Anglo-Irish Heritage

WALLED GARDENS: SCENES FROM AN ANGLO-IRISH CHILDHOOD by Annabel Davis-Goff, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 255 pp., illustrated, $19.95 IS it possible to review a book about the Anglo-Irish without recourse to Yeats's phrase ``hard-riding country gentlemen''? Even if the reviewer decides to forgo the reference, those horse-obsessed gentlemen will inevitably turn up in any book - fiction or nonfiction - purporting to evoke the vanishing world (another inevitable phrase) of the Anglo-Irish.

Annabel Davis-Goff's memoir of her Anglo-Irish upbringing is no exception. She begins by pointing out that her father's funeral was postponed so as not to discomfort his friends or dismay his shade by holding it on the day of the Grand National horse race. In the world where she grew up, keeping a horse was considered a necessity, but central heating, decent food, hot water, and workable plumbing were undreamed-of luxuries. When she set out at the age of 17 for secretarial school in Oxford, England, Davis-Goff recalls, ``I didn't know how to drive, cook, play tennis or bridge, how to dance, dress or apply makeup ... balance a checkbook, sew, curl my hair or flirt.''

Reading her recollections of a girlhood spent in beautiful, drafty houses on or near the southern Irish coast, one constantly has to remind oneself that Davis-Goff grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and not in the 1920s or 1930s milieu of a Molly Keane or Nancy Mitford novel. It is a world where young children were kept ``upstairs,'' looked after by a succession of nannies and governesses, and emerged from adolescence not only uninformed about the rudiments of sex, but unschooled in the whole area of love and relationships. Young Annabel's ideas of passion were gleaned almost entirely from books like ``Anna Karenina'' and ``Wuthering Heights,'' a background that doubtless nourished her imagination and added depth to her understanding, but which was not always suitable to her immediate situation.

Yet, looking back on the family and the world that shaped her, Davis-Goff is struck more by the positive than the negative influences on her character. Having, as she puts it, passed through the ``pendulum swing'' from an emotionally repressive upbringing to the ``liberated'' sexual mores of the 1960s, she has come to appreciate anew the qualities of tenacity and self-reliance that she recognizes as part of her heritage.

In the Anglo-Irish world she describes, however, these Horatio Alger-ish traits are not associated with tales of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps and the triumph of individual enterprise. These stories are of a once-privileged class that has seen ``better days,'' forced to live in ``reduced'' circumstances.

Although better off than most of the Irish-Catholic population when Ireland became a Free State in 1921, the future was not moving in a direction that favored the Anglo-Irish. Decades later, when Davis-Goff was growing up, economic hardship was still a fact of life, both for poor, working-class Roman Catholics and for genteel, impoverished Protestants. The former, as she notes with characteristic tartness, ``could not afford to entertain illusions,'' while the latter ``could not afford not to do so.'' The Anglo-Irish, she observes, were not in fact displaced: ``The opposite, really; they remained the same but everything around them changed.''

Davis-Goff, who has worked in television and film and is the author of two novels, writes in an understated, quietly witty style that well expresses her common-sensical attitude. Her memoir is a judicious balance of personal recollections and wider reflections on Anglo-Irish history. Memories of her girlhood in southern Ireland, so different from her later life in London, Hollywood, and New York, are delicately evoked: the camaraderie between children and servants; the coziness of her grandmother's drawing room; the chill of rushing from an unheated bathroom through icy corridors to a room with a fire when shampooing her hair in her parents' home; and the warmth of the beautiful walled gardens that were a feature of so many country houses she knew.

Her forays into family history take her back to her grandparents' generation and farther still, in the book's fascinating final chapter, to the story of a Goff ancestor who was one of the signers of King Charles's death warrant. William Goffe, along with his father-in-law, Edward Whalley, fled Restoration England for the American colonies (residents and former residents of New Haven, Conn., will recognize these as street names) to hide out for the rest of their lives from royal authorities anxious to bring them to trial for treason and regicide.

``Walled Gardens'' is a remarkably seamless blend of the personal and historical. Oddly enough, the narrative is marred by an occasional disjunctiveness that occurs not when it shifts from memory to history, but in the middle of describing a specific incident or person. The effect is a little slapdash. And sometimes, Davis-Goff crosses the boundary between sounding mature and self-accepting and sounding a trifle complacent.

But her humor, insight, and perceptiveness carry the day. The charm of her style is captured in her wry response to the oft-repeated truism in Irish history texts about each fresh horde of conquerors from mythological heroes through the Gaels to the Normans becoming ``more Irish than the Irish themselves'':

``More Irish in what way exactly? However much one loves the Irish one can only be dismayed by the thought of a new wave of immigrants displaying exaggerated forms of already fairly extreme behavior.... Of course, it's just possible that the original Irish were a mousey lot with barely distinguishable national traits and it took layers of conquerors throwing themselves into being more Irish than the Irish themselves to have produced the extreme national characteristics we know and love today.''

IN distinct contrast to Davis-Goff's cool amusement are the hushed, reverential tones of Benedict Kiely's ``Yeats' Ireland: An Enchanted Vision'' (New York: Clarkson Potter), an anthology of the great Anglo-Irish poet's verse and prose. The selections are interspersed with Kiely's biographical commentary and illustrated with many lovely photographs and paintings, including the work of the poet's brother, Jack Yeats. This handsome book commemorates the 50th anniversary of W.B. Yeats's death and has been authorized by his estate. The pictures are exquisitely evocative and the commentary, although occasionally cloying, is informative and knowledgeable.

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