The BOOKPRESS November 1998

Goodbye To All That


Maureen Waters

 
He was a sturdy, purposeful man with blue eyes, black curly hair and a provoking smile. When he was about to tell us a terrible joke, the corners of his mouth would twitch, and we knew we were in for it. "Success to temperance," my father would blithely intone, swallowing a glass of whiskey. There was a ritual quality to these jokes which we came to expect along with regular meals and a certain testiness about the electric bill.

Not your typical Irishman, he peeled potatoes and scoured pots and pans as readily as he chopped wood or planted a vegetable garden. He seldom relaxed even with a book—he was a history buff—or newspaper and pipe in hand. He rattled the pages, thumped at the headlines, hunted through his pockets for matches or tobacco. The sheer vigor of his disposition, the peculiar brisk motion of his body suggested optimism, a certainty that things could be gotten done. It took us many years to discover the hidden vein of fatalism.

He was born on a "fair-sized" farm in 1904 in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. Yeats’s country, between the sea and the great heathery hump of Ben Bulben. He used to climb to the summit as a boy to plant the Irish tricolor, which was predictably shot down by the local police and as predictably replaced by aspiring young republicans.

When he was eight years old he lost his father, a progressive farmer, whose family had prospered while he was alive, but whose widow was left with seven young children to raise. My father was the third child and the second son; there were five sisters. Relations stepped in, an uncle in particular, who put the boys, "humpty-backed rogues," to work in the fields while the girls looked after the chickens and geese. Their mother was explicit enough: unless everyone helped, they’d all be sent off to the poorhouse.

Despite the harsh facts of his early life, Father’s stories were usually full of gaiety and adventure. He was fond of telling us about his own school years, mainly about tricks played on the way to school—like riding horses and donkeys belonging to neighbors until they were bucked off—and the perpetual skirmishing with the schoolmaster. A favorite joke was to bring in hazelnuts along with the daily offering of turf. In the midst of a fire they would burst, shooting through the room to provide a glorious climax to the lesson. Punishment was brisk: a rod smartly applied to the upturned palms of the usual culprits. But the undercurrent of rebellion was never checked. If the master routed them all one day, he found mysterious holes in his bicycle tires the next.

Judging from the family skills, lessons, when they could be gotten to, in an ordinary Irish classroom centered around poetry and math. At family parties, if they were not talking death or politics, it was not unusual for someone, adopting a formal rhetorical stance, to offer lines from a poem. Father preferred to regale us with favorite and lengthy passages, usually by Walter Scott, as an incentive to housework. The more inappropriate the occasion, the better he liked to play out the lines in curious, lilting mockery. Thus, peeling a mound of potatoes:

The stag at eve had drunk his fill,

Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill,

And deep his midnight lair had made

In lone Glenartney’s hazel shade...

He also liked to recite certain prayers and humorous rhymes in English, Irish and Latin. He actually knew little Irish because the old language was disparaged in Sligo at the turn of the century. People were afraid it would put a "curwhibble" or twist in the tongue, spoiling their English. He recalled being challenged during the revolution by a very nervous Irish-speaking sentry. On a scouting mission and out of uniform at the time, he avoided being shot by summoning a few scraps of the native tongue: "Cen chaoi a bhuil tu?" "How are you?"

His feeling for the old language nonetheless ran deep, linking him perhaps to the voices of his childhood. When he was dying in New York in 1983, he prayed in Irish.

There was always a measure of dissent between our parents on the subject of the Old Country. Father liked to give us all the down-to-earth details. "Disgusting!" Mother would call them, yanking at the lace curtains. But Father would go right on talking about the bonhams—young pigs—snuggled in by the fireplace, or describe with relish some awful practical joke, like the time he and some friends found a neighbor in a drunken stupor with his donkey and cart in the middle of the road. With consummate patience they dismantled the cart and then reassembled the whole rig, the beast included, inside the man’s house. As a parting gesture they covered the windows with sod, so the poor man woke up thinking he was in hell. "He was sober a long time after that one."

Father remembered shipwrecks off the western coast of Ireland during World War I. Timber and other useful articles would float in with the tide—once a big bay horse made it to shore still tethered to the heavy wooden stall: "Whoever got their mark on it before it touched dry land got to keep it, that is, if the police did not get there first—and they could not be everywhere..."

There were other sea stories, too, because some of the family had lived on Inishmurray Island, some nine miles off the coast of Sligo. A place of sudden, violent storms where a boat had to be maneuvered skillfully to avoid hitting the rocks where you went ashore at Clashymore Harbour. The island has a long, eventful history recorded in the annals as early as the seventh century. There is an ancient cashel on the island which may be pre-Christian in origin; the remaining artifacts reflect a curious admixture of Christian and pagan elements. The stone enclosure contains several buildings, two of beehive construction; there are chapels and a schoolhouse. Inishmurray was once a pilgrimage site; the stone stations and large "praying stones," some with curious holes in them, are still visible around the perimeter of the island. There are local accounts of miracles and Viking raids; certain marks near the main chapel are reputed to be the bloodstains of scholars killed by raiders in 802. In the l9th century, however, it was an ideal spot for poteen makers who lived comfortably in sturdy houses apart from the war and famine that periodically swept the mainland. Along with the "praying stones" on the island, altars were still to be found on which "cursing stones" had been placed. According to the story, these were used against the odd tariff man who attempted to levy a tax on the islanders. Turning the stones counterclockwise and pronouncing the appropriate curses made it difficult for him to reach shore alive. It was a solution with ample precedent in Ireland:

They loosed their curse against the King,

They cursed him in his flesh and bones,

And daily in their mystic ring,

They turned the Maledictive Stones

These stories made a deep impression on us as children, linking us firmly to the Old Country, though our parents never went back in later years when they could afford to. We were early made aware of the perilousness of that old life. Gaiety would shift suddenly into sadness. Ireland was never simply the land of shamrocks and leprechauns or a memory celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day. Too many had died, too many were disappointed. The hard fight for independence, the bitter aftermath of civil war, did not bring prosperity. Emigration went on. The old family home under Ben Bulben collapsed in ruin.

Michael, my father’s older brother, died at 17 from wounds received in a futile attack on a military garrison in 1919. A bomb he was carrying exploded in his hands. When he died a few days later, he was buried secretly in an unmarked grave, his name, along with my father’s, still on a list of wanted men. The family feared reprisals. Their house might be burned like so many others in the village of Cloonelly; someone else might be killed. But we only learned this gradually. At first we heard Michael had died from a fall, and then that he had died of a weak heart, which is what they told the militia hunting for him after the attack.

There was a sister, too, whose story was always eclipsed by the story of Michael, to whom Father was deeply attached and for whom he always grieved. That was Ann. She was recovering from pneumonia when a storm came up while the hay was being gathered in. Because, at 15, she was the oldest and strongest child at home, she went out to help in the fields, suffered a relapse and died. No doctor would come because of the curfew. I know little else about her except that she could not be persuaded to stay inside. She had the family stubbornness all right. I think of her now as one of those anonymous women who stand in the gap just behind the front lines. About whom no songs are sung, though the war killed her just as surely as it killed her brother.

Father also fought in the Anglo-Irish war and was with the artillery unit that shelled the Four Courts at the start of the civil war. Thereafter he served as a medical corpsman, more and more troubled by the mounting casualties, the hatred and the waste of life. He served in the cavalry, nursed IRA prisoners on hunger strike, was promoted to sergeant major and then landed in jail, having fired a shot that accidentally pierced the cap of a Brigadier McHugh. As he told it, it was a war that veered sharply in direction and intensity. There were pleasant lulls when the men took Irish dancing lessons in Castlebar. But his best friend was killed by a sniper as they walked together through that same town. It was guerrilla warfare marked by ambush, bloody reprisals, and a lot of dirty detail work. From one of these ambushes he once rescued his old schoolmaster, who had lost an arm but was still able to joke: "If you only knew it was me, Danny, you’d have taken much longer to get through."

After all this he never imbued us with any hatred of the English, but with a sense of his own gaiety and courage as a young man. I realize now that telling those stories, imprinting them on our minds as children, was his way of recuperating what was lost.

When he was not talking, Father appeared unassuming, even nondescript in well-worn blue or brown gabardine. In later years, earning a decent salary, he scarcely changed; he never developed the acquisitiveness of the middle class. Apart from books and a few pieces of clothing, his belongings, including the journal he left to us, could be fitted into one bureau drawer. But his modest manner concealed a fierce, fundamental pride. Though he was well- read and politically astute, he would listen deferentially to men in suits who had a better formal education. He was respectful toward nuns and priests. We knew, however, that beyond a certain point, moral or political, he would not budge.

Only after his death, I discovered that he had taken part in the army mutiny of 1924. After nearly five years of fighting to establish an Irish government, he took up arms against it. What were his motives? Outrage? Disillusionment? Loyalty to officers he served with? It appears that, with an end to civil war, many of the old social barriers were re-erected. Men who had fought well were cashiered, their places taken by the better-educated and those with family and political connections. Perhaps that was it. The fact remains that when his ambulance was used secretly by the rebels to ferry rifles and machine guns, he agreed to join them. After the mutiny collapsed, he was broken to the ranks and sent to the Curragh for "retraining." He received an honorable discharge—all the grievances to some extent recognized—but he was a marked man after that. In a sense I owe my existence to that mutiny. When the military hierarchy offered to review his case in Dublin, he turned them down. In 1927 he took the boat to America and never went back.

Maureen Waters teaches English at Queens College. This piece is excerpted from her nearly-completed book, Crossing Highbridge.

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