Quimper

On Mulberry Street in Nolita, a sign in the window of a narrow boutique proclaimed goods from Quimper.

Up swam the image of the road sign on the outskirts of my home city: “Welcome to Limerick, Twinned with Quimper, France.” A name pronounced with a Breton bang, not a whimper: Kam-pare.

Looking at the striped shirts in the window, I realized that it was 25 years since I’d spent a summer as a jeune fille au pair in Quimper. The two strawberry-blonde girls I’d looked after, Amelie and Sophie, were now matrons of 30 and 32, the same ages their mother and father were then. It was possible they were singing “Gentil Coquelicot” to children of their own. It was possible they would hire Limerick teenagers to babysit this summer.

That July was the bicentenary of the French Revolution. I don’t remember much of the commemoration, beyond a few fireworks and trying to follow Gerard Depardieu in the Danton repeats on Canal Plus. Mine are the pre-internet memories of a lonely 17-year-old, keeping watch for the postman who brought letters from the boyfriend back home, and sneaking slabs of chocolate up to my room to eat at night in torn baguettes. Chocolate sandwiches; more evidence of French genius. Those were a better salve for my misery than then the vinegar that was supposed to repel mosquitos. I splashed it on my skin and placed saucers of it around my bed to trip over, but the Quimper mosquitos took it as a condiment, and were as ravenous as drunks outside a chipper.

The family had a Minitel terminal in the living room, and Jacques, the dad, showed me how it worked. I have hazy grayscale memories of television program listings, and some of way of paying local council bills. I didn’t see a future of Spotify and eBay. It seemed a bit like having the Motor Tax Bureau in your house—handy, but hardly desirable.

I spent the days watching the French Smurfs, who, it turned out, were Belgian, vaguely racist, and called Les Schtroumpfs. The nuns in the convent three doors down gave me cherry brandy, and I decided that they fancied the refined Irish Jesuit who had arranged my stay. In the evenings I slouched in the town square with a book and my Walkman, turning over the Van Morrison cassette my boyfriend had given me for my birthday. I wished I had someone to invite me to the creperies and bars.

The loneliness was worth it. I ate new things, wrote letters and learned French. And then I went home, and the Berlin Wall fell, and Ireland qualified for the World Cup, and I forgot all about Quimper, beyond a private nod every few years at that sign on the way into Limerick.

I was the only visitor in that Mulberry Street store on that rainy Thursday afternoon a few weeks back. I wasn’t a customer—I didn’t want to buy a striped fisherman’s shirt for $125. (I have a suspicion that they’re so 2012, but I live in Seattle, so I can’t be sure.) I just wanted to say, “Quimper?

An open-faced Swede was minding the store. He looked famous, and though I couldn’t put a name to his famous twin, I seemed to have pre-warmed feelings to transfer. My Quimper-Swede had grown up on a farm four hours north of Stockholm, himself and a brother, out in all weathers and running free in hard-wearing clothes. He showed me the nubby woolen undershirts and long johns that are Swedish army issue, and told me how well they retain heat when they’re soaked. It was May. I didn’t want woolen long johns either. I wheeled around and patted some hemp t-shirts to keep him chatting about the clothes of northern Europe, and their superpowers.

I recognized the Stutterheim raincoats that appeared in one of Seattle’s hipster boutiques this winter, tagged with an elaborate story about the power of Melancholy and Creativity—yes, capitalized—in the Swedish artistic tradition, within which these raincoats have situated themselves. They are based on the traditional raincoats that were worn by “generations of Swedish fishermen,” as well as various Swedish geniuses. Bergman was mentioned. The taped seams “quoted” the original coats, according to the tags and brochures—much as Tarantino might, you assume. The hood had a special shape that made it easy to look to sideways crossing the street, should you still care about life over death. The racing green version was a tribute to the designer’s grandfather’s 60’s Jaguar, but also to the forests of the Island Arholma. Each coat was signed by the seamstress who had sewn it.

These auteurist raincoats had made me laugh in Seattle in February, and in itself that was worth a good half-minute’s consideration about buying a four-hundred dollar cycling poncho. I resisted.

Those Quimper shirts that were the stars of the window display had their own biography, too. They were designed by a Breton fisherman and adopted by the French Navy, who between them seem to draw more glamorous following than their Swedish counterparts. These are the very shirts we’ve seen on Chanel and Picasso, on Seberg and Bardot, on lovable Jean-Paul Gaultier, on Alexa Chung and Cara Delevigne. They are still made on the same knitting machines in the factory that produced the originals in 1938, woven tightly enough to make the shirts slightly stiff and boxy. Now there’s an organic, fair trade cotton version, and children’s sizes, and yellow stripes as well as blue. Do not think the stripes are frivolous: they are intended to make men overboard visible on the waves, and the 21 stripes, it is said, represent each of Napoleon’s victories.

Write a story on that copybook shirt, and charge five bucks a line. Lend me a Swedish grandad to go with the long johns and a French granny for the sheepskin slippers. Tear up an H&M halter top, and replace it with an instant heirloom. Trace me a heritage, weave me a lineage, and tell me, oh please tell me, who I am.

My affable Swede knew exactly what ministry he was in.

He had trained as a physicist, and once worked at a particle collider lab in Switzerland. Not that one: a smaller collider, bigger particles. He discovered that he liked what textiles can do. There’s a fabric now, he says, that uses carbon nanotubes to bounce bullets. It’s not stiff like Kevlar, which tries to spread the force. It’s as soft as waxed cotton, but when hit, it rebounds ballistic force. We agreed that it can only be a matter of time before the Swedish Army and the French Navy place their orders. I looked at him and saw the same globe-bouncing resilience. Who wouldn’t want to be a Scandinavian Millennial?

People are tired of disposable, he says. They want craft, they want stuff that works and lasts. It’s a good business to wake up the old heritage brands—or make them up—and make people feel interesting for discovering them. That’s what he and his partners do, though he didn’t put it in those words. The Americans are at it too, re-making Filson and Pendleton, inventing Shinola. You learn that this is the last raincoat you will ever need, assuming that your need for a raincoat is based on repelling raindrops. When the rain soaks your ankles, you have the only long johns you’ll ever need, assuming that you bought them to conserve your latent heat and not your latent identity.

These are northern clothes for hard work in dank weather, but the real graft goes into the myths, not the seams. It’s done by the artisans, laboring over concepts deep into the night. The curators, crossing the seas to select, reject and juxtapose. The founders, forging origin myths and riveting features onto canvas. They are tireless and bright-eyed, and they will always find more for you to need.

Miles and years have collapsed. Everything has joined us in the endless cycling present, and I can’t tell any more if that’s middle age talking or internet age, but I am streaming Nouvelle Vague’s deadpan Frenchy cover of Road to Nowhere as I write this, and it’s so soothing that they were three verses in before I heard David Byrne’s warnings.

Amelie and Sophie, those little Breton girls who once stayed put in 1989, appear in seconds when I search for a name and a place. They are both still in Quimper, but they’re also on a screen in Seattle. There’s Amelie, grown now but still round-faced and strawberry blonde and—bizarrely—cuddling a huge white rabbit. The French version of LinkedIn says she does logistics for a maritime import-export company, which could mean that she sends striped shirts to New York City to be sold to the likes of me. And Sophie, it seems, is in a similar line, with sadder results. She is serving a suspended sentence for helping a coke dealer to rent cars and move money.

I wish I had left her safely back in 1989 watching the Belgian Smurfs, but Google itches like a Quimper mosquito bite, and I’m compelled know more than is wise.

C.A.L.I.*

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“Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away.”

—Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

I’m thirty-six years old and I don’t have kids.

Now there’s a sentence that can’t be neutral, even if every word in it is as short and bald as a baby. Who would choose to assert a lack? Yet the other ways we’ve tried to say it—like “childfree”— sound awkward and pointed, like insisting on “Ms” did in the seventies.

My parents were young when they had me, and I got used to being the oldest among their friends’ children. I was happier controlling the universe of half a dozen dazzled toddlers than taking my chances with kids my own age, so I turned into the kind of maternal 12-year-old girl that neighborhood mothers count on. Isn’t she great with the little ones, they’d say, grateful to be having tea and Viennese fingers while I played Ring-a-ring-a-rosy or read storybooks for hours.

I was proud of being seen as “good with kids,” and I’m still vain about it. When a three-year-old decides to be my friend, or a baby flirts, I note another conquest. God knows, it’s easy to get kids to love you: let them check you out before you look at them, don’t ask the dozy questions that most adults throw out, and if they decide to invite you into the world inside their heads, follow its logic absolutely. It’s a bonus if you’re still able and willing to jump around with them, but not vital.

My friend Andy talks about his lifelong dream never to go on a cruise. I didn’t have a lifelong dream never to have children. Like most choices, this one emerged over time from hundreds of smaller ones. Sometimes I tell my friends who are mothers that if I had ten million dollars I’d have a baby. It’s an arbitrary number, out of reach for me but just entry-level wealth down the road in Silicon Valley. Ten million dollars would fill a sandbag against the storms of change that the world and children bring. School fees, college tuition, soccer camp, braces, and psychiatry bills would get paid. I could buy back the time from my workaholic culture to be with a child, rather than working more to keep her from deprivation. I could pay for nannies when I wanted to use my brain again. Having overstretched geographically my whole grown-up life, I could shrink once again the distance between the cities I love and my family in Ireland.

It’s a cop-out, of course. I’m bound up in an individualistic, transaction-based culture, rising and falling by my own efforts, and I don’t like to need anything from the people I like and love. That membrane of separateness, of self-reliance, is as fragile and illusory as a soap bubble, and a child would pop it instantly. The ten-million-dollar thought experiment is a way to keep that bubble floating, to think about change without changing. It turns out that motherhood is one of those things that I’d like to experience, but don’t actually want to do.

In my twenties, the baby announcements were a novelty, and I remember feeling vaguely sorry for the friends who were missing out on the nights out and the sleeps in. Now most of my pals are parents, and each “We’re pregnant!” feels like the news that a friend has got a dream job in Cleveland. I’m glad for them, but there’s a large, disgruntled child in me who wants to send baby back to the hospital.

The truth is, I’m not envious of my friends who have children. I’m envious of the children who have my friends.

There’s genius in a kid’s fresh worldview, and I like to keep up with their latest sayings and doings. I play slideshows of their Hallowe’en photos on my second monitor at work. I’m a small-time scholar of fashions in child-rearing, and I ask endless questions about parenthood and the transforming, heart-stretching love that it inspires in the most unlikely people. (My friend Padraig, who once claimed that as a father he would be “harsh but cruel; distant, yet remote,” is now hopelessly in love with two small boys and a girl.) I can’t imagine what it feels to walk around with a piece of your heart outside your body, though I do remember the painful tenderness I felt for my baby sisters.

But I’ve come to prefer the company of real, live children in concentrated doses, followed by nighty-nights and grown-up chat. Children were once small, not very competent apprentices in the family enterprise, who couldn’t wait to be big and useful. Today, they are the clients, and parents act the part of the incompetent account manager, offering endless options that don’t quite please and blanket praise for every eaten pea and filled potty. (“Oh, good jo-ob, Micah!”) The whole show is tedious. Why are people spending so much time training kids to “make good choices,” and so little teaching them to accept the world with grace? (I treasure the old-fashioned, please-and-thank-you kids I know, who seem to be not just better mannered but more content.)

Karl Lagerfeld told a story about his horrible Prussian mother, who once told him, after he repeated a childish story too often, “Karl, you may be six but I am not, and your stories are very boring to me. Please try to be more interesting, or be silent.” Whenever a chat with a friend gets interrupted for the fiftieth time by a domineering five-year-old, I think fondly of monstrous Mrs. Lagerfeld.

That human reproduction should be choice at all is a comically short blip in our history, and we haven’t yet figured out how to manage it. (Looking at continental Europe, Japan, and non-immigrant America, our selfish minds seem to be winning over our selfish genes.) For now, we’re looking around us to see how many children we should have and how to raise them. My Irish friends, who can count on decent free schooling and nearby families, have three apiece. My coastal Americans started later and for the most part have just one or two.

It’s hard to rear children with just two parents, let alone one. When the rest of the community is not pitching in with advice, sanity, and day-to-day care, and won’t agree to pay for decent schools and healthcare, your little family has to hunker down. All your resources, financial, physical, and emotional, must make up for the lack of the tribe we’ve counted on for thousands of generations. You concentrate your investment in just a few precious children, so that you have enough to shield them from blows and deprivations. You offer them every opportunity you can make, and mold your day and your life to their evolving activities and needs. There isn’t much time or energy left for others, let alone yourself. And besides, you’re living with the funniest, most inspiring people you’ve ever met, and you had no idea that you could love this much. When they’re not boring you to distraction they are the most fascinating creatures on earth. What an adventure.

As your single friend, I think I get it and I’m delighted for you. But I also miss you, and I’m looking forward to solo, selfish, spontaneous sessions with you, just you. One of these days we’ll dream up more ways to make meaning in this world.

*CALI: Childless and lovin’ it.

A wedding

Siege of Ennis

Photo by Tim Vetter

Everyone danced at my sister’s wedding.

The wedding singer was once the black-haired lead in our school plays, three years ahead of me. By now he had dropped the Sixth-Year poses and his hair was grey, but all the years of leppin’ to Chuck Berry and Van Morrison and Neil Diamond had kept him free of the usual Irish gut. Business was good—he and the band had worked every night for the past five months—and he seemed to enjoy the liturgy of other people’s songs. With his black shirt and pants, he had the hands-off charisma of a good-looking curate.

His heart sank when he saw us come in, he said. Sixty five people in a ballroom that would hold more than two hundred for a summer wedding—and on top of that, he recognized a good number of them as his teachers from twenty years ago. The rest were our neighbours, who had known my sister since she was born, and our aunts and uncles, who were in for the day from their farms in Roscommon and Tipperary. How was he to warm up a crowd like that?

And then the long-stemmed bride and her new husband finished their first dance, and the band launched a waltz, and all the friends and neighbours and aunts and uncles filed out to the dance floor and paired up. Here were Siobhán and Pat, Dónal and Mary, Nora and Denis—the naming order for each couple as established and natural as their moves. The Roscommon uncle I hadn’t seen in 20 years danced with the aunt I remembered as a bride. My neighbour Pat refused to dance with anyone but his wife—but how well he danced with his wife! Esther and Martin, who had been there to greet me when I was born in Zambia 35 years ago, now waltzed for Claire’s wedding.

They all did. The graduates of the 1960s ballrooms swirled around the dance floor like cream in black coffee. The under-forties made circles, unskilled but enthusiastic. The toddler flower girl raised her skirts over her head and shrieked, while the older kids chased the white balloons they’d blown up the night before.

A few nights before the wedding, we girls had made our parents tell us again about the night they’d met, at that céilí dance in Cork in 1968. Their friends used to go out dancing all the time, Mum said; all night, all kinds of music. No drink or drugs to keep them going—it was just pure craic. She felt so sorry for the young ones now, trying to meet someone in the nightclub scene she’d witnessed on Claire’s hen night in Limerick the week before. Shouting drunks, thumping music, sloshing beer, married fellas on the pull, bottle fights in the Ladies. Those weren’t our only options, we told her, but I believed her when she said they’d had more fun.

After decades of Christmas drinks and summer barbecues and year-round bottomless cups of tea, I’d never seen our friends and family dance. They jitterbugged and foxtrotted. Dad danced with each daughter, and none of us could dance like Mum. Everyone gave it up for Tutti Frutti, and shook arms high for Brown-Eyed Girl. We made my sister’s boyfriend show us the moves for his oh-so-serious Dance-Offs with his rugby teammates, including the ultimate winner, Reversing Around the Dance Floor: one arm draped in mid-air, the other turning an imaginary steering wheel, while you glide backward and make beeping sounds.

When the band took a break, a musician friend set up her trad band to play The Siege of Ennis. It’s the easiest of the traditional Irish set dances, but many of us hadn’t done it since primary school, and others had never learned it at all. In vain our friend Seán tried to call the sets—“Slip sides, change back, swing to the right…”—as the Canadians and the under-forties flailed, and the older men swung the bridesmaids til the Guinness churned in our bellies. A flushed guest succumbed to a swing with extra elbow grease, and landed on the bride’s train. When it was over we called for more sets—Fallaí Luimní, The Walls of Limerick, or Ag Baint an Fhéir, The Haymaker’s Jig—but we didn’t deserve the efforts of such fine and serious musicians. I felt a little guilty when they packed up the bodhrán and the rosin and handed us back to the wedding singer.

For children, Irish weddings are still about fizzy orange and Coke and Taytos, and racing around a hotel unchecked, and getting twirled by the bridesmaids, and letting your mouth hang open while the younger men teach you The Robot. People you don’t know come up to you and give you money and tell you you’re a lovely girl or boy. It’s magic. I know—I was a child at the weddings of some of these dancers.

My uncle J.—another I hadn’t seen since I was a young teenager—shyly handed over a creased photograph he’d brought for me. In it, he had the dark looks of a young George Best, and I was sitting on his lap with my curly-headed cousin. Our full names were written on the back, though we were only babies. It was dated Dec 2 1973: the day before he married my aunt.

I rattled off life-bumps for him—London, New York, divorce, backpacking, San Francisco—and when I saw his stricken look it occurred to me that I was the only wedding guest who was divorced. It’s the kind of news that doesn’t filter out to the quieter men in a family, and he was shocked and grieved that I’d had to go through such a thing. For me, it was only a fact, not a feeling, and I had to cast back five years to reach the rawness that matched his.

Divorce wasn’t legalized in Ireland until after I left, in 1995. Most of these friends and relatives were still in their fractious forties then, and might have been tempted to split if separation had been sanctioned. It seemed archaic and cruel to confine people to bad marriages, and I’d still vote for legal divorce today. Yet the patina of a mellowed marriage is lovelier than the shine of fresh romance, and without a social structure that supported enduring love—in both senses—we would have lost many relationships that could have been restored. If, when you’re sixty years old, you can dance joyfully with the one that brung ya, then you’ve earned your great luck.

I thought about how we would have celebrated this day in the U.S. or Canada or England: the delicate seating plans to accommodate merged and cleaved families; the reception briefings on splits and re-marriages. Love is too tough to be left to couples alone, and that’s what the wedding singer acknowledged when he closed the night by sending our bride and her Canadian groom under the steepled arms of the people who love them, while he bawled “Everybahhdy…needs somebahhdy…”

Earlier, I’d given a speech about what it meant for emigrants like my sister and me to be part of a gathering like that. We aren’t rootless—that’s a different problem entirely. But we don’t have tap roots, burying deep in a single place for nourishment. Ours are runners: we grow by extending outwards to make new plants. We have have too many roots entirely—tendrils that pull us to Limerick and Dublin and Ottawa and New York and San Francisco, and more tendrils that tug us toward the others who have moved. We dream of the mythical party where all our beloveds will be under one roof, even as we know it won’t ever happen.

In a rushed world, where “I have to work” isn’t called out as the lie it usually is, we know how rare it is to be surrounded by decades-worth of friendships and memories. Between the Caher Road neighbours and the Crescent teachers and the old friends, there were about 2,000 years of affection and friendship gathered in that room to send Claire and Glen off into their married lives. I was proud of the dowry we raised.

Happy 37th anniversary, Mum and Dad.

Wedding party

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Ken Burns Effect

For Caoimhe, born September 12, 2007. Her name is pronounced KWEE-veh, (more or less), and it means “grace.” Caoimhe is Liam’s sister. The Ken Burns Effect is a default setting on Apple’s iPhoto, which pans and zooms through a photo album to make it look like a movie.

Caitriona and Caoimhe

KEN BURNS EFFECT
You yawn, you doze, you blink and gaze,
You pout and grasp your granny’s thumb.
To learn your strength, your knuckles squeeze
That wrinkled hand that shields your bum.

Twelve feelings float across your face,
Twelve photos glide across my screen.
The frown, the fist, the curling lip:
You haven’t learned to hide or preen.

These pictures bring me cells, not bits:
Your pudding rolls, your morning mewl
I sniff your powder-cotton smell
I nibble toes, kiss dewdrop drool

Your belly, with its shallow tides,
Is springy silk, like rising dough.
I gnaw my lip. I’m saving breath
To leave more air untouched for you.

“O child of grace, of butter made,”
Our Irish mothers used to say.
You store ten thousand furled-up lives
Which stories will you tell some day?

For you, I pause my modern march
To learn again what I forget:
The dazzle in a breath, a toe.
You teach me to stay here—and yet

I flip ahead. Who will you be
At fifty-four? At seventeen?
O child of grace, your slideshow pans,
And I cast you, star of my own dreams.

Caoimhe sleeps

Down With Jazz

[Hi, readers:

This one is super-long for a blog entry. That’s because it’s a short story draft—you know, those things you skip past in the New Yorker or stopped reading after your Leaving Cert—so don’t feel you have to plough through it. YouTube is always right next door on the internet.

But if you’re interested, the story is inspired by an RTE radio documentary of the same name from 1987, and I’ve imagined it taking place in my grandparents’ hometown in Roscommon. I didn’t know them very well, so those bits are entirely made up. The awesome letter to the Catholic Herald is real, though, and so are the slogans. And one description of country life is swiped from a commenter here.

Oh, and I haven’t written a full-length story since my own Leaving Cert, so this took for-goddamn-ever. Making stuff up takes me even longer than reporting it. I’m posting a draft so’s I can see it with some distance and then patch it up.

As the phone company would say, “We know you have choices for your blog-reading needs, and we appreciate your business.” Thanks for stopping by.

-D.]

…you danced with her the best slow dancer
Who stood on tiptoe who almost wasn’t there
In your arms like music she knew just how to answer
The question mark of your spine your hand in hers
The other touching that place between her shoulders
Trembling your countless feet lightfooted sure
To move as they wished wherever you might stagger
Without her she turned in time she knew where you were
In time she turned her body into yours
—David Wagoner

 

The bicycles go by in twos and threes
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
—Patrick Kavanagh

Main St, Mohill

After Mass, Charlie Hanley offered Margaret Kelly a bar to the Saturday dance in Elphin. The fellas had bicycles, and the girls did not, and it was better that way. It meant a High Nelly was a ticket to ask.

The light girls were popular. They’d back up to the bicycle bar like little high jumpers, pretending to be more delicate than they were, and with a laugh and a wobble you’d be away. Margaret was middle-sized—two wobbles, maybe three—but when he reached for the handlebars on either side of her good frock, with her hair tickling his chin, he was glad of every mile of the seven from her home place to Elphin. She was cushiony enough not to complain about the iron slap from each rut in the road. Instead she gripped the bar and pointed her knees primly ahead, like a Strokestown House mistress riding sidesaddle.

They passed Billy Carmody and his donkey, bringing home the churn from evening milking. They saluted Jonjo Sharkey and his old bitch Gypsy, who even though her eyes were milky still snapped at Margaret’s dangling feet. These days the sheep obeyed Gypsy only out of habit, or pity. Jonjo would have to get the shotgun to her soon.

All day Charlie had turned turf. The sods already smelled warm and nearly meaty, as they would when stacked beside the range in winter. At the dinner hour they unwrapped their mother’s bread and drank strong tea from milk bottles. There was just him and the brother to cut their plot of bog. Margaret had a rake of brothers, but they were still young lads, and when she walked out to bring their dinners to the bog she often stayed on to work harder than they did. Though Charlie had known her since she was in High Babies and he was in Second Class at the schoolhouse, it was only in the last few years had he liked to watch her work from across the bog. She looked stronger than she was; rheumatic fever in Sixth Class had given her a bad heart.

In the evening Charlie and the brother walked back, stopping as they always did for a smoke on two flat mossy rocks in the bottom field. They shared a Sweet Afton and listened to the land. Half of life was winding down and half waking up; a change of shift, you might say. It was sweet now to stretch out on a warm rock and do nothing but draw in smoke. He thought about Margaret Kelly’s hair. As the night went on they might be dancing a rumba. Close-to-close dancing like that, it was bolder than the proximity of a bicycle ride, because there was no reason or excuse but the pure pleasure of it. The thought made him feel so alive it was barely bearable. O yes, we have no bananas…

Noel was too young for the dance, and his mind was on Under-16s hurling. Why, he wanted to know, did Father Treacy have Lennon playing centre field again tomorrow? Anyone with eyes in their head could see Lennon should be centre-forward and Noel should be midfield. Lennon was more skilful and a better scorer, and Noel was fitter, bigger, and more controlling of centre field. How else were they to beat Tulsk? Charlie agreed it was a senseless thing. Noel would puzzle it further, but Charlie was inclined to get to the dance. He stubbed the butt and rose towards home, hungry for his tea. The milk bottle rolled in his jacket pocket. Noel followed, slapping a sliotar from hand to hand, still complaining.
Continue reading “Down With Jazz”

All the Way Back

“In a world without consequences,” my mother’s friend Marian had said over their weekly coffee in the Shopping Centre, “wouldn’t it be great to go to bed with Bill Clinton?” When she reported this, she added, with a 15-year-old’s giggle, “And do you know, I have to say, I agreed with her.”

Dad said, “Well, I don’t know what to make of that at all.”

“We were all swooning to hear him in person. And he knew all about Limerick. He mentioned Dell, and the new concert hall out at the university. He even knew about the rugby!”

Ten days before, I’d got an email request from a friend. “Give me a few facts about Limerick,” she wrote. I told her about the pogrom of 1904; Richard Harris; the spit-flecked Redemptorist Fathers; and the arrival of Latvian, Chinese, and Polish immigrants, who brought durian crisps and rye bread, and queued up for internet access in the public library. I mentioned how unfair the Stab City nickname seemed to the citizens, and the resentment at poor-mouthing Frank McCourt. Sure, the McCourts were starving because the father was a roaring alcoholic—and that was hardly Limerick’s fault.

These ramblings weren’t what she’d had in mind. She was pals with President Clinton’s head foreign-policy speechwriter, and he needed notes for his boss’s trip to Ireland. In those slinking days after the Starr Report, Clinton could still count on a Kennedy welcome in Ireland, which had never fallen out of love with him (and misses him still). He was a great man on the North, it was felt. Irish people took pride in believing, unlike the English with their scourging tabloids, that a politician’s sex life was none of the electorate’s business. They wouldn’t hear a word said against him.

I supplied replacement facts: new bridges, new industries, a new stop on the national arts’ circuit, and an abiding love of rugby that crossed class. These were better suited to help a president reflect a city’s growing sense of itself, and no one does that better than misty Bill. Limerick was impressed at his grasp of town life.
“Ah, Bill’s just my puppet,” I told my mum.

I thought of Clinton’s visit after yesterday’s Munster victory.

“Local update: Munster beat Biarritz 20-17 in the Heineken Cup in Cardiff today. 15,000 people watched on an outdoor screen in O’Connell St in Limerick. 70,000 people at the stadium in Cardiff. Stringer got man of the match. George Hook was unbearable on the telly there. Of course, they beat Leinster in the semi’s so my celebrations are somewhat more temperate.”

That came in a Saturday letter from an old college friend, a Leinster Dub transplanted to Cork. On first reading I thought he was poking fun—as If I’d be interested in rugby, unless I was trying to sweet-talk some fella. Dad regularly reports the match results to my sisters and me, the jokey lament of a man in a family of women indifferent to blood-rising county rivalries. But this week, it was Mum who delivered an excited match report on Sunday night. I hadn’t realized it was a European Final, and a triumph for my home town.

Munster is the bottom-left of Ireland’s four provinces, and it covers Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Kerry, and Clare. Maybe Waterford too; my geography was always poor. It has a lasting rugby rivalry with Leinster, where the Dubs are. I don’t hear of the other provinces getting in on it, but perhaps that’s because rugby is such a city game.

In most of Ireland it’s a posh sport that grows from the private schools. The kids in The Commitments would have played soccer. In Dublin, rugby is for South County Dublin boys whose strong necks are bred to support barristers’ horsehair wigs as well as scrums. Long before the rest of the country could afford to fake Viking genes, their girls were swinging sheets of blonde hair over pints of Heineken.

In Limerick, tough, scrappy Limerick, the whole city is mad for the game. On the field, solicitors tackle janitors and bouncers take down mortgage brokers (or they used to, before the game went professional). In the concrete stands of Thomond Park, the doctors from St. Camillus’ freeze their backsides off next to cabbage growers. We don’t have people from all walks of life in Limerick—there are no rag-pickers, no Google billionaires, no pet psychics—but if we did, they’d probably follow rugby. On Saturday nights, girls dress up for the Sin Bin, a club owned by a former Munster star and named for the place to which he was regularly sent off.

Mum reports that Cork is jealous, because everyone is saying that they’ve never seen anything like the way the Limerick fans came out for the team. At her school, the kids all wore Munster red on Friday, except for a couple of the little Pakistani kids—which is a pity, she says, because red is lovely with their dark hair. All the teachers wore red head to toe. Dad bought a Munster jersey; Uncle Tommy and Derek went over to Cardiff to see the match, and the fans there, oh, the whole stadium was pure red.

I can hear the shine in her eyes when she talks about O’Connell Street, where the whole town gathered to watch the match on screens strung above the traffic lights. When the homecoming bus drove into Limerick in the rain, it was magic. “You turn on the news and it’s all Munster, Munster, Munster, and they’re talking about the Limerick fans and how committed they were. And the team says that’s why they won, they couldn’t let the people down.” (The Limerick people, she insists.)

“Claire couldn’t believe I was watching the semi-finals, and I told her, if you had blood running in your veins, how could you not be interested when they might win for the first time in 120 years? So then she watched the finals and got all into it. Caroline went out for the celebrations and she ended up walking home. I hope she wasn’t wearing stilettos…”

She spills the jokes that are going around, how the Leinster fans were too busy shopping in Brown Thomas to show up for the match, and the Leinster team were afraid to spoil their manicures.

I remember this, or something like it, when Ireland got to the quarter-finals of the Football World Cup in 1990. Something changed. Until then we had flown high only solo, and mostly far from home. Here was an Irish team (cobbled from the stocky British offspring of Irish grandparents and coached by a Yorkshireman) holding England to a victory draw, and gallantly saving penalty shots from Romanian strikers. The country rose up in a great yawp of triumph, and urged the players beyond their modest abilities.

And we watched ourselves as fans, and liked what we saw: thronging Palermo, respectful, high-spirited, cuddly, and cheerfully sozzled. The worse the English fans behaved, the more lovable the Irish fans were careful to become, on their first grand tour. They waved scarves at the cameras and told of bank loans borrowed over the phone so they to stay on and follow the team on through—nobody had booked past the first round. At home the factories closed and we filled the bars—with their brand-new, big-screen TVs bought for Italia ’90— and wept with joy to see ourselves weep with collective joy in front of the world. Ireland was still close to bottom of the EU heap then, but the shine of the World Cup showed a new reflection. Everybody thought we were great, we repeated. It felt good.

For my home town, Shtab City, known for hoodies and piebalds and wormy Stanley Knife scars, this Munster win, a mucky oval ball delivered over a white line, might signal the same shift in confidence. Fifteen years from now we might look back and see just how ready Limerick was to stand proud and passionate, after decades of being done down. “It’s great,” says my mother, firmly, “to see positive images of Limerick in the media for once, when they’re never nice about us.”

Do you know, it is.

You’re Not Jesus Christ

Inside the door of Marks & Spencers on Grafton Street, four ladies stopped by the jumpers for a break from Christmas shopping.

“How many have you at home now, Mary?”

“Two and a half. Andrew’s mostly gone, but he’s a bit fond of coming back for dinner and the washing.”

“God, it’s hard to shift them, isn’t it?”

“My eldest was 31 when he got married. I said to him, you’re not Jesus Christ. You don’t have to live with your mammy this long.”

Nought to Sixty

Dad and his bike I asked my dad what he thought about turning sixty.

“I feel fine about it,” he said, “mainly because I don’t feel one bit different inside than when I was twenty-five.”

He lived in Zambia then, with a bride of twenty he’d met at a céilí dance in Cork. He had a contract to teach in Africa, and UCC Commerce and a convent dormitory were not enough to keep her from following him. Together they walked into the Allied Irish Bank on Patrick Street to close his account. “Sixteen shillings and sixpence!” my mother mocks. “That’s all he had when I married him.” They were married on a snowy day in Silvermines not long after they met. I’m biased, of course, but they were lovely: both wide-eyed, dark-haired, and fine-boned. They got taken for brother and sister as often as not.

Zambia was newly independent, and had money from copper. Ireland, with a forty-year headstart as a republic, had just turned out the first generation of kids to go through free secondary schooling. Africa was hopeful, and so were they. Many of that first crop of Irish peasant graduates took their engineering, teaching, and nursing degrees to the bush and the mines; a paddy Peace Corps without the confident zeal of the Americans who had grown up in Eisenhower comfort.

My father was one of them. He had parlayed the first Leaving Cert in the family into a degree at University College Galway. He paid for college by working the building sites in London, mixing cement with Connemara men who spoke no English and pined for a home they rarely saw. They were not too different from his own Roscommon family. On the Kelly side, my granny was the only one to marry near home. George took his tuberculosis to Australia, and didn’t forgive Ireland for forty years. John worked in the M&M factory in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Pat and Charlie stayed bachelors, maybe for want of money, or maybe for want of brides in a part of the country where the women left young.

It was Pat and Charlie Kelly who fostered my father and his sister for a few years while his own father fought off a cancer of the nose and mouth. His mother kept the farm running and cared for the two toddlers left at home. They had given grandad up, more or less, when some quack gave him a caustic poultice to wear on his nose for nine nights. It melted the flesh away, a terrible agony, but he survived to ride his bicycle into his eighties, probably in spite of the quack. The parish priest advised granny to take up smoking to calm her nerves, and it was she who died twenty years before him.

Once the schoolteacher came up to the house. “John is bright. He should have books,” he said. My granny bought him two, and he read them in an afternoon, like a starveling. This made her decide books weren’t good value, and he didn’t get any more. Time enough for cutting turf, saving the hay, and thinning turnips, without books to bother with. (But is this a family legend, told by Mum, I’ve wondered since—a bogeyman story for a bookworm girl? Granny always seemed so kind, though I’m sure money for books was as scarce as Mercedes.)

The nearest town was Strokestown, where the grocer’s shop shared our last name, and the hotel is named for Percy French. The wide and stately main street seems to belong to Regency Bath rather than to a place where the old and the very young outnumber the breeders. Strokestown Park House is now the country’s famine museum; a small, belated restitution for the cruelty of the local landlord, Major Dennis Mahon, who evicted two-thirds of the tenants at the worst of the hunger. A few years ago, on holiday in Sicily, Dad met his English descendant, a Pakenham-Mahon who wanted to bond over memories of boyhood holidays at the family place in Roscommon. They had held onto it until 1979, and Dad remembered them, with no fondness, as leaving the gates open on his father’s land as they galloped through on their hunters.

He went to Mansa as a small farmer’s son, taught first by a drunk in a pink, two-room schoolhouse, and so perhaps he arrived at Mr. Elias’s brick secondary school as an equal rather than a missionary or a mercenary. I like to think he felt the frugal, country kinship that Dervla Murphy brings to her books, where the traveler’s eye alights on chickens scratching in the dirt and sees eggs rather than postcards.

For me, Zambia is pressed in an album. I’m there, a dusty baby with an infected vaccination scar, with my stand-in godmother who was later eaten by crocodiles. (Or did I make that up, too?) On another page, the football team my father coached hangs out of the back of a truck, hooting. They are beautiful young men in knee socks and soccer shorts; many are probably long dead. There are tigers and elephants; a snake or two; and my mother on a motorcycle. (Though not all in the same photo.) Fragments.

There’s his schoolmaster colleague, an English former public school boy, who jolted the three of us around Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe in his Volkswagen when I was six months old. He spoke only to dad, my mother complains, though from time to time he tried to teach me Latin verbs. That was the trip when they pitched camp in the path of the hippos’ watering hole, and only the rumbling approach gave them time to dive clear. Hippos were rare in Roscommon. Camping was unusual.

I have to look up the Wikipedia to see where it was they really lived. Mansa is an imaginary place that exists in the dimensions of time and stories, not space. Several friends have gone to Zambia over the years—Ranger Tim kayaked down the Zambezi, and my old college flatmate oversaw Ireland’s AIDS mission to Zim and Zam—but I’ve stayed resolutely ignorant of news outside those little square, white-bordered snapshots. Sometimes little details click,like when I read VS Naipaul’s stories of Asians in Africa and realize how it was that dad came to like saris better than miniskirts. But it’s only writing this that I study the population, the geography, the climate, and the forty years that have betrayed the hopes of independence and mineral wealth.
“Do you remember, in Zambia, the Russian engineers would drink tea out of jam jars…Do you remember, in Zambia…”

Dad taught school there for three and a half years. He read Ulysses. He helped deliver me, though that was the end of his New Man efforts for two decades. They went home when his grandmother fell ill, and thought they would soon go back. They still talk about going back. Instead, they moved to Limerick, and added more small girls to the family.

When my sisters fought in the back seat, Dad would stop the car outside a church. “Go inside and pray for each other,” he’d order, “And don’t come out until Baby Jesus knows you mean it.” We never disobeyed him, though he didn’t go to Mass, and we were fairly sure he never consulted Baby Jesus on anything. They’d slam the car door and in they’d stomp, torn between enmity and a common enemy. “It’s important to give them something to unite against,” he’d say, as we watched them march back down the gravel path, friends again but scowling at him. It took us years to realize that he kept his stash of private jokes in plain sight.

I see how good his life is these days, and that he’s made it so. He squabbles with my mother over who got more wine in the last top-up. He has taught for thirty-five years, thirty at the same school, and when we walk around Limerick together, he is greeted at every corner.
“Howrya, sorr,” say kids from 14 to 45. “How’re you keeping, Seán?”
“Jesus, I can’t put a name to that fella,” he’ll say, shaking his head, but I’m amazed at the number he does remember—and their families, life histories, and temperament, too. Those who care enough to pay attention can appraise us pretty well at fifteen, before we lacquer adult polish over our essential natures.

Even here in San Francisco, I meet people who remember him and are grateful. Though he sends me hopeful text messages about Dublin job openings at Google, it’s his work that I envy—how it has woven him into the fabric of his community, and still left him time to have a rich life beyond it. He’ll spend his birthday in Pompeii, with my mother and good friends. Now that Ryanair has opened up Europe, they go to a different city every mid-term break—Rome, Palermo, Dubrovnik, Prague… Over Christmas, he took a group of schoolkids skiing in Italy, as he does every year. For Easter, he’ll visit my sister in Ottawa. They might come here in August, though I tell them over and over that San Francisco has a summer only a toad could love. He isn’t daunted.

We bought him a birthday bicycle, a fit present for a man who doesn’t feel one bit different inside than he did when he was twenty-five. We say that he has mellowed gracefully, all the same.

While They Still Believe

SantySanty lives deep in the Aillwee Cave in the Burren, which is in the North Pole. When Kevin went to see him it was cold in the cave, and without the lightbulbs it would have been dark, because caves have no windows. He was surprised, really, that Santy didn’t live somewhere nicer. It dripped, and the walls were slimy. The stalactites looked like snots hanging from the ceiling, and if Terence was there they might have laughed at them together. Greeners! Big frozen greeners! Greener ice pops! But he didn’t laugh, not when he was visiting Santy. He didn’t touch the stalactites because you aren’t allowed, and he wasn’t going to do anything that might put him on the Bold Boy List.

His thoughts spun, hot and tangled like knickers in the dryer. He couldn’t wait—please please please make the time go fast until Santy came—but at the same time he was afraid. What had he done and forgotten that might put him on the Bold Boy List? What did Santy know about his sulks, and the time he wouldn’t get into the car to go to granny’s like he was told? And the time he shouted that he hated mam because she made him go to bed instead of watching The Little Rascals again—had Santy moved his name to the Bold Boy List? His face got hot as he pictured Santy shaking his head sadly, in front of Joe and mam.

And then he thought about his own list, the things he had asked for. The feeling of opening the box under the tree and finding a Nintendo DS was so real that it made him shake. Thoughts of Santy made him giddy and sick. He couldn’t stop them, nor did he want to, so he squeezed mam’s hand, and sucked his free thumb to hold himself in one place.

And when he finally sat on Santy’s lap, he forgot to breathe. He stared at the red velvety knees.

“Ho ho ho,” said Santy. “If it isn’t Kevin Scully. I must check my book, Kevin, to see what it was you wanted this year.”

“In-TEN-do!” said Joe, who was only three and didn’t even know what it was.

“Nintendo? Is that right, now? Well, that’s a big present. We’ll have to take a look to see where you are on the list, Kevin.” The brown leather book almost covered the small table on which it rested. Santy opened it nearly to the middle. “GOOD CHILDREN,” he read out loud, though Kevin could read it too, and it made his heart thump. Santy ran his finger down the page, then down the next one, then halfway down the next. “And here you are. Kevin Scully. And he’s on the right list, right enough, so he must have been a good boy this year. Were you a good boy this year, Kevin?”

Kevin said that he was. He saw the letters K-E-V-I-N in the heavy book. Through his relief he noticed that Santy had a wart on his Peter Pointer finger, and that his beard was yellowy.

“And I have on my list that you are looking for Nintendo DS, or a Power Ranger Mystic Force and a selection box and a surprise.” Mam had helped him with the letter last week. He had picked carefully. You couldn’t ask for too much, because that was greedy, and greedy was bold. But Santy always brought more than you asked for, and a surprise could be two things, or even three, so if the Nintendo was too much he might still get something good.

“Well, Kevin, we’ll see what we can do for you. And remember to keep being a good boy. Do you know how I know you’re a good boy?”

He shook his head.

“The robins work for me, Kevin. They’re my little spies. You know the little robin red breasts in the garden? Well, they tell me what’s going on with all the little boys and girls in Ireland, and all over the world. They peep in the windows and they know all about what’s going on. Very good workers, the robins. I depend on them almost as much as I depend on Rudolph.”

Robins!

He was quiet the whole way home to Limerick.

On Christmas Eve, mam and dad wouldn’t stop visiting. They called up to Granny Neville, and then to Granny Scully. They called up to Aunty Deirdre, Aunty Laura, and Aunty Claire. They called to Sheena-next-door. Everywhere they went there were Marks & Spencer’s mince pies and smoked salmon, and wine for mam and dad. And prawns.

“Do you want Coke, Kevin? Will you have a bag of Taytos?” the aunties kept saying, and after a while he didn’t even want more Coke; he wanted to go home and wait for Santy, but mam and dad wouldn’t go even though he pulled on their arms and legs.

“And what’s Santy bringing you, Kevin?” they all asked.

“Nintendo DS or Power Ranger Mystic Force and a selection box and a surprise.” He knew they didn’t really know what he was talking about. To them it was no different than saying how big he was getting, or what class was he in now, but still he wanted to say the list out loud so that it would come true. Our Father who art in heaven hallowbee die Nintendo DS or Power Ranger Mystic Force. Just saying the list made him bounce.

“Mam!” he said, “Mam! I want to go HOME. Stop TALKING.”

“Kevin, don’t be rude. We’ll go in a minute. Don’t you know Santy’s keeping particular watch on little boys on Christmas Eve?”

It was dark already. Santy could come any minute and they might miss him if Mam wouldn’t finish her bloody wine, but she had him caught.

“They’re talking about Santy on the News, Kevin,” said Sheena-next-door.

They were interviewing an air traffic controller at Dublin Airport, who said they cleared the flightpath for Santa Claus. Generally they did that just to make sure, he said, though of course they didn’t have exact knowledge of the sleigh’s flight plan. However, the radar did pick up some unusual northern activity that suggested Santa and the reindeer had probably left the North Pole around 4pm…

“Mam!” said Kevin, “he’s already gone! We have to go home!”

“And now over to Professor Michael Nolan of Trinity College, who will explain just how Santa Claus manages it,” said the newscaster.

Of course, it was very difficult to visit every single good child in the world in just a single night, said the professor. He looked cold standing outside in his anorak, waving at the sky. “Santy makes the most of it by crossing the international date line, which turns 24 hours into 36 hours…”

Gráinne Seoige wished all the good boys and girls a happy Christmas and lots of toys from Santy, and said good night.

“I suppose we better go home, so,” said Daddy, putting down his glass. “There’s a boy here who seems awfully anxious to get to bed. Very unusual.” Kevin was so relieved he didn’t mind being mocked. He didn’t even mind when the nerves and Coke and Taytos made him get sick on his pillow because he knew that Santy was coming.

They moved to the new house the following August. He stood in the back garden with Joe, watching Daddy hammer the swingset into the ground. This back garden was much bigger than the one at the old house, and he didn’t fully feel like he owned it yet. He still ran in circles small enough to have fitted in the old garden. Joe didn’t care; Joe ran everywhere.

A bird landed beside Daddy and looked up at them with bright little brown eyes.

“A robin!” said Kevin, “A robin red-breast, Joe!”

Even as the robin’s little head strobed, he looked intently at Kevin. Joe cocked his head just like the bird.

“He’s Santy’s little spy, Joe. Robin red-breast. He’s looking to see if we’re good boys.”

“God, Kevin, you have a very good memory,” said Mam. She was smiling. “Mr. Robin Red Breast is here just to check to see if you’ve settled into your new bedroom, so he can tell Santy where to go next Christmas. He’ll make sure Santy finds you.”

“Mam,” he said urgently. “Will he know me with my new glasses? Will he know it’s me?”

“Well, I suppose he will. Santy knows you fairly well, doesn’t he? Remember how he recognized you in the Aillwee Cave?”

But why take the chance? He pulled off the glasses and knelt on the grass.

“Robin,” he said. “It’s me. Kevin Scully. I used to live in Ballinvoher and now I Iive here and I have glasses. So tell Santy. Okay?”

The robin appraised him, and flew off. They were both satisfied.

Folly Bergere

Sheep Train on Croagh PatrickOur Limerick neighbors have a second home in Fahamore, Co. Kerry, a windwashed scrap in the shadow of Mount Brandon. It was there that my mother met the sheep, as it skittered past the French windows followed by a barking dog.

    “I thought the dog was worrying the sheep,” she confided. “So I went out to save it.” My mother is scared of dogs, but she has a very good heart. “I went out the door, and somehow I got between the dog and the house, and next thing, in the sheep went into the hallway, and me outside with the dog. So I made a dash back for the house to get him out, and he’s standing on the hall carpet, filthy dirty. It’s good carpet, they brought it down from their other house, and it’s still a good carpet. He has a terrible sheepy smell.”
    “I suppose he’d smell sheepy, right enough.”
    “I wave at him to get out, and instead off he trots down the hall and into the bedrooms. Bringing his sheepy smell all over the house.”
    “The carpet was sheepy once. He was probably reuniting with his granny.”
    “So I had to climb over the bed to get on the other side of him to herd him back out of the house. And he’s in no hurry, mind, to get back out there to the dog, but eventually I give him a shove so that he runs back out to the hall, bleating away. And there’s a young farmer lad standing outside the door beside the dog, with his arms crossed. And it dawns on me… “
    “Oh dear…”
    “So I say, ‘was the dog trying to herd the sheep? ‘”
    “You were sheepish, like?” She ignores this.
    “And, oh, he’s not impressed at all, this lad. He says—he’s real Kerry—“Well, ma’am, he was tryin’.”