Having recently read the book Walking with Ghosts, by Gabriel Byrne the most memorial take away for me was the last sentence on page 41. ‘I thought what my life would be if I had been an orphan or a mistake’. As someone who was both, I don’t think Mr. Byrne would have been as successful in life or survived intact if he had experienced the horrors of those terms.
He can count yourself lucky that he was born on the right side of the blanket. That fact gave him a head start in life. I am reminded of Brendan Kennelly’s poem Raglan Lane written for his great friend Patrick Kavanagh and more particularly the one line:
‘The joyful trust of holy lust’
And I would add ‘Blessed by holy mother church’
It was my misfortune to have been born the result of a ‘mistake’ a term back in 1950 which struck fear into the heart of many an Irish girl. Such was the potential consequences, that their mothers in some cases had rosary beads sewn into their knickers to protect them from such misfortune. Sadly, the problem arose when the knickers came off in the throes of passion.
I was the result of one such loss of control by my unmarried mother. Consequently, I had more to worry about, than second-hand clothes bought at the top of Francis Street. A second-hand life lay ahead of me. It was deemed necessary that I be kept away from the decent ‘God fearing’ people of Dublin, lest some other poor unfortunate girl fall prey to the devil’s guile and spawn a devil’s child- like me.
On the 1st of November 1950 I was born into a family that did not want me, a state that labelled me, a church that condemned my unmarried mother from the alter and a society that shunned me and my kind. And all that before I had drawn my first breath of shame. The Catholic gaze bore down on me. I was cast out hidden behind the high walls of a convent and an industrial school until I was 16 years old. The clergy saw it as their sacred duty to hide me lest others yield to unrestrained passion without the joyful trust of holy mother church. I had to suffer, to repent, remain on my knees, lick the floor with my innocent tongue and gather up the scars of shame within a heart that would never heal.
I was the devil’s child, a mistake his very own, the issue of a lustful breast who had cast off the teachings of holy mother church and spat in the face of Jesus and Mary. My mother stood in the dock condemned. She had surrendered her pearl of purity, outside the marriage bed for a moment of sinful passion under Sally’s Bridge on a cold frosty night in February 1950.
I am reminded of William Blake’s poem – The Garden of Love and more particularly the lines:
‘And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
And binding with briars my joys and desires’
There is a part of me that is intensely proud of my late mother who defied the priests of her day with their rigid preoccupation with the mantra – no sex before marriage. It was a mortal sin.
After finding my mother at 19 years of age she brought me to her garden of love under Sally’s Bridge. I recall vividly her dancing eyes and giddy disposition as she spoke about my father. In that moment the gloom of life was lifted off her shoulders. She was a young vital girl, relishing her youthful indiscretion that had caused her so much pain. She described my father lovingly as a very strong muscular man with arms that could go round her waist a couple of times. He had a winning smile which had caused her to throw caution to the wind and eat the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. At that reckless moment I believe she belonged to him and him to her.
I just stood beside her, not sure how to respond. She smoked the cigarettes one after the other. She half whispered ‘your father was not the marrying kind‘. I treasure the times she called me son. I belonged to someone at that moment and did not like to think that all we shared was my birth. When she decided it was time to go, she placed one last kiss on the cold bridge stones.
I knew it was mothers special spot the way she lingered savoring once again happier times however fleeting the recall. As she ascended the steps, she leaned on my arm for support. I knew she would never return to visit her garden of love again. It was over and she did not look back.
On the 1st of November 2021 I returned to that garden of love myself, now an old man. It was my 71st birthday and the 20th anniversary of mother’s death. Oh, how cruel fate can be. I saw immediately that Sally’s Bridge was still a courting place for young lovers. I am sure mother would have got a kick out of that. Her special spot was now rainbow coloured with arrowed hearts and lovers’ names engraved on the stones. Cigarette ends lay all over the ground, battered coke cans and kit kat wrappers lay together with old dying leaves. The wind was howling, the air piercing cold and fast flowing waters racing past just like old father time.
Suddenly I saw near the water’s edge, two discarded condoms. I wondered had they been around in mothers time would I have been conceived. Angrily I kicked the condoms into the roaring water and watched after them until they were out of sight. I envied that wasted seed for a moment. I believed that they were the lucky ones, that got away from a brutal cold and cynical world. I sat on the steps tired in my old age of life’s spiteful game of chance. It is of little comfort that I have lived to see the end of illegitimacy and ‘mistakes’ in Ireland.
That the catholic church had fallen so low from its dizzy heights of condescension, distain and absolute moral superiority takes my breath away. Gone are the days of the valley of the squinting windows the white laced curtains that flickered when this ‘mistake ‘walked down the street and the old busybodies who gathered after church to spread scandal, half truths and lies with the holy Eucharist still fresh on their forked and wicked tongues. Young people today have no knowledge of the infamous Dr John Charles M Quaid or that long lanky man de Valera, who hovered as the third party in every marriage bed in the country.
Before I left mothers garden of love under Sally’s Bridge, I placed a few yellow roses at her special spot. Like her, now my hand lingered at her special spot. The memories of the past 50 years came flooding back. It still hurts to the core to have been told I was born on the wrong side of the track and advised not to aspire above my station in life. As I said my final goodbyes, I mounted the steps warily The sticky wet decaying leaves could cause a fall. I was no longer that young lad of 19 summers who could dance up the steps two by two.
I saw a young couple coming towards me arm in arm. They seemed to hesitate for a moment. I suspected their intent and hurried away. A cigarette paper you would find hard to get between them. I hoped they had a condom. As I walked along the road, I wondered what kind of life I would have had if I had been born on the right side of the blanket. Would I have been ashamed my mother buying second-hand clothes at the top of Francis Street.
As I waited for the bus to take me back to town, I started to hum my favourite Leonard Cohen song ‘Bird on a Wire’ I believed that I had the right, to be free. That I had the right not to settle for a second-class life planned for me and my kind. I had the right to ask for more and so I did.
(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.