7. Short Prose Pieces


The first time I saw the mural I thought: You’d only find the like in America! Let me explain.

This is 1976. I am the fiddle-player and General Manager of The Irish Boomerang. (It’s an old joke—the Irish Boomerang doesn’t come back, it just sings about coming back!) We are yet another second-rate folk group, trying to make a go of it in the States, topping (and tailing) the bill at The Shamrock Bar in Chicago. The mural in question is the backdrop to the little stage at The Shamrock; it shows Pearse and Connolly in vivid green tunics in front of the GPO in Dublin. They are posting up the Proclamation. Because the poster is curved around one of the pillars, there is not enough room for all of POBLACHT NA hEIREANN. So it is easy to imagine the artist thinking: POBLACHT NA hEIR looks kinda dumb, why don’t I just make it POBLACHT NA HERO?

‘Is that okay with you, Big Mikey?‘
‘Yeah, okay, just do it, will ya!‘

Big Mikey, part-owner of The Shamrock, Irish-Italian patriot and all-round scum bag, has us over a barrel. A small matter of work visas, not to mention the last known address of Seamus, guitar and vocals. Not that Seamus was ever convicted of anything; legal niceties were not much in vogue in the Belfast of the early seventies. It was just about some milk bottles, according to Seamus. High octane milk and a lighted rag and a pitcher’s arm and strike one! It wasn’t too long before the snatch squad put him out of harm’s way, up in the Kesh doing six O Levels. He was such a model internee that they let him out to attend his granny’s funeral. He promptly gave his escort the slip, hopped over the border and caught a plane to join us in the Windy City.

‘Us’ was myself and Tony, button-squeezebox, recent graduate in History & Politics, keeper of dangerous company. Tony’s idea of relaxation was hanging out at a crosstown jazz club, the only white face there, if not in the whole neighbourhood. By any odds he should have been mugged or murdered but the squeezebox was his passport. He had made friends with a black player called Toby. Tony and Toby, the Toblerone twins. Indeed, they did look like brothers, or half-brothers at least: the same frame, the same bouncing walk, the same complete lack of common sense. Like that Saturday afternoon when the pair of them landed into The Shamrock, drunk as lords. You could have skated on the permafrost that spread throughout the place as Toby addressed Big Mikey—‘Yo, Brother, Ah’ll be havin’ a point o’ gueeeness‘—in his best buttermilk brogue. Before Big Mikey could get his considerable frame out from behind the bar, Seamus had managed to hustle them out the door. A few heated words were exchanged, with Seamus having the final say:

‘Just remember this, Tony, you can go back home anytime—I can’t!‘

So, The Irish Boomerang continued to dish up a mix of come-all-ye and rebel songs three nights a week at The Shamrock. We were starting to draw bigger crowds and Big Mikey was softening towards us. We got a pay rise and the promise of more to come if we ‘kept our noses clean’. This last comment came with a hard look in Tony’s direction. Toby couldn’t drink in The Shamrock but he was a frequent visitor to our apartment, even joining in our practice sessions. He was a born musician; he just had to hear a tune once and he could play it straight back to you!

At the beginning of March, Big Mikey called us into his office. This was a big step up; only the Mafia types who co-owned The Shamrock were permitted in this shrine to all things Oirish.

‘Siddown, boys, wanna beer? Ya know Saint Paddy’s Day is coming up and I’ve been thinking of doin’ something really special. Did ya ever see a movie called Darby O’Gill And The Little People? It has that great Irish actor Sean Somebody Or Other in it!‘

I could see Tony framing a suitable sarcasm: that would be Sean-as-Irish-as- the-bagpipes-Connery, perhaps? I decided to get in ahead of him:

‘Yeah, Mikey, great show! How about those dancing leprechauns, weren’t they just fantastic?‘

This was my first mistake. Big Mikey nodded in approval.

‘Ya goddit in one! Boys, I want ya dressed up as leprechauns for SaintPaddy’s night. See, here, I’ve already gotten ya the hats!‘

From under his Connemara marble desk he produced three elongated pork-pie hats in fluorescent green; on the front of each was a big ‘L‘ (presumably for leprechaun or was it for loser?). We stared in stunned silence at the leaning tower of green. Then Big Mikey said softly: ‘I’m making real good progress on those visas, boys.‘

Seamus reached over and took the topmost hat and solemnly placed it on his head. Tony and I slowly followed suit. The Irish Boomerang had sold out for The Crock of Gold.

But our humiliation was not quite complete. There were also flimsy shirts of green paper, printed with horseshoes and shamrocks, and knee-length breeches of the same material. The only consolation was that the fabric would not last more than one night. As we crawled out of Big Mikey’s office, I’ll swear he was laughing; you couldn’t blame him.

We spent the next fortnight keeping each other from leaving town. Only for Toby, we would certainly have lost Tony. Even Seamus was prepared to risk losing the all-important visa. The closing argument the evening before went something like this:

‘It’s only for the one night, right?‘
‘And everyone will be scuttered, anyway, right?‘
‘Including us, right?‘
‘Especially us!‘
‘So, we’ll do it?‘
‘Yeah, might as well!‘

As if to put the Almighty’s seal on this bad bargain, the phone rang.

‘It’s for you, Tony, it’s your Ma.‘

Another Granny down and Tony’s parents have booked him on a flight home the following evening.

‘Well, the lengths some people would go to, just to miss the Saint Paddy’s night gig!‘

‘Lucky Leprechaun, what will you do with your other two wishes?‘

But beneath all the banter we were thinking that without a squeezebox The Irish Boomerang was a pretty thin sound. Big Mikey would not be at all pleased. Those visas were once more a fading dream.

‘Toby could stand in for me. Couldn’t you, Tobe?‘
‘Yeah, no problem, man!‘

Seamus exploded: ‘Are you mad in the head? Have you forgotten what happened when you brought Toby into The Shamrock? Big Mikey would rather see an Orange Band up on that stage than a black leprechaun!‘

‘Of course, he could always wear make-up!‘

My big mouth again! Two minutes later, a whiter than white-faced Toby paraded before us. When we added the leprechaun hat and the squeezebox, you could almost convince yourself that it really was Tony.

‘But what about his hands?‘

‘They’ll be out of sight on the sides of the squeezebox. We’ll keep him out of the main light, anyway.‘

Finally, it was decided that we would all wear the face make-up and, for good measure, we would paint shamrocks on our cheeks. Operation Fairy Child had begun.

On Saint Patrick’s night Seamus and I slipped into the dressing room at The Shamrock while Toby stayed outside in the van.

‘We’ll only bring you in at the last minute, Tobe. We don’t want any close encounters with Big Mikey.‘

Sure enough, Big Mikey’s bulk filled the dressing-room doorway. He was in great form, thanks to a few green Martinis.

‘Okay, boys? Hey, where’s Huck Finn?‘
‘Tony, is it? Oh, he had to meet someone. He’ll be here.‘
‘He ought to spend more time with his own people.‘
‘Well, he’s certainly doing that tonight, Big Mikey.‘
‘Good. Okay. So what’s with the war-paint?‘
‘It’s an old tradition that the leprechauns had very white faces. I guess they missed that in Darby O’Gill.‘

‘Get outa here! Nice to see ya entering into the spirit of this. Do a good show, boys, I’ve got some “family” coming in tonight.‘

Which was the only thing missing from this farce: the front tables occupied by The Friends of Italian Opera.

And then we were on, to drunken applause and the occasional shout of ‘Hey, Bianco!‘ Toby was in the shadows, stage left, Seamus was centre and I was on the right, Pearse and Connolly were behind us. I was thinking that the GPO might have been a lot safer than this. But then the gig started and Toby put new life into those tired old tunes and soon everyone was having too good a time to notice any difference.

We were getting down to the last couple of numbers when it all started to go wrong. Elvis was to blame, in a way. After watching a re-run of the Hawaii concert on television Seamus had taken to bringing a white towel on stage. ‘For the perspiration,‘ he would say. But really he hoped young women would fight over it (and him) when he pitched it into the crowd during the last set; the cleaners always found it in a corner the next morning. But the solid phalanx of gold-toothed, gold-chained gorillas at the front tables made him think again and this time he flung the towel into the wings.

In slow-motion action-replay I can still see Toby’s arm rise to expertly field the towel and then begin to wipe his face. Just as Seamus is saying ‘and on button squeezebox, Mister Tony McNamara,‘ he steps forward into the full glare of the lights, a poor imitation of a Black and White Minstrel. He makes a low bow, so low that he is practically eye to eye with Big Mikey who grabs him by the green paper shirt, and when he straightens up, his bare chest is revealed in all its ebony glory.

There is a stunned silence which I fill with an inspired if wobbly introduction to ‘A Nation Once Again‘, bringing the audience struggling to their feet. That’s how we always end our show. A few rousing choruses of ‘A Nation‘ marches them up to the top of the hill, but you can’t leave them there, of course. That’s when Seamus will come forward to sing unaccompanied the slow, plaintiff and very rebel ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free‘. And Toby is already three blocks away and running.

Seamus steps forward. He opens his mouth but it’s not ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free‘, it’s that great anthem of Civil Rights, ‘We Shall Overcome‘. They don’t get it immediately but when they do, all hell breaks loose.

Seamus will tell you that he saw the bottle coming. But he also says that what he actually saw was a Belfast milk bottle with a burning rag in it and he just could not duck. He went down at the feet of Pearse and Connolly.

POBLACHT NA HERO? Ya goddit in one!

In The Wake of The Rising (Stinging Fly 2016)



Most Irish people will be aware that this is the 150th anniversary of the birth of the poet William Butler Yeats. Very few will know that this is also the 150th anniversary of the death of another William, the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.

Hamilton died on Saturday the 2nd of September at his home in Dunsink Observatory. On the following Monday The Irish Times and Daily Advertiser noted that he was educated in quote ‘Old Trinity’ that he had ‘special natural abilities’ in mathematics and that he was the author of several able essays on mathematical and physical subjects.

This was a fairly muted summary of the life of a genius, now ranked among the scientific greats. The fruit of one ‘able essay’ has found a home in Schroedinger’s wave equation while his famous quaternions underpin computer-generated kinetics and space travel. Moreover, in addition to his ‘special natural abilities’ in mathematics, Hamilton would also have listed poetry. Indeed, he wrote that his quaternion operator was “born, as a curious offspring of a quaternion of parents, say of geometry, algebra, metaphysics, and poetry” – for Hamilton, poetry was not a separate activity, but part of the necessary mix.

Possibly something of this amalgam also infused the work of William Butler Yeats. While a pupil at the High School in Dublin Yeats was reputed to be good at mathematics, athough he was also known to play chess on a portable chessboard under the desk during mathematics class. By his own account “neither my Classics nor my Mathematics were good enough for any examination”

Most, if not all, modern Irish poets claim some bardic descent from Yeats. A very select and diverse band can claim some sort of poetic connection with William Rowan Hamilton. The first of these is the late Eamon de Valera. Dev was a trained mathematician and he had a particular interest in quaternion algebra. Indeed, while President, he was known to telephone staff in ‘Old Trinity’ seeking a little help with that mathematics. But long before that, while a prisoner in Lincoln Jail, he participated in a poetry round organised by the republican prisoners; the theme was ‘My Best Girl’ and Dev’s sonnet, seemingly addressed to a ‘girl’ called Quaternia, is a thinly disguised paean to his favourite mathematics. The poem has an explosive final four lines:

And in the ages yet to rise and roll

Until anhiliation’s (sic) awful knell shall toll

Shall thou and I beloved find the means

To knock Algebra into smithereens.

Some head-scratching must have ensued in the British Security Service – with orders issued to find this Quaternia person!

Dev’s signal contribution to mathematics was to found the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, with the mathematical physicist Erwin Schroedinger as its first Director. Schroedinger was on hand to boost the centenary celebrations in 1943 of Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions; he was also ‘a bit of a poet’ although most of his lyrical output was directed to real women, as opposed to the mythical Quaternia. The following lines were addressed to the actress Sheila Greene:

No one knows as you and I

How with us it came to be

Not a one was there to see

When we kissed so fervently

Enter into the chain a poet of real distinction: Schroedinger was no ivory tower scientist; he  enjoyed the company of writers such as the (science) fiction author Brian O’Nolan and the rural poet Patrick Kavanagh. I am not aware of any particular scientific bent in the latter but he was certainly on the mark with this 5-liner and its Schroedinger’s Cat imagery:

For Dr Schroedinger and Other Eminent Physicists:


God must be glad to see them play

Like kittens in the sun

Delighted with the wisps of hay

Blown from His haggard on a breezy day….

Time’s kittens, have your fun.

Which brings me back to Yeats and the coincidence of his birth year and Hamilton’s death year. Is it too fanciful to think of a handing on of the baton of genius, a parellel with a similar coincidence in 1564 of Galileo succeeding Michelangelo? Perhaps, but not so fanciful to think that future Irish generations would accord Yeats and Hamilton equal measures of fame; A future Taoiseach might pencil in 2065 for a Cabinet meeting at Dunsink Observatory!

RTE Sunday Miscellany



Two days before my 65th birthday the glass face on my wristwatch mysteriously split. Was this my ‘Lady of Shallott” moment – the mirror cracked from side to side? Being by nature more physical than metaphysical, I recalled instead how in one of my last lectures in this my last teaching year, I had reminded the class that each of them had a crystal of quartz on their wrists. Blank faces stared back at me, so I raised my left arm to display my wristwatch. The students responded likewise showing bare wrists; I was the only person in the room wearing a watch. But how do you tell the time? I bleated, only to be rewarded by the mirror dazzle of 50-odd smart phones.

And now from 50-odd years ago comes a memory of boarding school, a place strictly regulated by time, its internees completely at the mercy of bells. What I desired then above anything else was to own a wristwatch. But money was tight and more than enough had already gone on fees and uniforms, books and pens. Yet somehow I had convinced myself that this was about to change. And then on my birthday, during afternoon tea, the prefect set a small rectangular box in front of me. Could it be? It might be or it might not, so I pocketed the box and went on eating.

When the grace after meals had been gobbled down, I hurried to the seclusion of the Lourdes Grotto. Once I was sure that I was completely alone, I began to examine the box; yes, that was my mother’s handwriting on the front, though not the usual postmark. I shook the box and was reassured by the rattle from within. After another furtive glance around, I began to remove the wrapping. The cardboard lid came off to reveal tissue paper. Slowly I prised away one corner of the tissue – was that..? – yes it was, a brown strap with a little metal buckle, and there was its partner, yes, yes, and they were attached to a bright shiny circular disc that must be the slimmest watch in the universe? Did the statue of The Immaculate Conception wince as I pulled out from its nest of tissue instead of a ticking timepiece, a wrist-strap with an embossed medallion.

And there was a note from my mother, saying that she had been on the Lough Derg pilgrimage, where she had remembered me and had prayed for my success in that year’s State Examinations. And she hoped that I would have a Happy Birthday and that the enclosed would keep me safe from all harm. And through the mists of disappointment and of guilt and of love, I recognized the scene, the raging torrent, the man with the staff in mid-stream, The Child on his shoulder. Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers.

On the morning of my 65th birthday, at breakfast, my son set a small rectangular box in front of me. Did I need to take it somewhere quiet before opening? No, that would not be necessary.  I knew it would contain a new watch – word of the cracked face had clearly gone around. But I also knew that despite its outward form of a watch, its inward grace would continue to shine through, as Christopher and I embark on our shared journey into retirement.

RTE Sunday Miscellany 19.01.14



One of my earliest television memories is the Clap-o-meter. This device affected to measure the popularity of acts in a talent show called Opportunity Knocks; in fact it had no technological basis at all, and the vertical display was artificially manipulated to add to the drama of the competition. But because it was on television we believed in it, and we were equally convinced that our sitting room clapping contributed to its thermometer-like rise.

Those television-watching days were largely ended in 1960 when I was sent to boarding school in Belfast. The school was sandwiched between two high walls that perfectly mirrored The North’s twin obsessions of Religion and Politics. That is, on the far side of one wall was the Convent, whose nuns staffed the Catholic Mater Hospital; on the far side of the other wall was the Victorian-era Crumlin Road Jail. This latter wall was considerably higher and was topped by watch-towers, manned by armed guards. When occasionally a high-bouncing handball went over the convent wall, it had a reasonably good chance of being sent back. Even if we had the strength to surmount the Jail wall, we knew it was gone for good.

But sound is no respecter of walls, high or low; it is perhaps the “something” in the Robert Frost poem Mending Wall: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. One evening in our first term, in the break between First Study and Second Study, we were halted in our game of handball by the sound of singing, coming from the direction of the jail. It was a stirring rendition of Kevin Barry, presumably by a veteran of the ’56 campaign, still detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure: “Just a lad of eighteen summers, still there’s no-one can deny, as he marched to death that morning, he proudly held his head on high…” When the singing ended abruptly in mid-stream, it seemed only natural to put our hands together and clap. But even natural acts have consequences and following an official complaint we were collectively, if half-heartedly, admonished.

By the time we broke up for the Christmas holidays, the wall had become part of the scenery. But in our absence a prisoner called Donal Donnelly, the only man to ever escape from Crumlin Road Jail, managed to scale the wall on St Stephen’s Day, walking briskly through the school grounds to freedom. It was easy to imagine the aftermath, the school overrun by armed policemen, and to place ourselves in the scene, surly but scared, our hands safely in our pockets. That year, the school magazine featured a cartoon of Donnelly coming over the wall, and three or four boarders going in the opposite direction.

A drama of another order featured the Convent wall. Towards the end of our final year a group of us were invited into the convent one afternoon to entertain the nuns; songs, recitations and comic sketches were rewarded not just with buns and lemonade, and also with the abiding image of the face of most beautiful girl I had ever seen; it belonged to one of the novices. When we were restored to our own side of the wall, I confessed to the others that I had fallen in love; apparently, we had all fallen in love and we were determined to show it. That evening, in the break between First Study and Second Study, we gathered at the section of the wall closest to the main convent building and sang one verse of the current hit from The Seekers (we were also in love with Judith Durham); a song that had less to say about love than about our own approaching escape: “Rockin’, rollin’, ridin’, out along the bay, all bound for Morningtown, many miles away.” And into the silence that followed, there came faintly and unforgettably the sound of clapping. Its impact will never be measured on a clap-o-meter; but if it were, it could hardly be bettered, though it’s only natural, I suppose, that you might wish to try.

RTE Sunday Miscellany 07.10.13



Most people in Ireland will know the name of John Millington Synge, the author of The Playboy of the Western World. Somewhat fewer, mainly those of a scientific bent, will be aware of his nephew, the mathematician John Lighton Synge. Hardly anyone has heard of John Lighton’s older brother.

Edward Hutchinson Synge was born in 1890 in County Cavan, where his father was the land agent for Lord Gormanston. The family subsequently moved to Dublin, settling eventually in 1913 in Sydenham Road, Dundrum. Edward Hutchinson had entered Trinity College five years earlier, where he proved himself an excellent student of mathematical physics. But he never completed his degree. When John Millington Synge died in 1909, he left an annuity of £80 to his lover Molly Allgood; the rest of his estate was to be divided between two favourite nephews, quote “for their books, education and advancement”.  One of the nephews was Edward Hutchinson and in 1911 he left College to pursue an independent life of scholarship.

Over the next decade, he travelled both in Ireland (including the Aran Islands) and abroad, and generally indulged a gentlemanly life of reading and writing. He maintained a particular focus on his uncle’s literary estate, intending to compile a biography, and he was instrumental in the commissioning of the iconic paintings by the artist Sean Keating for a deluxe edition of The Playboy,. But although he had abandoned his degree, he had not abandoned science.

In the early 1920’s he began a campaign for the publication of the scientific papers of William Rowan Hamilton, the 19th century mathematician and poet. The campaign included correspondence with Einstein, who offered strong support.  The project was delayed by the untimely deaths of the first editors and eventually commenced under the editorship of his younger brother, John Lighton. There is a suggestion of sibling pressure being applied; moreover, the letter to Einstein followed closely on the publication of a paper in which Edward Hutchinson had questioned the basis of relativity; it is likely that Einstein was unaware of the paper, which was shown by others to be erroneous. The seeming disconnect between the letter and the paper is perhaps an early indication of greater difficulties ahead for their author.

Six years later, the correspondence with Einstein was resumed. But this time the topic was a novel idea. The normal optical microscope has a fundamental limit associated with the wavelength of the light employed; Edward Hutchinson proposed an alternative approach that in principle gets around that limit. It was the beginning of a four year period of remarkable foresight, resulting in a number of a proposals far beyond practical realization by the technology of the time. One can be too early as well as too late in scientific research.

Today, the so-called Scanning Near Field Optical Microscope (or SNOM) is an important apparatus in the area of nanotechnology. Likewise, the concept of the giant telescope, in which the impractical large single mirror is replaced by multiple smaller mirrors, has arrived in astronomy. And, closer to home, the idea of using searchlight beams to probe the upper atmosphere, is realized with the invention of the laser, with LiDar now central to weather forecasting. A recent colloquium at Trinity College celebrated these and other achievements of Edward Hutchinson with lectures by distinguished practitioners in these areas.

Alas, for Edward Hutchinson, the remainder of his life was increasingly fraught. Following his mother’s death in 1935, his mental health deteriorated. He entered Bloomfield Hospital in Donnybrook, initially as a voluntary patient but subsequently was reclassified as involuntary. He is remembered (on his good days) as a courteous and educated gentleman, much given to reading and writing, with a renewed focus on his famous uncle’s literary estate. Unfortunately, none of these writings have survived. He remained at Bloomfield until his death in 1957. His headstone in Mount Jerome Cemetery carries the simple epitaph “Scientist and Inventor”.

RTE Sunday Miscellany 15.07.12



When the volcanic dust has finally settled, and the definitive anthology of “ash-trash” stories is gathered, mine won’t merit a mention; what’s one extra night in London when set against a week in Florida or an 3-day bus and ferry trek from the heart of Europe? Nothing to say, really, except that I did get to see the revival of the rock-musical “Hair”, forty-plus years on from a first viewing in California.

That was the year I traveled far, in every sense of the word. I exchanged the privations of a minor seminary in Belfast for the luxury of a gated community in Long Beach, complete with swimming pool, gas-guzzling car and soft job. It was one extreme of the J-1 student exchange experience; the other extreme lay a year ahead, cleaning hospital toilets in the Bronx – but that’s another story!

Meanwhile, my hosts in Long Beach, relatives of my traveling companion, were determined to show us a good time, whether we wanted one or not! They brought us to the movies, and then to Hollywood to see the movies being made; they brought us to open-air concerts, including Jose Feliciano of  “Come on, Baby, light my fire” fame and in a now-obvious attempt to get us to “lighten up”, they packed us off to Las Vegas in the company of two worldly Catholic priests. We spent three days dodging casino security staff, who were not fooled by our fake ID’s, before winding up at a floorshow featuring Elvis – Elvis and your dinner for twenty-five dollars! The worldly, and somewhat bleary-eyed priests returned us to our hosts, presumably reporting that the trip had worked somehow, that we were ready for the real world.

That world came in the form of a night at the theatre, a musical, they said. Like ‘The Sound of Music’?, I ventured. Yeah, something like that, they said. But it was nothing like that, beginning with an invasion of the seated audience by the tribe of performing long-haired hippies, clambering over rows, to sit on unsuspecting laps while the on-stage band moved into the opening number:

When the moon is in the seventh house

And Jupiter aligns with Mars

Then peace will guide the planets

And love will steer the stars

We were a very long way from “doh, a deer, a female deer”

More was to follow, the central theme of draft-dodging was coupled with a risky show of irreverence for the Stars & Stripes and

LBJ took the IRT

Down to 4th St USA

When he got there what did he see

The youth of America on LSD

Which heralded a drug-induced “bad trip” scene. Religion also got a roasting, the mildest of which was

My hair like Jesus wore it

Hallelujah, I adore it

Hallelujah, Mary loved her son

Why don’t my mother love me….

And mixed race satires that included the memorable mantra:

The draft is white people sending black people to make war on the yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people!

All of which wasn’t too far from the Civil Rights marches back home. But then a curtain rose on the infamous nude scene, male and female, black and white, the longest 20 seconds in my young life.  When we were invited onto the stage for the closing number, I was still in shock.

This time round, after two score years (pace Lincoln at Gettysburg, he also makes an appearance in the show) it all seemed a bit tame, maybe even phoney. Just a few catchy tunes, some nifty dance routines and much vigorous chasing up and down the aisles? But it is also an opportunity to compare and contrast. The war arena has shifted from Vietnam to Afghanistan but the draft is gone, which means that black people are over-represented in the military. And the much vaunted drugs have waged their own selective war on that same community. Against that, the maligned LBJ is replaced by a black man, a powerful orator who may yet steer America from the warpath, through nuclear disarmament, to focus on the threat of global warming, not forgetting the odd volcano.

RTE Sunday Miscellany 13.06.10



The newest arrival in Dublin is a stylish blue bicycle; a two-wheeled equivalent of the hop-on hop-off bus, it offers tourist and citizen alike a quick and traffic-friendly way of getting around the centre. Unmistakably continental in design, it could be the offspring of the equally stylish trams. But, with its Miss Marple basket, its Torchy-The-Battery-Boy headlight and its Noddy bell, what comes to mind is a phrase that echoed through my childhood “a wee girl’s bike!”. When you’re second in the family, you’re condemned to a childhood of hand-me-down. Coming after a sister, I had a reprieve in the matter of wardrobe, but not where the bike was concerned. I pedalled my shame all over town, leaving it in places where it was likely to get stolen and, when that failed, devising schemes for inserting a false manly bar; but even then the effeminate sloping handlebars would have given the game away.

I was re-living those far off days as I set off on my first DB, as they are labelled on the Dublinbikes interactive screen; so much so that I was already halfway down Pearse Street when I realised that I had got going without any difficulty. The world is divided into those who can ride a bike and those who can’t; more specifically, a life is divided into the before and the after you learn to ride a bike. And what precisely is happening at the moment when you first can? There you are with grazed elbow and knee, suddenly upright and LOOK-MA-I’M-RIDING-THE-BIKE! Please don’t tell me this is simple physics (actually, it’s reasonably complex physics) no, this is sacramental, more like Confirmation; everything about you is suddenly changed. And there’s no going back – you cannot unlearn to ride a bike!

Perhaps this is the reason that the bike has featured in much modern poetry. Consider, from Seamus Heaney’s A Constable Calls, this image of the authoritarian bicycle

“Heating in sunlight, the ‘spud’

Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,

The pedal treads hanging relieved

Of the boot of the law”

Or the Oxford poet, Jamie McKendrick, describing a bike-borne accident in his poem Boneshaker,

“I achieved an unrehearsed forwards roll

Across a windscreen the way those Cretan girls

Would flip over the horns of a bull, which as

Picasso noticed were the shape of handlebars”

And while I love Kavanagh’s bicycles going by, two by two, my favourite lines are from Churchgoing, by Philip Larkin; the poet has interrupted a cycle ride to enter a country church: although a non-believer he is moved to make some gesture

“Hatless, I take off

My cycle clips in awkward reverence”

Those same cycle clips, the fashion accessory of fifties Ireland, would feature in an early poem of my own. As a child I once managed to lose one of my father’s clips by inserting it into a crockery hotwater jar, from which it could not be extracted. Furthermore, as my father and I shared a bed and the damning hotwater jar, my guilt was ever present. Waiting for him to return by bike from his late-night job as a barman, I distance myself from the crime by picturing him as a medieval knight, minus one vital piece of armour:

“You’ll leave your work and gallop your Destrier

Down Railway Road, free-wheeling all the way

One trouser-leg a banner in the breeze.”

A few years back I was asked to address an international gathering of urban cycling enthusiasts. I began by describing the complex physics of cycling, moving seamlessly into the artful world of policeman-cum-bike thief courtesy of Flann O’Brien, and ended by poking fun at my own bike-humiliation as a child. And here I am now, arriving at the Jervis Street DB station, and finding myself executing the dismount motion appropriate to – a wee girl’s bike!  I recall that I had carried the phrase across the Atlantic and into my early 30’s, employing it in the mid-western city of Madison in conversation with an officer of the local bike police. He (and it was a he!) drew himself up to his considerable height and interjected:

“Sir, (that cut-you-off-at-the-knees Sir) I believe the term you are searching for is a step-through model!”

RTE Sunday Miscellany 21.02.10



To come into real estate in these recessionary times may be a mixed blessing. I was recently offered possession of New York property that has been in the family for almost ninety years. Granted, it is small; bijoux, I think, would be an estate agent’s description, but isn’t everything in that crowded city; there’s lots of green space which is well looked after and it’s very quiet, hardly a living soul to be seen; although it does come with some pretty interesting neighbours,  notably the Irish-American mobster Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll and “Lady”, the jazz legend Billie Holiday.

By now, the alert listener will have guessed that this property is located in a graveyard, Mad Dog having departed this life in the early thirties, helped on his way by former associates and Lady in sadly reduced circumstances fifty years ago this year. It is indeed a grave, or at least a share of a grave, and it’s in The Bronx.  St Raymond’s Cemetery lies at the intersection of the north-south Hutchinson River Parkway with the east-west Cross Bronx Expressway; in spite of that it is a surprisingly peaceful spot, as if the nearby traffic intentionally slows down as a mark of respect; I should say spots, for there are actually two cemeteries, the old and the new.

The grave is occupied by my paternal aunt, Helen McGovern, and her bother Thomas, natives of the parish of Glangevlin in County Cavan; a parish where there are so many McGoverns that the triple naming system is employed to this day. They are “Thomas-Oineys”, after their father Thomas and his father Eoin, the latter a survivor of The Famine. Helen and Thomas Thomas-Oiney were part of the steady stream of emigration just prior to the establishment of the Free State.

The grave is a three-berth and I have been given the job of filling the empty space, at least figuratively. Senior members of the family argue that a grave is too valuable to lie empty and since none of the family now lives anywhere close to St Raymond’s it should be passed on to someone else, This is not an easy task and I have not yet succeeded, indeed I have barely started; an initial transatlantic telephone approach to the cemetery authorities was less than helpful: ”Have ya got the deed, ya gotta have the deed?” No, I had to confess, I had not got the deed, nor did I have dates of burial. I rang off feeling like a grave-robber.

I still have not got the deed, although I have some ideas as to where it might be.  For now I have to be content with a site inspection. A business trip to the states affords a long weekend lie-over in New York.  Monday morning I take the Pelham Bay local to East 177th St, transferring to the Q44 bus to alight at LaFayette Avenue and begin the long headstone-lined walk to the Cemetery Office. There the telephone voice is embodied as an elderly woman who, if she suspects that I am the other half of that fitful conversation, decides not to acknowledge it. I still don’t have proper dates but as the computer says there are five Helen McGoverns and only two Thomases, and one of those is from the nineteenth century, we agree that the other must be our man. But of course, he’s not here in the new cemetery and so begins the much longer trek to the old.

By the time I get there, I’m running against the clock and the departure of flight EI108 back to Dublin, so there’s no possibility of stopping by the graves of Mad Dog or Lady, nor those of the welterweight champion boxer Benny “Kid” Paret, or of the infamous Mary Mahon, better known as “Typhoid Mary”. Instead, I go straight to section 12, range 8 and grave 117 where I read Thomas McGovern March 10, 1921 and Helen McGovern a lifetime later in 1984. And I am moved to small tears for what the headstone cannot tell: the shadow on the Thomas-Oineys.  That Thomas never made it to the Bronx alive, catching scarlet fever on the boat, dying in isolation on Ellis Island, barely as old as the century. And that his sister just three years his elder had the unenviable task of claiming the body for burial.

And I am there and then resolved that only someone who has weathered an equal amount of pain and loss deserves to share this place in The Bronx.

RTE Sunday Miscellany 2009



I was the only one in the class, the only one in the school, and, by virtue of Northern religious labeling, the only one in the town; I was an Irish version of the boy named Sue, the boy named Ignatius. And although he might live, however uncomfortably, among the Patricks, the Eoins and the Seamuses, there could be little understanding from the Victors, the Trevors and the Douglases. The only solution was the diminutive Iggy, accepted by all – although my Mother would revert to full-on title in the presence of the holy trinity of teacher, doctor and priest.

And so the name and its possible origins became a vague memory, but a memory that surfaced recently, prompted by seemingly unconnected events.  I was in Rome on a tour that included the room where Ignatius of Loyola died. Responding to some gentle teasing from the others, I protested that I was most certainly not named after that intense Iberian, and left it at that. The same evening, however, I saw on the internet that the writer John McGahern had died, but only made the connection some weeks later: in his splendid Memoir McGahern reports that when his mother’s health is threatened by another pregnancy, his father presses her to see a healing priest, a Father Ignatius.

I once heard my own father’s name read out in a local history lecture; it was a dramatic epiphany for me.  I felt something similar now, reading of this Father Ignatius, suddenly aware that here was the man I was named for. I could now picture my own mother making her long journey to see this priest, and in gratitude, as the phrasing has it, for favours received, naming her first son after him.

He was born Thomas Francis Gibney in Dublin in 1889. His early education was with the Christian Brothers and he was a regular Mass-server for the Jesuits in Gardiner Street.  Eventually he was attracted to the Order of the Passionists, the self-styled “black-robed army of the Crucified”, badged with the characteristic wooden heart, the mission cross tucked into the sturdy belt. He joined the novitiate in Worcestershire in 1907 and, acknowledging perhaps the Gardiner Street influence, took the name Ignatius.

Ordained in Dublin in 1913, he ministered in Belfast and Sutton before being appointed to The Graan, the newly founded Passionist monastery in Enniskillen. His reputation as a preacher was well established by then; dramatic and versatile, according to one obituary, he could equally “enthrall a church of tiniest children” and “enrapture a congregation of Cistercian monks”. But the same writer notes that his preaching was “but a shadow of his greater quality, his appeal as a confessor”. And, although for Sargeant McGahern and many others, The Graan was the acute hospital of its time, this would suggest that Fr Ignatius’ true gift was the healing of the mind, the counseling of the worrisome, the scrupulous, the mildly depressed and the plain worn-out.

And yet, there is much anecdotal evidence of physical cures, of maladies that range from hair loss to alcoholism.  He himself had a stammer but, in a case of ‘physician heal thyself’, when he rose to preach he was word perfect.  It was also said that the local doctor would invite him to accompany him on his rounds. What is certain is that in many homes throughout the border counties, his name is still remembered with deep affection, long after his death in 1952. And it was in one such household in Belcoo earlier this year, that I came face to face with him, so to speak, coming away grateful for the sepia photograph of my namesake and a small relic of his hair.

A final connection occurred in a pub in Co Mayo. A local writer introduced me to a man considerably younger than myself, saying: Iggy, meet Iggy.  “Do you mind me asking you…”, I began. He interrupted with: “Father Ignatius of The Graan” But in his case it was his maternal grandmother who attended, and who, with no sons of her own, deferred the gratitude to the next generation.

This year is the centenary of the entry of Fr Ignatius into the Passionist Order. I will mark it by visiting his grave in Mount Argus. I will recall his ministry and his generosity to my mother, but I will also think about his eponymous family of sons and grandsons, the boys named Ignatius.

RTE Sunday Miscellany 2009


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