Monday, 14 June 2010

Breakfast with My Father

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

Breakfast with My Father

(c) 2010 by the author

‘This is your father and his parents, your grandparents. He was eight years old when this photograph was taken.’ My mother lifted the photograph carefully from the metal box in which she kept the mementos of my father. Examining the contents of the box was a ritual in our household conducted three or four times a year—always on July 17, his birthdate, and more sombrely on November 4, the anniversary of his death.

After our tea, we would finish the washing up and put the dishes away. Contrary to our usual practice, Aunt Alyce would leave the cloth on the table, carefully brushing any crumbs off and smoothing the wrinkles out with her hands. I was always made to wash my hands and dry them carefully. When all was ready, my mother would remove the box from her wardrobe and place it in the centre of the table. We would take our customary seats, but, in recognition of the seriousness of the occasion, we sat more erect, our hands folded in our laps. She would remove the lid and set it on the table, aligning it parallel to the box.

One by one, my mother would remove each thing in the box and explain its meaning and significance to me. She would pass the item to my aunt, who would hold it for a moment and then pass it to me. When I had finished my examination and my questions had been answered, it would be laid on the cloth, to be later restored carefully to the box.

I can’t ever remember a time when this ritual was not observed. I don’t know if my mother and aunt conducted it while I was a baby. I can’t imagine that they allowed me to handle these sacred items until I was older. Like most children, I accepted what my family did as ‘normal’. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned how curious the ritual was. Similarly, as a child, it seemed normal to me that I was being raised by my mother and my aunt. It didn’t occur to me that I was unusual in not having a father. As far as I was aware, mothers and aunts raised children. When I began school, I discovered that most of the other children had living fathers, and that my condition was considered noteworthy, not least because of who my father had been.

The box contained seven photographs of my father, taken at various occasions in his life. All of them were studio shots—the casual photograph was not yet a part of our lives. My mental image of my father was shaped by the solemn poses in which he was preserved. I never saw a picture of him smiling or laughing. In my mind, the very grimness of the pictures of him in the box attested to the seriousness of his life.

In addition, the box held copies of the three pamphlets written by my father and several newspaper stories about his activities. When I was small, these were summarized for me. Later I was allowed to read them. None of the newspaper clippings dealt with his arrest, trial or execution.

Contemporary opinions of my father differed greatly. Some thought him a patriot and a martyr. Others saw him as a dangerous criminal. To still others, he was a deluded, romantic fool. Strange that a man who once generated such disagreement and dissension is now almost forgotten. Sixty-five years after his death, he has been relegated to footnotes in histories of modern Ireland.

What I know of him comes from stories told me by my mother and aunt. I was nine months old when he died, and I can have no direct memories of him, not the least because he was imprisoned during most of the few months his and my lives overlapped. Yet I know him in detail. I have a vibrant picture of the man in my mind. I know what he looked like. I know how he moved. I know his voice. I know his enemies and his supporters.

We, of course, inclined to the view that he was a patriot and a martyr. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, the pressure to escape Dublin and its official view of my father as a terrorist may have been a factor in my mother’s decision to move to Munfrees. In Munfrees my father was a champion of the nationalist cause, my mother was Declan Brennan’s wife, my aunt was his sister-in-law, and I was his son.

I have no wish to rehabilitate my father here or enshrine his memory. He wasn’t the saint of family legend or the gallant hero of national myth. He was simply a man. Some of his actions were decent and selfless. Others were conflicted and self-serving.

In retrospect, I can hear the occasional rancour in my mother’s tales of the man and his decision to abandon her and their infant son for the ‘cause’. There must have been times that the role of martyr’s wife chafed. She could grow impatient with the frequent expressions of admiration for her courage and her example. In public, she would attempt to cut the praise short with a self-deprecating remark or a pious allusion to the necessity of accepting one’s ‘fate’ or ‘God’s will’. But in private, she sometimes voiced her anger to my aunt at the ceaseless reminders of her sacrifice. ‘Does that Garrighty woman think that I don’t know I’m a widow? Does she have to remind me every time she sees me?’

No one ever allowed her to forget the marriage that defined who she was. Even the eulogies at her funeral began and ended with extensive praise of her relationship to my father, her own accomplishments the subject of a few hurried remarks. I suppose that my existence served as a daily reminder as well.

Munfrees is never hot. On the warmest summer day, the temperature seldom exceeds twenty degrees Celsius (about seventy degrees Fahrenheit). Rain is frequent, and even on cloudless days, waves dashing against the rocky shore can fill the air with salt spray. Until very recently, houses were ‘heated’ only by cooking fires. The stones that formed the walls of our cottages generated a bitter dampness that penetrated everything. Despite layers of sweaters, we were always cold. Outdoors, people tended to walk swiftly, huddled into their clothes, their arms folded across their chests, with their hands thrust under their arms for warmth.

There were, however, comforts. We had oatmeal for breakfast at least five days a week. Not the modern pap made from rolled oats that is ready in five minutes when cooked on a burner or, worse, after a minute in the microwave. We had real oatmeal, the only kind worth eating. Our table was beside a window, and as we ate that hot filling food in the only room in the house even marginally warmer than outside, we could contrast our fortunate lot with the wet, blustery world surrounding our home. I still find it satisfying even though the electric heater removes most of the chill from this house.

There was a ritual to making the oatmeal. Our family followed a different procedure, one that we inherited from my father. At various times, either my aunt or my mother must have explained it to me a hundred times. It was apparently the only dish my father ever made. Supposedly he learned it from his father.

A proper dish of oatmeal begins with steel-cut oats. Our favoured brand came in a greyish-white tin with gold lettering. The lid fit tightly and had to be pried off carefully each time. It was necessary to force the lid back into place by pressing down on it at several places around the edge with one’s fingertips until it popped into place with a click. As a final check, we ran our fingers around the rim to make sure that the tin was tightly sealed to prevent the oats from becoming damp. One such tin always sat on the shelf over the fireplace, and our collection of emptied tins served as containers for anything that fit into them. They were scattered throughout our house. I still have several that contain my boyhood treasures.

The cooking pot was heated briefly over the fire and then a large lump of butter was melted in it. The oats were added and stirred over low heat until they browned. A nutty smell signalled that that part of the process had been completed properly. A dash of salt was mixed in, and then a large spoonful of sugar. The heat melted the sugar rapidly, and one had to be careful not to let it burn. Then milk, about four times as much as the amount of raw oats used, was added. The mixture was allowed to simmer for half an hour. By that time most of the liquid had been absorbed, but there was still enough to form a runny mass, thick enough that the passage of a spoon left a trail that only slowly disappeared. The oats were soft yet chewy, slightly salty, sweet, rich with milk and butter.

We ate oatmeal for many reasons. It was warming and filling, it was cheap, it was what was available, it was easy to make. But we also ate it as an act of homage, a reminder of who we were, of our family heritage. It was our version of ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.

I still prepare oatmeal the same way. The only slight difference is that I use an electric cooker rather than an open fire. And I still remember my father.

I was not alone in having only one living parent. ‘Single-parent’ families were much more common then. Now they are often the result of divorce, but that was not possible then. The usual causes were the death of one parent or desertion, usually by the father. But the mortality rates, particularly among women during childbirth, meant that many of us were raised by only one parent. The reason I had only one parent was somewhat rarer but not unique. The civil war, the ongoing ‘troubles’, the legacies of Irish history, had created many widows, some with children to raise on their own.

I did not feel my father as absent, however. He was a real, daily presence in our household. Often it seemed as if he had just stepped out and would return in a moment. I would look up from my lessons, and there he would be, standing in the doorway, asking how I was getting on and telling me to hurry so that he could take me for a walk over the hills.

Yet he was absent.

My feelings toward him are ambivalent. I was brought up to revere him, but there was no opportunity to love him. He was more a hero out of a story book than an actual person to me. His death and his absence set us apart, my mother and my aunt no less than me. We were at once keepers of the flame and potential toxins. We were expected to behave in a manner becoming to our position, yet we were reminders of what might happen, of the sacrifices that might be made.

Silence always greeted my mother and aunt whenever they entered Feelihy’s store. The friendly gossip would stop, the faces would turn serious, and the formal greetings would be uttered. ‘Good morning, Mrs Brennan. Good morning, Miss Collins.’ This was partly because we were outsiders, our claim to a place in the village a tenuous genealogical link through an almost-unknown great-uncle. Our comparative wealth and education also set us apart. Without my father’s death, I suspect, we would not have been tolerated. My mother was the widow of a martyr; my aunt, her faithful helper. My father’s judicial execution made them sacrosanct.

It wasn’t until later, when I left Munfrees to attend school, that I encountered other interpretations of men like my father. Brennan is, of course, a common enough name that I was not automatically linked with Declan Brennan. At first, I was a vociferous defendant of his party. Later I, and others, grew tired of the argument, and more often than not, I would simply nod in agreement with the ritual expressions of support and then move on, without claiming a link to my father.

There have even been times that I resent my heritage. My inheritance seems a heated rhetoric trotted out on the appropriate occasions or the possession of a horde of madmen. Perhaps it is only paranoia, but I have on occasion felt that my passport is examined more carefully than those of other people. I wonder if my name triggers some sort of ‘son of terrorist’ warning on the immigration control officers’ computers. I am my father’s son, whether I wish to be or not.

I still have the box in which my mother kept the relics of my father. A few times each year, I bring it out. I place it in the centre of the table and remove the lid. The box has warped with age, and I have to be cautious when opening it not to damage it. One by one, I take the contents out. The photographs have become spotted and streaked over the years, almost as if corrosive tears have fallen on them. The newspaper clippings and the pamphlets are brittle with age. A few years ago, I inserted each of the items in the box in a clear plastic envelope for safekeeping.

In Munfrees the land itself is filled with memories. Those of us who live there can point to the spot where the Brownes’ land agent killed the two Garrighty brothers in 1802. We know the locations of the trees cut down to supply masts for English ships. We know to the penny the rents charged on each field. We fill our songs with the sadness of dispossession and exile. We begin our days with reminders of our past.