San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gah the golden girl from County Clare

From the print edition

I must tell you about my paternal grandmother, GahGah to us kids and later just Gah, because she was one of those people who live on in memory long after they are gone. Gah was born in 1860 into the wealthy Fitzgerald family, which presided over a large chunk of County Clare from Clevedon, their baronial hall overlooking the Shannon estuary.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

Baptized Deirdre Vandeleur Naomi Geraldine, she was apparently an ugly child, big-boned and awkward but sharp as a tack, being fluent in five languages by the time she was 10. And she was well able to hold her own among the politicians and bankers who flocked to the Fitzgerald table every weekend once the railway from Dublin was in.

By 18, the ugly duckling had turned into a graceful if oversized swan, as she stood 6-foot-1. On the death of her mother, she became the hostess of the weekly feasts, in addition to inheriting a sizable fortune of her own. But she had a wild side and conceived a child, my father, by the devastating handsome Dermod, black sheep of the penniless O’Brien family, which subsisted on milk and potatoes in their crumbling Victorian-style castle of Dromoland (now a fancy 5-star hotel) near Newmarket-on-Fergus.

This was too much for the straitlaced Fitzgeralds, and after a hasty and very private marriage they were both packed off to Bendigo in Australia, where the family owned a gold mine. Within a month of the delivery, Gah was loading tubs of gold ore into the crushers and manhandling drums of cyanide into the dolly pit. Then, during her regular forays into the Sidney gold market, she realized that the roller-coaster behavior of scarce metal prices was due to the rapid industrialization of the country in the face of irregular supplies.

Promptly scraping together every penny she had or could borrow, she successively cornered the market in tungsten, molybdenum and the rare earth kieselguhr, used to stabilize dynamite, reaping a second fortune in the process.

At that time, Australian men were rabidly protective of women’s honor but unenthusiastic about women’s rights, and resented Gah’s intrusion into their territory. A group got together and lured her into the infamous Takashi scandal, where she lost the lot. But without missing a beat, Gah went back to the moneylenders, borrowed enough to buy a seat on the developing Sydney Stock Exchange, and in four years had made back every penny of her losses. Then came the first World War, and my father announced that he was going to England to join up. Gah wasn’t going to be separated from her brood, by that time two boys and three girls, and selling out everything she had, she moved them all to London. Dermod, who hadn’t done a stroke of work since their marriage, insisted on staying in Sydney with friends, and history doesn’t relate his subsequent fate.

Arriving in London, Gah bought a huge house in the classy Sydenham Hill district, where you could see clean across town on a clear day, and immediately started trying to corner the market in exotic metals.

But she misjudged the size and sophistication of the London Exchange and ended up with several warehouses full of tungsten, but no buyers. After holding on for a year, she sold out at a horrendous loss. But Gah was not the kind to go down without a fight. She borrowed enough to buy a boot and shoe factory in Lewisham, submitted to the War Office a bid for 10,000 pairs of army boots, and after a cursory inspection of her factory, received an order for half a million pairs with an advance payment of 25 percent, so that once again she was back in the money.

Gah had always been lucky, but she seemed to lose her financial acumen in England. So after the war, she decided to retire to the little seaside resort of Pett in Sussex and quit trying to outsmart the experts. She built a house big enough to sleep a dozen, named it Sans Souci and installed tennis courts and a croquet lawn where her shameless development of the “GahGah Scoop” usually won her the match.

Then she sat back to enjoy her grandchildren. Which is were I came in, because I spent many happy vacations there while my folks were abroad. Gah died unwrinkled at 95 with many years still left in her body; accustomed to putting away a full quart of Fremlins Dinner Ale at every meal, this time it proved too much for her, and she fell downstairs to her death. She was mourned by all, and not least by her long-suffering housekeeper Miss Emma Strike, who shortly after birth was left on Gah’s doorstep in a shopping basket. All her life Gah had lived high on the hog, entertaining never less than a dozen guests to lunch and dinner, so that my father doesn’t recall ever sitting next to family except at breakfast. Which is all very well when times are good, but Gah insisted on keeping an open house even when deeply in debt to the moneylenders, which didn’t bother her one little bit.

People born to great wealth have a different attitude towards money than the rest of us; to them money is nice, but when it runs low you can always borrow it against the security of your land, so there’s no point in worrying about it.

I wish I could think like that.

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