Anjelica Huston Remembers Ireland

Photo by Robert Fleischauer

For Saint Patrick’s Day, JOAN Juliet Buck interviews her childhood friend ANJELICA Huston about her Irish roots, branches and leaves.

JOAN: Let’s talk about Ireland.

ANJELICA: Remember that Irish is a slow language; all vocal exchange is introduced by at least 7 minute’s opening dialogue about the weather. No conversation is complete without this introduction. It’s like looking at a horse’s teeth. From this initial exchange one can deduce age, demeanor and provenance.

JOAN: So how is the weather by the beach in Venice, California?

ANJELICA: It’s as cold as a witch’s tit, the wind is whipping up the palm trees, the seagulls are slapping against my windows, there are whitecaps way out to sea. Lots of teenagers on roof tops, on cell-phones, with their hair flying.

JOAN: In New York it’s sunny but still cold. And rainy when it’s not sunny. Not a soft day, a hard March day.

ANJELICA: Today is flinty.

JOAN: Really? And why would that be?

ANJELICA: No smog at all!

JOAN: Can we start now? Have we done the weather?

ANJELICA: Sure.

JOAN: Have you seen “Riverdance”?

ANJELICA: No.

JOAN: Can you do a jig?

ANJELICA: It is important to dare to take chances, while dancing, and Irish Jigging is as good a challenge as any…

JOAN: Do you cook Irish food?

ANJELICA: Yes, I make Soda Bread! I make Irish Stew!

JOAN: Do you think St. Patrick really banished all the snakes from Ireland?

ANJELICA: Absolutely! If not, then why are there no snakes in Ireland?

JOAN: What’s a shamrock? A four-leaf clover?

ANJELICA: The four-leafed clover symbolize the four counties: Ulste, Munster, Leinster and Connacht. Also, very good luck, should you happen to find one, but not to be confused with the three-leafed shamrock, which is an early Christian symbol of the Holy Trinity.

JOAN: What Irish qualities do you wish you had?

ANJELICA: Extraordinary resilience when it comes to suffering. Musicianship. Patience.

JOAN: What Irish qualities are you glad to have?

ANJELICA: I’m up for a good time. I make friends easily. I like to dance. I feel good around the color green.

JOAN: Are your eyes smiling?

ANJELICA: They did until you asked that question.

JOAN: So just how Irish are you? You grew up there, starred as Gretta in your father’s “The Dead” from the James Joyce story, directed the Irish movie “Agnes Browne” … what did Ireland give you?

ANJELICA: Without my Irish childhood I would—not know the names of the plants and flowers in my mother’s garden, would not know how to ride a horse, walk in the rain, sing plaintive songs about the country I miss and love the most. I would not know you. I would not understand the vagaries and the delights of nature, the clouds racing overhead, the smell of turf and sheep’s wool, the cold, the black bogs, growing up with dogs, The Sisters Of Mercy, fairies and the best Christmases in the world.

JOAN: Were you raised Catholic?

ANJELICA: No, but one cannot grow up in the West of Ireland without absorbing a good deal of the Catholic faith. I went to The Sisters of Mercy in Loughrea. The Nuns were kind, but firm. I understand that they had agreed in some way not to indoctrinate me, my parents being against organized religion, but, still, I managed to get the ash stick across the knuckles on several occasions for not knowing my Catechism. I longed to take the veil, and loved to decorate the convent chapel for Mass. I also loved to buy black babies. This simply required two shillings and sixpence in an envelope addressed to the Congo, and you could save a baby’s life, and christen it. I loved the feeling this gave me, and stole a pound from my father’s wallet so that I could buy eight babies at a time.

JOAN: Did you ever pretend to be Irish?

ANJELICA: I AM Irish. And I have the passport to prove it. Did I ever use a brogue? When I am with Irish people…it overtakes me.

JOAN: But you were born in the same hospital as I was, in Los Angeles—

ANJELICA:… in 1951. Dad was making “The African Queen” when I was born, and then began work on “Moulin Rouge,” which brought him to France. While he was working there, he was invited to go to Ireland for a Foxhunting Holiday. He fell in love with Ireland and all things Irish. I lived there from the time I was two years old until I went to school in England, at around ten.

JOAN: I met you under the portico at St. Clerans, in County Galway, one night just before Christmas when we were very small and my parents took me to see my godfather, your father. They’d said something about a little girl, to entice me. You were much shorter than me. Then. And there was Tony, your brother. He didn’t yet have hawks. How long had you all been at St. Clerans?

ANJELICA: When we first moved to Ireland, Dad rented a house in County Kildare, called Courtown House. It was huge and bleak. It had a wonderful doll’s house in the nursery that I was not allowed to touch. I had a dog called Rosie and a pony called Honeymoon, who one day just collapsed under me…My first encounter with death. Courtown was a stately home, by local standards, and so was St.Clerans, except it was much more beautiful and comfortable and full of wonderful things that Dad brought back from his travels, a pre-Columbian collection and a Japanese Bath. Mum transformed St. Clerans, brought it back to its original Georgian design—The Victorians had partitioned most of the rooms—and she restored it very beautifully, with great attention to detail. I think we had the first radiant heating system in all Ireland. The locals would take off their shoes when they walked in the front door as if they were entering another, equatorial, zone.

JOAN : The landed gentry were also impressed by the soft imported toilet paper, I remember.

ANJELICA: The Anglo-Irish! They lived in the grander houses, although some of them seemed to be subsisting on very little. Ireland was a much poorer place, then. The Anglo-Irish spoke in plummy voices, often quite shrill, and they were haughty…mostly the women. The men had inherited the estates from their fathers, and many of them drank a good deal. It was not uncommon for them to start drinking before 8 AM with breakfast, and in many cases it helped to relax the hunting set over some of the most startling stone walls County Galway had to offer. But everyone seemed to get along , on the surface, anyway.

JOAN: And the people in the house were real Irish …

ANJELICA: Mrs. Creagh, the best cook in Ireland, was married to our butler, Creagh. She made the best poached wild salmon. And a triumph was her Baked Alaska! She also learned how to make Mexican food, which pleased Dad no end. And the oysters—We’d pile into the car and go to Clarenbridge to Paddy Burke’s—now it’s called Moran’s on the Weir—the oysters came fresh out of the sea, wriggling when you squeezed lemon on them. Dad would get mad if you put anything more than lemon on these oysters because they were so fresh, it was a sin to disguise the taste. (It was the same reaction he had to people who wore bathing suits in the Japanese Bath.) The adults would have Guinness or Black Velvets—Guinness and champagne—and we were allowed BabyCham.

JOAN : Fake champagne, for getting kids drunk. I remember the TV Ad—”Babycham—the Cham! Pain! Cock! Tail!” It had a Bambi jumping around the bottle.

ANJELICA: You mean it wasn’t real?

JOAN : I remember your nanny, who looked just like Katharine Hepburn.

ANJELICA : That was Nurse—a firm calm presence, dedicated to my Mother, whom she called ‘Madam’. There was Molly, who was exceptionally fun when she dropped her false teeth, and held a flashlight under her chin, and chased us up and down a dark hall near the back stairs. There was Josie, who always brought Dad his breakfast. He said she was like watching the sun come up in the morning. There was Paddy Lynch, our Groom, who taught me how to ride like an Irishwoman. I still ride. I have nine horses at my ranch up north.

JOAN: You were terrifyingly good on horseback. The Pony Club, and you hunted with The Galway Blazers …

ANJELICA: … Who had the reputation of being hell for leather. Big stonewall country…I was blooded on my first outing—they smeared fox guts on my face. I hunted side-saddle from the age of 12 to please my Father.

JOAN: It seemed so out of time, so far from everywhere.

ANJELICA: The West of Ireland! The Big House, as we called it, was at one end of a fork in the avenue, across a waterfall, surrounded by meadows and a ha-ha, a sort of hidden ditch, which allowed an uncluttered view of grazing horses. It was Georgian, built of limestone, it was a good size, three-storied, not huge.

JOAN: And you and your mother and Tony lived in The Little House.

ANJELICA: The Little House was at the other end of the fork, across the river. It was sweet, cozy, like a limestone cottage. The walled garden behind The Little House was hundreds of years old, and at one time the explorer Burke had brought back many plant specimens from his travels abroad, and planted them in this garden. There were wonderful, mysterious trees there, some very rare. The woman who owned the property, Mrs. Burke-Cole, was concerned that Dad would tear down a Norman Castle—the tower that stood behind the stable yard—and so it remained in her possession surrounded by a tall fence. Remember? We used to sneak in and play there, and on one occasion, we found a primitive cannon ball, wooden, with lead sheeting nailed to its surface. And of course it was a great place for fairies.

JOAN: And for Irish Nationalist fervor.

ANJELICA: Tony used to sing the stirring patriotic song “Kevin Barry” in the front hall at Christmas time. It was about a young hero going to the gallows for Ireland. I think he learned it when he was going to the Christian Brothers in Loughrea. “Just a lad of 18 summers, Kevin Barry gives ‘his young life for the cause of liberty.’” This was part of what it meant to be Irish. To be brave, to stand up under torture. To be loyal to one’s comrades …All for Love Of One’s Country. Tony would sing this song a cappella, in a very earnest, clear voice, with one foot tapping out the rhythm like a metronome. I would feel a mixture of pride for my country and embarrassment for Tony, and there was always a slight foreshadowing of dread, because I was usually then called upon by Dad to follow Tony’s performance with a display of Irish Dancing for whomever happened to be visiting at the time.

JOAN: You didn’t really like performing then.

ANJELICA: My first acting experience was the part of the Third Witch in the Shakespeare play. You were the director, and you, as First Witch, had the most lines. It was decided that for safety’s sake, I, being 6 at the time, should have the least. The small, glamorous seven-year-old daughter of one of my father’s visiting ex-girlfriends, Marina Habe, filled out as the Second Witch. She and you had wisely chosen nightshirts of my father’s and not the Aran fisherman’s blanket I had greedily claimed as my costume. Tony was in charge of special effects, such as blinking the light switches on and off to simulate lightning, and an ample ewer of tomato juice to double as ‘Baboon’s Blood’. Our audience—remember— was comprised of my parents and yours: The Hustons (Ricki and John), The Bucks (Joyce and Jules), and glowing in the front row seats of honor, the glorious, golden pre-”Lawrence Of Arabia” Peter O’Toole and his beautiful Welsh wife, Sian Phillips. There were some additional well-wishers, such as Eric Sevareid and his wife Belen, and a smattering of kitchen help.

JOAN: Anjelica—-

ANJELICA: Needless to say, tension ran high. You delivered your lines with calm authority, as did Marina, but when it came time for Third witch to deliver, a weedy voice quavered to a halt on the line ‘Toad under Cold Stone….’ A clamorous silence ensued, and finally I muttered, “This is silly,” and ran from the scene in blind hysteria. This is still one of the reasons I find stage acting so hard. The constant possibility of that. I spent the rest of the night hiding behind the curtains in the study as Tony set up a hunting party to find and then flay me, and then eventually found my way to my mother’s lap where I sobbed piteously till I was put to bed.

JOAN: Um… ANJELICA, you were the First Witch. I was the Third Witch, with all my great lines at the end. That’s why I was so angry. We couldn’t do the scene until you’d been found.

ANJELICA: I’m sorry.

JOAN: I’ve gotten over it. But by the next year, you’d pulled it together and were very good reciting Edward Gorey’s poem “The suicide as she is falling, illuminated by the moon”…

ANJELICA: I’d dress up in my mother’s old tutus with some tulle on my head and wait for a bridegroom to pass by. I longed for Barbie dolls, but Mum thought they were vulgar. I longed to be a princess and to have a prince of my own, with whom I would live happily ever after. We listened to Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. Tony and I favored Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte was maybe the most played down at the Little House…”Angelico” being a favorite of mine. We also had spoken-word albums: Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Marlon Brando in “Julius Caesar,” Yeats reading his own poetry. And Leadbelly, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and then the Irish music, John Mc Cormack. Jim Reeves was hugely popular. Then you introduced Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again”, and we were never the same.

JOAN: What Irish songs stir you?

ANJELICA: “Galway Bay” really gets me because I was raised in County Galway. When I was doing “Lonesome Dove,” Bobby Duvall had a mariachi band record that song to use whenever he needed to make me cry. It would be the end of a long working day, and we’d have done seven scenes, and I’d think I didn’t have a grain of emotion left in me. Bobby would play ‘Galway Bay’ on his tape recorder, and I’d be gone on a wave of tears.

JOAN: What was Ireland to your parents, to John and Ricki?

ANJELICA: For Dad, Ireland was the place he came to lick his wounds. He was happier there than anywhere else in life. For Mum? She said it was beautiful, romantic, wild, exasperating, lonely…

JOAN: Was it lonely for you?

ANJELICA: Loneliness is not necessarily considered a bad thing in Ireland. Every story, every song is nostalgic, even the place itself is soft and wet…There are signs of the past everywhere, they are part of everyday life. I was very lonely when Dad would leave to go to America to work. It seemed so terribly far away. I remember holding on to his legs with Tony when he would walk out the front door to the car. I was lonely when Mum would go away on trips without us. I remember being very lonely when you would leave to go back to London in the early days. I remember hiding your passport and you getting mad at me.

JOAN: You convinced me the fairies had taken it. I thought I was having my first paranormal experience. Do you believe in ghosts, fairies, and leprechauns?

ANJELICA: Yes, yes, yes. There are those who think that the little people should reveal themselves, but the power to be invisible is very strong among the wee folk, who quite justifiably fear large intruders.

JOAN: Are you superstitious?

ANJELICA: I’ve taken to wearing green underpants and measuring the quality of the days that I’m wearing them against the ones I am not. Without question, the green knickers days win every time!

JOAN: What happened to St. Clerans?

ANJELICA: When Dad remarried in the ’70s, he decided to sell St. Clerans. I think it was one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make, but things had changed. My mother had died. My brother and I had grown up. He barely warned us before the house was sold. First it was divided, Little House separated from Big House. The Big House was bought by several hunting aficionados, who mostly used it in the winters, but couldn’t afford to heat it properly, or keep the gardens up.

JOAN: Don’t you want to go back?

ANJELICA: I would like to time travel. But to go back there now?
Everything has changed. The adults are no longer … my father and mother are gone. The last time I went back to St Clerans was with Bob (Robert Graham, ANJELICA’s husband), before we became engaged. In fact , he proposed to me at Dromoland Castle on that visit. It was unutterably painful to go back. There is not a nook or cranny of that place that I had not committed to memory, yet everything was altered. The people who owned The Little House had bought it with winnings from a horse they owned that won at the Galway Races. I had hoped that they would be at Mass when we dropped in unannounced on the property. At the front gates of The Little House, we were spotted by a young man of about 17. He stared at me from a distance, and then approached me, looked into my eyes, and said: “I’ve always dreamed of the day ANJELICA Huston would come back to St. Clerans.” That just about put me away. I did not have the courage to go up to The Big House. We walked in the garden … It was almost unbearably sad. Although the idea of living at St. Clerans again is alluring, I fear it’s true that—at least, in this instance—I can never go home again. Soon after, Merv Griffin bought it, gave it a facelift, and transformed it into a boutique hotel with a sushi restaurant.

JOAN: St. Clerans. Yikes. How political did you feel when you were growing up there?

ANJELICA: I was living in London when the War broke out in the North. As a child in the West, one rarely heard about the troubles, and if one did, they were usually referred to in the past tense. To all intents and purposes, the British and the Anglo-Irish made up a lot of the population in the South. There were minor flurries of concern, like when a gun shop in Dublin was broken into by the IRA, and people in the country were advised to keep their firearms under lock and key, but we were shocked when the sleeping Giant erupted. The conditions for the Catholics had become untenable in the North. Unemployment was at an all time high for the Catholics, and the Reverend Ian Paisley was stirring up a lot of hatred among the British residents. The British Government deployed soldiers to Northern Ireland. The IRA was ruthless in its revenge. At one point they bombed the Royal Constabulary in London. Then they killed Lord Mountbatten. Terrible times. I have given money to widows and children in the North, but have never knowingly given funds to any political or military branch of the IRA, although I have met Gerry Adams on several occasions, and believe him when he says he wants peace.

JOAN: The second film you directed was set, and shot, in Ireland.

ANJELICA: I had wanted to make a film there. Most of the movies made in the 1980s in Ireland were about The Troubles, and very hard-edged. I wanted to make a Fairy Tale, because I think in part I am prone to romanticizing my childhood, and I intended it to be a sort of love letter. The film was from a book written by an actor called Brendan O’Carroll. The director of “My Left Foot,” Jim Sheridan, had seen my film, “Bastard Out Of Carolina,” and brought me Brendan’s book “The Mammy,” and it was Jim who produced the film. Later we had to re-title the movie “Agnes Browne,” because the Studio, in all its wisdom , felt that “Mammy’”might be seen as a racial slur. When I was working on “Agnes Browne” I went across the border to see a Van Morrison/Bob Dylan Concert in Belfast. I stayed overnight in the Hotel Europa, overlooking a bombed-out street. It was pretty grim, but the people seemed hopeful. I haven’t been back since. I hope prosperity returns to the North. I am sure it will….Especially if the South continues to invest there…

JOAN: What’s you favorite Irish saying?

ANJELICA: There’s only a few of us left!

JOAN: And your favorite toast?

ANJELICA: A Chara Mo Chroidhe: friend of my heart: Cead Mile Failte Romat As An Usa, Do Chara… A hundred thousand welcomes to you from the USA, your friend, ANJELICA.

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