Book Review by Hugh Vaughan
Rosemary Esmonde Peterswald: Can My Pony Come Too? Vipa Books, Montmorency, Vic
When I think of an Irish memoir, I remember the day I was walking around Galway and came across a bookshop. Its window was festooned with copies of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. While wondering whether I should purchase a signed copy as advertised, a gentleman drew up beside me, palpable anger on his face, declaring, ‘That is utter shite. I was born in Limerick. That never happened’. While taken aback, it piqued my interest. Frank McCourt got a sale. I got a signed copy. Years later, Frank entertained me and many others with his wit and charm at a literary event in the gracious grounds of Como House in Melbourne. What is it that provokes such venom in response to memoir? Such a debate is for another day!
Can My Pony Come Too? by Rosemary Esmonde Peterswald, is far from being another Irish misery memoir, as the author came from a prominent family with a Georgian mansion by Lough Derg, County Tipperary. Her family migrated to New South Wales in 1954, and after a successful business life, Rosemary ended up sailing her yacht in the Mediterranean while producing photographic coffee table books. My interest was piqued again.
The memoir begins when Rosemary has returned to Ireland to visit her dying father in the picturesque town of Glendalough, inhabited by elderly Irish. One local who thinks the fairies have gone shopping to Grafton Street, a priest, confides ‘Well to be sure now, Rosemary, what’s the point of telling the poor man he’s dying? …. to be worrying himself about that?’. Then there is Sean, with a twinkle in his eye, and another priest who keeps himself warm in the winter with Scottish whisky, surely he would be drinking Irish whiskey? But it was Dermot, a farmer, ‘salt of the earth until the demon drink turned him into the devil himself’ who greeted the author with ‘top of the morning’. This stereotyping maybe reveals the target audience for this book.
Keen to discover her Norman antecedents and the decline of the family fortun Rosemary finds that her father had penned a memoir too, having returned from Australia in 1965 to take over a gift shop. Then, there is a sprint through her Norman ancestors who came to Ireland to aid the King of Leinster and settled in 1235. Huttington Castle in Clonegal is owned by a distant cousin. Rosemary had a roast dinner at a table where Oliver Cromwell sat in Ballynastragh Castle, the Esmondes’ family home in County Wexford. In Drominagh, their family Georgian manor, where they seem to have had a privileged lifestyle: private Catholic schools in England, with travelling companions including Oliver St John Gogarty’s son. There are Victoria Cross winners – her Uncle Eugene, his meeting with the King, and how he flew to Australia as a pilot in the fore-runner of Qantas, in 1930s.
Rosemary’s early childhood was spent at Clonmoylan, a grand farmhouse, after the family moved from Drominagh House. Her father announced they were moving to New South Wales when she was seven years old. He left first for a position as farm manager, but ‘Managerial skills were not a necessity. Survival skills certainly were’. Rosemary and the remainder of her family arrived later in the same year. Early memories of the enchantment of Sydney Harbour, and having to scrounge for pots and pans at their lodgings are still engraved in Rosemary’s mind. The migration process, the ups and downs, the joy of outdoor life for the children are all brought to life. Despite the shock of the new, the “Irish Bush Family at Reidsdale” in New South Wales seems to have settled well in the close-knit Irish community and church, both an important support for the family.
A move to Canberra, squire to proof reader, squire’s wife to a cleaner, meant life was not easy. Rosemary met Rob, her future husband, a Duntroon graduate, who became a first lieutenant, and at 19 was posted to New Guinea. A helicopter crash is dismissed in a few lines, yet little incidents like these could provide greater insight into the trials and tribulations of being a soldier’s wife, while raising kids, finding fulfilling activities and socialising with other wives as they move from post to post. That life is pursued with utmost positivity and there is little detail of the inevitable emotional and mental turmoil of the separation. Rosemary is made of tougher stuff.
Her description of their life in Sepik and Wewak in Indonesia is charming; its history and the beauty. Similarly, there are moments of humour, the trap set for mice when they overran the Riverina area around Wagga Wagga, after returning from overseas, a suspected snake bite on someone’s bottom. Eventually, her parents return to Ireland, ‘this is my own, my native land’ – Goldsmith is quoted. Later, Rosemary went back to Ireland to touch base with her roots, ‘Ireland is a story, between you and your heart’.
Rosemary’s fortitude continues, raising her young girls, getting into farming and real estate sales while Rob, still soldiers on. It is only on page 300 that Rob retires from the army to become an expert apple juicer. They build a successful business and Rosemary still finds time to sell real estate.
They have a love of sailing and move to Hobart to be near their children’s boarding school where another successful business in real estate evolves. After sailing the southern seas, they eventually float around the shores of southern Europe.
This diary-like memoir would benefit from being thoroughly edited to produce a more streamlined edition with much-needed reflections. It appears their health allowed them a hectic and satisfying life – their parents lived well into their nineties. Rosemary says of her children – they were pretty adventuresome and aptly like the orchardists they were – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Hugh Vaughan was born in Northern Ireland and currently lives in Melbourne, lecturing in Information Systems. He has written two books: A Bump on the Road and Cillefoyle Park, both creative memoirs, focusing on growing up during The Troubles in the North West of Ireland.