Monthly Archives: August 2014

ALBERTUS MAGNUS

Albert peaceLife, like Literature has a habit of juxtaposing seemingly odd ends together. Milton gives us God and Satan in ‘Paradise Lost’ and for some reason the fallen Angel came out of it with an enhanced reputation. This morning I read that a small train station called Dromod, the only train station in all of County Leitrim, was in danger of closing. I have used the Station on many occasions often not knowing when I’d be back.

 

Many of my forbears also used Dromod Station. Sadly some never saw their native County again. The train meandered behind our home place. It was said that in the late 19th Century my Great-Great -Grandfather climbed a rick of hay so that he could wave goodbye to his New York bound granddaughter on the passing locomotive. Climbing a rick of hay is not exactly alpine in scale until you factor in that the old man was reputedly a hundred years of age at the time. When I was younger I thought this story was nonsensical.  Years later I discovered the date of the grand daughter’s entry into Ellis Island. I slowly wiped the egg from my face.

 

Another relative of ours who never again saw home boarded the train in Dromod in late 1939. He went to England to work in a munitions factory. He died in Toronto in the 70’s. Word got back to the family who of course were shocked. The shock was not so much that the man had died but on where he had died. His sisters always believed that he was still living somewhere in Manchester. Thankfully, and unlike these family members, every time I took the train I did get to see home again. I know however that one day I’ll leave and that it will be the last time.

 

I remember also going out to Dromod to see the men from the Hills of Donegal bring back the spoils of war from Croke Park in ’92. That was a great sight and a wonderful occasion for the whole Northwest.

 

I have many memories of Dromod Station. Sadly a man passed away today that has no memory of Dromod. One time he knew everyone in the Village and everyone who bought a train ticket. Sadly Alzheimers ravaged this sharp mind and confused those precious recollections. I’m sure if he was in good health Albert Reynolds would not overly-nostalgic and perhaps say that it was the best of times, but also the worst of times.

 

 Albert Reynolds main legacy will undoubtedly be the crucial role he played in bringing peace to this island. That is a noble legacy to what was an intractable problem. Albert may not have ticked all the boxes for the South County Dublin set but he was shrewd man, a person who took risks, who speculated to accumulate, a type of character no longer prowling the halls of Leinster House. Yes, Albert made mistakes, plenty of them and his political demise was full of controversy, yet somehow it is easy to forgive him. It is not simply because us Irish are wont to speak ill of the dead, it’s because Reynolds retained a common touch. He was a man who knew the value in the handshake to the country folk. My mother and father met in the ‘Cloudland’ in Rooskey, just like thousands of couples throughout the Midlands and West who found a partner in one of the many Reynolds Dance Halls in the hucklebuck era.

The Reynolds were said to be ruthless in business, especially with competitors and yet there are plenty of stories citing kind works Albert did for people without any fuss or fanfare.  His passing will be keenly felt in Longford which is suffering badly in the current recession. His home village of Rooskey is also in decline. Where once there was a booming meat processing plant employing hundreds of people from South Leitrim, North Roscommon and Longford there is now a quiet sleepy village where Bus Eireann only stops once a day.

 

As a young man Albert Reynolds worked as a clerk for CIE in Dromod Railway Station and I’m sure he carried many memories of the place with him throughout his life. I once met a man at a function in the North of England. He told me that when he was emigrating to England he had his boat fare but was short some money for the train fare. Albert let him on the train with a valid ticket and told him he’d see him when he was home again. The man found work but was not home for over two years. When he passed through Dromod Albert was no longer working there. The young emigre could have got away without repaying the fare but he felt he could not renege on the good deed. He made himself known to the Station Master who told him, ‘Ah yes, I remember young Reynolds saying you were from good stock and you’d be back’. The honest traveller told me he had the pleasure of telling Albert the story years later when he met him in Longford.  Reynolds knew immediately who he was and how much he had owed CIE, before saying to him ‘I never doubted ya’.

 

Albert ReynoldsPolitics has changed and so has Ireland since the Reynolds/Haughey/ MacSharry heydays. It is doubtful that we will ever see another Albertus Magnus. Eugene McGee reckoned the night he was made Taoiseach and returned to the Market Square in Longford was like the County winning the All-Ireland.

 

It is sad that the news regarding the future of Dromod Station is juxtaposed with the departure of its most famous employee. Sadly this time it’s a one way ticket for Albert. His loss will be keenly felt throughout the villages, towns and parish halls of Longford, Leitrim & Roscommon.

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Subway Poem – New York

new york subway Taking the Train of Singularity South from Midtown

I came across this poem by John J. Ronan and thought I’d share it. Not only has the poem a great title but it really captures the movement of humanity in a metropolis, The poet manages to convey the experience of using mass public transport and introduces to us the multitude of characters that take their place on the city stage every day.

42nd St.

As the funnel of everyone in Times Square
cascades down the station stairs,
pace and urgent purpose damming
briefly at turnstiles before cleaving
into streams for an 8th or 7th Avenue
train, an A Train, the Two,
and while quick, diverged currents, hot
and breathless, pick platforms, stop
to listen for slivering steel drums
in the wait for translation to work or home,
here, at the side of a narrow island
forty feet under ground,
with a wind-rush and rattle that drive
away agile, enterprising mice,
Ett Tag, Bir Tren,
Mmoja Treni, Een Trein,
Premier Train, Jeden Trenovat,

the red One Train halts.
A mustered public, potluck, steps
forward, hushed and obscure, hips
Shifting at doors in slide-by
witness, separate bodies white
and yellow, brown, black and tan,
pocked or whiskery, whiskeyed, wan,
green, gray, big or bone-house,
the meek, mouthy, angry, lost –
a tourist who trails maps and binoculars
jamming last onto the crowded car.
App-trance and defensive doze,
deft conventions of eye and elbow
mind the tribes. A breath brushes
your strapping hand. The platform passes.

34th Street

Tumbled from the scrum of Penn Station,
a handsome hardboy’s followed by nuns,
louche in their blue loafers, who start
with the tame tourist, a fresh mark,
move to a laptop on a clenched lap,
a plugged hummer, a patient cop,
smiling saints as they panhandle
the parish – the buxom beauty who pulls
open her purse, continuing slowly
to a witness of rapt women as she throws
dimes into the can, clink, clink:
“The thing of it is, here’s the thing,
the reason. The reason being: yes.”
Eyes rise to Viva Las Vegas!,
Absolut, a scratched Cadbury ad:
Amy + Elvis – together at last.

28th St.

Morning unfolds. A uniformed girl,
perfumed and war-painted, twirls
on arrival, greets the hardboy’s attitude
with a teasing parade of school plaid,
half-and-half harlot, ingénue,
scented in sour grape, Tabu,

23rd St.

Opined widely by a man who makes
his mute partner blush back,
a blonde by the busty mater, opposite
his signing hands and the black habits.
A gently defined, common commute
below Fashion Ave., spelled out
in GAP and caps, Jets, Giants,
Puma, Nike, in tapestry pants,
N.Y.F.D.,
in the sexy matron, the sibyl, who speaks
with weary and resigned, wisecrack sadness:

18th St.

“Anymore, forsaken. And apart. Anonymous,”
during a door delay in which a pigeon,
bent on a serious, moral mission,
preens onto the car like the pride of Chelsea,
an urban bird who avoids the eyes
of travelers, they in turn avoiding the bird
behind pickets of posture and print..
The nuns, surrounded by trousers, smile.
The bumpkin, gaze behaving, smiles.
The practiced pigeon, a positive nodder,
fronts the speechless woman who figures
food with a brown bag at her knees,
and witness-wise, dim as destiny,
fate or whatever happens, happens,
eats seeds from her open hand.

14th Street

Lights flicker. The train, in fits,
limps to the Village, St. Vincent’s.
The sage woman, staring intensely
at a dark wood of girders and graffiti,
bristles, bosom and big rings:
“The only rebuttal? Love. Longing.”
The cars start. Peeper skews
to Viagra, Visit the Brooklyn Zoo,
listens to chatter blend with brat-
happy prattle, the porn plot
girl who giggles like tickling and sways,
sailor, to the rock and roll of the train,
mix with tin clinks of a can’s
conjured coins, the cluck of nuns,
whole rests from the help-meet
whose pigeon pecks at sunflower seeds,
tightly fused and Ives-like
Suite for City in Clickety-Clack.

Christopher St.

At Christopher, a drunk curses Christ,
easy credit, his mother, the Mets,
warns of the end of the world and laughs.
No one gets on, no one off.

Houston St.

The train stops short of Houston,
stops in the sealed tunnel. Engines
stop, dull lights die
as bodies breathe an undivided sigh.
Lights on. Off. Tense
whispers worm the blind silence,
the stage stripped to underlying time,
a long, long loss of light.
When a Zippo’s flicked at the far end
of the car, the wise woman sends
down a candle, the candle slowly
returned in grudged transfer, glow
soft on the row of stoic handlers,
godgift and galoot, gangbanger,
faces awake in pitch-driven
epiphany, grace held and given.
The hardboy’s forehead flames with lipstick.
The blowzy bird runs before the wick.
Lights. Jerk of cars. Lurch.
Shoes shuffle, buttocks touch,
breasts and elbows, corps de ballet
in brave, awkward, standing balance.

Canal St.

During the usual shift and witness,
the school girl, in gimmick innocence,
leaves with hardboy and his target heart.
“Scratch and match! Tartan. Tats.”
The bird, confident that symbol solves
for self, takes a seat after Canal.

Franklin St.

At Franklin, it’s good-bye to the bum, who rises
with help from the hardy nuns, good-bye
to the quiet signers who nod and stand,
firing silence hand-in-hand.

Chambers St.

Riders, their rides ending or begun,
are off and on, fungible, one.
You, with your field glasses and guides,
you become everyone too, quietly beside
yourself in witless, wondering joy,
no longer alone, no longer on the way,
available day arrived at last,
myriad, American. The platform passes.
Ett Tag, Bir Tren,
Mmoja Treni, Een Trein…

One: existing whole in a sphere,
a numen or essence and no more.
The reason? The reason being: yes,
the breath and brush of necessary witness,
superposition of drunk and dove,
an oracle, blue loafers, love
struck in fugitive communion, close
going on the warm, coincident cars.

You can check out more at http://www.blackcatpoems.com/r/taking_the_train_of_singularity_south_from_midtown.html#k3HvcqtotctM0XDO.99

The Show

imageIn Ancient times the Celts held their great festivals and gatherings in the month of August or Lunasa as it was then known. It was the month of the harvest when the first berries ripened. It is therefore not altogether inappropriate that the local farming community of Mohill and its hinterland chose this month to host their annual show.

For the farmer August is never quite the same from year to year. Each summer he goes head to head against the elements in an eternal battle between man and nature. It is a struggle that has been repeated again and again over the millennia. While the weather is always variable there is one constant every year, and as August draws to a close and one starts to notice the first drawing in of the evenings, thoughts invariably started turning to the Show. In our house it was never known as Mohill Show, it was simply “The Show”, and at that it was the grand dam of all shows. Its roots dating back to the pre famine times of Lord Leitrim and ultimately revived in the 1920’s by a dynamic Padre known as Canon Masterson. Our Show, for us there really is no event quite like it. There was just something about this particular day when the country folk took control of the town, when they brought out their finest stock and produce and when the world was turned topsy-turvy for a few short hours. The long summer days in the fields or backbreaking hours on the bog were now forgotten.

The Show was more than just a one day event, it was as much about the anticipation, the preparations, the memory of the previous year perhaps, the preceding weeks leading cattle around the back roads, turning mad beasts fit for a rodeo into docile stars of the Show Ring. I can remember one occasion when aged not more than ten or eleven. I was leading a feisty heifer in our front field. As she took flight I stumbled, I held on to the rope as long as I could but she had me beaten all ends. As I let go I noticed I was minus one half of my footwear. Try as we might we could not locate the missing shoe. Ten months later the fate of the lost shoe was known. A trailer load of grass was tipped on to the silage slab, and there it was, my old shoe, tattered torn and ragged from its exposure.

The evening before the Big Day the cattle for showing were brought in from the fields. We haltered, washed, scrubbed and combed them. Plastic buckets overflowing with fairy liquid and warm water. There were several different types of combs for the different animals. The Herefords with their wiry hair, the big Shorthorn cow, her gleaming red hide and friendly polled head. Extra bedding was placed in the byres and with it the hope that the next morning the main actors would still be spic and span. When all was done some one might call into McGowan’s house to get a preview of the show book, hot off the press, from Aideen or Lourda, the overworked Secretaries. The Show Book listed all the classes and prizes and also the entrants, the friendly opposition.

An early breakfast was essential on Show morning as there was a busy few hours ahead. When finally ready we walked the cattle to the show. It was only a mile but what an adventure. Some passing motorists would always stop to say hello and drive alongside, windows down, half tanned arms lazily hanging out the side, commenting on how well our cattle looked and wishing us luck.

Crossing the town was always a bit nerve wracking, hoping the cattle wouldn’t stampede or damage a car, nearing the park, finding a good spot along the wall which would become HQ for the day. When we got into position there began another intense session of grooming and combing. A quick gander around the field to size up the opposition and see what our chances of success were.

The PA would then crack into life and get the show on the road. The classes were called. “When are we on?” “We’re next after that class in Ring two” “Who is judging?” “Get ready”. If not leading then a good ringside seat to watch proceedings. “How is she walking, how does she look, is the judge looking at her, is he calling her in, No?” “He’s calling her in now, where will he place her?” anxious moments, he is talking to my father for the longest time, then the rosettes in his hand, “what colour is it? Its red, yes we’ve won!”

And so the drama went on in pursuit of the Red rosette. The morning would simply fly by. There might get a short break and a chance to visit the horses and ponies. These were always over at the Boeshil end of the Park. Sometimes there was Showjumping and we watched the McGuinnesses with awe clearing the jumps effortlessly. The driving cars were always a highlight with Joe Beirne and family driving in fine style. Then was the Donkey Derby and great excitement and it always seemed to be won by the one of the Mees

Then back for the young stockman class. Some young naturals, unfortunately I wasn’t one of them, others under a little bit of parental pressure, some really looking the part with white coats. The standing of the animals feet was most important and animals were constantly been wheeled around again and their feet poked with sticks to get them standing perfectly, like a bovine Miss World pageant. Some poor devil would be struggling with a little heifer that was prancing around like a ballerina that morning, yet has somehow being transformed into a stubborn mule. A younger sibling is quickly press ganged in to walk behind and “push her on”.

My favourite event was the dog show. I entered a few times but the pedigree of our dogs was, well, questionable. It was still a great day out for the dog and what would he be at home anyway when we were all here. You could tell he wasn’t used to these big days unlike the professional poser dogs, posing nonchalantly, barely casting a sideward glance at our collie cross pulling hard against this strange leash. Don’t worry about it Sammy, we still think you’re the greatest and tomorrow I’ll get a big bag of bones from Paddy Kilrane or Logans to make up for the disappointment of coming last in your class.

The Shows in the 1980’s always seemed to be cursed with wet weather and I can remember people scrambling for shelter in trailers. If it was a long shower it wasn’t long before the air was sweet with the pungent scent of Woodbines or  Sweet Aftons.

The buzz around the field was magical. There were Chip Vans manned by the late Aubrey and Barney, Mr Whippy ice cream, the Photograph Section, the sheep and goats, the prize vegetables. My brother Enda entered three beets one show, which he had tended to all spring under the watchful eye of my granny. “And what would you know about Beets” as we taunted him. But he had the last laugh when he picked up his two pounds first prize. In the sheds the eagle eyed stewards had their hands full trying to keep quick handed urchins from running off with prized buns and mouth-watering cakes.

A quick trip over the town with my grandfather to Sheila McGarry’s Public House was obligatory. The little pub which was usually very quiet the rest of the year was packed on Show Day. Men with sticks and caps greeted each other enthusiastically. Their nicotine stained fingers clutching a half one and a glass of Guinness on the Counter as well.

The day gradually drew to a close and we gathered up our gear and headed across the town with our cattle. This was a trickier proposition; the traffic would be a lot heavier than this morning. As we neared home the cattle started getting excited as they sensed familiar pastures, a few quick lows from the lead cow and then the lows from away off from our other cattle, the ordinary cattle, those not deemed to have royal enough blood to go the Show. The Show cattle now quickened their pace, and when we got to the bottom of our lane we usually took the halters off and let them run up the rest of the way to the farm yard themselves. They knew where to go. They say a good huntsman would not let a morsel pass his lips until his animal was fed, watered and comfortable. We were no different.

A quick cup of tea and then into John James McKeon’s or Caseys where every animal on display at the Show that day was examined, discussed and judged anew. Commiserations for some who didn’t win, but felt should have, while those who did win tried hard to be humble about their success. The Show Dance brought matters to an end but the planning for the next one had already begun.

1979

1979The Infant School is gone now. It made way for the amalgamation of the old Boys and Girls schools. The Boys School was viewed by the Nuns with a deep suspicion as if it was an academy of evil and vice. The Girls School was a place where they set out to promote virtue. They would strive to educate a few aspiring teachers, an odd nurse, occasionally a nun, but for most girls it would be a low level civil service position or a farmer’s wife.

Sr. Eugenia was her name. She was a sadistic bitch who ruled her Senior Infant’s class with fear, fear and lashings of more fear. She did have her pets in that room; those whom she favoured because they were from what she would have termed ‘good’ families. Some of these favoured few were clever enough to know that there was a game to be played and if you knew the rules you could get by, relatively unscathed. The Pets were gratified with little errands such as handing out the pencils that were kept in a metal box on the teacher’s desk. The pets were mostly girls from the town. Even at that stage it was clear that most girls were much more advanced than boys of the same age. They didn’t fear her like we did. It was as if they could miraculously anticipate her moods. We boys just threaded carefully in constant fear of her sudden outbursts and rages.

Vatican_CityIt began as a day not unlike any other.  It was the year the Pope came to Ireland. I can’t recall what time of the year it was, nor the time of day, or the weather. I can clearly recall though that precise moment when the mood changed in that space between those four walls, this mini State where her writ did run. The change was sudden and without warning and seemed to catch even the pets off-guard. The Nun said a toy was missing, stolen no doubt, by a boy no doubt, a boy from the town no doubt. At the side of the room were various cupboards and shelves containing the tools and machinery for running a classroom. There was paper and paints, pencils, word cards and charts. On one particular side arrayed neatly on a counter there was a row of abacuses. To one side of these ancient counting tools were a collection of small toys such as little cars, tractors, trucks and various animals. I don’t ever recall that we ever got to play with these toys. I remember how teasing and tempting they were, their different hues of racing green and fire engine red, distracting us from the lessons been drummed into us throughout the long day.

The Nun began a mass interrogation of the class. “Who took it? Own up whoever it is? We can’t have any thieves among us? Someone here is a thief” Everyone was scared as they knew when she got this angry someone would have to suffer. She would have to have satisfaction. “That’s it I’m going to go down to the Barracks and get the Sergeant. When he comes up he’ll find out who took it and they will be thrown in the Black Hole in the Station. Ye won’t see your Mammies and Daddies tonight”. A few of the children began to whimper, one boy uncontrollably. By now she had stormed out of the room and in a moment we saw her black habited silhouette rushing past the window in the direction of town. She was going to the Barracks and she was going to get the Guards. This is bad we thought and we realised that she really was going to go through with this. What if we never see our families again? More children whimpered the cries and sobs of the damned.

I don’t know how long she was gone. It might only have been a few minutes but to the five and six year olds huddled in that room, shivering with fear, it seemed like an age. Return she did in the same bluster as her leaving; her eyes were now dancing wildly in her head and her face was distorted with unfettered anger. “Was it you?” she shouted accusingly at Carr singling him out from the herd. She always singled him out for some reason. He was a strange kid but we were all friends with him in those early days where the tolerance of the innocent prevails. My mother said that he was adopted. We didn’t know what that meant. It was a strange sounding word loaded with meanings that we as children could not comprehend or grasp. His adoptive mother died soon after he arrived into their house. Terrible luck to lose one mother but to lose two before you had even crawled must have been crushing. He was raised by a soft spoken, meek father and a frail, elderly housekeeper. The father sold ecclesiastical supplies and was often away at night. His shop was adorned with all the effigies and idols of the Catholic Faith. When one entered the shop your senses were overwhelmed with the smell of candle wax. One side of the shop was given over to toys and stationery. There were rows and rows of matchbox cars. It was a strange mix, the religious icons reinforcing submission to the Word and the colourful toys which were tools to fire a child’s imagination. It was a palace of wonderment, the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of our little country town.

“Stand up I said” but even as she was saying this he was already shuffling up and out of his seat. She had him caught by the ear like a hooked fish. “Where is it? Where is it? I’m giving you one chance and once chance only”. Carr was shaking now in fits. Paradoxically many of the rest of us were relieved that she had now chosen her victim and it wasn’t us. We all waited for Carr’s fate to unfold before us. “I’m going to teach you a lesson and show you all what happens to thieves”. She was gone again, out of the room with Carr left standing there, like a man stuck in No Man’s Land, doomed, forlorn, awaiting his fate.

This time when she returned she had what looked like a skipping rope in her hands. There were no handles on either end and it now became clear it was some sort of chord. She took a chair, stood up on it and began passing the rope through a metal ring that was protruding from the ceiling. The ring and other hooks were used for holding the Christmas decorations and hanging paper lanterns and aeroplanes. The nun was furiously making a loop and tying a knot on the other end of the rope. We all just sat there quiet and cowed watching this bizarre event unfold. Bizarre quickly yielded to shock and then to the macabre.

The Nun got Carr to stand up on the chair and purposefully passed the newly made noose over his head, jerking it down over his frightened face, around his neck before tightening the loop until it pressed against his tiny throat. All this had been achieved in near total silence but this lull was finally broken when some child wailed. The rest of us just sat there motionless and helpless, unable to move or act or to comprehend what was happening in front of our eyes. Carr was going to hang for stealing a toy car. This is what happens to thieves.

The Nun began shaking the seat under Carr’s feet as if to pull the life out from under him. Carr didn’t make a sound up to this but now the tears streamed down his face in rivulets. He began mumbling repeatedly “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it” pangs of desperation in his shaking voice. She didn’t believe him or she simply didn’t want to believe him.

Carr didn’t hang that day. I don’t believe we even told our parents about what happened. The next day the missing car was back in its place on the counter but Carr hadn’t put it there. Carr had no need for any more toys. He had a whole shop full of them for his own amusement. Carr didn’t take the toy, he wasn’t lacking in material things, what he was lacking was a Mother and Brothers and Sisters.

Twenty years later I was talking to my brother who was also there that day. Memory has a habit of playing tricks on us all. I had recently recalled the events of that day. The truth is I had come to doubt myself on whether it had happened at all. “Do you remember anything in High Infants with Sr. Eugenia and Carr?   Without hesitating he replied “Do you mean the time she went to hang him?” Not long after this I met a girl who was in the class that day also. She remembered it too.

Nobody knew where Carr went to after school but everyone knew his life had gone completely off the rails. The old housekeeper died. His timid father re-married again in middle age to a cold heartless creature that had no time for Carr. He spiralled even more out of control. He was expelled from Secondary School. Some nights he wouldn’t go home at all. He often slept rough in the local mart, alone, except for nights after big sales when some cattle were left over night. He had acquaintances as he always had cigarettes to share. He had no friends. Parents discouraged their children from having anything to do with him. He was described variously as mad or bad, wild, a nutter, a crazy mental case. He had become the town pariah. It was rumoured he had fondled a young boy in town from another dysfunctional home. It was said he would pay the young lad money. He always had money when we had nothing but a few small pence to buy penny sweets.

Then he went away to God knows where before making one brief memorable appearance up at the school. It was around the time we were preparing for our Leaving Cert and he waltzed up to the school yard. His hair was gelled up in punk-style spikes, he was wearing a huge chain around his neck and a frayed black leather biker-jacket. He was drunk or high or possibly both. We were glad to see him again but almost as quickly he was gone. It was the last time we would ever see him. We heard he was in prison on Spike Island, or that he was in a band in Athlone, or that he was sleeping rough in Dublin, Galway or Cork.

Sr. Eugenia moved on too. Our paths crossed again some years later when we were preparing for our Confirmation. She was now a Catechist touring the Diocese on behalf of the Bishop. Her mission was to ensure that we believed in the sacred Scripture and were ready to receive the Holy Spirit the following Month of May. I can’t recall if Carr was in our class that day she called to the School but he must have been. He is there in the Sixth Class School Photo, second row, first on the right, there we are lined up in front of the school on a wet drizzly day. I wonder now how he must have felt as he watched the Nun that day, the woman who had tortured him and humiliated him, standing there at the top of our class beaming. Was he sickened by her cheesy smiles and the babble of the phoney small chat between her and the Principal?

I also wonder now what state of mind he was in when he decided on Christmas Day twenty years later to take his own life. I wonder too when he slipped the ligature around his neck that morning, his last on this earth,  did he recall, even if only for an instant, the very first time a rope was wrapped so snugly around his soft throat.

He was Thirty Two years old, the same age as our lord was when he was crucified.  The Catechism told us that our Lord had descended into hell and rose again on the third day. Carr never ascended from his Hell.

 

‘Yelling like madmen in the Sun’ – Flanders 1915

WW1 OVERI note that looking back on the First World War is a retrospective act everywhere save for Ireland. Here it is the most introspective of activities. However over the next few years it will become the norm as we finally place the significance of the war in its proper context.

Many people are still coming to terms with the fact that in 1916 their forefathers were not manning a sandbagged window in the GPO. As we revise and edit the standard version of history fed to us over the last 90 years, we will realise that for every person that took up arms in Dublin on that Easter Monday morning, there were 200 fighting in Khaki. Yes Irishmen and women were in the thick of it from Ypres to Mesopotamia, Gallipoli to Walvis Bay. It is a fact that many residents of this Island are uncomfortable with and this discomfort will no doubt invite any number of theories and explanations. Yet as we come to understand it we must also confront the fact that there was no conscription in Ireland during the Great War. So if thousands of ‘Nationalists’ went to the front and it wasn’t for ‘King and Country’, what was their motivation?

For me the first clue is in those beautiful lines written by Thomas Kettle in the field before Guillemont on the 6th of September, 1916

“And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”

We are finally maturing as a nation, or so we like been told, Ad nauseum. This morning the media is dominated by stories of Israels relentless destruction of Gaza and sectarian atrocities in Iraq. How ironic that almost a century ago the Connaught Rangers with many Leitrim men in the ranks fought and defeated the Turks at Gaza, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Basra & Fallujah, and how sad and depressing it is that a century later these same familiar place names still dominate the news.

The only positivesof the Great War was the extensive body of war poetry it left us, much of it espousing the futility of war, recording the terrible carnage and its effects on the human soul. There are many oft quoted verses by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen et all but I think these few lines by Conrad Aiken capture the madness of going ‘o’er the top’

“It will be like that other charge–
We will climb out and run
Yelling like madmen in the sun
Running stiffly on the scorched dust
Hardly hearing our voices
Running after the man who points with his hand
At a certain shattered tree,
Running through sheets of fire like idiots,
Sometimes falling, sometimes rising”

Palestine 1917

Palestine 1917

We await the Poets of Gaza, Donetsk, Aleppo and Bangui.

Guardians of the Land – The Syrian War

Guardians of the Land

Christian Orthodox icon

 

 

 

 

The grainy image shows the monk kneeling in front of his Jihadist captors, his hands tied and tethered like a sacrificial animal. The executioner is cheered on by a crowd of men with shouts of “Allahu Akbar’. Many of the bystanders have their faces covered; many also have mobile phones held aloft filming the grisly scene. The end comes not quickly but in a gruesome struggle of a body kicking and writhing as the man is pushed face down into the dusty ground, decapitated with what looks like a simple kitchen knife. The noise of the baying crowd grows ever louder and more manic as the scene reaches its bloody conclusion.

Some weeks later the death of the Franciscan Father Francois Murad was confirmed by the Vatican news agency. Father Francois was killed in Gassanieh, in northern Syria. He had been staying in the convent of the Custody of the Holy Land. His killers alleged that the priest had been collaborating with the Assad regime. According to local sources, the monastery where Fr. Murad was staying was attacked by militants linked to the jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra who have declared as their sole objective the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, under which the law will not allow even the mere presence of “kaffir” (“infidels,” or, in other words, non-Muslims) even those who have lived here for two millennia.

Just a few weeks before news of Fr. Murad’s execution, I read a report from Afghanistan stating that two young boys had been beheaded by the Taliban. Their crime was scrounging food from an army checkpoint to bring to their starving families. In July 2012 in the same district in Kandahar, a 16-year-old boy accused by the Taliban of spying for the government was beheaded and skinned. The next month, a girl aged six and a boy of 12 were kidnapped and beheaded in separate incidents in Kandahar and the east of the country. In 2010 a seven year old boy was hung for “spying”. The child was abducted from his home and taken to a neighbouring village where he was put on trial. The child was then hanged in public in the village of Heratiyan, in the southern Sangin district of Helmand province.

For a liberal westerner one can’t but be appalled at the barbarity and cruelty of these killings done in the name of Allah and Sharia. There are many problems with Western Society. The United States is often called a bastion for protecting core western values and freedoms. However the US is itself a country blighted by issues such as its out of control gun culture that has led to the slaughter of innocents. Despite having a large conservative Christian caucus, the prevailing liberal moral code in America is viewed by more traditional societies as base and immoral. Our own continent has in the lifetime of many still amongst us witnessed the single greatest attempt to wipe out an entire people.  There is no perfect society and one person’s freedom can be just one step across another’s threshold of tolerance. We are reminded that all rights, save fundamental ones, have over time been essentially a moveable feast. Let us not also forget that witches were still been burnt in Europe up until the 19th century, is that any more abhorrent than an adulteress being stoned to death in Kandahar? 

Many of the practices in Islamic Countries that most abhor us in the West, would be very familiar to an early Christian. The cult of martyrdom is shared in many ways with Islam. Was Fr. Murad not described as a Martyr in much of the Catholic Press, dying for his faith?

Many Christians quote the practice of honour killing as something uniquely Islamic but the Bible contains numerous references supporting the practice. At Leviticus 21:9 it states “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire”. Clearly the justification for killing the girl is that she has brought discredit to the father’s reputation and his honour can only restored by killing his own. It is true that the countries where most honour killings take place today are Arab or Muslim countries, which of course leads many people in the West to conclude or presume that all Muslims support such behaviour. The truth is the vast majority of Muslims condemn such acts as barbaric. In contrast to the Bible there is no single text in the Quran that justifies these crimes. The custom of honour killing predates the Islamic faith and is seen in Hindu and Sikh cultures and in the trans-Caucus Christian communities. 

Honour killing was only abolished as a specific category in Italy in 1981. In Brazil men could be acquitted of murdering their spouse if they could successfully raise the defence of Honour, a position that only changed in 1991.  Like all other religions, Islam strictly prohibits murder and killing without legal justification. 

You can see why Fr. Murad’s killers justify his murder by accusing him of being a spy when the more plausible reason is that they want to cleanse the area of all Christians. Once again we must not rush to demonise all Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom condemn such crimes as vile and a backward distortion of their faith.

In recent weeks we are faced with the sight of ISIS killing and displacing the remnants of the ancient Christian Community in Mosul.  Why do so many of us in the West feel such a powerful affinity of kinship with this dwindling and oppressed Christian flock, caught up in the current violent maelstrom of the Middle East? Could it be that the uprising which in the beginning, appeared to embrace freedom and democracy has steadily became a violent Islamist expression against a liberal secular society. In Gaza the Christian community is less than 1% of the population. Just half a century ago this percentage would have been closer to 20%. Why do images of Christians being persecuted often weigh heavier on us than Israeli shells hitting apartment buildings in Gaza? 

Assyrian culture used to be distinctive among other countries in the Middle East for the coexistence between Christians and Muslims which went beyond just a tolerant forbearance. This was a reality of which most Syrians were proud. Under the iron fist of the ruling Alawite dictators, who kept fundamentalists at bay, a good degree of religious freedom was preserved.  Christians fleeing persecution in other Middle East countries found refuge in Assad’s Syria, including Iraqi Catholics fleeing post-Saddam persecution.

Yet today the “Arab Spring” has become to sound as hollow as the “Celtic Tiger”.  The 2,000-year-old community of Assyrian Christians—some of whom still pray in Jesus’ Aramaic tongue—are facing extinction, Armageddon. As Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom told a subcommittee hearing of the US House of Representatives in June this year, “Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts. In addition, they have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear. Wherever they appear, Islamist militias have made life impossible for the Christians.” Unlike the Christians in Lebanon there will be no foreign power coming to their rescue.

Ethno Map SyriaI have been fortunate enough to visit much of the Middle East before the Arab Spring; a sequence of events that have changed the geographic and demographic landscape of the Islamic world. One of the most unexpected legacies of that trip is a strong empathy I now have with the various Christian communities throughout Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. There were the struggling souvenir shop owners in Bethlehem cursing the Israelis for hindering tourist traffic by diverting them on a long winding route away from and around the new settlements. There was the restaurant owner in Nazareth complaining that the pilgrims are now staying in Haifa or Nazareth Illit, the new Jewish city overlooking the old town centre. Then there was George the handsome Omar-Sharif like Copt who drove me all around Cairo for a couple of days sharing the rich tapestry and Coptic influence on his homeland. There was the elderly Emile who tried to communicate with us in French and explain that he was not an Arab at all. We were travelling from Tripoli in Northern Lebanon up high into the mountains to Bcharre. We stopped the car by the side of the road to have a look back down towards Tripoli, a predominantly conservative Sunni City backed now on this sunny October morning by the glistening Mediterranean. As I was taking a photograph the elderly man hailed us from his house across the road. Within seconds he was crossing over to us with two outstretched arms, the hands cupped upwards as if in supplication, his English and our French was about the same level of mediocrity so we struggled to communicate at first: yet I couldn’t help but think the few phrases he had uttered to us had been used by him on many occasions previous, “We are not Arab, we are not like these people, we are like you, we are Phoenician, just like Italia, Spain, Sicily. We are Western, we have culture, we are surrounded but we will fight until the last one is left”. It was as the narrative of the Kateeb, the right wing ideology of the Christian Maronites espoused by Camille Chamoun (he of Brownshirt fame) and one of the primary causes of the Lebanese civil war.

Bcharre, Christian town in the Mountains of Lebanon

Bcharre, Christian town in the Mountains of Lebanon

Away in the hazy distance one could almost make out the shape of the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, an anomaly amongst a city that was now only 5% Christian. Yet up on the foothills and mountains were these villages that were almost 100% Maronite communities. It was as if by holding the high ground they could maintain a constant guard against the Muslim threat visible below on the narrow coastal plain. South and west of here is the heart of the Maronite nation, the Mountains of Lebanon. Almost every hill and summit is adorned by a cross. It is this group whose conflicts with its Muslim and Druze neighbours have drawn the West in, initially France and lately the US, for the first western intervention since the Crusaders and left both States reeling from the experience. Israel in ’82 made the same mistake thinking it could control this country of factions directly and later by proxy. It was a doomed strategy despite all the resources at Israel’s disposal. Then the counterweight in Lebanon’s complicated political mosaic was Syria, a country like Lebanon of so many sects and denominations, somehow held together by an autocratic ruler and his cruel state security apparatus. After Israel pulled out the murky world of the Syrian security personnel continued to pull strings in Lebanon culminating the assassination of the Sunni Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. Whilst this single event was probably the beginning of the end of Syria’s hegemony in Lebanon, time will tell if it will also be seen as significant in the challenge to the Alawite dominated Assad regime.

 

Rafic Hariri Shrine, Beirut

Rafic Hariri Shrine, Beirut

I was in Damascus in the wake of the Hariri killing. The main streets were choked with traffic as usual but amidst the lines of vehicles were plenty of marque cars, Mercedes mostly but some BMW’s, all bearing the Liban registration plate. No doubt these cars belonged to people from Beirut at odds with the thousands of anti-Syrian protestors filling Martyrs Square. For this heretofore elite life was suddenly so un-comfortable that they decided to head across the border to the safety of Damascus. It really brought it home to me then that Damascus is barely a two hour drive these days from downtown Beirut. Is it any surprise then that every move, every newly formed alliance or partnership amongst Lebanon’s multitudes was so closely scrutinised by Syria.

In contrast to Emile, the Maronite who approached us in Zgharta as we gazed down on Tripoli , were the Christians of Zahle. We had crossed over the Lebanon Mountains passing through Aley and Bhamdoun , scenes of the bitter fighting between the Lebanese Army and the Druze militias of Walid Jumblatt in 1983-84. The Druze took the Lebanese Army and the Maronite dominated Lebanese Forces (LF) by surprise.  In a few weeks they had overran sixty-two Christian villages, driving the Christians from the northern Chouf mountains. It is hard to imagine today the bitter fighting that took place up here in the mountains; the Syrians supplying the artillery to the Druze to rain shells down on Christian East Beirut and the US New Jersey moored off the coast shelling the Druze positions to assist the Lebanese Army.

Once through Bhamdoun (now a summer retreat for Gulf Staters) you pass over the crest of the mountains with Mount Sannine, the highest peak in Lebanon, on your left. As the road winds its way down to the Bekaa Valley you again appreciate why the Christians and Druze clung to the protection of these snow-capped heights. The Valley is predominantly Shia with several significant Christian enclaves. We spent a few days touring the Bekaa and the ruins at Baalbek, gradually getting used to seeing the faces of various Shia clergy on posters beside mosques. and at road junctions. The Bekaa has been a prize itself since ancient times as can be attested to by the sheer magnificence of the temples at Baalbek. This is a breadbasket worth fighting for, the rich loamy soil providing food for the more arid and desert provinces nearby. The Valley produces crops of wheat, corn, cotton and vegetables. There are also bountiful vineyards and orchards around Zahlé. The valley also produces large amounts of hashish and cultivates opium poppies, which are exported to the West.

Zahlé is the largest city and the administrative capital of the Beqaa Governorate. It lies just north of the main Beirut–Damascus highway, which bisects the valley . The majority of Zahle’s residents are Lebanese Christian of various denominations but the majority are members of the Greek Orthodox Church. The town of Anjar is visible in the distance. It is situated in the eastern part of the valley, close to the Syrian border. Anjar has a predominately Armenian Lebanese population and is where the Syrians kept an important military, security and intelligence post during their lengthy stay in Lebanon.

It was late afternoon when we pulled into Zahle. We visited ‘Our lady of the Bekaa’ a garish concrete tower with a statue of the virgin Mary atop offering amazing views of the valley and the Mountains behind. Zahle is tucked into the mountainside slowly creeping its way up the and down the valley. It is very different vibe than Christian East Beirut as most of its residents seem happy with their Arab identity. It might help that they also make fine wines. Zahle escaped the worst of the Lebanese Civil War despite being only 25 miles from the Green Line in Beirut. It did suffer two sieges by the Syrian Army which were resisted by tenacious residents who repulsed several attempts by the Syrians to enter the city proper. Zahle for me was where I first saw Christians content in their Arab skin.

Some years earlier as I walked around the narrow streets of the Christian quarter in Damascus. The area lies in the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque. As you walk around the narrow streets one felt you were in a place protected, not just by its Unesco World Heritage site  status, but also by the secular Baath Party that ruled the country, The Baath Party kept the fundamentalists at bay by whatever means. The Christians really bought into the Assad Regime because the Assad’s like them came from a minority group, the Alawites. If the little groups kept together then they could keep the lid on things and prevent the Islamists from taking control. Often times the methods were brutal; such as in 1982 when the elder Assad encircled the city of Hama and bombed the old centre until every building was levelled and the Muslim Brotherhood were slaughtered. There was not much care for the innocent population trapped in the siege who had nowhere to go as the Russian made bombs rained down. Robert Fisk was one of the few western journalists to cover the bloody siege as the Assads sought to kill not just the opposition but also the news of the slaughter.

Damascus is one of the oldest populated cities in the world. There is evidence of settlement in the area going back to 9,000BC but the modern city has its roots in a 4,000 year old settlement. For half of that time there has been a very visible and influential Christian community present. It is a city that has changed hands so often with every new dynasty leaving some mark or influence from the Pharaohs who strengthened the Walls, to the Assyrians who knocked them down and rebuilt them, to Alexander the Great who took the city and left it to the Grecian Seleucids. There was also the glory years of the Roman Decapolis marked by the Jupiter Temple which stands before the Great Mosque . The latter building marks the beginning of the Islamic period which has now prevailed for 1,400 years, albeit through a variety of empires.

Despite all this upheaval and as they say in the US, ‘Regime Change’, the Christian Quarter (known as Bab Touma ‘Thomas Gate’) has thrived. The little enclave has given us many notables such as Saint Paul and Saint Thomas . Roman Catholic historians also consider Bab Touma to be the birthplace of several Popes such as John V and Gregory III. In modern times perhaps the most influential resident was philosopher Michel Aflaq, founder of the Ba’ath Party and Ba’athist thought. The area has a mixed Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic community with a smaller Armenian congregation but is quintessentially Arab in character and ambience. What saddens me that not just the loss of life in this enclave but that I also feel the loss of my own Christian heritage. Therefore the car bomb which killed twelve people in Bar Touma in October, 2012 and the suicide bomber and mortar attack earlier this year are not just an attack on those frightened residents, it is an attack on me.

Greek mass in Damascus

Greek mass in Damascus

I am also struck with guilt, guilt over why it is that out of the 125,000 people estimated to have died so far in the Syrian Conflict thusfar, it is the grisly decapitation of a Franciscan Priest and the indiscriminate bombing of an old Christian neighbourhood that is causing me the most agony. What about the atrocities committed by Christians in the pro-Assad militias and the Army? What are they not causing a similar response in me? Despite lots of introspection I still don’t know why? I also realise and acceptthat despite my affinities with the Arab Christians and the Maronites (who are in communion with Rome) this is essentially an Arab conflict. The US cannot understand that Russia will do all it can to arm either the Orthodox Christians, or those who will defend them, and also those who will maintain their Mediterranean naval base near Lattakia. But Russia and the US, the Gulf States that are arming many of the rebels, Iran and Hezbollah and everyone else that has been sucked in to this Syrian Tragedy have essentially now created a murderous stalemate where the only thing that changes is the rising body count.

It is ironic and trivial but I also had one of the most memorable experiences of my life when in the city of Aleppo, the commercial hub and largest city of Syria. I had been travelling for almost a year through various parts of the world. I had flown from Nairobi to Cairo and began an overland journey that took from the Egyptian capital through the Sinai, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and concluded in Sofia, Bulgaria. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight I believe the Syrian part of the journey was by far the most memorable. Syria was challenging for a person travelling on their own independently but when you walk amidst the desert ruins of Palmyra, gaze across the Orontes Valley from the ramparts of Krak-de-Chevaliers or listen to the haunting groans of the famous ‘Norias’ (water wheels) of Hama you are very easily hooked by the charm and depth of this country.

 The Citadel, AleppoOn the 25th of May, 2005 I found myself in the old quarter of Aleppo. I had hoped on that date to be in Istanbul to watch my football team, Liverpool play the mighty AC Milan in the European Champions Cup Final. The Hotel was very, very, modest; I use the word modest because I don’t want to insult the generous and kind hearted owner. Let me just say I have been in better establishments but none worse. The only thing going for the Hotel was that it was in the heart of historic Aleppo a mesmeric maze of narrow streets, busy souks and tremendous noise. It was just a short walk to explore the Citadel but what I enjoyed most was simply walking about the narrow streets which were a hive of activity.

The area was known as Bostan Kelab and its main thoroughfare was Yarmouk Street. Just around the corner from the Hotel was the Ogarit Cinema on Baron Street. It was there that I stood admiring the gigantic billboards for the latest Bollywood Blockbuster showing. Later over coffee I met a local called Hassan who explained the Syrian love affair (I’d call it obsession) with Bollywood. On Wednesday last the 18th of September, 4 civilians were killed and 6 badly wounded when rocket propelled-grenades fell near the Ogarit Cinema. When I read the report I wondered were the casualties looking up at the Cinemas posters to see what was showing. Maybe the Cinema had stopped showing movies in the middle of this warzone.

Residents walk on rubble in a damaged street in Aleppo's district of Bustan al-Basha

 

It is hard to equate my own happy memories of this beguiling city, steeped in history, and the pictures of the rubble strewn streets, bombed out buildings, bullet marked houses and barricades manned by men with Kalashnikovs, their pockets stuffed with magazines. It is simply impossible to reconcile that these people I met in Aleppo or Halab as they called it, Sunnis, Kurds, Armenians, Shias, Melkites, Catholics and Alawites are now locked in this deadly struggle and killing each other by the thousands in a bitter and nasty war.

On that balmy May night in 2005 I returned to the Hotel to watch the match. Earlier that Day the owner Samir had promised me that he would be showing the match. I had a short nap before coming down into the common area where the old TV was located. Samir was not there but a young man was sitting behind the desk that passed for the reception. I asked him could I watch the football, he nodded and turned on the telly. He switched the various knobs and I guessed he was looking for the right channel. A few minutes passed but still all that was on the telly was snow. The young man was now getting agitated. I asked was there another telly but he shook his head. He telephoned Samir and they talked in that Arabic way that sounds like they are having a serious disagreement. Within minutes Samir was back in the hotel and he began trying to get the TV tuned into a channel. He managed to get some channel but it was an old black and white film not the scenes from the Ataturk Stadium I was hoping for. Samir sensed my anxiety; it was just 15 minutes to kick-off. I asked if there was somewhere nearby where I could watch the game, my question went unanswered.

Eventually Samir just said “Come, this way” and he left by the stairs. I followed him and moments later we were driving headlong and crazy through the busy Aleppan streets in a battered Mercedes to some destination unknown. It looked like Samir was intent on driving me all the way to Istanbul. Soon we pulled up outside a nondescript three storey apartment building, what direction or where we were I don’t know, so disorientating were the maze of streets and alleys we had just been through. Up the stairs we went and into a room furnished with ornate carpets, cushions and a number of sofas. On a table like a tabernacle sat an old faux-oak backed Television.

Samir went over and turned on the Telly and switched quickly through the channels, still there was no football. He started tuning the set and eventually the screen lit up with the familiar red shirts of Liverpool. I hadn’t noticed that a number of men had come into the room by then. One was missing a hand and I just presumed he had lost it whilst fighting Jihad. It seemed entirely plausible; I suppose now all these years later I am inclined to think it may have been something more mundane like an industrial accident. My joy at finally getting to see the game was short-lived, already Liverpool were a goal down. It would get worse, by halftime they were losing 3-0. I was dejected and disconsolate.

Samir sensed this and said ‘Have faith my friend, in challah’. I put on a rueful smile; it would be extremely rude to this sociable man to ask to go back to the old quarter. I didn’t want to witness my team annihilated on this big stage but when a tray of warm sugary tea in small glasses came out I had to endure the well intentioned hospitality. More men had come in to the room as the first half went on and everyone was chain-smoking. There were at least twelve of us present for the start of the second half. None of the men could speak English but if I made eye contact they gave me a sympathetic nod and cupped their hands in a gesture of hope and solidarity. Samir was a source of endless optimism, ‘There is time, God willing’. I had long given up hope of any comeback. How wrong I was! In just six glorious minutes Liverpool had levelled the game through Smicer, Gerrard and Alonso. But Liverpool having drawn level seemed reluctant to go and try and win the game. Milan came back into it and the finale was simply a dual between Jerzy Dudek and the entire Milan team. They did not score though and Liverpool beat them on penalties, a famous night, a glorious night, more sweet tea, more cigarettes passed around and we twelve men in Aleppo all celebrated as much as if we were natives of Bootle or Toxteth.

A few days later I shared a taxi from the Al Ma’ari Street Bus Station to Gaziantep in Turkey. As I crossed the border I promised myself I would visit this fascinating country soon again. I reaffirmed this promise when I was sitting for several hours in an interview room in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv having being pulled from the crowd by an eager policewoman. It is a promise I intend to keep but nobody knows when this war in Syria will end or what the final casualty count will be. I also don’t know what will be left when the guns do fall silent. Who is to know what will be rebuilt and what will be lost forever. Memory will preserve some of it for some people but it is hard to share memories and we cannot live someone else’s life or experiences, but as Samir who kept my flagging hopes alive on that pleasant May evening said; ‘You see my friend you must have faith, God will provide’. Now as the siege on Gaza enters its second month; and as social media delivers us another gruesome image of what an artillery shell can do in a school yard or when it comes hurtling through the roof of a crammed hospital, it is harder than ever to have faith and to hope that God will provide.

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So it came to Pass

This is a short story set against the background of Leitrim’s historic Connacht Championship win in 1994 – but it takes place thousands of miles away.

 

 

“SO IT CAME TO PASS”

Late July and August weather in the city can be stiflingly oppressive. The air is heavy with moisture and almost airless. I can never get used to this alien humidity. On muggy days like these I often long for a cool breeze to announce the coming of a shower of rain, not just a soft harmless drizzle. I crave a mighty downpour to deluge and cleanse me of this suffocating urban cloak. Who would ever have thought that I would miss the rain? The rain that as children we prayed would go to Spain. Yet sometimes I just longed for those cool breezes and showers.  I laughed to myself at the oddity of it.

I trudged up the steps of the subway station coming out into the late evening light at 63rd and Lexington. As I continued up towards Hunter College and past the Armoury I thought of how familiar these places had become to me. How punctuated our lives are by places and landmarks such as these buildings, churches, bridges, statues and monoliths.

The most important landmark of my childhood was the Mountain. I spent endless stretches just gazing at it because whatever the season it always stole my attention. From the hilly meadow where we stacked bales in July, or from the window of the classroom in February where through frost sculpted glass I watched its dome, draped in a whitewash of snow. I was drawn in to it, studying its contours and lines, sometimes seeming so near and at others so far away. I recalled its changing hues as the sun would drift behind some dark clouds and then back out again until the round summit arose again, reborn in light anew. Sometimes I got snapshots of the great mound in October when we were out picking the potatoes in ever-shortening evenings after school. I knew every part of the mountain, each nook, crag, rock and ridge. To me it was an ever changing tapestry with its forests of dark green pasted onto a collage of cinnamon and chestnut.

Now in late July and many miles away from me I can still see it clearly. Now in mid-summer the ridge would be a brilliant carpet of amber and honey dominating the little houses and farms nestled below.

This Mountain dominated us in a benevolent way. She was not generally harsh. She was a matriarch incarnate, a sanctuary and haven for many of these people living below her and clinging to her sides, my own included.  Never was she more compassionate than in part forgotten times when these people’s forebears had been thrown from their land in the North. When they took to the road they dared not look back as Lot’s wife did, for they knew in their breaking hearts that there was no going back. For a fortnight they walked on into the west living off what people gave them along the way until they stopped at this place. For these last two hundred years they looked on the Mountain as it came into view each day at sunrise. This kind mountain, although not rich or abundant, had sustained and looked after this flock. Her people knew she was there in the dead of night even though they couldn’t see her, yet they could feel her safe embrace all around them. Once again they could dream of better days ahead and we were the children of these people, we were the seed of the Ultachs.

“Hey Whats up!” I snap out of the daydream. Approaching me is my workmate Abel Pereira. I always think Abel looks like a Latin boxer. He is taut and lean and he is light and lively on his feet, a ball of energy moving and darting, “Hey Tommy my main man?” He already has his hand out for this ritual we go through every shift, the clenched handshake, then knuckle to knuckle. To me it’s ridiculous but I want to fit in and not stand out in this place so I participate. Abel is part Puerto-Rican and Cuban ancestry and I am always keen to learn something about his culture. He thinks this curiosity ridiculous. “Look man I’m just a New Yorker, I dunno nothin about Puerto Rico or Cuba” (which he pronounces Quba)

Yet strangely Abel is keen to know about my home and I am as exotic as any animal he has seen up in the Bronx Zoo. He also thinks that I “talk real funny” walk even funnier and he laughs at the un-orthodox way I pitch at softball.

Abel’s knowledge of basic geography is terrible as I’ve already discovered. Just last month Ireland was set to play Holland down in Orlando. “So how you guys doing in this Soccer World Cup Series?”, he asked me. “Well we are still in it” I replied. “But we don’t fancy the heat in Florida again; we are not built for it”. Abel laughed, “Yeah you poor Irish white asses can’t take the heat, that’s why you spend the summer in the air conditioning in a bar”. Stung somewhat by this observation I simply said “I think we might do okay though, we have a good record against the Dutch”. “The Dutch?” said Abel, “but you’re not playing the Dutch, you just said you were playing the Hollanders!

There then followed a lengthy geography lesson where I taught Abel that Hollanders were from Holland, The Dutch were not from Deutschland and the Dutch and Hollanders lived in a country called the Netherlands. Abel just brushed it off by saying “Europe is complicated”.

Just after 2.00am I make my way over to the Deli on 3rd Avenue. The city sounds different at this time of night but is still a rollicking assembly of sounds. The whistles of doormen summonsing taxi’s for late night guests leaving dinner parties, the sirens of emergency vehicles hurtling to nearby hospitals, fire-trucks the loudest of all, boom boxes from cars at red lights, the garbage trucks crunching up the mounds of city waste, cop cars whizzing up, down and cross town, the city beating, ebbing, flowing, the midnight music of life itself in under and all around the man made canyons of this island of Manhattan.

On 3rd Avenue I pass two taxis pulled in hard along the kerb. The sidewalk is empty save for two prostrate men, their prayer mats rolled out, bent in prayer, facing east towards the Food Emporium but in their own minds to Mecca.

I cross the road and enter the Bodega to get my usual order,  pastrami on rye and a Gatorade. Jose the owner and one of his shop assistants are outside watering the fresh flowers. Jose is smoking a thick cigar that he trims with what looks like a garden clippers or secateurs.  “Buenas noches SenorI say.

“Gracias, Gracias, tu español es cada vez major…getting better every day Tommy, soon you have to come live up Washington Heights no Spanish Harlem” says a grinning Jose until he breaks into a rattling series of deep coughs. His assistant grins even though I don’t think he knows what is been said. When Jose finishes spluttering I say “Fumar Maloand he nods acknowledging with a raised hand as I cross the street back to Empire House.

Mike Considine has now joined Abel up in the Lobby. Hi Tommy, what’s up?” “Not much Mike, how are all in the Bronx?” I reply, tucking into my sandwich. Usual Tom, keeping out of trouble”, Mike is a squat bull of a man of about thirty years old. As usual he has taken a house out on Long Island with his wife and her brother’s family for the summer months. I have no doubt he has spent the last few days out on the beach as his face is a glowing crimson shade. Mike is always on the attack and keen to wind me up. He takes particular delight in baiting me. So I guess a greenhorn like you’ll be heading up to Gaelic Park tomorrow to hang with your homies eh?”  “Don’t know Mike I might come visit you in hospital instead, you don’t look healthy with that oompa loompa look, haven’t you heard of melanoma?” 

Mike has that mischievous grin that he assumes when he knows there is a chance of some proper banter “jeez that’s very nice of you to be thinking of my well-being Paddy McFurniture, we look after you guys too, only for us you’d be speaking Russian” and so on and on it goes for twenty minutes over and back whilst Abel finishes mopping the lobby floor and starts shining the brass in the main elevator car. Our exchange is only stopped when a black limousine pulls up outside, I hurry out and get the door.

I can see it is Mr. and Mrs Gertstein. They are a nice old friendly couple. “Good night Mr. Gertstein I say as I open the rear passenger door. “Hi Tommy, how are you, the old place still standing eh? This is the ugliest building in New Yawk I tell ya” “Ah come on now Mr. Gertstein there’s uglier around”. “No I tell yaw only for my Ruthie likes the neighbourhood and her buddies, what’s left of them, are nearby, I’d be out of here period”.

 I help Mrs. Gertstein with her other bags, Mike has got the luggage from the trunk. “So were you out of town for long?” I enquire. Mr Gertstein starts to talk but by now his wife is broadside and talks over him. He throws his eyes up in mock despair and heads towards the lobby. “Yes Tommy dear we were actually down in Florida for my grandson’s bar mitzvah. It was wonderful and to top it all Rabbi Feltstein was there. It was a surprise. I’m sure you’ve heard of him Tommy? “, “Oh Yes” I lie, to do otherwise will only prolong the story. “It was wonderful Tommy, you should have seen the food, the most beautiful Rugelach and Babka and the tastiest Knishes and blintzes, beautiful, beautiful they were. Eh I must give you the recipes, I have them written down here somewhere you know, got them from Rosie Haas, you know her don’t you, used to live in 14J, never shuts up, but a sweet heart” and she starts fumbling in her handbag.

 Mr. Gertstein is getting impatient, “Ay Yay Yay Tommy and Mike aren’t interested in kosher, they’re Irish. They like steak and corn beef, potatoes that sort a thing, and cabbage, yeah cabbage, C’mon Ruthie its gettin’ late, Geh Schlafen”.

I walk with Mrs. Gertstein down through the lobby as she continues to fumble away in her handbag, “I know it’s here somewhere”. As she holds her bag I suddenly glimpse the inside of her wrist. There amongst the aged and freckled skin I see the faint outline of tattooed letters. For a moment time stands still and I am taken aback. Auschwitz! For the first time outside of a textbook I am face to face with the horror of Hitler. My mind races. Here is an elderly woman, probably in her eighties who has been through the worst human nightmare imaginable. At the Elevator we wait for the car to comedown, 15, 14, 12, and 11 it has stopped on 11. My mind races and I see her as a young girl, her hair in plats, her pale cheeks and large eyes, standing at a barbed wire fence, gazing out on a vast green Polish meadow. 4, 3, 2, “here we are” says Mr. Gertstein as the doors open.

 Arbeit macht frei ….what terrible things she must have seen, and yet how normal she seems, a nice gregarious kind-hearted Jewish lady.  The bell rings we are at 15. Mr. Gertstein yawns as he walks out of the elevator car. His wife and I both go for the handle of her large handbag at the same time and again I see the tattooed numbers, faded but real. There is a pause and I wonder if she is now aware that I have seen how the Nazis branded her like an animal for slaughter. I feel shame and I don’t know why.

Mr. Gertstein fumbles with the keys at the apartment. I offer to take them but he is stubbornly persistent. Eventually the mechanism clicks and we are in the hallway. I leave the bags down and Mr. Gertstein tips me with three or four crumpled bills. “Thank you Tommy and have a good night” he says. “And you too, sleep well you must both be very tired after the flight”. The hallway ends in a wall adorned by a framed print with some nude figures. “It’s a Lucian Freud” says Mr. Gertstein “I’m not too gone on him but Ruthie thinks he is great. Can’t beat a good landscape Tommy, gimme one of your Jack Yeats any ….“  Mrs Gertstein cuts him off suddenly “I’m so sorry Tommy I can’t find it but I will, I promise, and I will hand it to the main Doorman for you, okay honey” She finally gives up the search for the recipe, “Oh yeah but it’s a wonderful stuffed Knish that your wife could make for you”. I cross the threshold back out to the landing as I reply “But I’m not married Mrs. Gertstein, although you never know maybe I might meet a nice Jewish girl one day who can cook all these blintzes and knishes for me”. There was a pause, not much but definitely a pause “Zie ga zink Tommy you are such a good boy” she half chuckles “but surely you know we cannot marry a Goy! Goodnight”. I stood there for a few seconds after the door shut in my face.

Also on this floor are the Farrago’s, the Fleischer’s, the Karliners and Sandlers the names sound to me like a list of dead composers of long forgotten waltzes and polkas. How many of them also bear these marks and brands and why am I feeling shame? It had nothing to do with me. Back in the Lobby Mike and Abel are still hanging out. When Abel sees me approach he exclaims in mock tones “Oh if it isn’t Tommy the Schmuk, loves all the Jews in the Upper East Side”. I sidle up to the front desk “Actually I’m just interested in learning about them ya know. You think the world revolves around this city and there is nothing beyond of any interest. I bet you’ve never even been outside the tri-state area”. Abel is animated now and he is out in the middle of the front lobby “Oh listen to the Irishman, hadn’t a dime before he came here to My City!!! And now he’s breaking my balls!!! You hearing this Mike? You hearing this kid?……Well actually I have been out of the city, twice in fact, once to Atlantic City and another time to the Hershey Factory in Pennsylvania, so there.” I fight the temptation to point out that Atlantic City is just down the shore in Jersey. Abel and geography shall forever be just strangers passing in the night.

Mike is reading yesterdays Daily Post that he found in a drawer at the front door desk. A few minutes pass in the silence of the night shift until I ask him “Mike Whats a Goy?” He looks around towards me and then back at the paper, “it means someone who is not Jewish, ya know a Gentile, someone like me and you”. After another long pause and without looking up Mike says, “So you saw the tattoos?” He continues looking at the page. “Yeah how’d you know” I said. “Well I just saw you looking” I hadn’t realised my reaction was so obvious. “I just knew by the way you went so quiet………a lot of them here have them you know”, “Really”, “Yep plenty they are the survivors. It’s Amazing really that they were so near total annihilation and now they live in this fancy place. The Gertsteins are nice people, they are very good to the boys here at Christmas and holidays and they always look after me well too”. 

For once the City seems so quiet. There is no noise coming sneaking in and all I can hear is the hum of the water feature coming from across the lobby. Mike puts the paper back in the drawer and stretches his arms above his head.

 “Look Tom I know you’re curious but take my advice and don’t ever ask them about those numbers right, they’d only get upset, who knows what they went through. I heard it said that Mrs Gertstein is the only one who survived from her family. Think about it if that was you. Here they feel safe, nobody ever thinks that could happen to them but they, they know, they know what man can do the most evil things”.

 But I had thought about nothing else these last few minutes. In College in Dublin I had worn a PLO scarf and had great sympathy with the Palestinians. I saw comparisons with the way my own people were dis-possessed, my own ancestors were refugees from Armagh having lost everything. Now though I was confronted by these nice decent people who had also suffered so much but at the hands of their own neighbours and just a few short decades ago. “Abel was right, Europe is complicated”. Mike grinned, “Abel’s a survivor too Tommy”

 “When I started here about eight years ago I used to do this shift with an old timer called Savo”. “Where was he from?” I asked. “He told me he was from Montenegro. I never heard of the place to be honest, I thought it was a city or sumtin. At least I hadn’t heard of it until the last few years and the Yugoslavs started butchering each other. Late at night we‘d be chatting away just like me and you now. Savo had come to New York after the war and he lived up in the Bronx in Kingsbridge. He got on really well with some of the residents here. He was always on time and always immaculately dressed.

 Then this one night he didn’t show up for work. I mean he never called in sick or nothing; he never got any one to call in either. So about a week later the manager asked me if I’d do him a favour and call around to his place as I was living nearby at the time. So I called over to his building and rang the buzzer a few times, had a look around, the usual.  A resident came along and I asked her about Savo but she didn’t seem to know anything. I mean she lived just a floor above him for years and didn’t even know what the guy looked like.

 I was off the following day and was over by Kingsbridge so I decided to call by again. This time I got into the building and up to his floor but he never answered the door. I checked the post boxes and his was stuffed full of junk mail. I met the Super and he said that the man who lived in that apartment had gone to California to visit his brother who was ill. Savo had never mentioned he had any family in the States. I told the guys in the office what I found out and they just took him off payroll but said they’d keep paying his union card for six months in case he came back. They were gutted, he was a great worker, never caused any trouble”.

 “Well did you ever hear from him again?” “No, I didn’t, that is until one night I was at home watching the news and a picture came up on the fuckin screen, it was the nightly news and there was our Savo. Turns out our Savo’s real name was Nikola Ivanović and turns out he was a Croat and he was working for the fuckin Nazis rounding up the Jews and Gypsies during the War. He was on the FBI’s most wanted and all as they got a tip off. Nobody here could believe it. There he was in his SS Uniform, a young man but it was definitely our Savo. No doubt whatsoever”.

 “I’m sure I heard about this case. Was he ever found?”  “Not a trace Tommy. Bank accounts not touched either. But he’s alive. I know it. I know it. The Management got lots of grief from the residents. I suppose they are just coming to terms with the fact that the smartly dressed ever so polite concierge is a fuckin Nazi and many of them lost everything and everyone in the ovens. You could say they were pretty pissed alright. It’s not that Savo was a threat anymore but here they’ve rebuilt their lives and they thought they were free of all that went on. This new life, new world, no killers, no fear anymore”.

 “That’s unreal and I’m doing his shift. So what do I do if he comes back for his old job?” “He won’t be back. I’ve heard the church helped many of these guys after the war. He was a Catholic. My sister’s husband said he used see him at mass in St. Johns on Kingsbridge. Always on his own but always there every Sunday.”

 Abel comes up the foyer and he’s humming to himself. Mike puts a finger to his lips declaring the Savo Story over for now and not for sharing with Abel.

 It doesn’t take long for Mike to take up a new thread of conversation “So are you heading up to Gaelic Park tomorrow for a few beers or no?”  “Not tomorrow Mike I’m going out to Queens to watch a game, a big game in fact, looking forward to it”. Abel feels left out, “So what games that?” With all this chat about Nazis and the Holocaust I had forgotten all about the bloody game and now suddenly I was tense and nervous again. For a moment I wonder how can I possibly convey  the significance of this game, how do I explain to a Twenty Five Year old year old Hispanic lad from Jamaica, Queens what a Connacht Championship would mean to a success starved County like mine. More importantly how can I explain to Abel how bad I feel that I’m over three thousand miles of seawater from where I should be right now.  I try but the words I come out with sound out of place, out of tune with the Upper East Side at 3.00am in the huge glass lobby of a an apartment building. “It’s a huge game for my home place Abel, it’s 67 years since we won this cup, everyone will be there, all my family, friends, neighbours, the whole town will be deserted, it’s that big” I explain.

“Getta out a’ here” – oh what like bigger then a Yankees World Series. There is nothing bigger then the Yankees. You saw the Rangers in the Stanley Cup last month right? Now that’s a big deal”. Mike has been quietly listening, “I know Tom it’s huge. Two years ago my old man went back home to watch Clare win the Munster Final. He was still in tears two weeks later when he got back. He said of all the times he left Ireland, this was one of the hardest. He said he was never so proud and it was bigger than putting a man on the moon. The sad thing is none us got it, none of us could really share the moment with him”

“Man you crack me up” said Abel. “You Irish just make up stuff so you can party. Abel’s no fool, I get ya. So Monday morning Abel’s pager goes,  Tommy’s on the line, sorry I had a late one, I’m all messed up, Abel bro can you cover me for work. You see I got it, I can see where this is going, don’t be trying to pass off that bullshit on me” and he breaks into a laugh heading down the lobby to finish his chores.

“You know my Dad passed away last year Tommy” Mike’s expression  had changed, gone is the usual bravado. He is pensive and sombre “I’m sorry to hear that Mick. I didn’t know, was it sudden?” There is a pause and Mike gathers himself, “well it was kinda sudden for us. The son of a bitch never told us he was sick. That trip home to Ireland was all planned by him knowing that this was it, this was the last time”.

 Mike took a drink from a can of coke he was holding before continuing, “You know he came here in 1949 and didn’t go back for thirty years. Even when his mother died he didn’t go. Then the Pope says he’s coming and all of a sudden he decides he wants to go home and see everybody.

He brought my sister Pat and me and we flew into Shannon and from there until we got to Cooraclare he never shut up. He described every field, tree, and crossroads and he told us who lived in each house and who owned that pub and so on. It was just too much information for Pat or me to take in. I was only fourteen. But I never heard the old man so passionate about a place. I mean he didn’t even know who lived in the next door Apartment to us in Bedford Park and there is this place he left behind that stretches for miles and miles, from here to Poughkeepsie I guess, and he knows who lives in every bloody house”. Mick laughed heartily as he thought over what he had just said.

“My uncle was a nice quiet man but my cousins looked at Pat and me as if we were from Mars. After a few days we settled in and we became great friends. My cousin Vincent lives over here now, he is up in Pearl River. He’s done well for himself got his own business. That was a great trip though. I finally got to understand what it meant to be Irish not just Bronx Irish and Father Mulcahy in St. Brendans and all that baloney. Anyway don’t mind me I’m babbling on here”. But I didn’t mind at all, no in fact it was great.

I had known Mike for a few months only; usually he would be ribbing me about being straight off the boat, a Greenhorn, unlike himself, in his own eyes a thoroughbred Irish American narrowback. I had thought him a tough steely character and he wore the fact that he was from the Bronx like a badge of honour, an “Okay you were in Vietnam, but hey I live in the Bronx” attitude. He told me that as a kid he ran with a rough crew, a mix of Irish and Italian kids from Fordham and on up to Bainbridge. He told how some Friday nights they would roll a guy coming home from some of the bars on 204th, usually some Irish guy the worst for wear after cashing his weekly pay cheque. Mike told me he stopped one night when he overheard his Father telling his Mother how one of his work mates was mugged by some Puerto Rican kids. Mike knew it wasn’t the Puerto Ricans, it was him and a McDermott lad. Now here he was talking about the Pope’s Visit something I remembered from my early childhood too. How could Irish America be so similar and yet so alien?

“They are good memories Mike. Did you go get to see the Pope after all?” “Oh yeah” he replied, “we got up to Ballybrit Racetrack in Galway, we nearly caught our deaths it was so wet, it was bigger than Woodstock.

When I came back to school Sr. Martha made me stand in front of the class and tell the kids about it. That wasn’t so cool. I’ve been over a few times since. Ya’know I love it there but now that Pop’s gone it’s just not the same, you know what I mean?”

I didn’t know what to say but just nodded and then to change the direction of the conversation I said, “You know, often at home we dread when the American cousins are visiting. The house has to scrubbed clean from top to bottom, and my mother and grandmother start fussing over ye with the best china and silver cutlery taken out”. Mike laughed, “Oh yeah and you think we enjoy it! Going around to all your houses from morning to night, drinking warm sugary tea and eating all that sickly sponge cake”.

It was a revelation to talk to Mike like this. Over the next hour no work was done. Mike recalled how he had played Gaelic Football as a kid for the Fordham Shamrocks and how they weren’t very good but they were the toughest team in the league. In that part of the Bronx been able to stand up for yourself mattered above all else, don’t back down even if it means taking your beating. “Look it’s nearly 6 o’clock Mike I better do some work”. “Yeah I’ll catch you before you head out”.

Our shift finished at 7.00 am. At this stage I had a lump in my throat and was edgy in anticipation of the game. I looked at my watch for the umpteenth time. It is now noon at home. They will be all be on the road to Roscommon by now, crossing the bridge at Rooskey perhaps, leaving Leitrim behind for the day. When I got out of the locker room I began walking up the long corridor and in the direction of the ramp that led out into the early morning sun.

“Hey Tommy wait”. It was Mike again. “Hey I was looking for you before you went, look I just wanted to say good luck to you guys today”. “Thanks Mike I suppose it’s now or never”. “No I really think ye’re going to do it. Two years ago when my old man came back it was incredible. He said he could die happy now that Clare were champions. I didn’t get it until a few weeks after.  It was a Sunday I called over to my parent’s place. Dad wasn’t there and Mum said he was down in Meaneys. It’s our neighbourhood bar. Tommy Meaney is from Clare too and he and my old man know each other since before they even came out here. I said I’d go down and have a beer there. There was no one about, the street was deserted and outside Meaneys was quiet too, but when I opened the door there was at least a hundred people maybe more all watching this Irish satellite TV showing Clare playing in Croke Park.

 My Dad saw me, and he smiled. I bought us some beers and I’ll never forget it, my own fuckin father said ‘you’re alright son even if you are a narrowback’.

 I looked around the bar and all these people, wherever they came out of, their eyes glued to this screen, looking at images of this old packed creaking stadium in this far off land, and you know what, I finally got it! Here I was a stranger in my own backyard. So fuck it, if Clare can do it why not Leitrim?”

I could think of a hundred reasons why Clare could do it and Leitrim couldn’t but I didn’t want to annoy Mike with them. For once in the hurly burly of New York I have time to kill. Although I’d been up all night the adrenaline was starting to flow in anticipation of the game. I stride down Lexington Avenue until I meet Ahmed, the man from the Yemen who has a little kiosk shop beside the 63rd Street Subway. “Good morning Mr. Tommy” “and a Good morning to you Ahmed” I respond. I buy some mints and continue on my way.

Dawn in the city can be eerie but a Sunday morning dawn is eeriest of all,

‘The Dawn! The Dawn! The crimson-tinted comes, Out of the low still skies, over the hills, Manhattan’s roofs and spires and cheerless domes’

 It is too early to get the subway as the game won’t start until 9.00am. On down the avenue I go and just after Bloomingdale’s I turn left under the vast steel underbelly of the Queensboro Bridge. The traffic is light. The city is just getting used to the idea of a new day. A few cars rumble above but otherwise I am deep in my own thoughts. The truth is I am in the deep despair that comes when asking oneself those hard questions, the ones we hate to confront.

What the hell am I doing here in this city?

I shuffle into Sutton Place a lovely leafy street lined with upmarket apartment buildings of stylish brick facades. I walk into Sutton Square, a cul de sac, and at the end of the street I looked out over FDR Drive, Roosevelt Island, the Cable Car and the 59th Street Bridge to my left, on out on the East River and the vast borough of Queens beyond. How is it that here in a metropolis of sixteen million people a person can feel so alone?

The Pogues song “Thousands are Sailing” is playing as if on a loop in my head and I just can’t get it out of there.

 “Thousands are sailing, Across the western ocean, Where the hand of opportunity, Draws tickets in a lottery

Where e’er we go, we celebrate, The land that makes us refugees, From fear of priests with empty plates, From guilt and weeping effigies”

I check my watch again, I better get moving. I walk down past the UN Building, turning into 42nd Street and over to Grand Central to catch the No. 7 train. I wait on the platform for that moment when you see the front beacon of the train, faint, far away down the tunnel but getting bigger, brighter and nearer. The Jazz busker’s noise grows dimmer and the train’s rattle grew louder. In the side of my eye I catch a flicker of a subway rat scurrying for cover between the tracks.

The 7 is my favourite train, the first subway line I took when I came here. As I sit down I immediately began to relax. The line rumbles out of the tunnel that brings it deep under the East River so that your ears pop. Then it comes up again in Queens, up into the daylight. It feels like a roller coaster shunting and creeping, lurching from side to side. It takes one sharp bend of almost ninety degrees before Queensboro Plaza. The wheels crunch and screech with the effort but it gives you a fine panoramic of the Midtown Skyline. They are all there, the usual suspects, the silvery spaceship top of the Chrysler, the solid mass of the Met Life and the huge obelisk of the Empire State overlooking the entire. The train is nearly empty. It is a glorious sunny morning and the oppressive heat hasn’t had time to build up yet, but it won’t be too long. The carriage is a cool sanctuary.  At each stop a gush of warm air rushes in when the carriage doors open.

We shunt on up through the old neighbourhoods of Sunnyside and Woodside. I catch a glimpse of ‘White Castle’ and the Sunoco Gas Station and beyond that ‘Blooms’, ‘The Breifne’, ‘Sidetracks’ ‘The Startin Gate’ and ‘Toucan Tommys’ more landmarks of my life. Low flung red brick apartment buildings fly by at cinemagraphic speed. I can barely read the staccato like glimpses of building numbers and street signs as the train rat a tats on. My stop is 74th Street and Broadway-Roosevelt Avenue. It is calm, almost subdued compared to the hubbub around here midweek, when you can be lifted up by the throngs heading towards the exits. A garish looking black woman with torn leggings is humming a song to herself as she lies prostrate on a bench in the station. Her eyes are closed and as I pass her I realise it sounds like a children’s lullaby. The air is an eclectic mix of smells from many cultures and continents. The Colombian Nail Parlour, the Korean Butchers, The Bengali Kebab House, The Ecuadorian Bodega, the Greek Diner, the Jamaican Auto-shop, an Indian Electronics store and all these on just one side of the street. Just two blocks up is a small neat Irish bar, there tucked in quietly and neatly amongst all these nations of the world. For all the traditions and cultures in its midst this bar sits snugly at peace with itself, for it has been here for generations, it has seen many people come and go from this neighbourhood that it clings on proudly and stubbornly to.

This is Jackson Heights, Queens on a typical Sunday morning. It is the 24th July 1994. I pull open the door. I’m hit by the cool air that suddenly envelopes me. I hear the unmistakable sound of a hundred conversations at once in a packed bar. The communion of babble draws me in. Instantly the reassurance buries the mountain of anxieties of the previous hours. Today will surely be our day.

So it came to pass.