Writing Home

Writing Home


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Polly Devlin is a writer, broadcaster and filmmaker. She holds an OBE for services to literature. After spending her childhood in Northern Ireland, at the age of twenty-two she took up her first job—as a writer, and soon features editor—on British Vogue, at the heart of 1960s London. A couple of years later she was again transported, to New York, to work for Diana Vreeland on American Vogue—where, once more, she was very much part of the scene she wrote about in her newspaper column and articles including for The Sunday Times, New Statesman and Observer. Her first book, All of Us There, is now a Virago Modern Classic. The most recent, New York: Places to Write Home About (Pimpernel Press, 2017; published in the United States by Gibbs Smith, as New York: Behind Closed Doors) was greeted with delight on both sides of the Atlantic. She now divides her time between London and New York, where, until her recent retirement, she taught Creative Non-Fiction at Barnard College, Columbia University. Polly Devlin lives in West London.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781910258330
Publisher: Pimpernel Press
Publication date: 05/01/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,138,871
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Polly Devlin is a writer, broadcaster and filmmaker. She holds an OBE for services to literature. After spending her childhood in Northern Ireland, at the age of twenty-two she took up her first job—as a writer, and soon features editor—on British Vogue, at the heart of 1960s London. A couple of years later she was again transported, to New York, to work for Diana Vreeland on American Vogue—where, once more, she was very much part of the scene she wrote about in her newspaper column and articles including for The Sunday Times, New Statesman and Observer. Her first book, All of Us There, is now a Virago Modern Classic. The most recent, New York: Places to Write Home About (Pimpernel Press, 2017; published in the United States by Gibbs Smith, as New York: Behind Closed Doors) was greeted with delight on both sides of the Atlantic. She now divides her time between London and New York, where, until her recent retirement, she taught Creative Non-Fiction at Barnard College, Columbia University. Polly Devlin lives in West London.

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Flight Path

There are histories where the beginning is still happening.

So it is with the event known as the Flight of the Earls. Over four hundred years ago, in September 1607, the news reached the native population of Ulster, the most Gaelic province of Ireland and the one that had held out the longest against the English, that the most powerful chieftain in Ireland, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, leader of the resistance during the Nine Years' War, had set sail in an unnamed French warship for Europe from Rathmullan on Lough Swilly in Derry, with ninety-nine others, including the nobility of the north, their wives and children and followers. The desperate centuries-long warfare with England was over, the native culture and order was broken.

His brother Cormac O'Neill wrote of his leadership, 'For all the Irish obey O'Neill as sails obey the wind. For they have as much love for him as sons do for their parents both for his own sake as for hatred of the English.' And with his departure the Gaelic dispensation of Tanistry and Brehon law that had lasted for millennia, a whole way of life and culture, was doomed. It was calamity for people like us, his henchmen, his clan, his soldiers. The waves behind his ship are still breaking on our shores.

The event was not called the Flight of the Earls until a century later and many think the term is misguided and loaded – that there was nothing fugitive about their journey but rather that the leaders of Ulster had left for Spain to get help and reinforcements to continue the bitter fight to the death. But nevertheless, a flight it was, leaving Ulster rudderless, open to the worst, to what was inevitably going to happen, to the storms ahead, to the wreck of a nation.

That benighted voyage is on an endless loop of what if ... and if only ... to those to whom the worst did happen. My family for a start.

A list preserved in the Borghese Papers in Rome records that as the ship at last reached the shores of France after a hellish crossing, which took twenty-three days when it should have taken four or five – there was one barrel of water left (though there were five gallons of beer). The sad fugitives – not unlike the ones we see now every day on our screens, pushed out of their homeland on to stormy seas to seek refuge where they may – landed near Rouen, exhausted and sick, and began their epic journey across Europe. Their hopes for further help from Spain were fruitless and The O'Neill died in Rome in 1616.

O'Neill had held together many opposing strands in Ulster – the chieftains quarrelled among themselves and cattle raids were a way of life, and he was arbiter of these quarrels; the English were always on the rampage, burning, killing, annexing territory and he negotiated with them and with their Queen. He knew that the war he was waging was between two wholly different civilizations, the one despising the other. So, the Flight is one of the most calamitous events in Irish history. Everything fell apart. The Annals of the Four Masters, written in the early seventeenth century, judged it thus: 'Woe to the heart that meditated, woe to the mind that conceived, woe to the council that decided on, the project of their setting out on this voyage, without knowing whether they should ever return to their native principalities or patrimonies to the end of the world.' With the leaders gone, the way lay clear for the agrarian settlement known as the Plantation of Ulster, a weasel description of illegal acquisition and theft. Our land was taken, brought under English jurisdiction and laws and parcelled out to Protestant settlers from England and Scotland and, as the historian George Hill wrote in his book The Plantation of Ulster, 'When the native gentry lost their homes and houses they received short shrift; anyone found lingering around their old homes could expect to be shot ... The British settlers generally do not appear to have had any kind thoughts or sympathies; for that class who had been more respectable than themselves they naturally cherished a vague terror ... We may imagine something of the agony and dismay of those who had occupied positions of comfort and respect throughout the several counties of Ulster but who were doomed to be outcast on their own soil.'

We may well imagine. I don't need to – the agony and dismay is in our DNA. My English name is Devlin but it is also Doibhlin (with prefix Ni because I am female; the male line is O'Doibhlin). It is an ancient Irish tribal name or more accurately it is the name of an Irish sept – a branch of a clan.

The O'Doibhlin had been part of the praetorian guard to The O'Neill. They were horsemen and what might now be called courtiers, though from the sound of it they were far from courtly, since their duties included the taking and guarding of hostages and collecting fines for robbery.

My grandfather was known as the Hatchet Man. I thought that it was a contemporaneous nickname given because he had a terrifying temper, and only years later discovered that the appellation was passed from generation to generation and comes from our breeding – to have a temper which rarely erupts but, when provoked, is upsetting all round, or, as cousin Willie said on seeing mine in action, 'fuckin' lethal'.

The clan lived beside Lough Neagh, near three sites of great significance in our history: Tullyhogue, O'Neill's headquarters (the name means Mound of the Young Warriors), and two settlements, small towns now called Dungannon and Stewartstown. Dungannon was from the Gaelic, Dun Eigeann. Stewartstown is a new name: it was originally known as An Craobh and is still called that by old local people. It too was an O'Neill stronghold. The O'Doibhlin had a castle near the lough, at Roughan, where our legend has it that in one battle a thousand of our sept were killed.

Tullyhogue, the crowning place of the kings of Ulster with its throne and its crowning stone, was the centre of the world for my ancestors. It was destroyed by the piratical Sir Toby Caulfeild – what a piece of work he was – who was appointed receiver of the rents of The O'Neill after the Flight and took thousands of acres of land as his own. There is a village near us called Castlecaulfield (the spelling is now changed). Not a welcoming place.

Tullyhogue is now only a wide, high circular mound in the middle of a field, with ruined traces of fortifications surrounded by trees and enclosing a depression covered in bryony, moss and sweet cicely. When I visited what is to me a shrine it seemed apparent that whoever has this land would plough it into the ground and grow crops over it if he could. I know from the rich look of the land that rich Protestants owned it. I would think that, wouldn't I? And with reason.

What all the clans who lived in the O'Neill territory realized as word of the Flight spread was that the future struggle would no longer have anything to do with battles and that this catastrophe was on a different scale. The calamity of the Flight rendered us outcasts – landless, homeless, powerless and paupers. It lies at the roots of the recent Troubles of the political entity of Northern Ireland.

One day when I was about fourteen years old I found in a bookcase a slim green volume with red lettering called The Story of an Irish Sept: The Devlins of Tyrone which I assumed was an Ancient Tome but had been written, with earnestness and scholarship, not long before by a professor from Pennsylvania called Joseph Chubb Develin, who had sent it to my grandfather as a mark of respect. All of the O'Doibhlin clan were listed and treated of there. We had a history! I read it with astonishment and disbelief and a dismay which turned to sorrow and anger. To read it was to open a door into the suffering of my ancestors. I see when I look back at that adolescent transcribing every word – I still have the little manuscript – I see her almost as poring over the Rosetta stone, trying to decipher a way into a lost world.

Something terrible and calamitous happens to a colonized people, apart from the original calamity of invasion. The brutality and cynicism which often accompanies colonization, and the disruption, denigration and disintegration of their culture which prevents a people from being proud in their own country, happened profoundly in Ireland. The Irish did not lead a life of material ease, of great houses and hierarchy. The chieftains ate in the same room as their servants, everything was shared and there was little husbandry – cattle were their main crop, O'Neill had hundreds of thousands of head of cattle. The way of life was ancient, almost pagan, and with dignity, ritual, custom and ceremony. After the Flight, when we lost everything and were driven to the fringes, we knew what it was to be abject and to be mocked. When I read of the Sioux or the Comanches, proud preservers of their great lands now herded on to arid reservations again, I do not need imagination to feel for them.

The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman. I know when I visit Tullyhogue that history is alive. I stand in the enormous emptiness and know that O'Neill left behind no hope. The place is steeped in sorrow. You can almost hear the cadence of vanishing as a last cry is blown across from Lough Swilly. In writing about the history of O'Neill and of the events surrounding the Flight of the Earls I am writing my own history.

Some colonized people try more or less successfully to ape the ways and habits of those in power in order to get somewhere. The result is pathetic camouflage. Where that somewhere is, is a good subject for speculation. Every time we drove past Stuart Hall, with its great tower and gothic darkness, near Stewartstown, on the way to boarding school I yearned to be the grand person who lived there in its fastness. (Actually, it was mostly uninhabited, since Lord Castle Stewart was rarely there.)

Northern Ireland for us was neither one thing nor the other, neither here nor there, neither English nor Irish. We were taught English history as the record of our past, read English literature and recited English poetry without anyone ever making the point that many of the writers and poets we studied came from our country. We studied natural history in terms of the flora and fauna of Suffolk and Yorkshire, not of the great stretch of water beside which we lived. We warbled English folk songs, 'Greensleeves' and 'Scarborough Fair', whereas in the houses around I heard Irish music fiddled or played on the flute and ballads sung by men and women, often with cracked and off-key voluptuous voices. I never heard any of these as a distinct expression of a nation's voice and memory, but rather as valueless native music. Because my imagination was sparked by English (in every sense – the fabulous language, the written word, the stories), it became fixed on Englishness; and my idea of Englishness and the English, when I was far away in West Tyrone, held other, attractive, seductive qualities. I longed for that sophisticated world delivered by writers like Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell, Simon Raven, where one was witty, lived in divine houses, had countless love affairs and was heartlessly cruel.

It was a matter of credentials; and so, from my earliest years, I believed that to be English was to be good, right and acceptable.

I know now that obliterating a history is a fine suppressor and silencer of pride and grief. If you don't know what happened to you and something happened to you, who will you blame except yourself? The Flight keeps on happening and rage keeps its surge in the blood.

All my adult life I have fled from place to place, always on the move, constructing myself, under a different name, in my own demesne, in different countries, trying to create what I thought was an imaginative fancy when it was something much deeper and older. What I was looking for was the place that though I'd never known it I was nostalgic for. The place of our own.


The Road to King's Island

She drove to school every morning in all weathers and she hated it with a fearful anticipation. In the 1950s cars were not as reliable as we take for granted now and there were battles with a starting handle every frosty morning and roads were bad in the part of Northern Ireland where we grew up. We lived on solid enough ground, physically, though it was fairly shaky metaphysically speaking, reared, as we were, between the two warring dispensations of the political situation in that god-ridden place.

She taught in a school fourteen miles away. She could not get a job nearer – something about being married to a publican, plus the rampant sexist discrimination that riddled employment then – there were hardly any headmistresses in the primary schools. (We won't even mention the religious discrimination – but there – I've mentioned it.) So she set out on a journey across the small, twisting, narrow roads that traversed our back of beyond, some of them hardly tarmacked. It would be a formidable enough daily journey now, but then it was a major undertaking.

Hers was the only car on the road except for the priest's and occasionally the doctor's, out on a call from the tiny village of Coagh, and by this token there were few garages, no mechanics, no breakdown services – in any case there were no telephones to summon help. The telephone was only installed in our house (and we were very avant-garde) in the late fifties, and the neighbours often came to take calls at midnight from their relatives who had emigrated to the USA. If the car broke down or a tyre was punctured, she was on her own in the middle of the country, often in the dark and the cold.

The place she most dreaded was the Moss road that ran towards King's Island, where her school was situated. Although we took the strange, crisp English name for granted, it was an alien moniker, so candid and unsecret, King's Island, among the mysterious Irish names of the townlands that surrounded it – Killycavanagh, Tamnamore, Annaghmore, Killybegs, Ardtrea, Cluntoe. I always wondered who the King had been, and only learnt many years later that a man named King had lived on this piece of land, which had been a raised island in the middle of a bog (it was called the Moss in our district), so that the Moss road had once been, near enough, a small causeway.

So, although we did not attend the school she taught in, and did not do the journey often, it was on that straggly negotiation towards her school that I first recognized the phenomena of marshes and bogs, and moss roads, and on every journey the change in atmosphere struck me with intense, almost osmotic force.

You could almost sniff the change in the air as we got nearer the bog road: children (and dogs) are like barometers, constantly reacting to pressure and elements and atmosphere, and all three were elementally present in our Austin as my distracted mother drove white-knuckled along the pot-holed road. The line and air along the edges of the bog seemed different: even on dry days there was the hint of mizzle, of tension between damp and dry, the air lambent, full of condensation. Even though we were well used to water, having grown up by the great silvery shield of Lough Neagh, this liquid was more to do with secrecy than with reflections; this was the dew of ages soaking into earth's tissues.

We were, of course, infected by her fear. If the car toppled over it would be sucked in softly, plop, the soft earth closing over quietly, the matted vetches knitting up again, the soft wellings still again, innocent, no sign of us. It wasn't so far-fetched; there were a couple of mounds out at the edges which we knew were the remnants of sod houses melting back into the bog since they were abandoned, shards of a poorer time. And I'd read the graphic and thrilling account of Carver Doone sinking into the quagmire in Lorna Doone.

The little fields in the townlands around our house were productive, with cows and crops, and the places were peopled thickly, houses on every second field. But the bog was empty of produce, or domestic animals or humans; and yet filled with life – snipe and wagtail and weasel – and rich vegetation – bog cotton, sally trees and myriad plants, small birch trees along the edges and, of course, the rich black turf. For all my fears I wanted to stop, to venture through the grasses and whins, the milkworts, the ferns, the mares' tails, and the yellow flags which we called shaggins.

She drove as fast as she dared, to get away from that shifting stretch of land and on to dry, trustworthy, definite stuff where people gauged the sky for the weather and not the ground.

Again, it was only years later that I learnt the meaning of the Gaelic names for the townlands that she traversed towards safety, a whole landscape we had lost the skill to read. Bordnamona, edge of the turf; Annaghmor, great marsh; Aneeterbeg, little low-lying ground, Cluntoe, meadowy land, where she began to relax a little, within what she called a hound's gowl of home, and thence through Farsnagh, a wide roomy place, past the Old Cross – at least a thousand years old, and one of the great treasures of Ireland – and into Sessiagh, the sixth division, where we lived in Muintirevlin, the country of the Devlins.


Excerpted from "Writing Home"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Polly Devlin.
Excerpted by permission of Pimpernel Press Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction Joan Bakewell 7

Flight Path 10

The Road to King's Island 16

A Family Christmas 19

The Millstone 23

Tinkers 27

Initiatory Drawings 31

Tumbleweed at Vogue 37

Diana Vreeland: Wrists, Mists and Poets 43

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Interviewer 56

An Oddity 64

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner 66

The Quality of Women 71

A Child of Dominica: Jean Rhys 76

Stacking the Linen 84

Sunday Morning in the Country 89

On Blondeness 95

Deceived by Ornament 100

Camping It Up 104

The Stag of the Stubble 110

Rooks 115

The Shadow of the Oak 118

Dublin Opinion 123

Et in Arcadia Ego 129

A Christmas Miracle 132

Thank You for Your Custom 135

Why Are There No Great Women Artists? Give Me a Break! 140

The Last Christmas Tree 146

Home Thoughts in the Vernacular 149

A B Special Incident 154

Sunshine and Incense 160

The Longest Day 163

A Room of My Own: Manhattan 167

The F Word 171

Intricate Rented World 179

The Last Time I Saw Paris 186

The Cranes Are Flying 191

Look Back in Wonder 196

Realms of Gold 203

What Makes a Marriage Last? 208

Thoughts on Seamus Heaney 211

Two Parakeets and a Blackthorn Tree 218

Index 222

Acknowledgements 224

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