this (struggling) life
IT was long ago and far away, in Dublin. The world was poorer than today, and I have a memory almost as old as me.
He would stand me on a common chair in the scullery and tie my shoelaces. When one was done, this man of few words would tap the back of my leg to bring the other one forward, and when that one was done he would pull my shirt down inside my short pants. I have other memories. Seeing him sowing potatoes or weeding in the garden; standing over a basin of water testing a bicycle tube for a puncture, the upturned bicycle nearby; carrying me by crossbar to Stoneybatter, telling me to blow my nose in the rain-washed gutter. Or cycling to Croke Park on a Sunday and lifting me over a stile. An autumn walk in the Phoenix Park, a winter walk to Ashtown. That given time could never be outdone by all the comfort of the years to come. My father grew a hard shell to hide his humanity. Back in the day, for men to show emotion, it was thought to be a sign of weakness. He showed no weakness, his world simply did not allow it.
I remember him in a brown shopcoat, standing over a last, working the leather with hard callused hands. He turned shoe repairs into half-crowns to feed, cloth and educate his growing family. ‘‘Take those shoes around to Mrs Crowe and don’t leave them without the half-crown,’’ my mother would say. The hungry years, though, I never remember being hungry. The recipe, tea and bread. Thruppence worth of potherbs, a pennyworth of thyme. Among her many qualities, my mother had the remarkably easy facility to aggravate a saint. My father was not a saint. I think of them now as two tectonic plates, constantly grinding against each other, sometimes with seismic effect. I’ll never know how, or have his courage, but he endured. In a dysfunctional world, he functioned. Got up every working day, organised his children, saw to their schooling and, in my memory, was never sick.
After I followed John, the eldest, into the employ of Guinness, I remember being puzzled when he looked at me, not so much with disdain as with despair. I was bookish, liked poetry and played tennis — in whites! I was as straight as he was, but I now believe he thought he had raised another Wilde, without the talent of Oscar.
He gave me his name when I was born. I gave him a headstone when he died, far, far too young, at 56. When I was 18 and needed a driving licence to launch my commercial career and validate my leaving Guinness, he gave me his. In my memory, he never drove a car. How many go to sit their driving test with the vital permit already inside their jacket pocket? For me, it meant a licence to drive the boulevard of dreams, while he continued to cycle the wet, cobbled or black, icy streets of Dublin.
When I received the news that No 225, where I was born, had been rendered to the sum of its parts, my sister now the custodian of its ghosts, I looked out over the wide Pacific and thought of battles long ago. The half-crown tug of war with Mrs Crowe. How could a child of barely 10 summers guess that one day, the leaden grey skies of 1950s Dublin would give way to a shower of 21st-century gold. I just had to live a lifetime, know the burden, infinitely lighter, of rearing my own children, and get to appreciate the grinding effort of his labour.
He gave to the world nine witnesses to his unequal struggle in that ‘‘Strumpet City’’, far from the ‘‘Fatal Shore’’.