A LIFE LESS ORDINARY?Majorie Wallace-Le is much travelled but loves ‘the sense of community’ in Achill.
Marjorie Wallace-Le’s memoir may be a cosmopolitan journey but the hearth in her island home was always warm
SHE can say: “You can open your eyes now,” in 14 different languages but these days inveterate traveller, Marjorie Wallace-Le is happiest in her little cottage on the side of Slievemore on Achill island. Like much of her colourful life the story of the Scottish anaesthetist’s purchase of this cottage, once part of the famous Deserted Village, is interesting in itself.
She bought it from the former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Des O’Malley, in 1968 after he decided to enter politics when his uncle Donogh O’Malley, the famous minister who introduced free secondary education, died suddenly.
The Trinity graduate (1961) had just been working for a year in Sweden where the pay was good and for the first time in her life she had savings – £200. Initially she planned to buy a cottage in Connemara but when her friend Gin (short for Virginia) showed her a two-page spread in a newspaper about the historic Amethyst Hotel on Achill Island they changed their route towards Connemara, crossed that famous bridge and booked into the iconic hotel where they were soon pestering the owner, the late Thea Boyd, about old properties for sale.
The sale was agreed quickly and over the coming decades she would return from the far-flung places where she worked – New York, Brunei, Vietnam – to her beloved retreat at least once a year.
Other than Achill, Brunei would be the longest place where she ever settled was but it was while working in Saigon that she met her late husband, Thi.
“After I attended the Anaesthesia World Congress in 1972, I arranged to work in Saigon for a three-month stint. This was during the Vietnam war and my job was at a plastic-surgery unit for children with napalm burns, cleft palates and a dreadful disease called Noma, which eats your face away. I though I wouldn’t stick the three months but after a while all I saw was the smiles on these children’s faces,” says Marjorie.
It was then she met Thi, an engineer from Hanoi, to whom she was married until his death in 1993. Ironically, even though they were living in Saigon with rockets flying over them on a daily basis, Thi initially declined to come to Ireland because of the Northern Troubles.
“We were evacuated to Singapore on the last British plane out of Saigon in 1975 when the communists took over. It was sad but not frightening even though I thought for a while that my husband or his mother wouldn’t get passports. But in the end the British Embassy wangled passports and his mother, who was over 90 at the time, appeared on the front of a newspaper pictured in a military airport as ‘the oldest refugee’.”
After four years in Singapore they moved to Brunei where they both worked for the following 13 years until Thi was made redundant and so they decided to return to Vietnam to build a retirement home. In the meantime Marjorie sought employment in Hong Kong but her life was turned upside –down when Thi died suddenly just two weeks before the house-warming party.
Happily, however, he had eventually made it to Achill.
“The first time Thi came to Achill he was a bit taken-aback by the bleakness and the weather but he really got to like it. My friend Thea, from the Amethyst, once gave him a book with the inscription: ‘To Thi who has become Achillclimatised’.”
Four years after her husband’s death Marjorie moved to Achill permanently. And for someone who inherited a travelling bug from both her paternal and maternal forebears, there is nowhere in the world that she would rather be.
“What I love about Achill is the sense of community and all my friends. We meet in Lourdie’s in Dooagh every Friday evening for a couple of drinks.”
Lourdie’s may be in a windswept spot at the edge of the ocean but with friends like artists Camille Souter and sculptor, Ronan Halpin, the conversation is bound to be exotic.
MARJORIE’S memoir, ‘Have Stethoscope Will Travel’ was launched late last month by Dr Edward King, courtesy of the Achill Heinrich Boll Association, in the Cyril Gray Memorial Hall. This is an excerpt about her first visit to Achill:
“Arriving at the Amethyst Hotel, we found the door open and the lights on but not a soul in sight. From the reception area, we entered the vast dining room, calling ‘Hello’ to no avail. The embers of a turf fire glowed at the end of the room and a sofa and armchairs were arranged around the hearth; none occupied.
No one in the kitchen either. A corridor behind the dining room revealed several doors, all firmly closed. Wandering back to the dying fire, we warmed our hands, added some turf and wondered would we have to find somewhere else to stay, when a man appeared and gave us a warm welcome…. He was Roger Shackleton, nephew, it turned out of Shackleton the explorer. He was an artist living on the other side of Blacksod Bay, and had come over to help Thea out, the owner of the hotel, as her cook had gone off sick. Then the woman herself appeared and made us welcome before disappearing, to return with hot Gaelic coffees for each of us.”
MORE “Have Stethoscope Will Travel” by Marjorie Wallace-Le is on sale for €13.50 in many shops in Achill and at The Book Shop, Westport, and Castle Books, Castlebar.