Category Archives: Ghosts
This feels slightly weird but in the run-up to the launch of Room Little Darker next Wednesday, 31st May (Hodges Figgis, 6pm, all welcome!) I wanted to post this author interview Catherine Dunne did with me on her website as it discusses some of the stories in the book as well as wider themes. So excuse the narcissism, and enjoy!
1 – ‘SOMAT’ is also part of this new story collection. Narrated from the point of view of a foetus, it is, among other things, a howl of outrage against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which can reduce pregnant women in Ireland to the status of incubators. But it is the irreverent inventiveness of the language that really grabs the reader by the throat. Can you give us an insight into how you gave life to this particular voice?
J.C.: – There were two Frankensteinesque stories of women held captive in monstrous situations in 2014 that really smashed me in the gut and made me angry as hell. A woman from Texas called Marlise Munoz, who was 14 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child when her husband found her unconscious on their kitchen floor. She’d suffered an pulmonary embolism. Though doctors pronounced her brain dead and her family explicitly said they didn’t want machines keeping her body alive, officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth felt differently.
The law in Texas is very like ours in Ireland. It required them to maintain life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient as long as there was a foetal heartbeat. Keeping a woman alive against nature’s will (her body was essentially rotting and she had to be drowned out in ‘somatic’ medicines to keep her ‘technically’ alive) as a human incubator when the baby/foetus is in no way viable was such a hideous scenario.
Her family fought their own grief and powerlessness for eight long weeks, having to go to court several times, before she could be taken off the machines. Think of the trauma of that? And the law is supposed to be there to ‘protect’ you?
Her husband, Erick Munoz, argued that sustaining her body artificially amounted to ‘the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body’ against her wishes and those of her family. That was at the beginning of the year.
June Caldwell’s stories are the roar of fury and clarity that Irish fiction has been needing – no really, it has. You haven’t read anything like this before. You haven’t had anything before like the headspin that these stories will give you. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re gaspingly, gutsily hilarious, as well as formally brave and unbothered with the rules. Just brilliant – Belinda McKeon
At the end of the year, an almost identical situation happened in Ireland. A woman who had suffered a spontaneous ‘brain’ trauma who was 18 weeks pregnant, ended up at the mercy of bonkers legislation in an ‘unnamed’ hospital, being fought over by medical staff, legal eagles and the Catholic church. The hospital refused her family’s request to discontinue artificial life support, citing ‘the country’s strict abortion law’ as their guideline. Then there was the usual circus offerings: lawyers representing the rights of the woman and of the fetus, but not her family, said they accepted the ruling from the country’s second-highest court.
Pro-life organisations saw the lingering horror as a kind of triumph in real-time and the men in dresses were issuing statements from stained-glass windows on God’s law over woman’s fate.
It was insane and really upsetting to read about. One doctor commented that the fetus was essentially “facing into a ‘perfect storm’ from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive.”
Even the most cogent argument couldn’t alter the facts, the ‘baby’ had nothing but distress and death ahead. The hospital was afraid of being sued for negligence or having to face murder charges under a 1983 constitutional ban on abortion, the strictest in Europe. Keeping her deteriorating body functioning only with the help of machines and drugs deprived her “of dignity in death”.
It subjected her father, her partner and her young children to “unimaginable distress in a futile exercise which commenced only because of fears held by treating medical specialists of potential legal consequences,” the court decided.
And of course, Government officials said the ruling would be studied for possible exceptions to the blanket ban on abortion. We live in a time where we are contemplating colonies on Mars and yet there are women left lingering in this freakish state in our hospitals, with their families suffering ridiculously.
It boiled my piss.
I wanted to write a story that reflected the trajectory of horror and I felt that it was best told from the fetus’s perspective, to highlight the hideousness. After spending years in journalism and being restricted on what you could say and how you could say it, I firmly believe that fiction can be more effective, more politicised.
wrote the story in a fit of anger to the 3,000 word brief (which was hard to do and sent it into Sinéad Gleeson, who was editing The Long Gaze Back anthology).
I was really nervous about how it would be received, if it came across as offensive, if it would get people talking. It turned out to be one of the most talked about stories in the collection.
The Open University now want it on their MA in Creative Writing (fiction module) and have asked permission to use it for the next nine years. That gave me hope that I have it in me to make a difference. Up until that point I had no idea if I could write a short story or not. Writing the story helped me understand the stupidity of our laws and the need to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and go for a referendum. I hope it happens. It needs to happen.
June Caldwell’s writing is audacious, wicked and profoundly funny; her prose cracks and sizzles. The stories in Room Little Darker are literary electrical storms and Caldwell’s voice is a genuinely fresh, bold and welcome addition to the Irish scene – Nuala O’Connor
2 – The characters in your stories often inhabit a nightmarish world, such as that wildly imagined one in ‘Imp of the Perverse’. They are frequently transported there by the ferocity of sexual desire:
‘In the garden I watch the guests through the heat of amber eyes. Grasses bristle and jostle. I stretch forward to lie flat in the flimsy sunshine of early evening. The clouds are hungry and my mouth waters. Wind tears at itself as I pull layers from the sky to lay over me. Laughter grey and mocking. They do not know the danger love carries.’
Can you talk to us about this – about ‘the danger love carries’ in your stories?
J.C.: – Well, yes, in adult life we are obliged to be ‘civil’ always, aren’t we, to be well behaved?
We’re not marauding teenagers anymore.
But sometimes we can’t or don’t choose our desires and the people who counter-inhabit them. They choose us. They untangle us. They sweep in from the unconscious and take us over, eat us up, make fools of us, flood us. Crazy behaviour can only follow. Desire as the invisible puppeteer. And these desires are often strongest where hierarchies exist, where taboo beckons, where warped lust lurks. In this story I wanted to look closely at two stereotypes: the randy professor who has more choice than sense, and the love-struck MA student who at first is overwhelmed by a genuine admiration for him and his work, but pretty soon that morphs into a dangerous longing.
The longing takes over and acts as Theatre Director in the drama, leading into murky corners, embarrassing come-ons. He, of course, plays with this at first, before becoming sickened or appalled by her. He is used to seducing women with his mind, ‘pinning’ with his eyes, flinging provocative sentences, lassoing.
He sees himself as a Gingerman type character and everyone is fair game.
Until the game goes wrong.
His character is quietly psychopathic. He’s addicted to the pleasure he gets from luring people in, of women wanting him, lasciviousness. He pulls the strings, the wires, he cracks the whip. His position also allows for this. It is the milky environment of emotional cancer, the alkaline is missing. He has a vast brain and deeply abusive psychological patterns that direct him. He’s also a fail-safe opportunist.
She’s not a victim though.
She’s also very clever and plays the ‘little girl’ around him a lot, knowing he likes the dynamism of that. But then she loses control and spills overboard, along with her sanity, ending up in the freezing cold sea. The only way she can cope with the idea of him is to turn him into an animal in her head, where he is predator and she is [willing] prey.
All well and good, but the game goes wrong when she realises he has no interest in her. She cannot compete with what he normally goes for. She unravels. Self-annihilation and destruction consume her. It’s all a bit disgusting and shameful. On the surface she seems to be the gudgeon, the martyr.
But then she examines his behaviour inside the kaleidoscope of power and realises that he can behave as he likes. The expectations on her, in the ‘lower’ hierarchical role, are more demanding and rigid. She gets angry and this perpetuates even more destructive behaviour. It’s a no-win. Going back is futile, revenge is futile, going forward is futile. She is straitjacketed. He will never like her, consider her, want her. His available pool of lovelies who admire him endlessly is so large, he drowns in it. They both drown, but in different ways. In the end she wanders into the ‘den’ and has a breakdown. What will happen when she emerges from that desolate place and sees more clearly? Sees that he’s just a man (how boring!).
What then? Will she feel remorse, will she feel sorry for him? Will she learn important things about herself? He doesn’t care however, and formally complains, consequence pours in regardless. She’s punished severely for her ‘transgression’. He’s every right to do what he does.
He’s also every right to bob along never scrutinising his own behaviour because he never believes he causes damage. It’s all just light-hearted ‘stuff’ to him. Maybe he is the ‘victim’ here, maybe he did nothing wrong.
She could be just relentlessly nuts after all. I want the reader to consider the macro, to like and hate and understand both characters. The meaning of meaninglessness! I use Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Imp of the Perverse’ as a type of metaphor or structure for the story. In his original short story, which Poe wrote in part as an essay, he first discusses the narrator’s self-destructive impulses, embodied as the symbolic metaphor of The Imp of the Perverse.
The narrator describes this spirit as the agent that tempts a person to do things ‘merely because we feel we should not.’ He talks about how we are compelled to ‘commit acts’ against our self interest in life, that this is part of our intrinsically destructive impulses as human beings. The guilt that’s produced afterwards (even if we ‘confess’ to our ridiculous behaviour, our sins) is also futile. No one cares! Poe’s character eventually commits murder, gets away with it, but the overwhelming desire [triggered by an ‘invisible fiend’ pursuing him, the conscience] to confess leads him to the hangman’s alley.
I thought it would be the perfect metaphor to look at destructive desire and the crippling lonely lows it can lead us into.
I use some of Poe’s text in the story, sneakily.
It’s there in some of the sentences, but the modern context of the setting submerges the original text.
The moral of the story is that desire can be as treacherous as love is relative. We need to know how to handle it, how to bury it, how to accept defeat and walk off, how to forgive ourselves. Ultimately how to accept that sometimes we have no control. Perhaps it’s the only way we can truly learn.
This story could also be written about a priest and one of his congregation, a paedophile and a child, an alligator zig-zagging towards a juicy deer strolling aimlessly by. Ying without the Yang, sexual chemistry in a cul-de-sac.
Poe’s theory of the Imp of the Perverse is an early notion of the subconscious and repression which would not be fully theorised until Freud.
When people meet they’ve no real idea what private psychologies they’re banging off. It’s why we have boundaries in life. Rules. When we ignore them, or evade our own splurging instincts, we get into trouble. It was too tempting to have the student protagonist ‘win’ in the end by ripping him to shreds for hurting her, but that’s not realistic. The end is deliberately anti-climactic. Maybe they are both still out there and have learnt nothing in their separate dusty cubby-holes. That’s what I imagine anyway. Love, lust, desire, even the ugly deluded kind, are potentially traumatic and betraying to the delicate self. There is no midway point, no resolve, no understanding. We become marked, spoiled, swinging off the rope forever. Tread carefully and make sure there’s rubber soles on your slippers to cope with the rain.
June Caldwell’s stories are savagely inventive, full-throttle snapshots of the creepy, pitiable world it seems we all now have to live in. If the ghost of Angela Carter and a hungover George Saunders ever got together, they might turn out tales as full of the righteous ire and strychnine wit as the uproarious stories in Room Little Darker – Colin Barrett
3 – Your writer’s imagination seems to me to be a heady mix of hilarity and horror. In the visceral tale ‘Upcycle’, a daughter recalls the chilling abuse of a now-demented father. Yet the tale is leavened with a hearty dose of black humour, such as the mother’s futile attempt, long ago, to ‘poison his stew’. There are many times when the reader laughs, and then feels uncomfortable for laughing. Can you talk to us about the role of humour in your stories?
J.C.: – I always see the funny even in the horrific or even just in the ‘every day’.
Maybe it’s a feeling of healthy dislocation, but I find a lot of life ‘unreal’, and that also includes how we cope with memory. I’ve never grown up, essentially. We forget too that there are always two in a tango, that everyone bears the weight of responsibility, for their relationships, for their actions, and most tellingly, for their lack of action.
The crime of nonchalance, of missing the point of life. The ‘wife’ character in ‘Upcycle’ is portrayed first of all as a bit of a victim but really we have to ask ourselves, what’s in it for her staying with a man like that? Is it societal pressure of the time (the story swings back and forth from the 1970s and 1980s to the present day where the ‘husband’ is in a nursing home)? Again it is a story about the shifting sands of power: a man who is a bully in his marriage but is now out of control with the mites of madness eating his brain, behaves accordingly.
He loses control but tries to regain some of that control by haunting his family. Is he really haunting them or is it their own conscience playing havoc in the aftermath of a traumatic situation? The house becomes a metaphor for the man’s strong seething will and starts to break up all around them (the wife and daughter).
I guess there’s unintentional humour in that.
In the scenario itself. Fun in the absurd. We expect justice in life, appeasement, release from hard situations. It often doesn’t arrive, it doesn’t grace our doorstep.
Life tells us, ‘You picked this shit, deal with it, smell it, stick it right up your nose.’ Humour is sometimes our only saviour. Without giving too much away, by the end of the story, the protagonist realises that the father was always terrified of them, while they lived it in real time the other way around. Humour in hopelessness, the wrangle for reason.
What else is there to do sometimes but laugh? I hope that there is fun and humour is most of these stories. In ‘Leitrim Flip’ for instance, the scenario is horrific, but again the couple’s predicament in the cage is a consequence of not thinking things through clearly. There’s buffoonery in the role reversal: the ‘submissive’ character relents and accepts her fate. The ‘Master’ continually fights their predicament and refuses to accept it. Yet in his traditional role he’d expect her to handle anything he’d dream of dishing out.
In ‘The Man Who Lives In A Tree’, the tree is seemingly a ‘friend’ but Rashi soon realises that he’s a malevolent git. A Facebook friend who was sent a review copy wrote to me today to say she had ‘nightmares’ after reading the story.
She dreamt Liam Neeson turned into the tree and chased her.
I couldn’t stop laughing at that image. If I give people nightmares or make them laugh, I’ve done my job as a writer.
My 83-year-old Ma asked me why I wrote about ‘a tree who could talk’, and I said, ‘why not?’ Hippies believe that trees whisper and have voices. Maybe they do. And we, as people, as wreckers of the environment must piss them off no end. But all we feel is pity for ourselves, not for the havoc we wreak. The tree doesn’t care too much for humans, even ones like Rashi who are homeless and desperate. Why should it? That shouldn’t be funny, but maybe it is. I also feel guilty sometimes about using humour in inappropriate ways.
In ‘Dubstopia’ we should feel nothing but concern for the heroin addict character, but we end up laughing at the pointlessness of his day, at his own lack of control, at a city sizzling in menace. When I worked at the Irish Writers Centre, I remember one day standing outside in the porch to get some air, and I saw this really dishevelled junkie, he looked in a terrible state, really emaciated… and he stopped to read the menu outside Chapter One (you know, that really posh expensive Michelin star restaurant!). He looked like he’d emerged from a crumby bedsit, woken by the pains of hunger that pulled him out onto the street. He was reading the menu out loud driving himself mad! I knew it wasn’t funny per se, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
I felt bad but laughed for two days over that.
I felt ugly for my own immorality of being able to find this funny. It made me uncomfortable. I want my stories to do the same. Humour, laughter, to just plomp your face in your hands and say, ‘For fuck’s sake!’, is a great balm. We laugh uncontrollably from the time we’re babies and everything is hideous and new and distorted, to the hilarious cartoons of childhood that calm and teach us, to our mortifying teenage romances, right up to the myriad of things that can and do go wrong for us as adults. Humour is also a close colleague of pain. There is so much in life that is privately hellish or impossible to cope with. If we can take a moment to laugh, then isn’t that great? We’re all strolling towards the crematorium anyway. Imagine taking any of this shit seriously?
There is a seriously charged imagination at work here. Line by line, page by page, Caldwell brings a dangerous new voltage to the Irish short story – Mike McCormack
4 – Your stories deal with characters who find themselves ‘unmoored’ in a strange and hostile parallel universe. Although dark and terrifying, the world that you create is kept vibrant and somehow optimistic by the sheer energy of the language that you use – your metaphors are arresting, startling, illuminating. Is language or character the starting-point for you?
J.C.: – I love language!
I listen to how people speak, not formally, but how, you know, we have conversations in the pub or even in our heads (have you ever taken time out to listen to your head, it’s terrifying!) With ‘Natterbean’ for instance: that came about one day in a taxi. A junkie walked out in front of the cab and the taxi driver said, ‘I hate them fucking Natterbeans’. I asked him what he meant. ‘Every time they get into the car, they’re all ‘I’m natterbean up at the clinic and yer man said…’ and so on. It was his word for ‘I’m after been’, said in a frenzy. I thought, ‘I’m robbing that!’ Language straight off the street, right from the gob of a taxi man, you can’t get more Joycean than that.
Taxi men are the modern-day carriers of all things Ulysses.
Their warblings are a great example of how language is used to best effect in ordinary ways, in storytelling. Taxi men always tell you stories and they do it brilliantly.
We learn how to write ‘essays’ in school in Victoriana English. Short story writing is the opposite of that, in any fiction, we’re trying to mirror reality as we live and experience it. In SOMAT the foetus is not really talking like a foetus (we all know they can’t talk, right?) and the voice is peculiarly adult and ‘knowing’, but at the same time it breaks up/away into baby speak sometimes.
I wanted to give a flavour of ‘what if’. Voice for me is the most important thing in any writing. How that character inhabits their own reality. I admire writers who use language in subtle beautiful ways, but that’s not me.
My heroine in this regard is Eimear McBride, what she does with language in ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ is off the scale brilliant.
She knows how language is formed in the brain through her study of linguistics and she worked with that. It floored me. Seeing it performed on stage shook me to the core. It’s the best example of stellar use of language I can think of. I’m not in that league at all but I take inspiration from her.
I love reading a book where the character (and the writer in their role of occupying that character) seems almost possessed. Ross Raisin in ‘God’s Own Country’ or even ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold.
I hope that I use language effectively to make each of the stories different from one another. I’ve read short story collections where ‘the voice’ is the same throughout and while there’s great skill involved in achieving this, it’s not for me. I want each story to be so separate and identifiable from the next.
The average word usage for anyone using spoken English is between 20,000 and 35,000 words, but the Oxford English Dictionary lists at least 171,476 words with thousands of obsolete ones no longer in use. Look how much language has changed since the advent of social media? All those new buzz words and vowel-less offerings?
Language, like sexuality, is fluid, and it’s the writer’s job to exploit this to the best of their ability.
It’ll be interesting to see if some of the language in my ‘Oirish’ stories carries to an audience outside of here. Will it work or will it bore? Writers like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh have done Scottish street language proud. How will we move with the high-tech languages of the future and still stay true to our own unique way of expressing ourselves?
5 – After this blistering collection Room Little Darker, what’s next for June Caldwell, Writer?
J.C.: – I’ve a few short story commissions to write now (for The Lonely Crowd Welsh literary journal and Winter Papers here) and after that it’s time to return to an abandoned novella: a murderous tale about one of Ireland’s missing women, told from the dead, with a twist.
I was obsessed with the ‘triangle’ of missing murdered women that happened in the 1990s, but my story moves on a bit in time and looks at the idea of murderous intent and how so many men get away with the ultimate violence against women, and how as a country, we are still utterly unprepared to deal with that scenario.
I began the story on the MA in Belfast, but I’d never attempted fiction and it was very disparate and all over the place. That’s the next job at hand. After that, I may go for a ‘big’ novel. I also love hybrids: mixes of non-fiction and fiction. I feel like I’ve spent two decades in an incubator ‘waiting’ to write.
I can’t understand why I didn’t do it earlier. So I want to have all my babies now in quick succession. Then I’ll retire to the countryside to have as much sex as I can and look at the sea endlessly before I die. Well, hold on, I’m only in my forties so maybe there’s plenty of time to write a whole slew of disturbing books where I’ll be labelled a lunatic but one day someone will say ‘Yer one, she was a difficult narky character alright, but she could string a sentence together OK’. That to me, would be a life well lived.
Last year after the publication of my short story SOMAT in The Long Gaze Back, I was asked to contribute to various events and public readings. I decided to say a big resounding YES to anything I was asked to write/do as an important part (for me) of being a writer is taking on the challenge of reading in public. I took part in a lot of fun events, the Barrytown Trilogy Readings in Dun Laoghaire when Colm Keegan was Writer in Residence, The Bogman’s Canon Fiction Disco, Staccato, National Concert Hall, among others. (Next Monday: 7th November, I’ll be reading a new short story at The Monday Echo at The Mezz in Temple Bar. It kinda never stops! What I learnt was that writing for public readings demands a different type of narrative, one that is less complex than, say, a short story for the page, where the reader is deliberately left thinking about what is inferred – particularly with story endings – and instead these pieces should concentrate on entertaining the audience in the moment. You have about ten minutes to make yourself understood in these kind of settings. You can do this by concentrating more heavily on dialogue, making stories easier to comprehend and to the point. Who are the main characters, what’s going on, what happens them, what changes. Simple! When I was asked to take part in the Eastrogen Rising as part of the Five Lamps Festival I wanted to write about an ‘unknown’ woman who was caught up in the Rising in some way. Lots of ordinary Dubs were left short of vital supplies (no fridges, people shopped daily for their grub) and forced to loot in order to feed their families, it’s believed now that this is how a lot of the kids who got caught up in the gunfire, died. As reported in the Irish Examiner last March, most of the looting took place in the first three days, amid the crossfire between the rebels and the British, but before the fires took firm hold in the central streets. Lower Sackville St was a focal point, with clothes, sports, and toy shops proving popular. Noblett’s and Lemon’s confectioners shops were looted for chocolates and sweets; the toffee axe may have come from one
of these. The Cable Shoe Company had its windows smashed, and contemporary newspapers reported that people were seen trying on boots and shoes, and returning for another pair if the first selection failed to fit correctly. I tried to imagine a woman whose husband was a bit of an eejit, he desperately wants to pick off some of the glory for himself any way he can while she’s left at home with some leftover veg and a baby to look after, until her friend Molly calls around and takes her looting. This show is running for the last time on December 3rd at the Annesley House in North Strand as the 1916 commemorations come to a close. It’s a fast-paced celebration of those women, from Constance Markievicz to the messenger girls, the ordinary housewives and the widows of the executed men. The multi-media show includes songs, poetry, spoken word, theatre pieces, video and recorded soundscapes. Fireworks taken from Lawrence’s Photographic and toy emporium on Sackville Street opposte the GPO were thought to have been responsible for much of the fires in that part of the city centre. It was these fires, started by looters that spread from building to building, which caused the massive destruction. Here’s my short fiction piece from the show that was Highly Commended for the The Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award. Read it fast in a flat Dub accent or come to the show in December to hear me read it instead! Tickets are available at the door on the night…
‘A woman of set purpose’, he says, ‘In these stirring times Kathleen, it’s no worse a thing you could be.’ ‘Ah right’, says I, ‘Everyone lays a burden on a willing horse Jimmy, but not every Irish woman is Maud Bloody Gonne’. He flicked the baby’s snot in the fire, and prepared to leave, carrying a piece of chair leg with him. That’s what I loved about Jimmy; he could suck out the clogged pipes of a bairn in one hand, and take on the might of the oppressor with a bit of wicker in the other, and still be home in time for a shindig supper. ‘You’re not listening, it’s on for certain’, Jimmy says, ‘The rebellion, it’s full steam on’ – the whooping outta him – ‘D’ye hear me Kathleen? It’s STARTED!’
A fella shot hoisting a flag high above City Hall…crowds gathering up around Sackville Street, fixed bayonets, people digging trenches, fires scorching from pinched fireworks, running in all directions they were. ‘Pray for me darling Kathleen, that I arrive back safe in your bosom’. As last words, no less dramatic than his ideals. ‘I will,’ I says, looking at the half a sausage, butt of carrot and scabby onion on the table, that, along with a sly sup of water, was going to magic into this week’s dinner. ‘I’m hoping for all our sakes you do come back love,’ I says. ‘Not least of all so I don’t have to explain to your employer up at the Royal Barracks that they’ll have to get a new shit shoveller when your turnip gets blown off.’
That’s what got me in all this. Half dem fellas worked for the Empire or were away fighting into the afterlife for it. It’s not like we didn’t know how bad things were at home, but how would a Republic make our lives any different? We all knew scrabblers stuck in Tenements with just one flushable piss pot for twenty people! Sickness streaming down bannisters along with the dark lung. I saw a nipper feeding two childer a wet cloth to stave off the hunger, sucking a corner each, another cradled on the stone stairs in a half rag, brown smeared down the walls would turn the guts of a carthorse. A day here a day there down the docks when it came to work. I don’t mind tellin’ ye, all across the country, the men were drunk and the women were angry.
Out the door I see him swaggering towards Sackville Street to the GPO where a ‘certain comrade’ has confided in him the Big Barney is really kicking off. But knowing Jimmy, at the first sound of gunfire, he’ll drop the wood and slip down a side street until he’s at the back of The Gresham, heading north till he can knock up a couple of his cronies holed up in some kip near Dorset Street. Saluting two flags his new Citizens’ Army chums assure him will be flying on either side of the post office before he beats a sneaky retreat. Ah sure he’ll tell himself that he’s already ‘done his bit for the cause’, chucking four Lee Enfield rifles over the wall and into a blanket the rebels have spread out on the outside of the barracks. Humming ‘God Save Ireland’ until it’s drowned by the clatter of horses hooves of the British cavalry and the crick-crack of bullets whizzing to and fro. No problem to him to whistle a grand patriotic tune right up until he’s at the boarding-house overlooking the Royal Canal, hammering on the door until those bowsies let him in and invite the chancer to their card school. It’s well I remember Palm Sunday when he squandered the wages including pennies his newfound friends from Liberty Hall handed him for services rendered in the name of the Irish Republic.
It was a bitter night in January when he first brought Maud Gonne – who I later named ‘When is she gone?’ and Connolly to our lodgings. ‘Jesus Kathleen, the neighbours would be flabbergasted if they realised our company tonight!’ Jimmy said. I was flabbergasted as he expected me to have tea and brack, a drop of porter, fat logs on the fire and whatever else, and her with an accent you’d only hear back from a wall at a séance. ‘Such pretty little houses are these,’ Maud said, taking her bonnet and swishing it about her nostrils which were halfway up in the air trying to get away from the fish heads on the table. ‘And yet the enemy is intent on the wholesale destruction of these little habitats with their big brutish battering rams.’ Jimmy all impressed at her mouth swagger. ‘You should try living in one of these little houses Maud,’ I says. ‘That’s about the best way to know what you’re talking about.’ And as for Connolly! He sat there smoking a pipe like an American Indian, saying beautiful nought.
Jimmy is out prowling them streets, trying to get himself noticed with that chair leg. He couldn’t even do the decent thing and find himself a pike. There’s a rap at the window; the plump frame of Molly Gilroy crowned with a feathered hat beyond the pane. No, she won’t stop for a sup she says, when I come to the door to let her in. She’s swinging a box with twine over it dangling on her arm all excited and nodding her head to show off the fancy thing on top of her hair and a fox stole sporting an oversized head choking her neck-line.
‘They were just lying there among the mannequins in the smashed up shop and I says to myself I says ‘Go on Molly girl, now’s your chance. Even Edward’s war pension if he was to take one for King and Empire over in France would never get you into a place like this.’ Dublin’s difficulty is Gilroy’s opportunity…and yours too Kathleen,’ Molly shrieks as the booms and the bangs go off in the distance. I grab my shawl, stick the baby in his crib at the chimney and run out after her.
Molly has one hand on her hat and the other on her hip as she tea dances all the way down to the Liffey and back up as far as the shops near the bridge with their gouged-out fronts and broken glass. Oh God those Brit boyos are not going to be put off by troops of giddy blackguards swinging hurleys and anything else they can muster. Our lot are stupid as half-reared pigs with torn ears. There’s little left to scavenge when we get near Noblett’s sweet shop as all the ragged kids are wearing oversize boots and showing off stroked rings on their fingers. One lad is parading around in a liberated Aran suit from Clery’s while a jug-eared Monsignor from the Pro-Cathedral is clipping the neck of a scamp who has a box of Everton Toffees under his arm and who wont let go of his booty.
‘Take yer hand away from that chisler Father or I’ll have ya!’, Molly Gilroy bellows as she points to a green tweed cape lying amid slivers of glass outside Clery’s pavement. ‘Has there been anymore of our ones taken?’ says I to an old white head sticking out of a wool blanket in a doorway. ‘What’s all this for?’ he crackles back, looking more the worse for wear than aware. He may have been sleeping here a fair few days, more ragged ones being put out now when there’s not enough to go around. ‘Don’t you know?’ I says. ‘The Shinners have grabbed the city by its nethers this morning and they’re not going to stop until the whole place is sunk beneath itself’. He’s straining to look around. ‘Oh’, says he…’I could hear something alright, but on account of taking de drop, I thought it might be just in the ears.’ I tell him it’s going on since eleven this morning and no doubts will get hellsbells…he’d better get himself off the streets proper. ‘The Green is full of them too I hear and they’ve captured the Castle on top, and the Post Office, look at the smoke over there’. ‘My God’, he says, ‘The buggers are stirring up trouble for all of us.’
I pick up the garment Molly flings at me, her right hand now wristletted by a thick gold chain. I pretend I haven’t seen the sparkling jade brooch you’d see on one of those elegant ladies gliding into the Abbey Theatre of an evening. I’ll hide it from Molly, I’ll hide it from Jimmy. I’ll keep it planked in the pantry, maybe in the sugar bowl. If he loses at cards again this evening I’ll have something to take to the Pawn shops in Capel Street later in the week…if there’s a Capel Street still standing after all this is over.
Molly runs over and says, ‘Jesus Kathleen, your Jimmy’s up there, squeezed into a window at the very top of the GPO, screaming his lamps off, guns blazing!’ We lash up the pathway on the other side of the road, past the fruit sellers hiding under their stalls, a bread & milk van turned over, some youngones running with tins of bully beef, soldiers from our own side shouting: ‘Qut! Out! Get out of the way, looters will be shot!’, until we’re facing the main windows at the front of the building. By Jaysus there’s Jimmy, the big wide jawbone on him, and a gun alright, along with his gunner eye, pointing up into the sky shooting at any clouds that happen to be passing by. ‘He’s lighting up the sky over Ireland!’ Molly roars, busting her sides laughing, ‘Jimmy! Jimmy! The enemy’s down here!’ But he’s off with his own heavenly army in some other direction. ‘Grab what you can Molly,’ I says. ‘These are going to be tough times ahead for the likes of us, and I’ll deal with that eejit when he lands back down in the new Republic in the morning’.
Did I ever tell you about my youngfella? He’s passed now, bless him. I said, ‘Don’t go out, not today, I’m warning you, I’m a witch!’ That awful cheeky smile. ‘I won’t be late Ma!’ he roared. He was a bit of a rossi, like you. The two of you would’ve got on like nothing else. An old broom knows the dirty corners best. ‘We’re having gammon steak!’ I shouted after him. ‘Don’t be late!’ Him running like a hare on a skateboard. He loved my gammon with those fluffy crinkle chips. Actually you rarely see them around these days. Crinkle oven chips.
His friend with the one eye, always a heap of trouble, knocked up at 6 O’clock. Entire family were oddball. Red hair, rust tempers. Mother had been a bit of a pro in her heyday. Rigid as a wooden leg now. This kid was pure wild. Knife in the eye by his own hand. Said my youngfella had crashed on a motorbike up at the green. Come quick. His leg was caught. Stolen motorbike. We’re talking back in the day when the priest and the local guard could put you away for pinching a few sweets. Meaner than a butcher’s cleaver. Well my first reaction was to clout him around the ears. Give him a good puck. ‘I knew it!’ I roared. ‘I told him there’d be wigs on the green!’ Smashed in four places. Six weeks in the Mater. Pale as egg white. Hubby was furious. A wild goose never reared a tame gosling.
De hubby always kept the roof up which is more than I can say for a good few around here. Good at DIY. Planted a war garden. We’d everything out there. Marrows, even. You don’t get to see many marrows now. Marrow stuffed with spam. Marrow jam. Thrilled to the marrow I was. Then there were rhubarbs the height of giraffe legs. Spuds, peas, beans of all kinds, parsley and lots of it. He was hard on my youngfella. Very hard on all the boys. Ignored the girls. Well that’s what Louise says now. ‘No boys will queue up for the likes of you!’ he told her. She’s glad of it really because she feels around the same as a local anaesthetic for him. Though sometimes she can’t make up her mind. She’s like you. Indecisive. Rattle of fidgets and jumps. Won’t visit him in the home but wants it known to the rest of us she feels nothing. Makes a big almighty thing of it. Though I love her to the spine, she’d melt the fine hairs in your ears. I wish her luck with her own now. Her two are dreadful snobs. Though I will admit they speak very well. You can’t buy breeding and that’s the truth.
Well de hubby said he’d wait until my youngfella got home and he’d break the other leg. Took the motorbike to the Phoenix Park and went pure absurd on It. Tearing up the bark of trees, over newly planted corporation flower beds, into the groove of gates. Now de hubby can only take so much. He has a little bit of a temper. It’s not his fault. His nerves are in the ha’penny place. Always have been. I’m the only one who can deal with him. Know him like my own teeth. Never left me short of housekeeping. I always told Louise and Juliet to marry a man with money. It’s a miserable enough life. De hubby had a good job. Sure the ones around here were always saying that to me. ‘Your fella would buy and sell ye and rent your leg out in flats.’ Youngfella stayed with my aunt for a few weeks until de hubby calmed. ‘Let it be a lesson to you,’ I said to him. ‘I told you not to go out. I told you I was a witch!’
He’d ask me things after that, my youngfella. ‘Will I put in for that apprenticeship Ma?’ ‘Is there any point doing a stuntman course?’ I knew if he went off to England it’d be no good for good. This time I didn’t say as much. Sure he was a grown up, sure and simple. Years ago, before your time, people kept it fierce quiet when they went away to the sooty place. Bit of a shame attached to it. A golden ring can tie a man as tight as any chain. Aunt Florrie said the day hers left for England she had a proper wake for him at home because she knew that’d be it. Sandwiches and porter, a glass raised to the wind that carried him, may it bring him back if it had to. She was a diviner for sure. No-one down Clara way liked her. Told people they wouldn’t come back from the war. She was the one who cooked over an open fire, long after they had electric cookers. Amazing pot roasts. Caraway cake like I’ve never tasted before or since. My own mother couldn’t copy It, not for the job of trying. She read the flames in the fire. My mother, that is. Told people what might be ahead for them. What to look for. What to avoid. Who to love. Who to clear run from. Well that was her sister Florrie who was a bit of a witch. Like me.
When my youngfella went away to London, sure he was sheer lost. Never ask a fox to mind the hens, isn’t that what they say? Never buy bread from a butcher. He got the first one pregnant. That’s what they do now. Women don’t seem to take care. She ran off with the two kids up North. Got with dem Rastafarians. He never got over that. The second yoke, let me tell you, she was a right yoke of a thing. Jesus, the bake on her! You wouldn’t roast it on a fire. Upturned nose you could plant a fir tree in. That’s when the drinking got out of hand. I warned him to watch his health. ‘It’s in the family,’ I said. ‘A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.’ Oh he laughed alright. ‘Ah Ma, you still think you’re a clever old witch!’ Nonetheless he gave me that look. ‘I’m serious,’ I told him. ‘Look after your health…He who never was sick dies the first.’
Yer woman never cooked from scratch. Too busy throwing it about. I wouldn’t expect my youngfella to have a go. Sure de hubby could only boil an egg most of his life. The men need a good woman. A dishonest woman can’t be kept in and an honest woman won’t. In return my youngfella gave that yoke everything: new car every two years, six holidays a year. SIX! That’s some manner of madness. Ran off when he got too sick. Woman like a goat, woman of rushing visits. Her crowd, common as beetroot water. You could tell by the gait of them. Standoff at the grave was something else. Spread your cloth only as you can draw it. Even the priest came over to our side when he heard she’d deserted. Unheard of under the circumstances. What he must’ve gone through in that downtime, I can’t bear it! Oh Christ, such heartache! I’ve put my treacle jinx on her. Right bitch. Now I don’t say that too often about anyone. A closed mouth can only lead to a wise head. That’s how I would normally approach things.
The saddest part is that de hubby keeps asking about my youngfella now. Won’t accept he’s gone. Well that’s part of his condition. Can’t keep up. Doesn’t know one minute from the one sitting beside it. Louise says he’s half pretending. Suiting himself. A greyhound finds food in its feet kind of thing. Bit like yourself. Sure you suit yourself too, only coming in here when you’re looking for something! Must be a male thing. I told him the first few times he’d died. Then I said I’d go with it. Now I tell him he’s out planting in the garden. Trimming rhubarb so it won’t get too carried away with itself.
I saw de gettup of you earlier. If you keep behaving like that, I’m telling ye, there’ll be a sore price to pay. Be in here by 11pm. ‘Don’t be late. Don’t stay out. There’ll be wigs on the green!’ You might think fences have ears but if you’re not back in here by then, the flap is shut. Don’t blame me if you come to no good. You could get your backside eaten out there. When the sun puts her head down for the night, the raw moon is not as accommodating. I’ve seen you chasing your head in its own shadow, making a mighty show of yourself. Like a lame man’s legs which hang useless. You’d sauté your soul to grab hold of a scallywag. If the ones over the wall got hold of you there wouldn’t be a sneeze’s second before they’d savage your eyeballs, spitting them out for toast. I’m no daw. I know how it works. Everyone is wise till he speaks.
When my youngfella was lying in that hospital bed in terrible pain de hubby wouldn’t even look him in the eye. A right rossi, there is no expert without a fault, ain’t that the truth! ‘Da, I’m sorry Da, it was stupid, I won’t ever do anything like it again. I promise.’ It’s not like de hubby was extra hard, but he was the type who meant what he meant. Too much happened for him to act any different. One of the gang my youngfella hung around with ended up with The AIDS, doing half-witted robberies to feed his habit, before his lungs flooded him out of the picture. Another died at 21 from a beating in a public swimming pool in New York. Both their aulfellas were much harder than they ever needed to be.
If my two hadn’t have ignored each other for those years after – God never closed a gap but that he opened another one – the time now might be a different tide entirely. I will be honest with you here, I will, would my youngfella have been so quick to get himself over there, out of reach of here, had he have been able to patch things up? If de hubby just talked to him without the slippery ropes. Telling him that a bad path in life only rains soup and he’d have no hope going out in it armed with just a fork. But de hubby was always the belly depth of stubborn. He just stared out the hospital window into the car park beyond, the type that knows too well a silent mouth is musical.
*This story got an ‘honorable mention‘ in the Lorian Hemingway prize in the US and was long-listed for the 2015 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland competition.
It is hardly worth telling, this story of mine, or at least in a modern context, because so many people go through the same these days and feel it too dull and inconsequential to mention. We have to take our modern horrors on the chin in the same way sewage is turned back into drinking water, axiomatically. Some small trace evidence of evil was always there, hanging on a hammock off his organs, in the grubby suitcase inside his head: laughing at a rape on the television, laughing at the old woman up the road dying of cancer (in the most excruciating way). Laughing at a crushed dog out on the main road, a cut knee, house repossessions, floods, poverty, puberty, forest fires, riots, stock collapse and all else sitting mean and keen in-between. It’s funny to think of the exact relay now, as I have not been able to leave the house since. And I have not been right in the heart since! Both of them dead now, lost to me, lost to the ignorant beauty of everything.
There are days when I crumple on the couch giving in to endless interlude, boom-box of Jeremy Kyle, mini flask of vodka, crows crying their lamps out in the chest-hair back garden. Slow Joe next door moving his furniture around to nothing but his own sound. Eventually I’ll squirm up to bed when I know I’ve successfully folded enough hours of the day into the next so that neither is in much of a shape to be useful. Even then I cannot escape the watching. That his eyes are stuck on me and me alone, I am completely sure. That she is unable or unwelcome to come through at all, I am also completely sure.
From his hospital bed he seemingly figured it all out. ‘Here ye go Frank, have some nice yoghurt, c’mon now, try to eat a little something’. The mind is a peculiar thing, the manager told us. He seemed to know we were doing up some of the rooms, I told her, he said so. He said he could see it in his mind’s eye. ‘That’s impossible,’ she replied. ‘He might’ve heard one of the staff talking about renovating a house or something along those lines. If you think of it a bit like the way magpies work, on clear days when the blood flows normally, they can snatch bits and bobs of other people’s reality, processing it as their own.’
I always had a strange relationship with this house. When I left for University in London twenty five years ago, I was plagued with memories of levitating in the sitting room as a small child. When I returned to Dublin on holidays my mother wrote it off, sniggering ‘oh my daft daughter!’ but he didn’t. ‘I used to do that in digs years ago, down the quays,’ he told me. Levitate after concentrating like mad. Best done standing upright with your fists clenched by your side, head up, breathing deep. Think your way through the weight of human rubbish, out the lid on the other side, slowly ascending. Think yourself into lightfooted, sheer, unsubstantial. ‘If you lose confidence even for a second, that’s you,’ he explained. ‘You’d be right back on dry land again. Sometimes it might only be an inch or two you’d go but what of it. Other times you could rise high into a dusty corner of the room no bother.’ One night after his room-mate caught him the old bag who ran the boarding house called in a priest to ceremoniously bash and threaten with stern words. The priest, when he realised my father was a moss back atheist, called in a mutton-faced guard and the guard called in a doctor of psychology after he demanded to know what the exact charge was. In 1950s Ireland it was put down to a physical malaise caused by communist blathering. They backed off with a polite warning. He was a public servant by then: that particular type tended to get away with a lot.
My brother Arnold, six years older than me, remembers Top of the Pops posters falling from the four walls in the back bedroom when he stared into the old gritty dressing table mirror. The same dressing table that recently got a chalk paint up-cycle by Annie Sloan. Myself and a teenage pal used to sit drinking cider and smoking dope in that mirror until she eventually got the creeps sufficient and wouldn’t come to our house any more. Another brother went clear mad in that room. Ran off to the army and got stranded on Carcass Island during a far-off war – not actually fighting – but overseeing penguins and derelict buildings when everyone else scarpered. He put a £90,000 bet on a horse and flung himself out a B&B window in Warwick after they paid to get rid of him. My mother invited him home to rest it out but he stayed five years and turned mustard in the room. He eventually died giving himself over to numerous drug trials to feed his gambling habit. He always said he saw faces and not just in the dead leg of night. Mean wizened women’s faces, out of holy nowhere.
There were so many rumours about the clump of houses (not just ours) not far from the old walls of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. In Irish: Glas Naíon, meaning ‘stream of the infants’. A stream infected with famine-time cholera from sinking bodies in the nearby crater of graveyard. That was one theory for some residents going a bit plinky plonky. Ley lines, lead pipes, electrical brain teasers from mobile phone masts. Nothing was ever proven. Point is, he was never going to leave the house willingly. And the house was never going to spew him up willingly either. In reality he had this vulgar indwelling of power despite the brandy having pinched his mind, his heart, his intellectual abilities, his ambition, his bowels, his bank, his false teeth, his legs.
When they first married my mother was his Word War II coal queen for sure. The newly-built 1950s semi had four fireplaces, including one in a double bedroom upstairs for any wife to squeeze babies out in comfort to lay snug in a chest of drawers. No one bought cots in advance then. A mantelpiece adorned with a Padre Pio genuflection, ceramic Holy Mary, broken fireguard, a photograph of her dead father dancing at a dinner party and Dusty Bin won in a Blackpool bingo hall. I was born in this room.
Back in the days of Pat-a-cake, of hand-jive, when asked that first time she curbed a smile and ran like mad, in her A-line skirt & bobbysocks. My father ran after her. All of what you’d expect, naturally. It may have been the dead baby; lifeless in a Clark’s’ shoe box on the bedroom floor, that had the final say. Or it may have been nothing peculiar at all. Missed promotion in work, boredom, a stray urge. But sometime in his forties, he left himself and us behind. Yet we continued to love him despite the emotional violence, the daily drudge, the drinking, the incessant arguing, the drab awful iron-clad impossibility of it all. As you’d expect towards a father or a husband by a certain societal proxy. A hangover from Victorian times, maybe. We loved him because it was required of us. We battled hard to understand why he was always in such pain, why he needed to pass on some of that pain to us.
For the last three years, with everyone else gone, he’d wandered into the smelly elderly and utterly struggling pit. Manning the walls all day like a wood-turner. Agonising over what we now know were mites of madness softening at the base of his brain-stem. He cried out in the Murano glass corridors of sleep and at least a few times a night would clamber into our bedroom, where my mother and I slept after he became incontinent. He’d enquire as to where he was, looking for an explanation for the clatter trap in his head. Kept saying “sorry” for something he was never able to remember having done. ‘I can’t cope with him any more,’ my mum said. He had dementia. We were exhausted. It seemed no one else out there cared. Our local GP said he no longer made house calls because the HSE wouldn’t pay doctors for such variants of care since the recession. He had to make it to the surgery or rot. Towards the end of two summers ago, maybe in 2009 or thereabouts (it’s hard to recall exactly) I rang social workers attached to the local health board, put a plan in place and that was that. We were not to know what would happen. We had no experience of this kind of thing. Even in retelling the story, I find I’m just as upset and confused as when I lived through it. I cannot be absolutely sure of what occurred, of the timeline, except for the following:
The day came. We both said, ‘Be strong, this is it, the only way forward!’ Even as he sat in his wheelchair facing out at the eggy sun for the first time in four years, the house showed signs of a problem. A water tank in the attic only replaced the previous year decided to manifest a swollen belly on the toilet ceiling, bursting through its own guts before the lift arrived. A mirror smashed with no window open or air circulating anywhere. The fridge gasped itself to a halt. I looked right at her and said, ‘Don’t even say it! Don’t be ridiculous! Don’t be reductive! We’re doing the right thing.’ The whole point of being here, of being human, was to take responsibility. That’s what we were doing, surely? God knows he couldn’t do it! He was incapable of doing anything. ‘Try to remember that much,’ I said to mum. She suffered hugely through all of this. She had made her bed. She would ‘till Doomsday’ lie on it.
Four days in a row he rang pleading for his life. We told him ‘NO!’ He could stay there for a month and give us time to clean up the house. It smelt like a Berlin urinal. It would have to be fumigated for starters. We would have to organise a new bed. Possibly a downstairs toilet with washing facilities. There might even be a grant available to convert the garage as elections were only around the corner. ‘I cant cope with this awful place, you’re my wife, please take me home!’ My mother never stood up to him, ever. She tried to poison his stew once, but that was a long time ago. ‘You’re in there for a rest, I need a rest too,’ she told him, slamming the phone down. On day three he had a stroke. On day seven we were summoned. ‘He has deteriorated significantly, especially emotionally,’ the nurse said. ‘I’m so sorry, but it could’ve happened at any time, anywhere.’ We didn’t quite know what she meant by that but when we saw him, by Jove we got a shock for sure. We’d traipsed the wards three times before we accepted the sack of crumpled grey maudlin was the same feisty person we left off for ‘respite’ just the week before. It took three more days and threats of legal action to get him moved from the stinking old TB sanatorium in the park to a proper hospital for the specialist treatment he needed.
Do Not Resuscitate, the sign above the bed read. Young slip of a thing from Killiney or somewhere affluent like that said with his age, with his expected quality of life, with the general prognosis (of which they were still not fully certain) there was no point in doing much at all. Just sit it out, wait it out. His life was now a junk-shop egg timer. Throat broken. Stomach empty. His head, well, basically, it had begun to thoroughly scoff itself. Middle cerebral artery: considerable shrinkage. Clots, many. Brain bleeds, more to be expected. Aspiration pneumonia. Muscle damage. He screamed. Roared. Pegged at us as if he were grabbing on to a half-inflated lifeboat. We should go home and take it handy, try to get on with things. Especially her, his wife, the overseer of his decline. She needed to push ahead, look after herself. Try to put things in perspective. Everyone will get to this point. There’s really little to do when it happens.
That night I woke at 2.22am. I will never forget the exact time because I saw in the pitiful light of the green alarm clock my father crawling around the wall, a crazed lizard. His body partially flattened with his old office clothes flipping and sagging. A much smaller head, but his eyes: a ferocious sickly yellow. His neck bent as if it had been snapped and yanked back into place with a heap of loose skin sewn back on roughly. Flipping and flopping around on top of the Billy bookcases, side to side, like you’d expect to see in House of Reptiles at Dublin Zoo. The most revolting noise as well. A kind of clacking sound that didn’t befit his human form. His smaller body thumped along the furniture as if he/it wanted to attack, priming itself for incursion.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Flicked on the bedside lamp. Checked for my mother in the other bed to see if she was at ease. Her small frame slowly rising and falling back into the salmon sheets. I was stuck in the forecourt of some outlandish car wash with the engine on and no idea where to head to next. I stayed like that for a good hour and the vision of absolute repugnance didn’t falter or fade or go away. I could barely breathe or move, my limbs became sore with fright. I could hear the mechanism in my chest chug out and suck in stale air, but I carried on watching him flip and hurtle and scoot with no sign of diminishing.
‘I heard him calling all through the night, Liz! Liz! Liz!, I’m not the better for it,’ she declared, the next morning. I was up at the crack of dawn trying to steady myself, doing things around the house that had been abandoned for some time. ‘It’s understandable!’ I assured her. ‘It’s a kind of guilt, you know, you’re feeling all out of sorts with the way he is, what he’s going through.’ No, she was utterly convinced it was really his voice she heard. ‘At one point I even heard him knocking on the window trying to get in.’ I thought of their window, the front double bedroom window, climbing out when we had the silly séance with a matchbox as a planchette back in the day. We all legged it from the house in unison, a herd of 11 year olds. ‘Move if there’s anyone here! Move if you can hear us!’ Then it flew off the bed, hitting the radiator all the way over at the far wall. It seemed an impossible manoeuvre for one of us with our small fingers and no experience yet of the trickery out there in the vast sickly world. Vickie Cawley laughing as ten crows. Me in pure fright mode. Billie Dunne jumping out that bloody window twenty feet up and running for dear life.
It was only two weeks after she found the baby in the plastic bag down the lane-way backing onto the Sisters of Our Divine Lady of Endless Charity. Same location where they later found twenty two babies and sixty skeletons of women whose deaths were never registered. Billie stumbled across the bag in 1981, opening it up without really understanding what she was looking at. Though a tiny bloodless hand was enough to send her rocketing. I guess this was how young women got rid of unwanted evidence then. It wouldn’t happen now with advances in DNA, with advances in social conscience. The laundries continued on into the mid 1990s unabated.
On the day of our séance my mother was working at the RDS Horse Fair on the Rowntree’s chocolate stall: Munchies, Caramac, Mars Bar. All the leftovers were piled into a large shopping bag and dragged across the city home to us. It was the first time I was allowed look after the house without Arnold or my sister Maedbh in situ. When my mother got home, she slapped me clear across the chops. She may have already met one of the mothers on her way – Billy Dunne’s was particularly hysterical – but if not her trademark intuition told her I had got involved with something unenlightened. Something mischievous and corrupt. She could feel it. The cold throughout the house was cavelike, wet and heavy as culm.
The next visit wasn’t even in the deferential cubbyhole of night. I was sitting on the toilet with the door wide open, staring out into the landing, thinking. It was mid afternoon. Thinking of how to make her life better in the time she had left (she was already eighty three years old). Thinking about how to access funds to do essential repairs to the house, especially the kitchen and bathroom which were, after years of neglect, in a dreadful state. Everything was in his name. She was Mistress of Nothing. What I saw next makes me feel like I may have already been a composed and submissive inmate of the asylum. He thundered up the stairs, his head intact as I had remembered it but a spider’s absurd blackened body, eight legs quivering on the carpet in front of me. Darted about turning to stare me right in the face. In a moment’s stampede of panic he was gone again.
She better shut right up about him. All this harping on about how the stroke happened was not our fault. We didn’t give it to him! And if he had just allowed a bit more for our help at home, we would not have insisted he be removed in the way that he was. Obviously he had a problem with it too. What we needed to know was if he was doing this deliberately. Was he wilfully, determinedly, trying to teach us a lesson for what we had done, when in reality, we were left with no choice by then. ‘Dealing with this is like dealing with a forest fire,’ nurse Cáit said. ‘Even people with the height of expertise cannot deal with this at home sufficiently. There comes a time when you have to let the person go.’ He is talking about old relations long dead I told her. ‘Could he really be seeing them?’ It is a ‘thing’ with people who are sick, apparently. He will not be aware that they have already passed. Is he caught in some foyer between? I wondered. ‘It doesn’t make sense that he would ask about Stan,’ my mother said, ‘God knows he couldn’t stand him when he was alive. Him or his ugly West Cork wife’. We have to stop this, I told her, we have to accept that he’s getting the proper care and we have a right to live in the house now, the best we can.
The kitchen had been fixed up coffee colour shaker with high quality Italian orange stone tiles, a new water tank with titanium coating, floorboards in the front bedroom replaced entirely (as the urine had burnt right through). ‘For a second I thought he was there in the porch late one night,’ she said. No! that was the milkman I told her. At this stage it helped to be stern about the whole ordeal. Such was her slave mentality towards him for so long that she found it almost impossible to disentangle in any form. We painted the bedroom at the back where we both slept a genial grey, with some of the furniture a Provence green to ward off the evil eye. The garage was cleared of his things and the garden tidied up to such an extent that you could now sit on a small stone chantry down the end and draw in the air in long protracted puffs.
At evening time I thought it best to summon him in the mirror to stop any of the nonsense that would no doubt occur later on. She was already so scared of going to bed that I moved her into the spare single room where he wouldn’t think to go. All the years growing up he never bothered any of us in there. I gave her some ambien along with a few panadol to aid sleep into the night and sprinkled some valerian and chamomile on her pillow. Tucked away in there from early evening until well into the following day, I began to feel that she was not part of this any more, that I had chaperoned her away from potential suffering or fright.
His presence in the dressing table mirror was amorphous and vague, as if to show his full self to me was not part of the greater plan, that I was somehow not worthy. He would not have been like this with any of my brothers, had they been still alive, but men of his generation were sodden in misogyny whether they cared to admit to it or not. Though I didn’t doubt for a second that he was there, looking back at me, sneering, informing me that no men would come to do the door in a rush to take me out. That my skin wasn’t the best, that really I wasn’t the cleverest of them, a few forks short of a picnic basket.
His seething hatred began to make me laugh, as if any empathy I had left for him and his lousy condition was hidden away in a beanpole storage facility, the type people use for bundles of clothes they hope will come back into fashion some day. ‘Do you think I don’t remember what happened on Bingo Nights all those years ago?’ I told him. ‘When I pissed the bed and you rolled me out like a sausage roll and said I had to wait in the hall until she got home.’ What a lousy father you were but still you made us feel sorry for you. It was always about you! And what the hell did you do for your parents after they left Ireland? You barely bothered your arse ever seeing them again! When you did you were pissed out of your mind. They rang us here to complain, across the Irish sea, you with no respect, turning up for funerals two days late. You who demands so much of us now! What a bloody joke! Do your worst, go on, do your worst! Do whatever you think will work at this stage and do it with your sick brain in all its shrinking glory! Oh but if you think it stopped him slinking into those horrible animal forms and darting around furniture at night, my grousing in the mirror only made him worse and brought him nearer to me, instead of up on top of the bookshelves or the wardrobes or the wall. A ferret slinking in and out of the bed bars at the end of my feet, leaving drops of sweat and other depositions for me to see in the mornings.
When she passed in the single room I didn’t have her removed straight away because that’s exactly what he would’ve expected to happen. He’d expect her to be lying there, in state, in Fanagans Funeral Parlour on the Old Finglas Road, a twin-set and her navy skirt (always in navy, like a sailor’s wife on a first trip abroad, hoping to appear smart no matter where they went). I didn’t mention to him either that she was gone as I wanted to see if he’d tell me about it, if he really had the upper hand when it came to using his intuition, his greedy appetite for a good hunch. But he hadn’t a breeze! He did however begin to appear more frequently, more sonorously if you like, in the mirror. I am not sure if this was a kind of latent protest, but the house joined in by breaking even more of itself up. The heating system gave out and the plumbing at the back of the shower fell to pieces completely…twice I had to get a local hood in to bash things back into place or replace the piping entirely. Black mould broke out on the walls of both bedrooms. Dreadful shapes in butterfly splats and distant familiar patterns (the one of the Eiffel Tower was amusing, but I made sure not to laugh out loud), which I’d rouge over with chalk paint within hours of appearing.
I miss her terribly but part of me is glad she is resting up accordingly. No more, ‘Oh God, do you think we should go back out to him today? Does he have enough dark chocolate? Is there still a problem with his swallow? Are there enough clothes out there, I don’t want them to think we’re not making enough of an effort’. She had herself tortured to the point where she gave Catholic martyr wives a dreadful name! I miss her dressing gown shuffle and the barrage of tea that clicked into our day the same way felt tacks do on school board maps. Sad too that she would never get to go on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship that I had promised we’d do. Those ships are something else! Ascend 300ft above sea level in a North Star capsule! Fine dining extravaganza that holds more than two thousands revellers at a time! He hardly took her anywhere truth be told, not for a long time. Hadn’t the energy, or the self governance.
The year he retired may have been the exception. He took her to Nerja in Spain. She knew by then he’d been with her friend very early on too. It was her first sun holiday and she’d never seen anything like it. Three bedrooms in the apartment even though it was just the two of them. She thought it might be a mistake at first. Only two minutes from the beach and twelve minutes from the marina. Bakery on the ground floor. Fish in all the restaurants cooked any which way you wanted it. Sun as hot as an Aga. Of course he didn’t like that bit but she took to it like gravy on a turkey leg. Every morning bang on 8.30, she was down at the beach while he had a good lie-on.
Now that it’s just the two of us I feel I have an opportunity to understand him a bit more. I hope that if he sees that I know how he feels, how hurt he is, he might stop his games around the house and reach some sort of compromise. The dressing table was made for them when they first got married by a very talented carpenter, with the promise that no other identical piece existed in the whole of Glasnevin. The mirror carved in a classic baroque style. It’s good to concentrate on the positive aspect of where we now, and to forget all the things that didn’t work in the past. He wanted to be a writer, for instance, but couldn’t quite stick at it, not like I am now. ‘There is a lot more to life than jumping at every silly ambition that lands on your mat,’ I told him. He thinks this is a sound observation and one that will ward off disappointment from expectations that are perhaps a bit too high. ‘That’s the problem these days, people want so bloody much!’ he says. Isn’t it so true! We are able to agree, which I feel is genuine progress. I find it funny to think we were so scared of him years ago when he was the one who was clearly so terrified of us! That I would hide up here under the blankets with my fingers so deep in my ears they would be sticky and sore when my sister would burst into the room and pull them out again. ‘He’s gone to bed,’ she’d say, ‘The coast is clear for now and mum has shortbread in the oven.’
This story was a prizewinner in The Moth International Short Story Prize 2014, and is published in the Autumn 2014 edition of the magazine.
‘Charged language and a ferocious imagination; mad as a bag of spiders and genuine talent.’ – judge Mike McCormack
My family have had several set-piece encounters with Ian Paisley over the last five decades. The first occurred the year before I was born in 1964 when my late father joined a large group of demonstrators protesting against Paisley passing by their area of central Belfast.
On June 6th of that year riots returned to the streets of Belfast when Paisley led a band of hard-line Protestant fundamentalists on their way into the city centre. Their target was the headquarters of the mainstream Presbyterian Church to protest against growing links between the main Protestant churches and the reforming Vatican II Catholic Church.
Their route included marching past Cromac Square at the edge of the Catholic Market area. Young people from the Catholic district sought to block their route and violence flared up from the Albert Bridge to the Square. My dad remembered the clashes and a number of friends being arrested by police who were flanking the Paisleyite parade. This folk-memory of locals opposing Paisley and his band lasted long into the Troubles and was seen by many as a precursor for the far more ferocious sectarian battles ahead. It also became something of a badge of honour in the Market to say you were “out” against the Paisleyites back in ’64.
Growing up in the early 70s for young working class Catholics, the children of the men who tried to block Paisley’s path at Cromac Square in the previous decade, the bellowing, bible bashing unionist hardliner became the fountainhead of all that was wrong the state of Northern Ireland. His name often struck fear and loathing in nationalist-Catholic hearts especially when they saw him on local TV and newspapers wearing his clerical white collar while parading with the hard-men in paramilitary uniforms of the Ulster Defence Association.
Yet behind the blood curdling rhetoric and doomsday predictions of total war between his followers and the rest of us, there was another side to Paisley. And I saw it myself towards the end of the 1970s and early 80s thanks to his daughter, the youth missionary, future Belfast city councillor and fine art painter Rhonda Paisley.
She began a youth outreach mission project in Belfast city centre targeting the Punks, Goths, Skinheads and other youth cults that hung around the Cornmarket quarter in that period.
Exuding the same charm that her father deployed on the campaign trail, Rhonda spoke to, had tea with and sometimes counselled the kids that came together most Saturdays and sometimes after school at that fountain in the heart of central Belfast. Among the bored and often broke teenagers she befriended was myself and a couple of mates from the Ormeau Road, who moped around the fountain, trying to look pale and interesting in our long overcoats, spiked haircuts and glum post-Ian Curtis/post-Joy Division poses.
Before long, out of pure curiosity, we decided to take up Rhonda’s invite to come up to the Paisley homestead in East Belfast. There we were treated to games of snooker, vast pyramids of variously filled sandwiches and bible tracts designed to woo us away from the satanic temptations of early teen sex, drugs and rock n’roll. Although most of us succumbed to that trio of decadent delights, Rhonda did succeed at least in showing a side to the Paisley family that none of us (almost all from Catholic-nationalist-republican backgrounds) never saw in the media: a caring, loving family who actually and quite genuinely thought that all we needed was their help.
On a few occasions the Big Man himself would pop his head around the door in Chez Paisley to ask how we were keeping and wonder why we had styled our hair in such messed up and crazy contortions. What did we get out of it? Well apart from the free sandwiches and a few games of snooker, I think we were genuinely star struck. We were in the abode of one of the celebrities of the Troubles and would often boast about it to our mates, to state that we knew the Big Man personally! Even my father who could vividly remember that seminal day on Cromac Square back in the mid 60s seemed impressed by that.
In a Radio 4 documentary about two decades later on the unique, anti-sectarian Punk and post Punk scene in Belfast, Paisley himself was one of the interviewees. He recalled the likes of us traipsing through his front door in our home made-bondage trousers, torn T-shirts, DM boots, spiked up manes and chains. Asked why he didn’t give off to either us or Rhonda and her sister for bringing us home, Paisley said (am slightly paraphrasing here) : “They didn’t need any condemnation..all they needed was a bit of help!”
Many years later, on the campaign trail with Paisley in East Londonderry where he was canvassing with Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell, I happened to remind him about my connection with his family. All he did was curtly nod to recall it. He was in no mood it seemed for idle chit chat as there was an election on.
It was 3rd March 2007 and my sister had just turned 40 that day. Paisley, Campbell and I were sipping tea together in a Coleraine hotel just as I was about to go off and write a colour piece about them for The Observer. I excused myself for picking up my mobile phone so I could make a personal call that Saturday morning. Then Paisley overheard me wishing my sister Cathy many happy returns for her 40th. Almost instantly Paisley snatched the phone out of my hand, took a deep breath and then bellowed down the line: “Hello Cathy, this is Ian Paisley….” I could hear my sister telling me to wise up and stop being stupid, that she was not in the mood for a phone prank now that she had reached 40. But the Big Man insisted and then sent her a blessing down the phone as well as best birthday wishes. It was a birthday she would never forget.
*This article was published in The Guardian on Friday 12th September.
Bro, you haven’t bothered getting in touch since you died a year ago today. In my head … the barmy idea that you still look like a slab of Edam and that I never got to say goodbye. The chipmunk breeder Alice you shacked up with in terminal time, when Duck Arse left for a pub bouncer with a metallic four–by–four, has now lost over six stone, inspired by the story I guess. Alcohol & gluten free; she’s even ditched the sloppy pillow burgers in blood sauce, the ones from your holiday pics when you told us, ‘Bad days are in the post but for now it’s business as usual!’ Half the kids, the older ones, are fine. Edel is on her way to becoming a science buff in London even though, well c’mon, we must be honest here, you expected her to be a hairdresser or something low-key but Christ has she started to fly! Saul is taller than you ever dared imagine, as if when you went skyward he did a Jack & the Beanstalk to get you back down again. At sixteen it was more than he could bear. I’ve kept all your emails, eyeballing them from time to time.
Driving to France on Saturday with the kids just for a long weekend, Paddy cancelled his summer camp in York with the scouts so he could come and yer one is a complete cunt (Sorry, I just had to add that). Really looking forward to my first holiday with the kids only and staying on a campsite near Calais so a short drive will be better to contain Princess Lara’s immense puking skills. Saul & Edel are making their own way, old enough to travel solo would you Adam & Eve it? Booked a three bed mobile home this time so we are all a little excited! Divorce is ready to go, Duck Arse admitted in writing to adultery. How are you and your pet mice? And why 10 months off the booze?
Etch-A-Sketch of a year where I still ride the blanks and hope no one in the library notices. I set off most days with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel playing in my head. Out past the squiggle of purposeless shops and homeless men who nudge their heads up like broken birds from splintered eggs in the basement of the church, and on to the Tolka Bridge where an orange city fox once followed me in the first draft of morning. Conversations become cataracts of sorts. ‘Wouldn’t it bite the toes right off ye?’ a woman said at the bus stop in October. ‘I can’t be doing with this heat!’ the same woman said the following summer. Only then did I realise so much time had slipped by.
I’m booked in to see the oncologist at 9.30am Monday morning to discuss an action plan involving chemo and some new drugs on trial. I’ll take anything that’s going if it means squeezing a few more years, if possible. Remaining focused and positive. It was a hell of a shock for everyone as we were all expecting a routine operation and the surgeon was pale faced explaining to me why he could not operate. I will know more Monday afternoon. Been one mad year or what?
Aul ones on buses constantly bitching about fluoride in water, men in pubs, chemicals in clothes, joyriders in cars. It’d do your bake in. Aside from the militia of junkies in Phibsborough, idiot bankers, gym bunnies, people who tie terriers outside Tesco, absolutely nothing in Oirish suburbia changes. They’re still slamming car doors, hauling kids to over-priced crèches. Sometimes, stupid I know, I find myself getting jealous of the ones who stayed and did it all by the smug pudgy book … bought houses with the charmed approval of grannies and aunts and far-off oil-owning uncles in Australia, purged children into the world and who now stroll through parks laughing their freshly-washed heads off, pull perfect shepherd’s pies out of high-gloss ovens, who know what they’re about, really about,, what they were planted here for. Little girls with springy curls, tubby-bellied boys full of, ‘But mammy look!’ and ‘Daddy look!’
I think if we hadn’t of gone to London, you know, if we’d stayed and done it properly, rewrote the late eighties, jobs in IBM or IDA or any abbreviation of anything that would pay the way to a Semi-D and a bit of stability. But over you came and I was never stable anyway! Kipped on my couch, slept with nearly all my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said, me being your little sister, I had to go in the boot!? God, yes, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver, ‘Turn left now!’ and ‘Turn right here!’ even though I couldn’t see a damn thing.
A year later we lived in Jersey where you worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers and get pissed all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ you told the chipmunk breeder Alice later. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. Your stunt as a cappuccino salesman was a dreadful failure but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house, every night was a party. When I was at uni, you ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. Two kids with the first wife (but she had great thighs!) and later, more disastrously; it was round two and another two kids with Duck Arse and her litany of hell. Your snooker buddy Darren told me before the funeral. He told me it all, out in the back garden with a stack of San Miguel. I wanted to bash your head in for keeping it all a secret. I wanted to dig you up and kick the crap out of you for never letting me know how bad it all was.
‘I can’t have another disaster,’ you told him, ‘I can’t lose my kids again.’ Water meets its own level, our ma used to say, but your women were never bobbing anywhere near your level and somehow all of it must’ve dragged you down.
I drank water before I went in. ‘I would recommend it, Madam,’ top hat man said and you would’ve laughed at the whirring fan receptionist with the bovine ankles whose job it was to spray disinfectant when no one was looking. Viewing chamber the size of a High Street dressing room: yoghurt stale & browner than a bum moon.
A dance with neutrons and protons. That’s what I imagine it is for you now. Sliding up and down wallpaper. Watching us in our daily drudge. Can you see me and the other women working in the library? We all pretend to get on, but aside from readjusting each other’s hormones into an assemblage of demented bitching and chocolate splurging, we’ve bog all in common. The building is Georgian, a carved wedding cake, crafted cornicing, walls of tedious green and piercing yellow, corridors cropped in spiderweb wigs where the elderly shuffle through to read or snore or attend ‘literary readings’ upstairs. Almost everyone who strolls in wears glasses and carries a spiked umbrella. There’s a small cafe in the basement that serves tea, fair-trade coffee, tray bakes and ham sandwiches made at the curvature of dawn by an old crooked cook who reeks of rotten lilies. I always meant to show you around.
In the quiet clammy armpit of early afternoon I’m haunted by the grammar system we made up as kids – berry nide – a kind of warning system for people who might do us wrong. He’s not berry nide. But you’re berry nide. No, you’re nider! You’d already been through it by then. Bogeyman in a house, up mountains, on holidays. Oh he got a mass said for you afterwards, your own special mass, how’s about that! Dirty hypocrite, cheddar cheese chin of a wife, curse their life! Mass to make themselves feel good, exonerated, whole. No one speaks to them anymore. Not that we can make sure-fire connections. Medicine is a long way off that kind of jump.
Thanks for your long email and words of advice. Yeah, I was happy and loyal and Duck Arse is the most horrible person I’ve ever met and I care not a jot about her now. Saw her today when I dropped the kids back. Still not allowed in her tiny house whatever that’s about? I just felt relief. The look on her face on Sunday was priceless when she dropped Lara & Paddy off. I told them in advance not to eat as I was cooking a Sunday roast on the phone the night before. I could hear her howling in the background, ‘But your Dad can’t cook!’ like, even at this juncture, she still wants to put me down. When they got dropped off Lara ran back out the front door screaming at the top of her voice: ‘Alice is here with her chipmunks and she’s cooking, not Daddy!’ Duck Arse’s chin hits the ground and she boots off like a rocket drive on Top Gear. Yet I know she’ll poison their heads when I’m gone. The older ones will be fine, but try your best to sort the younger ones. You are welcome here any time, nice spare room with a new double bed. I’ll pick you up at Stanstead and spoil you rotten while you’re here!
Hubby-One-Day will be up soon, singing in the shower, shuffling after me in the kitchen, soggy, smelling of boy spray. He talks about you every time there’s a football match, especially when Liverpool is playing. ‘The hell he gave me!’ he says. ‘He called me blue and white shite!’ Still hasn’t the energy for his own divorce, but like Duck Arse, yer one is living with someone new: A, B, C, D: to the soulless it hardly matters. Hubby-One-Day makes me curtsy for him in my Victorian nightdress in the mornings, up and down the kitchen, crab sideways, around in circles, a slice of McCambridges’ toast in my gob. Hey, it’s the little things!
The town peacocks, de geezers, your Hawaiian shirt Jägerbomb mates, the ones you told (only towards the end) what happened, they never did smash up the Bogeyman when it was over. Somehow it didn’t feel like you to insist they would. That bit jarred with me. There was rumour, conjecture, but a great big nothing happened. No grand retribution. No staged revenge. Instead your friends stood in a line outside the church, over half a mile long, hands behind their backs. I’ve never seen such colour, ever, even though the colour has seeped from my life since. Aero & acid blue, amber, blush and violet. A woman head-to-toe in cameo pink. Duck Arse and her gombeen family. First wife and the older kids too. All there. Who knows where Bogeyman was, but at least he wasn’t invited. His vile-denial Catholic wife, a headless woman struggling to gawp out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes. You don’t need me to tell you, especially at a time like this, but people like that, they’re not berry nide. Not nide at all. But you? There just couldn’t be nider. No one in this giant shit heap of a spinning world is nider than beautiful gone you.
Someone somewhere in Siberia, on the other side of the Urals mountain range, probably still has my “Clash” T-shirt secreted in their home. In an act of Irish-Soviet friendship I swapped it for a Red Army tunic with a Siberian in the dormitory of a third level college in Weimar, East Germany in the summer of 1981.
Looking back the exchange was not just an instance of late Cold War détente east-west barter. It was also a means to ward off the sexual advances of an older USSR soldier in his mid 20s who was three sheets to the wind thanks to East German schnapps and Polish vodka; a noxious concoction that smelt and tasted like it should have been fuelling the engine of a MIG fighter jet.
As the big Siberian waved my T-shirt triumphantly in front of his friends from Irkutsk I suddenly realised the reach and influence of a Punk rock band fronted by the son of a former British diplomat and whose bass player was a poor white kid who grew up among the South London black community of Brixton.
Four years earlier the group came to a European city which had its own mini set of Berlin Walls – Belfast. One of the locations they visited on their brief, controversial and now myth-laden tour of the war torn city was the “Henry Taggart” police and army base in West Belfast. It was a photograph taken outside the heavily fortified, rocket protected station on the Springfield Road that later found its way onto that T-shirt, the one that ended up stretched over a Siberian’s torso.
Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones and Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon also posed for photographs at the top of Royal Avenue, which at the time was secured at both ends by the so called “ring of steel” where civilian searchers flanked by armed troops and police checked the clothing and handbags of shoppers for firebombs. One image of the four of them in biker jackets and zipped bondage trousers, a British Army saracen just to their right, is still a powerful visual reminder of actually how grimly suffocating Belfast was in the mid to late 1970s.
It was out of this stifling atmosphere that a generation of the fed up and the angry emerged just as Punk Rock was exploding across the Irish Sea outraging a nation and prompting London dockers to threaten to put their boots through TV screens over the sight of these spiky haired, foul mouth alien creatures who saw no future in England’s dreaming.
This brief but creative flowering of protest, DIY musical innovation and emergence of some genuine talent is captured poignantly in the critically acclaimed Terri Hooley movie biopic “Good Vibrations.” One of the most important scenes in the film is at the end, which recreates Hooley’s Punk and New Wave music festival in the Ulster Hall in 1980. I can still remember the actual night he stormed up onto the stage to proclaim why the local Punk and New Wave scene had more substance to it than England or America. “New York has the bands, London has the clothes but Belfast has the reason,” Hooley proclaimed. Joe Strummer and The Clash at least always understood this, to them Ulster Punk was for real.
One band that failed to make it onto that stage during this period was The Clash themselves, at least in 1977 because they returned there a few years later. They were scheduled to play a concert at the Ulster Hall in October 1977 but never appeared.
Just like the old saloon bar republicans you used to meet on day trips with your parents to Dublin in the 1970s bragging that they had been ‘out in 1916’, a mythos grew up about the concert-that-never-was and the riot that broke out in Bedford Street as hundreds of young Punks and other Clash fans turned their anger on the police.
I was there partly because I only lived around the corner and also, even though I was just 13, I had a personal guarantee that I could sneak into any concert. My family knew several of the bouncers who worked the door and who later let me in for free to see the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees (backed up by The Cure) and The Stranglers.
Yet ‘that’ gig that still exercises more power over the memories of the early Ulster Punk generation. This was and is in part due to the myth that grew up that the ’77 riot was the only one during the Troubles that saw Protestant and Catholic kids unite against common enemies. In fact The Clash myth is so enduring that the University of Ulster at the Art College hosted an academic conference in the second last weekend of June 2014 discussing the band’s relationship with Northern Ireland and its youth.
To declare a dog in the fight, this writer was chairing one of the sessions at the symposium although his mind was at times far away, soaring back in space and sound towards the east, wondering where the hell is that T-shirt gathering dust, tucked away somewhere in a wardrobe or drawers in post-communist Irkutsk.
*This is based on an column I wrote for the Belfast Telegraph last month.
**A Riot of Our Own was a weekend of events devoted to one of the most influential and controversial bands ever to have graced a stage. Over two days, a range of academics, journalists and artists gathered in central Belfast to discuss what The Clash meant and continue to mean three decades after their acrimonious and much lamented demise. Keynote speakers at the conference included Caroline Coon (artist, writer and manager The Clash between 1978 and 1980), Professor David Hesmondhalgh (University of Leeds, author of Why Music Matters), Chris Salewicz (author of the acclaimed Joe Strummer biography Redemption Song), Jason Toynbee (Open University), Gavin Martin (Daily Mirror) and Adrian Boot (photographer who took the iconic shots of the band in Belfast).
The totally wonderful and short story obsessed Paul McVeigh – whose blog on all manner of creative writing is the best I’ve ever read – invited me to join this blog tour, though I’m horribly late given the month that was. Paul is a short story writer, blogger of renown and curator of the London Short Story Festival at Waterstones in Piccadilly. I took part in a blog hop last year too, asked by another wonderful writer and having read what I wrote then, I haven’t moved an inch. Sick family members aside (one dead too soon, one toying with the notion, the other hoping for renewed life beyond), it’s very hard to etch mental space to write but it’s still not a legitimate excuse either. Two months ago I pulled the old musty back bedroom apart, got the walls slopped in ‘warm grey’, carved out some book space (well, IKEA billy book cases), shoved in a cheapo writer’s desk, a lovely new bed, lobbed Annie Sloan chalk paint on the woodworm wardrobes, bribed a mate for an old rocking chair and away I went. This is the year it happens, says I. God belss June and all who ride and confide in her.
1. What am I working on?
I’d love to say I’m working ‘on a collection’ of short stories, because that’s oh so in vogue. Something’s happening with Irish writers at the moment a bit like the property bubble. Nothing less than a collection and even better if it’s a disaffected theme: gouging the retina of the young male psyche, drug-addicted Georgian basement flat living, a swanky flâneur destined to skim the city sewers in a terminal loop looking for mislaid love, stories from a fucked-up suburban street (twitching curtains, lawnmowers, Shepherd’s pies), or the ageing psychopath’s screaming regrets in rural Ireland, all rolled into a tar barrel with a dead woman decomposing in a purple wedding dress. Humour and intolerance get in the way. Once I tell myself to write on a certain theme, I can’t be arsed with the mental rigidity of it. I hate being told what to do.
Last year I was stuck in rigamortis fiction, some stories published about my dead brother in literary magazines. It seemed a great way to process the shock. I thought that maybe this could be a theme if I worked on it backwards, from death to life, a bit like Jim Grace did in Being Dead (I love this book!) but off I ran on the Elipsos overnight train to Spain with my repackaged grief. I toyed with the idea of a ‘Dublin city’ book of stories but it seemed so vague and pointless, the kaleidoscope of packed place is no longer interesting or fun. Phases of life. A collection based on lovers. Places I’ve lived. People I’ve met and hated. My years as a journalist shouldn’t be wasted. I could take snippets of real stories, steal the kernel and crumple into something new. A plotless story I wrote for Literary Orphans in the USA is based on a real snippet from a journalist pal: a junkie having his ass robbed [of drugs] in Talbot Street…it never made the papers. The editor thought it was too unsavoury, so I stole it instead. Another story remnant I sent off for a competition was based on a man who lived in a tree in Broadstone in Dublin 7 for the last few years, before he was dispatched, unmourned, to the madhouse. So, real stories, with an unreal twist, maybe. Where an ex journalist sees some unholy scrap of truth and does something with it.
After that’s over, it’s back to the Domestic Blitz novel that’s more a ‘movel’ – part fiction, part memoir – a longer project that’ll take me into winter and some of next year. There’s already periphery interest in this from a potential agent in UK so I have to take my time (now that my time is back to being my own) and feel satisfied with what I write and how I write it. At the moment it’s blather fragments written in two time frames and it’s not exactly gelling. I know instinctively it will work if I get into it. It has universal appeal. My heart is in it. The story is worth telling.
I even know what I’ll write after this is done, a story I ditched about one of the missing women, told backwards from two perspectives. I tried that on the MA at Queens’ and got caught in a hamster run. Stories for when I’m distracted, novel as a means of protracted focus, a novella I promised a dead woman I’d write if it killed me on the situation that killed her. In a nutshell.
2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?
Er, dunno. Social surrealism. I write like Joyce, says one (being all tea party nice), but I don’t at all! A nice lady whose course I was on a while ago said I write like Eimear McBride; the new best thing since the electric waffle maker. Anne Enright, sort of (yeah right!). An old humper from the past (now a novelist himself in London) emailed to say I write like David Foster Wallace, though his marriage recently ended and he might be trying to get his cyber leg over. I think comparisons with other writers are silly, hard to live up to, useless. I value and look forward to difference in writers, not sameness. I don’t know who I write like but I just know I get in a zone where sometimes I don’t even fully understand the language incursion, or the voice that ‘happens’ or the tone or the story or the need to write a certain way. There’s definitely a rage there and a feeling of ‘I don’t have a reputation to lose, so I’ll write it like this anyhow’. I even know when I’m writing something that it won’t be popular, will probably make a decent editor barf and a reader unfriend me on Facebook, with any luck. I also feel it could be different because part of me never wants to write for publication, so I don’t target it that way. The freedom of an affair! What I do know is there’s a lot of good people giving me the thumbs up at the moment and it feels very odd and reassuring.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I’ve no idea. Am I supposed to say it’s cos I’m lonely? I’m not. Writing is hard. But there really is nothing else.
4. How does my writing process work?
Snippets of mind dust. A journo interview I did a decade ago still haunts me. A woman being told in the early days of training to ignore a phone box in O’Connell Street where boys were being brought to and abused. The magazine in question didn’t want the feature in the end, as it seemed a bit libellous and kooky, but I still have that info and want to write it as a fictional story. Another who sought out a journalist to expose a cult who allegedly forced her to have tantric sex and when her husband found out, he dumped her. If the group was exposed then the husband would leave her best friend he ran off with and take her back (I’m not even kidding!) The radical feminist with the tea cosy on her head who’s spent a lifetime already living off men but fails to see the structural flaw in her politics. The man who chopped off people’s fingers in the Troubles and kept them as souvenirs. A swinger who travels the length and breadth of Ireland shagging abandoned wives but cries his lamps out because his own wife won’t dish up the turkey. A child who told her teacher that mummy ‘makes fire’ on her legs. An alcoholic taxi woman raped as a child by a farmer who used butter so he wouldn’t hurt her too much. Stories we tell each other in semi-occasional moments of privacy or hilarity: ‘I can’t print this but wait ’til I tell ye…’. Stories full of holes and for the birds. Start with a sentence that makes you sick or scud. I don’t want to write about good or perfect people. I don’t see the point. At the moment I’m writing Jesus of Wexford for a competition in July. I haven’t sent anything off all year so it’s a good self-recruitment exercise. He lives in a wheelie bin and his bible is a pizza box.
At some point I always manage to disturb myself and leave whatever I’m trying to write aside…I may dump a work in progress for good or come back to it. I don’t really know why I write, but as I said in a recent Irish Times article:
This is about spilling your guts in a dignified way, but don’t be frightened if a speckle of madness rears its head, too. Let it bring you where it will; don’t look back. Be excited. This compulsion is a courtesy, not a curse. Don’t compare your writing to others’. Instead get totally obsessed with what you want to write and start chewing the cud of the storyline or idea every day. Feel the words, develop a voice, put manners on your demons, write regularly.
I’ve nominated three writers I love to answer these same questions how they see fit… look out for their blog posts! Two are in a newly-formed writer’s group (with me!) and all are friends! Oh and one I roamed the streets of Dublin with at age 13/14 during the feral mod years. They’re all stupidly talented, dedicated, quirky and wonderful. Enjoy.
Alan McMonagle has published two collections of short stories, Liar Liar and Psychotic Episodes. Earlier this year his radio play Oscar Night was produced and broadcast as part of RTE’s Drama on One season. It’s about two sweet old ladies who go to the bad when their annual ritual is interrupted by an escaped felon.
Doodle Kennelly was born in Dublin and spent her early years there. As a teenager, she moved to the United States, to Massachusetts, where she completed her secondary education. Later she returned to Ireland and attended the Gaiety School of Acting. In addition to her regular newspaper column, she has published autobiographical essays relating to the subject of female identity and body image. She has also appeared on national television. Doodle is the proud mother of three daughters; Meg, Hannah and Grace Murphy.
Lisa Harding completed an MPhil in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin in September 2013. Her short story Counting Down was a winner in the inaugural Doolin writer’s prize 2013. This summer she has been short-listed for Doolin, Cuirt, Listowel and the Bath short story awards. A story Call Me Moo is to be published in the autumn issue of The Dublin Review. Playwriting credits include Starving at Theatre503, And All Because at Battersea Arts Centre (as part of an emerging writers festival: Connect Four) and Playground at the Project Theatre Dublin. She is currently working on a new play Pedigree for which she was awarded an Arts Council bursary and a Peggy Ramsay award. As an actress she has appeared at the Gate, the Abbey, the Lyric and on RTE, among others. Her collection of sixteen short stories Crave is a work in progress, alongside an embryonic novel with the working title: Transaction.
Dubstopia is a long short story where nothing and everything happens junkie Gonzo as he wanders around Dublin – and his head – on a dodgy errand. It’s deliberately ugly & experimental and has plenty of swear words, bad grammar and other unsavoury linguistic bits flung in. It was written on a short story course at the Irish Writers’ Centre a few years ago now and was published recently [in April 2014] in US journal Literary Orphans, ISSUE 12: Swift (Ireland & the Irish). The journal also features work from:
–Background Art & Illustration for this story is by Zak Milofsky
–Photo Art of building by Sarah Hardy
Scrambled egg beside a steaming gee-pad Carol left on the mattress. Lidl brownie with ants. Two packs of Amber Leaf. Wet jeans. Sun tearing in the window through an A-Line skirt she stole from yellow teeth bag-face in Oxfam. Book of Yeat’s poetry open on a fumble in a greasy till and add a halfpence to the pence. Leather Joe’s address book with dead dealers whacked by the Nike gang in Finglas. A picture of his granny curled on a couch holding a bunch of Chrysanthemums; monster Holy Mary in a Punto blue dress peering down her seersucker top. Carol’s shoe stuck in an antique trumpet. His passport. Loose turf. Sunglasses mounted on a Stanley knife.
It was too late in the morning to leave The Old Bank: PinStripe would be downstairs showing clients around giving it the high-dough this and that: sash windows, safe room intact, De Valera around the corner, locked horses on the towpath, ladies with hats, worth a packet when the stock market convulses back, priceless mirrors, legend says there’s a ghost, sixteen rooms; would make a cracking hostel, Real McCoy Victorian chimneys. Gonzo decided to hang back a while and have a wank.
He wanted to bang the nurse in The Mater who took bloods. He wanted to bang her cos she talked down to him. He wanted to bang her cos of the dirty way she leant over and smacked the vending machine, pillow tits blobbing all over the gaff and well she knew it and well the old codgers with the fucked hearts knew it and well the pleated receptionist with the tall latte knew it and well the trolley-pushing hunchback in plastic green knew it and well he knew it: they’d jelly when he gave it to her goodo. She’d have to shut the fuck up saying shit about Hep-C, muscling, skin-popping, if Carol took mushrooms when breastfeeding the day the baby died. He wanted to bang her for saying things he didn’t understand – subcutaneous – posh words for abdominal bloating and liver damage, infertility and testicle shrinkage. He wanted to bang her.
She’d be down at the Old Mill on the canal sucking off Leather Joe for a bag. Willy would be there too with the scab-ho wrestling over a lukewarm tin of Stonehouse, suckin’ her face off. Beamer the old tramp with the no veins. Hasslebat, his ginger eyebrows lighting up hot worms in a snow of forehead. Smell of piss hacking the sun-up. Widearse Wendy with her tales of Berlin, before Guzz floated down the river with a bag of leaves in his mouth. Guzz who survived winters in Leeds in the eighties sleeping under truck stop Lorries, draining antifreeze through slices of white bread under the engine holes. Phib, their Jack Russell in a rusty pram lickin’ stolen Satsumas. They’d be swaying by now, talking bollox, tapping passers-by. ‘Scuzzz me scuzzzz me scuwizzzzmeee. Do you want me to be like you? Is that it, do you want me to be like fuukin’ you?’
He didn’t mind what Carol did as long as no-one came in her. She’d be back with the gear in the afternoon, giving it the full candy: ‘Darlin baby I fuckin’ lurv you, d’ye know dat? I’d fuckin’ keel over fur yew.’ They’d lie on the wet mattress and roll into the Mournes biting sweat gashes off rivers, green slime, bits of broken helicopters, church bells in ears, cold tinny blue and God’s feet, big as cheese urns, landing unceremoniously in a crumpled scared heap, pulling at Carol’s scraggly hair to see was it a bastard lion’s head, vinegar swish-crash, fluff cellophane greed stirrup blood mount. Sometimes the bank would turn into a spinning barrel turning shrill pork belly with them naked rolling and banging into the ridges with running whiskey gag, the wood burner he nicked farting out leftover specks of fire on cling-film skin, until they couldn’t breathe alone or together and then Carol would hear the ghost of the bank inside the old windows, telling her to pick up the horse shit and bring it to the man in the Botanic Gardens for the flowerbeds.
“D’ye hear hiyim?” she’d say.
“He’s in heeyore, talk’n aggen.”
“Curse he is, shurrrup an’ he’ll go ‘way, fuuksaike!”
She’d hear the dead baby too, asking for his doo doo. ‘Gimme boy doo doo, doo doo mine!’, and he’d have to pretend to hand the absent baby something, anything that might look like adoo doo and then he’d slap it into her to get her to stop seeing the baby and she’d ask for another one – tits well gone since they’d started using again – nipples were teacher’s eyes squintin’ at the crap way he pronounced Irish words. Sometimes he’d bash them, but she never seemed to give out about that.
“Gimme a baybeee, I want mi babee back”.
He stopped bursting into her cos all three kids were reefed away. No way would he be doin’ that again. So he’d pull out and squirt on the wood floor, and she’d slip on it going to the jacks and call him a ‘prick’, falling asleep until the others came later. He’d collect them on the fire escape, one by one, no way hosay during de day in case PinStripe got to know about the squat. Couldn’t use the burner until late at night cos of the smoke snakin’ and they weren’t able to cook in it just on a camp hob so over and over again went without food for days sambo’d into a lot of other days. Lucky to have de place. Most had to sleep in the bandstand on the canal or in de laneway behind Doyle’s Pub that burnt down, sausaged in giveaway blankets with Leather Joe screamin’ inside night terrors of ginger arse rape Da until the sun flew up over the broken roof tiles and car beeps gnashed at them, pong of Spar hash browns, burnt dry, useless as donkey pelt.
By three o’clock the pains were rippin’ and no sign of her, so he lashed down the ladder with its shitbag of miry snails, out onto the North Circular Road. Chink Man was outside his shop with its windmill of sweeping brushes, Jesus clocks and Sudoku toilet roll. ‘You no come in here!’ he shouted. Carol dipped him too many times, taking a slash-swipe at his Mrs another time when she was packing the window with animal motion sensors. ‘Mine’s a beef satay bud!’ Gonzo hissed back, sticking his middle finger up in the air. ‘You complete b.a.s.t.a.r.d!’ Chink Man roared. Only once did Gonzo wonder why he hated him so much for taking a job he’d never want.
Quick glance down Goldsmith Street and onto more bump of side road. Every step up step down hurt like fuck. Fatsos by the cattle-cart stomping into Curves gym to the lyrics of I Will Survive. He sang along to stop the pain from slit-sucking out his intestines. And now you’re back from out der space…I jus walked in to find ye ‘ere with dat sad look on yer face. ‘C’mon now ladies, knees up and up and up again, that’s it, keep going, let me see those knees!’ The Russian tattoo shop and Made By Mary with its calf hole carvery, Brenner in De Joy on the left, IRA prick, dying for Mother Ireland in a 15 X 20 exercise yard, the hospital with its wheelchair morgue; militia of swollen ankles, around by the battered yellow flower shop and on and on, holding onto his guts like a stolen Christmas present. Sweats horsin’ down under denim, face the dye of fresh snot. Passed the launderette where his Ma used to wash the boy’s clothes on a Saturday before packet potato soup with dinosaur lumps. ‘Don’t sit on the machines Patrick, what did I tell you Patrick, are you listening to me Patrick?’ When he was small enough to be growing that snorkeler that would give him ‘Gonzo’ for all his days. He’d probably never see her again. She certainly didn’t want to see him again. Most days he’d clear forgot what she looked like.
Outside Reproductive Choices on Berkeley Street: he could see a scrape-load of them, redder than Mars moons, holding up placards for their right to life like taxi drivers at Dublin airport on the pick-up. He read in The Sun that Obama got rid of aborted baby cell flavours in fizzy drinks, the ones that make you belch. Bowed de corner onto North Frederick Street bucklin’ to puke; stream of moss green gooey liquor pouring into slick brick. “Look at de state of ‘im!” he heard a voice bellow from a basement flat. Gonzo wiped de puke with the corner of his jacket, using the other sleeve for his eyes. The worst was the misery of desperation. Digging up dead people for pocket watches, the scrap metal run, bashing old people in old houses for a twenty euro bag. He could hear more voices. More laughter. More bawl. Howling from inside the ancient sewers under Dublin filled with fibre-optic cables, calp, acorn turds, fermented Vikings, diagonals of dead birds flying through Centuries of tidal pools to get here to nowhere. ‘Down here ye wankorrrr! Gonzo, ‘ere!’
At Bustlers’ Gym, the ugly bake of Dessie Kearney peekin’ up, a cortege of dagged ewes geekin’ out from the slip of lace curtain with meringue holes for suckin’ in the day. ‘Have you got any gear?’ Gonzo asked. ‘I’m in de bads’. Dessie beckoned him down the spinal. In the sitting room on the table, he could see the spoon, tang of cotton fever. Plug-in neon wolf picture on the wall to send heads carroty spinners. Two cans of UHT cream on de mantle. Skinner in a Sideline jacket handed him a leprechaun head of Nescafé. They could sort him out, Dessie said. He could sort them out too, with a favour. Gonzo wasn’t known, or wasn’t that known, or cared about. Bob’s your uncle. Fannywollop’s your aunt.
Dessie held him down like a barber might do with a six year old boy. ‘Scank the Russians are sellin’ is drivin’ the cops plinky plonky,’ he explained. ‘Low grade cack that makes punters scrabble around dem streets like hogs. Dublin City Council having a right old mickey fit with collapsing junkies everywhere and those Triad muppets fucking about chopping gigot chops off wackos owing as little as a tenner. Kip so it is. It’s not how we ever did things. Even dem grannies are gettin’ in on it selling horse tablets down the Boardwalk till new stashes arrive. Bitches used to be happy shifting cauliflowers & pears. All of it needs sorting or we’re toast’.
Skinner piped up: ‘Going for a song as well, so it is. And they’re lobbing chemical splatter into the gear Gonzo. No competition. More addictive than Big Whippet or Mullingar Mud’.
The drug scene in Dublin had got boiled egg bad. Four friends in as many months had dropped dead from bad gear. He looked at Dessie who was eyeing two lesbos on the couch. One of them, skinny as rashers, was pretending to grate her tongue. ‘Yewer fuukin’ gas’, she said to her mate, bending over to kiss her full on the gnashers. Both wore matching Dolphin necklaces.
‘There’s small kids farting about on bicycles picking iPods like apples off O’Connell Street,’ Skinner told him. ‘Muggings are up a thousand per cent, robbed cars selling for under €500, all cos of this new shit that’s on the streets. Havoc. Operation Stilts Gardaí are calling it. Clamping down like steel clips on a dirt-bird’s nipples’.
Gonzo hated Dessie even in school when he lobbed custard out the window at passing priests and pensioners, chasing after seagulls on de Buckfast zig-zag, giving his 15 yr-old girlfriend a black eye for buying de wrong smokes. Skinner was worse, he could tell. Grade-A psycho who’d snap yer fingers off quicker than a fat kid at de zoo smashes a Kit Kat. Now they were turkeychesting with Russians dealers, taking on the entire muscle-for-hire empire. Russian gangsters in silver jackets trafficking teenagers by day, raping dogs of an evening. Ghetto of mayhem and fear papers were calling it. Funnel-dump from ringworm roads right up to Talbot Street, Gardiner Street and down the flank of docks to Fairview, casting into surf and howling out of rust-caked eyes into waves, sand shifting beneath drug boats, narrow little sea gods sucking at gravel and dancing a slithery leap. Low-cost booze and spat-back-up methadone from lippy whores in slippery capsules was all you could see in the city centre before one o’ clock in the day. By early afternoon the needle peddlers creaked into the gush of lanes behind Moore Street, Abbey Street and beyond, sliding to a stop the same way drops of water do on Carol’s shampooed hair. Cops didn’t give a gypsies’ as long as people like him hurried de fuck up and died. Junkies only made news when they snuffed out at tourist sites or were found lynching from concrete tongues high up between those buildings on Dame Street.
He didn’t take much convincing. Skin’s hands spread his furry cheeks apart to do the business. Arse was a humongous burger, the ones he used to get in Wendy’s in O’Connell Street when it first opened in 1987: spongy warm baps, melted Easi-singles, hot pickle sauce. Slip slop, slip slop, up with de cacks. Three bags of scank in his butcher’s bin, street value: €90,000. He’d drop de sludge and be back by three ticks, home to Carol for around five.
The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said, out loud. Pains fostered out elsewhere, he felt boundless, happy. Met her roight here with a gang of inner-city boys from de flats around Dominic Street, drinking cans and dancing to U2 songs on a ghetto-blaster sometime in the middle of 1994. She’d weight on her then, chubby sweet smile, horse-tail of hair whooshing from end to end in de sunbeams. They kissed for an hour without stopping: wet balmy tongue slosh he’d never done with any other burd. Sometimes he still felt guilty, but Leather Joe said, ‘There’s no stopping some, and ye never forced her to take it.’ The counsellor from NewPaths also explained that ‘damaged people have a knack of stumbling on one another no matter what, in the way that water always seems to meet its own level.’ It made sense that first time they tried to get off it together. Both their dads were alcos and bashed them. Both their Ma’s couldn’t see anything wrong with their Da’s and bashed them. Few weeks later, they fumbled and gorged and slopped into one another under the flat-leaf bushes in the Gardens. ‘What ye doin’ to me boy, wot ye bleedin’ doin’ to me!?’ Lads circling de railings, clutching chimps, uuumphin’ them on. ‘Slapper! Do her one!’ Afterwards they said Gonzo was a right grunter, like those fuckin’ mating seals on RTÉ. ‘It’s you and me babe, no-one else babe, you’ll do me babe.’
At the edge O’Connell Street where pigeons shat on the cement noggin of Charles Stewart Parnell, a crowd of mallets warbled about pay cuts. Aulone clutching a salad cutter was ranting blue horror about pension rights. ‘Sixty four billion to those feckers in the banks so they can fix their own balance sheets!’ Grey-haired Sinn Féin geezer smellin’ of haddock was giving it welly about Éire needing a game changer. Group of girls, no more than five or six with banners: It’s My Ireland Too. Normally he’d stick around for de dip, but Dessie warned him not to feck about, get it done & dusted ‘pronto’. Skinner held onto his social welfare card and Carol’s dead Ma’s gold locket she asked Gonzo to keep safe for always. Cash and more gear when the job was done.
Gonzo wolfed sideways shrieking his childhood battle cry: ‘Me head! Me head!’ He spottedHot Wok on North Earl Street, stomach doing a Hare Krishna pink salmon drum. Thai waitress with ladyboy lips looked like a hot slapper off the internet with a rake of sausages slithered in so her shaggy wangle was a filtering system inside an astronaut’s suit. He sat at the window starin’ out at so many formless faces, then back down at strips of steaming courgette. ‘Tolkuchka’ was the word Dessie used to describe the Russian drug cartel that had taken over. All those words ended in a choke. Carol had done a few down the canal when they were clear out of dough…said they were rough as horseshoe crabs, cocks reeking of sauerkraut.
‘Every bit of ‘em smells like a belch,’ she said. ‘Love slappin’ their wimmin’ as well’.
Pumped up on steroids, egg hatch maggot breeders, dripping sex trade, artificial money, begging scams. He could even see those Soviet-bloc prozzies too, a whole PVC red army of them soggy-spread over the back seat of metallic Audis’, slurping on mafia peckers. Head nut was like Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects except taller again, well able to giraffe over the walls of Mountjoy Prison, boiled eggs in his gob crammed full of heroin, dropping straight into famished jaws. Baba Yaga they called him, because of his man boobs. Lived in a steel hut at the edge of Rooster fields in North County Dublin. A gaff that stood on electronic chicken legs, garden fence emblazoned with teeth he’d personally knocked from debtor’s heads.
When the crowd in Foley Street got this new gear that Dessie and Skinner had messed with out onto the streets, napalm vomit and bedlam would rain down on Dublin town. Hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land, both man and beast. ‘Nuclear button is up me crack,’ Gonzo murmered. He had a looming vision of advancing Russians from every stone wall and crevice in Ireland, marching into Dublin, fat knuckles fisting indigo sky. There’d be black smoke meandering their necks, hiding bricks in plastic bags, Glocks in socks, AKs, MAC-10s with their spray and pray facility, lumpy grenades, nail bombs, acid pellets, even animal traps to pull down the enemy at window displays outside Cleary’s. Вы ирландского народа умрут самой ужасной смерти! Где твой Бог сейчас!
He spotted Widearse Wendy out de window crouching down at the door of Dunnes, knickers on display, damp with piss maps of the Philippines. She was swinging a bottle of Old Cellar at passing shoppers scouting cut-price gizmos from the pop-up shops. ‘Gonzo, ah me old bud, GONNNNNZO!’ she spattered.
‘Carol was reefin’ for ye,’ she said. ‘Some onion head lookin’ for you, says ye owe him a wormload of Euros’.
She was sitting with a Roma pleb, trombone full of bronze; old feet smashed up for begging bone pickle. He was only ten minutes now from de clop. ‘I owe no-one nutin’,’ he said, trying to figure out who yer man might be. ‘Is Carol alright?’ he asked. ‘Hope she’s not giving dem uns much grief?’ She could get snarky sometimes when juiced up to de girders. ‘Ah she was givin’ Phib a bit of a kickin’ cos he was in and out of the water,’ Widearse said. ‘Leather Joe says yez should get rid of the smelly little fucker, more mischief than worth. But I says ‘no way’ sure it wouldn’t be nutin’ round ‘ere without him, mad little yoke. Ah Gonzo ye shoulda seen him, in and out of dat water, de little ears on him, smellin’ of knacker nappies so he was. Have ye any odds for uz?’
Gonzo told her discretely he’d no spondoolies but he’d soon be in de loadser if a certain thing worked out later on. They’d have ‘em around the squat in de morrow, beer and boiled cocktail sausages, Bord na Móna goat turds in de burner, enough gear so they could all stay stub for a few days, sopping in boogie. He leaned over slowly, down to her waxy ear crack where he murmured de score as a morning prayer O Lord open our lips told her what was inside him in anyways in the darkness of this age that is passing away. If she said ought to any fucker dem Russians would make sure he was floating beetroot body parts in a stinkin’ pot of Zharkoye in some nameless side-door soup kitchen down the quays.
‘You always end up on your feet while the rest of us are on our bleedin’ heads,’ Widearse Wendy laughed, handing Gonzo de Old Cellar. Then she bowed over and whispered in Trombone’s ear. ‘Don’t be tellin’ that cunt anything of a consequence!’ Gonzo snapped, sorta raging now she’d trust a metal nicker with anything he prized on dem der Russians. ‘Don’t be a mean bollox! Ferka’s me good pal an’ he doesn’t have an easy go of it ‘ere’. He looked at Ferka who was by now grinding his teeth, some of ‘em small wallets of gold. Gonzo wondered if he picked this patch deliberately cos it looked out onto the towering stainless steel spire stuck in the Vena cava of O’Connell Street. ‘Him and his crew are probably going to melt dat fuckin’ thing down and live off de pickings for the next forty years and you won’t see him for angel dust!’ Gonzo told her, taking another glug. Metal was big business for his lot and they seemed to be spreading across Europe melting whole cities and trapping as much heat as possible. ‘Youza faggot fucker!’ Ferka roared, punching him in the crotch with his trombone. ‘I’ll bash de fucking granny outta ye with dat poxy yoke!’ Gonzo said, lunging at Ferka, crushing Widearse Wendy in the push forward. She started roaring and banging at the window: ‘Stop, will yez fuckin’ stop dis!’
Two security guards ran out of the shop to see what was going on. Big black blokes in fiend blue, large dangly batons, torches on their belts, fortified faces, boulder braces mineral ore. ‘If it isn’t the all-important rent-a-cops!’ Gonzo quipped, still gripping Ferka’s greasy swab of hair. ‘Dis fucker needs to know his place, but it’s nothing to do with youse, no trouble here.’ Widearse was beside herself, leaping about like Marlin. ‘He’s not bashin’ my mate’s head in, he’s not!’ she told the taller security brawn, smashing Ferka from Gonzo’s grip. ‘They’re both having a go for no bleedin’ reason,’ she wailed, deep now in her tiny grief of fly speck and goose egg, big fat smelly daddy raging up into life to bang her head off the rusty washing machine one more time in the small Cabra garden. Rolling around she was – from Marlin of the Seas off Cotez to a cuntarse cement mixer in an industrial sandpit on the outskirts of a Cappagh horse camp – too drunk to see what was really going on.
‘Get out of this doorway now! Our customers do not appreciate this!’ Ruby eyes looked like he’d seen his fair share of gang rape and coercive migration. He was pointing his liverwurst finger up the road where the curtains flailed in the wind outside Guineys’. ‘Fuck off back to Bangurawopa or wherever it is that youse eat one another, fukksake,’ Gonzo said, trying once more to kick one over at Ferka’s head. Ferka had fear soldered onto his face: wankstain nomad from North India following the Bisto fart of Alexander the Great to fertile lands where they settled on roundabouts melting metal and washing scarves. ‘It’s in his trousers!’ Ferka began to roar, ‘He is up to no good that bastard!’
Wendy bundled up the street, her chondrite meteorite arse blocking out the sun. Ferka too, gone in search of iron seraphs. Arms grabbed Gonzo from behind, smashing him forward, bursting his face open on the pleated gravel below. Arms, maybe even more arms (the city seemed so full of them) reefing his jeans down. ‘Fuck’s sake, stop it, I ain’t done nothing!’ But still the voyeurs fanned in, mud-puddling butterflies to blood. Three, maybe four or more fingers…drilling turnin’ twisting into his insides deep inside his trousers. Never crazed up pain like it. All the fists he ever knew in the big clench of years: priests, uncles, mad burds, the fat cat who owned the billboard company and beat the bollox out of him in front of faces outside Mass, nothin’ was worse than the arms smashin’ him up in this dirt-bucket of Dublin day. Blood, a lot of blood, that’d grow darker with the afternoon, if he ever managed to get out of it.
‘Shut it or ye’ll get it in the head,’ one of the arms said.
An aulone in brown bandaged legs shouted, ‘Bowsies, feckin’ bowsies!’
There was no way he could explain this to Dessie and his Basement Bandits. Already he could see Carol’s head mashed open; these cunts didn’t mess about. Arms conked like a discarded doll in the playground up de flats, broken bottle rammed right up there for good measure. He was flung and rolled, rammed and kicked down the street into a side lane, where the bashing went on for barbed eternity.
‘I’m fucked, I’m fucked!’ Gonzo roared as he saw two teenage girls pointing, laughing.
Dilly no douse no dee, dilly no douse no douse no douse dilly no douse no deeeeeee.
‘Yez ‘av no idea, I’m a gonner!’
Did he tell Dessie & Skinner where the squat over the bank was? Was he boastin’ about the gaff before they iglooed his arse? Carol would be back by now, pissing the mattress, eating a batter burger, waiting on Gonzo to come back with new gear. ‘Yer nothin’ but fuckin’ trouble,’ she’d say, ‘useless prick like ye, and ye gave dem yer card?’
Ring stinger, so much so, he could barely toddle up Church Street. Now he knew how she felt the first time he gave it to her in the arse. He had to use HB ice-cream to cool her down after. A seagull played the bodhrán gliding up the street squawking about ham. Nothin’ would ever be the same. These were serious heads. Dangerous heads. Mavericks. Think nothing of using shooters. Maybe they’d be OK just hidin’ out in the bank for a while. Rest of Ireland was doing the same. Stay gizmo’d until he heard of them being popped. All of ‘em uns ended up popped. Time & time again, saw it rolling. He wasn’t going back inside either, leaving her to her own devices.
The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. He didn’t know if he was here already an hour ago. He didn’t know where he’d end up or how he’d come down and if he was really here or half here an hour or more ago. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said. They’d have to lay still when he got back home, until a different kind of light shined. ‘Come out of charity, come dance with me in Ireland,’ that cunt Yeats said in the book under the mattress, but he didn’t know jack shit about the skank or de Russians or fiddlers like Carol, all thumbs and kettledrums, sucking off ghosts at the window in The Old Bank on Doyle’s Corner.
I will be reading more fiction in Cavan town on May 6th:
So, then, what about the stripper? Will the sultry beauty who used to take to the stage on Saturday afternoons a few hours before the punk and New Wave bands of the late-1970s carried out their soundchecks be included in the forthcoming honour? Can Belfast City Council’s decision to erect a blue plaque marking the spot where the Harp Bar stood in Hill Street also be seen as an indirect nod to all forms of entertainment that was once on offer in that dingy downtown pub during the dark days of the Troubles?
The Harp, of course, was mainly famous for providing a platform for The Outcasts, Rudi, The Idiots, Ruefrex, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones and a whole host other punk-New Wave groups that performed there from 1977 to the early-1980s. It was also one of the gathering places for all the young punks who suddenly found somewhere to meet up, drink, listen to new live bands and, via the turntable, the soundtrack of Seventies rebellion from across the Irish Sea.
It was also infamous as a place where, on Saturday afternoons, gentlemen could enjoy the sleazy experience of watching strippers rip off their clothes on the same stage; the Harp clientele’s favourite exotic dancer being a lady from Birmingham who used to travel over to war-torn Belfast to earn a crust gyrating in the buff. Wouldn’t it be fun if she is still around and actually turned up for the unveiling of the memorial plate in Hill Street next month? Just imagine the reaction of the city councillors if she is still with us and manages to appear on the day. The potential red faces at City Hall over certain veteran exotic dancers attending one of their memorial events aside, there are less facetious reasons why some old punks – this writer included – are conflicted about the blue plaque at the Harp Bar site.
Back in the day, punks were not always so loved by Belfast’s establishment, or its general citizenry. They were harassed, questioned and P-checked by the police and Army when they gathered in large numbers. They were the subject of scare stories and sensationalist press coverage. They were also viewed with suspicion by paramilitaries from both sides of the divide, because organically, unplanned and unstructured, punks and their hangers-on crossed every religious and social divide. Moreover, the venues where they gathered were severely restricted by the council’s repressive licensing laws.
In the streets leading towards Cornmarket, Hill Street, or Great Victoria Street, where the Good Vibrations record store used to be situated, you risked being spat on, insulted, or worse. Belfast was a cold house for punks and other assorted teenage rebels in the late-1970s. Yet all those who lived through this period revelled more than a bit in all this hostility, fear and suspicion directed towards us. Outraging the general public and the political establishment was part of the punk calling; it was almost a requirement of a so-called ‘movement’ (horrible collectivist word) that was watermarked into our DNA. This is why some feel a slight discomfort in being honoured by a city that once held us in such disdain.
But hold on a minute. Perhaps we are getting too crotchety in our middle to old ages. Because there may be some valid reasons why the city should celebrate one of the few positive social phenomena to emerge from the streets during the Seventies. Why, after all, should the history and legacy be left to the ‘terror tours’, with their fixation on walls and the things painted on them? As you will find out, for instance, on one of Arthur Magee’s informative alternative tours of central Belfast, there is a hidden history of non-conformist radicalism stretching back from the 18th century New Light Presbyterians, who were in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement, right up to the 20th century punks.
This city’s history is much more complex and diverse than the usual narrative fed to the tourists as they pass by the ‘peace’ walls with stop-offs at the site of this and that atrocity. Terri Hooley’s depressing revelation that a couple of loyalist pea-brains verbally and physically abused him recently underlines the need to keep some of that spirit of ’77, ’78 and ’79 alive. This squalid, menacing incident, during which the founder of Good Vibrations was described as a “disgrace to the Protestant community”, confirms that we are still far away from the Alternative Ulster we longed for back then.
Maybe a more lasting memorial to the punk era than a blue plaque would be a new political force to emerge that would challenge the tribal duopoly of power, not only in this city, but across Northern Ireland; that would stand up for young people’s rights to have fun and party in the face of the new puritanism; that would reflect the multi-cultural, non-sectarian, anti-homophobic elements in our society. Terri Hooley sitting in the next Stormont Assembly would certainly be a start.
This article/blog was published in the Belfast Telegraph today.
Balloon faces from years on the gear; bodies so thin they could thread through gaps in gates all across the lit grid of suburbia. They squalled and mauled their way around the city in the limp hours, hassling the likes of him trying to live out a life on his own. Most were just passing through the bend at Broadstone; heading on south towards Smithfield to score, or back down the crack in the road to Phibsborough and Finglas in the direction of home. “Story, bud!?” they’d shout up at him in unison, “Story?”
He wondered how they’d managed to spot him at all. For six months, four days and a couple of lean hours, he’d peeled off the pathways entirely and headed up the tree beside Comiskeys’ pub and the old abandoned factory that looked like a Sealink ferry flopped on its side. There was a small patch of avocado grass on the bend, where the houses tattletaled behind a hairy park, in front of redbrick flats (mostly boarded up) and the bulk of bus station with its kinked parked army poking out above a tall Victorian wall.
In the squiggle of high branches he laid out a single-plank bed using pilfered council clothing full of cotton wool to pinion him in. On the lower branches he flung bits of clothes, old bags, photographs, a leather satchel his father used as a revenue man, a tablecloth he’d stolen from Jury’s Inn, letters from his mother, Euro-shop tool kits, grilled crisp bags, and a lifelong collection of medals. If he lay on his side he could watch the locals paint their lungs in russet outside the pub,crowing about monies owed and goods stowed.
On his back, the 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 overcooked stars that seemed to have a lot in common with him. When he closed his eyes he was still able to muster up Lorna in their flat in Camden, pirouetting across the floor to Kate Bush’s The Whole Story, goading him about reconstituted spuds.
“One, two or ten?” she’d ask, cocking her leg behind her in a kind of chef-jest. “They taste of nothin’ but poxy water!”
For an entire summer they lived on tinned potatoes and Fray Bentos pies. She was taking a course in Contemporary Dance at a small amateur getup in North London and liked to prance about in the evenings in her blue knickers & bra, cooking up the same leaden fare on the one-ring cooker over and over. He adored her milky boobs and olive eyes, her animal cackle and the fact she could only fuck with her clothes on because she was so ‘County Wexford shy’.
On those smoky summer nights in ’88, he sprinted all the way from the building site in the still sweltering glare of evening to pin her to the bed for as many hours as he could. She found it impossible to look at him straight on but he’d stretch her elfin hands out behind her as far as the bed bars, jammed like a butterfly, until she gave in, squealing. He’d kiss and lick the sweat off her for ages afterwards. He would’ve sucked her up whole through a straw if he could.
It was a good six weeks before the tree spoke to him. Speckles of information at first: age (169 years); classification: Grey Willow; planting date (as yet unknown, same too for exactly how he got in the ground); how he loved the rain and sodden soil beneath him; the classic oval-shaped leaves that tickled all year ’round; his greyish green fleece-like belly; the sawflies, aphids, caterpillars and leaf beetles that populated his arms and legs since the primary days; things he’d seen and witnessed: famine, republican marches, car crashes, building booms, child rape, dog snatches, stabbings, carnivals, Christmas celebrations, guided tours, industrial strikes, Luftwaffe raids, surreptitious deals beneath his bough when the chickpea moon was at full-flourish; his hopes and dreams for any kind of future at all.
“Is me being here dragging you down?” he asked Willow, and the tree told him that all was “grand & dandy” as long as he didn’t spill chemicals on him or cut into the branches with any sharp objects. He handed back tips on the art of being indistinguishable, what was the best time of day to leave the tree to find food or other sundries he may need, all kinds of kind advice he never expected from anyone anymore under any circumstances at all.
Willow also told Miller about the escalation of drugs in the area, gangs hawking their trade in the all-encompassing daylight. “They’re as brash as you like,” he said,”knack-bags dropping off stacks of cash and even guns, young kids from the flats flailing about in the grip of addiction, that bloke form over there who bit off the security man’s ear outside McFrowans where nurses go sniffing for prison officer husbands.”
It was all drink, drugs, litter, loss and mayhem, according to Willow.
“The residents have a right pain in their hole,” he explained, “.complaining 24/7 that there’s nowhere safe for the kids to even kick a ball”.
The old abandoned railway line was now off limits even though all plans to develop the Northern Luas line had fallen off the government’s fiscal arm like a scab.
By early evening Miller was gathering his bob-bits from the grass from under the scrag of bushes beside Comiskeys. Across the way Lower Dominick Street was coming alive, the plywood apartments with artificial fireplaces and hoary Formica kitchens emptying residents out through the gates in search of something to do. He’d lived up that stink of road before, sold himself when his mother composted him for good and he could do nothing but guzzle himself into more torpor after Lorna’s death.
“You can’t stay around here destroying yourself, making a show of us, not caring a damn,” she whined. He understood. She had, after all, seen his father do it for a bucket of years.
German men on ‘culture holidays’ looking for a group jiggle, brawny truckers with a furtive hunger they’d prefer their A-line wives not know about, the mobile phone boss who needed to be sucked off before bi-monthly stock flotations. There was more sex on the streets of Dublin than could ever fit in the snug mousy insides. It didn’t bother him much, it even worked for a while, and he was able to pay for a small room in an apartment in Parnell Street near the cinema. But two winters in he’d been roughed up too many times and found himself back out on concrete, living at the back of a wall beside a restaurant fan. There was always food in the laneways, a vortex of throwaway, and some of the foreign workers would leave dregs out for him after they’d cleaned up the spillage of nightshift: bits of sloppy burrito, jerk chicken, wild wilted spinach and other khaki leaves plucked from the roadsides of Wicklow and Meath for the benefit of three stars in Dublin.
“Take it out here and be good to it,” Dhudha would tell him, passing out plates of food through the ventilator hole. All the way from Uttar Pradesh, his English was hilariously bad and nothing he emitted made sense. “My boss says you are the baggabond! He kill me if he knew I food you!”
Sometime in 2010, the Somali dealers moved in around the laneways of Parnell Street pegging their needle-loads to the retro-famished. A lot of the restaurants closed down because of racketeering. He never saw Dhudha again but dreamt he was back in India in a jam-packed town selling clunky wooden toys to foreign children on the side of a hill, spending afternoons pointing his donkey-skin feet into the eggy sunshine. Three people were done with blades in the laneways and two men pretty much like him were hospitalised after been beaten to beyond what he thought might be the level of atoms. It became a tracksuit catwalk of mêlée & mayhem – not a ruddy-faced Garda in sight – so once again he moved on to the porch of a deserted banana factory at the back of the Four Courts and later, when the gang of teenagers began throwing cans at him when he was out for the count, moving up towards Broadstone to a bandstand in Temple Gardens.
“You are better off here in any case,” Willow told him. “I’ll watch out for you in case those scallywags come back.”
How could he intervene if they did more than shout at him this time? Willow was begotten to the earth shaking him and not the other way around. And lately, just lately, he’d asked for a cut of Miller’s street profits. “This way, we’re both self-respecting,” he explained, but Miller was becoming less sure. There were even nights where Willow was ‘finding’ punters for Miller and in the depth of agladdening sleep, he’d be hauled out of the tree to do the business.
“Come out Tarzan ye mad yoke!” the punters would roar, and Willow would gently push him towards them with his large hairy branches.
In truth, he was exhausted running away for a living, worn-out with people badgering and hassling, of voices following and shadows prickling him. He be even better off as an addict himself, as if he could ever afford it! He didn’t get why they were so angry in general but also at him, blaming the recession on everything. It’s not like they even worked during the good times, like he’d done for so many years; and as for the women in the flats across the road who started shouting abuse out the barred windows at him: “Get off the grass ye mentler!” “Stop scaring the kids!” The old guys from the pub who said he was upsetting the little ones making their First Holy Communion; babe-in-arms bouncing in meringues on rubber apparatus to the side of the bus station, and the traffic cop who told him that the man driving the Ghost Bus almost swerved when he saw him up the tree. He could wring all their necks at once.
“There’s nothing illegal about me being here,” he told Willow. He’d looked it up in the National Library, the new-fangled anti-loitering laws; there was only mention of being firmly on the ground, outside ATMs, beggars holding out their hands to collect money in polystyrene cups, Roma who live on roundabouts. Some of the laws were so old at this stage even though it was surely teetering on an epoch of hovercraft; the statute books in Ireland still insist you carry a bale of hay with you to feed your method of transportation. No-one could tell him he was doing anything wrong and Dublin City Council itself was not aware of any deeds for the tree.
He imagined the end would come just as he was dozing off, when he rested his tender neck on a gnarl for the night, faint buzz of white noise approaching. Dosed up on blue and green shots, glops of Goldschlager, gobs of Guinness. The gang would hunch up the road from Parnell Street banging the railings with sticks and bars, jokes and jars, in search of him or anyone like him. It was the coke too, sending them clear bats.”Let’s kick the living shite out of him; head right open, the seagulls will have his brains scoffed by morning.”
In front of them Lorna’s ghost is teaching his dead mother how to dance: two sets of legs, knitting needles in the dark, clanking. Willow wakes in a rage, sees what’s happening and spurts his tree sap all over the gang and the ghosts, submerging them beneath the ground. How funny that Miller’smum didn’t know the jive before now. “Like this Mrs Malone!” Lorna tells her, “Just let yourself go!” They would dance on for him even when he lay on the grass, wholly broken.
You have to wonder about gits with money when it comes to all things Titanic. In 2007, a ‘collector’ bought a [used] Titanic life jacket for £35,000 from a UK auction house. Battered, ocean-licked and torn, it had been worn by a 3rd class passenger sparring for survival in the Findus-cold waters of the North Atlantic 100 years ago today. A few months later another life jacket sold for a staggering €119,000 – thought to be worn by the secretary to the wife of Cosmo Duff-Gordon – accused of bribing crew members not to return their half-filled rowboat to the sinking ship to pick up survivors. Class division has a price tag, even in an era of relics.
Business man Mark Manning is banking on a £2 million sale by breaking up and selling a tiny piece of the liner’s hull. The fragment was a scientific sample from the larger of only two known segments of the hull salvaged from the wreck in 1998 (Mark acquired his piece last year for £12,000, according to the Chester Chronicle) and formed part of the ship’s adjoining cabins C79 and C81. While Mark’s lump of liner is ‘privately owned’, the two larger pieces of hull and the rest of the New York auction, valued at around £122 million, must go to a single buyer with strict conditions relating to storage and preservation. “I will sell it to the highest bidder,” he told the paper. “Or I can get a guy to cut it into just over 1,000 pieces and I can sell them for £2,000 a time, if you do the maths, 1,000 x £2,000 = £2m”. He also acquired a wooden segment of the grand staircase from first class, a lump of coal from the boiler room and a fragment of a discarded off cut of carpet.
Since 1985, when the wreck of the Titanic was discovered, thousands of sodden souvenirs have been hauled to the surface in seven expeditions: leather trunks, china plates, letters, shoes, wallets, candlesticks, keys to a first class toilet, rivets (one rivet made $15,000 at auction), a brass thunderer whistle, Clews teapot, creamer and sugar basin, tickets for the Titanic’s Turkish bath, Marconigram messages, White Star Line candy dish, deck chair, a steel section that broke away from the starboard side as the ship sank, lockets, gold coins, cuff-links, jewellery made with ‘authentic coal’ from the ship, have all found plenty of buyers. Titanic fanatics are also willing to pay $91,000 to get up close to the ship in small Russian submarines.
There’s no end to the line-dance of lucrative packrats prepared to pay top Euro/Dollar/Sterling/Ruble for lumps of the 46,329 tonne rust-bucket, in the hope of salvaging an ordinary piece of human anguish. A restaurant in Houston served up a $12,000 ‘last supper’ this week in honour of Titanic’s infamous Ritz restaurant. It hired top chefs to cook up an ice storm of consomme olga, poached salmon with dill-flavoured mousseline sauce, calvados-glazed roast duckling, pate de foie gras, asparagus salad with champagne-saffron vinaigrette, peaches in chartreuse jelly and chocolate eclairs. Titanic buffs and memorabilia hunters with lots of dough can jig like the dickens and fantasise goodo about herding bonnet-clad women into lifeboats, while smoking Garcia Perlas Finas cigars.
- Cigar box owned by captain Smith: £25,000
- China saucer: $20,000
- Postcard mailed from the Titanic: $2,068
- Rivet: $15,000
- Original launch ticket: $70,000
- Keys to a first class toilet: $53,000
- Menu found in 1st class purse: £76,000
- Letter written by Captain E J Smith: £28,000
- Titanic’s lamp trimmer: £59,000
- Letter by steward James Arthur Painton: £15,000
- Lillian Asplund’s personal collection (she was 5 years old when travelling on Titanic, her three brothers and father drowned): £120,000
- Locker key and postcard: £70,000
- Gilt pocket watch & gold chain, American money, a button, comb: £38,000
- Job lot including letters, postcards, telegrams from survivors and photographs of passengers: $193,140
- Deck log deck log from cable ship SS MacKay-Bennett: €100,000
- First-class passenger list: £24,000
- Victim’s watch [John Gill]: £25,000
- Fragment of lifebelt: £6,900
- First-class brochure: $ 11,380
Marine moonlighters & billionaire bandits could take inspiration from 47-yr-old Stan Fraser from Inverness. He built his own eco-friendly 100ft long Titanic model out his back garden complete with its own ‘Paris Bar’ without plundering a sea-morsel. Two caravans became the hull and over time he added a wooden shed and various cast-offs until his Ship of Dreams was complete. His model also features four funnels – three belch smoke, the fourth is just for show – just like the original. Any donations he receives from folk eyeballing his suburban compost ship go straight to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
The vast majority of the Titanic’s swanky furnishings remain in the two middle sections of the wreck but the ship is slowly being consumed by iron-eating microbes on the sea floor and won’t be around in another 50 years. It also rests in international waters, leaving it in a grey legislative area since no country can claim full responsibility for it. Now the UN’s heritage body Unesco is stepping in to protect the ship under a UN Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which covers wrecks only after a century has passed. It can impose fines and other civil penalties on anyone who disturbs the site and will hopefully pull the plug on a 27 year ghoulish treasure hunt. Maybe it’s now starting to sink in: “That’s the last of her.”
Brecht wrote this poem during the “darkest times” on the run from the Nazis when Hitler’s armies were storming all over Europe. The little radio he writes about is one of the few fragile links he has left with his homeland, a country [at the time] he may never have seen again. I too cherish a ‘little box’, a rectangular black portable radio I bought back in 1989 and kept with me whether I was in Dublin, Belfast, Beirut, Brashit, Jerusalem, the Saudi desert or Kuwait city. During the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War it became a treasured possession and at night amid the howling sand storms I heard the bouncing beat of Lily Bullero booming out of the speaker as I tuned into the BBC World Service listening to reports of terrified Kurdish communities fleeing across the mountains to Turkey, with Saddam’s forces in pursuit. On nervous nights in south Lebanon listening, waiting for the dull thud of the 155mm shells from the IDF crashing into the UN buffer zone, curled up in a horse blanket, flak jacket at the end of the bed, clothes still on in case I had to dash for the air raid shelter, the ‘little box’ would keep me in touch with news from an equally troubled home. In my friend’s run-down apartment in eastern Berlin two years after the Wall crumbled, tuning in to the hourly reports of secret talks between the IRA and the British. Across Europe, on the trains, it never let me down. So when it died a natural death, its internal workings malfunctioning, the transmission gone ever silent, I still couldn’t bear dumping the ‘little box’ in the bin. At present it’s being ‘minded’ in a friend’s lock-up garage along with books, a Subbuteo box, photo albums, records, CDs and a few sentimental maps. It awaits being transported south to Dublin where we will be reunited in my new home.
To a portable radio by Bertolt Brecht
You little box I carried on that ship
Concerned to save your works from getting broken
Fleeing from house to train, from train to ship
So I might hear the hated jargon spoken
Beside my bedside and to me pain
Last thing at night, once more as dawn appears
Charting their victories and my worst fears:
Promise at least you won’t go dead again!
In 1973: The Yom Kippur War breaks out with Egyptian and Syrian forces attacking Israel. It ends after 20 days with Israel victorious after early losses to the Arab armies. In response the Arab oil states impose embargoes on countries that supported Israel, triggering a global energy crisis creating an economic shockwave around the planet.
In 1973: A sinister new murder machine emerges from the shadows carrying out a number of sectarian murders in Belfast including the killing of 14-year-old Phillip Rafferty. An organisation called the Ulster Freedom Fighters claims responsibility – it is in reality the Ulster Defence Association the legal and open loyalist street militia to emerge early in the Troubles.
In 1973: I finally make my Holy First Communion almost a year after most of my seven year old peers in St. Colman’s Primary School in The Market area of Belfast. My mum buys me a dickie bow and accompanying frilly fronted shirt but changes her mind before we make our way to St. Malachy’s Church and lets me wear a plain white shirt and thick-knot dark blue tie instead.
In 1973: Richard Nixon tells reporters he is “not a crook” in relation to the Watergate spy scandal directed at the Democrats. Later his attorney general reveals the existence of the Watergate tapes including an 18 and a half-minute gap in the recording.
In 1973: The Republic of Ireland and the UK join the European Economic Community, and following elections in Northern Ireland that summer, a unionist bloc led by former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, along with the nationalist SDLP and Alliance, agree to a power sharing government in Belfast after negotiations at Sunningdale. Hardline unionists including the Rev Ian Paisley vow to wreck the arrangement.
In 1973: After Holy Communion my mum takes me to the Royal Victoria Hospital to visit her mother Florrie McManus (nee Stewart) who is seriously ill. She only lasts a short time and dies.
In 1973: A military junta led by Pinochet and backed by the Nixon Administration and the CIA overthrow the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende. The date of the coup is September 11th. An East German friend of mine recalls crying when he heard about Allende’s death on DDR television, and later remembers Chilean left-wing refugees arriving in his home town.
In 1973: The Provisional IRA bomb the Old Bailey in London marking the beginning of the Provos England campaign. The bombers are arrested on route back to Belfast and include Gerry Kelly, currently a junior minister in the power sharing government in Belfast. Among others captured at Heathrow Airport are Marion and Dolours Price who later go on a hunger strike in an English jail so they can be repatriated to an Irish jail. During their incarceration they are force-fed by prison authorities. One man dies of a heart attack during the chaos caused by the bomb blast. Marion Price is back in jail in 2011 charged with encouraging acts of terrorism.
In 1973: Sunderland stun the football world by beating the might Leeds United in the FA Cup final. It is the first live final I ever see in colour on my own television in my house at Number 1 Eliza Street. The giant-killing feat was re-enacted by me using a rolled up pair of socks and the gaps between sofas in the front living room used as goals.
In 1973: The first American prisoners of war are freed from Vietnam and the Paris Peace Agreement effectively ends US involvement in Indochina. The NLF is only two years away from victory and the capture of Saigon while the Khmer Rouge gains ground in Cambodia before seizing power and establishing Year Zero.
In 1973: A UVF car bomb explodes in Dublin’s Sackville Street killing one and injuring 17 others. The car used to transport the explosive device had been hijacked in Agnes Street on Belfast’s Shankill Road. It marks the first major attack on southern Irish civilians by loyalists.
In 1973: I spend a week in Sligo on a cross community children’s summer holiday which degenerates into sectarian scrapping. We stay in a boarding school style place and witness fist fighting on the disco floor. Everyone over the age of 9 appears to smoke Goldflake and Major while the older lads wield chains and show off “hot shit” pen-knives. No one gets stabbed but we get chased from an orchard by an old priest wielding a blackthorn stick after we poke at a bees’ nest.
In 1973: The American Indian Movement take over Wounded Knee sparking a violent siege in South Dakota. AIM activists chose the site because it was where 300 men, women and children were killed by the US army in the 19th Century. Two Native American activists are killed and an FBI agent is paralysed during the armed confrontation. Literature from the AIM is circulated during Official Sinn Fein’s anti-imperialist festival.
In 1973: The Heath government imposes a three day working week in response to the oil crisis and ads appear on television urging us all “To Save It”. More than one million workers march in Britain in protest at Conservative austerity cuts. Plus ca change.
In 1973: My family home is the election headquarters of the Republican Clubs in The Market and a Starry Plough flag flies from one of our attic windows. My sister and I cover the lamp posts outside with round election stickers. No one from the party gets elected to the new and later doomed Northern Ireland Assembly.
In 1973: Both German states, the Federal Republic and the DDR are accepted as members of the United Nations. Meanwhile Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhoff terrorism continues to plague West Germany. A friend of our family has served a brief but disastrous jail sentence for an arson attack in Belfast inspired by the RAF-BM a few years earlier.
In 1973: We dance in the Silvertops disco in Belfast’s Hamilton Street to Gary Glitter’s I”m the Leader of the Gang (I am) blissfully unaware that our glam-rock/pop hero is a paedophile. The Silvertops becomes the battle ground between the Provie and Sticky Fiannas with studded belts and steel capped boots being deployed on the dance floor beneath the glitter ball.
In 1973: The world is still divided into the capitalist and communist blocs although the threat of nuclear holocaust is receding with détente all the rage. The New Cold War is still far off and the Islamist counter-revolution (the first thrust backwards into history and the past) is yet to break out in Iran. Europe is divided and the Berlin Wall looks permanent.
In 1973: The unions in Britain still retain the power to shake governments and within a year help bring down Ted Heath’s administration. The optimism of Sunningdale and the prospects of power sharing are short-lived – the approaching Ulster Workers Council strike will bring down the cross community government. It takes 33 years and thousands more deaths before unionists and nationalists share power again, this time it seems for good. Seamus Mallon’s description of the Good Friday Agreement (the template for the later St. Andrew’s Agreement) as “Sunningdale for slow learners” seems tragically apposite. Among the dead for the new dawn are at least one of our relatives, a dearly beloved uncle, several friends and a couple of neighbours. Our home is damaged and my father and I narrowly escaped death from a UVF bomb outside our home.
W1973: A group of UVF members bulging out of dark suits, wearing streaky black ties, gather around a grave to hear an oration in Roselawn Cemetery East Belfast. It is Remembrance Sunday 2011. My sister and I look on at this menacing crew amid howling wind and rain. We are standing at the edge of a mushy, freshly turned over, rain-sodden piece of earth. We begin the work of cleaning up the black-headstone caked in hardened mud and dirt. As we move over the to wipe it with hot water and cloths, one of my feet sinks into the mire up to my knee. My leg is descending towards where my mother was laid to rest the month before. She lies on top of my father, who died four months before her. I lift my leg out of the sticky, viscous muck but my foot has left an imprint on the strip above where my parents are buried. When we return a few weeks later the shape of my foot is still visible and is filled with rain water. W1973: The number of the grave where my mother followed my father into the ground.
I have always loved this poem by Robert Burns, so when I heard it put to song at the funeral of an old friend and colleague I was moved to tears. We were saying farewell to Arnold Kemp who died suddenly while on holiday in 2002. Arnold was a news and comment editor at The Observer, and an experienced Scottish journalist. His death was a blow to all of us, given that he was such a popular figure among staff, as well as being a good friend. Inside a crematorium in his native Edinburgh – surrounded by leading lights in the Scottish and UK media – as well as politicians from both Scotland’s devolved parliament and Westminster, the final tribute to Arnold was the Burn’s poem put to music, a poetic manifesto for equality and democracy, the type of message our last editor believed passionately in. When I read Burn’s verse I will always think of Arnold! My lovely mother died last week too, following my father’s untimely departure only four months ago, so it’s hard to get death off my mind.
For a’ that (by Robert Burns).
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
I spent last Monday morning strolling around a fascinating museum dedicated to the history of the Inniskilling regiment of the British Army. The museum is situated in Enniskillen Castle on Lough Erne right in the heart of the Co. Fermanagh town. In the courtyard close to the ancient Watergate there are captured German artilery pieces from World War One of which one was later converted for use in the next war as part of coastal defences against the threatened Nazi invasion of southern England in the summer of 1940. Inside the museum itself you are taken on a journey through the locally recruited regiment’s history from the wars against Napolean through to World War Two, Korea and the Cold War frontline of West Berlin.
As with much of Ulster military history there is heavy emphasis on the sacrifices the Inniskillings made on the Western Front and other theatres of the First World War. These include the struggle against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and in particular the heroism of one Donegal Duffy from Gweedore who won a Victoria Cross for refusing to leave wounded men to die on the battlefield. Time and time again Duffy risked his own life to recover his injured comrades and carry them often on his own to safety. This was the final leg of a three day trip to Fermanagh and it turned out to be the most poignant. Why? Because only recently did I discover that my great grandfather on my mother’s side of the family was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Great Granddad Tommy Stewart’s death on the western front was all the more poignant because my mother and her siblings were brought up Catholics on the other side of the line from where Tommy grew up. He was a Shankill Road Protestant but his daughter Florence married a Catholic and moved with him to the republican Lower Falls. Such is the way our roots are tangled up, our ancestral ties complex.
Break of Day in the Trenches (by Isaac Rosenberg)
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Heartsink days like today where I try hard not to react to the cretinous mumblings of David Quinn as I’ve done before, when he meshes antediluvian views of so-called canon law and criminal/civil law. It’s the type of attention seeking the entire ‘persecuted minority’ of Pope lickers crave. People whose inner wires are so trip-switched, they genuinely think the Catholic church is being unnecessarily browbeaten, even when fresh evidence of child rape and autogenetic cover-up are flung on the table. It doesn’t serve much purpose to rant and call him an ‘apologist’, or to scream in sheer frustration when he tennis balls blame back on the state or to say NO, David, NO, this most recent case with school caretaker Michael Ferry is not the first (or last) where those in a position of power deliberately mummify truth, enabling a dangerous pervert to go on and further abuse/destroy/annihilate young lives. It has happened many times before, as we saw with Fr Ivan Payne in the Murphy Report, and other calamitous cases in the Ryan Report, Cloyne and so on and on and on and on. Rape and sexual molestation were “endemic” in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools, orphanages and bog-standard Irish schools too. And so too is the ritualistic cover-up of these crimes by both the church and its lay ‘fans’. There’s no point ranting about one individual because in truth there’s an entire unpalatable menu of people in Ireland still who are comfortable enough to excuse, minimise, distract, disacknowledge and deny.
Last night as I watched the pained expression on Derek Mulligan’s face on TV3’s Midweek I could almost hear the dissenting voices questioning the veracity of his ‘truth’. Growing up you’d always hear disputatious whiny voices sticking up for the local priest or laneway pervert who had ‘a bit of a name’ for dropping the hand. ‘It’s all a bit of a nonsense’, they’d say, dishing up a Shepherd’s Pie and listening to the bells of a hypnotic Angelus in the background. ‘Is that young man Derek not a bit messed up on his own accord?’ Voices we grew up believing were fading into the achromatic past along with teacosies and pictures of Éamon de Valera and Matt Talbot over the fireplace. But foolish us thinking this era has passed! I heard of a man this week who goes to visit “kiddy fiddlers” in jail because he feels they’re “a lonely lot” and not long ago I interviewed a psychotherapist who told me he feels sorry for child molestors more than any other group of people: “Because surely they did not set out to do that kind of thing?” A family I know, the older brother abused his younger brother and sister, a fact that is being cruelly denied by his uber Catholic wife…she prefers to view the abuser as the victim. Poor guy, no-one is talking to him and all the good he’s done over the years and this is how he’s repaid! A very ‘typical’ response. Surely not, surely not, surely not…Very often those who have abused need to aggressively suppress any sign of the truth of the abuse surfacing. They can and do go to great lengths to silence victims and their supporters. In cases of familial abuse this can be especially difficult and destructive.
A few years ago I listened to the deposition of a Ban Garda who alleged when she was in training back in the day they were told of a sex abuse scam involving a phone box on O’Connell Street where lay perverts as well as members of the clergy would ring a local institution and ‘order’ boys to abuse – they were delivered on demand to a makeshift hut set up during road works – and if they came across this in the course of their work, to ignore it. In other words, the authorities knew, the police knew, but fiddling with the mindset of the clergy was not an option, and kids in the institutions were fair game. When I suggested publishing it, the woman was inconsolably horrified and said: “Oh no! They could work out who I am, even all these years later!” She was more concerned with her own reputation in the present tense than any retrospective guilt while at the same time the Editor of the publication I was going to write it for, decided her story was “too outlandish” to be true and wasn’t going to publish it anyway. At a dinner party in Belfast, a blockhead of a guy tried his drunken best to prove that ‘children as sexual beings’ is very much a run-of-the-mill part of our human dark side, in the same way that beastiality is strongly documented since days of the Roman Empire. The argument persisted for a good two hours. In reality it’s one step away from collusion. I’ve heard people label our tell-all eon [where experiences of abuse are openly discussed] ‘boring’. As if to say: ‘OK, they’ve had their say, when are they going to shut up?’ It may not be said shrilly, but it is being said. Minimising is still a going concern in the business of this country. Why are we surprised that child abusers, in all their forms, are culturally exonerated or even at times, protected?
When it comes to rural Ireland and the nod-and-wink culture that still pervades in places like Donegal where the Michael Ferry story broke, an example has to be made, a harsh one at that. Those responsible for allowing Ferry, a ritualistic persistent dangerous child abuser, to go back to work as a caretaker at that Irish language school, should be made to pay the price. There should be criminal charges or even civil ones levelled at them, perhaps the victims could sue on the grounds that they endangered their wellbeing by allowing this serial abuser to go back into a position of trust AFTER he had served a previous conviction for child abuse. An Garda Síochána should initiate an inquiry to explore whether anyone in the force up there played a part in giving Ferry the scope to abuse again and again. They too should face harsh sanctions and be made an example of. It’s time for Irish society to finally shut down forever the culture of the Valley-of-the-Squinting-Windows!
As for the Catholic Church and the whiners who believe its diminishing popularity is part of a bigger conspiracy, maybe a solution would be for it to become more Protestant. To allow its flock to follow their private consciences more, rather than adhere to the dictates of crazy Cardinals and barmy Bishops. This in effect is already happening. Catholics, or at least a majority of them are still believers. However, they’re not slavishly devoted to everything that the Vatican and the hierarchy lay down. They’ll take those loose shavings of their religion that they regard as precious and worth preserving. They ‘ll ignore other aspects they regard as dictatorial or inhumane. Some church leaders like the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, clearly get this but judging by the behaviour of others such as Bishop John Magee, a significant section of the Catholic hierarchy don’t. Irish Catholics are no longer divinely sheepish in their devotion. Personally I feel the whole lot is a bucket of cack, but have to respect the fact that lovers of talking snakes and ancient ghost stories still deserve a bit of democratic respect. At least they’re starting to question and no longer feel a need to zip the gob regardless. There’s been too many wake-up calls in recent times to allow for a type of Pied Piper blind faith. A la carte believers and the Church must either adopt a new attitude or die slowly not trying.
Even in cosmopolitan London or even thousands of miles away across the Atlantic there is no escaping Belfast and its spectres. Like the vampires from Salem’s Lot who follow the survivors of their feasting in the cursed New England town down south all the way to Mexico, the artist, the outsider, the rebel has no escape from his ghosts. That is the fate-loaded message of Brian Moore’s little masterpiece Lies of Silence. At the very end of this short literary thriller Michael Dillon appears to have eluded the tentacles of tribalism and terrorism that were suffocating him back in Belfast. He is in London, in charge of a swanky West End hotel, finally together the mistress whom he truly loves, on the edge of new freedom, a fresh start. And then in a final twist (albeit somewhat predictable) the IRA catch up with him and end his life, two young men wearing “jeans, T-shirts, sneakers” who raise their revolvers without masks and open fire. Dillon and his estranged wife Moira were captives of an IRA unit who forced the hotelier to drive a car bomb to the hotel car park in a bid to murder a Protestant fundamentalist preacher/politician called Pottinger. Of course Pottinger is a thinly veiled cipher for the Rev Ian Paisley.
The fictional hotel bears an uncanny resemblance to the real life Wellington Park on the Malone Road. St.Michan’s – his old grammar school – is in fact St. Malachy’s where Moore and later myself were educated. The novel’s hero defies the IRA and alerts the police before the bomb detonates fearing that not only Pottinger and his entourage but also a bus-load of tourists are slaughtered in the explosion. But what compounds the IRA’s hostility towards Dillon are two factors: firstly, his wife Moira begins a one-woman crusade against the Provos beginning at the outset on a live television interview; secondly and more crucially he decides to identify one of the young Provos who took his house over and held his wife hostage. The latter results in his death in the London hotel, his new life away from Belfast cut brutally short.
Over his long career, Brian Moore has mastered the literary magic trick of making the weighty seem graceful, making the dense and complex seem effortless and unadorned. One hopes that ”Lies of Silence” will inspire more readers to discover Mr. Moore’s earlier work, to experience the range and agility of this fine writer’s sleight of hand – The New York Times
I haven’t read Moore’s book since the early 1990s so it was a joy to return to this tautly written atmospheric tale of terrorism, betrayal and thwarted redemption. Perhaps the best way to read his novel (in my view his best) from a vantage point of elsewhere, at least if you happen to have been born in and moulded by Belfast. Because even though he left his native city for Canada way back in 1948 his evocation of Belfast is powerfully accurate. I re-read the book while here in Dublin, semi-detached these days from Belfast and yet more attuned to the social nuances Moore recalls of life in that city. His (or rather his character Dillon’s) memory for instance of St. Michans sent shivers down my spine. Facing the loathsome priest who is acting as an IRA conduit Dillon is transported back to his school days by the cleric’s recollections. ‘In the heat of a London summer’s afternoon, the odd classroom names were spoken like a false password, bringing back the school’s draughty corridors, the musical chairs of masters rushing from class to class, priests in chalk-stained soutanes, lay masters in ragged academic gowns, the whistle and sting of the punishment cane, the crash of feet in the school chapel, the creaking silences of the study hall.’ All of this is uncannily familiar to me when I look back to my days in St. Malachy’s even though Moore is writing presumably of his time there on the Antrim Road back in the 30s.
Although to be fair in my day during the 70s there was no punishment cane. Officially there were imposition exercises and detention while unofficially there were slaps and punches out of sight. The bulk of the action in Lies of Silence however, in the Belfast of the 1980s and Moore is true to the city at that time. There were still armed checkpoints and rings-of-steel around Belfast city centre; soldiers with rifles patrolling the streets; the pervasive presence of the IRA just beneath the social surface and the apocalyptic menace of the loyalists and their bible-bashing apologists. It was a grim time yes but made bearable by the existence of little islands of decency and escapism such as Dillon’s hotel where common humanity among the staff wins through over ideology. None the less Moore captures the claustrophobia that closes in on you in Belfast….even after the Troubles have supposedly ended. A decent but flawed man tries to make a break for it while doing one honourable thing before he leaves. He pays the ultimate price. There is no happy ending. In many ways this novel reminds me of a short story written by late cousin and fellow author Jack Holland. His Bye Bye Belfast, written some time before Lies of Silence, concerns the same thing – a man seeking escape from his home city and its madness. Unlike Dillon though Jack’s main character is fleeing from the other side of the lens, he is an IRA member seeking to leave behind his paramilitary past, to find a new life in the United States. He is caught in the middle of a feud with the Official IRA and loses his life on the eve of departure. Another shiver comes down the spine, in remembrance of Jack, in memory of those dark days of fratricide and bloodshed. ‘Our roots are bleeding,’ wrote DH Lawrence. For all those both remaining in and in exile from Belfast, we know exactly what Lawrence was getting at.
Brian Moore was born in Belfast in 1921. He wrote several early novels under the pseudonyms Bernard Mara and Michael Byan, including Wreath for a Redhead (reprinted as Sailor’s Leave, 1951); The Executioners (1951); French for Murder (1954); A Bullet for My Lady (1955); This Gun for Gloria (1956); Intent to Kill (1956); and Murder in Majorca (1957). His first novel under his own name was Judith Hearne(London, Andre Deutsch, 1995/reprinted as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (Boston & Toronto, Little, Brown, 1956/reprinted as The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne (London, Penguin 1959). His subsequent novels are The Feast of Lupercal (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown,1957/ reprinted as A Moment of Love (London, Panther Books, 1965);The Luck of Ginger Coffey (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown,1960); An Answer from Limbo (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown, 1962); The Emperor of Ice Cream (New York, Viking, 1965); I Am Mary Dunne (New York, Viking, 1968); Fergus (New York, Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1970); Catholics (Holt, Rhinehart & Winston/London, Jonathan Cape, 1972); The Revolution Script (London, Johnathan Cape, 1972); The Great Victorian Collection (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975); The Doctor’s Wife (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/London, Jonathan Cape, 1976); The Mangan Inheritance (Jonathan Cape, 1979); The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (Jonathan Cape, 1981); Cold Heaven (New York, Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1983); Black Robe (New York, Dutton/ Jonathan Cape, 1985); The Color Of Blood (Jonathan Cape/ Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1987); Lies Of Silence (London, Bloomsbury, 1990); No Other Life (Bloomsbury, 1993); The Statement (Bloomsbury, 1995); and The Magician’s Wife (Bloomsbury, 1997). Amongst his awards are The Governor General of Canada’s Award for Fiction in 1959. He died in California in 1999.
This is Brecht railing against the Great Men of History theory. I thought it was highly appropriate this weekend with the decline and fall of one of medialand’s so-called “Great Men”, one Rupert Murdoch. Especially given that it was the little people inside his corporation, who paid the price for the folly of the bosses.
Questions From a Worker Who Reads
(by Bertolt Brecht)
Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man?
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.
I once entered a heated debate around a dinner table about whether any art form could truly relay the unique horror of the Holocaust. This discussion took place around the time that Spielberg had just brought out Schindler’s List. Whilst I defended Spielberg’s attempt to capture the unimaginable through Schindler’s remarkable story I saw the point that my much lamented cousin and fellow author Jack Holland was making that evening: that the sheer scale of the slaughter and the cosmic cruelty the Nazis and their allies inflicted on the Jews is almost too much for art itself. Jack seemed to echo that infamous line about art & beauty dying with the camps. Perhaps we’re only capable of getting short insights into the cataclysmic nature of the Shoa, like an inverse of the Aboriginal universe, where the people on earth see glinting glimpses of heaven through the celestial apertures of the stars. That’s how the Aborigines viewed the starry night – they were pin pricks in the veil between heaven and earth. And so the compressed, tightly focussed vignettes of life in the Nazi death factories that Levi has left us are short pulsars exposing us temporarily to that black hole of a hell manufactured on central European soil. It is depressing to remember that there are those in the dark corners of the Internet, in the nefarious netherworld of neo nazism and among the Islamist fanatics in the Arab world such as Hamas, who would call Levi a liar! Perhaps those on board the so-called Irish aid ship to Gaza could raise this denial with their friends if and when they get there!
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
Primo Levi: a Jewish-Italian poet and writer, was born in Turin in 1919. Before the Second World War he was an industrial chemist. In 1943 he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where he survived due to his “usefulness” to the Nazis as a chemist. His most famous prose work is “If This is a Man” in which he wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz. Haunted by his Holocaust experiences, he committed suicide in 1987.
Peter Falk’s greatest triumph on the screen was arguably the time when he played himself. Although better known as the shambolic detective in the trench-coat who became the legend that was Columbo it was Falk’s performance as the actor Peter Falk in Wim Wenders 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire that will stand the test of time.
Of course he endeared himself to millions all over the world in his role as the seemingly scatty-brained sleuth who outwitted rich and arrogant criminals, Falk was a true revelation playing the outlandish part of a fallen angel turned actor who has just arrived on the front line of the Cold War.
In Wender’s homage to Berlin, at the time when the Wall still cut the city into two ideological halves, we only learn about Falk’s former angelic status towards the end of the movie. It’s revealed in a comic yet deeply moving scene when Falk meets another fallen angel close to the Wall – the character played by Austrian actor Bruno Ganz. Prior to Ganz’s angel falling from the sky, his immortality sacrificed in pursuit of the beautiful mortal trapeze artist, Falk talks to the character in a number of black and white scenes. “Columbo” greets Ganz at an Imbiss food stall on bleak, blasted waste-ground running up towards a section of the Wall. He senses Ganz beside him and strikes up a bizarre conversation in front of the Imbiss owner behind the counter who only sees “Columbo” talking to himself. He describes the joys of smoking and drinking coffee at the same time, of rubbing your hands together in the cold to get warm and outstretching his hand to the invisible angel offering his friendship as a “companero.”
The next time the pair meet is in colour shortly after Ganz has abandoned his immortal form having fell to earth with his suit of angelic armour falling on top of him, subsequently wounding him in the head. The angel turned mortal spots Falk and cries out “companero”! They exchange greetings and then Falk offers Ganz a few dollars. To which Ganz replies that he has money and then Falk remembers he must have sold his suit of armour. Then it dawns on the former angel that Falk too – his companero – once had angelic status. Indeed Falk informs him that he was probably robbed as he himself made several hundred bucks selling his armour to a shop in New York City many years earlier.
Falk’s character is in part comedic but also partly melancholic. He strolls around Berlin with his sketch-pad drawing extras taking part in the war movie he’s starring in, stumbling about as shabby and absent-minded as ‘Columbo’ himself. And yet world-weariness is etched on his features. His internal dialogue recalls with affection his grandma and her long-lost world of pre-Nazi Berlin. He retraces her steps and finds only broken ruins and churned up earth, the scars of war, Holocaust and division. Amid the menacing backdrop of the Wall and No-Man’s land, in the winter cityscape with its skeletal trees, in the spectral light that Wenders shoots in through most of the film, Falk is the voice of the little man still clinging to his humanity, his empathy for others around him, even for the angels who other mortals around him cannot see, touch or sense intact.
On realising he’s in the presence of another fallen angel, Ganz expresses incredulity to which Falk replies: “Sure, there are loads of us.” It’s a comforting line in a film that creates so much ethereal beauty out of the barb wire, the concrete, the spot lights, the bullet-pocked buildings, the iron-bridges, the poky apartments and the packed claustrophobic subway trains of West and East Berlin.
Wings of Desire celebrates the crooked timber of humanity. Peter Falk stands out in Wenders’ tour de force as the crumpled, wrinkled, generous face of that humanity with all its faults and foibles. RIP Columbo. RIP the first of Wenders’ fallen angels.
I am still terrified of death but I no longer fear the dead thanks to my father. He died on 7th May this year but I am indebted to him partly because of the mantra he kept hammering home to us in the first decade of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Back in the early 1970s Satan was making something of a comeback. The post-Street-Fighting-men-and-women of the late 60s radical protests no longer had sympathy for the devil. The Father of All Lies was back scaring everyone from Boston to Belfast, Detroit to Dublin thanks to an explosion of horror and supernatural films such as The Exorcist, The Devil Rides Out and The Omen. Demonic possessions, poltergeists, Satanic-ritual murder were all the rage again.
Even in war-torn Belfast with its pub bombs, nightly riots, drive-by shootings, tar and feathering, feuding, tear gas, rubber bullets and body counts, the ethereal threat from the forces of darknesses exercised our minds. Hauntings, ghostly apparitions, people being possessed by evil spirits and so on were reported in a city where real people were slaughtering their fellow citizens in ever increasing and in some circumstances with inhumane, wanton brutality.
The parallel hysteria over the the menace from devils and demons was probably in large part due to the explosion of neo-horror on the silver screen in the seventies. My father always saw through this Satanic-panic dismissing nervous neighbours worried that a cloven hoofed stranger was about to enter their humble terraced dwelling in The Market area of Belfast with this advice: “The dead can do you no harm, it’s the living I’m worried about.”
Given that the “living” included people who were torturing their captives for hours on end before severing arteries in their necks with butchers’ knivers or cynical, cold blooded commanders (some of them now “respected” statesmen!) sending out teenagers to incinerate women in fashion boutiques with firebombs you could see my father’s point.
I recently faced a challenge to my existential fears and it concerned my father’s wake. It is traditional certainly in Catholic working class families for loved ones to remain beside the coffin containing their dead relative during the period before the funeral. That task was given to me and I accepted it gladly. After the throngs paying their respects had gone, once all the sandwiches had been covered in cling film, the trays of cups cleared away, the tea pots emptied and crockery put in the dishwasher: my mother, sister and myself were left alone. I had to stay on a makeshift sofa bed in the front livng room where the coffin was laid out, the mini altar adorned with candles and the sympathy cards piled up. It was a bizarre experience to sleep at a right angle to my father’s coffin, his fine sculpted facial outline still visible every time I propped myself up on my pillows, the tenebrous light from the candles illuminating his form.
And yet I never felt a second of fear or apprehension bedding down for the night beside my dad’s corpse. The sensation I experienced those three draining nights I stayed by his side was strangely comforting. Perhaps this was in large part due to the fact that we had a brief but sadly bitter exchange just five days before he died in Belfast City Hospital. Despite some harsh words I genuinely felt being alone with him in the days leading up to his burial brought forward some form of atonement.
In these last few weeks I have, on occasion, sensed his presence again or at least imagined him around me. The most pronounced instance of this happened on the final Saturday of May just three weeks after his death. I was now asleep on a brown leather sofa in the exact area where his coffin had stood. Across the living room lay my six year old son on the other sofa who was snoring contentedly in a deep and peaceful slumber. In contrast to him, my sleep was disturbed by a menacing nightmare. I was in north Belfast, near a sectarian interface possibly near the Crumlin Road along with a former photographer colleague from the Irish News. We’d strayed into a mass Ulster loyalist protest that turned threatening and malevolent. It was probably a dream-like copy of some real scenarios I found myself in while reporting in Belfast throughout the Troubles. As we walked down that road I spotted a knot of men gathered at a corner who were clearly looking at us, whispering games of malice, moving towards us with ever increasing menance. Suddenly I was startled out of my reverie. A jolt of electricity surged through me and I jolted back into consciousness. In the first few seconds of coming back to the surface as my eyes got used to the darkeness around me I thought I could make out a shape in the gloom. A human form. It was probably just as ‘The Triffids’ song went A Trick of the Light. At least I hope it was or so says my rationalist side.
As a philosophy graduate, atheist and materialist I am innately sceptical about the supernatural, the afterlife, ghosts, etc. But then I turn to modern physics and recall the view that all matter is energy and that energy is never ultimately destroyed in the universe but rather transforms into another form even unto death. This is not wishful thinking. This is not the product of post-Catholic guilt. Rather it’s an admission that all cannot be explained especially when it comes to the loss of a loved one and the continued sense that that loss is not utterly and totally final. That something remains perhaps amid those chemicals in the brain that revisits happy memories, care and love to sustain you in the most difficult of times. Or maybe something more non-corporeal, something that survives after the disintegration of flesh and blood…
TODAY is the day when spirits are let loose by divine dignitaries to mingle with the living and even the half living or those who are long dead but are still refusing to lie down. Not just ordinary ghosts either but sinful smelly souls – destined to return in the bodies of animals – black cats, dodgy donkeys, foaming-at-the-mouth dogs, etc. This year’s ghoul factor is on a special state of high alert with the addition of dozens of ghost estates, zombie hotels and abandoned train stations for never-to-be-built towns. Originally Halloween sprang out of the celebrations of the Celtic/Druid pagans of our sumptuous shores, as well Scotland, Wales and Brittany. Every October 31st, these groups celebrated the return of winter, as well as honouring Samhain (not to be confused with salmon, another Irish export) a kind of Celtic lord of the dead geezer. On the feast of Samhain, the Celts celebrated by telling lengthy yarns about their ancestors. They also made desperate fraught attempts to glimpse into the future: a practice which has now been more or less replaced by tarot, angel card and aura readings, mediumship, psychotherapy and TV3’s Tonight with Vincent Browne.
De Oirish have played a huge part in Halloween right from the off. Even contemporary “jack-o-lantern” – popular in the US – was named in honour of an Irish blacksmith “Jack” who St. Peter refused into heaven and Satan barred out of hell. As a result, Jack’s spirit was doomed to rove the planet, with only a scabby coal from hell in his hollowed out pumpkin to light his pitiful passage. Even our “Help the Halloween Party!” childhood cry for a trough-load of e-numbers stretches back to the 17th century peasant tradition of darting about asking for gifts of food on Halloween in the name of St. Columbia, an Irish priest who established an early form of social welfare.
Another slant is the plastic Halloween masks that have their roots in Celtic myth and legend. Fearful folk wore disguises when heading outdoors on Halloween so roaming spirits, with a bone to pick with the living, wouldn’t recognise them. Celtic Druids dressed up in elaborate costumes to disguise themselves as spirits and devils so as to avoid real ghosts, ghouls, witches, vampires, goblins, zombies, mummies, skeletons, werewolves and demons. This practice was later adapted into the wearing of balaclavas by the Provisional IRA and various gangland criminals during bank robberies. Swingers from Kildare – to this day – wear eye-masks in case business people and high-ranking legislators recognise each other in the course of sexual duty.
A quick glance at this weekend’s papers discloses another startling Halloween phenomenon. Modern-day Irish folk believe in ghosts more than ever. It can even look super on your CV. Former Miss World Rosanna Davison admitted this weekend she was haunted by a young maid when a kid. ‘The model made the spooky Halloween confession as she told how she was left terrified after coming face to face with the spirit in her sprawling family home,’ the Irish Daily Mirror article read. “I saw the spirit of a young girl in my house when I was about 11 – it was in one of the downstairs back rooms and it was terrifying. I just stared at her for ages and my heart was racing but eventually I lost the bottle and ran away. Last year I discovered through the 1911 census online that the room where I saw the ghost was a young maid’s bedroom”.
Paul O’Halloran an ex-soldier from Connemara insists in The Sun that he’s ‘a strong connection with the other world as a result of a near-death experience in Lebanon’. Most of the dead souls that contact him are simply looking to be released, he reckons. “If there is a spirit or an energy in a house, I can remove these energies and help to heal the situation,” he said. He also told the newspaper how he can see ghosts in the most unlikely places, even when he’s taking time off to sup the pints. “I go for a pint and they come up and tap me on the shoulder. They’re just looking for help. If people die suddenly or with guilt, they often have a connection with a person or place and they don’t want to leave.”
Ghosts (taidhbhse) and general purpose dead things can also be very good for live business. Old pubs, haunted castles, spooky hotels and bog-standard bogs are all fodder for an industry that is flagging under the strain of recession. From Jonathan Swift’s mental hospital ghost in James’ Street to a bloodied butcher in the ruins of a house in North Dublin, years after he’d cut his throat in 1863…we just love to be petrified at any cost. The ghost of Archbishop Narcissus Marsh still haunts the Marsh Library (especially during the tourist season), sadly searching for a letter from his eloping niece. The Olympia theatre ghost never bores of following/floating around after actors in the staff dressing room during rehearsals. Eerie tales of a Cork poltergeist in a house in Hollyhill too (96fm covered the story). Every corner of Ireland is haunted and if it’s not, it soon will be. An international Paranormal Directory of Ghosts describes Irish ghouls as: ‘ranging in size from the nearly invisible to the huge, from tiny sprites to giant headless horsemen. Some of them are vengeful, some mischievous, some helpful.’ Hopefully this is useful while on the lookout later today.
Another story in the Irish Daily Mirror concerns psychic medium Angie Freeland, who claims she videoed a spirit moving a torch in the historic Wicklow’s gaol. It led to Angie’s Halloween ‘vigil’ selling out in record time. Angie dressed in the traditional costume of the gaol’s matron Mary Morris in the hope of drawing a reaction from the spirits. It allegedly worked as when Angie reached for the torch it chillingly moved towards her, sliding across the table on its own in the spooky schoolroom.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the intense paranormal activity since I first came to the gaol. Now the public can view the evidence for themselves,” she said. You can also ghost hunt 16-year-old Helena Blunden from the comfort of your DFS couch. She fell to her death from the stairs of a Belfast mill in 1912. The ‘live cam’ project on the Ireland’s Eye website has been on the go 24/7 since 1998 and is still visited by millions every year. What’s left to say except happy apple bobbing, stay safe, eat plenty of Barnbrack. If you do happen to have Samhainophobia or other phobias such as fear of cats (ailurophobia), witches (wiccaphobia), ghosts (phasmophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), the dark (nyctophobia), and cemetaries (coimetrophobia), it might be an idea to stay indoors till Monday. But please do get in touch if you’ve a decent ghost story to share…
A good many moons ago, when Ireland was dubbed the ‘sick man of Europe’ and Wurzel Gummidge was being suitably saucy on tea time TV, I found out I was directly related to Oliver Cromwell. Although only ten years old, I knew it had to be De Da’s side of the family as he was particularly gifted at starting bloody civil wars in the house and claiming zero responsibility for the body parts.
American genealogists had dropped the bombshell in a registered letter to Dublin with a $2 note for a prompt reply. Oliver Cromwell’s mother was Anne Caldwell of Solway Firth. At some stage they moved to Northern Ireland and branches of sprogs settled in Fermanagh and Donegal, while others fled to America when Cromwell turned against them after Charles II returned to power. Cromwell’s right-hand General was also a Caldwell. You get the sordid sorry picture.
Whatever the truth, there’s skimpy point getting anal about it…or is there? Cromwell was obsessed with the bowels. His famous retort: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken! wasn’t blurted in isolation. While he died of typhoid on the battlefield it was also documented that he’d ‘terrible trouble’ with his bum and may have been diseased in that region too. And he may have passed it on. Last summer as my 46-yr-old brother’s colon tumour made its way by courier to a fancy genetics lab in the EU, I sat the old man down to ask how his siblings and family members had snuffed it. “Oh the two brothers died of bowel cancer or…hold on, no, eh – can you get me some water for the whiskey – one died of a rectal disease…and the Da died of colorectal cancer at age 58 and I think an aunt did as well, at the age of 23…but I couldn’t be sure of her, there was talk she might’ve been a prostitute”. The glorious eejit had never mentioned it. I’d had my suspicions about bipolar disorder, alcoholism, schizophrenia and depression, hedging my bets for a lengthy stay at a nut house any day soon. A could-be related cancer to his lot was there too on my mother’s side: four near relatives were wiped out by the stomach variety, the youngest at 36. “Even aunt Lena the almost vegetarian!” she exclaimed. “And her who wouldn’t even eat peas from a tin!”
The brother in England (with the travelling tumour) rang the hospital with my mother’s family history and asked what was the difference between bowel and stomach cancer? “Basically a few inches,” the geneticist replied. Double whammy for our generation of Caldwell’s so. The results back from the lab confirmed there was a ’virulent’ familial strain. A few months later, by shabby coincidence, my mother was diagnosed with the same thing too. She’s just been through major surgery and follow-up treatment this summer. (An upside to the chemo for her is the restaurant in the Mater Private with its great array of delicious food, we always go for dinner afterwards. My brother also cited an unobvious benefit to his chemo many miles away in Ipswich: “the steroids give you a permanent hard-on”). The rest of us are currently marching along for tests. As I write I’m staring at a large box of ‘Klean Prep’ which I have to consume in a 4-litre load, to induce in vitro mud-slides, followed by a polite impaling at Beaumont Hospital in a few hours time.
Here’s the thing: genetics and predictive medicine is where it’s at. We’re on the cusp of a gilded age in science when a good old goo at your DNA code will reveal an accurate risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Medical folk will then be able to predict what drugs or treatment will work to keep you alive and well the longest. Within the next two to five years, geneticists maintain they’ll have the sequence of every major human cancer. Eventually they’ll ‘tinker’ with fated diseases when human life is still curled snug in the womb. In the bland old meantime, Irish families are still reluctant to talk about what killed those who came before them. “It’s not the done thing,” my mother said. “In my day people were dropping of TB and all sorts but we were too busy trying to get by to worry our heads about it”. Diagnosis was all over the place then, if anyone died of an unknown condition, it was generally lumped under the heading: ‘consumption’. The doctor, just like the priest and possibly the politician, was a sacrosanct golden cow you could only ever bestow a “thank you” to, and not bother with serious concerns or even questions.
Ireland has the second highest breast cancer rate in Europe, staggeringly high skin cancer rates too, and a steady stream of lung, ovary and prostate. We also have the third highest incidence of colorectal cancer for both males and females in the EU. Around 21,000 people are diagnosed every year with some form of the disease as well as a host of other auto-immune conditions, a lot of which could have hereditary starting points. The sooner you sit down and have that ‘genetics’ conversation with older family members, the quicker you’ll be able to jump on your health horse and deal with it. My near-genocidal ancestor (if I’m related to him) may have been a heinous shit, but he’s left me with a clear will not to kill indiscriminately and to breathe in and out for as long as is reasonably possible. How about you?
Summer 1995 and London was fast draining of charm. In my last year at Middlesex University, a young psycho was sauntering about North London slashing women’s throats. Anthony Peter Roach, age 24, from Hornsey, had stabbed a woman to death as she walked home from Turnpike Lane Tube station. Hours later he attempted to murder a woman a couple of miles away and over the weeks before he was caught, there’d been several attempted attacks on students. We were advised to go nowhere alone. I’d just moved from Stamford Hill back to Tottenham, the same week a woman was abducted in broad daylight from a bus-stop near Seven Sisters and gangraped for six hours, as they drove around taking turns. No-one at the bus stop rang for help, even though the woman was kicking and screaming as the 4-man gang dragged her by the hair and sped off. Newspaper reports later said the people at the bus-stop assumed the woman must’ve known the men…that it seemed like a bit of a ‘game’. After seven years in London, I packed up and left.
Back in Dublin there an was air of what I can only describe as immaculateness. At least that’s how it seemed to me during the first few months. Students linking each other through the archway at Trinity College eating apples, jugglers and quirky musicians on Grafton Street, market stall women bellowing their wares on Moore Street, a welly of new cafes splattered in colourful art with latte machines fizzling away. I took in the turrety architecture all over town in a way I’d clear forgotten to do before. I visited museums, took up a language class, went on a a guided tour of the State Apartments and Viking ruins of Dublin Castle for a snitch at £1.75 (Irish pounds). The place was thriving and I was home! Four months later that feeling of inviolability vanished when 21-year-old JoJo Dullard was plucked from the streets of Moone in Kildare, never to be seen alive again. She was abducted, abused, murdered, buried, silenced: both her family and Gardaí believe so.
I obsessed about JoJo’s terribly sad tale from the off. Dublin was so expensive and she’d dropped out of her beautician’s course to take up a job in a pub back home in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. I remember reading that her sister Mary was ‘delighted’ with the decision as she’d always worried sick about her in the mean grip of the unpredictable capital. The awful crawly coincidence of ordering that last drink in Bruxelles (a pub I drank in with my mates) and missing the bus home. Hitching on roads that perhaps we all hitched along in the 1980s/90s at some stage (I know I did, and often late at night too, coming back from parties in Kildare or as far away as Galway). JoJo was used to hitching in this manner: most rural teenagers and young adults were. But it was late, she was in a hurry, probably terribly panicked about just getting home. She’d travelled to Dublin that day to pick up her last dole payment and sign off for good. According to her family, she wasn’t even going to bother. That small detail really got me.
I later wrote a short story about that dark cold November night, trying to imagine the moment when JoJo ’knew’ something was wrong. I described the landscape as ‘….dark countryside, potted with grubby fields and grimy ditches, mucky mountains that would hardly be classed as mountains compared to the Jura or the Pyrenees. Lonely out-of-the-way places good for trapping animals and smashing up stones.’ I thought of all the missing women who had been struck down in their prime ‘with lump hammers, with plastic bags over their heads, with hard shattering punches, choked by the grasping hands of mad men’. That the moments in which the missing women met their deaths were really and truly the stuff of every woman’s harshest nightmare. And I thought of JoJo, spotting something peculiar in his car, the awful foreboding when his tone may have changed, when she knew, undoubtedly, what he was going to attempt next. ‘Even in the closing seconds when your brain is fizzing, popping, fading, you know not to bother making sense of it,’ I wrote in my short story. But in reality it’s completely impossible to imagine and only the sick can ever really get there.
Despite the medieval braying from the tabloid press that he’ll strike again and soon, I personally don’t believe for a nanosecond that Larry Murphy is going to put a foot wrong for a very long time. He can wait. He can play with the authorities and the public. Memories will sustain him. This day is a very special one for him after all. Even just the God of small things: he hasn’t seen any of our modern capital’s hallmarks for a start: the Luas, the spire, etc. There’s a lot to take in. Especially the reams of happy young women pacing along the city streets, tired women too, stomping home from work. Women who will have no idea who he is or what he’s done. It’s been an age since he was able to glance sideways at strangers, with every ounce of his civil rights protected. The fact remains that there are dozens of Larry Murphys out there, a lot of whom we’ve handily forgotten. The likes of Paddy O Driscoll from Fermoy in Cork, released from prison in 2004 after serving a sentence for raping a young mother: six months later he bludgeoned another woman over the head with a brick, knocked her unconscious and raped her for over an hour. There are literally too many of these incurable psychopathic rapist and murderer types to recount here, in one blog.
For the time being the public is concentrating on Larry and the obscenely Draconian laws that allow for an affirmed ’critically dangerous’ person to roam our streets with freedom honoured and upheld and intact.By contrast the families of the missing women have felt very unsupported; not just with the formal investigsations but also with funding and resources. I wrote an aritcle in the middle of the boom about the Missing Persons’ Helpline being shut down due to ‘lack of funds’ (31st March 2005). On the same day it was reported in the media that ‘one million euro mortgages’ in the nation’s capital were the new-fangled norm. While the property pages boasted that the boom was bigger and better and louder than ever, families of Ireland’s disappeared slumped back in bankrupt silence.
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