My attendance at St. Patrick’s was ultimately unhappy for me and unhappy for them. I only lasted a year. The straw that broke the camel’s back involved a Spanish teacher known as Biddy, who I was convinced had put lines in my homework without even looking at it. When the weather was nice, Biddy ate lunch in a clear plastic Tupperware box on a park bench in the shade of the magnificent cathedral. Schoolchildren weren’t allowed in the park at lunchtime, but I had found a way to climb the gates, and one day, with a couple of accomplices, I managed to throw some dog poop in his lunch box. Unsurprisingly, at the end of term, Biddy wanted that little shit to throw some hair on her, and it was suggested that I might be happier somewhere else. In September 1972, I enrolled in Mount Temple Comprehensive School.
Mount Temple was liberation. A non-denominational and mixed experience, notable for its time in conservative Ireland. Instead of an A class, a B class, and a C class, the six freshman classes were D, U, B, L, I, and N. You were encouraged to be yourself, to be creative, to wear your own clothes. And there were girls. Also wearing their own clothes.
It took two bus rides to get to Temple Mount, a long ride into the city center from the northwest side and then to the northeast. Unless you ride a bike, which my friend Reggie Manuel and I started doing. It was on an endless slope of a hill that we learned to hold the milk truck. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more free than riding my bike to school with Reggie. If the weather didn’t allow us to cycle all the time, leaving us to bus drudgery, the compensation would come on Fridays, when we would stop downtown after school to visit the record store Dolphin Discs , on Talbot Street. It was there that I first saw albums like The Stooges’ Raw Power, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Lou Reed’s Transformer.
The only reason I wasn’t up in the record store at 5:30 P.M. on May 17, 1974, it was because a bus strike forced us to go to school by bicycle. We were already home when the streets around Dolphin Discs were shattered by a car bomb in Talbot Street, another in Parnell Street and another in South Leinster Street, all within minutes, a coordinated attack by an extremist group Ulster loyalist who wanted the south to know what terrorism looked like. A fourth explosion hit Monaghan and the final death toll stood at thirty-three, including a pregnant young mother, the entire O’Brien family and a Frenchwoman whose family had survived the Holocaust.
That same year, in September, we celebrated my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. They danced and sang Michael Finnegan’s reel. My mom’s dad, “Gags” Rankin, had so much fun his kids were worried he’d wake up at night and not go to the bathroom. They left a bucket next to the bed. And my grandfather kicked that bucket out of this life with a massive heart attack on his wedding anniversary night.
Three days later, at the funeral, I see my father carrying my mother in his arms through a crowd, like a white billiard ball scattering a colored triangle. He rushes to take her to the hospital. She collapsed to the side of the grave as her own father descended into the ground.
“Iris passed out. Iris passed out. The voices of my aunts and cousins blow like a breeze through the leaves. “She’ll be fine. She just passed out.” Before I, or anyone else, can think, my dad has Iris in the back of the Hillman Avenger, with my brother Norman at the wheel.
I stay with my cousins to say goodbye to my grandfather, then we all go back to my grandmother’s little red brick house at 8 Cowper Street, where the little kitchen has become a factory producing sandwiches, cookies and tea. This duplex with outdoor bathroom seems to contain thousands of people.
Even though it’s grandpa’s funeral, and even though Iris has passed out, we’re children, cousins, running around and laughing. Until Ruth, my mother’s younger sister, burst in the door. “Iris is dying. She had a stroke.
Everyone gathers together. Iris is one of eight in n°8: five girls and three boys. They cry, moan, struggle to stand. Someone realizes I’m here too. I am fourteen years old and I am strangely calm. I tell my mom’s sisters and brothers it’s gonna be alright
Three days later, Norman and I are taken to the hospital to say goodbye. She is alive but barely. Local clergyman Sydney Laing, whose daughter I’m dating, is here. Ruth is outside the hospital room, crying, with my father, whose eyes have less life than my mother’s. I walk into the room at war with the universe, but Iris looks peaceful. It’s hard to fathom that so much of her is already gone. We hold her hand. There is a click, but we don’t hear it.
My father was a tenor, a very good one. He could move people with his singing, and to move people with music, you first have to be moved by it. In the living room, standing in front of the stereo with two of my mother’s knitting needles, he was conducting: Beethoven, Mozart, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Richard Strauss’ “Last Four Songs.” Or “La Traviata”, eyes closed, lost in reverie.
He is not precisely aware of the story of “La Traviata”, but he feels it. A father and his son at odds, lovers torn and reunited. He feels the injustice of the human heart. He is broken by the music.
After my mother leaves, Cedarwood Road becomes its own opera house. Three men used to yell at the TV, now they’re yelling at each other. We live in rage and melancholy, in mystery and melodrama. The subject of the opera is the absence of a woman named Iris, and the music swells to drown out the silence that envelops the house and the three men, one of whom is just a boy. .
My brother Norman was always a repairman, an engineer, a mechanic who could take things apart and put things back together. The engine of his motorcycle, a clock, a radio, a stereo. He loved technology and he loved music. A large chrome Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder took pride of place in our ‘good room’, and Norman was enterprising enough to realize that reel-to-reel meant he didn’t have to keep buying music. If he borrowed an album from a friend for an hour, it was his forever.
Because Norman, seven years older than me, was already a worker when I was at Mount Temple, reel-to-reel was my only company when I came home from school. Some late afternoons, I arrived so hungry, but I quickly forgot who and where I was. I would stand in front of the stereo, just like my father, and let the house burn while I listened to the opera. Rock opera: “Tommy”, from the Who. The coal smoke would fill the kitchen and seep into the living room.
Norman taught me to play the guitar. He taught me the C chord, the G chord and, much more difficult, the F chord, which requires you to hold down two strings with one finger. Especially difficult when the strings are quite far from the neck, as they were on Norman’s rather inexpensive guitar. But with his advice, I learned to play “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”. I learned to play ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ on my brother’s guitar.
Norman and I argued a lot. He was coming home from work and I was watching TV, without doing my homework, without having prepared the tea. He would give me a lip. I would return it. One of us would end up on the floor.