Broadening the Mind
9 BROADENING THE MIND
Shaun’s interest in politics took on a more sinister tone once he came into contact with two mature students from Belfast who were taking the post-graduate course. Their courage in sticking Workers’ Party posters on the canteen wall immediately won his respect. They had been heavily involved in student politics for several years in Galway and were friends in Belfast before coming to study in the Republic. The Worker’s Party was making progress in working class areas, but their link with the clandestine Official IRA was still enough to scare most people off.
Over the following few months Shaun became more and more involved with the Workers’ Party at college and agreed to take over when the girls completed their graduate course. With the contacts he had made, he organised guest speakers and showed films sponsored by the party. Encouraged by his success, he agreed to sell party propaganda each Friday and soon became the face of the Workers’ Party at the college. This didn’t escape the attention of the clerical directors who warned that his activities would be reflected in his confidential college reference. Shaun pretended to shrug this off, but he was worried that he could become unemployable at a time when teaching posts were scarce.
His fears were further aggravated by the hostility he began to feel from certain students when he approached them with his newspapers. Others he had been on good terms avoided him or acted awkwardly in his company, rushing away each time he tried to engage them in conversation. On the other hand, his newfound reputation as a radical had gained him acceptance among those who wouldn’t have considered him cool enough before.
Never far from his mind, was the warning that the Special Branch raided the houses of known sympathisers usually at dawn and paid repeated visits to their workplaces. This knowledge forced him to limit his direct contact with the Workers’ Party. He picked up newspapers from party headquarters, early each Friday, as he cycled to college.
“Be careful,” Caragh warned, “you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“It’s not the Provos,” he answered dismissively, “and all I’m doing is selling a few newspapers.”
She could see by his tone that he resented the warning and decided to say no more.
“Would you be interested in taking part in a socialist work camp in East Berlin?” one of the party workers asked out of the blue.
“Wow, East Berlin,” he answered excited at the prospect.
This was exactly the type of adventure that he had been waiting for. His only associations with East Berlin were from spy films.
“Definitely,” he agreed, “nothing would interest me more.”
He smiled at how definite his own reaction had been, bemused by the thought that most people would never consider going willingly to a country with such a shady profile..
“If you’re interested in taking part you need to come and have a chat with Brian,” he was informed the following week in a tone which suggested that visiting East Berlin was something you did without a second thought.
“You know the club in the basement of party headquarters, don’t you?” he was asked in a voice which presumed he was a regular visitor.
“I’ve never been there, but I know where it is,” Shaun admitted.
“Brian is always there on Saturdays. Just come along any time after eight and anybody there will tell you who he is.”
Shaun felt uneasy about going and tried to convince Caragh to come to the club with him, but her reaction was predictable.
“East Berlin,” she repeated, “are you sure you know what you are getting into? What will your parents have to say?”
“I’m nearly twenty years of age,” he told her. “It’s about time I started making decisions for myself.”
Shaun arrived early the following Saturday evening and walked slowly across the top of Parnell Square and into a dark, almost deserted, street. The buildings, while Georgian in character, possessed nothing of the grandeur found on Stephen’s Green. Most houses were in bad repair and the basements stank of decay. His heart was beating hard when he finally reached the gloomy building with the Worker’s Party posters in the window. He looked over his shoulder, failing to spot any Special Branch cars and ventured uncertainly down the metal stairway catching the closing chorus, from an unlikely choir of rough male voices, as he entered the basement :
“Special Branch are f-ing bastards --- tilly eye ay tilly eye ay.”
The smell of damp, cigarette smoke and beer mixed together in his nostrils as he looked around, hoping to spot one of the mature students.
He wondered how many of those present had been raided at three or four in the morning by the Special Branch and how long it would be until he came up on their radar. He recognised an older couple who lived down the road from him. They weren’t the type he would ever have chosen to associate with and now he was seeking such people out.
“What would my mother say?” he thought, thinking of the small finger she had humiliated him with.
“This is where your third level education has brought you,” her voice sounded in his head. “The banks weren’t good enough ,for you and now you’re hangin around with scum. The next thing the police will be knockin on the door. Your two brothers never shamed us in front of the neighbours even if they didn’t get to university.”
The mature student’s look of recognition roused him from his daydream.
“How are ye doin Shaun?” she greeted with a strong Belfast accent. “You’re here to see Brian aren’t you?” she confirmed telling him that the party had already been enquiring about him.
While she went to search for Brian, he was left standing next to a group of shabby socialists in their mid to late thirties, who eyed him up and down suspiciously.
“This is Brian,” she told him, returning with a small, miserable looking character in his thirties with greasy, black hair, dirty denims and a worn green jumper.
He had a strong Cork accent and was quicker to ask questions than to give information.
“I can’t say anythin for definite yet, but as soon as we get word about the number of places on the delegation I’ll be in touch. You can speak German can’t you?” he asked to confirm his information.
“I’m not fluent,” Shaun admitted, “but it was my favourite subject at school.”
The mature student had rejoined her friends and Brian made it obvious that he wanted to get back to his game of pool. Shaun was left alone. He waited just inside the door for a while, hoping the Belfast girl would notice him and invite him over, his face flushing with embarrassment. In the end he retreated back up the metal stairs and felt relieved to disappear into the darkness.
“What was it like?” Caragh asked when he met her the following day.
“Oh it was great,” he lied. “Place was full. There were lots of students from different universities. You would have enjoyed it.”
He was glad she hadn’t gone with him and seen the type of people he was choosing to risk his career for. The smell of dry rot was still in his nostrils and his cheeks flushed again to remember how he had felt. Their suspicious looks should have told he didn’t belong there, but the thirst for adventure was blinding him.
Shaun got a letter about a week later telling him he had a place in the delegation. Shaun wasn’t sure who to expect. He knew that the Students’ Union had turned the invitation over to the Workers’ Party, but from what he had seen he didn’t expect many university students would be representing the party in East Berlin.
The next meeting with Brian was in early June. He stood with the other members of the group outside Busaras. Shaun knew immediately that he was the only student out of the seven. As he had feared, they knew each other well and much of their conversation concentrated on matters he knew nothing about.
The friendliest of the men on the trip was Mike from Belfast. He was a good-looking thirty-something year old of average build with short black hair and a Mexican moustache. His knowledge of history and current affairs was impressive for somebody who had obviously never finished school. Later, it emerged that this was thanks to a longer stay at the Maze.
Shaun’s initially positive impression crumbled, when Mike got into company on the ferry with a rough-looking group of bikers.
What started as macho banter culminated in a drinking match between Mike and one of the bikers. The determination of both men to escape paying the final bill, spurred Mike on, even when he had already puked most of the beer onto the floor beside his chair. Nor were there any signs of disgust on the faces of his comrades.
“Go on Mike,” they encouraged, “don’t let us down.”
Brian, who was supposed to be in charge, was the most vocal of the group.
After what seemed like an endless journey, they finally arrived in East Berlin. Passing through the steel door at the border crossing in Friedrichstrasse was like travelling back forty years. The traffic was incredibly light for a capital city. Trabbies, Wartburgs and dusty trucks chugged along, filling the street with exhaust fumes. Plaster crumbled from many of the facades, while the many remaining shell holes from the war testified to the general inefficiencies which made life in East Germany so barren and hopeless.
Two tall Arian looking male students approached them, wearing the blue shirts of the Free German Youth.
“You vill follow us to ze camping place,” they directed in such bad English that it was difficult not to laugh.
Then again, their incredibly serious faces made it obvious that they wouldn’t have been amused. These staunch, young men, sat silently facing them on the tram, as it screeched its way through the shabby streets to the campsite.
Their home for the next three weeks was an army tent, fitted out with bunks and green army lockers. As the tents were designed for twelve to fourteen people, they had to share with a group of Czech students who spoke little English.
Work started each day at 6.30. They were collected by an army truck, having rushed their strong coffee and discarded the bread smeared with lard. The truck left them at a small train station. The first day they were escorted to a pile of worn boots and musty dark blue overalls and left to find something suitable. They worked digging trenches beside the train line until three in the afternoon, taking a break for a hot lunch, which was usually some type of stew, delivered in two large metal containers. The time passed quickly and they soon came into contact with the East-German students who worked alongside them.
Hot showers were available after work each day for two hours. The first hour was for males, things being very much in line with the Stalinist version of gender equality. One afternoon, Shaun stood washing himself under the shower when two very attractive East German girls entered the communal shower room. Shaun was taken aback by their total lack of shame and their apparent indifference to the male nudity all around them. A Vietnamese student was so upset by their appearance that he rushed to leave without having even washed the soap off. Ironically, in his haste he slipped, landing at the feet of one of the girls who gave a contemptuous laugh as he crawled away. Shaun was no less shocked, but tried his best to appear unconcerned as two attractive naked girls scrubbed away the labouring grime within inches of where he was washing away the last of the shampoo.
A day or two later four attractive German girls approached Shaun and asked if the males in his group would care to spend an evening on a riverboat with them. East German girls were certainly direct, he thought. However, in retrospect it was obvious that this was no spontaneous invitation. The girls took them by tram to a dock where about twenty riverboats were moored. The other formally dressed guests looked unimpressed when they appeared in creased shirts and worn jeans. The neatly laid tables and the candlelight looked inviting. The smell of roasted meat wafted from the galley, a five-piece band played dance music in the background and an uncomfortable silence blocked any progress between them and the four girls. They sat opposite them with their backs to the wall, whispering to each other and showing more interest in the German young men who had already taken their girlfriends onto the dance floor. When Shaun and the others tried to engage them in conversation they were met with dismissive answers and cold, uninviting stares.
The whole situation didn’t make sense. If they had such a lack of interest in them, why had they taken the trouble to invite them? As he went back over events in his head, it became obvious to him that the girls hadn’t made the slightest effort even on the tram. There was only one thing to do in such an impossible situation and that was to encourage the girls to drink as much wine as possible and hope that their attitude changed. By the time the second bottle of wine had been emptied, Shaun felt confident enough to ask the girl whose English was best to dance.
She agreed without the slightest hint of pleasure. Shaun didn’t dare take her hand as they went to dance and she made a point of avoiding direct eye-contact with him.
“Tell me, what university you study at?” she asked making a feeble attempt to suppress the sarcastic tone in her voice.
“We’re all at different universities,” he lied and this time she laughed into his face.
“You might be a student,” she accepted grudgingly, “but the others have certainly never seen the inside of a university.”
The alcohol and the directness of the question made him go further than he had intended.
“You’re right,” he admitted, searching her eyes for some sign of sympathy.“I’m the only student, but they are all actively involved in the fight for socialism. Mike has even been in prison in Belfast because the British don’t want our party to succeed.” He had hoped that this would impress her, but it was clear from the look on her face that he had simply managed to increase the distance between them.
“We are nothing like the Provos,” Shaun stressed defensively, trying to backtrack. “We don’t plant bombs in pubs or kill innocent people. We want to nationalise the banks and give the workers a fair chance,” he explained, as if he were personally responsible for party policy.
As the song came to an end, Shaun lifted her chin with his hand and kissed her on the lips. Her eyes remained distant and the stolen kiss left him empty.
“Let’s go back to your friends,” she said, turning her back to him and with the word friends sounding like an accusation.
The fifteen minutes until the boat docked felt like an hour.
“What a f-ing washout,” Brian’s complained venomously, as they waited for the tram back to the campsite. “We could have had a great night at the bar on the campsite. Shaun the next time you have a bright idea leave us out of it,” he challenged, the spit flying from his lips as he spoke.
One of the two Belfast girls in the group was sitting alone at the camp cafe when they returned.
“Hope you had a better f-ing night than us,” greeted Brian, looking accusingly at Shaun.
“Wasn’t bad,” she boasted, glad to have been asked.
“Wasn’t the camp commandant by any chance,” continued Brian? “I saw him looking at your tits yesterday.”
“He was a piece of all right,” she continued, licking her lips for effect, “lovely tight arse on him.”
The commandant stood on the other side of the cafe with a group in blue shirts, who found everything he said incredibly funny. Her efforts to pretend that she had used him as much as he had used her weren’t convincing considering she was the one sitting alone, while he had chosen the company of his male friends.
The next day Shaun disappeared into the woods and enjoyed the distance between him and the rest of the group. He ran for about an hour and was dripping with sweat when he discovered a small lake. He left his shorts on the sand and enjoyed the cold water on his naked body. The birdsong and the rays of sunlight penetrated the trees adding to his pleasure as he gave his body time to dry before he pulled on his shorts.
He had only returned when Brian turned on him repeating everything he had told the girl the evening before.
“Mosely you f-king c--t! Do you realise how much damage you could do to our party image here.”
“I didn’t say half of those things,” Shaun lied. “I only told her the Brits were throwing innocent people into prison in the North.
She must have misunderstood me.”
“Not another word out of your mouth to anyone. No more German. Do you understand,” he ordered.
“Who do you think you are...?” Shaun had started to protest, but Brian interrupted.
“I’ve had guys put up against a wall for less,” he threatened. “You want to stay alive when we get back, don’t you?”
The Father’s kingdom is like a person who has [good] seed. His enemy came during the night and sowed weeds among the good seed. The person did not let the workers pull up the weeds, but said to them, “No, otherwise you might go to pull up the weeds and pull up the wheat along with them.” For on the day of the harvest the weeds will be conspicuous, and will be pulled up and burned.
Shaun put the Workers’ Party behind him on his return. He had been sure that he had found something worth believing in, but he had been wrong. They talked non-stop about the cruelty of the rich, but Shaun would sooner take his chances with a banker than any of these shady characters who had blood on their hands. They turned out to be more dangerous than the status quo they were intent on destroying.
Caragh invited him to a Literature Society dinner when he returned. It was in a good hotel and the meal was excellent and he enjoyed dancing and feeling Caragh’s head against his chest. It should have been a lovely evening, if not for the last part which left its mark in his memory forever. The priest in charge of the Education Department deliberately came and sat at the table they shared with about six others. He demonstratively bought a drink for everybody at the table, leaving Shaun out.
“Did you enjoy your trip to East Germany?” he enquired with a dangerous grin on his face.
Shaun couldn’t imagine how he knew and understood the question was meant for theatrical effect only.
“I have known several student revolutionaries,” he continued, “but most of them ended up badly. The Special Branch know how to deal with that sort and I can tell you that your confidential reference will make interesting reading for your prospective employers”.
With that he turned his back on Shaun and moved his chair closer to the others, leaving Shaun and Caragh isolated at the end of the table
“Cheers,” he toasted rising to his feet and tipping his wine glass with everybody else on the table.
Shaun never got to see the confidential reference, but the threat didn’t seem to lesson his prospects of finding employment in any way. By the end of the summer Shaun had three solid job offers to choose between. He judged the Tallaght school to be the best choice, despite the negative reports about Miss Boyle the principal. There was a determination and strength about her that he admired. Her piercing eyes had left an impression on him and the parish priest was young and friendly. Shaun signed the contract and determined to earn enough money that summer to buy and insure a car. It would be his last three month stint as a bus conductor and he intended making the most of it.
Granddad took him driving around the winding roads in the Phoenix Park on his free evenings and by the end of the summer he had perfected the hill start on Infirmary Road. Uncle Eoghan sold him his old Austin 1100 for three hundred pounds and the insurance set him back £450.
“I’m the only one of the Dublin students who comes from a corporation house,” Shaun confided in his dad, “but I’ll be the first one to put a car on the road.”
Dublin was empty without Caragh. She wouldn’t be back until school started in September, so he asked Declan if he would consider spending the last week in August with him in Scotland. The trip through the North was not without its dangers and they spoke in whispers once the train crossed the border. As the train approached Belfast, they stared through the compartment window amazed at the obvious religious and political divisions allegiances between one area and the next. One estate completely decked out with Union Jacks and then a few seconds later they glimpsed thousands of tricolours flying from each small, terraced house.
The sectarian loyalties weren’t as obvious in Larne and they ended up in a Protestant bed and breakfast. The landlady was a tall thin woman in her fifties. Her eyes pierced through them as she spoke with an awe-inspiring confidence in her voice. Embroidered Bible quotations hung all around the house and the pristine state of everything in sight betrayed a passion for perfection which he had never seen before.
The boys found themselves standing in a spotless bedroom, a bible sitting on the night table and starched white sheets showing over the grey blankets. The air was thick with the smell of plain soap and heavy old furniture. They talked in whispers as they got ready for bed, jokingly predicting the form the breakfast was likely to take.
“I bet you we get Quaker Oats,” Declan jested, “with chunky slices of healthy brown bread covered in margarine.”
The smell of fry woke them early the following morning. They whispered over breakfast and listened to the small-talk between the landlady and her other guests, mostly Scottish tourists and commercial travellers. Shaun and Declan paid before they left with crisp new English pound notes, bought at the Bank of Ireland in O’Connell Street. The red post box on the corner with the crown over the letter opening caught their eye as they made their way down to the port to catch the ferry. Walking on streets still wet from the rain of the previous night, they heard the dogs bark and were reminded, even by the street names, that they were on the wrong side of the border.
The strong military presence was intimidating at the ferry-port. A soldier looked suspiciously at Shaun’s passport, when he noticed Shaun had chosen the Gaelic form rather than the English.
“ Shaun O Maaslyg,” he read with a sneer on his face, handing it on to the officer behind.
They waited what seemed an eternity while Shaun’s passport was checked in an inner office. Young soldiers with blackened faces and machine guns at the ready, walked along the quayside. Finally the officer reappeared and returned the passport with an arrogant expression.
The crossing was much shorter than they had imagined. They asked for directions to the youth hostel they intended stopping at in Glasgow and were amused when neither understand even one word of the reply.
They had heard that all parks remained closed on Sundays and confirmed it at the first park they passed as they trudged up a hill with haversacks on their backs. Nonetheless, they were impressed by the friendliness and openness of the locals. What surprised them most was the level of anti-English feeling everywhere they went.
“We have no love for Maggie Thatcher here,” they were told at the first pub they called into and there was general agreement to be felt all around.
Thatcher’s policies were throwing hundreds of Scots as well as English workers on to the dole. They agreed that Tenants Lager was no worse and no better than Smithwicks and they promised that they would come back for a longer stay the next time. They returned a week later a little wiser and a lot less intimidated by the neighbours they had been so wary of.