St Mary’s Road

The old fart reads her mails.

The old shin-dippedy-dee of a sparrow’s fart reads her mails.

And there I was doing S’s up the St Mary’s Road at four in the morning, as low as the gusset on a hipster’s cargo pants, after losing you in the boiling break-up when we moved from night club to late bar (or was that from late bar to nightclub?) — just wanting to give you a goodnight hug for old times’ sake. And all along ‘twas because the old spangledy-bang of a bunyip’s fart reads your mails.

I saw his Twitter tagline on one of those whiskey wobbly nights when you search out old flames and their farty old husbands: “the oldest swinger in town” or some such aul’ shimminey-poo. Swinger me hoky-koky. He’d need a good dose of WD40 before he’d do any swinging. And even then . . . And your picture telling me what a fine thing you still were, and, Jesus, didn’t I have great taste back in the day. Over twenty years ago — Christ on his bicycle! I didn’t expect you to stay pure and virginal after you dumped me, but the series of yokes you went out with — a diminutive, hirsute Suede fan being the first . . . And each of these balubas, gorillas, knuckle-scrapers implying an improvement on me — an upgrade. Jesus Christ. I’d say it wasn’t going out with some of them you were, but teaching them to read and write. Can you blame a man for feeling low? And the last yoke-of-all-yokes you wound up with, in fourth year, two years of clear water between our delirious year and then, was the old fart. And twenty years later, you’re married with three kids to the creeping septu-singedy-dingedy-arian.

And not a bother on you.

Wasn’t my head up off the pillow as soon as I put it down? The hotel near the university. And the tongue like a Clonakilty pudding. Not to mention the innards. And the sweats and the fear on the drive back to Limerick. If the cops pulled me in . . .

I told my significant other when I collapsed out of the car back home. That it was a fine gathering. The class of 98. Bigger, bowlder and greyer, each and every one of us. Great to meet the old flame, that we’d spent hours talking, reconnected, but that I’d never got to say goodbye to you at the end of the night. It felt incomplete. And then the email I sent you when we became separated changing from A to B (or B to A). I showed it to her. There was nothing to be ashamed of. The email that had all the honest clarity of a four-in-the-morning from-the-hearter. It said that I wanted to hug you and tell you it was OK between us (in my mind anyway). And ne’ery a reply. Not a whiff of one. Bad form. Bad taste in the mouth. When you lay your heart out and . . . radio silence.

But it was OK, because the old fart reads your mails. I’d it all figured out. Controlling you since you felt old age creeping up on you twenty years ago (that was the joke back then). Throwing a masters at you. Putting you in for a PhD with one of his old post-grad buddies from the black-and-white TV days. The lecturing job. Putting a car under your arse. Building you a house. Being your Daddy replacement. Reading your mails. Of course, reading your mails. Which explained everything. You couldn’t put anything down in black and white. None of the vibes you gave me at the reunion. No squaring of the twenty-year-old broken circle in Unicode or HTML. No apology or regret for all the hurt.

That walk up the St Mary’s Road. It felt like a napalm bomb had gone off in my heart. And not in a good way. If I wasn’t avoiding being literary, I’d have used the word “bereft”. It was like the break-up all over again. Wandering towards the university torn and lovelorn, while decent, unheart-broken folk were all in bed. Drunk as a skunk. Drunker. Thick with the drink, and thicker with heartbreak.

But without the Echo and the Bunnymen soundtrack.

Maybe it was the perfect reunion. A smidgen of joy and giggles and feeling warm and connected and that there had been something real there. And then all of it blown out of the water. Losing track of you between A and B or B and A and then the cold non-response to my mail. Just like the old days, as the song goes.

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Book Excerpt: She Who Casts the First Stone

It was pure luck that Shell didn’t catch me that morning. But I certainly caught her! And boy was I surprised!

It had been a comfortingly unremarkable morning up until that point. No black out. Very little pain. Affect: middling to high. After the school run, and Sergeant Psych and I had enjoyed our customary cuppa chez moi, I decamped to the shed, where I was sorting out tins of varnish and paint and the like. Literally pottering about. Sergeant Psych had told me that he would take any bits and bobs off my hands to distribute among his network of DIY-ing OAPS and so I was testing each vessel for signs of having gone off. There’s nothing lower than giving away mouldy paint to the needy! It was coming up to eleven o’clock and I was thinking of having a cigarette, bun and cup of tea (washed down by Doctor Trendy’s legal opiates). For some reason, on the cobblestone path, midway between the shed and the patio door I took off my headphones and paused, having a listen and a look at my wintertime garden. My gaze may have lingered on some of my favourite specimens — the strawberry tree with its rugged whorls of red bark, the geometrically perfect Korean fir, gun-metal grey cones orthogonal to its branches, the myrtle whose leaves I regularly savour plucking in order to release that wonderful aroma — and I may have been caught smiling indulgently. These living things that I have nursed from sapling to flowering and fruiting tree, I sometimes feel something approaching a love for. I may have instinctively glanced around to check and see if the bird boxes and feeders were in need of replenishing. Or I may have just stopped to listen to the gentle birdsong from the hedgerow behind the rear boundary wall of the property. In that moment I was content, in that body-ticking-over, idle-minded kind of way that can silently steal up on anyone, anytime, anyplace — even on a man with terminal cancer who is more than halfway through his final few weeks on earth.

Then I heard a car pull into the driveway.

I recognised the engine as that of Shell’s. I scarpered — back down the garden path, into the shed — and pulled the door shut behind me. For a few moments I froze, thinking that I was on the brink of being rumbled.

Shell has come to the house on purpose, I thought. Someone tipped her off.

There was going to be an almighty confrontation and it would all come out. The secret life of Shane Ó Diomasaigh exposed! I’d be watched like a hawk for the rest of my days: no smoking, no Ruth, no slow pints with Sergeant Psyche. I’d be press-ganged into having chemo, forced into unwanted survival. The rest of my life lived in the dog house.

When I calmed down it entered my mind that perhaps Shell had come home for some innocent reason. She might have forgotten to bring a folder to work. Her memory stick might have slipped down behind the cushion of her chair. I began to think of how the house inside might be. Had I left any evidence of my secret life lying around? A surge of panic rose in me: had I left my fags on the countertop beside the kettle? I frisked myself, tapping with both hands the many pockets of my sleeveless fishing jacket in symmetrical sequence. I found them. Panic over. Was there anything else in the house out of place? The radio was off. The patio door was closed — but unlocked.

She may not discover this, I thought, if she’s just come home to get something she’s forgotten.

I slowly stood out of my crouch and gingerly approached the window that faces the house. Hanging back in the shadows, half stooping, controlling my breathing in a way I hadn’t done since hide and seek stopped being a thing in our household, I scanned the back windows for a blonde head of hair. After a time, the kitchen light plinked on and I saw Shell moving from the dining area to the sink. She opened the press where the goodies are stored: top shelf hard alcohol; bottom shelf crisps, popcorn, sweets, peanuts. She pulled out a bottle of whiskey. As I was attempting to discern exactly which whiskey (I have a small collection of single malts for special occasions), while also wondering what in the name of God Shell was doing drinking at that hour of the day (a marriage of secret drinkers — how hilarious!) I noticed that she was not alone. Into view appeared a man; about our own age, great mop of jaw-length, curly hair, sloppy knitted jumper. As Shell fixed the whiskey (it was my twelve-year-old Glenkinchie) he put his arms around her waist and nuzzled her neck. As opposed to if I tried this, she did not elbow him in the side, throw the Glenkinchie in his face or deal him a cheek-reddening slap. Au contraire, after handing the whiskey over and watching him take an appreciative sip, she pulled him into a long kiss with a lasciviousness I have not seen in her in many’s the long year.

At that moment I was probably the most shocked man hiding in a garden shed anywhere in the whole world. Shell was having an affair! Shell was sneaking out of work to have mid-morning liaisons with a rugged-looking type. Bowl me over with a feather! And far from being angry, I found the whole thing amusing. Shell, perfect Shell, too busy to give me even a peck on the cheek this morning as she comically high-heel sprinted to her car, was human after all. The ice queen still had passions bubbling away deep under the permafrost. I almost laughed aloud.

The man watched with a fuck-me face as Shell opened a bottle of chardonnay and poured herself a hefty enough glass. They toasted. All smiles and slanty eyes. I decided to join them. I rooted out a bottle of cut-price vodka from my stash (label removed and marked For The Azalia), poured a dollop into a handleless mug and drank to their health. Holding hands, they moved into the sitting room, of which I now had no view and where I imagine they began canoodling on the couch. I pulled up a venerable Fanta crate, left behind by the plasterers and which had served as stool and step since we moved into the house, sat myself down on it and prepared for a long wait.

Five minutes passed. Ten. There was no re-emergence into view of the amorous pair. They were either engaging in some serious foreplay on the couch, had decided to get down to business there and then, disturbingly using the family couch as a nuptial bed, or had moved operations upstairs via the sitting room’s far door. I very was tempted to sneak out of my hidey-hole, inch open the sliding door, stick my head into the kitchen and have a listen to what they were getting up to.

Were Bit O’Rough’s attentions getting any sound out of Shell? I wondered.

In our early days she was a screamer. After a night of lovemaking, my housemates would shoot knowing looks in my direction over breakfast and sometimes make a wry but half-admiring comment. Shell would scream “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” as she arrived towards climax and pull me closer and closer to her until she released that final, drawn-out, high-decibel blasphemy. J-e-s-u-s. Over the years the Jesuses grew quieter and quieter, especially when the kids came on the scene. Now, the odd time we get around to doing the bold thing, she shushes me as things build up a head of steam, fearful of the girls being woken.

I also wondered how they are doing it. Not out of jealously, but human interest. Along with volume, Shell’s sexual life has lost variety. Her foreplay has withered and contracted; imagination and zest are severely lacking. She has gone off oral sex, both as a giver and receiver. I am barely allowed to touch her “down there”. And she will rarely stomach anything but the missionary position these days.

Are she and Bit O’Rough engaging in Hollywood sex in there?

I was on my third shot of vodka and dying for a fag by the time I saw movement beyond the kitchen window. Bit O’Rough appeared at the sink and set about washing the whiskey tumbler and wine glass. He was dressed, thanks be to God, but when Shell emerged into view she was wearing nothing but a towel around her hair, as if recently out of the shower and allowing her body to air dry. This nudism was definitely a side of hers I hadn’t witnessed for a decade. In our early years there were whole weekends when we wouldn’t leave the house, and spent the entire time not wearing a stitch of clothing. This liberation from one of the symbols of civilization put each of our bodies in the front window for the other and meant that a spontaneous sexual act was on the cards at any time, even during the most mundane of domestic chores. Shell prancing around in front of Bit O’Rough was an invitation for him to admire her physique and take advantage of it whenever he wanted. It also showed how comfortable she felt in his presence. Whatever they had got up to away from my prying eyes was not merely some awkward, ashamèd fumblings.

I found myself feeling happy for Shell. She had found someone who brought her back to the old Shell. Someone who for an hour could make her forget about her high-octane job and her mission to have perfect kids, husband, house, car and all the rest of it. In a brotherly way I hoped the guy was not an asshole. I hoped he wasn’t into Shell just for the sex and free Glenkinchie. I prayed he was single, so that when I was gone she didn’t have to sneak around to get some loving. Maybe Bit O’Rough would be the perfect counterbalance for Shell’s controlling ways and materialism. He looked like a creative, outdoorsy type — a sculptor or a tree surgeon. A free spirit. He looked strong enough to tell her to go fuck herself when she started with the keeping-up-with-the-Jonses shit. A stronger man than me.

After he had dried the glasses and Shell left the room to get dressed, Bit O’Rough slid open the patio door, stepped outside and lit up a cigarette. My heart thumping, I ducked down below the level of the window and became all ears. I heard the slow, scraping of footsteps of a man surveying the scene as he took his time over his post-coital cigarette, to and fro and back again along the damp and puddled patio. But when I heard the crunching of his feet along the pebble path that wound around the garden and whose terminus was the shed I quaked.

What if the fucker decided to have a peek inside?

There was nowhere to hide in there. The footsteps grew closer. I could smell his smoke. I could hear him humming. A song I couldn’t place. Perhaps something by Tom Waits. Or maybe Duke Special.

Then Shell saved me.

“Ciarán,” she called, “come on. We’re leaving.”

“OK, honey bear,” he answered half sarcastically.

Bit O’Rough’s voice was deep and manly, and he had the accent of a countryman. As his boots clomped towards the patio door Shell warned him to dispose of his cigarette butt carefully.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll destroy the evidence!”

I did not see what he did with the butt. The first thing I did when I heard Shell’s car pull out of the driveway was light my own cigarette. Wobbly enough already from the vodka and the medication, the nicotine hit me like a hammer and I found myself stumbling over to plonk my backside on a nearby bench. I didn’t care that the bench’s surface was sodden, I just needed a stable centre in a spinning universe. When the dizziness passed I had myself another cigarette, which I this time enjoyed. Afterwards, I found that I had been locked out of the house. Shell or Bit O’Rough had locked the patio door. I let myself in using the spare key I have hidden under a stone in the rockery.

The living room smelt of sex. Upstairs the vapour from Shell’s shower had obliterated that particular aroma, but the mattress of our double bed was still warm from their bodies. At least there was no damp patch. Thank God for small mercies. I was sure that Shell had been very thorough in removing all traces of Bit O’Rough, but I nonetheless looked for long, dark hairs on the pillows and duvet. Nothing.

I wondered how often Shell enjoyed these little escapades. Once every two weeks? (I had been home for almost this period of time.) I would have to keep an ear out in future as I mooched about the house, be ready to scurry into hiding at the sound of a car’s engine powering down in the driveway. There was now an extra frisson of danger to my double life.

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A Short Story: Psycho

Brother M had been an unpopular teacher from the moment he arrived to our school. Those of us in class 2b had the dubious privilege of being the first to welcome him, and, in what was a source of pride for us, within hours our nickname for him — Psycho — had spread like wildfire along the corridors. He did not look unlike Anthony Perkins; the trim, oiled-down hair, the narrow, unsmiling mouth, the thin skin, pulled to tautness over sharp cheekbones and along a high forehead. And, just like the Hollywood actor, he was small in stature and rake-thin. But it was not his appearance that had inspired our sobriquet.

As well as being stern and frostily aloof, Psycho was by far the most cynical and world-weary teacher we had come across in our school careers. His every word and gesture let it be known that he disapproved of us boys, thought us foolish and unintelligent, and that his futile efforts to instil in us the merest trace of learning and civilisation were being offered up to God as penance. It did not help his case that he had replaced a young, dynamic and popular teacher who was so liked by us that we had never got around to anointing him with a wry or vulgar nickname, he being known simply by his first name.

With the full assurance of adolescent wisdom, we surmised that our new teacher was well into his sixties. A handful of my nerdier and more neurotic classmates, worrying already about such distant horizons as honours physics (Psycho’s métier), the Leaving Cert and college entry points, fretted that Psycho would reach retirement age midway through senior cycle, requiring the difficult adjustment to a new teacher’s personality and pedagogic methods just as exams were breathing down their necks. The rest of us looked at his collar and soutane and feared for the worst: a Christian Brother of advanced age was a creature who inspired equal measures of terror and respect.

Brothers of Psycho’s age were the product of a system geared to the formation of zealous, unwavering, unyielding, disciplined (and disciplinarian), Irish nationalist Catholic soldier-teachers. These men showed zero tolerance to a long list of what us students regarded as great things: girls, pop music, soccer (English soccer in particular), films, television, dirty books (i.e. ones not written by Daniel Corkery, Walter Macken or Frank O’Connor), modern hair styles, fashion, computer games, music magazines et cetera, et cetera. Anything that was not to do with Catholicism, school or finding a decent job when you walked out through their gates for the last time at eighteen years of age was categorised as nonsense and eejitry. The only frivolities allowed were hurling, Gaelic football and traditional Irish music, and the only students ever shown a measure of respect by these old Christian Brothers were the heroes of the school teams or virtuoso fiddle players.

In many ways, brothers such as Psycho who had been ordained in the 1940s or 50s must have been in culture shock in our world of the early 1990s. How were men cloistered off from society by their celibacy and belonging to a holy order meant to process such modern phenomena as “Vogue”-era Madonna, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the movies of David Lynch, Paul Gascoigne or the KLF? It would have been too much to expect our adolescent minds to make allowances for these men’s harshness and occasional cruelty towards us. We were just glad that they weren’t allowed to hit us any more. I still remember that winter morning in 1982, walking to school with my friends with the only topic of conversation being the banning of corporal punishment in Irish schools. “If they hit us, we can tell the police,” was a common observation among my peers. But our teachers still continued to hit us, perhaps not with the abandoned relish of earlier times (my uncle had a tooth knocked out by a Christian Brother’s efforts to underline the importance of punctuality). All of my friends received the odd slap or dig on our way up through primary and secondary school. Some more than others. And some teachers were more heavy-handed than others. I cannot remember the brother we had in fifth class raising a hand or bata to anyone. A lay teacher who taught us the following year, however, gave my desk mate a bloody nose. I was slapped in the face by a teacher who is now, peculiarly, a Facebook friend. I still feel a sense of outrage at the incident.

Unlike a brother we had christened “Tuck”, who after leading a Hail Mary upon entry into class would rampage up and down the rows of desks pucking and prodding, and pulling at boys’ locks, Psycho was not a hitter. He had no need to rely on physical violence to control his classroom. Emotional and psychological bullying worked just fine for him. He would marshal sarcasm in the same way the brothers who had taught my father deployed rod and leather. A verbal cutting down to size delivered in Psycho’s papery voice (never raised and slightly tinged with a northern accent) tore closer to the bone than one of Tuck’s rulers across the knuckles. In truth, the incidents where Psycho would single out a student and wither his self-esteem before his classmates were the highlights of the long, joyless, sterile minutes we spent in his physics lab — as long as that student didn’t happen to be you. He had these demolitions of character down to a fine art. After a couple of months under Psycho’s tutelage we had become as much connoisseurs of the rapier and cruzeta as veteran aficionados of bullfighting.

In between the scolding and threats of extra homework and reminding us how lazy and useless we were, he would introduce us to grand concepts such as magnetism or ionic bonds or osmosis. Standing rigid at his lectern or stretching to fill the farthest corner of the blackboard with his copperplate, he seemed unmoved by the ideas he was transmitting, and, in spite of teenage boys’ innate fascination for science, we were equally uninspired. He drained all enthusiasm for the subject from us, to the extent that attendance at class became all about avoiding his ire, while the point of homework became less about the challenge of beating a tricky physics or chemistry problem and more about staving off criticisms.

We did not even receive the compensation for being Psycho’s students of getting to perform experiments. Across the country and set down by the national curriculum for general science and the individual science subjects, a pair of classes were always scheduled back to back in order to provide time for experiments. Up until Psycho’s arrival, for many, double science, along with PE, had been one of the highlights of the week. Even the most unenthusiastic students of chemistry or biology or physics could look forward to a break from bookwork for two classes a week. Bunsen burners would be lit, glassware laid out, reagents distributed and plant or animal tissue arranged on bevelled glass dissection trays, and for two hours we were free from the chains that normally tied our bodies to our desks and our minds to attention to a teacher or textbook. But Psycho did not do experiments. And, thus, with his arrival, double science was transformed from a great pleasure to a terrible pain — and we had another reason to dislike him.

We speculated at length as to why Psycho did not do experiments with us. Did he think us that immature or untrustworthy (or downright bad) to deny us free reign with fire, chemicals and combustible materials? Or was he waiting, in true Dead Poets’ Society style, for that perfect moment when we would reach the required readiness to measure the rate of transpiration of Canadian pondweed or set up a Torricellian vacuum? Or was he somehow anti-experiment? Did he believe that two hours of his uniquely stimulating educational technique and razor-sharp insights into both science and the adolescent mind were superior in instilling in us the principles and nitty-gritties of science to actually doing science? Or was it the miserly, sadistic curmudgeon in him who delighted in our suffering by depriving us of one of the few happy points of the school week? Was Psycho keeping away from the test tubes out of meanness?

The deeper among us wondered if there a more adult reason.

“It’s about insurance,” one of us knowingly said. “Something happened in his last school. An accident. A fire or whatever. And now he’s not allowed to do experiments.”

“Maybe a kid died,” someone else piped up.

“An explosion.”

“Or poisonous gas.”

“Maybe it’s not about insurance. Maybe Psycho just can’t do experiments. The trauma of whatever happened. The boy dying. He can’t face labs now. Gets the shakes. Faints. Like that film about air traffic controllers.”


It is ironic that a man who was not known as a hitter, and who had never laid a finger on his students during his time with us came to leave the school because of an incident in which he raised a hand against a boy. What happened that day saw Psycho leave our school as unexpectedly as he had arrived. One moment he was a member of staff, one of our three science teachers and the only physics teacher, the next he was gone, not seen nor heard of nor mentioned (at least by his former colleagues in our company) ever again. It had a fitting symmetry that Psycho’s final class in the school was given to 2b.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in mid February, one of those still, grey, cold days when the coming of spring seems as far away as it had in November. The penultimate class of the day, with the school’s central heating running at its stuffiest full blast, us students were sluggish, eyelids heavy and circulatory systems directed towards the digestion of lunch rather than the carriage of oxygen to the cerebral cortex. The last thing we needed or desired was an hour of being harangued and worried by Psycho. There were certain classes one could doze and daydream through without incurring the teacher’s wrath, where the odd nod towards the blackboard or pretend taking of a note would trick the figure behind the lectern into thinking you were more awake than you appeared. But these bagatelles never worked with Psycho. His long years of experience had taught him to recognise the drooping eyelids, faraway looks and lack of fidgeting and bottom-shifting for what they were. So a sleepy class would be tormented by a hail of questions, demands to define this law or that and challenges to our logic and understanding of the topic under consideration. It was an interrogation in reverse — by the one of the many — and tougher than any conducted by Crockett and Tubbs on TV.

On that particular day, after half a class spent ruffling drowsy feathers, Psycho’s attention came to rest on a boy from whom he quickly extracted the information that he had not fully completed the previous day’s homework. The man was predictably outraged. After spending a good minute or two chiding him (and during which time the words “lazy”, “óinseach” and “good-for-nothing” were repeatedly employed) he commanded the boy to stand up and go to the blackboard.

“You’ll do the homework now, in front of all of your classmates, you lout,” said Psycho.

He handed the boy a stick of chalk and read out the first of the questions that had not been done. It was a problem based on calculating a material’s elasticity. My unfortunate classmate began an uncertain scratching of chalk on slate. As one of the tallest and broadest in our year he towered over Psycho, who stood angrily beside him at the blackboard. After a few lines of error-ridden reckonings, Psycho pulled the chalk out of the boy’s hand.

“You eejit,” he erupted. “You lazy, blackguard. The very boy who needs most to do his homework is too wicked and foolish to do it. Try the next question.”

The boy was once more given the stick of chalk and just enough time to demonstrate his ignorance of elasticity before Psycho interrupted his stuttering efforts: “Nonsense! Rubbish! Dross! Give me that, you pup!”

Psycho took the chalk and corrected and completed both problems. The boy stood watching without interest, awaiting the command to return to his seat. But Psycho was not finished with him.

“Now. You will tell me why you saw fit not to do the homework I gave you.”

The boy looked towards us plaintively, as if searching our faces for a reasonable excuse. After an awkward pause during which the opening and closing of his mouth signalled deep cogitation, he came up with a classic in the area of homework-dodging obfuscation.

“I forgot, sir,” he said. His voice was flat, absent-minded, veering towards pathetic — attempting to hit that sweet spot of credibility.

Psycho looked from the boy to us.

“Do you hear that?” we were asked. “He forgot. He forgot! He thinks I was born yesterday!”

The diminutive man returned his attention to the boy.

“Do you think I was born yesterday?”

Now. The correct answer to this question was a firm “no, sir” which would lack any trace of sarcasm or mocking, and convey the sense that not only is the student wholly certain that the master was not brought into this world the previous day, but also that the teacher’s time-earned wisdom is an unassailable surety. Our classmate’s answer did not meet these criteria.

“What do you think, sir?”

The boy may have been frazzled, or angry at being humiliated and called names, or had had enough of Psycho’s making an example of him. If his answer had been intended to call a halt to the show that was being made of him, then full marks to the boy — because bring an end to it it did.

Roaring “you cheeky devil” and displaying surprising speed and agility for a man who had been born at least sixty by three hundred and sixty-five days ago, the Christian Brother launched himself at the student. He gave a jump worthy of an inter-county Gaelic football player, and, with the reach of a champion boxer, overcame the difference in height between him and the boy to land a series of cuffs on his near-side temple and cheek. The assault on the boy may only have lasted five or ten seconds, but such was the shock among my classmates and I that these moments seemed artificially stretched in a slow motion sequence that could have come straight out of a Bruce Lee film. There may have been involuntary gasps from among us as the first of the blows rained down, but after these not a muscle was moved as we watched the action at the top of the class. The only sound to be heard was that of the hard flesh of Psycho’s hands against the fresh skin of the boy’s face — a damp, scuffling sound like that made by a large summertime moth flitting against a windowpane.

We will never know how long Psycho’s attack on our classmate would have continued if let fizzle out by itself. Would the five, ten, perhaps fifteen, seconds of frantic slapping that we witnessed have continued for another ten or fifteen seconds? Or another thirty? Or a minute? Would Psycho have stepped away from the boy, red-faced from the flurry of activity, ordered him back to his seat and taken up the lesson where he had left off as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred? Or would the violence be sheepishly brushed off: a mumbled half-apologetic witticism referencing his short temper; or maybe a warning to other absent-minded students to fully complete their homework? Would we have detected shame in Psycho’s demeanour for the rest of the class? Or the attempt to conceal shame? Or defiance?

We will never know, because Psycho’s beating of the boy was not brought voluntarily to a halt. Of all the boys in our class, Psycho picked the wrong one to hit. I would guess that most of my classmates would have taken the slapping handed out to them by Psycho without retaliation. Most would have taken the beating and returned to their seats displaying a mixture of humiliation and burning anger. Some would have been holding back tears, some openly crying, some their nostrils flaring and their body language telling us that they had barely managed to restrain themselves from returning Psycho’s blows with interest. But this boy did hit back. Or rather, push back.

That the boy was red-haired can mean nothing or everything, depending on how credible you find the myth regarding red-haired people. But this boy did have a temper. He was one of those who had never been bullied or picked on: those who drew pleasure from teasing and tormenting others had always left this boy alone. He would explode, it was known, if pushed far enough. And he would not relent. Mess with him and you had a fight to the death on your hands.

Thus, ten or perhaps fifteen seconds into Psycho’s assault, the boy had decided that he had had enough. If Psycho’s setting to the boy had astonished the class, then the boy’s reaction flabbergasted us. He swept a strong, long arm across Psycho’s reaching forearms, caught both of the small man’s thin wrists in his hands and pushed.

“Get the fuck off me,” was what we heard as Psycho fell backwards towards his desk in a black blur of swishing soutane. There was a clatter: his backside hitting the desk’s front panel. Then, he slid to the ground. For another one of those time-through-treacle moments the class was treated to the sight of our tormentor reduced to the pathetic likeness of the winos we would see up town on dole day if we strayed from the main streets into the alleys; as well as having the appearance of using the desk as a support to keep him upright, Psycho wore the same expression of bleary hopelessness as those men who poured bottle after cheap bottle of wine down their throats. There was also something comical about the scene. Psycho’s short legs peeped out from under his soutane with strange immodesty, his hair had become ruffled during the tussle and his glasses hung crookedly. No one laughed though. No one moved. No one even dared to breath.

After what seemed like an age it was Psycho who moved first. After pulling himself up, he ordered the boy to the principal’s office.

“Tell him what you did, you blackguard,” he said to the boy bitterly.

The boy, feeling, I imagine, a mixture of exhilaration and shame at his actions, left the room without a word or a glance back at his friends. Before the door had shut behind him, Psycho was continuing the lesson where he had left off, and for the remainder of the class, teacher and students entered into a conspiracy of silence. We ploughed into elastic points, newtons, Hooke’s Law and acceleration due to gravity, pretending that we had not seen the brother who was now strafing the class with questions splayed on the ground through the actions of a student who was fending off a beating. But while we may have raised our hands to provide an answer in kg per metre per second squared, and while we may have copied notes diligently into workbooks, our minds were on the drama we had just witnessed.

Would our classmate be expelled? we wondered.

Would he ever again sit among us through double science or freeze alongside us on frosty Monday mornings when the PE teacher took us out to the playing fields? Or would he merely be suspended? A week? Two weeks? Or would they go easy on the boy? Would a letter of apology to Psycho and a mea culpa before teacher and classmates suffice to keep the boy in the school?

Where none of our speculations roamed concerned the possible consequences to Psycho himself of his own actions. It was, in our experience of schooling, simply beyond the bounds of all likelihood that a teacher would be punished for hitting a student. While we had never seen so vicious and vigorous a beating handed out as that by Psycho, it was by no means unusual to see a teacher hit or poke or pummel a student. Down through the years not a single teacher had ever got into trouble for this, though. A code of silence concealed this illegal use of corporal punishment: while us students spoke of this beating or that teacher amongst ourselves, word of it never trickled upwards to parents or other teachers. We had no reason to believe that this omerta would be broken on this occasion or that Psycho would face any sort of reprimand for his actions.

It was all the more surprising, then, that the next day our red-haired classmate turned up for first class as if nothing had happened the day before. He was instantly surrounded by a gaggle of the curious and baffled.

“Why aren’t you suspended?”

“Or expelled?”

“What’s going on?”

“What did the principal say?”

“The principal said,” the boy told us, “that Psycho was wrong to have hit me and that everything is grand and no more will be said about it.”

This was unprecedented. The principal giving the right to a student above a teacher — and a brother to boot. We were in new territory here. We asked the boy about whether he thought anything would be done about Psycho.

“The principal called him an eejit. He used that word — eejit.”

It was during morning break that wild rumours began to spread around a school which was already abuzz with stories of what had happened in second science the previous afternoon. Psycho had not taken his physics classes that morning. The principal had been waiting for the fifth years as they filed into the lab, and without further elaboration had told them that Psycho was no longer their teacher and that a replacement would be found immediately. They could use the class to quietly study.

We had confirmation of the rumour ourselves after lunch as we quietly studied under the principal’s watch.

We wondered what had become of Psycho. Had he been packed off to another Christian Brothers’ school at the far end of the country? Or been forced to retire and sent to one of those homes for geriatric brothers that we had heard of? Or was he in the monastery under a type of house arrest until they worked out what to do with him?

Even for months after the incident there were students who swore that they had caught glimpses of Psycho behind the monastery’s net curtains. Or we would hear that so-and-so had passed by the school on Saturday morning and had seen a small figure in a cassock moving about the physics lab. Or Psycho had been seen at an early morning mass in the Poor Clares’ by a second cousin’s great aunt next-door neighbour. The truth was that none of us ever saw Psycho again. The wisdom of years tells me that the old brother was most likely moved out of town as quickly as possible. He may have been forced to go on holiday; perhaps to one of the order’s outposts in Britain. And then, a new position would have been found for him beginning at the start of the next school year.

Whenever this episode comes to mind I can never avoid feeling sorry for Psycho. I now understand that he must have been a very unhappy, unfulfilled and lonely man. He clearly derived little joy from teaching and had no love for his students. His life must have been suffocating in its sterility, parched of all those things that make it worth living: friendship, laughter, hope, humour, to name but a few. His loss of control in front of his students must have been a stinging humiliation. And his furtive packing off to a new school must have been an extra source of burning shame. He may have ended his days feeling himself to be something of a black sheep among his fellow brothers — a man who was shifted from a school under a cloud of controversy and secrecy.

As for our red-haired friend: his stock soared after the incident and remained high for the rest of our secondary school careers. As we moved up through the ranks, you could see fresh-faced first years nudging one another as he passed by and you knew what they were thinking: there’s the boy who got the brother sacked.

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Gearóid Iarla and Ennis

In Inis an Laoigh in mid-bay,

in Clonroad of the kings,

listening to the gurgling of streams,

I have been for two months.


These were my three kinds of music:

the playing of O’Brien’s harp while drinking beer,

the bell of Ennis on my western side,

the sound of saltwater lapping the stones.


The above pair of quatrains, translated from Irish, were written in 1370 by one of the most powerful men in late fourteenth-century Ireland. They are among the few verses written about Ennis, County Clare, and must certainly be amongst the oldest, given that the town was only founded in 1240*. They have a lyrical quality and existential air which one does not expect to find in medieval poetry, but everything about this short poem is surprising — from the author to the circumstances of its writing.

The author is Gerald FitzGerald, affectionately known in Irish as Gearóid Iarla (Earl Gerald), and who as the Third Earl of Desmond commanded a vast swathe of the province of Munster — taking in much of what are the modern counties of Cork, Waterford, south Tipperary, Limerick and Kerry. The king of England, Edward III, nominally Lord of Ireland, but in reality the figurehead of a patchwork of near-independent Hiberno-Norman and Gaelic kingdoms, acknowledged Gearóid Iarla’s power by appointing him Lord Justice of Ireland. The king also unwittingly provided much source material for Gearóid Iarla’s poems by obliging him to take Eleanor Butler, daughter of the Second Earl of Ormond (Gearóid Iarla’s sworn enemy), as his wife: Eleanor was Gearóid Iarla’s muse for much of his poetic career.

Gearóid Iarla was so prolific and highly regarded as a poet that he was also referred to as Gearóid Filid (Gerald the Poet). The bulk of his oeuvre was composed in Irish, but he also wrote in Norman French, in all probability his native language. That he acquired both the proficiency in the language and the interest in and respect for the native culture to compose poetry in Irish is one of the least surprising aspects of Gearóid Iarla’s story: by his time, the process of the Hiberno-Normans becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves” was irreversibly underway. So alarming had the Gaelicisation of the Norman invaders appeared to the English crown that a series of laws called the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed in 1366, forbidding everything from Hiberno-Normans’ use of Irish laws, language and dress to engaging in the Irish pastimes of “hockie” and “coiting” (the latter may refer to either a horseshoe tossing game or one resembling curling). Most of the Hiberno-Normans studiously ignored the statutes.

Much of Gearóid Iarla’s Irish poetry is collected in a work from the fifteenth century called Duanaire Ghearóid Iarla (the Poem-Book of Earl Gerald). In modern times the Duanaire has been published by Gearóid Mac Niocaill in Studia Hibernica (3[1963]: 7-59). There are also orphaned poems of his scattered here and there, for example in the Book of the Dean of Lismore. There was always a minority of poets and scholars who maintained that Gearóid Iarla hired the fourteenth century equivalent of a ghostwriter to pen his poems. The practice was so common in medieval Ireland that there was a term for such a poem: duan indlis (an unfaithful poem). On the other hand poems whose authorship were true were dílis. I will bow to noted Irish scholar Professor James Patrick Carney’s take on Gearóid Iarla‘s poetic output; it was kosher, he pronounced. They contain a consistent whimsy and depth of confidence in the verses that they could only have been penned by the very earl himself.

The surprising context of the writing of the above-quoted poem comes from Gearóid Iarla‘s darkest hour. During a series of battles with the O’Brien clan who ruled some of the parts of Munster that he did not (the kingdom of Tuamhain, Thomond in English with means “north Munster”), the earl was captured and taken to Ennis, the O’Briens’ capital, where he was imprisoned for a year. With much time on his hands while waiting for his family to stump up a ransom for him, Gearóid Iarla turned to poetry for solace. It was in Ennis, in Brian O’Brien’s Clonroad castle by the river Fergus, that the Earl composed his most celebrated poem “Mairg adeir olc ris na mnáibh” (“Speak not ill of womankind”):

Speak not ill of womankind,
‘Tis no wisdom if you do.
You that fault in women find,
I would not be praised of you.

Sweetly speaking, witty, clear,
Tribe most lovely to my mind,
Blame of such I hate to hear.
Speak not ill of womankind.

Bloody treason, murderous act,
Not by women were designed,
Bells o’erthrown nor churches sacked,
Speak not ill of womankind.

Bishop, King upon his throne,
Primate skilled to loose and bind,
Sprung of women every one!
Speak not ill of womankind.

For a brave young fellow long
Hearts of women oft have pined.
Who would dare their love to wrong?
Speak not ill of womankind.

Paunchy greybeards never more
Hope to please a woman’s mind.
Poor young chieftains they adore!
Speak not ill of womankind.

In terms of astonishing us, Gearóid Iarla kept the best until last: he didn’t just die of consumption or battle wounds like any ordinary medieval warlord. In 1398, at the age of 63, he disappeared. Legend has it that, far from meeting a grizzly end at the hands of one of his many enemies and being tossed down a mine shaft or the like, the earl travelled to the Otherworld, and to this day slumbers in a cave beside or beneath Lough Gur in County Limerick, from which he will emerge at his country’s hour of need. Since the early Bronze Age, Lough Gur and its surroundings have been considered a magical, liminal spot — a location bridging this world and the Otherworld of the sídhe (fairies) and the Tuatha Dé Danann (a god-like race). The largest stone circle in Ireland, Grange, consisting of 133 standing stones, is a stone’s through from Lough Gur, and the lake itself is associated with the pre-Christian Gaelic goddess, Áine. Before his disappearance, rumours abounded that the Earl was enjoying liaisons with the sun goddess, mirroring ancient tales of a dalliance between her and the king of Munster, Ailill Aolum (who died circa 235 AD). These legends that sprang up around Gearóid Iarla place him firmly in the role of Gaelic poet-priest-king and shows how after two centuries in the country the usurping Cambro-Normans had gone a long way towards being assimilated into the native culture.

For those of you interested in reading more of Gearóid Iarla (and who might have a reasonable command of Irish), I would recommend Scéal Ghearóid Iarla by Máire Mhac an tSaoi (Leabhar Breac, ISBN 978-0-898332-53-7 [2010]).


*The other great poem set in Ennis is Paul Durcan’s “Nights in the Gardens of Clare”, which I will get around to writing about another day.

Posted in Ennis, History, Ireland, Language, Mysticism, Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Indignation in Ikea

I was dragged along to Ikea the other day to buy a super-dee-duper Swedish-designed suitcase which has people who are into such things all of a tizzy. Well, I wasn’t dragged along just to buy the said suitcase, but also to poke and prod and open and close and grip and grasp and haul and heft and wheel and weave the confounded thing prior to its putative purchase — to give the thing as thorough a road test as possible without actually packing toothpaste and underwear into it and loading it up on to an airplane. Because in our household we don’t just waltz out of a luggage shop with the first suitcase we set our dewy eyes on: we do our research. We go on-line. We join forums. We seek out third, fourth, fifth opinions. Then, when we decide that the piece of luggage is a likely candidate, we carry out a series of preordained tests in the shop, and based on whether or not the case passes muster we may or may not buy the unfortunate case. BTW: in all of the above, when I write “we”, I really mean “the significant other” (SO). And furthermore: it would certainly not be me doing the road-testing. My job is to grin and bear the shame and disturbance of my highly cultivated aura of cool while the SO acts the first-day-in-the-city hayseed, tearing into suitcases with grim zeal, unzipping this, velcroing up that, and expressing wonder (or an expert’s disapproval akin to the tut-tutting and frowning of a judge at a dog show) at this feature or that. Oh, and my other role is to pass sly (and what I consider witty, but what the SO has let me know are unhelpful) comments while the she slumps to new depths of unselfsonscious backwoodswoman baggage blackguarding.

I usually do not mind going to Ikea, but, not sharing the SO’s thing for luggage (and handbags and all manner of objects to do with the storage and/or transport of personal items), on this occasion I would have preferred to be almost anywhere rather than padding the solvent-smelling, soft-LED-lit aisles of everyone’s favourite Scandinavian home store. I had been bribed into coming along, though. At the end of the long and winding trail of baggage rustling I was to be granted a furlough into Ikea’s own promised land of milk and hygge — or, rather, of meatballs and lager. Because, as everyone knows, Ikea does both food items splendidly. The meatballs are better than your mother would make, unless your name happened to be Junior Lawson or Baby Oliver, and the lager is almost as good as lager gets — like a smoother, more delicate, more floral Grolsch. And together, the lager and meatballs are the definition of sybaritic symbiosis. They go together like horse and carriage, Thelma and Louise, Hall and Oates, Kylie and Jason, Jim Reid and Hope Sandovall singing “Sometimes Always”. You get the idea.

A large part of the indignation referred to in the title of this piece stems from the stymieing of my desire to fill my gut with meatballs and lager. (Otherwise the piece would have been entitled “Indigestion in Ikea”!) In short, after having comported myself like the SO’s shiny-shoed best boy before, during and after the Calvary that was the locating, road-testing and purchase of the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious suitcase, I was denied my culinary reward in the Valhalla of Ikea’s cafeteria.

“What?” I hear you ask. “The SO broke her word? Instead of taking you by the hand and leading her good little man to his deserved treat, she pulled you scowling and red-faced to the car park amid sobs of ‘I want my meatballs’?”


My path to Odin’s house was thwarted by those vilest of creatures — the self-important and obnoxious security guard.

Here’s how things went: after navigating Ikea’s tricky gigantic revolving door, we high-tailed it upstairs to the Family Section, where we knew the luggage was on display. The marvellous suitcase was found and put through the hoops. It was given the green light by the SO. Suitcase in hand, we wended our way through the lighting, bathroom and bedclothes section, mooched desultorily around the bargain bins (just in case, you know?) and proceeded to the checkout. While waiting in line and resisting the temptation to buy scented candles, fancy napkins and fake plastic flowers (even though, as is typical for a visit to Ikea, I began to believe that my life would be more complete — edgier, hipper, more here-and-now — with these items) I looked across at the little Swedish supermarket at the other side of the cash registers and suggested to the SO that we pay it a visit prior to going upstairs for my date with meatballs and lager.

“Why not?” says she.

We cough up for the case and make our way over to eyeball a selection of salmon, unrecognisable preserves, odd-looking rhubarb-based drinks and even stranger-looking hard-boiled candies. I get some lager for home consumption, smoked cheese and a family-sized bag of squishy chocolate-covered vanilla and god-knows-what sweets — on the off-chance they are nice. I feel, while not complete, that my life has taken an upturn. I am part of the cool, Swedish-cheese-and-rubbery-sweet-eating set. Next stop one of those swingy rope chairs for the balcony and a collarless shirt, and I will be able to change my name to Sven (a name which always lends the cover of a book extra gravitas).

At this stage, knowing that the meatballs and lager are only an escalator ride away, I am salivating. The SO hands the case to me while she packs our purchases into a canvass shopping bag. I extend the case’s lightweight alloy arm and begin wheeling it towards the escalator, feeling for a moment that I am in an airport. I am happy with expectation. I step onto the first slowly rising step of the escalator wearing the smile of one of the more serene Buddhas, feeling a Zen-like harmony with a universe that is about to stuff me with processed meat, gravy and lightly hopped, malted and fermented barley. I imagine that to strangers I either look smugly self-satisfied or a brick short of a load. Then, one yard into the air my serenity is broken by a gruff “you there”.

Before I can turn to see the issuer of this vulgar salutation, the voice barks: “You can’t go up there with that!” I see that I am being addressed by a security guard, who is about ten yards away as the crow flies, but growing increasingly distant as the escalator moves me towards the first floor. He is a short, dark man wearing the brown militia-like uniform of one of Spain’s largest security firms. His oiled hair shines from my vantage point. I see he has a belt which holds a gun, truncheon and a pair of handcuffs. Things must get pretty rough here in Ikea — meatball mania, flat-pack frenzy, cushiony craziness, lampy lunacy. Momentarily confused and not wishing to hold a conversation with someone who is growing smaller by the second, I try stepping down the escalator.

“Excuse me?” I say, walking against the tide of expanding steps. Despite my efforts I am still rising. I wonder if my voice carries to him with a Doppler effect. I also wonder if I should run down the steps in order to make ground. Or should that be unmake ground? At this stage the SO has reached the bottom of the escalator (I had left her behind me in my enthusiasm to reach my meatballs), and seeing what’s going on is making a beeline for You There. Reckoning that I look like Jimmy Stewart during one of his sillier cinematic moments, I give up trying to trot down the escalator and leave negotiations with You There to the SO.

I watch the discussions from an atrium from which access to the restaurant or the living room section can be gained. The SO’s face is smiling and placating in the wake of the mini-security guard’s expression of thunderous mistrust. It is here that my indignation begins to bubble to the surface. You There’s body language screams contempt, and it is my beloved SO to whom that contempt is directed. I can see her explaining to the diminutive Guardian of Flat-Packs and Soft Furnishings that we are not shoplifters. We just came to buy a suitcase and eat some meatballs. And I can see that You There is having none of it. If anything his hostility increases. His little barrel chest bulges outwards and he starts to point: at the exit, at me and the suitcase, at the restaurant. He then makes a Hitleresque gesture with his right arm, rapidly drawing an imaginary diagonal line between the SO and himself with a stubby index finger.

“Under no circumstances”, the gesture says, “can you go upstairs with that suitcase. For all I know you’ll trek through the store secreting into the case items for which you have no intention of paying.”

I can see the penny dropping with the SO that there is no way in the wide earthly world she’ll convince You There that we are innocent customers, who after a twisting and thirsty tour through part of Ikea’s labyrinth are crying out for refreshment. She flashes him a final smile as if to say that no matter how ignorant or fascistic You There might be, he’s not going to kill her post-luggage-purchase buzz. And she’s not going to let her manners slip either. She thanks him and tells him she understands his position before slipping on to the elevator to join me in my atrium of indignation.

“Little prick,” I spit, and then proffer some other four letter words. “I’m gonna go down there and stuff him into the suitcase. Prick.”

“Don’t bother,” I am told. “Let’s just forget about your meatballs and get out of here.”

You There glowers at us all the way as we take the downward escalator and make our way to the exit. Even while we’re packing our new suitcase into the boot of the car I still feel like giving this jumped up jack a piece of my mind.

“We broke with protocol,” says the SO, thinking out loud. “In Ikea you’re meant to spend a couple of tiring hours wending your way around the displays. Then pop up to the restaurant for your meatballs. And then, and only then, mosey downstairs to pick up — and pay for —everything you’ve decided to buy.”

“Well. There’s no excuse for ignorance,” is my reply.

I’m not sure if I ever want to go back to Ikea. We have been regular customers. A hefty proportion of the furniture in our house is from there. We have usually made a couple of trips a year to our local outlet to pick up sundry items. Our girls love the place. Their imaginations are fired by walking into the display kitchens and bedrooms and pretending that they are walking through their other parallel lives or the lives of invented friends and relatives. Trips to Ikea have always been fun. But now the heavy-handed, bad-mannered attitude of one outsourced employee and a glimpse into the inflexibility of this multinational’s look-eat-purchase policy has left me with a sour taste in my mouth. As of writing this my indignation has not yet worn off.

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