The Family On Paradise Pier by Dermot Bolger
The Goold Verschoyle family are not typical of Irish families in early 20th century Ireland. For one thing, they are descended from Dutch profiteers who arrived on the Emerald Isle centuries before to make their money in any way they could and became wildly successful and influential. For another, they are Protestants living in a land where the vast majority are from the Catholic tradition. Such an inauspicious background, and wealthy position in society, would normally mean that such a family would be ostracised, albeit with a certain degree of begrudging respect. But the Goold Verschoyles are different in many ways. It’s their unusual approach to life in Ireland that sees them accepted into the rural and closed society of Dunkineely in south Donegal. This novel is, essentially, their family’s story.
Eva Goold Verschoyle is a child prone to dreaming, much like her mother. Eva longs to escape into art and music and the beauty of the local countryside. Her bohemian family see no problem with this. Their door is always open to all, regardless of social status, a fact which rankles with other, snobby, members of the Anglo-Irish gentry who feel that class boundaries must be maintained. The homestead of the Goold Verschoyle family is called the Manor House and rings with the laughter of children and adults alike. It’s an utopian existence, interrupted only by the passage of the children to boarding schools.
But events in Ireland are to overwhelm the idyllic life of the Goold Verschoyles. The Irish people, long oppressed and kept in poverty by colonialism, are demanding their freedom. Revolution sweeps the country and catches the family in its hypnotic grasp as the Goold Verschoyle children declare themselves in varying degrees to support the idea of an Irish Republic. But will Republicans accept such a well-to-do family from the landed gentry?
The Ffrenchs live close to the Goold Verschoyles. Mrs Ffrench is a practitioner of new faiths and finds a friend in Mrs Goold Verschoyle, a believer in the occult. Their unorthodox lifestyles raise eyebrows in conservative Donegal, but have little real impact upon the children beyond making them more open-minded. But it’s Mr Ffrench who has the greatest influence upon the children of the Goold Verschoyles.
A former naval officer, Mr Ffrench went with the Royal Navy to assist the White Russians during the Bolshevik revolution. It was there that he became a firm advocate of communism, having witnessed the brutality of the aristocratic class he was sent to help. When he returned, Ffrench expounded upon the virtues of communism to anyone who would listen. He found a ready audience in the person of a teenage Art Goold Verschoyle, heir apparent to the family fortune. It was a scene that was to have profound repercussions for the entire family, not least Brendan, the much-loved baby of the family who adored his big brother.
Life progressed as is its wont and the years passed. Ireland fought and partially won a war against colonialism, before fighting a war with itself. There are no winners in a civil war and the new state struggled to stay afloat. The Goold Verschoyle children matured and the eldest two, Maud and then Eva got wed. Eva moved to live in Mayo with her Anglo-Irish husband, Fitzgerald, a man of arrogant mannerisms and attitudes, with very poor judgements. It was not a match made in heaven despite the best hopes of the romantic Eva.
Art, however, took a drastically different path. He completely renounced his inheritance and threw himself fully into communism, going to live in the Soviet Union where he met and married a Russian woman. They had one son. Brendan also followed in his brother’s footsteps but in a less confrontational way as suited his personality. He joined his big brother in Russia and was recruited as a spy to be placed in England.
But Brendan wanted to be more than just a courier. He longed for action and so petitioned his handlers to be allowed to join the Republican forces then fighting to keep Spain free from the fascist control of Franco, ally of Hitler. It was in Spain that disaster struck. Brendan was unhappy at the Soviet attitude towards the Spanish people and expressed his dissatisfaction openly. It was to be a costly mistake. He was abducted by the Soviets and transported to a labour camp in the communist nation from which he was never to return.
Art, meanwhile, was ordered out of the Soviet Union and directed back to Ireland to form a front there on behalf of Stalin. His wife and child were not allowed to assist him and were effectively held as leverage to ensure that he did the work of the Russians. Art became a prominent but pitiful figure in war -time Ireland as the Nazis launched their bid for total European dominance. He presented as someone who espoused religion but treated Stalin as a god. It must have been an awful existence. And through it all, he shunned his family who prayed for his return and place as the heir to a large fortune.
The Family On Paradise Pier is a gem. It’s one of those books that will stay with you forever. It is a work of fiction but based strongly upon an actual family of that name. Art Goold Verschoyle was based upon Neil, whose live was as described. Art/Neil eventually returned to Russia, having secured a visa, in search of his wife and child. It’s not known if they were ever fully reconciled, but they did meet again. Neil died in the Soviet Union in 1987, still committed to the brand of Communism that ultimately killed his brother. That’s one of the sadder aspects of this book. Art/Neil Goold Verschoyle is one of the loneliest and most tragic figures that Rebel Voice has ever encountered, or at least he appears that way in this novel. He seems to have been – and every account appears to verify this – an extraordinarily decent person but with a conscience that would give him no peace. His wealthy upbringing gave him considerable grief and guilt as he tried desperately to purge himself of all that he had and would receive from his family. It was this personal struggle within Art/Neil that lead him to such disastrous circumstances. He was no fake, no bluffer, no disingenuous part-timer. Art/Neil Verschoyle was the real deal and it was his sincerity and strong moral compass that thrust him into a life of pain and ridicule.
Brendan, Brian Goold Verschoyle in real life, is the true victim of the tale. Worshipping his brother, he willingly jumped into the dangerous world of political activism. OK, perhaps it’s an injustice to state that he was only chasing his big brother and didn’t have a mind of his own. He did. But there can be no doubt that it was his adoration of Art that put him on that path, and the well-meaning but poorly considered discussions with Ffrench did not help. Ironically, Brendan appeared, at the end, to have had a more independent mind than Art, as he questioned Soviet policy, something Art would not have done. It was to prove his end, as he allegedly died in a Soviet prisoner transport that was bombed by Nazi planes. Brendan? Brian does not have a marker on his burial place today and no one knows where it is.
Rebel Voice has struggled with the end given to Brendan/Brian. Perhaps it’s because he was Irish and we don’t like our own to become lost in that way. Or it might be that Brendan/Brian was an idealist who sacrificed everything for what he believed in only to be betrayed by the megalomaniac personality of Stalin and the blood-thirsty criminals and Capitalists he surrounded himself with. If you ever want to see how socialism can be hijacked by Capitalists, then look no further than Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, a nasty little turd if ever there was one. But Rebel Voice is of the opinion that the reason the story of Brendan/Brian has such power is the way he was portrayed as a child in the Goold Verschoyle family home. He was seen as the comical little boy in the funny hat. We wonder how much the life of Brendan/Brian Goold Verschoyle resembles that of Willie Pearse, younger brother to Pádraig, who also followed his heroic bother and found himself in an early grave. It should be incumbent upon the Irish government to find Brian Goold Verschoyle’s grave and erect a monument if his remains can’t be brought home, for he was a true Son of Ireland.
As to the rest of the family? Eva’s (real name, Sheila) marriage breaks down, but in a civilised manner, She undertakes to open an art school for children in Dublin as she watches her own son and daughter grow into adulthood. Maud’s (the eldest of the family whose real name is Eileen) story is not delved into, and Thomas (Denis) goes to live in South Africa due to a respiratory complaint. The Goold Verschoyle family survived The First World War, The Easter Rising, The Irish War of Independence, The Irish Civil War and The Second World War. But they could not escape their own background and the benefits that came with it. They could not escape each other and their fierce intellects. They could not escape their great consciences.
This novel is an education on Irish history of the first half of the 20th century. There are many actual historical figures mentioned who form part of the story. The author has taken certain liberties with time-frames and people, but there is much truth in what he has penned. The mother of Brendan Behan viewed Neil/Art Goold Verschoyle as a saint, such was his devotion to helping the poor of Dublin, an effort that was rarely appreciated by those he strove to fight for. Brendan features in the book on occasion but likely this is a fanciful addition. Many other Irish figures appear, such as Charles Haughey, Paul Belton, Jim Gralton and Englishwoman and Suffragete, Madame Despard, to lend a sense of context to proceedings. It’s a wonderful ploy, if dubious at times.
Overall, The Family on Paradise Pier can be described a a hauntingly nostalgic portrayal of an Irish family torn asunder by circumstances beyond their control. Sadly, for the Goold Verschoyles, they fell into a time period when Europe and the world was also ripped to pieces, and few homes where left unscathed. But the deep sense of humanity evident in the children of that family rings throughout this story and, hopefully, time. Rebel Voice is grateful that this book has been written, even if the author’s credentials are someone suspect from a Republican point of view. Bolger has ensured that Irish people will remember the Goold Verschoyle family for the decent examples of Irish citizens that they surely were.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. This is a beautifully laid out book with a strong story to tell. It’s incredibly poignant and all the more so given that it’s based upon true events. There is a sizeable afterword where the author discusses his meetings with Sheila Fitzgerald (Eva Goold Verschoyle) and the idea for the novel. There are also some very emotive drawings by Sheila detailing family events from her childhood. These drawings form the basis for her own book entitled, “A Donegal Summer” in which she discusses her early life at Dunkineely. Rebel Voice will certainly hunt that one down. All-in-all, this book should be regarded as a classic.
Author with Sheila Fitzgerald neé Goold Verschoyle
Excerpts taken from Marxists.org website regarding Brian Goold Verschoyle in the first passage and Neil in the second :
“ I learned that friend had been brought home as a prisoner to Odessa. I was told of
the trick by which he had been taken. The OGPU in Spain had lured him on to a
Soviet vessel, pretending that he was needed to repair the ship’s radio transmitter.
Friend had no suspicion that the OGPU was after him. Once on board, he was seized.
On April 12, he was put in the dungeons of the OGPU in Moscow. To this day, his
brother in Leningrad and his family in England do not know what happened to him.
Nor have I been able to learn whether he was executed as a “spy” or lives now in a
remote concentration camp.” — W G Krivitsky , I was Stalin’s Spy (1992)
Ian Faulkner Publishing Ltd,
Cambridge. [first published in 1939]
“In 1957 he re-established contact with his wife and son, and in 1959 he sold his
remaining share in the family estate and returned to the Soviet Union, where he
worked as a translator, notably of the plays of Bertolt Brecht. Before finally leaving
Ireland he made a donation to the Irish party, which enabled it to buy its original head office building in Dublin. He died in Moscow in July 1987.”
Neil Goold Verschoyle
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