When I was first at Northside News, the Lord Mayor of Dublin was a humble, unassuming man called William Cumiskey, of the Labour Party, which did not count for much in Ireland. Looking no more authoritative than the hall porter at Trinity College Dublin, whom he closely resembled, His Worship did his best to rule the fractious 63-seat council, amid repeated disorderly cries of "Lord Mayor! Lord Mayor!" from all sides clamouring for attention.
Not much would happen as a result of the council's vociferous deliberations, as it was little more than a squawk box. It had some say in the disposition of public housing, roads and environment, and what few powers it had resided with the city clerk, later elevated to the post of "chief executive."
Nonetheless, the myriad of complaints arising from my voluble Northside councillors were the bread and butter of my Northside News columns every week. The council, or Dublin Corporation, performed something of the same role as Belleville Collegiate high school did in those opening days at the Ontario Intelligencer 15 years earlier.
I was also in Dublin for the term of the next Lord Mayor, Alexis FitzGerald, a Fine Gael man, who was a professional property surveyor. I remember Marianne coming into my room insisting I rouse myself and get out of bed after a late night out. But I was in no mood to do anything of the sort. Marianne said I must, because the Lord Mayor of Dublin was not only calling, he would be inspecting my room in his role as property surveyor.
Marianne was applying for a grant to subsidise the re-shingling of her roof, after she was told that something historical happened there. And Lord Mayor FitzGerald was there to inspect the property to see if what she said about its condition was true. Faced with my refusal to budge, she flung two featherdown quilts on top of me and told me to lie still when the Lord Mayor entered the room. Which he did 10 minutes later, poked about a bit, made a remark about the wiring and moved on.
Another encounter with the Lord Mayor was more abrasive. It was a question of his chain of office, which, given its weight in gold, was worth £20,000 at the time. Yet the Lord Mayor wore it to various functions and, not one who stood on ceremony, parked his car where others did and walked to the hotel as others did. But unlike others, he had £20,000 in gold hanging around his neck. There were those who said, and I think credibly, that Dublin, with its share of muggings and smash-and-grab attacks, was a rougher town than New York, at a time when New York had the reputation of being the most crime-ridden city on the planet. So Northside News editorialised about the gold chain of office and received criticism that we were irresponsible for drawing attention to this. Thereafter the Garda Siochana assigned a detective to His Worship on his walkabouts.
Then came an incident I thought was harmless at the time, just a bit of cheek on my part. But it turned out to be more than that, or so I was led to suppose. There existed a weird symmetry between the prime minister, or Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, and myself, in that it was rumoured that his mistress was the fashion editor for the Irish Press and I had a similar relationship with the fashion editor of the Irish Independent.
That this came to be talked about so feverishly was triggered by the publication of a routine picture of the Taoiseach shaking hands with a philanthropist countess at the Clontarf Remedial Clinic, which was sustained by private donations.
My headline on the picture caption said: "Countess and friend." I was inspired by a Time magazine picture caption I had seen years earlier, when an unknown person was shown with US President Lyndon Baines Johnson. It said "John Smith and friend," the "friend" being instantly recognisable as the US president.
My caption was similarly recognised in Ireland and got tongues wagging, much to my surprise. Not that anyone thought there was anything between the countess and the Taoiseach, but the image brought to mind the weird symmetry between haughty Haughey and humble self. Not that I thought much of it at the time, and I was only aware later of what turned out to be a smouldering grievance in high places.
After a year, we were doing reasonably well—up to 24 pages a week, once hitting 32. We had changed the laborious production procedures, hiring an all-in-one typesetter and printer in Drogheda, one of the oldest towns in Ireland, 30 miles north of Dublin.
Jill Kerby, from my Concordia days in Montreal, was pretty much full time, and the ads were coming in. Ken Finlay, while still devoting himself to his labour of love—"Dublin Then and Now"—had become the reliable 2i/c I could turn my back on and not fear the paper would fall apart in my absence.
We stopped having copy typeset across Mountjoy Square, conveyed by a little girl on roller skates. No longer was Liam Matthews engaged in "third world journalism" as I called it, working from 9 a.m. Monday to 5 p.m. Tuesday straight through the night, toiling with Letraset to make headlines and the bulk of the words in advertisements.
I had also taken on a reporter, Maggie O'Kane, then 18, who went on to be a star reporter for the Guardian in London. She had a golden smile and a lively intelligence. And it was my great delight to have her accompany me on my weekly trips to our new print shop in Drogheda, where Cromwellians did so much of their wet work in 1649. We often shared a pub lunch and then wandered about the town. We once entered the Drogheda Church that Cromwell torched, murdering all who had resisted him. It was here that Oliver Plunket's blackened head was encased in what looked like an industrial mayonnaise jar. Maggie and I entered the darkened church and went to the display case. I certainly do not remember it being lodged in the ornate golden miniature castle I saw in the Wikipedia, which I suspect was done after the recent Pope's visit.
Oliver Plunkett, Catholic primate of Ireland, appears to have been not guilty of involvement in the 1678 Popish Plot to kill King Charles II, remembered fondly as the fun king. Plunkett was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1681, the last Catholic martyr in Ireland, and was sainted in 1975. Not only does history find him not guilty of participating in the Popish Plot, it also finds it impossible to establish there was a Popish Plot.
Maggie and I knelt before the severed head, as one is expected to do. The scrunched expression on the face made it look as if he was either expecting to be beheaded or reacted that way during the beheading itself. Of course, as he had been hanged, drawn and quartered first, he must have been pretty well done in by the time they got around to beheading him. Then came a pang of guilt that I should not be dwelling on such technicalities, and I felt a deep desire to be gone.
Maggie and I emerged from the church, eyes squinting in the midday sun.
"Our religion is pretty gruesome," she said with an embarrassed, doubtful smile.
"At least it's real," I said, referring to the head, but not saying so, wishing to remain religiously ambiguous.
Ken Finlay knew. We had talked of such things. He was in the process of becoming an official apostate, feeling it necessary to have an official discharge from the Catholic Church given his settled agnosticism, and not wanting to be included among the Catholic faithful, as most indifferent agnostics are, in official population statistics. Ken said such statistics were fraudulent and he would do his bit to set the matter right, at least in his own case.
Rorie Smith became a new and close friend. He was doing much the same thing that I was. He had a law degree, which made him welcome as a freelance at the Irish Times, though not often enough to make much of a difference to his income. He managed to own a car, having arrived with more resources than I. He was an ex-Montreal Star sub-editor. While we did not know each other when he worked there, we knew many people in common.
Rorie, who had worked for the Bangkok Daily Nation, had an idea to start an Irish news service and got a teletype machine installed where he and his Thai wife, Supin, lived with their two girls, ages 5 and 7. He was pleased to get one client in Stockholm, who seemed willing to buy any IRA terrorist stuff he could send. In exchange, the Stockholm man, called Carson, had an inside track on ABBA's doings; Rorie found that the Irish Press would print and pay for as much ABBA material as could be sent.
While the trade was brisk for a while, there was a limit to how many headlines the IRA and ABBA could provide. Then the first nail was driven into Rorie's news service when the Irish Graphical Union—or some such—demanded to know if the teletype in Rorie's flat was being operated by a member of the union. If not, then the union would see to it that Rorie's copy was "blacked" by all the union workers in newspapers to which he might sell stories in Ireland.
The matter was resolved by having Carson send ABBA stories to the Irish Press, copying them to Rorie, as we later did with email. Now that this was the established procedure, and no one knew or cared at the Irish Press how the ABBA material arrived, Rorie sent it the usual way while insisting he sent it in the unusual way should anyone ask, which they did not.
My mother arrived with her new husband, John Glassco, a decent old stick labelled "Canada's Elegant Pornographer" by Canadian Magazine. As my brother Joel was fond of saying about Mother, with an air of resignation: "Well, she's more interesting than your average mum."
I found having a stepfather called Canada's Elegant Pornographer was mildly embarrassing, but I was surprised to discover that my association with Buffy was accepted in academic circles at Concordia University and enhanced my reputation as a man of interest.
Quoth Wikipedia: "John Glassco was a Canadian poet, memoirist and novelist. According to Stephen Scobie, ‘Glassco will be remembered for his brilliant autobiography, his elegant, classical poems, and for his translations.’ He is also remembered by some for his erotica."
He was made famous with his Memoirs of Montparnasse, which chronicled his times hanging out with the Anglo-American literary set in Paris during the 1920s. He had also won the Governor-General's Award for translation of French Canadian poetry and was regarded as a literary lion by the local literati.
Buffy was good fun. His early fame was due to his completing Aubrey Beardsley's novel Under the Hill, a "romance" that might be considered soft porn today, when he was a student at McGill University. Beardsley died of tuberculosis at the age of 26, leaving the work unfinished. Buffy told me that the only copy of the unfinished work within reach was in the deep, high security reserve stacks of the McGill University, "where I copied the book under the fiercely disapproving eye of the librarian."
His effort won favourable reviews in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books.
Buffy, my mother and I went to see Kildare Dobbs, another Canadian literary luminary, former editor of Toronto's Saturday Night magazine, which gained national prominence. Kildare was one of those people who was born in India in the time of the Raj but was essentially Irish and, like our circle, Protestant. He was a decent stick, an ex-Royal Navy rating who hated Lord Mountbatten, who had run down sailors pleading for their lives in the water in order to kill a U-boat that would have otherwise escaped. In lighter moments, he spoke of being an "episcopalogist"—a student devoted to the study of the manners and morals of Church of Ireland, that is, Protestant, bishops.
My mother, impatient and churlish throughout her visit, forever cursing "this stupid island," got along well with Marianne. I noticed that they had a lot more in common than I would have imagined. I soon identified the cause as the time warp I had noted before. There would be many a time when someone would say something, such as a feminist declaring that women should burn their bras as they do in the States. Well, I hadn't heard anything like that outside Ireland for ten or fifteen years. When people made some socio-political declaration, I would find myself assigning a date to it.
My mother seemed to talk to Marianne as a contemporary, despite being 20 years her senior. This led me to note much the same phenomenon between Ken Finlay and myself, in that he seemed more like a contemporary than a man 15 years younger. When he described his school days, they seemed more like mine, with all the savagery I deplored from students and teachers alike—not at all the like the caring and sharing that had taken over in schools by the late '70s in Canada.
Soon Mother was gone, to my great relief, and I felt like a new man, like Bertie Wooster in a PG Wodehouse Jeeves novel at last freed from the clutches of his dread Aunt Agatha, "who kills rats with her teeth."
To shake the dust off Dublin, I set out to Belfast to see the big Protestant parade on the Glorious 12th of July. Marianne made me an enormous sandwich double-wrapped in tin foil. It barely squeezed into my inside jacket pocket.
I would take the train from Connolly Station, or Amiens Street Station in Protestant-speak. At the station, I noticed the place was crowded with FCA reservists carrying Swedish Gustav submachine guns and police using metal-detecting frisking rods checking passengers boarding the train. When they got to me, Marianne's tin foil-wrapped sandwich set off a frightful whine in the frisker. I reached for the sandwich to explain, but a policeman on my other side held my arm back.
"Thank you, Sir—that will be all," said the other cop.
"But I just wanted to show you. . ." Again, I moved to reach for the inside pocket and again the policeman on the other side, this time more firmly, restrained me.
"Thank you, Sir. That will be all," said the first cop again, more firmly this time, but also more reassuringly. So I got on the train, expecting that any moment Special Branch men would pounce.
After a time, I settled in and watched the countryside pass by under a bright rising sun. Then I was seized by a fresh panic. I had no sterling! Lots of Irish pound notes, but no English money. This was not a day to be craving boons with Irish "punts" as they were officially denominated. No one called them that, though, preferring the English terms, even the slang terms, such as quid and bob. Actually, I thought it might be fun to call them "pints" rather than "punts", with a "naggin," a small bottle of whiskey, representing a Fiver, etc.
There was a pimply sandwich boy on the train; I bought one and asked if he could help in my plight. I was dumbfounded when he offered to exchange the £30 I had at par. At the time the Irish pound was trading at 95p to sterling. I said would pay him £2 for £20, but he would not hear of it.
"No one is going to tell me that Irish money is worth less than English money," he said with anger rising in his voice.
I objected, but faintly. He seemed determined to take a substantial loss—for a sandwich boy—for patriotic reasons.
Having solved that problem, I now expected to have to explain my sandwich to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but no. Nor did anything happen on arrival.
I reasoned the possibilities for the inaction at Dublin station. Perhaps it was the result of my encountering a pro-IRA police detachment. There were pockets of terrorist sympathy here and there throughout Irish society and institutions. I doubted this, because the whine of the frisker could be heard far and wide. More likely, I thought, was that Dublin wanted to make a show of force at the station for the benefit of British agents watching but would prefer to find nothing. Why have a shoot-out at the OK Corral? And if they believed I was carrying a gun and going to Belfast, well then, I was going to shoot it in Belfast and that was no concern of theirs.
Another theory was offered by a sub-editor at the Indo, who happened to be an army reservist occasionally called to back up police when impromptu checkpoints were established to catch dangerous fugitives. I cannot recall whether he was talking about himself or another, but in his story this FCA trooper in civilian life had had a lot of hassle about his car from the cop with whom he was manning the checkpoint, and now that he had a submachine gun at the unarmed cop's back he couldn't be too sure of his aim if there was any shooting be done. A fact, the subeditor said with a chuckle, that induced the cop to hurry motorists along—or so goes the story.
Nothing happened at the border and nothing happened at the railway station on arrival. Why Simon was there first, I cannot remember, but the fact that I was not surprised meant that he was expected. I do remember his telling me of his encounter moments before with a be-sashed, bowler-hatted Orangeman, who turned to him in the bright sunshine and declared: "Great day for it!" I remember Simon delivering the line in his best theatrical Ulster snarl that made me laugh.
As we walked through the streets closer to downtown, Belfast reminded me of the nondescript back streets of Toronto. "Toronto with troops," I would say for years whenever asked what Belfast was like. It consisted of mostly three- and four-storey red brick buildings. We passed a couple of soldiers cowering in doorways. I could not tell the regiment, as their helmets concealed cap badges. But they
looked uniformly uncomfortable.
Not so the strangely bedraggled troopers of the home team we saw next, the Ulster Defence Regiment. They were longhaired, as were so many young men in those days in Ireland. And as these soldiers rotated in and out of the local civilian life, they did not want to be seen about town with the short back and sides the military favoured, to make it easier for the IRA to kill them, which they frequently did. What made this stranger still, was that long hair for men had ceased to be in fashion for years. Yet the style clung on in Ireland as did those ridiculous platform shoes for girls. Part of that time warp again.
The UDR troops were like the Israeli troops I saw more than ten years later, perfectly at home in their environment, and quite unconcerned with the appearance and lack of military bearing. This I took to be the mark of "fencibles," full-time soldiers confined to home service, as opposed to "imperials", the go-anywhere anytime British regulars. There were Irish regular imperials, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Ulster Rifles, but they never served in Ireland and were often rented out to enhance security for the rulers of Arab oil states. The same was true for the Gurkhas, who did not serve in Ulster but in Brunei and on UN third world missions, as they called them.
The latest round of troubles in the north began in 1968 with Catholic civil rights marches against discrimination in the job market. The situation was much like Israel's vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Both antagonist groups thought the ascendant class, the Jews in one case, the Protestants in the other, had no business being there. Yet they demanded jobs from them.
After the treaty created the Irish Free State in 1920, the Royal Irish Constabulary shrank back to become the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Unlike British policemen—and the Garda Siochana, for that matter—the RUC was armed with Ruger .357 revolvers. They also had an auxiliary force of B Specials. On the surface, these were no different from special constables in the UK raised from part-timers who were called out to police crowds at football games and race meetings.
Of course, this was a hostile environment with lots of guns about. However much they looked like special constables in England, the B Specials, with police uniforms and revolvers at home, would go out at night and raid Catholic neighbourhoods in search of arms, with official connivance but without official authority. Protesting this practice was another reason for the Catholic civil rights marches.
In response to the protests, London brought in peacekeeping troops, who were well received by Catholics at first, because they protected them from the B Specials, whose freelance activities ended. They were disbanded and put into a more controllable corps, the Ulster Defence Regiment, which emerged as a militia unit under the Ministry of Defence.
The fact that the British Army would eventually deploy 10,000 men had the effect of elevating what had been a police matter to an affair of state, drawing international attention. This was welcomed by Irish nationalist Sinn Fein, which became the leading advocate for an independent, Dublin-ruled, all-Ireland state. At this early juncture there was only the Irish Republican Army, and something called the Old IRA, which was a non-political moribund veterans association from the 1920s Troubles.
The IRA itself was little more than a Communist Party front that did not rule out violence as a legitimate tool to secure Irish independence but had no plans of a violent nature. The IRA, soon to be called the "Official IRA," was said to be in the thrall of the Kremlin, whose focus at the time was to influence the Labour Party and not have an irrelevant front organisation cause trouble for Russian policy makers.
This split the IRA and in 1969 spawned the "Provisional IRA" which, now free of Kremlin restraint, was determined to exploit the new status that the presence of troops had given the movement to secure Ireland's total independence from England. With Irish-American backing—indeed with money and influence from the worldwide Irish diaspora—this could be, with an ambush here and a bombing there plus an assassination or two, a re-run of the 1916-20 movie that first brought Ireland a measure of independence. And with the assistance of the useful idiots on the British left, they could bring England to its knees. That was the thinking, and despite Margaret Thatcher's determined resistance slowing things down, they've made yards over the years, culminating in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
However, a countervailing force, unappreciated at the time, was the loosening of the grip of the Church on the people, which was little more than the arrival of a trend that had obliterated Catholic social ascendency in much of the world already.
When we approached the parade, we saw the multitudes attending, five deep on either side of the road, as the fife and drum bands flowed by, occasionally punctuated by a pipe band, filling the air with robust but repetitive music—Celtic airs arranged as marches. Occasionally one would see a UDR armoured car, a Humber Pig, its troopers looking casual and very much at ease.
What was odd was that the long-haired soldiers would let the kids scamper through their pigs and sit and stand on the roofs to watch the parade, often pushing each other in playful fights. The troops were among friends and showed it. Once a grey RUC Land Rover stopped across the street as we walked along, and out of the back door descended the prettiest leg, followed by a shapely RUC-uniformed body with a Sterling submachine gun. She scanned the rooftops as if looking for snipers.
The parade was a procession of countless lodges of the Loyal Orange Order. All attempted to bring a uniformity to the march, with much the same front rank in each lodge contingent, consisting of a colour party displaying a Union Jack, a banner of their union or economic social sector, and a flag of their particular Orange lodge. Behind them were ranks of older men and boys, few of military age.
Behind them, two stout men held a giant lodge banner aloft. And behind them was a fife and drum corps, where one found what few military-age men there were. At the core of each fife and drum corps was a massive bass drum, called a Lambeg drum, whose loud beating was accompanied by much theatrical mace throwing and catching by the drum major in front, with squads of little boys just behind looking cute in military uniforms doing the same with cheerleader batons with frequent comic results.
The one distinction in the Orange lodge contingents was their differing wealth and finery. Richer lodges displayed several large banners richly embroidered with pictures of a near life-size King Billy on his white horse, others would have scenes like medieval tapestries depicting the Battle of the Boyne. Richer lodges had men in the flanks dressed expensively and carrying polished officer's swords or tasseled Scottish claymores. Halberdiers, carrying long poleaxes with shiny silver blades, ranged freely along either side of their lodge contingents, ready to push people back roughly if they got into the ranks of the lodge. With poorer lodges, fancy tasseled swords were replaced by bayonets, and costly halberds by crude pikes or quarter staffs.
Simon and I walked along towards the parade's destination, a place called The Field, which was set up as a fairground, with a head table focused on a rostrum. The speeches were traditional calls for loyalty and unity and warnings of lest we forget. While repetitive and boring, they were highly relevant to living conditions the Protestants faced. Northern loyalists were almost as unpopular in England as the IRA that was running a bombing campaign at the time. If a referendum were held, the British would likely vote to jettison the lot of them, Protestant and Catholic. The English were truly bewildered by the conflict, unable to understand why Protestants and Catholics could hate each other so.
First one must understand there was a Muslim-like intensity of religious belief in Ireland, which was last shared in England in the 17th century, diluted in the 18th and made more robust in 19th centuries, but absent in the 20th century. So while Catholics and Protestants in England got on together, neither much believed in the religions they only nominally professed. (In an English TV drama, I remember, a Catholic girl asked a Protestant boy what he meant when he put down "C of E" on a printed form they both had to fill out. "It just means you're normal," he said.) Secularism in Scotland and Wales was more diluted, but still dominant. That was so in England, supremely so in London, Manchester and Birmingham. Protestants had no more fear of Catholics than they had of Rastafarians. Neither group was bent on imposing a social order on the other.
Not so in Ireland, where a powerful Catholic Church had been at war with Protestants since 1534, when Henry VIII set up the Church of England, and in Ireland, the same thing was renamed the Church of Ireland. Resentment still lingered in Ireland—I even saw it surface in Simon—when he noted that Catholic churches in Ireland are hovels compared to the magnificent buildings possessed by the Protestants. And this despite the fact that Protestants are a minuscule minority, except in the north.
Henry VIII, in disestablishing the Catholic Church and replacing it with his own, seized all the church land. So when Catholics look at the magnificent St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, they realise that it was once theirs until seized by Protestants. Even watching an otherwise inoffensive TV drama like Downton Abbey, serious Catholics are well aware that that the Protestant stately home where the Anglican vicar regularly comes to tea, was once a Catholic monastery.
Protestants often have as much ill will toward the Church of England/Ireland as the Catholics do, because chances are they were Scots Presbyterians or Baptists and later Methodists. Protestants fought against the Catholics by recruiting paupers through evangelical soup kitchens. Such converts were despised by Catholics as "soupers."
Catholic counterattacks were more passive-aggressive, which made it a lose-lose game if good-willed Protestants tried to bridge the gap through intermarriage. Catholics would only countenance interfaith marriage if the couple promised to raise the children as Catholics, which meant that Protestants would lose ground with every such marriage. I remember Marianne becoming excited by the news that the Church was at last considering a change to the rule, as she considered it a major obstacle to peace.
The grand parade on the Glorious 12th of July was to commemorate the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the House of Orange, in the form of King Billy, that is William of Orange, took power, deposing King James II. James ascended the throne only three years earlier in 1685 on the death of his brother Charles II—the fun king, as I like to remember him, because he loved women, science and all the fun things of life. Serious, sour James, being a Catholic, moved to make England Catholic again, starting with the army. But Protestants, now overwhelmingly represented in an empowered parliament that beheaded one king and restored another, would have none of it. Together with the Lords, the Commons induced King Billy, the Dutch Stadtholder William, husband of James' daughter Mary, who was raised a Protestant, to become king. Without Mary he would have as much claim to the throne as I do, hence that odd notation in the list of British monarchs, where it is not simply William III, but William and Mary.
Husband and wife, William and Mary ruled together. He came with an army to meet James' forces, who were mostly Protestant under a thin layer of recently appointed Catholic officers, most of whom deserted to join William's march on London. James fled and later rallied Catholic forces in Ireland to regain his throne, but he was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne near Drogheda. He again fled to France, where he lived in exile under the protection of the king of France.
After ten or twenty minutes in The Field with not much happening, Simon and I left the Orangemen and their ladies milling about waiting for the speeches to begin. Simon spotted two English junior army officers chatting by a jeep. Simon went up to them and asked them for a lift back into town.
They chatted amiably for a few minutes, and for moment or two, I had high hopes that Simon's British Raj accent, such a nuisance in Dublin, would at last pay off in Belfast. He did seem to fit right in as they prattled on like messmates. But no. "Sorry old man—it's these beastly regulations. Love to help, but it's just not on."
So we trudged back, spotting British regulars salted in doorways and other defensible nooks and crannies as though waiting to be taken in from the cold, in the John Le Carre sense of the word. We saw two black soldiers: "Still carrying white man's burden, I see," remarked Simon, winning a laugh from me.
Before heading to the railway station, we opted for a beer at the Hotel Europa. It must have won some IRA attention, for the entrance was a tangled nest of razor wire and security doors. We made our way in; there was hardly anyone at the bar, and I cannot say I felt too welcome. It was much the same visiting a high security bar in South Africa more than 30 years later.
Back in Dublin, with the paper going so well, it was time I took a holiday. It was also time to face the fact that Simon was not a success in Ireland and nor was he likely to be. There was a last supper and he returned to London, where at least he could find work, however humble, as a doorman at the waxworks at London Palladium. He managed to find a flat as a sublet in a grotty tower block council estate. Not great, but a start to something else.
And I went to Canada, leaving Ken in charge with Jill Kirby as 2i/c. There I spent a pleasant inconsequential time. However, my return to Ireland was most consequential after a youngish man wearing a digital watch with red letters, who seem to know of me, started to question me severely, asking whether I could be replaced by an Irishman. I told the truth when a lie might have served. At the end of this brief encounter, I was invited to apply for residential status in the next three months, after which my visitor's visa would lapse and I would have to leave or apply for a visa renewal.
I went to see an immigration lawyer, who said that it was a strange situation. I can't remember who told me, but it was felt something personal was directed against me. They pinpointed the "Countess-and-friend" picture caption combined with our pointing out risks of losing the Mayor's Gold Chain to gurriers; pestering authorities to repair one of the decorative street lamps on the north side of the O'Connell Bridge that had come down when kids hoisted themselves on it during the St Patrick's Day Parade (which, incidentally, isn't a patch on our parade in Montreal); and demanding something be done about the tinkers' wandering horses in Finglas, Dundrum and on the vast encampments on the Glasnevin Road.
I had even had the temerity to reprint and defend the supposedly risible—even to James Joyce, who sneered at it—editorial in the Skibereen Eagle in Cork, which said it was keeping its "eye on the Czar of Russia" at a time the liberal left was in the thrall of Nicholas II, who was appealing for universal peace (like the Maharishi who had a run of popularity from that quarter in the 1970-80s). My defence of what all left-thinking people, who dominated the chattering media classes, thought was laughable, singled me out as a troublemaker. That and other things, too. I spent a good 20 minutes Googling for the Skibereen Eagle's editorial text, but I could not find it—only articles making fun of it.
It was clear that I could no longer work for Northside News. One option was to marry Marianne. But the idea of being a kept man with no prospect of escaping that, was too galling to contemplate. It also became clear that it would take forever to process my application for a work permit, and if it were ever approved it would be long after I could use it—which was what happened months later when I was gainfully employed in London.
It was final days for me, and I was feeling most picturesque waiting for my final cheque before saying those last goodbyes to Marianne, Ken, Jill and Maggie. I was appreciating how beautiful was the room with its great roaring fire, how wonderful things had been in Ireland, where I had truly lived the life of Riley. Yet at the same time, I was looking forward to the next move, seeing Simon again in London.
This had been a "cushy billet," as those Royal Welch Fusiliers never tired of telling us Canadians of our luxurious reward camp in Banff, Alberta, years ago, as they gobbled the great Service Corps food and enjoyed a respite from their "egg [singular] and bacon" British Army diet. But I was eager for the next adventure, living my military metaphor, pleased that this Irish Canadian Ranger was moving out again.
This bittersweet moment dissolved overnight as I woke up to hear and read of a horrible tragedy: the Stardust disco fire that killed 48 Northside young people and injured scores more. I was just absorbing the details when Maggie called. Memory fails about what and when I knew about it, but it wasn't long before I got the whole picture.
The Stardust was a supremely popular dance club on the Northside, and it caught fire February 14, 1981, when it was packed with St Valentine's Day revellers. It started at the back of the club and seemed to be under control at first with fire extinguishers. After appearing to be damped down, it suddenly flared up when it came in contact with the flammable floor-to-ceiling sound baffles. That put the flames in contact the multicoloured plastic sheeting that ran parallel a foot below the ceiling, above which were the fixings of an electric light show projected on the dance floor.
The vertical wall panels at one side were fully ablaze, which ignited the horizontal plastic sheeting, and the flames raced across the entire area, drooling flaming plastic on those below.
The club, being popular, was besieged by gurriers wanting to get in free, so management had chained up the push-bar fire exits at the rear so people could only get out by the front door through the flaming plastic drool.
The radio and newspapers were full of it. That's when Maggie arrived to say Bernard wanted me to come in and help, even though Ken Finlay had been in command for a week. So I went back with her. Bernard looked at me helplessly and I demanded a week's wages to start, which he granted.
I went downstairs to the editorial department and found Ken Finlay scribbling notes from the RTE radio broadcast, with Maggie and Jill chatting anxiously. They—even Ken—seemed relieved to see me and not at all miffed that I was going to "help out" for the edition.
They had never heard of my Seventh Law of Journalism, because it was only formally proclaimed more than 10 years later when I was the editor of the Suburban in Montreal. Simply stated: "It's a different world on Wednesday." Here, it would be a different world on Tuesday because Tuesday was when Northside News next hit the streets. The time to be taking notes from the radio, it being Sunday morning, would be Monday night, not Saturday morning. Then, I harkened to my father's advice: If reporters aren't writing a story, get them out of the office. "Even if they are getting drunk, they may hear something."
I gathered them around and told them to get out to the scene. Get people to tell you what they saw, how they feel, who's to blame, who's a hero, who's a villain. Jill Kerby set off. I told Ken to get to our Northside politicians, feeling that if all else failed they would gladly fill up column inches with appropriate blather if my very shaken troops come back emptyhanded. Always have reserves, say I.
Then Maggie and I set off with the photographer to the charred ruins of the Stardust itself, which was surrounded by guards. In the debris there was a scene in which I turned over a high-heeled shoe and moved it to the center. A guard shouted at me not to touch anything, but the deed was done and the picture taken. I told Maggie to talk to people, perhaps ask a priest who may have known the kids if he knew any of the dead and where they had lived. She looked a little uncomfortable but did as she was told and came back with three pictures and lots of quotes. It was no surprise to learn years later she became a war correspondent for the Guardian. Jill did well, too, coming back with tales of heroic taxi drivers, making them sound like heroes of the Battle of the Marne, and Ken got just the expected sort of blather from the councillors. So, with the picture to cover Page One, all worked out effortlessly, and Ken again turned to RTE before putting the baby to bed, to see if there were any last-minute developments.
With that, I left Northside News with my extra week in hand, knowing that Ken could handle the next crisis. After this everything would be small.
A few days later I left Dublin for London.