The O’Sullivan Family | Part I

This is about my family, who are from Ireland. I am first generation American, so am constantly being pulled back to that place. This installment is about my grandmother, who died in 1995. 

My granddad and granny near Tralong, June 1941

My granny’s name was Johanna Margaret Powell, but she was called Joan. When I knew her, she lived alone in a small house at Tara Court. There always seemed to be some visitor in her kitchen, drinking tea and eating something crumbly and sweet. I remember half-empty glass bottles on the counter, ready with the creamiest and most sublime cow’s milk.

Her house smelled of old but comfortable things, a mixture of spices and lavender that I remember stumbling upon again, suddenly, in a cloth doll that my dad brought to me from South America.

My last memories of her are vague. During our holiday in France the year before she died, I went up to her room at our B&B and found her sitting in front of a mirror. She told me she felt ill. I hardly remember her after that. Just cherry blossoms on her bedspread.

So, with my mother’s help, I will proceed…

My granny was born in 1915 to Mary Collins Powell and Patrick Powell. She was the seventh of nine children (she had three other siblings who died as infants). At least two more girls were born after granny, so the courageous Mary Collins was more or less perpetually pregnant from 1903 until 1920. Almost two decades of swollen legs and restlessness.

Her parents met in Edinburgh. Her father was around twenty years older than her mother, but I suppose such age gaps may have seemed inconsequential in the early twentieth century (or perhaps that’s just the way I imagine that the world was prior to the automobile, less concerned with speed and time and age).

My granny was born and raised in Cork. Her family home was called Mount Nebo, a large house located somewhere near Sunday’s Well, nestled in the hills that rise above the North Bank of the River Lee. Whatever tranquility I might like to think would accompany a place with such a benign name was shattered, or at least temporarily disturbed, by Patrick’s unexpected death. Granny was only five years old when her father died, and although she didn’t properly know him, she must have noted his absence as she grew older.

Her mother was 38 or so, and went to work in the Civil Service to support her nine children. This was considered to be a good job, and she remained with the Service until retirement. My mom says that granny grew up in an upper-middle-class family. I do not know exactly what this means in terms of Cork City in the early twentieth century (nor could I really define it now). I imagine that Mary never let her children sense any financial difficulty, and that she handled things sensibly but allowed for necessary extravagances like cakes or hot chocolates on Patrick’s Street now and then, and that things were generally quite good. I don’t think people talked about money so much at that time, because it was impolite.

Onwards…

My granny attended an elementary school named Strawberry Hill. I envision her, a small girl,  walking through fields of sunflowers and strawberry bushes on her way from Mount Nebo to the little school. I also see her life as a timeline composed of beautiful names: Mount Nebo, Strawberry Hill, Knockavilla, Tara Court. Through these names, I think she must have lived the life of an explorer, or one of Jane Austin’s heroines.

Granny went to St. Aloysius secondary school (as did my own mother). I know nothing of granny’s high school years.

After St. Al’s, she took a course in typing and bookkeeping that must have been thoroughly unexciting. With these skills, granny made a more-than-adequate secretary to her brother, a lawyer. Granny’s mother was a domineering figure, and it seems that she gave granny little choice as to career paths. Perhaps there was no choice at all, but just a demand and a pat on the back. My great-grandmother didn’t indulge granny’s aspirations to become a nurse in America, or to become anything besides a tidy assistant in an office in Cork.

My grandmother (on the right), in 1941, near Broadstrand in Ballincurrig

Regardless of her own ambitions, Granny continued to peck at the typewriter, excelling despite her frustration. In the end, she probably knew enough about law to become a barrister herself, but that didn’t matter.  She worked in that cramped office for several years, sitting on an uncomfortably stiff wooden chair, until she met Michael O’Sullivan. Although money was probably scarce at times, granny had access to tennis courts in the city, and was apparently quite athletic at age twenty-six when she married the tall, lanky fellow that was Michael.

Part II will be coming soon…