Kulchie Kid: Growing up in a crazy culture



Kulchie Kid: Growing up in a crazy culture

by Daniel O'Beeve

Published by the CreateSpace Distribution Platform, in cooperation with the Institute for CENT

August 2013/November 2014




Some people study psychology in order to understand their own minds and their own lives; but many others know that a more reliable route to understanding yourself, your origins and your life journey is to read good, emotionally honest autobiography, revelatory memoirs, or insightful biography.

The stories people tell about their lives can move us in a way that psychology and philosophy never can.  And fictionalized, or slightly fictionalized autobiography is one of the best vehicles for sharing emotional experiences that transcend language and bypass our ability to vet and evaluate feelings. 

In his own deeply felt story, Daniel O'Beeve describes his journey from being trapped in a dysfunctional family, in an authoritarian culture, in which he had no rights and no sense of personal power; and no possibility of happiness in the present or the future. His descriptions are very vivid, and alternate between sadness, tragedy, mystery and farcical comedy.

He tells it how it was, and in the process we feel that some aspects of our own lives, that were previously beyond our grasp, come into sharp relief, become fully felt and resolve themselves.  

We can all identify with Daniel's struggles, as he tries to survive in a crazy culture, and to search for a way out of his trap. 

How can one person break out of a culture created by powerful political and religious forces?  Can he really escape?  Can he rewrite the story into which he has been locked?

Daniel says: "The Ireland about which I write is not the ‘real Ireland'.  Nor is it an ‘unreal Ireland'.  It is the personal-Ireland that I experienced as a confused, feeling being, having been thrown into a particularly dysfunctional family, which happened to live in Ireland.  Some of the developmental challenges that I faced are faced by everybody in one form or another - but some are extreme and unique!  And the nature of the mysterious and intriguing 'little blue bear', about which I write, is not at all clear to me, even now, four years after writing this part of my autobiography". 


As an illustration of the quality of this publication, we would like to share Chapter 1 with you free of charge:


Kulchie Kid: Growing up in a crazy culture

By Daniel O’Beeve

Copyright (c) transferred to the Institute for CENT, November 2014


Chapter 1

Imagine if your life chances were determined by the novels your parents had read – and your’s had read none, because they were semi-literate at best.

What if your emotional intelligence was determined by your parents’ capacity to control their own anger and rage – and they had none, because of a long history of imperial suppression and political violence?

And what if the happiness of your infancy depended upon your parents’ ability to love each other, and you – but they had none, because they were born into loveless, arranged marriages?

What kind of narrative would result?  Perhaps something like this:

1. At first, the infant…

I know your life has been difficult; and I am not claiming any right to be considered exceptionally abused or oppressed.  According to the Buddha, life is difficult for all human beings, and the difficulty results from our attachment to our desires.  Because we want things to be more pleasant than they are, we are unhappy about our life circumstances.

According to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, we are actors in a play that ‘the manager’ directs.  And the manager is not a mere emperor of a mere empire, but Providence itself; Nature; the Universal Law of Karma: the unseen hand of fate and Kismet.

The bards of old Ireland sought explanations of our earthly trials and tribulations in the activities of the magical gods who rule us; but the Bard of England put it like this:

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms…”

Shakespeare, As You Like It

So why not start there: at the entrance of our infant actor upon the sorry stage set by an illiterate family in an impoverished village in rural Ireland, near the end of the Second World War?


2. Nothing to be cheerful about…

Several miles inland from the coastal road that runs up the eastern seaboard of the Irish Free State, two deep, wooded valleys cut across each other at right angles, forming crossroads at the confluence of two rivers.  Cattle drovers from the surrounding countryside have been passing through here for hundreds of years - two days before the cattle market in Dublin - on a weekly basis.  Hence the existence of the hotel and four public houses in a community of less than one thousand people. 

The people of Crumble are a dour lot.  ‘Nothing to be cheerful about round here!’ is a common sentiment.  The local farms are small, subsistence affairs, of about three to five acres each.  And it’s hard to eke out a living.  There’s not much cattle farming in this particular village through which so many cattle are herded.  Local people grow their own vegetables, raise chickens or turkeys, keep a few pigs; and go to the market some miles away once each week to buy what they do not grow, and to trade the surpluses that they have grown.  They travel to the market in their pony-traps or donkey-carts, and then mill around a big open field of dried earth upon which selling stalls are erected.  Everybody dresses in black, or colours which cannot easily be distinguished from black.

There is no electricity or gas supply in the village; and the local school only covers the primary level of education.  It’s a very basic kind of life for people who do not count for anything with the national government.

On Sundays the locals go to their separate churches – the Catholic chapel and the Protestant church.  The women and men all wear black hats.  The women can keep their hats on during services, but the men must take theirs off.  This is one of God’s rules.

The Protestants and Catholics look askance at each other, when they encounter each other, but manage to muddle along in their separate social and economic grooves.

3. One night…

But right now, night has fallen on this warm day in June, 1944, and the streets are in total darkness.  The moon is obscured by clouds.  The four streetlamps are unlit – one in the middle of each of the small streets.   And they are unlit by the request of the British government, because the German bombers can use the lights in Ireland to locate themselves over England. ‘You’d have to be very close to see four street lamps in Crumble’, was the local response when it was announced that the government had agreed with the British that we would follow a blackout, after the bombing of North Strand in Dublin, three years earlier, which local republican rumours claimed had been the result of Dubliners leaving their lights on to help the bombers.

So the streets and the surrounding buildings are in total darkness; as they have been for the past three years.

Apart from the pubs, two churches and a farm shop, the streets are lined with small, two-storey houses which are whitewashed, with green or yellow or black or white front doors.

In the Haymakers Inn, which is the Catholic pub, the small bar is full.  Six grey men in farm clothes and flat caps are sitting along the poorly illuminated wooden bar, mainly with leather-patched elbows on the bar, small briar pipes in mouths, puffing black shag smoke into the yellowed ceiling.  Their faces are flickering patches of black and yellow, illuminated by the oil lamps which are located on the bar; by the entrance door; and behind the bar.  Whole areas of the room are in total darkness.

The room is full of smoke from the pipe smokers, and the acrid smell of the small turf fire which has been burning gently in the corner since about nine o’clock, when the heat went out of the evening.  The flames of the fire add an orange glow to the flickering lights that illuminate the closed faces of the customers.

Nobody speaks and you can hear their rasping breaths, shallow and rhythmical, with occasional gurgles of saliva in the bowls of their pipes, which signals the need to spit in one of the spittoons on the floor, and then scrape out the pipe and refill it; relight it; and continue the satisfied sucking of a loved object. 

Rough work hands reach repeatedly for glasses of black stout, take a slug, sigh with pleasure; lips smack with satisfaction; and glasses are replaced gently, quietly on the bar.  Because of the strange illumination, the scene looks like it was painted by one of the Dutch Masters – perhaps Rembrandt or Flinck – without the fancy garments and hats.

The bald-headed, red-faced barkeeper washes and dries glasses, then pulls an occasional pint of black stout, which takes several minutes to settle down into a drinkable form, as the thick, creamy head shrinks from three inches to about one inch.  This requires some assistance, so he scrapes some of the thick froth out of each glass into a receptacle beneath the bar. Throughout all these processes, he keeps his distance from the customers at all times.

Requests for serving are more like grunts and codes than statements or questions.  No eye contact is made by anybody with anyone else.  It looks and feels as if there is an unwritten agreement that this place is for the efficient buying and drinking of black stout, followed by silent departure.


4. Darkness is where the demons dwell…

The Cullen Boys, as they are known, are in the middle of the bar – two big, strapping farmhands.  They see that the barkeeper is sidling towards the left end of the bar, as the clock ticks up to eleven o’clock - and they know what will happen next.  In unison, they drain their glasses, pull the peaks of their flat caps down in their eyes, tap their pipes into the ash trays on the bar, and push the empty pipes into the top pockets of their worm coats. Then they stand up and swivel towards the door.  As they do so, the barkeeper picks up a small leather mallet and strikes the bar once.  As the Cullen boys turn to leave the bar, the remaining men drain their glasses, grunt or burp, turn like toy soldiers and follow the Cullen boys out into the street.

The Cullen boys have left their big black bicycles outside the front of the pub, on top of the others, for a quick escape.  They had already removed their bicycle clips when they arrived, because the hill home is too steep to cycle.  As they wheel their bicycles away, now, they hear two or three men behind them grunt farewells, or say goodnight.

It’s only forty yards to the end of the street – five small houses and a small Catholic chapel - where the boys, no longer deserving of the name, as they are in their late ‘thirties, turn sharp right and enter onto the steep hill homewards.  At this point they ignore the intergovernmental agreement about blackouts, and both switch on their bicycle lamps.  They are not cowards, but they believe that it could be dangerous to walk up this hill in the total darkness because there are big, waterlogged ditches on both sides of the road, and at least one or two drunks have drowned in them over the decades.

They also believe in demons and the devil, and they know that darkness is where they dwell.  This is the point at which they normally begin to whistle – token whistling; little incomplete attempts at a tune; which is not so much an expression of culture as it is of panic.

Here, on the dark road home, the devil runs the show.  When dawn comes, the freshly washed priests and vicars will emerge from their hiding places; the devil will withdraw, and god will reclaim the day.

The boys have a few miles to walk before they get to the Cullen farm, where they will collapse into bed together, in a bed shared with two younger brothers, and out of which they will be hauled by Old Man Cullen about four o’clock in the morning, to prepare to milk the herd – the Cullen’s being one of the few cattle farms in the area.

So they trudge off up the hill, side by side, pushing their heavy bicycles in silence.  The moon emerges to illuminate their journey for a couple of minutes, and then is obscured again by cloud cover; only to emerge again two minutes later.

As they turned the gentle bend between Dennehey’s turkey farm and the Flynn’s run-down homestead, where the gradient of the hill steepens significantly, a cloud passed over the moon, and they were plunged into deeper darkness.  Immediately after this point, they were stopped in their tracks by a loud scream.  They looked at each other in terror.  Could this be it?  The demonic confrontation they had long expected?


They recovered their composure and walked on, gasping as they pushed their great black bicycles up the steep incline.

As they got closer to the gate of Flynn’s farm they heard it again – this time louder – and this time it was clearly a woman in distress.  She was shouting and screaming now; wailing and protesting.

As they reached the gate, they wondered what it could mean.  By the gate, they could remember the spot where Old Man Flynn’s Model-T Ford had stood, on the side of the road, inches from the ditch.  This was the car in which he died, after weeks of using it as his home, in the coldest winter they had known, locked into a mound of snow.  They had no idea why Old Man Flynn had taken to living in his car.  There were rumours of ‘interfering with’ children; but they had no idea what that actually meant.  The phrase, ‘interfering with’, was like a blow to the guts, a painful grasping at the heart, a fear of falling into a big black pit.  It had no images attached to it, and no descriptors.  It was one of the night terrors of Catholic childhood.

Because of this confusion about why Old Man Flynn had died the way he did, they did not consider stopping to see if anybody needed their help.  It was none of their business.  They were not citizens of a Grecian democracy.  They were pawns in a plot that had not been explained to them!

They walked on!


5. A difficult birth…

Inside the Flynn’s farmhouse all was not well.  Neeve, the twenty year old daughter, had come home to her mother’s place to give birth to her second son.  The girls who slept in the big bedroom to the right of the front door had been sent to stay in various aunties, and Neeve had the room to herself.  Birth was a secret process, and the less the children know about it the better!  Neeve had arrived the day before she was due to give birth, and lounged around, waiting. 

Her waters finally broke during breakfast today, and she was hurried off to the side room by the midwife in attendance.  But now, tonight, she has been in labour for sixteen hours – and is in a state of exhaustion and despair. The midwife, Mrs Meehan, had to send for Old Nurse Sweeny, because she was at her wits end.  She had tried everything she knew to get this girl to deliver her second baby, but nothing worked.  Although she ordered her to push, to shove, to breathe, to squat on the bed and bear down, nothing worked.  And now the girl had become hysterical, thinking this unbearable pain could never be dislodged from her unmentionable parts.

The girl’s mother, Old Mrs Flynn - as distinct from the younger Mrs Flynn’s who were married to her older boys - was agitated, as she went from room to room trying to distract herself from the screams and curses of her daughter.

Several of Neeve’s older brothers and sisters, along with a couple of aunts, sat around the big room to the left of the front door, waiting for the event to be over, so they could get on with their lives.  All the younger children were upstairs, under orders to go to sleep – but how could they with such a racket downstairs?

Nurse Sweeny had prepared a concoction of herbs, and forced the girl to drink it.  This was followed by wild evacuations of the bowels, for which no advanced planning had been made, and then by much urination, but the head of the baby remained intractably, if visibly, lodged in the poor girl’s dilated uterus. 

Old Nurse Sweeny went to the next room and talked to Old Mrs Flynn, and tried to persuade her that a doctor would have to be called, as they had exhausted all their know-how, and were at their wits end.  It looked like Neeve and the baby might die, if a doctor was not called urgently.  But Old Mrs Flynn shook her head and pushed the nurse away, insisting, regrettably, that she definitely could not, under any circumstance, afford to pay a doctor.


6. An innocent goat…

The next few hours were a nightmare for everybody.  All the children who were in bed upstairs were distressed by the wild screaming.  The girl’s husband, Owen, was in shock, sitting by the fire staring into ash and embers.

Now Neeve just wailed, weakly, from time to time, like a dying animal; and then fell into brief unconsciousness.  Wailed and cried.  Sobbed.  Temporary silence.  Then she would rouse up and bash her head against the headboard and shout, Jazis, Jazis, Jazis Christ! Will somebody kill me, please!

Somewhere after two o’clock in the morning, the goat, tied up in the barn, next to the delivery room, began to respond to Neeve’s screams with its own bleats.

The goat-bleating was unnerving everybody, and Old Mrs Flynn paced up and down, brushing the tangle of fuzzy grey hair out of her eyes.  She was not a woman who knew much about self-restraint.

“Mother of God”, she intoned, after the goat had bleated more than a dozen times, in tandem with Neeve’s screams.  “I’ll kill that goat if it doesn’t stop!”  Her wrinkled face, like an ancient Native American who had been dehydrated for a decade, was more tense and angry than normal, which was saying something.

But the goat was nowhere near finished, and continued to bleat and blah, every time the girl cried out.

Finally, Old Mrs Flynn lost control, picked up a big, thick stick from the pile of firewood by the open fire; went out, slamming the door behind her; yanked open the creaking barn door and obviously struck the goat a heavy blow.  Instead of quieting the beast, this had the effect of producing a wild shriek, following which Neeve began to cry, “Oh God help me!  God help me!  God help me!”

The goat screamed; the stick thudded again and again; the girl cried out; the goat screamed; the stick thudded, over and over and over.

Finally, silence reigned, inside and outside the house. An uncomfortable silence of a type the children of this family knew in their bones.

Old Mrs Flynn re-entered the house and chased some children off the stairs - children who had been woken by the commotion and come down to see what the unholy row was about.  She followed them upstairs and screamed at the kids who were talking loudly among themselves about what was going on.  The big stick whacked them through the blankets, rags and coats which covered them.  Unlike the unfortunate goat, however, the kids knew to deliver immediate obedience and silence.  They did not wish to die.  One strike on the bedclothes and silence reigned.

An uncomfortable peace descended upon the house, broken only by Neeve’s occasional returns to consciousness, during which she cried and screamed, and pleaded for a merciful death!


7. The god of small mercies…

At precisely four o’clock, in the dead of night - according to Old Nurse Sweeny, who had been sleeping on and off by the delivery bed - an angel of the lord arrived and pulled the child effortlessly from the woman’s womb, sliding it gently onto the bloody, wet, and soiled sheets of the bed.

It was a miracle, they all agreed, as the more energetic ones who had stayed up spilled into the room.  What a big head, they all agreed.  Nobody had ever seen such a big head on a new-born baby, and especially a baby with such a small body. 

The midwives washed and dried the distraught Neeve, as she sobbed and moaned.  Then they washed the baby, and wrapped it in a new towel.  Slowly they approached the exhausted mother, and Old Nurse Sweeny began to move the baby towards her, for Neeve to take.  Suddenly, without warning, Neeve’s left arm began to arc upwards from her chest, and her big flat hand assumed the slapping position, as she took aim at the baby’s little body.  Nurse Sweeny pulled the baby back in the nick of time, and Neeve’s big flat hand arced downwards and hit the floorboards with a thud.

“Take that animal away from me!” Neeve bellowed; a look of black hatred on her contorted face.  “Get it out!  Get rid of it!  Get it out of this room!”

Having exhausted herself with this demonstration of rejection and disgust, Neeve fell back on the pillows, closed her tearful eyes, and rubbed the wet hair off her face as she fell into a deep sleep.

Old Nurse Sweeny took the baby out of the room, and sent for a wet nurse to provide it with some breast milk.

As a result, I escaped certain death, in those first few moments of my life on earth!


8. Emotions and small boys…

Emotions are like a far distant continent to many boys, especially boys with an extreme male brain, which I think I had at the beginning of my life.  Over the years I have migrated considerably towards the centre ground, between the extreme male and the extreme female brain.

It can take decades for some males to learn to feel; to realize that they already are feeling all kinds of things – especially a lot of emotional pain – down deep below the level of conscious awareness.  Very often, this is the pain of a huge void between themselves and the people who share their physical space.  Their ‘nearest and dearest’.

I have spent years working on my ‘head’, which turned out to be work on my heart.  For most of my life, I did not really know I had a heart, in the sense of a heart that did anything apart from pumping unfeeling blood around my numb body.

Recently I had a devastating insight.  If my mother had uttered one word of kindness to me – to say nothing of love – it would have transformed my life.  The lonely, painful journey I have been on would have been halved or quartered.  My entire self-concept would have been utterly transformed by just that one word of kindness.

One word.  One word.

I said this to a cousin of mine, over dinner, on my sixty-fifth birthday.  She came from a similar, rural Irish family to mine, except they were less poverty-stricken than my family.  She then told me about her experience of being ‘educated’ by sadistic nuns, as a boarder in a convent school.  She said she had been permanently harmed by those nuns, and that the wound had never healed.  This caused me to look down deep into my own open wound, inflicted upon me by sadistic Catholic teachers, especially an order of teaching brothers.

9. Education for writing and education for work…

Edna O’Brien, like my cousin, had also been a boarder in a convent school, and she had sadistic teachers who made her life miserable.  Apart from one, ‘her nun’; and she had a crush on that nun, which precipitated a crisis within the nun, who then had a nervous breakdown.  The nun was taken away from the convent for some time, while she recovered, and when she returned, she would not even look at Edna O’Brien, who felt utterly rejected[i].

In the best parts of her memoir, Edna O’Brien writes like the sea wind that accompanies the gentle waves that travel landward with the early morning tide as it rises towards the east coast of Ireland in the summer months. But the power of the wind is concealed in silence, which lulls the hearer into a sense of peace and comfort, until the waves suddenly crash upon some jagged rocks, startling the hearer into a state of heightened awareness of danger.  Then the wind howls loud enough to conceal the screeches of the gulls that fly upwards to escape the roaring noise and the boiling foam.  And the emotional punch that she packs in those moments of crescendo – winding the reader - is the kind of power I would like to have to deliver the howling rage that is buried within me. 

One kind word from my mother might have saved me decades of unfelt pain of isolation and neglect. It might have made me a happy boy instead of gloomy zombie.

I wish I could write like Edna O’Brien, but she had the ‘advantage’ of a secondary education, at the hands of sadistic nuns, who taught her Latin and Greek, and English and Irish literature.  I did not attend a secondary school, because my parents could not afford to send me to school beyond the age of fourteen years, when I could go out to work, and earn money for the family.

I completed my basic primary education at the age of eleven years – mostly based on learning pidgin Gaelic and early Celtic mythology and Catholic religious dogma – but I had to stay in school for a further three years until it was legal for me to begin work, in a metal jewellery company in Dublin city, in 1958.

Edna O’Brien left her secondary boarding school at the age of eighteen years, and she had been writing for years.  Even at primary school she had been writing, out in the fields near her home.  When I was her age, I was dumbstruck.  Like a whipped slave, I was inert, flaccid, passive and cowed.  If I had been forced to write anything down, I probably would have written, ‘What would you like me to do next?’  Or, ‘Please don’t hit me’.


10. Learning to write…

Anyway, as I said, I have already written the first eighteen years of my autobiography – and I will explain later how I got the training to write.  I want you to try to read my story – to stick with it, because I believe it will help you to heal parts of your own heart.  My story is an insight into the kind of wounds with which some people have to begin their lives, carrying on a family tradition of emotional pain that may date back several generations.  Perhaps the sadism which powered my parents approach to their children began the day the ancient Irish clans were defeated by foreign invaders, a long, long time ago, back in the Celtic mists.


In writing my autobiography, I had to use various techniques to get hold of some of the earliest memories.  And some of the emotions were very strange and convoluted and painful.  Therefore, I had to find ways to approach that pain which would allow me to grasp it and communicate it.  One of the strangest aspects of that struggle was the emergence of a strange phenomenon: a little blue bear.  The nature and function of the little blue bear is not at all clear to me, even now, four years after writing this part of my autobiography.  I also do not understand what the little white goat is all about.  It emerged in a dream, and seems to have a life of its own.  All I ask is that you roll with it; and try to make as much sense of it as you can.


11. A personal history of a two-year-old…

The Ireland about which I write is not the ‘real Ireland’.  Nor is it the ‘unreal Ireland’.  It is the personal-Ireland that I experienced as a feeling being, having been thrown into a particularly dysfunctional family, which happened to live in Ireland. Nowhere do I imply that any of the members of this family were ever anything but non-conscious actors in a play that was shaped by thousands of years of largely unknown history!

This is how the nightmare began:

When I first began to write, I was seeking nobility and elevation – charm and sophistication.  I wanted to ape those social models we are told to ape!  I didn’t know that as a grown man I would sit and write about the dark, pungent, orange piss in the white enamelled piss pot. The piss had built up overnight from Daddy’s and Mammy’s visits to the pot, which always stood on the bedroom landing. They used this pot to save themselves a journey to the outside toilet, at the end of the back yard. I was just two years old –today! - and as my ‘celebration’, I was totally preoccupied with scooping this interesting liquid up with a discarded Potters Asthma Remedy tin, and drinking it down hungrily, when, out of the blue, Mammy’s big, flat hand struck me across the back of the head, causing me to topple forward and kick the piss pot down the stairs, splashing its contents everywhere. I followed, toppling after it, down the long, dark staircase, and I landed hard on the rounded bottom of the upturned pot, knocking the wind out of me. My hand-knitted romper suit was covered in piss. It would not be a happy birthday.

As I lay across the piss pot, I thought I glimpsed the little blue bear in a dark corner of the living room, by the front porch. He had originally been part of me (I think!), but now was totally outside of me, and so distant I could no longer feel him.

He was prostrated on the floor, shrouded in dark shadow. As I focussed in on him, I saw the big pink foot descend upon him, and squeeze him into the lino-covered floor. I hated that foot, which had tormented me for so long. 

I knew how painful it was to be stood upon in that way. Then the big pink foot moved upwards again, about the height of the window sill, and stamped hard on the blue bear’s body. The effect was, strangely, to wind me even more. But I had no further thoughts or feelings about his plight. I had serious problems of my own.


My mother, Neeve, who at that time I knew only as Mammy, rushed down the stairs after me, screaming something like: ‘Don’t be dead! Don’t be dead!’ She was in a state of panic because, as I learned years later, she lived in dread of coming to the attention of the ‘authorities’ for neglect or abuse, which would have shamed her. She picked me up roughly, examined my limbs and head for signs of injury, decided I was uninjured, then smacked me several times on the legs and the arse, to ‘teach me a lesson’. I was decidedly unclear what the lesson was. Don’t get caught drinking piss? Don’t drink piss? Or perhaps just this: Don’t be curious?

One of the daily lessons drummed into me and my older sister was this: Curiosity killed the cat!

Mammy’s major injunctions were: Wake up! Get up! Shut up! Stand up! Stand still! Behave yourself! Stop that! Stand up straight! Do as you’re told! Eat this! Don’t be so bold! (Meaning: don’t misbehave). Stand up! Sit down! Don’t look at me with the white of your eyes! (Which meant, I think, look downwards to indicate submission). And: Go to sleep!

Her way of enforcing her will, to ensure total obedience to her every command, was the use of her big, flat hand: a slapping machine.


The little blue bear flinched in the corner by the front porch. He groaned. The big pink foot had him pinned to the ground. There were only two kinds of beings in the gate lodge: the hurters and the hurt.  The only way to avoid the hurters was to become invisible.


12. Back to the beginning…

My name is Daniel O’Beeve. I was born in the tiny rural village of Crumble, County Wicklow, in the Irish Free State, in the summer of 1944. My Daddy, Owen, had a small farm of about two and a half acres, which he lost to the bank because he couldn’t repay a loan he’d taken out to modernise his cottage. (Modernise meant: put the front door back on new hinges, paint the crumbling woodwork, and repair sixty years of neglect and weather damage to the windows and roof.)

I was twelve months old when Owen lost the farm. He then went to work for a local landlord – or ‘big farmer’ – who accommodated us in a ‘haunted’ cottage, and bullwhipped Owen when he worked too slowly, or when he spoke back to the landlord. For this reason, Owen sought work in the city as a gardener, and, when I was fifteen months old, he and Neeve, along with my older sister Caitlin, who was eighteen months older than me, had to move to the city of Dublin.

Neeve was twenty-one years old, Owen was thirty-eight.

The journey involved hiring a lorry, loading a few sticks of furniture onto the back of it, and cramming Owen and Neeve into the cab beside the driver, along with some bags of household items. I was on Neeve’s knee, next to her big fat belly, and Caitlin was on Owen’s knee, for the sixty-mile journey through heavy snow. The snow was so bad that it took almost half a day to get there, and we also got stuck on the tramlines as we entered the little urban village of Cocklestown.

When we arrived at the gate lodge where we were to live, on St Finbar’s Road, Cocklestown, on the outskirts of Dublin city, it was cold, damp and in darkness. Caitlin’s little mattress, and Owen and Neeve’s big mattress, in the back of the open lorry, were wet from several inches of snow. I did not have a mattress, as I slept in an old drawer, with a folded blanket under me.

Owen and Neeve would argue for years about the wisdom or stupidity of this move. But for better or worse, we now lived in the gate lodge of the Lyons’ estate, which was about thirty acres of tree-lined fields straddling the river Liffey; a long gravelled avenue from the gate lodge to the big house; a walled flower garden and open fields of vegetables; some livestock and a riverbank; all of which would be managed by Owen. Unfortunately for Owen, ‘managing’ meant digging and weeding, sowing and reaping, milking cows, raking gravel, trimming trees, fishing for salmon in the Liffey, climbing up trees to get birds’ eggs for Miss Alice and Master Peter, the Lyons’ children; washing the cars; and so on.


13. Sibling rivalry…

Until a few months before the piss pot incident, I had been living in reasonable happiness. Everywhere Neeve went, she carried me with her; sometimes in both arms, against her big, round breasts; and sometimes on one hip. When she was cooking, she balanced me on her right hip, while using her left hand to stir the contents of an occasional pot of porridge or nettle soup. She very rarely put me down. Several times every day she loosened her clothing and allowed me to suck on her elongated nipples and handle her big, milk-filled breasts. I was so happy doing that.

But she almost never looked at me, or spoke to me, or played with me.  But then, you can’t have everything!  I don’t want to appear greedy.

Then new developments began to impinge on my relatively happy state.

Firstly, I became more aware of Caitlin, my older sister, who always looked angrily at me. It would be several decades before I would understand why she hated me so much: I had taken her place in Neeve’s arms, and Neeve only had time for one baby in her life - her babe in arms.

Secondly, I became aware of preparations for big changes. Somebody new was coming, which did not make any sense to me. I did not fully understand what was being said. There was talk of how babies are born in cabbage patches, and how they are brought to the house by the District Nurse for Cocklestown, who was called Nurse Murphy. She had been to see Neeve a couple of times already. She always carried a big, brown case in which I assumed the babies must be transported. But she hadn’t left any new babies so far.

Between my fifteenth and eighteenth months, I noticed that Neeve became less and less interested in me. I was also less interested in her, as, not only could I now walk, and even run after a fashion, but I could also explore the big, wide world of the lodge, and the back yard. There was so much to see and do and shove in my mouth. I was flying.

14. A crisis of autonomy…

Then, about the age of seventeen months, I hit a crisis. I ran off the top of the kitchen steps and fell down those three stone steps onto the concrete floor, fracturing my skull and concussing myself. The doctor had to be called to treat me, which cost Owen and Neeve two guineas, money that they really couldn’t afford, as Owen’s wages were very small – or ‘inadequate’ as my mother kept telling him. They hated me for my stupidity. I had a total crisis of confidence and wanted to go back to an earlier stage, of sleeping safely in Neeve’s arms. But she had grown a big fat belly, and was always tired and cross. She refused to pick me up, and would hit me when I tugged at her skirt and followed her round the kitchen.

Stop that! Let go! Go away! Behave yourself! Don’t be so bold!

Her connection to me was definitely over. She hated me and didn’t want to hold me anymore. In the beginning there was only me.  I was everything.  Big waves of pleasure crashed over me as warm milk flowed into my mouth and down into my belly. At those times I could feel a little creature wriggling and giggling in my belly. Although I could not see him, I knew he was there.  But he was part of me, so that was okay. Then at other times the milk would not come when I wanted it, and the belly fellow would stop wriggling and giggling, and the big pink foot would stand on my belly, which was very painful.  I would cry and scream for relief.  Sometimes this would go on for a long time.  Then the little soft hands would arrive to comfort me: lifting me and turning me, stroking me, calming me down.  So the big pink foot seemed to be a bad part of me: a part that hurt itself by hurting me. And the little soft hands seemed to be good parts of me, which comforted and soothed themselves by comforting me. Eventually, I became aware that Neeve was not part of me, which was a big problem. I had to give up the idea that I could control the arrival of the milk, or the little soft hands.  Now the big pink foot was around more often, crushing my belly, hurting me.

Then I learned to walk better, without falling down, and point at things, and say a few words.  But my words weren’t welcomed by Neeve.  Silence and obedience were what she wanted. She was growing further away from me, and the pain in my chest got worse and worse. 

“Get away from me, you!” she’d say.  “I never liked you!  You nearly killed me bringing you into the world.  You little whelp!”

My eyes hurt.  I felt anger and rage.  Her belly continued to expand. There was more and more talk of new babies, and Owen became more and more depressed and angry. As he didn’t earn enough money to feed the four mouths in our family, he didn’t see how we could survive with a new mouth to feed. Neeve wouldn’t agree. She had come from a family with twenty-one children, and she was determined to have twenty-one children. Owen said he couldn’t really afford the two he already had to provide for. Neeve replied that he should get a better job – perhaps in a factory. He argued that he wasn’t fit for factory work. That was when the slamming and banging would begin. They were both very sulky. Neeve held me less, watched me less, and left me to crawl around on the dusty floor.

15. Another strange development…

Then Owen took time off work, and he was at home during the day. Neeve did not get up in the mornings, she stayed in bed.  I would sneak upstairs to try to see her, but she would shout at me to get out, and Owen would run up the stairs and grab me and smack me for being disobedient.  He would lock me out in the back yard with Caitlin, my bullying sister, who would hurt me.

One day Nurse Murphy arrived with her big brown suitcase. I was in the lodge and so I saw her arrive.  My father boiled water and tore the spare sheet into strips of white cotton. He passed the strips through the crack in the bedroom door, so Nurse Murphy could ‘born’ my new brother.  I assumed the water was needed to wash the dirt from his body from where he had been lying among the cabbage heads, on the muddy ground, before Nurse Murphy found him and put him in her suitcase.  Later I would be told his name: Tandy.  I hated that name, the very sound of it.  Tandy: the end of my life in Neeve’s arms.

I heard Tandy squawk, and somewhere in my heart a string broke. I had a ‘little brother’, a replacement. I knew I was dethroned – ejected – displaced. I crawled under the table in the living room to hide.  I was hurting badly.  As I crouched there on hands and knees, a little blue bear dropped out of my belly onto the floor.  He looked as miserable as I was.  We were both equally surprised by this development.  He must have been the belly fellow who used to wriggle and giggle when the warm milk flowed into my mouth and the little soft hands soothed me.  He had been silent for a long time now. 

The little blue bear stared up at me with his glass eyes, and his embroidered mouth turned down at the corners.  There were tears in his eyes.  He crawled out from under my body and tottered towards the curtains at the front windows.  It was a strange relief now that he was out, because I could no longer feel the pain that had been wracking my body.  My heart fell silent; it no longer objected to the state of my life, including my hurtful sister and new brother.  The little blue bear climbed up the curtains and disappeared into the strip of ruffled cloth at the top – the pelmet.


16. Active sibling rivalry..

Although sibling rivalry is to be expected, Caitlin was a particularly miserable individual who strongly resented the fact that she had been displaced from Neeve’s breast by me. So, as they say, she owed me one. There was very little love now going to her or me; Tandy needed it all – what little love Neeve could muster, which was never much. Owen seemed incapable of being happy, or caring. He was angry, angry, angry, and he lashed out at anybody who got in his way, at least at home.

Caitlin now had her chance to pay me back for displacing her from Neeve’s breast. Her first scientific experiments mostly involved testing to see how many ways she could make me fall down. Given that I was only eighteen months old, I could hardly resist the strength of a three-year-old!  She pushed me from the front, from the rear, from the left side, from the right, but in every case I always fell down with equal ease. I had no fight in me. She tried pinching me, pulling my hair, and getting me to touch dirty things that nobody in their right mind would want to touch. I had little choice but to obey her. She called me unkind names and treated me like a rag doll. She told me scary things, about the Devil, and ghosts, to make me fearful and to see if I would cry.  I was always willing to cry.


Sometimes at night I would have lovely dreams. The dreams always involved the same family. A little red bear lived in the forest with his mammy and daddy. His mammy and daddy were very kind, caring and considerate in the way they dealt with the little red bear. The little red bear smiled all the time, and felt good in his tummy. He could play around the big oak tree in the hollow of which he and his family lived. On awakening from these dreams, I felt particularly sad.

But not as sad as those occasions when I had the goat nightmare.  The goat nightmare involved a barren land.  It looked like it had been burned by a huge inferno, leaving nothing alive, apart from this little white goat.  He was obviously very young – a mere kid – because of the small nobbles on the top of his head where his horns would eventually grow.  He obviously was male, because he had a tiny, diminutive white beard.  The nightmare consisted of panicky feelings about being lost; and being hurt.  There were some bloodstains on his right side, near his heart, and sometimes I would try to see if he was wounded, or if the blood came from another victim of violence, which had merely splashed on to him.  The goat would run towards the north, through this barren land; then run east; then turn south.  But no matter where he ran, there was nobody else – no other goats – to be found.  He was utterly alone in a barren world.


17. Out in the cold…

Tandy now got all the ‘love’ that was going, which was not much – just some handling, feeding, carrying - and Caitlin and I muddled along as best we could. When Caitlin was four years old she had to start school, and I stayed home with Neeve and Tandy. So any scraps of affection that were left over might, theoretically, fall to me, or so it must have seemed to Caitlin, who now came home from school in such a rage she was a positive danger to me. On one occasion she broke both my forearms, by encouraging me to climb to the top of the fence in the back yard, and then pushing me hard from behind.  I fell down about five feet into the field outside the fence, and tried to break my fall with my hands.  Both my forearms broke – in ‘greenstick fractures’.  Neeve was warned by a health visitor that it was her duty to make sure I came to no harm.  That just made Neeve hate me even more.

It was around this time that I first heard her say she would never forgive me for all the pain I caused her when I was being born, which really confused me, because she would not have been there when I arrived in the cabbage patch!  So how could I hurt her?


Between eighteen months and three years of age, life drifted by. Tandy was the babe in arms, and he got all the attention. Owen got more and more upset about his job, and had to smoke extra Potters Asthma Remedy - which contained opium - to cope with his difficulty breathing. It seems he had asthma combined with other breathing difficulties – hence his determination to always work in the fresh air rather than in a factory.

I tried to hide as much as possible from Caitlin. Or to play ‘servant’ in her little games of ‘house’, so she would not turn on me. In the run-up to my third birthday, she managed to push my right hand into boiling water, and I was seriously scalded. My hand had to be wrapped in bandages for weeks. Thankfully, because Caitlin had to go to school, I had a few hours of peace in the lodge each day.

While my right hand was of no use, and Caitlin was at school, I’d roam around the back yard and among the little trees and shrubs that lined the left side of the yard, practising using my left hand to scavenge for items of interest, such a worms, or seeds and berries from the trees; and I watched birds hopping around in the undergrowth; and I dreamed of catching one and examining it closely.

18. Beaten by dad…

I also hid among the bushes and played at being lost. That was where I first encountered wood lice, crawling in the cracks of an old tree stump. I was fascinated by them, their shape, and how they moved. Eventually I became curious about their texture, and this generated the need to chew them to see what they were like in my mouth. I don’t suppose I had eaten more than three when Neeve caught me. By this stage Tandy was about eighteen months old; I was three years old; and Neeve could leave Tandy in his pram so she could spy on me in the yard, to see if I was behaving myself. She crawled through the bushes to find me – even though her belly was huge again - and when she saw the wood louse go into my mouth, she dived at me, picked me up and shook me violently, clamped me against her big, fat thigh and beat me on the arse and legs with her big, flat hand.

“You wait till Daddy gets home tonight!” she screamed. “He’ll teach you not to eat those dirty things, you bold boy!”

A huge, fearful cloud hung over me till half past five, when Owen got home on his bicycle. Although it was only one hundred yards to the big house, he always insisted on the dignity of cycling to and from work.  Neeve told him about the wood louse, while he parked his bike. He responded in a very agitated way, and hauled me from the living room, down into the back scullery, slamming the door behind him. He took off his thick leather belt and babbled something about ‘obedience’ and ‘disobedience’ and ‘the fear of God’. Then he began to lash my legs with his belt. The pain was excruciating, and I screamed and cried with each blow.

“I’ll teach you to do what you’re told!” he shouted. “You little whelp!  You little cur!”


I couldn’t see the porch from where I was in the scullery, but in my mind’s eye the little blue bear recoiled from the approach of the big pink foot, forcing himself to shrink as much as possible back into the farthest corner of the room. But the big pink foot pursued him into the corner. It was determined to crush him.


That night I dreamed about the little red bear. It was his birthday, and he’d been given a new pair of red trousers, with yellow stripes that ran from top to bottom and from side to side, breaking the red cloth up into little squares. The little red bear was so thrilled by this present, he ran around the tree singing.

Later I had the goat nightmare.  The little white goat had exhausted himself searching north and south.  He could not find any other goats to connect to.  He was horribly alone in a barren world!


19. Bath nights…

One of the complications of having a bandaged hand was how to cope with bath night. Bath night was normally a bad night, especially when the weather was cold, which it was for most of the year. After tea on Friday evening, Neeve would lift the big zinc bath from behind the scullery door and place it in the middle of the floor. She would fill the smaller zinc washing up basin from the cold tap at the sink, and pour this cold water into the zinc bath. She would already have a kettle and a saucepan of boiling water on the range, steaming away. This boiling water went in next, and then she would test it for temperature. It was normally just about warm. Next she would undress Caitlin and me and tell us to stand in the bath. She would then rub warm water and soap all over our bodies and heads. We were then told to sit in the bath, and now she would scoop up water and pour it over our heads. I couldn’t breathe properly as the water cascaded around my mouth and nose, and when I ‘wriggled’ to escape the water Neeve would smack me and tell me to stop wriggling. Caitlin seemed to be able to cope better with the water running down her face, I don’t know why. I’d tremble as my body temperature dropped, especially in winter.

The other thing that happened on bath night was that Neeve would tell me not to touch my ‘teapot’, or my ‘private parts’, because that was a sin, and God would punish me. Caitlin seemed to believe that my teapot marked me out as an inferior being. She and Neeve didn’t have one, said Caitlin. So I was bad for having one.


20. More babies…

A few weeks after the wood louse incident, a perverse pleasure was mine. Nurse Murphy found another baby in a cabbage patch and brought it to my mother in her big brown case. Tandy was ejected from the comforts of the breast and arms, and condemned to crawl on the floor. The new baby - which was unpacked in the closed bedroom as before, and then washed with boiling water to remove the earth and cabbage stains - was called Walter. I heard him scream when the case was opened. He cried for a long time. I already knew why: he must have seen the little blue bear squashed on the cold lino. He must have thought this would be his fate.

Days and weeks passed. Mostly the lodge was fairly quiet. When the radio was on, for a couple of hours, it spewed out news and patriotic Irish music and songs. At six o’clock each evening the angelus bell was sounded on the radio, and Owen would insist that Neeve, Caitlin and I kneel down to say the family rosary with him. I didn’t know what to say, though Caitlin had learned the prayers in school. She knew the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory be to the Father prayers. Still I had to kneel on the lino, from three and a half years of age, and go through the motions of prayer. On those occasions I would also pray my own private prayers.

I would pray that the big pink foot might become distracted, and the little blue bear would make a dash for it and get out of the house and into the bushes, where it could be free. Perhaps in the bushes he could sing little songs about birds flying, or cows eating grass, or clouds crossing the sky.

I would pray that the little white goat would find some other goats to live with, to play with, and to belong to!

After the rosary, we would have the radio on for about thirty minutes, to listen to children’s broadcasts, then Owen would switch it off to avoid the ‘dirt and filth’ that would come on at that time.

21. We’re all starving…

One evening, after the angelus, the rosary and children’s radio, Neeve was washing our hands, knees and faces in preparation for bed at seven o’clock, when an electrical storm began. Owen went to the window to look out. I climbed onto a chair beside him. The wind was blowing the trees around; lightening was crackling in jagged lines across the darkening sky. Great peals of thunder shook the house. All at once we noticed a big, fat seagull in danger. It was being battered by heavy headwinds. Suddenly it crashed into the telegraph wires that crossed the gravelled avenue outside the lodge and fell to the ground. Owen ran to the front door, dashed outside in the beating rain and wind, grabbed the seagull from the ground, dashed inside and began to pluck the feathers from it, while Neeve prepared a pot of water and an onion, a potato and a couple of little carrots. She also added a couple of handfuls of nettles from the stash she had collected from the meadow some days earlier. She made a seagull stew, and we all had some. My belly was so full and happy I almost didn’t recognize it. And then I realized: we’re all starving here!

We couldn’t afford much in the way of food since Owen lost his farm and had to move to the city to work as a gardener. Rationing was still in place in Ireland, as it had been since the outbreak of the Second World War. For breakfast, Neeve would take a slice of homemade bread, dampen it under the cold water tap, and take some sugar between thumb and forefinger and sprinkle it on the slice of bread. In the evening, she’d take a slice of stale bread, break it up in an enamelled mug, pour some hot water on it, and add a little milk and a pinch of sugar. Apart from an occasional bowl of porridge, or a plate of boiled nettles, that was my daily food intake until I started school. At school, for lunch, I’d be given a sandwich and a third of a pint of milk.


22. Love songs and tonsils…

One evening, during the rosary, we heard a strange sound from outside. Somebody was playing the accordion and singing a song – which Owen described as ‘a demented love song’. It was a man on the grass bank opposite the gates that opened onto the gravel avenue, adjacent to our gate lodge. His playing and singing seemed to upset Owen, but not Neeve. Owen described the accordionist as ‘a madman’ and put us children to bed early, even though the lodge gates, which were six feet high, were securely locked. I suppose he wanted to protect us physically from this dangerous accordion-playing ‘madman’. Years later I realized that the so-called ‘madman’ was actually serenading Neeve. This became a recurring theme: Mammy is unhappy with Daddy, and there are men who like Neeve more than Owen would like them to like her. And sometimes she seems to like them too much also!

Soon after that event I was hospitalized with tonsillitis. My tonsils and adenoids swelled up so much I could hardly swallow or breathe, and Neeve was worried that she might be blamed for my condition, so when the doctor said I had to go to hospital for surgery, she was relieved, and let me go off with the two strange men in the ambulance that came to collect me.  I was in hospital for five days, and nobody came to visit me. The reason was that Neeve had had a fifth child, Terence, who was delivered in the usual way while I was at the hospital. When Owen came on his own to collect me, because he couldn’t afford bus fares for the whole family, I was almost four years old, and so distressed I would have agreed to be boiled in oil as long as I could return to the misery of life in the gate lodge. I was so angry with Neeve and Owen that I hardly looked at them when Neeve asked me how hospital had been, and I was still sulking when they put me to bed that evening.

23. The nightmare of schooling…

Two months later the talk was all about my starting school in September, when I would be four and a quarter. But in the August I developed appendicitis and had to be hospitalized again. This time I was in for seven days, straddling a weekend, and Neeve and Owen did come on the Sunday to see me, three days after I was admitted. I felt isolated, scared, and abandoned. This was the second time I’d felt I didn’t really belong to anybody, and this time it was very serious indeed. Neeve arrived, carrying Terence in her arms. Owen was behind her, holding Tandy and Walter by the hands. And Caitlin, who was almost six years old, was walking behind them. They brought me three bananas, which smelled wonderful. I ate one. I had never tasted anything like it before. They arrived at two o’clock and left at half past two. They looked at the stitches on the right side of my belly. Neeve told me not to pick at them. Tears began to well up in my eyes as they prepared to leave.  But Neeve told me to stop: it’s bad to cry because it will upset the nurses; and Tandy; and Walter.  I had to be strong, she said.  Don’t cry.  Don’t cry.  When they said goodbye, I could hardly look at them.

Over in the corner the little blue bear was hiding in the shadows, sucking his thumb. His temperature was barely above freezing. Suddenly the big pink foot found him and crushed him against the wall with such force that all the wind was forced out of him.  ‘Aaaaagh!’ he gasped.  ‘Aaaaagh!’  I couldn’t bear to see the pain on his face, so I closed my eyes and eventually slept a troubled sleep.


The little white goat was exhausted.  He had given up searching for company and connection. He lay on the barren ground, in the ash and soot of a fiery apocalypse.


24. Seeking feedback and approval…

As soon as I finished typing the draft chapter above, I phoned Frank Gaul, the ‘chairperson’ of the local Writers Circle, and arranged to meet in the Admiral Nelson for a drink and a chat about our writing projects.  He brought along a ten-page prose poem, and I handed him the 20 pages of my first chapter.  I went to the bar to order two pints of Guinness and two single brandies.  There was a long queue at the bar, so I stood with my back to the bar and watched Gaul reading my text.  His face was dark and glum as he raced through the text.  Eventually the landlord took my order and passed me the four glasses on a tray.  I paid him and returned to my seat, and began reading Gaul’s poem.  It was obscure but beautiful.  The meanings were unclear, but it had a kind of geometric shape to it – like a geodesic dome made of coloured glass – dozens of different hues, which reflected light this way and that.  It was very beautiful.

It was about striving to get through a difficult kind of boundary, into another dimension of reality, where everything would be much better than it was here and now.  I assumed it was about his own existential angst; his struggle to break free from some kind of emotional constraints.

We both drank on in silence.  I read his poem a second time, and gained no more clarity than I had the first. 

“What did you think of mine?” he asked me, putting down my manuscript and draining his Guinness glass.

“It’s very beautiful”, I began.  “Strangely geometric and multi-coloured.  But also slightly dark, and… challenging, and… full of some kind of angst…”, I offered.

“Is that it?” he asked.  “No recognition of the metanarrative of political persecution; and exploitation?”

I thought about that for a moment, and then said, “No.  Sorry.  Didn’t get that.  Do you mean…?” I tried, but he interrupted.

“Never mind.  I need to do more work on it”, he said, grabbing his pages back from me.

“What about mine”, I asked.

He smiled. 

“It’s a quaint little story”, he told me.  “Quite tense and challenging.  A good story of the life of an unfortunate child”.

“Thanks very much”, I said, beaming.

“But it’s not art”, he told me then.

I was slightly shocked.  I was not sure what that meant. Did it mean he really didn’t like it?  Did it have to be art to be likable?

“I’m not sure I was aiming for ‘art’,” I said. “I just wanted to write down my story, partly as self-therapy; partly as an income-generator”.

“Nobody will buy this”, he said.  “Misery memoirs are ten a penny, and too depressing by half!”

Then I felt angered, and decided to challenge him.

“I what sense is my work not art?” I asked.

“Because… it’s… you just wrote down some aspects of your childhood.  ‘This happened; then that happened; and then this happened’,” he said.

“How do you know I just wrote down some facts?” I asked him, a little defensively, but more in the spirit of curiosity about how he arrived at his conclusion.

“Well… that’s what you said… Didn’t you?”

“But my point, Frank”, I said, “is this: How do you know if it is artistic fiction or bald facts?”

“Because… well… you told me, and…” he stammered.

“But if art is distinguishable from autobiography, then there must be some objective markers that distinguish them”, I insisted.

“Ah…”, he said, and he flushed dark red.

“Isn’t it the case that all autobiography is just story?” I asked him. “And literary art is also just story”, I continued.  “And didn’t Tolstoy say that a work of art is a work of emotional communication, and the success of a piece of art is that you can feel what the author or artist felt during the act of creation?”

He looked back blankly at me.

“I think it’s art if it comes from the heart”, I told him.  “And if it communicates heart to heart with the reader or admirer of a piece of graphic art”.

“Well, I think your autobiography is just factual, and not at all arty”, he persisted, looking embarrassed and awkward.

“But can you prove that this is just factual autobiography, as opposed to fictionalized experience of life, presented as art – intended to communicate heart to heart?”

Suddenly he was on his feet.  “I don’t have to listen to this shit”, he told me, turning on his heel and heading for the exit.

“Yes you do”, I told him, shouting after him as we left.  “Because you are just a fictional character in my slightly fictionalized autobiography, which is intended to speak to the heart of the reader, and not merely to communicate some ‘bald facts’.”

He stormed towards the door, effing and jeffing.  The landlord looked concerned; finished drying a beer glass and put it on a shelf.  He lifted the bar flap and came out from behind the bar, big belly swinging from side to side, and approached my table; concern written all over his face.

“What’s up with him?” he asked, jabbing his thumb towards the exit through which Frank had departed.  I think this was more out of concern for his remaining customers – avoiding unpleasant incidents - than because he cared about Frank.

“Oh, he’s just upset to discover that not only does he not know what art is, but also that he, like you, is just a fictional character in my slightly fictionalized autobiography!”

“Now hold on a minute”, the landlord blurted, looking quite flustered.

But I was on my feet, picking up my draft chapter, and heading for the exit through which Frank had left.

“Come back here!”, he demanded.

I looked back as I crossed the room, and I could see he was so shocked that his face had turned totally blank – white as a sheet of paper; so blank that I could have used a charcoal stick to write ‘Gotcha!’ right across it.  So I did!


[i] O’Brien, E. (2013) Country Girl.  London: Faber and Faber.


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