Girl In Irish | Chapter One
The banshee must have cried out before our house the night Dadda nearly died, and then changed her mind, for death came right in and left again, taking no one to the other side. That was the night she left the door open wide behind her, the night Dadda’s heart stopped dead in its tracks. I would often imagine afterward the banshee creeping into the bedroom and delivering Dadda an unmerciful wallop in the chest. Though not yet five, I already knew of this ghostly woman, who could be heard on the eve of someone’s crossing over, screaming or singing to mark the house where the passage of a life from this world to the next was about to take place. The banshee herself was reputed to be the ghost of a murdered woman or a woman who had died in childbirth. Others claimed she was a fallen angel, one of the fairy people, a dead family relative, a wise old crone. Whoever she was, her deafening screams sometimes shattered windowpanes, but more often than not, her keening was heard only by a chosen few, born with the gift.
I often prayed after that night for such a faculty, to be among those Irish families whose bloodline carried the banshee gene, whose offspring were born able to hear her cries, children who had the possibility of becoming, in death, banshees themselves. On that night, I had neither the gifted ear nor had I, as yet, developed such a sixth sense as to foretell imminent loss. I heard no such lament outside our front door and knew nothing of death’s visitation until the following evening, when Mamma gathered all seven of us children to her side, asking us to come to our knees and pray for our sick father.
Mamma sat in the armchair next to the turf range, her black rosary beads swinging from her knotted hands, her index fingers and thumbs stroking their smooth surface as though she were sightless. The reverence and ritual of Dadda pulling his beads from his pants pocket or Mamma pulling them from her handbag, both of them kissing the cross and wrapping them around their joined hands in such a familiar way, this practice made me long for a cross to kiss and a tiny Jesus to touch to my forehead. I could do the sign of the cross no bother now. All I needed was the set of beads and I’d be as holy as Saint Peter himself. But when I asked for a set, Mamma told me I was too young, that it would be lost or broken within a week.
Tis bad enough, Mamma said, that grown people turn them into a fashion show. Like a baby rattle by them at Mass, all rattle, no rosary, only looking around them to see who will notice their finery. Tis a wonder they don’t do themselves an injury, craning their necks.
On this night, she sat at the edge of the chair, starting us off with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the small silver crucifix dangling between her knees. It was new to me to have Mamma sitting in her armchair next to the oven door rather than kneeling as she normally did for the nightly rosary, her face carrying a concern that would etch its way into her features permanently from that night onward.
Pray for Dadda, she said. He’s sick.
I didn’t understand. What had made him sick? Maybe it was the Christmas porter pudding. Hadn’t I vomited after that myself last year? Whatever it was that had given him the bug, I just wanted him back so we could dance; Dadda saying, hop on, Polly, motioning to his shoe tips.
Around the house and mind the dresser, he’d say as we’d circle the kitchen table, and I’d throw my head back and laugh.
Some people are just born dancing, Poll, he’d said, you’re one of them. I’d bet my supper on it.
As soon as he came back, I’d stick on our favorite record, my Eileen is waiting for me.
But in the meantime, I wondered who’d make the open fire in the sitting room? Dadda was the only one who could do it properly.
This is the secret, he’d say to me, and he’d build, with the strips of paper, small caorans, and larger sods, the heart of the fire in exactly the same way he had watched his father do for decades, Dadda saying the Irish prayers he had learned from his father, a prayer for the earth that yielded the dry sod, a prayer for the turf while striking the match, a prayer for the rising flame, for the down draught that fed the flickering, for the flexibility of aging knees as he rose to his feet, stroking and admiring the brown marble stone of the mantel. Sometimes he’d pass his hand straight through a flame to reposition a sod and I’d gasp, and he’d laugh, assuring me that nior dhoigh seanachat e fein riamh—an old cat never burned himself.
The big lads were no good at a damn thing. Wasn’t Mamma blue in the face from saying that? I knew for sure they wouldn’t be able to clean off the dinner table as good as Dadda. Who’d show us how to scrape the potato skins and rasher rinds and meat bones into one single plate for the slops bucket and how to stack dirty side plates and dinner plates separately?
The big lads muttered the answers to Mamma’s rosary like they, too, couldn’t rightly find their tongues. There hung about us an air of imminent doom, a sense of anticipation that still held death in its grip, an atmosphere that would settle over all our lives till Dadda passed some sixteen years later. I searched Mamma’s face for some signs of reassurance, not liking what I picked up in the air around me, a palpable fear that brought to mind winter storms that shut off the electric power and engulfed us in sudden blackness. Those few seconds before Dadda would strike a match were always full of imaginary monsters reaching for me in the dark and mean older siblings making strange noises to scare the bejaysus out of me. It felt like that in the kitchen, like the power had gone out and we were waiting for Dadda to strike a match to the candle standing in a jam jar of sand in the middle of the kitchen table. But now, there was just Mamma and her seven children, ranging from eighteen months to twelve years, in a semicircle before her, thrown at her feet like fervent apostles, praying for the gift of Lazarus, praying for the gift of life.
What Mamma didn’t tell us was that she’d been woken the night before, just as Santa was due to make his Christmas Eve delivery, by the sounds of Dadda retching and vomiting onto the floor next to him. Mamma would tell the story of this Christmas Eve in parts over the years, trying to exorcise its hold on her mind and heart.
All alone, she’d say, not a mother or a father or a sister or a brother by me, them two hundred miles away and me still the blow in after fifteen years in this bledy place.
And that scourge of a woman. Wouldn’t talk to me in English, that bledy woman, Mamma would rage about Dadda’s mother. Treating me like some foreigner with her Irish and her whispering. Damn mean the people here were, not all of them but some of them, right tough ones.
before I would come to understand more about these people, exhausted from the effort of preserving their tongue, a people who bequeathed to me a sense of standing at the edge of a constant tide, the ground being ceaselessly swept from beneath our weary feet. These were a people who had lost graciousness in many ways, had developed thick skins and narrow minds, and welcomed my mother not as an Irish woman but as an English-speaking outsider. These were a people who had reduced much of their Celtic consciousness to two common denominators, the Irish language and the Catholic Church, and though they now practiced a form of faith that forgot some of their own more progressive and pluralist beginnings, their superstitions and stories still held the resonance of such times. These were the people into whom I was born, a people forgetting and remembering all at once.
But as a child I knew none of that. I’d just get mad every time I’d hear mention of Dadda’s mother and how mean she had been to Mamma.
I’d get even madder every time I heard about the night of Mamma being all alone, and Dadda with the terrible pain in his chest. Bundled him into a blanket Mamma did, and half-dragged, half-carried him to the bronze Opal Kadett parked in the garage across the road from our house. Only a few telephones in the parish, and we didn’t yet have one. I always wondered if she woke the older lads to keep an ear out for the young ones or if she knocked on Auntie Helena’s door across the way to let her know that we children were alone. All I knew for sure was that she piled him into the passenger seat and set off into the dead of night, no full license by her yet, headed for Tralee Hospital, the only emergency room in the county, exactly fifty-two miles from our door to theirs.
Talk about high winds, she’d say, whipping at the car and tossing me over and back across that bledy white line like a foul ball.
Gray in the face, she’d often exclaim out of nowhere, years after the fact, staring from our front yard at a passing cloud in a particular shade. That’s the color he was, she’d point triumphantly at the sky, that’s the very gray. Can you imagine a person’s face that color?
As I got older, I’d nod in disbelief, sucking in air and sighing with empathy and appropriate shock. Something of this feigned shock seemed to soothe her, providing her with a much-needed witness, long after the fact.
Never saw the likes of the color on a man before that night, she’d say. And the look in his eyes, may God be between us and all harm, enough to put the heart crossways in you, like he was fighting a rope around his neck.
Then she’d turn to her side and speak directly to Dadda as she did that night.
There’s a good man Micheal, up and out, she’d say to the open space next to her; as if Dadda was right there vomiting his guts out onto his lap, get it all out of you Micheal, there’s a good man.
This was the part she told over and over, the vomit on his pajamas, the lines she spoke as though she knew her instructions had to be precise as a practiced physician’s and wise as an all-seeing sage, where she knew she had to reach into his truth and her own to find the very thing that would coax him to stay.
she’d repeat. Every time I said that to him, he’d come round.
Years later, I’d find out the local doctor had sent Dadda home that morning with tablets for indigestion and that Maura, my oldest sister, had spent the rest of the day mopping Dadda’s brow with a damp cloth in the room upstairs, saying the selfsame thing to him, begging him to stay.
Get it out of you, Dadda, she’d say, and every time she said it, he’d look at her and say, where did you get such a kind heart for a nine-year-old, God bless you and spare you.
I’d hold my breath as Mamma spoke of that night; the dimensions parting it seemed to bring to her telling the sheer terror and loneliness of that long drive. In 1971, Mamma said, there wasn’t another car on the road, and it seemed as though it was only herself and Dadda alive in the entire world. That never left me, the image of my mother driving through the dark mountains of Kells outside Caherciveen, one white-knuckled hand gripping the wheel, the other rubbing Dadda’s back, then wiping vomit from his pajamas, praising his courage, willing him through sure death.
Tell me how you kept him alive from Caherciveen to Tralee, I’d ask every time, like this was the best part, the part that had the magic.
I told him to say his prayers, she’d say, turning to her side. Micheal say your Irish prayers.
And that’s how they drove the remaining forty odd miles from the town of Caherciveen to Tralee, Mamma coaxing Irish responses from Dadda for the Rosary, navigating treacherous mountain bends, a sheer drop of some two hundred feet on either side of a stretch where shadows and spectral figures played havoc on the fragile mind. She finally stopped at the presbytery in Castlemaine, the town known as the home of the Wild Colonial boy, and also to Father Donovan, a longtime friend of my father’s, who had, until the previous year, been a curate in our parish. Dadda had taught Father Donovan how to say the Mass in Irish, an important aspect of keeping the language alive in our Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area). The Bishop often sent priests like Father Donovan to our parish, poor lads who couldn’t rub two words of Irish together if you gave them the Ardagh Chalice. They’d land into our kitchen, heavy Mass book clutched to their chest and pale with the worry. And Dadda would start the way he always did, right hand out, saying Dia Dhuit, Conas taoi, Hello, how are you, like it was all as simple as the one, two, three. And they’d repeat what he said like they were building a small fire, and the air would soften and we’d all laugh. That’s the way Father Donovan landed into us, copying every word Dadda said like he’d never utter an independent thought again in his life. They had fished and walked together while Dadda coached Father Donovan to preach and practice his ministry in the language that Dadda himself loved with a passion.
Mamma drove into the presbytery yard that night and hooted into the darkness, praying for lights to go on; knowing that finding Father Donovan would be a lifeline for Dadda. And sure enough, Father Donovan stuck his head out of an upstairs window.
it’s Micheal, was all Mamma shouted to him. Father Donovan was down in a flash, fully dressed as though he had somehow been forewarned. He spent the last twelve miles of the journey to the hospital praying over Dadda; administering to him the last rites in the very words Dadda had taught him, anointing Dadda with holy oil, drawing the sign of the cross on his forehead, speaking to his soul in his native tongue.
When they arrived at the hospital in the pre-dawn hours, Dadda was rushed straight to Intensive Care and was treated for a massive heart attack. His face was as dark gray as his Abercrombie overcoat, Mamma would later tell us, so gray she thought for sure he would not make it through to daylight. But he miraculously survived, at fifty-two years of age, overweight and a smoker, a man who liked his sweet cake and his red meat, who liked some spuds with his globs of butter and some apple tart with his dollops of cream.
They mustn’t have liked the looks of me, he would say some months later when he finally returned home, I must have put them off with my ugly mug.
It would be the first of many times Dadda would visit those gates, all of us in our own way visiting them with him, not wanting him to leave and not wishing to be left behind, the fear of losing him a permanent fixture in our midst. It was like the blue velvet sign with gold lettering Dadda had found somewhere that hangs in our kitchen to this day. It reads; God is the head of this house, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation. So too it seemed that loss became another unseen guest, unseen and entirely unwanted, altering the course of our days and lives permanently. Loss came in with the banshee and never left, the front door flung open to all kinds of events that an unwell father was ill-prepared to prevent.
But on this night in 1971, I knew nothing of unseen guests and unwanted open doors. I simply joined in with my siblings as we prayed the full rosary, Mamma leading us off rather than Dadda, our voices carrying the Irish Our Fathers and Hail Marys to a God we hoped was listening. Me, I sang along to the call and response of prayers that it seemed I had always known, forgetting, for a while, the purpose of our fervent recitations, swept away instead by all I knew of word and sound.
Go mbeannaithear duit a Mhuire, ata lan de ghrasta, ta an Tiarna id fhocair,
Is beannaithe thu idir mhnaibh agus is beannaithe toradh do bhroinne Iosa.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.