“Well it’s by the hush me boys/And that’s to mind your noise/And listen to poor Paddy’s sad narration/ I was by hunger stressed/ and in poverty distressed/ So I took a thought I’d leave the Irish nation.”
That’s what’s called a hunger song, Paddy’s Lament, the kind of thing we’d hear on the Irish hour on Saturdays at home …songs written during what most people call the Famine, but what my father called the Hunger. See, a famine is when there is no food, and there was plenty of food in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. It’s just that the lion’s share was earmarked for the English overlords, so food was being shipped out of the island to England, past homeless Irish people starving to death. “Starving with green mouths on ’em,” my father would say with hatred dripping from his voice. Green mouths ’cause they tried to eat grass to stay alive, so as they went into seizures on the sides of the road, they would vomit grass and stomach acids, dying in front of their children. This as the English went by in carriages, stomachs full. They didn’t care. They saw, and did nothing. This, my father always told me, was the Original sin, to see injustice and do nothing.
I remember falling asleep and wanting to kill the English. I remember not being sure when the Hunger had occurred, just knowing that no one had paid for it yet. I was six, maybe seven years old, and I had no idea when or where this atrocity had taken place. I knew that my grandparents had come from Ireland, my great-grandparents on one side, and I knew that we couldn’t have English things in our house …English tea, biscuits, whatever, that was bad. It was Protestant food, something Republicans or John Birchers would have. The world was divided into us and them, very clearly back then. Protestants used Miracle Whip, we used Hellman’s. Protestants hated President Kennedy too. Mind you, I was born in 1965, but no matter who was in office, only one person was referred to as the President, and that was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I thought we must have been related to the President somehow, his picture was up in every room of our house, along with a crucifix. I had contempt for anyone who wasn’t informed on these issues, people who didn’t know that Nixon was evil, people who weren’t in the One True Church, people who didn’t have opinions. That was the worst thing in the world to my father and mother, to stand for nothing. “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
I watched and learned. I found my mother’s dead body one September afternoon when I was twelve, a suicide in the garage. A mother dead in front of her child, red instead of green from the carbon monoxide, and who’s to blame? It can’t be her, no God, she’d done her best and sure she’s singing with the martyrs as we speak. Anger with nowhere to go became my best friend and most of my strength came from my badges of honor, as an Irishman, a Democrat, Catholic soldier of Christ, and now the son of the misunderstood and saintly Rosemary Walsh. It was then I changed my middle name to Walsh, to wear her name with me for the rest of my days. Names were always interchangeable in my house anyway, for my birth certificate said James but wasn’t I always called Seamus? I moved on, I remember the same year with two dead popes in it and then the hunger strikers in the Maze prison the next year. I wore black armbands and wrote letters to the editor. I stood for something.
I grew. My father lasted on his anger for another ten years, and then died of a heart attack. He’d fought the fight, though, God love him, didn’t he always drive past the White House on the way to his office in Washington, just to give Reagan the finger? My dad was a big wig in the labor unions, and he hated Reagan. Reagan and that Thatcher. In it together, thick as thieves, the Protestant ascendancy in action. I was twenty-two and an orphan, but I was something, wasn’t I? I knew who I was, knew what I stood for. I carried my dead parents with me everywhere I went. People would know what it was to be a Walsh and a Doyle. I’d show them.
Fifteen years later. Sober. In love. Happy. On the T.V. even. I had gone through the repatriation process, and am, as we speak, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. The Irish constitution provided for what are called “foreign births” of those Irish who’d been cast about the globe in a diaspora after the hunger. I now had an Irish passport and all …more Irish than American and, as I discovered on my numerous trips to Ireland as an adult, more American than Irish. No one in Ireland seemed as mad about the Hunger as I was. Some of them didn’t even go to church, and didn’t support the I.R.A. But whatever. I was learning through exhaustion and pain that maybe being strident had a price. Maybe being right all the time led to the suicide and the heart attack in one’s fifties. I was trying to become more, dare I say it, middle of the road. So I fell in love with a man who was as mellow as can be, Paul, the fair-haired chemistry teacher.
When Paul would ask me why I had to get so worked up about things, I would respond with anger and then apology. I would try as best I could to explain why I couldn’t sleep when Andrea Yates was found guilty of murdering her babies. I tried to be the peaceful “mellow” guy he wanted me to be. He was my love, my light, and I would be whatever he needed me to be. I was open to suggestion.
When he questioned why I was crying on September 11th, I tried to explain that the buildings that we kept seeing fall over and over were full of people. “Those are people,” I said. He said it was sad indeed, but didn’t really affect us. I realized at times like that that maybe I was doing the feeling for both of us, that maybe between my emotional extremes and his, oh I don’t know, three or four feelings, that there might be a middle ground.
He left me nine days before a trip to Ireland. We’d planned it, and he had referred to our last trip there as our “honeymoon.” We’d made deposits on cottages to stay in, I was on my cousin’s insurance for the car, we had plans plans plans. Nine days before our trip, with reserved cottages in the same town where we’d rung in the New Year, Paul dropped the bomb. I fled to Ireland with a broken heart, not knowing how I’d do it. I just knew that I wouldn’t stay in L.A. and watch him pack up our home. The day before I left, he asked me if I needed help packing, and did I want a ride to the airport? See, to him, the eight days that had passed were enough that we could now be friends. I declined his offer. I took a cab.
I swear to God, on my flight from L.A. to Philadelphia, the seat next to me was empty. Paul’s presence floated around the plane like a heartbreaking Elijah. He had told me that he never really loved me, and had never really found me attractive. It was time to move on, have a nice trip. Ta Brom Orm. I am so sorry.
I arrived in Cork, and went to the farm of my cousin Tony and his wife Margaret. Tony and Margaret had met me the previous December, when I was in Ireland with Paul. We’d hit it off quite well, and they thought I was great “craic,” Irish for fun. The shell of a cousin who arrived at their house must’ve been a shock. They were kind and gentle, but I found out that one doesn’t really have emotions in Ireland. “Mind yourself” became the closest to a heart to heart I could find in Mallow, County Cork. Ireland was in the midst of a major heat wave and a rash of suicides. The government was concerned that Ireland’s suicide rate for young men in their early twenties was four times that of the rest of the European Union. Every day on the news, after the angelus rang, there would be a story of one more suicide. An American tourist jumped of the Cliffs of Moher, the most gorgeous sheer drop on the West Coast of Ireland. I’d been there with my father; it’s my favorite picture of the two of us. For the first time in my life, I felt proud and safe to be with my Dad, connected somehow. He said, quietly, as the fog and wind and sea spray rolled around us, “I’ve been here before.” I said, “I’d thought you’d never been to Ireland before,” and he said, “No, I’ve been here in another time.”
For my father to make reference to reincarnation was about as absurd as if he’d said let’s go Jew. I didn’t know how to respond, so I did whatever I did when I felt safe and warm with my father. I froze, hoping I wouldn’t ruin it. My mother was down in the car, she hated Ireland. She hated the cold and the rain and she hated the plumbing. She was just a regular bitch, but I couldn’t say that. I’d never questioned my mother, ever. Her moods were not her fault, and she was a suffering sensitive soul. I hung in the balance between my mother, who hated every minute of the trip, and my father, who was like a pig in shit. I shared a room with them every night for three weeks, on a trip they’d planned to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
In Mallow, as a grown man and orphan, I stood at the grave of my great-grandfather, James Walsh, and thought of his sorrow and pain. He lost all of his children, some to the hunger, and others to emigration. I stood before him with my broken heart and asked for his help.
“You must be the gay one then? Well, sorry for your troubles. Mind yourself.”
In the Irish language, you don’t say, I am sad, you say the equivalent of I am wearing sadness. I have a sadness upon me. And that’s what real sadness feels like, like a hairshirt one can’t remove. Wherever I was, I could feel it on me. I took walks, I went to “support group” meetings. The group in Mallow was bereft, because they’d just buried one of their members, a twenty-seven year old man with two children. He’d hung himself in the barn after repeated attempts to quit drinking. I felt still burdened, even in a meeting, which I’d never experienced before. The Irish don’t clap at meetings, they don’t even hold hands at the end of the meeting and say the Lord’s Prayer together, they stand up and say it really fast to themselves, rosary speed. Mind yourself.
I took the car and went down to Baltimore with some friends, rich and hoighty-toighty types with sailboats and Mercedes. I went to meetings in Skibbereen and cried over my gay lover with Cork farmers smelling of pig shit. “Ah now, you mustn’t let yourself take a drink over this, sure it’s the hardest of hurts.”
The bathhouse in Cork city had horrible water pressure. I discovered that I could be desirable again, with my swollen eyes and the fresh scar of a skin cancer biopsy on my stomach. What is invisible in West Hollywood is fresh meat in Cork …an American accent can get you far. I decided to stay a weekend at a gay B&B in Cork, the weekend after gay pride. Have a laugh and get laid for the comfort that’s in it.
I drove from Skibbereen up to Cork in one day, during the worst heat wave in recorded history. People were dying in France by the busloads, and it was NINETY degrees in Ireland. Unheard of. I arrived in Cork during rush hour, and phoned the owner of the B&B from a phone box. He drove down from the house to the main quay and had me follow him to his place.
It was a gorgeous Georgian house, with a beautiful view of the river and a splendid bedroom on the third floor for me. It was the most romantic place I’d ever seen, and I was the only guest. Alone in a bedroom with a huge bed, a fireplace, and its own sitting area and tea set. I’d never felt more pitiful in my life.
“Where is everyone?” I asked, my voice shaking. “I thought it was Gay Pride week?” The owner of the B&B laughed. “No, that was last week. This week I’d say it’s a ghost town.”
Have you ever noticed that it’s always song seven on the C.D. that’s your favorite? Or is it a different song number for different people? Maybe that’s the key; forget astrology or numerology …which song is always your favorite? Mine’s always number seven. Of the C.D.s I brought along to Ireland, Sinead O’Connor’s new one had Paddy’s Lament on number seven, and “Woman of Heart and Mind” was number seven on Joni Mitchell’s live album “Miles of Aisles.” I realized on my lonely trip to Ireland that “I am a woman of heart and mind.” All my years of trying to be cool for Paul, all the times I tried to hide my aching bleeding liberal Irish Catholic heart, I was killing myself, a sacrifice to a relationship that didn’t exist. “You criticize and you flatter/You imitate the best and the rest you memorize.” He was trying on a role, and I was getting lost in mine. I went to Ireland with a sorrow that felt as deep as that of my ancestors, and a hunger so deep I couldn’t be filled. I never stayed at that B&B, I knew I’d be more tempted to use the window with no screen over the river than I would’ve been to use the teapot. I kept going, kept clinging to my friends, sobbing and crying over all the rugs that had been pulled out from under me. If my mother had asked me if she should leave, I would’ve voted no …and I would’ve voted no for Paul’s departure as well. But I was bereft, left, and wearing sorrow in the hottest sun Ireland had ever seen.
There was only one station on the radio, and the Irish love their Dido. Driving the fifty or so kilometers from my cousins’ house to the baths in Cork city, or the five hours from there to my friend Brian’s house in Tipperrary, I had to be on guard for Dido. She will fuck you up, Dido will. “I want to thank you/For giving me the best day of my life.” Shut the fuck up, you codependent monster. I would be able to get the news station in some parts of the country, listening to what was happening in the world in the Irish language, which I don’t understand. I would hear a news report in Irish, and recognize the word “New York” but not know what was going on in New York. I had to stop at a gas station and get a paper to find out that the power was out in New York and parts of Canada. “I drew a map of Canada/Oh Canada/With your face sketched on it twice.” That’s song eight, “A Case of You,” and it’s as dangerous as Dido when your heart is broken and you’re alone in another country that should feel like home. I didn’t know if this ragged hot country with the high suicide rate and the flaming fucking cases of alcoholism was my home, or the one in L.A. being dismantled was my home. I cried out to God, on every beach and cliff, and didn’t trust myself to be alone for too long. I stood mute and broken in the winds of my fatherland, trying to listen to the part of me that wouldn’t die.
I saw a shiatsu masseuse in the West. She was from the North, a short stout lady who tried her best to help me heal. She told me I was strong, stronger than I knew, and that my rage was my friend. “It’s energy, and it can protect that child who hurts within you.” Luckily she had forgone a simple box of Kleenex, and had given me an entire roll of toilet paper. Her husband was working on some part of the house they lived in, a newer building, with a lovely garden and kids’ toys strewn about. She did her work in the original house, a shed really, with a converted attic and little kitchen and whatnot. As I lay there I wanted to beg her to let me stay, I could help with the kids, maybe teach a monologue workshop? She held my back where my heart had once been, and I could feel the heat rising off of me. Wave upon wave of grief overtook me, and she kept whispering over and over, “It lives, your heart. It lives.” She asked me to picture Mother Earth holding me and rocking me and had me hold my hand over my belly button. I don’t know what she meant me to feel or realize, but I think I figured out where the pain was coming from. I had been ripped from one too many wombs in my day, and it was time to create my own safe home. At that moment, I knew that I couldn’t stay in the Old Country, and I needed to go burn down whatever was left of the New Country that I lived in. It was time to create a new space. I remembered how Sylvia Plath described crying: “The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea/ And comes from a country as far away as health.” There was a country I wanted to visit, and I had two passports to get there.
When it was time to go after my massage and a cup of tea, as I pulled away from the rocky farm where the masseuse lived with her husband and children, she said farewell to me in the Irish language: “Slan abhaile.” Safe home.
*NOTE – Story originally published on FreshYarn.