Tuesday, March 31, 2015

About my Father

In recent weeks, I asked for prayers for my father, who was seriously ill. Readers were kind enough, not only to comply, but to express considerable interest in his condition, and to ask follow-up questions.

If my father had died (which really did seem on the cards at one point, whether that was an alarmist diagnosis or not), I would undoubtedly have written an appreciation of him here. Now that he is out of hospital, and apparently improving, I think I will go ahead and write it anyway-- with many thanks to St. Anthony, my father's go-to saint, to whom I went myself in those grim hours and days.

My father won't see this. The internet is a foreign country to him. (He only recently acquired a mobile phone.) I did write a few lines of tribute to him in one of my Catholic Voice columns, which he reads. Even writing it was quite difficult; my father is the least demonstrative person I know, and that makes anything of an emotional nature rather embarrassing. Nor did he comment on it after reading it. But when he was ill in hospital, he told my wife Michelle how much he appreciated his children "openly telling me they loved me", or some such phrase. I don't think I've ever heard anything that flabbergasted me more, even if I only heard it second-hand.

He is so undemonstrative that, in his memoirs (which I typed) he makes this remark, after describing how a consultant told him that my mother did not have TB: "I could have hugged that consultant, though I am not a man for hugging people, even my own children". (I've inherited this disinclination, by the way; I could hug Michelle until the cows came home, and indeed until they went back out to pasture, but I baulk at the prospect of hugging anybody else).

My father is also a writer and a poet. As with Chesterton (who isn't really his cup of tea), writing has always been a means to an end for him. For many, many years he single-handedly wrote a crusading community magazine called The Ballymun News. At one point (before my time) it was a monthly publication that was sold in the community. By the time I was growing up, it was an annual publication which was mailed to journalists, TV presenters and what my father describes as 'movers and shakers', in an attempt to influence them. He spends a lot of time claiming that various ideas or institutions, which have become huge successes, had their genesis in the pages of The Ballymun News. This may sometimes be fanciful but I have no doubt that it's not all fanciful.

There is a veteran Irish broadcaster named Gay Byrne, who is without a shadow of a doubt the most successful broadcaster in Irish history. Every Christmas on his radio show, he reprises a comedy routine of a man explaining how to make a Christmas fruit cake, while getting drunker and drunker from the alcohol used in making it, until he is incoherent. My father insists that he came up with this scenario in The Ballymun News, a copy of which would have regularly been mailed to Byrne. (I would hesitate to publish this claim if I thought there was any chance of Gay Byrne reading this blog-- after all, my father never kept back issues, so there is no way of substantiating it.)

My father also has the distinction of being one of the very, very few people who predicted that the great Irish recession of 2008 was going to happen. This was long after the Ballymun News ceased publishing, so it was in private conversations. In fact, he became such a bore about it that, at one point, I asked in frustration: "Where is this recession you've been predicting for so long?" Famous last words! At one stage, much to my amusement, he compared himself to Winston Churchill before the Second World War: seeing the imminent catastrophe but unable to get anyone to listen. He kept phoning radio current affairs shows about it, but rarely got put on the air (I'm not sure he ever got through, actually). He also ran up a massive phone bill, not realising how much the calls cost.

(Comparing himself to Winston Churchill is far from the only example of his flair for the grandiose. When we were travelling to the funeral of my aunt Kitty, RIP, there was a great deal of confusion and miscommunication between the various cars taking different family members to the church. My father-- once again failing to appreciate that time is money when it comes to telephones-- became frustrated that people kept on hanging up and having to dial again. "Keep the lines of communication open!" he urged, waving his hands in the air, every inch the commanding general. This has passed into legend.)

I mentioned that he is a poet. So he is, though he only writes poetry occasionally. These days he pretty much confines himself to satires and elegies. The elegy he wrote for my cousin Billy, who recently died of lung cancer at a tragically young age, is a good example of his style. (The reference to jet planes is a nice touch; the cemetery where Billy is buried is beside an airport, and many low-lying planes did pass as we made our way to the grave.)

Billy: A Memory

Billy, we met one night down Santry way
And paused a while to talk of this and that.
A chance encounter at the close of day
And small talk dressed up in a friendly chat.

Or so I thought; but that was not to be;
Your mind did not give shelter to the trite.
No room for verbal mediocrity
Your conversation soared from height to height.

I see you now, beside the garden wall,
And hear your calm voice in the summer air.
The passion in that voice as I recall
Your vision for a world more just, more fair.

Last week, as jet planes scarred the silent sky
And thoughts of you were fresh in every mind
We did not come to wish a last goodbye:
For you live on in those you leave behind.

My father has had far more influence on my view of the world than anybody else. Aside from any particular opinions, I derived from him the assumption that a man should have opinions, and should both assert and defend them. I grew up thinking of life as a crusade, first and foremost. Even now I find it hard to understand people who have no strong convictions of any sort.

To say that he is an Irish patriot would be a bit like saying Stalin was rather left-wing. I have never met anybody as patriotic as my father (though some of his friends and associates come close). Love of country is the very air he breathes. Most people would probably admit to an element of favouritism when it comes to their country; they love it because they happened to be born it, or to have grown up in it, or to belong to it in whatever way they do. This would not satisfy my father. He sincerely and passionately believes that Ireland is the greatest country in the world, that the Irish people are the most remarkable of all peoples, and that they have suffered injustices greater than any other.

There is a well-known book titled How the Irish Saved Civilization. Long before that book appeared, my father was making the same claim; indeed, he would go futher, and insist that the Irish built a great deal of civilization. We built America; we built Australia; we gave the world rugby, cricket, soccer and chess; we gave it jazz, country music, blues and the Beatles (at least three of them Liverpool-Irish); Irish hurling is the fastest game in the world; Irish soldiers built the British Empire and Irish rebels initiated its demise; the Irish invented brandy, the submarine, Dracula, Halloween, boycotting, and a thousand other institutions; world famous gourmets have declared that bacon, cabbage and potatoes is the most delicious dish they have ever tasted; seventy million people worldwide claim Irish descent; JFK, the Irish President of America, literally saved the world at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and is furthermore a direct descendant of Brian Boru, the most famous High King of Ireland, who died at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014); and so on. Reader, you think I am exaggerating for comic effect. I'm not. These are all claims that my father has made in all seriousness (and, indeed, some of them are solid facts, while others are preposterous). And they are only a fraction of the claims he makes for the Irish.

Writers, intellectuals, and social scientists have spent a great deal of time and ink analysing 'Irishness'; sifting it, explaining it, debunking it, rebunking it, rationalising it, romanticising it; but always treating it as an idea, a culture, or a tradition. To my father it is quite simply in the blood, in the genes. It is a fact.

Rather comically, he can't watch bear to watch the Irish soccer or rugby team, or indeed any Irish international team, playing a competitive fixture, as it's simply too stressful for him.

As well as being an Irish nationalist, my father is very definitely a Roman Catholic. But he hardly ever goes to Mass. He usually makes it into a church at some point over the Easter Triduum; but not every year. You might think from this that his faith is naive and nominal, perhaps a mere extension of his Irish patriotism. Not a bit of it. He is extremely knowledgeable about Catholicism and is quite the armchair apologist; he will happily debate with atheists and anti-Catholics for hours on end. The Old Testament is a closed book to him (not such a strange thing for any Catholic, unfortunately) but he can quote copiously from the Gospels, and he does.

I can't remember us ever going to Mass as a family. My mother would intermittently take myself and my brother to Mass. (I hated it, mostly because it was usually on Sunday evenings and thus signalled the end of the weekend.) My father never took us to Mass, but whenever he brought us into the city centre (to buy one of us a birthday present, for instance) he would take us into the cathedral to light a candle. (I found it embarrassing.) Some Christmases, he would make a Christmas crib. He always spoke highly of nuns and priests (unless it was a priest that had annoyed him, as sometimes happened). He was never conventionally devout, but always very clear about his beliefs.

Socially, I have seen him journey from a moderate liberalism to a decided conservatism. When we were growing up, the 'n-word' was strictly forbidden (even as a joke). At one point, my father helped to found and run a community centre, and he allowed Irish Travellers to use it as a halting site. He was always vocal on the subject of prejudice against Travellers. He voted in favour of the introduction of divorce to Ireland in 1986, something a Catholic could do in good conscience.

More recently, he has come to believe that the pendulum has swung too far; he's very critical of multiculturalism and mass immigration, thinks political correctness has become corrosive, and believes that a new and destructive spirit has taken hold in the Travelling community. It would be easy to see this as a stereotypical drift to the right with advancing age, but I think that his analysis of most of these trends is completely accurate.

On many matters-- like sex, culture, dress, and social mores-- he was always deeply conservative. He never curses, ever, not even in a moment of self-forgetfulness or rage. He uses plenty of colourful exclamations, but never a curse-word. (My mother, who died in 2001, was just the same. When people cursed around my parents, they would look embarrassed and apologise straight away.) He has always dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt, and a tie, which often leads people to assume he is a politician or a businessman. And he has always been withering about modern popular music-- to his mind, everything after Frank Sinatra is rubbish, with very few exceptions. (He likes 'Bye-Bye Miss American Pie' by Don McLean and 'A Fairy Tale of New York' by Shane McGowan.) We had hours and hours (and hours and hours) of debates about popular music when I was growing up-- I've pretty much come around to his view on its lack of merit, but I still listen to it and still enjoy it, rather furtively.

One of the things I most appreciate about him is that he constantly recited poetry (and nursery rhymes) to us when we were growing up. I'd like to think I had a natural taste for poetry anyway, but this must have nursed it. I can vividly remember him quoting the famous 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow' and tomorrow' speech from Macbeth-- surely one of the greatest flights of lyricism in the English language, and one whose philosophical depth struck me even as a child. He bought me Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses when I was very young-- I think I may have been ill at the time, because I remember receiving and reading it while lying in bed. I also remember he inscribed the flyleaf with a verse of his own, the last line of which was: "...that poetry is magic". I forget the rest, and I lost the book long ago.

When it comes to poetry, I have one memory that is especially tender. At one point, in my late childhood, I happened to be reading The Oxford Book of Irish Verse. My father, either taking an interest in what I was reading himself, or because I drew his attention to it, recommended that I read 'Easter 1916' by W.B. Yeats. I found it, and said-- anyone who has read my writings on poetry here will appreciate the irony-- "That's written in rhyme, though. I thought that serious poetry was written without rhyme and was more difficult to understand". (Or something like that. Of course, I don't remember my exact words.)

My father simply replied, very gently: "I think the best poetry is written in rhyme and metre."

I have often looked back at this moment, wonderingly. Such a reply was somewhat out of character for my father, in many ways. I've concentrated on his many good qualities here, but he could certainly be gruff, and I can easily imagine him responding to my innocent comment with a guffaw and a withering response. Since I was an extremely sensitive child, I have a strong intuition that such a response would have killed my nascent interest in poetry stone dead. Maybe not. But somehow it has always stood out as a critical moment in my memory.

I can also remember the moment that he realised I could read. (I was a very slow developer in many ways, but I was a precocious reader-- in fact, I was so eager to be able to write that I seriously considered inventing my own alphabet!) We were sitting watching television and, just before an ad-break, I read out loud the caption on the screen: "End of Part One". He was astonished. He wrote some words on a piece of cardboard, and asked me to read them. They were the exact same words I had just read aloud-- "End of Part One"-- and I repeated them, wondering why he hadn't chosen something different.

My father likes to boast that I read Lord of the Rings when I was seven. I'm not sure that I was seven at the time, and I didn't really understand it very well, but it's true that I did read the book when I was very young. On the other side of the ledger, I was also the last kid in my class to learn how to tie his shoe-laces-- I had to get a class-mate called Marcus to tie them for me, for a considerable time.

Possibly the most noteworthy event in my father's life, at least from a public perspective, was his role in having a detention centre for juvenile delinquents shut down, back in the seventies. He was given a job as an orderly in this detention centre (or 'boy's remand home', as it was called.) He soon learned that it was a den of sadism, cruelty and neglect-- on the part of the adult staff. The boys who were sent there were mostly 'guilty' of trivial offences. One particular boy drew the special ire of the other staff-- for the crime of interrupting their Christmas party-- and my father, fearing for the boy, helped him to escape. He then persuaded a newspaper reporter to expose what was happening in the place, stealing some incriminating documents as leverage.

The detention centre-- which was called Marlborough House-- was indeed closed down, but my father was told that he would never work in the employ of the State again (a threat that was fulfilled). More importantly, a report into child abuse in State institutions, decades later, claimed that he had been drunk on the job when the boy escaped. (The alias 'Jacob' was used in the report.) This, which is a downright lie, galls my father bitterly, especially since he had only a few years earlier received a letter from officials in the Department of Education, after he had lobbied them on the subject, acknowledging that he acted from the best of motives. His memoirs were written in an effort to clear his name-- although the very fact that they deal with such a controversy has made it difficult to find a publisher (as one publisher frankly admitted, when turning them down).

This is only the most notable of his 'crusades', however. As I mentioned earlier, he helped to found a community centre called the Ballymun's Workman's Club in the eighties. It was eventually destroyed by vandals, although my father believes ulterior forces had a hand in its demise. He was one of the organisers of a major (and successful) rent strike for tenants of social housing. He was prominently involved in a protest when plans for a public swimming pool in Ballymun were dropped in favour of an underground car park. My father and others would turn up on the construction site after the diggers had finished each evening, and fill in the holes they had made, using shovels and spades. Eventually, the underground car park was abandoned, and the swimming pool was built instead

He was also one of the people who founded an Irish language school in Ballymun, though he doesn't speak Irish himself. Irish language schools are quite rare in Ireland, and tend to be located in more affluent areas, not working-class areas like Ballymun. If I hadn't attended this school, I wouldn't have even the very bad grasp of Irish that I do. It did turn me against the Irish language right into early adulthood-- Irish language speakers can be the most insufferable people on the face of the earth, and children hate to be force-fed anything-- but I finally came to appreciate it.

So you can see how, even though he doesn't go to Mass very often, I consider my father a far better Christian than I am-- and a far better man, in general.

If this makes him seem like an Atticus Finch type, all public causes and earnestness, that would be an unfair picture. (One of his own favourite quotations, from Twelfth Night, is: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?")  He was a regular pub-goer until relatively recently, when he had to give it up for health reasons. He likes to get a sing-along going at parties, and he seems to know scores, if not hundreds, of Irish ballads off by heart. He is an assiduous reader-- he restricts himself to detective novels these days, but in his time he has read very widely. The Restoration diarist Samuel Pepys was a special favourite, as were P.G. Wodehouse and Charles Dickens. And he has always been something of a television addict. (This is one of the reasons he is so well-informed. He is actually the most formidable debater I know. I don't think I've ever heard him beaten in a debate. Mostly this is on the strength of argument alone, though force of character comes into it, too. Goldsmith's description of Samuel Johnson applies to him: "There is no arguing with Johnson: for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.")

More than anything else, he is a family man. This goes even deeper than his Irish patriotism, come to think of it. I don't even know how to describe just how deep his loyalty to family runs.

Some time in my mid-teens, for my birthday, he bought me a small laminated poster that showed a unicorn, rearing up on its hind legs, in a mountainous and misty landscape. The caption was: "Believe in the magic of your dreams." And on the back he wrote: "To Maolsheachlann, the world's champion dreamer. Never stop dreaming." I don't have it anymore, but tears come to my eyes whenever I think of it.


  1. I was getting ready to go out of town, and then traveling over Easter so I kept up with reading your blog, but never got a proper chance to say what a delight, and if the overused word carry any weight, what an inspiration, to read about your father. (Take "inspiration" quite literally; it was like a breath of fresh, clean air in a world grown very stale to read of a man so ready to do the work he saw needed doing, or defend the point he saw needed defending). I'm very, very glad to hear he's on the mend.

    In the Useless Trivia department, the very day before you posted this, I was digging around the internet for a version of an Irish song that I like to listen to during Holy Week (more for the sombre flavour of it, than for my ability to understand it, I should stipulate). I was brought up short by a mention of Ballymun as a centre of Irish-language learning!

  2. I think I know the song you are talking about! Was it our friend Sean O'Riada?

    Yes, the school is called Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch, which means 'School of the Seven Heroes' after the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. There were seven towers in Ballymun named after the seven signatories, too. It seems so odd now; such a thing would never happen, but that was only back in 1969. We are going to be 'celebrating' the centenary of the Rising next year but there is far more breast-beating and angsting than celebrating so far. Not that I'm really a fan of violence, or without any reservations of my own about the Rising, but it deserves better than that.

    I'm so glad my father inspired you. He inspires me, too. And the good news is that he is much better. Today he came into the kitchen and instructed me in making perfect scrambled eggs. I have never tasted scrambled eggs like my father's scrambled eggs (except for mine this morning).

  3. Also thanks for commenting, because it's nice to get a comment on such a heatfelt post.

  4. You might also be pleased to hear that there has been a promising development regarding his memoirs.

  5. Well, that's a delightful lot of good news in one place at one time! I'm so very glad to hear your father continues well, and better (and that the scrambled eggs of Ballymun have thereby attained perfection); that things should be looking up for his memoirs is icing on the cake!

    You guessed the song indeed, though until you asked the question, I had no notion that O' Riada had done an arrangement of it. The video I was looking for was rather sparser (and now evaporated into nothing, evidently) but the same song.

    I was quite pleased to see the men from the Easter Rising commemorated in the name of your old school. While I, too, have my reservations (ecclesiastical disapproval of the IRB contributing to that), and while it is scarcely the place of a foreigner to offer strong opinions on such a subject, I will say few events have ever made such a profound impression on me. I devoured all the books our local library system had on the Rising in my teens (well, all two of them, if I was that lucky!)

  6. You have as much right to an opinion as anyone, I say. I'm pleasantly surprised to learn you are so interested in it, though. It is not so well known ouside Ireland. Michelle has been educating me in American stuff (like watching the Superbowl on Superbowl Sunday, watching Macy's Parade and the dogshow on Thanksgiving, eating smores, attending a fourth of July fireworks ceremony, going to a triple A baseball game) and I've been returning the compliment...she can say the rosary in Irish, which she actually insisted on learning how to do off her own bat....but somehow I haven't been able to excite her about 1916 so far!

  7. Thanks for writing this article about your father, Maolsheachlann. I'm glad to know he's doing a lot better. Too bad he was betrayed by scoundrels for helping that boy.