6 New Horizons
6 NEW HORIZONS
It certainly wasn’t usual for somebody from a council estate in Dublin to be invited to study in East Germany. The first steps in that direction were taken soon after my dad was forced into early retirement.
He had suffered a severe heart-attack during my middle years at secondary school. The walks with him and Browny had always made it easier to bear all the rest, but when the ambulance took him away, it seemed my greatest fear had become reality.
I had never seen Granny cry and now she seemed to do little else. The tough mountain of a woman crumbled within a matter of hours. Nothing in life had any meaning for her other than Dad’s recovery and that didn’t look likely for a long time.
Finally, he came home, after over two months in hospital, looking weaker and frailer than he had ever done. The frying pan disappeared and Granny became very careful with the meals she prepared. His heart had been severely weakened and every extra day with him was like a bonus.
This borrowed time was spent doing things he had wanted to try for many years. Suddenly, he had time to read books and a few courses at the local tech equipped him with skills to tackle more jobs around the house. I encouraged him to take up French with me, but soon regretted it, as he found it beyond him and blamed me for not being more supportive. Nonetheless he took up Irish and at least there I could help him with his homework, which he took very seriously.
The Dunnes Stores experience left me open to left-wing ideas which were growing in popularity at the time. Dad took to bringing home the Worker’s Party newspaper, which was often handed out in the pub he called into for a pint.
Nationalize the Banks and Down with Capitalism were its populist slogans which Shaun was quick to adopt as the great panacea to all the nation’s ills.
The talk revolutionary rhetoric about defeating capitalism and their links with the Official IRA excited him. The frustration of ordinary tax payers with the government had reached fever pitch and the media repeatedly confirmed how unfair the income tax situation was. Shaun found himself siding with the socialists on the talk shows and the massive tax marches convinced him that radical change was just around the corner. He saw himself as more enlightened than others of his age, who were only interested in football and girls. This could be the means by which his boring existence would become meaningful.
What he had learned about socialism in school could have fitted comfortably on the back of a postage stamp. Knowing so little about major Irish socialists like Connolly and Larkin left him continually frustrated by the many basic gaps in his knowledge. My Dad was often an easy target in political discussions, but he had lived through so much that Shaun was ignorant of that it was hard to counter his version of the facts without some reading.
The Connolly Book Shop in Temple Bar gave him the best opportunity to do this. He kept this source of leftist political material secret and smuggled the pamphlets and books up to his bedroom.
Thanks to a greatly subsidised Moscow publishing house, three hard-bound volumes of Capital took pride of place among his growing collection of political books.
As well as politics, he started reading famous Irish authors like Joyce and O Casey. It was also about this time that Christy Moore became his favourite songwriter with his criticism of the sectarian school system striking a chord with him:
Wild Christian brothers sharpening their leathers
Learn it by heart, that’s the rule
All I remember is dreading September and school
My dad had no idea, what was going on in Shaun’s head. He became alarmed when Shaun’s growing confidence allowed him to start poking fun at the religious beliefs he held dear:
“What fool would believe in talking snakes and magical gardens?” Shaun sneered with a conviction that worried Dad.
The misguided revolutionary I was becoming was ready to callously trample on beliefs Dad had never questioned. Dad wasn’t going to allow a sixteen year old to wipe the floor with him, and parrot the religion teacher’s arguments to fortify his points.
Dad made an appointment with the head brother to complain that the lay religion teacher was undermining his son’s faith. The head brother, a tall athletic man with a head of thick, wavy snow-white hair was no walkoverh.
Dad, a quiet, courteous man with a simple trust in education didn’t stand a chance. Flour, as we called him, wasn’t the sort to waste time with a meddling parent and the fact that my Dad never chose to give any details of the confrontation speaks volumes.
This gave me the green light to continue unhindered in my pursuit of truth. In a few short years Shaun had transformed from the shy withdrawn boy into a long haired, untidy teenager who thought he knew it all. A James Connolly badge had become a permanent feature on his lapel, large flairs hid his platform boots and a half-smoked cigarette protruded from the top pocket of his Wrangler jacket. In brief a sight for sore eyes.
It was this Shaun who sought to immerse himself in his Gaelic roots, on a beautiful June day in 1975. He was bound with seven classmate for Carraroe in the Connemara Gaeltacht. He was nervous but excited, never having been away before. His score in the Irish oral of the Leaving Cert the following year was crucial if he was to have any hope of becoming a trainee-teacher.
The journey from the train station in Galway was in an old battered CIE single-decker. Most seats had already been occupied by weather-beaten men with flat tweed caps and old-fashioned jackets. Listening to their conversations, they undestood little due to the thick Connemara accents and the incomprehensible Gaelic which seemed totally unrelated to anything the Christian Brothers had taught them. The women rested heavy bags of shopping on their laps, their heads covered with scarves, wisps of unruly hair protruding here and there.
“What do you think of this lot?” Shaun whispered.
“We’re only a hundred and fifty miles from Dublin, but we may as well be on another planet. These are the genuine Gaels the brothers have been trying to turn us into.”
The thirty mile journey along the Connemara coast road took forever. The rough stone walls took over the landscape and the tiny fields became more barren with every mile they travelled. Although it was a remarkable summer’s day, the smell of turf fires filled the air as they drove through numerous tiny villages. The people they saw looked as windswept as every crooked tree they passed along the way.
As they alighted from the bus in Carraroe, there was a beautiful sunset and the breeze carried the smell of fish and seaweed with it. A few still youthful Christian brothers stood waiting to take us to our host families. A young brother in his mid-twenties with a Kerry accent accompanied us. This was about a half-hour’s walk away at a brisk pace, but we did not feel the distance due to his warmth and friendliness and the lilt of his Galway accent.
None of us had ever known anybody who had been to the Gaeltacht before and we had wondered how strict the brothers would be.. We dreaded the prospect of mornings filled with boring lessons followed by compulsory Gaelic football and hurling. The prospect of being humiliated on the sports field was the most terrifying for me. However, I needed a good honour to have any chance of training college, so it meant leaving my comfort zone or admitting defeat before I had even started.
Having passed many shabby, rundown cottages on their way, we were relieved when the friendly brother stopped in front of a spacious new bungalow, not far from the Coral Strand.
A private coach had just turned into the drive of a large, traditional, granite house on the opposite side of the road and soon the air was full of the sounds and giggles of about twenty lively, teenage girls.
The bean an tigh, an attractive young woman with an honest smile, welcomed us into the kitchen, where she had strong tea and fresh loaves of soda bread and jam waiting.
We settled in quickly and soon, the half hour walk to school each morning and each evening for ceilis had become an accepted part of the daily routine. The brothers were friendly and keen that everybody should enjoy the warmest June for forty years. It was the Irish summer everyone spent each winter looking forward to and for once we weren’t disappointed. The weather brought out the best in the girls who exposed more and more as the month progressed and the Coral Strand was the best place to appreciate them.
The classes were relaxed and often humorous and entertaining. We were encouraged to talk and forget grammar and put English words in when vocabulary let us down. Everything was allowed as long as there was communication and fun.
The girls did much the same with the nuns next door. Nonetheless, the ceili every evening allowed more than enough opportunity to get closer. The good thing about ceilis was that you didn’t have to risk being turned down if you asked a girl to dance. You joined in, changing partners continually and getting to dance with girls you would never have had the courage to ask.
Although our group hadn’t been close at school, we quickly became good friends. Connemara was different to anything any of us had ever experienced. Before long it was taken for granted that we spend their afternoons sunning ourselves and swimming on the most beautiful unspoilt beach. The wild scenery and the fragrances of the bog plants made a change from the litter and graffiti of city streets.
In the evenings before the ceilis, the smell of cheap deodorant was so intense it was hard to breathe. We built up courage drinking Smithwicks in the pub just across from the dance hall. The adults managed to ignore the obvious signs of alcohol when we arrived back for curfew at ten each evening.
One of the girls in the house opposite caught Shaun’s eye on the beach. Brid had a cute Mayo accent. He was impressed by the way she spoke about her family with such pride. He avoided her questions about his own background, hating himself at the same time for doing so. Brid also wanted to become a teacher, but was not sure if she would get the marks. Training to be a teacher would mean moving away from home and coming to study in Dublin and that scared her.
“Don’t worry,” Shaun told her. “You won’t be long fittin in. If you know the places to avoid you’ll be alright.”
“Brid,” he added hesitantly, “it’s such a pity I didn’t have the courage to talk with you earlier. You are the most wonderful girl I have ever met.”
She smiled and squeezed his hand as they made their way home together from the ceili.
“It is a great pity,” she agreed.
“You’re the first Jackeen I’ve met and you’re not half bad.”
“See,” he joked, “we’re not nearly as terrible as you country girls have been led to believe.”
“Nothing beats having a pretty country girl looking up to you and appreciating your jokes,” he thought.
At the top of the road he drew her into the shadows at the side the house. The wonderful surroundings, the scent of the bogland and the sea brought something magical to their awkward embraces. His shirt clung to his back, still damp with the perspiration of the dance hall and the long walk home. His body trembled all over, as she pulled away.
“Sure its way past your bedtime Mr Mosely,” she joked as she went towards her front door.
He turned towards the bungalow on the other side of the road and would have danced a jig in the middle of the road were it not for the eyes he felt burning into his back.
He did his best to laugh-off the friendly jibes as he entered the kitchen.
“What have you been up to Mosely?” Michael shouted over.
“Mind your own business,” he replied, feeling his cheeks redden.
The room was full of laughter and high spirits as they drank mugs of strong tea and scoffed thick slices of homemade soda bread and salty Irish butter. He sat there contentedly, feeling his body glow with a wonderful excess of youthful energy and vitality. Dublin could have been a million miles away. Shaun just didn’t want this to end.
The remaining days raced by as he basked in the respect which Brid showed him as she listened, her head nodding in agreement to almost everything opinion he share. He knew that he was a phoney and that many of his ideas were half-baked, but her attention encouraged him to play the hero he saw in her eyes.
Shaun knew the last year at school would be a busy one. He now had over six hundred pounds in his account, a tidy sum for any teenager at the time. However, he knew any financial help from home wasn’t on the cards. H
Fingering the worn pages of his deposit book gave him some relief, but the fear that he had greatly underestimated the cost of college left him no peace. He spent four hours each evening studying with breaks limited to a rushed cigarette at the front door. He fought to ignore the noisy road under his bedroom window together with the screams of playing children and the soccer games at the corner.
“The whole world will be open to me if I only persevere,” he motivated himself.
“I don’t belong here. I have never belonged here. My destiny is somewhere else.”
His dreams were filled with rosy-cheeked country girls, against a panorama of purple mountains, the smell of turf in his nostrils and the sound of the sea in his ears.
He hated the graffiti, the shops with the battered steel shutters and the litter everywhere. He had become more and more conscious of his flat Dublin accent which he felt let him down every time he opened his mouth.
“Why couldn’t he be like his teachers?” he bemoaned, “self-confident with neutral, educated accents.”
Little did I know that fate would take me not far from the squalid streets, and eventually, even from the country girls who were to occupy the next part of my life.
Shaun couldn’t explain why he felt so strongly about becoming a teacher. Nobody else he knew had ever shown the slightest interest in teaching and his parents would certainly have been surprised if he had mentioned it as a possibility.
Shaun took down the training college address from the relevant career leaflet at school, but it took him time to summon up the courage to apply. The slip of paper stared out at him every time he opened the top drawer of his bedside locker, but he kept putting it off.
By the time he got around to requesting the appropriate forms the closing date had already passed. There was a sixty pound late application fee, which almost stopped his dream in its tracks.
After much soul-searching, he filled the forms, forged Dad’s signature, attached the postal-order and sealed the large white envelope. It fell from his hand hitting the floor of the post box with a thud. Tears filled his eyes as he thought how long it had taken him to save sixty pounds.
Granny’s hopes were set on the civil service or the banks, but my dreams were somewhere else and I didn’t have the courage to share them with anybody. I sat the tests for the banks to keep her happy, but I was relieved not to be called for interview.
Candidates for teaching were selected based on their Leaving Cert. results. I collected the results in late July and was almost afraid to open the brown envelope. The Gaeltacht had helped. I had been awarded A in Irish. Now Shaun just had to wait.
Just as he had almost given up hope, he arrived home one afternoon and Dad was sitting with a large envelope in his hand. Shaun’s heart jumped when he saw the logo which read: St Patrick’s Training College.
“You never told us you had applied to become a teacher,” Dad challenged in a serious tone which was hard to decipher.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to put the idea right out of your head,” he said with a tremble in his voice.
“What do you mean Da, put it out of me head?” I objected.
“It costs over four hundred pounds a year, and that is before you consider books and transport and upkeep. You know we can’t afford that.”
“Look Da! It won’t be forever. I have savings,” I shouted half pleading, but the aggression and frustration in my voice was obvious.
Dad tried to continue, but tears defeated him. I had rarely if ever seen him cry, but these tears were useless to me. The very person I believed in was delivering the death-blow to my hopes.
Granny, pretending to be busy in the kitchen had the door left open to catch every word. She had made the balls and he had been given the job of firing them.
“He won’t listen to anytin I say. You’re his father, you put the high ideas into his head, now you can knock them out again.”
Charlie bent over the drain in Dunnes Stores with a dishcloth wrapped around his hand was somewhere in my head that afternoon and I just wasn’t going to be defeated by the people who should have been the first to back me up.
“ I have over six hundred in the bank. That will cover the first year. Along with that, I have four months holidays each summer to work night and day to finance the rest.”
Granny emerged from the kitchen, obviously annoyed that Dad had been too weak.
“What about food and transport? How much do you think that is going to cost? And what about the other bills, we don’t know about? We let you stay on to your Leaving Cert. and this is the thanks we get. Your brothers went for a trade and look how well they’re both doin. It’s about time that someone knocked those high and mighty ideas out of your head. Teacher training isn’t for the likes of you. You really think you are suited to standing in front of a classl?”
Shaun knew that his father was his only hope, but he was too passive to stand up to her for me. He had bemoaned his own lack of success and now that I wanted to fight for something better, he could only sit there with tears in his eyes. I wanted to shake him, but it wouldn’t have changed anything.
I had to grow up quickly in those few minutes. The real world was a very different place to the one I have imagined.
“There is a bus allowance of twenty five pounds a month and if I cycle I can put it towards the fees. Even students who don’t live in the college get their meals during the week at no extra cost.
“Look ma, I have six hundred pounds,” I insisted, turning my back to my father. “This is what I intend to do. If I don’t survive the first year, the banks and the civil-service will be there.”
She had no arguments, but she wasn’t going to give in.
“We had better discuss it with your two brothers and see what they think.”
“That is my letter,” Shaun demanded, turning back to his father as Granny went back into the kitchen.
Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters, and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me.
When Shaun finally got to read the letter he saw it was only the college prospectus with no definite information about an interview. The only glimmer of hope was in the final sentence: “Applicants will be informed in due course if they have progressed to the next stage of the selection process. This will involve taking a series of oral tests to assess their suitability for the course.”
The summer dragged with an ever-present tension at home. The first week of September ended and still no letter had arrived. I presumed that the application had been unsuccessful, but not knowing had me demented.
We had no phone at home and none of the neighbours had one either. The public phone in the local pub was the only option. The noise of the bar and the Crumlin Road outside made it almost impossible to hear. By the time the guy ahead of me got off the phone there were three other impatient customers behind listening to every word. The college secretary reluctantly agreed to check through the records, while the coins disappeared at an alarming rate. Finally, she confirmed that my name was on the list of those called for interview.
“But I didn’t get notification,” Shaun protested.
“Are you sure you gave the right address?” she asked.
“Of course,” he answered indignantly, “the prospectus arrived almost two months ago, so you must have the correct address.”
There was another delay as she checked through the addresses and Shaun had just put his last coin into the slot.
“Don’t you think you were being a bit optimistic,” she asked sarcastically, “thinking that your letter would arrive in Drimnagh with the Gaelic address you put on the form ?”
“Well Mr. O Maslaigh,” she suggested, with mock respect, “you had better get over here fast. The first of the interviews have already started over an hour ago.”
Shaun had no option except to hop on a bus and make his apologies when he got there. He hadn’t shaved or washed and his jeans were stained and torn. Two hours later he sat beside a number of neatly dressed candidates.
The examiner greeted him with a Connemara accent when his turn came. He was a tall, young man, dressed in a sweater and jeans with a wild head of hair, just as windswept as the locals he remembered from Carraroe. This set him at his ease and was soon telling the examiner about the wonderful time he had spent in the Gaeltacht, putting as many Connemara twists into his Irish as possible. The examiner was impressed that Shaun spoke Irish so well, albeit with a flat Dublin accent.
“If it were only up to me,” he praised, “you would be sure of a place. Your Irish is well up to standard and I have no doubt you would make a good teacher.”
“I only hope the others are as positive as you,” Shaun confided, shaking his hand heartily before he left.
In the next room a middle-aged priest sat upright on a plush leather chair behind a solid mahogany desk. It was hard to read anything from his face. Shaun apologised for his appearance, but the priest’s expression betrayed neither interest nor compassion. Shaun answered his questions as best he could and was outside again within fifteen minutes.
He walked down the tree lined driveway towards the high walls that ran along the main road. The sun was shining brightly and the leaves were dancing in the breeze. Everything had impressed him, not least the polished floors and the well kept gardens. There was an order and a perfection about the place which conveyed a strength he wanted to be part of.
Now, he would have to wait once more and worry whether his working-class accent or his address had turned the scales against him.
The memory of Dad lifting me over the locked park gates and showing me a secret hidden treasure always comes to me at moments like these. No matter what I have achieved, somewhere inside me head is the fear that someone will come along and ask me what the hell I think I’m doing there.
Enjoying the last rays of the fleeting autumn sunlight, it dawned on him that he had no idea where the journey was going, but just for a moment he wanted to forget his doubt and believe solid determination would take him there.
The street light cast a dim light on the front garden as he banged the knocker against the brass letter box. He knew by the way Granny opened the door, that she was still annoyed.
“Where do you think you are going at this hour of the evenin? Your dinner is ruined. I left it in the oven, but its probably dried to a crisp.”
“I’ve been in St. Pat’s all the afternoon,” hhe told her coldly. “The letter got lost and I had to rush over or miss out. I think I impressed them.” he exaggerated.
“You haven’t a hope of gettin in, if you went like that,” she criticised, looking him up and down.
“Some parents would be happy to see their children trying to better themselves,” he accused, retreating up to his bedroom.
Magda looks up from the page as the grandfather clock in the dining room opposite chimes five o’clock. The sky had long since become overcast and the first rumbles of thunder could be heard in the distance.
“I hope he took raingear,” she worries as she switches on the standing lamp and continues reading the manuscript. She can hear Shaun’s voice telling her that she worries too much. She does her best to banish bad thoughts from her mind as she reads on, but her concerns are not without foundation on this particular afternoon:
Shaun is intent on not wasting the first signs of better weather and has persevered in cycling all the way to Aying, despite the pain down his arms and across his chest.
The first Ayinger lager of the season lives up to his expectations and he remembers all the trips he made with his children and friends here over the years. Today he is not alone either. He has brought Lewis Carroll with him. He had finished “Mere Christianity” several weeks before, but he wanted to reflect on the paragraph that he had underlined as he had made his way through it..
“My life has been so rich after all,” he reflects. “If only I had always trusted the strength within myself. I wasted so much time living my life to meet the standards of others when I should have recognised what and who was false. The God I was searching for was inside and all around. I was looking in the wrong place.”
Shaun had felt a sharp pain across his chest and the pains down his arms and legs had intensified as he tried to cycle back through the forest. He dismounted and sat on the grass verge hoping that the pain would go away. He could feel himself getting faint and it became darker around him. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead and he could feel himself slipping away. He lay back on the verge and he could sense the strength draining from his body. The rain clouds blotted out the blue sky and the first thunder rumbled overhead.
The next thing he was aware of was the sensation of raindrops on his face and their patter on the leaves above his head. The pain was there still, but not as sharp as before. His thoughts raced ahead of him.
“Could this be it?” he asks. “Just when I finally tame my monsters the sand runs out. I have no idea who you are God or what you stand for, but I did feel you every time I was true to myself. Forgive me for being so uncritical, of passing on so many lies about you. I am content with the many beautiful moments I managed not to destroy and there were many. If there is any more out there let me embrace it now on your terms. I know I haven’t deserved any of this beauty. Thank you, Thank you”
He felt himself sinking, but before he could panic a calm took charge of him as if some all powerful invisible hand had halted his fall. H began floating effortlessly in an ever-expanding orbit. Worldly cares had lost their grip and he was aware of a soft blue sea of wonderful light. There was no more need for human words as a beautiful sense of love and belonging took hold of him. Joy and peace radiated from the warm blue glow as he spun in ever widening circles. He surrendered willingly to this feeling of endless joy which wasn’t bound by normal human emotions. Without any set of instructions he knew that he had returned to the unity which he had been temporarily parted from. It all made sense and it was good.
Radiant figures came closer and closer, spinning in and out of his orbit. Their eyes were full of the same love he had recognised in everybody who had been close to him and some he had wounded. Their warmth transcended human communication. Their intertwining orbits expanded effortlessly in a cosmic heaven of endless beauty. The feeling of belonging increased with each revolution as they spun and danced on and on and on.
Human terms such as Male, female, Jew, Christian, Muslim, good, bad were of no consequence her. Every doubt and worry dissolved into the unity from which they had come. Love remained as God is love and we are God.