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A Letter Home

7 March 1996

Dear Mum,

I hope this letter finds you well.

A short while after first stepping off the ferry in Dunshane Cross, I met a fellow named Nick Savage. We struck up a conversation and, over the course of a few pints, Nick briefed me on the local history. As near as I could gather from his slurred speech, the relevant annals run something like this:

In the thirteenth century, a fellow named Don de Corset arrived here from the east with the pope’s blessings. He was a straight enough arrow, a member of the Gerry family, who answered to a knave named Strongblow. In addition to the mandatory fistful of knights, de Corset also had himself a stunning wife, a princess from the Aisle of Men, who ordered the building of Ballybrady Abbey. Meanwhile, de Corset relocated the crusted bones of Saints Patrick and Columbine to some quiet spot far to the west of here, that their eternal souls might not be disturbed by the impending turmoil of his mission, which was to tighten the strings on Ulster until the desired shape was achieved. To that end de Corset set up camp somewhere north of Duncraven where he and his knights set about the tedious business of seducing the native race. In due time, the locals were vanquished. Don de Corset repaid his knights by granting them thiefdoms. The main thief around here was a knight by the name of Savage.

Old Nick also mumbled on about Pope Hadrian the Fart from the Temple of the Flatulation, who donated to Ireland a papist bull with a ring in its nose and how John Sorcery passed the ring minus the bull along to Henry the Sickened and he to Strongblow and he in turn to de Corset and in due course it fell into Savage hands there to remain until, come one chill January day, the precious jewel slipped from Lord Savage’s grasp as he rowed in the river. Lost forever or so it seems. Nick says it was forged from the finest gold and embedded with premium emeralds of diverse hues. But oh-the-pity for now that gem is lost.

Somewhere between our third second and second third pints, a few hundred years had passed. The Red Earl was now long in the grave, but the Savages remained. Your man Neil burnt the peninsula to cinders, much to the benefit of his Clammy Boy cousins, but then the Clammy Boys were soon history themselves and now all that remains of them is some old stone chair that sits in The Ulster Museum. The peninsula was useless after that, reduced as it was to little more than ashes and charcoal, so the crown imported a lorry load of lowlanders to grow plantains. And here they remain to this very day, comfortable and living off the fat of the land as they are. Somewhere along the way some Savage decided to change the family name to Nugent, but to this very day most of the locals prefer an old savage to a new gent. It has been downhill for the Savage clan ever since those new gents ascended to the title and built that two-faced mansion. So says Nick.

I was hoping Nick would elaborate further on the two-faced business, but he had to be off as the traditional music session was on the boil. Nick calls that stuff diddly dee. Your man has zero appreciation for those old songs.

I am trying my best to further educate myself about the local history. To that end, I was not unfortunate to lay my hands on a secondhand copy of Saga of the Six Counties. I study it nightly, along with my Holy Bible of course. Most of what Nick told me hails from the former. He knows precious little about the latter.

In closing, you will be pleased to know that the local aristocracy—Lord and Lady Nugent—have taken a shining to me. Lady Eleanor Nugent, who is also the church organist, has opened their home to me. I find my lady to be no great hand at the organ, although she does derive the utmost pleasure in playing the instrument.

I have now settled in at Eton Gate Lodge, situated on the Nugent demesne grounds. Please send all future correspondence to this address:

William Stone
Eton Gate Lodge
Lough Road
Newtonards BT9 2XG
NI UK

All the Best,
Wills

The Middle of the Beginning of the End

 

I awake in a porcelain-lined bathtub.
She stands before me. I study her stunning face, her well-preened hair, her virgin-blue eyes while she massages my forehead with an icy, moist towel. What is she doing here? And why do I lie in this waterless bath?
Oh, yes: Pockets warned me last night before retiring: I walk in my sleep, he said, urinating everywhere. Only the other night I left a shite in the closet, he said. Mind yourself, it could happen again. No— it will happen again. No one’s perfect, said Pockets.
That is when I huddled a pillow and comforter into a neat bundle before staggering off to the safest room in the flat given the circumstances—the toilet.
She studies me, still holding the chilly towel against my crown.
“You look like the walking dead.”
Stiff and sore, I rise to crawl from the tub, to study my wan reflection in the vanity mirror. Your man in the mirror is not me, not the me who was standing in some blissful river three years past— happily married and well-employed, nor the me who stepped into the river two years ago and emerged on this side of the pond, nor the me who stood at the pulpit just yesterday and denounced his professed faith. And by no means is he the me who tied one on last night in the Botanic District and then stepped out in front of a speeding taxi. How I avoided being crushed by that taxi is a mystery to me. If not the grace of God and quickness of the Daryl Hannah Look-Alike’s reflexes, I might now be a dead man.
I believe God is not yet done with me.
“Feck all. I do look bad, don’t I? Say, I thought ye went home after breakfast.”
“I did.”
“Did ye meet up with yer husband?”
“He quizzed me nonstop for days.”
“Days?”
“Aye.”
“Days you say? But only yesterday…”
“Yesterday? Yesterday? We landed in Limerick four days past.”
“Four days?”
“And nights, now have your fry and then it is down the road with us.”

Black Taxi

black taxi

(Image: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye)

In short time, I am in the neutral zone as well. I ask Pockets for the key to the flat. Smiling, he refuses to hand it over. He motions toward two young women. He has sorted me out with the tall, attractive one, says he. She is a fetching blonde who favors Daryl Hannah. He fancies the brunette who would look like Sharon Stone if only she would drop six stone. I object, wanting nothing to do with Daryl or any other lady. I want to sleep, to steal away, to forget about the female species, to disremember what a beautiful woman like this Daryl look-alike can do to a foolish man’s heart.
Beaming, Pockets ignores my pleas.
An eternity later, myself, Pockets, Daryl Hannah, and Sharon-Plus-Six-Stone exit The Centre. We begin the short tramp toward Pocket’s flat. Up University we go, past Lisburne Road, walking, chatting, laughing at nothing in particular. Cabs and cars flash by. We pause at the multi-street intersection of Donegall Road and Shaftesbury Square to wait on the green man. Daryl Hannah wraps one slender arm about my waist and leans her head upon my shoulder. Lettering on the shops seems hieroglyphic; road signs, cryptic. Nothing makes sense, not the traffic signals, not our conversation, not even the paint growing long on stucco storefronts. Cars flash by in all directions, trailing past in illuminating streams of red and white. Malfunctioning traffic lights glow green indications in all directions. Cars enter the intersection from north, south, east, west, crashing into one another. They rise high into the city sky, tornado-tossed upward like rockets bursting into the foggy firmament. The ensuing din borders on the unbearable. Confused, I step from the curb into a river of chaos, into the oncoming traffic, as a speeding black taxi approaches the intersection.

Verse & Adversity: Reflections on the 2017 Princeton Poetry Festival

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Standing: Professor Paul B. Muldoon. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate left.

 

The biennial Princeton Poetry Festival,  a series of readings and panel discussions organized by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, was held this past Thursday and Friday in Berlind Theater, Princeton, NJ. I was fortunate enough to attend both days of the festival. The panel discussions, moderated by Princeton University Professor Paul  B. Muldoon, centered on the issue of adversity in poetry. The conversations were stimulating. Professor Muldoon is to be commended for his efforts. The readings by the dozen or so poets in attendance were a pleasure to experience, as were the introductions spoken by our current poet laureate, Mary K. Smith.  The complimentary refreshments were also tasty and much appreciated.

One issue raised during the panel discussion was this: Should poets write about politics? Should their work be didactic or simply reflect the daily goings on of the human condition? This led to a corollary question: If poets should indeed make political observations, should only those poets living in the country concerned be the speakers, or might outsiders comment as well? In respect to Northern Ireland, both Muldoon and Longley grew up during The Troubles and were of the opinion that the poets should write about the human condition but avoid political commentary in the process.

Prior to reading his poem “Ceasefire”, Michael Longley introduced himself not as a citizen of Northern Ireland but as a man of “Ulster”, the inflection of which brought a shiver to my very being. His “Ulster” is not The Six Counties. His “Ulster” is the loyalist province. In contrast, Muldoon referred to the north as Northern Ireland. And, of course, Longley made the mandatory Orangeman’s allusion to the Battle of the Somme.

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Above: A mural commemorating the Battle of Somme locate din a seaside park north of Cloghy. Not he diminutive stature of the Irishman in contrast to his “Ulster” counterpart.

“Ceasefire” was originally published in The Irish Times and was written as commentary on the “IRA ceasefire” (his words, not mine, as though the UVF, UDF, etc. had no hand in the violence), so there goes any notion of no-poetry-of-a-political-vein. So one might ask after reading the poem, who is  the counterpart in Northern Ireland of the King Priam in this sonnet? The answer is plain to see. King Priam is analogous to Ulster (Loyalist Ulster) kissing the hand of the murderer (the IRA) of his son(s). I should mention in passing that when noting the nearly three thousand casualties of The Troubles, no mention was made that many of those deaths were the result of vigilante acts of terrorism in an effort for the locals, loyalist and nationalist alike, to maintain order in their neighborhoods, order which the RUC failed to maintain. In a sense Longley’s analogy is a valid one, since Priam’s son violated the rules of hospitality and thus incited a war with Greece much as the English did in Ireland. If anyone is adept in the art of violating the rules of hospitality, it is our friends the English.

To address the second horn of this bull, do outsiders have a voice in writing about the internal affairs of any given country,  I argue that we do and that task is what I have undertaken in my novel Six Counties Seven Sins. Over the course of my frequent visits to The Six Counties during the heyday of The Troubles, it became increasingly clear to me that the natives could not see the forest for the trees, partially due to the censorship of the press. The stranger often notices nuances of a society that the natives fail to see. Also, the stranger fails to grasp may of the nuances of the natives. Both of these factors make for an interesting and sometimes comical point of view for first person narration of a story. The protagonist of my novel sees events in the Six Counties in a far different light than does the native population.

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Archetypes/Collective Unconscious

Many of the characters in Six Counties Seven Sins are archetypal. Will Stone is a dual archetype. First, he is the prodigal son returning home. Second, he is a reluctant hero on a journey into the unknown, having twice refused the call before realizing that, like Jonah, he cannot run from his fate. Father Peadair is the wise old man. The Old Woman in the cloak is the Old Woman, The Earth Mother, in Irish myth, the embodiment of Ireland itself. Éimhear, namesake of Cú Chulainn’s love in the Ulster Cycle Irish Epic The Tain, embodies the sensual Ireland. Éimhear has much in common with Judith of the Old Testament/Apocrypha. She is promised to a foreigner — a military officer of the nation which has for centuries oppressed her people. Lady Eleanor, part of the Protestant Ascendancy, is a temptress. Gráinne, as her name implies, embodies grace. Desmond is a blend of mentor and trickster, while Nicholas “Old Nick” Savage is clearly the villain of the novel.  

The collective unconscious proper is alluded to by Éimhear, who draws an analogy between the drowned drumlins of Strangford Lough and the human condition. Will Stone’s visionary dreams and mystical insights also point toward a psychic connection to the collective unconscious.

SORRY

My cold index finger crosses the smooth sheet of glass protecting the long list of the dead, not coming to rest until I spy a familiar name. I trace its letters, running my clammy digit across the squeaky surface.

V…o…l….J..a..m…e…s…O..’..C…a…h…a…n.. 2nd… B..e..l…f…a…s…t….B…r….i…g…a…d…e

“No touching,” barks the rosy-cheeked watchman.

I ignore this imperative.

“I said no touching!”

I turn to face him.

“Move along now.”

In silence, I study his stone-cold features—his milk-white skin… his ruddy cheeks.

“Move along I say. Along with ye, now!”

Fighting such a scrawny dragon is pointless.

I stagger away from the Troubles Exhibition to start down the metal turret stairs of The Ulster Museum, headed out toward Botanic Gardens. Upon reaching the green I pause for a moment beside the dead oak, the same one which first I met some years prior—the oak painted orange, a red hand branded upon its trunk. The ivy encasing the rotting oak has now grown dense. What little life that once existed has since been squeezed from the asphyxiated plant. There will be no redemption, no miraculous rebirth, no Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Moving along, following the footpath, I soon pass a stout, healthy oak. Two red squirrels wrestle at its base, playfully quarrelling over an acorn. I mutter to them, “Kind sir, your astonishment’s odd, I am always about in the quad; and that’s why the tree will continue to be since observed by Yours Faithfully, God.”

I start off toward University, contemplating a bar hop along the stretch from Great Victoria Street to Bradbury Place. Two pints in The Crown. From there I will move on to the American Pub, the empty, lifeless American Pub. No craic in there at all, so just a pint and then it’s Robinson’s, there to sit and sip a lukewarm pint or two until some uninformed soul wanders in wearing a Celtic Football Club jacket and is asked to turn it inside out on the instant or else get the feck out.

“We want no trouble in here,” the barkeep will say in a polite tone. “Celtic jackets are trouble.”

An argument will ensue about sports. Next, the talk will turn to politics prior to degenerating into religious banter. Who wants to argue over such rubbish? A total waste of time and energy, nothing but bunk—pure bunk. Standing here on University in the chill, misty air, I zip my Belfast Giant’s jersey. Everyone and anyone can cheer for this team. No history envelopes them. Nietzsche was dead on. History breeds paralytic egotism. History is a myth, a lie, a farce, a bloody red herring, redder than Old Nick’s Saga of the Six Counties. What if no history surrounded Ireland? What if all of Irish history ceased to be? What if Ireland’s painful history was erased from all memory, if every bigoted bridge was burned? Might things not fall out better that way? Maybe religion needs to go as well. After all, that too is part of the dragon. Next, it’s a fierce short hop from Robinson’s to Lavery’s Gin Palace, where my own troubles began on that long-ago night. A few pints will pass my lips while I make small talk with the locals and watch multiple football games on the numerous tellies. When at last I dare to step tipsily out from that dim pub into the dimmer-yet night, it will be quite late. But not so late that I cannot hail a black taxi to carry me on to Madden’s for a drink before I stumble over to Kelley’s Cellars for one last jar or two. By then the narrow city streets will be abandoned. A soft rain will still be falling. I will trek back toward the Lisburne Road on foot, staggering and swaying as I go, veering left at University to head toward the Botanic District.

But no, none of this will do. Not tonight. No jaunt tonight, since some invisible, inescapable force leads me in a different direction, entices me not toward City Hall, but toward another destination. You see, I am but a fish in this mighty river, a half-breed of a trout, pulled ever onward by some electric current to God-only-knows where. And so I turn about to trod toward my fate. I pause on the corner of University and University, around the block from a third University. Jesus, what were they thinking when they named these streets? The night seems so silent, too serene for a Saturday e’en, as if the whole population of Belfast is dead and gone. A speeding black Belfast taxi whizzes past, its tyres swishing on the slick street surface, sending raindrops dancing in all directions, racing its occupants onward toward Andersontown or the West Falls Road. Past Queen’s University I bear left, back into the late-night shadows of the Botanic Gardens. I glance downward, focused on the footpath, watching dancing rain droplets splash on the chill concrete. They capture lucid rays of dim city lights, glimmering white and red and bluish green. Liquid colours run mad on the cold, concrete footpath. They follow the straight corner channels of the neat cement squares, crying out for order, for that methodic, false security which humanity superimposes on the chaos of uncertainty that engulfs all of us, for that false symmetry which we humans create in the vain hope that blessed sleep might sooner be achieved.

The chill rain soaks me to the soul, but not to worry. This storm shall cease as well, shall give way to scattered bright spots followed by yet more rain. I pass beneath a street lamp and pause, still distracted, still looking downward, not forward. Ringlets of water perturb an otherwise motionless thin pool of rainwater. Amidst mirrored reds, whites, and blues I discern my own distorted reflection. And then I see the word. One repetitious word stenciled on the footpath. One short term rendered in alternating red, white, blue, green, white, and orange lines of letters. One sole, misplaced adjective, spelling out over and over and over:

SORRY
SORRY
SORRY

SORRY
SORRY
SORRY

SORRY
SORRY
SORRY

SORRY
SORRY
SORRY

The vanity of the human condition strikes me, sends my thoughts about the brevity of life reeling, the greed of so many, the lack of concern for humankind and for this earth of which we are stewards. Granted, there will be a few brief bright spots along the way, but in the end, we all shall pass like so many downpours. What is the purpose of our existence? What is the end for which we were placed here? Or is there no purpose or end at all? These stenciled tri-coloured sorrys will fade in time. Da’s compass will be rendered useless. This footpath will crack, erode, dissolve into nothingness, as will this city. This country. This world. All sense of history will vanish, lost like this rain. So, does sorry suffice? Can sorry heal eight hundred years of hatred and brutal violence? Can mere stenciled apologies serve to undo history?

I gather my composure and, veering northeast toward The Ormeau Road, I cross Botanic Court. I follow the narrow street of Agincourt several blocks, passing Carmel, then Palestine, then Jerusalem, until I reach Damascus. Damascus Street is now a distant, misty memory. Damascus Street where I, as a small child, once lived, where we as a family once dwelt. I turn right onto Damascus, heading toward the fluxing river. As I start down the dark, quiet street, I spy a vintage black Austin Mini Cooper. Parked on the far side of the street and idling, its steady wipers slap aside pummeling raindrops.

Blessed rain, cursed rain that compels the rivers to run.

Near block’s end I pass my childhood home. The Cooper’s headlights flood the street, shine toward the river, illuminate the falling raindrops. The Cooper gains a bit of ground on me as I approach the Stranmillis Embankment. I make for the Lagan River, turning east to tramp the few remaining blocks. Reaching the tee at the Ormeau Road, I look backward.

The Austin Mini Cooper sits idly parked in the distance.

Until now I have met no one the entire way, save that Mini Cooper, but now I hear voices—happy voices—joyous, drunken, muffled voices rising upward into the misty night air. They grow all the more boisterous with each step I take. Looking to my left I find their source—a red brick building on the far corner—a public house of some sort. I approach the nameless structure and, upon reaching it, I run my right hand along the wall nearest the entranceway, experiencing its coarseness, rubbing its riddled surface.

Bullet holes. Boundless bullet holes.

I open the nonresistant green batten entry door and step into a dark, smoky space seeping with the sounds of good-humoured, joking male voices. In a small room to one side, unobtrusive women chat, smoking slender cigarettes as they sip their sherry. In the far corner of the barroom two fiddlers sit playing traditional tunes. I find a vacant seat at the bar and call for a pint of the black stuff. If I sit long enough, I reason, the stalking Cooper is sure to move on. I keep to myself, speaking not one word, simply taking in the craic, listening to the jovial chatter and the traditional fiddling.

Several pints later, I rise and step out into the deepening night. I look to my right. No sign of the Cooper. Looking to my left, I survey the Ormeau Bridge that spans the Lagan River, dividing north from south. A bit further downstream, the same filthy river turns an acute twist to divide east from west. I lumber along the rain-soaked footpath until I reach the deserted bridge. I follow its footpath, headed southward. Pausing mid-bridge, I stare downward into the Lagan to ponder events recently brought to light.

When first Desmond told me the truth, I did not believe him. Da a terrorist? Da a gangster? No, not Da. Da came from a good family. He was no gangster. Da married a fine woman. Da loved his God and his country. But what or who was his country? Was it what it once was, what it is now, or what it will or might one day be? These Irish. One moment they condemn violence, allow the strangers to deny them their rights while they themselves deny their own feelings, their very heritage; the next instant they take up arms while winking to one another about the provos. Perhaps Da was a terrorist. So say some. So says British “history”. Others declared him an unwilful martyr. But now, what does any of this matter? Now he is gone. And Mother? Persecuted, punished, scarred for her love of the man and gone. My wife? Gone as well, in her own way. My sole sibling, a mere infant? Gone. Gone by my own hand. Desmond assured me that I was not to blame, that I was but a wee toddler with no inkling what a Webley could do to a fellow. The burden is not mine to bear. This was not my sin. It was Mum who left the weapon easily accessible, Mum who set it there on the bed stand, Mum who left me unattended. Nor was it my failing that the IRA gave it to her for protection from the UVF. Violence and bigotry fostered by the reigning strangers caused this whole mess, not little Pól O’Cahan. It wasn’t my sin that ravished an entire nuclear family, that took away my baby brother long before I could teach him the names of the dinosaurs, and of the fishes of the river and lough. No one remains save my loving grace, my dear Gráinne, and she stolen by me from the invaders, as in my own lust I once tried to steal Éimhear back from the enemy. Oh, Gráinne, what terrors await us in the indeterminate future? Will the Lord be there to protect, to save, to redeem? My faith wavers. Where has He been these eight hundred years? Where is He now? Not here on this bridge. Not present in this No Man’s Land where bigoted anger reigns. Lord, still my troubled soul. Walk with me. Assure me that You are in command, despite every iota of empirical evidence suggesting otherwise.

How long my meandering musings muffled the clattering sounds of the approaching mob, I do not know, but here I now stand mid-bridge, flanked by two angry mobs of youths pitted against one another. They have emptied out from the closing pubs found to either side of the river. To my north are nationalists, to my south, unionists, all of whom have converged upon this political-boundary-of-a-bridge that separates one subculture from the other. They scream insulting names at one another; they shout bigoted slurs. What shall I do? Shall I call a parlay? Shall I sprint north or walk south?

No. Not north. Not south. I am neither of these angry dragons who draw ever nearer to one another. I am neither of these opposing factions who blight one another, hurling intimidations and emptied ale bottles at their adversaries. Missiles whiz past my ears. Some smash on the rain-drenched road. Several strike their intended targets. Others fall short of their mark to slide along the slippery asphalt. Someone aims a rocket into the throng, ignites it and then another and another and another. A full-blown civil brawl erupts. Stones join the barrage, flying to and fro at a maddening pace. Oh, Lord, bring an end to this. Slap an Anti-Social Behaviour Order on The City of Belfast prohibiting the brandishing of Roman candles, rockets, stones, masonry, and drained ale bottles.

My hands riveted to the cold rail, insensible to the rioters, I survey the river’s rusty, muddy depths while contemplating my next move. I gaze downward into the polluted river. Heraclitus was wrong. We do step into the same river twice. In Belfast we step into the same river daily. This erratic river is unmoved. This aberration of a river has not diverged one single smidgen since 1690, nor have the political boundaries of this city, nor the bigotry of its citizens. This river is the same river that Grandfather Nigel lobbed mistake after mistake into decades past, the same river the Brits tossed Seamus into, the same rank river I now stare blindly into.

A car horn blares. A black Cooper’s blinding headlights pierce, then part, the angry mob. The driver leans hard on the hooter which shrieks amid the deafening screams and curses of the crowd. I stand still, blinded by bright headlights. Accelerating exponentially, the mini veers first to the left, then to the right, then back to the left again before bearing down on me. No time to think. No time to choose sides.

My apologies to Heraclitus, but we do leap into the same river twice.

I lunge headfirst into the filthy Lagan to embrace unholy communion with the rest of Nigel Stone’s irreversible mistakes.

Verb Tense & POV of Narration

As often as possible, I have used the present tense. My reasoning will become clear when you reach the end of the story. Point of view of narration shifts between the first and the third point of view (one brief passage occurs in the second person) based on what the reader needs to know while keeping the protagonist in the dark and unreliable at best, for reasons that will likewise become clear when you reach the end of the story.

The Nature of Reality

Although Will is curious about his own intuitive experience of the holy, by no means is he preoccupied with unveiling the  nature of our universe. Will is confused, depressed, and subject to the many weaknesses of the flesh. He is also a Realist in the Aristotelian sense of the term, and that is why he struggles to make sense of a mystical experience that makes little sense.  Father Peadair, however, is an extreme Idealist whose duty is to enlighten Will to the true metaphysics of God’s creation. Peadair believes the conventional conception of reality is fundamentally flawed. Father Peadair’s source of authority becomes incrementally evident as the story unfolds.