerald (1911-1982), née Gregg, was firmly rooted in the establishment: the daughter of an archbishop, and the wife of Michael Somerville of Castletownshend (a nephew of Edith Somerville, and son of vice-admiral Boyle Somerville).

However, as her 1946 novel We Are Besieged, reissued by the Somerville Press in 2011, showed, Barbara Fitzgerald was a true intellectual with a compassionate understanding of all levels of Irish society during the turbulent years that saw the end of British rule, and the economic stagnation that ensued.

She submitted Footprint Upon Water for publication in 1955, and lost heart when the publishers suggested she shorten it and change the ending. It was eventually published in 1983 to high praise.

It centres on Fellowescourt, a substantial Georgian house with gleaming paintwork, formal flowerbeds and a staff of ageing retainers in a village at the foot of the Ballyhoura Mountains. It opens in 1912, shortly before the death of Captain Fellowes, the boorish father of “five spinster daughters”. His wife, we are told in a typically caustic aside “had, by her death, escaped his tyranny some years before”.

The household also includes six-year-old Susan, the orphaned daughter of Captain Fellowes’ only son, who is being brought up by her eldest aunt, Katharine. Katharine is so strict that when Nanny crossly calls her “an ould Pope”, the nickname sticks, and Katharine becomes “the Pope” to her sisters.

Captain Fellowes, it is soon revealed, has squandered his fortune on drink and gambling. Brought up by idle, ignorant governesses, the women’s helplessness is appalling. Charlotte and Daisy, the dimmest, when told they must economise by giving up the horses, reply ‘But how can we get to tennis parties?’

What makes this novel different are the glimpses of life beyond the threshold of Fellowescourt. The poverty and squalor of the village’s cottages is clinically described.

A contrast to Fellowescourt is Myrtle Lodge, a chaotic Catholic household teeming with babies, presided over by the doctor’s warm-hearted wife, Mrs O’Brien. Susan makes friends with their son, Barry, who allows her to indulge her tomboyish side.

As Susan grows she becomes the link between the well-kept Fellowescourt of 1912, and Fellowescourt she inherits in 1948. The ending is a welcome surprise, and one of the best things in the book.

The beautifully written novel is an interesting record of a disappeared world, vividly evoked in all its awfulness. But in spite of Fitzgerald’s nimble turn of phrase, it suffers from having the bitter, intractable Katharine and her joyless life as its main focus.


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