Luke Wadding, seventeenth-century Waterford friar in Rome, who sent the sword of the Earl of Tyrone buried in the Franciscan Convent of San Pietro in Montorio back to Cromwellian-overrun Ireland, did most of his writing between sunset and midnight we were told at National School…
On her fern and ivy-collecting visit to County Kerry in the late summer of 1861, shortly before her husband’s death of shock over his son’s affair with an actress, Queen Victoria was presented with a Davenport writing desk, lions and unicorns rampant on it, made by three Killarney carpenters, the surviving brother of the Liberator Daniel O’Connel coming to meet her in the home of the Herberts, who were catapulted into bankruptcy by the expenses Queen Victoria incurred for them.
The stories come back like the lesser celandine blossoms by the sea in early spring: stories from history, stories from your life…
The parents of Iarla Corduff, whose hair was the pale red-bronze of the grouse when affiliated to heather, eyes the green of the County Clare Burren moth, were married in Baltimore, Maryland where they were emigrants.
Iarla’s father worked as a fisherman and she was pregnant when they were summoned to the church hurriedly. Iarla’s father wore his fisherman’s Wellingtons at the wedding.
The packaging for photographs taken at a reception at which the reel ‘Salute to Baltimore’ was played on an Excelsior accordion—but not any of the photographs Iarla’s mother subsequently framed on the parlour flock wallpaper—wallpaper with pattern made by powdered wool: a beaming lady with clubbed hair and roll fringe, in zebra-stripe dress, holding out a tender yellow and faded scarlet rectangular box of Kodak film.
Back in the Breac-Gaeltacht—mixed Irish and English speaking—she had a miscarriage picking seaweed.
Herrings between July and February, mackerel between April and July. New potatoes after July, basil near the carrots in summer, turnips September-October, the pig killed in autumn, winter cabbage, a knife on the cement for the goose near Christmas.
A finger was put to the back of the goose when it was killed so that the blood went into the neck. After six hours in water the feathers fell off.
Women bathed their feet in the water corpses had been washed in because they thought it was holy water.
In the parlour of their bungalow on a tóchar—causeway—road was a picture of ‘The Irish Brigade before Battle’—their ancient Tricolour sent back from France to the new Irish Free State and blessed anew by Father Pigott on Saint Patrick’s Day in Cork.
The ruin of Daniel O’Connell’s parents’ house was near though he himself was born in an emergency in a neighbour’s cottage.
They’d kept a print of the Pretender James III there, who, when wives were sought for him in Europe, one was rejected because she was a dwarf.
O’Connell was fostered to his uncle Hunting Cap, who made a fortune smuggling silks and brandy.
He sent O’Connell’s cousins to France to join the Irish Brigade and O’Connell himself to France to study Condiliac and Helvétius where François Boucher had shortly before painted John the Baptist in Turkish Delight red cloak as if he’d got a loan or endowment from a king and Marie Antoinette had requested Philip Astley and his son John—the English rose—to bring the circus which Philip had introduced to England at Halfpenny Hatch, Lambeth Fields 1768, to France.
Iarla’s family had a book in their parlour beside the PYE wireless with the name Athlone on it about O’Connell, published in Ave Maria Lane, London.
O’Connell with hair en brosse on front beside the stream where his father used to put out salt pans—vessels for getting salt by evaporation.
Iarla’s mother had lovely American clothes when she was a child.
Her proudest possession a Paisley shawl, the kind Pier Angeli wore, victim of a broken engagement to Kirk Douglas.
But one night she came upon two battling rats in her room and they turned on her.
She defended herself with a lighted candle and her clothes-horse went on fire, her American clothes, including her Paisley shawl.
However, a Charlie Chaplin brooch from Baltimore survived, which was appropriate as Charlie Chaplin, his wife Oona O’Neill and their passegiatta of children frequently holidayed in the area.
Ties of maple red, ties the red of a bull’s rosette, ties the red of the red grouse’s wattle, ties the red of the chough’s legs—Iarla wore these as a child for occasions like Confirmation—Faoi Láimh Faispaig (under the Bishop’s hand), Morning of the Assumption.
The National School teacher would keep a heavy girl, who excelled at making diamond-pattern bed covers, behind in the afternoons to feel inside her skirt.
She’d tell her parents she’d been kept behind for misbehaviour and they’d beat her.
In the town, under a red sandstone mountain called the Giant’s Arse because it was shaped like buttocks, was a butcher, Mr Ó Muirgheasa, who marched by himself down the street with a red flag every May Day.
He’d met and conversed with General de Gaulle when he’d visited the town.
Mr Ó Muirgheasa claimed he’d never gone to mass since he was a child, when the County Mayo librarian Letitia Dunbar-Harrison was boycotted because she was a Protestant.
Despite his irreligiosity there was a statue in his butcher shop which no one could make out whether it was Mary or a figure from Celtic mythology: woman in white tunic, blue veil, a severed male hand on her left shoulder.
A leatherback turtle had crawled up the main street as far as the azure Player’s Please sign the year Dr Gilmartin, the Archbishop of Tuam had congratulated the County Mayo commissioners responsible for the boycott of Miss Dunbar-Harrison.
Iarla shared a room with his brother, Brecan, a year older than him.
Over Iarla’s bed was a colour photograph of Kirk Douglas showing his legs to Tony Curtis in The Vikings.
With Brecan he’d walk to the grave of Scota—daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, wife of Miliseus of Spain, killed at the battle of Slieve Mis.
From there they could see Banna Strand where Sir Roger Casement landed in a German U-boat Easter 1916, was marched by the English to Tralee where the Royal Irish Constabulary man’s wife cooked him a steak.
Casement left his pocket watch as appreciation before being moved on to his execution in Pentonville Prison.
The story, told by a Christian Brother catechism examiner, who’d felt Iarla’s neonate ginger-auburn hair inside his swain’s short trousers, was recorded in an exercise book with fleurons on the cover.
It was Brecan who had a haircut like Brian Poole of the Tremeloes, who’d returned to his family’s butcher business, who’d first made love to him.
Brecan slept in the Kerry colours: green and dust-gold.
There was an amourist in town, originally from Dublin. With a horse-shoe beard like Yul Brynner in Solomon and Sheba, who swam in winter and won best actor award at the amateur drama finals in Scarriff, County Clare.
The adjudicator at Scarriff later drove his car off Corrib Bridge by Fisheries’ Field in Galway and drowned.
Saint Swithin of Winchester requested to be buried in the cathedral yard so his grave would be rained on, and Saint Swithin’s Day, July 15, determined the weather, rain or shine, for the next forty days.
It was on Saint Swithin’s Day the Dublin man seduced Iarla in a copse behind a flank of mountain ashes after Iarla had swum in a stream.
Looking at Iarla standing naked in the stream one day the man said he reminded him of Tom, the dirty little chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, who came down his friend Ellie’s chimney uninvited and subsequently, like the boys in Henry Scott Tuke’s paintings, had to purify himself—Tom, the dirty little chimney sweep immediately put on the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
Iarla was by his side in a hotel in a neighbouring town after a performance one night.
On the wall was a colour photograph of the Rose Garden, Bangor, County Down.
A taciturn faced boy with Fräulein-blond facial hair, eyes chestnut-fringed green, rugby-player’s chest, in a V-neck vermilion jersey, sat on the floor.
There was a feeling of expectancy. Was someone going to sing a song? And then indeed the boy in the vermilion jersey did sing a song:
I sold my rock I sold my reel
When my flax was gone
I sold my wheel to buy my love a sword of steel.
In the town the Drama Group would meet in an Augustan pub called The White Causeway, a sign without that featured an undertaker celebrating with a glass of wine and a picture within of a bottle of wine beside a wine glass, with the words: ‘Salina Helena, Napa Valley Reserve, 1917.’
The grey seals are born in autumn as white-coated pups on the Góilín inlet—a coral strand made up of calcerous algae washed in by the winter tides.
They remained on the strand for three weeks, after which the mothers abandoned them and hunger forced them to sea.
‘Most people say you’re turning into a right old pufter. Other people say you’re sound,’ a youth in a whipcord jacket and goffered shit said to Iarla at a dance one night when Big Tom and the Mainliners were playing.
When a poster for a parish hall showing of The Swordsman of Siena— Stewart Granger in full Sienese garb waving a sword, a trembling décolleté Sylva Koscina with droplet earrings and a fearless Christine Kaufmann in a tam by his side—turned up in town Iarla went to study in Dublin, dancing on Saturday nights in an Aran cardigan with wooden buttons at The Television Club.
He had his Tarot read by a girl who sat beside him on a chaise longue in South King street.
He threw up his studies after a year and a half and went off to England.
‘The swan would die of pride if it hadn’t black feet,’ his mother said to him. Her Pier Angeli had died of a barbiturates overdose.
In London he lived on pans of onions which he fried wearing a sheepskin coat and drank tea from a mug with Gainsborough’s Shepherd Girl on it.
He regularly went to a pub near Saint Martin in the Fields to hear a woman from the Donegal Gaeltacht, her photograph in an Abbey Theatre programme once, recite poems she never wrote down, her bedsit in Tufnell Park a legend of cats.
She’d upbraided George Bernard Shaw when he was considering her for a major part and subsequently descended to menial work.
The death of one of her dogs in a street accident occasioned a nervous breakdown.
Iarla heard her tell an audience of Irish boys in cloaks, green and red half boots, Irish girls in Queen Nerfertiti or Queen Nitocris shift dresses, that her poems were millions of years old.
Old as Queen Scota maybe.
A line from one of her poems about walking holding someone’s hand in Ireland decided him to return to Kerry.
In early spring, by the stream, he saw again the hart’s tongue fern and the lords and ladies fern and the buttercup leaves and the celandine leaves and later the hemlock and the ramsons—the wild garlic—and the alexanders and the eyebright and the goose grass and the chick weed.
There is a red rim to the chickweed flower and he often saw that red in the whites of his eyes. It wasn’t that he cried. But he was always near tears.
Near a ráth—an earthen ring fort—he found the small feathers of a singing thrush which told him that a merlin had plucked its prey here, and he thought of the punitive, sometimes Augean places he’d lived in London, Thin Lizzy’s album ‘Shades of a Blue Orphanage’ borne to each of them.
Brecan managed the local Spar Supermarket now which had advertisements for Ardfert Retreat Centre.
He married a Galway girl, his mother wearing a toque of lopped coins with a cobweb veil hanging from it for the wedding, pancake make-up on her face and angel hair eye-lashes like Joan Collins in Esther and the King.
After a few years in Kerry, working around the bungalow, walking to the Góilín on days when the sky looked as if it was going to kick a ball at you, time of the cuckoo’s sostenuto, Iarla went to New York.
‘Slán go fóill’ (Goodbye for the moment) said his lover friend of early adolescence, ‘I hope New York does you justice.’
In Tralee before getting the bus for the onward journey he saw the Christian Brother catechism examiner of childhood hanging around the lavatory in Bill Booley’s Lane.
‘I went to Carthage where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.’
His friend would quite Saint Augustine to describe a sojourn in North Africa. ‘All naked boys had to wear the horn of a gazelle when they reached puberty.’
In a steam room in New York a young black soldier with a Silver Dollar crew cut said: ‘Balls are the nature of man. When they’re big man’s nature is big. Yours are big as an infant’s head.’
He worked in Irish bars in New York, mostly one in the East River whose owner was from Cois Fharraige (beside the South Connemara Atlantic).
‘At sixteen I lived on the Holloway Road with just Gaelic. Up at six. On the road for an hour.
We had to get it ready for the chippies. They did the slabbing and we put the plaster on it.
One hour getting back. Then to the pubs.
Madison and Fifth Avenue was a two-way system when I arrived with gold traffic signals with small statues of Mercury, messenger of the gods on them.
We knew nothing about sex in Connemara. The priest called the shots.
On South Boston Men’s Beach, in a sauna, the peanut whistle going outside, we found out.’
Iarla had had a young lover friend in Dublin who was an electrician from Athlone where groups of boys hang out on the Shannon Bridge near the redstone, green-panelled Dillon shoes building.
There were fathers in the Athlone area, that boy had told Iarla, who let their friends make love to their teenage sons and watched while they were doing it.
With a Sagittarius stone—turquoise, this boy had gone to live in Berlin.
After a year in New York, Iarla went to Toronto, Canada, country of Leonard Cohen whom he heard singing Kevin Barry in a 1960s Weltanschaung version at a concert in Dublin.
‘Just a lad of eighteen summers … ‘
He lived in a house with shiplap siding in a run-down district.
There were stories about gay people thrown at night into Toronto Harbour. Occasionally he saw the Italian word froci—queers—written on the walls. He sent his Dublin friend a postcard of Vuillard’s ‘Toulouse Lautrec’—mushroom hat, poppy shirt, baggy lemon trousers. ‘Are you in the land of the living?’
The reply was an ancient John Hinde colour postcard of the town under the Giant’s Arse mountain.
Shortly after Iarla got this card his mother died of cancer in Marymount hospice in Cork, with Norah Loft’s book by her bed.
In Kerry he found her love letters to his father in a yellow, royal blue and scarlet Weetabix cereal tin she’d sent away for with coupons she’d collected.
‘I looked after old people for a penny a day when I was a girl,’ she’d told Iarla once, ‘put turf and bog gale under their beds.’
Iarla left Toronto shortly after returning from Kerry and went back to New York, to pubs run by Irishmen with TV cop moustaches.
Early one winter thrush in the mouth turned into pneumonia and he spent a winter in bed.
He thought about his friend in Berlin and then a card drifted through from him, belatedly condoling him on his mother’s death: Jerg Ratjeb’s ‘Crucifixion’; the tongue of the thief on Christ’s right side hanging out, a woman in shrimp-pink gown thrusting herself at the foot of the cross and crows pecking around the cross in oblivion.
Big Tom and the Mainliners played in New York, attracting an audience of heroin addicts by mistake because mainlining is a New York term for injecting in the main vein, and Iarla returned to Ireland for a short sojourn, going via London.
The Irish streets in London didn’t seem changed; the posters in the windows, the names of singers with what were either the titles of their songs or maxims, after their names.
Domonic Kirwin—Always. Sean O’Farrell—Today. Joe Dolan—Come Early. An omnipresent poster: Brendan Shine—Love.
A black woman stood at a bus stop in embroidered lapis-lazuli garb, in blue headdress, series of filigree pendants in her ears. On the bus was the ubiquitous Irish story:
‘Do you know ‘The Lonely Woods of Upton?’ You don’t know it,’ the man was looking at Iarla’s black leather matador jacket, ‘because you’ve never been there.’
My mother and father didn’t care about me. They gave me to an orphanage there in Ireland when I was three. She’s married to another man in Scotland now. He’s dead.
I have three bairns in Scotland. People don’t know how hard it is. I’ve got to come here and support them. And I drink. I’m nobody’s child. You’re nobody’s child but your own.’
And then he started singing: ‘Those men who died for Ireland
In the lonely woods of Upton for Sinn Féin.’
Iarla could see the contrast between the Irish in England, his London years, and New York. He’d that experience in his life, that vicissitude.
In the Postcard Gallery on Neal Street he bought a card for his Dublin friend who’d returned to his city; Alfred Eisenstaedt’s ‘Dutch woman and boy looking at Rembrandt’s Nightwatchmen,’ the woman with a mole on her face, shadows filling the eyes and the curious, serious mouth of the boy, her grandson, the woman’s right hand clenched in threads of light.
A barred feather which fell in his path in Kerry told him that a sparrowhawk was close by, seeking prey.
Glebe this place was called—earth.
A ruined castle reminded Iarla that County Kerry was known as The Kingdom.
In the small park in the town a man in his Sunday suit played ‘A Nation Once Again’ on bag pipes under a statue of Kerry Antartic explorer Tom Crean with ski sticks—who’d been seen off on one of his voyages by the Dowager Empress Marie Fedorovna, mother of Tzar Nicholas II, who with his wife Princess Alix of Hesse, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, his children, was murdered in a blood-stained cellar in Ekaterinburg 1918—two women with reticules seated on a stone bench watching the performance, the older with pumps with almond-shaped toes, the younger with french pleat at the back of her hair.
A Denny van drew up during the recital, with four lonely looking sausages on the van.
Iarla thought his experience of the West of Ireland was the experience of a missing face, like the face of a boy, chestnut-fringed eyes, in a V-neck vermilion jersey, he’d seen at a party in a hotel after a play once, a woman belting out Isabel Leslie’s ‘The Thorn Tree’ that night as she played on a piano with a red silk front.
‘But if your heart’s an Irish heart you’ll never fear the thorn tree.’
The green-headed mallard, who mates with our farmyard geese, stays for summer, but I must go.
Before flying back to New York, where he found the helper, suppressor cells quickly vanished from his body, Iarla met a man with a turf cut, in suede shoes with a metallic sheen, above Clancy’s Strand in Limerick.
‘You wouldn’t think I’d want to have my hair short,’ he said, ‘I was in the army for so long. I was out in the Lebanon. I saw a man choke his own daughter. She was handicapped and showed her panties. You wouldn’t think I’d miss the Lebanon but I do.’
‘Old friends, like old swords, still are trusted best…’
Iarla’s friend told him about his own swim and the winter swim in Dublin: of the chute at Blackrock baths; of bathing places with graffiti urging assignations, of jetties into the Irish Sea which people wandered as if seeking revelations; of two villas called Milano and La Scala adjacent to the sea near his home; going to Song of Norway performed at a theatre with organ pipe pillars on either side of the stage—the women in dirndls (Alpine costumes); of an attempt at being seminarist; then the profligacy of men’s swimming places—cormorants flying low over the gnashing and discontented sea at swimming coves, academic-looking seals coursing by you while in England a peer sent to jail for alleged sexual assault on two boy scouts in a beach hut and the police raiding men’s houses and examining their photograph albums; of bran-faced young FCA men fresh from army summers at Finner Camp offering themselves for fellation at urinals with the word FIR (men) outside, the experience of serving in the Belgian Congo where gonorrhea was rampant greatly increasing the numbers of soldiers in urinals; of the ship that brought him past the swimming places of Dublin Bay, the cerulean mountains that virtually formed letters of the alphabet, the nimbused valleys, to the minarets of North Africa; of how earlier in the century Mr Carson approached the Forty Foot in winter with a lantern, would swim to Bullock Harbour in Dalkey and back, was prosecuted and fined two and sixpence for swimming naked in 1906; of Dr Oliver St John Gogarty who was taken captive during the Civil War in January 1923 by men who entered his house using a woman, later to become a nun in Rathmines, as a decoy, was taken to a house near Salmon Pool on Island Bridge to be shot. Twice claimed he had to urinate outside because of nervousness, second time threw himself into the Liffey and swam, was swept along by the current, came to a house where he was given brandy by a Garda doctor; in 1924 he presented two swans, which were sent from Lady Leconsfield’s lake in Sussex, to the Goddess of the Liffey as thanksgiving; the swans wouldn’t get out of the crate so WB Yeats, who was presiding over the whole ceremony, had to give the crate a good kick.
Cicero—as the pupils of Green’s CBS in Tralee in their blue-grey jerseys know—told the story:
The young courtier Damocles in the city of Syracuse was heard to envy his lord Dionysus whereupon Dionysus proposed to sit on his throne for one day and the feasting Damocles noticed a sharp sword hanging over him by a thread, the price of power!
Iarla and Richard Westall’s paintings from the Postcard Gallery, Neal Street, London—a Neronic young man not unlike the neoclassical rugby youths in the showers of O’Dowd Park, Tralee.
Wasn’t there a story too, passed down from a drama adjudicator who’d drowned himself, of Georges d’Anthe, whose horseguards’ uniform, wavy blond hair—perhaps like the youth in the hotel—the adopted son of the Dutch Ambassador of Saint Petersburg and reputedly his pathic, who fell in love with Alexander Pushkin’s wife, a ‘Raphael hour’, and slew Pushkin, whose winter coat was missing a button, in a duel?
In the National Portrait Gallery in London, Iarla had seen the portrait of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, with chin frizz beard, whose face Elizabeth I had slapped after he’d turned his back on her.
In Essex Birhtnoth’s beautiful and ornamented sword was coveted and Birhtnoth slain by the causeway—tóchar.
Then would he wish to see my Sword,
and feel The quickness of the edge,
and in his hand Weigh it…
Perhaps he picked up the HIV virus from a youth from Red Wing Missouri with a Joe Dallesandro headband.
There’s been a priest, a Raphael hour, eyes the blue of the chicory that grew at the Béguinage gates at home, he’d made love to in an apartment full of street jewellery in New York, he wasn’t sure of.
Between waking and sleeping in a Brooklyn Hospital, after listening to a broadcast of Jesse Norman singing in Central Park to commemorate Princess Diana, Iarla dreams of Dr Oliver St John Gogarty, a story from his adolescence, a fellow Irish exile in New York.
Dr Gogarty survived.
He turned up at tea parties in Lady Cunard’s in New York during the Second World War.
The former Maude Burke of California, relative of Robert Emmet, sung about by Count John McCormack of Athlone.
Alone in New York: Gogarty a bohemian, an autumn leaf. He is an autumnal person.
And always there’s the sea, the radiance of the sea at the Forty Foot which he made his own and where he used swim with tempestuous regularity in his youth. And there’s the bitter cold of the Liffey, the Liffey into which he jumped one winter and swam to save his life, the bitter cold of the Irish emotions that had tried to murder him.
They’d burned his library in North Connemara where the panelling had been made of the wood of shipwrecks… Condiliacc, Helvétius…
With the crow’s feet of his temples, the raised, almost halter-like enclosure of hair around his temples, he drops in for an hour or so at a tea party in New York—Worcester Tea Service and Derby Botanical Dessert Service—and then he walks off, a winter swimmer remembering Dublin, the way light hit the warm-gold lettering of a pub mirror, the way radiance hit a certain joker’s pub anecdote.
And somewhere in him, in these late autumn days, is a naked young swimmer’s buttocks, bruised together like the face of a young Byronesque-featured wit at a Catholic public school that had the acrid smell of shoe polish.
Yes, in these days of fall, he remembers his brother poet Catullus:
‘What human form is there which I have not had? A woman, man, youth, boy…’
And though it’s fall there’s the urge for a swim, Coney Island maybe, the peanut whistle sounding, past the monuments to Garibaldi and to the unknown soldier, the Stars and the Stripes fluttering over a few gentlemen swimmers that still wear the old-fashioned, black, bib top, swimming suits so that we are presented with epochs that eddy together—like the autumn and Atlantic-caressed flag.✁