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Week 3: Pray

I grew up in a large and lovely house at the intersection of Ailesbury and Shrewsbury Road, a mile-long boulevard of embassies and mansions (and two interesting if unsolved murders); but, since the painted number on the granite gatepost had been eroded by a hundred years of cantankerous Irish weather and the house-name in the lunette over the hall-door was a great distance from the pillars at the entrance to our gravel drive, we commonly directed first-time visitors to the Chester Beatty Library sign that stood there like a sentinel, just where we left the rubbish for collection by the bin-men on Tuesday mornings, although it pointed in the very opposite direction away from our home entirely.

Nowadays this astounding haul of art-works, which was plundered and pillaged over a long lifetime by a cultured plutocrat who gifted it to the State on his deathbed, is accommodated in the state apartments of Dublin Castle, the colonial centre of the imperial project in Ireland; but, when I was little, it was housed down the road from me, in a prosperous bourgeois residence whose lower casements were barred with elaborate wrought-iron ribs in floral fashion. The upper windows weren’t, I seem to remember, similarly sealed. Perhaps the curator, a delightful Hungarian count whose estates had been confiscated by the Communists shortly after the second World war, imagined that the vertigo he had endured as a member of the Magyar nobility would equally characterise most Donnybrook cat-burglars.

I spent three summers there, the whole of my early adolescence, and, with one or two exasperating exceptions, when mere visitors presumed to pour in as if entitled to, I had the whole Chester Beatty collection to myself in its perfumed, Proustian silence: seventeenth century Samurai armour, the woodcuts of Hokusai and Utamaro, medieval books of hours from the Burgundian kingdom, intricate elephant tusks that recited the mischief of the Hindu pantheon in genital detail, serpentine Islamic calligraphy from the Abbasid era, and the oldest surviving papyrus scraps of the fourth Gospel, the theological ruminations of St. John, which many early Christians regarded as heretical. My breath condensed on the glass covers of the exhibition cases, as I strained to decipher a delta, an epsilon, an omega, behind my own reflected face, in the dirty Palestinian tissues that had started Christianity.

An odour of oriental fragrance fumigated those rooms. In the absence of dozy wardens and closed-circuit cameras, I could touch what I wanted to; and I did, on the multiple, motionless afternoons of the long vacation, a world of sunlit stillness I think of now as a spellbound anti-cyclone, broken only by the play of hose-water on rose-beds and the distant dactylic rhythms of tennis rackets on the grass courts of the gardens.

On the odd morning at cock-crow – for the house opposite ours, beside the Belgian consulate, was, to my mother’s unmitigated grief, a moneyed Bohemian commune that kept poultry – we would wake to find that the sign-post for the Chester Beatty Library had been turned by late-night revellers after a Wanderer’s rugby match or by corner-boys from the Beech Hill tenements, so that its metal arrow aimed, like an accusation, at our kitchen windows. From time to time, we’d open the front door to a foreigner with a catalogue and a quizzical expression, and once, on the summer solstice of 1971, there came to the tradesmen’s entrance at the side of the house, in see-through raingear on a perfectly dry day, an elderly Japanese couple who had arrived to venerate a particular Dragon robe from the Edo Period, and had discovered instead a secondary school boy with tortoise-shell spectacles and the fish-face of a chronic asthmatic in a tartan dressing-gown.

If I could revisit those rooms, however momentarily, if I could retrieve that treasure, however minutely, I think I would bypass all the beautiful grounds that belonged by territorial fiat to the Federal Republic of West Germany and to the new nation-state of Nigeria and to the last crumbling dominions of the Portuguese empire. I would not linger at the castellated residence of the French ambassador and the phobic attaché who always wore gloves when shaking hands with strange men, even though I had stood to attention there one ordinary afternoon, and saluted the military man in the back of the black Citroen, and General de Gaulle had instantly saluted back.

As to the porcelain Buddhas and the Renaissance tapestries and the Dead Sea scrolls of the Chester Beatty library, they are all available on Google at the twitch of a cordless mouse. But I would want instead to stand at the kitchen window of my childhood home, and stare in at the buried treasure there: at the precise northern light from the curved ecclesial panes passing through the voluminous blue bed-sheets that are drying like spinnaker sail-cloth on a wooden hoist high up at the bare ceiling, so that the red-tiled floor and the white range and the brown bread-bin and the yellow Pye radio, tuned to a pirate station in international waters, are all of them steeped in the strangest and the saddest pigment of aquamarine.