3 THE OUTSIDER
We have been blessed with three beautiful children whom we love dearly. You were all very welcome additions to the family we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with. We looked forward to your coming and loved you from the first moment. We had taken ample time to prepare and we still cherish the many wonderful memories you have all given us.
Granny was forty six when I was born and Granddad had just turned fifty. My arrival, unlike yours, must have come as a very heavy burden, on the back of the many years of struggle, raising five older children. This goes some way to explain why my earliest memories of Granny leave me empty. She stands across the living room, her face red with temper. She lashes out with my father’s brown, leather belt which cracks along the table top.
“I’ll murder you, you little bugger,” she screams in temper. Shaun ducks his head under the table. Her inability to catch him provokes his involuntary laughter, which enrages her more. He runs around the table and she chases after him, shouting abuse at him as she lashes out. She keeps running, but it never gets to feel like they are in the same circle.
The house is full on Sunday evenings. Uncle Eoghan comes for tea. Shaun dreads these visits not because of your uncle, but his nephew, two years Shaun’s junior, is likely to run riot among the toys and Shaun’s pleas are taken as proof of how unwilling he is to share.
“Will you put him to bed Seamus?” Granny shouts.
“I’ve had him the whole week. The least you can do is look after your son on Sundays.”
Granddad resists her with his eyes, but bites his tongue and does as she wants.
“Time to hit the hay Shaunee,” he jokes, taking me on his shoulders and spinning towards the door with him.
“What a heavy bag of coal I have,” he jokes, as Shaun ducks his head before they pass into the hall.
Shaun twists and turns in his cot, imagining his nephew the toddler running riot downstairs. Every sound tells of a new disaster and the minutes tick away slowly before the front door closes and downstairs becomes quiet.
The adult me tries to be fair and edits the memory: Shaun was capable of causing enough damage himself when left to his own devices at this stage of his development. Without thinking, he upends the flower pots in the sitting room to make castles in the middle of the new carpet. Reality dawns when he hears Granny’s horrified scream. Granddad tries to pacify her, while Shaun listens from his cot, nursing his reddened legs and hoping all would soon be forgotten.
Washdays were the worst. It was no joke having three men in the motor trade without a washing machine and one cold tap in the scullery. The sting of her wet hand on Shaun’s bar leg leaves a big red imprint. Her cold fat hands reek of carbolic soap and her expression changes unpredictably between Spartan endurance and rage. Shaun learns to keep his distance on Mondays if at all possible.
Other memories are like the faded photographs from our old black box camera. They flash across my mind like cut out scenes from an old-fashioned black and white film. I look through Shaun’s eyes into an overcrowded marquee in the back garden. Tall men, with deep voices, hold pint glasses of black beer. Plates and plates of fresh sandwiches and sweet cakes are offered around by women in brightly patterned dresses. Everywhere there are smiling faces and Aunty Maire sits beside her handsome, young husband looking angelic in her white dress.
Abruptly, my memory takes me to a busy street. It has been raining heavily. The noise and the traffic terrify me, but not as much as the wrinkly old woman who sells fish from a barrow. Granny complains about the quality and the price as she fingers the oily fish. The scaley mackerel lie on a bread board, precariously balanced on an old black pram. Shaun steals a quick look at the woman’s face. She’s so old and worn he finds it hard to imagine her ever having needed to pram for a baby of her own. Her clothes are blackest black and the air stinks of dead fish. She cuts the head off the fish with a huge knife and packs it between sheets of newspaper together with the rest of the fish.
At home, the smell of heavy old furniture dominates a host of other smells. Play space is limited to the area between the solid legs of the big old table. A curtain divides the living room from the scullery. It conceals a dresser with a drop-down shelf, an old cooker with a smoky oven, and an ugly Belfast sink with a solitary brass tap above it. The “coal house.” occupies the space under the stairs. The gas metre is attached to the wall above the coal and is fed by shilling pieces, which are hidden in the dresser.
A black and white television stands on top of the singer sewing machine, in front of the back window, blocking most of the daylight. Television starts at six each evening and finishes at ten. The adults stand for the national anthem, because that is what proper citizens do, unless have the BBC of course, but you need to attach a large ariel to the chimney for that. The BBC don’t have the Angelus at six because they are a godless channel and they have dirty movies late at night when the children are in bed.
Outside, the streetscape is dominated by a confusion of telegraph and electricity poles and television masts clamped onto every chimney. Papers blow in the wind and dandelions have taken over the neglected front gardens. Shaun will later be exposed to many other environments, but for the moment this streetscape marks the limits of his experience and his views and perceptions are limited to those he picks up from the adults and children who populate this street.
I will give you what no eye has seen and no ear has heard and no hand has touched and what has never risen in the human heart.
On Fridays, Granddad searches for small change in his deep pockets. Shaun hovers, telling him what a good boy he has been. Six copper pennies are counted out and Shaun rushes off to Anne’s Newsagents.
“The money’s burnin a hole in his pocket,” Granny remarks as he passes her in the hallway.
The small shop is crowded. Women queue for cooked ham and other cheaper cooked meats complaining if the slices are too thick. Shaun is forced to wait until all the adults have been served, the sense of injustice burning silently inside him.
Huge glass jars of sweets stand on shelves all around. The tall, wizened shopkeeper fills a paper cone as a container for Shaun with his bony hands. Granny’s quick temper and her reputation for standing up to bullies ensure his safety on the way home.
“Don’t you think it’s time we sent him to school?” Shaun overhears Granny suggesting.
“Send him to school,” Granddad repeats in surprise, “but he’s just turned four.”
“He’s bored at home, she argues, and under me feet the whole time.”
“You decide,” he answers, knowing her mind is already made up.
Shaun was easily convinced about going to school. He had to amuse himself at home and school offered the chance of finding someone to play with. He turned four in May and less than two months later was sitting at a tiny school desk which he shared with Cathal who came from the flats. There were mostly girls in his class at the Loreto on the Crumlin Road, but the teacher had allowed the boys in the class to sit together, despite the risk of adding to the noise which was unavoidable with such a large class.
Many of the classes were taught by nuns, but Shaun was lucky to have a nice young woman with a motherly face and an assertive rural accent. The smell of hot cocoa from the flask in my new schoolbag remains along with the clank of iron hinges on the seats of the heavy wooden desks. Plain Marietta biscuits were my least favourite lunch item, but sometimes there were Fig Rolls or Mikado with strawberry jam in the middle. Cathal appreciated these more than me and traded small toys for them. These first years at school were happy and carefree. Mrs. O’Connell was quick to praise and Shaun was more than keen to please her.
The other boys on the street had been sent to the local boy’s school. Shaun envied the great freedom they enjoyed playing outside until all hours in the care of an older brother or sister. Sneaking a look through the upstairs window, he wished for brothers of his own age and a father still young enough to kick football.
The time was ripe to join the other boys, but Granny was too nervous to allow him out alone and refused to understand the attitude of the neighbours:
“I don’t know what they’re thinkin of. They know it’s against the law to play football on the street. Wait till the police summons them and their sons end up in court. Have they no brains at all, with buses racin up and down every few minutes? Mark my words, somebody is goin to get killed and that’ll bring them to their senses.”
Shaun listened, but in his heart he was envious of the boys with irresponsible parents. They allowed their children to play on the road and fed them fresh bread covered in sugar and still they never developed worms or got knocked down. Their screams and laughter mocked him as he peeked from behind the curtains in the front bedroom.
His hopes lay in his unmarried brother Ciaran. He wanted to be around him all the time, but Ciaran was too busy to notice. The smell of Old Spice filled the air on Friday evenings. Shaun was impressed by Ciaran’s attention to detail as he shaved and then there was the manliness of his freshly shaven face. He was the man Shaun wanted to be. Ciaran took great pride in his appearance. His shiny black wavy hair was combed back carefully and the new silk tie was taken from the cardboard box in the top drawer of the dressing table and knotted to fit neatly under the collar of a crisp white shirt.
“Don’t forget to close the door when you leave,” Ciaran suggests sarcastically, turning his attention to the navy blazer which still hangs in the wardrobe.
Shaun often waits impatiently on the garden wall for Ciaran to arrive for lunch, hoping to be taken up to the corner on the crossbar of his bike. At other moments he concedes defeat and admits his brother’s lack of interest.
“Is it an unkind game he’s playing?” he asks himself.
“He is the captain of the football team, but I’m the only boy on the street who doesn’t know how to kick a ball.”
The temptation of exploring Ciaran’s room was just too great to withstand. A small leather football and a punch-bag with leather boxing gloves lay at the bottom of the cupboard. Shaun had already read all his sister’s Christmas annuals and saw no reason why Ciaran hadn’t passed on his old toys as well.
“Hey Ma, what sort of toys did Ciaran have when he was my age,” he asks trying not to be too obvious.
“and what happened to them?
I’m not sure,” Granny replies, “but I can always ask.”
Shaun was optimistic, but Granny hadn’t come back with a reply, which Shaun knew was a bad sign. Unable to keep silent any longer he pressed her for an answer:
“Your brother wants to keep them for his own children,” she tells him and that’s that.
Even though we came a lot closer as the years passed, he was a great disappointment to me as a brother at this early stage of my life. When we sat and talked in later years, I never found the courage to admit how much I had admired him as a boy and how frustrated I was with his total lack of interest.
Houses were full of religious images back then and our house was no exception. A red bulb with its element shaped into a crucifix burned non-stop under the Sacred Heart in the living room. We blessed ourselves with holy water every time we left the house and Shaun was forced to endure the incredible boredom of the Latin Mass with his parents every Sunday morning. Granddad knelt silently and prayed or stood rigidly to attention and answered the prayers, frowning in Shaun’s direction when he yawned.
At school, the nuns told them how honoured they were to have the sacrifice of the Mass and that devout Christians were happy to celebrate it every day and not just on Sundays. Shaun almost envied the poor children in China who were deprived of the opportunity of going to Mass. The nun who took them for religion classes told them that they would find Mass much more interesting when they found out what it was all about. She lied.
They were told how Napoleon, despite his other great achievements, had cited his First Communion as the most special day in his life. The conviction on the nun’s face convinced them that she was telling the truth. While my communion day does stand out in my memory, so too does the sting of the clatter I got from Granny when she caught me leaving Mass early a few years later.
“Get back into that church right now you little brat.” she shouts as my friends giggle behind her back.
I go reluctantly back in alone, promising myself that one day I would stay in bed every Sunday morning and turn all the religious pictures into the wall so they couldn’t spy on me.
The new suit and the money greatly overshadowed everything else on my communion day and I’ve often imagined the seven year old Napoleon posing proudly in his little navy suit..
One Saturday morning, Granny took me to Our Boys in Wicklow Street to buy the communion suit. We got the most expensive one they had.
“You like that one most, don’t you?” she urged.
“No price is too high, when you’re fittin your son out for his communion,” she boasted to the shop-assistant, as she counted out the notes on the counter.
“You have cost me a small fortune,” she accused as we left the shop.
“I hope you appreciate it,” she continued.
“Others will only get something from Guineys, but you got the best.”
Shaun couldn’t miss the look of satisfaction on her face, as she walked back to the car swinging the “Our Boys” bags.
“He wasn’t satisfied with anything except the best,” she told
Granddad when they met at the car.
Shaun said nothing, pleased to be left with his dad, while she did the shopping in Dunnes Stores on George’s Street. He knew they were likely to end up in The Long Hall on the same street and that’s what happened.
It was always a pleasure to be in Granddad’s company. It was
easy to relax with him. He wasn’t always comparing you with someone else or telling you what was wrong with you. I can see him relishing his pint as he sits on the long wooden bench, which lined one wall of the narrow corridor. The opposite wall was dotted with small glass hatches through which the barman could hand on the drinks. Shaun sits close to his father, dipping the tip of his tongue into his Pepsi, enjoying the tingle of the bubbles. His father smiles at him with an uncritical expression.
“I love you dad,” he confides, squeezing his father’s hand for an instant.
“Of course you do, of course you do,” agrees his dad, lost for words.
The communion day was on a Saturday a few weeks later. They had fry for breakfast before they put their good clothes on. The new suit was taken from the wardrobe and a fresh white shirt was unpacked from a cardboard box and an incredible number of pins were removed, before it was ready. Then Shaun’s hair was plastered with “Brill Cream” and he was ready to face the world.
The communion classes sat together at the front of the church. The nuns looked visibly relieved when they sang the hymns perfectly. They filed up in twos to receive the host for the first time. Shaun felt it touch his tongue. The nun had been right, it melted away quickly. He needn’t have worried about chopping Jesus in two. As the host slipped down his throat, he was certain he sensed something special. The smell of the incense and the boom of the organ were overwhelming. His cheeks burned with excitement and he felt holy in the candlelight.
“Thank you Jesus for coming to me today,” he prayed, just as the nuns had taught him.
A few minutes later they ran back into a fresh spring morning, already looking forward to going out for lunch. His cheeks became even redder in the lobby of the hotel. The head waiter met them at the dining room door and brought them to their table. The waitress brought leather-bound menus and a wine list.
“We’re going for the special menu,” Granddad stressed when the waitress came over.
Shaun insisted on the adult portion rather than the Kiddies Menu, which the waitress had been kind enough to recommend. He struggled with the stuffed chicken and ham and the roast potatoes, but was defeated by the rest. Granddad resisted an “I told you so,” even if it was written all over his face, but Granny just couldn’t hold herself back.
“His eyes is bigger than his belly,” she told the waitress when she came to take the plates.
Shaun fingered the silver coins in his trouser pocket as they returned to the car. His mother had sent him into all the neighbours before church. He had already collected five shilling coins. The rest of the day was spent visiting relations, finishing off with his father’s spinster sisters who still lived in the tenement room. The counting started when they returned home. The final amount came to over twelve pounds. Granny told him to put it away safely because he would need spending money when they went to the Isle of Man in July.
As he said his prayers that evening, he promised the Virgin Mary to try harder.
“Maybe if I try really hard I’ll become a great saint” he thought.
He knew the sanctifying grace had purified him and given him strength he had never had before. The Holy Family looked down and seemed pleased with him.
Now that he had turned seven and made his communion the nuns could do no more for him. Granny had already made enquiries about a good primary school. The boys on the street were staying on at the local school, but that wasn’t good enough for Granny.
“Your dad and me were thinkin about the Christian Brothers,” she announces.
“But you said that Eoghan had hated goin to the brothers,” Shaun protests.
“That was years ago,” she replies,
“I’m sure they’re not as strict these days. Anyway, you have an appointment with the head brother next week and if he takes you that’s that.”
The distance I have come from the Shaun I once was, permits a fatherly concern at this point in the story. I would delete the next year from his life if I could, but that would put me somewhere else and I have finally comes to terms with where I am.
Congratulations to those who have been persecuted in their hearts: they are the ones who have truly come to know the Father.
A frightened little boy holds his mother’s hand tightly in the shade of a gloomy school building. The air is thick with the smell of hops from Guinness Brewery. Shaun’s whole body shivers as he mounts the unsightly external stairway of the two-storey building. The chant of children reciting tables in perfect unison fills
The hallway as his mother opens the heavy door at the top of the stairs.
“Two and two are four, two and three are five,” drones on as the door slams behind them.
The rhythm imposed by the teacher’s stick, banging harshly against the side of a desk, confirms Shaun’s misgivings about the Brothers.
“Eoghan hated the Brothers, you told me yourself,” he complains.
“Ssssussh,” Granny cautions, putting her finger to her lips.
“The head brother will be here any second.”
I can still feel the draught on the back of my neck as we wait. The hall is dominated by a larger than life Blessed Virgin with Maighdean Muire in Gaelic script across her metal halo. She stares across at the 1916 Proclamation on the wall opposite. The symbolism was lost on Shaun that morning, but it aptly depicts the primitive mix of Irish nationalism and intolerant Catholicism which came to characterise the slogans and rhetoric of the Provisional IRA.
The echo of approaching footsteps along the long, dark corridor diverts Shaun’s attention from his surroundings. A tall, self-important brother approaches with an unmistakeable air of authority. He is dressed in a long black robe, divided across the waist by a wide black sash.
“You must be Mrs. Mosely,” he confirms making no attempt to hold out his hand.
Shaun feels his piercing stare and detects that his mountain of a mother is also ill-at-ease.
“Follow me,” he orders, turning on his heels and leaving them in his wake.
The neatly scripted word - Oifig hangs over the door as they enter his cramped office. This room will feature in many nightmares over the following few years and its details remain etched on my memory. One wall is lined with shelves covered with worn, dusty books. The wall facing us is bare apart from a cold wooden crucifix which looks down on a worn desk, where a thick leather strap sits on display.
Shaun sits beside his mother and focuses on the strap.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” the brother remarks with a threatening grin, answering the horrified look on Shaun’s face.
Not making the slightest attempt to introduce the school or present its achievements, he gets straight into the test.
“Cad is ainm duit?” (What’s your name) he demands never dropping the stern expression.
“Sean is ainm dom,” comes the response.
“Cen aois tu?” (What age are you)
There are several more questions in Irish and then Shaun breathes more freely when Maths and Religion follow. As unexpectedly as the test had begun, it ends. The head brother stands up and holds the door open.
“He just barely scraped through,” he informs Granny ignoring Shaun completely.
“We’ll give him a chance, but he’ll have to work very hard to keep his place.”
Granny finds herself nodding, not knowing whether to thank him or plead on my behalf.
“The nuns have always said that he done ’is best and I’m sure that you’ll find the same.”
He looks at her impatiently and leaves her with an abrupt “slan” ( goodbye ) when she finishes her sentence.
Shaun’s eyes meet his mother’s as they walk down the corridor. He can read the annoyance in her face.
“Scrape through, me arse,” she complains.
“I don’t care what he says. You were well able to answer every question.”
Shaun laughs inwardly at the idea of Granny using the word arse at school. It just seems so out of place.
“Can I get an ice cream on the way home?” he asks. “Alright,” she agrees, “just move a bit or we’ll miss the bus.”
The summer still lay between him and the Christian Brothers and Shaun looked forward to the long warm days. However, the football season and the shame of being humiliated hung like a shadow over him. Every male he knew, including his dad and brothers, lived for soccer and he knew there was something terribly strange about him, but every time a ball came in his direction he froze.
The fact that the other boys had siblings a year or two older to help them never occurred to Shaun. He understood his lack of skill as the sign of some fatal flaw he had been cursed with. He was offside no matter where he stood and when they stuck him in goal, he was a handy scapegoat for their defeats. He hated waiting to be picked, knowing he would always be left last. Immobilised by humiliation, he stood like a fool hating every moment.
Returning home disheartened, he was mocked as soon as he came through the door by Ciaran’s football trophies on the sideboard.
“Why won’t Ciaran help me?” he demanded in frustration. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Granny answered, busying herself with something in the kitchen.
“There is only one real choice,” he thought. “Continue to suffer or opt out.”
He wanted to be like the others, but the gap just seemed too great to bridge. Making sure that he couldn’t be seen, he sat with the girls, keeping a watchful eye on the park in case any of the boys spotted him.
“Nobody else’s parents are as old as mine,” he grumbled. “Now I have to be useless at football as well.”
It was a struggle just to get through the week, but the drive with Granddad on Sunday afternoons helped.
Sunday May 16th was going to be special. They set off after lunch. Shaun was even more excited than usual as Auntie Maire’s two children- Maria and Patrick were coming along. Shaun waved at the boys in the garden across the road as they left, but they chose not to see him.
“Where are we goin Da?” he asks, his face red with excitement.
“How does Dunleary sound?” Granddad asks knowing Shaun loves going there.
The huge trees tower over the wall of Blackrock Park and they continue towards Seapoint. Dunleary Pier is jutting out into the bay and the mail boat’s funnels send thick white clouds of smoke into the sky. The two yacht clubs look as posh as ever and ornate gates of the People’s Park bring a smile to their faces as they remember the well kept slides and swings.
As the car turns into the Jewman’s Car Park, the smell of sand and seaweed invites them to the seashore below. Not being able to hold himself back any longer, Shaun flings the door open and is about to jump out before when Granddad halts his progress with a rough jolt to the back of his collar.
“What sort of a fool are you?”Granddad shouts at the top of his voice and adds to the injury by giving Shaun a stiff slap to the back of his bare legs.
Shaun sees the regret in Granddad’s eyes, but it is too late. This is the only time I can recall being hit by my dad, but it was the humiliation which hurt most. I could see the sympathy in Maria and Patrick’s eyes, but that only made it worse. I wanted them to look up to me and not to feel sorry for me.
We walked along the beach and threw rocks into the sea. We queued for the “ninety nines” at the little window opposite the car park. Shaun felt miserable through it all and nothing could put it right again. Granddad’s love was the only love I could rely on and one clatter had ruined it all. There was no spoken apology, but the sad look on Granddad’s face and every little effort to break the tension said it louder and louder as the afternoon progressed.
A week or two after that he brought home a cute brown and white mongrel home. Granny complained non-stop until he was house-trained, even if Granddad did all the cleaning up after him. Brownie was the excuse for the many long walks we shared during what was left of the summer. Granddad never pretended to know anything about my isolation from the boys on the street, but Browny was the best distraction possible.
There was so much to learn about Dublin, so many beautiful and interesting corners within walking distance of the front door. Granddad’s perspectives on Irish history gave a counter-balance to the one-sided Christian Brother version. He had no stories about Protestant landlords evicting Irish peasants from the land that should have been theirs, while soldiers hunted down Catholic priests in what remained of the native Irish forests.
Granddad is lifting me over the locked gates of a magnificent park along the banks of the Liffey at Islandbridge. You can’t imagine being in a more beautiful or peaceful place. It is the nearest thing to Eden any garden architect has ever created. The lily ponds, the creeper terraces and the rose gardens are breathtaking.
“The dead of two world wars are honoured here,” Granddad explains.
“The British Government pay to give our Irish war heroes the respect they deserve. People like your Great Uncle Frank, who died in the First World War, and thousands of other Irishmen, who died fighting Hitler, are remembered here.”
“Why doesn’t our government want to pay?” Shaun demands, the sense of injustice burning inside him.
“They died in British uniforms,” Granddad answers.
Another day, we walk along the wall of the Phoenix Park and pass a beautiful red bricked army barracks.
“Just imagine that barracks somewhere in the middle of India,” Granddad suggests, “with soldiers in turbans standing sentry at the gates, and red-coated British officers on horseback, arriving and leaving, and the British flag flying proudly on one of the turrets.”
“Yes, I can see it,” Shaun says, the picture alive in his head. “The poor eegit who mixed up the plans was court-marshalled. We got the lovely Indian barracks and the poor Indians got the boring Irish one.”
“I love listening to your stories Dad,” Shaun says and Granddad smiles back and squeezes his son’s hand a little tighter for a moment.
Shaun feels guilty for having wished for a younger more athletic dad. He looks up at his dad’s head of snow white hair and is suddenly tormented by the thought of a lonely world without his father’s selfless love to rely on.
Browny runs frantically in circles around them; barking contentedly; jumping up on Shaun and licking Shaun’s hand as he pats the top of his head.
“What a cray mutt,” Granddad declares with a broad smile across his face.
“Don’t worry Shaunee,” he comforts suddenly becoming serious, “everything will work out in the end.”
“I want to be like you Dad when I’m big,”
“You are such a clever little boy Shaunee,” Granddad replies.
“You will do things in your life that I can’t even imagine”
Granddad was right. It did all work out in the end. However, I did find out, sooner than I thought, what life would be like without him, but not before he had helped me to manhood and a very special Polish family had taken me to their heart.
You children have always loved listening to the same stories he told me. I saw the same wounded expressions in your faces that his stories had inspired in mine. You too heard how Parnell had been abandoned by the nation he loved and how O Connell had failed to convince the Irish that passive resistance would shame the British into giving us justice.
We Irish have been very hard on our heroes and just as hard on our writers. Still when Dublin gets a hold on you, it just won’t let you go. Joyce’s Dublin wouldn’t leave him in peace. It stayed in his head and occupied him throughout his life. It had left its stamp on him and his only way of overcoming it was to take the boat and write about it from afar. He saw his novels praised around the world, but banned in his home country, because his fellow countrymen had wrapped themselves up in a soothing romantic lie about themselves.
Damn the Pharisees! They are like a dog sleeping in the cattle manger: the dog neither eats nor lets the cattle eat.