9 Broadening the Mind
9 BROADENING THE MIND
Shaun takes over completely at this point in my story. I just don’t want to take responsibility for his stupidity. I can understand that he was tired of the Christian Brother God and he knew that the loyalist Protestant God of Ulster was every bit as lethal. That still doesn’t excuse his support for the Worker’s Party and his faith in socialism.
I think that he was just putting his head in the sand believing that this dangerous mob of populists would be willing or able to break the grip of steel which the golden circle of Fianna Fail and their cronies had on Ireland.
Shaun’s interest in politics took on a more sinister tone once he came into contact with two mature students from Belfast. 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 Dublin. The Worker’s Party was making progress in working class areas, but their link with the Official IRA was still enough to scare most sensible people away.
Over the following few months Shaun became more and more involved with the Workers’ Party and he agreed to take over when the girls completed their studies.
With the contacts already made, he organised guest speakers and showed films sponsored by the party. Encouraged by his success, he agreed to sell their newspaper 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 him 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 the newspaper. Others avoided him or acted awkwardly in his company, rushing away each time he engaged 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 thought that the Special Branch raided the houses of known sympathisers.
“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 said no more.
“Would you be interested in taking part in a socialist work camp in East Berlin?” he was 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 knowledge of East Berlin was limited to what he had gleaned from James Bond.
“Definitely,” he agreed, “nothing would interest me more.”
He surprised himself at how definite his answer had been. He was certain that everyone he knew would rule out going willingly to a country with such a reputation for political repression.
“If you’re interested in taking part you need to come and have a chat with Brian,” he was told so matter-of-factly the following week that he couldn’t hold back a smile. You had to be a real commie to accept the prospect of a month in East Berlin with such detachment.
“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 will tell you who he is.”
Shaun felt uneasy about going and tried to convince Caragh to go with him, but her reaction was predictable.
“East Berlin,” she repeated, “are you sure you know what you are getting into? What will your mother have to say?”
“I’m nearly twenty,” he told her. “It’s about time I started making decisions for myself.”
Shaun arrived early that Saturday evening and walked slowly across the top of Parnell Square and into a dark, almost deserted,
street. The buildings, though Georgian, possessed nothing of the grandeur of Stephen’s Green. Most were in bad repair and the basements stank of damp and dry rot. His heart was beating hard when he finally reached the drab 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, just catching the closing chorus 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 clogged his nostrils as he looked around, hoping to spot one of the students he knew.
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 happy they returned his nod.
“What would Granny say?” I remember thinking and being sure that this visit was only the beginning of the ammunition he was given her to throw at him.
“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 hanging around with scum. The next thing the police will be knocking 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 thoughts.
“Heuy are ye duyen Shaun?” she greeted with a strong Belfast accent. “You’re here to see Brian aren’t you?” she confirmed telling him somebody had already been enquiring about him.
She went to search, leaving him standing next to a group of shabby socialists in their mid to late thirties. He looked far too respectable for them and they eyed him up and down suspiciously.
“This is Brian,” she introduced, returning with a small, miserable looking male in his thirties with greasy, black hair, dirty denims and a worn green jumper.
He had a strong Cork accent and was quicker to question than to give information.
“I can’t say anything for definite yet, but as soon as we get word about the number of places I’ll be in touch. You can speak German can’t you?” he asked, confirming what he had heard.
“I’m not fluent,” Shaun admitted, “but it was my favourite subject .”
The student had rejoined her friends and Brian made it obvious that he wanted to get back to his shabby group of friends . Shaun was left alone. He waited just inside the door for a while, hoping the Belfast girl would eventually invite him over. In the end he retreated back up the metal stairs and disappeared 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 risking his career for. The smell of dry rot was still in his nostrils and his cheeks flushed just to remember how awkward he had felt. The suspicious looks should have told he didn’t belong, but the thirst for adventure was stronger.
A letter arrived about a week later confirming his place in the delegation. Shaun wasn’t sure who else to expect. He knew the Students’ Union had turned the invitation over to the Workers’ Party, but from what he had seen university students were in short supply at the Workers Party.
The next he knew he was rushing with a haversack on his back in the city centre on a warm, sunny day in early June. The other members of the group were already waiting when he reached Busaras. It was obvious from the outset 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 most approachable was Mike from Belfast. He was a good-looking thirty-something year old of average build with short black hair and a Pancho Villa moustache. Shaun was initially impressed by his knowledge of history and current affairs, but it soon emerged that he owed this to an extended stay at the Maze Prison for terrorist activities.
Shaun’s positive impression further crumbled, when Mike got into a drinking match on the Belfast-Larne ferry with a rough-looking group of bikers.
What started as macho banter culminated in a show of drinking talent between Mike and the biker boss. The determination of both to avoid paying for the drink, spurred them on, even when they had already puked most of the beer onto the floor neither was prepared to concede defeat.
“Go on Mike,” the comrades encouraged, “don’t let us down.”
Brian, whose authority was never questioned, was the most vocal of the group.
After what seemed like an endless journey, we finally arrived in East Berlin. Passing through the steel door at the border crossing at 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 black, exhaust fumes. Plaster crumbled from the facades of shops and apartments. Most shocking were the ugly scars on buildings from the last days of the war when the Soviets overrun Berlin. This, more than anything, testified to the shameful lack of progress which made life in East Germany so barren and hopeless.
Two tall, athletic, blonde-haired male students approached, 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.
Their incredibly serious faces made it obvious that they wouldn’t have been amused, if we did. These very presentable, young comrades, sat stone-like for the duration of the journey on the tram, making no attempt at conversation. The tram, as relic of long gone days, screeched its way through the shabby streets until we finally came to the campsite on the edge of the city.
Our 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, we shared with a group of Czech students who spoke little English.
Work started each day at 6.30. We were collected by an army truck, having rushed a strong mug of coffee and ignored the stale toast generously smeared with lard.
We had a half hour each morning to regret the heavy drinking of the previous night as we shook from side to side in the back of an army lorry which brought us to a local train station.
The first day the station master left us to sort through a pile of worn boots and musty dark blue overalls to find the least uncomfortable work-clothes to wear.
The work involved 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 friendships were soon made with the East-German students who worked alongside.
Hot showers were available after work each day for two hours. One afternoon, Shaun stood washing himself under the shower when two very attractive East German girls entered the communal shower room. He 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 him a contemptuous look as he crawled away.
I was no less shocked, but the much younger me wasn’t going to make it obvious that he found anything unusual about showing naked as two very attractive girls scrubbed away the trench grime within inches of him.
A day or two later, four attractive girls approached and asked if our group would like to spend an evening on a riverboat with them. East German girls certainly seemed direct and liberated in so many ways. However, in retrospect it was obvious that this was no spontaneous invitation. The girls escorted us by tram to a dock where about twenty riverboats were moored. The other formally dressed guests looked unimpressed by our 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, however the girls were about as talkative as the athletic looking students who had brought them to the campsite.
Shaun had to admit that the girls would have turned heads on a Dublin street, but he couldn’t remember meeting a group male or female with as little personality. The most off-putting was that they didn’t even try to make an effort at conversation. They sat expressionless or whispered to each other, obviously making disparaging remarks about the Irish group.
The whole situation just didn’t make sense. If they had such a lack of interest in getting to know them, why had they taken the trouble to invite them?
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 softened. By the time the second bottle of wine had been consumed, Shaun felt confident enough to risk asking the least unfriendly one to dance.
His request was acceded to, but her face didn’t betray the slightest reaction either positive or negative. There was a body language at play the whole evening which was way outside any comfort zone Shaun had ever established in mixed company up until then.
“Tell me, what university you all study at?” she asked without even bothering to disguise the sarcastic tone in her voice.
“We’re all at different universities,” he lied and her arrogant grin allowed him read her thoughts.
“You might be a student,” she accepted, “but the others have certainly never seen the inside of a university.”
The wine and her open insinuation threw him off guard.
“You’re right,” he admitted, searching her eyes for something human behind the wall of steel.“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.”
The danger and the mystery would probably have worked in a Dublin night club, but he was talking to someone whose university career depended on total loyalty and no hint of individuality. The horrified expression on her face told him how badly he had played the situation.
“We are nothing like the Provos,” he 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.
He was foundering. He could feel he was just digging himself deeper and deeper. In utter desperation, he lifted her chin up towards his face and kissed her.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that my spontaneous action did nothing to break through the impenetrable shield. Nobody would have convinced me that a stolen kiss from a pretty girl would leave one feeling so absolutely empty and stupid.
“Your friends will be missing you,” she said, turning her back, leaving him on the dance floor behind her.
The fifteen minutes until the boat docked felt like an eternity.
“What a f-ing washout,” Brian’s complained venomously, as we waited alone for the tram back to the campsite. “We could have had a great night at the bar. Shaun the next time you have a bright idea leave us out of it,” he raged, the spit flying from his lips as he spoke.
One of the two Belfast girls in the group was sitting alone at the cafe when we returned.
“Hope you had a better f-ing night than us,” greeted Brian, looking back accusingly at Shaun.
“Wasn’t bad,” she boasted, glad to have been asked.
“Wasn’t the camp commandant by any chance,” grinned Brian? “I saw him looking at your tits yesterday.”
“He was all right,” she boasted, licking her lips for effect, “lovely tight arse on him.”
The commandant stood on the other side of the cafe with a group of fans in blue shirts, finding everything he said incredibly insightful or funny, depending on which reaction was the most appropriate.
Her efforts to pretend that she it had been a mutual use weren’t that convincing considering she was alone, while he was surrounded by a host of fawning admirers.
The next day was Sunday and Shaun disappeared into the woods to put some 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 the experience as he gave his body time to dry before returning to the camp..
On his return Brian set on him reporting everything he had told the girl the evening before.
“Mosely you f-king c--t! Do you realise how much damage you did 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 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?”
His enemy came during the night and sowed weeds among the good seed. He did not let the workers pull up the weeds, but said to them, “No, otherwise you might pull up the wheat along with the weeds.” For on the day of the harvest the weeds will be conspicuous, and will be pulled up and burned.
A lot wiser, I put the Workers’ Party behind me on my return. The young need a cause to believe in, but the ruthless are quick to manipulate them with half-truths.
Be careful with you reputation because it is easy to lose and hard to repair when the damage is done. Caragh studied English literature and she took me to the Literature Society dinner soon after my return.
For obvious reasons, I had omitted the story about the stolen kiss in my tales of East Germany, but secretly I had learned to appreciate the normal reactions of a pretty girl who thought I was special. After the Spartan conditions of the camp, it was a pleasure to share a well-presented meal in a good restaurant and feel Caragh’s warmth against you as you dance close to each other and feel your relationship has been built on more than just sand.
It had the makings of a very special evening, if not for the college administrator leaving his mark on it. I thought it was strange when he left the company of the other lecturers and chose to sit opposite me are the table we shared with those who had worked most closely with Caragh. He ordered a drink for everybody at the table including Caragh, but made a point of excluding me. This was a tactic I was to suffer for the first time this evening, but I recognised it when a fascist school director in Madrid singled me out for similar treatment a few years later.
“Did you enjoy your trip to East Germany?” he enquired in a sarcastic tone, piercing me with a vindictive stare as he spoke.
The question disorientated me, but he was intent on continuing before I had a chance to get my thoughts together.
“I have made short work of student revolutionaries before you,” he continued disrespectfully, “and they all ended up badly. The Special Branch knows how to deal with your sort and I can tell you that your confidential reference will make interesting reading for your prospective employers”.
With that he rudely turned his back and made some witty comment at the table next to ours. He had knowingly found his audience, set them laughing appreciatively, having left silence and foreboding in his wake in the space of a few short seconds. I looked at his back of his head with hate in my heart and he was filed away with the select few in my blacker than black folder. The folder has become more diverse over the years with the clerical representation being balanced by wolves with the most diverse disguises.
The confidential reference would have no doubt made vey interesting reading, but his threat proved less potent than I had feared. By the end of the summer there were three solid job offers to choose between. The school in Tallaght appreared to be the most attractive, despite the negative reports about Miss Boyle the principal. There was a determination and strength about her that Shaun 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.
Dad took me driving around the winding roads in the
Phoenix Park on free evenings and by the end of the summer the hill start felt less challenging. Uncle Owen sold me his old Austin 1100 for three hundred pounds and the insurance, at £450, put an even bigger hole in the savings.
“I’m the only one of the Dublin students who comes from a council house,” Shaun smiled to himself, “but I’ll be the only one driving to school in September in his own car.”
Dublin was empty without Caragh. She wouldn’t be back until school started. He agreed with Declan to spend the last week in August in Scotland. The trip through the North was dictated by the 50% ferry voucher from CIE. They noted they were the only ones without northern accents in the compartment and so they spoke in whispers once the train crossed the border.
As the train approached Belfast, they stared through the compartment window noting the obvious divisions between one area and the next. One estate was completely decked out with Union Jacks and then a few seconds later they glimpsed thousands of tricolours flying from each small, terraced house.
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 a confidence in her voice that defied contradiction. Embroidered Bible quotations hung all around the house and the pristine state of everything in sight betrayed a determination for perfection which Shaun found sinister.
The boys surveyed in awe the spotless bedroom, the bible on the night table and the stiff white sheets. The air was thick with the smell of plain soap and heavy old furniture. They talked in whispers as they tip-toed around the room, joking about the likely breakfast just to break the tension.
“I bet you we get Quaker Oats,” Declan suggested, “with chunky slices of crusty brown bread covered in margarine.”
The smell of fry woke them early the following morning. They ate breakfast in silence 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 avoided the stares of angry Protestant dogs, who seem to take pride in barking in unison as they passed. Even the street names told them 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.