I had my day-dreams as well as my visions of the night. Chiefly I used to imagine our living-room as an island of which I was king. It had its spired cities and its lonely hills and its green glens. Or again, it was a sea across which I voyaged in towering ships. Or it was a forest where deer lay down at evening by a stream in a brake, and I lived alone but for their gentle companionship.
It was not to be supposed that I was utterly moonstruck and melancholy; I was imaginative and liked often to sit still and give my imagination rein. But I was not morbid. Physically I was a healthy child, and my animal spirits were high. Many a jolly game I had with my sister, and with my little brother as soon as he began to toddle about on his fat little legs; and many a well-deserved smacking did I get for going into some forbidden place, for breaking some precious thing.
When Auntie Margaret was with us, however, it was geasa to touch me. She used to say to my mother: ‘What is he but a child, Maggie? He doesn’t know the difference!’ It has been handed down as folklore that once, when caught doing something atrocious, I myself alleged this irresponsibility by saying: ‘Pat don’t know the diffy!’ and that my mother was disarmed.
When I was nearly four and a half, and Willie two and a half, my younger sister was born. We were sitting at the fire eating toast with dripping on it when the nurse came in and told us that the doctor had brought us a little sister. We asked her how much my father would have to pay for the infant, and she answered, ‘a hundred pounds.’ That evening we were taken up to my mother’s bedroom, and the little sister was placed for a few minutes, in turn, in each one’s arms. She was given the names of Mary and Brigid after our two grandmothers.
It was soon after this I was breeched for the first time. Up to then I had worn (as boys in those days generally did up to the age of four or five) a frock and pinafore. My first breeches and jacket were of blue serge, and the socks I wore with them were cardinal. It was a grievance to me that for some time longer I was made wear a pinafore over my manly suit.
About this time my half-sister (for my father was a widower with a son James and a daughter Emily when he married my mother) was married to Alfred MacGloughlin, an architect. Her wedding was a very magnificent affair. My sister was her little bridesmaid, and I was her little page. I held up her train as she walked from the carriage into the church.
At the wedding breakfast we had apple pie. I thought they ought not to have put us children at a separate table; but when Auntie Margaret came to sit with us, I was content. Willie made an outcry, during the meal, for pie, and I felt wounded when they laughed at him. I was always wounded when Willie was slighted or ill-used.
Not long after she went away my half-sister sent us a wonderful scrapbook into which she has pasted thousands of pictures. It was so immense that it took two of us to lift it. There were pictures of giants and dragons and fairies in it; of clowns and harlequins and circus horses; of redcoated huntsmen on grey hunters—a book that was full of echoes from a world of romantic and far adventure.
I began straightaway to people our house with the creatures of that book, and to see myself going into the perils that were pictured there. This was my way with every book that was read to me; with every picture that I saw; with every story or song that I heard. I saw myself doing or suffering all the things that were dared or suffered in the book, or story, or song, or picture; toiling across deserts in search of lost cities; cast into dungeons by wicked kings; starved and flogged by merciless masters; racked with Guy Fawkes; roasted on a gridiron with St Laurence; deprived of my sight with the good Kent. When I heard of anyone’s sorrows or of anyone’s triumphs, I suffered the sorrow and enjoyed the triumph myself.
Few visitors came to our house. My father had not many intimate friends. Those who did come to see him were mostly artists whom he had known in other places, and who looked in upon him when passing through Dublin. I liked them for their quaint costumes, and their humour and gentleness. Ever since I have looked upon painters and sculptors as a kindly and lovable and pathetic race.
Most of those who came to see us seemed poor, and many of them seemed sad. There was one who used to kiss my little sister tenderly and say: ‘God bless thee, little one!’ And when he was going away he used to say that my father was fortunate to have children around him.
Many of these visitors made drawings and paintings of me; sometimes of my head only, and sometimes of my whole body without any clothes on. They said I had a thoughtful face, and that I was very finely shaped. I think what they valued me chiefly for was my faculty of remaining still for a long time.
I liked to stand—or, better still, to lie—without my clothes in the warmth of the fire, and to think out my thoughts. Some of the longest stories I ever made up about myself were made up while a man was making a picture of me stretched on my face with my chin resting on my hands. He said I was the best and quietest little model he had ever had. I used to be drawn and modelled and painted by people until my father and mother thought I was getting too big.
Our only frequent visitor was Auntie Margaret. Sometimes she came only for an evening; sometimes she stopped a few days. When she came I used to bring a little square stool that was recognised as mine, and sit beside her. I would show her any new toys or picture-books that I had got. She would tell me where she had been; and of the white chickens that she was rearing for me, and of the foal that my grandfather’s black mare had, which I must ride when it was a little bigger. She would put back my hair on my forehead, and pull up my red socks (which had an inexplicable tendency to get down into my boots), and she would sew in tightly any button that was loose on my jacket. Often she brought me something, and she used to make me guess what it was she had brought. When I was in bed, she would steal up to me and share her supper of bread and cheese with me: a secret proceeding supposed to be unknown to my mother. But I think now that my mother knew about it, and pretended not to. Then Auntie Margaret would sit with me for a little while, and whisper some story or some old song into my ear.
She had many endearing names for me, and I for her, but these names are too sacred to be written here.
Auntie Margaret was small, the only one of her family who was not big and stately. Her face had kindly little wrinkles in it, and her hair was grey; it had been grey almost from her girlhood. She wore that dear grey hair in a net; and I remember well the fragrance of her hair and of her nets. She dressed in black always, with a collar buttoned up high on her throat, and black braid down the front.
We all knew her step on the stairs and would run to meet her. She would take my hand, and the others would cling around her. Often she would draw us all to the window, and we would watch the pageant of the street. We got to know everyone that came and went, and of the time of every coming and going.
In the open space nearly opposite, where the line of houses broke, a grey horse was stalled. Every morning a man would come and yoke him to a van, and they would go out on a day’s adventures. Soon after they were gone the doctors would begin to make their morning calls to a Children’s Hospital that was next door but one to us, on the right. There was one doctor who drove a very beautiful horse, without winkers. There was another who was so stout that he had to ride in a hansom—the only hansom in Dublin—for he could not have gone through the door of an ordinary carriage.
Then in the evening there was the thundering by of the mail cars to Westland Row railway station. And always there were the trams, with the tinkle of their horses’ bells. We liked especially what we called ‘the little tram.’ It went on a circular journey from Westland Row to College Green all the way for a penny! We often thought it would be a great exploit to get into the little tram and drive round and round eternally, expending interminable pennies. In the evening about six o’clock the grey horse would come home; and it was always a satisfaction to see him getting his truss of hay, or his nosebag of oats.