A Kingdom For A Boy
It wasn’t much of a kingdom but that didn’t matter a whit because I wouldn’t be much of a king, and so that would do perfectly fine. But it was still a kingdom and I would still be its king and that’s all that mattered. And if all things went according to my plan, I would hope to make it a better kingdom and it make me a better king.
Of course, all of this had yet to become known to me because, after all, I was still only eight. It wasn’t until I was way past nine that my father finally introduced me to my future realm, even though it sat less than a mile up the road. Perhaps he worried how I might react when I was finally introduced to such a magical and splendid place and just beg and beg him could I have it now please, please, until he finally relented. Or that I would immediately recognize just how intertwined our two destinies would become and want those destinies to be here now.
The truth was probably that he just didn’t have the time. This new land was even more alien to my father than it was to us. Word had been sent, the kingdom was in trouble, everyone was either too sick or too old to reign effectively. To save the kingdom, my father would have to abandon his plans to retire as a colonel, resign his military commission and comfortable army life, and move his young family half way across a country to the capital. And all in order to run a business and a kingdom, and well aware that he was suited for neither.
The road to the capital was only the first in many new journeys for him. No sooner had my father settled his wife and five children into a strange and unwelcoming new neighborhood, he was gone again. Sometimes for weeks at a time he would leave for sales tours of America, to New York and Chicago and sometimes as far away as San Francisco.
Sometimes we’d get a single postcard for the entire family and often with just our address on it. Sometimes no postcards at all. But just like his trips to Dublin he always returned from America with gifts. Maybe a yellow-stringed bag of golden chocolate coins, or a miniature version of a San Francisco trolley car with a real working bell.
Even before I met my kingdom, or even knew it might be mine to have, what was very clear was that it wasn’t the only kingdom in our new neighborhood in Dublin. By sheer chance, and just to be close to the Crock, our new home was in a place called Foxrock, in the south suburbs of Dublin and one of the most affluent suburbs in Ireland. Even if we barely made inside the boundaries and clung to the edge of the least affluent outer fringe.
Foxrock and its adjacent neighborhoods were home to so many mansions, horse farms, and small estates, I very quickly became comfortable with the notion that small kingdoms were really the norm. Many of these mansions, now owned either by wealthy Irish business families or foreign embassies, were previously the homes of a large population of British aristocracy and gentry that had owned most of the land in the area since it was gifted to them by Cromwell. Lord Townsend, Lady Lousia Pakenham, and the 5th Earl of Carysfort and Lord Lieutenant of Wicklow had built some of the more modest mansions, as had Lady Arnott, Viscount Allen, and even before them, the 2nd Baronet of Pottle Green.
And at the very top of the road, past the old Lepers hospital that had been treating lepers from the colonies since 1200 AD, was the former home of Boss Croker, the once leader of the famed Tammany Hall in New York. The Boss’s old home was now the residence of the British Ambassador to Ireland, the most notable Ambassador being the monocled Christopher Ewart-Biggs who was assassinated by a massive culvert bomb at the end of our road when I was fifteen.
But with the death of the British empire and an end to British rule and presence in Ireland, most of the original aristocratic families had either returned to their other estates in England or had been swallowed up by the new Irish merchant classes.
And while these grand houses were a grand spectacle for an eight year old, it was more than a year after we arrived at our new home in Dublin before I was even introduced to my new Kingdom. It was a straight walk towards the sea and one my father marched every day he wasn’t abroad, no matter the weather. Just as he marched me, running and skipping just to keep pace with him, that day I was first introduced to my inheritance.
The Crock of Gold, always known affectionately as just the Crock, was a highly admired handweaving business started in 1919 by my Grand Aunt Francis Farrell and right in that peaceful, fragile handful of moments between the end of the Great War and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. In a nation full of cottage weavers, the Crock stood out above all the others for the beautiful, brightly colored, and finely-woven style of tweed known as gossamer, first created by my Grand Aunt decades before and in high demand around the world.
The entrance to the kingdom of the Crock was modest but what it lacked in majesty it made up for in magic. That magic is probably what had allowed the kingdom to thrive unnoticed for decades amidst the creeping concrete of suburban south Dublin.
I have always been a big believer in signs, and the notion that the clearest messages could come from the most voiceless of places, and none more so than this one. According to my father, this particular sign had been hanging right there, in the very same spot, for more than half a century, a gift painted by an acquaintance of my Grand Aunt, the King, and a curse unleashed if it was ever removed from its perch.
This sign told a short story, a kind of introduction to unfamiliar visitors, a hand-painted rainbow arching out of the roots of a bony old yew tree into the depths of a great black cauldron. A Crock of Gold. My Crock, and my gold. Day after day, decade drifting into decade it hung there, creaking and groaning above the rusting gated entrance to the estate. And no telling if it was wailing or warning, but the harbinger left visitors in absolutely no doubt they were entering an enchanted place.
Just in case the creaking rainbow wasn’t enough, the gate was guarded by three generations of the Foley family who all managed to squeeze into the small gate cottage behind a high-stacked stone wall. The senior Foley had been the head gardener for the estate for nearly 30 years, and his son and daughter would sometimes take on odd jobs around the house and gardens too. Sometimes we would allow their ten-year-old son to join us for a game of croquet under the big cedar tree next to the orchards and beehives below the windows of Grandad’s smoke-filled library.
Over nearly three quarters of a century the Crock had earned a respectable reputation as a pioneer in the art of this new weaving, and whose followers and fans would be the envy of any business. Fashion designers like Coco Chanel, Pierre Balmain, Guy Laroche, and Yves Saint Laurent bought rolls of the finished tweed to weave their own magic into.
The Crock’s own fashion creations, made from the cobweb-delicate tweed, were worn by the Duchess of Westminster and the Queen of Siam. And I remember the uncontainable excitement across the weaving halls when it was learned that Nancy Reagan herself was spotted at some official gathering in America wearing one of the Crock’s frail creations.
You couldn’t see the Crock at all from the road so few locals even knew what was really there, and that only added to the mystery and secrecy and magic of the place. It was set quite a distance back from the road, across the front fields and hidden in a dense growth of firs and oaks and surrounded from the east to the west gate by a high hedge.
Just beyond that signed gate and cottage the avenue immediately forked. The fork to the right was a single lane avenue solely to be used for going in, while the fork to the left was solely to be used for coming back out. And those who ignored that simple rule, although it was never clearly signposted, would often pay a heavy price.
The farm was the first building visitors to the Crock would encounter, not counting the gate lodge. It was very unfortunately located, especially given the dilapidation and the odor, but it had been there for at least two centuries and no-one saw fit to hide it somewhere where it couldn’t so easily be seen.
Any visitor to the estate who made the correct decision to take the “in” avenue still had to first make their way past the farm yard, which was dominated by two large cowsheds that housed a small herd of about two-dozen animals herded and guarded by Rock the fearless farm Alsatian.
In spite of repeated edicts from my Grand Aunt the King, sent by her emissary my father, the farm manager Mr. O’Malley stubbornly refused to remove the dung from each of the cow sheds on a frequent-enough basis.
So that not only was it a poor greeting to any visitors and especially in the hot summers, but a constant source of complaints by a handful of neighbors who had made the unfortunate decision to live in a row of houses in an estate called Hollypark that butted up to the back of the farm. I think the fact that the land that now housed their houses at one time belonged to the Crock gave the King some pleasure in their displeasure.
The collection of old farm buildings was clear evidence that at one time the farm and gardens had provided most of the food needed to sustain an even larger estate. But all that was left now were the cows, which still provided a steady supply of fresh milk and creamy salty butter to the estate, and the rest of which Mr. O’Malley sold by the urn to the local dairy.
The main house of the Crock was built around 1590 as a church house, a Glebe for a significant protestant clergyman. The stables and sundry outbuildings were added some years later, when they fell into the hands of a French Huguenot family that settled in the outskirts of Dublin and began weaving linen. The owners of the house must have been expecting significant trouble in this new neighborhood, just six miles from the relative safety of Dublin city, because the house was very well fortified for just a Glebe.
But it was understandable that they might want to build a home with some protections given the house was out in the middle of the countryside and as much as half a day’s coach ride back to civilization. And although surrounded by grand rolling estates of a variety of English nobility and gentry, the small estate was in an area well-known for highwaymen and sometimes even rebels.
The factory, as we always called it, the beating heart of the empire of the Crock, was a haphazard sprawl of weathered stone outbuildings representing different centuries, a loosely-assembled and barely connected network of stables, coach and carriage houses, and servants quarters that had been adapted to suit a much different purpose.
And rightly protected like a castle by soaring iron gates, and all wrapping around to the main house by a large courtyard of cobbled stone. A newer factory had been added to the side of the old buildings in the 1950’s, and finally connected to the cow shed which until then had been separated completely and rightly so from the house and factory.
Like a dormant movie set, on any weekend the entire factory lay silent, even abandoned.. But for the next five days, those silent and weary old buildings would suddenly come to life, raise their weary bones, a little village from a postcard awoken by dozens of local men and women arriving on time each day like extras. All ages, many generations, on foot, bicycle, and occasionally in cars, and each day until 5pm they would break the beautiful silence of the Crock and the fields by what I always found to be an even more beautiful sound.
For just those five days the Crock hummed and bustled with so many comings and goings, and I would watch it all in fascination as though it were all trapped in a globe in my hands. And all choreographed to a well-rehearsed symphony always led by the loudest instruments of all, the relentless and rhythmic click-clacking of the many looms, big and small, some operated by electricity but most still by the robotic and hardened hands of weavers older than the Crock itself.
That rhythm wove itself in with the chatter and laughter of the women and girls who worked mainly on the second floor finishing the tweed, and all even louder in the Summer and all the windows open. With the voices of the men below as they shouted and cursed above the chorus of the looms. With the sounds of music and conversations streaming from the wireless radios spread throughout the network of old buildings and helping to break up the monotony of the day.
Every other day, trucks and vans would arrive with piles of raw wool, and other trucks and vans would come to take away the finished tweed, all bailed in twine and wrapped in brown paper. And in the Summer, American tourists would descend majestic from the steps of their tour buses, resplendent in their various but always brightest shades of green polyester, and to enjoy a guided and gasping tour of the factory and the gardens.
In the middle of it all, John the wild-eyed dye man would sing and shriek from his perch overlooking the courtyard, and disappearing into an explosion of steam as he dropped the virgin wool into the steaming hot steel vats.
Almost from the beginning the Crock had made only a few pieces of clothing including dresses, skirts, blouses, shawls, stoles, and scarves, and later, traveling blankets, men’s ties, and wool sweaters. Most of the pieces were woven in the weblike tweed in the most spectacular but muted colors that were described by writers as jewel-like but also very fragile and difficult to take proper care of.
Once over the rattling cow bars, which also acted as an alarm for the house, past the high castle gates to the courtyard and the factory, across the pea gravel driveway and up to two large stone Griffins that guarded the front door, was the front door of the house itself. The front entrance was a door made for a fortress, crudely hewn of solid blackened oak and thick as three doors and mounted in heavy hammered iron hinges. It had an iron door knocker and a handle on the outside, each the size of a well-grown fist and when I was small needed two hands to knock or to turn, if I could reach them.
On the inside, three more heavy hinges and a massive iron lock with a keyhole big enough I could get a finger all the way in. A flat iron bar a little taller than me came down like an arm from the door frame and locked the door firmly shut, and finished off with a heavy black chain thicker than my arm.
And yet, as part of every nightly ritual, Alice the housekeeper would lock every lock and chain and bar on the door, as only the beginning of a routine that would take her to every window and door on the lower floors of the house where she would close each one’s heavy wooden shutters and barricade each with another heavy iron bar. Then do the reverse each morning before the household was up. Little wonder she eventually went mad.
The house didn’t appear too large from the front but was considerable inside. It had four floors and a cellar, although each floor was relatively small. Stepping inside the oak rampart that was the front door, it was easy to see that my relatives were collectors. Almost every available inch of every wall in every room, save for perhaps the kitchen and bathrooms, was covered in paintings either donated or shared by friends, or collected by my grand aunt and her husband my grand uncle on their tours of Europe and the Middle East through the early century.
What space was left on the floors was occupied by a variety of antique furniture, mainly French, along with collections of sterling silver and various artifacts collected on the same trips. The floors were mainly dark old oak although worn or stained lighter in some places, similar to the front door and apparently there since the house was built. Some were bare, some were partly covered in threadbare old rugs, and a handful of rooms, those used most often to welcome guests, were fully though shabbily carpeted.
As in any Irish manor, the busiest room was the kitchen. It was directly opposite and down a few steps from the dining room, where an aging and blackened Aga wood-burning range kept it the warmest room in the house on even the coldest day. Alice spent most of her time in that kitchen, cooking, baking, laundering, and complaining, and the clean laundry hoisted on a drying rack all the way up to the high ceiling right above the Aga where it would dry in no time.
At the end of the kitchen a large and flaking green cupboard was pushed up against a low and arched wooden door that was always locked and to this day I have no idea why it was there, what it led to and why it was locked or even blocked. But the house was so full of secrets it seemed pointless and even rude to ever ask.
At the other side of the kitchen there was a latched door and down another couple of steps led to three cold stone larders where much of the estate’s food was stored, and just beyond the larders the door into the back courtyard and to the factory.
Prominent in the hallway was an old French dresser watched over by a soaring oil painting of a scowling judge in wig and robes, and at the center of the dresser stood one of the most important and revered of all the collected antiques and artifacts – the gong.
The gong was a shrine and a messenger and to be respected as such. Twice a day, every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, the gong would be rung twice. At eleven in the morning – known as the elevenses, and four in the afternoon, known just as the afternoon tea, and for just that purpose. Tea.
Every day at 11am and 4pm the gong was rung loudly to announce to the house that tea was either ready or being served. Ready, if you were anyone other than the house royalty and had to come to the kitchen to enjoy it, and served in either the dining room or drawing room to Aunt Francie or Granddad.
We would naturally have our tea in the kitchen, along with Mr Foley and Mr. Peacock if they decided to come up from the garden, and Luke the factory foreman who preferred to drink tea in the warm kitchen than with his co-workers in the yard. Alice would join us too, and sometimes one or two of the other maids who we sometimes referred to as Francie’s servants but were told not to.
In addition to tea, with a drop of Mr O’Malley’s fresh creamy milk, we were also allowed to dip our hands into an old round cake tin and pick out a couple of Marietta biscuits. We would cover the two thin biscuits with warm yellow butter and squeeze until the butter oozed out all around the rim as well as through the pinholes in the top and bottom of the biscuits, making for a delicious buttery mess and making faces at Alice.
Sometimes if we had been well behaved up until that time we would be allowed to ring the gong, no more than three times though. Any ringing or even touching of the gong at any times other than 11 or 4 would be met with a punishment so severe we couldn’t even imagine because to my knowledge no-one had ever tried.
Sitting there enjoying my cup of tea and sometimes with a few extra Marietta’s from Alice, who would wink at me with a mouth made crooked from a stroke, I knew that someday I would not be drinking tea here but instead having it served to me in the dining or drawing room. Until then, I would just be Master Farrell, exactly the way all the Farrell boys were greeted by the factory workers and house staff and often with the touch of a cap.
The bright and sprawling drawing room down a flight of stairs to the garden level was the pristine and immaculate court of the King, and it was the only room in the house apart from her bedroom on the fourth floor that Francie could ever be found. Mostly on her own, she would read or stare out into the gardens, and sometimes though rarely we’d hear a few notes from the French harpsichord in the corner of the room. We were all forbidden from entering this room, although we’d break the rules and take a quick wander in amazement when we were sure the coast was clear.
Directly above her, above that room, Grandad enjoyed a similar but much more cluttered solitude. We called it the study but it was more of a library, every wall covered from floor to ceiling with ornate and dusty books and some of them centuries old. There were three or four writing desks scattered around the room, separated by carved wooden screens, and a small single bed next to the fireplace at the back of the room. And like the room below, Granddad’s study had great views of the lawns and gardens below.
This is where Granddad retreated to when my father took over the running of the business. And while he would spend most of his days now isolated in that splendid room, he was never alone. Granddad was always accompanied by Sam, his faithful old black Labrador who had been given to him some years earlier by a colleague in the Royal Air force. Sam had been trained as a security dog to protect air bases but was eventually deemed to have too poor and unpleasant a disposition and therefore unsuitable for that kind of work.
Sam was the most feared beast in the whole place next to Aunt Francie and guarded granddad with the same zeal as Francie guarded the Crock. Anyone who entered granddad’s study or came within ten feet of granddad when in the company of Sam would be met initially with a low growl, rising to something much more menacing if the warning growl was ignored.
The house was full of little mysteries that were never explained. There were at least three doors that we could never open, either because they had been nailed closed or protected by furniture too heavy for us to move. In the tiny bathroom at the very back of the fourth floor of the house, a section of the panelling in the wall could slide sideways to reveal a space just big enough to hide a person, and a second identical panel that opened to a small winding staircase that provided a quick exit into the courtyard.
Self-sufficiency was important to the Farrells, who seemed to welcome any reason not to venture out of the estate and risk having their beauty diluted by those others beyond the walls. Behind the main house of the Crock stood a sprawling expanse of lush gardens that could feed a small army and were maintained with great discipline by an equally small army of gardeners lead by the head gardener Mr. Foley and his arthritic assistant Mr. Peacock and sometimes even Mr. Peacock’s young sons.
The gardens had been divided into a grid pattern. One of the largest sections was all under potatoes for most of the year while the lower half dropped off quite steeply and the two were separated by a grassy path lined with crab apple trees. The lower half grew all sorts of other vegetables including cabbages, parsnips, beetroots, leeks, and lettuce, and a small section in the lower corner near the compost that was reserved for long sticks of rhubarb.
If you had a sweet tooth, then Peacock had something for you too. The sweet side of the garden was mainly confined to the west side of the grid and separated by a long path, straight as an arrow, lined by massive rose trees and leading down to a secret reading garden at the very end of the property.
The sweet side included one large orchard brimming with cooking apples, sweet eaters, and pears and every few months in the summer my mother would make dozens of glass jars of deliciously sweet crabapple jam, although her best and my favorite was when she made a jam mixed of crab apples, gooseberries, and rhubarb.
Woven in amongst the trees were bushes of gooseberries, raspberries, and blackberries. And at the very back of that section, a strawberry garden covered in chicken wire and next to that a dilapidated old greenhouse where Aunt Francie tended to her grapes.
If Francie was in a particularly good mood, which was always unpredictable, she would treat visitors to fresh strawberries from the garden drenched with chilled fresh cream from Mr. O’Malley. If the weather wasn’t so good, the treat would be stewed rhubarb with a thin layer of yellow custard, although I think the strawberries were always the favorite.
What wasn’t picked and pickled by Peacock and Foley became the ammunition for one of our favorite afternoon games – fruit wars. And when he wasn’t busy replenishing the Crock’s voracious pantries under the house, Mr. Peacock could often be found lovingly caring for the silky smooth expanse of lawn just below the windows of Granddad’s pipe-smoke filled study.
The lawn was dominated by a massive ancient cedar tree, right next to a stone birdbath, and this is where we would play croquet for hours on warm summer weekends as Granddad watched from above and sometimes even came down and played a game or two with us. Francie would sometimes watch from her drawing room too, but probably more of a glare at our shrieks and screams.
And then there were the bee hives, the terror of our young lives. We always gave wide berth to the dozen or so whitewashed hives strewn around the crab apple orchard, but would still watch with fascination and a safe distance whenever Aunt Francie or Mr. Peacock would don the white veil, and with the help of a little smoke delicately expose the combs and harvest the honey.
This was the Crock of Gold, my first love, my destiny, and my only future. With a reasonable balance of conniving and luck I would inherit this diamond, a dazzling gem on a bed of cracked and chipped emeralds, a paradise and oasis far away from the grim, grey and hopeless Ireland that lay clearly on the very unenchanted side of that gate and its sign.
This was my kingdom by birthright, in spite of all the other claims there might be to it from my five brothers and sisters, and a handful of cousins, aunts, uncles and others. But it had to be my kingdom because without it there was simply nothing else and therefore no point to anything.
To have the Crock simply meant not being in want for anything else, because it was capable of being just about everything. Perhaps most important of all, and especially to me, the Crock was for all purposes an independent and self-sufficient nation state that bore no resemblance to nor needed anything from the ugly Eire at the other side of the sign.
And all ruled by a diminutive and fearless British tyrant who refused to ever allow anyone to pry her spindled fingers from her throne. Until eventually. And there would always be eventually.