Subscribe for Unlimited Access to Turtle’s History Quarter.

Includes content from Vanishing Ireland, Easter Dawn, Dublin Docklands, The Irish Pub, Maxol and many more, as well as Waterways Ireland, the Past Tracks project and hundreds of historical articles on Irish families, houses, companies and events.

Graham Greene’s Achill Affair

By Turtle Bunbury (Irish Daily Mail, 4th February 2011)

Graham Greene could hardly say the word ‘Achill’ without feeling an intense pang in his heart. ‘That was where we began’, he explained to his mistress. ‘We probably would never have done more than begin, if we hadn’t had those weeks’.

Achill Island in County Mayo was the scene of the happiest moments in the life of Graham Greene, the great but troubled writer who died twenty years ago this April.

Greene was probably the most successful British novelist of the 1940s and 1950s, with books such as ‘The Quiet American’, ‘Our Man in Havana’, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ and ‘Brighton Rock’.

On Feb 4th 2010, a new adaptation of Greene’s 1938 novel ‘Brighton Rock’ went on general release across Ireland and the UK. The film explores the seedy world of seaside violence and stars Sam Riley as a loathsome, guilt- ridden young gangster called Pinky Browne, along with Helen Mirren and John Hurt.

Directed by Rowan Joffe, this is the second adaptation of Greene’s novel. The 1947 version of ‘Brighton Rock’ was one of the most successful British film noirs of all time, thanks to a mesmerizingly intense breakthrough performance by Richard Attenborough as Pinky.

Even as the rave reviews for the 1947 film were being printed, Graham Greene was curled up on a sofa on Achill Island, merrily entwined with a beautiful, vivacious American heiress called Catherine Walston.

Both Greene and Walston were married at the time. Their romance, which ultimately ran for thirteen years, was the inspiration for Greene’s acclaimed masterpiece ‘The End of the Affair’. Neil Jordan converted the book into an Oscar-nominated movie in 1999.

Greene was very much a British author. However, his connections with Ireland are manifold.

Born in 1904, his father was a Protestant housemaster of a public school in Herefordshire.[i] Green was plagued by intense depression as a teenager, attempting suicide and playing Russian roulette at least six times.

In 1923, aged 19, he and a cousin went to Ireland and walked from Waterford to Dublin, witnessing first hand the effects of the Civil War and the War of Independence.

‘I had a romantic leaning towards the Old IRA of the 1920s and the Irish fight for freedom’, he later said. However, his admiration for the Republican cause had evaporated by 1976 when he remarked: ‘There are no bonds between the terrorists of today and the idealists like Erskine Childers and Michael Collins who were heroes in my youth’.

Three years later, Greene converted to Roman Catholicism in order to marry a Catholic girl called Vivien Dayrell-Browning.[ii] By the mid-1930s, the Greene’s marriage was struggling.[iii] Greene was bored by the tedium of domestic life and desperate to travel and broaden his horizons.

He was by now a well-know novelist and film reviewer. In 1939, he was recruited by MI5 and posted to Sierra Leone, where he worked under Kim Philby, who was later uncovered as a Soviet double agent.

In the winter of 1946 he was introduced to Catherine Walston, the gorgeous New York born wife of a millionaire financier and British Labour party politician. The Walstons marriage was an open one and Catherine, who evidently had a voracious sexual appetite, behaved accordingly.[iv]

One of her best friends was the American sculptor Elen Hooker who had married Irish revolutionary hero Ernie O’Malley in 1935.[v] The O’Malleys lived at Burrishoole Lodge between Newport and Achill Island. Following a visit to the O’Malleys, Walston fell in live with Achill and rented a cottage at Dooagh.

This cottage quickly became Walston’s preferred retreat; all she required was a man to join her.

Walston had a particular passion for priests. One of her best-known lovers was Fr Donal O’Sullivan SJ, sometime director of the Irish Arts Council. It is not known why she fancied clerics in particular, but presumably it had something to do with her decision to convert to the Catholic church in 1946, just weeks before she first met Greene.

When they met, Greene was a 42-year-old author and Walston was a 30-year-old mother of five small children. Before long the pair were flying into Shannon Airport and bumbling along the back-roads of County Mayo in Walston’s Ford. They spent close on three weeks together in Dooagh, snuggled up in a traditional stone cottage with a corrugated iron roof, an outside tap for water and no electricity.

Greene was deeply inspired by Achill.[vi] He found an ambience, both physical and spiritual, that enabled him to write his next book, ‘The Heart of the Matter’. Set in Sierra Leone and published in 1948, it was another massive bestseller.

`I want to begin the next book with you in Ireland’, he wrote to Walston. ‘If possible at Achill.’ And later, ‘I long to have you lazily stretched on an Achill sofa with a book and a pencil and interrupt you every 10 minutes with something I want to talk about, and every 12 minutes (with how) I was in love.’[vii]

Walston complied and the couple began to make regular visits to Achill. `Ireland is breaking in on me irresistibly’, cooed Greene. The first years of the affair were spent between Achill, the Italian island of Capri, the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the yacht of Greene’s good friend, Hungarian film director Alexander Korda.

But Ireland was where Greene felt most at ease. They travelled all over the west, visiting pubs and churches, walking the banks of the Shannon, enjoying late nights in Galway and Westport.

Walston introduced Greene to Jack B. Yeats and persuaded him to buy two of his paintings, A Horseman Enters a Town at Night and Man In A Room Thinking. Those two paintings were sold by Christie’s of London in November 2010 for £349,250 (€412,000) and £66,050 (€77,560) respectively, and are presently on exhibition at the Model in Sligo.

In 1951, Greene published ‘The End of the Affair’ which he dedicated to ‘C’; the American publication was ‘To Catherine.’ The book was immediately banned in Ireland for its lewd content but ironically won the American Catholic Literary Award the following year.[viii] The story follows Bendix, a novelist, and his relationship with Sarah, married to a man she likes but doesn’t love. Bendix becomes obsessed with her but the relationship is always on a downward spiral.[ix]

It was evident to many that the book was auto-biographical but even as Hollywood stepped forward to film the book, Greene refused to give up on Walston.[x] He urged her to get a divorce and marry him. `I love you wildly, hopelessly, crazily’, he wrote, bombarding her with written memories of their time together.

Some hold that Walston had begun a second affair with O’Malley whose marriage to Elen had collapsed.[xi] The old revolutionary and the American heiress were often to be seen knocking back whiskey shots in the local pub before they headed back to Walston’s cottage arm in arm.

In any event, the affair was at an end.

`There’s been no release only sadness’, wrote Greene in 1958. ‘I think the answer is quite simple. I think that you are so lovely and so nice that I was always afraid of losing you even the first times on Achill, I was jealous of Ernie. I’m sorry. It’s the way I am.’

Greene later settled in Antibes on the south of France where he lived with another married woman until his death in 1991. Walston died in 1978, with her husband and eldest son at her bedside.[xii]

Greene maintained his Irish links until his death. In the 1970s, he visited Joyce’s Martello Tower with Sean O’Faolain, one of a number of Irish writers he rated highly, alongside Flann O’Brien and George Bermingham. He also met SDLP leader Gerry Fitt in Antrim to consider the Irish question.[xiii]

In 1989 he presented the GPA book award to John Banville and was greeted with a standing ovation that moved him to tears. ‘It was far better than the Nobel Prize’ he remarked afterwards. It transpired to be one of his last, if not his last, public appearance.

The house in Dooagh on Achill Islane where he and Catherine stayed still stands today. It belonged to the great-grandmother of a 2018 Wistorical correspondent by name of Emmet Callaghan.

[i] His father Charles Greene was headmaster of Berkhampsted School, founded in 1543, in a small Hertfordshire town just 40 minutes from London’s Euston Station. His mother Marion Raymond Greene was a cousin of the famous British novelist Robert Louis-Stevenson. In 1910, Graham’s uncle Edward Greene moved to the same town, a businessman who had made a large fortune in the Brazilian coffee trade

[ii] In 1926, the 22-year-old Greene converted to Roman Catholicism, just as Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark and Tony Blair would later do. His subsequent works were acclaimed for his ability to give Catholicism what his biographer Michael G Brennan described as ‘a more universal resonance’ in which he explored ‘issues like liberation theology, political espionage, religious persecution, the struggle between good and evil, hope and despair, love and betrayal’. Indeed, it was his examination of his doubt over Catholicsm that attracted many readers. If there is a God and he is good, how can it be that the world is so bad? Fellow-convert Evelyn Waugh teased him by remarking that Greene without God would be like Laurel without Hardy.

[iii] He and Vivien parted after the war but never divorced.

[iv] Harry Walston stoically tolerated Greene’s affair with his wife, justly confident that it was just a phase which would blow over.

[v] Born in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, in 1897, the well-to-do O’Malley had emerged as one of the IRA’s most admired leaders by 1920. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, narrowly escaped execution by the Free State Government and became Sinn Fein TD for Dublin North in 1923. Over the next decade, O’Malley became increasing interested in the arts, not least after he spent some months living among the native Americans of New Mexico in 1930. In 1935, he married Helen Hooker, a wealthy American sculptor and tennis player whose sister Blanchette was married to John D. Rockefeller III. The O’Malleys settled in Burrishoole Lodge, midway between Newport and Achill, where they raised three children. The Lodge was situated close to the historic Burrishoole Abbey, the 15th Century Dominican Priory with links to Granuaile (Grace O’Malley), the infamous 15th century Irish pirate queen.

[vi] Others to be hooked on Achill include the artist Paul Henry and the writers Iris Murdoch and Heinrich Böll.

[vii] Greene also wrote ‘The Fallen Idol’ on Achill.

[viii] Evelyn Waugh described ‘The End of the Affair’ as ‘a book that only a Catholic could write and a Catholic could understand’.

[ix] “When I began to realize how often we quarreled, how often I picked on her with nervous irritation, I became aware that our love was doomed: love had turned into a love-affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour.”

[x] In 1954, ‘The End of the Affair’ movie starred Deborah Kerr. It was filmed again in 1999 by Neil Jordan with Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Rea; Jordan received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.
[xi] William Cash, author of ‘The Third Woman: The Secret Passion that Inspired The End of the Affair’, says that Walston fancied O’Malley because “in addition to being an Irish Republican tough guy, he could also talk painting, sculpture and literature”. (He was a friend and avid collector of Jack B Yeats works).

[xii] From 1961, when he was hit by a near deadly bout of pneumonia, Greene began to spend more and more time in Antibes on the south of France, which he described as the only Rivieran town which had not lost its soul. He had first seen the Mediterranean town a few months before his affair with Walston began, while sailing with the Hungarian cigar-smoking film director Alexander Korda. In 1949, Greene and Korda collaborated to produce The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed. The Third Man – Greene gave many of Korda’s characteristics to Harry Lime – encapsulates the moral degradation left in the aftermath of the war, where survival by any means was the name of the game – a game with which Korda (real name Sandor Kellner) was familiar from his Budapest youth.

Here he lived with Yvonne Cloetta, a French Breton and a Catholic, who was his lover and companion for the last three decades of his life. Cloetta regarded him as an honourable man, as well as kindly, funny and loving. She also recalled how he took her and another woman friend to a whorehouse in Paris with a view to hosting private orgy. Michael Shelden, who wrote one of Greene’s less flattering biographers, claimed Greene would boast that he had ‘fornicated behind every high altar in Europe’. He died in Switzerland on 3rd April 1991.

[xiii] In 1976, Greene Greene flew from Antibes to Aldergrove, where he met with the. Cloetta recalled how he was “quite worried” for his own life before he left. Fitt picked him up and the two set off up the Antrim coast. After calling into many hostelries – “he took a gin and tonic, no ice, no lemon, just as I like it” – the pair at last met an inn-keeper who had heard of Greene and they retired to his house. The next morning, Fitt left Greene on the couch and returned to Belfast with a hangover. That evening Greene flew out, cancelling a meeting with the then secretary of state, Merlyn Rees. One day in this lovely and beautiful country was enough, he said. Years later, Fitt says, Greene refused to attend literary awards in Dublin unless Fitt came too. He did and they sat together.
In 1977, he again visited Belfast to decide upon the Irish problem. He told his friend Pierre Joannon, Honorary Consul General for Ireland in the south of France: ‘Since I was a teenager, I had a romantic leaning towards the Old IRA of the 1920s, and the Irish fight for freedom. Today the situation is very different. I don’t see any similarity between the Provisional IRA and the Old IRA. There are no bonds between the terrorists of today and the idealists like Erskine Childers and Michael Collins who were heroes in my youth’.

In Dublin he stayed at the Russell Hotel in Dublin, as well as the home of poet and novelist Katherine Tynan in Whitehall, then a small country estate between Tallaght and Clondalkin.