“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”
― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon
I was recently asked to write a piece for a journal about my hometown from the perspective of an emigrant, looking back. Thinking about this, my mind immediately returned to some vivid memories, a series of notable events that converged in my childhood. The nature of memory is such that all of these events have resided together in my mind as one day. The memories centre on a day there was a chemical leak from the Hygeia chemical plant into the River Corrib. St. Patrick’s National School stands next to the river, just over O’Brien’s Bridge, and the stink, akin to potent, rotten eggs, was worst in the boys toilets, I recall. In those days, we lined up furtively in the schoolyard each morning, while the school band played the national anthem, sometimes with the Irish flag raised only to half mast because of yet another atrocity in the North.
The murder of the Miami Showband was a particularly shocking episode in that ugly history. 1975 was a bad year for sectarian violence, following on from the Dublin and Monaghan car bombings of the previous, bloody year (months later, 11 Protestants, on their way to work, were murdered as an act of retaliation … and so Northern Ireland went in those dark days). One, bright August morning, the Feast of the Assumption, walking into town with my father, on our way to mass, we came across the aftermath of an IRA bank robbery. The bloodied, lifeless body of local man, Jerome O’Connor lay on the pavement. The massacre of the Miami Showband and the murder of O’Connor took place just two weeks apart, and both during the summer (end of July, middle of August), when school was not in session, but both have become inextricably linked in my memory and connected to the day the river was contaminated and two boys fainted. Do we construct our own memories in the same way we are told students construct their own meaning, I wonder?
The poetic license used – for this is a poem, not a biography – brings a collection of spectral memories and youthful ghosts together. Fellow classmate and friend, Michael O’Reilly, died, not many years later, following a tragic incident at Seapoint Ballroom while he was still a schoolboy. Barman, Mick Carr, another colourful character in my young life, died suddenly from a heart attack not long after this, leaving a young family behind. Meetings with Cyril Mahoney, one of my favourite teachers, were always an odd event as he had also taught my father and thought the world of him. Years later, after an Arts Festival reading in Nun’s Island, novelist, John McGahern informed me that he had met my father during his fleeting student days in Galway and had, in fact, briefly described his brother, my uncle, James, in his first novel, The Dark.
“A steady job has a lot to be said for it. He might waste years at the University and not do as good at the heel of the hunt. Drinking and dancing is what some of them I see are best qualified for on leaving here,” a little man in a tweed suit, spectacles on his nose, who was in the Goods Store of the railway station, voiced.
I recall reading the passage to my father, who remarked, without excitement, “Oh, that would be him, alright. Sure the town has always been full of people making up stories.”
Looking back, these memories from 1975 converge, and make me think about the power of memory, and the impact of our school days on our grown selves. My parents, of course, were younger then than I am today and they remain eternally youthful and alive from the distance afforded by time and place. And while time has inevitably, irrevocably, moved on, and the old town is much changed, the river still flows next to my former school and another generation of young students, despite the best plans of their teachers, is assembling its own personal history. And perhaps this is one of the lessons of history itself for those of us who work as educators: we are effectively building the pasts of our young people while we prepare them for their futures. The two are inextricable; and it is the quality of what will become the remembered past, how we intentionally construct meaningful experiences for our students – the things that truly count – that will matter the most.
The stench of foul effluence hung over the town like a threat
Seeping, murkily, above O’Brien’s Bridge, pungent, by the flour mill
Asclepius and Epione hung their heads in shame
My father left me at the gate of St Pat’s
The Mon will be a car park one of these days, they are saying
McGahern had known him briefly during his dark days.
We stood, obedient, in the school yard, as they raised the tricolour yet again
For the national anthem, the Brothers wore the solemn look about the North.
They killed a band last night up there, someone said, while across the street
In the Chinese restaurant, the sounds of violence above the tuneless school band played out. Smile on sunshine, smile on, I can see it in your eyes
Miami Fran O’Toole took 22 bullets in the face, Magliocco whispered.
The Three Sisters – Barrow, Nore and Suir, were a mere backdrop
To my wonderment at the delay of the Mervue boys gone to the jacks.
You’re as bad as your father, Cyril Mahoney whished
Before dispatching me with O’Reilly in search. We found the two boys,
Passed out, face down, mouths bubbling, on the pissy floor.
The chemical river carried us all home early, liberated, towards the town clock.
We parted beneath the incessant drizzling rain when we reached the Genoa Bar.
I knew my way around by Mick Hollands’, over to Taaffes
Eternally youthful, Mick Carr handed me a Miwadi while I waited for my father
Then brought be a sticky bun from Griffin’s bakery next door.
That young lad saw O’Connor outside Lynch’s Castle after the bank job
Years later, time out of mind, Billy Mull asked me about that out in The Hilltop.
I read the names as we walked towards home, the light fading now
John Raftery & Sons, Annie Lee’s, The Lisheen, Coen’s Public House.
On Dominick Street, outside the Coachman Hotel, how odd to hear my father call
Him Mr. Mahoney, still his teacher; then, home to Shantalla, smell of fried liver
And my mother, Athena of Bohermore, oh so very young
Hanging his CIE uniform on the hot press door
The silent serenity of simplicity, like dolmens round my childhood.
Back on O’Brien’s Bridge, the medieval street now with taxi drivers calling
far-flung lands, Nigeria, Kenya, and Brazil, something still toxic in the air.
My parents lie in Rahoon with Bodkin, or is it Furey, not far from Bowling Green
Forty years later, a thousand miles away, I see them still vividly
Softly, spectral, beckoning me home, mutinous; in exile
From a fabled, steepled town, next to an eternally flowing river, they live on.