On the Paper Plane (1986)

On the Paper Plane (1986)

The third part of the Paper Plane trilogy ends in December 1986. Early in 1987 I spent three months in Belfast and by the autumn a majority of the original crew had gone.

What stands out more now are the odd jobs. In the autumn of 1985 I’d become involved in market gardening… picking spuds and shovelling onions. By Christmas I was an occasional milkman’s assistant, on a rural route, writing numbers in a book. Later I spent seven weeks flogging moss peat (or “peat moss” as the boss liked to call it) but it was a cold spring and the selling of coal took over again. He already had enough fellas to sell coal. Lastly I had a crack at a poverty industry course, on which I managed to get two grants, thanks to the addition of the Belfast expedition.

In December it seems ironic that I had the assistance of two professors: one as whiskey barman and one as chauffeur. The latter, as his name suggests, was the Professor of Irish, the language we spoke on the journey in his car. Maynooth left one speaking in tongues. Tír gan anam, tír gan teanga.

May … the bounty of back money

On the Paper Plane (1985)

On the Paper Plane (1985)

My late father used to say the most important thing in life was to keep going. Ten years on from 1985 he got himself into a position to get more than twenty good years out of his retirement. Then, when it came to it, I kept him out of the nursing home. It was the very least I could do.

1985 saw more messing than the year before but all that only amounted to a minor court appearance and a £4 fine for a couple of damaged saplings outside a fractious party. There is a broader tableau, from which some detailed incidents had to be omitted simply because they are things people would not believe.

PS … to be fair to my fellow veterans, the only indiscretions flashed must remain my own.

On the Paper Plane (1984)

On the Paper Plane (1984)

When my father died three months ago I said I’d in time look back at when he appeared on the page over the years. I turned twenty in the pivotal 1984, before which there is no passage that is vivid or even humorous about anything. A little younger than I am now, he is there on 12 September, where there’s an allusion to the debt and arthritis it took him another ten years to overcome before he reached his long retirement.

Now I can look back on the time with a smile for a few reasons. I was really only there for the social life and for reading books that weren’t on my course but I’d done well enough in school for a grant and didn’t cost him too much otherwise. For example there weren’t any separate budgets for beer and food. Years later he revealed that my brother, who took college seriously from the start, had been more expensive, not least in terms of hefty textbooks.

Anyway, when it came to it, I kept my old man out of the nursing home. It was the least I could do.

PS … to be fair to my fellow veterans, the only indiscretions flashed must remain my own…

Pale Shelter

Pale Shelter

Renting in Leixlip was a doomed expedition from the college town of Maynooth but that did not shelve the housewarming party. Hence there is more than one allusion to some collateral damage. The inner city reference to Sean MacDermott Street is fully explained by the link at the bottom. In the same vein “this group” was a small class on a poverty industry course. The walkout happened the day after the last November entry (see below).

On Sean MacDermott Street…


Blueshirts in Spain

Blueshirts in Spain

In May 1969 Emil Cioran considered writing a book on the Irish, having met an Irishman “qui n’avait que “Almighty God” à la bouche” in conversation. He was normally more interested in the religious preoccupations of other countries, such Russia and Spain. As it happens, a piece of the latter’s history is instructive on the difference between Ireland and the Romania of Cioran’s pre-war dreams.

Early in 1937 the prominent Iron Guard members Ion Moța and Vasile Marin were killed by a shell after volunteering to fight for Franco. Their bodies were transported across Europe by train and greeted in Bucharest by thousands of Greenshirts, as the Iron Guard liked to dress up. They were interred in Bucharest on 13 February, in a mausoleum newly erected by their leader Codreanu. The ceremony was overseen by hundreds of Orthodox priests.

Later in the year the Iron Guard did well in a general election on the back of this big production but, less a month after the solemn show, Codreanu had written to Cioran to thank him for writing The Transfiguration of Romania.

All of us, fighters and writers, are driven… by the might of this Romanian volcano which is about to break its bonds

It is one thing to think such thoughts – a mind is a terrible thing to lose, as Dan Quayle might have put it – but to say them in public or even commit them to paper is rather more serious. In the Thirties, the Irish State had its Blueshirts (the green shirts were already taken) but nothing about them concerns us here except their experience in Spain, also on Franco’s side. It may be only apocryphal that Freud thought the Irish immune to psychoanalysis but it is easier to highlight the lack of seriousness that makes such blood and soil less fertile for fascism (or Marxism).

The comic history of that escapade must be written one day: recruits armed with letters from their doctors saying that the Spanish climate would work miracles for their tubercular lungs; boys going to a dance in Dundalk… and waking up on the Dún Aengus in Galway Bay the next day on their way to fight in Spain; O’Duffy having to inspect a guard of honour without weapons in case they shot him; the money collected to defend God in Spain being diverted to found a political dynasty; and, finally, more men returning from Spain, despite the casualties inflicted on the Brigade by Franco’s Moorish troops, than actually enlisted.

In The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) Breandán Ó hEithir defines the begrudger of the book’s title as the most common type of Irish character. Such a person is usually cynical, snide and hungry for the next unflattering story about an official role model or public event that won’t bore anyone else in the retelling. In that same book Ó hEithir also wrote

One may easily be short of a job, a house, regular sex, drink (rarely) or food in Ireland: one is rarely short of a bitter belly laugh.

A nephew of the novelist Liam O’Flaherty, Ó hEithir (1930-90) was born on Aran and wrote successfully in both Irish and English. Upon his retirement from broadcasting he and his wife got a Paris apartment but, unfortunately, to borrow a line from Beckett’s All That Fall, the poor man didn’t live long to enjoy his ease.

V. S. Pritchett’s memoir Midnight Oil (1971) includes his time in Ireland during the Civil War in 1923 and refers to laughter without mirth, “a guerrilla activity of the mind” that even “rippled over the surface of the incurable seventeenth-century bitterness” of the north-east. Pritchett describes several surreal incidents elsewhere in the country, after the British had gone, such as a raid on a house of the gentry, nominally for arms.

The servants were hysterical and a parrot imitated them, calling out ‘Glory be to God’… there was a good supply of untouched weapons but girls among the raiders had gone off with his wife’s riding clothes, and one of the men had emptied a jar of ink over the drawing-room carpet. The raiders had found a safe… but could not open it. So they dumped it in the middle of the lake. My host rang up the local military… ‘We’ll send down the Terroriser,’ the officer said. The Terroriser and his men rowed about the large lake very happily. It was a lovely afternoon.

We can but wonder in passing what inspiration Cioran might have got from that parrot. As the Civil War moved away from the capital, Pritchett got on a train from Dublin to Cork. In the midlands there was a long stoppage for the addition of an armoured engine and a troop escort.

…a few of us, including a priest, left the train and went into the town for a drink, sure of finding the train still there after a couple of hours. It was. It gave a jolt. ‘Are we starting?’ someone asked. ‘Sure, we haven’t started starting yet,’ the porter said. The afternoon faded… at Mallow it was dark… we got into cars to join another train across the valley. The viaduct had been blown up. We eventually arrived in Cork in a racket of machine-gun fire. (…) But the passengers took it for granted and a bare-footed urchin who took my case said, ‘’Tis only the boys from the hills.’

The Civil War was indeed a grave matter in which a few thousand people died but where does the overriding lack of seriousness come from? Heinrich Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch, or Irish Journal, has sold two million copies in German. Though written in the Fifties, it still captures some sturdy truths about the Irish character. The most important of these is found where he discusses a commonplace phrase. It could be worse. For Germans, he says, if something bad happens it is always the worst possible eventuality but, for the Irish, even death has something of a bright side. Stirbt man gar, nun, so ist man aller Sorgen ledig (‘If you die, well, your troubles are over’).

It also struck Böll that whenever something bad happened, humour and imagination deserted the Germans but it was right at that moment that they got going in Ireland. Mention of what he calls the twin sister of ‘It could be worse’ (i.e. ‘I shouldn’t worry’) then allows him to explain how these phrases express a fundamental recognition that it could be – and has been – bloody well worse.

und das bei einem Volk, das allen Grund hätte, weder bei Tag noch bei Nacht auch nur eine Minute ohne Sorge zu sein: vor hundert Jahren, als die große Hungersnot kam, Mißernten einige Jahre hindurch, diese große nationale Katastrophe, die nicht nur unmittelbar verheerend wirkte, sondern deren Schock sich durch die Generationen bis auf heute vererbt hat

‘…and that too from a people who would have every reason to be at most a minute without worry, day or night: a hundred years ago, when the great famine came, crop failures for several years, this great national catastrophe, that not only had an immediate devastating effect, but whose shock has been passed down through the generations to this day…’

What Böll grasped, the Irish have not lost, despite having more money and less religion than in the Fifties. Hence there has lately been the notable public response in Ireland to an appeal for financial help by Native American tribes stricken by the virus. This money is in return for a few Choctaw dollars sent over in the 1840s.

Furthermore, just before the onset of the pandemic, a public outcry of the what-the-f*ck variety forced the minority Dublin government to scrap a planned memorial service for the colonial police. It is one thing to think such thoughts but to say them in public or even commit them to speeches is rather more serious.

PS … here’s another passage from Paddy Lindsay’s memoirs (see top)

Not the Lilac Bus

Not the Lilac Bus

For anyone who has ever enjoyed the bus journey between Dublin and Dungarvan…


25 October, Friday

Carole Angier’s biography of Primo Levi is pedantic, pretentious and extremely long-winded. Given that Levi was an industrial chemist in Turin (apart from his time in Poland) the effect has been lightened thus far only by a couple of descriptions of lethal laboratory conditions and subsequent explosions. Chemistry sets do not turn up in comic strips by accident.

Heavy traffic meant I did not get home until seven, having got boarded the one-thirty in Dublin. A nightmare journey: when your skin crawls at the same speed as the bus. We had to change in Waterford onto a coach that had a hole, a rectangular hole, where the second roof hatch should have been.

Halfway to Dungarvan we then had to pull over to pick up passengers from another bus, to the end of the world in Tralee. It had broken down. When they piled in, a lot of those unfortunates had to sit and get rained on behind the makeshift curtain that had been strung up across the aisle, in front of the hole.

The book is a doorstep impediment to proper appreciation. Having wondered would he ever get to Auschwitz, I closed the Levi biography when they were in the cattle wagons. This was mostly due to the fading light on the bus with the rainy hole.

Love of the Eighties

Love of the Eighties

Back in 1980, my favourite records of the time were My Girl, Up the Junction and The River. These were about love life beyond the disco, which I’d have liked to start. A couple of years later the sound of Foreigner’s Waiting for a Girl like You was torture to anyone ritually circling the dance floor. It was as bad as at fifteen in the Town Hall, with Bobby Goldsboro in the slow set, looking at the same old projections floating across the far wall. The choice of records was limited. I’d be ritually awaiting the fate of Honey.

Anyway, 1984 was one of those rare years, a personal epoch changer. First time in France, first time on TV, some wonderful experiences with the other half – of humanity – and the first passages I liked to read over. A dawn in May was a good trip.

Last night we went to a party and I kissed her goodbye at five o’clock in the morning when it was bright and misty with the sky blood-orange in the east. She had to climb through a window and had never come home in brightness before, or so she said. She’d had to come out the same window hours earlier while I waited across the road in the shadows with the bottles and the cigarettes.

That town then had a curious mixture of farmland and housing estates surrounding the village and the college and the single great spire of the college chapel.


It was the highest point in Kildare. The sun was too young to lift the mist from red beasts in a roadside field. The fields are long gone. I’d landed on a world asleep except for a bunch of reclining cattle, breathing in the distance, over a long stone wall.

Before the sun rose we had passed the gloomy terrace that was Parsons Street. The people along here are so common, the schoolgirl whispered. That was a portent. In a June crowd I spotted her grappling with an unfamiliar chap on a stained patch of tile-carpeted floor between low, green bar seats. It was in the same shack we’d met, the night her collision was an invitation to a fight, had it come from a boy.

That place had a smell of its own on dark winter afternoons devoted to the watching of grainy videos. It smelled of cheapness. Slumped on any low, green seat in the bar, while looking up at the high TV, one knew it was only a different form of siesta.

October was the best time to wander among the tall trees and the millions of rusty leaves falling and fallen, when the playing fields turned to muck in another season of mists and mellow foolishness. Out there was a place where one would always be twenty.

It was an October night when I left the Mongoose Inn at half past eleven. It was spitting rain. On the opposite corner two attractive girls shared an umbrella. The two boys crossed over to talk to them. The four headed off. The lads remained exposed on either side of the umbrella. I was beside the one who drew me across the street. We crossed the little river, passed the smelly mill and turned left at the church.

The road bent sharply outside the church wall and sometimes an incoming car wouldn’t make it. The wall had been rebuilt many times. You could see the signs. The parish priest would first make sure the wreck got removed and then ring his man to tell him he had a job for him, again.

The four walked inside a grass margin where the council used a JCB to dump muck in heaps to prevent Travellers returning to camp there. Once past the footbridge that arched over the road to the west, we followed the lane that led away from the road. Eventually the lit-up shack came into view across open grass spaces. It was booming Relax and nobody minded the rain anymore.

The next day, wondering what next, I tidied bits of orange peel and blew ash away from my side of one of the black tables aligned in rows under fluorescent light. The canteen was largely empty as the dinner ladies cleared up. The clatter of plates alternated crisply with the scraping of beans and chips into the orange slop buckets on the trolleys. The only visible opening to the kitchen was through two black shutters behind the main counter. Behind those worked the galley slaves. I’d seen those sweating, fat women with their hair cropped short just once, when the shutters had been thrown open for a moment. Maybe there had been a fire. That was a gateway into another universe.

That June night the shack too was packed, hot, noisy, insane. I remembered the Gospel of St. Jim. This is the strangest life I’ve ever known. Nothing at the time impressed the insignificance of it all more on any participant than a familiar feeling of being too drunk and too full in a space that was too crowded but that night I calmly left them all to it. Outside it rained, rained all night on a perfect night. It was funny in some way, even then.

Yet I still wasnt quite finished with the love shack. In the morning I got drafted in to help someone break back in to look for a coat. We set off the alarms, so, rather than hang around and explain, it was time to forget the coat. We rushed out the back door and made our escape into a field over the thorny ditch. Putting a few more fields between us and there, we emerged a long way up the road the schoolgirl lived on and then doubled back into town.

As we reached the church, Ronald Reagans convoy of spooks and secret service agents passed on its way from the west. Men in dark suits and dark glasses in dark limos sped safely around the turn.

My little affairs with women are so remote from home. Sometimes I see the moonlight making the ground shine and I think of being with a girl. Then I realize I wouldn’t be looking at the ground and I wouldn’t be thinking about the beauty of the night but trying to keep my arm around her and talking rubbish to her.

  • 7-8 December 1984

The Game of the Blows

The Game of the Blows

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.

The greatest evil is physical pain.

  • St. Augustine of Hippo

In September 1978, at the age of fourteen, I sat in the first science class of a new school year. A vaguely hysterical priest was leaning against the back wall at the end of an aisle between rows of desks. Father McCarthy was new to us. The class was settling down and another boy was sent up to wipe the blackboard. It was then that I, at a back desk on that aisle, unwisely made a routine slurping sound.

A glass lens bounced off the top of the wooden desk and broke on the tiled floor. There was a stinging cut just under my right eye. Head ringing, I looked up and back in amazement. Through the empty frame on the right, I saw the cleric swaying, with his fists clenched. His mouth was hanging open. Anybody else want some, huh? Instruction began in a pin-drop silence after that. Shocked to the core after the blindside punch, I couldn’t suppress an occasional sob while he wrote furiously on the blackboard.

As I cycled home after school, this demented cleric passed in a hurry in a purple car. He was in the kitchen, all apologies to the mother when the wounded party got in. He was offering to pay for the damage to the glasses. It later transpired, of course, that he’d already told her there had been provocation, without specifying what it had been.

The blind-side fist wasn’t the limit of his arsenal by any means. Some of his science classes were held in the Physics Lab, a large classroom with long benches and some dusty bottles, tubes and burners. I was away in another world there one morning – perhaps still thinking of the cowardly, if maniacal, punch in the eye but more likely not – when called up to the front. The priest was winding a gadget with a metal spike rising out of it. The spike had a little ball on top. He told his pupil to touch the ball.

My arm took flight. The class exploded with laughter but then the chuckling padre turned to the others and said they were all going to get the shock treatment. He made them all troop up to the dynamo, one by one, and put their hands on the ball. Some hesitated but all endured this insane ritual. Back in his seat, as the pain lessened, the first victim watched the stream of grimacing boys returning to the benches, holding their sore shoulders with their good arms.

On another occasion Fr. Frankenstein manufactured some chlorine gas and passed around a canister so everyone could have a sniff. That day I was watching warily and took care not to inhale anything when the canister was passed to the back bench. Farther along that bench, though, it was a comrade’s turn to be oblivious. When it reached him, he mindlessly inhaled a gulp and put the canister away from him with a jolt. He started coughing and spluttering. His eyes were streaming. Jesus, what the f*ck is that? Welcome to the trenches.

Another sporadically violent one also hailed from West Cork. The school had a games rule that one team per match, in whichever sport, had to wear red, to assist the referees. Having to play hurling one icy day in January, I came out of the changing rooms wearing a red windcheater over a jersey. Then it transpired we were not red so the windcheater had to be taken off and left behind a goal. On a day like that, no one normal could even contemplate the thought of getting a lash of a hurley across the legs so I stood around, prodding the frozen ground with mine.

Eventually I went behind the goal to retrieve the windcheater but as I wandered back out the field the treacherous ball of course came my way. It didn’t matter which way I hit it, I was found out. Father Whelton stopped the game with a blast of his whistle and charged over like a bull, inflicting a heavy slap or two across my face for his trouble.

That was mild compared with an earlier experience with him. When I was thirteen, the avuncular pipe-smoker ran amok in Latin class but this episode was wholly premeditated. The crime was the chalk mark of a duster that he’d found on the back of his black habit. It was obvious he meant business at the start of the next class because he produced “Excalibur”, a terrible instrument consisting of several long strips of unbending thick leather, roughly sewn together. He said everyone was going to get two on each hand unless the person responsible for the chalk stigma owned up.

The culprit was too scared so it began with the boys in the front desks. It was clear this was going to be a mass execution. It took two or three innocents to get it before shame prompted the suicidal courage to own up and spare the rest. Then I got two on each hand and several on the legs and arse. Something more than sobbing resulted from that hiding. I think he doled out ten lashes in total, practically everywhere except the head.

Corporal punishment was outlawed shortly after I left school in 1982 but, even before that, there had been a despicable, prudent and of course unofficial school policy not to attempt to hit anyone aged sixteen or more. Otherwise the brutality of the time meant the smaller lads remained ‘natural’ punch bags and whipping boys to those holy terrors who were into savage punishment for trivial offences, whether out of sudden inspiration or cold calculation.