The updated opening to A Place of Safety…
Those who knew Eamonn Kinsella (and were being at least somewhat honest with themselves) had to admit that were my father born but ten miles to the west or north, his murder would have been seen as the fitting end to a hard and brutal man. And my poorly-disguised pleasure at his passing would have been deemed understandable, if still somewhat inappropriate. After all, he was me Da, right? Flesh and blood to me, wasn’t he? And never you mind it was often more of the latter than the former when it came to me and my older brother. But upon death, all such foul memories are to vanish into the nothingness of his one-time existence.
His body was found off the Limavady Road in a ditch of flowing water on a cold, blustery morning late in February. His coat had been pulled down his arms and his hands bound behind him. Every bone on every finger had been broken, several ribs shattered, an elbow dislocated and his face pummeled into the mere hint of a human visage. Blood soaked his shirt down to his trousers, the knees of which were torn and scraped as if he’d been forced to walk on them or been dragged, and some said his every tooth was broken out, as well. Of course, little of this is truly verifiable because the only report we received was from a reticent undertaker, who at the time was gently suggesting a closed casket.
The Coroner’s one comment on his death was the purest embodiment of Protestant simplicity.
“Mr. Kinsella perished due to a bullet fired into the crown of his head.”
Not killed. Not murdered. Not slaughtered like a cow in the abattoir. No. Perished. A charming word that can mean so much.
I mean, many’s the time I’d hear more than a few men say, “I’m perished from the thirst.” Or hunger. Or cold. Or work. Or the mere seeking of a job. And women would say it, as well, but not once until that Coroner’s use of it did I ever connect the damned word with death.
That made so little sense, it sent me to the library to look it up, as they had a dictionary. To my surprise, it was defined as such, with synonyms being expire, wither, shrivel, vanish, molder and rot (any of which might have been just as appropriate…save for the last, since he didn’t time to) so I accepted the meaning must be true.
If still cowardly and so bloody fucking typical.
It was determined he had lain in that wet icy ditch for a full day and night. On his back. his clothing soaked through and solid with ice. His one unseeing eye open and tinted by blood; the other being swollen shut. Still bound tight as if against the possibility of him returning to life so he might haunt his killers (and in truth, I’d not have put it past him).
The problem is, that made it difficult to set an exact time of death, said the peeler. Understandable. But then to have them claim it was somewhere between midnight and four in the previous morning was quickly disputed by one and all. For he was last seen being jostled out of McCleary’s Pub in his usual condition just after last orders, that night. And thanks to the stories spread by that reticent undertaker’s wife, it was soon obvious to one and all that his death had been anything but easy or quick.
The reason for this certai was from Belfast and had worked as a navvy in Belfast, on their docks. And despite it being years since his last position, his hands still held the calluses the job built, his back still carried the strength gained from it, and he had only just begun drifting into sloth. Such a man would not have released his grip on life without a full-on fight, and it would have lasted for more than a few pathetic hours. So said one and all.
Word of his murder spread quick, as such news always does. Within the hour, many a man at many a pub had sad remembrances of his bleak eyes and long face, all bringing to mind tortured poets and sad balladeers. They spoke of how he could sing so well as to make angels weep, elegant tunes of Ireland’s ruined past and her dead future. Others recalled melodious stories spun by him of fairies living in Oak glens that once spread forever across the land. And of gods roaming her once glorious green fields. And exciting tales wrapped around Grianán Aileach, the ancient ring fort but six miles and a hundred worlds away from town. All brought forth in such beauty and perfection you’d have thought he lived through each one.
So said they all.
There were also tales set in times more modern, violent and furious and savage and dealing with the unnatural order of life in this corner of our fair isle. Even his enemies, of whom there were more than a few, acknowledged he had a true Irish heart, and in another time under better circumstances would have given the likes of James Joyce and Sean O’Casey a challenge as the nation’s bard.
A few adventurous, less-pious souls offered the slight possibility that he might well have lived through some of his tall tales, including those ancient, gently hinting at the heretical idea of reincarnation. The Church huffed and puffed most magnificently, but it made sense to me. For it was hard to see how so much anger and grace could have been poured into one man in fewer than thirty-six years unless he carried it over from a previous existence.
Oh, the rages he could build about the horrors of being a working man without work in a land cursed by God, with a wife and five mouths to feed. Barely living off the dole, they were, with naught but spuds burned in the open hearth and tea made from thrice-used leaves for their breakfast. Rags on their backs. A hovel of a dwelling on Nailors Row, close to collapsing around them and lucky to have that. No steady heat or indoor plumbing. Spuds for supper and tea, as well. No prospects for a decent job as once he’d had, even though that had been the worst kind of cruelty to his back and taken him away for too long from his devoted family…and wouldn’t you please front me another pint, m’boy?
Despite the reality of how you’d never see a farthing of repayment from him.
Naturally, that last memory was minimized in honor of the dead. Hypocrisy is much expected at both funeral and wake.
Still, within not a week past his burial some felt it safe to acknowledge that he might have taken a dram too much, now and again. Of course, that was not viewed to be a true problem; as many would say, most of the men in this pinpoint of the world were of the same bent, for it was one of the few comforts offered in their existence. Women as well, though not as many because they had little time for it, caring for their latest wain or working the shirt factories or keeping their man from making too great a fool of himself (which could be a full-time position unto itself).
Nor was him being a bit too quick to temper banned from some sly cows’ remembrances. A wrong word. A wrong look. A wrong touch, and suddenly you’re on the floor with a bloody lip or blackened eye. He cared not for size or ability of his chosen victim, and it would always be the other’s fault, no matter how improbable.
Of course, more than one would response in whispers that anger was sometimes the only emotion men like him were allowed to hold forth. And if his wife was seen at market with a fresh bruise over one eye or across one cheek, or out walking her wains around till her lord and master had sworn himself into weary, drunken sleep…well, she was hardly known for her gentleness, was she? Her nails had left scratches deep on more than just his back, and her quickness with an iron skillet was not unnoticed. I heard far too many of these comments bandied back and forth, on and on and on, soft and low, accompanied by a click-click-click of the tongue.
Just having a bit of craic on the stoop, nothing more. With no concern for any of his children if they happened to be close by and…well, listening in.
But I will say that for most, those few peculiarities were swept into the past. Starting with his wake, his trek to sainthood was begun and the truth of his existence drifted away like a ghost, aided and abetted by that closed casket and the need for his burial to be quick. It was paid for through the intersession of Father Demian, a priest who’d so often visited the man’s home in times of violence or distress in the years prior, he felt no need to knock before entering. Which I found an affront, but I was alone in this attitude.
He tried to comfort the new widow as she wept and wailed things like, “What’s to become of us?” and “How shall we live?” Over and over, to the point where even those sympathetic to her wondered if her laments were over Da’s passing or more from her sense of guilt for having loudly wished him dead, many a time. While I may have agreed with the latter sentiment, it was not their place to cast judgment on her, for it. Only a man’s kin may determine the meaning of his passing and worth, even those with more…oh, let’s just say, complicated reasons.
But in truth…how did we live, now he was gone?
Simple. The burned spuds and weak tea for breakfast were replaced by porridge and milk. Fish and chips could be brought in, on occasion, and eggs and fresh bread. For the one benefit of having to deal with life on less than half the dole’s miserly payment was that Kinsella’s widow knew how to stretch a ha’penny the length of a mile. Even better — because the widow had five with another soon due, the Derry Committee (the bastards who ran the town) were forced to promise better lodgings for us once the last of the Rossville Flats was completed.
If there were room still available on the queue, of course.
Can’t make promises one might have to keep.
So yes…for me there was no sorrow at his death. And as mentioned, while it was deemed inappropriate, me being his second son, I sensed even then it was for the better of me, my two brothers and two sisters…and even my mother, weep as she might. Something no child the age of ten should be thinking about his own father. But I cannot tell you how many times I’d seen his fists upon her as my elder brother and myself tried to stop him. The blood on her face. The tears from blackened eyes. Hers as well as ours. The time he broke my clavicle by shoving me down the stairs when I got too tight between them. And how she blamed me for it and expense incurred by a trip to the clinic. And how often Ma would turn on us, herself, with her own words and slaps and scratching nails, as if to make certain we shared in every part of her misfortune.
It was confusing, true, but ours was hardly the only family in such a situation so it was also considered normal. I had more than a few mates whose mothers were just a quick with their slaps and fathers who did not spare them their fists.
But the one thing that broke me away from that acceptance and set me against the both of them was the night of Winter Solstice, last. When he came home early, not quite perished from the drink (see how that word’s usually used?). I’d heard him coming up the lane, singing a fight song, so had warned my older brother, young Eamonn, who picked up Rhuari, the younger one, and headed up the stairs. Mairead, my older sister, and Maeve were already in their bed, reading, and for them we had little worry; Da never aimed his fists their way. As for Ma in the kitchen? I shot a quick, “Da’s comin’,” to her then I scurried up to our bed, hoping to have covers enough to cushion against his blows.
Except on this occasion he didn’t burst through the door, raging. Instead, we heard him clomp inside, exchange some murmured words with Ma, then jump upstairs to crash into their room, in the front of our hovel. Moments later my sisters were heard screaming and crying. Young Eamonn and I both went to the door to see what was wrong to find a horrified Mairead carrying a weeping Maeve downstairs. Then young Eamonn jolted and tried to cover my eyes, but not before I saw Da come out and stand at the railing to bellow, “Bernadette! I’m callin’ to youse!”
Now this was not the first time I’d heard him say it, and even at the age of nine I had a fair idea it meant they’d be husband and wife, for a little while, whatever that entailed. But this was the first occasion where I saw him stark naked. Top to bottom. With his tadger pointing out straight from between his legs.
I pushed young Eamonn’s hand away just as Ma came all but leaping up the stairs. She was in her shift, her hair wet and streaming down her back as she called over her shoulder, “Mairead, wrap yourselves in the comforter on the couch. I’ll let you know when to come up.”
Fortunately, we’d kept the door closed tight enough so she didn’t notice us watching as she danced past and threw herself into his arms. They kissed and stumbled back into the room and their door slammed closed, and for half an hour the creaking of their bed could have been heard clear to Armagh.
Young Eamonn pulled me back under the covers, where Rhuari was already asleep, and moments later, I could tell he was also dead to the world. But not myself.
I was angry.
I could not shake the image of what I’d seen, and I knew already young Eamonn would tell me nothing about it. I’d asked him often enough when we’d heard that creaking, before. And his response had always been, “They’re just being married people.”
Which never made a bit of sense, to me. But that night, having seen Ma’s joy as she flung herself against Da, I just listened and thought and came to a decision.
Never again would I try to protect her from him. Why bother, when it’s obvious their fights mean nothing and it only brought double the hurt to you? So when I sensed them about to begin their dance into violence, or up to their joyful bed, I would find something to fix in the hutch or at a neighbor’s. Then when I returned, after the worst of it was done, I’d only have Ma’s punishment to handle for having been outside late, not the both of them. It seemed better, that way.
Now of course, since I ask for honesty from others, I must also honor it, myself. My relief at Da’s passing was partly colored by the recent occasion where he’d nearly crushed my right hand because I dared wish to keep a sixpence I’d earned helping Mrs. Cahan clean her hutch instead of hand it across so he could have a part of one more pint of porter. And never once since has my mind changed my attitude.
However, my father lived and died in Derry, Northern Ireland (Londonderry for those who cannot be bothered to learn the city’s proper name). And upon his death, he was lionized for who he was — a Catholic man — as memories of the brute he was were, as mentioned, cast aside. And when it was learned he was killed by two drunk Protestants who swore to heaven and earth they’d only meant to have some fun with the Taig (which was as high a pile of shite as could be imagined but, naturally, was accepted as the most reasonable explanation by the Peelers) his martyrdom to Mother Ireland was carved in stone.
A poor family man trying only to keep kith and kin together as he slaved for the pennies tossed his way by Loyalist scum.
It would bring full-throated laughter from even the most forgiving of men.
If they were being honest with themselves.
Still…that would also have been tucked away, eventually. Added to the long list of offenses against the Catholics of the North and soon forgotten but for several Catholic schools being attacked, that year. And the emergence of a band of Loyalist mental defectives who, sensing the growing restlessness of the oppressed in Ulster and the push for civil rights, stupidly thought killing a few more of us would remind the Papists who was still in charge. Called themselves the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, they did, and in their deluded minds would become bigger and better than the Ulster Volunteer Force or B-Specials. Love, respect, and honor were sure come their way from similar-minded Protestants as they showed the bloody IRA who was the true master of this world.
Instead, they wound up simple murderers, banned, and imprisoned at Long Kesh.
However, their stupidity was not completely in vain. For their side. For in honor of their foolishness, the Derry Corporation, who ran the city like it was their fiefdom, decided no Catholic would be relocated till it was time to redevelop their street. Meaning we kept living in that hovel for three years more. Ma, the new wain and the girls in the front bed, me and the lads in the back, even as life settled into a fresh, bold direction around us.
That was my new beginning at the ripe old age of ten, feeling joyful and free even as the subtle brutality of my only known world surrounded me, waiting for the best moment to bring forth its fullest impact, growing closer and closer to an explosion of hatred and cruelty made only the worse by it happening in a supposedly civilized part of the fast-dwindling British Empire.
But what child can see the build of history around him? Even few adults can, in truth. Events occur that you’re part of but at the time carry no meaning beyond themselves. You either rejoice when all ends well or weep when it doesn’t. So my father’s death only held resonance for me in the most selfish of ways — that I could now live my life in the manner I chose, that of a child filled with hopes and dreams and prayers and promises, believing himself now to be in a place of safety.