St. Patrick’s Day is almost here! If you’d like to really explore what it’s like to be Irish, it’s all in my father’s memoir about his childhood and early youth in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from 1933 to 1957. I wish he were still alive to sign a copy, but I’ll be proud and happy to sign it for him. Please send me a message here for details if you’d like me to send you a copy.
To give you an idea of what the book is about, here’s the foreword I wrote for it (for those of you who can still read for more than thirty seconds without A.D.D. kicking in.) 🙂 –
If my father were asked to tell every story and joke he knows, every member of the audience would expire of old age before he ran out. He has filled my head with so many wild and colorful tales over the years, I thought it was a great idea when he told me he wanted to finish writing his memoir. For four decades, he had scribbled his memories of his youth in Belfast in notebooks, which were yellowed with time and languishing in ancient boxes in his garage. I volunteered to find them and help patch them together. It has been a monumental task, mainly because the notebooks were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Just when I thought the book was finished, he would tell me another story that the book couldn’t possibly do without.
It’s no mystery what happens to things we don’t appreciate. Eventually, we lose them. Some things in life are bound to be lost whether we appreciate them or not, but some can be saved if we are willing to make the effort, until they too are swallowed by time forever. The young traditionally turn a deaf ear to older people; the very people they can learn the most from. It’s yet another way that youth is wasted on the young; an ancient paradox.
There’s an old saying: “When an elderly person dies, it’s like a vast library burning to the ground.” The older the person, the more epic the tale. Conquering ourselves can make just as compelling a story as conquering a foreign power. Exploring our own spirits can be every bit as perilous and full of discovery as exploring the world outside ourselves. It has been said that artistic expression is simply the desire to capture the beauty and drama of life and put it into a more permanent and lasting form. The things in life most in danger of being taken for granted are those we perceive to be perennial. As Longfellow observed, “If Spring came but once in a century, instead of once a year, or burst forth with the sound of an earthquake, and not in silence, what wonder and expectation there would be in all hearts to behold the miraculous change!” And so it is with everything.
When I was a boy, I saw a Disney movie called Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Darby was an old man and my dad was young then so I didn’t make the connection between him and Darby, the charming, old tale-spinner, but I do now. Like Darby, he never runs out of stories to tell, tells them with great aplomb, and doesn’t mind “gilding the lily” once in a while for dramatic effect. As an old writer’s saying goes, “Never let the truth ruin a good story.” In his spoken tales, anything can happen, but this book is the gospel truth. It is his life, after all, and as he put it, he wants to make sure he “gets it right.”
As a child, my father’s stories were as natural a part of life to me as the seasons. At Los Angeles pubs and weekend parties with “the Irish crowd”, he could always be found entertaining his friends, who would nod with understanding at the old ways his stories celebrated. Non-Irish people were usually present as well, and I was always impressed by the way he could enchant even them, the uninitiated. The tales he spun usually ended on a humorous note and as I sat playing with friends somewhere in the distance, I came to recognize the group’s eruption of laughter as the end of one of his jokes or stories.
He is also a tenor and has entertained the same crowd for decades. At weddings, funerals, or any other event, someone will inevitably say, “Get Rickerby up for a song!” I watched him sing Danny Boy a hundred times growing up, or some obscure ballad from the old country that would cause everyone’s eyes to well with tears, or a raucous, bawdy, tavern song that would get them all up dancing, and was always amazed by his ability to make people feel more emotion than they otherwise might have. I’m sure witnessing that wonderful, magical power was what made me want to become an artist.
Still, my Irish heritage held no great allure for me as a child. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and it was the California lifestyle I identified with – the beach, surfing, the glittery and false world of Hollywood. Belfast was as obscure to me as the Himalayas, and I had no desire to bring it closer.
But it wasn’t just my own lack of interest that prevented me from embracing my heritage. As I was growing up in the 1970’s, my parents and I were constantly angered by news stories coming out of Ireland with sickening regularity of yet another bombing or shooting. All my life, the house would fall silent during these reports, and I could feel my parents’ dismay permeate the house, which had been light and cheerful moments before. This ritual was repeated dozens of times over the years, and it left its marks on my heart. The longer the conflict dragged on, the more anger I felt toward the Irish people responsible for such acts and for their apparent unwillingness or inability to settle their differences without violence.
It’s easy for me to condemn them because I had never been immersed in “the troubles.” Hate is a learned emotion. Like many civil wars around the world rooted in ancient grievances, intolerance is passed along from parent to child like a hereditary disease. Everyone has a story to tell about who did what to whom, even if it’s just something they heard about and didn’t experience themselves. Hatred becomes so entrenched over time that the only solution to the stubborn conflicts constantly raging in the world’s hot zones might be to take every newborn child to some remote island for a hundred years or so, tell them nothing about where they’re from, let the hatred and resentment die off in the people left behind, then bring them back and repopulate the place. Obviously, that is completely impossible, so we’re all stuck with ourselves as much as we’re stuck with whomever we consider to be “the enemy.”
My father has had a long-standing correspondence with the British Consulate and has appeared on numerous radio and talk shows since the early 1970’s discussing the situation in Northern Ireland. He has also contributed many articles to the Los Angeles Times on the subject. When I was about ten years old, I stumbled upon a pamphlet hidden in the bottom of a drawer. It contained graphic photos of the aftermath of an IRA (Irish Republican Army) bombing. One of the photos looked like a charred tree branch on a metal gurney. The caption below it read, “This is what the IRA did to a six year-old girl.” Only then did I make out the shape of a small body, which had curled into the fetal position as the fire sucked all the moisture out. I stared at that photo in horrified fascination until I felt the impulse to vomit. It was my first introduction to barbarity, and I couldn’t believe human beings were capable of doing such things to each other. My resilient young mind was able to bury the image somehow, and I went on with my childhood. But the image was never really gone, and like most Americans, I began to associate Ireland with terrorism.
It was only through exposure to my parents’ kindly Irish friends, both Protestant and Catholic, meeting the warm-hearted people of Ireland during trips back to “the old country,” and watching movies like The Quiet Man that I was made aware of another Ireland. It may have been a romanticized version, as Darby O’Gill and the Little People was, but this world has always required romanticizing and probably always will.
My father wrote a poem in 1972 which helped teach me that although the people of Ireland have their differences and too often live up to the pugnacious, hot-tempered, hard-drinking stereotype they’re famous for, they are for the most part very kind-hearted and decent, north or south. I suspect the same is true of people anywhere. As a young man told me in a Belfast pub during my last visit there in 2002, “The Irish get along with everyone, except each other.”
This is my father’s poem.
There are those who say that Ulster
is a place of hate and pain.
But many who have left it
would still go back again.
behind the bombs and flames and smoke
And fail to see the character
of the kindly Ulster folk.
But we have memories of the days
when we were young and gay,
Of carefree romps through Ormeau Park
or over Cave Hill’s Bray.
The Saturdays at Windsor,
The bathing belles at Pickie,
Our best suit pressed and ready
But first a stop at Mooney’s
and pints bought all around.
The Sunday morning papers,
Then a dander to the castle
where all the scores are read.
the weekend’s tales are told
While the oldsters smile and chuckle
as our youthful tales unfold.
A new girl in the office,
she’s a quare wee bit o’ stuff.
Is she going strong, you wonder,
as you act so big and tough.
Those were the days; there is no doubt,
as my memory wanders back.
That is what we all recall,
Will it ever be the same, you ask.
Will today’s kids ever know
The simple life we all enjoyed
Even with introductions like that, I continued to ignore and deny my Irish heritage. After all, that was their world, not mine. My parents took me to Irish fairs every summer as a child, and though I felt oddly at home there (Joseph Campbell called it “recognizing one’s tribe”), I couldn’t stand the music, the dancing looked silly to me, the food was awful, and I just wanted to go home and play baseball in the street with my friends. I remained stubbornly Californian, but my parents never seemed to mind. My father would just laugh when I complained about the Irish music he played in the car during long trips and would give the universal parental response, “When you have your own car, you can pick the music.” This open antagonism only caused me to further deny their culture. Then came the onslaught of adolescence and the conformity to peers that it demanded. My attitude did not improve.
As the years passed, I met the parents of many American friends and couldn’t help noticing, as awful as it sounds, how inanimate their homes seemed to be compared to my own. There was little and often none of the laughter, singing, storytelling, sharing of poems, endless jokes and incessant ribbing that went on in my house. Being young, I even took their bored demeanors personally at times. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally realized that their parents were actually just boring in comparison. There were exceptions, of course, and maybe I just had the bad luck of crossing paths with a lot of dullards. Whatever the case, I finally stopped taking my own parents and all their wonderful quirks for granted. I began to realize how lucky I was to have been raised in an atmosphere bursting with so much humor, music, and whimsy – traits the Irish are famous for the world over. Until then, I had mistakenly assumed such qualities to be commonplace.
So what did I do after this epiphany? Relish every moment with my parents? Record their stories for posterity? Tell them every day how lucky I felt to be their son? No. I wasn’t much different from most young people so I let many more years pass before making any grand demonstrations of my esteem for them, or making any permanent record of the tales they told. However, this time, it was not due to lack of appreciation on my part. It was ordinary, old-fashioned denial. I was in my mid-twenties before the full breadth of what I had in them finally dawned on me.
I had found my father’s tattered notebooks in a box years earlier and thought about encouraging him to finish his memoir, but on a subconscious level I felt that if I did I would be acknowledging the fact that the stories would someday end; that my parents would not always be with me. That thought made me too uncomfortable, so like most of us do, I lived as if we were all immortal, as if death only existed for other people, as if my parents would be with me forever. Though I had begun to toy with the idea of being a writer, I all but ignored the greatest sources of inspiration and the deepest wellsprings of experience in my life. Many more years would pass before the old notebooks would be rescued from the dusty garage.
Then tragedy struck. My older brother and only sibling, who had been battling a heroin addiction for over ten years, died suddenly of an overdose at the age of thirty-seven just when we all thought he was finally getting his life together. For years since we became aware of his problem, we feared it might happen and did everything in our power to prevent it. The last ditch effort he made to stay clean toward the end of his life had raised our hopes for him higher than they had ever been. When he died, my parents and I were utterly devastated.
I was not a complete stranger to death. I had lost all of my grandparents by that time except for my maternal grandmother. However, their deaths were an abstraction to me because they all lived in Ireland, and I had only met them briefly on two short trips there. When they died, I felt sadness but mostly for my parents’ sake. A robbery victim had also died in my arms on a Los Angeles street, and I had lost a close friend to leukemia. But my brother’s death hit me over the head with everything I had been denying for so long – that life most certainly does not go on forever, that death will come for all of us eventually, and that we must celebrate the people we love in every way possible while they are alive. As the poet Andrew Marvell wrote,
The grave’s a fine and private place
but none I think do there embrace.
Several years ago, I was talking with my friend, an actor named Colin Cunningham, who is also the son of Belfast immigrants. My parents and his met in Canada when they were young and have been friends ever since. His father and mine were dancing together (or “acting the eejit” as they would say in Ireland.) During a break in the laughter, he said to me, “Do you realize that if we don’t marry Irish girls, the whole Irish thing is over? Once our parents are gone, that’s it. It all dies with them. They’re part of a world that doesn’t exist anymore.” I nodded in agreement, and as I watched our fathers carrying on, it struck me how true his words were. I had already let so much slip past. I vowed again silently to myself that I would not let the folklore of my parents’ lives die. I would help my father finish his book, this book, once and for all.
I didn’t run off to the Emerald Isle to find an Irish girl to marry. I married for love, not background (though I have taught my wife how to do a passable Irish accent and sing “The Unicorn” by The Irish Rovers.) So my way of preserving the magical world I was given is the book you are now holding in your hands – tales of a simpler time in an infinitely less perilous world. As my father said with a cracking voice at my brother’s eulogy to all of his friends gathered in the small church, every one of them heartbroken along with us, “There are evils in the modern
world we never dreamed of as kids back in Ireland.”
There are, and my heart is heavy with them. This world has become a minefield of dangers not only to the body but to the mind and spirit as well. So as well as a record, this book is also an escape. It was an escape during a difficult time for my father and I to work on it together. I hope it will be an escape for you to read it.
I’m not sure what drove my father to write these stories down over the years. His great love is singing, not writing. But my guess is it was plain, old homesickness. He left Belfast at the age of twenty-four and could not afford to return until he was thirty-five. Those eleven years were a struggle, especially with two boys to feed. He had quit school at fourteen to support his family so he had no fancy degrees to flash at potential employers. That kind of pressure can give rise to a lot of fond reminiscing. Most of the stories are in their original form. Others were gleaned more recently during conversations, some of which I secretly recorded so that his natural storytelling abilities would not be impeded. Others are new to me as well; stories he held onto until someone expressed the proper interest in hearing them. This book is forty years in the making, and the old stories are finally seeing the light of day.
I wish that I’d had the same desire to read them when I was a teenager and my father and I seemed to be at odds about everything. It surely would have helped me understand him more and resent him less. This project has taught me how little I really knew about him. It has also made me wonder how many other people there are who don’t know their loved ones as well as they imagine they do, and how many other dusty memoirs are decomposing in drawers or boxes all over the world. There are things that just don’t come up in conversation that can be told to an old journal when the kids are asleep and the world is quiet.
We often don’t understand the behavior of our family members, or anyone else for that matter, because we don’t know the whole story. Understanding another is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. If there are pieces missing, the whole picture never becomes clear and we continue to be baffled by their surface behavior. Finding the missing pieces and completing the picture of my father’s life has been one of the most rewarding adventures of my own, and it has increased my love and compassion for him immensely.
One word of warning: My father can be a bit, well, gross. He loves to shock people. A few chapters are both gross and shocking. In assisting my father with this book, I entertained the idea of leaving them out but changed my mind, for to do so would be to leave the portrait unfinished. The kind of person who would be offended is exactly the kind of person my father directs this kind of humor at like little bombs. The fact is, he enjoys it and feels they deserve it for taking life and themselves too seriously.
So, these are the tales of a little town called Belfast in the first half of the twentieth century, a time and place less sophisticated but also far less treacherous than the world I find myself in today, the world that took my brother and almost destroyed the spirits of my mother and father. However, the most common adjective placed before the expression Irish spirit is “irrepressible”, and since my brother died I have been given the grandest demonstration of this that anyone ever could. During the first year or so after his death, I didn’t think my parents or I would ever recover or that any of us would ever laugh or smile again. It just didn’t seem possible. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one, particularly a child, will know what I mean. But I have seen my parents’ spirits rise again, even through this, in spite of this. Not even the loss of their first-born son can suppress forever the beauty and vibrancy of their souls, and it shouldn’t. We do no honor to those we have lost by lying
down and dying next to them.
So, from the devastation of that horror, the humor has risen again, and the stories are being told once more, as irrepressible as ever, always one more just when I think I must have heard them all. And my parents have begun to sing again.
Much has been written and said about the tenacity of the Irish, how they conquer everything with a joke or a song. For instance, an Irish wake is a happy occasion, not a somber one, a party meant to celebrate the life of the departed. To a stranger, it appears to be madness, singing in the midst of such pain, but it is the singing that saves them from madness. The stories, the laughter and the singing are what have preserved and upheld the spirit of the Irish race through wars, famines, persecution, and all the other woes which have befallen that lyrical and tragic land. Likewise, my parents and I will go on living, as we must, and we’ll honor the good that there was in my brother’s life the same way the Irish always have, with a humorous tale told with an open heart and a tear sparkling in the eye.
So come with me now, friend, to a simpler day
Just for a moment, ‘fore you’re back in the fray.
There are just a few people I’d like you to meet
Over that hill there and down the next street.
You might recognize them as family because
Half the world’s Irish – and half wishes it was!