Chapter 4 My Grand Aunt The King
No kingdom that has ever been was ever started by a king, but by a pretender who would be. My kingdom was no exception, built and governed by my aging monarch grand aunt the King of England who ruled over her subjects with an indifferent regal gaze and a deep baritone voice delivered through a thick British upper crust accent.
The Crock was born in the storm of war, and I think it was that survival alone that persuaded everyone that the Crock could withstand anything. It was 1919 and Francie, not yet a King, was just nineteen years old. More of a Prince.
There are conflicting stories about who actually started the Crock. One was that it was Francie alone, because at the age of 19 Francie was very much alone. Her father had passed away when she was just three years old, and her sister, perhaps sensing the growing insurgency and anger towards the English in Ireland, had relocated to Cambridge to study philosophy and photograph spies.
The lesser believed version is that the Crock was started by Francie’s mother, also Frances, a well-regarded artist and socialite, with Francie joining a few years later having completed an apprenticeship in weaving in Switzerland. The latter version appears to be the least likely given the amount of time Frances the mother was spending trying to get her paintings exhibited in Dublin and London, and with no indication of any interest in weaving.
I was afraid of her at first, Frances the younger, even though she was nearly seventy years old the first time I ever met her and she smiled very warmly at me. But there was just something about the way she carried herself that begged for caution and distance.
But I also found my fear often giving way to a grudging admiration for her majesty. Whatever her bloodline and her loyalties, and even her unfiltered disdain for all the Irish around her, she seemed to have both a creativity and a courage, or perhaps just a lack of fear of consequences, that as I grew older and further away from her I began to see in myself.
She wasn’t a very large woman at all, quite the opposite in fact. Short and bony, frail and stooped, yet whenever she moved it was still very deliberate and unassisted, and always immaculately manicured like a show pony on fair day. She wore only the clothes she designed and made, tweed blouses and skirts with colors and cut that were predictably majestic and worn with effortless grace.
Her head was probably the most English of all and very similar in appearance to that of the reigning Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, and always finished off with a fragile blue rinse perm that she had attended to at least once a week. She was never without her pearl-rimmed spectacles which were usually perched on the end of her nose or on a gold chain around her neck. But by far her most distinctive attribute of all was her voice.
It wasn’t only very thick upper English crust and very reminiscent of her majesty the other queen, her monarch. But most striking of all was that it was so deep and baritone that if you didn’t know her, or weren’t looking at her, you might easily mistake her instead for a king. The fact that she was also losing her hearing, or at least gave the impression she was, only made the voice more distinct and sonorous.
Starting a new business during the first volleys of a war would probably be considered a folly, and even more so when you’re the enemy and you’re starting it all from behind the other enemy’s lines. But that was exactly the genesis of the Crock of Gold, born on the dawn of a bloody and most would agree long-overdue war between the Irish natives and the English occupiers.
It must have felt like the whole of the world was drenched in war. The cannons and cries of the first World War had only barely gone silent when the first skirmishes of the Irish War of Independence against British rule trumpeted in a bloody guerilla campaign that would last nearly three more years. After which the Irish, allegedly genetically and chronically predisposed to fighting anyway, decided to spend the next couple of years after that fighting each other.
In the midst of all that chaos my Grand Aunt Francie, with or without the help of her mother, decided it would be a good time to start the Crock. At least she had the good sense to hide her newborn in a small cottage in the hills of Wicklow, as though she were hiding a hunted heir instead of a loom, and well away from the gathering storm.
Her courage, of course, lay in her roots, and her determination to never deny them in spite of the great dangers they might expose her to. Francie was clearly descended from ancient English stock and apparently did little to hide her loyalty to Crown and Queen. And that wasn’t a very good time to be English in Ireland.
It has always been a mystery why Francie’s parents chose to make the sudden journey from the serene safety of the English countryside to an Ireland festering with rebellion against everything that was England and English. But nevertheless, her parents made their way across the Irish sea and countryside in the late 1890s and secreted themselves in the remote seaside village of Rosses Point near Sligo, a picturesque little fishing village on the edge of the Atlantic and almost the most westerly and bleak edge of the entire continent.
While her father settled in to establish a small oyster farm along the rocky coast, Francie’s mother, Frances the elder, was quickly making a name for herself as a reasonably talented landscape artist and probably inspired by the breathtaking landscapes that surrounded the family in the wilderness of County Sligo.
And so while Francie’s father happily occupied his time raising his oysters in the cold stony waters off the Point, her mother spent much of her time on the other side of the country where she constantly exhibited her works in the hope of achieving some level of recognition and consequence for the family. And where she also struck up lifelong friendships with a tapestry of young bohemian artists, writers, and revolutionaries that included the Countess Markievicz, an Irish suffragette and rebel rouser, as well as George AE Russell, Walter Osborne and the Yeats brothers.
Francie had only one surviving sibling, a sister Lettice, and they seemed inseparable until their late teens. But the family’s move to western Ireland soon met with tragedy when their father passed away very suddenly when Francie was just three years old. With their mother spending so much time on the other coast with her paintings and her friends, the two sisters were abandoned in the beautifully bleak wilderness with no one but a governess. Which no doubt meant that while the two young English girls got a good and formal education, they were mostly left to test their wits and imagination and enjoy the outcome.
And while their mother chose canvas and Francie chose textiles, Lettice instead developed a passion for photography. Francie soon followed her mother east to Dublin but Lettice went even further east, and still just a teenager she moved back to England and settled in Cambridge to study philosophy. And where she met and married a rising young celebrity in the world of mathematics and philosophy and whose brother was later ordained Baron Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury.
Hardly surprising, the subjects of Lettice’ photography were just as colorful as the company that her sister and her mother kept. She soon counted amongst her friends Virginia Wolf, Victor the 3rd Baron Rothschild, and the philosopher Wittgenstein. But at some point unknown she veered off that path and later in life began to keep a far different kind of company.
She seemed to have taken a keen interest in taking photographs of spies, although it’s probable that at the time she took the photographs of Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt she had no idea they were Russian spies. Which in hindsight was ironic considering the path I ended up following.
It was somewhere about this time that the two Farrell brothers entered Francie’s world. John Farrell, also known as Sean O’Farrell, was my grandfather and had exactly the same name as my father which was also my exact name until I reached the age of eight days and my parents changed their minds. My grandfather’s brother was Michael Farrell and he would be the first of the Farrell brothers to share a roof with Francie, but not the last.
The lives of the two brothers couldn’t have been any more different from the lives of the two sisters, and while the sisters pursued their passions to imagine and create beautiful things, the brothers found themselves more often than not being pursued by the crown.
According to local legend, while still teens, the two brothers conspired to enlist the help of a pair of ceremonial cannons that had stood guard for many years outside a British Army Barracks in their home town of Carlow, just 50 miles south of where Francie was setting up her first loom.
They suspected that the cannons might not be so ceremonial after all, and in fact were very probably just old and retired battle veterans from long-ago wars in the other colonies. Michael and Sean speculated that if a cannon was always just a cannon, perhaps they could be turned back on their masters with one last ferocious belch. And that release might be well received by the people of Ireland as a decent contribution by the people of Carlow to their farewell to the crown.
Chance favored them, and one sunny afternoon as a foot patrol of the Royal Irish Constabulary moved cautiously back up the hill to the safety of their barracks, after a long day tormenting the countryside, Sean and Michael unleashed at least one of the old war horses. As it roared back to life it killed and maimed nearly a dozen of Her Majesty’s patrol.
But with so many spies living amongst the locals, it didn’t take the crown forces long to round up the two brothers, who were quickly incarcerated at the pleasure of her majesty at the Mountjoy Gaol in Dublin, ironically known as “The Joy.” Perhaps because of their youth her majesty didn’t seem to take much pleasure out of tormenting the boys any further, and they were released just six months later without being charged and instead of being hanged.
The experience was no deterrent to Sean, who went straight back to his Carlow home and rose to the rank of Commander of the local IRA brigade – at least briefly. Michael, on the other hand, seemed to have felt that her majesty wasn’t fully done with him and decided that in his own best interests he would be best moving those interests as far away from her majesty’s reach as he could.
When enquiries were made about his sudden absence, all his family would say was that the former medical student-turned-cannoneer was no longer available as he had recently embarked on an extended walking tour of Europe and probably would not be back for some time.
And they were at least half right. Michael was gone for some time, for many years in fact. But apparently the European walking story was as unbelievable as it sounded and Michael had instead resurfaced in the west African nation of Belgian Congo, where, still in his early twenties, he had managed to rise to the lofty position of Marine Superintendent of Ports. And had achieved some considerable wealth in the process.
There’s no guessing why of all the places in the world Michael would choose the Congo to hide out in, especially considering it wasn’t much less dangerous than Ireland at the time. But he was far from the first Irishman to seek out such a far-flung hideout. Not too many years before him, it had been alleged by the New York Times that James Jameson, heir to the Irish whiskey fortune, disgraced both his family name and the name of his expedition leader Sir Henry Morton Stanley when he was accused of offering a local tribal chief a handful of gleaming white handkerchiefs for nothing more than the pleasure of seeing a child being eaten by the local cannibals.
Apparently the chief felt it was a fair trade and without hesitation selected for slaughter a 10-year-old slave girl. Jameson was allowed to sketch the entire horrific spectacle of the chief’s men cutting the still-pumping limp little body into edible pieces and then washing them in the nearby river. Luckily for the family Mr. Jameson died of a fever shortly afterwards and the family avoided the humiliation of a public scandal.
By the time Michael returned from Africa, the wars were over by a few years, much had been forgiven, and Ireland was gradually getting used to the peace of freedom and the joy of calm. Francie and her business had also survived the war and the assassinations, the burning of the Big Houses, and while the Crock was still as small as any cottage business, Francie had already earned a reputation as a talented clothes designer and competent young businesswoman.
By the time Francie met Michael she was still in her twenties too but already married and divorced once. The two were married in 1930 and with the help of some of Michael’s recently accumulated Congo wealth Francie was able to move her business from the cover of the Wicklow hills to a much more fashionable shopfront in Dublin’s bustling and cosmopolitan Dawson Street.
It was also around that time that Michael determined it probably would be futile to continue his studies in medicine, and that he never really wanted to be a doctor anyway. So instead, he embarked on a fresh path and announced that he would be a writer. And possibly a journalist. As well as a broadcaster. And all at the same time. And naturally enough he succeeded at being reasonably competent in all three.
Almost as soon as they were married, Michael made good on at least one of his promises and did the first of just two things that would earn him just enough of a sliver of fame to make him satisfied. With the support of a small group of aspiring anglo-Irish actors and filmmakers, including Francie and Lettice (she returned often from Cambridge to see her sister) who designed the sets and the costumes, Michael wrote, produced, and directed his very first and last movie.
He claimed that the story was based on a true one, of boarding schools, orphans, and prostitutes, that could only now be told because the main subjects of the story had all since passed away. The only reason the original version now sits in the Irish Film Archives at Trinity College Dublin is because it starred 13-year-old Maureen Fitzsimmons who later changed her name to O‘Hara and went on to make substantially more movies than Michael.
Over the next 30 years Michael and Francie enjoyed a gentle and prosperous life as Monarchs of the Crock of Gold, and Francie expanded her weaving business and standing as a designer in Dublin and abroad. Michael was developing a decent enough reputation as a quirky and curious journalist and broadcaster and eventually earning his own radio show on Ireland’s government-run and only radio station.
Occasionally he and Francie would take some time off to wander around Europe and sometimes as far as Beirut, and return to Ireland laden with treasures from their travels that were quickly added to the rooms and walls of the Crock.
For a few of those years Michael even managed to hang on to some of the quaint colonial traditions he had picked up in the Congo. According to local lore, every Friday afternoon, rain or sun, Grand Uncle Michael would sit under a canopy in the same wicker chair he brought back with him from Africa, and one by one dispense by hand the weekly wages to the line of dozens of Crock employees who worked in the factory and the house and who were probably eager for home.
Michael died in 1963, after capitulating to a variety of ailments that included depression and anxiety, perhaps brought on by his three-decade fight with the only book he ever authored and which only finally made it into print ten years after his death.
With Michael gone and no natural successor to help Francie run the Crock, it was up to everyone remaining or available to step in. That’s when my grandfather, Sean O’Farrell, left his job with the government-owned Irish Sugar Company and moved to Dublin to lend his business and military experience to the cause.
And even though granddad was being asked to join the Crock during the most exciting time in its history, it wasn’t without some whiff of scandal amongst the locals. My rebel Irish grandfather was now living unmarried with the English widow of his dead brother. In spite of the fact that they lived on different floors and rarely crossed paths or even words.
To help quiet the gossip, he brought with him my uncle Kevin, one of his only two sons and the epileptic red-headed identical twin brother of my father. At the time Uncle Kevin was working for a British textile company also in Cork and not far from granddad, and it was assumed that his experience in running a textile company could also be of great benefit in running a weaving business.
While probably lacking the creative visions of Francie, Granddad nevertheless helped build the Crock into a very solid and profitable business by applying the military precision and discipline he learned from his years serving with Ireland’s ghost army.
And when I was ready, old enough, at least 16, I would be the third and best generation yet to take over the Crock. I was full of ideas about what the Crock would look like for the next 100 years, or at least the next five, or even just one. It would certainly and no doubt painfully involve abandoning much of the Crock’s history, and especially its adherence to fabrics and designs that few wanted any more and could hardly wear anyway because of their delicate nature.
It would also require the death or at least retirement or incapacitation of my father, uncle, Grandfather, and Grand Aunt, as well as the abandonment of all claims to rights to the estate by my five brothers and sisters and the two red-headed daughters of my red-headed Uncle.
But even before I could mount the throne, the Crock found itself up against forces that it could never have predicted, and a dark magic that it seemed powerless to defend against. Even more distressing was that the Crock’s new sworn enemy, and perhaps the greatest threat to its existence, was once counted as a dear friend. I would have to abandon, retreat, and regroup to fight another day to save my throne-in-waiting. For even I was no match for the greatest and more fearful magic to ever walk the face of the earth – Americans in polyester.