In July 2011 Ireland recalled its ambassador to the Vatican to protest attempts by the Church (Michelle—Should I mimic the usage of the press and write ‘alleged attempts’?) to obstruct an investigation of charges of sexual abuse by priests and other religious. In early November the Foreign Minister announced the withdrawal of the Irish embassy to the Vatican because it ‘yields no economic return’. Although the Minister denied a link between the two events, speculation of a connection dominated discussion. The Government’s need to economise because of the fiscal problems of the country was genuine, but the rationale offered in the press release struck many as diplomatic obfuscation. If nothing else, the history of sexual abuse and the Church’s refusal to cooperate in the investigation made the decision palatable in Ireland.
The day after the announcement I was in the back lounge of our house in Brighton watching reports on the early morning television news about reactions to the closure when Lewis walked in. The responses were predictable. A spokeswoman for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paraphrased the official statement. The archbishops deplored the decision. A woman stopped at random on a Dublin street expressed surprise that there was an Irish embassy to the Vatican. ‘Aren’t there enough priests to take care of that?’ she asked.
Lewis handed me a cup of coffee and then lingered to watch the news. ‘Were you ever molested at that college you went to?’
After giving me the coffee, he had stepped back and was standing behind the sofa on which I was sitting. I had to twist my head and torso around to see him. ‘Why are you asking me that now? The abuse scandal is old news. Didn’t it occur to you to wonder before today?’
He nodded. ‘Yes, of course, I wondered. But I thought … Well, I was waiting for you to bring the subject up yourself.’
‘And today you decided to stop waiting. Why?’
Lewis picked up the remote control for the television and switched it off. He perched on the arm of the sofa, leaning forwards into the conversation and looking me in the face. ‘You aren’t answering the question. So I suspect that you were. You tend to be silent about things you regard as “unpleasantnesses” and avoid talking about them. If you hadn’t been molested, you would have said so.’
I looked away and stared into the fireplace. The ashes needed to be taken out and the screen needed polishing. ‘There was … an incident. Just one. In my first year at Black Meadows. I don’t think it can be called molestation. At least not like the others who have come forwards. I wasn’t used like some of the people in the reports.’
‘How old were you?’
‘It was my second or third week there. So I would have been twelve. I hadn’t had my birthday yet. One of the priests touched me while he masturbated. The priests and our teachers warned us frequently against the evils of “self-pollution”. I had no idea what self-pollution was—only that it was wrong. It was a priest who gave me my first concrete demonstration of what the term means. It was the first time I saw an erect penis. I hadn’t suspected that the penis could grow like that. And also the first time I saw an ejaculation. I had no idea that happened.’
Lewis placed his coffee cup on a table and then sat down on the sofa beside him. ‘How did it start?’
‘It was during a private meeting. He asked if I had been playing with myself and engaging in self-pollution. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant.’
‘So he showed you?’
‘Yes, he showed me. We were in his study. He locked the door and then made me take down my trousers and pants. Then he undid his cassock and pulled his cock out of his flies and then jerked off while he was holding my cock in his hand. What most surprised me was that he became so red in the face and was breathing so hard. I thought he was about to be sick and then he came. Some of it spattered on me. When he let go of me, I buttoned my trousers and ran off.’
‘You didn’t say anything to anyone?’
‘No. I didn’t know anyone to tell. For all I knew, it was normal behaviour. The priests were our teachers and guides. I tried to rationalise it as just a lesson. But he had been so secretive that I felt something was off. I was very naïve and trusting.’
‘And it was never repeated?’
‘No, not with me. I learned much later that he was notorious for preying on the younger boys. I probably wasn’t to his taste. I had my first growth spurt soon after, and I became too big for him, I think. According to the stories that circulated at the school, he liked the smaller, younger boys. Once your voice fell or you started developing a beard, he left you alone.’
‘What happened to him? Was he one of the priests who was charged?’
‘No, he died around 1975. The school held a memorial service for him. According to the newsletter that comes with the annual appeal, it was well attended and many of his former students spoke fondly of their time with him.’
‘ “Fondly” is an appropriate term. What a horrible introduction to sex.’
‘Well, it really wasn’t sex, was it? At least not for me. I had heard of sex by that time. I still didn’t know what was involved, but I thought it was something that happened only inside marriage and somehow led to babies. Since I had always heard it spoken of in terms of men and women together, I didn’t think of what he did as sex.’
‘Didn’t your father tell you about sex?’
‘Oh, he had been out of lives for several years by the time I started at Black Meadows. And I don’t think my mother ever mentioned sex in her life. You know how she was.’
‘She knew about our relationship. She even discussed it with me.’
‘But that was much later, and I’ll wager that she approached the subject with great discretion and employed a great many euphemisms. She was not the type of woman who would sit down and explain the facts of life to her son. I wonder if she ever discussed sex with Niamh. I should ask her.’
‘And that was all that happened? He just fondled you while he jacked off?’
‘Yes. Pathetic, wasn’t it?’
‘So no trauma? You weren’t ruined for life?’
‘No, I don’t think so. Perhaps if it had involved more or if it had continued. It was more a curiosity than a problem. As I said, in comparison with others, I got off easy. It shouldn’t have happened, of course. But when I look back on it, it strikes me as sad rather than evil. He was so secretive and ashamed and yet he couldn’t stop himself from abusing the small boys in his care. But I should like to have known him as an adult so that I could understand how he rationalised the attraction and dealt with the guilt. The conflict would make a good story. But at the time, I was not thinking about him and his motives. I just accepted what he had done and walked away as fast as I could.’
‘All grist for your mill? Will you ever write about it?’
‘No, I don’t think so. Not about him at least, or rather not about him based on my memories. That wouldn’t be enough. I knew him when I was a child. I still accepted people as givens. I didn’t analyse them or attempt to understand them. I didn’t understand compulsions. I didn’t understand the way we justify the things that we do. To be able to create a fully formed character. I would need to understand how all those things came together to form a man who would do such a thing. To do that I would have to rely on my imagination, not on my knowledge of him. I could write about my reaction to it, about being taught how to “pollute myself” by a priest. When I started to have erections, I just copied what he had done and wanked off. I was rather pleased with the results. And since a priest had shown me what to do, I regarded it as the Church’s sanction for the activity and engaged in it as often as I could. I never thought of it as really being “self-pollution”. But that would be a very different story, and a rather trivialising one considering the damage such priests did.’ I thought for a moment and added, ‘I date my flexibility on the question of sin and sex to that experience.’
Lewis laughed. ‘Yes. I’ve noted your flexibility. And did you ever have sex with the other boys in your college?’
‘No. We sometimes had masturbation contests—to see who could come first, who could shoot the farthest. That sort of thing. We had to be careful. We were closely supervised at school and we had to have lookouts and be ready to cover up on a second’s notice. It added a layer of excitement, I suppose—the knowledge that we were doing something illicit. But we never touched one another or kissed or anything like that. It was more a group form of a solitary activity.’
‘So there was nothing else until you went to university.’
‘Why all these questions? You’ve had forty-plus years to interrogate me about my sexual history. Are you expecting to uncover some grand romance in my past that I’ve never told you about? I have told you everything.’
‘I’ve been curious about your sexual history ever since we met.’ Lewis pointed at the television. ‘This just gave me a pretext to discuss it. You were so experienced for someone who claimed to have had only two previous sexual encounters.’
‘Claimed? I had had only two experiences before I met you. It’s not something that requires a lengthy training period.’
‘You were so good at it.’
‘Was I? Perhaps I should be quizzing you about the grounds for that statement. What had you done that gave you a basis for comparison? I think we both grew better at it quickly, didn’t we? And if practice makes perfect, we were certainly ready and willing to put in the time necessary. I just kept doing whatever made you moan the loudest. That was my only secret. And my previous experiences weren’t much help. Those had been so anonymous—even though I knew the men involved. It was more like having an itch and scratching it. With you, it was different. I wanted it to be good for you, for both of us. I had had sex before. You were the first person I made love to, or wanted to make love to. And the only person I wanted to make love to again. Now, it’s your turn to answer questions. Were you ever molested?’
‘Well, so, there was this Oyerishman. I met him at a dinner the first year I taught at Harvard. Such beautiful grey eyes he had. Like diving into the depths of the sea it was, and wondering if you would ever surface or if you would ever want to. And a grand smile, grand enough to warm the heart of the coldest cynic. Sure me self was thinking he was an angel come to earth. I would not call it molestation, but he …’
‘Lewis, you must stop visiting those so-called Irish pubs. It’s an odd way of speaking you’re picking up.’
Lewis—no need to comment. This is a two-parter. Pat
I wonder what you will write in the next section. As I remember, that discussion was followed by a colliding of bodies. I will withhold comment until you send the next section. The only thing I will mention now is that your readers may wonder why it took us forty years to discuss this.
I also remember that, but that is not the subject of the next section. In the event, it was more of a collusion of bodies than a collision of them. As for why it takes us so long—that is mostly me, isn’t it? I am the quiet, reserved one. You are the noisy, open, heart-on-his-sleeve partner. I am not bragging, mind you—just saying, that’s all.
Seriously, did the question whether I had been sexually abused occur to you before others came forwards? Those revelations started in the States, I think, and then spread to Ireland. The subject would not have come up between us. As for our lack of detailed knowledge of each other’s prior sexual history, we have always known in general. As I remember, we discussed it early on without delving into particulars. I think we have always been more interested in the relationship we were creating rather than in chasing down the details of our past sexual histories. Or have you always been curious but too polite to ask? Love, Pat
I did wonder if you have more experience than you were letting on. You seemed to know what to do and weren’t at all hesitant about doing it. But I decided not to quiz you about it or to express doubts about your stories of previous sexual encounters. I was enjoying myself too much to stop you. Later, it didn’t seem a matter of much importance. When the news stories about sexual abuse began appearing, I did wonder if you had been abused. That day when I saw you watching the TV, it just seemed the right moment to ask. I don’t know if I thought about it clearly. I was curious, the opportunity was there. I took it. I knew you well enough to know that you weren’t traumatized by what, if anything, may have happened. I may have thought that enough time had passed that you could talk about it.
For an atheist, you can be surprisingly loyal to the Catholic church. Manifestations of that crop up at odd moments and always fascinate me when they appear. So I may also have been interested in whether you would defend the priests or not. Watching you and trying to understand your reactions is one of my hobbies.
Lewis—why am I reminded of whale-watching?
Think of me as a behavioural scientist who specializes in watching a pet whale.
Michelle—The next section will continue on from this. No need to comment, unless something in particular strikes you as off. Patrick
I will wait to comment then. Were you really such an innocent?
Michelle—Yes. Sex was not discussed openly then, and my upbringing isolated me from other boys except at school. I had heard the words but did not know what they meant. Patrick
‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession.’
Until my second year at university, the last sentence, although part of the customary formula, was unnecessary. Between the ages of seven and twenty, I never missed confession. My mother went to confession on Saturday and my sister Niamh and I accompanied her when we were at home. During the six years I attended Black Meadows College, confession was a mandatory weekly rite. We were organised into groups and led to the church by the student prefect for our group. Each group had an assigned time. We entered the church as the previous group was leaving and knelt in a row and prayed until it was our turn to confess. Beginning with the boy closest to the row of confessionals, we entered the confessionals one by one and spoke with the priest. As each of us finished, we formed another orderly row. Again we knelt and prayed. The boys earlier in the group usually had time to finish their assigned penances while waiting for the others to finish. When the last boy had confessed, we were led out of the church.
Like many, I quickly discovered that priests were busy and impatient. At the time, Black Meadows had around 450 students, and the four or five priests deputed to hear our confessions each Saturday spent several hours engaged in that task. The Saturday ritual often degenerated into a perfunctory exercise. The priests expected teen-aged boys to engage in certain sins, and we obliged them. The sins occasioned by adolescent—lust and impure thoughts, the difficulties of chastity, anger, envy, lying, disobedience towards parents and other authorities—those were the popular subjects for confession.
Each confessional group also exerted pressure on its members to be quick and not keep the rest waiting. The church was floored with slates, and kneeling on them was painful. Boys who spent a long time in the confessional could expect hazing. The older students coached the younger ones on the art of a speedy confession and the best ways to fulfil the expectations of particular priests. Any boy who had engaged in a practice that would require a lengthy confession was encouraged to seek out a priest during the week and not slow the rest of the group on Saturday.
The priests were not unaware of the problem. Approaching confession with the proper spirit was a frequent subject in our religion classes. The very frequency is an indication of the difficulties of achieving that attitude.
Self-examination was a requirement of my youth. The Christian Brothers who ran the primary school I attended and the Jesuit fathers at Black Meadows believed that regular confession would instil in us a life-long habit of scrutinising our lives in relation to our duties to God. In addition, at Black Meadows each of us had a ‘spiritual advisor’ and met with him several times each term to review the state of our soul. We were also encouraged to consult a priest immediately if we committed a mortal sin or had questions about our faith, The expectation was that these practices would encourage us to evaluate, and then reform, our conduct by discussing it with a priest and, through him, with God. Confession requires a willingness to reveal one’s self to this third party, this intermediary. Perversely it encouraged in me a tendency towards secretiveness.
When I arrived at Black Meadows, the tendency was well developed. It was not that I had any grave sins to confess. I simply saw no reason for the intermediary. I reasoned that since I could confess my sins directly to God, the priest was surplus to requirements. Much of that stemmed from my dislike of one of our local priests. He was intrusive and prying. He was well known locally as a gossip and a gratuitous critic. He was certain that no matter how much you confessed, you still were hiding things from him. Confession with him was an interrogation. Even my very religious and observant mother avoided him. He was unfortunately one of the priests assigned to the primary school I attended to teach religion, and our classes with him were sessions of petty public humiliations.
My father also contributed to my aversion to the rite. In the years before I went to Black Meadows, he drove up from Dublin every Saturday and spent the night with us, leaving Sunday afternoon after an early tea. During those visits, he customarily busied himself with work he had brought. We were ordered to be quiet and not disturb him. Most weekends, my sister and I never saw him except at meals and not even then if my parents had guests. His only break was the hour-long walk he took every day. Usually he whistled for the dogs as he went out the door, but occasionally he would summon me or Niamh to accompany him. He walked quickly and was impatient with the slower pace that was the best I or my sister could manage. We had to run to keep up with him and quickly became breathless and tired. He never stopped to examine a shop window or gaze at the scenery. He simply walked—and talked. He used the opportunity of our presence to quiz us minutely about our lives, particularly how well we were doing in school. I think my father felt that praise would serve only to encourage a child to slack off. It did not matter what we had done or how well we had done it. It was never good enough.
As grim as those walks were, they paled in comparison to his disciplining of me. If he felt that my behaviour or performance merited punishment, I would be called into his office and made to stand in front of his desk. No lawyer examining a witness was more relentless than my father in his questioning. It was easiest to give him the confession he wanted and then accept the punishment, which could vary from switching of my open palms to spanking with hands or belt. (I should say that this was not at all unusual in Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. It was thought that children, boys in particular, needed to be disciplined physically and have the evil literally thrashed out of them. The teachers at the primary school I attended regularly beat the students, and I am sure that my father was only replicating the practices he had been subjected to early in his life. His disciplining of me would not have been considered child abuse at the time, although according to present standards it might be.)
The upshot was that I came to regard confession, either the religious or the lay variety, as best avoided if at all possible and accomplished speedily if not. By the time I arrived at Black Meadows, my view of confession was decidedly heretical. I regarded it not as a sacrament but as the unpleasant and intrusive prelude to punishment.
At Black Meadows, the intrusion and supervision were more subtle and accomplished with more finesse and intelligence, but they were omnipresent and inescapable. I especially came to dread the meetings with my spiritual advisor, when one spoke face to face and the priest was willing to devout all the time necessary to save one’s soul. My sins were becoming grave and mortal, and by any religious standard, my soul was imperilled. Despite my reservations about confession, the Church had been successful in instilling in me a great sense of guilt and shame—guilt for simply being alive and shame at being alive in a human body. Add to this the usual adolescent confusion and my growing realisation that I was gay (I did not learn that term until later; when I used a term to describe my ‘disease’, I thought of myself as a ‘poof’. That was the word I knew.), and my reluctance to confess to a priest grew. During my time at Black Meadows, I thought I could ‘cure’ myself through prayer and penance. I hoped I could do so without admitting my problems to a priest.
Our meetings with our spiritual advisors were in part a review of our academic progress and in part an opportunity for the priest to probe more deeply into our psyches than was possible in the confessional. The review of my schoolwork was never a problem for me. I received the ritual admonitions to strive to do better, but for me at least these were general precepts unaccompanied by specific examples of failures. In my early years my advisor sounded me out on a possible religious vocation, but I eventually convinced him that I was lacking in the necessary qualities.
The other part of the meeting gave me more trouble. Even at the final one, in my last month at Black Meadows, I felt like a mouse in the presence of a cat. I dreaded the moment when Father M— closed the folder with the notes on my academic progress. He would place it carefully in the middle of the blotter on his desk and then clasp his hands together and rest them on the folder. He had tufts of black hair growing on the last joint of each finger, and I always found myself staring at them and waiting for him to end the silence. His eyes seemed to rest heavily on me, as if he were willing me to raise them and look directly at him. He never consulted a note during this part of the meeting. He never forgot the contents of the previous meetings. He remembered every failing and fault I had admitted, every doubt I had confessed. He was intimately acquainted with the ledger of my sins.
Students enter Black Meadows at age twelve or thirteen. With few exceptions, they, like me, have attended Catholic primary schools. At that age and with that background, I would guess that none of us could confess to murder, robbery, abortion, divorce, or adultery. Even less likely at that age were doubts about our faith. Our sins were confined to failures to honour our parents, lying, petty thefts, cheating. The fathers, probably with good reasons, suspected that our adolescent bodies were or, in the case of the younger students, would be the source of sin—specifically in the areas of impure thoughts and self-pollution. Consequently these meetings with our spiritual advisors stressed the struggle to control physical desire.
Father M— raised the issue of self-pollution at our first meeting. The second week I was at Black Meadows, I received a note from him summoning me to his office at 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. The first-year students, or Adams as they are known at Black Meadows, had a mandatory study period at that time. We were supervised by one of the older students, and I had to show him the note to be excused. He handed it back to me with a smirk and said, ‘Good luck, Ross.’
The hallways were deserted. One of the lay teachers stopped me and asked why I was wandering about when I should be studying.
‘I’m to see Father M— , Sir.’ I showed him the note.
He studied it carefully before giving it back. ‘Well, don’t dawdle, Ross. Mustn’t keep Father M— waiting.’ He emphasized his point by pushing me on the shoulder. When I reached the door to Father M— ’s office, I glanced back down the hallway. The teacher was still standing there watching me.
The door was closed. I knocked on it. It was opened a few seconds later. ‘Patrick Ross, Sir,’ I stammered out.
‘I am busy at the moment. Wait in the hallway.’ The door closed in my face. I took up a position beside it and spent fifteen minutes studying the wainscoting and the floor. When the door opened again, I found Father M— alone. He sat down and motioned me to stand on a spot in front of his desk. He paid no attention to me and spent several minutes reading the papers in a file.
I glanced carefully around the room, moving only my eyes. There was not much to see—the desk, the chair in which Father M— sat, another chair to one side of the desk, a small unused fireplace, a case filled with books bound in black and dark brown. The only decoration was a crucifix on the wall behind Father M— . It hung precisely over his head as he sat in his chair. The only note of colour in the room was a purple stole hanging from a peg on the wall. The window was tightly closed and the room smelled unaired. Father M— would have been in his late forties or early fifties then. He was a thin man of medium height. His face and hands were very pale. Although he was clean shaven, his beard showed dark against his skin. He had heavy black eyebrows and thick black hair. He wore a soutane. A small gold cross hung from a chain around his neck.
‘Your father and grandfathers were students here.’
I nodded. ‘Yes, Father.’
‘You will not receive special treatment because of that, Patrick.’
‘You were with the Christian Brothers, I see. You will find our approach different, Patrick. Your preparation seems to have been adequate, but we expect more, much more, of our students.’ That served as an introduction to a fifteen-minute lecture on the importance of using my time at Black Meadows properly and living up to the privilege conferred by admittance to the college. I nodded and said ‘Yes, Father,’ at appropriate moments. Perhaps today students at Black Meadows are invited to confer with their advisers about their course of study or to discuss problems they are encountering in their studies. At no point, neither then nor subsequently, was I invited to discuss my academic career at Black Meadows. I was told what it would be. Academic shortcomings were a matter for discipline, not deliberation.
‘You attend confession weekly.’
‘If at any time, Patrick, you commit a mortal sin or have doubts about the precepts of the Church, you are to come to me. I am always ready to hear your confession. The weekly confession is important, but it does not always provide a full opportunity to deal with the graver sins.’
‘I am your spiritual guide, Patrick.’
Father M— leaned forwards and lowered his voice. ‘Tell me, Patrick, how many times have you committed the sin of self-pollution since your last confession.’ He spoke almost conspiratorially.
There was the dreaded term. I had heard it. One could not attend a Catholic boys’ school and not hear it. I knew that engaging in self-pollution imperilled our immortal souls. But I did not know what the term meant. I knew it had something to do with that mystery known as sex. The specific act involved in committing this sin was another mystery, however.
‘Never, Father,’ I stammered. ‘At least I don’t think so.’
‘Which is it, my son? Never or don’t think so.’ Father M— stood up and leaned over his desk to peer down at me.
‘I don’t know what self-pollution is, Father. I know it’s wrong, but I don’t know what it is.’ I bent my head forwards and examined the carpet. I felt ashamed at confessing my ignorance.
‘Have you never played with yourself, Patrick?’
That question put the subject in a different light for me. My mother and my sister and I lived in a house in the country. We were the only children in the immediate neighbourhood. My sister and I played with each other or, since our interests did not always coincide, entertained ourselves separately. ‘I usually play with my sister, Father. But sometimes I read by myself, Father, or play with my meccano set or my trains. She doesn’t like to do that.’ No one had ever told me that solitary play was a sin. Apparently I had polluted myself on many occasions.
‘Do not be pert, Patrick. Are you telling me that you have never touched yourself?’
That confused me even more. Of course I had touched myself. ‘No, Father. Sorry, Father. Yes, Father, I have touched myself. But I don’t understand, Father, how can I go to the toilet or bathe myself if I don’t touch myself?’
‘Oh, Patrick, ignorance is where sin begins. Has your father not talked to you about sex?’
I shook my head no. ‘I’ve heard the other boys talk about it, but I don’t know what it is.’
‘Do you know where babies come from, Patrick?’
I happily nodded yes. I knew the answer to that question. ‘In school one of the boys asked Brother Martin where babies came from. He said that when people grew up they got married, and then if they were good God blessed them with children.’
To my surprise, Father M— gave a bark of laughter. ‘Ah, the “children as God’s way of rewarding adults” theory. There are many more that think them God’s way of punishing adults, lad, not without good reason.’
He looked at me speculatively and then said, ‘A practical demonstration is called for, I think.’ He walked over to the door and opened it and looked up and down the hall. Then he closed the door and bolted it.
‘Lower your trousers and pants, Patrick.’ That was the usual prelude to a caning. I was confused about what I had done to merit one, but it was useless to protest one’s innocence. That only increased the number of strokes one received. So I did as ordered and bent forward over the desk.
‘No, stand up. Come over here.’ When I turned to look at Father M— , I found him unbuttoning his soutane. He was wearing trousers underneath and he pushed the skirt of the soutane behind his back and then undid his flies. ‘I said come over here.’
My trousers and pants were around my ankles. I tried to take a step but was hobbled by them. I bent over and pulled them up enough so that I could walk freely.
‘No, come closer. Stand beside me.’ Father M— pulled his penis out of his pants. I had never been that near an adult’s penis. ‘Hold your shirt up.’
I dutifully let go of my trousers and they fell back to the floor. I raised my shirt exposing my stomach. He placed one of his hands on my back and drew me in closer so that our bodies were pressed together. He grasped his penis in his free hand and rubbed it against my stomach. I was surprised by how hot and sticky it was. That close, he smelled sour and dusty. I took a step backwards and tried to move away.
‘Stand still.’ He pulled his foreskin back and showed me his penis. The head was shiny and wet. I thought he had pissed himself. I now know that he was already excited enough to have oozed precum. He stroked himself several times and quickly grew erect.
As I told Lewis, that was the first time I had ever seen an erect penis. I had no idea that a penis could do that. I was so astonished by the change that I was briefly transfixed. Father M— ’s penis had become bright red. I remember being surprised by the veins running up and down the length.
He bent over slightly and grabbed my cock and balls, holding them tightly. I blushed with embarrassment. I suppose my mother must have touched me when she bathed me as a baby, but I have no memory of that. Not even a doctor had touched my genitals. I was so shocked that I didn’t move. He continued to stroke himself. His face grew red and his breathing ragged, changes that alarmed me. I thought he was going to be sick. I knew that a red face and difficulty breathing were symptoms of a heart attack. This description makes my thoughts seem more orderly than they were. All these emotions were running through me at once. I was not a rational, dispassionate observer but a very alarmed and confused boy.
Father M— was holding his breath in an attempt, I would guess, not to attract attention. Still, he began to gasp loudly and moan. I was even more certain then that he was having a heart attack. At that point he came. A few drops splashed on my stomach. The rest oozed out of his cock in a long sticky thread that fell to the floor. That more than anything sickened me. When he came, he released me, and I quickly pulled my pants and trousers up, holding them at waist level with one hand. I ran to the door and pulled back the bolt and rushed into the hallway.
Luckily the corridor was empty. I ran several feet and then realised how dishevelled I was. I stopped and pulled my trousers on properly and buttoned them up. Later when I undressed for bed, I discovered the dried cum on my stomach.
There was no repeat of the incident. Several times each term, I was summoned to Father M— ’s office, where he would review my academic and spiritual progress. Each time he would ask if I had committed the sin of self-pollution.
My immediate reaction to his ‘demonstration’ of self-pollution was confusion. I still did not know what the term meant. I reasoned that it could not possibly be self-pollution because a priest would not engage in that sinful practice. I was sure that my penis was incapable of growing erect. For all I knew, only Father M— had that ability. Still, I was aware that he had not wanted others to know what he was doing. But I had no sense that I had been abused, still less that I was in any sense a victim. I was not angry. If anything, I expected to be summoned that evening to the headmaster’s office and punished for leaving a teacher’s office without being first dismissed. When no summons came, I grew convinced that Father M— had indeed had a heart attack and was lying dead on the floor of his office because I had failed to tell anyone what had happened. I was much relieved to see him alive the next morning.
Within a few months, I experienced my first hard-on. I had also heard enough discussions among the other boys to understand that this was part of sex. The next summer, when I was alone in my mother’s house for several hours, I experimented and discovered that by copying Father M— ’s movement, I could have an orgasm. It was the first of many episodes of self-pollution.
Only once again did I have to confront Father M—’s sexual predation. In my last year at Black Meadows, one of the teachers asked me to take some papers to his office for his signature and bring them back. I knocked on his door and explained my errand. He took the papers from me and walked over to his desk to find a pen and sign them. With him in his office was one of the first-year students. Even for a first-year, he was small and young looking. He was also beautiful. I stepped into the office while Father M— signed the papers. When I went to leave, the student shot me a look of anguished appeal. He wanted me to stay. By that time I knew enough about Father M— ’s habits to know what awaited him. When I hesitated, Father M— said, ‘That will be all, Patrick. Close the door when you leave.’ So I left. I still feel guilty about my lack of courage that day. That former student would now be in his mid-sixties. Over the past decade, I have scoured the accounts of those who have come forward and related their experiences of abuse at Black Meadows. I have never found his name among those who have spoken up about Father M—. I hope he can forgive me for failing to help him and that he has found a means of dealing with what happened to him.
What I experienced was, in comparison to the abuse suffered by others, negligible, in both physical and psychical terms. I was not psychologically crippled by it. I did not become gay because of it. Looking back, I can see that my attraction to men predates the incident. It did not make me a homosexual, nor did it augment existing tendencies. Its greatest impact on me was spiritual. Given the way respect for priests and other religious is inculcated into young Catholics, there tends to be some conflation between the message and the messenger. It is hard for youngsters to separate sanctity and holiness from those who claim to be its representatives on earth. When I came to understand what Father M— had done to me and was doing to others, it made me look at what I was being taught and to question it.
So my account to Lewis of my experience with priestly abuse was not the whole truth. As I often do, I made my past embarrassments into a joke and then flirted with Lewis to distract him. He is aware of what I am doing. In his broad attempt at an Irish accent, he refers to it as ‘flarting’. ‘You’re flarting with me again, Pat,’ he says and smiles knowingly. Then he changes the subject and speaks of innocuous things. He knows that I will eventually find a way of telling him what he wants to know.
I am one of the lucky people. I found, completely by accident, a person who has taught me that sex can be a way of expressing love and not a clandestine, shameful fumbling. It is a bonus that he is also tolerant of my foibles and even appears to cherish them.
If I know you, you are still feeling guilty about leaving that young boy with that priest.
No comment on the deception?
I’ve learned patience. Eventually you find a way of telling me what I want to know. In the meantime, I enjoy the distractions you use to misdirect my attention.
I sensed that the first version of the story that you told me wasn’t the whole truth. The incident obviously troubled you more than you were willing to let on at the time, and when you get troubled about something, you tend to close yourself off. I’m used to that. You’ve taught me to read between the lines, not only in your stories but in real life. You’re not an open book, and sometimes your silences speak volumes. I may be flattering myself, but I think I’ve learn to decipher the clues you leave. It is, by the way, a transferable skill. I’ve gotten better at reading other people, thanks to you.
I suspect you’re also good at reading me. It works both ways. I’ve seen you instantly adjust when I get irritated by something. You immediately go into your “let’s calm Lewis down” mode. We don’t always need to be explicit to convey what we’re feeling to each other. That’s not a bad thing.
Lewis—no, it isn’t. Thanks for understanding. Love, Pat
No need to thank me.
Yes, there is.
You were right to characterise the incident as sad. It is so pathetic. I assume that anyone who was at Black Meadows during the years you were there will be able to identify Father M. Luckily, the law says the dead can’t sue for libel. Still, anticipate a protest.
Michelle—He’s already been named in several reports. It will not take anyone interested in identifying him long to do so. The Father M— business is unnecessary. It’s more a reflection of my indecision about this passage than an attempt to avoid being sued. I’m still of two minds whether to include the second section. I think the one with Lewis is innocuous enough—it shows how the two of us convey information to each other, and I can strengthen that point. Lewis’ response has given me some ideas on how to modify the section to bring that out. The second part troubles me, not because it is in any way untrue but because my experience was so trivial compared to what others suffered. I do not want to make light of their experiences by offering what is no more than a bathetic incident. I worry that it might even be seen as occasionally humourous, which would be disastrous. There may be some value in showing the range of abuse and the sins of those who traded more in sanctimoniousness than in sanctity. That last is more an attempt to rationalise the inclusion of this passage than a defence of it. I will have to think about this.
Perhaps I can rework it to focus on my confusion about self-pollution and all the other adult mysteries children encounter as they grow up. Did I ever tell you about my years-long ignorance of the literal meaning of ‘feck’ and ‘fuck’? I knew that they were somehow related to sex and that they were words one did not say in public (at least when I was a lad in the 1950s), but I had no idea why they were bad and why all the other lads sniggered over them. I knew moreover that I could not reveal my ignorance lest I be exposed as utterly uninformed. So I used the words for several years amongst my confreres without knowing what they meant. I think I used them convincingly, but I was nonetheless appalled when I finally learned exactly what they meant. Would that work? Let me have your thoughts.
As always, thanks for listening to me and advising me. Patrick
‘I see you found your usual corner.’ Lynne Preswaithe bore down on me. ‘Here. I come bearing gifts.’ She handed me a glass of wine and set a plate of grapes on the bench between us. ‘I was chatting with Geramie’s students, and I looked out a window and saw you sitting by yourself and I decided it was time to reward myself. An hour of listening to undergraduates fulfils my wifely duty. No court in the land would dispute that. Geramie cannot demand more of me. So it was past time to do my daily good deed for myself and there you were.’
‘Thank you for the wine and the grapes. I gave up on fighting my way to the bar, let alone the catering tables. I can no longer compete with ravenous undergraduates in pursuit of food and drink. And thank you for the adroitly phrased compliment. But what did you mean by “my usual corner”?’ I looked around. ‘There are no corners here.’ The bench was next to a gravel path in the Back Court of St Peter’s, Lewis’s college at Cambridge, and was surrounded by grass. Most of the guests at the college fête were clustered in the hall. A few, like me and Lynne, had escaped and were wandering the paths or seated outside.
‘It’s a metaphorical corner. You always find yourself a spot outside the main group at college events and then sit back and observe the rest of us. All of us read your books dreading—and hoping—that we will discover ourselves pinioned in prose—the fellows and the fellows’ spouses alike.’
Lynne’s husband, Geramie Preswaithe, is a lecturer in chemistry and a fellow of St Peter’s College. Lynne is an economist and works at the Department for Education in London. Like Lewis and myself, Lynne and Geramie spend much of their time separated. The Preswaithes have a flat in London, but during term Geramie is in Cambridge for most of the week. Lewis and Geramie are not only friends but also allies in the disputes and arguments that roil St Peter’s from time to time. Lynne and I have grown to become somewhat more. We are friends who can be blunt with each other, who feel free to delve into each other’s psyche, who can be honest without worrying that their friendship will dissolve, and who, because they regard those qualities as privileges, are careful about their relationship. We are like siblings who are very close. Unlike siblings we are spared the necessity of a family history of problems and feuds. We have never had to compete for parental love and esteem or to be anxious about the division of an inheritance.
‘You need not worry. I have no desire to write an academic novel.’
‘Oh, I am disappointed. I would love to see what you made of all this.’ She swept a graceful hand through the air to encompass the college and its grounds.
‘It would not be fair to Lewis or to you and Geramie. I would have to acknowledge the help the three of you gave me for—oh, how would I put it? “Finally I am deeply indebted to Lewis Rosenthal and Lynne and Geramie Preswaithe for many discussions and detailed information on the inner workings of the University of Cambridge and St Peter’s College.” No one would ever speak to you again for fear you would divulge their secrets. I couldn’t even be coy about it and refer to you as “several anonymous informants with personal knowledge of academic life”. Hundreds of people could readily identify you as the culprits from that.’
Lynne laughed. She pulled a grape off its stem and ate it. She looked around the court for several moments before shaking her head. ‘This is not one of my favourite places. The college have had five hundred years to do something with the Back Court, and they have managed to make it into one of the dreariest places in Cambridge. You chose a poor place for your usual corner today.’
‘I find the hall even drearier on days like today. It’s too crowded and too noisy. I devoted two hours to wandering about and talking with people. That fulfils my spousal duties. No court in the land would dispute that. Lewis cannot ask for more. So I decided to reward myself with a break and some fresh air. My behaviour must have been exemplary lately because my prayers for good conversation have also been answered.’
Lynne brushed my attempt at a compliment aside. ‘Why did you come then? You needn’t be here.’
‘The Master’s wife rang me in Brighton and asked me especially to come. I think she and the Master want to be seen as tolerant and open to the—How shall we put it?—the many types of domestic arrangements indulged in by the Fellows and Scholars of St Peter’s College, even when the partner happens to be as odd and peculiar as Lewis’s choice.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself. You and Lewis are not the only gay couple at the university. There are many of them. Several of them within St Peter’s.’
‘Ah, you misunderstand. It is that I am the only Irish partner.’
Lynne gave a hoot of laughter. ‘Then the invitation was an act of tolerance. Did they make you enter by the servants’ gate?’
‘I was granted special permission to use the Great Gate. One-time only today.’
‘Now that sounded bitter, Patrick.’
I nodded. My tone, if not my words, had been bitter. It was my turn to be silent for a few moments. One of the many things I value about Lynne is her willingness to allow silences in conversations. She is ready to be patient and let others find their own moment for speaking and their own approach. I suspect that stands her in good stead as a bureaucrat. I wanted to discuss something with her that I had been thinking about but I did not want her to feel that I included her among the people I was talking about. It was a conversation I had been planning for a month or so. I expected Lynne to be at the college fête but I had not anticipated that we would have a chance to talk.
‘Part of that bitterness arises from the exquisite condescension of academics towards non-academics here. They pity you—relentlessly. They apparently cannot help themselves. They simply feel that you do not measure up. Otherwise you would be here. The fact that you are not defines your inferiority. This place is very wounding to one’s self-esteem.’
‘But they treat all outsiders like that. Even me.’
‘Ah, but note the “even me”. Their treatment of me is justified because I’m an outsider. But you are a onetime member of the college and feel that your treatment is therefore unmerited. You are more than a mere spouse. You are a scholar of St Peter’s and married within the fold.’
‘You are right. You should not be allowed “intra muros”. I shall propose to Lewis and Geramie that they lead the campaign to prevent such intrusions in future.’
‘I shall picket outside the Great Gate.’
‘And we shall ignore you.’ She folded her arms across her chest and glared disdainfully at me before breaking into laughter. ‘You said that was part of the reason. What’s the other part?’ Lynne never allows herself to be distracted by raillery. She always returns to the subject.
‘It’s because of the novel I’m working on now. I am channelling a disgruntled character I am creating. As often happens, he is infecting my mind. I have also been thinking about how people like Lewis and myself fit into society, and I realised how weary I am become of being someone who has to be tolerated, or forgiven, or understood, or otherwise noted as different. That’s the real reason I left the hall. I became tired of watching people adjust their faces when I was introduced to them and they realised who I am. I suppose it is one thing for them to know that Lewis is gay and that there is a “great and good friend” somewhere to the south. But it is quite another thing to have to make small talk with the domestic partner. Then there were obviously some who had not heard about us. Most of them were students, and the last thing I want is for Lewis to be the subject of student gossip.’
Lynne crossed her legs and turned her body on the bench so that she faced me. She plucked at the skirt of her dress to settle it about her. ‘I think Lewis is less concerned about that than you. No one who was truly bothered by student gossip would survive for long here. Lewis is inured to it. What is really bothering you, Patrick?’ She reached over and patted me on the near forearm.
‘The ways that gay relationships are different from straight relationships. Lewis and I are always aware that our relationship is viewed as different, and we are constantly adjusting its visible public aspects. We are always conscious of how we appear to others. I mean, if Geramie were to walk out here and see you, he would come over and touch you. I’ve seen him do it hundreds of times. He would put a hand on your shoulder, and you would reach across with the opposite hand and clasp his briefly. Then both of you would break the connection and Geramie would step back. No one would think anything of it. It would be seen as a small gesture of affection. Oh, it would mark you as a couple—perhaps that is another reason for performing such acts. But no one would have to think about it. The message, if there is one, would be delivered quietly and received without remark. But Lewis and I do not enjoy that luxury. If we touched each other in public like that, we would offend a great many people. Others would see us as militants making a statement and forcing our gayness on them. We constantly have to think about how our actions will be perceived.’
‘I think you underestimate how much the same is true of straight couples, Pat.’
‘Perhaps, but is not the very fact that most gays would underestimate that a sign of the awareness of difference that is forced on us?’
‘Forced—and celebrated sometimes. Although I suppose one could argue that the fact of celebration is also a sign of difference. A defence mechanism, perhaps. If one is perceived as different, one begins to celebrate difference simply as a means of surviving the hostility directed at one because one is different.’
Lynne and I were falling into our usual pattern of speculation. We tend to move from the particulars of our lives to the more general, as if the distance allows us to view ourselves objectively. We paused and considered the grass. More people had left the hall and were walking around the Back Court.
Lynne was the first to speak. ‘We all have defence mechanisms to protect our egos. We could not cope otherwise. Even the academic condescension is defensive.’
I watched three young men in scholars’ gowns detach themselves from a larger group and wander towards us. They were looking in my direction and trying to catch my eye. The trio stopped about ten feet away and spoke quietly amongst themselves. ‘I suspect we are about to be interrupted. May I take you to dinner later this week? Locatelli’s?’
‘Of course. Thursday? About 8:00?’
‘Yes. I will book a table and email you about the arrangements.’
‘I should return to the fray and find Geramie. And my departure will give your admirers a chance to approach. They are waiting for me to be off. I’ll leave the grapes. If you offer them some, they will take them back to their rooms and enshrine them. Fifty years from now, they will show their grandchildren a wizened rock-hard raisin and brag that Patrick Rósgleann gave it to them.’ Lynne stood up and then bent down to kiss my cheek.
‘I doubt they are the type who will have grandchildren,’ I whispered. ‘My gaydar tells me otherwise.’
‘Useful thing that. It would have been spared a few embarrassments in my youth.’
‘Now that I want to hear about.’
‘Never. I will take those secrets to the grave.’ Lynne laughed and moved off. She gave the three young men a dazzling smile.
‘Mr Rósgleann? We were wondering if we might talk with you?’ The speaker gestured towards himself and his two companions as if I might be in doubt about who would be included in the conversation.
‘It would be my pleasure. Do sit down. It will give me a stiff neck if I have to look up at you. Would you like a grape?’
I shortly made a mental note to tell Lynne that she had underestimated the capacity of young men to resist food—raisinhood was not to be among any future honours for me.
Lynne is right about the terror you create at college. Every new novel or story is scrutinised carefully by the High Table in the fear and hope that you will finally tell all. They dread opening the papers to the book review section and discovering that you have written an academic novel. All my colleagues hope that you will skewer their dearest enemy and immortalize him with the opprobrium he so richly deserves. Geramie had a great chuckle over this and immediately sent it off to Lynne.
Lewis—I was not completely open with Lynne, neither then nor later. In addition to the matters I raised with her, I was also much concerned about the tendency of gay relationships to be defined as solely sexual. A married heterosexual couple is assumed to be connected in many ways. The partners in a marriage interact in multiple dimensions. They form a family, an economic, social, legal, and sometimes religious grouping. Our initial reaction to encountering a heterosexual married couple is not to assume that only sex keeps them together. Gay relationships, in contrast, are defined by the sexual preferences of the partners. Many outsiders see even long-term couples such as ourselves, who have been together fifty years and jointly own a home and share a life, as united only by sex. Despite the fact that both of us are now in our seventies and the lusts have cooled, the assumption is that we are held together by sex. I need to find a way to talk about this without sounding preachy. I am trying to show us as a couple in all senses, and part of that is sexual to be sure, but I want to show how we have made a life together. Pat
I think you are doing that.
I love you. You are the brother I never had. We should have an adoption ceremony when you return from Ireland. I am much enjoying your ‘life’ and very curious about the parts that Lewis is not showing us.
Lynne—Lewis does not want to be arrested for distributing pornography. Pat
Now, I am interested. I shall ply you with drink when next we meet and make you tell all. Lynne
I do not see the point of this. I am becoming increasingly mystified by this “autobiography”. What is the purpose of all these short discussions? This one in particular seems preachy and contrived.
Michelle—You are right. It comes across as too pat, as it were. I intended it to be the introduction to a larger discussion of identity and the problems Lewis and I faced in finding a way to live our lives. I hope that this will become clearer in the next sections when I offer a few illustrative anecdotes that I hope will bring out more of what I mean. But this section needs more work. As you read the next few sections, see if you think there are any that could be joined to this. Let me know what you think. Patrick.
‘Pancakes? Are you making pancakes? When did you learn to make pancakes? Oh, that smells so good.’ Lewis beamed at me with pleasure when he emerged from the bedroom and saw me standing at the cooker in the kitchenette and carefully easing one of the disks over. The top was only slightly burned along one edge. The pancake looked gratifyingly like the picture on the package.
‘I used a mix. It isn’t hard. I just followed the directions on the back of the box. Your mother said you like them. She gave me the names of the kosher brands. She also gave me a list of things you could and could not have with them.’ I pointed to a sheet of paper held to the refrigerator door with a magnet.
Lewis eyed it with trepidation. ‘And what did you choose?’
‘She said butter was a must, so I got that. She told me to remember to take it out of the refrigerator in time to let it soften. I did that. It’s on the table. Should be soft by now. And she said you liked jam rather than syrup. Either strawberry or grape but preferably strawberry. I bought both. You can choose what you like. I found Golden Syrup and real marmalade—the bitter kind—for myself at that British grocer on Seventh. She warned me against meat. But I’ve noticed that when I’m travelling and I see people order pancakes for breakfast in restaurants, they always get bacon or sausage. So I made some bacon for myself. You don’t have to eat any.’
‘Oh yum, honorary chicken strips. I like those.’ Lewis tried unsuccessfully not to grin. ‘I suppose I shall have to eat a few. Now that you’ve made them, it would be rude of me not to force down a few “rashers”, as you call them.’
‘There is no need to be polite.’
“Oh, there’s every need. Politeness trumps all.’ Lewis laughed. He enjoys outwitting the rules.
Lewis had taken the train from Boston to New York the night before to stay with me. It was the winter reading period at Harvard, and he had no classes to teach. We were to have two weekends and the intervening week together. I had to work during the weekdays, but still it would be the longest time we had spent together alone since I had had a week’s holiday from my job at The Irish Times the previous summer.
It was just after New Year’s and the weather was cold. My first flat in New York was a small, two-room walk-up on the fourth floor of an old brick building in a section of Brooklyn just across the East River from Manhattan. It was heated—intermittently—with steam radiators. I had opened the valves on the radiators as far as possible and they had clanked and hissed all night long. In the quiet of the night, one could hear an air bubble start from boiler in the basement and trace its noisy progress towards my flat until it passed through the radiator in my bedroom and continued to the floors above me. I suspected that even at full bore the radiators would not provide enough heat for Lewis’s comfort and had bought an electric fire. It followed him from bedroom to living room and back as he moved about the place. Still, that morning he was dressed in thick woollen trousers and a heavy Fair Isle–style jumper and rubbing his hands together to keep them warm. When that proved futile, he thrust them under his armpits and hugged himself, hunching his shoulders forward as if to make himself a smaller target for the cold.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that it would get this cold. We can go out later and buy an electric blanket.’
‘I don’t want to go out today. I want to spend the day with you and no one else. Besides, you kept me warm enough in bed. I don’t need an electric blanket.’
‘I can’t guarantee that I will have the same enthusiasm tonight. It left me a “mite tuckered out” as you Yankees say.’
‘Oh, I think I can guarantee enthusiasm.’
‘Can you now?’
‘I may need to have more of those chicken strips—just for energy.’
‘You can have all of mine, then.’
We did not go out that day. We sat at the table the entire morning talking. At some point we cleared the table and did the washing up. Then we sat back down over cups of cold coffee and continued talking. I do not remember what we discussed. Probably our work. Lewis would have told me about his family and would have enquired after mine. Even though he had not met my mother or Niamh at that point, he was always careful, because I was important to him, to ask about people he assumed were important to me. We would have eaten lunch and later dinner.
At some point that day we may have broken off to do some work. Even on holiday, Lewis had work. He was a sub-editor of a mathematics journal at the time, and I remember that he brought a thick bundle of proofs on long sheets of dun foolscap to read. That sticks in my mind because he had so many questions about publishing and he mistakenly thought my work on the newspaper made me an expert in typesetting. It was at least two decades before computerised typesetting, and complicated mathematical formulae were frustratingly difficult to set by hand. Lewis is usually a temperate man, but he swore and cursed at those proofs. I could not help because the composing room of The Irish Times was on the other side of the Atlantic and I had never been in it. I knew even less than he about the subject and could offer him only sympathy and mugs of strong tea.
I was working on my first novel. The writing was going well, and, as much as I wanted to be with Lewis, I also wanted not to lose my momentum. On weekdays, when I had to work, I set the alarm for 4:00 so that I would have a couple of hours to write before I had to leave for the office. I tried to squeeze in another hour or two at night. I did not begrudge Lewis the time we spent together, but occasionally my mind drifted towards the stack of oversize yellow tablets that held the much revised manuscript of what would become Stand and Take Note and I would feel the need to follow up on a sudden thought before it escaped.
I do remember that that night we went to bed and talked for some time before we fell asleep. In the event, the honorary chicken proved less of an aphrodisiac than Lewis anticipated and we were interested in companionship rather than sex. It was not the first time we had shared a bed without having sex, but I think that night and the ten days we were together that January marked a new stage in our relationship. It was then that we became a permanent couple and not just two men with a special friendship.
That Saturday took place during our fourth year together. We had spent much time with each other by that point. But we had always regarded those shared moments as dates or holidays. Something had always marked our time together as special and out-of-the-ordinary, hours of privacy stolen away from other demands on us and sequestered from society’s expectations of how two young male friends behaved. I like to think of that Saturday as our first ‘day of small things’, to use the wonderfully pregnant biblical phrase. A day of nothing more momentous than two people joined by the quiet domestic comforts of food and conversation, and work and sleep.
When we first got together, we knew that something special had happened in our lives. But we did not—did not dare to—envision that it would last. Neither of us knew of two men or two women who had lived together for many years as a couple. As far as our limited acquaintances of other gay men provided examples (we then knew no lesbians), couples were a rarity and a temporary arrangement. During our first two years, my impending return to Ireland seemed the likely end to our relationship. I had even composed a noble farewell speech in my mind encouraging Lewis to forget me and find someone else. (I would have been disappointed had he agreed or, even worse, had he acted on the suggestion readily. I anticipated that both of us would languish because of our unavoidable separation and indulged in a dramatic fantasy of Lewis’s forsaking his career and joining me in Ireland.)
What I never expected to have were days filled with small things. I thought our shared moments would always, because of the strictures surrounding gay life in those days, be set apart from the ordinary. For many years, I assumed that the geography of our jobs and the accidents of citizenship and the business of work visas and passports would eventually cause us to separate. We often occupied the same space—one of our apartments or his family’s holiday cottage on Cape Ann. But we were not living together. This lent our time together an aura of something distinct from the everyday. We were both conscious that these limited times had to be intense and enjoyed for every moment. Our life together was not normal, it was not prosaic.
Lewis and I have been together for around fifty years now. We have had many remarkable days, days of the sort that should form the high points of our biographies. I remember those days vividly. But they are less important that the days I do not remember. It is the normal days, the prosaic days, the days of small things, that are the backbone of our life together.
I found a recipe in an American cookbook for those thick, fluffy pancakes they make in the States. The next time we are besieged by cold weather, I will attempt them. I think Lewis will enjoy them.
I remember the pancakes. It was so cold. We stayed indoors, and we did spend most of our time doing “small things.” On the train back to Boston, I remember thinking that we had just had a very good time together. I don’t recall what specific things we did/ Did we even go to a movie or to a restaurant?
No, I think we ate in my apartment the entire time. We may have seen a movie or watched one on TV.
I received the latest instalment. I look forward to the next parts with trepidation. What, I ask myself, will Patrick find to talk about now that he has told all about the pancake episode? What could possibly top that?
Michelle—Do you doubt my abilities? I have plenty of culinary episodes to share. It is a cookbook I am writing. Yours, ever deviously, Pat
After my grandfather and great-grandfather were murdered in late 1920, my great-grandmother returned to her family’s home near Dunfanaghy, accompanied by my grandmother and my father, who was then five years old. The three of them lived in a small house in an area known as Errarooey, some ten kilometres (about six miles) west of Dunfanaghy. There are both an Errarooey More (‘Large Errarooey’) and an Errarooey Beg (‘Small Errarooey’). According to local records, in 1921 there were seventeen households and eighty-three people in Errarooey More and six households and twenty-nine people in Errarooey Beg. My father’s family and their two servants accounted for one of those six households and five of the twenty-nine people in Errarooey Beg. All the households were engaged in farming. Except for a few fields, the soil was thin, suitable only for grazing sheep or growing poor crops of potatoes and other vegetables for domestic consumption.
Today much of the land in Errarooey lies fallow, and the residents work elsewhere. Some, like me, maintain a second home there and visit only occasionally. Other than quiet, the area has little to recommend itself. There are no noteworthy ruins, no scenery, no historical monuments, no charming bed-and-breakfasts. Anyone venturing down the poor roads that lead to Errarooey will find, with few exceptions, only the bland copies of suburban American houses now common in rural Ireland. Most passers-by, I would guess, thank God they live elsewhere and drive away with blurred images of an unmemorable place seen without interest through a car windscreen.
My father lived in Errarooey until he was twelve, when he was sent to Black Meadows to continue his education. The house in which he and his mother and grandmother lived sits below the ridge of a low hill. The land behind it slopes down to the North Atlantic, half a kilometre away. Before the house was modernised in the 1980s, it was a two-storey stone rectangle with a slate roof and chimneys on both ends. It was roughly ten metres long and six metres wide. The ground floor had doors in the centre of both the front and the back walls, with two windows on both sides of the doors. There were parallel rows of windows on the upper floor. There were fireplaces in the side walls of the ground floor. Two-thirds of the ground floor was taken up by the main room of the house, which contained the kitchen and the principal living area. Off to one side was a small room that was intended to be the formal sitting room. It did double service as my father’s bedroom. A steep, narrow staircase against the interior wall led to the first floor, which contained two bedrooms. Until they were torn down in the 1980s, several sheds for storage and shelter for the animals, many of them open along the side facing the yard, enclosed an area behind the house. A small building contained the well and doubled as a washroom. There was no electricity until the late 1950s and no running water or plumbing until the 1980s.
‘Patrick, come here. I want a word with you.’
My father was seated behind the desk in the library of my mother’s house. He had arrived for his customary weekend visit a few hours before. One of his aides stood deferentially behind my father, holding a sheaf of papers. In my eyes, he also reinforced my image of my father as an authority who was waited upon.
Usually during his visits my father ignored me except during tea. At least once each weekend he would use the convenience of that gathering to question Niamh and me about our schoolwork. Otherwise, as long as I was quiet, my father paid no attention to me. He might nod if he encountered me and say my name, but the flick of his eyes towards me was commonly the only acknowledgement he made of my existence. On the few occasions I had been summoned to my father’s presence, it was for a lecture about my shortcomings and a punishment to encourage me to improve. And on those occasions, he always set a time for the appointment an hour in advance (so, I suspect, that I would have time to dread the meeting), and he was always alone.
The order to step into his office, with another person present, was unprecedented. It immediately sent a spasm of fear through my body. What had I done wrong? I quickly reviewed my behaviour during the previous week and could find nothing. Certainly nothing on the order of acts that had in the past provoked my mother to say ‘Your father will deal with this when he comes on Saturday’. But however much I wanted to run, disobedience was unthinkable, and I complied.
My father did not look up from the letter he was reading as I stood before the desk. After a minute or so, he picked up a pen, impatiently made a note on the sheet of paper, and handed it to his aide. Only then did he speak to me. ‘I am visiting my constituency for a week beginning on Wednesday. You are to come with me. I have already spoken to your mother about this. She will pack a bag for you. She knows what you will need. We will pick you up on Wednesday morning around seven.’ He then turned to his aide and motioned for the next piece of paper in the stack.
‘Yes, Da.’ My father ignored my response. Indeed it was not a matter for agreement or acquiescence. I walked out, both alarmed and confused. Alarmed because of the prospect of spending a week with my father. His relations with me, when they existed at all, were disciplinary. I could not imagine that he wanted me to accompany him for any reason other than to punish me. Confused because ‘the constituency’ was an important element in my father’s life. He visited it often and it was one of the few topics of conversation between my parents. My mother treated it as seriously as did my father. She often left us for two or three days to appear at my father’s side at events in ‘the constituency’. I had little notion of the substance of the constituency, but I knew that was a vital concern for my father and that, as my mother’s trips confirmed, a vital concern for our household.
‘Patrick, this is Mr Boyle.’
My father usually introduced me as ‘the son’ or ‘the lad’. He would put a hand on my back just below my neck and push me forwards. That was my cue to smile and extend my hand as he had taught me and utter, copying my father’s choice, in English or in Irish, ‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Boyle’.
Mr Boyle, like all of the hundreds of men to whom I was displayed on that trip to the north-west, would give me that tolerant amused smile that adults give children who are trying to behave in an adult fashion and solemnly shake my hand. Most of them said something on the order of ‘a likely looking lad’ and ‘he takes after you, Bram’ or ‘he looks like a rugby/hurling/Gaelic player’ or ‘he must keep you busy’ or ‘a bit of the devil in him just like his da’. My father would accept the compliments or acknowledge the likeness or say ‘Rugby for this one’ or ‘Aye, he’s a high-spirited lad’.
The last remark gave rise to much thought on my part. My father had previously viewed my high spirits as something to be beaten out of me. I was now learning that in certain circumstances they were admirable. That did not, however, mean that I was to display any. However acceptable high spirits may have been in theory, I was to sit silently but attentively while my father and Mr Boyle talked. If my father set me an errand, I was to do it quickly and quietly.
My father’s trip to the constituency had several purposes. We stopped in almost every settlement in the area. As one of the three TDs for the northern and western parts of Co. Donegal, my father would hold a clinic to meet with the locals and to listen to their problems. He took careful notes during these meetings. Most of those he met needed help in dealing with the bureaucracy or sometimes even a personal problem. My father would respond by saying ‘I will have a word with X’. That was a promise he kept. After each clinic ended, he dictated letters to his assistant addressed to the various X’s. If the problem were pressing, he might even ring X. The problems ranged from requests for introductions to help in dealing with school admissions or what was viewed by the petitioners as overzealous enforcement of regulations. One tearful woman wanted my father to find her son, who had emigrated to Australia and failed to stay in contact. My father told her that he would contact the Australian embassy in Dublin and find someone who could help her. Some people just wanted a few minutes of attention from an ‘important’ man. My father listened patiently to all of them.
In every place we stopped, there would be a man, sometimes two or three, who had nothing to discuss with my father. They simply wanted to be present and to be greeted. Upon entering a room, my father would say their name loudly, step forward with his right arm outstretched to shake their hand, and ask after their family or make some personal remark that acknowledged their affairs were important enough to be known to the TD. The smaller the detail that my father mentioned, the greater their pleasure at the contact. A seemingly affectionate exchange of craic was especially prised. These men often served as the go-betweens between my father and the petitioners and formed a chorus to the discussion of problems, adding their assent to complaints or supplying what they regarded as necessary information or shaking their heads, as warranted, at the stupidity of the national and the local bureaucracies.
I was expected to be visibly present at the clinics and to answer questions politely and respectfully from those waiting. My father emphasised that I was to answer in the language the speaker used. If I was unsure which language to use, I should answer first in Irish and switch to English only if it was clear that the other person did not understand. A large segment of the constituency is still part of the Gaeltacht, the rapidly shrinking area of Ireland where Irish is the principal language of the majority of the inhabitants. In the early 1950s, most of the inhabitants still preferred Irish, and only a few could not speak enough to participate in an ordinary conversation.
These meetings introduced me to new aspects of my father. I knew him as a stern, distant figure. His interactions with other adult men that I witnessed were limited to his assistants, whom he ordered about peremptorily. He treated them much as he treated me and my sister and often my mother. What surprised me was the respect and solicitousness he showed his constituents. He was also jovial and told stories with gusto. He accepted with good cheer the gentle ribbing that was sometimes directed at him.
Another set of meetings was more political. At the local level, the Fianna Fáil party was organised into cumainn, or groups. There were several dozen of these in the constituency. At the time the heads of these local groups were much more important in politics than they are now. (Lewis tells me that they are equivalent to the old-fashioned ward bosses and precinct captains in American politics.) My father met with the head and the more prominent members of each cumann. Often these meetings took place in the local pub. If the subjects to be discussed were sensitive, the meeting was held in the home of one of the members.
One of these meetings took place at the local Fianna Fáil agent’s house in Gortahork. When my father, his assistant, and I arrived, the members of the cumann were waiting in the kitchen, clearly the largest room in the house, seated around the big table in the centre of the room. When we entered, the men stood up. My father greeted each man by name and shook his hand. As he did so, he made personal comments that betrayed and affirmed his knowledge of their personal life. It was rather as if my father were an old friend returning for a visit after an absence.
When he finished greeting the men, he turned to the wife of the host and thanked her for allowing them to use her house and apologised for the trouble his visit was causing. She assured my father that they were honoured to have him and asked, ‘Will you not sit in the parlús (the formal sitting room)?’ She pointed to a doorway that led to a small room at the front of the house. As is still often the case, this room was kept ready for use on special occasions, the fireplace swept clean, the grate and fire screen gleaming with black polish, the pictures and porcelain ornaments on the mantel dust-free, and the white lace curtains framing the window heavily starched. My father and the members of the cumann crowded into it. The host offered my father and his assistant the two chairs in the room. The two eldest men were then seated on the small sofa. The other five or six men leaned against the walls. It would have been an insult to the wife to suggest that the kitchen might be more comfortable. My father sent me outside with the admonition to behave myself and not wander off.
The house fronted directly on the main road through Gortahork. It was near the middle of one of the rows of houses that lined both sides of that street. There was no one else on the road. I leaned against my father’s car and contemplated my choices of how to occupy myself for the next two or three hours, or rather my lack of choices. I waited for a time for something to happen that might solve my dilemma. When none offered itself, I decided to walk up and down the road until my father had finished his meeting. I reasoned that as long as kept his car in sight, the walk did not qualify as ‘wandering off’.
The houses were irregularly spaced. Four or five houses might abut one another and present a row of varied facades to the street. Others stood alone, separated from a neighbouring structure by a narrow passageway or a small field. The houses were for the most part old, built of stone covered with plaster. The ceilings were low and the rooms were cramped. The smells of damp smoke and wet agriculture hung over the village, along with an overlay of ocean and fish.
Away from the centre of the village, the houses were further apart and the spaces between them grew into pastures for cows and sheep. I spent a few minutes watching a pig dozing in a pen, an occasional twitch of the ear and the regular rise and fall of its chest the only signs of life, while a chicken meandered through the pen eyeing the mud with its head titled sideways and pecking swiftly at it from time to time. I had been wandering for about fifteen minutes when I heard the sound of a ball bouncing off a wall. As I walked past a large house, I found a boy of about my age but smaller in build kicking a football against the side of shed. Through the open door of the shed, I could see farm machinery and equipment. The space between the house and the shed was an open yard of dirt and gravel packed down by the passage of wagons and cars. Tufts of grasses grew next to the walls of the buildings.
I watched as the boy carefully placed the ball on the ground and then stepped back several metres. He ran towards the ball and then kicked it against the wall. When he retrieved the ball to set up his next kick, he noticed me. He made several more kicks before asking indifferently in English, ‘Who are you?’ He was facing away from me as he spoke, seemingly more intent on placing the ball for his next shot than on speaking to me.
I was certain that he usually spoke Irish and that English was a way of emphasising to me that I was an outsider, but, as my father had trained me, I replied in English. ‘Patrick Ross. Me Da’s here to talk to some men.’ I pointed back up the road towards the house of the local agent. I had forgotten his name.
‘Why?’ Again, he spoke without betraying interest in any possible answer I might give.
I shrugged. ‘Some business.’ I was not about to reveal that some people (not the least the man himself) regarded my father as a man of some importance and thus claim a reflected glory for myself.
He looked at me for the first time and nodded. We both silently agreed that ‘business’ did not concern us.
‘I’m Michael Alcorn. Do you play football?’ he asked.
‘I can. We usually play rugby at school though.’
He scowled at me to show me what he thought of rugby. ‘I’m practising. Can you be the goalkeeper?’
For the next hour or so, we played an odd game of football. The ball was old and lacked spring. The irregular surface of the yard proved a hazard and sent the ball in unexpected directions. I defended the wall for a while and then played a fellow team member passing shots to him to kick for goals. I took off my coat before we began to play, and my cap flew off my head shortly thereafter. Before long, several of my diving attempts to deflect the ball from the goal had muddied my shirt and trousers.
Michael played with an intensity that was new to me. For him, it was far more than a way of passing the time. Football was a serious pursuit. Before each of my passes, he explained in detail how he wanted me to kick the ball to him. He practised each shot over and over until he was satisfied with his performance.
I was so caught up in the game that I lost track of time. It was only when I turned towards the road to run back into position that I saw my father and several other men standing there watching us. Suddenly I became aware of the dirt on my face and clothes and my dishevelled appearance. My shirt had pulled loose of my shorts in the back and hung down. My socks had fallen to my ankles, exposing my calves. My shoes were muddy. My cap lay trodden on the ground. I came to an abrupt stop and gaped at the unexpected appearance of my father. I expected his next words to be an angry shout. He was clearly impatient to be on his way and irritated that I had run off and that he had had to seek me out.
I had just finished making a running cross-field pass to Michael, who had successfully kicked the ball into the goal. ‘You’ve got a good lad there, Bram,’ one of the men said before my father could speak. ‘I could see some of your old moves in him. I can remember when you used to run like that. You taught him well. He’ll do you proud one day.’
My father nodded to accept the compliment. ‘But not half as proud, I’m guessing,’ my father pointed towards Michael, ‘as this lad will make his father.’
One of the men standing with my father smiled briefly and then glowered at Michael. ‘Aye, well, I don’t know about that. He’s always after kicking that ball when he should be working. Come here, Michael, and say hello to Mr Ross, our TD down in Dublin.’
My father shook hands with Michael and thanked him for watching after me. To me he said, ‘Get your coat and cap, Patrick. We need to be in Falcarragh. Your mammy will have something to say to you about that dirt when she sees those clothes.’ (My father’s use of ‘your mammy’ instead of his usual ‘your mother’ was a political concession to the time and place. ‘Mammy’ has resonances to the Irish that ‘mother’ does not.) While I ran to get my things, he talked with Michael about football, treating him as if he were an adult and valued his opinion. When I returned to the group, my father grasped me by the collar of my coat to prevent me moving away. He stood there, discussing sports, for another ten, fifteen minutes.
We arrived at Errarooey late on Saturday night. The two Errarooeys lie on a U-shaped road off the N56, the highway that runs between Falcarragh and Dunfanaghy. The two uprights of the U join the N56. Most of the houses are along the ends close to the N56. The entrance to the path to my father’s house is at the centre of the bottom part. The sections of the road nearest the N56 are more heavily travelled and they are flat and gravelled. Away from those sections the road quickly degenerates into two ruts worn into the dirt with a hump of grass in the centre. It is what is called a boreen in Irish English, although at the time of my first visit there, it barely qualified for even that name. By custom, that portion of the road is traversed from west to east. There is no room for two cars to pass.
The clinic in Falcarragh was followed by a visit of the cumann to a pub, which lasted almost until closing time. My father had left me in the car, and I stretched out along the length of the back seat and fell asleep waiting for him. We were parked across from the pub and I was awoken from time to time by laughter and singing from inside the pub or by the conversations of passers-by. When my father came out, however, I was lying down sound asleep and he did not see me. After he finished saying good night to the members of the cumann, he walked over to the car and jerked open the door. ‘Now where has that child run off to?’ he whispered to his assistant. He was angry and irritated, but kept his voice low to keep from being heard. ‘How are we going to find him in the dark?’
I pushed myself up. ‘I’m here, Da.’
‘What are you doing hiding like that?’
‘I was sleeping.’
My father grunted and got into the car. His assistant came from Falcarragh and was staying at his sister’s house. After my father dropped him off, I was alone with him in the car. It was a dark, overcast night, and the lamps on the car revealed only a short distance ahead. The darkness was only occasionally broken by a light from inside a house. We met no other car on the road. My father had to slow the car to a crawl to find the turning for Errarooey. He did not move much faster along the Errarooey road. The car lurched over bumps and sunk into hollows. Farther in, the grasses growing on the central hump brushed against the undercarriage of the car. Nothing was visible except the cone illuminated by the car lamps. Only short lengths of stone fences were visible at the sides of the road and those seemed to grow increasingly close to the side of the car. It is slightly over six kilometres from the turning to my father’s house, but it took us about twenty minutes of careful driving. I realise now that my father had had a lot to drink and was driving with the exaggerated care of the drunk. At the time, it seemed like we were travelling into the unknown without a guide.
Eventually he stopped. He pointed to a gate in the stone wall on the left side and said, ‘Hop out and open that.’
The air was damp and cold and smelled strange. A rusty chain was looped around a post and the bars of the gate. The chain was in the shadows and it took me several tries to disentangle it and get the gate open. The metal was cold and gritty. I would discover later that it left red stains on my hands. When I finally opened the gate, my father pulled in and drove ahead. I thought at first that he was leaving me there, but he stopped about ten metres in and turned off the engine. He got out, carrying a torch, which he shone towards me. ‘Well, shut the gate, Patrick, and mind that you put the chain back on tight. If any sheep get out, you are the one who will have to chase them down and bring them back.’ (One of the local farmers grazed sheep on the fields surrounding the house.) ‘This is as far as I want to drive in the dark. We have to walk the rest of the way.’ He opened the boot of the car and lifted out his case. He shone the torch briefly on the inside of the boot. ‘Get your bag. You will have to carry it. And bring your books. They’ll get damp if you leave them here.’
We set off down a path that was nearly invisible in the dark. I dogged my father’s footsteps, worried that I would lose him in the dark. I was carrying my book satchel in one hand and my suitcase in the other. The suitcase hit me on the ankle with almost every step. My stockings had fallen down around my ankles. Long, wet grasses overhung the pathway on both sides and rasped against my bare calves. I desperately wanted to stop and pull my stockings up but was afraid that my father would get even farther ahead of me.
‘Mind where you put your feet. There’s mud here.’ My father shone the light briefly on a puddle at a low point on the path. From there we walked up a hill and over the crest and then down. That was the only thing he said until he halted abruptly. ‘Here we are then.’
I peered around him. ‘Here hold this so I can see the lock.’ He handed me the torch. I was glad to have an excuse to set the suitcase down. I aimed the light at the keyhole while my father unlocked the door. The black paint on the door was cracked and peeling. The wall surrounding it was made of grey stones. That was all I could see in the light from the torch. The lock yielded reluctantly. My father had to lean his weight against the door to get it open. ‘Wait here, until I light the lantern.’ My father took the torch from me and walked into the house. He shone the torch around the room until he found what he wanted. There was a scraping of a match and then the light flared as he lit the wick. Like the other country houses we had visited, the door opened into the principal room of the house, the combination kitchen and living area.
‘Well, come in. It’s cold enough in here without you letting more night air in. You’re upstairs in the room on the right. Bríd (the wife of the man who rented the fields) will have made up the beds earlier today. I will be sleeping down here.’ He pointed to a room off to one side. ‘Up you go now. Take your things. Don’t leave them lying about down here.’ He lifted the lantern and walked up the staircase. I followed him and found myself in a small room with a short narrow bed. My father lit a candle that stood on the window sill. ‘Be sure to blow that out carefully before you go to bed. I’ll say good night then. Don’t forget your prayers. And don’t expect to lie in tomorrow. We’ll be going to early mass.’ He picked the lantern up and left, leaving me in the darkness. The candle gave off more shadows than light.
I opened my bag and found my pyjamas. There was nowhere, at least nowhere I could see in the dark, to put my clothes. So I folded them and balanced them on top of my satchel. I took out my toothbrush and tin of tooth powder, but there was no water. I debated calling down to my father and asking how I was to manage that task. I could hear him moving about below. In the end, however, I decided that not reminding him of my existence and my problems was the better course. I knelt beside the bed to say my prayers. The bare boards were cold and unyielding on my knees. When I finished, I folded the covers back and then blew out the candle.
The bedding was rough and the blanket was thin. Even though it was August, the night was cold. My earlier nap in the car had taken the edge off my sleepiness and I lay awake for about an hour. My father went to bed shortly after leaving me. When the sounds of his preparations for bed ceased, I became aware of the silence. The house at Errarooey was, and is, a quiet place. It lies in a cove in the hill and is sheltered from all but a direct wind from the north. As my ears adjusted to the silence, I heard a sound almost like someone breathing heavily but at a great distance. The sound was repeated several times a minute. I could not place the source. I was alarmed at first, but the very repetitiveness of the noise and the fact that it remained at a distance reassured me. I thought it must be some machinery. In the morning I would discover that it was waves breaking on the shore a few hundred metres to the north of the house.
Despite my father’s concern that I would oversleep, I awoke long before him. As soon as it became light around 4:00, I got up. I was too cold to sleep. I dressed and then sat on the bed until around 6:00. By that time, I needed to take a piss badly. I crept down the stairs. My father was snoring lightly. I knew from overhearing my father talk that the jacks was in a shed behind the house. He was fond of contrasting the hardships of his youth (‘no nice clean WCs for us’) with the effete luxuries of my mother’s house. The back door was bolted shut. I was afraid that the noise of pulling the bolt out of the hasp would awaken my father. So I went out the front door as quietly as I could. As soon as I stepped outside, my bladder demanded immediate relief. I ran around the side of the house, unbuttoned my flies, and loosed a stream against the wall of the house. I sometimes wonder at the meaning behind my target. Was I marking my territory like a dog or expressing my contempt for my ancestral home or simply relieving myself?
By daylight the house revealed itself as a rectangular structure, built of roughly dressed stones of varying sizes. The spaces between the stones were filled with mortar. In the 1950s this style of building was still the most common one found in the rural areas of Donegal. Perhaps because it was uninhabited most of the time, my father’s house was not as well kept up as other farmhouses. The plaster was chipped and cracked, and the roof sagged. When I wandered into the back yard, I discovered that several of the sheds were falling down. When I pushed open the door to the jacks, I was greeted not by the usual stench but by a faint odour of mould. Only the well room was in good shape.
My investigations were cut short by my father’s opening the back door to the house and stepping out. He seemed surprised to see me. ‘Oh, good, you’re up. Comb your hair and put on clean clothes. We’ll leave for Mass in a moment.’ He stepped into the jacks and shut the door.
The walk from the house to the car took far less time than I expected. They were much closer together than I had sensed in the dark. My father drove into Dunfanaghy. He spent the time before Mass chatting. When the priest entered the confessional, he sent me into it. He did not confess that morning. We ate breakfast at the house of one of his cousins after Mass. None of the local shops was open on Sunday, and his cousin gave us a loaf of bread and some cheese and cold meat for our supper. My father talked briefly with everyone he met in Dunfanaghy but did not linger there. We were back at the house by early afternoon.
As soon as we stepped in the house, my father said, ‘I want to show you the place. Put on those clothes you were wearing yesterday. You can hardly get them any dirtier than they already are.’ When I came back downstairs, I was surprised to find that my father had also changed. I rarely saw him in anything other than a suit, but he had on a pair of ancient trousers that bagged on all sides and an old work shirt, heavy boots, and a torn coat. The only item in good shape was his cap.
‘I want to show you where I grew up so that you know the people you come from.’ My father spoke Irish to me that day, and the word he used for ‘people’ was muintir. The other Irish word commonly translated as ‘people’ is daoine. Muintir is far more laden with meaning than daoine. Muintir is ‘us’ as opposed to them or people in general. It is ‘family’ in the sense of all those relatives one feels a bond to. It is one’s fellow villagers, or townsmen, or people from the same clan. It is in the broadest sense ‘we’ as opposed to the rest of yis. It is those people with whom one feels a bond of emotion or duty in whatever context.
I once introduced a Japanese acquaintance to my father. A few minutes into their conversation, my father asked him, ‘And who are your people?’ What he wanted to know was the man’s family background—Were they farmers or workers or merchants or in the professions? Had he been speaking Irish, my father would have used the word muintir. The poor man understood ‘your people’ in the sense of daoine, the Japanese in general, and struggled to convey to my father the difficulty of reducing an entire nation to a few descriptive words.
In later years, since I have achieved an adult’s understanding, I have wondered if the intent behind my father’s insistence that I accompany him on that particular visit to the constituency was to make my heritage and his role in my makeup clear to me. I lived with my mother, in a house identified as belonging to her family. My father’s presence in the house and in our lives was confined to weekend visits and to a few changes of clothes. We inhabited the house, he visited it. He must have felt at times that I did not know him or appreciate him.
‘The room you are sleeping in—that was my grandmother’s. My mother and the girl slept in the other room upstairs. This has always been my room.’ He opened the door to the other room on the ground floor. It was the smallest room in the house, barely large enough to hold the bed, a clothes press, and a small table and chair beside the one window. The only decoration was a crucifix on the wall over the bed. ‘The boy slept on the floor before the kitchen fire.’
‘Yes, we had a boy to help with the work. He was one of my grandmother’s relatives, the grandson of one of her cousins on her mother’s side. He came from a large family. They couldn’t feed all their children. So he worked for us. In exchange for food and clothing, he did the heavy work on the farm. They gave him a shilling or two every month or so. He was about twelve, I think, when we came here. His name was Tomás. The girl came from another poor family. There were five of us in the house.
‘There used to be more things in here. I didn’t need them for myself. So I let them go. Aine took most of them. Her and Bríd.’ He looked around sadly, as if seeing missing memories.
‘Now out here,’ he opened the back door and stepped out. ‘This is the well room. It is always cold and this is where they kept the pan of milk. When the cream rose to the top, my mother would skim it off and make butter with it. She used to sell what we didn’t use in town, in Dunfanaghy I mean. Her butter was famous. Arnolds Hotel always bought as much as she had to sell.
‘The cow spent the night in that shed. That’s where the boy milked her. It used to be in better shape. There weren’t those holes in the roof. We never had animals in the house, like some. The chickens found shelter wherever they could. Every morning and evening, it was my job to find the eggs.
‘We kept our bicycles in here. We had three of them. Two were fairly decent. The other had seen better days. I used one to ride to school. It took about a half hour each way but I had to allow more time in the morning. The roads were even worse then. I was always having to stop and repair a tyre and I had to leave enough time in the morning to fix a puncture and still get to school on time. The teacher didn’t accept excuses for being late. We kept the repair kits and the pumps right with the bicycles. Only a fool would ride off without them.
‘The rest of these sheds—they were used for storage. We never threw anything away.’ He pulled open a flimsy door and peered in. ‘Some of this stuff probably has been here for over a century, rotting away. When my grandmother and mother weren’t watching, I used to explore these sheds and try out everything I found. They worried that I would hurt myself or break something. We didn’t have much. So I was always hoping to find a pot of gold buried under all this junk. Money that someone had hidden from the agent and then forgot. Never found it.’ He picked up an old spade. The blade was rusted. ‘I used this when I was a lad to dig potatoes. I had to work hard even when I was young. I had my schoolwork to do too. We weren’t allowed to play. That man yesterday in Gortahork who said I played football when I was your age was wrong. I never saw a game until I went to Black Meadows. We didn’t have time for games and running about kicking balls.’
He set the spade back in place, bracing it against the wall to make sure that it would not fall over. He lifted the door into place and closed it carefully, checking that the latch was secure, as if the shed held something of value. Again, this trip to the north-west was revealing a side of my father that I had never seen. When I look back at him, I would say that he had little attachment to objects. He was not a person who valued owning things for the sake of owning them, and he never defined himself in terms of his possessions. With one exception—the farm at Errarooey. When speaking publicly in the constituency or in the Dáil, he often referred to himself as a ‘poor farmer from Errarooey’, adding ‘That’s a small village between Falcarragh and Dunfanaghy. So small you’ll not find it on the map.’ He seldom mentioned that he was also a very successful lawyer who made a prosperous living from his mastery of foreign trade laws and business practices. In some ways, this was a political pose. It was expedient politically for him to present himself as a farmer from Donegal. But it was also the way he thought of himself. He may have been a lawyer, but in his mind he was a stronger man because he was a farmer from one of the poorest, most blighted regions of Ireland. His roots in Errarooey gave him an advantage over men who had grown up in better circumstances.
That Sunday I saw my father in a role that was new to me, and I had to revise my sense of him. In Errarooey and in the constituency at large, he was not a stern father whose weekly visits were dreaded. He was someone people respected and liked. And in Errarooey, he had something he valued, something he wanted me to value as well.
‘Now through here are the fields. We grew potatoes in this one. It’s the only one with decent soil. There were cabbages and onions too. Every year we went down to the shore at low tide and raked weed. We had to wheel it back up the hill in barrows. It was hard work and dirty. Your hands got wet and cold. It didn’t help to wear gloves because they got wet. It was worse than working with bare hands. Every hill of potatoes had to be covered with weed. It was the only fertilizer we had. They said it helped the soil. Maybe it did. I never knew.
‘That field was for the cows. The other we rented out for grazing sheep. The field at the front was for sheep as well. I don’t know how much rent my grandmother charged. We got part of a sheep when the farmer butchered one.
‘It wasn’t an easy life, Patrick, but we survived. We had more than most, even if it wasn’t very much. There was money coming in. And we had enough food, which is more than some could say. The uncles paid for my school fees. So I didn’t have to go to work when I was twelve.’
He led me down the hill to the ocean, as usual striding ahead and walking much faster than me. I had to rush to keep up with him. He did not stop until he reached the shore at the bottom of the slope. The day was heavily overcast and the sea was grey. The two merged at the horizon. Even Tory Island, which can usually be seen from the shore at Errarooey, was invisible in the murk.
My mother often took Niamh and myself to a beach near Drogheda during the summer. The Irish Sea there is placid and calm, at least on the days we visited, and busy with ships passing north and south. That did not prepare me for the seeming infinity of ocean that met my eyes at Errarooey. The tide was in, and the sea was choppy. There is an outcropping of shale just offshore from our land. A chute in the rocks on the seaward side forms a natural pathway for the waves. Each incoming wave forces water into this funnel and shoots it skyward. That day a storm at sea had roiled the water, and a spume of water was flung towards us with each wave. The waves shoaling and cresting on the wide strand to the west of our property sent foamy water surging up on the land. A short distance out, a flock of seabirds circled over a school of fish, screaming and diving into the water.
I had never before confronted such a wild scene. I instinctively grasped my father’s hand for safety. He let me hold his hand for a few seconds. Then he glanced down and realised what I had done and why. ‘Don’t be daft, Patrick. You’re not a child.’ He shoved my hand away. ‘You can stay here if you like. I have work to do. Just keep in sight of the house and come if I call you.’ He turned and strode off, leaving me there. I knew better than to follow him, although I would have liked to go back to the house and sit within its secure walls, away from the sea.
I moved back from the shore and found a rock on which to sit. I stayed there for several hours watching the ocean, until my father called me to tea. That night he told me that I would stay at the farmhouse while he and his assistant made their final calls in that area of the constituency. Those three days were the first time I had ever been alone for such an extended period of time. My father left after breakfast to drive to Falcarragh to pick up his assistant and then on to their meetings for that day. Often he did not return until it was dark. He made sure that I had enough food and showed me how to work the paraffin burner so that I could heat water for tea. But other than that he left me alone. He said no more than a few words to me each day, chiefly admonitions not to make a mess and to wash whatever dishes I had used and to put them away. He showed no interest in what I done during the day. He never again discussed his childhood with me, although I would hear him tell others stories about it.
What I did during the day was wander about. The first morning, after I was sure that my father was truly gone, I investigated all the rooms in the house, including his bedroom. I was looking for something that would give me clues about him and his family. I found nothing. The rooms were deserted. The furniture was old and decrepit, the leavings that no one had wanted. What remained was the minimum necessary to allow the house to be occupied occasionally—a bed in each of the three bedrooms—the one in the other bedroom upstairs had no mattress, just the bare boards, which were cracked and warped—wooden chairs and tables with uneven legs, a press with my father’s old clothes, a few cups, plates, mismatched cutlery, several tin boxes in which my father stored food to keep it from the mice. The fireplaces held only cold ashes and not many of those. The pot hooks on the kitchen fireplace were rusted and clearly had not seen use in many years. I could not open the iron door to the oven built into the side of the chimney.
When I finished with the house, I went into the yard behind the house and searched the sheds. As my father had done many years before, I examined all the things I found in them. Unlike my father, who at least had seen these tools and implements being used, I had no idea of what most of them were. A few items were clearly of recent manufacture. I learned later that the man who rented the fields stored some of his tools there to have them at hand. But most were old. The metal parts were corroded, the wooden pieces disintegrating. When I lifted one bucket by the handle, it fell neatly apart, the individual staves radiating around the base in a starburst pattern. Worried that my father would blame me for destroying it, I gathered the pieces and hid them in a dark corner.
I explored the shore and the rocks, collecting stones and shells and curiosities left by the waves. I still have several of the rocks I found. I quickly lost my initial fright when I realised that as long as I stayed back from the waves, there was nothing to fear. What most impressed me about the sea was its changeability. There were sunny periods when it was a blue expanse. At other times it became grey or green or even black. The waves ranged from small ripples on the surface to thunderous curlers. I spent hours simply gazing out at the sea. My love of sailing dates to this trip. One morning I saw a pair of white sails a few kilometres out from the shore. The boat itself was invisible. All that was visible to me were the sails tacking against the wind. I knew then that I had to learn to sail and experience that seemingly effortless flight over the water.
I walked all the land that my father had identified as his. I never saw anyone on those walks, not even the sheep that were supposedly pastured on the front field. The slow silence of that space stretched to the horizon. There simply was no noise beyond the wind and the ocean and the occasional call of a bird. It seemed to me to be a perfect form of freedom. There were no demands on me. There was nothing I needed to be.
I think it mystified my father when, on the drive back, I asked him if he would take me to Errarooey again. It also pleased him enormously. Each summer thereafter I spent several days in Errarooey, sometimes even a week, each summer. He never allowed Niamh to visit the farmhouse for more than an hour or two. ‘It’s no place for a girl,’ he would say. ‘You will stay with your mother at Arnolds Hotel in Dunfanaghy.’
By the early 1980s, the house had begun to decay badly. Much of the mortar between the stones had fallen away, leaving gaps in the walls for the wind and rain to enter. The roof leaked, the floors and windows were out of plumb, the staircase to the upper floor was a hazard, and the plaster on the interior walls was blistered and cracked. The house had been electrified, but the electric lines ran along the surfaces of the walls rather than inside them. Water still had to be hauled up from the well. My father spoke of tearing the house down and selling the land.
I had published two novels by then. The sale of the movie rights to the second had given me money to spare, and I offered to buy the property from my father, with the understanding that he would reimburse Niamh in his estate for her share and that I would leave the property to her children. Our relationship had become fractured, and I expected him to refuse my offer. To my surprise he accepted it and even seemed pleased by the arrangements I proposed. I think he was glad that the property would remain in our family, that his muintir would continue to own it.
Rather than demolish the older structure and build a completely new house, however, I chose to have the original structure rebuilt and strengthened and then extend the house along both sides and to the rear. The additions were faced in stone. The stonework of the original walls was left untouched. I simply had the walls re-mortared. I modernised the electrical system and installed running water, indoor plumbing, and a basic heating system. I removed what remained of the sheds and had large glass windows built on the side facing the ocean. The yard at the back was paved with shale and made into a patio.
My father refused all invitations to visit. The most acknowledgement he made of my changes was, ‘I am told that you have made a palace at Errarooey. Well, it’s your money. Foolish to spend all that when you’re only there a few weeks each year.’ As far as I know, he never went to see the new house on his occasional visits to Dunfanaghy. I spend a total of two or three months there every year. Niamh and her husband and children come for a week or so every summer, less because they enjoy it, I think, than to assert her family’s eventual claim on the place. Even my mother, while she still drove, never used the place as a base for her excursions with her cousin Aoife.
Lewis is less fond of the place. I have made a comfortable house, I think, but it is not part of his heritage or something the two of us share. For him, it is a place to visit because I am there. He tolerates it because I like it. It is my favourite place to write. It is quiet and no one interrupts me. For me, it is home, of a sort. It is not the site of my and Lewis’s relationship, and it does not partake of the emotions found in our joint spaces because they are ‘ours’ and because they are ‘joint’. It connects me to something else, something I define as mine. If one could say of a house that it is muintir, it is my muintir.
Of course, I live there in far greater material comfort than my ancestors could have imagined. I do not, unlike them, exist at the mercy of the land and of the world. I suspect that I live in far greater silence than they ever did, though. They had large families and were often in one another’s company. Except for the few days each year that Lewis or Niamh visits, I am alone there. I have to remind myself to turn the radio on in the morning to listen to the weather forecasts. I check for email only a few times each week. The road in front of the property is still a boreen. My neighbours on the Errarooey road seldom drive past. I often go for days without seeing another person.
Everyone assumes that Errarooey is where I connect with my family’s past, that it is my way of finding my ‘roots’. They are wrong. Errarooey is what I make of it. It means freedom to me precisely because it is for me not a past but the possibility of a past, the possibility for a past. It is because I can create the Past there that I value Errarooey and live in it. That first visit with my father was not a journey to my ancestral home but a voyage out of the present into a place that exists only in my mind. Out of my ancestors’ land, I have fashioned a haven for myself and found the silent space in which to create the fictions I would live and the people I would live them with.
Sometimes I feel that I do not know you at all. I have never heard this story about your first visit. This is just beautiful.
This is much better. Keep this up and you may just end up with a book.