Thursday, 1 April 2004

Legacy of an
Irishwoman
who loved
a Greek writer

Letter from Crete
Patrick Comerford


Crete is the island of myth and literature. It is the island of the Minotaur, El Greco and Theodorakis. And it the island of Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece’s most celebrated modern writer.

Kazantzakis was born in Iraklion in 1883. His works include translations of Homer, Aeschylus and Dante, the epic poem Odyssey, and the novels that earned him acclaim in the West, especially Zorba the Greek. By one vote, he lost the Nobel Prize for Literature to Albert Camus a few days before he died in 1957.

Manolis Chrysakis and his family are proud of their kinship with Kazantzakis. One balmy summer's evening with the Chrysakis family in Crete, Manolis’s uncle, the late Kostas Chrysakis, pored over old family photographs, postcards and letters, sharing childhood memories of his famous “Uncle Nikos”. Kostas treasured his photographs of his uncle's funeral, attended by older Cretans dressed in traditional island costumes, like Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight. The author’s grave is marked by a plain cross and the simple epitaph: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.”

In Report to Greco – an autobiographical novel edited by Eleni Kazantzakis and published four years after her husband’s death – Nikos Kazantzakis described falling in love with “an Irish girl” in the summer of 1902. She had arrived in Iraklion four years earlier as an English language teacher and they shared a love for music and poetry. “What joy when I began to saunter through English lyric poetry with this Irish girl! The language, its vowels and consonants, had become so many warbling birds,” he wrote.

Early one September morning, the couple climbed Mount Psilor√≠tis, and he told a village priest they met that she was “the daughter of a pastor on a distant, verdant island”. As they talked, “the priest ... wagered that if the girl’s father had been with us, he would have converted him to Orthodoxy in one night.”

The pair separated the day before Kazantzakis left to study in Athens that autumn – he was 19 and she was 26. However, the Irish teacher’s identity remained a secret, even years later when he recounted the affair in Report to Greco. Kostas Chrysakis once told me his family knew about her but had no clues to her identity. The writer’s widow, Eleni, was aware of all her husband’s previous lovers and met many of them, but for most of her life she too never knew the identity of this Irish woman. Many researchers thought she was another Cretan myth, a romantic figure invented as a literary device by the writer himself.

Eleni’s goddaughter, Niki Stavrou of the Kazantzakis Foundation in Athens, also doubted whether she could ever establish her identify: “She seemed to me like a character drawn out of an Irish fairy tale, or at least an imagined dream-lover made up by the wishful imagination of a young author.” When Kazantzakis left Crete for Athens, his young Irish teacher “disappears a short while afterwards without leaving behind her the slightest trail. It sounded too magical to happen to anyone, even to a charmed spirit like Kazantzakis.” Now, however, new clues have identified this long-anonymous lover as Kathleen Forde, a rector’s daughter from Ireland. Niki’s father, Patroklos Stavrou, the adopted son of Eleni Kazantzakis, recently found notes this Irish woman sent to Kazantzakis and naming her as Kathleen Forde.

As he removed the notes tenderly from their protective wrapping, he said to his daughter: “If only we could find her!” At first, Niki’s search proved fruitless. “I am sure you can imagine how many Kathleen Fordes I found in Ireland.” Then an unexpected email arrived from Cathy Scaife in Western Canada, a descendant of Lewis Ogilby Forde, brother of a Kathleen Forde who was born in Ireland in 1876 and whose father was a Church of Ireland rector.

Kathleen left Crete soon after that tender summer, taking with her a secret she never revealed to her family. She followed her brothers to Canada before settling, around 1928 in California, where she may have found happiness in marriage to August Eberhardt. In an old family recipe box, Cathy Scaife found a recipe written by Kathleen and a little note with Christmas and New Year greetings to her brother Lewis and his wife Dorothy: “I find being married has done so much in settling me down and making me stick to things.” Comparing the handwriting with the notes found by Patroklos Stavrou, Greek police graphologists confirmed the handwriting was the same as that of Kazantzakis’s Kathleen.

Did Kathleen ever recover from her tempestuous affair with Nikos? “I can only imagine a young woman with a broken heart, having to hear people talk about him everywhere she went,” says Niki Stavrou. Kathleen died alone in a psychiatric hospital in Santa Cruz on October 8th, 1963. “Life can often outshine fiction in the most beautiful and tragic way,” says Niki.

For decades, Kathleen Forde’s identity had escaped me. Returning to the search, I found she was born on February 1st, 1876, in Kilcronaghan Rectory, Tobermore, Co Derry, the eldest daughter of Canon Hugh Forde (1847-1929). Unlike Kathleen’s Greek lover, Dr Forde never became a celebrated writer, but he wrote at least three books, travelled as far as Canada, Gibraltar and Morocco, was a senator of the University of Dublin, and had a doctorate in laws – the sort of priest who would have enjoyed theological debates with the village priest who was once host to Kathleen and Nikos.

When Eleni Kazantzakis died in Athens this February at the age of 102, she was brought to Crete to be buried beside her husband on the old Venetian walls of Iraklion, close to the spot where Kathleen Forde found love and romance on her Greek island generations before Shirley Valentine.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 1 April 2004