Phyllis was born in Killiney in 1910. Her father Ernest Robinson was the youngest son of a Dublin coal merchant. Ernest and his two brothers all went separately to South Africa after their father’s firm went bankrupt in the 1890s, and Ernest was the only one to return home. He was a soldier in the Boer War and became a Captain in the First World War. After leaving the army he studied law and became a barrister in his forties, with middling success. Phyllis, his eldest child, spent much of her early childhood with her mother’s family, the Waterhouses. Her mother, known as Dolly to all her family, was noted for her unflappable tact and good sense. Dolly’s mother-in-law had let her know that Ernest was to be spoiled thoroughly, and she duly did that.
Phyllis in 1914 with brother
From the earliest age Phyllis was mad about horses. About the age of nine or ten she got in the habit of leaving the house early in the morning by climbing down a tree from an upstairs window, and helping the local milkman make his rounds. While he put the milk on his float, she would ride the horse around his field. He allowed her to drive the milk float on its round, and she would always remember with horror one occasion when the horse got going too fast and couldn’t slow down on the steep Killiney hill; it was out of control, but either by luck or skill, or both, no harm was done. When the round was over, Phyllis would return home and look out for a sign from her sister, a towel in the window, to show that her father had left the bathroom and she could climb back up the tree and in through the window.
One day one of her Waterhouse uncles met the young Phyllis on the road with a herd of cows. She was entrusted with the herd by a local farmer, to bring them from one field to another. Rather than drive the cows, the method was to take the bull by the ring in its nose, holding it with a hook on the end of a pole, lead it along, and all the cows would follow. Her uncle was horrified and ordered her to let go of that dangerous beast at once. The ten-year-old refused to do such a ridiculous thing, and her uncle stormed off to report her to her parents, who saw her point of view and stood up for her.
Phyllis was sent to the French School in Bray, where (she would say) she got the worst education imaginable. She always loved reading but regretted that her expensive education had given her no taste in literature. Her parents were worse off than their owning-class upbringing, but even when money was tight, the family always kept a living-in servant. Phyllis and the other children were forbidden to play either with their Catholic neighbours or with Protestant ones of the wrong class. In the 1920s the family did become friendly with one local Catholic family, the Burkes, through their sons’ meeting in the Boy Scouts. One of the Burkes, who became a nun, remained a lifelong friend and constant correspondent of Phyllis and her sister.
At the age of eighteen or so Phyllis answered an ad in a newspaper and took a poultry apprenticeship with Mrs Hamilton in Killeshandra. She loved the work and got on well with everyone there. She would answer back firmly when accused of not having done some task, “That is because you told me to stop and do something else”, which Mrs Hamilton would have to confess was true. The Hamiltons’ son Guy was expected to be called ‘Master Guy’ by the apprentices, but Phyllis reasoned that in that case he should call her ‘Miss Robinson’, so he relented and they became on first-name terms. One one occasion at the Hamiltons’ an older man, perhaps the father, asked Phyllis “Are you a Catholic?” to which she replied, remembering her Nicene Creed, “Yes, but not a Roman Catholic”. Again, her logic was accepted.
While in Cavan she became friendly with Jack Faris from Cornafean. He had been to Portora School with Sam Beckett, but didn’t remember much about him since Beckett was three years his junior. After her apprenticeship was complete she returned to Dublin; by this time the family had moved from Killiney to Monkstown. She kept poultry at home for several years, selling eggs locally, despite her father immediately taking down the ‘Eggs for sale’ sign she put on the gate; it wouldn’t do to have such a thing seen at the home of a barrister. Phyllis became engaged to Jack and in June 1935 they were married in Monkstown Parish Church; Phyllis was twenty-four, Jack in his early thirties. They lived first in Dundalk, where Jack was working; later he had the job of inspecting the butchers’ shops, to enforce the wartime limits on meat production. A butcher would claim he had only one carcass on the premises, and Jack would sometimes have to remark that it was a queer beast that had two left sides.
Phyllis had a close bond with her mother all her life, and a fairly stormy relationship with her father. He must have seemed almost a stranger returning from the war when Phyllis was eight. She had three younger brothers and a sister. Her eldest brother became a successful Dublin businessman and her sister married and had a family, but both her younger brothers died in their early twenties, flying in the RAF. One came down in fog over the sea shortly before the Second World War, returning from a mission to France. The other, the youngest of the family, died in action near the end of the war, in 1944. Once during the war, while he was was stationed in Liverpool, a Spitfire appeared over their Dublin house, diving and wheeling round. His father was perturbed but his mother said, “Oh, that’s just Kenneth up to his naughtiness”. She wrote to Kenneth in Liverpool, conscious of the censorship his letters would undergo, to say, “We had a visit from Basil [his middle name] the other day. He really is a very naughty boy.”
When Jack’s uncle died leaving him the farm at Corr they moved there, and their son Ronald was born in 1941. Sadly the child died after a week, and they never had another. Phyllis went on receiving advertisements from various firms: “Now your child is two, you will need this”. Her instinct for conservation saw her keep even these painful letters to the end of her life.
Jack’s mother was feared by all the Faris family, but Phyllis got on well with her. Phyllis had the leg of her from the start, as she put it. Rather than ask her mother-in-law’s advice she would say, for instance, “We have decided to decorate this room with green dots and pink stripes.” The mother-in-law was free to give her opinion, which Phyllis could consider and reply, “We think green and pink would be good”. She knew that if advice is asked and then not followed it can breed resentment.
Shortly after moving in to Corr House Phyllis was visited by a woman who invited her to join a women’s Orange society. Phyllis felt outraged; she sent her away without ever finding out who she was. Like all her family, even her British Army father, she welcomed the new Irish State, and in turn the Republic; she put her energy into developing it, by helping to empower Irish women. She was deeply involved in the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, particularly encouraging women to learn to speak in public.
She could be spectacularly infuriated, for instance by a letter she received in her nineties asking her to contribute material for a book about ‘the West Brit’. That is a category she never subscribed to.