Friday, May 23, 2014

Me and Dad in Ireland

My first sojourn in the country of my forebears, from Run Like Blazes:

I acquired a home in Ireland: a downstairs flat on Morehampton Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 (not as ritzy an address then as it is now), furnished in post-war frumpishness and permanently scented of sour milk and stale pipe tobacco, a heave-inducing mixture. But Dad loved the place, and put me up on a sagging sofa in the sitting room while he slumbered under a single electric heating bar in the chilly little bedroom down the hall. It never occurred to me that the existence of one residence per parent, separated by hundreds of miles, was a sign that all was probably not well; but children, as we know, accept pretty much anything and carry on from there. So I became used to the notion of visiting Dad in Dublin a couple of months out of the year and living with Mum and going to school in Geneva the rest of the time. My visits to the old man were in an odd way a glimpse of the future, fifteen years on, when I, living in New York, would spend many a weekend coughing and shouting and boozing with him in his Wilmington digs, which showed clear signs of having never benefited from a woman’s touch. Similarly, in the Morehampton Road flat Dad had reverted, at the speed of light, to his bachelor ways. Burned matches, half-smoked pipes and cigarette butts filled the ashtrays, all of which had been nicked from cafes and bars and bierstuben across Europe. Radio magazines and unread newspapers spilled over the edges of beer-ring-stained coffee tables. Laundry never made it out of the laundry basket. Rolls of dust dozed like drugged lizards in the corners. My mother took a long look on her one and only visit and left to check in at a hotel. But Dad was happy enough—with or without her, I’m afraid. There were the bottles of Guinness. There was a half-Siamese cat that he’d adopted, in fond memory of Pete Toy. There was the tuft-grown back garden with its view of clotheslines and neighbors’ rooftops and the melodious Irish sky. There were the lopsided double-decker buses lumbering like ailing pachyderms up and down Morehampton Road, south to Donnybrook and north to “Cathair,” the city center.  There was the occasional whiff in the air of yeast from the Guinness brewery at St. James’s Gate—where I had my first drink, a free pint of stout after a brewery tour. I was 12 or so and my proud father looked on, claiming me to be 14 and therefore entitled to a drop. We went straight from the brewery to his favorite pub, the now-defunct Mooney’s on Abbey Street, a high-ceilinged place that looked like a church inside. I had my second drink, a half. More than Guinness: It was the bottomless well of Irishry I was drinking at. And when I saw in the National Museum of Ireland and the Long Library at Trinity College the brooch of Tara and the tattered tricolor that had once flown above the GPO in 1916 and the Book of Kells and the Harp not of Brian Boru, my quivering soul heard from afar the soft insistent strumming of Ireland’s melancholy and beautiful past and… I was Irish from that moment. Well, what else would you expect? I was an Irish-American, untested by life, of uncertain nationality and romantic disposition. I became then, and have remained, Irish, through all the lesser transformations—Frenchman, Greek, Swiss, Scot, New Yorker—and it’s as a paddy, however self-modified, that I shall die. Yes, I grew up in Florida, then France, then Switzerland, then elsewhere, and I have at times become enamored of Greekness and Frenchness and Italianness and even Americanness; but when I first went to Ireland I felt the force that rose through me at the sight of the name “Boylan” on an Irish shop: it was the atavistic force of my ancestors, of ancient Niall and old Great-granda Ned and Granda and all the other McRorys and Boylans up and down all the messy, turbulent years….and I blame my father, in part. He was simply the most Irish man who ever lived. He even wore a stained Donegal cap and smoked a Peterson’s pipe—and these were not affectations. They were near-instinctive responses to what he was. He would have denied it, and he incessantly complained about the “stupid micks,” especially when they began asking him awkward questions along the lines of “Eh, do you have a permit to employ people in the Irish Republic? Eh?” But I recognized him again and again among the Dubliners of Joyce (“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”) and the Corconians of Frank O’Connor and Sean O Faolain and the Monaghan bogmen and gombeen men and other green fools in Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn—and there he is again, danderin’ about with Carleton in Poor Scholar, and over there whiling away a day, a year, a life, at a crossroads in the Tyrone hills somewhere deep in the tales of Benedict Kiely or the gray-shaded verse of Seamus Heaney (give that man a Nobel, it’ll add some color) or the rain-dripping hard-drinking Belfast pubgoers of Sam McAughtry’s pavement paeans…and this hopelessly feckless Irishman, this father of mine, this utter failure as a dad and a husband, tried to set up, finance, and run an international corporation! It was like handing a ten-year-old the keys to a Ferrari. It was a scenario scripted by one of the Marx brothers, probably Harpo. Oh, Dad knew all there was about electronic carillons, right enough, and as a radio man he was a poor man’s Marconi. But when it came to actually hiring and employing people…well, he did that, too, fair play to him, with many a fond pat on the back and squeeze of the elbow and pint after work. Only he never investigated their backgrounds, nor did he apply to the Labour Ministry for permits for his workers or for himself. And after a few months, as a Yank living in the Irish Republic without a residence permit, never mind if his own Da and Mam were Irish-born (not that he ever bothered to track down the parish records), he was breaking all kinds of laws by just unlocking the door of his Morehampton Road flatlet and stumbling across the threshold every night. 

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