All the Way Back

“In a world without consequences,” my mother’s friend Marian had said over their weekly coffee in the Shopping Centre, “wouldn’t it be great to go to bed with Bill Clinton?” When she reported this, she added, with a 15-year-old’s giggle, “And do you know, I have to say, _I agreed with her.”_

Dad said, “Well, I don’t know what to make of that at all.”

“We were all swooning to hear him in person. And he knew all about Limerick. He mentioned Dell, and the new concert hall out at the university. He even knew about the rugby!”

Ten days before, I’d got an email request from a friend. “Give me a few facts about Limerick,” she wrote. I told her about the pogrom of 1904; Richard Harris; the spit-flecked Redemptorist Fathers; and the arrival of Latvian, Chinese, and Polish immigrants, who brought durian crisps and rye bread, and queued up for internet access in the public library. I mentioned how unfair the Stab City nickname seemed to the citizens, and the resentment at poor-mouthing Frank McCourt. _Sure, the McCourts were starving because the father was a roaring alcoholic–and that was hardly Limerick’s fault._

These ramblings weren’t what she’d had in mind. She was pals with President Clinton’s head foreign-policy speechwriter, and he needed notes for his boss’s trip to Ireland. In those slinking days after the Starr Report, Clinton could still count on a Kennedy welcome in Ireland, which had never fallen out of love with him (and misses him still). He was a great man on the North, it was felt. Irish people took pride in believing, unlike the English with their scourging tabloids, that a politician’s sex life was none of the electorate’s business. They wouldn’t hear a word said against him.

I supplied replacement facts: new bridges, new industries, a new stop on the national arts’ circuit, and an abiding love of rugby that crossed class. These were better suited to help a president reflect a city’s growing sense of itself, and no one does that better than misty Bill. Limerick was impressed at his grasp of town life.
“Ah, Bill’s just my puppet,” I told my mum.

I thought of Clinton’s visit after yesterday’s Munster victory.

_”Local update: Munster beat Biarritz 20-17 in the Heineken Cup in Cardiff today. 15,000 people watched on an outdoor screen in O’Connell St in Limerick. 70,000 people at the stadium in Cardiff. Stringer got man of the match. George Hook was unbearable on the telly there. Of course, they beat Leinster in the semi’s so my celebrations are somewhat more temperate.”_

That came in a Saturday letter from an old college friend, a Leinster Dub transplanted to Cork. On first reading I thought he was poking fun–as If I’d be interested in rugby, unless I was trying to sweet-talk some fella. Dad regularly reports the match results to my sisters and me, the jokey lament of a man in a family of women indifferent to blood-rising county rivalries. But this week, it was Mum who delivered an excited match report on Sunday night. I hadn’t realized it was a European Final, and a triumph for my home town.

Munster is the bottom-left of Ireland’s four provinces, and it covers Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Kerry, and Clare. Maybe Waterford too; my geography was always poor. It has a lasting rugby rivalry with Leinster, where the Dubs are. I don’t hear of the other provinces getting in on it, but perhaps that’s because rugby is such a city game.

In most of Ireland it’s a posh sport that grows from the private schools. The kids in _The Commitments_ would have played soccer. In Dublin, rugby is for South County Dublin boys whose strong necks are bred to support barristers’ horsehair wigs as well as scrums. Long before the rest of the country could afford to fake Viking genes, their girls were swinging sheets of blonde hair over pints of Heineken.

In Limerick, tough, scrappy Limerick, the whole city is mad for the game. On the field, solicitors tackle janitors and bouncers take down mortgage brokers (or they used to, before the game went professional). In the concrete stands of Thomond Park, the doctors from St. Camillus’ freeze their backsides off next to cabbage growers. We don’t have people from all walks of life in Limerick–there are no rag-pickers, no Google billionaires, no pet psychics–but if we did, they’d probably follow rugby. On Saturday nights, girls dress up for the Sin Bin, a club owned by a former Munster star and named for the place to which he was regularly sent off.

Mum reports that Cork is jealous, because everyone is saying that they’ve never seen anything like the way the Limerick fans came out for the team. At her school, the kids all wore Munster red on Friday, except for a couple of the little Pakistani kids–which is a pity, she says, because red is lovely with their dark hair. All the teachers wore red head to toe. Dad bought a Munster jersey; Uncle Tommy and Derek went over to Cardiff to see the match, and the fans there, oh, the whole stadium was pure red.

I can hear the shine in her eyes when she talks about O’Connell Street, where the whole town gathered to watch the match on screens strung above the traffic lights. When the homecoming bus drove into Limerick in the rain, it was magic. “You turn on the news and it’s all Munster, Munster, Munster, and they’re talking about the Limerick fans and how committed they were. And the team says that’s why they won, they couldn’t let the people down.” (The Limerick people, she insists.)

“Claire couldn’t believe I was watching the semi-finals, and I told her, if you had blood running in your veins, how could you not be interested when they might win for the first time in 120 years? So then she watched the finals and got all into it. Caroline went out for the celebrations and she ended up walking home. I hope she wasn’t wearing stilettos…”

She spills the jokes that are going around, how the Leinster fans were too busy shopping in Brown Thomas to show up for the match, and the Leinster team were afraid to spoil their manicures.

I remember this, or something like it, when Ireland got to the quarter-finals of the Football World Cup in 1990. Something changed. Until then we had flown high only solo, and mostly far from home. Here was an Irish team (cobbled from the stocky British offspring of Irish grandparents and coached by a Yorkshireman) holding England to a victory draw, and gallantly saving penalty shots from Romanian strikers. The country rose up in a great yawp of triumph, and urged the players beyond their modest abilities.

And we watched ourselves as fans, and liked what we saw: thronging Palermo, respectful, high-spirited, cuddly, and cheerfully sozzled. The worse the English fans behaved, the more lovable the Irish fans were careful to become, on their first grand tour. They waved scarves at the cameras and told of bank loans borrowed over the phone so they to stay on and follow the team on through–nobody had booked past the first round. At home the factories closed and we filled the bars–with their brand-new, big-screen TVs bought for Italia ’90– and wept with joy to see ourselves weep with collective joy in front of the world. Ireland was still close to bottom of the EU heap then, but the shine of the World Cup showed a new reflection. Everybody thought we were great, we repeated. It felt good.

For my home town, Shtab City, known for hoodies and piebalds and wormy Stanley Knife scars, this Munster win, a mucky oval ball delivered over a white line, might signal the same shift in confidence. Fifteen years from now we might look back and see just how ready Limerick was to stand proud and passionate, after decades of being done down. “It’s great,” says my mother, firmly, “to see positive images of Limerick in the media for once, when they’re never nice about us.”

Do you know, it is.

You’re Not Jesus Christ

Inside the door of Marks & Spencers on Grafton Street, four ladies stopped by the jumpers for a break from Christmas shopping.

“How many have you at home now, Mary?”

“Two and a half. Andrew’s mostly gone, but he’s a bit fond of coming back for dinner and the washing.”

“God, it’s hard to shift them, isn’t it?”

“My eldest was 31 when he got married. I said to him, you’re not Jesus Christ. You don’t _have_ to live with your mammy this long.”

Nought to Sixty

Dad and his bike I asked my dad what he thought about turning sixty.

“I feel fine about it,” he said, “mainly because I don’t feel one bit different inside than when I was twenty-five.”

He lived in Zambia then, with a bride of twenty he’d met at a céilí dance in Cork. He had a contract to teach in Africa, and UCC Commerce and a convent dormitory were not enough to keep her from following him. Together they walked into the Allied Irish Bank on Patrick Street to close his account. “Sixteen shillings and sixpence!” my mother mocks. “That’s all he had when I married him.” They were married on a snowy day in Silvermines not long after they met. I’m biased, of course, but they were lovely: both wide-eyed, dark-haired, and fine-boned. They got taken for brother and sister as often as not.

Zambia was newly independent, and had money from copper. Ireland, with a forty-year headstart as a republic, had just turned out the first generation of kids to go through free secondary schooling. Africa was hopeful, and so were they. Many of that first crop of Irish peasant graduates took their engineering, teaching, and nursing degrees to the bush and the mines; a paddy Peace Corps without the confident zeal of the Americans who had grown up in Eisenhower comfort.

My father was one of them. He had parlayed the first Leaving Cert in the family into a degree at University College Galway. He paid for college by working the building sites in London, mixing cement with Connemara men who spoke no English and pined for a home they rarely saw. They were not too different from his own Roscommon family. On the Kelly side, my granny was the only one to marry near home. George took his tuberculosis to Australia, and didn’t forgive Ireland for forty years. John worked in the M&M factory in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Pat and Charlie stayed bachelors, maybe for want of money, or maybe for want of brides in a part of the country where the women left young.

It was Pat and Charlie Kelly who fostered my father and his sister for a few years while his own father fought off a cancer of the nose and mouth. His mother kept the farm running and cared for the two toddlers left at home. They had given grandad up, more or less, when some quack gave him a caustic poultice to wear on his nose for nine nights. It melted the flesh away, a terrible agony, but he survived to ride his bicycle into his eighties, probably in spite of the quack. The parish priest advised granny to take up smoking to calm her nerves, and it was she who died twenty years before him.

Once the schoolteacher came up to the house. “John is bright. He should have books,” he said. My granny bought him two, and he read them in an afternoon, like a starveling. This made her decide books weren’t good value, and he didn’t get any more. Time enough for cutting turf, saving the hay, and thinning turnips, without books to bother with. (But is this a family legend, told by Mum, I’ve wondered since–a bogeyman story for a bookworm girl? Granny always seemed so kind, though I’m sure money for books was as scarce as Mercedes.)

The nearest town was Strokestown, where the grocer’s shop shared our last name, and the hotel is named for Percy French. The wide and stately main street seems to belong to Regency Bath rather than to a place where the old and the very young outnumber the breeders. Strokestown Park House is now the country’s famine museum; a small, belated restitution for the cruelty of the local landlord, Major Dennis Mahon, who evicted two-thirds of the tenants at the worst of the hunger. A few years ago, on holiday in Sicily, Dad met his English descendant, a Pakenham-Mahon who wanted to bond over memories of boyhood holidays at the family place in Roscommon. They had held onto it until 1979, and Dad remembered them, with no fondness, as leaving the gates open on his father’s land as they galloped through on their hunters.

He went to Mansa as a small farmer’s son, taught first by a drunk in a pink, two-room schoolhouse, and so perhaps he arrived at Mr. Elias’s brick secondary school as an equal rather than a missionary or a mercenary. I like to think he felt the frugal, country kinship that Dervla Murphy brings to her books, where the traveler’s eye alights on chickens scratching in the dirt and sees eggs rather than postcards.

For me, Zambia is pressed in an album. I’m there, a dusty baby with an infected vaccination scar, with my stand-in godmother who was later eaten by crocodiles. (Or did I make that up, too?) On another page, the football team my father coached hangs out of the back of a truck, hooting. They are beautiful young men in knee socks and soccer shorts; many are probably long dead. There are tigers and elephants; a snake or two; and my mother on a motorcycle. (Though not all in the same photo.) Fragments.

There’s his schoolmaster colleague, an English former public school boy, who jolted the three of us around Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe in his Volkswagen when I was six months old. He spoke only to dad, my mother complains, though from time to time he tried to teach me Latin verbs. That was the trip when they pitched camp in the path of the hippos’ watering hole, and only the rumbling approach gave them time to dive clear. Hippos were rare in Roscommon. Camping was unusual.

I have to look up the Wikipedia to see where it was they really lived. Mansa is an imaginary place that exists in the dimensions of time and stories, not space. Several friends have gone to Zambia over the years–Ranger Tim kayaked down the Zambezi, and my old college flatmate oversaw Ireland’s AIDS mission to Zim and Zam–but I’ve stayed resolutely ignorant of news outside those little square, white-bordered snapshots. Sometimes little details click,like when I read VS Naipaul’s stories of Asians in Africa and realize how it was that dad came to like saris better than miniskirts. But it’s only writing this that I study the population, the geography, the climate, and the forty years that have betrayed the hopes of independence and mineral wealth.
“Do you remember, in Zambia, the Russian engineers would drink tea out of jam jars…Do you remember, in Zambia…”

Dad taught school there for three and a half years. He read Ulysses. He helped deliver me, though that was the end of his New Man efforts for two decades. They went home when his grandmother fell ill, and thought they would soon go back. They still talk about going back. Instead, they moved to Limerick, and added more small girls to the family.

When my sisters fought in the back seat, Dad would stop the car outside a church. “Go inside and pray for each other,” he’d order, “And don’t come out until Baby Jesus knows you mean it.” We never disobeyed him, though he didn’t go to Mass, and we were fairly sure he never consulted Baby Jesus on anything. They’d slam the car door and in they’d stomp, torn between enmity and a common enemy. “It’s important to give them something to unite against,” he’d say, as we watched them march back down the gravel path, friends again but scowling at him. It took us years to realize that he kept his stash of private jokes in plain sight.

I see how good his life is these days, and that he’s made it so. He squabbles with my mother over who got more wine in the last top-up. He has taught for thirty-five years, thirty at the same school, and when we walk around Limerick together, he is greeted at every corner.
“Howrya, sorr,” say kids from 14 to 45. “How’re you keeping, Seán?”
“Jesus, I can’t put a name to that fella,” he’ll say, shaking his head, but I’m amazed at the number he does remember–and their families, life histories, and temperament, too. Those who care enough to pay attention can appraise us pretty well at fifteen, before we lacquer adult polish over our essential natures.

Even here in San Francisco, I meet people who remember him and are grateful. Though he sends me hopeful text messages about Dublin job openings at Google, it’s his work that I envy–how it has woven him into the fabric of his community, and still left him time to have a rich life beyond it. He’ll spend his birthday in Pompeii, with my mother and good friends. Now that Ryanair has opened up Europe, they go to a different city every mid-term break–Rome, Palermo, Dubrovnik, Prague… Over Christmas, he took a group of schoolkids skiing in Italy, as he does every year. For Easter, he’ll visit my sister in Ottawa. They might come here in August, though I tell them over and over that San Francisco has a summer only a toad could love. He isn’t daunted.

We bought him a birthday bicycle, a fit present for a man who doesn’t feel one bit different inside than he did when he was twenty-five. We say that he has mellowed gracefully, all the same.

While They Still Believe

SantySanty lives deep in the Aillwee Cave in the Burren, which is in the North Pole. When Kevin went to see him it was cold in the cave, and without the lightbulbs it would have been dark, because caves have no windows. He was surprised, really, that Santy didn’t live somewhere nicer. It dripped, and the walls were slimy. The stalactites looked like snots hanging from the ceiling, and if Terence was there they might have laughed at them together. _Greeners! Big frozen greeners! Greener ice pops!_ But he didn’t laugh, not when he was visiting Santy. He didn’t touch the stalactites because you aren’t allowed, and he wasn’t going to do anything that might put him on the Bold Boy List.

His thoughts spun, hot and tangled like knickers in the dryer. He couldn’t wait–please please please make the time go fast until Santy came–but at the same time he was afraid. What had he done and forgotten that might put him on the Bold Boy List? What did Santy know about his sulks, and the time he wouldn’t get into the car to go to granny’s like he was told? And the time he shouted that he hated mam because she made him go to bed instead of watching _The Little Rascals_ again–had Santy moved his name to the Bold Boy List? His face got hot as he pictured Santy shaking his head sadly, in front of Joe and mam.

And then he thought about his own list, the things he had asked for. The feeling of opening the box under the tree and finding a Nintendo DS was so real that it made him shake. Thoughts of Santy made him giddy and sick. He couldn’t stop them, nor did he want to, so he squeezed mam’s hand, and sucked his free thumb to hold himself in one place.

And when he finally sat on Santy’s lap, he forgot to breathe. He stared at the red velvety knees.

“Ho ho ho,” said Santy. “If it isn’t Kevin Scully. I must check my book, Kevin, to see what it was you wanted this year.”

“In-TEN-do!” said Joe, who was only three and didn’t even know what it was.

“Nintendo? Is that right, now? Well, that’s a big present. We’ll have to take a look to see where you are on the list, Kevin.” The brown leather book almost covered the small table on which it rested. Santy opened it nearly to the middle. “GOOD CHILDREN,” he read out loud, though Kevin could read it too, and it made his heart thump. Santy ran his finger down the page, then down the next one, then halfway down the next. “And here you are. Kevin Scully. And he’s on the right list, right enough, so he must have been a good boy this year. Were you a good boy this year, Kevin?”

Kevin said that he was. He saw the letters K-E-V-I-N in the heavy book. Through his relief he noticed that Santy had a wart on his Peter Pointer finger, and that his beard was yellowy.

“And I have on my list that you are looking for Nintendo DS, _or_ a Power Ranger Mystic Force and a selection box and a surprise.” Mam had helped him with the letter last week. He had picked carefully. You couldn’t ask for too much, because that was greedy, and greedy was bold. But Santy always brought more than you asked for, and a surprise could be two things, or even three, so if the Nintendo was too much he might still get something good.

“Well, Kevin, we’ll see what we can do for you. And remember to keep being a good boy. Do you know how I know you’re a good boy?”

He shook his head.

“The robins work for me, Kevin. They’re my little spies. You know the little robin red breasts in the garden? Well, they tell me what’s going on with all the little boys and girls in Ireland, and all over the world. They peep in the windows and they know all about what’s going on. Very good workers, the robins. I depend on them almost as much as I depend on Rudolph.”

Robins!

He was quiet the whole way home to Limerick.

On Christmas Eve, mam and dad wouldn’t stop visiting. They called up to Granny Neville, and then to Granny Scully. They called up to Aunty Deirdre, Aunty Laura, and Aunty Claire. They called to Sheena-next-door. Everywhere they went there were Marks & Spencer’s mince pies and smoked salmon, and wine for mam and dad. And prawns.

“Do you want Coke, Kevin? Will you have a bag of Taytos?” the aunties kept saying, and after a while he didn’t even want more Coke; he wanted to go home and wait for Santy, but mam and dad wouldn’t go even though he pulled on their arms and legs.

“And what’s Santy bringing you, Kevin?” they all asked.

“Nintendo DS _or_ Power Ranger Mystic Force and a selection box and a surprise.” He knew they didn’t really know what he was talking about. To them it was no different than saying how big he was getting, or what class was he in now, but still he wanted to say the list out loud so that it would come true. _Our Father who art in heaven hallowbee die Nintendo DS or Power Ranger Mystic Force._ Just saying the list made him bounce.

“Mam!” he said, “Mam! I want to go HOME. Stop TALKING.”

“Kevin, don’t be rude. We’ll go in a minute. Don’t you know Santy’s keeping particular watch on little boys on Christmas Eve?”

It was dark already. Santy could come any minute and they might miss him if Mam wouldn’t finish her bloody wine, but she had him caught.

“They’re talking about Santy on the News, Kevin,” said Sheena-next-door.

They were interviewing an air traffic controller at Dublin Airport, who said they cleared the flightpath for Santa Claus. Generally they did that just to make sure, he said, though of course they didn’t have exact knowledge of the sleigh’s flight plan. However, the radar did pick up some unusual northern activity that suggested Santa and the reindeer had probably left the North Pole around 4pm…

“Mam!” said Kevin, “he’s already gone! We have to go home!”

“And now over to Professor Michael Nolan of Trinity College, who will explain just how Santa Claus manages it,” said the newscaster.

Of course, it was very difficult to visit every single good child in the world in just a single night, said the professor. He looked cold standing outside in his anorak, waving at the sky. “Santy makes the most of it by crossing the international date line, which turns 24 hours into 36 hours…”

Gráinne Seoige wished all the good boys and girls a happy Christmas and lots of toys from Santy, and said good night.

“I suppose we better go home, so,” said Daddy, putting down his glass. “There’s a boy here who seems awfully anxious to get to bed. Very unusual.” Kevin was so relieved he didn’t mind being mocked. He didn’t even mind when the nerves and Coke and Taytos made him get sick on his pillow because he knew that Santy was coming.

They moved to the new house the following August. He stood in the back garden with Joe, watching Daddy hammer the swingset into the ground. This back garden was much bigger than the one at the old house, and he didn’t fully feel like he owned it yet. He still ran in circles small enough to have fitted in the old garden. Joe didn’t care; Joe ran everywhere.

A bird landed beside Daddy and looked up at them with bright little brown eyes.

“A robin!” said Kevin, “A robin red-breast, Joe!”

Even as the robin’s little head strobed, he looked intently at Kevin. Joe cocked his head just like the bird.

“He’s _Santy’s little spy,_ Joe. Robin red-breast. He’s looking to see if we’re good boys.”

“God, Kevin, you have a very good memory,” said Mam. She was smiling. “Mr. Robin Red Breast is here just to check to see if you’ve settled into your new bedroom, so he can tell Santy where to go next Christmas. He’ll make sure Santy finds you.”

“Mam,” he said urgently. “Will he know me with my new glasses? Will he know it’s me?”

“Well, I suppose he will. Santy knows you fairly well, doesn’t he? Remember how he recognized you in the Aillwee Cave?”

But why take the chance? He pulled off the glasses and knelt on the grass.

“Robin,” he said. “It’s me. Kevin Scully. I used to live in Ballinvoher and now I Iive here and I have glasses. So tell Santy. Okay?”

The robin appraised him, and flew off. They were both satisfied.

Folly Bergere

Sheep Train on Croagh PatrickOur Limerick neighbors have a second home in Fahamore, Co. Kerry, a windwashed scrap in the shadow of Mount Brandon. It was there that my mother met the sheep, as it skittered past the French windows followed by a barking dog.

    “I thought the dog was worrying the sheep,” she confided. “So I went out to save it.” My mother is scared of dogs, but she has a very good heart. “I went out the door, and somehow I got between the dog and the house, and next thing, in the sheep went into the hallway, and me outside with the dog. So I made a dash back for the house to get him out, and he’s standing on the hall carpet, filthy dirty. It’s good carpet, they brought it down from their other house, and it’s still a good carpet. He has a terrible sheepy smell.”
    “I suppose he’d smell sheepy, right enough.”
    “I wave at him to get out, and instead off he trots down the hall and into the bedrooms. Bringing his sheepy smell all over the house.”
    “The carpet was sheepy once. He was probably reuniting with his granny.”
    “So I had to climb over the bed to get on the other side of him to herd him back out of the house. And he’s in no hurry, mind, to get back out there to the dog, but eventually I give him a shove so that he runs back out to the hall, bleating away. And there’s a young farmer lad standing outside the door beside the dog, with his arms crossed. And it dawns on me… ”
    “Oh dear…”
    “So I say, ‘was the dog trying to herd the sheep? ‘”
    “You were sheepish, like?” She ignores this.
    “And, oh, he’s not impressed at all, this lad. He says–he’s real Kerry–“Well, ma’am, he was _tryin’.”_