Autumn—Winter 1967, Age 16
A week after my birthday, Mr. O’Connor called me into his office. My first thought was, what have I done wrong? But he was all smiles as usual.
“Máire tells me you’ve been doing great, but we won’t need you in the lounge now summer is gone. They’re a bit short-handed behind the bar—would you like to give it a try? You’d start at five pounds a week.” ($125)
His offer caught me by surprise; bar-work was high status, a big step up from waiting. The staff knew the regulars and spent time chatting with customers—and they handled all the money. Mr. O’Connor must have thought highly of me to offer a wage-earning job in the off-season. I thanked him with a big grin on my face.
I’d learned a few bar skills: pour bottled beer onto the side of the glass; push the glass under the spirit measure on the wall and wait until the last drop dripped. Now I took lessons on how to construct that Pimms thing, how to draw draft beer and finally, the big challenge: how to pull a rich black pint of stout with a creamy white cap on top. The Irish were particular about their draft stout, either Guinness or Murphy’s.
Máire was my teacher. Short and dark with a constant smile and a sharp wit, she was easy to be around. She reminded me of my sister Dilly but in a good way—more kindness and less swearing. She initiated me into the complicated Guinness ritual. Pulling a perfect pint required steady technique and a lot of patience. The trick was to get the creamy head to float sedately to the top of the glass and stand a little proud of the rim, firm enough to float a penny.
Next Saturday evening plunged me over the deep end. Máire, another girl and I worked the bar, shouting orders, slopping drinks, bumping into each other and queuing up to use the cash register. Taking money was nerve wracking, particularly as mental arithmetic was never my strong point. Total the cost of drinks in my head, subtract that from the money offered, ring the amount up in the massive cash register with heavy brass keys and dig around for change in a warren of small compartments. How do you add four shillings and nine pence to three shillings and five pence and subtract that from five pounds?
Like diving through wild waves, tumbled and battered, the evening was exhilarating. No time to think, no time to pull the perfect pint, straining hard to hear the order over the babble of voices, customers leaning over the bar waving money, demanding their drinks—I was stretched to the limit, fully alive.
After the bar closed, Eileen checked the receipts and reconciled the total with the cash in the register. My tension grew as I watched and waited. Any shortfall and we would have to hang around until it got sorted. Luckily, that night my poor arithmetic did not keep us from our beds.
I was getting the hang of the lounge when abruptly my job changed. The old bartender, a man I hardly knew, left suddenly and they needed me in the other bar, the public bar. Máire and the girls refused to work there—too rough for them. That left Dermot, the young under-barman to take charge and, as Eileen informed me one morning, I was to be his assistant.
At the end of the lounge counter was a narrow hidden door that led to another world. Housed in a cavernous dingy room, the public bar was a forgotten and neglected outpost, quite unlike the rest of the hotel. The floor was covered with green linoleum tiles. The high ceiling once white, dripped with orangey-brown nicotine residue. Against the walls were hard chairs and benches framing chipped Formica tables; the beat-up bar counter was set about with wooden stools. It smelt of smoke, stale beer and hardship.
I slipped through the hidden door, looking for Dermot. He was often elusive, but this morning there he was, wiping the bar with a damp cloth. He turned and a grin spread over his face. With his wiry build, narrow face and sticky-out ears, Dermot looked about the same age as me—but he was eighteen and an experienced bartender.
“You gave me a bit of a start there,” he said laying down the cloth. “I though for a moment you were Eileen.” He reached under the bar to pick up a smoking cigarette, took a deep draw, flicked the ash expertly into an ashtray and leaned back against the counter.
“Would you like one,” he asked as he reached for his pack of fags.
“No thanks,” I answered. Smoking on duty was forbidden and I didn’t want to get into trouble.
“Don’t worry, she doesn’t come in much; she leaves us to get on with it.” He turned to me with a wicked grin. “How about something a little stronger.” He picked up a glass and reached up to the measure under the Paddy whiskey bottle. He pushed up and down quickly and a small drop of amber liquid trickled into the glass. He tossed the whiskey into the back of his throat.
“Just a little something to keep the Hell fires burning. You won’t be telling, will you? Eileen has her eye on me—and what a lovely eye it is.” He gave me a wink.
Dermot’s humor and casual attitude were refreshing—if disconcerting. Always game for the craic, ready for a laugh and a joke, he took everything lightly. In contrast, I worried and worked hard to be accepted. Occasionally, when he didn’t do his share of tedious bottle sorting, Dermot’s laziness got on my nerves—but it was hard not to like him.
Unlike Máire, Dermot was no teacher: he gave me a long list of tasks and promptly disappeared to enjoy a leisurely smoke. On my morning shift, I swept and mopped the lino floor, took down the chairs from the tables, tidied the bar and checked the beer barrels. The worst part was cleaning the men’s long urinal; it stank and the drain was always clogged with cigarette butts.
At 10.00 am sharp, I pulled the bolts on the battered black double doors and the first customers entered—the same characters who stood around the square in the early morning: unshaven, draped in long dark raincoats with cloth caps or battered homburgs on their heads. They patronized the public bar because the drink was cheap and inevitably ordered a large bottle—a pint of the strong local porter made by Powers.
The men saluted each other with a nod and a word or two of greeting: “Fine day, Pat,” “Good to see you, Mike,” then lapsed into silence, sipping slowly from their glasses of dark liquid. Standing behind the bar, I surveyed the cold, almost empty room and watched the rhythmic elevation of glass to lips as wisps of cigarette smoke curled up to the ceiling. I wondered about their lives and how they could pay for drink. The morning dragged on slow and dreary until we closed for the afternoon.
That evening, the room transformed. The customers swelled and a wrinkled old woman with gap-teeth took her seat by the door sipping gin. The crowd grew lively and gregarious, loud with greetings and backtalk, jokes and laughter. Dermot was in his element, calling out to customers and sharing a yarn. Even during busy times, he leant with is elbows on the counter and gossiped while I was left to contend with the orders, feeling besieged and deserted.
Eventually I realized no one minded if I took my time—no one was in a rush. Over the weeks, I began to relax and learned the drinking-man’s colorful language to describe degrees of drunkenness: legless, flutered, langers, bollocksed, paralytic.
One night when the drink had done its easing work, someone called out, “C’mon Jimmy, give us a song!”
An old man sitting at the bar looked up from his glass. He was cloaked in the invisibility of the old and I’d served him without noticing. He peered through the crowd and shouted back, “Ah, I don’t know, Pat. Wisha, I’m not in the mood.”
The voice called out louder, “C’mon Jimmy. Don’t be holding back!” The chatter died, faces looked around the room and other voices joined the request for a song.
Jimmy stood up slowly, straightened his back, took off his cloth cap and held it in one big-knuckled hand. Then he smoothed down his thinning gray hair and his drink-raddled face fixed as though caught in a spotlight. “I’ll give you a poem—the great Master McGrath.”
There was a burst of applause and calls of, “Good man, yourself,” and “Give us your best.”
The room fell eerily silent. Dermot and I stopped serving. Into the hush, Jimmy’s throaty voice rose, each word clear and precise with the lilt of a seasoned storyteller. In rousing rhyme, he told the tale of Master McGrath, the famous Dungarvan greyhound—how he bested the Englishman’s dog, Rose, to win the Waterloo Cup in 1868. The poem reflected pride in all things Irish, a shared sense of belonging—with a dig at the arrogance of the English invaders.
Jimmy came to one of the popular verses, hesitated and looked around to make sure everyone was with him:
“Well, I know,” says McGrath, “we have wild heather bogs
But you’ll find in old Ireland we have good men and dogs.
Lead on, bold Britannia, give none of your jaw,
Stuff that up your nostrils,” says Master McGrath.
Spoken in ringing tones, it brought tingles to the back of my neck. At the finish, the room burst into a roar of clapping and calls of, “More power to you, Jimmy,” and “Give that man a drink.”
Jimmy sat down slowly and took a sip of porter. A wave of unfamiliar feeling swept over me as if I’d touched something electric and alive. The atmosphere buzzed as the next entertainer started in with a popular risqué song, Maid of Amsterdam. Customers jostled at the bar getting their drinks, the room turned uproarious as everyone joined in the rollicking chorus:
A rovin’, a rovin’,
Since rovin’s been my ru-i-in,
I’ll go no more a roving,
With you fair maid!
As each singer finished, another was elected to take a turn until Dermot called for last orders. After the last customer left, I bolted the doors, exhausted and exhilarated. I’d been part of something I’d never experienced before; it was enthralling.
I learned to chat with the regulars, share a joke and accept gentle teasing without taking offense. I sang along with the old rebel songs and listened enchanted as one old man recited from memory an epic poem—hours long with no hesitations or missed lines.
Now the occasional shifts in the lounge felt deadly, frozen with polite middle-class restraint. Staff gossip and hotel drama lost its attraction. Real life went on next door in the public bar where real people gathered for a short respite from their tough lives.
As my attention turned away from the hotel, my relationship with Linda foundered. We joked and flirted but it never went anywhere. We kissed and cuddled, but at a certain point, she pushed me away with a half laugh and a shake of the head. But even with my doubts and frustrations, it was hard to give her up.
One evening I got off work early, bought two flagons of hard cider and took them up to her house in Cathal Brugha. Jackie was down at the pub as usual, so Mary, Linda and I sat round the turf fire drinking and chatting.
Feeling tipsy, I smiled at Linda and patted my thigh. “Come on, sit on my lap.”
Linda tossed her head, smiled and sat on my knee. I leaned over to kiss her but she turned her head away.
“What’s wrong? You’re always teasing and getting me worked up. If you don’t like me, just say so.” My voice was too loud, my pent up frustration bursting at the seams.
She looked down and murmured, “It’s not that. I just can’t.”
“Is it because of Mary?” I turned to Linda’s sister: “You don’t mind, do you Mary.”
“Not at all, not at all,” Mary replied, shaking her head with a smile. She seemed to enjoy the romantic drama.
“Well, if you won’t be nice to me, maybe Mary will. What’d you say, Mary? Let’s go into the bedroom.”
I pushed Linda off my lap and taking Mary by the hand, swaying slightly, I led her into an adjoining room with a bed. She went willingly—we both knew it was just for show, a ruse to make Linda jealous. As I looked back, Linda sat shoulders slouched, gazing into the fire. I slammed the door, expecting some reaction—nothing.
Deflated, I sat on the bed beside Mary.
“What’s wrong with her, Mary. She keeps leading me on and pushing me away. I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t take it to heart. You know, she’s not over it yet.”
“What do you mean?” I said, confused.
“You don’t know?”
“Linda never tells me anything.”
Mary looked away from me, her face crumpled with pain. “It was terrible, just terrible. Da was nearly out of his mind. And poor Linda—who knows what she went through.”
“What happened?” I asked as shadows gathered around us.
“It was—let me think—summer last year. This quare fella, he was hanging round the street. Seemed harmless enough—you know, just simple. He took a real shine to our Linda. The next thing you know they’d disappeared—gone without a word.”
Mary’s voice got soft and low. “He took her some place up in the Knockmealdown Mountains. The whole street and the Gardaí went out searching. They found the hut on the third day and them both locked inside. I wasn’t there—thanks be to Jasus—but I heard Da broke the door down and went after him with an axe. They had to pull him off the fella, would have killed him if they didn’t.”
“What happened to Linda?”
“I don’t rightly know—she didn’t speak one word for over a week.” Mary hesitated and then continued, “She’s never been the same since… but she does like you.” The last was said with kindness.
We sat in silence, images whirling around my fuzzy brain. What should I say? What could I do? I only wanted a little sexual experimentation—but this was too much to get my head around.
Mary and I went back into the main room to find Linda hunched over. She must’ve known we’d been talking about her. I didn’t know what to say, couldn’t even look her in the face. All I wanted was to get away. I said goodbye and left without a kiss.
Over the next weeks an ominous cloud hung over me and I didn’t see Linda at all. Then my world came crashing down.
One afternoon a couple of weeks before Christmas, I was serving in the lounge when Dermot came in early. He drew a stool up to the bar, boasting about his tremendous capacity for alcohol and how much drink he’d taken the previous evening.
“I can drink anything in a single swallow—and stay standing.” He made it sound like a challenge, looking me in the eye with a self-satisfied grin. That expression was very familiar, just like John’s.
“I bet you couldn’t—not the one I make,” I replied, rising to the bait.
“You’d lose that one for sure.” Was that scorn in his voice?
I glanced at the far end of the bar where two men were slowly working on their pints. They were regulars, well out of earshot. I leaned across the bar keeping my voice low. “No way. I’ll make you a drink so disgusting you’ll vomit all over the carpet.
“OK, it a wager. If I drink it all in one go, I’ll pay. If not, you pay. How’s that?” Dermot’s voice was a little loud and it made me nervous but he’d called my bluff and I couldn’t back down.
I took a half-pint glass, poured in a shot of Crème de Menthe plus other random liqueurs, Gordon’s gin, a big dash of Angostura Bitters, all topped up with stale beer. I plopped the swirling greenish-brown concoction in front of him.
He gazed at the glass for a moment. Then looking in my eyes, he lifted the glass and poured the disgusting stuff smoothly down his throat. Watching it disappear, a thought struck me: That was stupid—I should have made it a full pint.
Dermot let out his breath with a loud huff. “Tasted great. I could do with another of those.”
He looked a bit queasy but his stomach was holding. Without doubt, he’d won the bet fair and square and I’d have to put money into the till. I couldn’t decide how much, so it would have to wait until later.
Dermot went off to change and came back in half an hour to serve the public bar. I stayed in the lounge. It was a normal quiet mid-week night. Around eight o’clock Paddy O’Brien and a couple of his friends came in, ordered pints and took their seats in the corner. The mood was quiet and subdued and I felt comfortably in charge.
Busily washing glasses in the sink, I heard raised voices and looked over to the O’Brien’s table. Paddy rose abruptly to his feet nearly knocking over his chair and fixing me with his eyes, steamed across the lounge like a bull. Thrusting a stool aside, he leaned over the counter and shouted in my face, “You! Get that other piece of shite and come with me.” I could see the veins standing out on his forehead and thick neck.
My mind whirled: What’s going on? Fear squeezed the pit of my stomach and the blood drained from my face.
Without a word, I slipped through the connecting door into the public bar. Dermot was chatting with a customer so I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him aside.
I whispered, “We’re in big trouble. Paddy O’Brien wants us in the lounge.”
Dermot’s face went as pale as mine. He followed me as I passed back through the connecting door to see Paddy waiting, his face enflamed with anger.
“You two—follow me.” He gestured at the lounge door and strode out.
Dermot and I ducked under the gap in the counter and trotted after him into the hallway. Confused and scared, I tried to muster my thoughts. This must be about the drinking. What can I say?
“Get those coats off,” he snapped. We took off our white bar coats and stood there silently in our shirtsleeves. He grabbed the coats, threw them into a corner, enveloped our forearms with his massive meaty hands and dragged us along the corridor and out through the door into the back yard. He hadn’t said another word but I could feel his barely-controlled rage. I knew he was about to beat us to a bloody pulp.
Half way across the back yard in the cold drizzling rain, he finally let go, shoving us towards the back gate.
“Get out, if you know what’s good for you,” he bellowed.
No longer propelled forward, we stumbled and stood frozen. The mounds of bottles glinted in the light from the hotel windows. Paddy stood in front of us, arms wide, barring our way back in.
I couldn’t get words to form in my dry mouth, but Dermot was not giving up. “Mr. O’Brien, Sir, why are you doing this? We didn’t do anything.” His voice was whiny and desperate.
“You thieving little gobshite. You deserve a good thrashing. Now, get out of here!” Paddy waved his arm in the air and stepped forward threateningly. Rain chilled me to the bone as my mind went round and round: It’s a mistake. I can pay for those drinks. I just need to talk to Mr. O’Connor; he’ll sort it out.
As if reading my thoughts, Paddy lunged forward and caught the collar of our shirts in his hands. He marched us across the dark muddy yard, around the pile of old bottles to the back gate. We stood silent as he pulled back the rusty bolt. Then he shoved us through the opening and slammed the heavy gate shut behind us. I heard the bolt rammed home.
Dermot looked crushed. “Oh Jasus, me Da’s going to kill me. What am I going to tell him?” He hunched his shoulders against the cold and walked off into the dark. I dragged myself along the empty streets back to the caravan in a daze, not sure what had happened. It didn’t make sense; it couldn’t be true—everything I depended on had vanished in an instant.
Denial and Projection
My first job and I got sacked! How did that happen; what did it mean? Only with time can we discover the inner purpose of an event or experience. While it is happening, we are drowned by emotion, captured by panic, believing our world is ending. Of course we look for someone to blame—we prefer to be innocent victims than take responsibility.
It’s easy to condemn Dermot: he was the bad apple, the devil whispering in my ear leading me to perdition. Primed by my brother John, I rose to the bait, swayed by his charm and easygoing ways. If it weren’t for Dermot, I would have remained a paragon of virtue, a shining example of the good boy, a perfect barman. Or again, I could blame Paddy O’Brien for being an asshole and my mother for modeling shameless thievery.
Banal rationalizations! The question remains: Was I really going to pay for those drinks? The answer is—not if I could get away with it. Would I have denied everything at the time: for sure, if it would have got me out of trouble. In my anguish, I needed a scapegoat to carry my sins and relieve me of culpability. I had to shore up my fragile sense of goodness by projecting all the badness onto someone else. How else could I cope with the devastating realization that it was my fault?
We lie to ourselves; we block out inconvenient and disturbing parts of reality. To make it water tight, we then deny that we are denying—papering over our reality distortion so even the cracks are hidden.
Denial and projection are universal ego defenses. When confronted by our dishonesty and depravity, we twist ourselves into a tortuous knot, project the blame and accuse others of our own bad faith. In that way, we maintain the fiction that we are flawless human beings. When selfish desire overrides good moral sense, when we are callous, cruel and generally nasty, we stuff our wickedness into the shadow and see only the wickedness in others.
Happily, self-deception is seldom absolute. At the fringe of awareness, our better part tries to get our attention. I recall a flash of intuition telling me the bet with Dermot was a terrible idea; I remember a moral voice prompting me to pay for the drinks. Naivety, inertia and stinginess stopped me listening. I soothed myself into smug satisfaction believing I could break the rules and get away scot-free. What I needed was a good hard slap to wake me up—and that’s what I got.
The Trickster Strikes
I do not believe in a mechanical universe: there are no arbitrary coincidences and no random events. Everything that happens is a result of mysterious chaotic forces, interlocking causes and consequences that are far too complex and entangled for our limited minds to grasp—but meaningful none-the-less. When an unforeseen crisis hits, instead of dismissing it as coincidence, we should ask ourselves: What does it mean and what purpose does it serve?
I talked about the Shadow in Chapter 3 (Dancing with the Shadow). A closely related archetype both fascinating and exasperating is the Trickster. When something weird happens, when we get a rough wake up call, when we fall flat on our face, we know we are being goaded by an unconscious elemental, one that is neither kind nor considerate.
Every culture has stories about a tricky spirit: the Greek God Hermes, Chinese Monkey King, Native American Coyote, Anansi the spider in Africa, Loki in Norse myths and of course, Br’er Rabbit. The Trickster energy is devious; its job is to shake us awake, surprise us with pranks and pratfalls—shock us to the core and ultimately make us laugh at ourselves.
The Trickster is unkind because it cares little for our conscious experience, our petty complaints and mundane concerns. It makes us lose our keys—see how frantic we get about being late! It crashes our computers—am I really that addicted to the Internet? We take a wrong turn and experience a horrible ordeal; thus we see the world from a new perspective. Faced with unexpected upheavals, plans and expectations in tatters, we need to ask: Why is the Trickster messing with me? What’s it up to?
In some sense, my Irish adventure was a confidence trick! I thought I made choices, but in truth I was maneuvered, provoked and jostled by internal and external forces beyond my control. Objectively, the whole production was an elaborate practical joke, a prank to make me wake up and get real.
Why did I need to get thrown out of the Ormond? With the omniscience of age, I see it from a different perspective. Settling into that job would have blocked crucial experience from happening later. The hotel was effortless, soporific—an enveloping nest seducing me with security and a deceptive sense of belonging. If I stayed, I’d have become stuck; I needed an ordeal to push me out of the nest and into real life.
Out of our threads of self-deception we weave small predictable worlds to hide from chaos and crisis; we fool ourselves that disaster and suffering will never come—that we are somehow exempt. Our daydreams of invulnerability have to get popped or we ever remain children.
Paddy O’Brien’s in his God-like wrath, cast Dermot and me out of the back gate of Eden. We’d eaten his forbidden fruit and he was well and truly pissed. I’ve wondered why God didn’t give Adam and Eve a fair and impartial hearing. Wasn’t He over-reacting a wee bit? What lesson was He trying to impart?
One of my therapists asked: “Why do you believe that life has to be fair, that God should treat you well?” Then I saw it: a childish part of me still believed that if I did everything right, God and the Universe would make my life smooth and easy. What a trap! Without difficulties and struggle, I would never grow up and never have to change.
I can thank Paddy O’Brien for one thing: he probably saved me from a slow slide into alcoholism. A small tipple of alcohol made everything a little softer, a little brighter—and the whiskey measure was always there, a little above shoulder height. With our family inclination toward addiction, it’s likely I would have succumbed. Maybe Paddy was a saving angel rather than an ignorant bully.
Sadly, I never saw Linda again. My humiliation overshadowed my affection; my misery eclipsed any empathy I had for her. Unable to cope with her trauma, I abandoned Linda without a second thought.
We have to be strong to confront evil, to look it in the eye and realize it is real. I was too young and immature to have that strength: I could not allow myself to imagine what she went through in those days and nights all alone in a mountain hut with her kidnapper. Was she raped? Was she brutalized and tortured? Certainly, she was terrified out of her mind. I will never know what actually happened—but I do know she was psychologically damaged.
In Chapter I wrote about trauma, outlining the three elements: vulnerability, intensity of the event and the quality of the healing environment. Linda was an innocent young Catholic girl when she was abducted. She experienced something far beyond her ability to understand or deal with. Her vulnerability and the bewildering events overwhelmed her coping abilities; she was horribly traumatized.
Then there was the healing environment—what healing environment? Extreme poverty, dead mother, alcoholic father and a culture that avoided mention of anything sexual or traumatic—that was the environment she had to contend with. My rejection only made it worse—I reinforced her shame and possibly her sense of being polluted. I drove the trauma deeper into her psyche.
Could I have behaved differently? Not likely. It took me years as a therapist to be able to really listen to clients’ stomach-churning experiences. Early in my career, I may have looked attentive; in fact I was scurrying around in my head, panicked by the horror of what humans do to one another. I will spare you the details.
Few of us are equipped to encounter the darkest aspects of human behavior without guidance and support. Even hearing a second-hand account of pain sends a shiver of empathy up our spine. We are designed to feel what others feel—and that feeling can crush us.
Faced with evil, our inner alarms go off; we desperately want to turn away and hide. It takes disciplined compassion to turn towards the horror and simply be there. Only if we have the courage to stay present and look evil in the eye can we restore the missing healing environment. With loving presence the dark shadows begin to disperse.
Read the next chapter: 12: Misery
 My approach is based on an appreciation of Chaos Theory and Jung’s concept of Synchronicity. “Chaos theory states that within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization.” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory. 2022.
“[S]ynchronicity experiences refer to a person’s subjective experience that coincidences between events in their mind and the outside world may be causally unrelated to each other yet have some other unknown connection.” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronicity. 2022.
 Secondary trauma is a response to witnessing or hearing a firsthand account of another person’s traumatic experience. It is a major cause of burnout and stress in mental health professionals.