Colbert Kearney, a pupil and a long-time friend of Eugene Watters, remembers seeing Una’s portrait of her husband in the making when he visited their home in the early 1960s.
I remember this portrait, E. R. Watters (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) emerging on Una’s easel in Cappagh Cross and admiring her ability to conjure up such a convincing image of a man I had been familiar with since—some seven years earlier—he had taught me during my final year in St Fergal’s Boys National School on the Cappagh Road in Finglas.
Seeing it again more than half a century later was a Pygmalion moment: I expected the image in the frame to turn and talk to me, so miraculously had the artist captured not only the appearance but also the essence of the man at a crucial stage in his career.
Una had been married to Eugene for 20 years and probably knew him better than he knew himself. Not having children of their own, they spent most of those years in the Arcadian tranquility of her native place in the countryside beyond Finglas, the remainder in and around Eugene’s native Ballinasloe. Otherwise they lived quietly and for each other. And for their respective art – his writing and her painting.
Teaching had not been Eugene’s chosen profession. An obviously brilliant student, he had won a scholarship to University College Galway and must have thought his dream of studying his beloved languages—Greek and Latin, English and Irish—at the highest level had come true. But his family could not afford to maintain him in Galway and he had to settle for teacher training in Drumcondra. He never forgot the heartbreak of the scholarship forgone, never lost his love of learning, could never conceal a degree of disdain for academics.
A consolation during these years of Emergency, (1939-1945), was his service as a commissioned officer in the National Army. He was immensely proud of this role and was married in his uniform. For boys who were eager to learn he was a wonderful teacher; the others kept their heads down in order to avoid military discipline Lieutenant Watters was not above imposing in the classroom.
He could never forgive teaching for taking the time he wanted to devote to writing. His first major success had been as Eoghan Ó Tuarisc in the Oireachtas literary competitions but soon this was matched by the work of Eugene Watters. While working away, Eugene and Una shared a relatively secluded life, avoiding the pubs and cliques of Bohemian Dublin, but this changed when Alan Figgis published first Eugene’s novel, Murder in Three Moves in 1960, and in 1964, his long poem The Week-End of Dermot and Grace and his Irish collection Lux Aeterna.
He had emerged on to the main stage and could contemplate to bidding farewell to the classroom. Many cautioned him against trading his permanent pensionable post for the vicissitudes of full-time writing but Una, knowing his mind better than anybody else, was a solitary voice of support.
And that is when she has caught him in this portrait, dated to 1965. At 46 he’s conscious of being close to the height of his powers, knowing that the poems published in the previous year constituted an unprecedented, bilingual achievement. Nor is there anything amateur about this man of letters. His demeanour, especially his eyes, are those of a soldier whose discipline has seen him through a long campaign, of a Platonist who has seen into the life of things.
But not even he could see what a happy chance it was that Una had seized the moment when she did. Within a year she was dead and Eugene—soon unrecognisable from the confident figure of the portrait—was about to spend some grim years in the wilderness, an Orpheus search of his Eurydice, repeating with a new conviction a favourite quotation from Herodotus: to theion esti phthoneron. The gods are envious.
Eugene and Una on their wedding day, March 10, 1945