A comment about The Lady of Deerpark, by Eamon Grennan

    As full of texture, colour, and animation as a Jack Yeats painting, O’Kelly’s novel is one the of the forgotten gems of Irish Literary Revival. Set in the west of Ireland of the 1890s, it is a “Big House” novel–an ironic elegy for an Ireland in decay. Inhabited by the dregs of a colonial and local aristocracy, a peasantry on the edge of desperation and political ferment, a gradually strengthening middle class, the book brims with extraordinary details of landscape, culture, and character.      

    As he proved in his brief masterpiece, The Weaver’s Grave, O’Kelly’s feelings for this society, for the political, psychological, and allegorical meanings of a particular cultural movement–the fin de siècele of a whole world at the end of its tether–is at once knowing, affectionate, and undeceived. The novel is distinguished by craft as well as humour, by a stylistic strength and suppleness that can mix realist and symbolist modes, cut tragedy with farce, comedy with satire, and brush all up with a touch of Turgenev and the Gothic. In addition, O’Kelly’s ear is as tuned as Synge’s and George Moore’s to the cadences of lyric or naturalistic Irish speech.

   His death in 1918 at the age of thirty-six was a sad loss to an increasingly confident and mature Irish literature. . . . The re-publication of his best novel is an act of recovery for which we should all be grateful.

-Eamon Grennan


Chapter One, The Lady of Deerpark


“Paul Jennings, the President wants you.” I tossed out an ace, put on my coat, left the ball alley, and found the President awaiting me in his parlour. He laid a kindly hand on my shoulder; in the other he held a recently opened telegram. He seated me on chair near the table. And while I sat there the news was broken to me of the family calamity. My father had died rather suddenly. I could speak no word, no tears came to me. A blinding sense of sorrow and a curious elation struggled in my mind for mastery.

A little later as I flew up the stairs to the dormitory this strange elation got the upper hand. Although I was half-way through my last term I could have cried out a thanksgiving that I was to escape from that school, for I hated it–hated it with that hidden sickening unreasoning hatred which sometimes makes miserable a young life. I was about to get away from it all, and death was a remote thing to my mind. I fired my miserable belongings into the trunk with joy.

Two evenings later I was back in the solitude of the hills, sitting alone with my mother, all our friends having gone away after the funeral.

She look at me a little sadly and said, “I wonder, Paul, how you will fill his place?”

I knew that the serious side of life had begun for me. My father had been agent of Heffernan property. Along the highway, like a jagged memory, straggled the demesne wall, eloquent in its gaps and breaches. About a mile down the road was an entrance gate covered with lichen. A drive, overhung by elm and chestnut trees, bordered by shrubberies, swept from it to a solid square flat-roofed mansion of dressed limestone. A flight of steps, a portico supported by granite pillars gave the entrance dignity. For background there was a lavish sweep of hills. This mansion was the home and the cradle of the Heffernans, and it is known to the world by the name of Deerpark.

The Heffernans were of hot blood, root and branch. When one heir to the estate dropped another more impossible than himself stepped into his shoes, and from start to finish it was a story of spending, of gambling, of running through the property.

The womenfolk of Deerpark were set up in splendid bone. They were stately of carriage, good to look upon. As far as the family property was concerned, they were well intentioned. They did what they could to keep the male Heffernans straight, and in this they failed. Some of them had their hearts broken in the process, and in course of time they were all ruined or exiled and the estate fell into a most parlous condition.


I can only distinctly recollect once seeing a male member of the family. He was standing at a window as I passed, and the impression that remains with me is of a nervous-looking gentleman, very florid in the face, and the most round shape that I have ever beheld: a round body, a little round paunch, round shoulders, round, bird-like eyes, a half-opened, round mouth, a round dimple on each cheek, a small round head, and a round bald patch, as geometrical as a tonsure, gleaming on his crown over the yellow hair. He was really a prisoner in the house. The law was such at the time that if he ventured forth between sunrise and sunset his round body would be seized upon and he would be rolled into prison in satisfaction of the family debts. Consequently a number of very ugly characters constantly hovered around the place, vultures watching their prey. The doors and lower windows of the house were barricaded, the demoralized servants became a heroic bodyguard for their master and sworn devotees of his cellars.

   One day Mr. William Heffernan got down on his knees in his room before a heavy chest and pulled out a bottom drawer. His round hands rummaged through the chaos of its contents: there were old letters, bills, Christmas cards, cheques marked “refer to drawer,” twine, a hammer, discarded cravats, pill-boxes, part of the tusk of an elephant, blessed wax candles, ribbons, camphor, and several silver and bronze military medals conferred on various members of the family for deeds done in campaigns against inferior races in the East. And at the bottom of the drawer his hand at last closed about what he sought. He drew up an old pistol and a tin box of cartridges. Mr. William Heffernan dusted the pistol, handled it, looked doubtful of it, then rose. He put in a cartridge, cocked the pistol threw up his window, and looked down into the Deerpark lawn. The only living thing there was a tiger cat picking its way along the walk almost directly under the window. Mr. William Heffernan smiled, put out the pistol with a drop of the hand which expressed decision, took aim, fired. The cat sprang into the air, somersaulted, showing a flash of its white belly, fell back, lay tense on the gravel. Mr. William Heffernan smiled and drew in his round head.

   “Not so bad,” he said. “Nine lives in one crack.” He was so pleased that he polished the pistol with some of the military ribbons, made a round ball of them and shied them back to the drawer, his smile cheerful. He put another cartridge in the pistol and laid it beside an envelope on the table. He wheeled an armchair to the fire, seated himself, luxuriously smoked a cigar. When finished he stretched himself, yawned, went to a mirror, oiled and brushed his hair, dusted his clothes, put on a clean collar, a showy necktie. He lay down on a sofa, drawing the tails of his coat under him so that there should be no unseemly creases, jerked down his waistcoat, felt his necktie, and with the palms of his hands smoothed upwards the crescent eyebrows. He reached out for the pistol, raised it daintily in his hand, his little finger hooked upwards like a very polite lady raising her teacup. The barrel of the pistol shifted about his meagre brow, feeling for the direct centre, for Mr. Heffernan was precise. It stopped at the dent immediately above the nose, there was a pause while his tongue moistened his lips, then the trigger was pulled.

   The faithful men-servants in the kitchen at the back of the house downstairs were seated about the fire, pewter noggins in their hands, talking about the good old times. The butler, Martin Fox, lay asleep in a settle-bed by the wall. The hours passed. The noggins were replenished, the men grew more pensive about the good old days. The butler woke up, yawned, looked about him, rose. He stumbled over a hound stretched asleep on the floor, shuffled out of the kitchen, along the hall, and mounted the staircase. The hand on the banister which helped his upward progress was shaky. He blinked a good deal, swayed now and again; the sleep in the settle had not been altogether a success.

   The butler belched some wind from his stomach as he opened Mr. William Heffernan’s door. His uncertain gaze at last rested on the figure reclining on the sofa. He crossed the room, looked down at his master for some time, made the sign of the Cross, and ambled to the open window, out of which his body leaned. He saw the tiger cat sneaking into the shrubbery, but beyond the shrubbery he addressed a possible audience lurking behind the trees.

   “Gentlemen,” said the butler, “you may now all go to hell, and may the devil roast you there.” He spoke with very great vehemence, spat from his fiery breath, and drew down the window. It was the only public speech he had ever delivered.

   As he turned back to the room the white envelope on the dark-red mahogany table arrested his attention. He went over, took it up, and read with difficulty: “To my faithful butler, Martin Fox, with compliments from William Heffernan.” He opened the envelope and drew out a cheque. His rheumy eyes ranged along the document. According to its proclamation it made payable to him the sum of £500. It was duly signed by William Heffernan. Through the sodden brain of Martin Fox there shot one superb beam of ravishing joy in the fortune acquired. Lucidity and a dull numbness supervened. He put the cheque in his pocket, shuffled to the sofa again and swayed over the quiet figure there.

   “No matter, Mister William,” he said. “If it’s no good itself, maybe that’s not your fault. Your intentions were good, Mister William–your intentions were good.”

   He rose on his toes and heels as he spoke, and suddenly the knowledge that something wet and sticky sopped under his slippers sobered him at a stroke. He turned and trotted to the door. At the door he looked back. Dark wet marks on the carpet recorded his flight from the sofa. With a little cry he kicked off the bloody slippers, and in his stocking feet ambled down the stairs, whining in a low cry of pain as he went.


I remember this occurrence mostly because I saw a carriage drive up to the door that same night and a girl hurry out of it. This girl was a sister to Mr. William Heffernan, and the only one of the family left living in this part of  the hemisphere, and I remember, too, that my father spoke of her as “the other prisoner,” because she had been hidden away in some remote part of the country. There was a scuffle on the doorsteps when she alighted, blows were struck between the servants and the sheriff’s men, and my heart fluttered with the terror which comes to one who for the first time hears the rough angry voices of passionate men breaking into curses and imprecations. They struggled around the figure of a solitary girl: she was smuggled into the house in a fainting condition, and once more the watchdogs found themselves at their old occupation–all doors and windows, which they dared not force, secured against them.The body of Mr William Heffernan was quietly removed at night and committed without any undue ceremony to the family vault in the churchyard of Gorrybeg, down the road.

   The lady who had driven up to Deerpark under these circumstances was Miss Mary Heffernan. She assumed ownership of the place and made great efforts to pull the estate together, but it was mortgaged beyond her power of redemption, and in the course of time passed into the grip of the Court of Chancery. The grass was let to neighbouring farmers right up to the hall-doors. She had no beast of her own that stood upon four feet, if I except a mare that was too old to between the shafts.

   With what she received from the Court of Chancery she was able to hide herself away from the world. A servant, a widow, one Mrs. Briscoe, who had seen a great deal of the rollicking of the family, looked after her wants. Miss Heffernan never stirred out of Deerpark. She was still under a mortal terror of lurking enemies behind the trees, and no amount of persuasion would induce her to venture forth.

   The house itself fell into a condition of the greatest dilapidation. The great bulk of the rooms were stripped of every stick of furniture. The paint and the paper had begun to peel off the walls in long shreds, tapestries were rotting under the cornices, plastering had fallen from patches of the ceiling and lay untouched in little heaps on the floors. The very panelling was crumbling away, and I have always had the most extreme loathing for rats because of the manner in which I saw them coursing about the rooms of Deerpark and heard them squealing and fighting behind the wainscoting. In the lower passages and corridors there was a thick damp vapour, the walls wept eternally. Miss Heffernan could not afford to keep fires going except in the few rooms at the end of the right angle of the house in which she lived and into which she had stacked such property, personal and valuable, as had been held back from the bailiffs. If ever anybody was entrenched in the last ditch, that person was surely Miss Mary Heffernan.

   Next to her horror of the now imaginary enemies outside, she had one other haunting fear. She stood in terror of the thought that some day the only living relative she had in the world, one George Heffernan, a nephew, a son of the late Mr. William Heffernan, would turn up. He had been taken to Australia when a boy, and was really heir to the property. It was in his name, as a minor, that the Court of Chancery administered the estate. If this heir should ever turn up we all know from family history that he would fire the last miserable shot in the Deerpark locker. His very name held such terror for the lady of Deerpark that it was never even mentioned to her.


Excerpted from the Turtle Point Press On Demand title, The Lady of Deerpark, by Seumas O’Kelly, ISBN: 978-1-885983-14-5.  View online.