Friday, January 14, 2011

415. na Gile an bhróin (the lightness of sorrow)

My blue-eyed beautiful gorgeous mam
dragged three kids through wartime Britain
in search of our father Liam, her demon lover,
lost on some jagged wind-blown building site,
and quite definitely not fighting for anybody,
unless, fair enough, for himself. Historically, you could
award a few points had he not deserted his hysterical
Kerry woman, me mam, a power unto herself,
dragging us through sleet and snowstorms to the next town,
Bradford, Leeds, or some other frightful Midland kip
where news had recently been heard. The day
we came into Coventry the Germans flattened it
and me mam took that personally. They were after Liam,
she said, and he fooled them. They nearly didn’t
feckin fool us, I was about to tell her, gazing around,
but she was never one to listen to peripheral stories.
Lucy, my sister, came down with a cold which got worse
and when she went and died of pneumonia in Yorkshire
I thought me mam would go demented, but she buried
her instead at the side of the road in the loose soil
and me brother Hugh and meself had to say three Hail Maries
for, mam said, the eternal repose of her soul. I missed Lucy.
I was worried about Hugh as well, never mind me mam,
who was away on her own, away with the fairies.

At the end of the day, many days in recollection,
didn’t we come to a stop in Scotland, in Edinburgh,
in some dank little kip up in the Old Town, sliding
precipitously off a cliff from their bloody High Street
where the mam took in washing, brought in, strangely,
by broad-beamed gentlemen with drinkflushed faces.
Hugh and I were then urged to run off and play among
incomprehensible hostile local lads in short trousers
who beat the crap out of us until we learned to fight together,
suborn allies, bully the weak, ingratiate the strong,
absorbing all the indelible ways of dealing with people
that served us so well in the yet-to-come IRA.
Hugh took to it like a duck to water, he’s still standing
at the right hand of Gerry Adams, having traded in his overalls
for Armani suits and trips to Brussels and Amsterdam.

Me, I fell in hopeless love. Her name was Jenny Armstrong
from the local bakery, weak in her health, strong in spirit,
and we had a delicate thing, she taught me about books
and we went to the theatre and opera together (OK, only once)
and we kissed once or twice but we never went much further
before she died on me. She was 16 when she left me alone
and I thought my life had ended. The business in Norn Iron
had just about started, the Brits were after sending the Army
and it was my young brother Hugh persuaded me to go over.
He seemed to know them all on the Catholic side, a term which was
never used, you were trained to say ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Republican’
but we knew it was all the same thing. No bleedin poor Proddy
would ever dare stick his nose in the door, not down in Ballymurphy
where young Adams (3rd generation) ran the show like Napoleon.

It was a war, sort of. People really did get killed on a daily basis
but an awful lot of it, to be honest, was sheer noise and propaganda.
You went out with your Armalite (thank you, America!) and had a few
clear shots at the Brits, and they’d shoot back, but the most of it
was nasty political shite, tit-for-tat assassinations, bombings,
euphemistic justifications (on all sides) for sloppy or clinical murder.
I got sick of it. They can sense that; before long I could expect
my own people to be coming after me, torture, interrogations,
because their greatest fear was informers. Brother Hugh was aware,
now cheek-by-jowl with the Army Council, the highest of the high,
getting me shipped off, this really happened, on a mission to America.

(Background, skipping over the boring bits: Leaving aside the gobsmacking fact that the only possible solution to the conflict was political, the leadership continued to seek military victory. One plan was to bomb the hell out of the major banks in the City of London. No need to kill innocents (the bombs went off at night), just gut the British financial centre and destroy international confidence in the country. This nearly worked: it definitely brought the Brits to the talking tables. The second thing, locally, was to destroy aerial reconnaisance and the British Army's quick deployment of troops to firefights: in other words, shoot down helicopters. The Afghans had used hand-held Stinger missiles to tremendous effect against the Soviets and our lot, basically, planned to do the same. Time to go shopping in America.)

America! Oh, God, you have no idea what it was like.
Five war-torn Paddies get off the plane at Kennedy
and run into a cheerleader screen of Irish-Americans
who think we are still fighting the Black and Tans!
They are two, maybe three, generations behind us:
they don’t fuckin know, they don’t care, but sure as hell
they will put their money down. We know we need it.
What follows is a strange peculiar game, because the people
who want to throw their homes open to us, make speeches,
have us appear at their local social clubs, talk about Ireland,
don’t have a clue about what we are doing. They are pillars
of the Irish-American community, and we are modern warriors,
rebels if you like, terrorists (according to the British),
and have already attracted the attention of the FBI. Not good.

Those weeks in New York were giddy, convivial, surreal.
I remember going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
alone, just to look at the paintings. A guy sidles up
then quickly slips away; another guy barges in, flips a badge,
says, “who were you talking to?” Fucked if I know.
Shopping for deadly missiles is not as easy as you think.
First, who can obtain and sell them? How to get them over?
The Irish-Americans, obviously, were clueless. The thing
with them was to get the money we needed, say, 200 thou,
either from Noraid or from local donations. Noraid was
stand-offish. They believed in helping widows and orphans
no matter what the Brits have said about them since.
They didn’t help. So we got in touch with criminal elements.
Criminals will supply anything as long as you pay them.
This is one of the things you can really count on in life.
They will try to cheat you, sure, but once threats are understood,
a deal, more or less, will generally go through. So we negotiated
and got a good deal going for about 400 factory-fresh missiles
but you know what happened next. The FBI were all over the scam
and we got out by the skin of our teeth. Through Mexico.

Upon reflection, I decided to stay in Mexico for a bit,
working hard on my Spanish, in Chiapas. Brother Hugh
seemed to encourage these language aspirations, hinting
that further undocumented travel was possibly advisable
and that an early return to Ireland might not be the best
idea in the barrel. Since when I have not been home more than
seven times (Ireland, Jayz, do what you like) and, recently,
don’t feel the need. Hugh’s on his way to becoming Taoiseach.

Mammy’s off in a home in Beaumont, she’ll be 93 next March.
She keeps talking to a person called Liameelucy.