Read an Excerpt
"DOUSE THE LIGHT THERE, LIAM."
"What's that, Nana?"
"The light, yer mother left the light burning. Would youse ever quench it for me? I don't like touching them yokes, the bloody squitch stung me once when the old crock cover fell off it. Put the heart crossways in me, tobeJasus!"
"I'm comin', Nana" says I, scraping the old green spindled-backed chair across the flagstone floor and over to the light switch. With the fearless dexterity of a five-year-old, I climb up. Click! The kitchen's solitary, fly-encrusted lightbulb goes off.
"You're a good boy, Willie, so ya are?" Nana sits down at the scrubbed pine table and begins humming to herself. Her eyes, just as soft as the golden era of gas mantles, are intently fixed on the job in hand. She lovingly fills the oil lamps with tangy-smelling paraffin and then adds a pinch of table salt, "so's the glass won't blacken."
"Yes, yer a good wee lad for your nana, Liam."
"He's a good boywhere the good boys don't answer," cries my mam, sweeping in from the garden with a wicker basket full of dry washing.
"Come here," she says, plucking me up like a rag doll and standing me back on the chair.
"You look like no one's child."
I squirm. She tucks in my shirt and pulls my shorts straight.
"And look at yer socksmother of God! Yer like a ragamuffin."
"They won't stay up, Mammy."
"No," she says. "The elastic'sperished. Go'way and play outside, 'tis a lovely daygo on! Yer like a hothouse plant stuck inside of the room on a grand day like this. Gowanoutnow, while the going is good." She claps her hands as if shooing chickens out of the kitchen.
"And don't be playing by the drain ye'll get the scarlet fever!" says Nana.
I drag the green kitchen chair outside and lay it on its back on the grassthere now! Next I take the short window-cleaning ladder and place it on the front legs crosswise. This becomes the wings of my biplane, just like Captain Biggles in the comics. Suitably attired in what I think pilots wear, I sit cross-legged on the chair back and thus am able, by leaning left or right, to bank and turn my plane. This is great craic altogether, and the top legs projecting forward from under the ladder are my machine guns, which despite the occasional jam, strike terror into the cold heart of German air ace Baron von Richthofen and his flying circus.
The back garden disappears in the clouds of my imagination as my trusty Sopwith Camel tears across the turf and, with a gentle pull on the stick, speeds like an arrow into the rare blue skies over Ireland. Soon I am in enemy airspace over Belgium.
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love ...
W. B. Yeats is reading his First World War poem to me over the radio as I glide like a war hawk above the green fields of France.
"Did you get that, Willie?"
"I did, Mr. Yeats. What's it called?"
"`An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.'"
"Roger Wilco, Mr. Yeatsa nice poem!"
"Willie/Willie, do you heed me?"
Through the static-filled ether another voice is calling on my frequency, a faint familiar voice from far, far away.
"Willie! Are ye deaf, ya wee bugger?"
"Is that for you or me, Mr. Yeats?"
"I think it's for you, Liam!"
"Roger, over and out!"
A quick glance about the sky, no sign of the Hun, make a turn for home, once more descending into the green patchwork quilt of Mother Ireland to land next to the threaded silver embroidery that marks the course of the ancient river Shannon.
Engine spluttering, I straighten the rudder and ease the nose up. The voice in my earphones is still calling, shrill above the din. A sudden crosswind tears at the airframe and flips my crate over like a flapjack. As the starboard wingtip jars in the soft earth, the aircraft tears itself asunder. Pulling myself from the mangled wreckage I saunter toward Fighter Command HQ. At the kitchen door I glance back at the carnage. What is it they say? "Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing." 'Tis true for you!
"Willie! I've been calling you for ages! Go ye up to Paddy King's for the evening newspaper and fetch back half a stone of spuds from Fred Rice's. You can get yourself a patsy-pop for going."
"I will, Mam, and I'll take the handcart."
Mam wraps a silver shilling in the note, which reads: "7 lbs. potatoes please Fred, Put them in Liam's cartThanks."
I meander up the road, hard by the Shannon wall, where rows of hungry seagulls wait for our dinner scraps. Behind me I pull my two-wheeled cart by one handle.
In my other hand is a large copper penny with a Celtic harp on one side and a chicken on the other. This coin is an inch across and four of them weigh an ounce, but more important, this is the price of a patsy-pop, which is a kind of frozen orange juice on a stickperfect rations for a fighter pilot on such a hot day.
I balance the cart handle on the worn boot scraper outside of the shop and, with trepidation enhanced by squeaking rusty hinges, push open the huge red door with its moldy brass handles.
A shaft of daylight and myself creeps into the earthy gloom of the greengrocer's emporium. It is dank and smells like a cemetery. Standing on tiptoes, I place the note and its shilling on the black oak counter. My penny escapes and for a while rolls in diminishing circles before shuddering to a stop. I snatch it back to the safety of my pocket as, in the eerie darkness above me, an enormous face and two gigantic hands appear floating, seemingly detached in the dingy light. With a puzzled look at me and then the note, the face says, "What are ye dressed like that for, ya eejit? Do you have the earache or something?"
Looking around cagily, I catch sight of myself in a Jacob's Biscuit mirror. Sure I am a quare enough sight for such a fine warm day: silk scarf tied around my neck, a rubber swimming cap on back to front, and Mam's furry earmuffs over the top of it.
"So I'm still wearing my flying gear, mister! What of it? You should be grateful that fighter aces like me are here to stop the Bosch from making off with your spuds!"
"A foighter pilot, are ye? Glory be! We can all sleep safe in our beds tonight, knowing that Holy Ireland is being protected by Fly-by-night Foster, or is it All-Day Murphy?"
The room shakes as great cannon shots of laughter echo around the earthen vault. Even in the cool dark an angry red flush stings my face and neck. Mute rows of cabbages transform into wrinkled green choirboys silently mocking my embarrassment. Pallid cauliflowers like freshly trepanned skulls jeer and jostle with needled-nosed carrots to get a better view, whilst sly parsnips thrust forward raggedy roots to eavesdrop on the fullness of my discomfort. I am anxious to quit this turnip-filled tomb with its guffawing owner tumbling several pounds of prize King Edwards into my cart.
"There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots." My inner voice comforts me as I make the safety of the sunlit portal and bang the door out on my tormentor.
Across the road Paddy King's is a haven of sanity. The shop is bright and airy and romantically infused with the rich aroma of printer's ink, aniseed balls, and black Balkan pipe tobacco. I take my place in the queue behind the ample backside of old Mrs. Morrisey, who although she smells of fish paste and old cabbage water, gives excellent cover as I surreptitiously pore over a Captain Biggles comic. There was the chiseled-jawed fighter ace striding from his battered biplane, chummed as always by the ever-cheerful Ginger and his Scottish sidekick, Jock.
"That was a wizard prang, sir! I saw the Jerry spin out of control just as you let fly with the Hotchkiss guns."
"Yes, Ginger, but that Hun in the sun nearly took your tail off, old boy!"
"Aye, Captain, but you were there to save the day as usual," Jock chimes in.
"What is it you want, Liam?"
"Word has come of Jerry massing for an attack on the line of the Somme River."
"We must move quickly and get as many cabbage crates ready to fly as possible."
"LIAAM!" The magazine, like its hero, shoots skyward and I discover myself standing alone in the middle of the newspaper shop. Mrs. Morrisey is gone.
"Ooh, sorry! The Limerick Leader, please, Paddy, and a patsy-pop for going."
"Here," says Paddy. "You can have this old copy of Biggles Flies at Dawn. I can't sell it with a torn cover. Wasn't your uncle Bill MacDonagh in the Royal Air Force?"
"He was, sir, yes, a tail gunner in Lancaster bombers."
"Fair play to himhe did well to survive. He lives in London now, so he does?"
"He does, sir, in Hammersmith, sir."
"Your dad's away in the army, isn't he?"
"He is, to be suresomewhere in England, so."
"But you want to join the air force and become a pilot when you grow up?"
"No, sir, I want to go to sea and be a sailor, that's all."
"You could be a navy pilot, so you could. No? Don't fancy that? Well, regards to your mam and your nana anyway, off you go home now. Jasus, will ye just look at the cut of you. You look the partBiggles Flies Undone."
Ah yes! That's more like it, a bit of respect from the civilian populace, a patsy-pop for going, and a free comic to boot.
God is in his heaven and all is right with the world as I lie next to my crashed plane reading my comic book. Biggles is not so lucky. He has been shot down and is recovering in hospital. As he lies there, surrounded by pretty French nurses, he dreams of his boyhood days in England and tries to remember back to his earliest recollections. He can only see back as far as his third birthday party. Jasus! I can do much better than that. I can remember it all, from day one! Let me see, what did happen?
I came into this world on a snowy April morning in 1950, an event I recall very well. I am told that many people can remember their birth but, it being a disagreeably messy experience at best, choose to forget.
Life is a sea of blobs and wiggly dark shapes moving in a blue light. Of sounds, too, and voices. I feel unbearably cold and I hear a voice saying, "Move Mrs. Watkins to isolation." All is blue and cold.
My mam is very ill and I have been a difficult birth. Luckily for my mother, she is able to have her confinement in Britain as my father is in the British army. She also can take full advantage of the free medical treatment that was not available in Ireland in those austere postwar days. I am christened William after my Irish grandfather and James after my Welsh one. These forenames translate into Liam and Seamus in the Irish tongue.
Whilst Mam is recovering in the hospital they give her two bottles of Guinness a day "to thicken the blood." Since I am breast-fed and prone to hiccups, my mother blames the stout. Either way, I thrive and my mam is soon up and about and on the mend.
The day comes when we are to return to Limerick. I am three weeks old and a testimony to the newly formed National Health Service. Mam is fit and feisty, which is unfortunate for the hospital discharge clerk.
"Ma'am, where it says nationality of infant, you've put Irish. If the child is born here it should say British." Mam is well able for him.
"If a cat has kittens in a baker's shop, does it make them currant buns?"
Later that day we take the boat train to Holyhead in Anglesey, Wales. Waiting at the quay is the ferry boat to Ireland.
After we set sail, my mam takes me out on deck, wrapped up in a plaid shawl for my first sense of the sea. From my woolen cocoon, I remember the salty tang of it well. It is the start of a love affair.
We arrive in Limerick in a big cloud of steam and wonderful smells. It's smell that best weaves the tapestry of time into the endless knot we call memories. The use of this sense is still the best transportation across the decades and grand for pinpointing events, places, or even peoplethough there's some smells you would probably like to forget!
We take a horse-drawn sidecar taxi here to my grandmother's house in Thomondgate. This is to be our home, on and off, for the next five and a half years.
Any excuse for a party. Our homecoming is a big event! I am passed around a circle of smiling blobby faces that I later know as my aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
Over the next few weeks, although I sleep most of the time, I try to make sense of my surroundings and am conscious of my need to communicate with my family. It seems that with a little effort on both sides, a fine chat might be had.
The river Shannon lies thirty feet from our front door behind a low wall. At this point, just in front of the salmon weir, she must be a quarter mile wideor so it seems. One stormy night, my mother takes me to an upstairs window and stands with me in her arms. The river is wild in flood; crashing and boiling on the rocks below, and a dull clanging pervades the house. Its cause is the tidal flap on the sewer main, which empties straight into the Shannon. I try to say "vibrations," but my infant tongue can only manage "bulberations."
My startled mother takes me downstairs to the kitchen, where she tells the assembled tribe, "The child just said `bulberations' as plain as day!"
Soon a sea of blurry faces are asking me:
"What are bulberations, Willie?"
"Say `bulberations,' Liam!"
I give up trying to converse sensibly with my folks and resort to the goo-goo, bow-wow, choo-choo noises they seem more comfortable with.
There is a strange gray box in the corner of the kitchen that has pipes going in and out of it. I am now old enough to crawl, but have trouble holding my head up for long periods. I notice that when my aunt Frances puts the kettle on the stove, the magic box started up clicking and whirring. I make a beeline for it and for the first time get to it before being grabbed from above by an overprotective minder. I rear up my head to take a bloody good look at my prize, and my rubber neck gives out. Thunk! I split my head open on the corner of the gas meter.
The shock jolts me back on my haunches. I sway to and fro, blood streaming into my eye, but I feel no pain. What is far more interesting is that half of my visual field has taken on a lush red colon. All at once, pandemonium breaks out and I am snatched up by screaming adults with terrifying looks on their faces.
"The child! Oh, Holy Motherthe poor child!"
This puts the fear of Jasus into me and I start to cry. Though many long years have passed and gone, lying here on the battlefields of France, I still bear the battle scar of my encounter with the ferocious killer gas meter! It was great to be able to remember such a lot of the past. Poor old Captain Biggles could only remember his third birthday party; I was ahead of him in that respect and had war wounds to prove it. I lie on my back and stare up the arse of a skylark, frolicking in the azure firmament above. In my head my own comic strip is forming. What happened after the gas meter? Ah, yes! I turned one year old.
There I am sitting in a high chair at my first birthday party. Now the faces of my family have much more form and features, and I am able to tell one from another.
My grandda, Willie MacDonagh, is a lovely, quiet gentleman, who has a fine head of soft white hair and a merry twinkle. He makes me the present of an aerodrome made of brightly painted tinplate, and when the handle is turned, little airplanes with tiny propellers fly around in a circle about a central pivot. All of the adults have great sport with it, but I want to play with the solitary flickering candle on my birthday cake. From my position of honor at the head of the table, enthroned in my food-splattered high chair, the candle entices me. It is so bright, playfully dancing, and by hook or by crook, I am going to eat it. It is in reach and everyone's attention is taken up by the airplanes. I grab it, it is mine. OWEEE! The bloody thing bites me!
"Willie! Willie, are you daydreaming again? Get up off that wet grass, ye'll get piles. And don't forget to put away that ladder an' bring in the chair an' wash yer kisser. It's time to go to mass."
"Yes again, and enough of yer moaningyer worse than yer father!"
"Why do we have to go to mass all the time?"
"Because we're Catolicks. You should be thankful that we're not like the godless pagan English, hammering on the pearly gates while Saint Peter cocks a deaf ear to them! Come on now and be a good boy, and we'll maybe go on a mystery tour at the weekend!"
I shuffle to and fro with the bits of my plane in some contentment. Things are indeed looking up. Partaking of railway mystery tours beats the socks off of going to mass any day. The mystery tours are a great laugh altogether, and on the following Saturday the whole family troops down to Limerick station and boards the waiting train. Most of the men drink stout and play cards, whilst the older womenfolk chatter, natter, and knit away in shawly groups and the younger ones sit studying the railway maps, speculating on the possible destination of the trip. As we clatter along the iron road the railway carriage is filled with singing and folks clapping their hands in time. Us kids run wild from one end of the train to the other, not knowing or caring where we are bound.
After about an hour, we steam to a screeching halt in the small Tipperary town of Cahir during a thunderstorm of biblical proportions. Two hundred or so passengers scurry into the town to find the funfair and amusement park waterlogged, the shops and cafes shut, and the pubs closed for the holy hour. The only thing open to visitors is a ruined castle, which, being open to the sky, affords no shelter. There is almost a riot. The men, some of whom were now the worse for drink, are wanting to lynch the train driver and his fireman for what they think is a practical joke. It takes three local policemen and the parish priest to calm things down. Eventually we reboard the Mystery Express and the train crew comes out of their hiding place to take us back to Limerick.
On the way back home, Mickey Galvin tells a story about his poor old mother in Galway, who at the age of eighty-two, comes down on the train to visit him one summer in Limerick. Well, Mickey, a bachelor, was a great outdoors man, and he couldn't imagine his elderly mam wanting to go hiking or bicycling. So the second day, at a loss to know what to offer her in the way of entertainment, he takes her on a mystery tour. Only this time, the mystery train was going back to Galway! As she recognizes her home town, she looks at him, with tears welling up in her eyes, and says, "Could you not have let me stay on for just a couple more days, son? I won't be any trouble, son."
Disaster or not, you couldn't beat the old mystery tours!
The weather had broken, as they say in these parts, and it was soft over Clare. Great white cumulous billows of wind-lashed clouds sail up the Shannon like a fleet of Spanish galleons. I stare at the wan puddles they leave in their wake, whilst rivulets of silver-gray rainwater saturate my runway. No chance of flying a sortie in this deluge, so I play cards with my teddy bear. He wins by cheating.
A sudden rake of excitement in the house. My father is coming to see us. He is on leave from the army, and he hopes to slip into Ireland quietly for a few days and see his son for the first time. Mam is excited.
"Now you'll see something!" she says, reading his letter in the far corner of the kitchen. "I hope he gets into the country all right."
"What do you mean, Mam?"
"Well, Willie, Ireland stayed neutral in Hitler's war and soldiers from either side weren't welcome here. So with the whole shebang just after finishing, the government do be frightened by rumors of spies and secret agents and God knows what and especially suspicious of British soldiers. Godhelpus, hasn't Ireland suffered enough from the British soldiers? Your father will have to keep a low profile."
"Jasus! Reg keep a low profile? Go'way! Ye might as well be asking a leopard to change his spots!" As it turns out, Nana's words weren't far off the mark.
It being near Bonfire Night, the November fifth celebration of the failure of Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up the English Parliament in 1605, as tradition would enlist, Dad brings me over some fireworks. How is he to know that such harmless amusements are highly illegal in Ireland?
In trying to gain entry at the Irish port of Dun Laoghaire, either his military bearing and service haircut, or his hastily assembled civilian attire, catches the attention of the ever-watchful security police.
"Excuse me, sir! What have you there in that army rucksack?"
"Er ... it's nothing, just some presents for my son."
"It's explosives, Sergeant!" says the other one, peering in.
"Jasus!" says the sergeant as they hustled him away. "Who's your son? Dangerous Dan the dynamite man, is it?"
My poor father is deported back to Britain. So as luck would have it, I never get to meet him until the following year.
"Well, now!" says me mam. "If Mohammed won't go to the mountain, then the mountain must go to Mohammed, and there, Willie boy, we can kill two birds with one stone, can't we?" I sit on the green wooden chair, nodding assent and dangling my legs in puzzlement. Grown-ups were an odd bunch with their moving mountains and dead birdsit was a trial to keep up. My mother was best left to her own devices and in time all would be revealed. As indeed it was, later that night around the kitchen table.
"He needs to get that eye fixed or he'll be looking round corners all his life."
"We can't let him off to school with the other kids shouting, `Hey, Willie! Is that yer eyethe white thing?'"
So I was born with a lazy eye, or a cod eye as they say in Ireland. It caused me no grief, for you never miss what you've never had, but my family didn't want me growing up and people taking the mickey out of me. It is decided that I be taken back to Britain for free medical treatment on the National Health Service. As I have no say in the matter, I am stoic.
On the downside, it means leaving all I'd ever known for a while. On the other hand, it meant a great trip on the train and a ride on a ship. Also, the chance to live with my other grandparents for a wee bit and maybe see my dad if he can get leave from his unit.
As the day of departure approaches, all pervading waves of doom threaten to scuttle the frail craft of my optimism. My older cousin Joe explains it best: "Don't be worried, they just cut out yer bad eye and put a pickled onion in!"
We take the steam train from Limerick to Dun Laoghaire, where we board the ancient steamship Princess Maud, a floating relic of the 1920s. Mam sings an old ditty as we tramp up the gangplank, arms linked:
Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea
Silver buckles on his knee
He'll come back and marry me
Bonny Bobby Shaftoe.
Having only the cheapest third-class tickets, we are confined to green cast-iron park benches bolted to the stern deck. There is only a tiny indoor lounge, and it is already packed full, twice over.
At last the great steam hooter blows. The blue peter is struck from the foremast head and we are off, straight into the teeth of a howling gale. To the exposed cheeks the raw wind is like emery paper, but I discover that by changing the shape of my mouth, the wind could be made to play little tunes that only I could hear.
"What are ye pulling faces like that for? Stop it now, ye'll have people think yer fooly, making faces like a fish, ya eejit. Oh, my God, fish!" Mam lurches to the rail and shares her breakfast with squabbling seagulls, bobbing on the boiling foam, thirty feet below. At that moment as we cross the breakwater, the wind freshens and the stern fantail is lashed by a following sea. Mad green crests spill over the aft deck rail and threaten to soak us all. Great eddies of freezing Irish seawater swirl toward our ankles, forcing us to sit like gargoyles, knees under chin. As the pilot boat leaves for shore, a bevy of kind sailors appears and within minutes jury-rig a big green tarpaulin over us to keep off the worst of the salt spray and rain. My poor mam continues to be terribly seasick, but I love every aspect of this seagoing enterprise; it awakens some long-slumbering leviathan within me! Fascinated, I watch the sailors brace against the wind, coiling hawsers, stowing docking gear, and checking davits. The old tub pitches and rolls, whilst I, with arms outstretched as a crucifix, ricochet around the aft capstans like a well-upholstered orb in a giant pinball machine. I have marvelous fun trying to keep my balance and come to no harm at all.
"Mam!" says I, "this is great!"
My mam peers out from under her blanket.
"You're in league with the devil," comes her baleful reply.
A big bearded sailor snatches me up in his arms.
"Steady as she goes! Here's a wee fellow who has his first sea legs! One of these days you'll might make a grand sailor, my young bucko!"
He doesn't have to tell me. I am already of that conviction!
We dock in Holyhead the following morning. Mam is still green in the face but after a cup of tea at the station café feels more the ticket. I am still exhilarated, but my joy is short lived.
Mam fishes in her handbag, producing a lipstick-stained white linen handkerchief. Then she dribbles a long plume of spittle onto it and scrubs my face with the resultant infusion. It is a horrible indignation for a sailor to suffer!
"There you are, a cat's lick and a promise to see you through the day."
So, if that's what makes me a Catolick, then I could well do without it!
On dry land now, but my little legs could still feel the pull of the ship.
I weave from side to side in my effort to maintain equilibrium.
"Look, Mam, I'm drunk!"
"That's all I need, a drunken sailor to look after, what shall we do with you?"
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
Early in the morning.
Ohray up she rises, ohray up she rises,
Ohray up she rises, early in the morning.
Arms linked again in song, we skip past the huge, hissing monster of a Pacific class passenger locomotive and find good seats in a carriage just a few compartments down from the coal tender stacked high with its polished jet-black nuggets.
With two sharp blasts of the whistle, the great iron beast heaves his steel connecting rods and, squealing into movement, belches a hoarse roar of steam. Having thus asserted itself, the tamed tyrant gets down to the business of the day and clanks off into the hinterland of Wales. Mam starts to sing a nonsense song to entertain me:
Paddy was a Welshman, Paddy was a thief
Paddy came to our house, and stole a leg of beef.
We went to Paddy's house, Paddy wasn't there.
So I catched him by the two legs, and threw him down the stairs.
"Mam, who was Paddy?"
"Why was he Welsh if he was a Paddy?"
"How can you throw him downstairs if he isn't there?"
Mam begins to snore and I am left to figure out the mysterious Paddy for myself.
Wales speeds by.
"Will you look at that now," says my mam, waking up from her snooze. We are pulling into a station, the name of which is displayed on a sign that runs the entire one-hundred-foot length of the platform. It reads:
"What does it mean, Mammy?"
"Jasus, don't be asking me. It could be the Welsh word for teacup for all I know. Ask your dad when you see him. He speaks Welsh, so he'll know how to say it."
So there it was, my father, of whom I had heard so many heroic tales, could also pronounce the Welsh word for teacup. My, my.
"Tickets, please, ladies and gentlemen. Tickets, please!" The blue uniformed conductor enters the carriage. He has a thing like a pair of pliers in his hand and a black peaked cap with a badge of a silver lion holding a wheel on the front. The man looks at the small oblong green tickets and punches a hole in each.
"Thank you, ma'am!"
"The young fella wants to know what the sign reads, yonder?"
"Oh, yes, indeed. I wish I had a shilling for every time someone has asked me that. It means `Saint Mary's Church of the pool of the white hazel, near the rushing whirlpool, Saint Tysylio's Church, near the red cave.' Lovely, isn't it?"
"What about the teacups?"
"Teacups, is it? Teacups, there's plenty of teacups under the other sign over there. Café, see?"
They're at it again, grown-ups! Ask a civil question and they give you nonsense about saints and hazel trees and red caves. The man looks puzzled, Mam shrugs her shoulders, and I stare out of the window as the train moves off.
The boat train continues over the Telford bridge across the Menai Strait and on into mainland Wales. As we round the sea cliffs the enormous battlements of Conway heave into view. The almost perfectly preserved city walls built by the English king Edward the First are dominated by one of the largest and most formidable castles in Europe. I notice with glee that the railway runnel entrances are all turreted and castellated in the same style as the Norman fortress above.
My mam is less impressed by this masterpiece of Plantangenet military technocratics.
"All that to keep the poor Welsh down in their own country. BloodyEnglish!" She dozes off again.
I am nearly twenty years old before I realize that Bloody English are two different words!
The fatigue of my seaborn adventure sweeps over me and I join Mam in restful sleep. I wake up in New Street Station in the heart of the second biggest city in Britain.
Here in Birmingham, I get my first ride on the top of a doubledecker bus and sit right at the front so that I can pretend to steer. The view is terrific and the bustling streets teem with lorries, cars, and tramcars whose sleek steel rails channel through the shiny black cobbled streets like veins of silver. I am even too curious to mind the inevitable spit-soaked hankie catlicking away at my cheeks. This is the biggest city I have ever seen, bigger than anything in Ireland. World War Two was only over eight years since and vast tracts of the urban area are still fireweed-covered wastelandsbomb sites, courtesy of Herr Hitler's Luftwaffe.
"Do they not have horses here, Mam?"
"No, not many. They have a few, but not like over home."
"I don't see any donkeys either, nor dogs wandering the streets."
"No, you won't. The English keep their dogs inside of the house."
"Oh, yes, dogs inside of the house, that will be right! Ha-ha, dogs inside of the house, indeed. I suppose they keep chickens in the parlor, too!"
"Of course they do, and cheeky little sods like you are locked up in the coal hole! Now hold your whist a minute or we'll be missing our stop to get off."
Mam knows her way about the town, and she tells me her story. As a young girl, she had been here during the war, working in a munitions plant making machine guns. As the blitz continued, every night the German bombers were overhead showering death and destruction on the city. One night my mam was too ill with the flu to do her shift. Her roommate, another Irish girl, said she would put her name on the sick list at work and tell the foreman. That night the Nazi bombs found their elusive target and the factory was blown to pieces. Most of the workers were in the basement canteen on their tea break when the bombs hit. The four floors above came crashing down upon them, burying them alive under hundreds of tons of heavy machinery and bricks. The ones who were trapped had not the slightest chance of escape, there being no equipment available on the home front to lift such massive debris. As the weeks went by, the cries of the entombed faded and were still. My mother's friend, whom she had traveled with from Ireland, never returned. Mam gave out a long low sigh, and I tried to quickly change the subject.
"Brick, brick, and more brick! Sure everything here is made of bricks."
"That's true, the English like their bricks, so they do."
"I bet you don't know a song about bricks, Mam?"
"Oh, don't I?"
The county jail is made of bricks
And the gates are made of I-ron
With a big tall window and a big strong door
To keep out Boody Byron
When Boody Byron made a fart
I thought the stink would blind me
Then he made another and I thought I'd smother
For the girl I left behind me.
Never can I beat Mam with this challengeshe has a poem or a song or a bit of old nonsense for everything. I resolve to take in the sights as Mam does the commentary.
"Things are on the move here, by God. After the destruction of six years of war, the entire place has to be rebuilt. Ye could make your golden fortunes here, you couldn't lose! Sure with full employment, being out of work is almost impossible. But some lazy buggers still manage it, just to stay on the dole." Mare goes on to tell me that at this time, there are tens of thousands of Irish workers in England, and the chiefs amongst these fellas are the far-famed Irish navvies, who are mostly unskilled, but fiercely hard-working, short-contract laborers. They are so clever that they can build houses, roads, railways, docksin fact, anything. They take their name from the navigations or canals that were dug throughout Britain in the last century. Many who start with nothing but a pick and shovel go on to make a good living, and some end up owning their own construction firms or fleets of trucks and then go back and buy big houses in Ireland.
Schools, houses, pubs, factories speed pasteven some of the streets are made of brick. It's marvelous. Ireland has little in the way of brick buildings, so all the more noticeable here are the curves and bastions of yellow, red, brown, and the beautiful gunmetal-colored Staffordshire blue bricks. However, if it all looks different, when we get off the bus it smells even stranger. Whereas in Limerick the pervading odors are of leather tanning, horseshit, peat smoke, and the ever-present tang of the river Shannon, Birmingham's atmosphere bears the piquancy of coal dust, gasworks, and asphalt. Sure enough, there are tar boilers everywhere, sending their glorious reek skyward, and around these, little knots of men lean furiously on rakes and shovels, waiting "for the tae to boil." Whether or not they mean the tar in the boiler or the tea kettle sitting on its brazier, you can only guess. Occasionally my mam will spot a familiar face amongst the tarmac gangs and stop to exchange the news about what is happening over home. She smiles at everyone.
"Odd folk, the English. Most like to get on well with the Irish immigrants, but as anywhere, some folk can be awful spiteful and then they call you a Mick or a Paddy or a bog trotter or even a duck egg!"
"Why a duck egg?"
"Well, they reckon that like duck's eggs, one out of every three Irish people is a bad egg. It's all water off a duck's arse to me," says Mam. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!"
Our journey ends at a little group of apartments, squat and square oblongs of urban utility, coy and effete, each rectangular window opaque with lace-curtain privacy, standing sternly above a prim pinafore of red sand bricks.