Frank McNally

An Ir­ish­man’s Di­ary

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters -

My poor grasp of faces is one of many rea­sons I never went into pol­i­tics

Run­ning in the Phoenix Park the other day, I met a cy­clist – ly­cra-clad, as cliché in­sists – whose smile of recog­ni­tion forced me first to slow down and then stop. “It’s your­self,” he said, clearly de­lighted to see me. “How many years has it been?”

By now I was smil­ing back in ap­par­ent mu­tual recog­ni­tion al­though, as hap­pens all too of­ten, I had no idea who he was. I was play­ing for time, try­ing to re­mem­ber to which of the over­lap­ping com­mu­ni­ties I call my life he be­longed.

Cur­rent work­place? No. For­mer work­place? Maybe. Old YMCA five-a-side that ran for decades? I didn’t think so.

Then I re­alised he was talk­ing about Moun­tjoy Prison, in the 1990s, and some sort of race he had run while there. Fur­ther­more, he was re­call­ing a pho­to­graph of the oc­ca­sion and won­der­ing if he still could get a copy: “I’m after turn­ing my life around. It’d be nice to have.”

A penny dropped or seemed to. I must have cov­ered this event, or at least men­tioned it, in the pa­per, even if I had no mem­ory of that ei­ther. But no.

The pic­ture had not been in any news­pa­per, he clar­i­fied. “It was just a mugshot, in the prison.”

That’s when I re­placed my smile of recog­ni­tion to one of em­bar­rassed re­gret. “You know, even though you do look fa­mil­iar,” I said, “I’m afraid you’re mix­ing me up with some­body”.

He was al­ready mir­ror­ing the smile and nod­ding. “Yeah, I was be­gin­ning to think the same thing. I was say­ing to my­self: ‘Mis­ter Lon­er­gan’s look­ing very fit for his age’.”

Turn­ing this mixed com­pli­ment over in my mind, I won­dered how long it had been since John Lon­er­gan re­tired as Moun­tjoy gover­nor. Ten years, I guessed, and that was after a full ca­reer.

But the man was re­mem­ber­ing him from the time they knew each other, I sup­pose. I wished him luck with his new life, as Mis­ter Lon­er­gan would have done, and jogged on.


I wouldn’t claim to suf­fer from prosopag­nosia – face blind­ness – ex­actly. But I must have a mild form of the con­di­tion. This was first re­vealed to me many years ago on the night of my Leav­ing Cert party.

The girl I had asked was not well known to me. I had mainly ad­mired her from the op­po­site side of the lo­cal main street, which is a wide one. But the ask­ing bit needed to be done up close, in the mid­dle of the street, on a mar­ket day, while my friends en­gaged her friends in di­ver­sion­ary ma­noeu­vres nearby, a sit­u­a­tion so nerve-wrack­ing it should have etched ev­ery de­tail on my mind. Be­tween that and her pic­ture ap­pear­ing in the pa­per around the same time, I had in the in­ter­ven­ing days be­come emo­tion­ally in­volved with the ar­range­ment of her fa­cial features.

Then the night ar­rived. An­other friend, Gary, was bring­ing some­one from the same area and had his fa­ther’s car, so we went to­gether. And just as we were ar­riv­ing at the house, we passed a young woman, walk­ing, who turned and smiled, ex­pect­ing us. She was only slightly fa­mil­iar to me, I re­alised. And there was good rea­son for that. I’d never met her be­fore.

But as I grinned gorm­lessly, Gary looked from her to me and said: “Is this…? And I was about to say “Yes”, when she res­cued me. “No, I’m her sis­ter.”

The ter­ri­ble thing is, when you saw the two to­gether, they were not alike. (By the way, the party hap­pened in a lo­cal ho­tel we called “Lon­er­gan’s”, but that’s just a spooky co­in­ci­dence.) ***

My poor grasp of faces is one of many rea­sons I never went into pol­i­tics, de­spite a fam­ily back­ground in the trade. A sim­i­larly-af­flicted (in both senses) friend tells an in­struc­tive story about her and her mother run­ning into a well-known Fianna Fail politi­cian – we’ll call him “Donie” – in a ho­tel some­where, maybe 30 years after he had met the mother, once and briefly.

He was hav­ing his din­ner this time (the mid­dle of the day). But in see­ing them he paused, did a quick men­tal scan, re­mem­bered that the mother was “Betty” and the daugh­ter “Sarah”. Then, as the pièce de ré­sis­tance, he asked the for­mer: “How is Wil­lie get­ting on?”

It was, as Sarah says, an awe-in­spir­ing dis­play of what sets Ir­ish ca­reer politi­cians apart.

Some of us strug­gle with faces. Some with names. The man in the Phoenix Park had a pho­to­graphic mem­ory, but no time-lapse mech­a­nism.

If you can put all these skills to­gether, log­ging faces, names, and fam­ily re­la­tion­ships of com­plete strangers, there’s a good chance you’ll end up taoiseach.


Do you never for­get a face?

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