Isabel Colegate

Sixth son of Himself

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Rathcormick: A Childhood Recalled

Homan Potterton

Vintage, pp. 303, £

Have we had enough Irish childhoods, lackadaisical days remote from English stresses, charming eccentrics, amusing turns of speech, rain, religion, nostalgia? Well, no, not if they are as acute and funny as this tale of a Protestant boyhood in County Meath. Homan Potterton is the youngest of eight children of long-established farming stock. He grew up in the 1950s, in de Valera’s Ireland, insulated by its neutrality in the late war, quiet, poor, safe. The Pottertons had lived for the best part of 300 years at Rathcormick, a plain 18th-century farmhouse only embellished by a portico over the front door added with uncharacteristic grandeur by Old Elliott. Old Elliott was the cousin who left the property to Homan’s father on condition that he provided a son and heir. He provided six, together with two daughters. As well as the farm, Homan’s father, T. E. Potterton, as he became widely known in the neighbourhood, inherited an auctioneering and land-letting business. Supported and sustained by his dauntless wife, he overcame his own shyness and excessive caution and ran the business with diligence and devotion, at the same time losing no opportunity to encourage in his clients abstinence from alcohol — and indeed from gambling, smoking and most other forms of recreation.

The affection with which the son recalls such a relentlessly repressive father reflects credit on both. Himself, as he was known in the family, was invariably ‘serious and severe, strict and stiff . . . it appeared to me that his entire existence was devoted to disapproval; and when I encountered other children’s fathers . . . who did not behave in that way, I had difficulty in thinking of them as proper fathers at all.’ But there was no overt anger, no punishment, and the father was clearly perpetually concerned for the well-being of his children, going so far as to stop his car, which he never drove at more than 30 miles an hour and in the middle of the road so that people could see him coming, to warn them to be very careful when playing croquet. These cautious attitudes co-existed with acts of quixotic kindness to people outside the family, such as the feckless neighbours whose debts he discharged, or the man he happened to meet who ran donkey rides on the Isle of Man and who felt sure that his four sons would leave their building jobs in Manchester (where of course there was a great danger of their taking to drink) and return home to help him if only they had more donkeys. Himself put the word about and every Irish donkey seemed suddenly available. He despatched a large number to the Isle of Man without thought of payment, which was fortunate as none was forthcoming. His wife, who seems to have possessed an extraordinarily equable temperament as well as considerable management skills, held the family together with apparent serenity, at the same time revolutionising the local poultry industry by introducing the mystery of deep-litter. She also won the bottled fruit prize year after year with the very same bottle of pears.

Homan was the seventh Potterton to be driven daily to the Protestant school where Miss Thompson told him that no Potterton had ever had a brain in their head. The Potterton children only mixed with other Protestant families, which were few and far between. None of them married Catholics, possibly because they seldom met them. Homan was devoted to his two sisters. Alice was much older and went away to study domestic economy in Sussex, whence she returned to cook delicious cakes and in due course — perhaps as a result of judicious application of either Cold or Vanishing Cream — to be the bride at the perfect wedding. The other sister was Rosina, sweet-natured and not quite right, often ill and always loved, especially by her father. The elder brothers were more remote, though their various efforts to escape into a wider world were not notably successful. The brother immediately senior to Homan not being particularly congenial, his closest companion was an undemonstrative dog of independent mind named Rusty. Somehow through a variety of schools chosen apparently at random according to his father’s unpredictable whim, Homan came across a master who discovered in him an interest in art, not really to be expected of a Potterton. Long after the end of this book he became Director of the National Gallery of Ireland. His book is a delight.