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‘Blue eyes, light skin, thick dark hair, very white teeth and this lovely smile. You knew when Jim was having fun by the smile. I thought he was the handsomest man in the whole world and I was crazy about him. It was just too wonderful to touch his hand.’ Jill Kirwan was sixteen when they met and danced together all evening at a private party held during the 1952 Christmas holidays at Portora in County Fermanagh, Oscar Wilde’s and Samuel Beckett’s old school. Jim was the same age, but at 5 feet 11 inches and so strongly built, he seemed older. Jill was bubbly and pretty, with fair hair and a curvacious figure. On their dates he invariably took her to a film in central Dublin and a coffee bar afterwards, when she had to do the talking because he turned out to have nothing to say. ‘I tried to chat about home things that were happening but he wasn’t listening,’ she concluded, disillusioned . ‘He would look around him and just jerk out a word or two in a clipped way. I didn’t enjoy his company and eventually decided this boy is fantastic looking, but he’s monosyllabic. I was shattered. I felt I could never reach him because he never spoke to me. He kept himself very private.’ The follow-up letters were witty, but far too noncommittal. The hospitable Kirwan family, however, took an instant liking to him, and through them he became part of ‘the group’, consisting of friends of his own age at boarding school who returned to Dublin in the holidays. Dalkey Lodge, where Jill lived, was a Georgian house overlooking the sweep of Dublin Bay, within cycling distance of The Gwanda, and it soon became a home from home. He admired her parents – Valentine Kirwan was a well-read and influential solicitor – and she was one of four, with a twin brother, Jack, who was as keen on rugby as he was himself. ‘I was rather unhappy while living in Dublin,’ he would tell an interviewer after his Booker win, ‘because CHAPTER FOUR The Yearning, the Boredom the Heartache 1952–1955 42 as a Protestant I felt somewhat cut off from the life of the country.’ But the close-knit circle provided everything he needed at the time. There were sufficient young people from successful business and professional families to provide a round of socialising, and usually something was going on – the opportunity to sail, take a riding lesson, go for a swim, play tennis, croquet or a round of golf. The sea and the mountains were on their doorstep. ‘He’d turn up most days and I don’t think it mattered which one of us was in,’ Jack Kirwan recalled. ‘I was the exact opposite to Jim, a very late developer, yet I got on with him like a house on fire. His sense of humour appealed to me because it was full of fun, yet so cynical.’ Their first meeting was before the ankle injury, and through Jack, who was a member of Palmerston Junior Rugby Club in the Christmas holidays, he joined Wanderers at Lansdowne Road, the oldest club after Trinity College. Jim saw it in a less hallowed light. I arrived punctually at 12.30. A beautifully streamlined bus was standing outside the clubhouse. Any occupants, however, were hidden by a thick reef of smoke. I tapped on the window tentatively . . . As far as the gloom was concerned, it was like entering a cathedral , but that is where all similarity ended . . . They won the toss and while we were lining up the leader of their forwards bellowed ‘Grab the ball and run like blazes!’ ‘That’s right’, shouted the vicar [captain of the opposition], ‘Run very fast, very fast indeed.’ Hardly were the words said when a thick Irish mist came down and I lost touch with the game . . . Nobody was very sure who won, although one of our side claimed that he had personally seen the vicar swear on oath that we had lost. This was confirmed by a line in the paper next morning which said ‘the Wanderers arrived late, but this only postponed their defeat’. Witnessing Jim’s aptitude for the game, which Bill had hitherto only read about, was not enough to stop father and son drifting apart. The fault was Jim’s; the Kirwans’ gregarious outlook and higher standard of living showed up the isolation which Bill’s invalidity...


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