Early Spring 1968, Age 16
The day was fresh from a spring shower as I set off along the Cork road. After a mile or so, the road climbed out of town; on the left was the turn-off to Ring, the Gaeltacht where the original Gaelic language was still spoken. From the top of the hill, I looked down over Dungarvan bay spread beneath me. At this distance, it was beautiful, a perfect bowl of shallow blue water reflecting the sun and clouds. Some said it looked like a miniature Bay of Naples.
My wallet held the grand sum of ten pounds, enough to seek my fortune in the big city of Cork, some fifty miles away. With Mr. O’Connor’s glowing reference, I could look for a live-in job, maybe at one of the better hotels, the Metropole or the Intercontinental. I felt light—easy on my feet, settled in my mind. Something had unlocked inside me, a vision of what life could be like—with no specific word or shape, but a sense of moving forward.
The landscape opened up: scrubby bushes of yellow gorse and a single wire fence to my left. After walking with my thumb out for an hour, a big silver ford pulled over. The driver, a friendly balding man, owned a mink farm near Cork. He was returning home from a business trip and we fell into an easy conversation. At one point, he stopped to show me his recent purchases: a pair of sinuous mink with silky black fur and sharp pointed faces. They looked up at me with hungry pebble eyes from the bottom of their cage.
Things seemed so perfect that as we got closer to Cork, I nurtured a secret hope that the man would offer me a job at his mink farm and everything would turn out perfectly. When he let me out in the center of the city with a friendly farewell, my hopes were dashed. Painful reality closed in around me. With a nervous fluttering in my stomach, I made my way to the bus station café and ordered a cheese sandwich for supper. What should I do now? I’d have to sleep somewhere.
Across the street, I saw a faded sign: Station Hotel. Though I knew the Ormond as a worker, I’d never stayed in a hotel as a guest, never imagined I could afford such luxury. At the shabby front desk, I handed over one pound two shillings and sixpence to the bored receptionist and found my room.
That night I slept badly, tossed and turned. The mattress sagged, the bedclothes were thin and the floor creaked when I went to the bathroom at the end of a long corridor. With limited money, I could afford one night but I’d have to find somewhere else if I wanted to survive in the city.
The next day I made the rounds of the hotels. At the Metropole the head porter told me there were no vacancies and a long waiting list. To soothe my disappointment, I went into Haji Beys’ confectionary shop a few doors down and bought a lusciously mouth-melting piece of Turkish delight, the high point in an otherwise dismal day. Tramping around the city, forcing myself to enter and enquire at each of the well-known hotels, all I got was a brush off. Jobs were tight and I didn’t have the experience.
Dusk fell and I had no place to go; I couldn’t pay for that terrible hotel again. Feet aching, feeling bruised and battered from so much rejection, I summoned up a dribble of courage and asked a man on the street if he knew of a place I could stay for the night. He hesitated for a moment: “Well, son, it’s not much but you could try the YMCA hostel. It not too far, just along the quay.”
I followed his direction to a large gray building with a YMCA sign. At the front desk, I found the price was right—five shillings for the night. Upstairs in the gloomy dormitory, the beds were laid out army style in long rows with grey blankets and a thin pillow. Aged and crumpled men started to arrive and lay claim to their sleeping spots.
I chose a bed at the far end of the room and had just begun to take my night stuff out of my bag when I felt a presence close to my left shoulder. With a start, I turned. Standing close behind me was a gaunt man in a long gray raincoat and shapeless homburg hat. I couldn’t see his face properly; his hat was pulled low and he kept his head down as if looking at his feet.
In a soft, hollow monotone he spoke: “You shouldn’t be here lad. It’s not the right place for you. I know a better place. I’ll take you there.”
Then he stood, silent and unmoving. Anxious thoughts rattled around my head: Who is he? What does he want? Should I go with him or not?
I didn’t want to stay in the dormitory with all those battered destitute men—that was obvious. What was the worst that could happen: he’d attack me? I was young and strong and a breath of wind could knock his skinny body over. I came to a decision. Nodding my assent, I followed the gray man down the stairs and out of the building.
As if surrounded by a shroud of silence, I couldn’t find a word to say to the man. We simply walked along the darkening streets, hushed except for the sound of our footsteps. I felt calm but was careful to stay a few steps behind him—just in case. On and on the journey went, winding through miles of streets toward the South of the city, straining my already aching legs.
Is this a stupid mistake? Are we lost? How can I find my way back to the hostel? With no assurance, I kept following, watching his gray raincoat-clad back and the small movements of his boney shoulders.
We arrived at an ordinary row house on an ordinary street—one of many, all looking the same. He went up to the door and knocked. I stood back, waiting. After a long pause, sounds came from within and the door opened a crack. A boy my age with unruly bright yellow hair peered out at us.
The gray man spoke in his hollow voice: “Can you find a bed for this boy?” He gestured toward me.
“Hold on, I’ll find out.” The head disappeared, the door closed and we waited. The boy returned in a few minutes.
“Yeh, that’s alright. Come on in.” He opened the door, took me by the arm and pulled me over the threshold. I turned to thank my mysterious guide but he was gone.
Things happened fast. I had no time to think about the man or why he’d helped me. The yellow-headed boy led me down a corridor into a large kitchen where three other teenagers sat around a wooden table. As we came into the room, a tall boy of about 18 looked up.
“Hi there. What’s your name? Where’re ya from?”
In the spotlight of eyes, my thoughts stumbled: What is this place? Who are these boys? Where are the adults?
“I’m Owen. I came in from Dungarvan looking for a job.” My voice sounded hesitant and thin.
“Come on in and have a cuppa tea.”
The tall boy poured dark brown liquid from a big metal teapot into a china cup.
“Are you hungry? There’s bread and butter on the sideboard. Help yourself.”
I sat down and he looked me over: “You can stay the night. There’s an empty bed up in the top room with Danny and Kevin.”
He spoke to a slim boy with a pale narrow face and coal black hair. “Danny—after tea show him up and get some bedclothes.” He turned back to me: “Mr. McCurtin will be here in the morning; he’ll decides if you can stay longer.”
After tea, bread and butter, Danny led me up the narrow stairs to a gabled room with three beds. Friendly and chatty, Danny’s thick Cork accent made it hard to understand him, but I gathered the house was a Home for Wayward Boys run by the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
The house rules were simple: make your bed, keep the room tidy and don’t make trouble. Breakfast was help-yourself—no lunches. Brendan, the live-in caretaker made supper and was a terrible cook. Mr. McCurtin was the man in charge. He was strict but fair. To stay, you had to get a job and pay a percentage of your wages to the home.
That night I slept soundly in the small attic room with Danny age fifteen on one side and Kevin, a thirteen-year-old, on the other. It was almost like having my brothers around me.
Next morning after breakfast, I was called into the front parlor to meet Mr. McCurtin, a round man with a shining billiard ball head above an almost spherical body neatly attired in a gray three-piece suit. He asked me a few questions—my name, where I was from, what I was doing in Cork, where my family lived—all easy and friendly. With a smile he told me I could stay as long as I got a job in the next three weeks. He suggested I try the commercial hotels; they were most likely to be hiring.
Within a week I had a job as a porter at Moore’s Hotel on Morrison’s Quay, a shortstop hotel catering mainly to salesmen and business people. Wearing a short gray jacket with silver buttons, my duty was to stand near the main door, help guests out of their vehicle and carry suitcases up and down the stairs—not terribly demanding.
My supervisor, the head porter, was Seamus, a gentle soft-spoken man in his fifties, born and brought up on a farm in rural Cork with its tradition of geniality and warmth. His speech rose and fell in a lyrical wave-like cadence; long stories flowed out of his mouth, each poetically expanded to draw out the last drop of interest and the maximum amount of humor. Each morning he greeted me with a wide smile and his typical, “How are ’ou, gossoon?” spoken with emphasis on the ’ou; gossoon was an old Irish expression for a young lad, adapted from the French garçon.
I liked Seamus—never stressed, never rushed, always ready with a joke and an elegant turn of phrase. He showed me how to carry the resident’s bags up to their room and linger at the doorway to invite a tip. On breaks, we hid away in the boiler room to share cigarettes while he told me tales of his life, the history of Cork city or ancient Celtic stories that stretched back into Irish prehistory. More practically, he made sure I knew the main requirement of the job; avoid the attention of the hotel owner, Mrs. Cleary.
Mrs. Cleary, a stick thin woman with a sour puckered mouth and sharp eyes, had interviewed me for the porter position. She obviously hated the idea of paying a pittance for us to stand around, so her main command was to look busy. The slightest lull in guests and we had to clean the windows, empty the ashtrays, vacuum the lobby and sweep the sidewalk outside the hotel—look busy, even if you’d done the task ten minutes before.
Mrs. and Mr. Cleary were distorted mirror images of each other: she was skin and bones as if she never ate a sausage; he was enormously fat with a massive belly—obviously he was the one who licked the platter clean. She was sharp and sour—he was enormous and explosive, given to roaring temper tantrums in the kitchen, his sacred domain. I saw him at mealtimes, where, in his occasional milder moods, he entertained the staff with stories of his life as a ship’s cook travelling the world.
Portering was simple and boring: long empty spells during which we had to pretend to sweep and polish, followed by mad rushes as people arrived en masse, sometimes with mountains of luggage. All I had to do was be courteous, carry bags and keep out of Mrs. Cleary’s way. The work soon became routine and forgettable.
In contrast, the Boys Home was fascinating—a house sheltering troubled and difficult teenagers who’d got into scrapes with the law or found themselves homeless. In the evening, Brendan the caretaker—a mute, slovenly man dressed in undershirt and stained trousers—crept out of his back room and cooked us basic Irish food: boiled bacon, boiled cabbage, boiled swede, boiled potatoes and occasionally the Cork delicacy called drisheen—gray rubbery pig-blood-pudding boiled in milk. After the meal, the boys sat around the kitchen table and chatted over endless cups of strong tea.
The yellow-haired boy had a younger, yellow-haired brother in the house. Their drunken father was violent and when Dad started beating on Aidan the younger boy, the older Cory had decided they should escape, so they’d run away to join the circus. The circus took them in and taught Cory to box so he could defend himself and his brother. He loved to demonstrate his shadow boxing in the kitchen; you knew not to cross him.
Cory told endless nostalgic tales of circus life—acrobats, clown and animal trainers. “It was a grand life, the two of us together, wasn’t it Aidan.” He turned to his brother who nodded quietly.
“Mucking out the elephants and putting up the big tent—then taking it down, packing up and moving to the next town. The Gaffer was a good man and we had lots of friends—they taught us all their tricks.”
His face clouded. “Then one day, along comes the Guards. They takes us away in their black cars and sticks us in this place… Not that I’m complaining—it’s not that bad.” He paused and turned to his brother again. “One day, we’ll be back in the circus tent again, won’t we Aidan?” Aidan nodded but didn’t look up from his empty plate.
For the most part, the boys in the home had got into trouble doing things boys do: drinking, stealing, fighting, running away from home and school. Some were orphaned or abandoned by their family; others just couldn’t live with their parents. In a strange way, I fitted in: I did not want to live with my parents and I had been caught stealing. Of course, I didn’t tell anyone about the Ormond.
In reality, I was not one of the boys. With my accent and education, it was assumed I was a model citizen, an upstanding English gentleman. On one of his weekly visits, Mr. McCurtin took me aside and explained why he allowed me stay: I set a good example for the other boys. He based his opinion on the fact that I visited my mother in Dungarvan regularly and helped her out with money. He never knew the whole story; I kept my personal feelings quiet. The boys home was a house of sensitive secrets.
In our bedroom under the roof, Danny and I became pals. Promptly at nine-thirty lights-out, the younger boy, Kevin, fell asleep. Wrapped in an anonymous blanket of darkness, our beds a few feet from each other, Danny and I chatted. Mostly he talked and I listened.
He’d been sent to the home because his parents were at their wits ends. Danny constantly fought with his father and got into all sorts of scrapes. The final straw came one night when Danny climbed through a shop skylight to steal cigarettes. He’d failed to make sure the shop was empty and the owner was working late. Danny was nabbed by the guards and sent to the home; he seemed to almost invite disasters.
Behind his show of bravado, Danny was a sunny soul—a simple, good-hearted boy. He had no idea why he stole and lied, why he fought with his overbearing father or disappointed his distraught mother. He confided in me that he didn’t want to do those things but a feeling came over him and. before he knew it, he was doing something stupid again. Over the next few months, I found out the reason—or at least I think I did.
My weeks settled into a predictable rhythm: working shifts at the hotel, hanging out with Danny and the boys and travelling back and forth to the caravan. Every couple of weeks, with two consecutive days off from portering, I hitchhiked to Dungarvan and stayed the night, catering to Mother’s needs.
I dreaded that journey: wake up early on my day off, take a bus to the outskirts of the city and start thumbing a lift, hoping against hope that someone would pick me up before I died of boredom. The fifty miles to Dungarvan often took four hours on the road. I hated the trip but even more, I dreaded being at Mother’s beck and call—but somehow I didn’t have a choice. I had to do it.
With money tight and little time to myself, Cork never became a real place. Far better than Cardiff—friendlier, more alive, handsome—it was still a city with long roads, hard surfaces and too many people. I walked the streets, haunted the bookshops, stole an occasional book, but Cork never felt like home, not the place for me. Life was humdrum: work, eat, sleep and duty. Then an unexpected event shook me out of my everyday trance.
One evening I got word to meet with Mr. McCurtin in the parlor. It wasn’t his usual day and one of the boys whispered something was up: other Saint Vincent de Paul trustees were with him. Had I done something wrong—overstayed my welcome? I stepped into the parlor with butterflies in my tummy to be confronted by three men sitting like a row of magistrates. I stood, shuffling from foot to foot.
Mr. McCurtin began. “Owen. We have a serious problem. Have you been missing any money lately.” He looked at me over his spectacles.
“I don’t think so—at least, not that I’ve noticed.” The question was puzzling.
“So you haven’t missed anything?”
I shook my head.
“Do you realize money has been stolen out of your wallet?”
“No,” I answered.
“You left your wallet lying around and Kevin has confessed to taking money out of it.” His tone was accusatory.
I felt my face flush with embarrassment and hurt. Why was he blaming me? I hadn’t stolen anything.
Mr. McCurtin continued in a grave tone of voice. “It is your responsibility to take care of your belongings. Do you realize how much temptation an open wallet is for a boy like Kevin—how much harm it can do? You have to be more careful—think about your actions!” He turned to one of the other men. “Please bring Kevin in.”
The man went out and ushered Kevin through the door. He looked terrible, a shuffling wreck, his frail 13-year-old body sagging, his face swollen with tears.
Seeing him so distraught, a maelstrom of thoughts and feelings swept through me. How can this be my fault? I haven’t done anything wrong—have I? Then it hit me: Mr. McCurtin might be right. If I hadn’t been so clueless, Kevin wouldn’t have got into trouble.
Mr. McCurtin’s tone was abrupt: “Kevin, apologize to Owen for betraying his trust.”
Unable to look at me, tears streaming down his cheeks, Kevin murmured, “I’m very sorry, Owen.”
Mr. McCurtin gave me a piercing look. “Now it’s your turn Owen. Say you’re sorry to Kevin for leading him into temptation.”
“I’m sorry, Kevin.”
Kevin sobbed out loud and I felt a painful wrenching in my heart. A wave of shame and regret washed over me and my mind stuttered: Some of this is my fault.
That morning, I learned a profound lesson: my carelessness had intensified a young boy’s compulsion and his subsequent suffering. I needed to be more careful and think things through.
Fairy Tales and Angels
Setting out that morning to Cork, I was enfolded in a fairytale. I see myself striding along, a spotted red bundle tied to a stick across my shoulder, the younger son setting off to seek his fortune. I was Jack the Giant Killer, the miller’s son in Puss in Boots, or a myriad other fairy tale heroes. Part of me was in the mundane ordinary world but another part was in a magical place where anything could happen.
What is it about fairy tales? These strange dreamlike stories with their princes and princesses, goblins, wicked witches and unlikely heroes somehow strike a chord deep inside us. The themes are compelling and universal: they recount the strange twists and turns of life, the mystic help and guidance that arrives out of the blue and the trust we have that good overcomes evil. Essentially, these are tales of mysterious happenings and irrational hope.
No matter how ‘rational’ we think we are, no matter we consciously believe the material world works like clockwork, deep down we know that is not the whole truth. There are mysteries and odd coincidences, events that make sense only with hindsight, patterns and processes far beyond our understanding. The universe is not what we think it is.
Question a modern day physicist and they point to the ‘strangeness’ of the sub-atomic world. The underpinnings of everything we perceive are inconceivable quantum interactions, dark matter, time that may run backward and particles in multiple places at the same time. Compared to the intricacies of quantum physics, magic seems like common sense.
Fairy tales mirror deeper subtle truths about human experience. We talk about serendipity and synchronicity as though these are anomalies. They are ‘abnormal’ mostly because we pay little attention to the ever-present interactions between inner states and external events. Synchronicities are as common as dirt. They happen all the time but we are too busy engrossed with everyday hassles to notice. Quietly contemplate what is happening to you here and now and you come to appreciate the magic and mystery in every moment.
I wonder, was the gray man an angel or the familiar fairy tale figure of the magical helper? He did not have the imposing numinous presence of an angel, but his actions were angelic and magically helpful. He appeared and disappeared out of nowhere. Silently asking for nothing, he embodied the best qualities of selfless compassion. I believe he appeared at the right time because I was ready for him. My conscious decision to follow the man and embrace what was offered enriched me beyond imagination. He changed the pattern of my life.
As in fairy tales, if we set out with courage and determination, something extraordinary happens. Help and encouragement—angelic, magical or mundane—is always there, somewhere. We cannot avoid confusion, pain and suffering but beneath our conscious perceptions, something is trying to support our best selves and our best decisions. Aid is available whenever we stop the internal chatter to listen, trust and follow.
Home for Wayward Boys
I am somewhat shocked that I found myself at a home for wayward boys. Unlike the stereotypical images of abuse so prevalent in institutions for juvenile delinquents, the home was a refuge, a sanctuary. I was welcomed in, even though I was not Irish, not a Catholic and not a felon—well not a convicted felon.
Unlike me, the boys had been apprehended and judged by the system. My rebelliousness was mostly internal, in my thoughts and fantasies rather than in my actions. Other people’s opinions and expectations had a powerful grip on me, otherwise I might have succumbed to temptation and been detained. In adolescence there is a fine line between ordinary rebellious high-spirits and criminalized activity. Justice is far from blind; whether a boy is convicted or not depends to a large extent on race, financial class and pure luck.
I was lucky—or protected. The angelic gray man delivered me to a place of safety and artless learning. I made friends, discovered that people came in all sorts of flavors and realized that goodness is universal. The boys showed me the countless ways to live a life, some more painful than others, but many that are not straight, narrow and boring. Whatever I thought I knew about human beings was turned on its head; the home taught me to question everything.
We live our lives cocooned within the expectations, rules and constraints of our society and culture. They are so familiar, so deeply engrained—drive on the right side of the road, be polite, dress well, work hard, make money, pay for stuff you own—that we firmly believe they are the only way things can be. In truth, all culture, language and societies are made up, figments of our collective imaginings, human creations no more constant and obvious than mist blowing in the winds of history. They only seem reasonable because we believe they must be reasonable.
Everything we think is true will be discredited and probably laughed at two hundred years from now. Our descendants will look back on us as misguided simpletons: Could our ancestors have believed such nonsense? Could they really have done such terrible things? We are Neanderthals, floundering in the midst of human evolution, possibly a mistake or even a dead end. To believe we are somehow fully evolved is not only blind arrogance it is exceedingly dangerous.
If humans continue to develop, it won’t primarily be in our bodies—yes, our toes will certainly wither to mere appendages. To survive as a species, to become truly human, we will need to acquire enough self-awareness, compassion and humility not to destroy the world and ourselves.
Self-awareness is the next step in human evolution. We are all somewhat conscious, but how many of us are fully mindful of what is happening around us and in the depths of our psyches? Do we know who we are? Do we share a commitment to end human suffering? Without regular self-examination, without questioning conventional reality, we easily slip into unconscious complacency. We accept the world as given and don’t give it a second thought.
The incident with Kevin’s stealing was a wake up call. At first I was shocked and wounded for being blamed. How could they make me responsible for his wrongdoing? Surely I was the victim? Now I see the situation as my first lesson in seeing the wholeness of a situation as more complex than my one-sided judgment.
Kevin and I were involved in a dance, fancy footwork between his desire/need to have money and my privileged position of having it. He had a deficiency and I had more than enough; he was tempted and I was clueless. As Mr. McCurtin implied, my unawareness created an opening of opportunity; Kevin, propelled by his history, fell into it. Much as I hated to admit it, I was involved and thus somewhat culpable.
We want things to be simple; we love to blame the other for his sins and thus feel righteous about our own actions. But human motives, actions and outcomes intertwine like fathomless vines. Only compassion wedded to awareness can lead us close to its roots.
Read the next chapter: 14: A Hypnotic Trance