6 NEW HORIZONS
It was a remarkable chain of events which led to the meeting with the love of my life in East Germany. It certainly wasn’t usual for a normal Dubliner to study at a university in East Germany. In truth, the first steps towards finding my way were taken soon after Granddad opted for early retirement.
Granddad suffered a severe heart-attack during my middle years at secondary school. It seemed that my greatest fear was to become a reality. I never thought I would ever see Granny cry as much. The tough woman I knew crumbled within a matter of hours. Nothing in life had any meaning for her other than his recovery and that didn’t look likely for a long time.
When he finally came home, after over two months in hospital, he was much weaker and frailer than he had ever been. The frying pan disappeared and Granny became very careful with the meals she prepared. His heart had been severely weakened and we looked on every extra day as a bonus.
However, he surprised everybody by making a remarkable recovery. This borrowed time was spent doing things which he had neglected for many years. He rediscovered a long lost interest in reading and busied himself with DIY. Shaun encouraged him to take up French and Irish, but wasn’t the most patient when he was asked for help completing the exercises.
What Shaun had experienced in Dunnes Stores left him open to left-wing ideas which were growing in popularity in working class areas. He started reading the Worker’s Party newspaper, which Granddad occasionally brought back with him when he popped out for a secret pint. Nationalize the Banks and Down with Capitalism were the simplistic slogans which caught Shaun’s attention and as time went on he came under their influence more and more. Their talk of defeating capitalism and their links with the Official IRA scared him, but excited him as well.
The frustration of ordinary workers at the time 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 chat shows and he could have been easily convinced that radical change was just around the corner. Nonetheless, the general apathy and ignorance among his school friends frustrated him. He promised himself that unlike the others, who seemed only interested in football and girls, his life would be more meaningful. However, in school he had been taught very little about people like Connolly or Larkin and he was constantly frustrated by the many basic gaps in his knowledge. This prevented him presenting his opinion convincingly and he determined to read as much as possible about current affairs in general.
He believed that the Connolly Book Shop in Temple Bar gave him the best opportunity to do this. He knew his father wouldn’t approve, so he smuggled the books up to his bedroom. Soon three hard-bound volumes of Marx’s Capital took pride of place among his many other paperbacks. He read about the multi-nationals and the Seven Sisters, whose vast advertising budgets could be used to manipulate the media and threaten whole nations. He also read about Connolly and the trade unions. As well as politics, he started reading the famous Irish authors like Joyce and O Casey. He knew they had been banned for many years because of their outspoken criticism of Irish society and their explicit sexual content. It was also about this time that Christy Moore became his favourite songwriter and he always sang along when he heard his songs on the radio:
Wild Christian brothers sharpening their leathers
Learn it by heart, that’s the rule
All I remember is dreading September and school
Granddad had no idea, what was going on in Shaun’s head. He became alarmed though when Shaun started to mock his own simple beliefs:
“What fool would believe in talking snakes and magical gardens?” Shaun sneered with a conviction that worried him.
He was rejecting beliefs that Granddad had never questioned. How could he allow a sixteen year old wipe the floor with him, quoting the religion teacher to back up his arguments? Granddad made an appointment with the head brother intending to complain about the religion his son was learning. The head brother was a tall athletic man with a head of thick, wavy snow-white hair and was nicknamedh “Flour” for the same reason.
Granddad being a quiet, courteous man with a simple trust in education didn’t stand a chance. Flour wasn’t the sort to waste time with a meddling parent and the fact that Granddad never mentioned this meeting afterwards tells a story in itself.
Granny also unwittingly played an important part in Shaun’s left-wing education by bringing home a wide range of books about the troubles in the north of Ireland. She worked two days a week cleaning at a local factory where a very withdrawn girl worked in the office under the watchful eye of her mother. It was this girl who became the unlikely source of a wide range of left-wing material.
The northern conflict was the main theme of every news bulletin at the time and Shaun found it difficult to understand how Christians could hate each other with such intensity and barbarity. The books he read explained how peaceful civil rights marches had been broken up violently by a sectarian police force, which defended the British presence. They told him that this conflict was simply another example of workers being exploited by extremists on both sides of the divide. The real struggle of course was the socialist one which would inevitably put an end to capitalist domination.
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.
It was this opinionated teenage Shaun who left Heuston Station, accompanied by seven classmates, on a beautiful June day, bound for Carraroe in the Connemara Gaeltacht. He was nervous but excited at the same time, never having been away alone before. He needed to score highly in the Irish oral in the Leaving Cert. to have any hope of becoming a teacher.
They reached Galway about three in the afternoon and boarded a battered bus. Most of the seats had already been occupied by weather-beaten men with flat tweed caps and old-fashioned jackets. Listening to their conversations, they learned 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. Most had head-scarves with wisps of unruly hair protruding here and there.
“What do you think of this lot?” Shaun whispered to his classmates.
“We’re only a hundred and fifty miles from Dublin, but we may as well be on another planet.”
“How dare you mock these people,” one of the group joked back.
“These are exactly the type of Paddies the brothers have been working hard, all these years, 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, they took in the beautiful sunset and the smell of the bog carried on the sea breeze. A number of Christian brothers stood waiting to take them to their host families. A young brother in his mid-twenties with a Kerry accent accompanied them to their lodgings. This was about a half-hour’s walk away at a brisk pace, but they did not feel the distance due to the warmth and friendliness of the young Kerryman.
He joked and asked them all about themselves, starting in Gaelic, but turning into English when he noticed how exhausted they were. This impressed them above all else, as they had been told they would be sent home for using English. None of them had ever known anybody who had been to the Gaeltacht before and they had wondered how strict the brothers would be..
They were all dreading 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 Shaun. However, he knew he would need a high honour to have any chance of getting into training college and the oral Irish test at the interview would be the next hurdle after that, so it was worth taking the chance.
Having passed many rundown cottages on their way, they were relieved when they stopped in front of a spacious new bungalow, situated within walking distance of the Coral Strand.
Just as they arrived, a private coach turned into the front drive of a large, traditional, granite house on the opposite side of the road. Their curiosity was rewarded by the smiles and giggles of about twenty teenage girls who were alighting from the bus.
The bean an tigh, a reasonably attractive young woman, welcomed them and invited them into the kitchen, where she had strong tea and fresh loaves of soda bread and jam waiting.
Before they realised it, the half hour walk to school each morning and back again each evening for ceilis had become an accepted part of their daily routine. The brothers, all still young men, 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 it had materialised. The good weather also encouraged the girls to expose more and more bare skin as the month progressed and the Coral Strand was without doubt the best place to catch a glimpse of shapely, young female bodies.
The Irish classes turned out to be relaxed and entertaining. The principle aim was to get the students to forget about their problems with basic grammar and put English words in where their vocabulary let them down. Everything was allowed as long as they managed to communicate and have fun through the medium of a type of pigeon Irish.
Much to the boys’ disappointment, the girls were with the nuns in the school next door. Nonetheless, the ceili every evening allowed more than enough opportunity to develop closer contact with them. The good thing about ceilis was that you didn’t have to risk being turned down if you asked a girl to dance. You simply joined in, changing partners continually and getting to dance with girls you would never have had the courage to ask.
Although the group of boys hadn’t been close at school, they quickly became good friends. Connemara was different to anything they had ever experienced. Each afternoon they enrolled for the activity of their choice. The Coral Strand, for obvious reasons was their favourite. Before long it was taken for granted that they spend their afternoons sunning themselves and swimming on the most beautiful unspoilt beach they had ever known. The wild scenery and the fragrances of the bog plants was a treat for boys used to city streets.
Much of their time on the strand was spent talking about girls and watching their every move while pretending not to notice. The boys walked up and down the beach with no particular aim or challenged each other to swimming races and wrestling matches, or anything that would get the girls’ attention.
In the evenings before the ceilis, the smell of deodorant was often so intense that it was hard to breathe. The ceilis were organised by the Irish colleges and were open to the locals as well. This gave them more of a genuine Gaelic atmosphere, although the locals generally kept very much to themselves.
Shaun and the boys built up their courage drinking Smithwicks in the pub just across the road. Brother Tomás, did his best to ignore the obvious signs of alcohol when they arrived back for curfew at ten each evening. Being very different from any brother they had ever known, he gained their confidence and encouraged their openness with him. As the month progressed, the respect he had won ensured their punctual return from the village. He had given them ample freedom and nobody wanted to let him down. The fear of losing his trust was stronger than any sanction he could have imposed.
One of the girls in the house opposite caught Shaun’s eye from the first time she appeared on the beach. Brid had a wonderful Mayo accent which helped Shaun abandon his prejudice towards rural accents. Before long he was drinking it in, as if it were poetry. 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 confided in him that she also wanted to become a teacher, but was not sure if she would get the grades. Training to be a teacher would mean moving away from home and coming to study in Dublin and that was a prospect she was none too pleased about.
“My older sister is already at college,” she told him, “so the folks will be glad to support me as well, but I can’t imagine livin in Dublin.”
“Don’t worry,” Shaun promised. “You won’t be long fittin in. If you know the places to avoid you’ll be alright.”
“Brid,” he admitted, enjoying her name on his tongue, “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 held his hand a little tighter 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 sure 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 thinking your jokes are hilarious,” he thought.
The honesty between them gave him the confidence to take her hand. As they reached the top of the road he drew her into the shadows at the side the house. The wonderful surroundings, the scent of the bogland plants and the sea breeze 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, when she tore herself away.
“Sure its way past your bedtime Mr Mosely,” she joked as she broke away from him.
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 trying to stunt a laugh and feeling his cheeks redden.
The room filled with laughter and camaraderie as they drank mugs of strong tea and scoffed thick slices of homemade soda bread and salty Irish butter. He sat contentedly among them, still 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 allowed him to bask in the respect which Brid showed him as she listened, her head nodding in agreement to almost everything opinion he shared with her. He knew that he was a phoney and that many of his ideas were half-baked, but her admiration encouraged him to want to become that wise person he saw in her eyes. This was living and he wanted to taste more of it. He could believe in the man he felt destined to become, but he feared his self-confidence would again abandon him when he returned home to play the role of the youngest son who knew nothing about life.
Shaun knew the last year at school would be a busy one. There were nine subjects to prepare for and maths was his weakest. He invested in a Saturday maths class at Leeson Street College. Despite the large class and the teacher’s persistent stutter, he learned more than he had in five years at school. The man was a born teacher despite the obvious impediment and this fact gave Shaun the confidence to persevere with his own ambitions.
He now had over six hundred pounds in his account, a tidy sum for any teenager at the time. However, Granddad’s retirement made any financial help from home even more remote. HShaun didn’t begrudge his dad the peace he had longed for, but couldn’t help feeling that he was waging his battle alone
Fingering the worn pages of his deposit book gave him some relief, but the fear that he had greatly underestimated the cost of training college left him no peace. If the career’s leaflet was to be trusted, he had enough to pay for the first year, but having to give up after tasting success would be worse than never having started. He would have prayed, but the God of his childhood had become impotent and the thought of a guardian angel had become ridiculous. The God, who had remained in his head, found his constant urges sinful. To please him he would have to repress everything that he enjoyed. As he mentally checked through his library of religious ideas, he could find nothing to cling to. He knew he was a lost cause, wracked with impure and lustful thoughts which refused to budge.
He decided he would have to struggle on alone and just hope for the best. He determined to spend four hours each evening studying with breaks limited to a rushed cigarette at the front door. Distractions were many including a noisy road under his bedroom window together with the screams of playing children and the soccer games from the playing field at the corner.
“The whole world will be open to me if I only persevere,” he promised himself.
“I don’t belong here. I have never belonged here. My world is waiting somewhere else.”
He saw himself 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.
“Come down for yer tea. You mus be freezin up in that bedroom,” his mother’s flat Dublin voice interrupted his day-dreaming from below.
He hated the graffiti on the walls, the shops with the battered steel shutters and above all the litter everywhere. His own flat Dublin accent let him down every time he opened his mouth, not to mention the many basic mistakes he had to avoid.
“Why couldn’t he be like his teachers?” he thought, “self-confident men with soft rural accents.”
Little did Shaun know that fate would take him not only far away from the squalid streets, but even away from the country girls who were to occupy him for quite a while yet. Still it was the start of a journey which would widen very limited horizons and liberate a shackled mind.
Shaun couldn’t explain why he felt so strongly about becoming a teacher. Nobody else in the class had ever shown the slightest interest in teaching and his parents were certainly surprised when he mentioned it as a possibility. The career advice available at school was limited more or less to the blue career leaflets left in a random pile on the floor in the corner of the very Spartan school library.
Shaun had taken down the training college address from the relevant leaflet, but couldn’t 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 expired. Luckily there was a sixty pound late application fee or his dream would have ended there. He filled the forms, forging his father’s signature and asking himself if it were just an immature fantasy, as the large white envelope fell from his hand hitting the floor of the post box with a thud. Tears filled his eyes every time he thought of how long it had taken him to save sixty pounds, but he wasn’t going to let the chance pass. Granny’s hopes were set on the civil service or the banks, but Shaun’s heart wasn’t in it. He sat the tests for the banks to keep her happy, but it was her dream not his.
Candidates for training college were chosen for interview based on their Leaving Cert. results. Shaun was heartened when he got 90% in Irish as he knew that his overall level in Irish would be the decisive factor. The waiting was the worst past and the weeks just passed without a word. This was very much a private vigil for Shaun as he hadn’t dared to share with anyone the value he placed on this application.
Just as he had almost given up hope, he arrived home one afternoon to find his father 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,” Granddad challenged in a serious tone.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to put the idea right out of your head,” he continued with an air of finality.
“What do you mean Da, put it out of me head?” Shaun objected.
“It costs over four hundred pounds a year,” he charged,” 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 and I have savings,” Shaun pleaded.
Granddad tried to continue, but his own tears defeated him. Shaun couldn’t believe it, he had rarely if ever seen him cry.
Granny had been pretending to be busy in the kitchen with the door left open to be certain of hearing every word. The dirty job had been pushed onto Granddad:
“He won’t listen to anytin I say,” she had complained. “You’re his father, you put the high ideas into his head, now you can knock them out again.”
The memory of Charlie bent over the drain in Dunnes Stores with a dishcloth wrapped around his hand helped Shaun find the words:
“Don’t worry dad, I have over six hundred in the bank. That will cover the first year. Along with that, I have four months holidays each summer during which I intend to work night and day to finance the rest.”
At this stage Granny emerged from the kitchen.
“What about food and transport? How much do you think that is going to cost us? And what about the other bills, we don’t know about? We were good enough to let you do your Leaving Cert. and this is the thanks you give us. Your brothers both 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 and if your father doesn’t want to then I’ll have to. Teacher training college isn’t for the likes of us. Can’t you get that into your thick skull?”
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.
Shaun knew that his father was his only hope, but he wasn’t going to go against her.
“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 and I hope that you would at least be prepared to give me a bite to eat on Saturday and Sunday.
“A sharp look on Granddad’s face told him to drop the sarcastic tone.
“Look ma, I have six hundred pounds. This is what I want to do. If I don’t survive the first year, the banks and the civil-service will still be there.”
She could offer no arguments, but she still wasn’t prepared to give in.
“We had better discuss it with your two brothers and see what they think,” she said turning back towards the kitchen, knowing she had just delivered her hardest blow.
When Shaun finally got to read his letter he saw it was only the college prospectus with no invitation to interview. The only glimmer of hope was the final sentences in the accompanying letter: “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 weeks passed and the first week of September began, but no letter had arrived. Shaun presumed that his application had been unsuccessful, but not knowing for certain had him demented.
There was no phone at home and none of the neighbours had one either. This meant the public phone in the local pub was the only option. The noise in the bar made it almost impossible to hear anything. By the time the guy ahead of him got off the phone there were three other impatient customers behind him listening to every word. The college secretary reluctantly agreed to check through the records, while his change continued to disappear at an alarming rate. Finally, she confirmed that his name was on the list of those called for interview.
“But I didn’t get notification,” he 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 when he heard her voice again.
“Don’t you think you were being a bit optimistic,” she asked sarcastically, “thinking that your letter would arrive in Drimnagh with an address written in Irish ?”
“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, whose expressions confirmed his doubts about his suitability.
The Irish examiner greeted him with a Connemara accent when his turn came. He was a tall, young man, dressed informally in 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 admired his spunk for turning up in old jeans and he was impressed that Shaun spoke so knowledgeably about his own home place.
“If it were only up to me,” he praised, “you would be sure of a place. Your Irish is well up to standard and you look like somebody who 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 deadly serious expression betrayed neither interest nor compassion. Shaun answered his questions as best he could and was outside again within fifteen minutes a little disoriented by the total lack of feedback or normal human reaction.
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 he had seen had impressed him, especially the polished floors and the well kept gardens. Now, he would have to wait once more to find out if his working-class accent or his address had turned the scales against him.
The memory of his father lifting him over the locked park gates flashed across his mind. He felt the symbolic link and knew at that moment that Granddad was with him in spirit.
Enjoying the last rays of the fleeting autumn sunlight, it dawned on him that the love in his father’s loving eyes had brought him this far. There was no telling where the journey was going, but for a few wonderful moments he wanted to cast off all doubt and believe his solid determination would yet take him somewhere.
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 I doubt if it’s edible at this stage.”
“I’ve been in St. Pat’s all the afternoon,” hhe informed coldly. “The letter got lost and I had to rush over or miss out. I think it’s gone well.” he finished lightening his tone.
“You haven’t a hope of gettin in, if you went dressed like that,” she retaliated, looking him up and down.
“Some parents would be happy to see their children trying to better themselves,” he accused, retreating to his bedroom before she could answer.
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 thinks as she switches on the standing lamp and lifts the manuscript again.
Meanwhile, Shaun lies immobile on the rough ground beside the track through the woods which he was returning on, having spent a restful hour or two at the beer garden in Aying. He had sipped on his Ayinger lager and leafed through a book by Lewis Carroll which had always been very dear to him. Like himself Carroll had found God late in life. What divided them is that Carroll’s intellect and command of language allowed him to describe the experience in a way which Shaun admired more and more on each reading.
Shaun had felt a sharp pain across his chest and the pains down his arms and legs had intensified. He had dismounted his bike and sat on the grass verge hoping that the pain would subside. It seemed to go dark around him: a cold sweat broke out on his forehead and he could feel himself slipping away. He lay back as he felt the strength leave his body, closed his eyes and listened to the first thunder in the distance.
He wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed when he felt the sensation of raindrops on his face and their patter on the leaves above his head. The pain had lost its sharpness, which allowed a sense of peace and warmth to engulf him. His thoughts were racing ahead of him. He felt himself sinking until he began to spin in endless circles. The world had melted away and he was aware of being surrounded by soft blue light. He wasn’t aware of any human presence, but a beautiful sense of love and belonging took hold of him. Suddenly he became aware of figures in the distance. They radiated a warm glow as they spun in ever widening circles. At that moment he looked down and was surprised to find himself clothed in a radiant white garment. Suddenly a feeling of joy engulfed him which transcended anything which he had ever experienced before.
The distant figures came closer and closer, spinning in and out of his orbit. In their eyes he recognised everybody who had ever returned his love. There was no need for words. The understanding between them 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.
Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim were only meaningless labels which dissolved back into the void from which they had evolved. Love was all that remained as God is love and we are God.