We made the trip to Ireland when I was ten, after my father had started in on the renovation of our house; work he began most likely as a bulwark against what I always thought of as his sulks which were long periods of dark and erratic behavior, episodes of which were becoming more frequent, the gloominess a rising tide, then, for reasons that were mysterious to a boy my age, but if I had learned anything from my elders it was that idle hands are the devil’s work and a project is good for a body, even a project involving the torturous reconstruction of our home if it would get him out of his bed, which he stayed in for long periods, often not opening his door at all until the late afternoon, sometimes only after I was home from school, and so the fact that he had a purpose of sorts seemed like a positive development for all and sundry, and thus the work began (it began, I feel, with the sound of a nail being reluctantly removed from a piece of wood, mewling like a newborn) and the carpenter my father contracted to abet him in the task was a moppy-haired Irishman named Bernie Mahoney, who was an exemplar of a type dad gravitated towards, dad always having the deepest respect for the “working man” having been one himself, for most of his life, a working man, up until his diagnosis that is and his love of the man who my dad referred to in Yiddish as chaim yonkel which means the man on the street or an average Joe, kept my father in relentless natter with cab drivers, fire fighters, construction foremen, cops, stevedores, iron mongers, electricians, garbage men, train conductors and plumbers, and as an amusing side-note because of dad’s obsession with organized crime (it was the seventies, the era of the godfather movies and the French Connection and the mob was indeed rampant especially in Boston where we lived at the time) but in any case every Italian was mafia and every Chinese was Triangle and every Irishman in Boston was Sinn Fein to my father, which was surely paranoia, but more importantly the prospect of the illicit clearly added to dad’s passion for the lumpenproletariat; so was Bernie IRA, of course not, but that did not stop dad from speculating a lot at the rag-ends of the working day about who was, or might be, over dinner, at the kitchen table, with us, his rapt brood, when he was covered in the detritus of his work, the renovation, Bernie having gone back for the night to wherever it was where he and his own kind lived, and dad was intermittently talkative then though lapsing into thoughtfulness at times, fork pausing between plate and mouth, that is, occasionally appearing to suffer wistfulness, maybe from withdrawal from the brotherhood he had developed with Bernie, his special Irishman—though Bernie was not the first Irish ambassador to our home in fact, there were, come to think of it, a parade of Irish nannies and babysitters charged with looking after my sister and me, let’s see there was June, or she who spread the margarine and ope’d the Spaggetti-O’s; and Agnes, or she of the snot-colored macintosh (a Joycean twofer if ever I heard one); and Maggie who worked for my grandmother— Maggie, or she who called me “tiger,” and consequently she who “gave rise to all my foolish blood,” there were Irish all around me that is to say that there were clues that the Irish were special, a chosen people in the eyes of my father, though the true confirmation of this special status came in the form of the carpenter Bernie, who my father adopted as his own brother, as he was a real man-of-the-people and like Joyce’s Humphrey Chimpton Earwicker a “man of Hod, Cement and Edifices” to boot, someone dad could chew the fat with about football, or The Troubles in the north, who he could complain with about anything that smacked of the overly liberal, feminine, or new-fangled: fern-bars, Jimmy Carter, Japanese cars, jogging— don’t get me started because he and Bernie could always be found working away or scrapping over some piece of construction minutia, or just sitting on the stoop while Bernie brogued on about what-have-you the upshot of this burgeoning bromance being that eventually dad decided, to the rest of the family’s mortification that he himself was, in fact Irish which was a tricky act to pull off being a Polish Jew
from the Bronx, and so the first signs of dad’s newly adopted nationality came in subtle additions to his lexicon and then worse in his manner of dress, big sweaters and watchman’s caps, and finally in the form of a new household soundtrack, heralded as I was in my room one afternoon by sounds of strangulation—like an oboe being gelded, or that nail I was telling you about being pulled from that wall—but these were the Uuilleann pipes, a traditional Irish instrument we suffered the sound of as Dad had bought up the complete LP catalog of The Chieftains, a traditional Irish band who played reels and folksongs on pennywhistles and bodhráns who were only the advance guard in what was to become a major musical action we were later to endure a Clancy Brothers period, followed by The Irish Rovers, and finally The Dubliners, who were by a large margin my favorites, I think, because of their intrinsic lack of polish—there was something a bit too slick about the other outfits and the Dubliners were clearly booze-addled misfits, for even as a tyke, especially as a tyke (and still now) I loved a lost cause—the Red Sox, Han Solo &tc and I have an innate dislike for anyone who is, or who gloms onto, a sure winner (Yankees, Yankee fans) so to this day, I could sing to you any number of Dubliners songs, word-perfectly, though only if made drunk enough which was precisely how the Dubliners performed their music, drunk enough such that when they played, they broadcast their drunkenness, they sounded like they were teetering on the edge of starting a fight, passing out, or weeping, especially one of their singers, Ronnie Drew who looked like he was newly risen from the dead, and the other guy, Luke Kelly, who was the opposite full of life and redder, head to toe, than any man you could ever meet— a human volcano blazes boiling, or as Jim Joyce who I would later read would put it, a “broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero” (not unlike how my dad appeared to me) who garbled their lyrics and some of it was even in Gaelic which for a kid who had trouble catching the lines to even the Grease soundtrack (my sister’s) comprehension here was difficult but still one got the gist: the English are bad; very bad; obviously, Ireland is a place of great beauty and treachery (and rocky roads), miners have a hard lot, towns are dirty, people in battle brandish pikes which I was pretty sure were fish, and the love of one’s country is a terrible thing but paradoxically something also to be proud of, and sex is, if thickly veiled in metaphor, never far from the Celtic imagination oh and someone named Parnell once did something or other and now, let’s have us a pint (which is a volume of liquid) maybe up in Monto (which is a place) so I was given my first impressions of Ireland from reels and patriotic ballads; drunken songs—the most drunken of which was about drunkenness itself and was called Finnegan’s Wake and was sung by Ronnie Drew and the verses were sort of free like a baroque recitativo with a riotously up-tempo staccato chorus, a jig which went
Whack fol' the dah will ya dance to your partner
Round the floor your trotters shake
Isn't it the truth I told ya?
Lots of fun at Finnegan's wake
Round the floor your trotters shake
Isn't it the truth I told ya?
Lots of fun at Finnegan's wake
bought on vinyl (which was all we had back then) by my father who loved one Dubliners song even better, he loved it the most, it was called “Fiddler’s Green” and he featured it heavily in the rotation it begins As I walked by the dockside one evening so fair/To view the salt water and take the salt air/I heard an old fisherman, singing a song/Oh-oh take me away boys me time is not loooong…as you might be able to discern it's a soulful little number—a bit of a cradlesong: lilting, simple, bearing a striking resemblance to the Irish folk ballad “Molly Malone” (cockles and mussels) which, like “Scarborough Fair”, was having a bit of a renaissance at the time in the music rooms of Boston’s grammar schools, the point being, aside from “Fiddler’s Green’s” musical merits, I imagined the reason dad enjoyed it so much is that he had served in the merchant marines when he was younger, and had a lifelong affection for the sea (dad was a man of grandiose affections) and so thought of himself in vaguely Melvillean terms as a sailor gone to land and seed, and who occasionally felt the need to knock off people’s hats (the sulks) that is to say: one day he would again set sail, and set sail he did, figuratively that is, on a plane, with us along with him, back to what had become his imaginary homeland, Ireland
“…What is your nation if I may ask? says the citizen —Ireland, says Bloom”
and it was simply inevitable that we, as a family, would have to visit those murky, level shores of Ireland, and in the summer of the same year that Bernie began work in our attic and birthed that nail, we landed there and took the long meandering drive from Dublin down to Cork, (home of John Joyce, father of James, and Simon Dedalus, with his delightful baritone) finally arriving in Goleen, or An Góilín, population at the time: five hundred Christian souls, on the southernmost tip of the island, the last trailing tassel on Ireland’s shawl, and the seat of Bernie Mahoney’s family (Bernie himself stayed in Boston for when push came to shove he was after all an employee), my father, mother, sister and I lodging in a lighthouse—no inns or hotels for us as we needed to experience the isolation, gloom, and existential despair of Ireland’s southern coast full bore, while every night, my sister (who had it out for me and probably for good reason) and whose room lay above mine beside that groaning tower, would stamp one foot and then drag the other all around the floor above (my ceiling) in a demented gavotte, and it wasn’t until I was in high school, high school, that I realized that there probably wasn’t a sociopathic, game-leggéd lighthouse keeper, probably with a hook-hand, trembling upstairs to spill my young blood—and so the trip was comprised almost entirely of lows, most of which were atmospheric: the weather was forbidding in a way that doesn’t do justice to the word, and there simply wasn’t much to do for a ten year old boy like myself other than sit by the window, look out at the gorse, the maledictive stones, and the troubled grey sea, and draw the suns and stars we never saw in the condensation on the panes of glass, occasionally jumping as if electrocuted when the floorboards creaked (Hook hand) while
the highlight of the trip, if you can call it that and I’m not suggesting that you do, other than discovering that there are palm trees in southern Ireland (Gulf Stream), was seeing my father, for the one and only time in his life completely and utterly stinking drunk so here’s how it happened: a couple days after arriving in Cork we made the pilgrimage to Bernie Mahoney’s brother’s farm Bernie’s family possessing as Gabriel in The Dead tells us all the Irish traditionally possess “certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity” which is to say that they were lovely, keen, sweet, boisterous and kind people, who treated us like their own and were in every way the postcard Irish family one reads about overseas so they served us lunch followed by what could only assumed was the de rigger whisky for the heads of household and my dad never drank but there was no greater sin in my father’s eyes than refusing hospitality, especially from the salt of the earth, which the Mahoneys were, in spades, they seemed literally to be covered in salt, and earth, and so he proceeded to throw back a couple of (what one could only assume was) their finest and dad was watching, the entire time for some subtle indications from the Mahoneys that he had drunk enough, and now on to something else, but the signal was never given and he became caught up in the moment and he drank Gaelic toasts like air do shlàinte, and he “he drank to the undoing of his foes, a race of mighty valorous heroes, rulers of the waves, who sit on thrones of alabaster silent as the deathless gods…” and he drank to Bernie and his brood, drank to all those of Hearty Cork Extraction, and none of us, we Mendelsunds that is, noticed that dad was the only one at the bottle, unbeknownst, the Mahoney clan, like most who resided in the quaint hamlet of Goleen, were famous “pioneers,” having taken the sobriety pledge, and sworn off the stuff for life and, well, you may not be aware of this, but alcoholism is, historically, a big problem in Ireland (Ireland sober is Ireland free) I suppose the Mahoneys kept a bottle on hand for just such an occasion, and only such an occasion when an alien family of boozing city-slicker anthropologists from America like ourselves would descend on them like we did, and being courteous and all…but the entire southern end of Ireland was caught up in temperance societies, antitreating, and the general issue of “the drink problem,” and were therefore the Mahoneys and everyone else were more sober than a convent
And then there came out upon the air the sound of voices and the pealing anthem of the organ It was the men's temperance retreat conducted by the missioner, the reverend John Hughes S. J., rosary, sermon and benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament They were there gathered together without distinction of social class (and a most edifying spectacle it was to see) in that simple fane beside the waves, after the storms of this weary world, kneeling before the feet of the immaculate, reciting the litany of Our Lady of Loreto, beseeching her to intercede for them, the old familiar words, holy Mary, holy virgin of virgins How sad to poor Gerty's ears! Had her father only avoided the clutches of the demon drink, by taking the pledge or those powders the drink habit cured in…
meanwhile, (and putting aside the Boston Irish for the moment- which is indeed a large contingency), the whole of Boston was inebriated beyond belief, judging from the behavior of my friends’ parents, mostly from zinfandels and pinot gris (mostly the goys of course) but not us, and certainly not my dad, though why he didn’t drink: I had no idea and hadn't honestly given it much thought but I was so very uncomfortable sitting there in the dining room at the Mahoney farm and tried various gambits to distract the company away from my father’s mounting inebriation like moving around a lot in my chair and asking self-consciously ten-year-old-kid-style questions about the wee people and whatnot
Mr Dedalus’s cup had rattled noisily against the saucer, and Stephen had tried to cover that shameful sign of his father’s drinking bout of the night before by moving his chair and coughing
but the subterfuge was transparent I’m sure (children imagine themselves to be shrewd but all their ruses are known) and drinking continued until we brought him, my father (I can’t remember reluctantly or willingly) to the car, so wet with booze he was we brought him to the car in a ladle; he (my father) was always a sight, intense of gaze, disheveled, strange in his dress and prone to outbursts under the best of circumstances (really more a Fyodor Karamazov then a Leo Bloom remember those sulks and outbursts I was telling you about) but drunken dad was an amazement, is there is anything more distressing than a drunk who never drinks it’s like a category error, unnatural and regrettable, especially, Lord, when it’s your own parent, who sang the entire way home while driving and did we even hear a chorus of Fiddler’s Green, but maybe let’s say for the purposes of this memory of mine that he did, for at that moment he had surely arrived at the green’s very gates though the entire episode was surely more an instance of Finnegan the hod-carrier, awake again, because of the Bushmills or Jamesons or whathaveyou, which means, in both Finnegan’s case, and in my father’s: he’s revived—and he was happy and all those worries (what were these worries?) momentarily neglected and needless to say the experience humanized him for me a bit both in the sense of abasement, and in the sense of making him more approachable; even being a child I recognized his needing to observe the custom as a sublime piece of errant gallantry, and, being a fan of lost causes and misfits (Red Sox, Billy Carter, The Dubliners) it brought me closer to him the full-on disaster of him—now, if I had been, say, fifteen years old at the time, say, now that would have been a completely different story: I would have been embarrassed out of my mind, but I was still a kid and
Ireland is inextricably knit with the skeins, the wool, the woolgathering memory of this particular outing, ill-considered, madcap, and revelatory, the entire episode born of a two-way cultural misunderstanding that had, at its green heart, something noble and deferential; as I mentioned, my father never drank, the cocktail of medicines he was required to ingest, including a rainbow of barbiturates (I know this now) wouldn’t really allow him to drink safely and I’m sure the phenobarbital (the sulks) and the corticosteroids (the rages) must have increased the effects of the bender but there he is, like some Jewish Fergus, at the wheel of our brazen car (did we wear seatbelts? I doubt it but what were we going to hit: the whole place was peat bogs) I still did not know, at that point, when we were there that my father was very sick (of course Fiddler’s Green is a song about death) and dad had just been told that he hadn’t long to live and that’s why the renovation and all the construction work and Bernie Mahoney, to move him and mom upstairs away from us, my sister and I, to further hide from us the evidence of the illness, to keep it one flight away, and also that’s (again, now I know) why we went to Ireland in the first place which is to say one last jaunt a big yes to death’s no and we had got there, to that better-off place where one broods on hopes and fear no more, for only a handful of hours, though not in the way my father had imagined, (it’s never as you imagine it, nothing, ever), and there was, of course, as there always is, a funk, after the inadvertent high drunken revelry, and the trip on the plane back to the U.S. was painful both emotionally, and for my dad, literally; literal pain that is he was in so much pain
but as it turned out, he had longer to live than he had been told; longer by some truly unhappy years, bad years—terrible for me for sure, but he managed to live, albeit poorly, and times you couldn’t even call it that, up until around that time when I was first to discover another Ireland, an Ireland of sorts (I took to it easily without prompting, as an inheritance) an Ireland of the page, that is, the true isle of sages and saints of Yeats and Synge and Stephens, O’Casey, and Beckett and all of the rest including of course Joyce, whose Ireland was no less an imagined Ireland than my father’s or my own not to be pat but all of us excluded and expulsed and then repatriated all of which is to say: was the trip, this trip, the trip what that any of us had hoped or imagined it would be: No, nope, no it wasn’t, no.[i]
[i] Wrap me up in me oilskins and jumper/No more on the docks I’ll be seen/Just tell me old shipmates, I’m taking a trip, mates/And I’ll see you someday on Fiddler’s Green.