You know your father used to go to school next to the Casino at Marino, him and his friends would play around it.
For years I would ignore my dad’s connection with the Casino, it was too incongruous a pairing to stick. Two histories known to one site but held discordant in my mind and never sitting side by side—always one leaving as the other entered. One is a topic of the history books, with its subject clearly delimited through Italianate paintings and Enlightenment-era discourse. An illustrious period of history, as we are taught, basking in the light of privilege. The other is closer to the bone, a murky memory passed down a generation. A privation I didn’t know in detail, in language, but rendered visible over time as his years crumbled away into tragedy.
Only later when studying the history of art would the two discrete worlds surface once again in my consciousness. Following the official account propagated by the history books and further confounded by the classroom teachings, the image of my father was conjured up and left floundering, left groundless against the staunch record that preceded him.
A casino is traditionally a small house designed for leisure and entertaining, a folly for the upper-classes typically built on the grounds of a stately home. The Casino at Marino, as artefact, took up just a snippet of the curriculum. Its teaching, however, echoed the rehashed idealism of neoclassicism, where a masterly imitation of nature was replaced by a masterly display of the idea, of the rational mind or idealised subject. The Casino at Marino was taught as any phenomenon set steadfast in the history books; its features analysed; its fashion surveyed; a few connections to important men told. I am history, it said.
As the record goes, for about two hundred years after Poussin, Lorrain, and Rubens, the institutional practices of the academies would nurture a host of painters across western Europe and, in turn, would see them ossify in their galleries and studios, regurgitating one mythological tableau after another. ‘History painting’, after the Latin historia, meaning ‘story’ or ‘narrative’, was the most hallowed genre of painting at the time. This ‘grand genre’—so admired for its glorified rendition of myth or historical event, or a blending of the two—justified a return to old styles and a retreat from the present.
At college we studied the revival of classical architecture as fashioned in the homes of the landed classes in Ireland. The gentry lined their great houses with columns and pilasters, their halls with Roman busts and figurative sculptures set back in niches, an erudite display cultivated from their travels on the Grand Tour. Of the Casino, I learned that it commenced construction in the 1750s and it remains one of the most admired examples of neoclassical architecture in Ireland. I learned that it was the seat of Lord Charlemont, James Caulfield, an important figure in fashioning the tastes and minds of Dublin’s high society at the time. And so on.
Such a history—stagnant, impervious to change, insisting on grand narratives—called for a re-examining. Looking askance, I learned that the land on which the casino resides used to be called Donneycarney, but as a sense of place is so tied to a sense of class, on acquiring the estate its new owner necessarily rechristened it ‘Marino’ after his beloved Italian destination. Thus, in one stroke, it was lifted from a locale that seemed too provincial, too mundane, and repositioned in the mind’s eye of its landlord. It earned a kind of classical placelessness, a new lofty trans-setting. In their world, everything became ‘grand’: the ‘grand genre’ of history painting; the ‘grand tour’ of Europe to sites of classical history; the ‘grand style’ of Michelangelo or Raphael, to be assiduously copied by academicians.
Over a hundred years after the Casino was founded, with that golden light of the leisure classes waning, the estate came into the ownership of the Christian Brothers—a brotherhood of lay disciples who set out to get those poor-ragged boys off the street, offer a ‘basic’ education and to prepare them for industry, but most of all to teach them the ‘value’ of ‘hard work’ and religious observance. Their institution spread worldwide, as did the abuse.
Apparently he used to write poetry when he was younger but one day decided to burn it all. He said he used to write it spontaneously, squeezed into the white spaces of bus and train tickets.
The Casino at Marino—in a cinematic turn, as I envision it from a history lesson that breathes so close to me—was then recast in an altogether different light. Snapped out of its delusion only to confront a stark grey reality. Those inner-city boys, my father included, playing around the Casino were shunned both literally and ideologically from the gold-lit world of the Casino’s origins. That beam of enlightened thinking, so preciously preserved in the history books, entirely bypassing generations of poor boys living on the very property. For those boys who chose to notice it, I imagine, the Casino lingered about their playing grounds like an apparition — an idealised past further haunting the gloominess of their present day.
Allegations of child abuse against the Christian Brothers would start to emerge around the 1980s. Starting with a handful of easily dismissed complaints to an outpouring from the Brother’s global institutions. In a rare and reluctant admission of guilt, in 1996 the Christian Brothers released a statement starting with the line: “There are signs of that death in our congregational story.” It continued, “Such signs include undue severity of discipline, harshness in Community life, child abuse, an addiction to success, canonizing work to the neglect of our basic human needs for intimacy, leisure and love.”
“Signs of that death”, a phrase that both acknowledges the insidious force of clerical abuse whilst averting a direct collision with the issue. “There are signs of that death”, a clumsy sentence, weak and faltering in its expression of something so horrid. But it is a haunting set of words all the same. Clamouring, clasping at an expression that might hold the full weight of its implications.
Like flints from a fire History sparks into being. It wilfully shoots and splinters, enlightening some and leaving others in the dark.
Through the telling of this oft-repeated story of history, as I experienced in the classroom that day, I saw the elaborate structures of ‘history-proper’ crash into the shadow it cast upon my father and family. I was told his story without his name being mentioned. I became the child I might have been, proud of her father, and, despite everything, in defence of him. I thought, his story can be told, maybe shame doesn’t have to bury it and uncertainty doesn’t have to muzzle it. I felt the staggering height and glory of the Casino’s tale owed something to my father’s life, or perhaps, owed something to mine. Where history fell silent was the moment it laid claim to my life.
To see him, to talk to him, is to relive that death, not a sign, but an aching reality.
I am beginning to see my life. I am beginning to see the forces that shaped it, that weighed upon it, and nearly snuffed it out. I am beginning to see my life from the position of the end, from the imprint of a negative allowed to fester for too long, stumbling through histories and plaguing generations, fusing many to the same struggle.
Leah Reynolds is an art writer based in Bristol. Her latest piece explores the genre of auto-fiction, combining her academic background in the history of art with a personal narrative.