The brain can be very selective in what it cares to store or discard from the deep pool of murky memories that make up each of our lives. I watched those kinds of dreamscapes slipping away from my father until there was nothing left but his dementia and the walls of his nursing-home room…and me left to have a conversation only with myself…..
We tend to collect the good stories and forget all the bad ones. That’s just the way humans are.
While I can still be selective and manage to remember ,there are a few notes that float to the surface from my childhood like flotsam released haphazardly from a broken chest beneath a crushing ocean of time. I have to admit , there are not that many that I can reach out and catch and that much of my mental souvenirs are a tatterdemalion collection of scraps….shot full of holes. …but there are a few.
One is from 1963.
I would have been eleven then , going by the month of that particular year. The reason I really remember is because it was a very unique weekend .It was the first time my father and his younger brother, my uncle, took me to Dublin for the weekend . My father never learned to drive in his life but my uncle,much younger than him, who would have been thirty years of age at the time , loved his new Ford Popular and delighted in getting away for the weekend to drive the twisting roads of Ireland. Was it “Smoke Gray” or “Lichen Green”? …I have no idea what colour that car was, over fifty years later . it just seemed more exotic than most of those other old -fashioned cars which seemed to be relentlessly black or brown in colour. It’s funny how memory worls. .This was a Big Adventure for a young Northern lad .Sure, there’d been trips to the seaside before , weaving along at a top speed of about forty miles per hour on the weaving , pot-holed backroads. This trip was a “men only” affair. Those adventures usually started early in the day and the return was very late in the night’s darkness.There were always the necessary stops at some roadside pub for beer and sandwiches…they always seemed to be ham and mustard …and in my case, the wonderful orange minerals that pubs uniquely sold .Served up in a gleaming, dewy, tall glass, it tasted like nothing else available in the shops back then. It was a step up from the little tins of “Creamola Foam” , alright .It was even better than the “Suki” Orange drink that the milkman sometimes brought along with the shiny -topped milk bottles left on the morning doorstep . My father and uncle always said that the Guinness tasted better “Down South” ,too. At that time I had no way to judge .It smelled bloody awful and I couldn’t then imagine how anyone could enjoy the stuff.I remember gagging when I sniffed one of my father’s stout bottles at home. It smelt so rancid , I wondered how anyone could drink the funking stuff.
Anyway , this trip was something novel and special.We were off for a weekend in Dublin, a mythical place that I’d never seen before.We were to visit the Dublin Zoo and see the Guinness toucans , famous from the huge advertising billboards with their “Guinness is Good For You” signage and , of course, the famous Esso tiger. …Wow ! the Esso tiger fascinated me .”Blue, blue, ….Esso blue ” went the advert on television . I used to be sent with the uniquely spouted Esso -can for the oil- heater in the kitchen.The kitchen would have been freezing in winter without that oil- heater .Mr Sherry would dispense paraffin -oil at the back of his shop across the road as he dandered about with a cigarette clamped between his teeth with its impossibly long and curved teat of ash hanging there, defying gravity .The “Esso” tiger turned out to be a massive beast ,well beyond my expectations… I hadn’t expected the sheer bulk or the huge size of the big cat, which inflated in my imagination seemed to be as big and as broad as a bull. He obviously enjoyed his dinner, I thought or else he wasn’t getting much exercise because he appeared massive. This monster was a cat? Whether or not he was really as big as that or a conflation of an eleven -year old’s imagination , I have no idea, but he remains a mythical beast to me and I remember being so impressed that I wrote about him in my next school essay. Even our lunch at the restaurant at the Dublin Zoo is fondly remembered. It was a treat and a novelty to eat out anywhere ,back then.
Before we got to Dublin , there were a few educational detours of course. We stopped off to view the grisly head of Saint Oliver Plunket which was displayed as some sort of unholy relic in Drogheda. Taken in the raw , this was something of an horrific display of man’s inhumanity to man , a reminder of our flesh and blood animalistic origins and our inherent capacity for atavistic barbarous violence to each other .Saint Oliver Plunkett, who lived from 1st November 1625 to 1st July 1681) was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland who was the last victim of the “Popish Plot”. He was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975. He became the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years.He’d been hanged, drawn and quartered in the manner of “Braveheart” , (if you’ve seen the uncensored version of Mel Gibson’s ode to Scottish and English chicanery and two-timing blood-letting), at Tyburn on 1 July 1681 at the age of 55. He had been the last Roman Catholic martyr to die in England. Apparently his body had been first buried in two tin boxes, alongside another five Jesuits who had died previously.They were all laid to rest in the courtyard of “St Giles in the Fields” Church. Then in 1683 the remains were dug up and moved to the Benedictine monastery at Lamspringe, near Hildesheim in Germany.
The head was brought to Rome, and from there to Armagh, and eventually to Drogheda where since 29th of June 1921 it had been displayed in a sort of tabernacle in Saint Peter’s Church. What remained of the body after all this butchery, was eventually brought to Downside Abbey in England, and that is where it still remains,although some parts are at Lamspringe. A few bones were brought to Ireland in May 1975, while others remain scattered throughout England, France, Germany, the United States, and Australia.
You have to admit that it is the most extraordinary tale of a life and a death befitting a horror story and it says as much about man’s ruthless nature and appetite for gore and terror as anything else. For me , it was a small part of my education in what it means to be a man and the legacy that we all had been left here in Ireland.
Of course, a young boy ‘s curiousity for the macabre and the grotesque took full flight. As I stared at the pickled head in the glass case , I was no better than those thrill-seekers who ogled the heads on spikes at the Tower of London, or the rubberneckers who queued at Barnum and Bailey tent shows to gaze at” The Tattooed Lady”, “the Three-Legged Man”, “The Fiji Mermaid” or “The Two- Headed Lady”.
On the other hand what really stuck in my memory down through all those years was the landlady’s little dog. That little dog was a born -entertainer. As a testament to how training , and indoctrination can work, in a Jesuitical sort of way, it has some parallels with the aforementioned episode. The landlady took a very special pride in how well-trained and intelligent her little dog was. We chatted with her late that evening in her kitchen. When she proffered a biscuit for the tongue-wagging pooch , and exclaimed..”This is the Queen’s biscuit”, the little canine would studiously ignore her cajoling entreaties and turn away as though offended right -royally himself.When she changed tack and pleaded and inveigled that is was in fact not the British Sovereign’s wafer at all, but was instead “Dev’s biscuit”, the little brute all but bit off her fingers in pursuit of this now newly -annointed morsel. I was vaguely aware at that age who the mighty De Valera was , although at the time his story and image was still one one of untainted heroism in the public mind.As this incident happened some ten years before his death , I was not to know then the details of how his political creed had actually evolved from the militant republicanism of Sinn Fein to a social and cultural conservatism which became his legacy within his lifetime.
I only had eyes for the little trickster dog and it was he who stayed in my mind down through the years. The other reason is that the Great Train Robbery had happened just days before and all the news seemed to centre on that one event in August 1963.Had it been a few months later , JFK’s death in Dallas would have swamped that week’s news, but that was yet to come.
In the meantime, Ronnie Biggs and his gang were the flavour of that particular month and their mail-train robbery was the topic on everyone’s lips.