A reflection on growing up, making mistakes and learning from experience
My Father was a Stranger
My father was a stranger to me when I was a boy. I never really got to know him as I grew up either. He was and always will be the man in the black uniform with the gold sleeve bands, bicycle clips and a beret. He wore the beret when he cycled to and from work. At work he wore a white cap with a black shiny brim and a gold band to match the bands on his uniform jacket.
They say the boy is father to the parent or something like that. I was never too sure what that meant. I could never imagine being his father. He used to tell us some stories about his childhood days. They were strange times when an orange was the kind of treat you got in your Christmas stocking and a motor car passing in the road was enough for everyone to drop what they were doing just to watch it pass by.
I loved those stories, especially the Christmas ones. Christmas was a big time for him where he grew up. It was a tiny farm on the outskirts of a country village where nothing ever happened, seasons passed. At Christmas time his mother would kill a goose and he’d get an orange, an apple, a handful of hard-boiled sweets and a spinning top in his stocking.
His days were filled with farming chores and schoolboy adventures in the fields where they’d chase down rabbits, set snares, pick berries from the hedgerows and rob eggs from birds’ nests. He walked to school every day, a three-mile hike, there and back. They read the adventures of Jimin, a roguish schoolboy like themselves and played tricks on one another.
My father went to the local College when he was older. He went on scholarship because he was smart and the youngest in the family. His parents bought him a bicycle so he could make the twelve-mile journey, there and back, every day. I think those were the happiest days of his life when he learned Latin and Greek, read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton and Goldsmith. For as long as I can remember, he recited Homer or Ovid or any classic you could mention. Poetry was his favourite topic but Shakespeare held a special place in his heart. He wore a secret, whimsical smile when he found a phrase or an apt quote to suit a situation as it arose. ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be,’ he told us if we were stuck, before rustling in his pocket to find a coin or ‘the fashion wears out more apparel than the man,’ when my brother returned from holiday with yellow loons and a satin turquoise shirt with flamboyant ruffles. We all groaned when he recited but we listened and remembered those epic stories of Dan McGrew and Sam McGee and The Little Green Eyed ldol to the North of Katmandu and how he’d call us ‘a stor’ or ‘a mhic’ when it was time for him to share some words of wisdom or consolation but not for admonishment. His love of learning and knowledge helped us love it too as we aspired, like the reluctant schoolboy, ‘to roll to bed with a Latin phrase and rise with a verse of Greek.’
He remained a stranger to me for all that. He tried to make it to the important games but his work always took him away until he was a stranger who wrote occasional letters and returned to visit, once a month, tired after a long train journey with at least one gift for each of us, a book about fly fishing or a magazine or a sliotar bought in Elvery’s, the emporium of sport. He’d tell us stories of his ‘digs’ and the people there. He described to us the city, the people, the cars, the buses and the trams. I loved his stories of the cinemas we could only dream of because they were picture houses where we lived, a projector on a table in the community hall, propped up with a telephone directory. There were two films he loved so much, he went back twice to see them. One was Of Mice and Men, based on a short story by the American writer, John Steinbeck. The other was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter based on a novel by Carson McCullers about a deaf man in a small town.
I knew he cried whenever he went to see it. It was a sad and poignant story if a tad maudlin and more than a little bit patronizing to deaf people. But the character, John Singer, the deaf guy played by Alan Arkin, was a sympathetic and intelligent person with depths of understanding and a gift for communication beyond his disability. It took me years to figure out why my father loved it. Then I remembered a story he told of his best friend in school and his friend was deaf. My father was lonely.
Of course, I never said this to him. Partly because it has taken me years to work it out, the sacrifices they both made to give us the one thing in his life he had ever loved, the love of learning. We didn’t discuss our feelings, desires or hopes. At least not until I had grown up, moved away, married, had children and got divorced. He never approved of my career path but when his efforts to steer me into the comfort of public service failed, he gave up and allowed me follow my own path, always supportive, slightly doubting and never approving.
It made me feel uncomfortable. I wanted his approval and his admiration. I didn’t mean to defy him. My brothers tried but they went the way he wanted in the end. I went my own way, one fraught with minor risk and petty defiance. He frowned, demurred short of a tut tut of disapproval and sometimes raised the spectre of ‘the service’ but in the end, he relented. It was as though I was that young person, the youngest in the family, who was given the opportunity to grow beyond the boundaries of his experience.
I never understood the boundaries of his experience. We learned through snippets of recall, the recitations and the quotes, the context of some of those tales. He never spoke of his father like I knew I talked about him. I knew he’d gone from high achievement in his Leaving Certificate to an agricultural college in Galway and from there, by dint of further scholarly achievement, to a college in Dublin where penury overcame him and he joined his beloved ‘service’ that, in those days, took only the brightest and the best for, if they were poor, there was nowhere else to go.
But there was an alternative in those days for a young man in the prime of health with dreams of adventure and experience. There was a war on, DeValera had taken back the ports and Ireland was neutral. Belfast and the British army recruiting office was a train ride away. It was an opportunity to travel, fight the Hun and free the world. It was a guarantee of work and adventure.
There was one other alternative. Maybe the desire to wear a uniform was a driving factor. The job he had in the civil service had a grand title. He was an agricultural inspector but they gave him a bicycle and a suitcase of seeds and pamphlets and sent him west like a traveling preacher, to spread the word and sow the seeds of good husbandry among the peasant farmers west of the Shannon.
He rarely spoke of those years in the wilderness of Connaught, cycling the dirt roads through the bleak hills and mountains in every weather with only a raincoat and the clothes on his back to visit market towns. I found out later by accident that he’d stayed in a succession of boarding houses in Roscommon, Sligo and Mayo in those pre-war years when the nation got a Constitution and Dev banned British coal and won back the ports. Neville Chamberlain talked of peace but the dogs in the street talked of war, a war to beat all wars.
It was on a family holiday to Achill Island when we spent three weeks in a caravan park in that Atlantic sunshine and my brother got so burned, his skin broke out in blisters. We took the car to Westport as a special treat for us all and so my brother could be brought to the regional nurse for ointment. And while my mother attended to my brother, daddy walked us up the main street of Westport where we could stare in the shop windows at the gew gaws and glass jars full of hard boiled sweets, clove drops and gob stoppers.
It was while we strolled up that street that day my father called us to him and ushered us in the door of a hotel in the main street although the sign above the door was modest and unassuming. There was a small bar and the warm smell of fried onions and cabbage and my father sat us down and bought us all bottles of red lemonade, which we drank with straws. So we sat and whispered to each other because we’d never been in a place like this before with a carpet on the floor, straight off the street. And we listened while my father sipped a glass of stout and spoke to the landlady of those days when he’d been a regular guest there more than twenty years before. Then the woman, who was as grey haired as my father with a thin nose and a turkey’s wattle, rooted about in a box in a cupboard behind the bar until she produced a book with a worn red leather cover and perched her spectacles at the end of her thin nose while she thumbed the pages until she slapped her bony hand on a page and turned the book with a flourish.
“Padraig M., it was,’ she declared, ‘that’s how you signed your name?’ she asked. And my father stared at the page and said nothing. We watched him turn the pages in silence, reading the episodes of his forgotten past, quietly reliving his secret memories. And we forgot our bottles of lemonade to climb into the stools beside him so we could stare in awe at his signature on the yellowed pages and wonder whom he was, that man who came here every fortnight for two years back in a time when we were not alive. I remember my father never spoke. He just stared at the pages and sipped his drink. When he finished, he pushed his glass away, paid the landlady with a crisp, orange ten shilling note and thanked her as he collected his change. We collected my mother and bandaged brother and drove back to the caravan park and no one spoke.
I stared at Croagh Patrick on the drive and thought of my father cycling his bicycle in the shadow of that behemoth, battered by rain and wind.
Many years later, in my own family home as my own daughters scrabbled about in boxes and bags, unwrapping their gifts while we put together breakfast and lined up the provisions for our Christmas dinner, my brother arrived with presents and my father, on a surprise visit.
My daughters squealed with delight. He told them funny stories, spoke to them in Gaelic and made them giggle excitedly. He told them seanfhocail - the old Irish proverbs – and explained their meaning. He quoted Latin and poetry to them and he took pleasure in their wonder. As I did while I listened to him because I heard all those stories before from him when I was their age. And I wondered again about this man whom I fought and argued with, whom I never really knew. Because I knew I told these same stories to my girls and loved to tell them as he told them to me. And how much pleasure they got from them as I did in there relating.
In the intervening years as I grew from boy to youth to man, I’d resisted the lure of the ‘service’ for my own love of history and writing. I’d become a journalist, a writer manqué, as I joked to my friends while I knew and feared the boundaries of my own limitations. It was growing up, falling in and out of love, earning a living, marrying, having children, buying a house with a mortgage; struggling, working and sometimes hating yourself for not knowing what it was you hated. I’d traveled but never enough, drawn back, restricted, a captive of reality and living, family and rising interest rates. I hated myself for blaming those whom I loved for holding me back when I was my own worst enemy, a foe I could never acknowledge.
We had another guest that Christmas, a friend of mine from Bangor, Co Down. My marriage was grinding to a rust bound halt, weighed down by the relentless struggle and the intellectual inertia of marriage to someone who became more of a stranger with the passing of the years. My friend, Cathy, would have spent Christmas on her own in a bed-sit in the deserted streets of the city. And I would have spent my Christmas alone too, surrounded by my family. So I invited her to spend the day with us so we could keep each other company.
And my father, who could always summon a twinkle when in the company of attractive women, told her a story I never heard before as he sat with her in our living room, nursing a tumbler of ten-year-old malt. ‘Just a sma’t’le drop,’ as he always said when it was offered, holding his forefinger and thumb a couple of inches apart as he squinted at me.
‘I met a woman from Bangor once,’ he told her, ‘she was a great beauty and very grand. It was on the train to Belfast around the start of the war. Oh she was a great beauty…’
He stared into the brown glimmer of the whiskey as though looking at the past through a crystal. His eyes closed to slits and though he smiled, I remembered the wistful loneliness of past memories recalled. And we stared into the whiskey with him as if we might see what he was seeing. And we waited to hear the story, untold, unfold.
‘I was on my way to Belfast,’ he told Cathy as we listened, ‘to join the British army. I was going to the recruiting office to join up and fight the Germans.’
I remember feeling electrified, shocked and benumbed, knowing nothing but the sound of these words as they tumbled from him, as a new reality, a new past, a new history was scrambling my perception.
‘We had few choices in those days and I wasn’t happy in the job I was in,’ he went on, his words hitting my brain like the tap tapping keys of a typewriter in a noisy newsroom, ‘so I went to Dublin and got on that train.’ Anticipation and silence hung in the air.
‘And that’s when I met her…the woman from Bangor. She wasn’t much older than yourself,’ he told Cathy who was 25 and I realized he would have been about 20 then, in the company of an attractive older woman on a train to Belfast to join the British army, my father, the republican. My head was in a tunnel where only the sound of his words could be heard. And then I couldn’t hear them or I missed the rest of the story or he didn’t tell any more. Because then I heard him say, ‘we got off that train together in Dundalk and I went back on the train to Dublin that night and I never joined the British army.’
I heard Cathy ask if they ever met again and saw him stare into his glass with that faraway look again before he shook his head, smiled and said, ‘no.’
He drained his glass, looked at my brother and stood up, indicating he was ready now to leave. He smiled again at Cathy and took her hand in both of his, telling her how delighted he was to meet her before uttering a complimentary phrase in Gaelic, ‘Nollaig Shona, a stor, agus bliain nua ailinn faoi mhaise dhuit,’ (a bright Christmas and a beautiful New Year to you, my dear). And as he put down his glass, he inhaled and exhaled noisily and muttered, ‘that’s powerful whiskey’ to divert us from his red rimmed eyes and the tear he wiped away with the back of his sleeve.
And I loved him then more than I’d ever loved him because he gave me a glimpse of myself and where I’d come from and what made me tick, or not.