“sliogo made me and sligo undid me…”

from sebastian barry’s costa-winning the secret scripture:

 

“My father was calling, calling, in enormous excitement in the towwer, “what do you see, what do you see?’

 What did I see, what did I know? It is sometimes I think the strain of ridiculousness in a person, a ridiculousness born maybe of desperation, such as also Eneas McNulty – you do not know who that is yet – exhibited so many years later, that pierces you through with love for that person. It is all love, that not knowing, that not seeing. I am standing there, eternally, straining to see, a crick in the back of my neck, peering and straining, if for no other reason than for love of him. The feathers are drifting away, drifting, swirling away. My father is calling and calling. My heart is beating back to him. The hammers are falling still.”

 

Roseanne McNulty, a one-hundred year old woman residing in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital begins to write her autobiography, entitling it “Roseanne’s testimony of herself.” It details her life and that of her parents, in turn-of-the-century Sligo. She keeps her story hidden under the loose floorboard in her room, unsure as yet if she wants it to be found. The second narrative is the “commonplace book” of the current chief Psychiatrist of the hospital, Dr Grene. The hospital now faces imminent demolition. He must decide who of his patients are to be transferred, and who must be released into the community. He is particularly concerned about Rose, and begins tentatively to attempt to discover her history. It soon becomes apparent that both Roseanne and Dr Grene have differing stories as to her incarceration and her early life, but what it consistent in both narratives is that Roseanne fell victim to the religious and political upheavals in Ireland in the 1920s – 1930s (cribbed from wikipedia).

 


 Roseanne’s Testimony of Herself

chapter one

 

(Patient, Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, 1957–)

The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death it ends. Or did not think he needed to. Because for a goodly part of his life he worked in a graveyard.

That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.

There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and manyswans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.

The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, oh and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.

That is Sligo town I mean.

Sligo made me and Sligo undid me, but then I should have given up much sooner than I did being made or undone by human towns, and looked to myself alone. The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.

I am not there now, now I am in Roscommon. It is an old

place that was one time a mansion but it is all cream paint and

iron beds now, and locks on the doors. It is all Dr Grene’s kingdom.

Dr Grene is a man I don’t understand but I am not afraid

of him. What religion he is I don’t know, but he looks very like

to St Thomas, with his beard and balding crown.

I am completely alone, there is no one in the world that

knows me now outside of this place, all my own people, the

few farthings of them that once were, my little wren of a

mother I suppose in chief, they are all gone now. And my persecutors

are gone in the main I believe, and the reason for all

this is that I am an old, old woman now, I may be as much as a

hundred, though I do not know, and no one knows. I am only

a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like

a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone

in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in

my niche like a songless robin – no, like a mouse that died

under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a

mummy in the pyramids.

No one even knows I have a story. Next year, next week,

tomorrow, I will no doubt be gone, and it will be a smallsize

coffin they will need for me, and a narrow hole. There will

never be a stone at my head, and no matter.

But small and narrow are all human things maybe.

It is silence all about. My hand is good and I have a beautiful

biro full of blue ink, given me by my friend the doctor,

because I said I liked its colour – who is not a bad man in

truth, maybe even a philosopher – and I have a bundle of

paper that I found in a store cupboard among other unwanted

things, and I have a floorboard loosened where I hide these

treasures. I write out my life on unwanted paper – surplus to

requirements. I start with a clean sheet – with many clean

sheets. For dearly I would love now to leave an account, some

kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself, and if

God gives me the strength, I will tell this story, and imprison it

under the floor-board, and then with joy enough I will go to

my own rest under the Roscommon sod.

My father was the cleanest man in all the Christian world, all

Sligo anyhow. He seemed to me all strapped about in his uniform

– not in any manner haphazard, but regular as an

account book. He was the superintendent of the graveyard,

and for this work he had been given quite a resplendent uniform,

or so it seemed to me as a child.

He had a barrel in the yard that gathered the rain and with

that he rinsed himself every day of the year. He would turn the

faces of my mother and myself to the wall of the kitchen, and

stood without fear of being seen among the mosses and the

lichens of the yard, stripped entirely, and laved himself mercilessly

in all kinds of weather, in the deeps of winter groaning

like a bull.

Carbolic soap, that would have cleaned a greasy floor, he

agitated into a suit of suds, that fitted him well, and he scraped

at his self with a piece of grey stone, that he stuck into the wall

in a particular niche when he was done – from where it poked

out like a nose. All this I saw by glimpses and quick turns of the

head, because I was a dishonest daughter in that way, and

couldn’t obey.

No circus act could have pleased me in the same way.

My father was a singer that could not be silenced, he sang all

the songs of the operettas of those days. And he loved to read

the sermons of preachers long gone, because, he said, he could

imagine the sermons fresh for some vanished Sunday, and the

words newin the mouths of the preachers. His own father had

been a preacher. My father was a passionate, I might almost say

celestial-minded Presbyterian man, which was not a particularly

fashionable quality in Sligo. The Sermons of John Donne

he prized above all, but his veritable gospel was Religio Medici

by Sir Thomas Browne, a book I still possess in all the flotsam

and ruckus of my life, in a little battered volume. I have it here

before me on my bed, with his name in black ink inside, Joe

Clear, and the date 1888, and the town Southampton, for in his

extreme youth he had been a sailor, sailing into every port of

Christendom before he was seventeen.

In Southampton occurred one of the kingly or main events

of his life, in that he met my mother Cissy, who was a chamber

maid in the sailors’ boarding house he favoured.

He used to tell a curious story about Southampton, and as a

child I received it as the gospel truth. It may have been true for

all that.

One season coming into port he could find no bed in his

favourite house and was obliged to go further along the windy

wastes of terraces and signs, and found a lonely house with a

vacant sign stuck out to fish in customers.

In he went and was met by a greyfaced woman in her middle

years, who gave him a bed in the basement of her house.

In the middle of the night he woke, thinking he heard someone

breathing in the room. Startled, and with that extreme

awakeness that attends such panic, he heard a groan, and

someone lay on the bed beside him in the dark.

He lit his candle from the tinderbox. There was no one to be

seen. But he saw the bedclothes and mattress depressed where

a heavy person lay. He leapt from the bed and called out but

there was no reply. It was then he noticed also in his very

entrails a terrible sense of hunger such as had not afflicted an

Irishman since the dark famine. He rushed to the door but to

his amazement it was locked against him. Now he was greatly

outraged. ‘Let me out, let me out!’ he called, both terrified and

affronted. How dare that old hag lock him in! He banged and

banged, and finally the landlady came and calmly unlocked it.

She apologised and said she must have unwittingly turned the

key against thieves. He told her about the disturbance but she

only smiled at him and said nothing, and then went up to her

own quarters. He thought he caught from her a strange smell

of leaves, of underfloor and undergrowth, like she had been

crawling through woodland. Then there was calm, and he

snuffed out his candle and tried to sleep.

The same thing happened a little while later. He leapt up

again and lit his candle and went to the door. It was locked

again! Again that deep gnawing hunger in his belly. For some

reason, maybe because of her extreme strangeness, he couldn’t

bear to call the landlady, and sweating and discommoded he

spent the night in a chair.

When morning broke he awoke, and dressed, and when he

went to the door it was open. He took his bags and went

upstairs. It was then he noticed the decrepitude of the place,

which had not been so obvious in the kinder darkness of the

night. He could not raise the landlady, and with his ship due to

sail, was forced to leave the house without seeing her, throwing

the few shillings on the hallstand as he went out.

Outside in the street when he looked back he was greatly

perturbed to see many of the windowpanes of the house were

broken, and there were slates missing from the sagging roof.

He went into the shop on the corner to compose himself by

talking to another human person, and asked the shopkeeper

about the house. The house, said the shopkeeper, had been

closed up some years ago and was uninhabited. Ideally it

would be demolished except it was part of the terrace. He

could not have spent the night there, said the shopkeeper. No

one lived there and no one would dream of buying it, for the

reason that a woman hadkilled her husband there, locking

him in a basement room and starving him to death. The

woman herself had been tried and hanged for murder.

My father told me and my mother this story with the passion

of a person reliving it as he spoke. The gloomy house, the

grey woman, the groaning ghost swam behind his eyes.

‘It’s as well there was room with us the next time you were in

port, then, Joe,’ said my mother, in her most neutral tones.

‘By God, by God, yes,’ said my father.

A little human story, a sailor’s story, that somehow had still

bound up in it my mother’s contrasting beauty, and the enormous

lure she had for him then and always.

For her beauty was that darkhaired, darkskinned Spanish

sort of beauty, with green eyes like American emeralds, that no

man can protect himself against.

And he married her and brought her back to Sligo and there

she lived her life henceforth, not bred in that darkness, but like

a lost shilling on a floor of mud, glistening in some despair. A

more beautiful girl Sligo never saw, she had skin as soft as

feathers, and a warm, generous breast all new-baked bread and

delight.

The greatest joy of my young life was issuing forth with my

mother into the streets of Sligo at dusk, because she liked to

meet my father on his way home from his work at the cemetery.

It was only many years later when I was more grown

myself that I realised, looking back, that there was a certain

anxiety in that going forth, as if she did not trust time and the

ordinary way of things to bring him home. For I do believe my

mother suffered strangely under her halo of beauty.

He was the superintendent there, as I said to you, and wore

a blue uniform and a cap with a peak as black as a blackbird’s

coat.

This was at a time when there was the Great War and the

town was full of soldiers, as if Sligo itself were a battlefield, but

of course it was not. It was but men on their furlough we saw

there. But they had a great look of my own father, what with

the uniforms – so that he seemed to pop up everywhere in

those streets, as my mother and me were walking, myself looking

out as fiercely as she for him. My joy was only completed

when at last it turned out to be him, coming home from the

cemetery in the dark evenings of winter, as might be, skittering

along. And when he spied me he would be playing with me

then, larking about like a child. And many a glance he got, and

maybe such action didn’t go with his dignity as superintendent

of the Sligo dead. But he had that rare ability to let things ease

in himself in the company of a child, and be stupid and gay in

the parched light.

He was the keeper of the graves, but he was also himself, and

in his peaked cap and blue uniform could guide a person to

whatever plot held relative or friend with solemn dignity

enough, but alone in his graveyard house, which was a little

temple made of concrete, he would be heard singing wonderfully

‘I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls’ from The

Bohemian Girl, one of his favourite operettas.

And on free days he went out on his Matchless motorcycle

to race along on the devious roads of Ireland. If the winning

of my mother constituted a kingly event, the fact that he in

one great year of fortune, around the time of my birth, raced

the short course on the Isle of Man, on his lovely bike, coming

in respectably in the middle of the field, and not killing himself,

was the source of constant memory and joy, and I am

sure consoled him in his concrete temple in the dreary

stretches of an Irish winter, surrounded as he was by those

sleeping souls.

My father’s other ‘famous’ story, that is, famous in our tiny

household, happened during his single days, when he was

more able to get himself to the few motorcycle meetings of

those times. It happened in Tullamore, and was a singularly

peculiar tale.

He was going along himself at a great rate, and in front of

him was a long wide hill, leading down to a sharp turn where

the road met a domain wall, one of those high, thick stone

walls built during the Irish famine indeed, as a sort of useless

labour to keep labourers alive. At any rate, the racer in front of

him, tearing down the hill and picking up an enormous head

of speed, instead of braking seemed even to accelerate at the

opposing wall, and finally, in a horrible clutter of smoke,

metal and a noise as of cannons, struck it mercilessly. My

father, peering out through his dirty goggles, nearly lost his

grip on his own machine, such was his horror; but then saw a

sight he could not and could never explain, which was the

rider rising as if on wings, and crossing the huge wall in a

swift and gentle movement, like the smooth glide of a seagull

in an upwind. For a moment, for a moment he thought

indeed he saw a flash of wings, and never could read in his

prayerbook again about angels without thinking of that

extraordinary instance.

Please do not think my father was dissembling, because he

was quite incapable of that. It is true that in country districts

– even in the towns – people like to tell you they have seen

wonders, such as my husband Tom and the two-headed dog

on the road to Enniscrone. It is true also that such stories are

only effective if the teller feigns absolute belief – or indeed saw

such wonders truly. But my father was no magician of lies and

stories.

My father managed to slow his motor-bicycle and stop, and

running along the domain wall, found one of those fanciful little

gates, and pushing the rusty iron, hurried in through nettles

and docks to find his miraculous friend. There on the other

side of the wall he lay, quite unconscious, but also, and my

father swore to the truth of it, quite unharmed. Eventually the

man, who happened to be an Indian gentleman who sold

scarves and other items out of his suitcase all over the western

seaboard, awoke, and smiled at my father. They both mar-

velled at this inexplicable escape, which not unnaturally was

the talk of Tullamore for years after. If you ever hear that story,

the teller might give it the title of ‘The Indian Angel’.

Again my father’s curious happiness was most clearly evident

in the retelling of this story. It was as if such an event were

a reward to him for being alive, a little gift of narrative that

pleased him so much it conferred on himself, in dreams and

waking, a sense of privilege, as if such little scraps of stories

and events composed for him a ragged gospel. And if ever

there were to be written an evangelical gospel of my father’s

life – and why should there not, as every person’s life is said to

be precious to God – I suppose those wings merely glimpsed

on his friend the Indian’s back would become more substantial,

and things merely hinted at by him would become in the

new telling by a second hand solid, unprovable, but raised up

even higher into the realms of miracle. So that all and sundry

might take comfort from it.

My father’s happiness. It was a precious gift in itself, as perhaps

my mother’s anxiety was a perpetual spanner thrown

into her works. For my mother never made miniature legends

of her life, and was singularly without stories, though I am sure

there were things there to tell as good as my father’s.

It is funny, but it strikes me that a person without anecdotes

that they nurse while they live, and that survive them, are more

likely to be utterly lost not only to history but the family following

them. Of course this is the fate of most souls, reducing

entire lives, no matter how vivid and wonderful, to those sad

black names on withering family trees, with half a date dangling

after and a question mark.

My father’s happiness not only redeemed him, but drove

him to stories, and keeps him even now alive in me, like a second

more patient and more pleasing soul within my poor soul.

Perhaps his happiness was curiously unfounded. But cannot

a man make himself as happy as he can in the strange long

reaches of a life? I think it is legitimate. After all the world is

indeed beautiful and if we were any other creature than man

we might be continuously happy in it.

The principal room in our little house, while already of narrow

dimensions, we shared with two large objects, viz. the aforementioned

motorbike which had to be kept out of the rain. It

lived in our living room a quiet life as one might say, my father

being able from his chair idly to run a chamois leather over the

chrome when he wished. The other object which I want to

mention is the little cottage upright piano, which had been

bequeathed him by a grateful widower, as my father had dug a

hole for this man’s wife at no charge, because the circumstances

of the bereaved family had been straitened. So one

summer night, soon after the burial, the piano had arrived on

a donkey and cart, and was carried in with smiles and embarrassed

happiness by the widower and his two sons, and placed

in our tiny room. The piano had possibly never been worth a

great sum, but it had a most beautiful tone for all that, and had

never been played before it reached us, in as much as one could

surmise that history from the state of the keys, which were

pristine. There were scenes painted on the side panels, of

places which were not Sligo as such, most likely being scenes of

an imaginary Italy or the like, but might have been all the

same, being of mountains and rivers, with shepherds and

shepherdesses standing about with their patient sheep. My

father, having grown up in his own father’s ministry, was able

to play this lovely instrument, and his delight as I have said was

in the old operettas of the previous century. He considered

Balfe a genius. As there was room for me beside him on the

stool I soon by grace of my love for him and my own great joy

in his ability began to pick up the rudiments of playing, and

slowly progressed to some real accomplishment, without in

any way feeling it was an effort or a trial.

Then I could play for him as he stood out in the centre of

the floor, such as it was, with his hand idly perchance on the

seat of his motorbike, the other hand in his jacket like an Irish

Napoleon, and sing with utmost perfection, or so it seemed to

me, ‘Marble Halls’, or the other gems of his repertoire – and,

for that matter, those little songs called Neapolitan, which of

course were not as I thought in memory of Napoleon, but

songs invented in the streets of Naples – songs now in exile in

Sligo! His voice entered my head as a sort of honey, that lingered

there potently, buzzingly, banishing all the fears of childhood.

As the voice rose up, so did all of him, arms, whiskers,

one foot swinging a little over the old carpet with its pattern of

repeating dogs, his eyes brimming with a strange merriment.

Even Napoleon might not have scorned him as a man of elevated

qualities. At such moments he exhibited a most beautiful

timbre in the quieter passages of songs that to this day I have

never heard outmatched. Many fine singers made their way to

Sligo when I was a young woman and sang in the halls under

the rain, and for a few of the more popular sort I even played

piano accompaniment, chopping out the notes and chords for

them, more of a hindrance than a help to them perhaps. But

none seemed to me to equal the strange privacy of my father’s

voice.

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