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Tell Your Own Story

Rage Against Old Age by Michael Clemenger

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Article by Michael Clemenger ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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Setting – Parlour in house in Terenure, Dublin, Ireland. Mr Roberts a lecturer of English  is 62 years old.

Enter stage left, table, library books, drinks cabinet, chairs, carpet on floor.

Enter Mr Roberts holding an open anthology book of the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He comes to the front of the stage and addresses the audience.

You may all think it strange that I should begin by referencing Dylan Thomas’s most famous poem Do not go Gentle into that Good Night but my reason is an old man: his name was Cyril Ryan who had just passed over to the other side. I first met him on a bus in O’Connell Street in Dublin. It was a wet dark and busy Thursday evening in late January. I saw him enter the bus in an agitated state bent over with a bag in his hand and an old walking stick. I was surprised that nobody offered him a seat on the bus. Luckily he was only going to George’s Street a few bus stops away. As he alighted from the bus he glared at all and sundry. For some strange reason I decided to follow him, even though my journey was a lot longer.

He crossed the road at the traffic lights, went into a local church and lit a candle. He noticed me and I nervously introduced myself as John Roberts. He replied that his name was Cyril Ryan. I suggested that we should go to a little café nearby for a cup of coffee.  I apologised for what had happened on the bus. He seemed to appreciate that. Mind you I have no money Mr Roberts but I just smiled.

Over the next few months we met every Thursday at 4pm at the same rendezvous.  He told me that he was 85 years old. Our conversations were energetic and fiery. Nobody escaped the lashing of his tongue. Church and State he lambasted to the rafters. However his most withering criticism was reserved for the young. Education is wasted on them if they have no manners or respect for their elders. He added pointedly that he feared for the older generations coming up. They will have an awful time of it – if the young get the upper hand.

He asked me how old are you, Mr Roberts? I replied 62 years last birthday. It’s all before you so, as he wiped his nose with a handkerchief. He told me that he lived in a nursing home up the road, that he was single and had never married. They were too many women to choose from. He had been an army officer and had travelled the world many times. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. I am glad I won’t be around to see it. I could sense the disappointment in his voice. I offered to walk him back to the nursing home. Cyril got a great laugh out of that. Stay away from the nursing homes- you will be there soon enough if Gods spares you.

The last time we met he pulled a poem from his pocket and slid it across the table. His hands were shaking more than usual. Read it to me Mr Roberts I forgot my glasses. A sudden sadness descended over me as I could clearly see them in his breast pocket. The question came into my head – was Cyril in his own way saying goodbye. The poem Mr Roberts is called The Lamentations of the Old Pensioner by Yeats. I took a drink of water cleared my throat and began to read the poem. Cyril’s eyes closed as if listening to the music of the words.

When I was finished Cyril told me that he found the poem in a book. I have had it in my wallet for the last 10 years. It has always spoken to my heart when things got on top of me. He stood up, shook hands with me and wished me all the best. I followed behind him at a safe distance. I dared not go further. I wished that he would look back but he never did.

The wave of his stick in the air was enough. Somehow I knew the he was walking defiantly into that good night. I plucked up the courage to find the nursing home up the road. It was a comfort for me to be told that Cyril had passed away in his sleep. The manager handed me a written note. Cyril said that you would call. I opened the note and in neat writing it said – Thank you Mr Roberts.

As the front door closed behind me I suddenly became aware of the voices of children laughing and playing screaming and crying across the street in a primary school. I wondered if Cyril heard those song birds of spring, as he waited in the winter of his years for the final call.  I expect the sweet irony was not lost on him. That night I went home and wrote this commemorative poem to Cyril called the Cobblestones of Time.

The Cobblestones of Time – M Clemenger

For the old there is no more time to dream

A month, a week, a day, is like a year

Weighted down as they are by disease

That invades their temple uninvited

 

The joy of Spring is but a memory now

When the body vaulted back and forth with ease

Now old coats, walking sticks and glasses face the incoming tide

And yet, they march in soldier form as best they can

 

Dignity intact, a smile upon the eye

They yield no quarter to Father time

He makes no reply

 

The aged heart must remain a warrior

It has wrestled with the seasons

It bears the scars

There is wisdom in them eyes

 

Stumble stumble along the way

Listen to the music of the tapping stones

Into the good night, be not afraid

Await with curiosity

What’s on the other side

You may be pleasantly surprised

 

The death of Cyril Ryan affected me in ways that I had not expected. I now became more acutely aware of the passage of time. Like Cyril I had never married and was still grieving over the death of my late mother at the age of 88. My late father had been dead for more than 40 years. I was an only child. While looking through an anthology of WB Yeat’s poetry looking for Cyril’s poem my eyes fell upon the poem called Sailing to Byzantium. It was a poem I first came across more than 40 years ago while studying for my Leaving Certificate and I only 18.

As I read the lines slowly I realized its significant theme had made no impression upon my young mind. Miss Tierney my teacher had told me that Sailing to Byzantium would be a poem that would be talked about in all the ages yet to come. A fitting tribute to Ireland’s greatest poet. I can still see Miss Tierney standing at the open window with her yellow jumper and greying hair. It was as if she was speaking words of wisdom of what was yet to come. She must have been 60 years old at the time. I felt sorry that she was so old and felt repelled by her oldness. I promised myself I would never be that old.

At the time my mind was too busy getting ready for university and finally being free of my parents, though they were very good to me and indulged my oneness. I would never have been able to share them with a sibling. My wings were gearing up to fly to imaginary exotic places to enjoy the fruits of the ripening tree of life forever green and sparkling in the afternoon warm sun. To listen carelessly to the singing of the songbirds that sang of joyous youth. The expectations of the long summer evenings. The sweet caress of a thousand lovers and all their silliness.  The earnestness of the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen – rebellion, freedom, irresponsibility drowning out the voice of the rabid priests and their matin song. Even now I can hear Dylan’s song Forever Young and its promise of an eternal Shangri-La

I firmly believed that I would remain in the school of everlasting youth on the other side of the street where a thousand Cyril Ryans wait to be flatlined. Their beds quickly re-occupied by other nameless faces. I would never go into that grand good night. I would never grow old.

A coldness descended like a dark cloud over me. It was all a delusion. My dream was as sawdust. My life had been a lie. Soon Oh so soon I would become another Cyril Ryan. I had more years behind me than lay before me. I too would soon rage rage against the dying of the light.

The absurdity of this life hit me when a teacher colleague only starting out in her career uttered that dreadful word ‘Ageism’.  I asked her what it meant as she fled down the corridor protesting loudly as she meant no offence by its utterance.

I now realised that I would have to learn a new vocabulary ‘the language of the old’ that I had been oblivious to before I met Cyril Ryan.

Words and phrases like the ‘grey brigade, dependency, elderly, very old, becoming a pensioner, bus passes, hearing aids, wheelchairs, incontinence pads, not a great memory, hip replacements, arthritis, stents, constipation, gammy knees, haemorrhoids, old fossils, granny dears, old dears, burdens on society, potential bed blockers, rollators, zimmer frames, walking sticks, pension books, ramps, a bit frail God help him, losing the energy, wobbly on the feet, stiff joints, eyesight not great, varicose veins, clot busters, senokot, prunes, all in holidays, bingo, guided tours, free TV licence, the extra payment at Christmas, the fuel allowance, funeral plans, wills and free GP card.

I was brutally reminded of a poem by Tennison where he wrote of nature as being red in tooth and claw. The ravages of age would show no mercy to a dying carcass. Winter would come and slay that which nature had begot in the springtime of youth. Time had waited patiently in the long grass to snatch its prey. It mattered not if the valiant warrior spat in the eye of time. The old condemned to die awhile. To endure the cruelty of nature. Fated to leave behind the bodily pleasures, sex and regeneration. Forced to listen to the ticking of the clock upon the wall whilst being fed by different faces as there are days in the week. Holy Fathers stole in hand confessions at the ready Holy water on the brow Holy Eucharist on the tongue all ready for the posting to whatever or whoever is in the sky.

And yet the human spirit rebels. All praise to those who refuse to go gently into the good night.

(c) Michael Clemenger

About Everybody Knew:

Michael Clemenger was handed over as a baby to the unloving care of a religious-run children’s home. Aged eight, he was transferred to St Joseph’s Industrial School.

Chosen as their ‘favourite’ by two Christian Brothers, Michael endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of both men. Brother Price struck at night, while Brother Roberts took pleasure in a weekly bathtime ritual. Although everybody at the institution knew, even the two Brothers’ ‘protection’ did not save Michael from merciless beatings by other sadistic men charged with his care.

Despite the unbelievable trauma of his early life, Michael emerged unbroken and determined to make something of himself. Everybody Knew is a story of remarkable spirit and courage.

Order your copy online here.

Submit Your Memories
My autobiography was published by O Brien Press in 2009 called Holy Terrors. This book was subsequently published by Ebury Press in the UK and called Everybody Knew and sold well there and then in recent years it was translated into French and called Dans L’enfer de L’orphelinat. It has sold 90,000 copies to date and is still selling reasonably well in France. I have recently penned a number of plays and I have had them reviewed by the Abbey Theatre, some members of Trim Drama Group and Insight Theatre Group in Celbridge. The genre I write about is social life in Ireland from 1960's onwards. Some of the titles are : - The Monoboy, The Night Jayne Mansfield came to Tralee, Return to Rockford, The Mission of Ballykin, The Mist that Falls over Land, No is Never a Full; Sentence and A Dying Business ( a short comedy). I am currently working on another play called We had no Secrets.
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