TIDY TOWN PARALYZED BY PROMISCUOUS TOURIST: Three-time first prize winner in Ireland's Tidy Town competition, the drowsy seaside town of Ballymullet may never again be a tourists' paradise. In the midst of this idyllic landscape of thatched roofs and quaint pubs set against a backdrop of green hills dotted with sheep, a silent killer lurks. Or so says Father Brendan Lenehan, the priest who shocked parishioners at the Mary Magdalene Church in Ballymullet last Sunday, when he announced that a female tourist from England had infected several local men with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The residents of Ballymullet, long accustomed to the presence of tourists in their pubs and shops, have until now welcomed outsiders. Yet in an interview this week Father Lenehan speculated that the moral backwardness tourists bring with them is threatening the way of life enjoyed by locals in this tiny hamlet. "The end of our innocence is being ushered in with an event of near-biblical proportions," Father Lenehan declared. "Sex and drugs can only lead to plague and pestilence."
Afterward I went for one at Mangan's, like I do on a Sunday. The Rose of Tralee pageant was on, with your man Derek Davis hosting, because Gay Byrne's in hospital. Too many pub lunches and iffy egg mayonnaise, if you ask me. That fella would eat his own arm if you buttered it. So we're all watching the Aussie Rose sing "Waltzing Matilda" in a getup that looks like the drapes in the Wellington Court Hotel, and Mary McGarry starts giving out to Tiny about didn't she see him one night chatting up a Brit in a tight jumper and buying her a Ritz, and wasn't it that same Brit that Father Lenehan had warned us about that very morning? So Tiny, who wasn't half a minute from buying his round, sits and takes it from her all the way through the Dublin Rose and the Boston Rose, and in the middle of the adverts he says, "At least I could get a word in edgewise with the girl," and out he goes. "Oh, Jaysus, I'm afflicted with the AIDS, sure I am," Mary starts in, so I took her next door to the fish-and-chips shop for a snack box and then we went back to Mangan's just for a quick pint. The two of us were having a chat when who shows up but Nuala, who tells me I was to get dinner for the girls hours ago and I'm in desperate trouble.
All that night my stomach was very bad. Now a week's gone by and it's worse than ever. I had to drink the milk delivery this morning before it ever saw the inside of the icebox. Sure I'll catch hell from Nuala. Is it only sores you get when it's AIDS, or can it start in the stomach? Last month, after Ireland beat Italy in the World Cup, we were all up at Mangan's, the whole town it must have been, and Mary and I went round back, just for some air, and one thing led to another, as it can. It was just a ride. I was sorry for it afterward, and went with Nuala and her Aunt Molly, with her feet so swollen she has to have them up all the time, to the Wellington Court for dinner three Sundays in a row, but now my stomach's so bad I can't even manage a pint. What if Tiny got it from the Brit and gave it to Mary and she gave it to me?
I never said the woman intentionally infected the lads she seduced. I gave the facts. All of this can be found in Deuteronomy, the stranger from a far land who brings plagues. This is my parish. If there is one among us who is the source of harm or evil, I am he who will, who must, spread the word. Have I any choice but to warn the people of this village of what travels in their midst? We are a small and by some standards sheltered nation. We do not know the dangerous ways of the world. Our citizens know nothing of slayings on commuter trains, the gays in their parades walking down Fifth Avenue in wigs and frocks. This is a country where a lad can still hold a door open for a girl. We have no killers dressed as little old ladies, lurking in the back seats of cars. These are people, you see, who must be warned of what dangers lie beyond the borders of Ireland. These are innocent people, who will buy you a pint with their last pound and give you the shirts off their very backs.
I had her permission to speak at mass on Sunday. She feels great remorse for what she has done, and has entrusted me to speak on her behalf. I should be the one to carry her message to all of Ireland.
All this week my legs have been a desperate red, with pains running through the middle of them. Jimmy Faye hasn't been up to take out the rubbish or bring me my tablets. "Useless"was the word for Jimmy Faye when Nuala married him, twenty-one years ago, and "useless" is the word I'd use now. He's not a stable sort. It's a wandering eye he has, and he's been more on than off the dole as long as I've known him. Now Nuala goes out to work at Superquinn six days a week, and all Jimmy Faye has to do is get the little ones up and give them their porridge in the morning. Most mornings he can't do even that.
I have lived in Ballymullet since I was a little girl. We moved here from Athboy before I could talk. I can remember when the Unionists would parade through the town, and the shopkeepers closed down for the day. The people in this town have always had a good dose of sympathy for the Unionists. That is until now, when the young ones care more about the price of a pint than the dream of a united Ireland. Certainly no one's planning a hunger strike, unless you count my grandniece's craze with slimming pills. She's saving her money for a trip to a salon in Dublin where you can go for an artificial suntan. It's a sort of cooker you sit in -- but only for a moment, or you'll be cooked inside as well as out. Can you imagine a girl with lovely Irish skin wanting a tan?Is it one of the colored girls you want to look like? I asked her.
It's not the Ireland where I grew up. My own children sleep through Sunday mass, we'll be voting on divorce next month, and the country is filling up with coloreds and Brits. My sister Rosie, in Galway, says you can't walk down the street without running into an Irish girl with a man who's colored or British, sometimes both. I hear my grandchildren go on about dying their hair purple -- even the lads! And in the lounge at Mangan's I hear all manner of conversation about girls taking the ferry to England for a termination. Termination! Over pints they discuss terminations and birth-control devices, as if it's the bad weather they're talking about. Do they think old women are deaf and blind?
Two fellas came into Mangan's one afternoon hauling a cigarette machine, I thought it was, and lugged it into the corner beside the Gents. What do you know, it's condoms they have for sale. You should have seen the look on the ladies' faces when they went for a pack of smokes. Jimmy Faye bought one, just for laughs, tossed it over to me, and said, "Where were these before Nollaig and Maureen?" -- his fourth and fifth. Nollaig's a big girl; she likes a third helping whenever she can get it. It's not easy when you're on the dole and have five mouths to feed.
We're in for a quick one the Saturday following, and Tim Mangan and me are just after breaking up a row out back when what do we see but the same two fellas with the machine, this time in reverse.
"What's the idea, lads?" Tim Mangan says. "Business is booming!"
"We're on orders," the fella who looks to be in charge says.
Now, Tim doesn't like the sound of this at all, because the machine's been a big draw all week. Everyone knows the pints are dear at Mangan's, a good 20p more than at the Priory or the Haggard Inn, but word got out, and everyone was coming into Mangan's for a look. You'd think Tim had put the Blessed Virgin herself beside the Gents, and she was forgiving the wicked their trespasses.
They've been back once since, but a fella came in with a notice telling them to remove the machine from the premises before they even got it down the hall.
"Just set it down outside the chipper, next to the postbox," I said. Everybody liked that one. Then Tim sees the fellas are serious about taking the machine back up to Dublin, and he starts shouting that if British girls with social diseases are going to be taking their holidays in Ballymullet, then what we need is a condom machine in every pub in town. You'd think he was the priest himself, the way he's yelling about fire and brimstone and the great plague upon the city. Tommy MacIntyre over in his corner looks up from the Independent and says the famine already cut our numbers in half, and how many each year go to America for good on Donnelly visas? This country will empty out altogether if it's condoms we're using.
I'm thinking it must be a miracle if that Brit shagged a bunch of men in this town and has nothing to show for it. Our wives with the teething babbies screaming to wake the dead would wish their odds were half that good.
I heard that in America if you don't like your wife's jumpers, say, or she's put on four stone since the day you married her, you can go to an office in the center of town, and ten minutes later you've your divorce papers in your hand, just like that. A friend of my sister's in Queens did that to his wife and then just disappeared -- left her with three mouths to feed, and she never saw or heard from him again. Now, here, that's not the way it is at all. You can have as many reasons as you've fingers on both hands, and I do, and you'll be getting the fella his dinner and ironing his work clothes till you're eighty, if he's even got steady work, which Tiny never does.
One night in April, Tiny came home from Mangan's full of drink, a bottle of Jameson's in his side pocket, and hit me square in the face when I wouldn't give him a ride. I didn't go out for days. I listen to Gerry Ryan on the radio every morning while I'm doing the washing, and last week he was interviewing women with mean husbands.
I am sure Tiny was up to no good with that Brit. He's the sort, and he can blame me for not giving him a ride like a wife should. I didn't for three months, not since the night he hit me. I wrote the date on a slip of paper, and each evening I marked down another day I'd kept him off me. Plenty of times I've passed Mangan's and seen him chattin' up one of the girls. I saw him with a girl after the Ireland-Italy match who I know was the Brit. She had that manky hair and dark pencil around the eyes, the way they wear it in London. I was blind that night -- Jimmy Faye kept putting another bottle of Ritz in front of me, and port and brandies later, when he said his stomach was gone and wouldn't take another pint.
The morning after the World Cup match I woke up and Tiny and I were beside each other in the bed without a stitch of clothing. I found my knickers on the floor. I dressed before he woke, and neither of us said a word about it. Ever since the night he hit me, I have been sleeping in my flannels, except for that night.
I don't regret what I did with Jimmy Faye. He's a lovely man, couldn't hurt a woman if he tried, though his hands are as big as hams and he had to steady himself against the door when we were out behind Mangan's. Now Father Lenehan says this Brit with AIDS has gone and given some of the men in town a ride.
I am not up the pole, which is a good sign, because I usually get pregnant when Tiny looks at me sideways. But if Tiny got a ride off the Brit that night, I've far more than a babby to worry about.
On my slip of paper I am still marking the days. I am not sure why.
is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at the University of Utah.
Illustrations from Mark Gagnon.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; I'm From Ballymullet - 00.05 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 5; page 101-106.