I do not remember the color of the walls,
or whether windows were squared or arched as light gained entry.
I cannot recall the height the ceilings reached,
but I remember feeling very, very small.
I see that place, always, on a grey day in winter,
when naked sentries, aging walnut trees, tower and spill,
the grounds haphazardly attired with twigs and ice and remnants of decay.
The architecture arrests,
reaches towards the skies, billows towards the city,
soiled white stucco, sandstone, a fortress,
here in this park of urban land:
a haven for the immigrants,
the wanderers, the homesick,
the ones who come and linger as though they arrive from some other time and world.
And for the likes of me,
the small and watchful child of such as these.
Though I tread lightly through these halls which echo
with a voice I cannot speak,
a tongue I do not know,
songs I may have heard, but with studied intent, have not been taught.
I am like a shadow.
Or a figment.
This place is like a dream sometimes.
When I stand aside the squares of parquet that form the dance floor,
smell the powder and the perfume and the pomade upon the heavy hair,
I hear the swish of the wide, swinging skirts, stiff silk swaying,
keeping time with the scratch of shirts, the slide of shoes,the faint tingle of jewels,
a underbeat to the third-rate band.
I see the faces, hot, red, still lined with worry,
though eyes are closed and lips control the smile;
Bodies, stiff and proper and respectful:
I see a swell of pride –
It courses through the sea of bodies, crammed together, so formal on that floor,
like a cold stiff wind, it invigorates, it braces.
I watch love, congealed and messy,
not a pink froth cotton confection tied with bows.
Not just age and generation,
not merely language and the style of speech,
more than jewels that sparkle,
or a song list canon
or deportment –
I stand apart, because I am
Not truly one of them at all.
Big Bad Wolves and outsized monsters stayed away from my childhood nightmares. Instead, the gold streaked waters I played in by day transmuted into a murderous tidal wave and the ginger puppy from the house next store behaved as a sharp toothed executioner. Still, a few deep breaths, re-orientation and peaceful slumber could be attained.
The fear and dread that lingered I encountered in the light of day. Just briefly, the hateful screed of Ian Paisley accosted, until my parents, too late aware, ruffled, banished me to some safe spot. There the demon’s words, so sinister and malign, fertilized the seed of fear already in the Philadelphia air for those of color. Hate: dangerous new form of speech, tactile, palpable in those times. Mephistopheles had spoken.
To grow, to hope, to change. A narrative available to the most undeserving.
And so, Paisley died a man saluted for a change of heart. Cameras captured images: his hands outstretched and grasping the hands of those he had zealously christened “vermin”- their hands now undistinguishable from his own.
So long as his was the titular “First” seat in government, above the “bloodthirsty monsters,” his colossal ego was soothed, his vanity sated. In the waning years of his turbulent public pursuits, he fashioned a more seemly costume. Though who can judge his “madness, his mission?”
And a big, venomous voice . So many hearts long ago stopped beating in the conflagration of petrol bombs. More pump blood still through weary veins of bodies mutilated by the Troubles. And watch those impassive, static hearts maimed with the words bellowed long ago to a believing mind, passed down to child, then to the grandchild, growing in the quartered streets still looking for the halcyon days long promised…
True, better that the thunder of his voice ceased its eternal shaming, vicious speech. True, that voice awakened the righteous that those condemned at dawn for faith or color or choice of loving partner could be freed from hate and vitriol come sundown should the zealots by mere happenstance decree some new prey more worthy of pursuit. True, a hand stretched out in peace, however late, no longer fells or wounds those in its path.
But Never, Never, Never call that man a peacemaker.
My father had lived half his life before emigrating permanently, making the United States his home. Almost forty, though no longer adorned with whatever resilience and sang-froid youth had bestowed, he engaged life in America with a spirit of hope which mystifies still, these decades after he has gone.
My mind summons our first house, brick, box-like, postage-stamp cubicle play yard, neighbor atop neighbor. Though he would, in time, acquire grander, this first house, just outside the city limits, announced achievement, proclaimed him resident in that new land.
Sun shivering on sliver buttons and badges as men, red-faced and scowling in hot blue uniforms access the glass front door. Sneering voices forbid Sunday radio music the neighbors will not allow. The child is unseen, sweltering shame.
Sadness in the sun-aged face, wary as the local journalist photographs his shining Chevrolet sedan. Pride, too true, it seems, a deadly sin. Thick blue bruise of paint spewed on the hood, bled down the side. No witnesses, no crime, the police had said.
The sharp shock and sting of the stone that struck the head of the little girl walking home alone. Hateful slur followed but not the boys who propel the now familiar call: “Go back where you came from, Go back there! We don’t want your kind here!”
I will never forget, near ecstasy on my father’s face the night a man, exuding youth and hope, was elected President of the United States: that man who looked like him and spoke like him, who was not afraid to say he actually was like him, he worshiped like my father. At times, it seemed to me, my father worshiped him.
Not much later, my father renounced the citizenship of the beloved land of his birth; he identified as a full American along with my older sister, who also had been born abroad. The house he shared with my mother was filled with the young president’s photograph; his recorded speeches were played instead of the radio on Sunday afternoon, and when he was assassinated, a huge full-color bust portrait hung in their home, displacing the Pope, for the rest of their joint lives.
My parents were Irish immigrants.
The taunt was “Shanty Irish.”
The President was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
It is painful to contemplate children in oven-like buses, confused and frightened, as adults, sometimes with costumes, sometimes with signs, sometimes with weapons, hurl insults and slurs and even rocks or glass and froth with rage.
When I tell my immigration story, today, the reaction, largely, is to question: how did my parents find such a bizarre pocket of anti-Irish feeling to settle? We no longer recognize ourselves in that tale. We have forgotten the vitriol of the 1960 presidential campaign, the genuine anti-Catholic prejudice Kennedy faced down. The lingering bigotry the Irish confronted in 1960 seems impossible: “No Irish Need Apply ” signs not yet quaint antiques for sale in the United States as ” No Irish, No Coloured, No Dogs” in Britain.
But the accommodation of forgetting cannot erase the dark reality of history.
Immigration policy is complex and important.It has become a throw away truism to state “we are a nation of immigrants.”
We serve ourselves well to recall that the children we revile today we may describe as “the bedrock of our society” tomorrow: as integrated and indispensable as though they always “belonged.”
Sometimes, when deer and rabbit, raccoon and woodchuck recede within the generous mantilla of summer, and warbler and cicada celebrate the close of another day, the light that falls from that searing scarlet scalds my heart with the sadness of missing you, who first presented this array.
Scorch of fire as puckered lips graze the coffin; seething tears trickling onto steel; staggering, as strains of “Danny Boy” levitate above you (a tune you did not call an Irish air).
In the end, too true: arid canon of cult, not creed, coheres the torpid keeners corroding your wonder.
Eyes reach no focus, colors run together; the stranger with fraternal blood, too cold, or suffocated in the sun, speaks. That Holy Man, the turnkey, postures with your offspring jailers; swelter, perspire, steadfast mien of heartbreak, every one.
The burned flesh on my heart, throbs and blisters. Pain pulsates with each steady beat. We love, we learn, we are often less than worthy. The arabesque we make, so rarely fine.
There is something lonely about an early spring Sunday in Pennsylvania at sunset. The gold and orange clouds betray the stubborn chill which returns unwelcome by the startling crocuses which also arrive, timely as ever and against all odds. The wind sweeps noisily down the lane through naked trees, some few still bearing shreds of a once resplendent autumn.
If I attempt the poetic tonight, it is because I return from another afternoon at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York , where invariably, I understand anew the complexity, magnificence, sorrow, monstrousness, achievement and loss of my ancestry. After a performance, I easily access the melancholy so much a part of the rhythm of Irish song, dance, and theatre.
Transport, Book by Thomas Keneally, Music and Lyrics by Larry Kiran, recalls the voyage of a British prisoner transport ship in 1838 carrying female “felons” from Cork to Sydney. Focusing on four women who have been convicted of “crimes” ranging in seriousness from stealing butter to participating in a failed revolution, the historical musical drama weaves together threads of Irish history. Themes of the abuse of power by the British and Roman Catholic Church authorities, the lack of solidarity among the Irish to the cause of freedom, the role of religion as a force for social disintegration and conflict in Irish communities and the ageless echoes of exile in the Irish psyche surface, if only briefly, as the storied ship makes its inconceivable passage . One woman cannot leave behind her “raging heart” which, she is counseled by the banished priest who is also on board, she must quell into “submission” as the Lord “submitted.” Another female “felon” finds love onboard in the arms of a protestant surgeon who is unaccountably, and rather incredulously, willing to face the social ostracism which will be the “price of love.” Equally inexplicably is an avowed antipapist’s conversion to tolerance when her shipmates demonstrate compassion at a time of incalculable loss.
Traditional Irish music excels at the ballad which can touch the heart of stone. No such artistry is found in this show. We understand the women are pained to leave their homeland and loved ones, but more for what we are told than for what the music or acting portray. We believe the ship is a cruel and dangerous place, but, again, this is merely impressionistic in this show. Rich stories, characters, themes are touched upon in Transport but the touch is lighter than its promise.
Still, one is inevitably stirred and made thoughtful at a soaring paraphrase of “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, even if the tune is not memorable. Those words, paraphrased, recycled, repeated, as other precious, timeless Yeats’ phrases and images are woven sparingly but vividly through the production bring it to life when it feels as if it is finally failing. Through these phrases, I find myself again beguiled, searching to affirm what it is that makes me Irish. The afternoon theatre has offered more than entertainment but less than enlightenment. I find myself reciting Yeats once more:
Out of Ireland have we come
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start,
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.
(William Butler Yeats, Remorse for Intemperate Speech.)
As of January 24, 2014, the fourth homeless person this year succumbed to frigid cold in Philadelphia. John Smulligan Jr would have turned 31 today, according to an Inquirer, Philly.com article.He was a graduate of New York University, down on his luck after tragedy and illness entered his life. Proof, one might say, that unspeakable things might happen to any one of us given the wrong eventualities in life.
Would that Mr. Smulligan’s tragic fate were an isolated event. This year (still in its first days) in the U.S. alone, the media brims with reportage of the ravages of homelessness and hunger, unemployment and illness. Often these reports rest in glossy magazines above heart wrenching photographs of people aside glistening images of sumptuous foods, romantic seascapes or superfluous products.
As has been said so often one must fear it will soon become the stuff of another political cliché without result, we indeed live in two economic realities. All our cities and towns boast well landscaped, expertly tended homes with well designed vistas, quaint shops and efficient services. Often merely yards apart, decay and disinterest ruminate through the structures and institutions which serve the people who are of lesser financial means and political power.
The central myth which permits coexistence of these two realities is actually quite simple: the belief that unforseen fortunate things might happen to any one of us given the right eventualities in life.
Perhaps, this myth is the fantasy which fuels the embrace by so many of the television series “Downton Abbey”
A costume-period soap opera, with a glacial and weak narrative,Downton has, nonetheless, inspired all things Downton, from mugs and tee-shirts, tea sets and jams to museum shows and travel tours. This is, of course, in addition to the series garnering a mass audience and much media attention. While at first this strikes one as somewhat curious, upon reflection, this might be entirely proper in our economic and political climate. Downton is, quite simply, at the heart, a glittering and lavish ode to the capitalist myths and mantras held most dear in our culture.
In the current season, the grand English estate has survived the unspeakable horrors of World War I. Not unscathed has the family remained. Loss of life, health and sanity touched even the Grantham family and fellow gentry. The gruesome violence was a great leveler at the stage in warfare when those in battles included the grand as well as more of the ordinary. Nor did the health hazards of modernization, the influenza outbreak, such as, leave the family without scars. Indeed, even the darker risks arising from the hallmarks of modernization (the Titanic, the motor car) deeply wounded the family.
Still, the Granthams who survive remain largely fixed in their traditional world view. Unquestioning, they are dressed and undressed, pampered and served by a battalion of staff who live below the stairs in unadorned quarters without privacy or the dignity of being addressed, with rare exception, by other than a family name. Intimate family matters are discussed in front of household staff as though no other human being were present. Ladies lounge in luxury eating full breakfasts in silken robes in rooms filled with sunlight and crackling fires. As the staff, dressed in subdued colors, toil and serve, the aristocrats daily don formal dress, women wearing fashionable brilliant hues and elbow length gloves. This detailed ritual is precisely executed for the simple purpose that a family may sit around a dining table together and eat a meal.
Of course, among the staff, there is never harmony. The man in charge, though sometimes evidencing wisdom above his station and a human heart, largely growls at the personnel to remind them that they are inferior. Footmen compete with each other for the affection of kitchen maids and scuttle each other’s confidence. Women fear electrical appliances beyond reason. Servants evidence ignorance of city life, ambition, morality. The viewer is invited to accept that it is unfortunate for the staff that modern times will eliminate traditional service jobs. We are asked to believe that a man who does not immediately accept a demotion in a service position is foolhardy indeed.
Most significantly, the gentry at and around Downton still cling to the Colonial power of England. Despite the fact that a son-in-law is a former Irish Republican, within a few short years, he is no longer at home in the land of his birth. Such must be the seductiveness of the life of the Upper Classes and the lure of the Colonial Power that a man recently willing to sacrifice his life for his country now doesn’t even take his daughter home to visit the country of his birth. Other colonial natives, from India, Australia, Singapore and the African colonies, such as, are rarely seen. A black jazz musician is celebrated when he remains appropriately in the background. Yet when seen by the gentry as exceeding his “place” and dancing with a young, white Lady, he is quickly removed from her company. The distaste and censure are shared by all. Not even the turncoat Irish Republican experiences class solidarity with the talented man.
It is not that the Grathams and their kind are immune to the moral duty to give unto to others. The commoner mother of the late son-in-law of the Earl is the Conscience of the family. She indefatigably promotes the welfare of the villagers in various health initiatives and in efforts of individual patronage. But what is most telling, for the Granthams: one must be secretive about generosity.
When a tenant who has been “lawfully” evicted seeks reinstatement, the Earl smiles approvingly at the bold suggestion of the tenant that the families had worked the land in question for generations “in partnership.” (A suggestion which undoubtedly, five years earlier would have evoked the violent ire of a true Irish Republican who would have witnessed or inherited countless tales of the ransacking and destruction of many tenant homes.) With a sense of true generosity, the Lord arranges for the tenant to resume the farm by himself making a loan. But no one is to know! Of course, the tale requires that family members discover the fact of the Earl’s good heart. Alas, decorum requires that this too remain a secret. Indeed, the good Earl should not be shamed with the fact that others have discovered his empathy and generosity.
In the world of 1920’s England, the ruling class of many centuries, exhausted and traumatized as was the western world by the horror of World War I, perceived an uncertain future. The upper classes sought to consolidate their wealth. For some less privileged, even some of the working class, modern times brought new opportunities. Most, however, were left not able to reach the fabulous riches of their day.
Today, we hear calls of the socially aware, of the politicians, in the State of the Union, even, to beware income inequality. We turn away in mass numbers to enter the world of the fabulously if fictional rich. If only we stay mindful that the ultimate fiction is the fantasy that is pedaled: the chauffeur does not really become a member of the family and the frog will never become a prince.