Time Zones 4

‘The One Warm Beautiful Thing’

Last night I was reading The Oxford Book of American Verse (the version edited by Richard Ellmann and first published in 1976) and ran across Frank O’Hara’s ‘Les Luths’, which is a lament for being separated from the person he loves because of his career and missing ‘the one warm beautiful thing’.
Two months after I enticed Lewis into reading my notebook of stories and sketches, I met with Arnold Latham, the editor of The New England Review. Latham was a long-time friend of Lewis’s father. Both of them had been in the same year at Harvard. Lewis had typed up several of my stories, and through his father they had reached Latham.
We met at Latham’s office in the Back Bay area of Boston. The offices of the Review were on the ground floor of his ancestral home. What must have once been the lounge served as the main work space. It was crowded with three desks. The floor was buried under tall stacks of paper. Narrow passages between the stacks allowed access to the desks and to the room beyond. There were as well stacks of paper on each of the desks, so high that only the heads of the people working there were visible from the doorway. When I arrived, one person was talking loudly on the phone, and the other two were talking to each other and occasionally interrupting their conversation to shout advice to the person on the phone. All three of them were typing at the time. The room was very dark. The one set of windows faced the street in front of the house. Heavy brown curtains framed the sides of the window. A lace curtain screened the windows, cutting off even more of the outside light. Each desk had a small light, which did little to illuminate the room. The house reeked of cigarettes, and the air in the room was thick with drifts of blue smoke.
I stood at the door waiting for a pause in their conversations to ask for Mr Latham. One of the people noticed me and, barely interrupting the flow of words, said to me, ‘Are you Arnold’s ten o’clock? Just knock and go on in.’ She pointed at the door across the hallway behind me.
Many of us come to our life’s work by accident. We seldom end up doing what we planned when we were teenagers plotting our life’s course. I had a secure appointment as a lecturer waiting for me at University College Dublin after my stay at Harvard. That day I did not suspect that I was about to start a new career. I had schooled myself to expect only some polite advice from Latham, a minimal fulfilment of an obligation to his old friend, Lewis’s father.
I knocked on the door as instructed and waited for Latham to invite me in. My previous experiences with closed doors to the offices of important personages dictated that one wait for the person inside to respond. After several seconds elapsed, I knocked again. When again there was no response, I diffidently did as instructed and turned the doorknob and went in. Or, rather, I stuck my head across the threshold and said, ‘Mr Latham?’ I kept my hand on the doorknob, ready to retreat quickly if this tentative reconnaissance revealed that my presence was unwanted.
‘Yes, yes, come in. And close the door quickly. The cat will get out. Are you,’ he paused for a minute to consult his calendar, ‘Patrick Ross? I have your stories someplace. Let me find them. Sit down. Sit down. Did they offer you a cup of coffee out there?’ He waved a hand to indicate both the chair I should sit in and the people across the hallway. Like the other office, Latham’s was filled with paper. He began searching through the materials on his desk. When that effort failed to recover what he wanted, he swivelled round in his chair. He bent over and began searching through the stacks of paper on the floor behind his desk. From where I was sitting, only the arch of his back and shoulders was visible.
That gave me an opportunity to examine the room more closely. Latham’s office was better lit than the other one. An overhead lamp did much to lighten the room. There were also windows facing both the street and a small garden enclosed within a black wrought-iron fence. The garden was untended and filled with unkempt shrubs and tall grasses.
The walls of the room were covered with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. The books were piled haphazardly, many layered horizontally in the space between vertical rows of other books and the shelf above. Most of the floor next to the bookshelves was also piled high with books. Later when I had an opportunity to examine the shelves more closely, I found that there was no system to Latham’s arrangement. Once he had finished reading a book, he simply stuck it in the nearest open space. If he wanted to retrieve a particular title, he might spend an hour looking for it. Often because he could not find it, one of his assistants would be sent to buy another copy.
Latham himself was much like his office. He dressed haphazardly, apparently in whatever clothes came to hand. He always wore grey flannel trousers and a shirt in a Tattersall pattern, with a knit woollen tie bunched around a frayed collar. When he ventured outside his house, he would put on a baggy old jacket and a dusty wide-brimmed hat dented at the crown. In colder weather, he would add a much patched overcoat and exchange the hat for a wool-lined cap with earflaps that tied under his chin. I could never decide whether his careless dress indicated a mind above such mundane matters as clothes or a person who intended to give that impression. Perhaps each of those options fed into the other. What had once been a conscious decision to project a certain persona became a habit, and then he became the habit. I always thought that he was very determined to be a literary gent in a New England mode. At the time, American magazines and newspaper frequently carried ads from a men’s clothing company whose slogan was ‘Clothes make the man’. I may be doing Latham an injustice, but he impressed me then as someone who embodied that slogan. He was the descendant of one of Boston’s leading families, and his inherited wealth supported the Review.
‘Ah, here it is.’ He found the manila file with my stories and turned back to face me, slapping the file folder against the surface of his desk. ‘I knew it was around here somewhere. So you’re Ross. Let me have a look.’ He opened the file and bent over it. He spent the next ten minutes turning the pages in the file. Occasionally he would mutter ‘yes, yes’ to himself.
Finally he said, after allowing me time to inspect the shelves of the nearest bookcase, ‘This is the one we will publish. Tell me—Is it an essay or a fiction? I couldn’t decide.’
I leaned forward to see which of the stories he meant. He held the page up so that I could see the title.
‘Oh, that’s a story. It’s based on one of the interviews I’m conducting for my book on Irish immigrants in Boston. My attention was caught by something this woman said, and I wrote the story from that. I changed her name and the details of her life, of course, so that she wouldn’t be recognised.’
Latham glanced through the pages to find the passage he wanted. ‘ “I did everything for the children. They mustn’t ever know for themselves what it was like. I don’t want them to feel for themselves what it was like. I don’t want to remember Munfrees, and I don’t want them ever to have any notion of it. I never talk about it. I never answered their questions about what it was like. I tell them to be thankful they live in America and have a good life. The past doesn’t matter. It says everything that I had to escape the place. That’s all they need to know. I make them live in the present. They are happy being Americans. I’m happy they’re Americans. I try to be American. I even took lessons to get rid of my accent. We never celebrate St Patrick’s day. I made Frank buy us a house in a parish that didn’t have an Irish priest. I kept them out of the parochial schools. I didn’t want them to be Irish. The others talk about the villages where they came from. To listen to them, you would think it was all romance and singing and laughter. But that’s not the truth. It was all dirt and hunger. It stunk of shite. The people were mean and cruel and small and evil. As far as I’m concerned, they can have their ‘auld sod’. I want no part of it.” Is that what struck you?’
‘Yes, she was vehement about forgetting Ireland. The other people I’ve interviewed have been nostalgic about Ireland, and, as she said, they tend to romanticise it. She was the only one who hated it and never wanted to go back.’
The model for the Mary of the story was a distant relation of my father. They shared a set of great-grandparents. My father’s grandparents left Errarooey, a hamlet near Dunfanaghy in Co. Donegal, itself the hinterland of a hinterland, soon after they married and moved to Derry. Mary was from Errarooey. An elderly aunt who owned a small grocery store in Reading, Massachusetts, had imported Mary in 1946 to work in her store. Within two years, Mary met and married an Italian-American man whose family had a wholesale fruit and vegetable distribution business. Her aunt died and Mary inherited the store when she was twenty-five. She and her husband joined the two businesses and expanded it into a small chain of grocery stores throughout New England. Both of them worked long hours and were ambitious to expand their business. Their two sons attended Deerfield, one of the better private boarding schools in New England. When I met her, Mary was more Italian than Irish. She told me proudly how she had learned Italian cooking from her mother-in-law. She had attended night school for years, studying Italian as well as book-keeping and business management. She was determined that her children attend Harvard, and she often interrupted my attempts to get her to talk about herself with questions about how best to get them admitted to Harvard. She grew impatient with my lack of knowledge. ‘That’s why I agreed to talk to you,’ she said. ‘If I had known you knew so little about Harvard, I wouldn’t have wasted my time.’ When I asked if she had ever thought of returning to Errarooey, she erupted into a tirade against Ireland, which formed the basis for the passage quoted above. I doubt that she ever learned of the use I made of her outburst, but she provided the idea for my first published story.
‘I can pay you only $50.00 for the story. It’s not much, but I will also give you ten free copies.’ I quickly accepted Latham’s offer. Fifty dollars may not seem like much, but in the mid-1960s it paid for an elaborate celebratory dinner for Lewis and me at a very good restaurant.
And that’s how I became a published writer. When the story appeared a few months later, I sent a copy to my mother and another to my graduate studies supervisor at University College. My mother showed her copy to my father, who in turn showed it to one of his friends. The friend was the publisher of The Irish Times in Dublin. That led to an invitation to write a series of articles about Irish immigrants in the Boston area. The Times’ editor was emphatic, however, that he did not want stories about people like Mary who had ‘turned their backs’ on Ireland. So I wrote a series of articles about seven immigrants, each of whom remained proudly Irish while making a life for themselves in the United States.
When the series ended, the editor asked me to write a series of reports about the impact of Irish immigrants on politics in New England—the Kennedys were national heroes in Ireland and had figured largely in stories about American politics for over a decade. I chose instead to write about local politicians—the mayors and selectmen and aldermen and state senators and assemblymen of Irish background. I also wrote about the Irish mob and the Irish police and the Irish church in Boston and their impact on politics. When I finished the series, my fellowship at Harvard was coming to an end, and the editor offered me a job in the New York City bureau of The Times. I leapt at the chance to stay in the United States. New York meant a separation from Lewis, but New York was much closer to Boston than was Dublin, and we could visit each other on weekends. I was to work as a journalist, reporting mostly on cultural and literary matters and writing the occasional human interest story for the next twelve years, first in New York and then in Europe. I am even listed on the Wikipedia page for The Times as one of their notable past contributors.
My work with The Times required frequent travel. It was during this period that I became familiar with the emotions O’Hara talks about in ‘Les Luths’. Lewis and I were and were not together. All too often our days together were hurried and interrupted by other business. There were too many nights of being ‘testy’ and ‘alone’ to quote O’Hara again.
About two a.m. one night in a San Francisco hotel priced for those on slim travel allowances, my bed began rocking violently enough to wake me up. My first thought was that I was experiencing an earthquake. My second was that the earthquake was oddly rhythmic and involved motion up and down in the bed. The shaking was soon accompanied by a thumping noise and then by louder and louder groans. I realised at that point that I was being shaken not by an earthquake but by a vigorous bout of sex in the room next door. The headboard of my bed apparently was on the opposite side of the wall from the bed in the adjoining room, and each thrust caused the headboard of the other bed to hit the wall and jolt my bed. The motion continued for an impressively long period of time.
It left me with a hunger for Lewis. O’Hara pictures ‘the one warm beautiful thing in the world’ breathing on his ribs. I see in O’Hara’s ‘rib’ an echo of Adam and Eve—the primal couple of one flesh (except in Lewis’s case, he would have been breathing on my sternum). I think that is why the passage resonated so strongly with me. It expressed what during my days as a journalist I often felt about our separations. That night in San Francisco, I checked the time and then calculated that it was too early yet to call Lewis in Boston. I would wake him from sleep. I waited another hour and then risked the call. I could not wait any longer to hear his voice.
In re-reading the above, I see that I have devoted far more attention to describing Latham’s appearance than I have devoted elsewhere to describing Lewis in these reminiscences. I think that is because Latham struck me as very much a person of externals. I knew him as a congeries of dress and mannerisms. In contrast, I know Lewis too well and in too many guises to be able to reduce him to the confines of prose. I have experienced Lewis as a constantly varying force within my life. I could describe what he wears. I have in passing noted some of his habits and mannerisms. A recital of those facts would not, however, touch on why Lewis is ‘the one warm beautiful thing in the world’. I am not sure that I myself fully understand why he is that to me.
I remember being awakened by you early one morning. My first thought was that something had happened to you and you were calling from a hospital. You were speaking so softly that I had trouble hearing you. When you hung up a few minutes later, I realized from the hesitant way in which you spoke that you had been worried about my reaction. You needn’t have been. I was so touched that you called—a long-distance call from San Francisco to Boston wasn’t cheap in those days. Since you are nothing if not cheap and you were on a limited budget, I knew that you had felt that you had to talk with me. I was a bit annoyed by the early hour, but I was elated by the need behind your call.
I found the poem you quote online. I printed it out and will frame it.
I think “fair use” will cover the quotation of eight words from the poem. I will check with the lawyers. If the copyright holder (which appears to be Knopf) insists on a payment, you might as well pay to quote the four lines at the end of the poem. Those are such grand lines.
Michelle—they will want hundreds of dollars. Publishers always do. Readers curious about the poem can easily find it on the Internet. Lewis looked it up and printed a copy for himself. So it is not difficult to find. Patrick


Over the years I have been interviewed about my work perhaps a dozen times, always as part of a radio programme. The interviews usually took an hour or two and were then edited to fit the time allotted. The process was interesting the first two or three times. It is flattering to be asked one’s opinions and to be treated as if what one says is noteworthy. But it quickly becomes stale—the interviewers tend to ask the same questions repeatedly. ‘What is Irish about your stories?’ ‘How does being gay affect what you write?’ Only once did a question reveal something about my writings to me that I had not previously understood.
‘Fathers rarely figure in your stories. The father is either dead or invisible. In the few stories in which a living father appears, he is more absent than present. You relegate him to a minor role and give him at most a few sentences of dialogue. Why is that?’
I was being interviewed by the host of a conversation programme on public radio in the United States. She was intelligent and had an engaging personality, and the interview was going well, I think, until she asked that question. I had never noted the absence of fathers in my stories in which they might have been expected to appear as characters. She was right that the fathers were either dead or largely absent. They played no role in the characters’ current lives and had no function in the family. Readers could assume their existence, if only because of biological necessity, but for all I said of fathers, births in my fictional families might well result from maternal parthenogenesis.
The question upset me greatly, and I stumbled through an answer. The broadcast version omitted that segment of the interview. The host must have seen that I was disturbed by her comments, and she called a break. We resumed half an hour later. By that time, I had recovered, and the interviewed continued without problems. In the edited version, we seem like two long-time friends chatting about the role of literature in society and individual lives.
My reaction to the question, and the ellipses in my works that it revealed, begged for explanation. I could not account for my treatment of fathers, perhaps did not want to account for it. There were men in my stories but no fathers.
I knew part of the answer. My father had been largely absent from my life, and my feelings towards him were generally negative. I had no experience with a father who had interacted significantly with a son. Mine disappeared from our daily lives when I was six. After I reached adulthood, there were years when I spoke perhaps a total of thirty minutes with him. We seldom rang each other, and when we did, the exchange was short and business-like, without pleasantries other than the ritual ‘How are you?’ with no pause for an answer.
The interview had taken place in Washington, DC. Other business and appointments in the United States delayed my return to Brighton for another ten days. The question gnawed at me that entire time. Lewis met me at Heathrow, and we were barely in the car before I raised the subject. He listened to me for a few minutes and then said, ‘Why does this bother you so much? Why are you letting it bother you so much?’
It was raining lightly, not enough to run the windscreen wipers continuously. Lewis had set them on intermittent, and every five seconds, they would rub against the glass. I watched them for several beats before speaking. ‘Could you turn the heat down? My throat is dry from the plane.’
Lewis nudged the knob controlling the heating a bit. ‘I’m sorry if my questions upset you.’
‘I’ve been asking myself the same questions for days. I should have seen this. I should have known this about my stories. It isn’t that your questions upset me so much as that they alarmed me. Is this so obvious about me?’
‘Your hostility toward your father is evident. Your sister seems to have a slightly better relationship with him, but he clearly isn’t one of her favourite people. The two of you make such a mystery of him. I’ve always wanted to meet him.’
‘You almost did once. We were dining at Morrissey’s. He walked in and saw me and came towards us. Then he saw you, and he turned around and walked out. He knew that I had seen him. So it was an intentional snub.’
‘You should have said something.’
‘I didn’t want
‘I didn’t want to attach any importance to what he had done by talking about it. I thought that if I didn’t talk about it, then it wouldn’t be real. I didn’t want it to become something you might worry over.’
‘You obviously thought it important enough to ignore.’
‘I hate it when you’re rational.’
Lewis chuckled. ‘I know. That may be why I do it. In any case, I’ve always wanted to talk with your father.’
‘To see if he is as bad as I and Niamh say?’
‘Partially that. The two of you make him out to be such an ogre. You can hardly blame me for being curious about him.’
‘You are the type of person my father labels a bad conversationalist. He likes to talk at people. He doesn’t like them to say anything. If he asks you a question, he doesn’t wait for an answer. He supplies you with ten possible answers and then charges on.’
‘How do you deal with that?’
‘I wait until he pauses and then say “yes”. I let him pick whatever answer he likes. He would no matter what I said.’
‘Why would he think I’m a bad conversationalist?’
‘Because you would attempt to hold a conversation. A good conversationalist for my father is someone who nods his head and limits himself to saying things like “I see” or “yes” when he pauses to take a breath. A bad conversationalist is someone who interrupts him with comments of his own. He would label you a chatterer if he ever met you. My father’s idea of hell would be to talk with your family. Their multiple conversations would horrify him.’
‘Now admit it. We horrify you sometimes.’
‘I’m jealous of your family. All of you like one another.’
‘We have arguments. I’ve disagreed with my parents.’
‘But your family enjoys arguing. You treat it as a form of recreation. My family think it bad manners to argue.’
‘That’s one of the things I liked about you when I first met you. You were so careful about not hurting my feelings. I’d never met anyone before who made such a conscious effort to be polite. It took me a while to realise that your silences were a way of retreating from what you would call an “unpleasantness”. That word is very much you, you know. In fact, it wasn’t until you risked an argument with me that I knew that you really loved me. Of course, you spoiled it all by apologizing.’
‘I don’t remember that. What were we arguing about?’
‘A Vietnam War protest—I was leaving to participate in one, and you were worried that I would get hurt or be arrested.’
‘In the event I was right, wasn’t I? You ended up in hospital handcuffed to a bed.’
‘It was something that had to be done. Anyway, we are getting off topic. We were talking about fathers, their absence from your work, and why you are so bothered by that.’
‘Your father respects you. He isn’t disturbed by the fact that you are not replicating his life. Mine thinks that any deviation from his path on my part is wrong.’
‘Some of my choices have disappointed my parents. They like you. I think I can even say that they love you, but they would have preferred that I had married and had fathered a dozen children, preferably by my wife, but they would have been happy to accept bastards, as long as they were mine. But they realise that my interests lie elsewhere. They might regret that, but they will never say anything about it and they’re not going to throw me out because I love you.’
‘I always feel that I should apologise to them.’
‘For loving me? Now, there you are wrong. They would be angry with you—and I would be very angry—if you ever even remotely indicated that you regretted taking up with me, for whatever reason. What they care about, what they think important, is that you make me happy. What I care about is that you give me an opportunity to make you feel happy. I swear sometimes you just want to feel guilty. I get the impression that you feel a need to “sin” so that you can feel guilty about that and then repent.’
‘My Catholic childhood.’
‘Oh stop waving that card at me. More important, stop waving it at yourself.’
‘You’re angry with me.’
‘Yes, I guess I am. But not at you—at all this baggage you carry. I wish you could get rid of it, but sometimes you just seem to enjoy it. I think you should just start writing about fathers and sons and the relationships between them.’
‘I’m trying to do that. Don’t you think I’ve tried to do just that? I’ve started several stories the past week. But each time, I start thinking about my father and how he infuriates me and I end up creating a monster. Or I go to the opposite extreme and imagine a perfect father and create an angel. Neither form is realistic.’
‘Will you do something for me?’
‘Of course. You don’t have to ask that.’
‘Yes, I do. I always have to ask. Will you keep trying?’
‘Yes, if you think it important.’
‘Oh, Pat, this won’t work until you think it’s important too.’
‘You are trying to manage me again.’
‘I know. And I know I shouldn’t do that. I have trouble delimiting boundaries between us. I know that. I should be able to say this is where “we” exist, and this is where “I” begin and this is where “you” begin. And I know that I lecture you sometimes. But I still think that you ought to write about a family, a complete family, with all its virtues and its faults honestly laid out. You can do that, you know.’
‘I want to do that.’
‘Good. I hope you will show it to me when you have finished.’
‘Oh, I will leave a copy lying around for you to discover.’
‘You’re up to your old tricks again. Letting me discover your writings rather than handing them to me and asking me to read them.’
‘Am I so predictable?’
‘You have your habits. The one that I like best is that you always give me the feeling that there will be a tomorrow for us.’
Lewis reached over and squeezed my knee with his left hand. Then he left it there for a few minutes, until he had to shift gears.
For us that was a fairly acrimonious exchange. I do nag you, don’t I? Sometimes when I replay conversations between us in my mind, I remind myself of my mother and the way she tried to manage my father and the rest of us. I criticize you for letting your past influence what you are, and then I turn around and do just that. We are prisoners of our upbringing, aren’t we?
I also remember my stay in the hospital after the demonstration. Once when you came by, there was a policeman checking up on me. It turned out that he was Irish, and when he heard you speak, the two of you had this conversation over my bed about where you were from and what you were doing in Boston. You ended up ignoring me. I kept hoping that you would tell him that I was a member of the IRA. I think he would have released me.
Lewis—Yes, you do nag. I consider it one of the ways in which you show that you love me, a point I need to make somewhere. And all of us are prisoners of our pasts. But I think everyone escapes the past to some extent. It is a tricky question, and the areas of our imprisonment differ from moment to moment. Our upbringings crop up when we deal with X, and then the next second when Y appears, we happily discard them. But still there are areas where the past looms large, so large that we do not even notice it. I suspect that occurs most often in areas in which everyone around us behaves in a certain way and that particular behaviour seems so natural we don’t even notice it. The points where the past disturbs us enough that we become conscious of its impact make us stop and think about what we are doing and why. If we do not like what we discover, we try to change—not always successfully. At least in my case. Sorry to run on about this. Thinking out loud here.
I do not remember the policeman.
I checked the marriage requirements here (http://www.hse.ie/go/marriage) Go marriage? Is that the Irish government’s way of promoting marriage? Even more trouble than in England—we would have to apply three months in advance (by appointment only), we would need an excessive amount of documentation, and the cost for the application alone is 200 Euros. Who knew that marriage equality would mean equal bureaucratic hassle? Brighton, it is.
Indeed. (I will assume for the sake of our forthcoming marriage that ‘bletch’ is an expression of distaste for the Irish government’s bureaucracy and not for my undergraduate ramblings on nurture.)
I want to clone Lewis. Would the result be gay or straight?
Would this be the origin of Da? If so, readers owe Lewis an enormous debt.
A cloned Lewis—now that would be a test of nature vs. nurture.
Da was the third or fourth try to write about a father following this conversation.
You must reveal that.
All in good time.
By the way, sometimes the dialogue in this passage does not read as natural speech. It comes across as forced and self-conscious. I’m thinking in particular of the section starting with the paragraph beginning “Lewis chuckled”. From there until the end, you need to revise.
Another thing—when did this conversation take place? Lewis’s parents and yours still seem to be alive, but it’s clear from earlier comments that all four are now dead.
Michelle—You are right. Thanks for catching both problems. I will work on the dialogue. I was trying to condense the conversation rather than attempt to reproduce it verbatim. But I went too far in the direction of summary. It sounds like one of those painful bits of telly dialogue where the characters are shoving a lot of background information at viewers in as brief a time as possible rather than like a real conversation. I will aim for a more realistic version without resorting to all the ums and ahs and broken sentences and bad syntax of an accurate recording of what we said.
The events described in this section took place in the mid-1990s. Da appeared in June 2001. That means I finished the manuscript in 2000. It took me three years to write it, and I did not start on it until about a year after these events. I will find the date of the interview and add that information in the revisions. It will be in some papers I have in Brighton. I should add the interviewer’s name as well. It has slipped from my mind. All I remember is that it was for public radio in the States.

Falcarragh Road

My Great-grandfather Ross and his brother were recognised early in their lives as intelligent and ambitious lads. The local priest in Dunfanaghy saw to the beginnings of their schooling and then arranged for them to be educated further in the Catholic colleges and universities of the south. My great-grandfather became a doctor and settled in Derry; his brother entered the priesthood and would eventually become bishop of Raphoe. My grandfather followed his father and became a doctor. He had a joint practice with his father in Derry.
On 5 December 1920, a squad of the Ulster Special Constabulary burst into my grandfather and great-grandfather’s morning surgery and dragged them outside, accusing them of treason for treating wounded members of the ‘rebellion’. A young man waiting in the surgery was identified, apparently at random, as a member of the Irish army, and he too was seized. The B-Specials lined the three men up against the wall of the house and shot them. I have been able to verify the fact of the shooting. I do not know if the accusation of treating supporters of the Republic was true. Given the sectarian divisions in Derry, it is more than likely that most of their patients were Irish and Catholic. No doubt by late 1920 the overwhelming majority of Irish in Derry were nationalists and certainly some of them belonged to Sinn Féin or the IRA. Whether any of my ancestors’ patients belonged to those organizations is irrelevant. As in many such incidents, the facts mattered little.
The murders played a large role in my father’s personal history. He was five at the time and would later tell the story of that day frequently. My father was an emotional man. He was sentimental and could shed tears over a song well sung. He spoke with large gestures. His exuberance was legendary. But when he related the events on Falcarragh Road, he grew solemn and restrained. Usually his stories were filled with memorable, almost poetic phrases and punctuated with well-rehearsed gestures and facial expressions. But the story of Falcarragh Road was subdued in its telling, as if the facts needed no flourishes.
We lived on Falcarragh Road in Derry. My father and grandfather’s surgery occupied the ground floor of my grandparents’ house. My parents rented a house across the street. The area was poor. Sometimes they were paid in pennies. Often they were called in only at the last moment. It was a place and a time when doctors provided many services for free or for a pittance. They had no hope of becoming rich and were paid in the coin of reputation—they were lauded for their charity.
In my memory, Falcarragh Road is grey. Houses built of grey stones, grey cobblestones on the road. Trees and greenery were things seen at a distance. I was still considered too young to step outside alone. The road was little more than a narrow path with an open drain running down middle, and my mother thought it dangerous and unsanitary.
My bedroom was on the first floor, and I usually spent my days sitting beside the window, looking through my books and trying to sound out the words or playing with my toys. That was what I was doing the morning my father and grandfather were murdered. Falcarragh Road was too narrow for automobiles. The B-Specials parked on Cairncross Road and ran up Falcarragh with their rifles at the ready and bayonets attached. The commotion drew me to the window. There were about thirty of them. The specials had been formed only a few weeks before, and they had yet to acquire a standard kit. Most had served in the British Army during World War I and wore the brown uniforms of the British Expeditionary Force. Others had belonged to the RIC and wore dark green. Even at that age, I knew that they meant to do evil.
The first B-Man to reach the surgery kicked the door open. Several other members of the squad followed him into the outer room, screaming ‘Out. Everyone Out.’ I could hear other doors being kicked in and glass shattering. They began pulling patients out of the surgery and lining them up along the street. Many of them were women and children. There were older people as well. One of the women was dressed only in her petticoats. My father or grandfather must have been examining her at the moment the Specials invaded their surgery. She had snatched up her dress and held it against her breasts to cover herself. The B-Men dragged my father and grandfather outside. Both of them were wearing white coats. My grandfather’s nose was bleeding, and blood stained the collar of his coat. Everyone was screaming and shouting. People were begging the B-Men to stop. The women were trying to protect their children by pushing them behind them. My grandmother and the young girl who was their servant were the last people to be pulled from the house. My grandmother tried to join my father and grandfather, but the B-Men shoved her back. Two of the other women held her and turned her face away from the scene.
I ran downstairs and began opening the door to the street. I wanted to reach my father. My mother grabbed me by the collar of my jumper and pulled me back inside. She lifted me up and we watched out the window. My mother’s heart was beating so loudly that I could hear it. She was panting. Little cries escaped from between her lips.
The B-Men tossed the furnishings from the surgery and the house outside and piled them up in a heap. Others used the butts of their rifles to break all the windows. Those inside the house threw clothing and curtains and other of my grandparents’ belongings out the windows. I remember books flying through the air and landing with a thud on the cobblestones. The pile grew larger and larger. Finally, one member of the squad emptied a can of gasoline over it and set it aflame. The gasoline exploded with a boom and oily black smoke billowed into the air. The B-Men were laughing and dancing, shouting obscenities. One of them seized a child and made as if to throw her on the pyre.
An officer stood in the middle of the street and pointed at my father and grandfather and then at a third man. The B-Men pulled them to one side and shoved them against the wall of the surgery. Then they lined up in the middle of the street and, at a command from the officer, shot all three men dead. I don’t think a minute elapsed between the officer’s singling out of the three men and their murder. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen seconds between the time my father was pushed against the wall and the time he was shot. He wouldn’t have had time to prepare, although he must have known that he would not survive the day. But the act itself was sudden and carried out almost without thought.
When the shots rang out, time stopped. For several seconds there was complete silence along the road. Then a red rose blossomed on my father’s chest and grew larger and larger. His body bent at the knees and he slowly toppled forward onto the street.
The officer shouted an order. The B-Men formed up into a squad and marched back down Falcarragh Road, leaving the three bodies and the fire burning in the middle of the street.
Then my mother wailed. Her cry shook my heart. I could feel it throughout my body. She rushed out the door, still holding me. Halfway across the street, her grip loosened, and I slid down her body to the street. I remember the cloth of her skirt rubbing against my face and trying to hold fast to her legs. She ran to my father and knelt in the street, holding his body in her arms. Before anyone could stop me, I threw myself on the two of them, clinging to them. Both my mother and I were covered in my father’s blood.
At first my mother paid no attention to me. She must have thought I was one of the people who were trying to pull her away from my father’s body. The others lifted the two of us up. When my mother saw me, she reached out and took my face in her bloody hands. She turned me around and forced me to look at my father’s body. ‘Cuimhnigh. Cuimhnigh,’ she said over and over. ‘Remember. Remember.’
The westernmost point of Northern Ireland is in County Fermanagh, south of the town of Belleek. The Atlantic Ocean lies about ten kilometres to the west. The southern border of County Donegal is just south of that. That means that Donegal is joined to the rest of the Republic by only a thin strip of land.
The shortest automobile route from Dublin to my father’s ancestral home runs northwest from Dublin through Monaghan. One enters Northern Ireland at Aughnacloy, passes through Omagh and Strabane and re-enters the Republic at Lifford. My father and his mother and grandmother left Derry within a week of the murders and lived for several years in an area known as Errarooey near Dunfanaghy. For close to four decades my father was a TD for the western half of Donegal in the Dáil. He travelled frequently between Dublin and Donegal and several times a year he stopped for a few days at his family’s home in Errarooey. He was proud of his origins and, for both political and personal reasons, he liked to celebrate them.
But he never in his life entered Northern Ireland, not even when he was a member of the Government in the 1960s and 1970s and had to co-ordinate occasionally with his British counterparts. He was willing to consult with them in London—that was after all historically a part of England and the English belonged there—but he never visited Belfast. To reach Donegal, my father would drive to Sligo and then along the Atlantic coast north to Donegal City, staying within the boundaries of the Republic. Until very recently, the quality of the roads in Donegal lagged considerably behind that in the east of Ireland. My father’s route was neither a quick nor a comfortable detour.
I do not know if my father’s account of the events on Falcarragh Road is accurate. I know only that it was important to my father’s conception of his burdens and responsibilities. It was part of his dialogue with himself over who he was. Falcarragh Road was very much a present reality in my father’s life.
Once, when I was in Derry, I tried to locate Falcarragh Road. I wanted to see the place that had played such an important role in my family’s history. I did not expect to see blood-stained cobblestones, but I was hoping, I think, that the event was somehow remembered, if only as a tale once heard from a grandparent. No one, however, had heard of Falcarragh Road. I later discovered that the name had been changed to Lennark Gardens. I have not been back to Derry since then, but I checked the street view on Google Earth and found Lennark Gardens to be a two-lane metalled street lined with blocks of terraced brick houses, not grand but certainly not bearing any obvious signs of poverty. The houses appear to date from the 1970s or 1980s. The impoverished neighbourhood and the grey buildings of my father’s childhood do not exist. There is no remembrance there.
Perhaps that is just as well.
Dear Pat,
Sometimes the darkness in you amazes me. You present such a calm demeanor to the world that no one guesses at the turmoil beneath the surface. Even I seldom see you upset or disturbed. Yet, there are these terrible undercurrents in your past. And you are so good at keeping secrets. I’ve never heard this story before.
Lewis—It was my father’s story, and his frequent re-tellings of it served a political purpose. I probably believed it when I was young, but once I began to hate my father, I discounted it, along with all his other stories. He exaggerated so much it was hard to tell what was true and what was not. It was easier to doubt everything he said about himself. I was not about to waste your time or mine re-telling his tales. My prevailing attitude in those years was to ignore him as much as possible, and try to minimise the necessary interactions with him. I am still of that mind. Or rather I am trying to persuade myself to be of that mind.
There are lots of horror stories from that period. Some people spend their whole lives re-living what happened to their ancestors. Some of us try to move on—none too successfully, truth be told.
I eventually became curious enough about him that I checked out some of his stories. This one turned out to have a factual basis—at least the murders happened. There is no way to verify the other elements. Did my father actually witness the murder? Did my blood-stained grandmother swear him to eternal remembrance? Who knows? It made a good story, and if nothing else the man could tell a good story. I envy him for that. Pat
Have I ever told you that I met your father once? He spoke to a group of publishers on the buying and selling of foreign rights to books. I sat at the same table with him during lunch. He occupied a lot of space, not physically but in terms of his impact. He spoke beautifully—all the editors there commented on how well he formed sentences.
Michelle—I was told once that he sang beautifully when he was younger, but that smoking and drinking ruined his voice. But I see on re-reading your comment that you meant he was a facile speaker. That he was, without doubt. The words poured out of him when he was in the mood to talk. He may have appeared to be speaking without notes, effortlessly and extemporaneously, but he practised all his speeches until he had them memorised. He was an actor when he stood up in public. Come to think of it, he was an actor in private too. Patrick


‘You enjoyed yourself today, didn’t you?’
It was a statement, not a question. Lewis was commenting on my reaction to an outing with a group of Irish expatriates, all of us male and all of us in our twenties and thirties. Several of us were connected with a university in the Boston area, either as students or as teachers; one man was from the consulate; another represented Irish insurance companies in America; the rest worked in construction or trades. We met one Saturday afternoon to play rugby at a field across the Charles River from Cambridge next to the Harvard Football Stadium. We played a modified form of seven-a-side, modified because there were only thirteen of us (we took turns being the referee), because the field was the wrong size, and because the ball was an American football. A line of trees and a fence served to delineate the side boundaries of the playing field. There were no goal posts, and we used coats and jumpers to mark the general area of the goals. We improvised rugby kit as best we could. There were no uniforms, and at some point in the games each of us became confused about which of the men on the field were our teammates. Once the referee ended up with the ball and scored a try that was greeted with cheers and a chant of ‘Five Points, Five Points’. The play was more enthusiastic than skilled, but by the end all of us felt satisfactorily tired and sore, not to mention muddy and bruised. Both of my knees were scraped. I wet the tail end of my shirt in a drinking fountain and sponged the mud off the cuts as best I could.
Lewis had come with me out of curiosity. Before we started to play, I gave him my wallet, watch, and keys to look after. When the other players saw that, they followed suit and Lewis was left holding a bag of similar items and watching over a pile of coats. Two of the players had already met him, and I introduced him to the others as ‘my friend Lewis. He wants to see a rugby game.’ Lewis declined several attempts to enlist him as the fourteenth player.
Initially he was the only spectator, but we soon attracted a crowd of onlookers. Most of them appeared at first to think we were playing some strange form of American football. The scrums were greeted with laughter. Lewis explained to one couple that we were playing rugby and the name was passed to newcomers as they arrived. A dog joined us and followed us enthusiastically up and the down the field.
After the game, we went to a nearby bar that one of the players said stocked Guinness in bottles. I do not know what the barman and the other customers thought of us. We were dirty, we undoubtedly stank. I do not think we were rowdy but we were exuberant. Anyone wanting a quiet drink would have had good reason to object to the loud conversation.
We pushed two tables together to form one long one. Lewis ended up seated apart from me between the two men he knew from before. He was the only unbloodied person at the table and looked too neat and clean to be with the rest of us. Lewis can manage to convey the impression that he is dressed in a suit and tie even when he is wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
I was next to Conor, one of the construction workers. He came from near Creeslough, a village about as distant from Dunfanaghy to the south-east as Errarooey is to the west. We began talking about the area and exchanging information about our families to see if we were related (given the population and the isolation of the area, a distant cousinship was not impossible). At one point Conor used an Irish phrase. I replied in Irish and the two us began speaking only in Irish. Conor had been in Boston for only a few months, and I think he felt isolated and lonely. English was his second language, and he spoke it hesitantly. He had been quiet before when everyone was talking in English, but once he began speaking Irish, he grew voluble. Our conversation attracted the attention of others at the table, the more so since Conor used the Ulster pronunciations common in that area of Donegal. I heard one of the other people at the table mimic his pronunciations of dís and diúlach.
‘Hey, Culchie, it’s your round.’ I looked up to see Brian Doherty, the man from the consulate and a Dubliner, pointing at me. The remark was greeted with laughter from all the Irish present except for Conor, who was the only person there from a rural area, and me. When I brought the drinks back to the table, I set a bottle of American beer on the table in front of Doherty and said loudly in Irish, ‘And here is a bottle of water for the West Brit.’ The nervous smiles that greeted that remark were uncomfortable and embarrassed. Several of the people at the table shifted in their chairs. Doherty looked at me uneasily for a moment as if measuring me for a fight. Then he picked up the bottle of beer, drank half of it off, and said with an apologetic smile, ‘It was just craic. I didn’t mean anything by it.’ I smiled back at him and sat down next to Conor and continued my conversation with him.
Later, when Lewis and I were walking back to his apartment, he asked, ‘What did that word mean? The one that guy called you when it was your turn to buy the drinks.’
It took me a few seconds to reconstruct what had been said. ‘You mean “culchie”? It’s a way of saying “country bumpkin” or “rube”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Brian said it because Conor and I were speaking Irish. Some people regard that as backward.’
‘Ah, I was worried it might mean “queer” or “fag”.’
‘No, there are other words for that. Several in fact. But I’ll not be teaching you them. But why would you think Brian was calling me a queer?’
‘The testosterone level at that table was through the roof. All that joking you guys did was pretty aggressive. Besides we are queer, and I thought maybe Michael or Kevin had said something to the others.’
‘I don’t think anyone suspects. And what if they did?’
‘I don’t want to make trouble for you with your friends. Some of them seem the type who would think they had to beat you up to teach you a lesson if they found out about us.’
‘Well, they wouldn’t be our friends then. And it would not be you who was making the trouble. It’s not as if I am the only Irishman in Boston dating an American. There are plenty of mixed relationships here.’
Lewis laughed and looked at me shyly out of the corner of his eye. Occasionally he reacted that way when I said something that pleased him. ‘What did you say when you gave Brian that bottle of Pabst? Why did everyone look so strange?’
‘I called him a West Brit. I was saying he is a snob who is more English than Irish. It’s complicated. People from Dublin think that everyone else in Ireland is an ignorant peasant, a culchie. So non-Dubliners return the favour by calling Dubliners English. During the Home Rule fight, an Irish politician accused the English of wanting to make Ireland into “West Britain”. So an Irish who is thought to be behaving like the English or admiring them too much might find his self being called a “West Brit”. It is part of the fight over what it means to be Irish. When I gave him an American beer and called it a bottle of water, I was saying that he wasn’t being Irish even in his choice of drinks. The irony is I’m usually more likely to be called a West Brit than a culchie.’
‘And what is “crack”?’
Craic, it’s an Irish word.’ I spelled it for Lewis. ‘It means a joke, a jape, teasing, something like that. But it’s a friendly way of joking. You are supposed to accept it and reply in kind. It is a game. But today the man who called me a culchie went too far. It’s like making a nasty remark and then saying “no offense” as if that lessens the offensiveness.’
‘You enjoyed yourself today.’
I had to think about that. My mind had been on the craic, and “enjoyment” seemed at first to be an odd word to apply to that. ‘Yes, I did.’ The realisation surprised me and I had to think why I had enjoyed the day. ‘I like being able to talk without having to explain what I am saying. I like some of the people we were with today. Others I wouldn’t associate with by choice. But even with them it feels good to be an Irish without having to be IRISH, if you see what I mean. I don’t have to be conscious that I am Irish. I can just be myself without feeling that I am a representative of a group or that I’m different, and that’s easier when everyone else is a member of the same group. What rankled about the culchie remark, I think, was that it was saying that Conor and I were different from the rest of them. And so I had to prove that I was as Irish as the rest of them and it became a matter of demonstrating which one of us was more IRISH than the other.’
I looked over at Lewis and suddenly realised how he might interpret my remarks about being with people of my own kind. ‘I am not talking about you. I don’t mind explaining myself to you.’ Then it struck me that that was one of those remarks that alerts the listener that you are indeed talking about him. ‘I mean, I want you to understand me. I’m not saying that I don’t like explaining myself to you. It’s different between us.’ I wasn’t making things better. ‘I’m after putting me foot in me mouth so?’ The Irish phrasing was meant to be humorous and apologetic and take the sting out of what I had said.
‘No, I know what you mean. It’s like being Jewish. There are times when I feel comfortable not having to be conscious of being Jewish. Oddly that often occurs when I’m with you. I’m almost more conscious of being Jewish when I’m with my family.’
‘That’s like being with other gay people. When we are with straights and the conversation isn’t about sex, when we are just talking politics or the weather, then we don’t have to think about being gay or not being gay. But when we are in a group of gay people, then we become very conscious of being gay. It’s almost as if we have to act gay in order to prove that we are gay.’
‘Yep. That is so.’ Lewis nodded. ‘What were you and Conor talking about?’
‘He talked about his family and their home. He mentioned that part of his family’s land, their farm, is on the lower slopes of Muckish Mountain. That’s one of the tallest mountains–well, hill really—you wouldn’t consider it a mountain in America—Anyway, it’s the highest spot in the area where my father’s family comes from. I told him that when we visited Errarooey, we often climbed Muckish. He said he had never been up it. That even though his family lived next to it, they never thought to climb it. They joked about the outsiders who felt a need to reach the top as if it were something special and they would see something different. And I was thinking how narrow his view was. That’s why being called a culchie upset me so. Because out of all of us at that table he was the only one from a rural area. I was trying to feel guilty for thinking that the label was correct for him and not for me. And Conor is a good lad. It’s not his fault he comes from an impoverished area. He’s smart—you can tell that from talking with him. But he’s not had much of an education. So I felt I had to say something for him, to show him that he is not alone.’
‘The two of you—Conor and you—have the best legs. Conor’s may be even better than yours.’
‘So is that where your interests lie? Should I be jealous that you were paying attention to everyone’s legs?’
‘Well, I had to look at something. I didn’t know what was going on. All that running up and down the field. All of you would take off after the guy with the ball and run down the field. Someone would get the ball from him and then all of you would chase that guy up the field until someone else took the ball from him. It’s a pretty boring game. The only interesting part was when several of you wrapped your arms around each other’s backs and shoulders and fought for possession.’
‘Rugby boring? The scrum the only interesting part? Was this afternoon wasted on you? Did you learn nothing about the grand game? Has my faith in you been misplaced? Did not the intricate patterns and the strategy appeal to your mathematical mind? Have I been nourishing a viper at my bosom?’
‘Strictly speaking, you don’t have a bosom.’
‘So, you admit you are a viper. You, serpent, will not be attending the hurling match next weekend.’
‘It is a native Irish sport. It is played with a bat called a hurley. Hence, Hurling.’
‘Do you run around in shorts?’
‘Then I will come.’
‘Your mind is in the gutter, Lewis. I am that embarrassed for you. I expected better of you.’
‘Not the gutter. Wait until we get back and you’ve had a shower. Then I’ll show you what my mind is focussed on something a bit higher.’
‘I have to take a shower first?’
‘Yes. You need a shower. And some antiseptic and bandages on those cuts. And probably some liniment. And a massage. Most definitely a massage for yis.’
‘That’s what all of yis were saying today.’
‘Yis is the plural of you. Were you not aware of that, Lewis? Who are all these people you will be giving massages to?’
‘As for me self, I have a strong imagination so.’
‘A strong imagination is it now? We will make you into a proper Irish lad yet, Lewis.’
‘There is only one Irish lad I’ll be making.’ Lewis smiled and glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. Sometimes his glances are sly.
Never in me loife have I spoken like dat.
Musha this Lewis is a quare culchie so.
I just now re-read this section. Is it too preachy?
I don’t think so. But then I’ve heard you pontificate on this subject of our multiple identities many times. I wasn’t so much paying attention to the message as I was reacting to the memory of that game. These reminiscences, if that’s what they are, stir up memories for me. I hadn’t thought about that afternoon for years—probably since that week. But once you mention something, then I remember it and match your recollections against mine. I remember, for example, that filthy bar we went to after the game, and I vaguely remember there was a spot of unpleasantness, but I don’t remember the conversation about being Irish and Jewish. Perhaps that’s because I was at home and you weren’t. You were just more conscious of being called on to be demonstrably a member of a group than I was. It wasn’t until I arrived in Cambridge that I became an AMERICAN. At home, I was simply an American.
The bar was called The Boyne, which always struck me as an odd name for an Irish pub—more orangish than green. Perhaps I should work that in—a variant way of being Irish. There were times during those years when I wished I could be like my cousin Mary and turn my back on being Irish. Sometimes it was baggage that I did not want to carry about with me. Sometimes it is just a nuisance, especially when I am expected to be some other person’s conception of what being Irish entails. It is the same with being gay. What I would like is to be together with you without labels being attached to it. Oh, well, if wishes were horses. Love, Pat
Is the Brian Doherty you mention the former FG TD? What about this Conor? Will he read this?
More to the point, I don’t see the point of this section. It’s amusing in parts but there’s not much here.
Michelle—No. It’s a different Brian Doherty. I think this Brian D died a few years back. I will check on it. If mentioning him by name makes your man in legal nervous, I can reword and just refer to him as the ‘man from the consulate’. There were two or three young men in the consulate at the time, and no one, probably not even the participants in that rugby game, will know which one I am talking about. Conor is unlikely to identify a man he knew as Patrick Ross as the writer Patrick Rósgleann. He met me only two or three times, and I did not become well known under my pseudonym until years later. I suspect he was not a reader, especially of literary autobiographies. I can change the name and move him from Creeslough to some other village in the area if your people think it important to make him unidentifiable.
As for the point of this section, it is about identity and the stories we tell ourselves to bolster our identity and the way our multiple identities—the separate identities we reserve for different groups of people—interact. I am trying to avoid overt sermonising about the points I am trying to make, but I will rework this to try to make my point clear in a subtle way. Patrick.

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