So I have a terrible confession to make, a dark secret that I’ve been hiding for the last 25+ years, one that I’ve been in denial about and tried to ignore. I’ve been fooling myself and trying to fool everyone else about it but I think it’s time I came clean and owned up.
The sad fact is that I am an Irishman. Yes, I know, the shame, the shame. I have tried to hide it since I moved from Ireland to London twenty five years ago but as Shakespeare said, the truth shall out ya and there’s no use pretending any more.
At the start it was difficult, when I first moved here I struggled with the lingo and it took me literally years to learn how to pronounce words the way Londoners do, at home we’d naturally say fur instead of fair, hur instead of hair, tar instead of tower. I practised and practised and after many years have finally learnt to say fair and hair but even now it doesn’t come naturally. And I have tried my best to stop using Irish expressions like ‘do you think I came up the Lagan in a soapy bubble?’ or ‘sure a blind man rushing past on a horse would’na notice’ or’ have you been up all night raking the streets’, perfectly legit expressions everyone uses at home but double-dutch in London.. And I have failed again and again the one big test for all Irish, we find it totally, congenitally and physically impossible to say film without sticking an extra ‘u’ in it so it becomes filum, it is our reverse shibboleth, everyone else can tell we are Irish because we can’t pronounce that word correctly.
I’ve tried to slow down my machine gun delivery, (no, I don’t get regular deliveries of machine guns – at least not these days) but we Irish naturally talk very fast and in a constant stream and at home it’s just normal but here in London no-one’s ears are attuned to it, to us Irish it sounds like everyone in London is talking really s l o w l y, like chatting with a child…very weird.
I’ve had to hide and deal with this affliction, I even signed up for Recovering Irish Anonymous but that didn’t really work out because it wasn’t really that anonymous, if your name wasn’t Shaun then it was bound to be Patrick. I would attend meeting and stand up and say ‘My names Patrick and I’m an Irishman’ and everyone would clap and offer support, we’d watch episodes of Brideshead Revisted and Downton Abbey and practise the pronunciation over and over again… like Julie Walters in Educating Rita until the chairman would say “by Jove, I think he’s got it, I think he’s got it!”
Being an Irishman does have one advantage; whenever I address a stranger I can say practically anything I like in my first sentence and I’ve done this frequently, I’ve said to folk on first meeting them “did you know your shoes are on fire?” and I know they are too busy trying to figure out where my broad accent is from to even think about what I actually said. In London by the second or third sentence they usually figure it out and then tune their ears in and I have to stop talking nonsense but when I go to America I can spend the entire holiday talking bollocks and no-one notices…they don’t think I’m speaking English at all, they think I’m speaking Gaelic constantly..
Sadly all this work on my accent (and my attitude) has been mostly in vain, yes most Londoners can now just about understand me but I only have to go downstairs at work and talk to the Irish girl who works there and instantly twenty five years of elocution lessons are undone and we ‘spake’ to each other like we never left home.
Perhaps I should just keep my gob shut and learn sign language..
When I was growing up money was tight and as 12 year kids we were always on the lookout for ways of earning a few extra pennies. One of my friends heard that the local scrap-man would give you money for old lead so we struggled down the country lane with this huge (to us) car battery and he gave us 10p (big money those days) for it. We were well chuffed and headed off to the sweet shop to spend our ill-gotten gains.
However, there was a definite shortage of old car batteries lying spare around the streets and although the local church roof had lots of lead lining neither of us wanted to risk eternal damnation for a few pennies, a couple of quid and we might have been tempted though!
Next evening I’m sitting with mum, six brothers and two sisters at dinner table when I thought I’d ask them as they are all older and might know where there’s a stash of lead and so I says “does anyone know where I can get lead?”
Sudden silence descended upon the table and everyone stared at me in disbelief and then burst out laughing.
It took me an awfully awfully long time to understand their reaction.. DOH!
(for those of you that don’t get it, lead and laid sound exactly the same in our mother tongue..read it again 🙂
During my childhood in the sixties, getting up in the middle of the night to have a pee was fraught with danger. I had the run the gauntlet of the monsters in the wardrobe and bogeymen behind the door waiting patiently to pounce on me, like most ten year olds I hadn’t figured out that they never pounced on me during my previous ten years because they didn’t exist.. probably..
However, it wasn’t so much my fear of monsters and the occasional bogeyman jumping out on me (well, not just that) that made me reluctant to go pee but because I had to creep out to the bathroom in total darkness and silence. In my bedroom Colin, Terry and Gerald also slept, apparently comatose but never-the-less wide awake in an instant if the floorboard so much as creaked, for it was considered just cause for a beating if you ever woke one of them up. I got to know that floorboard very well and was well versed in avoiding the creaking ones.
So, after waiting for so long that you felt your bladder was going to burst and your fellow siblings would drown in a sea of pee, you HAD to get up but you snook out of bed very quietly. You didn’t dare switch on a light and awaken any sleeping giant, in your bare feet you had to feel your way around all the obstacles on the floor and grope your way out of the room in pitch darkness.
As an aside, did you know that the most perfect instruments for finding Lego bricks on the floor are bare feet? And that stepping on an upturned plug is possible even more painful than childbirth? I was painfully aware of these things at age ten.
Then when you got to the landing you had to do the same manoeuvre, feeling your way with your bare feet and holding tightly onto the banister hoping all those obstacles on the stairs didn’t trip you up or even worse fall and wake up the house. Occasionally I’d be half way down the stairs when I’d hear “WHO’S UP!?” shouted from my parents bedroom and I’d say it was me going to the bathroom only to hear them cursing at me for waking them up – they thought it was a burglar – not like there was anything at all to steal as we were so poor but burglars didn’t know that.
It was only when you got downstairs and fumbled your way to the bathroom and shut the door quietly did you dare switch on the light – hoping of course there wasn’t someone else from the tribe already sitting there warming up the seat. One year I got the fright of my life as I crept down the stairs only to feel someone’s cold hand touch mine as they groped their way back up the stairs. I don’t think my heart has ever jumped so much, so all those stories my mother told me were true – there are bogeymen.. It was my older brother Colin returning to bed and I think we both filled our pants that night – Colin for the second time.
I was reminded about all this fumbling about in the dark recently; I was in the maze at Hever Castle taking false turns and going down dead ends, trying to get to a place of safety, of security, of where I was meant to be. I think we spend a lot of our lives groping our way blindly, not having a clear path and not knowing exactly where we are going to end up – in the bathroom – or on our butt at the bottom of the stairs.
I’m sure it’s like that for a lot of people. I went to school with some very bright sparks and they seemed from birth to have their lives carved out for them, you knew they would get married to someone great and that they would end up running a large corporation before too long, but for me and the vast majority it was more about trying to find a path to some kind of half decent life. And we’d grope our way around, trying to find a path and come to a dead end and have to go back and start again.
And even these days, forty years later I still have that sense, probably always have had, of gingerly stepping out with my bare feet, feeling my way blindly, stubbing my toes along the way, trying to find my way, to somewhere I’m meant to be, to somewhere I’m loved, to home sweet home..
I got this in an email a few years ago, thought it was amusing (but still had a large element of truth) and added my own slant to it.
The Rest of the World
1) You spy a woman you’d like to sleep with and think of something witty to say.
2) You go up to her. You say something witty and unique (so you think). In her mind, it just sounds really corny but if you’re cute you’ve got a chance.
3) You buy her a drink and she thinks you’re cute (or she’s just desperate) and you exchange witty banter.
4) You exchange phone numbers and say you’ll give her a call sometime.
5) That sometime must be three days. Call too early you’re too desperate. Call too late she thinks you’re not interested.
6) Three days pass and you give her a call and ask her out to coffee. Coffee first because you don’t want to spend loads on her for dinner if she turns out to be a dudd.
7) You pick her up at her place. She checks out your car and the way you dress and sees if you brought her a token present, and if you open her car door. If she only gets 2 out of 4, then she’ll end the date at coffee.
8) Coffee becomes like a job interview. So what do you do? Where you originally from? What kind of movies do you like? What do you usually do on the weekends? What kind of food do you like? If guy likes girl then he’ll use the “What kind of food do you like?” to transition into the dinner date.
9) Dinner date. More of the date interview. At this juncture, she sizes you up by checking out how much you make by the type of restaurant you take her and how you treat wait staff.
10) Dinner is over and the bill comes. Girl does the wallet reach to test out if he’s a cheapskate. If he says don’t even think about footing for the bill, then he’s good to go. If he say, ok let’s go dutch, he’s toast.
11) You drop her home and say you had a nice time and wish her goodnight. What you do at this point will make or break a second date. Do you kiss her on the lips, forehead, cheek? Do you give her a big hug or a hug and a pat on the back? Or what? If the guy really likes her and wants her on the second date then he either kisses her on the cheek or gives her a great big hug. He wants to really get laid so he kisses her on the cheeks AND gives her a great big hug.
12) At this point she becomes smitten and anxiously awaits his call.
13) You call in a week. Guy wants to make like he has a life and has no time for her but despite his busy schedule has made time for her. She becomes even more smitten so he takes her to a movie.
15) After the movie, he tries the hand reach and tries to hold her hand. He does and she blushes.
16) He invites her for a drink at his house. She says it’s getting late and she is expecting him to kiss her on the lips. He kisses her on the lips.
17) Guy has a real good chance at getting laid. He sends her a text message and reminds her that he had a really great time last night. She’s smitten and showing the text message to her co-workers and friends.
18) You can’t wait so you call her the next day and set up another date ASAP.
19) You invite her over to your house for dinner. You cook her an elaborate meal.
20) Pop a bottle of wine and make-out in the living room and then you sleep with her. You bid her goodnight and tell her you will call.
21) She never hears from you again.
1) Get yourself drunk enough to get the balls to walk up to a woman and talk to her.
2) Buy her drinks and get her drunk and make her laugh a lot.
3) You both stumble drunk to her place and end up in bed.
4) Once you finally become sober, you both realise you’re married.
Was chatting to a new woman at work the other day, she’s from Ireland too and I asked her how many brothers and sisters she has, she told me eight including herself, I beat her by one as there were nine of us not counting parents when I was growing up but then I asked the non-Irish around the table and the most was five, and for everyone else it was one or two.
Having so many brothers and sisters wasn’t all that bad, for starters the toilet seat was always warm because invariably someone had just got off it, this was particularly advantageous during the bitterly cold winters and doubly so when we only had an outside loo, doing ‘the back door trot’ during those days was a test of endurance . There was a game we played at birthday parties called musical chairs and I always won because it was just like being at home – as soon as one of your brothers or sisters got up to go somewhere you immediately sat in that nice warm space they had vacated – and this was especially true when it came to the toilet. Between six brothers, two sisters, mum, dad, assorted friends, dogs and cats, assorted friends dogs and cats..well, there really wasn’t enough space to ermmm swing a cat (as the cat can testify).
Just to make matters worse, the house was divided into the ‘sitting’ room and the ‘good’ room, we spent our evenings crammed into the sitting room watching the telly (or attempting to peer over older siblings shoulders) and arguing which of the three channels to watch (Scooby-doo on BBC1 or Wacky Races on ITV) but ‘The Good Room’ as it was referred to was strictly out of bounds, that space was sacrosanct, you only went in there when summoned, it was like being summoned into the Headmasters office at school, you knew that it meant you were in trouble and you never went there intentionally. It was exactly the same size as the sitting room but because it didn’t contain sprawling bodies, dogs, cats, piles of ironing, clothes drying in front of a smoky fire, comics, every newspaper printed since the dawn of time and assorted broken toys it seemed to be the size if the school assembly hall, I’m sure my voice echoed when in there. It was the room my parents kept good for visitors and contained a nice suite of furniture and a coffee table. My parents would have visitors in there – ok well my mother would have visitors and chinwag away in there as my dad would invariably have his visitors in the garden shed where he would smoke a pipe, whittle a bit of wood with a penknife and ‘chew the cud’ with his one or two friends.
Life at home was a bit cramped at times, as we all got older we gather up more and more friends and at times the houses did seem like it was under attack by a plague of locusts, privacy was non-existent and I have no idea how my two sisters survived with any dignity at all in that swarm of bodies. I had to share a bedroom with Colin, Terry and Gerald and it wasn’t just a bedroom; clothes, underwear, socks and just about everything else was fought over, I think the first time I wore a pair of matching socks was when I was seventeen – which was about the first time I wore ‘brand new underwear’ as I had bought them myself. You won’t understand what a treat it was to wear socks that only had the required amount of holes (one!) and underwear that hadn’t been passed down from your great grandfather and didn’t have the texture of sandpaper.
Growing up in the Northern Irish version of the Waltons did have it’s advantages, it was always easy to blame someone else (younger and more gullible) for any crimes and misdemeanour’s (of which there were many) and one did learn to fend for me’self at an early age and not to be afraid to stand my ground and fight someone much bigger than myself. This has become pattern throughout the rest of my life – as practically every boss, supervisor, manager and bully that’s ever come across me will testify much to their own chagrin. 😉
The late seventies and eighties were full of great dancing movies; Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Footloose, Flashdance, Dirty Dancing and during that time my friends and I spent many an evening standing on the edge of a crowded dance floor awkwardly shuffling our feet. I once won a dance competition; really, I was simply trying to wriggle my way through a packed dance floor (rather unsuccessfully) to get to the bar to order some drinks. The DJ stopped me as I wormed my way past and told me that I had won third prize and gave me a small bottle of scotch – which was handy as I was going to ask for a scotch when I got to the bar – result! (Obviously the competition on the floor must have been particularly dire!)
There aren’t many things I’m not a total expert at; dry walling, electrics, plumbing (both male and female), auto repairs, working jack hammers, mowing lawns, computers, knitting dollies, forking, Rubiks Cube, introspection, walking on water, making marmalade and rustling up a four course meal from a near empty fridge but there’s one area where I fall down – and when I say fall down I mean that literally because it’s dancing. I really can’t get the hang of it but it’s not like I haven’t tried. We Irish are meant to have a natural rhythm but when I try dancing it’s like some mischievous little leprechaun has tied my shoelaces together and I keep falling over. I’m like a grizzly bear that’s been shot with a tranquilliser gun, I lurch all over the place crashing into everything and everyone. I’m the Irish version of Patrick Swayze – Paddy Sways (a lot!). Agnes de Mille said that the truest expression of a people is in its dance and music, if that’s the case then we Irish are in big trouble..
When I was a teenager in the late seventies I would try to strut my funky stuff to Michael Jacksons ‘Blame It On The Boogie’ in BJ’s disco – which is funny for a number of reasons; not just because I looked like Steven Hawkings trying to escape the confines of his wheelchair but ‘boogie’ is something you only find in your handkerchief in Northern Ireland, not on the dance floor and BJ’s (seriously) was the name of the place we practised our lurching. We were so naive them days.
Readers of a certain vintage will remember Boris Yeltsin dancing in a similar style in the 90’s, it seems somewhat appropriate that it’s the bear that represents Russia because his dancing was just as bad as mine..
Actually, on second thoughts he looks like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever compared to my groovy moves.
You may think I’m exaggerating and wonder about Irish dancing (and Riverdance) but what you don’t know is that Irish dancing is a direct result of the Irish inability to dance with any style or grace at all. Irish dancing has only been around since Riverdance, I can’t find anyone who’s heard of Irish dancing before it burst on the scene. It’s not well known that Irish dancing only started only a few years before Riverdance and it’s even less well known that it was me who started it. You see, I started going to dancing lessons in the early eighties in the hope of emulating John Travolta – this time in his Grease incarnation – but after a few lessons the instructor got so fed up with me that he gave me the following instructions; I was to stop flailing my arms around like a windmill on speed (and he literally strapped my arms to my sides!) and then he told me to imagine I was standing on red hot coals.. three seconds later I had invented Irish dancing. You can thank me later Michael Flatley.
A few years ago I bravely went to do Cerok dancing with a friend in Putney and the evening started off okay, about a dozen of us newbies and the instructor trying to teach us a few basic moves; turn, swivel, twist, pull and repeat ad nauseam, ad nauseam being the correct term here because I was sick of it within minutes. However, I persevered trying to get the swing of it (groan) and foolishly imagined even with my kack-handed attempts I was starting to get the hang of it but at 8pm the hall started to fill up with the regulars and everything speeded up big time. There weren’t that many blokes there and apparently it was bad manners to refuse a dance so I spent the rest of the night being passed around from (expert) dancer to (expert) dancer. It was like being thrown to the wolves, I barely got out alive and never went back.. It was like that time I went ski-ing, three mates and I walked into a hotel disco and there were no blokes there, just a room full of woman and a Mexican wave of ‘BOYS!’ spreading across the dance floor.
So in a last ditch desperate effort to improve my dancing technique I started going to ballet lessons here in London. I really threw my heart and soul into it, even forsaking my drinking buddies to practice my technique, it was a tough job but I suppose someone had to do it. One of my friends took his video camera along to show just how much my technique has improved over the years, I hope you agree that it was worth it.
Next month I’m starting Pole Dancing lessons. How hard can it be?
So, think this is crimes and misdemeanours number 13 and it would seem I have a lot to confess to.. I’ve had a job ever since I was 11yrs old; from delivering milk before school to a paper round after school and since the age of 16 and a half when I started working full time I’ve done just about every job except barman which I kind’a regret because it’s a handy skill to have when you’re trying to establish yourself somewhere new.
Anyway, things I really need to fess up to…
When I was sixteen I spent one Christmas holiday working on the production line of the Cantrell & Cochrane factory, we made bottles and cans of lemonade and it was the second most boring job I ever did. However… the nightshift used to be fun for a couple of reasons, first of all most of the staff came into work to sleep, as a general rule if you didn’t sleep the first night then you slept the second night, it was the unofficially rule and a lot of the staff had part-time day jobs like Firemen and so when they got called out to a fire during the day then they would come in and sleep. And there was a lot of trading to and fro, if you were feeling really rough then you’d swap sleeps with someone and s/he would sleep the next night. Management didn’t know about this because the foremen did the exact same thing and management always knocked off at 5pm.
So, that was a nice little earner, on the nights when I was watching the production line I was busy and kept awake because I was doing the work of two but the next night I slept but got paid for it. Excellent. It was a nice little introduction to shift work and when I worked as a nurse there did seem to be a lot of nurses sleeping in the cupboards during the dead of the night, not for the full shift but some staff would take extended breaks and when the matron in charge came around you told her that the missing nurse ‘had only just’ went for break a few minutes ago.
The other thing that was good working for Cantrell & Cochrane was that we produced cans of own brand Coke and there was an interesting trick we could do (and did) on the line. What would happen was that the cans got filled with coke and then went into a huge machine that rammed on the aluminium tops to the cans, but the operator could slow the line down and this meant someone could make additions to the coke.. So, the party trick for most of the staff there was to top up a couple of dozen cans of coke with vodka and then once the lids went on collect them on the other side and take them home. Then next time they went to a house party they already had pre-mixed drinks. This proved particularly popular at events like concerts because the bouncers would quite happily let you in with cans of coke but would confiscate any alcohol… little did they know..
Cantrell & Cochrane was the second most boring job, the most boring job was working for Canadian Tapes in Bangor. I did that for about three months before I had to leave or slit my wrists, it was that mind numbing boring. I spend almost three months working in a lab doing mind numbingly boring repetitive work a trained monkey could do (better).
However, even here there was the opportunity to mess around. We made sellotape, day and night, the production lines never stopping – except for two weeks in the summer when all factories in Norn Iron shut down and Bangor emptied due to the mass exodus of everyone to Benidorm or Tenerife, the ‘July Fortnight’.
I, on the other hand, was too poor to go to Spain with all the other plebs so I would carry on working and that meant spending two weeks cleaning the factory.
Now, the thing to remember is that sellotape is tape covered in glue and Canadian Tapes had LOTS of glue…effing huge vats the size of houses for mixing up the glue and gradually over the months these vats would get a thick layer of glue slowly building up inside them. Eventually someone had to go into the vats with big scrappers and scrap the glue off the walls and floor of the now empty vats and that job fell to summer students and yours truly.
So, myself and half a dozen other kids would spend a few hours in these vats breathing in glue fumes. I don’t know if anyone else has tried nitrous oxide aka laughing gas but spending even a few minutes in one of these vats basically gets you high for free, in fact we actually got paid for it. This was in the days before Health & Safety became such a major concern, so for two weeks we scrapped and hacked the hardening glue off those walls and we spent practically the entire two weeks splitting our sides laughing. Seriously, it’s what I imagine it’s like to smoke really good weed, we just got the giggles from the moment we walked into the vats until we got home, someone would just burst out laughing for no reason at all and that was it, we were all practically ROFL in hysterics, I honestly haven’t laughed so much in my whole life and I think I would have done that cleaning job for no pay. I couldn’t understand why all the other factory workers didn’t want to do it, it was excellent. What I couldn’t also understand was, why didn’t the management give us gas masks, we could have cleaned those vats out in two days rather than two weeks if we could stop laughing and saved them a lot of cash..
I was told that the effects of the fumes wouldn’t have any long term effects. I’m not so sure, twenty five years later and I still burst out laughing with minimal prompting, I suspect because of my two weeks working in those vats that my brain is now just hard-coded to find humour in just about everything, my long suffering work mates despair with me 🙂
I think I’m going to have to make a new category called ‘Rain’ on this blog because I write about it so much. I was awoken at 5am this morning by the sound of rain pelting against my bedroom window. It’s kind’a ironic because one of the reasons …ok ok the main reason I left Northern Ireland was because of the awful weather and yet it seems to be following me, perhaps I have my own personal rain cloud like Jim Carry in The Truman Show or there’s a thunderstorm up there in the sky with my name on it. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to move a lot further than London to get away from my nebula horribilis.
I have a friend in Perth, Australia (Happy Australia Day BTW!) who occasionally mentions the searing heat there so I’ve been thinking what I can do to rebalance the equation, so I get six months of her sunshine and she can have six months of our rain. And then I was thinking about all those other countries that don’t get enough water but deserve it because they sit and gloat all the time about their nice weather; basically most of California really.
So I’ve decided that the solution (groan) to this imbalance is to export our rain to California and Perth. This isn’t really that difficult to do, you see, I could send a few sachets of dried water in the mail and this would redress the imbalance. When the sachets of dried water arrive then the users simply have to add water, what could be easier? For example, if I send a one litre sachet of dried water then the instructions on the side of the pack would read;
“To make one litre of water, carefully cut off the top of the sachet and mix the contents with one litre of water. It is advisable to wear waterproof clothing when undertaking this hazardous procedure.”
I’m really not sure why no one has thought of this before. But you see, I can also make much larger quantities of water, for example, I could send a sachet for 1,000,000 litres of dried water and by a miracle of modern science the packets of dried water would actually weigh exactly the same, one simply mixes the contents with 1,000,000 litres of water. Of course this miracle of science can be extended to the kitchen when making beverages but it’s important to remember that one must boil the water before making a cup of tea or coffee.
The one and only time I met my biological father was when I was 19. Well.. I say ‘met’ but that would give a false impression, he shoved me out of the way as he ran past me and out of my life, this time forever.
When you’re growing up with adoptive or long term foster parents there’s a missing bit of a jigsaw in your head, it’s there constantly and it’s like an itch and until you scratch it it’s always going to be there, popping into your consciousness at unexpected moments, like when you are having a medical and they ask about your fathers medical history. The missing jigsaw piece is; what does your biological mother and father look like, what are they like as people, what health issues have you inherited from them…what are you going to look like when their age… Not all adoptive/fostered children think like this, some are more than happy to accept the loving parents they have now but for some kids there is this need, this desire to find that last missing piece of the jigsaw and put it in it’s place.
So, when around 18 or so my twin sis and I met our biological mother Doris, we had found Doris and that was frankly shocking, not what either of us had expected but our biological father was another kettle of fish. Doris told us very very little, just that her and Sam had met in church, dated, she fell pregnant and she was sent to Belfast to stay with his cousins during all her term, she had us, we were put up for fostering and she returned back to Kilkeel and nothing more was said of her time away.
I asked her about this on her last trip over here and she said that she saw us for a few minutes but Sam stayed down in his farm in Kilkeel and didn’t want anything to do with us so never saw us. I’ve actually no idea how anyone can give away a child, let alone twins and I wouldn’t like to ever have to be in that position, I know what it’s like from the childs perspective and I’m sure it’s even harder for the mother.
So, 19yrs old and still living in Ireland. We asked the Social Services where our birth father lived and they didn’t know, on our birth certificate the fathers name is blank so one Monday sis, with John (her then boyfriend doing the driving) and I drove the 50 miles down to Kilkeel.
We knew he was called Sam Keown and gradually we had weedled out of Doris that he lived in Leitrim Hill Farm, so on the OS map it was easy to see that Leitrim Hill was just outside Kilkeel so we drove there trying to find Leitrim Farm. The hill turned out to be a bit of a mountain and there were quite a few farms on it and the start of a housing estate..
So anyway, we asked around and we found this old guy tending cattle on the hillside, we asked if he knew where Leitrim Hill Farm was and he asked why; we said we were doing some family tree research and wanted to find the Keowns. He looked at us, in that suspicious way farmers do to out-of-towners and said it was three miles up the road and first farm on the left but you don’t want to be going there, they were all ‘a bit mad’ and they might chase you off their farm…
So we thanked him and drove on and found the farm, it was very ramshackle and run down but obviously a working farm, cattle in the shed and someone out cutting silage in the fields.
John parked the car in the farmyard and said “OK.. so now what?”
Sis and I looked at each other and I said “well, I’d better go and knock the door” ..as you do.. many thoughts spun through my head, what do you say to your father whom you’ve never met.. .“surprise surprise!” “guess who?” ..”hello, you may not remember me but do you remember this broken condom?” .. Neither of us had given much thought (or even any thought) as to what to do if we met Sam and now the moment had arrived my mind was blank and my heart pounding.. so many ‘what if’s…’
So off I wandered and went to the door, there were glass panels on the door and I could vaguely see inside, looking closely I could see obvious movement inside, lights were on and a few old rusty cars in the driveway, so, completely unprepared, I took a deep breath and knocked on the door….
There was no answer……
I knocked again….
There was still no answer but I could hear people moving around……
So I opened the door, and peered in…despite it being 11am it was dark and gloomy and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see two women and two men down the hall in a kitchen. they were sitting at a table looking like they were having soup, they all looked really rough and unkempt, the two men were unshaven and had really tattered clothes on and the two woman looked like they were dressed in rags, they looked very pale and thin and had a maniac look in their eyes, it looked like a scene from Oliver Twist, not at all inviting.
And they all just carried on eating, ignoring me completely.
I wasn’t really prepared for this – in fact I wasn’t really prepared for anything and hadn’t really a clue what to do, the last thing I thought would happen would be that I was ignored, so I shouted down the hall “excuse me, I’m looking for Sam Keown, ..is he here” at which point they stared at one of the men, stared.. more like glowered at him….
So I said “excuse me, are you Sam Keown?” at which point he suddenly stood up, threw his bread down, pushed the other bloke out of the way and came running at me!
I thought FUCK! He’s going to attack me or stab me! and I stood back, he came running at me and sort of shoulder charged me, pushed me against the doorframe and went running past. I was a bit surprised (to say the least!) but he just carried on running out the door, he ran across the yard and jumped into a red beat up Datsun, started it up and drove off at speed, just narrowly missing Johns car….
I tried to regain some composure and asked the others if that was Sam Keown but they ignored my questions and shouted at me to go away, to get off their property. The remaining bloke reached up and grabbed a shotgun that was on a high shelf. I watched him snap it open to insert cartridges in it – at which point I thought it would be prudent to leave…quickly…so I went out to the car again and sis was standing there… I told her quickly what had happened and we need to leave NOW just as the other three appeared at their doorway, one with a shotgun. We left in a hurry.
So that was the only time I ever saw my biological father Sam, when he was running past, trying to knock me over…but I have that image fixed in my mind like it happened only yesterday.
So we thought “’what now?” and we left the property and drove around a bit, then I decided that I wanted to find out more so we drove to the neighbouring farm. It was a modern house and it seemed pretty normal – by Kilkeel standards anyway..
I went to the door and introduced myself and said I was looking for some information about the people next door. The old couple there were very sweet and invited us in and told us the story..
Apparently the farm had been in the Keown family for generations, they were cattle farmers but they were a bit eccentric to say the least, they didn’t have electric or running water, they never had bank accounts and paid for everything in cash, they were marched off to church every Sunday in the same suit they had all their lives, they rarely spoke to anyone and hadn’t moved on from the Victorian age, the person who knew the most about them was the local minister. Their parents – our grandparents I suppose, started off that way of life and when they died the four kids just carried on with it
There were two sisters and two brothers but the sisters ruled the roost with an iron fist, if one of the “boys” didn’t do exactly what they asked they basically got whipped with this cane, they totally dominated the boys and wouldn’t let them go out with other girls, the only time they were allowed out to socialise was to go to church (where Sam meet Doris). They lived on bread, jam and tea for every meal and they never ever bought anything new. Sam was a bit of a rebel (doh!) and when he managed (somehow!) to get Doris pregnant it was them that arranged for Doris to go live in Belfast. Apparently Sam wanted to marry Doris at the time but they were having none of it, they just beat the shit out of him.
The family were well known throughout Kilkeel as a bit (very!) eccentric, none of them ever passed a driving test but Sam used to take the cattle to the market in this beat up old lorry and it was so slow and wobbly there was no danger of him killing anyone. This was the back sticks of Ireland during the 60’s, the police never interfered in the farming community them days.
About 6 months after that little adventure, Doris sent me a letter and said – in passing mind you, that Sam had died about a month ago, I asked her when did she know, she said “Oh, the day it happened but didn’t think you would be interested..”
Then within 18 months the rest of the family died, the two sisters first and the brother – I think he was called Tom couldn’t look after himself and he was found dead after the police broke into his house. The neighbours helped the local council to clean out the house which was declared uninhabitable by the local council. In some drawers he found curtains and clothes from the 1940’s still wrapped up in paper and string, he found old gramophones and china and furniture from the previous century.
A long time later after we had discovered that they had all died it seemed they left the house and land to some distant relative and that was that, apparently the land was sold off and the book was closed but I will always remember the that day when Sam ran past me, I have it ingrained in my head and at least I know generally what I’ll look like when I am old(er) – the wild man of Borneo.. Actually, I think I look like that now. As Sam ran past me I made a mental note of certain things, his height, his weight and was he bald, I don’t have his height or weight, I’m taller and slimmer but I definitely have his hair, absolutely.
I tackled Doris about Sam years later and she would never talk about him, she just wanted that episode in her life to disappear but her neighbours, the McGregor’s were a bit more forthcoming. When she fell pregnant with us and went to Belfast it was common knowledge what was going on and when she came back it just wasn’t talked about – to her face but as it is in country towns everybody knew. It seems that about when we were 10 years old, Doris’s dad died and she thought she might get back together with Sam, get married and “bring us together in one big happy family”. Of course by this time Sam was long off the scene and basically told her to get lost but I do have a memory of her coming to visit us at that time so maybe that was a very close call for sis and me, life with the Johnston’s was awful but infinity infinitely better than living with Doris, out in the sticks with no electricity, running water, rat infested cottage, no radio even and constant reading of the bible every day. It’s interesting just how everything is a matter of perspective, we were desperately unhappy with the Johnstons but it was heaven compared to the alternative.
I’ve talked to Doris more these last few years about Sam and slowly she has told me more, it’s important to know these things because Doris won’t be around forever and the opportunities to find out about my past is limited. However, some things you don’t really want to hear, one thing in particular was that Sam was a bit of a shit, he wasn’t really that nice a person and the real reason why Doris didn’t marry him was because she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a shit, so it was her decision not to marry Sam but to have us put up for long term fostering.
In life we have examples of how to be but we also have examples of how not to be, the astute can take on-board the negative examples and know that they have no excuses now; they can’t misbehave because they have excellent examples of how not to be. There’s a Greek expression, “Na einai kalitero anthropo apo ton patera tou” which roughly translates as “Be a better man than your father”. I fully intend to be.
Many years ago I watched a documentary on the telly about meerkats in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. They would go off in little groups foraging for food and at the end of the day they would come back to the main nest and the groups would be all over each other, sniffing, greeting and getting reacquainted again and the social structure would be re-established.
I was reminded of the meerkats yesterday; I was at a funeral and once we left the graveside and came back to the convent where the reception was being held I witnessed much the same behaviour that the meerkats did. There was a great coming together of the extended family and close friends and everyone seemed to know absolutely everyone else, there was much sniffing, touching and even the pecking of cheeks and I could see the bonds between each member being renewed and strengthened.. And then I noticed something else, the matriarch of the clan was gone and I could see the younger females all subtly moving up the ladder one step, taking over roles and jostling/manoeuvring into different positions of authority within the extended social circle. There were an equal number of men there but they all seemed oblivious to this, perhaps it’s because I’m an outsider and I can step back and observe, I have no vested interest who becomes the next matriarch.
There’s many similarities between weddings and funerals, for example, it’s really only on hatch’em, match’em, depatch’em occasions that I get to wear a suit these days. Funerals are aberrations as far as I can tell, funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living, the dead are past caring. We have this idea of the funeral being focused solely on the one who’s passed away, with moving tribute’s but that’s not what I witnessed yesterday, yes, the church service was solemn (actually it was dreadfully boring and full of religious clichés that I doubt even the priest believed) but as soon as everyone got into the reception then it was like “ok, that’s that out’a the way, now to chinwag with Arthur, I haven’t seen him for years..”. Just like a wedding really. It reminds me of the old joke about Irish weddings and funerals; what’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral? There’s one less drunk at the Irish funeral…and there’s many a truth told in jest, I’ve been to funerals before where fights have started, of course this was in Ireland and that’s pretty bog stand behaviour. And it’s no wonder, even the word ‘funeral’ starts with those other three favourite letters of mine ‘fun’ and we Irish take this attitude of fun to our hearts and raise our glasses to the dearly departed, it’s a celebration of life, not a mournful death but I’m always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy at a funeral and I realise I’m actually listening to it.
And there’s something else that both funerals and wedding have in common, we all get dressed up and put on our best clothes and some of us even get invites but it’s important to read the dress code instructions carefully, ‘somber’ while only 2 letters apart from ‘sombrero’ is a world apart in tone. Apparently.
And one more similarity, when I was much much younger I used to go the wedding and the old dolls would poke me in the chest like witches and cackle “You’re next!” but now I’m 50 I go to funerals and poke them in the chest and cackle “You’re next!” Is that evil of me? Am I going to Hell? Too effing right I’m going to Hell, care to join me?