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Open Features: Mrs Courtney-Green

....She could well have been a very famous pianist but one act of horrific cruelty by her sister stole her talent away, and, having found the love of her life, he was taken from her after just one year. Disowned by her family and ignored by her former friends she found herself consigned to a life of extreme poverty...

Tim Mcaffrey tells a story which you will never forget.

It is often said that what we experience during our formative childhood years has a great bearing on what kind of adults we eventually become. There is undoubtedly a great deal of truth in this, but there is also little doubt that each of us is born with certain individual strengths and weaknesses which enable us to either cope with what life throws at us or simply crumble under it's adversity.

The story of Emma Courtney-Dean has always struck me as being a good example of how ill-luck and tragedy can blight a persons life but leave their spirit intact.

Mrs Courtney-Dean is now long forgotten in our town, as are the vast majority of the people who lived their lives during the years when she lived hers. However her name still means something to me. I have always found Emma's story strangely touching as did my grandmother who worked for her family during the years when Emma and her sister Sarah were children, and who remained Emma's faithful friend right to the end of her life.

This is Emma's story...

In a small impoverished town of just a few thousand souls, the Deans were one of a select group of families who belonged to the upper class of financially well off families. Among these were a banker, some shop owners, a mill owner and a few hoteliers who catered for the tourists who came during the summer months. Emma Dean's family were Protestants as were the other prosperous families, while the townspeople were almost totally Catholic, a fact which caused no problem to either side except when a prospect of inter-marriage arose.

As well as creating badly needed employment, these prosperous families were usually very good to the poorer people of the town, and were both well thought of and respected by the Catholic townspeople. Away from their various businesses they needed cooks, servants and gardeners for the upkeep of their private houses and the cook in the Dean household for several years, happened to be my grandmother who related Emma's story.

The Deans had two daughters, Emma, and Sarah who was a year older. While both children were very pretty, it soon became clear that Emma was blessed in far more ways than one. Emma excelled in everything she attempted without ever having to really try, while Sarah tried as hard a she could to keep up with her sister but with little success. Emma really excelled at the piano and she progressed so rapidly that it was certain that a bright career as a classical pianist awaited her, however it was not to be.

Emma's sister Sarah had always been in the shadow of her gifted sister, and her increasing bitterness and envy caused her to do a terrible thing one afternoon. Emma and Sarah were in the sitting room, Emma was playing the piano. The only other people in the house were Mrs Dean and my grandmother. The music coming from the sitting room stopped suddenly and in it's place came a terrible scream. My grandmother and Mrs Dean rushed into the sitting room and found Emma kneeling on the floor sobbing, her hands outstretched and her fingers bloody.

It turned out that while Emma had been playing the piano, Sarah overcome with envy suddenly lost control and slammed down the hinged cover as hard as she could smashing Emma'a fingers, and injuring them so badly that she would never play the piano again. My grandmother had known great hardship in her own life, but she always said that what happened to Emma on that awful afternoon would haunt her forever.

Emma's fingers took a long time to heal and even when I remember her as an old woman, she still always wore black gloves to cover her still misshapen fingers. What struck those who knew the family was that even after this horrific episode, Emma's attitude towards her sister never changed. She was still kind and loving to the one who had caused her so much pain and taken away her great gift.

The next decade passed without much incident and nothing much changed until Emma met her soul mate, a soldier, Captain Courtney who also happened to be a Catholic and a pretty poor one at that. Not surprisingly this caused a huge commotion. After much arguing and and still refusing to stop seeing Captain Courtney, Emma was banished from the family home. Captain Courtney was by all accounts, a very nice and decent man who would give Emma the respect that every person deserves. So, the couple as yet unmarried set up home in a little gate lodge on the outskirts of town, which stands derelict today, and lived happily there for almost a year with Courtney stationed in the nearby army barracks.

Their time together proved to be short as, like many other soldiers at the time, Captain Courtney was informed that he was being sent overseas, in his case India. This could not be avoided. He hadn't to money to buy his way out of the army and even if he had there was no work to be had anywhere, especially as he was now persona non grata with the local employers, so, bidding a sad goodbye to Emma he left for India.

A year or so passed and Courtney's regular letters to Emma became fewer and fewer until they finally stopped altogether. My grandmother was Emma's friend during this time, she was her only friend. Her family had disowned her and the friends from her former life would not speak to and cast their eye's downward when they met in the street. One day Emma was in a state of high excitement, the Captain was coming home. He had been taken ill with some type of fever and had already begun the long slow journey home by sea. Emma did not mind this as she told my grandmother that it would give her time to get the little house ready and as comfortable as possible for the Captain during his recovery, so together the two women did as much as they could with what little they had.

When the time came they traveled by steam train to the port of Cobh in County Cork and waited with many others to greet their loved ones arrival. It had been a long voyage, the soldiers of Britain and Ireland were used to cold and wet and damp and not the stifling heat of India. The fever had sapped their strength, several soldiers had died on the voyage. Unfortunately Captain Courtney had been among these. Once again, fate had dealt Emma a cruel blow.

Emma was still a very young and attractive woman but she never found another to take Courtney's place, and it's doubtful that she ever even entertained the idea. In honor of her lost love, Emma now called herself Mrs Courtney-Dean, a name which would stay with her to the end of her days. Without an income, Emma was now mong the very poorest. She lost her cottage and found herself a tiny room over a book shop where she was destined to spend the rest of her life. Her family had moved to England and it's not known whether her sister had ever contacted her again or not.

Emma was dignified, friendly and respectful and after a time she found a place in life for herself among the poor people of the town who had a generosity and richness of spirit that is often hard to find in more affluent sections of society. That Emma became eccentric is without doubt and completely understandable. Her youthful promise had been snatched away in the cruelest fashion imaginable and her chance of a happy and fulfilled married life had been ended just when it had barely begun. If she were alive now her eccentricities although slight, would subject her to ridicule, but in an earlier time when people were more tolerant, more understanding and less afraid she was accepted and respected.

It was thought by the supersticious local people that since Emma had been so cruelly injured by her sister, that she might well have the gift of healing in her hands. The fact that she always wore black gloves whatever the season probably reinforced this idea. So each afternoon would find Emma sitting inside the window of a rundown local hotel and here local people with various ailments would come and ask her to touch whatever part of they're anatomy was sore or injured and hopefully a cure would be follow. Emma didn't charge for this but it was customary to drop a few pennies into her pocket as you left. In any case it was all the people could afford and without it Emma might well have ended up in the workhouse.

Emma was an elderly women when I first became aware of her. In those days entertainment was both simple and self made. In our town we looked forward to a parade which took place every Friday all year round regardless of the weather. The parade would always be in the same order. First would come the old soldiers who were getting frailer and fewer ever year and after these would come a motley selection of "well oiled" local charactors who played tin whistles fiddles and whatever assorted instruments they could find. Finally would come the local children who beat on tin cans and buckets with sticks and old wooden spoons.

Always leading the parade however, would be Emma Courtney-Dean. I remember seeing her tall and straight striding along in an old fashioned ankle length coat and a big wide brimmed hat. When she came into view at the head of the parade the same cry would go up every time. "Three Cheers for Courtney-Dean!''

A great cheer would ring out and Emma would always do the same thing. She would remove her big hat, give a wave and a bow to the cheering crowd and then continue leading the parade to it's destination. This was the little town square where singing, dancing and story telling would go on until well after darkness. The local women who had grown old with Emma, gathered round her and asked her to tell them about the fine house she had grown up in, the foods she ate, the fine cloths she once had and her tutors and nannies.

This then is how the years passed for Mrs Courtney-Dean. When her health began to fail she rarely ventured out of her little room and except for my grandmother and a few remaining old friends visiting her she was alone. During those final days Emma talked about areas of her life she had never spoken about before. She had been offered a place in a famous academy of music, the only child from Ireland to receive such an honor. This is what had finally caused her sister Sarah's jealousy to erupt in such a cruel manner. She said she held no bitterness against her sister, adding that Sarah had only been a child like her.

She also remembered captain Courtney, a big man with a soft heart, too soft to be a soldier she would always say. My grandmother remained Emma's oldest and closest friend but now she too was a very old woman, eight years older than Emma, and finding it harder and harder to walk she finally just went from her bed to the fireside each day. So, when Emma became ill and with no one to look after her, the only place for her to go was into the old folks home.

My grandmother who was now housebound, never knew that her great friend was ill. My mother arrived home from town one evening and as usual my grandmother's first question was " Any news?"..

My mother sat down and taking my dear old grandmother by the hand said, "I have bad news for you Annie" and speaking softly said "Mrs Courtney-Dean is dead."

My grandmother bowed her head and shook silently as the tears ran down her cheeks.

"My poor Emma" "She had no luck.....no luck in life..God help us...not a days luck. If anyone deserves a bed in heaven poor Emma does. Don't tell me she's buried already."

"She's getting buried tomorrow evening,'' my mother replied.

"I'll be there, even if I have to crawl to the graveyard on my hand and knees.'' said my grandmother. "I wouldn't miss poor Emma's funeral for the world.''

My grandmother was in her eighties now and walking was very, very hard for her. No one had a car and the graveyard was over a mile away. There was only one taxi in town and with great gathering and scraping the few shillings was raised to take my grandmother to the graveyard. My mother and myself went with her. I held one arm and my mother the other as we helped the old woman to walk the short distance from the road to the grave.

I remember it was a Febuary evening with a grey sky and a biting easterly wind. My grandmother never wore a coat in her life, always a traditional shawl, and to shield me from the wind, I was only eight or nine, she wrapped the shawl around both of us and held me close to her. Counting us and the priest the number at the graveside came only to six. This was the last time my grandmother ever left the house and very soon she would be meeting her great friend Emma again.

Back home we sat near the fire and soaked in it's warmth. My mother spoke first.."She was a fine woman. Always so straight and tall, a very respectable woman."

My grandmother looking into the fire said "She was a fine person. She never had a bad word to say about anyone, even her awful sister, Everything she had was taken away from her, her great talent and her fine captain."

"No one deserves so much bad luck."

"She was a real lady, she was too good for this world.''

What has always struck when thinking about Emma, is how unjust life can sometimes be. She could well have been a very famous pianist but one act of horrific cruelty by her sister stole her talent away, and, having found the love of her life, he was taken from her after just one year. Disowned by her family and ignored by her former friends she found herself consigned to a life of extreme poverty. However, she also found herself among people who didn't care about her religion, her name, where she came from or where she was going. She was another person trying to get along, just as they were. We know she was respected because she was always referred to as Mrs Courtney-Dean.

Now there are no old soldiers to march, no half drunk musicians staggering along cheered by laughing bystanders, no kids beating tin cans and buckets. No old women wearing shawls and no Emma Courtney-Dean to lead the parade.

I like to think that maybe, just maybe, they are all still marching to the same cheerful beat....somewhere far, far away.


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