Friday 21 October 2016

The pain of exclusion can cast a long, dark shadow

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan

Last Tuesday, I set out on another trip to Tallow, Co Waterford, where I spent the first five years of my life, with a lot on my mind.

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First, I wanted to visit the grave of my older brother, Paddy Joe, who only lived six weeks before dying in May 1942.

Second, I wanted to reflect on the sorrow of my late father and mother at the death of their first-born soon after moving from Cork city to Tallow.

My father was starting his first job as general manager of the Bride Valley Stores. He was full of initiative, floating coal barges up the tidal River Bride in wartime.

My mother was not as happy. She had good neighbours but she could not cope with the social life of the town's upper strata.

Reared in her bare feet in rural Roscommon, my mother had received only a national school education before being sent to Cork to work as a barmaid.

She had a rich rural culture. A ferocious reader, she loved the Bible and Shakespeare. She played the fiddle and was a comic mimic to rival Niall Toibin.

But she could not play bridge or tennis or make the kind of small talk that would help her fit into what passed for high society in Tallow.

That set her slightly at odds with my father who had to live up to his position as manager of the biggest business in town.

So she fell back on her literary resources. An old adage says, beware of the man of one book. My mother had two books: the Bible and the Bard.

That was all she needed to feed her fever for sending up the passing parade in Tallow. She watched the town with an eye as judgemental as an Old Testament prophet, a heart as forgiving as Shakespeare's, and a salty sense of humour.

While my father ran a thriving business and played tennis and bridge, my mother talked to Dick Ahern next door over the garden wall.

Like her, Dick was interested in the Bible, too; not in any great religious sense, but as a good guide to human conduct.

Standing on stones, at each side of the wall, they parsed the parables of the Bible, lacing them with racy reflections on who was doing what to whom among the small movers and smaller shakers of the town.

My final reason for taking this trip was to confront a trauma of my own. A trauma that both casts a dark shadow to this day and is the source of what moral strength I possess.

At the age of five, I was sent to start in low infants in the local national school. It was no better or worse than any other national school.

Some of the teachers were good, some were bullies. The same turned out to be true of the boys. And thereby hangs a tale.

Somehow my mother had made me more than usually sensitive to any kind of cruelty. But not in any namby-pamby way.

My mother felt strongly that cruelty should be confronted frontally, and, if necessary, by force. That remains my creed to this day.

But the cruelty that caused my mother's greatest wrath was not so much physical cruelty as any kind of personal, social or class victimisation of a person or minority.

Possibly her rage had roots in the same Roscommon radicalism that produced the socialist TD Jack McQuillan and John Waters.

Whatever the reason, my mother, using parables from the Bible and stories from Shakespeare, trained me to fight mobs of any sort.

Sadly, on my first day at school, I found that these stories were all too true, and in a manner that marked me for life.

Blurred by time, I can barely recall the procession of chanting boys passing me by as I stood timidly by the school gate.

But I can still hear the wailing that rose above the chanting, the sound of a lost soul. And I can still see the cause of that terrible crying as clearly as in a colour photograph.

The gang of boys were carrying a chubby boy in short pants, his arms and legs splayed, while a boy on each side, holding big bunches of nettles with rags at one end, lashed his white thighs, by now red and blotched with blisters.

All the stands I took later in life flow from the stand I took that day. As does my stoicism about the angry reactions to taking such a stand.

Terrified by what I was seeing, I turned for redress to the adult world, to two male teachers who were smoking by the school gate.

I ran to them shouting incoherently about the incomprehensible thing I was seeing, "The boy..."

Without taking the cigarette from his mouth, one of the teachers glanced at the gang and growled at me to go back into school.

But I clutched at the tail of his jacket and kept pointing and shouting until he knocked my hand away and slapped me so hard across the face I can feel it burn to this day.

Back home, I cried for an hour. My mother pieced the story together and made me promise I would do the same if it ever happened again.

Then she went up to the school and gave the teachers hell, not in modern PC terms but "ye're no better than the Black and Tans" terms.

The sound of the crying child I heard that day has never left me. Because it was not simply the sound of a boy suffering from the sting of nettles.

It was the sound of a boy who was being excluded, ostracised, put outside the tribe, told he was not wanted and did not matter.

Paddy Flynn, the Traveller boy, the only child in his class not to be accepted into the De La Salle secondary school in Ballyfermot, feels the same pain.

Just as I feel the same rage at the lack of reaction by cabinet ministers and by TDs in his area that I felt in a Tallow school years ago.

There may be many bureaucratic reasons why Paddy Flynn was rejected. But there are no excuses. Because exclusion inflicts endless emotional pain.

We know this from the work of Kipling D Williams, the famous psychologist. He proved that exclusion activates the same receptors in the brain as physical pain. And that it lasts a lifetime.

RTE and the Irish Independent alone carried the story. The Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, so active on the Halawa case, had nothing to say about Paddy Flynn.

Also silent were the other TDs in Dublin South Central: Brid Smith, Aengus O Snodaigh, Catherine Byrne. For shame.

Let me finish with a happier memory of Tallow. My mother loved going to the local cinema. But to get there she had to pass by the window of the parish priest who did not approve of the pictures. So she joined the train of giggling girls bending low beneath his terraced windowsill on their way to Hollywood.

Frank O'Donoghue's perfectly named Goin' to the Pictures, a pictorial history of cinema in Waterford, captures the liberating power of cinema in the days before television.

This lavishly illustrated book has three levels. First, it's a loving tour of the five cinemas in Waterford, followed by towns like Tallow, Dungarvan and Kilmacthomas, compiled with the help of Andy Kelly.

Second, it's a lively social history of Waterford city and county as it gazes up at the gods on the screen. Finally, it's a rich review of Hollywood classic movies, complete with technicolour period movie posters.

Frank O'Donoghue is clearly a fanatical film buff - but it runs in the family. His brother, Redmond, once saw 156 films in 12 months.

Sunday Independent

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