Monday 27 June 2022

A quiet life

My father's family were shy breeders. He was an only child, doted on by a generation of older female relatives. Annual family holiday to Ireland were effectively a series of courtesy calls to these ladies. All through my childhood the itinerary would tighten as, one after the other, these aunts and cousins left home for A Home and then left the stage altogether. But we never visited with Cousin Periwinkle, who lived halfway up a cliff in Glengarriff and was somehow beyond my father's Pale. It was a missed opportunity because Mona Periwinkle "Peri" Cotgrave was an interesting person who'd been places and done things in the 1920s and 30s - winning golfing prizes; running a fitness studio; getting her poems published; starring in a film. 

In mid-June my twin sister and I celebrated our birthday together ABC in Allihies at the far end of the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. As Glengarriff nestles in the oxter of that same peninsula, it was an opportunity to pause in the town and make enquiries about our scapegrace relative. 

Periwinkle was born in Roscrea in 1899 and appears on the 1901 census as an infant living in her mother's family home in King's County:

The boys of the family were all abroad in the army - either India or South Africa. Peri's father Major Edwin Cotgrave of The Central India Horse was also out in India in khaki and effectively had disappeared from her life. Apparently, he named his daughter Periwinkle after a racehorse on which he'd won a lot of money. But this Periwinkle [b 1887] is too early and this Periwinkle [b 1900] is too late to convincingly bolster that theory and there are no Periwinkles between them in the studbook.

Peri served in uniform during WWII like so many of her relatives, and like my mother. When she was demobbed, she returned to Ireland with her partner Pat[ricia] Fanshawe and set up a ménage à deux in a house in the woods close to the Blue Pool in Glengarriff. They arrived in town in an army surplus jeep and were accordingly known locally as The Jeeps or The Babes in the Woods. When the jeep finally fell apart, they took delivery of a Citroën Dyane in a shipping crate and had it assembled by a local mechanic. They seemed to have money but never enough of it and gardened for food as well as pleasure. Later they had a business making jewellery and trinkets out of beads and sea-shells which might have brought in a few shillings from tourists.

In the forenoon, pretty much every day, they'd repair to Doc Ryan's bar for coffee G&Ts before lunch. Although Peri was as likely to be found up at the bar downing pints of Smithwicks and chatting with the men. When Doc's daughter was married of course The Jeeps were invited. They were accepted in the community and held in affection and respect; which may seem surprising in post-war Ireland where homosexual acts were formally illegal until the campaign of David Norris in the 1980s led to decriminalization [in 1993!]. It seems that Peri and Pat were one of three out lesbian couples in Glengarriff in the 1960s. I don't think that Glengarriff was notably more inclusive and tolerant than other Irish towns but rather that don't ask don't tell was a widespread approach to lesbians . . . so long as they were also incomers?

Peri died, suddenly at home, in 1975 and is buried across the bay in Bantry. Pat couldn't afford living alone in Glengarriff, sold up, and bought a modest 2-up-2-down, 35 km South in Ballydehob. Distance allowed her to drop out of sight to the Glengarriff community.

Before I left for Beara, I contacted the Arts Officer for Cork County Council. I thought it might perk his interest that an unknown 20thC poet had spent 25+ years in the county and was buried within his patrimony. Not yet, but he did forward my enquiry to the Local Studies Librarian who sourced me the death notice [above L] from The Examiner.

I've devoted a couple of days to investigating the life and times of a rather distant relative. I think I'm satisfied with that. It's like that for almost all of us. When the teenagers who knew the pensioners become pensioners and die in their turn, another vibrant, heart-beating, skillful and beloved person will sluice out of the bath of history forever. Turnover is a little over 100 years. In 1973, on my way to college, I spent a week in South Wexford with another of my father's elderly female relatives. The clock in the hall ticked very slowly that week but chatting to this elderly lady was not without interest. One evening she said that, as a young girl, she'd talked to an old man who used to cross the river by stepping stones. That convenience was replaced by a bridge in 1815. So I've danced with man who's danced with a girl who could have danced with Napoleon.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Alexander Pope

1 comment:

  1. That's a story and a half. I love the sound of Periwinkle. She could have stepped out of one of my once upon a time beloved family sagas.