I have mentioned a few times that my brother drowned. It has taken me years to really understand some of the impact this had on our family. And also to know more about how our family ticked. I wish I really could explain it all, as some of the way things happened may seem strange but will help shed light on how things worked.
My parents' first son, Dermot, was born in Cobh in 1956. As I write that I have, for the first time, imagined what he might have been like as an adult and somehow this has given me a flash of understanding of him as a person. What a strange feeling that is.
As the first son in our family, he was much treasured. In those days, sons were definitely what parents wanted most, no matter how much they adored their daughters. Dermot was the golden boy and photos of him that I have seen show him as a round cheeked, chubby, happy little boy. My older sister Javine would have been 12 when he was born, so a natural babysitter. Patricia was almost 1 in Feb 1956 when he was born ( god, imagine having another baby less than a year after the last one!). Agnes and I came in 1958 so we were 6 months old when Dermot died. I would imagine our birth somehow contributed to the whole nightmare as my mother was distracted and busy.
We had gone to visit distant cousins of my father in Bray, Co. Wicklow in late 1958, around November time. They had a hotel there. Later on, years later, we used to go there sometimes and I have very strong memories of the smell of the bar in the daytime when it was mostly empty and smelled of old, spilled beer and spirits. I am imagining some of what happened that night but I think it went something like this.
My father was in the bar with friends. He was a very sociable and charismatic person and people were always attracted to him. He was also a heavy drinker and I can imagine he was in there talking up a storm and having a great time. He would have been catching up with people he had not seen in a while as we were so far away in Cork and most of the people he knew, in the literary world, would have been in and around Dublin.
My mother put Dermot in bed in a room where J was also sleeping. Patricia was somewhere else I think but may also have been in the same room. She was 3 1/2 by then. Mum had taken Agnes and I off to feed us. The rooms were all on the ground floor and some of them had French doors. ( I could be making up that part as I have always pictured him opening the French doors into the garden).
One part of the story that may or may not be true is that my mother asked my father to keep an eye on Dermot as there was no cot to put him in and he could wander off and that my father was so busy socialising in the bar that he did not do as asked and paid no attention. In some ways, this would not surprise me as it would have been one more notch in the growing reasons why their relationship was doomed.
At some point in the evening ( it was a dark November night), Dermot got up and wandered out of the room and into the garden. Javine slept through that. I often wonder how she has felt all these years, as children of that age can really feel intense responsibility for things that were not their fault. Sometime later my mother came into their bedroom to check on them and found Dermot missing. A search was started and I can only imagine what that must have been like.
Years and years later, when I was in my mid 30s and in Dublin on a visit, I was staying with my twin and called a cab to take me to the airport. When I got in the taxi, the man was looking at me in the rear view mirror and it started to make me uncomfortable so I asked him why he was looking at me like that and he said " I noticed your name was Hanley. Are you by any chance related to Gerald Hanley, the writer?". I was surprised but not shocked by this question as Ireland is a small place and people seem to know each other in the weirdest situations. I told him I was his daughter and he let out a huge sigh. Somehow that sigh told me there was something big going to come out of his mouth next. "I was there the night your brother drowned", he said next. He proceeded to tell me how he had been 17 at the time and was there with his uncle or father and had been called to help search for Dermot. He heard my mother screaming in the garden and ran to her and helped her to get my brother's body out of the swimming pool.
It was a real shock and a weird sort of thrill to meet someone who had actually been there because my parents would never really speak about it except in a matter of fact terms that he had drowned and that was it. This man, whose name I have forgotten, told me the whole story on the way to the airport. When we got to the airport, he asked me if he could park up and buy me a drink. In those days, only 15 years ago now, you could park easily at Dublin Airport and there was a bar right inside the main door. He parked there and we had a Guinness together and he told me about how that experience had affected him forever after and he started to cry. I felt so bad for him. His whole life had been traumatised by his action of taking my poor dead brother out of the swimming pool that night. He did say though that meeting me and being able to talk about it to someone who was directly affected somehow helped him.
When I walked away to get the plane I felt a terrible wrench leaving him there with his sorrow. For, despite it being my brother, I did not have really first hand experience of it. That said, I had had a very strange experience in therapy a few years before this, about Dermot and the night he drowned.