Vive Moi!

A Dubliner who is generally regarded as one of the very best short-story writers of our time, SEAN O’FAOLAIN,in the following excerpt from his forthcoming autobiography. tells of his early years. His father was a policeman, and his mother look in lodgers from the Cork Opera House across the street. With his two brothers he lived in the garret, but the theater and the church and the rain god’s green beauty of the countryside were the brimmings which awakened the imagination of Ireland’s finest writer.

My FATHER, whose name was Denis Whelan, was a police constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary. He came from a small farm near the hamlet of Stradbally, about fifty miles southeast of Dublin in what was then known as the Queen’s County, a region named after Queen Mary I, the wife of Philip of Spain, when it was originally planted and shired by English settlers. It is known today by its old Gaelic name of Laois.

When I first became consciously aware of my father, I chose to see him (being at the time very much under the influence of the Baroness Orczy) as a Napoleonic grenadier, tall, finely built, his back straight as a musket, his air distinguished, his eyes gray-blue and clear, as if they forever reflected the snows of Moscow, his graying hair soft as dust, his neatly brushed mustache gone white before its time. I was not far wrong in romanticizing him as a grenadier. He was a modest, pious, trusting man, upright, honest as daylight, and absolutely loyal to the Empire as only a born hero-worshiper can be. I have no doubt at all that certain rebellious people today would call him a square, and that, if he ever met a couple of beats, he would have quietly advised them to go home to their mothers. He would not have raised a finger to them, least of all have tried to make or fake a charge against them; I do not believe he ever charged anybody in his life: he was too gentle. I am not idealizing him. He always evoked my respect, and sometimes my admiration, but, although I am sure he loved me with a father’s love, he rarely warmed me to love him. Not that I thought about it while he lived, but now I know why it was so. He was the humble but priceless foundation stuff on which all great states and empires have raised themselves, deviously, to power and glory, and I was a natural, if mild, rebel.

I believe my father’s humility was really a form of proud reverence growing out of his job. Because of this, I have occasionally told my English friends in my later years that he was a product of Sandhurst, which would be like a gendarme’s son saying his papa had been through Saint-Cyr. Then I would entertain myself by explaining just what I meant. I meant that the Royal Irish Constabulary, or “the Force,” as it was popularly called, was mainly officered by Sandhurst types — in religion mostly Anglicans, or what we called Protestants; in politics Anglo-Irish imperialists to a man, whose great ambition was to infuse and inspire the lowest ranks of the Force with the officers-and-gentlemen traditions of the crack regiments of the British Army. Only those who have known, or can imagine, the earthy simplicity of the Irish youths recruited into the Force, practically all of them poor, inexperienced young men of Catholic peasant stock will realize the enormity of this ambition, which, I may judge by my father, succeeded absolutely. It is my impression that it also achieved a good deal of success among natives in Delhi, Colombo, Accra, Nassau, Hong Kong, Nairobi, and elsewhere.

In his dark bottle-green uniform, black leather belt with brass buckle, black helmet or peaked cap, black truncheon case, and black boots my father embodied the Law. What was far more important, he embodied all the accepted and respected values and conventions of what we would nowadays call the Establishment. The most easily observable effect of this was that we, his children, in dutiful imitation of him, took over, holus-bolus, the accepted hierarchy of the imperial way of life.

At the top of our hierarchy was that bearded, jovial, rotund, elegant father figure, His Majesty King Edward VII. How amorally jovial he was is something that can never, of course, have entered my father’s devoted and loyal head. Had somebody told him the now common stories about Eddie’s mistresses and concubines — about, say, Cora Pearl’s being brought in naked after dinner on a vast silver tray borne by six footmen — or about his gay goings-on in Baalbek or Baden-Baden, or about the selfish caddishness he showed toward his friends, so painfully described by Christopher Sykes in Four Studies in Loyalty, my father would have thought the storyteller mad, obscene, blasphemous, a traitor and a blackguard; or he would not have understood a word of it; or it would all have floated in and out of his ears as happened to me when the Girl Sawn in Half told me all those other wonderful and, alas, forgotten stories about “dear Eddie.”

I used to hear my father trace what he called “the line of precedence” from the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff down through the civilian galaxy of the Lord Chief Justice and all his judges of lower title, down to our own resident magistrates, our own district inspectors and county inspectors, down to our local Lord Mayor, his sheriff, his aldermen, and, I presume, his fur-hatted, red-cloaked mace-bearer. But after those my father (and I) began to waver. We could not really admit all the city counselors — they were too near to us, much too like ourselves. Anyway, our household had enough to handle without them.

“Mind yourselves, now,” my father would say to us three brothers, as we set out on our regular afternoon walk, always the same walk, up Wellington Road and down Saint Luke’s. “Mind you behave properly in the street! You never know who might be walking behind you. It might be Alderman Jimmy Simcox. Or the Lord Mayor. Or Colonel Winterbottom. Or the canon. Or, the Lord between us and all harm, maybe the district inspector himself!”

Because of this hierarchy-worship, certain Sunday mornings provided me, like the theater and the Church, with some highly emotional images of the Admirable Life. On these special mornings my father would lead the three of us up our all too familiar Saint Luke’s or Wellington Road, and on beyond it to Wellington Barracks, under the arch, into the barrack square, there to join other loyal citizens watching the church parade of whatever regiment was quartered on us at the time. I have forgotten now what form of drill took place. All I remember is that either the Union Jack or else the regimental flag was shown, and that at the end the regimental band solemnly played “God Save the King.” My brothers told me in later years that they felt a little embarrassed at this point — two loyalties, to the Empire and to Ireland, conflicting. There was no such conflict in the Old Grenadier or in me. He would thrust out his chest, stand to attention like a ramrod, and glare straight in front of him. I, at his knee, would whip off my cap. throw out my chest, glare, and feel almost choked with emotion at the sonorous brass blare of: “Send him victorious, Happy and Glorious, Long to reign over us, God Save the King.”

When the drums rolled and the brass shook the air I could hear the saber clash, the hoof beats, the rifle fire of all the adventure books I had been reading, mainly Henty’s: With Kitchener in the Sudan, One of the 28th, Under Drake’s Flag, Winning his Spurs,St. George for England, With Wolfe to Canada, or Won by the Sword. As we walked away my father would be completely silent, or he would touch a stone in a wall bearing the broad arrow and the carved letters W. D. (War Department) and nod at us sagely and proudly. We belonged.

THIS pride nourished in him a strong fire of ambition for his sons. He was to make his eldest son, Patrick, a priest, an ambition of high priority with all Irish parents, and he was madly proud of his second son, Augustine, who later entered the British Civil Service and became a revenue inspector.

“To think.” he would then muse, “that a son of mine is examining the incomes of men as rich, aye, and richer than the judge and the district inspector!”

He nearly went out of his head with delight the day my brother, then stationed in Bournemouth, one of the wealthiest centers for rentier incomes in England, told him that he had a retired field marshal on his books.

“What next?” he moaned, throwing his hands up to heaven in delight. “What next?”

Still later he put me through the university. After I got a fellowship that took me to Harvard, he used to write me letters, in his neat copperplate handwriting, so full of humble respect that they used to make me squirm at my own ingratitude and inadequacy. Remember this was achieved on a policeman’s salary of about fifty-two pounds a year, eked out with the few pounds my mother made on her lodgers. This ambition for their young was a universal mark of the old R.I.C., and its source is as obvious as its history is long. Indeed, when I think now of that regimental parade I wonder whether, among our own most ancient ancestors, living on the boundaries of another Empire, another such father may not on occasion have stood watching from a hilltop, in a similar blended mood of smored pride and parental ambition, the imperial eagles passing far below along the Aurelian and the Julian Way into nether Gaul.

My pride in my father was at its greatest when the Assizes opened and he would be among those allotted to guard the judge at the Courthouse. The British managed these things well. The judge, gowned and bewigged, was always borne in a horse-drawn carriage, open if the weather was clement, through the streets of the city, accompanied by detachments of mounted police and military, trotting, tinkling, and clanking gallantly fore and aft. These mounted police, now gone, were a smart body of men, dressed in tight, black breeches with knee-high boots of shining leather, the belt worn diagonally across the chest over one shoulder, little black pillbox hats held gaily on the sides of their heads by patent-leather chin straps, their long truncheons dangling from the pommels. I remember that many of them had a way of affecting small waxed mustaches. As for the foreign soldiery, I recall with special pleasure a detachment of cuirassiers with gleaming breastplates, helmets with long red plumes, and drawn swords. The foot police, my father among them, wore full-dress uniform, spiked helmets with silver chin straps, patentleather belts, and gloves. On his arrival at the Courthouse the judge would alight from his carriage and in stately grandeur climb the long flight of steps up to the entrance, where a row of officials stood waiting respectfully to receive him — all native-born Irishmen. It was an impressive sight. A political system had been established. We the people had accepted it. Our Church blessed it. Our politicians tolerated it. The law of the land was now about to apply it.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the waiting rooms or in the cells, about to be herded into the dock, there would be another bunch of native-born Irishmen. Most of them would, under any system, have to be considered lawless men; but at that time others would have been there thanks only to inherent injustices in the law itself. One might be a peasant farmer who, in despair, had resisted eviction from his minute cottage and holding by the local agent of some landlord residing in London or the Continent, who rarely, if ever, laid eyes on his property. Another man in the dock might have got involved in some internecine feud with his neighbor because of some real or imagined injustice arising out of the same complicated land system. Another might be a youth whose hot blood had led him to knock down or wound a policeman for no better reason than that he disliked the law of the land without knowing why he disliked it. All such protesters, for whatever reason, against the established system were, I am sure, accepted by everybody present as criminal. I, certainly, thought them criminals whenever, through my father’s almighty influence, I was slipped into the court to witness the drama of their trial, judgment, and sentence. When I saw, hanging around the dim halls and corridors, the mothers, fathers, sisters, wives, or other relatives of the men on trial — old, brown-shawled women, frieze-coated countrymen, rude denizens of the hills and the fields — whispering in corners with bewigged counsel, apparently overawed by their strange surroundings, fearful for their kin, I never felt for them anything but a sense of vicarious fear blended with awestruck wonderment at their folly in getting themselves into such a mess.

THERE were, now and again, undercurrents. A sense of fear and wonder used to visit me every time I drew my father’s pinewood baton from its leather case. As I slowly fingered the smooth, hard weapon I felt repulsion and something bordering on disgust. There was nobody to make the mental connection for me with Henty’s rattling rifle fire, flashing sabers, and galloping hooves, yet, in some dim way, I do think that I here first began to feel the unpleasant reality of Power when combined with brute Force. I felt something of the same sort when, a couple of times a year, my father would be on late duty in the Bridewell and I and one of my brothers would be sent down there with welcome bowls of soup for himself and his comrades. By way of reward, we would be shown over the cells with all their paraphernalia of restraint. Once, to amuse me, one of my father’s colleagues locked my wrists in the cold handcuffs. Another time we were shown the straitjacket for violent prisoners, a contraption of stout canvas with heavy leather belts. The cell was cold, dirty-white, with a smelly water closet in the corner and a yellow fan of light bubbling in an aperture over the iron door. On that evening my brother lay down in the straitjacket, and they buckled him up to show how it was done. “Get out o’ that, now, Mister Houdini!” laughed one of the constables, standing over him in his gray shirt and braces. I trembled to see him lying there, trussed like a mummy, smiling boyishly up at my smiling father and his jolly friends.

I loved the weeks when, not more than once a quarter, my father was detailed as night watch in the streets from midnight on. He looked very big, powerful, and handsome in his special night-duty uniform: a long black belted overcoat down to his shins, a domed helmet, and if the weather was bad, a black waterproof cape and short black stubby leggings. Our small city was free of serious crime, so that he and his comrade had nothing to do the whole night but kill the long hours pacing the empty streets or standing in doorways watching the rain make bubbles in the lamp-lit pools, slant in the wind, hiss and moan up the river — Cork is a notoriously wet and windy city — hearing nothing else except some late reveler or late night worker beating his lonely way home or, on the cold gusts from the north, Shandon’s tireless bell.

One reason why I loved those occasions was because my father and his companions ate a special late supper of chops, potatoes, and strong tea just before going on duty, and I was either allowed to stay up late or come down in my nightshirt to partake of bits and scraps from his plate like a puppy dog. No piece of chop has ever since tasted as sweet as those bits of tail end from his piled-up plate, as I sat on his knee, wearing his belt wound twice around me, my face and head half-extinguished under his vasty helmet. The fire in the range would be glowing. The steel of the fender shone bayonetbright. The red tiles of the kitchen looked as warm as their color. The wind in the already deserted streets shook the windows. The two policemen would presently buckle on their belts and truncheons, button up their collars, hook their capes, slip baby bottles of whiskey into their pockets against colds and pneumonia, and adventure out into the darkness, emptiness, and rain of the city streets, whereas I was about to clamber between my two brothers into a nicely warmed bed. I particularly liked the nights when his companion was one Constable Jim Hedderman, a pleasant, leanfaced, redheaded fellow, who had established himself as the Brains of the Bridewell. He was always full of chat and odd stories. He had ambitions to get the two stripes — that is, to become an acting sergeant; and was forever studying for the necessary examinations, which he never passed. His two favorite subjects were orthography and astronomy. My father said he used to pass the night producing hard words to spell or, if it was a clear sky, reading the stars.

“That is Cassy-o-paya. How would you spell that, now, Dinny? That is Orion’s Belt. I bet you think that is spelled o-r-y-a-n. It is not, then. I will now relate to you the story of Orion.”

My mother would take the holy-water bottle and bless the pair of them with a wild scatter from it. She and I would then peep down through the corner of the window at the pair of them starting their slow pacing around the corner of the School of Art, encased, immense, transformed, no longer just Father or just Jim, padding out of sight, once again the embodied, feared, and respected Law.

ONE afternoon I ran into the kitchen, divesting myself of my school satchel, eager for my dinner, and was halted by my mother’s pale face and pointing finger. There, on the old, battered sofa in the kitchen, lay my father, his head bandaged round and round, his right hand wrapped in layers of cotton wool and more bandages, looking solemnly up at me. She told me that he had been sent out that morning to a place called Watergrasshill, a rural hamlet a few miles northeast of Cork, where he had joined a squad of police forcibly evicting a tenant farmer and his family from the small house and farm whose rent they, presumably, could or would no longer pay but which they had refused to surrender. He may have been a shiftless and worthless farmer, or a hardworking and overburdened man; his landlord may have been indulgent and patient, or he may have been a ruthless tyrant; all we knew was that the man had barricaded himself in his house, cottage, or hut and that the police had come, as was usual on such occasions, to break in the door with rifle butts and a battering ram and throw him and his family out, with their belongings, on the roadside. In the melee my father had been hit with a heavy stone, and when somebody inside thrust out an iron bar through a hole in the window he had grasped it. The bar looked black, but it had come, one minute before, red-hot from the hearth. It had seared his hand to the bones.

As I looked down at him. gazing silently up at me, I could not have felt more overcome if he had been a boxer in the ring and I had just seen him knocked on the flat of his back to the canvas. Beside me my mother was at one moment commiserating him and at the next upbraiding him for “puting himself forward” in the fray.

“Sure, you were always a quiet man! Too quiet! Too soft altogether for this world. Never in your life summonsed a living soul. What call had you to be making a hero out of yourself? How fair it was you were the foolah to catch the blow and snatch the bar! Always a good father, and a kind husband. Oh, the blackguards! To do such a thing to such a quiet man!”

And, indeed, this was all true. How often had I not heard him at night in his little attic room, when we were all in bed, praying aloud for us all, in a soughing, undulating, pleading voice, on his knees by his bed, his hands joined, his eyes to the ceiling, and, as always, his braces hanging behind him to the floor like a bifurcated tail: “Oh, please, dear, kind Jesus, look after my poor little children, Patrick and Augustine and John. Watch over my poor wife, Bid. Guide them and guard them. Help me to work for them as long as I live.”

It was his silence that wounded me, and the bewilderment in his eyes. Could it have been that he was shocked by this passionate clash with his own kind of small-farmer folk in that early-morning tussle on those windy uplands? If so, it was well for him that his retirement age came before 1916, when the revolutionary spirit spread all over the country. During the Troubles, as we were ironically to call those dangerous but very happy years, the Force was to stand to its guns against the rebels almost to a man; so, I know, would he have done, stubbornly, however bewildered by it all, not, to be sure, after any deep conscience searchings about the conflicting demands involved in the idea of loyalty, but for a quite simple and unarguable reason: “Oh, please, dear, kind Jesus, look after my poor little children. . . . Help me to work for them as long as I live.”

Men like my father were dragged out in those years and shot down as traitors to their country. Shot for cruel necessity — so be it. Shot to inspire necessary terror — so be it. But they were not traitors. They had their loyalties, and stuck to them.

I FEEL downcast that I can only remember my father like this, as a figure, almost as a type, rather than as a person. His own inner, private life is hidden from me completely. He is to me more of a myth than a man, a figure out of that time, out of that place, a symbol of childhood. Does it always happen when we live closely and long with a person or a place that we come to know it less and less, whether it be wife, husband, child, or town? With him this happens when I seize even on the one or two privacies of his life, such as his little brown locked box, always on a shelf in the kitchen. To my mother this was a “Bluebeard’s chamber,” about which she used to tease him, to his great annoyance, saying, “I wonder what have you at all, at all, in that little brown box. Maybe a little roll of pound notes? Ha?”

I think it contained his razors, possibly a few family letters, possibly a couple of pound notes. I associate it with his one relaxation, a bet on a horse now and again. After all, he had been born in the Queen’s County, which borders on County Kildare, both famous racing counties. Down there he had a friend who was supposed to be “in the know,” one Philly Behan, a starter or a starter’s assistant on the Curragh. To Philly, now and again, he would send a present of a ham, and from Philly there would come now and again a letter which he might, though rarely, leave on the shelf and which my mother would guiltily read. “There is some talk about a promising three-year-old. Flyaway, trained by Hartigan, for the June meeting, and if Canty is up I would say that he would be worth a bet both ways.” But when I would hear those words I would not think of his tremors or expectations so much as of the green wonder of the Curragh plain, about which he often talked to us, or of the Great Heath of Maryborough near his boyhood home, and of all that far-off country from which he, and therefore I, had come. For me the little brown box held green fields, yellow heather, and galloping horses. In this way he really was a bit of the Irish myth, and a bit also of the imperial myth, and through their blended ambitions and pieties he achieved wholeness.

He had one other precious dream. Every so often there would come in the post a copy of a local paper from Kildare or the Queen’s with advertisements of forthcoming auctions of farms marked in red ink:

Four miles from Emo. Thirty Acres of useful grazing land. Farmhouse and outhouses. . . . Kildangan. Twenty-seven acres, three roods of Fine Arable Land. . . . Near Kiladoon

It was the pipe dream of a man who had not enough money to farm a window box, the uprooted peasant longing for his mother earth, incomplete, unwhole, mortally vulnerable away from it. There must have been thousands like him in the Force. He reminds me that we had a semipermanent lodger one year named Ross, a retired sergeant of the Force. He was a finely built man, now gray, though you could see by his eyelashes that he had once been redheaded, with flowing mustaches still russet, partly from his pipe, but also from rude, persistent health. He was a figure of fun to us children because he was always talking aloud to himself, so loudly that even through the ceiling we could sometimes hear him in his room mixing up his memories of barrack yard and farm haggard: “Yessir! Nosir! At once! Attention! Dismiss! Halt! Whoa, back, whee! Gee-up! That’s the gurl! G’wan! Pike it up there, Jim. Fine hay! Dismiss! Yessir! Nosir! At once, sir!”

He had never married. He lived and died on those two memories.

I wonder what my father dreamed on his happy nights. When we talk about squares how we simplify! In every square is there a buried myth? I think I am trying to persuade myself that there is. I want desperately to believe that my father was larger than I must otherwise think. He was so evidently, so accusingly, a good man, a loyal servant, an upright citizen, a pious Christian, a good father, that I cannot believe in him as a man at all unless he had, also, some purely personal dream outside of those social virtues. I do not want to think of my father as a Father. By being my Father he is lost to me, as, for all I know, I am lost to my children. Perhaps I must accept the truth, miserably: that he, happily, lost himself in his children. It makes me feel so ungiving, so helpless, when it is too late to explain to him that if he had not been so good I might now admire him less but might then have loved him more.

MY MOTHER’S maiden name was Bridget Murphy. She came from a twenty-five-acre farm called Loughill, on the banks of the little River Deel, two or three miles from the town of Rathkeale, deep in the flat, flat lands of West Limerick. She was very tall, slim as a reed, and quite beautiful, with liquid, sapphire eyes shadowed by an inborn melancholy. She laughed a lot, and when she laughed she swayed over like a reed in the wind. I am always reminded of her when I see, or evoke, the little blue lochs of Limerick, its pale albino sky, its gray stone walls, its winding limestone roads, dust-deep or mud-greasy, its outcropping rocks, its soft meadows, its wind flowing over them as if they were water. She had that blend in her of the soft and the hard, the melancholy and the tender, the dreamy and the harsh, the pitiable and the pitiless. I loved her dearly as a boy, I ceased to love her as a youth, I pitied her as a grown man. She was deeply pious, but it was not a happy piety. Her religious melancholy withered everything it touched like a sirocco.

My mother shared my father’s ambition for her children. She expressed it in a phrase that she dinned into us day after day. “Rise in the world!” To do this we must be educated, which meant that we must be educated to get good jobs. This meant that we must work hard, and this in turn meant that we were severely disciplined. Because of this any outsider observing us three brothers must have thought that we led a wretchedly dull life; and in some ways we did. Our daily routine was adamant. We rose at eight, except during Lent, when my mother would awaken us at half past six for seven o’clock Mass, often having to tear the bedclothes aside before she could rouse us from our drugs of sleep. At such moments you must see the three of us strewn in one big featherbed like three whiterobed puppets, a bed so big that it almost filled our attic bedroom at the tip-top of the house.

I must pause at the mention of these attics. They were garrets that had originally been intended as boxrooms. Their ceilings sloped to the floor like tents, and they were lighted and ventilated only by skylights, which were raised by means of notched bars. When it rained heavily we could not open the sloping windows more than an inch, and in the hottest weather they could not be opened higher than the length of the brief bar. The result was that in the summer the garrets were too hot, and in the winter too cold: there was, of course, no way of heating them. Nevertheless, when we moved into this house — I am now talking of Number 16 Half Moon Street, to which we went after a few years in Number 5, our first house over the quayside pub, sideways to the stage door — my mother saw at once that if we used the garrets as sleeping quarters, she would have more bedrooms for her lodgers; so she occupied one garret, my father another, we three children slept in a third, and the servant girl, or slavey, had the fourth. Since my mother used the large space outside these four partitioned-off garrets as a drying room, we often made our way to bed between damp curtains of shirts, sheets, and tablecloths. That we slept in attics was therefore not so much a measure of our poverty as of our parsimony, and another token of the thrifty principle that dominated all our lives — my father’s and mother’s constant anxiety to make enough extra money to give their three children a good education. Here I am not trying to suggest that we were not really poor: a father of three children earning one pound sterling per week was a poor man even by pre-1914 values. I am saying that we, that is, my father and mother, were of that class of poor folk who refuse to accept their poverty and all the natural and easy compensations of poverty. One may be happy though poor; to be poor, frugal, parsimonious, and ambitious is quite another matter. It leads to a dull degradation of life. This dragging us out of our warm cocoon of sleep at half past six of a cold morning was part of it.

As we three sleep-heavy children stirred or turned in the unwelcome cold my mother would cry heartily to us.

“Up! Up! Rise from your slumbers! Woe to the weak and lukewarm of heart, I spit them out of my mouth. Up! Up! Come to me all ye who labor and are burthened and I will refresh ye. Think of the poor souls suffering in purgatory at this minute, waiting for your prayers. Think of poor Ned Keating who used let ye in free to the Opera House and died only last month. Is this your return to him? Up! Up with ye! Say but the word and my soul shall be healed. A fine, bright, cold, hardy morning with the crow putting out his tongue and ye still in bed!”

At that raw spring hour, mid-February or early March, the sky would be as beautifully cold as a mackerel, bluish white at its base, everywhere else a dark bruise-blue, except where gas lamps in the streets let in a pale-green-whitish yellow, and to my memory it seems as if always there had just been a soft fall of rain. The slavey would still be snoring in her attic, the kitchen fire black, the streets empty and silent, damp and cold, and I fear my prayers were mostly damp and cold too. There was always for me an exciting, strange beauty in those dark and empty streets in contrast with the suddenly bright church. Afterward they were less interesting; the sky had lightened, the lamps were extinguished, a few other people were abroad — a milkman, the first tram, early workers. I felt less special.

After breakfast we went off to school, the three of us together, walking there in all weathers, since pennies for trams were as scarce as pennies for pocket money. Not that we ever had any such thing as pocket money, barring a halfpenny now and again to buy sweets, shared between us with meticulous justice, so that if an odd sweet was left over we drew lots for it. From school we returned at three o’clock, directly, strictly forbidden to loiter on the way and, above all, forbidden to consort with “barefooted little boys,” “corner boys,” or “blackguards.” This meant that we never met with or played with our fellows out of school. Indeed, throughout my entire childhood I did not have a single friend. After dinner, eaten in the kitchen, our sole living room since every other room was given up to the lodgers, we were sent off, again in a bunch, for the usual walk up Wellington Road and down Saint Luke’s, dropping in along the way to some church to say the Stations of the Cross. On our return from this daily walk we would sit at the long kitchen table to do our homework until suppertime, and after it we would study again unless it was our night for the Confraternity or one of those divine nights when we had a free ticket for the play at the Opera House. And so to bed, up the long stairs, carrying a candle in a candlestick, first on the carpeted stretch, then on the lino stretch, and lastly on the bare boards with the nails shining like silver, into the attics.

WE LIVED much in our imaginations, day and night. Lying in our big bed, in our sloping attic, seeing in the skylight the curved moon and the passing night clouds or the upthrown glow of the city or the rain streaming down the pane, my eldest brother, Pat, became Emperor Two-Toe, my next eldest brother, Gus, became Brother Kangaroo, and I was the Pigeon. And, like a pigeon, I would fall asleep in my loft while they still wandered through the forests or bounced over the plains. We even invented our own newspaper, called either Capo or Da Capo, I now forget which, with news, more or less genuine, about the doings of 5 Half Moon Street and of Cork city, in that order of importance.

How else did we break out of the dull circle of our days? Once or twice a year there were races in Cork Park, and then we might be given a whole penny apiece, to spend hopelessly yet hopefully on the traveling gamesters’ tables. Once a year a show called Poole’s Miorama visited the city, and the whole school was encouraged to go. This miorama was a development of the diorama or panorama, which was originally one large revolving cylinder of painted scenery, invented sometime in the eighteenth century by an Irishman named Barker. Poole had elaborated the idea into two cylinders, one on each side of the stage, which unwound long spools of scenery while a lecturer expatiated. We saw Milan Cathedral by Day; a drum rolled, the front lights were extinguished, from behind the canvas bright lights shone prettily through all the colored windows, and we applauded with delight to see Milan Cathedral by Night. We saw a great ship by day; a drum rolled, the lights went out in front and on behind, and the great, lighted ship had its nose in the air and its stern under the waves. Can this have been the Titanic? 1912? It could have been, for my first moving picture was the famous Quo Vadis of 1913, after which the cinema ended such static travelogues as Poole’s.

There were other exceptional days, mostly Sundays, when my father took us out of the city into the nearby countryside, from which we brought home wild flowers or green branches. These excursions had to be rare because they meant that he must spend four pennies to take us on the tram to the edge of the city, from which we would then start to walk along the riverside into the fields. I, with my shorter legs, was a bit of a burden to the others, I tired so easily. I can remember his carrying me on his back part of the way home and spending a fifth penny to send me on the tram for the last lap, while he, Pat, and Gus manfully trudged the whole way to our door.

A frugal existence? Very. An impoverished life? Perhaps. Yet I refuse to say one harsh word against Sister Poverty. If only we had been truly poor and not just parsimonious! Our crime against Sister Poverty was, for ambition’s sake, to disown her who wanted to grow up with us, sleep with us, suffer with us, give us dreamings and longings beyond price, raise the value of every least and humblest pleasure sky-high, make our sands grow golden woods. She did it one Christmas when our father and mother’s gift was a whole, bright shilling — twelve whole pennies! twenty-four ha’pennies! — to be spent between the three of us on anything on earth our hearts desired. We pressed our noses to every shopwindow in the city, big windows and little windows, in big streets and back streets, until in the end we settled for a clockwork train made up of a green and black engine about the size of a mouse, two carriages, and a circular rail about twelve inches in diameter. That was Poverty, a beneficent Poverty who, with us, watched that little mouse-engine run around its single circle, on one winding, five and a half times nonstop, drawing after it all of its two carriages; and running its circle several times more, though dangerously fast, without any carriages at all. I can still smell that engine. I can taste its enamel. We took turns at winding it, warning one another to do it slowly, to be gentle with its delicate mechanism. When we found that the black tin roofs could slide off we put corks inside for passengers. We put cotton wool in the funnel for steam. We made cardboard stations named after real stations. We made stations marked Birmingham and Chester. We went to Rome, and beyond it, on the Orient Express, to holy Constantinople.

I COME back to those garrets fit only for trunks or mice, old hatboxes, portmanteaus with peeling labels, bats, spiders, suicides, murders, anything but for living in. What a view of heaven they gave me time and time again over the blue roofs and the river, at the cataracts of blue-slated houses, at Shandon tower, over far-off dark-green fields to the northwest, over Montenotte’s villas semaphoring at night like fireflies under the wide, pallid, cloudmoving sky. They had one small square window in the gable wall, and sitting on the floor beside it I would read halfpenny fairy tales; later, The Magnet, The Gem, or the weekly adventures of Sexton Blake; later still, all of Henty, Dumas, Dickens, and Scott, borrowed from the Free Library.

It was the one part of the house where I could be alone, and I loved its loneliness. Even the hum of the streets was muffled. It was pleasant even to sit there on the stair top or the floor and daydream, for these attics, though bare, were spotless, distempered in pale-green; and in each garret my mother had erected an altar made of disused orange boxes, draped in stiffly starched lace dyed in tea, with colored plaster statues of the Virgin, Saint Francis, Saint Anthony, Saint Joseph surrounding an immense Christ in blue and red garments edged with gold, all of them surrounded by little, pious pictures in pretty gilt-wire frames and, in the summer, crowded about with vases of wild flowers, white marguerites with brown centers, yellow cowslips, primroses, pink clover, snowy may, river irises, the common buttercup. Before each statue a small light burned, growing larger as evening fell, comforting the darkness, a small wicklight floating on a cork in colza oil under a dome of glass colored red or blue or yellow or green. Before each altar there would be a strip of carpet from the remnant sales. The rest of the boards were scrubbed as white as a hound’s tooth. Here, whenever I had to remain in bed all day, ill, I might have been with the rooks on top of an old country castle, or in the highest branches of some great tree, so quiet it was. Voices from downstairs had to be pitched high for me to hear them. I could not hear the door knocker’s thud. When my mother or the servant girl had brought me up my late, invalid’s breakfast — a poached egg on a thick slab of buttered toast, with strong, sweet tea — and left me, I sank into a beatific solitude that, in after years, has not been surpassed by the loneliest moor or solitary mountain loch.

We played here on wet days, sometimes acting out puppet plays which we wrote ourselves on a mock stage made of a kitchen stool draped by a towel, with paper scenes cut out of old magazines, and carved corks moved from behind by hatpins for our puppet actors. I often went up there to act, alone; to become Robin Hood, Bonnie Prince Charlie, or Bonaparte. Once when, as the Emperor, I was haranguing my gallant troops to mow down the English dogs, I was chagrined to see my brother’s eyes goggling at me over the edge of the stairway and hear him utter a prolonged and highly vulgar series of haw, haw, haw, haws! How curious that I still remember that trifling moment. But nearly everything that I remember from my childhood puzzles me by its insistence. Why do I remember x when I have forgotten y? Yet, can anybody be sure that he has not absorbed y while apparently forgetting it? If all mortal creation, in Saint Augustine’s tremendous image, is a vast sponge in the middle of a sea of Infinity, the only part of us which must then be not the absorbent sponge is our surfaced brain, peering around like a greedy cormorant, while all the rest, and perhaps best, of us is deep in the glaucous sea. A pleasant thought, good sirs! If true, it makes this autobiography pointless since it means that what I most wish to record is what I have absorbed so deeply as to have incontinently forgotten.

A dull, even a dismal, childhood? Now I am ready to admit it. But then? I do not know. In the effort to find out I can only struggle to submerge. Where are all those special, however tiny, flashes and bursts of happiness that I know must have possessed me? Gone? Become part of my bloodstream? Or inexpressible? (As Pavese says: “The richest part of our memories are those we have lost.”) I dive once more. Do you know what I bring up? Those buttercups in my mother’s altars, yellow and greasy, like wet lacquer, as wonderful as my mouseengine, and I mean wonder-full. As wonder-full as when somebody at school gave me a single scarlet runner bean that I planted in a pot, and that actually grew and broke into a red flower on the bathroom windowsill overlooking roofs, river, clock tower, and hills. As wonder-full as when another boy casually gave me a handful of strange things called chestnuts, and when I removed the prickly burr there, like a dark, precious stone in white velvet, lay the fruit, shining like mahogany. I rushed back to him to ask. where did these things come from? From the earth? From trees? The knowledge in his laughter was that of a necromancer. It must have been a dull childhood if I can remember only such little things!

I dive again and surface with a vision of delight — the incandescent mantle of a gas jet. When you light it first, it seems to burn to a cinder, then the gas enters the delicate bag of white ash and there is a red glow, changing quickly to yellow, then to a gleaming green glow as the temperature rises, until the whole globe beams as if filled by a full moon in March. But this beautiful vision, I realize, has never left me. It comes back to me whenever I wander in a gaslit town, or when I read about radiant energy and Max Planck and his quanta, or when I have looked out at dusk over the Place de la Concorde’s gaslit benignity from the terrace of the Tuileries gardens. (Alas, only last year they changed those delicate greenish gas-blooms to those hard things ill-named electric bulbs.)

I see every window in the city — every single one! — gleaming with candles in rows, from streets to roofs, for a papal jubilee. I see and hear and feel the excitement of the political meetings: with bands blaring and drumsticks whirling, partisans fighting, tar barrels blazing, each shouldered by four men, rocketing windy sparks to the sky, women screaming, women waving their colored shawls, orators roaring; and in the background, the lines of black-coated bobbies stolidly watching to keep the peace or to start a baton charge. On such nights ours was a lively world. In later years (but before any of us had left Cork for wider horizons) we used to say, boastfully, that the liveliness of Cork must be just like the liveliness of a sixteenth-century city in one of the small city-states of Italy. But, then, did not someone say that Athens was the Cork of Greece? And another — because there is so much water in, under, and around Cork — say that Venice would be very like Cork city if they only filled in the canals?

LET me tell you about the Coat. It is a symbol of everything I came to hate and despise in this humble, ambitious, shabby-genteel life of ours. The Coat was sewn together for me, laboriously and painfully, by my mother out of the material of one of my father’s cast-off uniforms. Now, these tough uniforms were made of a material so closely woven, and then shrunk, or felted, that they could have kept out everything except a bullet. In spite of all my mother’s art as a seamstress she failed to control the obdurate material, with the result that, when she had reduced the paternal jacket to the size of a boy’s body, the Coat curved out like a church bell all around my bottom, my two shoulders peaked up like two epaulettes, and my two arms were encased in two tubes. I nearly wept when I saw it, and again the next day when, clad, or confined, in it, I was sent most unwillingly to school, where my companions laughed so mercilessly at me in the schoolroom, at playtime, in the yard, and on my way home that I refused to wear it again. My mother could not, or professed not to be able to, see what was wrong with it, holding it up, admiring it eloquently. fitting it on me again and again. To no purpose! I still looked like a sable-skirted fay, a minute South American mute. My mother begged, I insisted, obstinately and tearfully. In the end I had my way. The Coat lay around or rather stood around for months, until one day the Bottle Woman called.

This woman was a barefooted, beshawled shrimp of a creature who came to our door periodically to buy empty bottles and our cast-offs. (Our castoffs!) The usual heap was thrown on the tiled floor of the hall, and the usual bargaining began. A shilling for this. Sixpence for that. Suddenly she spied the Coat, snatched it up, held it up, turned it around and around, and then, with a wild peal of laughter, she cried, “For God’s sake, Missus Whalen, what in Heaven’s name is dat?'’

My mother snatched it from her and flung it on the heap.

“Sixpence,” she said.

The Bottle Woman shook her head sorrowfully, as if she were saying, “Now, I’d like to be a philantropist, Missus Whalen, but —” She shook her head at fivepence, and at fourpence, and even at tuppence she would not have the coat. I, leaning over the balustrade, prayed that the Bottle Woman would at least give a penny for it. My mother would not stoop that low. Preserving her dignity as a true lady she said grandly, “You may have it as a handsel.”

The Bottle Woman was too polite not to accept the gift, too honest to suppress a deep sigh as she took the piece of armor; and with as deep a sigh I leaned up from the balustrade and went upstairs to my attic window to inform all Cork of my blessed release from the shame of my masquerade.

For this was what our whole life was: a pretense that we were not what we were, a bobby, a bobby’s wife, and a bobby’s kids. We were shabby-genteels at the lowest possible social level, always living on the edge of false shames and stupid affectations, caught between honorable ambitions and pathetic fears, between painful smugglings and gallant strivings, never either where we were or where we hoped to be, Janus-faced, throwing glances of desire and admiration upward and ahead, glances of hatred or contempt downward and behind. But I wonder, even as I talk about this life of the shabbygenteel that I saw on all sides of me as a boy and a youth, whether anybody today can form any idea of what genteelism meant in the British Isles before the twenties began to make hay of it and the thirties and forties finally threw it out the door. Certainly none of my American readers will understand the term or be able to form any feeling for what it once meant. Even their dictionaries — if the one before me is typical — do not know what the word means; for what this lexicographer says it means is, “Belonging or suited to polite society, well-bred, refined, elegant, stylish.” The true meaning points to the effort to be all those things and the transparent failure to be any of them. One has probably to go back to the novelists to get the tragicomic sense of the word. Thackeray gives it to us; so do Dickens, Gissing, Wells, Bennett, Italo Svevo; it outcrops in Forster; it is all over the stories of V.S. Pritchett. Of American writers, only one drew inspiration from this half-gray life of the ambitious poor, and she, being a Bostonian, had not the courage to depict more than a quarter of what she knew so well and had so painfully experienced — Louisa Alcott in that almost-great novel Little Women.

THE world was not yet quite the world to me, nor I a being in it. As we say about halfwits, I was not all there. An existentialist would say I was not yet un être dans le monde, not aware enough of the world, indeed, hardly aware of it at all. I had by-passed the canonical age of reason, which the Church, and I think some states, optimistically put at the age of seven. Yet, as in the penumbral hour before sunrise, there were hints of light, much as the spring breathes invisibly on the ice of winter whose thaw has no fixed day. Understanding was on the way, in nuclear bits and pieces, like a Salvador Dali madonna. She came as slowly as a well fills.

All my moments of understanding have been like that — accumulations of minute experience, drop after drop, each unobserved at the time, brimming over at least as a little or a great fountain of light.

Here is a small, absurd instance of this from much later when I was twenty-five. I give it here as an illustration of what I mean by a brimming. For years I had enjoyed, as most Irish people enjoy, the hot and vivid pleasures of aimless disputation; for it is of the essence of the Irish love of argument that the destination of a discussion shall never be considered as interesting as the journey. Indeed, Irish talkers consider it rather bad form to arrive at any destination at all since this at once ends the pleasure of dispute for its own sweet sake. Anyway, there is always somebody in every group of Irish talkers whose role it is to inject a joke whenever the discussion does seem on the point of coming to the point, after which it can easily be resumed again at a safe tangent from this lamentable fate. On this brimming day, in my twenty-fifth year, while I walked somewhere beside a young professor, to whom I shall always be grateful for his unconscious gift of the good example, he stopped me dead in the middle of whatever logomachic argument I was unfolding in my happily aimless way, turned to me, and, to my supreme astonishment, said, “You know I think you have made a very useful point there in our discussion.”

The admission reduced me to immediate silence. Never before had any opponent granted me as much, or anybody granted the like in my presence to anybody else. At that moment something in my nature, hitherto only partially guessed at, fountained up so appealingly as not to be denied. I beheld for the first time stretching out before me the calm and elegant satisfactions of constructive discussion as against the heady joys of purely contentious shindyism. If at this my good reader should find himself raising his shoulders in a prolonged shrug of astonishment, I assure him that I find myself doing the same. But not, possibly, for his reason. I shrug at the realization that when this little fountain of light sank down countless others elsewhere all over the world must have also been pulsing. I am happy to think that when I am dead those fountains of both the littlest and the largest knowledge will go on playing all over the world. I mean that I suspect most people have those brimmings-over, though somewhat earlier than at twenty-five, and that it is in this way that we are to learn whatever little or much we learn from life.

I was not generally so retarded. When I was fifteen two large pools of understanding began to lick the brims of my being. After they, at last, fountained over me, those parts of my being were flooded for years. The first began this way:

When I was about fifteen I suddenly began to think, very sadly, that my mother had not a great deal of brains. It took only a very little longer for me to decide despairingly that she had no brains at all. I came to this sad conclusion because she, like her own mother, was always getting into debt, and always moaning about it and doing nothing about it. I loved her so much that I could not bear to see her miserable, so I resolved to help by becoming her private accountant. I procured somewhere the remains of an old blue-covered ledger — so large that United Steel could have recorded their entire consolidated accounts in it — sat my mother beside me that very afternoon on the sagging horsehair sofa in the kitchen, and said in a kindly but firm voice: “Now, Mother, in future I want you to keep your accounts properly. Your trouble is quite simple. If you are getting into debt you are spending more on your lodgers than you are receiving from them.”

“Ah, sure, child!” she assured me with a sigh and a laugh. “I’m getting nothing at all out of them. I don’t know why I have them at all, at all, only for the sake of the handling of the money.”

“But, Mother, there is no meaning to handling money unless you can show a profit also. Now, let us begin. This left-hand side is the debit side.”

She looked at my vast ledger.

“Debit? Oh, faith, if that’s where I put what I owe I can soon fill it for you.”

“No, no! Debit in. Credit out. This is not a personal account. This is a cash account.”

“Cash? Look at my purse. Four and sixpence, and it only Wednesday.”

“Let me explain, Mother. On the debit side you list what you take in.”

“Damn little, then!” she laughed.

“If that be so it means simply that you are not charging the artistes for everything you spend on them. But now that we are going to keep proper accounts, this cannot happen ever again. You will see it all at one glance. Now! We begin here. We write down, ‘To Balance.’ That’s what you have left over from last week.”

She stared at me.

“Are you joking? Sure I have nothing left over from last week!”

“But you must have something left over from last week! Otherwise you ran the business at a loss last week! Which is impossible! When the artistes go next Sunday you must sit down at once and write down your cash in hand.”

“I do be so tired, child,” she sighed. “I do be very tired.”

“It stands to reason that by the time the artistes leave next Sunday you should still have something left from the batch of the week before —”

“Four and sixpence.”

“— or else all you are doing is spending exactly the same as you take in, week after week, and making no profit at all for yourself.”

At this she began to get annoyed with me.

“I spend far more than I take in! Every week of my life it’s everything going out and nothing coming in. Sure, they have me ruined! Haven’t I told you that over and over again? Ruined!”

“Mother! I have explained to you that it is impossible. It could not happen. You would be bankrupt.”

“I am, and bankrupt forty times over.”

I patted her hand. “Mother, when we keep these accounts you will see things very differently. You will be surprised. You will be delighted. Now, this left-hand side is the credit side. No! I mean this right-hand side. You are confusing me.”

“Ah. If I hadn’t the credit where would I be? Only for Ma Sullivan trusting me, and Smith’s in Patrick Street, and the butcher, and —”

“Mother! Debit in! Credit out! You’re not listening to me. I’ll give you a good slap. On the credit side you write down the total of all your bills paid out. No! Paid in. No! Paid out! You really mustn’t interrupt me! Now that total must, simply must, be much less than your debit side. So you must subtract what you paid out from what you take in, and that is your balance to be carried down. That is called balancing your books.”

“Carried down?” she said, pointing.

“To balance your books,” I said, pointing left and right.

“To balance my books? That’s an easy way, in faith, to balance my books!”

“Then you write that same amount of balance carried down as balance carried forward for the following week.”

Her voice rose here to a shocked squeak. “But where did you get that seventy-five pounds you have written down there?”

“I just put that down for the sake of example. That’s your profit to be carried forward for next week.”

“I told you five and forty times I make no profit.”

It was my turn to cry out in a shocked squeak. “But your credit out has to be less than your debit in. The bills you pay out to the grocer, and the butcher, and the bread man, and the coal man, and all the rest of them have to be less than what you take in. It stands to reason!”

She laid her palm on the page of my ledger. “My poor child, you are talking about what you don’t understand. I am like my poor mother long ago in Loughill. Many and many’s the time I saw her when she’d sell a cow or a pig at the fair of Rathkeale, and had the money in the heel of her fist, putting on her bonnet and tackling the pony and cart to drive up to Knockaderry. She’d pay a bit here and stop a gap there. So much against this. So much against that. When she had it she gave it. It’s all I do from week to week. Rob Peter. Pay Paul. Carry on, as she used to say. Carry on until ye carry me out. Carried down? Carried forward? Close your big book, alannah! You are very kind and very clever. But it’s no use. You can’t get blood out of a turnip.”

And she rose and went to the sink for a glass of cold water as I had often seen her do before, and as she, by her own telling, had often seen her mother do back in Limerick, creeping out under the stars to sit with her beads by the well in the haggard, when her family of girl children were in bed and the weight of the worries came down on her like the fog over the River Deel. That was the first stage of this brimming.

FROM that day on the hopeless pathos of her life, as I saw it, oppressed me, first as an emotional burden and then as a moral problem — “Why must life be like this?” — until I felt that I must share them both with somebody better able to handle them than myself. But this stage of the process was slow. Perhaps the first brimming had subsided? Perhaps by some sort of psychical underconscious the Divine Plumber had fed it away into another nearby pool, there to bring about the final and complete flood. It did not take place until at least another decade had passed over me, dropping more troubling thoughts into my “why-must-life-belike-this?” compartment. Those other thoughts and questions are the usual mysteries that have troubled boyhood and early youth since time began, such as my wonder at God’s knowledge which ran somewhat like this:

“If God knows everything — and my Catechism has said that ‘God knows all things, even our most secret thoughts and actions’ — does He follow the career of every blade of grass in every field throughout the vast spaces of the globe? In that case, is not everything I do of theological importance, even to the blowing of my nose? Should I therefore not concern myself about each and every action I perform without exception including the blowing of my nose? Otherwise why should men have noses at all?”

(The sexual symbolism is evident, as it also is in another of my questions about the importance of all our organs in the ontological argument for the being of God — namely, “If existence is a property discoverable in the concept of a Creator are not all the physical attributes of man’s existence involved in this argument?”)

As these and many other such wonderings increased and became unbearably insistent I found that they all led back to my mother’s sighs over her purse. They and she included and summed up everything: the sighing wind over the Limerick plain; her mother sighing by the well at midnight; Uncle Tom Cosgrave, with his stooped back and the wen on his neck; Aunt Nan, with her wide, vacant laugh and her simple, childless life; all her emigrant sisters; that tiny farm of Loughill out of which so many lives, so many generations had been squeezed in tears and sweat; the sudden killing of my cousin Tom Boyhan in 1915. My mother thus became for me Ivan Karamazov’s one innocent child whom God allowed to be assaulted, a prime instance of the seeming monstrous and cruel mystery of the world He created.

The day on which I came to the end of my tether I was at the university, and the usual annual retreat for students was opening in the Honan Chapel, a pretty modern-Romanesque building whose Harry Clarke windows disperse Beardsleyan purples and scarlets over the gray limestone walls and the cool mosaics on the floor. The retreat was conducted by a visiting preacher, an ascetic-looking old man, rather like John Henry Newman in his oratory days, and in his opening sermon the cool mind he displayed greatly pleased me. He appeared to me to be such a reasonable and kindly man that when, after two days, I knew that I was not going to complete the retreat because my faith had now ebbed so low that unless I did something about it I would soon be left marooned on a sandbank in a sea of faithlessness, I decided to talk to him about my mother.

Now, this small decision of mine involves something that may not be apparent immediately to non-Catholics, especially to such as are unfamiliar with Irish life, and possibly even to Irish Catholics of a younger generation than mine: namely, that Catholic youths in my time did not normally talk to their priests about their problems; their priests talked to them. This relationship was based on the postulate that while the Catholic religion is intellectually impregnable, the gift of faith is too tender a flower to be submitted to the cold winds of private speculation. So, while our priests always treated sin with infinite kindness and pity, doubt was much more than likely either to be considered as a manifestation of intellectual vanity or to be traced to the reading of “bad books” or the keeping of “bad company.” Religion in Ireland has always tended thereby to flower as a mystical experience and to wilt as an intellectual possession. Buttressed by emotional appeal and social habit rather than by thought or reason, it has even tended to disappear completely when transferred to other climates, unless, as happened with the close-knit Irish communities of nineteenth-century America, it meets elsewhere a familiar soil wherein to transplant, or replant, itself as cosily as before. Even today it is notorious that Irish emigrants are barely landed in England when they cease, in droves, to practice their religion; and yet, when those same emigrants return to Ireland, they at once resume the ways they had so lightly discarded.

All this, it should go without saying, was still hidden from me at the time of my college retreat. I fear I must reveal myself as an imperceptive, slowdeveloping, and rather dreamy sort of fool when I admit that it did not really become plain to me until I was in my first forties. I find the date of this revelation in an old diary — January, 1944; the place, London; the location, the Etoile Restaurant in Charlotte Street, just north of Soho, where I was caught that night by a prolonged air raid and found myself, by one of those friendly chances that often occurred in wartime London, conversing with an English Catholic bishop. I asked his opinion about these Irish immigrants who in such large numbers — he put it as high as 65 percent — stopped practicing their religion while in Britain, and something like the following interchange took place.

“Is it not true,” he said, “that to miss Mass on Sunday is regarded in Ireland as a very grave sin?”

Having been brought up to believe that it can be a mortal sin, sufficient to damn a soul for all eternity, I could only reply wonderingly that it is indeed so regarded.

He paused. “I think,” he said, “that you do not quite follow my trend. I mean, the missing of Mass is so regarded socially? A man who visibly did not go to Mass on Sunday would be considered by his community as a sinner, would he not?”

Still not seeing his trend I could only answer that if any man were known in his locality to be a regular Mass-misser, he would be regarded as unfit for any responsible position; for which reason, if for no other, he would be at considerable pains not only not to miss Sunday Mass visibly, but would be at considerable pains to attend Mass as visibly as possible. I ventured to add; “Some wit has said of us that on the Continent there are those who are both croyants and pratiquants, those who are croyants but not pratiquants, and those who are neither croyants nor pratiquants; but that in Ireland we have many who are not croyants but are very diligent pratiquants indeed for the reasons I have just adumbrated.”

He passed the quip by. He went on: “So powerful a social stigma must cut deeply into the consciousness of your young people An Irish worker comes here to England. Let us say he drinks too much one Saturday night and does not wake up in time for Mass. He breaks thereby both a divine injunction and the ancient customs of his people. He feels an outcast not only from his God but from his race. It is as if he had a double secret on his conscience. He is afraid and ashamed to confess so terrible a sin. Not so with, say, a young Belgian or Frenchman, who will rationalize what he has done, feel sorry but have no sense of fear. He knows he has not lost his religion. He feels quite calm about his lapse. He confesses and easily resumes where he has left off. I sometimes wonder which is the easier to lose, the faith that is more lightly accepted, or the faith which is too intensely felt.”

IT MAY be understood, then, that I was doing something rather unusual for my earlier period and place, when I went one day, after the morning sermon, into the confessional and fully exposed my mind to the old priest who was conducting the retreat. I told him that since I could not confess at all until I had cleared up my problem, I would like to meet him for a frank talk outside the confessional, and it was so arranged. I went to his rooms that afternoon, and over the teacups I let it all pour out of me. He listened silently to my outpourings and my questions. Why should people be so poor and hard-pressed? Why must their spirits be broken? My mother was a good woman, she worked hard, she was most devout, yet here she was without joy, without happiness, harassed day and night. I revealed the darkest of her secrets — that she was gradually being driven to take refuge in the brandy bottle. Why, I asked again and again, must such things be? How could God allow them to happen? His answer was to laugh.

“If I knew the old lady,” he said, “perhaps I might be able to form some idea of her problem. But —”

“But it is not a question of her problem. The problem is mine. My question is why it has to happen at all.”

And I once more poured out all my Karamazovian doubts and despairs. We exchanged a few questions and answers. Then: “You come here,” he said at last in, as I now see, an understandably exasperated voice, “and calmly ask me to solve the insoluble problem of the existence of human evil! I ask you, Why do you think it must be so? I ask you, What do you propose to do about it?”

I have here to confess that I quailed. I suddenly felt the utterness of my folly in the justice of his question. I felt — perhaps he wished me to feel — a young ass. I began to retreat. I expressed my regrets. Seeing me become apparently contrite he softened, spoke of the mystery of evil, promised to pray for me, and that was the end of our interview.

As I walked away from his rooms across the empty quadrangle I could hear the sucking noise of the ebbing tide. As I wandered through the unseen streets I knew that I was not only a fool but a stranded fool. The next day I drove myself to try another, local priest, choosing a church as far away as possible from my own parish. I entered at random the first confessional I saw. I was a little more circumspect this time, speaking generally, tentatively, and humbly. The shadowed face behind the grille spoke of trials and crosses that we all must bear. I did not stress the burden and weary weight of the intolerable mystery and came away unappeased. That was the second stage of this brimming.

It took another decade before the pool finally overflowed. I was then applying for a teaching post in the university. An acquaintance came to me and said, “You won’t get it, you know. Father X is against you.”

“Father X? But I know no Father X. I never met him.”

“Oh, yes, you did. You met him some years ago. At a retreat in the university.”

My belly turned over with the pain of betrayal. And yet, he had not broken the seal of the confessional, for although I had first met him in the confessional it was in his rooms that I had opened my heart fully to him. He had the right to betray me. But that is not the end of this story.

THAT brimming drowned me for years. It subsided only when at last I saw that my mother had had, for her purposes, far more intelligence than I ever had for mine. She had refused to keep out of debt not because she could not, but for the very simple reason that she did not want to. She wanted, for her children’s sake, to press herself beyond her powers. She wanted to beat time, get her job done before it caught up with her, keep the breath of life in us, like the pelican, with her breast’s blood until we were ready to leave the nest, and then let the sky fall. In her love for us she despised the mean idea of measurement. Besides, if she were to measure and look at her measurings, she would not only have to go through what she knew she had, in any case, to go through, but would have weakened herself by facing the magnitude of her ambitions and the certainty of her disaster. Does a soldier contemplate death when he faces it? If she had so few personal wishes, apart from her immense and obsessive master wish for her children, it was that she, too, was of fighting stock, like all peasants placed by fate against nature.

She expected no return. She did not even seem to expect as much love as she gave, and perhaps for not thinking about it she did not consciously love us at all, being content to serve us. For herself she desired nothing. She had a slightly pathetic, because unattainable, longing for elegance, a good deal of natural vanity, as much house pride as she could afford, but, apart from that never-achieved desire for pretty dresses, she had no real capacity or desire for pleasure. The greatest joy of her life, she often said when she was old, was the joy she got out of us, her three children, when we were young. After we grew up emptiness fell on her like the slow closing of a tomb.

She was in the classical sense a tragic figure, aiming too high, guilty of hubris, doomed to be broken. She was also something of a heroic figure, because though broken she was not defeated. She did make a priest of one son and give to the other the incomparable security of “a job under the crown.” My career gave her no satisfaction, much worry, and some pain. I went completely outside any pattern she could recognize or understand. I often wonder, closing my eyes at the very thought of it, what she must have suffered when my first book of stories was publicly banned in Ireland as being “indecent and obscene.” Later I was “unbanned,” but by then the harm was done.

It would be agreeable to sum her up in this way — a tragic and heroic woman, admired and loved. Alas, as happens with all men and women whose lives are ruled by a master wish, the terrifyingly obsessive one-sidedness of her life cut her off from everybody else’s life. I was forcibly reminded of her when I came on Colette’s observation on, of all people, professional courtesans: that any woman who devotes her life to love sacrifices all friendship. She had no time to be human, no time to be happy. She could not afford to let down her guard for so long. Her distrust of others was all-pervasive — though that may be another peasant weakness, their eyes always wandering fearfully up at the sky, their minds always reading the back of the other person’s mind. She was more uncharitable than any other person I have ever met. If she had been a bird she would have been uttering warning cries all day long. Like all women who become slaves to their children, she not only exhausted her own emotions but ultimately killed the emotions of everybody around her. Ever since, I have had to struggle not to see all old women in her guise, selfworn as a seashell, drained at last of her life’s devouring devotion, so indescribably disheartened and despondent at the end as to give me the impression that her spirit had already departed while her body was still waiting to die.

I used to feel this often in after years, between secret groans and secret grins, whenever I visited her to take her to a cinema or to a meal in town or to drive her out into the country to dine. She did, or so I sometimes made myself believe, enjoy these little excursions if only because she loved to eat; indeed, she generally overate — the last carnal pleasure left to the old. But no sooner would the excursion be over than she would belch a little and sigh, “Wisha, it would have been far better for me to have gone to the chapel and said my rosary.” You may see why I have said, earlier, that my great love for her ended up as a hopeless pity. Yeats has written: “A pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love.” This is true, but not only in his sense. Pity is also a devouring worm coiled deep in the rose of love.

THAT first brimming began when I was fifteen, in a year from which I have another date to make a second brimming that was to affect my whole life. It was a wet night in January, 1915, and probably a Monday, because that was the night on which I got free entry to the Opera House. I went there with no expectations above the ordinary. The name of the play was Patriots, which might easily have suggested my favorite theme of the proud patriotism of Empire, as illustrated by the stories of G. A. Henty, or even the French Revolution, rather than the more common English country-house comedy, opening with its classical exposition between butler and maid about master and mistress on the lines of:

Perkins! Do you realize that within five minutes, if the train to Maidstone is on time, the master will come driving up that avenue on his return from his honeymoon in Nice with his new wife whom he met in Bombay, and that this very same evening his son by his first wife is expected from London accompanied by his fiancée, who is the daughter of the master’s new wife by her first husband whom she met in Cawnpore? Isn’t that a ree-markable coincidence, Perkins? Most reemarkable!

I did not even notice the name of the author of the play that I was about to see. If I had it would not have impressed me. It was as common as Jones or Smith. In fact, it was Robinson. The theater was half empty when the lights dimmed and the curtain rose — the old painted curtain showing the bay of Naples, with Vesuvius in scarlet spate, and the balustrade terrace in the foreground teeming with bougainvillaea. On the lighted stage I beheld, with an astonishment never before or since equaled for me by any theatrical spectacle, the parlor of a house in an Irish country town and my uncle Owen Boyhan. It will be gathered that I was seeing my first Abbey Theatre play.

I saw other familiars talking on the stage as naturally as if they were in my aunt’s cottage in Rathkeale, or in old Bovanizer’s parlor over his little provision shop in Main Street, or in any other such house there or in Newbridge that I had visited during my various summer holidays. This parlor on the stage — But why do I say stage? It was reality itself—was over a shop, all its antimacassarish details tenderly, delightfully, recognizably familiar: a geranium pot in the window, a chenille cloth covering the table, pictures of Robert Emmet and Pius X on the walls, the lace curtains, old, padded furniture. As the talk went on, I gathered that, as in my imaginary English country-house comedy, a man was due to return to this house at any moment (though not from Nice) from several years in some English jail, and not with a new wife but back to his own wife, who had been slaving herself to the bone to keep the business turning over while he was away. There was a lame girl in the house, his daughter, prematurely born on the terrible night of her father’s arrest by policemen like my father. The returning husband was a Fenian rebel. Had not a certain Uncle Paudh of mine, from County Limerick — it came back to me from some gossipings of my mother and Aunt Nan over the cottage fire — run off to Australia to escape arrest at the time of the Fenian uprising in ‘67? I had also read about the Fenians in some book, and I had heard my father utter harsh words about them.

Presently, I saw this actual Fenian, real and living, talking about Ireland’s woes to young men not much more than six or seven years older than myself, and it was as when the lights of a passing motorcar show up at night a familiar face in a picture on the wall, never noticed before. The magnifying glass of the drama showed up my Uncle Paudh’s face, though, confusingly, he — that is, the Fenian in the play — also looked like my Uncle John Haugh back in Loughill: the beard, the aquiline nose, the cutaway coat, the height; though instead of horselike strength, this man had an inner blazing power, unbroken by his backbreaking years in prison. It gradually transpired that he was still ready to lead the young men of Rathkeale in a fight for Ireland, and it also transpired that none of the young men wanted to fight for anything; they wanted only to go to that latest novelty, the moving pictures. Again, I had read of people fighting and dying for Ireland, but those had been people in cocked hats with gilt tassels and plumed feathers, waving swords like Lord Edward Fitzgerald or Robert Emmet, which in my view — or rather, in the view I had hitherto held — was the only proper and decent way for anybody to die for anything. The fantastic thought burst on me that in Rathkeale, even in Cork that night, there might be other real, living, exhaling-inhaling old men with these same noble, gallant, hopeless ideas. When I left the theater and walked out into the wet streets of Cork I will not say that I was changed, but I know that my eyes were dazzled and blinded.

IF I were now to rationalize what happened there and then to that boy of fifteen this is what I would say: Hitherto he had been led by the susceptibilities of his imaginative nature to form in his untutored mind idealized notions of everything. As far as the idealizing goes, this was natural, and I hold it to be good. Youth should idealize. And, damnit, so should old age. Certainly there are plenty of precedents for idealizing in art, from Phidias to Leonardo, Raphael, Velásquez, Courbet, Millet, Monet, the Fauves, Gauguin, Degas, Cézanne, Is there indeed any art even among the “realists,”like Rembrandt, without some idealization? But I have said “idealized notions,” and this is a very different matter. For a “notion” is a more or less general, vague, imperfect, deluding concept that could no more survive one touch of earth’s experience than a snowflake in May. I was the sort of boy who if given a chocolate-box picture of a girl would have said, “Aren’t girls lovely!” unaware that I was looking not at an image of a real girl but at a bit of fancy shorthand, a hieroglyph, a pictograph of pipe-dream prettiness. At the same time, if I had been shown a painting of a real girl by one of the masters — Bronzino or Degas or Holbein — I might not have understood or liked it at all. These were men who had seen the inward beauty of real girlhood behind or through the outward appearance. They had seen actual life with heightened emotions. I had not. I had seen it only with the closed eyes of a dream. They had dreamed with their eyes wide open. They had dreamed on the stone pillow of hard fact. In one word, they had lived.

This boy I write of had not. He was warmhearted, sensitive, tenderhearted, with longings for the noble, the beautiful, and the good, with many hopes of life, no fears, few suspicions, and no experience. Still, he was warmhearted and sensitive, with honorable longings and desires, as well, no doubt, as dishonorable longings and desires; and life, though in its blind cruelty it often does, by the million, crush such creatures, never wholly betrays them, other than in those cataclysms that make us either throw our fists up to heaven or whisper our last prayers to that X, that Somebody who, we still hope, on this side of near-despair, may know what He is doing. Life feeds such children, as one feeds motherless birds, with minute bits and scraps to begin with, and richer and perhaps tougher gobbets as their digestions grow in power. The boy had already seen touches of cruelty at school, poverty about him, wild street scenes, his father’s shame in a moment of defeat, his mother’s deep unhappiness, the hard lives of his forebears, heard their ancestral memories back to and behind the famine of the forties. These and many other such hints were stored in his pool of memory, though he could not yet see them as a man sees them. Before he could truly see anything of what we call the nature of life these hints of “real” life needed to be enlarged, enhanced, heightened. They needed to strike his imagination before they could pierce his intelligence, or his heart.

On that rainy night of Lennox Robinson’s play, that was what happened to me. My double doors opened on these same scraps of real life enlarged now by the powerful glass of dramatic emotion, heightened by the hovering presence of truth, shaped by and for the intelligence. My doorways thereby became, for the first time, doorways to that emotionalized reality which is the father of the truly creative imagination — life-based, life-transforming, what Berenson so often loved to call “lifeenhancing.”

Still, they were only doorways. My fountain brimmed, common water out of the skies and the earth. It astonished, excited, and delighted me, and I would dearly love to be able to say that it washed my eyes. Not yet. I may have always wanted to write, or may have wanted to write then, about the common life around me; I cannot tell which, because when I began actually to write about that life it seemed to me that this was something I had always wanted to do. When I did begin to write — which was very soon — I was still stuck with a wardrobeful of swords and cocked hats, plumed grenadiers, gesturing sansculottes, swearing pirates, lisping ladies, more pictographs or notions about men and women, and only that one crumpled cutaway country-town Fenian’s coat hanging like a ghost of life among all the finery. That Fenian was still only a ghost to me, although real to Robinson. I needed my own scenes, subjects, and characters. But, at fifteen? Until life threw me, to sink or swim, into Life, I could only imitate other writers, as younger writers always imitate older writers, and as lesser, greater, and sometimes as even the greater, the lesser whom they think the greater.

A year cannot have passed before I saw myself in print for the first time. It was a short story, in a weekly paper called the Cork Outlook, and it must have been one of the most remarkable stories to appear either in that or any other periodical before or since. I borrowed the opening from G. A. Henty, wrote the middle, very brief, myself, and leaned heavily for the conclusion on R. M. Ballantyne. This remarkable piece of collaboration was about a gallant young British cavalry officer sent with an urgent dispatch on the field of battle across enemy fire. As he galloped he waved his sword and his plume danced in the wind, and it goes without saying that he was shot through the heart and died as nobly as only George Alfred Henty, Robert Michael Ballantyne, and John Francis Whelan could do it between them. If Prometheus ever bothers with such small-fry activities, I fear he must have sighed many times as he read that week’s edition of the Cork Outlook and decided that it was really going to take an awful lot of experience to awaken this minute mortal to the facts of life.

The old Fenian’s cutaway coat hung in my wardrobe for years and years. The finery gradually fed the fatted moth. Yet when I published my first novel, twenty years later, called A Nest of Simple Folk, there was the old Fenian, and my father and my mother, and all my uncles and aunts among the fields, skies, and streams of the plain of Limerick.