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Short Story: The night my Dad become English....


Illustration by Tom Halliday

Illustration by Tom Halliday

Illustration by Tom Halliday

In his youth, before he had to settle, my father was a part-time guitarist with a skiffle group, Lightning Johnny and the Thunderstorms, that had formed in Dublin when dad was in his teens, before he came to England for work. In England he remained, married and became a parent, lived the rest of his life, happily enough, but whenever he spoke of 'home' he was talking about Ireland, a country he didn't even like that much.

Dad's father had been a sharpshooter in the old IRA, a man who fought the Black and Tans and had been interned in a prison camp in Wales. All his long life, my grandfather hated England, the country he saw as having oppressed Ireland for 800 years.

Point out to him that England had done other things, too -- things like producing Shakespeare, The Beatles and the NHS -- and you didn't get too far. Those achievements were all very well, but they weren't on a par with Val Doonican. Not to my adorable granddad.

The very mention of England would reduce him to sub-vocalisations of malice or have him looking up exorcists in the phone book. Inconveniently, England was also the country to which most of his children had emigrated, the land in which every one of his grandchildren was born -- the land in which Val Doonican himself had opted to live -- but this irony wasn't a subject you raised. My grandfather, a kindly and mischievous man, could grow stern in discussions of politics. When these moments arose, and they arose quite often, you didn't want to find yourself in the crosshairs of his glance.

He forgave my brother and me our English accents, our English comics and magazines, our love of Top of the Pops, and our utter lack of interest in anything to do with Ireland, a country we regarded as containing absolutely no source of pleasure unless you were a nun who happened to like rain.

We disliked going to Ireland, the monochrome sadness of Dublin in those years. We couldn't stand being dragged around our uncles' and aunts' houses, proof of Einstein's theory of relativity: time goes a lot slower when you're with your relatives.

My grandfather put up a good show of not minding that we felt this way. He pretended he liked seeing you pretending to enjoy yourself. As with many Irish people, he had a great talent for making an exception.

And like many Irish couples of their era and milieu, my Dublin grandparents maintained a 'Good Front Room', into which you were rarely considered good enough to go. On our visits back to my dad's homeland for Christmas, I found that room a remarkable place.

It contained items of Waterford Crystal and other little fancies given my grandparents as wedding gifts, a Chappell upright piano with several broken keys, and the many trophies won by my grandfather for ballroom-dancing in his oft-recalled youth with his partner, one Alice Foy.

It was fun to see my dad subject him to an occasional tease about Alice, who had emigrated to Canada with her chap, a plasterer by trade, thereby denying my future grandfather the All-Ireland title for Rumba/Cha-Cha-Cha and who knows what darker pleasures. Almost to the end of her life, my grandmother felt that Alice Foy was about to come wiggling up the rhubarb-patch in her scanties and haul my grandfather away by his cummerbund.

I mention the Good Front Room because its symbolisms were important. Over the mantelpiece, three oak-framed portraits were hung, and they transmitted their aura to my childish English eyes. The Sacred Heart, Michael Collins, and the saint of all saints, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, this latter portrait having been added in November 1960, the month in which its subject defeated Richard Nixon for the presidency of the United States. Kennedy was a personage of such celestial esteem that no criticism of him could ever be raised to my grandparents. He was the descendant of a famine emigrant, an Irish-American success story, the first Catholic to be elected president.

I don't wish to belittle what he meant to Irish people of my grandparents' generation, but my grandfather's pride in Kennedy could get a little overheated. Somewhere in the depths of his heart loomed the hope, at least the fantasy, that one day the ghost of President Kennedy would command the US Marines to invade Surbiton rather than Cuba, and with a great deal more success.

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When we knelt, as we had to, on those frequent visits to Dublin, to join in the nightly rosary my grandparents insisted on reciting, there would sometimes be a prayer for the soul of President Kennedy, the last great hope of Ireland. Like hundreds of Irish boys born in late 1963, the season when that hope was snuffed out in Dallas, I am named 'John' for the fallen hero.

But I get ahead of myself. Let me wind a way back. My dad went to England in 1959, as did a hundred thousand other Irish people. By day he was a labourer for McAlpine's, one of the construction firms building the motorways, and at night he played in a showband. He was bright, and he was good at managing men, and in time he rose to being a site-clerk.

A good-looking, humorous man who bore his disappointments lightly, he met my mother at a dance in Luton, the Bedfordshire town where I was born. She was a local girl from Houghton Regis and worked in catering at the Vauxhall Motors plant. Yeats says that his muse Maud Gonne had 'beauty like a tightened bow'. I can never read that line without thinking of my mum.

My dad loved Luton and everything about it. Rebuilt in the post-war years by Irish immigrant workers, numbers of whom remained when the work was done, the town was five per cent Irish but no ghetto. He saw it as tolerant settlement, English and mellow, but open-hearted, generous to all. Everyone was welcome.

We'd live politely together. Our neighbours were family people who deserved the unstinting courtesy that all fortunate Lutonians must afford to the world, as example to the citizens of wretchedly miserable hellholes like St Albans, Flitwick or Cheddington. Paradise on this earth can never be possible. But how blessed to have come so close.

Being the nice Irish family on our road wasn't only a status, but a serious, an awesome, burden. Luton wasn't a town but a self-respect he'd achieved. In no way was Luton like London. To my dad, the capital city was a metropolis to be feared: a nest of cutpurses, highwaymen, cheats and low persons, fallen women, strange fashions and noise. Seventy minutes from Luton Station, it was nevertheless another country.

I don't remember dad ever going there or wanting to do so. There were pubs up in Soho, dad would tell us, where men went to meet men and no women on the premises. That sounded like most of the pubs in Luton, my mum would reply. He'd look at her darkly. Poor dad.

Like many English people of their generation, my mum's parents weren't crazy about the Irish. The word 'Irish', to them, was an adjective meaning foolish or illogical. The sudden altering of the town's bus routes, or the introduction of a one-way traffic system that nobody understood -- these and other bafflements were 'a bit Irish'.

Then again, dad himself wasn't a huge fan of the Irish despite being one of them -- itself a rather Irish paradox. As a young man courting my mum, he had adopted the deportment of a Mississippi rock and roller, the drainpipe jeans, the scruffy leather jacket, the slicked-back greasy hair. If in later years he became more sartorially conventional, nylon of shirt and woolly of jumper, he never lost his besotted love for American music, his sense of himself as a restless cowboy forced to settle. The high lonesome sound of Bill Monroe singing Blue Moon of Kentucky was for him the greatest recording ever made.

Five weeks ago, in Luton, it was played at his funeral. The Christmas lights were up. The store windows were bright. It being late November 2013, the newspapers were full of articles on the Kennedy anniversary. I think they'd have made him smile.

Every young man has a favourite topic of argument with his father. For dad, that subject was Kennedy. When my grandfather praised JFK, my father mocked. They'd go at it like boiling water. And I'd watch, enthralled. How could it matter?

I was too young to know that arguing about Kennedy was their particular form of closeness.

Talking about Kennedy was revealing what you felt, about politics, the Cold War, emigration, sex. Without Kennedy, it's entirely possible that they wouldn't have talked at all.

Dad voted Labour most of his life, in the Eighties for Mrs Thatcher, a woman who both enraged and beguiled him. But in truth he had little interest in politics. What he loved was the America of Lighting Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy. The closest thing he had to any national anthem was Junior Wells singing If You Want It Real.

When he spoke the euphonious names of the bluesmen he loved, you felt America materialise in the room. Buddy Guy, Robert Junior Lockwood, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Cobbs, Snooky Pryor, Johnny B Moore, James Cotton, Hound Dog Taylor, Earl Hooker. That was his America, his new found land. It was a country made of vowels and spangling seventh-chords. To my father, the greatest thing about Kennedy -- perhaps the only truly great thing -- was that he'd stood up for the people whose music this was. I remember dad telling me, the day of my 13th birthday: "Make yourself a promise. As a man, never hate. When you think someone is different, look again and keep looking." He gave me a copy of Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage and an album by Muddy Waters, Got My Mojo Workin'. "Study them both," he told me.

There was a hinterland to that conversation, and it went back to Friday, November 22, 1963. What happened that day in Dallas is infamous enough, and I'm not going into it here. Dad, always a believer in conspiracy-theories, was fond of annoying you by joking: "People ask if you remember where you were when Kennedy was killed. They should have asked Lee Harvey Oswald."

But it was hard for my dad to make such quips, because Kennedy's death proved a painful moment in how he saw himself. On that night, my dad's band was booked to play a dance in the town of Slough, a place of no small Irish population.

The parish priest, a Dubliner, on hearing of the gig, came to the dancehall and said it was wrong that music would be played by any Irish Catholic on such a night.

He didn't blame the other members of the band since they were English boys, Protestants. You'd expect nothing better from them. But Dad was Irish.

"You've a choice, son," the priest said gravely. "Make the right one."

As he aged, Dad spoke to me often of what happened that night. He walked the rainy streets of Slough, with the ghosts of all his options. Did you stand with your tribe? Or leave them alone?

In the end, he played the gig. Certain friends didn't speak to him for years. Some never did again. He was shunned by men on the building sites. I don't want to go into it. To the end of his life, he wondered if he'd made the right decision that night. But to me, it made him a hero.

And whenever I see Kennedy's name in a newspaper, I think of my dad: Eamon Conroy from Francis Street in the Liberties of Dublin, whose father fought England for all those years. A man who hated sentimentality and its self-deluding dreams. A man who believed Ireland could be more than a funeral.

He played Gene Vincent's Be Bop a Loola while the headlines got written. It's how I like to remember him. Playing rebel-music. This Christmas, the lights of Luton will bring his courage back to me. Advent seems richer, despite the tears of the loss: a homecoming and a going away.

'The Night My Dad Became English' was commissioned by BBC Radio 4. Joseph O'Connor's next novel, The Thrill of It All, will be published in May.

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