These five stories were first broadcast on the Quiet Quarter, RTE’s Lyric FM, in October 1999
Camping with Schubert
The four of us, Leslie, Chrissie, Richard and myself, packed my car with an army tent, sleeping bags, spare clothes, food and drink, and headed off on a camping holiday, to be out of the North and away from everything. In some ways I was trying to retrace the summer of 1971 when my friend Noel and I hitched around the west of Ireland. It was four weeks before the introduction of internment and the opening of a ‘temporary’ prison camp called Long Kesh. It was very difficult being eighteen against the backdrop of increasing conflict; it was very difficult remaining neutral.
But away we went – Noel in search of the source of traditional Irish music, I, angst-ridden and serious as usual, in search of answers to the bewilderment of life. I insisted we take no tent, so we slept out in the open – on benches in Galway, in a bog just outside Oughterard where the countryside was bare and lonely and the wind was high in the sky and whistling; and, later, when Noel found more companionable drinking partners in Bundoran I wandered alone around the town after midnight before making my way up the cliff path beside the golf course and bedding down in a small shelter.
That next morning I rose at dawn, hungry and thirsty and shivering, and walked to the top of the cliff and looked out over the Atlantic. I became detached yet I thought, why am I always here, and a unique contentment came over me as I sat at the edge of the world and watched a lone beam break through the clouds and travel to the water. I was so happy and I cried to God for allowing me experience the thrill of life.
When I returned seventeen years later my youth had long disappeared and I was far from innocent.
Our women hated the tent, imagined an invasion of snakes and tarantulas and only the bribe of a half bottle of brandy each night could persuade them not to desert us for a B & B. In Galway when Chrissie phoned home to find out how her three kids were, I went into a shop and bought a cassette tape of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony.
We decided to head south-east – to the fleadh in Kilkenny. My three exhausted companions – we had almost been swept away in gale-force winds in Tulla Cross the night before – fell asleep as I drove.
An abbreviated version of the second movement of Schubert’s Fifth was once used as the theme for a film or children’s TV programme about these kids who find a secret door in the wall surrounding a mysterious garden, through which they enter and have great adventures before they go home. But one day they can’t find the secret passage and they feel desolated, and are conscious that something has changed or been lost forever.
As I drove, the music filled me with immense pleasure and I stole a glance at my girlfriend, head tilted back, in dreamland, and appreciated how lucky I was, how peaceful and kind those few days had been, even with the storm. Later, we were all agreed that we had such a great time that we would make the same trip again, but other things intervened and we never did, and probably never will.
But for a few moments, at the wheel of my car, driving out of Galway and through the Irish countryside, I felt I had found that secret door in the wall and glimpsed the various gardens of innocent adventure I had once known, felt that I was once again watching that lone beam strike the ocean, telling me how alive and lucky I was.
A Symphony called This Is Your Life
When I write I need silence, or relative silence. I could never work in an office where phones are ringing, people shouting, or colleagues swapping stories and jokes. I need to be alone. I need to have the hubbub far away on the horizon. It wasn’t always like this. When I was sixteen and studying Maths and doing algebraic equations I could only work at my optimum if the entire street was sharing with me Led Zeppelin.
Right now, the dog next door is barking at something. My eyes get drawn away from my desk to the outside world, to a neighbour’s tree sneezing as the wind gusts, to the bushes which seem to cower, to the rise of Black Mountain through autumn cloud behind Andersonstown. Right now, the bell of St Teresa’s chapel, half a mile away from my home, tolls the hour. And reminded of time, I come back to my page, to my pen’s excavations of blank space, its scratching out some sense and some sense of the sensation of living.
Back to the page with me come Black Mountain, the old days, Black Mountain blue with bluebells or white with snow; St Teresa’s and my first confession, my first Holy Communion; my pet terrier Prince who met me after school, dead thirty-five years now; the emptiness and silence, almost sadness, of the schoolyard when we broke up for summer. Funny things: like Mary Doherty famous for having the cleanest ears in Corby Way; or, Brendan Hunter and I getting caught by his mother in the garden shed kissing the Wray sisters.
Silent memories which open to produce a symphony called This Is Your Life.
I have this theory, you see, that the real meaning of life is the sensation of epiphany we experience when we touch the quintessential past, those promontories of innocence, melancholy, suffering and love. No other stimulus is greater than music to bring back those exquisitely painful/beautiful times which we touched just briefly, before being stranded in an eternity called the present.
Memory is life.
‘Yesterday once more’.
It allows us to glimpse the dead, alive. To run and swim and dance again like there was no tomorrow. To look at what we did and what we might have done instead.
One of my favourite novels examines this very issue. ‘Knulp’ by Hermann Hesse is about a tramp in Germany in the early 1900s who looks back disconsolately at what he considers to have been a wasted life. Knulp had been a promising scholar but fell away from his studies and his family after a girl broke his heart, sapping his will to make something of himself. So he took to the roads – a man of independent spirit, obliged to no one. Now in his forties and dying he goes back to his old village where he drinks in the enchantment of home, of recognition, of memory.
He wanders up to the mountain to die and talks to God in his thoughts, reproaching himself for being a ‘bad man’. But God goes through Knulp’s life with him.
“Come along, Knulp!…Think of your youth, that summer in the Odenwald and the times in Lachstetten. Didn’t you dance like a deer, didn’t you feel the joy of life in every bone? Didn’t you sing and play the accordion till all the girls had tears in their eyes?…
“I wanted you the way you are and no different… You are my child and my brother and a part of me,” says God.
God comforts him until Knulp agrees that everything is as it should be.
“So you’ve nothing more to complain about?” God’s voice asks.
“Nothing more,” Knulp nods with a shy laugh before finally closing his eyes, and recalling those days when he danced like a deer…
My father’s family were what was called – somewhat pejoratively – ‘dealers’. They sold second-hand clothes from stalls at the windswept Belfast, Portadown and Newry markets. My granny worked into her eighties and was so hardened by her experience that she lived until she was ninety-four. When she and my Uncle Gerard bought stock, often thrown in for good measure were old books, sheet music and old valve radios.
In this way our home also came into possession of a piano, which my sisters practised on, and a huge radiogram the size of a sideboard, which was fitted with one of those modern decks that could take the increasingly popular 45 vinyl singles.
In my bedroom, also care of my Uncle Gerard, I had a Phillips radio which took a minute to warm up. A little yellow light illuminated the glass dial and the various frequencies of exotic stations such as Hilversum, Luxembourg and Radio Prague, and the locals, the Home Service and Radio Athlone.
But what I loved most in those days was our eclectic collection of 78s which appealed, like the black and white movies we watched every Sunday afternoon, to my old-fashioned nature. I empathised so much with the music and films of my parents’ generation that at times I felt I had been on earth before. I played these 78s so often that when she did her weekly downtown shopping my mother had to keep me in supply with the little needles that you screwed into the stylus and which wore down so quickly.
I loved Mantovani and his orchestra, but my favourite 78s were of the great tenor Mario Lanza, especially him singing ‘The Student Prince’. Thus, my family had to put up with young Danny singing:
Dry! Dry! Dry! Beer!!!
Drink you wine and drink your cheer!!!
Drink! Drink! Drink!…
and I went on and on like an eight-year-old Father Jack.
My maternal grandmother, a McKain from small farming stock, owned a tiny cottage in the townland of Islanderry, near Dromore in County Down. Though the house fell into disuse, my mother and her younger siblings had stayed there for a time during the Belfast blitz but by the late fifties this early nineteenth-century cottage was a dunder-in. Nevertheless, it had a roof and old iron beds with lumpy mattresses that were as damp at the end of the summer as they were when first aired in Spring. In the living room was a quaint gramophone, the type that you wound up with a handle. Miraculously, it still worked and my Uncle Seamus would play records not only by Count John McCormack but my old favourite, Mario Lanza.
We kids, including one of my cousins whom I had a crush on, would be out on those summer nights, some distance from the cottage and could hear the phrases of music fall across the fields.
One of the songs in particular that I found quite spiritual or moving was ‘Serenade’, with the words:
Drifting along in my heart
There’s a song
And the song in my heart
Will not end…
Back in Belfast, summer over, I would sit on the floor, lie with my head against the vibrating loudspeaker’s protective dust cloth, my eyes shut, and be lost to the world, in a trance of unarticulated love and contentment, convinced that out there among the wind that stirs the willows, beneath the moon, on a night that lives forever, I could be lost in a dream of you, my Serenade…
Clair de Lune
My sister Margaret and her friend Patsy rode to school on imaginary horses. I told my mother that I could see no horses but she assured me that they were there, then winked. The ten-year-olds galloped home at lunch time and left their animals in the front garden to chomp grass.
Our family loved Patsy, the youngest child of middle-aged parents. Shortly after we moved house from Andersonstown to the Falls Road, Patsy’s mother died, and Patsy, now living alone with her widowed father, would often come and spend weekends with us.
One Sunday night Patsy left us, got the bus home as usual. She found the house in darkness and when she tried her front door key it wouldn’t turn the lock. She went to the back door but could only open it a little, as something was jamming it. She pushed hard, squeezed in, then smelt the gas, then found her father lying dead with his head in the oven, a photograph of Patsy and her mother in his hand. He couldn’t live without his wife.
My mammy wanted to take Patsy in, and we all thought that would be exciting to have a new sister, but she had to go to live with an older sister, her husband and kids, in the countryside. At the start of the Troubles she married a neighbour of mine and they emigrated to Australia.
So, 1963, at the age of ten, was the first time I ever heard the expression, “committed suicide”, and I always associated it with the surprise, self-inflicted death of a middle-aged person.
1993, 3rd January, night-time, a family grocery store at Lisnagleer Crossroads, Dungannon. UVF gunmen force their way into the store and through to the house. They open fire, kill father-of-four Patrick Shields and Diarmuid and his twenty-year-old son.
A death notice in the local newspaper was addressed to Diarmuid: “In the darkness you are my clair de lune, in the noise you are my peace and calm, in troubled times you are my greatest comfort. When I hold you, all seems right with the world. And I will love you forever, no matter what.”
The insertion had been placed by twenty-year-old Julie Statham, an only daughter. Julie – a Queen’s University student – and Diarmuid had been devoted to each other for four years, had recently been on holiday together in Paris, and planned to announce their engagement in March.
On 3rd February her father went to wake her at 8 am, only to find her lying dead from an overdose. She left a letter which said:
“When they killed my darling, they killed me too. I have tried to cope for an entire month. Despite my outward appearance I am dead. I may be breathing and moving but what use is that when I don’t have any emotions left inside me?
“When two shots were fired my life ended. I may, at one stage, have had lots to live for, but twenty-seven days ago everything that mattered was snatched from my grasp – never to be replaced. You all there mean the world to me, but I couldn’t let you watch me being miserable. So this seemed a sensible solution – well, it did to me. Let me also tell you Mum and Dad – how very much I love you and how very sorry I am for the pain I’ve caused.”
Diarmuid had been her ‘Clair de Lune’ – literally, midnight.
I have never been able to listen to that haunting piece of music by Debussy without being reminded of this young woman, without being reminded, from my childhood, of Patsy’s father and all those other souls who followed into the dark loved ones they could not live without.
One day in Long Kesh I came across a book on the life of Giacomo Casanova. When I opened it I realised it was the very copy I had inscribed and sent to my best friend, Jimmy Quigley, when he had been interned on the prison ship Maidstone.
According to the censor’s stamps someone had taken Jimmy’s book to Magilligan Prison Camp, then Long Kesh Camp where I was now interned and once again it came into my possession.
Jimmy and I had become big fans of Casanova in the autumn of 1971 when his life of adventure, prison escapes, and his many love affairs had been the subject of a television series by the playwright Dennis Potter. We loved all the beautiful women Casanova got and we didn’t.
Casanova, a Venetian, was 16 years old when that other famous Venetian, Antonio Vivaldi, died. I don’t know if they ever met but, anyhow, the theme music of the television series, which I recognised at the outset, thanks to Tommy Cooney, was from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’.
Tommy ‘Chanter’ Cooney was our old music teacher. He taught music because he loved it: it was his life. He had begun his musical career as a teenager in the Northern Ireland Symphony Orchestra where he played under such famous conductors as Elgar, Henry Wood and John Barbirolli. In school he carried a strap which he never used, thus he had no authority and everybody took advantage of him.
One day, late November 1969, he came into class. Everyone was misbehaving, smoking dope or flying paper aeroplanes (and piloting them!). Tommy announced:
“Right, I want you to listen to a piece of music.”
Oh no, was the general groan. Not another bit of ancient din which we have to analyse. “Chanter, give our heads peace!”
He put on an LP.
“Dee, de, dee, deee… I feel that ice is slow-ly melting.”
It was ‘Here Comes the Sun’ from the Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ LP which had just been released. Everyone went quiet. Tommy lifted the stylus and played it again, analysing the melody and harmony, praising the way it had been composed. He then went on to compare ‘Because’ with the second movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Autumn’.
We were all spellbound. We all thought he was great! He was so taken by our response, by the questions, by our interest, that by the end of the class he had the biggest smile on his face that I had ever seen in all the years he had been teaching us.
But no one had a sunnier smile than my friend Jimmy.
Ironically – or eerily – I had found the Casanova book to Jimmy in a locker a few hours after his mother and mine had been up in the prison visiting me one afternoon in October 1973. It had been a year exactly since I had last seen Mrs Quigley and that had been at Jimmy’s wake. He had been killed by a British soldier during a gun-battle close to his Divis Flats home.
The book subsequently went missing – either borrowed by another prisoner or permanently borrowed by a British soldier during one of the regular raids on our huts.
But memories cannot be stolen, and certainly not mine of two dreamy, teenage Casanovas in search of some ladies in the Autumn of 1971.