Friday 31 December 2010


Here I am with Leonardo Sciascia in his home town of Racalmuto, near Agrigento, Sicily. Not very well known in English, Sciascia wrote novels exposing the Mafia and their infiltration of politics and police in Sicily and Italy. His most famous novel is 'Il Giorno della Civetta' (The Day of the Owl). He also wrote political commentary, plays and poetry.

And here is a rather cubist view of Caltanisetta, taken from Enna, the Sicilian capital.

Enna is located high on a mountaintop almost in the exact center of Sicily, affording a panoramic view overlooking the scenic valleys of Sicily's rugged interior. 
Caltanisetta is a city located on the western interior of Sicily, capital of the province of Caltanissetta. It lies in an area of rolling hills with small villages and towns, crossed by the river Salso.


A strange fact: on my birth certificate my second Christian name is 'Drananet'; and when I went to the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths to get a copy of the certificate for the rector of the boarding school, the woman at the counter told me that she could not alter 'Drananet' to 'Francis', which it really was, which it was intended by my parents to be. She could not alter Drananet to Francis because the people in the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths had to go by what was entered in the church register. Apparently, what the distracted parish priest of our town had scribbled for my second forename looked more like Drananet than anything else. Therefore my name on any birth certificate issued by the Registry would have to be Ciaran Drananet O'Driscoll - unless I lodged an appeal, which would take about 5,000 years to conclude. 
And so, it appeared to have been decreed by fate that I was a Drananet, which sounded like some kind of minor monster: a small dragon (dragonet) or a lesser version of Count Draco, of Dracula (draconet, draculet), who was born to breathe fire or suck blood if the conditions were right; which they never were, of course, and so I had to be content with sucking my own blood or burning myself up inside.

From memoir in progress, 'The Hungarian for Cheese' © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010

Thursday 30 December 2010


The damned don't seem to be having such a good time in this frieze from the facade of the Duomo in Orvieto. Ha ha lads, ye did the dirty on yere fellow human beings in life and now look at ye. And good enough for ye. Fuppin' Backstards!

On the other hand, Chagall's window in Chichester Cathedral is a scene full of joy and joyful beings. Enjoy yereselves there, lads! The party just goes on and on, and there's no such thing as gettin' bored.

Tuesday 28 December 2010


Our son Conor and my wife Margaret outside our faux Berber tent.

I remember a book set in Morocco which I read in boarding school: 'The Strange Land' by Hammond Innes. Having finally visited Morocco fifty years later (setting my foot on the African continent for the first time), I can vouch for the accuracy of that title, at least as far as my own first impressions were concerned. Maybe my perceptions were heightened because I was recovering from a fever and gastric flu. In the above photograph, taken at the ruins of Fort Bou-Jerif, I seem to be on the mend, though I still felt shaky at the time. The best night's sleep I have had for ages was in that Berber tent. It was strangely comforting to be in a strange land, in the middle of a wilderness, in a tent that flapped from top to bottom in the morning wind as I woke.


Scene at Fort Bou-Jerif, ruins of a French Foreign Legion stronghold (left) where nasty things were done to Berbers and lots of wine was drunk by the officers.

Sunday 26 December 2010


One day in December 1959, just before the Christmas holidays, I was summoned by the rector of my boarding school, to be told that my father had arrived to take me to visit his mother, who was dying. I had been called out of geography class, and a few hours later I learned the geography of my dying grandmother, which was that of a continental shelf, with a plentiful supply of fish in its waters. Her bed in the hospital ward was an island and around it lapped the ocean with its abundance of fish. 'Look, look. Do you see the fish flapping over there?' she said to her grandson, just before the end.
But her grandson's geography was mica, quartz, and other substances that glittered in rocks. It was cast-iron, stainless steel, copper plating, Shanks' vitreous china, asbestos, formica, and other products of industrial countries rich in colonies and/or mineral resources. He was a foundry, a smelting works producing durable surfaces that kept everything out. He was impregnable and glittered. He was a robot, a being of mechanical intelligence with complicated wiring inside, a Frankenstein in whom the beginnings of an emotional life sizzled and fizzled and frizzled in a repeated series of short-circuits. 
         In other words, he was a teenager, the kind of creature which had only recently been heard of, a mild self-injurious sort of mythical monster, incredibly sullen and responding positively only to pop songs, which seemed to have some way of slipping through the defences and feed with hope the heart that languished neglected in some corner of the complicated ironworks and power stations of its own creation.
         Got no bags and baggage to slow me down,
         I'm a-travellin' light 'cause my feet ain't touchin' the ground.
         Travellin' light, travellin' li-ight,
         Well, I just can't wait to be with... my baby tonight.
         I remember looking out the window of a bed-and-breakfast in the village of my grandmother, gazing out on the dark winter street, the rain glistening under the lamps, while my father was preparing, at a mirror somewhere in the room behind me, to attend the removal. It had come to that. My kind old Granny was dead, and I did not feel any emotion of loss; instead the words of Cliff Richard's song came to me. They came to my mind as light into darkness, as future promise. I was sixteen now, and soon it would all be over, I would be free to do as I liked. Soon I would be free to be with my Baby Tonight.
         Meanwhile, a bed and breakfast was a nice kind of place to be staying for a night, better than the college or home. A bed and breakfast was the kind of place to which you might take your Baby. You would have to make up false names, of course, and pretend to be married. The landlady would give you a funny look, because you were so young. Some landladies, Scanlon had told me, even asked to see a marriage cert before letting you have a room. Scanlon had also told me that very young couples could get a quick marriage in a place in Scotland called Gretna Green.
         I felt a surge of sorrow the following day, at the funeral. I remembered it a few years later in one of my first pieces of modernist free verse:
My grandmother died with visions of flapping fish
In an ironic city hospital with notices requesting silence,
And was buried in the old Schull graveyard, this side of the ruins,
To the grating of emotion through horror, overlooking chopped winter 
         'Ironic' was transferred epithet, because I thought it was a really strange aspect of the hospital to have notices requesting silence in a ward of old people like my grandmother, where the first thing that struck anybody who entered was the pre-death silence, which absorbed into its vast dome the occasional ramblings of the patients. 
         The 'winter waves' serve to confirm for me a vague memory of a grey day, an icy wind from the sea, when the teenager I was stood at the graveside of his loved grandmother, and hardly knew what to feel, or how.

From memoir in progress, 'The Hungarian for Cheese', © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010

Saturday 25 December 2010


Christmas morning: the trees on the other side of our garden wall.

Merry Christmas, every one.

The Lord bless you, and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.
(Prayer of St Francis, from the Book of Numbers)

Wednesday 22 December 2010


On the road from Amtoudi, we overtook a stray camel. Actually a dromedary, as our guide corrected. In Amtoudi (a Palm Valley with ancient fortresses) we were supposed to ride donkeys up to the Kasbah on a path teetering on the verge of a 'fall frightful', but none of us were up to it. My donkey was skittish and unpredictable, and the youth holding the reins was already wheezing after about a kilometer of ascent around the backs of village houses, so I decided not to bring my life to an end just yet, got off the donkey and walked back.
Below is a view of the rock on whose summit stands the Kasbah (the teetering path can't be seen). People would bring their treasured possessions to the Kasbah in times of danger. It also served as a granary.

To quote from a group who actually rode the donkeys to the top: 'The climb up the mountain is slightly scaring for all of us who seldom find ourselves on muleback. With a trail only 20-30 cm wide, and a fall high enough to smash your head, you soon find yourself repeating: "the mule and the owner does this thing every day, so they know what to do"'. 
Well, God bless their trust, say I!

Tuesday 21 December 2010



Went to Morocco last week with my wife and son to escape the cold. Took a trip to Fort Bou-Jerif on the edge of the Sahara. Plenty of mosquito bites, but well worth it.
More images anon.

Tuesday 7 December 2010


Maybe teenagers get to the point when they don't care about rules and can't help breaking them, because so much is happening inside them, the rush of hormones, the great leap forward of the life-force and so on. Here I am, in the final term of my last year as a junior, walking around the top plot at evening recreation, in conversation with two seniors by the names of Scanlon and Cranford, and we are not discussing the weather.
    I have a list of undiscovered transgressions behind me, despite the fact that I am vice-prefect of the junior dormitory, a position of responsibility which was meant to prepare me for more strenuous duties in the coming years. Miraculously, I am still in the dean's good books, having managed during the year to evade him in his game of cat-and-mouse. But I have also become popular among the boys, because of my low-profile anti-authoritarian pranks. I have developed cunning and become rather two-faced. Take, for example, my present perambulations in forbidden company: they are happening on the dean's day off, and I know that his substitute doesn't share his zeal for junior-senior apartheid. And so I have the best of both worlds: I will not be punished, and will also gain a certain amount of admiration for openly flouting the rules. I am still taking a chance, because the dean has been known to appear out of nowhere even on his day off, but the odds on this are not great.
    Fidel Castro has just come to power in Cuba. Elvis Presley has recently released a single called 'Jailhouse Rock'. There are always global developments which seem to coincide vaguely with what's happening in your own mind, as if you could believe in a kind of world-soul. Some begin their anti-authoritarian exploits in the mountains, some in a recording studio. Others, like me, feel obliged to play the piano with their toes, because it's the only way they can correspond to the new craziness - as if, unable to make head or tail of the chords with their fingers, they had to have recourse to the other extremities in order to give expression to the feeling that had overpowered them.
    I was for the new, in whatever form it came, and against the old. The dean was a dinosaur, and so was my father. During the holidays, I had my ears glued to Radio Luxembourg's 'Top Twenty'. Rock 'n' Roll was Fidel Castro with sideburns and Brylcreem instead of a big bushy beard, a guitar instead of a rifle.
       Let's rock
       Everybody let's rock
       Everybody in the whole cell block
       Was dancin' to the jailhouse rock.
The music teacher, Mrs Hargreaves, was the only female teacher in my boarding school. She had a houseful of cats and she brought a fusty cat's-urine kind of smell with her to the small room beside the entrance to the junior dormitory where the piano was and the music lessons took place. She was an old independent-spirited person, a bit of an intellectual - one of those bohemian types of women who age with their minds intact and don't seem to know that they're ageing at all. She told me that Hamlet was really about sexual repression, and lent me Salvador de Madariaga's book,  in which I read unedited passages from the play.
      And fall a-cursing like a drab, a stallion!
In the school version stallion had been replaced by scullion, meaning a kitchen maid, but a footnote in de Madariaga's On Hamlet explained that a stallion was 'a brothel male prostitute', which puzzled me, because I didn't know what a brothel was, or that there could be such people as male prostitutes.
    The music teacher wore layers of embroidery and cardigans, giving off that feline whiff, and she spoke in a posh, emphatic manner. She was a free spirit, and seemed totally unaware that talking about sexual repression to a boarding-school teenager might be deemed seriously out of order. Nobody took her music lessons seriously, neither the authorities, nor the students, nor herself. She was a sucker for digressions, willing to talk about anything under the sun, and sometimes I spent a music lesson without touching the keys of the piano.
      I wasn't particularly shocked by de Madariaga's take on Hamlet. I treasured his book not so much for its rather abstract sexual content, which I only dimly understood, as for its proof that there was a whole world of strange opinions beyond the confines of the college and that Shakespeare wasn't as respectable as the school editions would have us believe. The book became part of my non-conformist image. I wouldn't have to study Hamlet until the following year, and more important than actually reading  de Madariaga's book was being able to show it to guys like Pollard and Nolan, and to say things like 'I'm reading the Spanish critic de Madariaga, you know, and his view on Hamlet is rather interesting' or 'Hamlet is really all about sex, you know'. 
      Because of my obsession with Jailhouse Rock, I prevailed on Mrs Hargreaves to teach it to me from the sheet music.  But it was incomprehensible to both of us, and to me it didn't sound a bit like the record. In the end, the sheer frustration of not being able to learn the score led to my innovative performance of the song before some of my cronies during a wet day's afternoon recreation: banging the piano keys with my toes (I might as well, it seemed as tonal and rhythmic as the hideous chords in the sheet music) and roaring out the words. That performance caused a great deal of noise and mirth, and was interrupted by the dean's substitute, who hid his amusement, and cleared us out of the music room.

From memoir in progress 'The Hungarian for Cheese' © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010

Thursday 2 December 2010


Here I must make a shape at beginning to introduce the Rogues' Gallery or the Heavy Artillery, or whatever you care to call them. Not that I particularly want to introduce them; the very thought of them sends a shiver down my spine. But each of them contributed their own peculiar noxious vapour to the general miasma, and a couple of them were directly involved in the disaster that happened in my first senior year. For light relief, which I am very much in need of, I will also throw in a few sketches of priests and teachers who weren't too bad. 
Since I have already mentioned him, I'll start with the maths teacher, who was probably the most memorable teacher in the college. And by the way, for those who are liable to get confused about the words 'college' and 'boarding school', there is no difference between the two terms here. The institution I languished in for five years had the word 'college' in its official title - 'St X's College' - even though strictly speaking it was a boarding school, a secondary school rather than any kind of third-level place. And so, for reasons of preventing too much repetition, and to avoid getting into a complete lather about terminology, from now on I'll use whichever word I feel like, whichever sounds best in the context.
The maths teacher was certainly our most unforgettable teacher, and I'll bet a hundred pounds that anyone who had the misfortune to be taught by him will never be able to get him out of his head. I know I won't. There was something larger than life, worthy of fable, about him, even though his behaviour and influence were almost entirely negative. He was a stocky man of medium height, with a bull-head and a Roman nose, and he wore the same jacket and trousers day after day, month after month, and the seat and upper legs of the trousers gave off a slimy kind of sheen. He was physically formidable to us juniors, and he frequently indulged his temper by giving an erring student a belt or two across the head. But the greatest impression he made on us was with his tongue.
This teacher, who was nicknamed Jake because he wrote a weekly column about the greyhound races under that pen-name in the local newspaper, had a penchant for oratory; he was a bit of a demagogue. He spent at least half his classroom time walking up and down, making speeches about the importance of study, while the boys sat bent over their maths books, swotting the latest geometric theorem or quadratic equation.
'Foghlaim, foghlaim, foghlaim, fellows. Study, study, study, boys. Do it for your dear parents' sake, who are working so hard to send you to this place, to get the good education which was denied themselves. Think of your dear parents, fellows. How are they going to feel when the results come out, and you are the only one in your parish who has failed? How will you feel when you see the faces of your poor parents as they take your results out of that envelope? Lord God, fellows, study now to avoid that tragedy. And a tragedy it would be, fellows, to have the brains and the opportunity and not to use them. You'll get to know me, boys: I call a spade a spade, and not an agricultural implement. Lord God, lads, did you never hear that the game isn't over till the final whistle blows? Keep at it, fellows, don't slacken off. I'll tolerate no wasters in my class.
'Be like Cosgrave there. Foghlaim, foghlaim, foghlaim. Take a leaf out of Cosgrave's book. Cosgrave is doing it for his dear parents, and so should you, saying to yourselves, I'll conquer this. Don't let it beat you, fellows. Foghlaim, foghlaim, foghlaim.'
Sometimes Jake would fall silent and, leaning one hand against the wall, poke absent-mindedly at his ears with a cotton bud. Occasionally during these reveries, he'd even scratch his backside. We had to stifle our sniggers, and look forward to an unrestrained discussion of Jake's crooked backside-scratching finger at recreation time. But right now, tension was mounting towards the moment when the maths teacher would break off his harangue and call a boy up to the blackboard to do a 'cut' on yesterday's geometric theorem or demonstrate his grasp of simultaneous equations. There was great anticipation when the boy who had been put 'on the mat', in the phrase relished by Jake, turned out to be one of the current favourites.
'Cosgrave, come up and show them how do do it.... Do you not know how to do it, fellow?'
'No, sir.'
'Come on, Cosgrave, don't let me down. Don't you remember what I told you yesterday, about the first thing to do in a cut like this? Do you know the first step at least?'
'No, sir.'
'Nah sir! Nah sir! Nasser! Lord God, fellow, I'm hearing enough about Nasser these days. He's the President of Egypt. Sit down, you idiot. Come up here, Ryan. You show them. What's the first step in this cut?'
'Drop a perpendicular, sir.'
'Drop a perpendicular from where, fellow? From the ceiling?'
(Obsequious laughter.)
'No, sir. Drop a perpendicular from the apex to the base of the triangle, sir.'
'Good man, Ryan. Do you hear that, Cosgrave? And what have you, Ryan, now that you've dropped the perpendicular plumb from the apex to the base of the triangle? Tell the fool.'
'You have two right-angled triangles, sir.'
'And the rest is plain sailing. Well done, Ryan. Sit down.'
And the next day:
'Why can't you all be like Ryan there, fellows? Foghlaim, foghlaim, foghlaim, saying to yourselves I'm not going to let it beat me, I'm going to conquer this. πr˚ and 2πr for your dear parents' sake. 3.142857, fellows, repeated to infinity. And what's infinity? An 8 lying on its back, that's what infinity is. Come up here, Ryan, and write it on the board for them.'
'Good man, sit down. Take a leaf out of Ryan's book, fellows. He's not a waster, like Cosgrave there. I have an egg down for you, Cosgrave. Oh yes, fellow. You can count on that.'
Cosgrave was a serious, highly-strung chap and he took it very badly when the maths teacher toppled him from his pedestal of praise. In fact, he took it so badly that shortly afterwards he did a bunk and never returned. A rumour circulated among the boys that he was being sent to a psychiatric hospital for a spell, to recover from his mental torment. He was the first victim of the college's Heavy Artillery that I encountered during my stay, but he obviously doesn't figure very much in this narrative, having left the field of battle so early - except perhaps as a foretaste of events to come. 
Luckily, it turned out that I had brains, a fact that wasn't entirely clear when I was under my father's tutorship. It isn't a great idea, a son having his father as a teacher, especially when the father hates teaching and wants to become some kind of artist, as my father did, but felt he couldn't leave his secure and despised job, having clocked up six children in as much time as it takes to say 'conception'. 
Unlike my father, the authorities in the college seemed to relish what they were about. They also seemed to know the score: this is what you must do if you want to have a fulfilled life later on; there is no alternative. Just knuckle down to it; there's a light of future well-being at the end of the tunnel. They even communicated certainty in the confident way they walked up and down the centre aisle of the study hall. I got the message, at least during those first two years, because my exam results were outstanding, and I must have broken some kind of record for the longest ever tenure of a place in the math teacher's pantheon of praise. 
But nothing lasts forever, and the maths teacher was biding his time, waiting for a flaw to appear in my armour, a lapse of concentration when I was on the mat. In the first term of my third year, the long-expected crack appeared.
Right from the beginning of that term, there was something stale and unenthusiastic in Jake's worship of me, as if he felt I had been a god for too long and that I was getting used to my divinity, which would be a bad thing for a mere mortal. Then one day I was summoned to the blackboard, and failed to solve a fairly simple cut.
'Sit down, you fool. Oh I've been watching you, O'Driscoll. I've been keeping my eye on you. You're a bit of a fluke, fellow. It's a pity but it's true. O'Driscoll here is a pure fluke, fellows. He's one of those boyos who fade away when the going gets tough. And what a shame for his dear parents, to see him slacken off in the very year when he should be doubling his efforts, the year of his first public examination, the Intermediate Certificate. Lord God, how often have I told you, fellows, that the game isn't over till the final whistle blows? O'Driscoll, you slacker, a term down in 2B would do you the world of good. I call a spade a spade, O'Driscoll, and you're a waster. That's what you are. Sit down, fellow, you fool.'
Well, as somebody said once and it has been many times repeated, What would you expect from a pig only a grunt? Jake had an oratorical sort of grunt, and it's funny how oratory echoes in a person's head - I suppose that's what it's meant to do. But the upshot was that Jake's hard words had quite the opposite effect to my father's very similar beratings in primary school. Rather than shutting me into myself, they opened me out. What defeated Cosgrave brought out the rebel in me. What doesn't kill you cures you.
But on the other hand, who needs it? Jake was just a fact, unavoidable, and I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have had someone kinder and more understanding as a maths teacher. Would we have all gone on to be rocket scientists? I doubt it. But I also doubt if anybody would expect us to be grateful to Jake for putting us in touch with the bastardly side of life, as if we should say 'Thank you for being such a bastard to us, because life is a bastard too, and we might never have been able to cope with it if we hadn't come up against you at an early age.'  If there's one good thing to be said about the maths teacher, it's that he definitely had the gift of the gab. Maybe he was another frustrated artist like my father, a frustrated writer.

From memoir in progress 'The Hungarian for Cheese' © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010

Wednesday 1 December 2010


My great grandfather Joseph Denis O'Driscoll lived and worked for some
time in Skerries, Co Dublin, and was married there.  He died 4th July
1892 in Schull, Co. Cork, aged 35 years. He was an Inland Revenue
Officer.  He married Catherine Murtagh from north Co Dublin in 1883
and 3 of their 4 children were born there – Joseph Denis, John and
Kieran my grandfather.  Joseph Denis also worked in Bandon.  Ellen
their daughter was born in 1889 in Schull.
Thanks to my brother Donal (who is a retired Customs & Excise
Officer!) for procuring the photograph from the old photos my father
once kept.
My paternal grandmother was born on Horse Island.  Her parents were
from around Ballydehob-Schull.  Her mother Ellen McCarthy was from
Horse Island and her father Timothy Collins was from Ballycummisk.
Her parents moved to Cape Clear for a while and then to Derryconnell.
Granny was married in Schull, and my father Joseph and his sister
Kathleen and brother Gerald Kevin were born there.  Gerald Kevin died
when he was only 3 months old.
My paternal grandfather Kieran was a Yeoman of Signals in the British
Navy and died in Plymouth hospital at the young age of 31 years in
As children, we spent many idyllic summer holidays in Ballydehob,
under the kindly influence of Granny-in-Cork (as we used to call her).

Something in my father’s mother flipped whenever she beheld us.  She was smitten by that ultimate biblical blessing, May you see your children’s children, and she couldn’t stop fussing over the offspring of her son.  A dance sprung up in her mind that didn’t know how to translate itself into body; hers was a broken syntax of over-feeding and sudden embraces and readiness to call the doctor at the sound of a sneeze.  Her continuous jumbled narrative of proverbs, verses and admonitions, half-understood by us or not understood at all, fragments of it remembered and most of it forgotten, has left behind it a sense of possible blessedness, as if someone passing down the street had shouted There is another way! in a foreign language, and the uncomprehending listeners noticed a sudden vibrancy in the air around them and felt a promise of better days rise in their hearts.  Any even though we didn’t know what precisely our grandmother’s happy pother was all about, we were happy to know in some way that we were the cause of it. 
From A Runner Among Falling Leaves, Liverpool University Press, 2001.