Notwithstanding the taxonomic complexity of pinning a precise Linnaean genus and species on many alcoholics, diagnosis in my grandfather’s case was quite straightforward: he was a textbook roaring alcoholic. The handle fitted perfectly, described him down to the ground. It was daylight-clear, as plain as the nose on your face, elementary; with drink on board, my grandfather roared — or hollered, or screamed, or yelled, or bawled. The house shook. Windows rattled in their frames. Those not wearing shoes could feel the vibrations through the soles of their feet. Sleepers were awoken. Neighbours stopped to listen. Dogs howled. Peace was breached.
While it was one of the central truths of my young life that grandfather + drink = roaring, it wasn’t an immediate effect. A time-lag was involved. My grandfather wasn’t like the character from Father Ted, who, upon tasting a drop of alcohol, the merest microlitre of libation, instantaneously transforms into a maniacal dervish of a roaring drunk. It wasn’t a question of handing my grandfather a glass of sherry and leaping behind the couch for cover because he’d go off in a few seconds. No, there was a substantial gap between the initial delivery of ethyl alcohol and his transmogrification, a phenomenon which by all accounts required quite a heavy dosage.
Not that we ever witnessed the conversion of my grandfather from stolid, shuffling, beslippered, cowboy-book-reading, crotchety OAP into a septuagenarian Johnny Rotten or Brendan Behan at his most notorious. We got to see the beginning, alright — time zero, when he’d leave the house as meek as a lamb — and the end point of the reaction, when it would have been handy to have the garage converted into a padded cell. But we never saw the mysteries of the transmogrification process itself. This was a phenomenon that happened away from our prying eyes, never in the family home, always somewhere up town. My young mind had no understanding of how the imbibing of large quantities of alcoholic beverages could bring about such a radical alteration of personality and behaviour as was the case with my grandfather, and so my ever active imagination stepped willingly into the breach.
The old black and white movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Spencer Tracy, made a considerable impression on me the Halloween of my eighth year. I pictured my grandfather sitting alone in the dark snug of one of his bars. An ashen-faced barman would approach his table, gingerly carrying a long-necked flask containing a green-glowing, foaming liquid, and place it carefully before him. The men would exchange a grim and knowing glance, nod as if to seal some tacit, unutterable contract and the barman would wordlessly withdraw. My grandfather would study the flask for what seemed like an age, the silence in the room only broken by the strange liquid’s blubbing and sizzling and the ticking of an old Guinness clock. He would close his eyes, open them slowly and clear his throat. Then his arm would reach out and a pale hand would grip the neck of the vessel, which he would raise to his lips in a swift, sure and resolute motion, before downing its eldritch contents in a single unhurried draught. Faster than he could manage to replace the empty flask on the table, its contents would be taking hold of him. The eyes of his normally impassive face would grow lunatic-wild and shine with the light of an evil madness and a tumult of weird and frightening expressions would flash across his features. Racked by violent spasms, his entire body jiggling and jerking, my grandfather would try to stand up, as if to flee the small room. His knees would buckle. In his attempt to maintain himself upright he would pull the table over. The flask would crash to the floor and shatter. He would unleash a blood-curdling, animal roar. His back would arc backwards, limbs would stiffen and he would be thrown across the room as if by some unseen force. As he shrieked and howled, the same invisible hand would appear to pummel his body and he would be tossed around the floor like a seagull in a gale. It was as he writhed on the floor yelping and growling in fear and agony that a great change would come over his physique. His body would swell, develop a beastly, inhuman bulk, as if it were not just his musculature expanding as a result of the green potion, but also the very skeleton supporting it. His hands would grow to the size of shovels. The clothes would rip from his back as his shoulders broadened and his chest visibly stretched. His calves would tear through the fabric of his pants, his biceps bursting through his shirt. A coarsening of his features would also become slowly evident. Heavy brows, a low forehead and a prominent lower jaw would all contribute to lending my grandfather an atavistic air. Hair would be seen to sprout from unexpected places.
Without warning, a stillness would come over him and silence would once more reign in the room, the transformation complete. He would lift his near-naked body up off the floor and, planting his hirsute feet wide apart, assume an aggressive, simian crouch. He would tilt his squat, Neanderthal head fully back, open his yellow-toothed maw wide and issue a fierce and terrible bellow that would be heard far beyond the confines of the snug — a strangled, guttural howl, unpleasant to the ears but at the same time unmistakably musical. Listeners far and wide would recognise the opening lines of his favourite song when drunk, ‘Come Down from the Mountain, Katie Daly’.
Outside the realms of my childish imagination, my grandfather’s MO was far more prosaic. Averaging out at about once a week, he would dapper himself up (shave, cut his fingernails, slick back what little hair he had left, slap on some old-codger cologne) and, sometime around late morning/early afternoon, announce to my mother that he was going up town. I’m sure alarms bells must have deafened my mother with their clamour upon hearing one of his usual spurious pretexts for taking off (having some business at the bank or needing to get some fresh cowboy books from the second-hand bookshop), but what could she do? Confine him to quarters? Hide his shoes? Lock him in his bedroom? Neither my brother nor I (at school) nor my father (at work) were usually present at the time of my grandfather’s abscondences — he rarely chose a Saturday or a Sunday to go on a bender — but we were present in the house by the time the penny had dropped with my mother that the old man hadn’t simply been delayed or waylaid; that the real reason ― the same reason as always ― he hadn’t come home for his tea was that he was stuck to some bar stool knocking back pints of porter in one of his many haunts around the town. We could see the worry written on my mother’s face and that feeling of tension and dread would spread throughout the household like a thick November fog. It was an anxious time, a period during which my parents would talk out the various predicaments into which my grandfather could have become embroiled — arguments, brawls, betting on horses, trips to Limerick to the dog track, slap-up meals for six in the Old Ground Hotel for which he would pick up the tab. It was also the crunch time for the making of a very important decision: whether to go in search of my grandfather and drag him out of whatever pub he was in or let him stagger home under his own steam.