Friday 28 January 2011


‘Alan! School!’ George roared from the balcony. ‘Alan, I won’t call you again!’
‘Coming.’ Alan ran up to where the red Toyota was parked beside the balcony steps. Red-faced, George was waiting for him by the car. Big fatty.
‘Where’s your schoolbag? Go up and get it. And say goodbye to your mother. I haven’t all day, you know.’
Alan was shocked when he saw his mother sitting at the table, her head in her elbow, her shoulders heaving. He felt a child’s instant sympathy and fear for her sorrow, the sorrow of the source.
‘What’s wrong, Mum?’
She recovered quickly, took him in her arms. ‘It’s nothing, darling.’ But she knew that wouldn’t be enough. ‘Well, sometimes adults cry when they think of their own parents. And you know my Dad died last year, and I sometimes miss him. That’s why I was crying, but I’m all right now. Seeing you looking so bright and bushy-tailed makes me feel better.’ She kissed him. ‘Hurry now, off to school.’
George drove in silence, except for an occasional curse at a truck in front of him that was moving with the speed of a bicycle. It was one of those tiny trucks called Api, or Bees, that infest Italian roads. They make a bee-like sound as they trundle along, and the effect this one had on George was up there with the annoyance a bee would cause him, buzzing around his balding head.
‘Fucking wanker,’ he muttered.
‘What’s a wanker?’ Alan asked.
‘Never mind. Have you done your homework?’
‘I did my best. It was hard. Will you play with me after school today? ’
‘I can’t. Too busy.’
‘But Mum said you’re not writing. You came here to not-write.’
‘I’m busy with other matters.’
‘Why do you never play with me, George?’
It was on the tip of George’s tongue to say ‘Because you’re not my child’, but he checked himself.
‘Ask me to play with you in Italian, and I will.’
‘I can’t! It’s not fair! You promised me.’
George felt a twinge of fellow-feeling for the lonely child who had enough gumption to challenge him about his neglect of his surrogate fatherly duties, but he stifled it, especially seeing that this was a world where there were wankers driving around in contraptions called Api at a snail’s pace, impeding all reasonable progress. A bit of loneliness would be the making of that child, he thought; force him back on his own resources, it would.
‘Learn your Italian after school, get really stuck into it, and soon you’ll have lots of other children to play with. Ah, here we are. Out you get.’
Opening the car door, Alan was assailed by a Babel of children’s screeching voices from the schoolyard. One boy saw him and shouted ‘Ciao, Alan!’, came over and took him by the hand into a maelstrom of swinging heads and limbs. That was Tommaso, a son of one of the landlord’s friends. All they could say comprehensibly to one another at this stage was ‘Ciao’ and ‘OK’.
In the classroom, doing drawings, Alan remembered his grandfather on a slab in the mortuary. His mother had brought him to say goodbye. His grandfather was there, and yet not there in some indescribable way, his face congealed in a silence which was not like George’s bad moods, more like the silence of the woods. All day, as he played the new language game of dai, dammela, tutti seduti, pastasciutta, the shadow of the forest, which was also the shadow of his mother’s crying, stood in the background, discreet, waiting for an answer. 

Ciaran O'Driscoll, A Year's Midnight, Pighog Press 2012

Sunday 23 January 2011


George woke up suddenly. A glow around the edges of the shutters signalled it was light…. morning, day, afternoon, whatever. Usually early morning, because George nearly always woke prematurely, tormented out of sleep by his troubled thoughts. But this time he woke blank. Pure consciousness, without a history or a name; as it was in the beginning, consciousness waste and void. Am without an I. Blank Is-ness dumb. Being without Identity. A lens admitting no image, nothing but light.
‘My God,’ he eventually said aloud, ‘who am I and where am I?’ He recognised the voice. It was his own, he knew now, but he still couldn’t remember the name for that particular segment of reality. Then it came to him that his particular patch of existence wasn’t a very happy allotment. Misery was perhaps its name, the word came to him and he spoke it. ‘Misery. Pure fucking misery.’ The sensation that the voice he heard came from his own mouth was reassuring, so he repeated the words over and over. ‘Misery. Misery. Pure fucking misery.’ An Irish accent: he must be Irish. And there was some connection, elusive, hard to pin down, between misery and being Irish. Irish Misery. Sounds like the name of a horse. Or was it Irish Mist? No, that is the name of a drink. Early Mist was the name of the horse… When the lemmings were finally given their freedom, they voted to do what they had always done by instinct; destroy themselves. Now that was a subtle kind of thought. Where did it come from? And where has it gone now? ‘Little thoughtie woughtie, come back here,’ he crooned.
By this time it had become common knowledge that his name was George. A subtle thing, like tradition; there was no identifiable exact time at which the name had been established. It was simply taken for granted now, like the fact that there was an unfinished bottle of whiskey on the locker beside the bed. From which he took a deep slug.
Silence in the room was to be expected, of course, but it was not altogether welcome. There was a touch of absence about it. On the other hand, it was good to be in control, to be the sole arbiter of what noise was to be made and when. Like now: Lousy bitch. Spoken slowly, lowly, with venom.
When you’re not entirely in control of the sounds in a room, some of them can be unpleasant, things that you don’t want to hear, such as I couldn’t sleep last night because you were snoring like a pig. This pig image doesn’t sit well with a man’s self-esteem. Yes, I am free, said Sartre, but my freedom is a kind of death. Where did that come from? Same as Donne the other day, only Donne’s woman hadn’t walked out on him; she was carried out in a coffin. Not like that harridan going off and leaving me here alone, on this of all the days of the year.
Nobody had said a word about it, but it was Christmas Day. It just was. So: things are coming together. But the shape they are taking is not pleasant, and calls for more whiskey. I must have missed the Three Spirits last night, otherwise I’d be up dancing around the yard like a bi-polar on the turn, telling the landlord I’d be upping his rent as a Christmas present, smearing the very walls with meat as recommended by St Francis, so that even inert matter could partake of the feast as a fit celebration of this holy and glorious day. The Franciscans are the lads for uncommon recipes: Baste well, then rub against the walls.
Christmas Day. To be spent alone, in the arsehole of rural Italy. Such a large chunk of reality to arrive in one go. Couldn’t be swallowed, not without some whiskey to wash it down.
His eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness. He was sitting up in a large double bed, the sole occupant. He was sitting there surrounded by double bed, surrounded by wardrobe, chest of drawers and two small bedside cabinets, one on each side of him; surrounded by absence. On the marble top of the cabinet to his right there was a lamp; likewise on the cabinet to his left. On the cabinet to his right there was also a glass containing his false teeth, and the whiskey bottle which he now held in his hand had spent the night there, beside the false teeth. Outside the bedroom were the empty bathroom, the empty small bedroom, the empty living room. No one was out at the cooker, graciously brewing taken-for-granted coffee, being gracious about brewing coffee and about being taken for granted, in a saffron dressing gown.
And outside that again, on the third and all the other circles of hell,  were Italy, Europe, the World, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe. The greatest pain was in the first circle, of course, the circle of the bedroom, the desecrated refuge of deepest intimacy. Desecration had not been alluded to until now, but although the word was unspecific, it was suddenly quite certain that there had been a desecration of considerable magnitude, and there was a lingering trace of vomit attached to the vagueness of the sacrilegious act. 
Better to drag oneself out of the bedroom, at least, into the less resounding emptiness of the living room. He brought out his clothes and dressed hurriedly: subconsciously, the idea was that the more ‘external’ he looked, the less painful it would all be. Looking out the window as he buttoned his shirt, he had mixed feelings about the soft sunshine. On the one hand, he could walk himself to exhaustion, and outwit the suicidal theme that was already announcing itself discreetly in the jangled symphony of his desolation; on the other hand, the sweetness of the weather threatened to hone a sharper edge on his loneliness. But there was really no choice here: one last swig of whiskey and Via! – away with him before the devil caught up.

From A Year's Midnight, Ciaran O'Driscoll, Pighog Press, 2012

Thursday 20 January 2011


Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Monday 17 January 2011


We heard about the Hungarian Uprising when the two refugees came to the school. The dean gave a speech in the refectory about how the rebels who had died on the streets of Budapest were martyrs for the Catholic Faith. They were glorious in defeat. 
    In my third year, I was beginning to get a bit cynical about this glory-in-defeat business. In those days, the Irish rugby team was nearly always glorious in defeat. This was a great comfort for the defeated players, and it probably meant that they didn't train any harder for the next game. Why should they, when they could be glorious in defeat again?  'Gallant Ireland go down bravely' was the kind of headline you'd read in the Sunday sports pages.
    It was gallant and valiant when the small took on the great for a noble principle like freedom, and died for their courage. Or even when a youngster like David took on a giant like Goliath and actually killed him because of some trick he had up his sleeve - in this case a sling. But somehow, it was considered better to die for your beliefs than to outwit your mighty enemy by a trick the enemy didn't know about. It was better to stick to the rules of war, and if you hadn't any tanks, you had to take on the tanks with whatever you had, a rifle or revolver, and die gloriously. That was a magnificent gesture, and would live in the memory of your people, a source of comfort and pride.
    When my father gave a history lesson in primary school, the Irish always fought gallantly, outnumbered and with inferior arms. Everything conspired against them, including the weather. Their own internal squabbles didn't help either; it seemed that they succeeded in settling their differences only at the last minute, in order to put up a great fight and die gloriously. I learned later that the Irish had actually outnumbered the English at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. 
    'But the Irish were exhausted because of their long trek from the North in the middle of the harshest winter of the time,' my father replied when I mentioned this fact. 'The Spaniards couldn't have landed at a worse place than Kinsale.'
    The Irish always knew how to die gloriously. The Irish rugby team knew how to go down bravely. So did the college's senior hurlers and footballers. But apparently there was a limit to glory in defeat, because one evening the rector came into the refectory at supper-time and gave a speech about the poor performances of the college teams, saying that they were not trying hard enough and that poor Father Bosco's heart was broken after all his time and effort with them.
    Besides being the sports trainer, Father Bosco also taught history. Although he gave the same kind of patriotic, religiously biased versions of events as my father, the monk had a way of making the subject interesting: he presented the greats of history as ordinary lads with names such as Theo (Wolfe Tone), Bobbie (Robert Emmet) and Boney (Napoleon), who all spoke in a very colloquial way. 
    'Ah sure, we'll give it a go anyway, lads, said Bobbie when he saw that his rebellion hadn't a chance.'
    'I'll tell you what we'll do, lads, said Boney. We'll cross the Alps. They won't be bargaining for that.'
    Boney was also credited with saying that an army marches on its stomach. The boys could understand that very well. 
    Such stories the two refugees might have told us of the Uprising! But all we could relate to was the Hungarian for cheese.
From memoir in progress, 'The Hungarian for Cheese', © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2011

Tuesday 11 January 2011


On the exterior of the Pudong Development Bank, on the Bund, you will find this embossment/sculpture of the Red Army's entry into Shanghai to the ecstatic greetings of the partisan workers, many of them waving cleavers in celebration. The Bank is now a 'joint stock development bank', a fundamentally capitalist institution, and finding this commemoratve plaque on the wall of the  bank brought home to me the ambiguity of modern China. Mao's Long March and his triumphs are still revered, but capitalism is also worshipped. 
People feel free these days to say that the Cultural Revolution was 'a human disaster', but Mao's picture and presence are still to be seen and felt everywhere. 
The interior of the Pudong Development Bank is beautiful, more like a temple-cum-art-gallery than a bank. "It features marble floors and pillars and ornate light fixtures. Within the cupola at the entranceway are eight small paintings, representing the eight cities where the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank had offices in 1921: Hong Kong, London, New York, Calcutta, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai and Bangkok. In the lobby is a ceiling mosaic of Shanghai as it looked in 1923. The mosaic was covered by plaster during the Cultural Revolution and was rediscovered during renovations in mid-1990s."
However, we were unable to photograph anything in the interior. As soon as Margaret made a shift to take out her camera, a security man, previously unnoticed, moved towards us from the pillar he was standing against. Smiling politely, he waved his hand: Sorry, no pictures, please. 

Monday 10 January 2011


'Where was he going, this man against the sky?
You know not, nor do I."
Edward Arlington Robinson

Well, the man in this picture is not exactly against the sky, but he seems to be heading in that direction. In the near distance on the left is the Limerick poet Mark Whelan. The occasion is the Cuisle Limerick Poetry Festival's trip to the Burren in 2008. Beyond the drystone wall in the foreground is the road where we stopped to take in this barren beauty. While the rest of us were content to stay near the road, Mark seemed to 'take a notion' to explore in a more hands-on manner this landscape of boulders, scree, wind-bent shrubs and grykes.

L to R: Ana Jelnikar (Ljubljana), John Davies (Brighton), YT, Sudeep Sen (New Delhi), Iztok Osojnik (Ljubljana). Mark was still exploring when our driver, Tom Lewis, took this photo.

Friday 7 January 2011


There I am, in March 2008, lumbering up the Great Wall, carrying a plastic bag which contains a water bottle and a pullover, on one of the excursions of a ten-day China Tours special.
The Great Wall cannot be seen from the moon. Its vague outline can be seen from about 100 kms into space, depending on weather conditions, but the same can be said of many other man-made objects.

Here I am pictured with out driver. As Margaret and myself were the only two who enlisted for this particular tour, we had our own personal driver, who drove a Mercedes rather than a bus, and our own personal guide. As a matter of Chinese courtesy, the driver insisted on carrying my plastic bag when I met him on top of the hill I am ascending in the first picture. I wondered about his interest in climbing the Great Wall. Surely he had done so many times? Later I realized that he was shepherding us, worried we might go further than the first turret, thus delaying his arrival home to Beijing. I did actually go just a little further, to a shop where I bought a small bronze plaque with my name inscribed on it, certifying that 'I have climbed the Great Wall'. I am childishly proud of this plaque, even though I had climbed only a tiny section the Quang Queng, which is not really one wall at all, but several walls built at various stages of history. Much of the Great Wall was built by captured 'barbarians', who were forced to work till they dropped dead and whose bodies were 'built into' the fortifications.

The shop where I bought the plaque is about an hundred meters beyond the topmost tower in this picture. Margaret got to the tower, too, and then experienced vertigo looking down. There were several people positioned along the wall offering to help the 'pilgrims' up and down the steps. They did it, of course, in expectation of a few yuan. In fact, each single step was almost high enough in itself to cause vertigo. Unfortunately, there was no bar at the top of the hill serving pints as a reward for our efforts.
Despite the fact that this particular patch of the Wall is very touristy, it was compelling and historically evocative to visit  it, especially to see the Great Wall stretch away into the distance on either side of the 'tourist trap' we were brought to, up and down the conical, turret-crowned hills. It reminded me also of a Chinese poem I had read once, expressing the homesickness of a Great Wall sentry.

Wednesday 5 January 2011


Hamu and Ali, our guide and driver, got out of the 4x4 and went seaching for scorpions in the stony terrain around Fort Bou-Jerif on the morning of our return to Agadir from our tent on the edge of the Sahara. There they are in the background, searching diligently for scorpions, while we tourists view and shoot the scenery. 
    They overturned many stones before they found a scorpion. Hamu said it was female and pregnant. The scorpion’s carapace was yellowy green; it looked semi-transparent and full of poisonous pus. It was three or four centimeters in length. 
    Having found one scorpion, Hamu quickly found several more. All of them were pregnant. He nudged the scorpions with his shoe, but each of them was intent on slithering back in under a stone. I was very careful to keep my sandalled feet away from them: their sting is fatal, unlike that of the black scorpions I encountered around a fireplace in an Italian farmhouse. 
    Our guide told us that the mammy scorpion carries her young on her back, and that they slowly eat her. By the time the mammy scorpion is dead and well eaten, the young ones are ready to face the world on their own. Sounds like a good metaphor for the relationship between some human mothers and their offspring. Like the sons who never leave home or get a job, for instance, or the children who spend ages in college living it up and repeating their exams year after year. Until one day they get a terrible shock. Help! There’s no one to make my breakfast any more. How do you boil an egg? Oh well, nothing for it but to head for the cafĂ©...

A scorpion uncovered.

Ali, our driver, and Hamu, our guide, by the 4x4. Ali is a brilliant driver, and we felt completely at ease with him. Hamu is an informative and friendly guide. They were both smokers, like ourselves, which made things even easier.