People often say that music was harmless fun. It wasn’t. It must have terrified the terrorists. When people came to see us, sectarianism was left outside the door of the dancehall. They came in, they were brought together and they enjoyed the same thing. They looked at each other and thought, there’s not much difference here, and nature was doing its course. That’s the power of music and I think that every musician that ever stood on a stage, north of the border during those decades, every one of them was a hero.
It happened in the summer of my twelfth year, in the early hours of July 31, 1975. Five members of The Miami Showband – affectionately known as the Irish Beatles – were heading home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. Their drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family members. On a narrow country road outside Newry, the band was flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) checkpoint. Such an incident was ‘normal’ in 1970s Northern Ireland, so there would have been no need to be alarmed. But then the men in uniform ordered the band members out of their vehicle to stand by the roadside while the soldiers conducted a check of the back of the van.
I don’t know at what point, standing there on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized this was not a routine army checkpoint, that they would be the victims of a vicious and premeditated ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). As they waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of the van. It exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three band members.
There were reports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, was shot 22 times in the face. Twenty-two times. Vulnerable and on the ground, he begged for mercy from men who kept shooting. Brian McCoy, shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air. McAlea suffered only minor injuries and somehow escaped into the night; Travers was seriously wounded and survived only by pretending to be dead. Later, he recalled the gunman kicking the four bodies to ensure they were all dead.
Forty-two years later, sitting in my sunny kitchen on the other side of the Atlantic, the shock and revulsion return, along with the fear I felt as details of the massacre unfolded in our newspapers and on the radio. Instantly, I am transported to the kitchen of my childhood home on the Dublin road. My mother is ironing one of my father’s shirts, at the same time shaking her head in disbelief and muttering to God. It was unimaginable – these young men, Catholics and Protestants, darlings of the showband scene, in their prime and adored by thousands of fans north and south of the border, slaughtered in the muck on a country road.
Naively, we had believed musicians were immune. The Miami Showband had represented what could be, its members and its audiences crossing all social, religious, and political boundaries. In his address to The Hague some years later, Stephen Travers would recollect his band as “a blueprint for social, religious, and political harmony.” But on that night in 1975, what happened to The Miami Showband left no doubt that musicians were just as much of a target as anyone else. It became known as “The Day The Music Died,” but such a tagline does not convey the monstrosity of it, the chilling choreography behind it, or the harrowing legacy of it.
In the months and years following the Miami Showband massacre, musicians were afraid. Word on the street was that Northern Ireland’s musical life was over. The showband scene was over, and performers from the UK mainland were too scared to risk their safety. With this increased risk, performing in Northern Ireland became wildly expensive, the cost of insurance premiums soaring given the real threat of hi-jackings and bombings. Belfast became a ghost town. People stayed at home.
Our wee country had become a “no go” area. A place not to go to. Although I was only a child, I knew I wanted out.
Lovers of live music grew accustomed to canceled gigs, to more bombings and more shootings – all part and parcel of Northern Ireland living. Performers were warned to stay away, and most took heed. A few – too few – kept going, like Rory Gallagher, who played Belfast’s Ulster Hall more than any other performer. How we loved him!
Rory Gallagher has once again returned to Belfast, at least he came, and for that we must thank him. Belfast has now become a graveyard for music. Concerts and big groups are a thing of the past…We want action now, for too long the groups in England haven’t given music where it can give the most help. Lennon tells us to give peace a chance, but has he visited us? All we want John ,baby, is the truth. Perhaps he is furthering the peace movements somewhere in Hyde Park. Perhaps the groups don’t want to make any sacrifices, maybe they are afraid, maybe they cannot stir themselves to help the people who need it most, who have no power to speak of.
– excerpt from early 70’s Belfast underground paper,’Take One’.
Like The Miami – and a former showband player himself – Rory would have known that when the music played, no one would have known that our country was in the grip of “The Troubles,” even as the bombs exploded in the city around him. Music was the alternative and in time, there would be a punk rock anthem proclaiming as such and a renewed sense that music could save us all –
When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.
That’s the power of music and those who make it. Music is about hope – infinite hope – and it is about bringing us closer together. When asked about the men who murdered his friends, Des Lee stresses that there is no point in holding grudges for over four decades. Instead, he asks that we never forget them, that we remember Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty, and Brian McCoy.
. . . we were just a bunch of innocent young musicians, doing our job. We weren’t interested in politics. We played everywhere, north and south. We just wanted to make people smile for a few hours. And that’s why Ireland should never be allowed to forget The Miami Showband.
Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.
This is not a truism we consider daily. Typically, it is reserved for the day we are handed bad tidings – the cancer diagnosis that forces us to stare down our own mortality, or when the dreaded or unexpected news arrives that someone we love is dead or dying. From that day on, everything is different; we are different, mourning for what was lost, for who we were the day before, and for what we can no longer have.
There was and is no easy remedy, no standard step-by-step process for any of us. There is no beaten path to follow from beginning to end in the art of living. The famous “stages” of grief – Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance – are not “stops on some linear timeline.” Such places are more reminiscent of landmarks we might visit during our first or subsequent visits to another country, places we will never forget. Some we land upon by accident – the onslaught of memories that accompany the first time you see someone else drive the same make and model Chevy your husband once drove or the faint scent of his cologne on the collar of a stranger standing too close to you on the light rail. There is no way to predict when grief will take your breath away and send you scurrying behind dark glasses or to the bathroom at work where no one will see you cry. Other trips we plan meticulously – the first anniversary of his death, the scholarship in his name, the star named after him. Others are unavoidable – Father’s Day, his birthday, the empty seat at the Christmas table, re-runs of Cheers, reminders of things that humored you or humbled you or made you laugh until you ached. And all these things, you weave into your new life. It is what you must do – at your own pace.
In my new life, the man I love is reeling from the recent passing of his dad and the stunning loss, just days later, of one of his dearest friends. Coming in such close succession, these harrowing losses remind those of us still here of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death. My daughter tells me she would like to be more supportive of him, more ‘there,’ more empathic for him and for his grieving mother who just days ago fell and has been hospitalized ever since, but my girl is not up to the task – not fully, not yet. She feels selfish as she explains her inability to step again into that space in which the recently bereaved struggle – an often desolate hole where they may wail or deny or blame or feel guilty; where they may rage at those they love the most, or where, choking on the sharp stone of grief, they might say nothing at all. It is a desperate place, where they may find they are no match for the grief, every minute a searing realization that the one person they want to talk to is out of reach. Forever.
A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.
— Joan Didion
So where in the whole world do we turn? Inward. Forward. Backwards. Forward. At our own pace.
For almost four years, my daughter tells me, her day begins not with a profound sadness but with an almost involuntary affirmation of her adjusted reality “Dad is dead. Dad is dead.” Shredding to bits my supposition that she has found a more conventional way back, it occurs to me, in a moment of devastating clarity, that she is not the child she once was; she is a young woman who has found a new way through the ever-shifting contours of grief, no longer stuck between what was and what might have been. Worried that I am worried about her, she is quick to point out that she is not sad, this is not self-pity; it is a shift in perspective that enables her to move on in a world that never stops moving.
Immediately following news of his death, I fooled myself into believing the clocks had stopped. Nobody knew what to say to me. I didn’t know what to say to myself. I concentrated on the word, “widow,” a word that a day before had not applied to me. Unmoored by loss, I recall a surreal and sunny November afternoon in the Arizona desert. My bare feet in the grass, I found myself remembering -verbatim – a passage from a short story I’d first read in my high school English class, about the anguish of Irish youngsters about to board an emigrant ship to America, not knowing how to say goodbye to the family they would never see again:
They stood in silence fully five minutes. Each hungered to embrace the other, to cry, to beat the air, to scream with an excess of sorrow. But they stood silent and sombre, like nature about them, hugging their woe.
~ from “Going into Exile” by Liam O’Flaherty.
In that moment, loss was no longer literary or abstract. It was palpable, transforming the space in which I stood into a place I no longer recognized. The trees he had planted made no sense, casting long shadows on blades of grass that would no longer flatten under his footsteps. The mailman was delivering letters that bore his name. What should I do with them? Were the hummingbirds flitting about the honeysuckle waiting for him to feed them? Disoriented and uncertain, I was lost in my own home, no longer confident about what might happen at three o’clock or seven o’clock. Before, I had no doubt. Letting go of him meant letting go of the certainty of my life.
My daughter tells me she cannot feel at home in our home because its rooms have become open wounds. Her father was her first word, but she will not watch old family movies, where she could see again how he helped her say ‘daddy’ the first time, or clap her hands or take her first steps. Nor will she go to the grocery store where he used to take her on last minute errands for me or to the Dairy Queen, where he bought her ice-cream every Friday afternoon. With practice, she has perfected the routines and rituals by which other people now define her, by which she now defines herself. An all-around “good kid,” she is the part-time retail worker who looks like Audrey Hepburn. Kind and interested, she is the full-time college student who never misses class and maintains a solid GPA. Circumspect and tentative, she is the one who will take the extra step to be safe. No alcohol, no drugs, no texting while driving, no speeding, no spending foolishly – no father.
She has woven his loss into her life, learning to drive without him, striding across the stage to receive a high school diploma without his cheers ringing in her ears. She is almost finished with her first two years of college, along the way earning her first paycheck without the winks and smiles that would have encouraged her to keep on being great at being herself. It is beyond her grasp that so much – and so little – time has passed and that one day it will be ten years, twenty years, forty years, since he last held her hand in the frozen food section of the grocery store, to keep her warm.
Worried that she has worried me, she emphasizes that it is not a sadness that envelops her these days. In fact, she sometimes faces the reality of her changed life with a humor that others may find irreverent. She is no longer undone by grief. The daily reminder of her father’s death, that the saddest thing that could ever have happened has already happened reminds her that whatever happens today could not be worse. No rush hour traffic or broken air conditioner or math final or pissed off customer could be any worse. Steeled thus, the sadness locked deep within her, she goes about her days, working, studying, laughing, loving, finding joy and hope, pausing in the doorway to check on two baby birds in a nest tucked under the eaves. Signs of life – they are everywhere.
She has sought help from people in the business of helping people sort out their grief. Not entirely convinced of its usefulness yet, she balks when they tell her that to fully heal, perhaps she needs to process it more or cry more or allow herself to be really sad or go wherever there is. She does not want to dive into that dark, desolate rabbit hole. While her coping strategy may seem perverse, it is practical, a kind of acceptance. The little girl who made memories with the father who loved her is gone. In some strange ways, she tells me, it is as though she has become her father’s death. As much as his life was part of hers, so is his death.
So what do I say to those in my life who at this moment and the next and for who knows how long, will move within a landscape of private grief, perhaps seeing right in front of them only what’s missing – their altered world? What I want to tell them is that these early days are the worst, that they will learn to live within their changed world, themselves changed, but what I cannot tell them is how. There are no rules for grieving or mourning and no right way to get through it. There is your way, and there you are.
There are certain losses you do not get past, but you incorporate them into who you are. It’s always a part of you. No matter how much you reconstruct your life and make a new life, I still think that there is room for part of you to always be aware that this happened. To always have a part of you grieving.
The man I love has cancer. And, after months of deliberation, of decisions made and decisions overturned, he has begun treatment. Radiation treatment. Every single day. For forty more days. With my own cancer treatment in the rear-view mirror, I thought I would just know how to help him, how and when to find the best and kindest words to lift him up, to quell the fear, to be “there” for him. Then I remind myself that the treatment of cancer is a private act with stretches of time spent in a surreal and solitary confinement. Along the way, I know I can point out some of the landmarks – detection, diagnosis, treatment, surgery, shame, depression, fatigue, fear of recurrence – but I know of no short-cuts. I know he is a stranger in a strange land.
Even if I were allowed to hold Scott’s hand during radiation therapy, while he lies perfectly still on a treatment table at the Arizona Prostate Cancer Center, he is still alone. Supine, his mind is ablaze with random thoughts ranging from the pedestrian to the philosophical. What if he sneezes? What if he dies before he sees his daughter grow up? Why in the hell did he get cancer in the first place because Goddammit he feels just fine? What if this was a mistake?
He will try to ignore the strategically placed signs above him – “Tell Cancer it has Two Months to Live.” “Hang in There.” You never know how strong you can be until you have to be.” “Together We Can Beat This.” Skeptical and uninspired, the man I love is an unwilling conscript in this battle.
Healthy, handsome, fit, Scott wasn’t supposed to get cancer. It was supposed to happen to someone else, someone with a family history, someone who didn’t go for routine physicals, someone who didn’t feel good – someone ‘destined’ for it.Not him. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me either. I remember once upon a time when I thought breast cancer was the thing that was supposed to happen to other people, to celebrities who grace the pages of magazines, to women who didn’t show up for their mammograms, to women with a family history. It was not supposed to happen to me.
Denial works for us, doesn’t it? It’s why we travel on airplanes. We know they might crash – but never when we are on board.
The first night we met, he told me about the cancer. Over beers and banter, we sized each other up and over-shared, checking off boxes our middle-aged online personas had created on a dating site. A musician, he told me he loved Bob Dylan and golf and taking to the road on his Harley Davidson. Regaling me with the stuff of good first impressions, he glossed over a comment about illness and aging. A dog with a bone, I pressed for details, and in a “you go first” moment, I laid my cancer card on the table. Buoyed by this, he shared that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer four months previously. He was still considering his options and assessing the damage of various treatments for prostate cancer. I had just met him, and already I knew he was bruised and alone and drowning in fear of what was in store for him. He was in the waiting place.
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you’ll be quite a lot.
And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
~ Dr. Seuss
Just as I had known nothing about breast cancer until it happened to me, I knew nothing about prostate cancer or the details of its treatment. As evolved as we are, we still refuse to entertain certain diseases, disorders, addictions and ailments in polite conversation. Unlike the common cold, its symptoms unapologetically made public with persistent sniffles, sneezes, loudly blown noses, and a tell-tale trail of balled-up Kleenex in its wake, the symptoms of prostate cancer can often go unnoticed, revealed only after a physician suggests a routine screening to men over 40. Such was the case with Scott, when his first digital rectal exam and PSA test indicated they should keep an eye on his prostate. There was no sense of urgency, however, and I imagine he told himself that most prostate cancers found by screening are small and insignificant. Slow-growing, they may never cause any problems. In his research, I’m sure he also found that for some men, false positive PSA results lead to painful biopsies which show that there is no cancer at all. Others will endure biopsies that find cancer, but the cancer might not grow quickly enough to be life threatening. Sometimes these cancers are unnecessarily treated with radiation or surgery accompanied by a host of side effects that nobody wants to talk about – infection, incontinence, impotence – leaving men like Scott to ponder silently their mortality and their sexuality as they contemplate their next move.
His induction into cancer country followed a brutal biopsy in October 2015. There’s no delicate way to describe the procedure during which an ultrasound probe is inserted in the rectum to help guide the long thin needles that will collect tissue samples from the prostate. To help reduce pain, numbing gel is applied to the rectum, and an injection of Lidocaine is inserted directly into the prostate. But it’s just not enough. As his story unfolds, unvarnished and uncensored, I can’t help but drift back in time to a darkened hospital room, my physician telling me to take a deep breath, “Lidocaine going in. Little pinch.” and then a staple-gun click as the spring-loaded needle opened to take the tissue sample from my cancerous breast – four times. In my mind’s eye, I see the kind radiologist who looked into my eyes and said, “I’m so sorry you’re here,” right before he shot three painful injections of radioactive dye directly in and around the nipple of the right breast that would be removed the next day. I wince, even now, writing about it. But what I remember most and more than the sting of those injections is the genuine kindness of that radiologist right before he administered them, and that nothing is stronger than the human heart.
One needle at a time, Scott tells me the urologist took 12 sliver-like pieces of tissue from his prostate. After the first one, the doctor cajoled, “That wasn’t too bad, was it?” Hyperventilating, Scott said it hurt like hell, aghast at the prospect of eleven more – eleven more – but he bore down, and he endured it, swearing to himself that he would never do it again. In the days that followed, he grew accustomed to painful urination, blood and bits of tissue in hie urine, to the indignity of it all. Then he learned that several of the specimens were pre-cancerous and that his urologist had scheduled him for another biopsy. This time would be in the hospital and under general anesthesia. This time, they would collect 36 samples. This time, they would find cancer. He was now in “the kingdom of the sick,” along with over 3,085,209 men living with prostate cancer in the United States. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates 161,360 men will join him.
For over a year, he weighed his options. He considered active surveillance which would necessitate annual biopsies such as those he had experienced prior to diagnosis. Such watchful waiting, he feared, might give the cancer a chance to grow and spread therefore limiting his treatment options later. He thought about surgery. He thought about radiation. He thought about what his urologist would do if he were in his shoes and asked him outright. He asked me what I thought. I didn’t know what to tell him other than whatever decision he would make, it would bring with it a shadow of a doubt, and he would have to make room for that – forever.
Finally, he opted for Calypso radiation treatment. Also known as GPS for the body, it keeps radiation focused on the tumors, not the healthy surrounding tissue, thereby reducing the likelihood of side-effects. The process begins with a procedure not unlike the dreaded biopsy, another stop on what he calls the “doctors-up-my-ass” trajectory. Lying in a fetal position, his knees to his chest, he squeezes my hand while the urologist numbs the area around the prostate, inserts the probe in his rectum, and then places three tiny electromagnetic beacons through a long, thin needle. The doctor tells him he’s doing great and that I am too. The nurse smiles, as though to affirm that this is an entirely normal scenario. Somehow – surreally – the urologist and I are chatting about about Ireland, his daughter’s favorite country, while Scott is squeezing my hand so tightly, I can’t feel my fingers. It is a brief procedure and painful, but the Valium has taken just enough of the edge off. The nurse explains there might be some bleeding over the next day or two and not to be alarmed by blood in his stool or urine or the fact that his semen may appear rusty for up to 12 weeks. She tells him to avoid working out or lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds for at least three days. And off we go.
“No turning back now, baby,” he tells me as he prepares for 44 days of radiation treatment.
So he shows up – albeit reluctantly – every day at lunch-time for a dose of radiation. I’ll send him a text around 11 o’clock reminding him drink up – the goal is to drink just enough water to ensure his bladder is as full as it was the day before. This helps reduce the risk of movement and therefore the risk of other organs receiving any radiation. In my mind’s eye, I can see him at the sink, filling his water cup with 34 ounces of water, carefully positioning the cup to conceal its Cancer Center logo from his co-workers. I force myself to drink 34 ounces of water too, somehow believing if I also have a full bladder, I am closer to empathizing.
Obedient, silent, and perfectly still, his skin marked with three little tattoos that help ensure his body is correctly aligned in the machine, his musical ear attunes to the high pitched frequency of radiation being delivered to those three tiny electromagnetic beacons implanted in his prostate. Each of them no bigger than a grain of rice, they communicate with the Calypso system using radio-frequency waves, letting the doctor know where the tumor is at all times during the session. It is the stuff of black and white sci-fi shows he watched as a child.
Outside, I wait, crafting make-believe stories in my head about the men who are also waiting. Once, I waited in the wrong waiting room with a trio of older men already dressed in their scrubs, and passing the time criticizing the host of a HGTV show for cheating on his wife. I liked being in their company. It brought to mind the time I taught a Freshman Composition course to a group of men at Boeing who, in spite of their tenure in the company, were required to earn a degree – reminiscent of Happy Hour in a dive bar, except for the questions, “Hey darlin’, what’s a dangling participle?”
Jovial, avuncular guys, they shoot the breeze about the weather and the Masters tournament and the cute wife of the HGTV show host. I know they know I’m in the wrong waiting room, but they don’t say anything. I know they are waiting for me to leave to they can wonder aloud about me. I must be with the new guy. As the nurse bustles in to escort me to the other waiting room, I notice there is already a cubby with Scott’s name on it and inside it, a pair of navy scrub bottoms for him to wear during radiation. Initiated, he’s the newest member of the club. Already, he knows when it’s his turn on the treatment table. Already, he knows that it is Jim’s turn before his, and then it’s Bobby’s turn. Already, it is a routine, taking me back to all the times I placed my clothes in a plastic “Patient Belongings Bag” and stowed them in a tiny locker outside a mammography room – to a strange time, when I was part of a strange sisterhood, where an instantaneous intimacy allowed us to talk about being poked and staged and prayed for. I did not want to be immersed in thatculture and railed against it, but it enveloped me nonetheless – as it will Scott. I tell him we are at once apart from and a part of it – from the inconsequential chatter with cheery assistants who call to confirm appointments, to confidences we feel compelled to share with those who wait with us in waiting rooms. The milk of human kindness flows in such places.
Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
But in this other place, Scott still doesn’t believe it’s happening to him, which explains why some people closest to him don’t even know about it. Cancer pushes a lot of buttons, you see. It changes us, forcing us at the most inconvenient of times to confront our mortality. It can transform us into great pretenders, and so we distance ourselves from those who love us most – out of fear and self-preservation, or indignation and anger about the fact that our number simply came up, or maybe out of denial and shame and all the other words that belong in the recommended self-help books that we cannot bring ourselves to read. Sometimes we don’t know what to do or say, and we might even turn our backs on the people we used to be. And then in a rare moment of clarity, we realize that’s no way to live, that something good is coming, and that love never fails.
There’s somethin’ good comin’
For you and me
Somethin’ good comin’
There has to be
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night
I am ambivalent about St. Patrick’s Day, still not sure what it is about March 17th that renders so many people Irish or some version of it that I do not recall from living the first twenty-seven years of my life in Northern Ireland. Everywhere I turn on Friday, there will be Americans proclaiming their Irishness, some in T-shirts emblazoned with a command to kiss them, others bearing warnings that they are falling-down drunk. Because they are Irish. Even elected officials whose nationality we never knew or cared about will become bona fide Irish. I wonder just how many frazzled interns there must be in these United States, tasked by politicians keen on maintaining a hold on “the Irish vote,” with finding some verifiable, however microscopic, proof of their Irish heritage.
Identity matters. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who am I? Am I Irish? Northern Irish? British? Ulster Irish? Well, it depends, and I know I’m entering dangerous territory here, especially this year as we grapple with Brexit and the outcome of the recent Assembly election in Northern Ireland. My brother, more eloquent than I, and still living and working in Ireland, broke it down for me one day, commenting on the “fractured and dissensual nature of our cultural background, where declarations of nationhood are open to contention (Northern Ireland versus the North of Ireland; Derry versus Londonderry) and can be dangerous, and potentially fatal.” Maybe this is why I traded in my homeland for America, falling in love with the very idea of it, an idea that I watched unravel at break-neck speed in the 2016 race for President of the United States.
I consider myself Irish – or as my favorite professor used to say of me, I “aspire to a united Ireland” – but my “documentation” suggests something of an identity crisis. I was born in Northern Ireland and own a British passport (just to be on the safe side) and I need to renew my Irish passport before we are booted out of the EU. My American permanent residency card states Ireland as my country of birth, but my birth certificate states my birthplace as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am one of her Royal Majesty’s subjects – except when I’m not – like the time a waiter at Heathrow Airport refused to accept my money because, although Sterling, it was printed on a Bank of Ulster note. My money had identified me as something other than acceptable.
A more subtle subtext persists in America. Even in Arizona, a flashpoint for immigration issues, it seems everyone is at least fractionally Irish on March 17th. With green beer flowing and all those ringlets bouncing heavily on the heads of Irish dancers, and people pinching me if I’m not wearing green, I sometimes wonder if maybe I was always absent on St. Patrick’s Day. How could I have missed all these shenanigans even though I grew up down the road from Mount Slemish, where the Patron Saint tended his sheep?
Contemplating all of this, and for the record, I feel compelled to tell you that along with a bunch of girls from school, I attended Irish Dancing every week at the Protestant Hall on Railway Street in Antrim. Also for the record, none of us had either the ringlets or the straight backs and long legs of Flatley’s Riverdancers. Still, I loved it, and while I have long since forgotten the name of our lovely teacher, I remember that she was kind and made me feel like I was a dancer. Today, I couldn’t do a slip-jig to save my life, but I can prove that I once could – I could show you inside the red box that held my first Timex watch, where wrapped in tissue paper are all my medals.
And I suppose because I appreciated the craft that went into it, and I wanted to hold on to it when I came to America, I even brought with me – in my rucksack– the dancing costume that last fit me when I was 12. It hangs in the back of a closet, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. I don’t think I could part with it.
Then there’s the corned beef and cabbage. I have never had corned beef and cabbage. Not even once. We always had the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers – a place with saffron colored sawdust on the floor in which I traced figures of eight with the toes of my brogues. An imaginative child, I pretended I was cutting through ice on the blades of Harriet’s skates as she spun around a frozen pond in Tom’s Midnight Garden. I remember being a bit afraid of the young butchers. Even though they weren’t that much older than me, they were mildly menacing in their blue and white striped aprons all smeared with blood and bits of raw beef, sharpening their knives while I stood on the other side of the counter ordering a pound of minced beef for mammy.
As for cabbage, I still associate it with the overcooked vegetables, lumpy custard, and tapioca served for lunch at Antrim Primary School. Mind you, as my mother will no doubt remind me, when fried up with a bit of good bacon from Golden’s – the wee shop – cabbage is hard to beat, although not as good as turnip. But it had nothing to do with St. Patrick. Corned beef and cabbage would have been no more than a n unfortunate coincidence on St. Patrick’s Day four decades ago.
Then there are the shamrocks and the snakes. I don’t remember Pat the barman in The Crown Bar in Belfast ever taking the time to trace a shamrock on the head of a pint of Guinness for my friend Ruth or me, and as much time as we spent in there – and as much as we flirted with him – it was the least he could have done. Nor do I remember shamrocks or Celtic knots tattooed on young shoulders; rather, they were carved into headstones in old graveyards or embellished around stained glass windows at church. I never paid much attention to that bit of the story when St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, although it has come back to me when I have sidestepped the odd snake slithering across my path on a hike through the Phoenix mountains. Real talk – they have been much less poisonous than the human variety.
Now wasn’t St. Patrick very clever to have found in nature a perfect symbol for Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to help him spread The Word? This was how I learned about the Holy Trinity in Sunday School, and I always think about it when I recall those delicate shamrocks wilting in the buttonholes of suits worn by Catholic neighbors who went to mass on St. Patrick’s Day. Back then, it seemed that most Protestants either “took no notice” of the holiday or characterized it as something reserved for those “on the other side.” There’s a bit of irony there, given the young saint’s passion for spreading Christianity.
All that being said, by the time I was living and studying in Belfast, St. Patrick’s Day had evolved into a good excuse for an extended pub crawl with a motley crew of art students, engineers, and teachers. My last St. Patrick’s Day back home was in 1987. It was a cold Tuesday night, and we were on the hunt for craic and pints, so we piled in a taxi and headed for The Wayside Halt, a nondescript country pub on the edge of the dual carriageway between Antrim and Ballymena. It’s the kind of place that wouldn’t merit a second look. Walking into it, I sobered, the events of May 24, 1974, rushing at me like scenes from a black and white documentary. My father had told me about how on that May evening, one of his friends had suggested stopping at the pub for a quick pint on the way home. Back home, the “quick pint” is something of a paradox, and because da was in a rush to complete his bread deliveries before dark that Friday night, he declined. As he tells it, before he reached Randalstown, the harrowing word had arrived that within the previous hour, Loyalist paramilitaries had barged into the Wayside Halt, and shot at point-blank range, the Catholic publican, Shaun Byrne, and his brother, Brendan. Other pub owners in the Ballymena area had been attacked as well, their places of business vandalized because they had decided to remain open during the United Workers Council Strike of 1974.
Shaun and Brendan Byrne were murdered, while the children were in the sitting room upstairs. And in the picture sent to me by one of the Byrne family, the only child not home that evening is the little girl standing at her father’s right shoulder.
Somehow – I know not how – Mrs. Byrne kept going, and on that St. Patrick’s Day in 1987, she outdid herself, with a giant pot of Irish stew, the likes of which I defy you to find in America. Bland to the American taste-buds, I’m sure, but when combined with an aromatic turf fire, a half-un of Jamesons or a hot Powers whiskey, and someone like Big Mickey playing “The Lonesome Boatman” on a tin whistle in the back bar, it was big and bold in flavor. It was unforgettable. On such a night, we basked in our Irish identity.
We knew who we were.
And every St. Patrick’s Day since, I am drawn back to The Wayside Halt. For the craic. For a pint with good friends. For Mrs. Byrne. And to bear witness.