By Jimmy Walsh Doyle
it's by the hush me boys/And that's to mind your noise/And listen
to poor Paddy's sad narration/ I was by hunger stressed/ and in
poverty distressed/ So I took a thought I'd leave the Irish nation."
what's called a hunger song, Paddy's Lament, the kind of thing we'd
hear on the Irish hour on Saturdays at home ...songs written during
what most people call the Famine, but what my father called the
Hunger. See, a famine is when there is no food, and there was plenty
of food in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. It's just that
the lion's share was earmarked for the English overlords, so food
was being shipped out of the island to England, past homeless Irish
people starving to death. "Starving with green mouths on 'em,"
my father would say with hatred dripping from his voice. Green mouths
'cause they tried to eat grass to stay alive, so as they went into
seizures on the sides of the road, they would vomit grass and stomach
acids, dying in front of their children. This as the English went
by in carriages, stomachs full. They didn't care. They saw, and
did nothing. This, my father always told me, was the Original sin,
to see injustice and do nothing.
falling asleep and wanting to kill the English. I remember not being
sure when the Hunger had occurred, just knowing that no one had
paid for it yet. I was six, maybe seven years old, and I had no
idea when or where this atrocity had taken place. I knew that my
grandparents had come from Ireland, my great-grandparents on one
side, and I knew that we couldn't have English things in our house
...English tea, biscuits, whatever, that was bad. It was Protestant
food, something Republicans or John Birchers would have. The world
was divided into us and them, very clearly back then. Protestants
used Miracle Whip, we used Hellman's. Protestants hated President
Kennedy too. Mind you, I was born in 1965, but no matter who was
in office, only one person was referred to as the President, and
that was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I thought we must have been related
to the President somehow, his picture was up in every room of our
house, along with a crucifix. I had contempt for anyone who wasn't
informed on these issues, people who didn't know that Nixon was
evil, people who weren't in the One True Church, people who didn't
have opinions. That was the worst thing in the world to my father
and mother, to stand for nothing. "If you don't stand for something,
you'll fall for anything."
and learned. I found my mother's dead body one September afternoon
when I was twelve, a suicide in the garage. A mother dead in front
of her child, red instead of green from the carbon monoxide, and
who's to blame? It can't be her, no God, she'd done her best and
sure she's singing with the martyrs as we speak. Anger with nowhere
to go became my best friend and most of my strength came from my
badges of honor, as an Irishman, a Democrat, Catholic soldier of
Christ, and now the son of the misunderstood and saintly Rosemary
Walsh. It was then I changed my middle name to Walsh, to wear her
name with me for the rest of my days. Names were always interchangeable
in my house anyway, for my birth certificate said James but wasn't
I always called Seamus? I moved on, I remember the same year with
two dead popes in it and then the hunger strikers in the Maze prison
the next year. I wore black armbands and wrote letters to the editor.
I stood for something.
My father lasted on his anger for another ten years, and then died
of a heart attack. He'd fought the fight, though, God love him,
didn't he always drive past the White House on the way to his office
in Washington, just to give Reagan the finger? My dad was a big
wig in the labor unions, and he hated Reagan. Reagan and that Thatcher.
In it together, thick as thieves, the Protestant ascendancy in action.
I was twenty-two and an orphan, but I was something, wasn't I? I
knew who I was, knew what I stood for. I carried my dead parents
with me everywhere I went. People would know what it was to be a
Walsh and a Doyle. I'd show them.
years later. Sober. In love. Happy. On the T.V. even. I had gone
through the repatriation process, and am, as we speak, a citizen
of the Republic of Ireland. The Irish constitution provided for
what are called "foreign births" of those Irish who'd
been cast about the globe in a diaspora after the hunger. I now
had an Irish passport and all ...more Irish than American and, as
I discovered on my numerous trips to Ireland as an adult, more American
than Irish. No one in Ireland seemed as mad about the Hunger as
I was. Some of them didn't even go to church, and didn't support
the I.R.A. But whatever. I was learning through exhaustion and pain
that maybe being strident had a price. Maybe being right all the
time led to the suicide and the heart attack in one's fifties. I
was trying to become more, dare I say it, middle of the road. So
I fell in love with a man who was as mellow as can be, Paul, the
fair-haired chemistry teacher.
Paul would ask me why I had to get so worked up about things, I
would respond with anger and then apology. I would try as best I
could to explain why I couldn't sleep when Andrea Yates was found
guilty of murdering her babies. I tried to be the peaceful "mellow"
guy he wanted me to be. He was my love, my light, and I would be
whatever he needed me to be. I was open to suggestion.
he questioned why I was crying on September 11th, I tried to explain
that the buildings that we kept seeing fall over and over were full
of people. "Those are people," I said. He said it was
sad indeed, but didn't really affect us. I realized at times like
that that maybe I was doing the feeling for both of us, that maybe
between my emotional extremes and his, oh I don't know, three or
four feelings, that there might be a middle ground.
left me nine days before a trip to Ireland. We'd planned it, and
he had referred to our last trip there as our "honeymoon."
We'd made deposits on cottages to stay in, I was on my cousin's
insurance for the car, we had plans plans plans. Nine days before
our trip, with reserved cottages in the same town where we'd rung
in the New Year, Paul dropped the bomb. I fled to Ireland with a
broken heart, not knowing how I'd do it. I just knew that I wouldn't
stay in L.A. and watch him pack up our home. The day before I left,
he asked me if I needed help packing, and did I want a ride to the
airport? See, to him, the eight days that had passed were enough
that we could now be friends. I declined his offer. I took a cab.
to God, on my flight from L.A. to Philadelphia, the seat next to
me was empty. Paul's presence floated around the plane like a heartbreaking
Elijah. He had told me that he never really loved me, and had never
really found me attractive. It was time to move on, have a nice
trip. Ta Brom Orm. I am so sorry.
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