Phyllis Faris

Wed 13th Oct 10

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.

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 galloping 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 Audrey.

At the age of eighteen or so Phyllis answered an ad in a newspaper and took a poultry apprenticeship with a 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’, as she was an apprentice and not a servant, so he relented and they proceeded 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 recognised.

While in Cavan she became friendly with Jack Faris from Cornafean. He had been to Portora School with Sam Beckett (though he didn’t remember much about him, since Beckett was three years his junior). After her apprenticeship was complete Phyllis 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 had a job; later he became an inspector of butchers’ shops, enforcing the wartime limits on meat production. A butcher would claim he had only one carcass on the premises, and Jack would sometimes quietly  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 one sister. Her eldest brother became a successful Dublin businessman and her sister married and had a family, but both her youngest 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, while he was was stationed in Liverpool during the war, 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, knowing that his letters would be censored, to say, “We had a visit from Basil [Kenneth’s middle name] the other day. He really is a very naughty boy.”

When Jack inherited Corr farm at Cornafean 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 with a flea in her ear 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 organising debates, readings and impromptu speaking competitions, to encourage women to speak fearlessly in public. She was remembered for this by women who had been at first barely able  so much as to stand up and say their name.

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.

Phyllis died in Corr House at the age of ninety-six, still living alone, the last of her siblings. She asked me to tell her the names of all my brothers’ families, and by the time I finished she had slipped into a coma from which she didn’t awake.

Uncle Tom

Mon 20th Sep 10

I’ve been learning a French song on ukulele—La Mer by Charles Trénet. Infinitely more poetic than its English translation Somewhere Over the Sea which I remember from childhood.

The other day I looked at a few YouTube clips of Trénet singing it in his gentle bass voice, so mellifluous and evocative. In this version something about him reminded me of my Uncle Tom, who died when I was about twenty. He didn’t look particularly like him, though they both had broad faces and thrilling voices; Tom’s hair was dark but had the same kind of wave in it as Trénet’s. All the same I think the thing that reminded me most of Uncle Tom was the eager light that played over his features, particularly his eyes.

Uncle Tom was a clergyman with a wicked sense of humour. He had a talent for making ghost stories incredibly scary. I remember listening transfixed in the cottage at Brittas Bay with four or five others as he told us about Peggy’s Leg and The Man With No Face. Peter asked him to stop, and he did, probably on account of me. I was the youngest there, maybe eight or nine at the time. But my memory of the creepy feeling is not in the least unpleasant, and never was.

Later I went with some of the same group of cousins to horror films in Skerries, the ticket sellers turning blind eyes to my obvious underage. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula. Not a patch on Uncle Tom.

Old Iron

Tue 24th Aug 10

The other day while ironing the box of fuses blew
And when water spewed out of the iron we knew its days were through
So I signed online for Which? and copied down their recommendation
And I brought it in to Argos to compare their information

But not a single model in the Which? list of Best Buys
Was available or if so it was hiding in disguise
So I bought a Russell Hobbs around the middle range of prices
That looked quite like an iron from among the ‘pretty nices’

There was just one digit different from the one that scored quite high
Though I’m painfully aware that means their stars do not apply
Still I took it home and plugged it in and certainly it works
So fingers crossed let’s hope it won’t develop nasty quirks

And I don’t know why I’m telling you all this in rhyme and scansion
But the first line just came out that way and clamoured for expansion
You could sing it like calypso with a rhythm light and jaunty
And you’d know I’ve just been listening to Harry Belafonte

The grammar of lying

Thu 29th Jul 10

If you have promised to do something while never intending to do it at all, but then in fact you do it, were you lying or not when you gave the promise?

I read a newspaper article many years ago, recounting a job interview. The writer had answered ‘yes’ to the question

Would you be prepared to bend the truth for the sake of the Corporation?

while keeping a mental reservation to the effect that, in the event, he would not lie, even if the company asked him to.

He wasn’t hired, but some time later he realised that although he thought he had given a deliberately false answer in the interview, in fact he had told the truth. He was prepared to lie, in order to get the job.

A Heavy Melodrama

Thu 27th May 10

Every summer until I was eleven we spent two months in Green Cottage, Brittas Bay. Peter made friends there with David Rowell, who was the exact same age, and we celebrated their common birthday every August.

Rollo had a fund of Jimmy O’Dea comedy scripts by memory, and it became a tradition for us to put on shows for parents and friends. Here’s one:

Villain: At last Lady Rosalind we meet face to face. Last time I was here you scorned me, upbraided me, and spurned me from your door. But now the tables are turned and you are in my power!

Lady R: But you cannot take the roof from off my child’s head!

Villain: I care nothing for you or your brat! Begone!

Lady R: But my husband is the rightful owner and may still be living!

Villain: Your husband is dead—I have here the proof!

The hero is supposed to come on at that point and say ‘Your deeds are false, for I am here’, and the comedy arises from his failure to do so, whereupon the whole thing is repeated, at increasing tempo, until finally he enters confidently with ‘Your teeth are false for I am here’.

I was the youngest of the group, and always played Lady Rosalind. A Mrs. King, mother of one of the crowd, said (once she had finished upbraiding us for scratching the cellulose on her car) ‘It will be a muracle if you don’t all end up on the stage.’

St Sepulchres

Thu 1st Apr 10

We are the Consort of St Sepulchre
Doing our dance, and we will show you how
We can do it
You can do it
Come on now, and don’t be like a cow

We sang this (not publicly) to the tune of the almain we did in our dance show. Here we are in Trinity College Dublin Exam Hall, in 1976. Clockwise from top right:

Iain Montague, who read up the Renaissance dance books, principally Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie of 1589, and taught us the steps
Tim Goulding, yes, the wonderful painter and member of Dr Strangely Strange, who joined us as a dancer that year
Honor in a beguiling headdress made by Irena
Jenny who as well as playing lead recorder designed the costumes and made most of them
Anto in jester guise, who played drums, sackbut, crumhorn and recorder, and mastered the ceremonies in painful doggerel
Irena, wife of Barra, also co-opted to dance and sew
Christopher Montague, son of Iain, our juvenile lead dancer—‘Smile, Christopher’
Vanessa who sang and played recorder
David Milne, who sang bass and played recorder, crumhorn, rauschpfeife and harpsichord; above him
Mary, who sang; and beside Iain
David Carmody, who played cornetto and recorder
Lucienne, alto (self-styled Gloria Glimpenstein)
Me, with lute
Barra, my co-director

The show ran for four days, December 15th to 18th. The previous year Michael Milne, brother of David, had sung bass, as he did on our two records for EMI Ireland (IEMC 6005 & 6008).

In 1975 Michael, Barra and Mark Molony and I danced a hearty buffens from Arbeau’s book, hacking mercilessly at one another’s wooden swords. We all danced, except for David Milne who kept the music going on the harpsichord for the big numbers. We invited the audience to partner us in the simple ones, pavans and branles, and to our amazement they volunteered in droves. We did a long farandole, down the hall and out the door, snaking across the cobblestones of Front Square; no such thing then as public liability insurance, but nobody (as it happened) broke an ankle.

Happy band.

The following year Barra left to do his doctorate in Holland (he became the world authority on the crumhorn) and I went to learn instrument making in Sussex. The group went into abeyance; after that we had sporadic reunions.

Ukeristic Congress

Tue 23rd Feb 10


My ukulele band Ukeristic Congress has had two public outings: Friday the 12th in Annesley House, North Strand Road, and again last night in McSorley’s of Ranelagh, as part of the benefit gig for Haiti.

I invited Terry Connaughton, chariman of the Ranelagh Arts Festival, to come along to hear us at the January meeting in Shebeen Chic, George’s Street, and he agreed to put a uke concert into this September’s festival. He also asked us to join the lineup for Haiti. He put us on third last, followed by Bree Harris with a terrific rock band, and Donal Lunny (back in Ireland) with the fiddlers Ciaran Tourish and Dermot McLoughlin.

I caught up with Eamon Carr, who read a poem for Haiti with recorded music and live drummer (Daniel Figgis). I hadn’t spoken with him since Tara Telephone days, forty years back. He said that Lorelei Templeton, the woman who put together the Tara Telephone page, is a uke fanatic in San Francisco. Influenced by her, Eamon had bought a uke, but couldn’t hack it as he lost the tip of his little finger in an accident.

Ukeristic Congress (Mick Kenny came up with the name) is entirely managed by group emails. It’s a great bunch of people, currently nine of us. We rehearse on Saturday afternoons in McCloskey’s pub. If there is a rugby match on TV it becomes too noisy for us, so we are trying out the Charleville Tennis Club in Phibsborough next Saturday.

Bach Cantatas

Mon 8th Feb 10

I sang in the Bach concert St Ann’s, Dawson Street, yesterday as a member of The Cantata Singers. Four cantatas, numbers 62, 61, 60 and 36. This year sees the end of the Orchestra of St Cecilia ten-year project; by the last concert on the 7th of March, all 200 extant church cantatas by J S Bach will have been performed. Bravissimo! What next? Well, there are the secular cantatas, which strangely include (according to Lindsay, the St Cecilia manager) the Actus Tragicus: the funeral cantata with two recorders and two viols. Ausgezeichnet!—or as they say in the States, Outa sight.

Dublin’s Cantata Singers were founded by John Beckett in the seventies, when he began the tradition of doing cantatas in St Ann’s on Sunday afternoons in February. He played the piano himself for our rehearsals, brilliantly. Such a stickler for time: his rehearsals were set for 8pm but everyone knew well enough to come early—they always actually began at five to eight.

In those days if you got a phone call at 7.30 in the morning, you knew it was John Beckett.

Our high point came in 1979 when the Cantata Singers were invited to do an all-Bach programme for the London Proms, conducted by John and with the previous incarnation of the Orchestra of St Cecilia, confusingly then called The New Irish Chamber Orchestra. I remember clearly travelling by tube to the concert, and having to restrain myself from telling everyone on the train ‘I’m going to sing in the Albert Hall’. The following year we did a similar concert in the Flanders Festival, in Bruges.

When John died three years ago, Rhoda Draper put together a memorial concert for him in St Ann’s. She contacted all the old Cantata Singers and a mighty proportion of us got back together for the concert, under David Milne. Since then we have regrouped twice, for Lindsay’s cantata series last year and yesterday. We haven’t lost our verve.

In 1973, just after he started putting on the cantatas, John also began the Academy viol consort class, which I attended and eventually inherited when he left for London in 1983. Honor took it for the five years I was in Clare in the nineties, and just last September it left the Academy: it continues on Wednesdays in my house. As a viol player, its most distinguished ex-member must be Ibi Aziz, who fell in love with the viol and gave up medical studies in TCD to become a career violist. Four of us are off to a course taught by him in Wales next April.

Epicurus

Wed 30th Dec 09

Malachy gave me a perfect holiday book: The QI Book of the Dead, a collection of facts and scandal about historical persons. I love the portrait of Epicurus, and the big-minded Ben Franklin.

Epicurus, the book tells us, has the reputation ‘as the high priest of high living and sensuous pleasure, the philosopher of the debauchee and the gourmand. Except that he wasn’t. So far from indulging in orgies and banquets, Epicurus lived on barley bread and fruit, with cheese as a special treat only on feast days. … But Epicurus had the misfortune to live in the highly competitive golden age of Greek philosophy, where he found himself up against the Academy founded by Plato, and the porch (stoa) of the Stoics: both articulate and well-organised opponents. The mud they slung at him over two millennia ago has stuck firm.’

Which deserves to be preserved in an epigram:

To have a bad reputation is to have influential enemies.

A Christmas thought: if the Magi saw and followed ‘a star in the east’ then they came from the west. They may have been from a sect of Platonists disenchanted with the way the Academy’s teaching had descended into nihilism—

I went to university
Studied Greek philosophy
And all that it taught me was there’s nothing to know
But that knowing you know nothing, well that’s knowing something too.

In my fantasy these wise men came east looking for a newborn child to take on the mantle of Socrates, a moral model and innocent victim condemned to death by the state he sought to reform. Socrates (as reported by Plato) had improved on previous moral teachers by urging kindness to enemies simply because treating everyone positively is the right thing to do—something Jesus certainly passed on. The Proverbs of Solomon had said that doing good to your enemy will ‘heap coals of fire upon his head’, and this vengeful prospect was reiterated some centuries after Socrates by a professed Christian (Romans 12:20). Perhaps St Paul didn’t quite get the message.

Hence my take on Christianity and Christmas:

He doesn’t really go with Christmas trees,
This younger, more attractive Socrates—
A sobering memento hung on wood:
See, children, what you get for being good.

I had what may best be called an Epicurean thought (I saw it then as more like Diogenes, another philosopher with influential enemies who have given his school, the Cynics, an even worse name than the Epicureans) on one of my long cycles with Michael. I was approaching the age of sixty and wanted to prepare myself for old age: what should my priorities be? I came up with:

Be less
Do less
Have less
Get out more

My new year’s resolution.

Clancy bashing

Tue 15th Dec 09


Liam Clancy has died, the last of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. In his honour I sang two Clancy Brothers songs last Saturday, at the Ukuhooley get-together in Doheny & Nesbitt’s—Brennan on the Moor and The Bold Tenant Farmer. These came off the first Clancy Brothers album which we more or less wore out in Kerry in the summer of 1962; I played guitar and Nick and I sang, and I think we memorised the lot. No trouble remembering them last Saturday, even though I only decided on the spot that that’s what I would sing.

At the session I met Lucy Johnston of The Johnstons. To my embarrassment, though I knew the name I had never heard her family group which flourished in the sixties and included the young Paul Brady, but she had been at our St Sepulchres concerts.

On Saturday we added harmonies to other people’s songs. A nice noisy night.


Homan Potterton

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Andrew Lawrence-King

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