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:


Chapter 1: In the beginning was the missing word…

My earliest memories of my life are visual.  Accompanying the visual images are gut feelings: dread, sadness, fear, aversion.  But big, frightening images of my mother and father predominate.

When I grew up, and became more ‘sophisticated’, I began to believe that words are the most important part of life, apart from actions.  The words that I heard were mostly orders and instructions: Stand up; sit down; come here; …

Or labels and condemnations: You little cur; you little wretch; you little faggot; god damn you to hell; I’ll beat you to within an inch of your life…

Later, I concluded that actions are the most important part of life, apart from emotions.  “Actions speak louder than words.  By their deeds shall you know them…”

Now, as I approach the autumn of my life, I believe emotions are the core of human experience.  “What do you feel?  How can I comfort you?  Your feelings are important to me and should be attended to…”

Emotions are like a far distant continent to many boys, especially boys with an extreme male brain, which I think I had in 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 my by sadistic Catholic teachers, especially an order of teaching brothers.

Edna O’Brien 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 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].

I wish I could write my life story like Edna O’Brien has written hers – at least in the first few chapters of her memoir: Country Girl.   It’s not that I cannot write.  In fact I have already written the first eighteen years of my autobiography.  It’s just that I do not know how to shape it, to structure it, and to bring it to life.  The story is good, and it’s interesting, and has something to say to those who might wish to read it.  However, it probably lacks the power to grab people by the heart and drag them through a big chunk of my Irish history.

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 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’.


Anyway, as I said, I have already written the first eighteen years of my autobiography.  I want you to try to read it.  It 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 al clear to me, even now, four years after writing this part of my autobiography.  All I ask is that you roll with it; and try to make as much sense of it as you can.


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.


This is how the nightmare began:

I didn’t know it would turn out like this, so many years after my second birthday. 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 now 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, 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 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 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.


My name is Daniel O’Beeve. I was born in the tiny rural village of Crumble, County Wicklow, in the Irish Free State. 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.


Until a few months before the piss pot incident, I had been living in paradise. 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. Then new developments began to impinge on my blissful 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.

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. 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 love affair with me was definitely over. She hated me and didn’t need to hold me any more. 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 crawl and even walk, 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.  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.

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, who would hurt me.

One day Nurse Murphy arrived with her big brown suitcase. 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.


Caitlin was a miserable individual who 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. 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. 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.


Tandy now got all the love that was going, which was not much, 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.


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. 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, 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. Neeve told him about the wood louse. 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.


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.


One of the complications of having a bandaged hand was 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.


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 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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


As soon as I finished typing the text 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 lengthy poem, and I handed him my first chapter.  I went to the bar to order to 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.  The meanings were unclear.  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 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?”

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.

“Why not?” I asked him.

“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 art is also just story, or graphical representation”, I continued.

“So how can we say that one thing is art and another is not?” I looked at him, waiting for answers.

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.  “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.  He came out from behind the bar and approached my table.

“What’s up with him?” he asked, more out of concern for his remaining customers 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!”

The landlord was so shocked that his face turned totally blank; so blank that I could have used a charcoal stick to write ‘Gotcha!’ right across it.


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


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