Wash Cycle Wendy rinsed me out of her life while we lay in bed together staring at the ceiling as the radio played "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover." She simply said: "I think I want to live alone."
To which I replied: "Can you give me three weeks?"
"One week," she said.
She then dressed and went out. I phoned my friend and fellow journalist Peter Leney, and asked if I could move in for a few weeks as I gathered myself and cashed a few long-awaited pay cheques before setting off for Ireland.
Because of Quebec nationalism, Montreal had been denuded of its international importance, and there were no longer direct flights to Ireland. The most economical route was to take a bus in New York, fly to London on Laker Airways, the first low-cost, no frills airline, then take the train to Holyhead in Wales and the ferry to Dublin.
I marveled at the Joycean nature of it—only in reverse. While I never got more than 40 pages into Ulysses, and that after having come to know the very streets of Leopold Bloom's walk, I was quite enraptured by James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was particularly taken with his character Stephen Dedalus' statement to his friend and IRA enthusiast Davy that the "quickest way to Tara is by Holyhead"—meaning the best way to Tara, the seat of kings and fame and fortune, was to quit Ireland and go to London via the Holyhead boat-train connection in Wales. Here I was going in the other direction to find my Tara via Holyhead. And what an adventure it proved to be.
I had no letters of introduction to the high and mighty of Irish journalism as I had had 15 years earlier. Instead, I had an introduction and promise of help from friends and relations of my Irish bistro buddies: Dr Joe Wall, a dermatologist; Cyril MacSweeny a soon-to-be-rich inventor; the Humpheys brothers, each to die soon in separate circumstances within a few years of each other in their 30s. One was a high court interpreter and the other a conscientious drunk. And there was Austin Stack, who had a good position in a bank. All were literate and entertaining fellows.
I was first to go to Cyril's mother's place. It being winter, she could put me in one of a half dozen cottages she rented out in summer to tourists. It was on the Ring of Kerry with a nice view of Dingle Bay on the west coast of Ireland (next stop Newfoundland).
Having arrived with luggage in Dublin, I got a bed and breakfast near Heuston Station (Catholic name) or Knightsbridge Station (Protestant name), where I met two ex-Congo mercenaries in the lounge who were waiting for a third before they set off to do God knows what. They were both intrigued and suspicious at my knowledge of mercenary operations in Katanga province and questions about Mike Hoare, their old commander. But we steered clear of sensitive areas and got on well enough. I remember wanting to join their number years ago, having been rejected by the Canadian Army. They were big men who wore heavy boots. They were dressed respectably, and I got the impression they were officers or senior NCOs by the tone and tenor of their conversation and their confidence in pigeon-holing me as a journalist. I said I was and nothing more.
Not having much time before the train, I stuck close to the B&B on Benburb Street. I see through Google Maps/Street View that the building is as I remember it but is now occupied by First Ireland Insurance Brokers. I went down the north bank of the Liffey past the still active Collins Barracks—later turned into a museum—and as far as the Four Courts, where I was to earn my crust coming up with stories that the Evening Herald and later the Irish Independent found hard to refuse.
At last I was taken away by train to Tralee, a place I was most anxious to see, having long been the keeper of the song The Kerry Recruit, which you can skip over if you like. But at the age of 75, it still governs spirit of my life.
"At the age of nineteen, I was digging the land
With m'brogues on m'feet and m'spade in m'hand.
Says I to m'self, 'What a pity to see
Such a fine Kerry lad digging spuds in Tralee.'
With m'Kerry-Ah lal, a lal deral lay,
Kerry-Ah lal, a lal deral lay.
So I buckled m'brogues and shook hands with m'spade
And went off to the fair like a dashing young blade.
A sergeant comes up, says 'Will you enlist?'
'Sure, sergeant, ' says I, 'slip the bob in m'fist'.
Then up comes the captain, a man of great fame,
And straightway he asks me m' county and name;
Well, I told you before and tell him again
That me father and mother were two Kerrymen.
The first thing they gave me, t'was a red coat
With a lump of black leather to tie 'round m'throat
The next thing, they gave me, said I 'What is that?'
Sure man, a cockade to stick in your hat.
The next thing they gave us, they called it a gun,
And under the trigger I settled me thumb.
The gun it belched fire, and vomited smoke
It left me poor shoulder, the devil's own stroke!
The next thing they gave me, they called it a horse
With saddle and bridle my two legs across.
So I gave it the bit and I gave it the steel,
And Holy Mother, she went like an eel!
The next place they took us was down to the sea,
On board a great warship, bound for the Crimee,
With three sticks in the middle, all covered with sheet
She walked on the water without any feet.
We reached Balaclava all safe and all sound,
And hungry and weary we lay on the ground.
Next morning at daybreak a bugle did call,
And served us a breakfast of powder and ball.
Now we beat them at Alma and Inkerman
But the Russians they foiled us at the Redan.
While scaling a rampart meself lost an eye
And a great Russian bullet ran away with m' thigh.
All bleedin' and dying I lay on the ground
With m' arms, legs and feet all scattered around.
I said to m'self if m' father was nigh
He'd bury me now just in case I should die.
But the surgeon comes up and he soon stops the blood,
And they gave me an alien leg made of wood;
And they made me a pension of ten pence a day
And contented with shellfish I live on half-pay.
Now that was the story that m'grandfather told,
As he sat by the fire all withered and old.
'I'll tell ya m'lad, the Irish fight well,
But the Russian artillery's hotter than Hell.'
Or to hear Richard Dyer Bennet tell it,
Arriving in Tralee, I was a little disappointed that Cyril's mother, the Glenbeigh postmistress, was upset that I had chosen Tralee rather than Killarney to alight, as it would have been more convenient for Cyril's brother Tony to pick me up there the next day. Although they seemed equidistant to me, if anything Killarney seemed a bit farther away. But it was on the well-trodden Ring of Kerry, and the road to Tralee was something of a spur line, on which we encountered many more sheep than other signs of life the next morning.
In the darkening evening I took to the streets and found the townscape like the Limerick I had walked through 16 years before. But I also found a treasure, a brace of Russian cannons, undoubtedly two of the 200 taken at Sebastopol in the Crimea, the same set whence came the Montreal cannons in Dominion Square. They had the same Czarist split-eagle seals on the mounts, and similar Cyrillic proof marks in the pinions, but—joy of joy—they had the original wrought-iron gun carriages. Montreal's gun carriages in Dominion Square were wooden and locally fashioned, respectable enough but not the real thing.
I was an occasional visitor to the Montreal City Archives, where I learned about these guns, discovering they were two of four first lodged in Viger Square. Two were taken away to be recycled as World War I munitions; but the metal was too far gone to be of use, so the other two were spared and reestablished in Dominion Square. They were from the very same source as the metal from which the Victoria Cross is forged.
Over the years, my newspaper articles appeared in the archives, until in the 1980s much of the content had been cleansed of its English content by French nationalists, my articles included. Later, when my boss at the Suburban newspaper asked me to find any anti-union book I could, I found two at the McGill University library. Well, they survived in the card index, but not in the stacks.
I walked back to the pleasant hotel—Benner's, I think it was, looking at the Google images. On the way, I saw a boy hawking newspapers. It was a wintery late January night and he was crying something unintelligible while holding his newspapers up for sale. I noticed he was barefoot and self-consciously looked away.
I went straight to my room, checked my gear, pulled out my little white transistor radio and set it on the chest of drawers, and listened to what Irish radio had to offer. I had already sampled it in Dublin as I lay in bed before leaving and was delighted with the morning man, Gay Byrne, who I later learned was a national institution, even emceeing Ireland's national beauty contest, the Rose of Tralee.
Then I heard something that took me aback. From out the window and from my radio across the room chimed note for note in perfect unison the bells of the Angelus. In Ireland, the Angelus call to prayer is broadcast at 6 o'clock on the main national broadcasting service, Raidio Teilifis Eireann, or RTE. The church does not ring its own bells, if it has any, but plays the same Angelus that RTE does at the same time.
At a call to prayer so strikingly delivered, I decided to check out the nearby church and spend a moment contemplating my future, and perhaps say a prayer on the brink of my Irish adventure. I cannot bring myself to worship something I cannot feel, though one time I did have a religious experience in Vancouver. I was watching the Michael Caine movie Alfie. As it came to an end, he ruminates to the camera, addressing his audience directly. Seeming to have spent a life of Reilly rather like my own without recognising its ultimate vacuity, he comes to face this question. Says Alfie: "I've got a few bob, had a few girls—but what's it all about?" It struck home with sudden, and for a few weeks at least, life-changing effect. That's what I remember of it, though the passage must have meant more to someone other than me, for it's on the internet, to wit:
At the end of this soliloquy, I felt I was like a spider, or a possum clinging upside down to a latticework of rationality. At which point I let go and "fell into the lap of God." I went around like a holy roller for a time, Christlike in many ways, and in ways that alarmed my then wife. It was real to me. It happened, but I can't say I liked myself as the new me, and I reverted to the old, leaving behind a residue of faith.
But the Angelus coming to me in pure stereo like that had me reflect on this. I then left the hotel and found the church and entered not as a tourist, but as a penitent. I got there and took a pew, when a man came into the mostly empty church and took the pew directly behind me. I noticed he was fingering prayer beads with feverish intensity and muttering madly as if in terror, causing me to lose focus on myself. In a minute or two, he suddenly gathered himself up and left the church. Thus discombobulated, I returned to the hotel bar, a cozy snug of a place, almost a caricature of all that one imagines a lovely Irish bar to be.
There I met John, who appeared to be a regular in his 50s, but spent most of my time telling him about myself and Canada in response to his questions. The middle-aged barmaid interrupted to say that John was wanted on the telephone. He excused himself and took the phone handed to him by the barmaid on my other side. He was no farther away than he had been before, so I could hear every word. I could not understand what he was saying, as he appeared to be speaking Irish. Soon enough, he concluded the call and we resumed our conversation.
"You were speaking Irish," I said.
"Not at all," he said, mildly astonished.
"What were you speaking on the phone?" I asked. "I could hear you as plainly as I hear you now. But I could not understand a word you said. But I understand you perfectly now."
"I guess I'm speaking fancy now. On the phone I was using our own lingo," he said, as if appreciating this for the first time.
The next morning, Tony, a taciturn little man in his late 40s, not at all like his big bulky brother Cyril in Montreal, took me away to Glenbeigh on the south side of Dingle Bay. Its greatest claim to fame was that it had been the location of the Robert Mitchum film Ryan's Daughter.
I was much intrigued by the flocks of sheep we encountered along the way, each of their fleeces daubed with indelible coloured ink, which I correctly assumed substituted for branding in cattle. As there was no shepherd about, indeed no one on the road, I was intrigued about how the sheep that wandered about this open range decided which side of the road they would flee to at our approach.
A widow, Mrs MacSweeny, appeared at the post office door as we pulled up. She appeared to be both a kindly old soul in her early 60s, but also a lady quite accustomed to command. Mrs MacSweeny ran the main government office in the village—that is, the post office, which included the telephone exchange—and together with Sergeant Cronin, the sole occupant of the police barracks down the road, and the priest, she ran the village. The priest had just been to see the Pope on his then recent visit to Mexico and was soon to be off on an extended locum elsewhere, but not before I interviewed him on the papal tour. The pope had announced he was coming to Ireland, and I was sure I could sink a piece in the weekly Kerryman in Tralee.
After a quick, heavy, fried breakfast of bacon, sausages and eggs, with my bags still in the car, Tony drove me to one of three summer holiday cottages, down the road and around the corner and up the hill. I see from the Google street view that the post office is hardly recognisable, and the entire village has been tarted up to an unbelievable extent. There is now a smart driveway up to the three cottages at the top of the hill and a row of four more cottages, completely rebuilt and remodelled in a genuine imitation Irish.
For light and heat in my barebones cottage there were a few candles and an electric fire. Tony departed for a game of golf nearby, an activity which seemed to occupy most of his time, because that was about all he had to report whenever he reappeared at the post office at mealtimes.
As a town, Glenbeigh was late to bed and late to rise—quite unlike me.
This found me on the street at 7 a.m. I wandered back to the post office waiting for something to happen. I was dying for a cup of tea as the frosty February morning took its time to thaw in a watery winter sun. There was the pitiful sight of an emaciated dog, so longing for rest as he stood and circled exhausted before me, only to lie down again on the cold stones, only to rise once more, unable to endure his frosty bed. He did this again and again as I waited for something to happen, presenting a pure Sisyphean vision of hell.
At last something happened, though I did not appreciate its implications. An orange postal van came by, stopped, and the driver got out, flinging three big mail bags in front of the locked post office door. My one thought, having not seen an Irish postal van before, was whether having an orange van was an attempt at ecumenism. But that colour turned out to be what happens to the gold in the Irish tricolour when painted on weatherbeaten postal vans. I later saw they had reverted to more reliable green.
Feeling the chill, I walked on in the direction of Tralee to keep warm before turning around in front of the tiny Lyons grocery store with its Esso gas station sign, which is about the only thing that looks much the same in the Google street view map of 2020.
At last, at last, signs of activity at the post office appeared with the rising of the smoke from the chimney. By the time I got back, I saw Tony pulling in two of the mail bags. Seeing me, he said: "Lend a hand!" And I pulled in the third bag.
"Close the door," said Mrs MacSweeny when we got inside. "See that it's locked!"
Tony, having done his duty, returned to what smelled like his breakfast, leaving me to help his mother with the sorting of the mail. I was quite astonished by what I saw next: Bundles of cash bound together with elastic bands without the slightest sign of formality. One of the duties of the Departments of Posts and Telegraphs was to dole out the welfare money. "Everyone is on social assistance here," she remarked, "but you don't want them coming early—not till we're ready."
She counted the bundles and asked me to put them in the open safe, a small hole in the wall about two feet from the floor. I pushed the bundles right to the back.
"Don't do that!" she said. "Not to the back. The fireplace is on the other side. We burnt some money years ago and there was hell to pay!"
Yes indeed, I felt the first warmth of the morning on my hand inside the safe as the fire had been going for a time. At last, the task was done, all the cash was stowed, and I started to close the safe.
"No! Don't do that!" shrieked Mrs MacSweeny.
I looked up from my crouched position.
"Mr. MacSweeny had the combination, but he never told me."
There was a hallway to a sitting room at the adjacent post office, which I only entered once when out-of-town guests arrived. There I was paraded like a prize bull for visitors, who asked how Cyril was doing in "America" and how his recent marriage was going. Cyril had asked me to make it appear that he and his wife had not been living together for years before a pregnancy prompted a wedding so not to upset his mother, and indeed the entire village, as the squinting windows of the village spied out gossip from every nook and cranny.
While it seemed like one house from the inside, as the kitchen-dining room and the post office were conjoined, they were two adjoining structures nonetheless. Beyond the dining room door was the switchboard operator's room with a useful table to place my typewriter, I soon discovered. As important was the functioning and entirely necessary fireplace that kept the room warm. There was also a big wooden chair, often as not filled by the magnificent bulk of Sergeant Cronin of the Garda Siochana, the Irish republic's national police.
Next to him was pretty Brenda, with the startling chest. She paid me little mind. Between rare interruptions from the switchboard, or the roadside window through which intermittent gossip was exchanged, Brenda was focused on women's magazines and brochures. She was to marry a mechanic in nearby Killorglin in the spring. They had bought the house and she was pricing all that was on offer to fit it out from stem to stern. If we were alone together, which we frequently were, as that room was about the only warmth in town, she would look up briefly from her deliberations to hold up two pictures of kitchen or bathroom fittings to ask which one I preferred. I would choose and she sink back into grave deliberation.
Over time, I made myself useful. First, I knew how to operate the switchboard. It was exactly the same Northern Electric switch that we Gazette copyboys used when the operators had their lunch. When Brenda wasn't there, which was most of the time, albeit in low traffic periods, Mrs MacSweeny worked the board, or "my instrument of torture," as she called it. So she was greatly relieved when I took over for her, at first when she was doing dishes or cooking, but then most of the time. After a while they got used to my "Yank accent" and I no longer had to retell my life story and how Cyril was getting on in America. There was a red key on the board that, if pushed forward, let one listen in on all the calls. Just as I could in Montreal. Not that I did, but it gave me an idea.
My mother was sending me clippings of various things, notably Time magazine's Canadian section, The Realm, as well as other bits and pieces. One was a short story contest in Chatelaine, a Toronto women's magazine, which I entered. I had read how Agatha Christie started her mysteries and did the same. She started off with a single exceedingly long sentence ending with the clinching accusation and proof from the detective hero, in which he or she reveals who done it—because she did this to him, when he did that to her, and so on and so forth—at the classic muster of suspects. Having written that, which contains the skeletal story, one starts at the beginning and shoots for that one-sentence conclusion, fleshing it out when one gets there.
I was quite pleased how it worked out. My heroine—I was submitting to a women's magazine, after all—was the switchboard operator and the story was entitled Red Switch Forward, based on calls made in a remote Irish village. My heroine was a Canadian. But it was rejected because I did not put my detective in any danger. I did not recall Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot being in any danger either, but I guess that's the difference between Agatha Christie and Christy McCormick.
I talked to the priest, whose name I quite forget, who told me about his trip to Mexico and about how wonderful it was to see the pope. He was a total quotomatic, with one quotable quote tumbling out after another. A real cinch.
So off to Tralee to sell it to the weekly Kerryman. I was first disappointed in the same way that I was disappointed in Vancouver when told to go to a building I would have loved to work in but then redirected to a distant low-slung monstrosity I would hate to work in. So it was with the Kerryman, being directed from a charming downtown location to some plant-like structure in the sticks.
The two editorial bods I met, who chose not to identify themselves, wouldn't even look at the story I had written. "You seem to be a young man in hurry," said one, who reminded me of the Communist who interviewed me at London's Morning Star, nee Daily Worker. Did I have an NUJ (National Union of
Journalists) card? I said No; they both let out expressions of gleeful triumph.
"Then we can't use your stuff," said one.
"Can't even look at it," said the other.
And with that I went back to Glenbeigh, not realising how difficult life would be without an NUJ card.
There were times in Glenbeigh when experiences touched on the . . . if not magical, then the eerie. I remember when I went to Belfast, a local said in a typical Ulster snarl: "Oh so you're from the Eerie Free State, are ya?"
In that phrase he caught it all, conflating two of the three stages of Ireland's independence: the first one being the Irish Free State, which I imagine had been a British choice, fashioned after the Orange Free State in South Africa 20 years earlier in the Boer War; and the next version, rendered as Eire, the name of the pagan goddess of the land, before it finally settled on the more prosiac Republic of Ireland. But from my experience, that Ulsterman's mistake in usage captured the essence of the place, as it truly was an eerie free state.
How else can I regard that iridescent green I first saw more than a decade earlier on landing at Shannon, and now shining miraculously like Disney fairy dust in the morning sunlight as I poked about ruins of Wynne Castle, which I can just make out in the distance today on the Google street view. Not all of it was nice. The barefoot boy selling newspapers on a winter's night in Tralee; the fearful sight of the Sisyphean dog, presenting a perfect vision of hell. Or my brief visit to nearby Rossbeigh, where I, the sole customer, bought a pint in a pub and joined the publican and his wife, who were sitting some distance apart staring out to sea in motionless silence like guardsmen at Buckingham Palace. My occasional sips were the only movement in that room for the half hour I stayed. Eerie, definitely eerie it was, with the publican only managing a faint word of farewell on my parting.
As an Englishman in Dublin asked me with incredulity, "You know all these stories you hear about Ireland? Well, they are all true!"
One day I was sitting in the switchboard room at the table and Sergeant Cronin was in his chair by the fire next to Brenda with the spectacular chest, who as usual was going over advertisements of household fittings. Once a week, she would go through the Kerryman for social notes and was particularly interested in the doings of Killorglin, where she intended to spend her life raising children and tending to her new husband. I was fascinated how a young life could be so settled and content with what it had to offer.
Brenda was also active in the St James' Church choir. The priest I had interviewed had gone to his new assignment and a locum priest had been installed temporarily to assume parish duties, the conduct of the choir being one of them.
Clacking away as I was on my new story on brucellosis, a contagious cattle disease that infected humans, that I hoped to sell to something like the Irish Farmer, I wasn't paying too much attention at first. But by dribs and drabs I began to cotton on that Sergeant Cronin was not making idle chat but pursuing inquiries.
"So Father Sullivan [not his real name, as I don't remember any of the priests' names] takes the singing very seriously," said Sergeant Cronin.
"He does," said Brenda. It was the chill in her voice that aroused my attention. I appeared to be distracted by muttering impatiently about not being able to find something in my notes but was listening intently.
"I understand," said Sergeant Cronin, "that breathing is important for the singing."
"It is," said Brenda, her voice dropping a degree or two.
"I'm told to get the breathing right, Father Sullivan finds it necessary to place his hands on the singers," he said.
"He does," she said, her voice taking on an angry tone.
"Like this?" said Sergeant Cronin, placing his hands on his own chest at the lower ribcage.
"Higher!" said Brenda, now plainly angry. "Much higher!"
"That's most interesting. I must discuss these breathing exercises with Father Sullivan," he said, leaving Brenda and me to our tasks as he made his way to the church.
It wasn't until the next day that we heard the sad news that Father Sullivan had to rush to the bedside of a relative in England, and the diocese was scrambling to find a replacement.
They say the Irish do everything badly. While that is untrue, it must be added that the Irish do everything. This corollary certainly applied to Moira Lyons, and perhaps still does if she continues to run the food store and gas station between the post office and Garda barracks.
I dropped in to buy a pack of cigarettes. As Moira, whom I did not know at this point, was busy with a customer, I took a moment to look at the standalone rotary book rack by the door. I was captivated by the selection, thinking I might purchase one or two were I not in mobile command mode, weighed down by books that because of the cold I could not read. When warm enough to read, there were too many people crowding these small islands of warmth. I was beginning to think that in Ireland, reading was a summer sport.
"See anything you like?" she asked, after the customer had gone and I was still looking at the spindle rack, marveling at the thought that went into its contents, from classics of the moment, Dickens, Henry James, Joyce to lighter fare like PG Wodehouse, then rising to Leon Uris, James Clavell, Tolkien and light ladies romances looking fresh from the printers.
Having made my excuses, I told her I had never seen a more attractive selection from such small numbers and said it must be the best carousel book rack anywhere.
Evidently pleased with my gushing praise, Moira, an attractive, well-spoken dark-haired girl in her late 20s, said: "It's been my garden. I don't have the space here for a garden. So this is my garden, at least that's the way I see it."
I went to see her daily after that. I discovered she not only ran the food store, she pumped gas and could do minor repairs to cars and was also the midwife. One night we went down the road to a pub where few if any Glenbeigh villagers went. I sang her the Kerry Recruit on the way back, which she had never heard of before.
I remember her accepting my goodnight kiss. Like Brenda at the switchboard, Moira was rooted in Kerry. She took care of her bedridden mother and would tend to the family business for life. So while I bore her much affection, we both knew we had no future together. It all reminded me of the song about the Irish dragoons.
"Come down the stairs, pretty Peggy-o
Come down the stairs, comb your yellow hair
And we'll go marching out of Fife-e-o."
But Peggy says:
"I never did intend to go to a foreign land
And I will never marry a soldier-o."
But I shall leave it to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem to tell the story.
While there was no future in it, I wrote her a verse for St Valentine’s Day, which was a day or two away, to wit:
If we could export the Kerry kiss,
And send it across the sea
We'd be the toast of Ireland
And of course the EEC.
We'd make them 'neath the Seat of Finn*
Not far from ocean's surf
We'd make them moist and misty
As warm as glowing turf
And all the gnomes of Zurich
And all those Brussels sprouts
Would be forced to understand
What can be borne of Irish stout.
While I dropped in daily after that, my life in Glenbeigh came to an end suddenly with news of a national postal strike. This meant I could no longer submit stories by post and would have to go to Dublin and bang on doors.
*Seat of Finn is the mountain next to the village.