Monday 28 February 2011


Not the White Cliffs of Dover, but the Seven Sisters (if you count the hills), which are in East Sussex between Eastbourne and Seaford, off the A259. We walked the length of them, up down up down, on a walking holiday in July 2009. A very pleasant day, one of a week's 10km-or-so daily excursions. (We kept to the 'easy walk' category; there were also medium and difficult ones to chose from day to day.)

We came across this knotty tree on another, rural walk in Sussex. It wasn't far from a small Norman church but I can't remember the exact location.

The Chanctonbury Ring, ancient fortress and temple, sown in later times with beech trees. Local legend has it that the Chanctonbury Ring was created by the Devil and that he can be summoned by running around the clump of trees seven times anti-clockwise. When he appears he will offer you a bowl of soup in exchange for your soul. Obviously not a consomme or any kind of clear soup. Have to be a murky broth, it would!

Thursday 24 February 2011


The rector was pink-fleshed and chubby-cheeked, and had a very short white beard, a trimmed tuft on the chin by way of an answer to his moustache. He had an almost bald pink pate, and was generally chubby: the roundness of his belly was emphasised by his all-of-a-piece brown habit, and he had the sloped look of one of those solitary standing stones that you can see in the French countryside, except of course that he wasn't as tall, and even in human terms he was only of medium height. He was rather volatile of mood, temperamental, given to sudden punishments, and often suddenly changing his mind about them. However, he was popular with the boys, and of sound judgment on the whole, despite his faults. He was more inclined to be soft than strict - a great relief to us all, given the severity of the dean.
    The rector wasn't a bad English teacher, even though he preferred Catholic authors such as Francis Thompson and G.K. Chesterton to anyone else. His digressions from the set texts aroused my curiosity, particularly his tirades against the moral shortcomings of the literary greats. It seemed from listening to him that depravity was an occupational hazard among poets and writers. Shelley and Byron were scoundrels. Wilde led an unspecified kind of extremely wicked life for a long time and as a result found himself in prison, where fortunately he learned to repent his ways, so that he died a Catholic. James Joyce, on the other hand, was totally depraved, and died cursing the Catholic Church. The rector had seen Joyce's death mask in Paris and it was terrible to behold - the face of a demon. No boy in his class should ever dare to read a single paragraph of the corrupt and corrupting works of James Joyce. 
    The rector's condemnation of Joyce was probably why I went out of my way to buy A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the following summer. The book disturbed me with recognitions of the past five years of my life, seen from a point of view that was difficult to grasp at first because of the strangeness of style, but soon became amazingly obvious: the story was being told, not from the perspective of a grown-up looking back, wise and wizened, but from the perspective of the boy himself, as a boy. So this, then, was the wicked James Joyce? OK, so he went to a prostitute; but he was sorry and confessed to a priest afterwards: he didn't seem all that wicked. Quite the opposite, Joyce's book seemed to be telling things as they really were for an adolescent boy, and wasn't that a good thing to do? 
    But the rector actually had a feeling for literature, although his taste was limited. He could also be a bit of a buffoon, and occasionally indulged in play-acting. You'd know from the way he grimaced that he didn't like a poem he was about to read. He didn't care much for the Anglo-Irish poems on the course, and particularly disliked one by Seamus O'Sullivan:
My sorrow that I am not by the little doon
        By the lakes of the starlings at Rosses when all is still
And still in whispering sedges the herons stand....
He read this poem with a screwed-up face in a stage-Irish accent, causing an outbreak of hilarity. Then, realising that he had gone too far as some joker felt licensed to imitate his voice and facial expression, he reddened and shouted a petulant 'Silence!' And that was it: Seamus O'Sullivan, prescribed Leaving Certificate poet, had to be treated with respect, and English Class was English Class.
    The rector also taught elocution. There were sessions on occasional Saturday mornings to which classes were summoned at a moment's notice. We didn't at all like these impromptu sessions, since Saturday morning was supposed to be free time, when you could write letters and engage in activities such as polishing or not polishing your shoes, cleaning or not cleaning your locker. The elocution class was held at the bottom of the study hall, and the students sat on the tops of the desks, which were backwards relative to the position taken by the rector. The whole business had an untidy, disorganized feel to it. 
    Both chorally and individually, we were put through the recitation of such great lines as Matt and Pat broke the lath, and Bob Beckett's big baby bounces and bawls. His fondness for elocution was probably the reason why the rector had a liking for such awful poems as 'Lepanto' by G.K. Chesterton, with its deadly alliteration:
Dim drums drumming in the hills half-heard....
Maybe he nursed a hope that one day he would wield together a group fit to perform 'Lepanto' in some competition for choral recitation. Unfortunately, the boys' accents were on the whole very thick, and the elocution lessons often ended with the rector losing his temper at the stubbornness of Munster pronunciations. 
    Here's the rector coming into the study hall just before suppertime, beaming a silly exaggerated smile, and summoning one of the boys in an affected superior accent: Tony Ronayne, come heah. There's a bell-saliva response to this among the massed ranks of the unchosen: a huge sucking noise, a coming together of individual sucking sounds, rises from all sides. Ronayne blushes furiously walking down the hall. As the commotion continues, even the timidest are encouraged to join in, and the din grows louder. Eventually, some idiot roars at the top of his voice. We can see the rector's face change, and silence falls again. But he's in enough of a good humour on this occasion, and lets the offence pass. He resumes his play-acting, but in a more sarcastic way, proclaiming in an exaggerated Cork accent: The savage love his native shore. Oh God, he do. Meaning, of course, that we are all a bunch of ungrammatical savages, particularly whoever has shouted and roared. Noisy, obsequious laughter follows, and the rector flaps his arms like a bird, hissing Boys, boys... boys! Back to your study! 
    This flapping propensity probably accounted for the rector's nickname: Birdie, or The Bird.

From 'The Hungarian for Cheese', a memoir, ©Ciaran O'Driscoll 2011

Wednesday 9 February 2011


That night, George lay awake for a long time, all kinds of conflicting ideas going through his discontented head, while the watercolourist slept peacefully beside him. He worried through his various intermingled insecurities, until an incongruous image flashed on the screen of his torments. It was one of the landlord’s dogs, a female Alsatian, smoking a roll-up. Lips closed on the flimsy tissue paper, she pulled on it deeply but carefully, trying to get the maximum draw without tearing the cigarette. The image was enough to make George laugh out loud in the dark room, and to relax him. He fell asleep instantly.
Next morning, however, as he lay dozing in bed, he half-dreamt, half-imagined the Alsatian skulking among the wild chicory flowers in the field, having a surreptitious drag. She was discovered there in the early light by a television crew, and prevailed upon to give a reluctant interview. How long had she been smoking, and why did she begin? She had been smoking, she said, ever since her hysterectomy. She had always wanted to smoke, but thought that as long as she was able to have puppies, it wouldn’t have been fair on them. But after her operation, she had felt free to indulge herself.
And why had she always wanted to smoke? The viewers of breakfast television were treated to the spectacle of the big mournful brown eyes close up, as she hesitated about her answer, and the producer back in the studio began to worry about impatient channel zappers. Well, she said at last, I had observed that my former master smoked, particularly when he was under stress. It seemed to have a calming effect. I have always suffered terribly from my nerves, you know…. Another close-up: two big tears formed in the two big doggy eyes.
The interviewer’s attention was diverted by the crackle of the producer’s voice on his headphones: Be sure and ask for the canine position on abortion. And don’t let the mutt go on for too long.
The Alsatian continued. I suppose, she said, it will come as a surprise to many of your viewers that a dog, especially an Alsatian, should suffer as terribly as I do from nerves. But we are actually more sensitive than you are. We mourn not only the loss of our own kind but the loss of our human friends as well, especially the children. My nerves are shot entirely from loss and mourning, especially since my former master never excluded me from the house, and allowed me to curl up on the floor beside him every night when he was watching television. And it was from watching the news on television that my troubles began. Night after night, I watched the suffering of humans and their children in war-torn and famine-stricken countries…
Close the interview! came the voice of the anxious producer over the headphones. 
What is your position on abortion? the interviewer asked. A change came over the Alsatian. She perked up enormously, took out her tobacco pouch and Rizzla papers and rolled a nonchalant cigarette. I’m glad you asked me that, she said, but if you think you’re going to get a halfways decent answer in the short time you’re allowing me, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Oh my God, Barking! she hooted. 
At last she stopped laughing and, taking a long drag on her cigarette, wound up her interview: I’d like to take this opportunity to say hello to my new friend George from Ireland, without whose dire dilemma I wouldn’t be here in this field this morning, and wouldn’t have had the opportunity of not airing my views on abortion. Watch this space, George; watch this space. 
With this, the Alsatian did a disappearing act, taking television crew and countryside with her. A loud bang of words exploded in George’s ears, thunderous as the voice of the Almighty: WATCH THIS FIELD!
Wildly agitated, George jumped out of bed and ran down, still in his pyjamas, to the bluff overlooking the field. But there was nothing below only the field itself -  to not air his views on, to not write about, only to watch.

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

Monday 7 February 2011


This is a call from the current editor of 'Prairie Schooner' to Irish writers for submissions to an Irish issue of the literary journal


George, a writer who has suffered a nervous breakdown, and his partner Barbara, an art teacher, along with Barbara’s child Alan, embark on a year’s sojourn in a farmhouse in rural Italy. Intended as a period of recuperation for George and a break from the rigours of his writing, and for Barbara as a sabbatical to develop her painterly talents, the year deteriorates into a nightmare of recrimination and bitterness during which George, aided by mysterious apparitions and voices, begins to recall an unsavoury period of his childhood. 
    Barbara, worried about her thyroid problem and heartily sick of her partner’s drinking and shiftlessness, goes home to London for Christmas after a final quarrel when George returns to the farmhouse late and sees her in the arms of their landlord, Rogero. 
    George is befriended by Piero, a neurotic ex-professor of psychology, who is now venturing into the paranormal, and his ravishing daughter Tessa, and endures the company of the landlord’s three neglected dogs.....

George had got into the habit of leaving the door of his apartment slightly ajar, in the faint lingering hope that Tessa would keep her promise of a nocturnal visit. One night, when he was asleep, the three dogs held a meeting in his living room. Babs, the Chairperson, had summoned Giorgio and Carignosa, the other members of the Committee for Canine Well-Being, to an EGM. 
The Alsatian reclined on the fouton, Giorgio the mongrel snuggled up on the armchair, and the terrier Carignosa, the smallest, had to be content with sitting upright on an armless wooden chair with a circular seat.
‘This is a sorry pass,’ growled Babs.
‘A sorry pass indeed,’ yelped Carignosa.
‘I call this meeting to order. Items on the agenda: first, the minutes of the previous meeting…’
‘May be taken as heard,’ barked Giorgio.
‘Second, What to do about the Sorry Pass. Third, AOB. All agreed?’
‘Okey-dokey. Let’s tackle the main item, the Sorry Pass. To put it in a nutshell, there are no walkies for us doggies because all the humans are too busy plotting and ameliorating and fretting the life out of themselves to even think of us.'
‘Well said indeed.’ 
‘I put it to the meeting that we must address, first and foremost, our own canine interests. We thought that introducing yer man to the hermit good who lives in the wood might have sorted him out for dog-accompanied hikes. But it has only complicated things. Unless we are content to see a spring pass without walkies, we must do something drastic.’
‘No walkies in the spring?’ whined Giorgio. ‘I can’t bear the thought of that.’ 
‘Take but walkies away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows,’ yelped Carignosa.
‘Precisely,’ said the Chair. ‘When dogs are not walked, extensively and regularly, all kinds of evils come upon the world. Unfortunately, however, it is always the case that when things are bad, as they are right now, they have to get worse before they can get better. So at this point in time, the question we have to ask ourselves is, How can we make things worse?
‘And what is worse than dogs not being walked?’ Carignosa asked, in a didactic manner that strongly suggested she already knew the answer. 
‘I can’t imagine anything worse than that,’ moaned Giorgio. ‘I’m getting on. I mightn’t even see another spring.’ 
‘But it’s obvious! Dogs not walking is even worse than dogs not being walked. Therefore, if dogs do not walk at all, even worse evil will come on the world than if they were simply not being walked.’ 
‘I don’t get it.’  Giorgio frowned. 
I get it,’ barked Babs, ‘and your foxy terrier logic, Comrade Carignosa, is very much in line with the course of action I wish to propose. Namely, that we have a lie-in protest against our neglect, and make such a nuisance of ourselves that yer man will be goaded into taking us for walkies. In other words, we will up the ante and respond to no walkies for doggies with no walking by doggies.’
‘That will be too hard,’ objected Giorgio. ‘Did you ever see a dog staying completely still for five minutes, unless he was asleep or suffering from depression? We are by nature restless creatures.’
‘You weren’t very restless the night the burglars came here,’ yelped Carignosa.
‘Don’t let’s get personal now,’ Babs cautioned. ‘None of us was very restless that night. They must have drugged us.’
‘But I need exercise more than either of you. I might get a stroke.’
‘You can exercise without walking, Comrade Giorgio. This is no time for prevarication. I put it to the committee that in our own best interests we commence without further notice a lie-in on the balcony outside, of indeterminate duration or until such time as walkies are restored to us. All in favour bark once.’
‘Arf. Motion carried. Any other business?’
‘Is it all right to take a blanket or something out of the apartment to lie on?’ asked Giorgio. ‘My old bones, you know…’
‘In the circumstances, I think it is justified to take a few items to lie on, and to cover us. After all, there were supposed to be three humans here, and now there’s only one.’ 
‘There’s a small matter you have both forgotten about, smart and all as  you are,’ persisted Giorgio. ‘How are we going to eat if we stay on the balcony all the time? Is this a hunger strike as well as a lie-in?’
‘If yer man doesn’t throw his leftovers out on the balcony,’ Babs said, ‘we may slip down for a few minutes after dark to our master’s bowls of lousy pellets.’
The dogs languished. They slept on George’s balcony by night and day, settling themselves on cushioned or blanketed wicker armchairs or bedding on the stone floor. George’s overcoat had become one of Giorgio’s blankets and was growing a crop of mongrel hairs.
By day the dogs lay round the balcony, pathetic, hovering between hope and despair. They stretched in stupors against the parapet as rain invaded the floor and formed a widening pool in the middle. As George came and went, they opened depressed eyes and closed them again. Occasionally, he tripped over one that was lying in innocent ambush on the threshold; he would turn back, cursing, and dislodge the abject canine flesh with a push of his foot. But the dog would lie down again, a little farther from the door.
The dogs got on George’s alcohol-thirsty nerves. He kept tripping over them, the pleading of their eyes tugged at some painful nerve of guilt and unreality. He felt guilty about hating the dogs, hated them because of his guilt. He was continually on edge because of abstinence and waiting. Despite the professor’s optimism, and his own vigilance, there hadn't been anything that remotely resembled an epiphany, no set of circumstances a shade out of the ordinary that quickened in his mind towards significance.     
George had nothing better in proximate bodily form to feel guilty about than three dogs; no woman to feel guilty about, no child. That kind of guilt would have been real, would have helped to define reality; but this kind undermined definition and reality. The dogs did not complain, did not react. There was no agreement breached, no social contract dishonoured by ignoring them. They weren’t his dogs. Those other two lunatics downstairs should be looking after them; his canine responsibilities had been revoked. And yet they looked at him with those depressed or pleading eyes, Giorgio innocent and depressed, Babs pleading and eager, the small fox terrier catatonic. The constant presence of the dogs was for George like the unhappiness of hell, as defined in the terms of scholastic theology, because it amounted to the possession of that which he most hated and feared. His hatred of the dogs intensified his hatred for the landlord; if this monster in human shape had felt any appropriate concern for his pets, George would never have been attacked in the core of his being by canine angst. The immobility of the dogs was yet another twist to his continuing ordeal; but the professor had dismissed his discomfort as a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. 
One day, out of all patience, George lifted the inert canine lumps and carried them one by one down to the bottom of the balcony steps, with scatological warnings about their daring ever to return. But when he woke from his afternoon doze and looked out through the glass of the door, they were, as he feared, back again, a triptych of sprawling misery, three mafiosi guarding the gates of sanity against him.

From A Year's Midnight a novel © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2011

Tuesday 1 February 2011


There was a thing teenage boys and girls did among themselves. They called it having a court (pronounced 'coort'), but it wasn't courting with a view to marriage, nor even a strong line. It had to do with getting a physical feel of one another. It was forbidden, but it had to be done. You were nothing if you didn't do it, though the point of it was obscure. There were recognized places where it happened: down the river behind the bushes, up Chapel Lane in a derelict cottage, in the back row of the cinema. The words spoken at these sessions didn't fit well with the actions. A frenzy of intense groping was followed by a lull in which the couple passed the time of day (or watched a bit of the film), before they set into one another again, with further prolonged French kisses and bodily explorations. 
      I found myself taking part in this rather puzzling ritual a few times during the last weeks of the summer holidays, but unfortunately not with Helen McKay, because my brother Anthony, who knew everything about the romantic life of the town's youth (although he was a year and a half younger than me), assured me that she was spoken for; she was doing a steady line with someone much older and tougher, so I'd want to look out for myself.  
    This was a great disappointment, and I fantasized about taking on the unnamed boyfriend of the girl who had given me my first kiss. I imagined being seriously injured in the fight, and Helen suddenly deciding that it was me she loved after all, and getting into the ambulance beside me as I was driven off to hospital with a broken jaw. At the same time, I was rather proud that I had got away with an act forbidden twice over, both by her shadowy hulk of a lover and by the town's narrow code of conduct. Perhaps I walked with a new aura hanging around me after that meeting with Helen, because one day the elder of the two Wexford sisters who skivvied in the pub next door to our shop asked me out for a court.
   She was standing in the doorway of the hall that led to the pub's living quarters, leaning on her mop, and I was standing on the street. We were talking for a while when out of the blue she said, 'I'll meet you up Chapel Lane.' 
   I couldn't believe what I was hearing, because she was so much sought-after. I remembered being in our backyard several times earlier that summer and hearing boys who had gone round to the back of the pub shout over the wall to her: 'Nancy, will ya come out for a coort?' And sometimes she'd shout a reply: 'Go 'way, ya sex maniac,' or words to the same dismissive effect. 
   My session with Nancy in the derelict house up Chapel Lane was a wrestling match, divided into fourteen or fifteen rounds. 'Round six,' I joked after a period of chat and a smoke, and leaned into her again. There was a thrill, a pleasure, a liking in the holding of her, but also a cloudy sense of let-down. For some reason, I held myself back. I think that, apart from my shyness and ignorance, it must have been the artificial rule-bound nature of the arrangement that restrained me.
    I don't think she was very impressed with me. There was a hauteur in her bearing towards me afterwards, and she wouldn't go with me again. I was vaguely hurt, a bit infatuated for having touched her.

The whole issue of being attracted to someone, of actually liking them, was avoided by the teenagers in our town by making statements like 'I'll meet you up Chapel Lane' and 'Maybe I'll see you at the pictures' rather than something such as 'I like you' or 'Will you go out with me?'. These last kinds of declarations were regarded as embarrassing. Another point is that in these assignations you kissed and petted purely as a matter of course, because once you were in the right box, the designated place, these were the only things you ought to be doing, especially seeing as you weren't supposed to do them anywhere else. A kissing and petting place was like a buffet lunch: you were under pressure to get in as much as possible when you were there. There was nothing spontaneous about the manoeuvres that occurred; they were totally unlike my encounter with Helen McKay. And then there were the rules about how far you could go - touch her breasts over but not under the bra, touch her bottom outside but not inside the clothes, and so on - which made it all rather stop-start and mechanical. And finally, there was no candour about the whole business, and it didn't really lead anywhere, because you went to a secret place to do it, and pretended you barely knew one another until the next time you made a furtive arrangement to go to another secret place, into another box.   
Later I had a few courts with Nancy's younger sister, Rebecca. I lasted longer with her. Perhaps by then I had more experience of operating within the limits of the boxes, or else I was more relaxed because Rebecca was more vulnerable, not as pretty. She was attractive enough, though, and I liked her (kind of). She had more of a sense of humour than her sister, who practised hauteur. I think Rebecca mightn't have stopped me if I had tried to go the whole way, whatever that was. But she didn't make it happen, either. 
    One night we walked a good bit down Chapel Lane, and went over a wall into a cornfield. We lay down together in the corn for a long time, but very little happened. It was a dumb kind of thing to be doing. Literally dumb, because we hardly spoke. And something unspoken hung over the whole event. We were like two layers of rock, one lying inert on top of the other.
    I stand behind a trunk of the banyan tree of imagination and watch my former self walking down Chapel Lane with Rebecca, on their way back to the town from that long, restricted grope in the cornfield. I can hear them talking, but cannot catch a single word of their conversation. Perhaps I cannot hear what they're saying because I don't remember, or perhaps because it is private, between my former self and her, and I am different now. On the other hand, maybe I can't hear it because it isn't important. They are saying this and that; whatever. They are just two teenagers doing their forbidden, obligatory, unspoken, voiceless thing.

From memoir in progress, 'The Hungarian for Cheese', © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2011