Remembering Seán Ó Faoláin, by Billy O Hanluain


With so many centenary commemorations, events, articles and debate I thought I’d repost a piece I wrote a few years ago about meeting the writer Seán Ó Faolain, veteran of the War of Independence and founder of The Bell magazine.

The writer, revolutionary and publisher Sean O Faolain was born on this day in 1900. In his later years, he lived in Rosmeen Gardens in Dun Laoghaire. My father used to often point him out to me when we’d be out walking around the People’s Park and Glasthule, he was a sharp dresser and always wore a Trilby hat. I was familiar with some of his stories from reading Gus Martin’s Inter Cert anthologies “Exploring English” and “Soundings”. In 1989/90 I got to know him more personally as we were both staying in the same hospital. One day a nurse who knew I liked to read told me, “There is an elderly man on the next ward who you might like to visit”. Good conversation is one of the few things that breaks the monotony of a long stay in hospital so I said I’d visit him.

We walked down a corridor and the nurse tapped a code into a locked door which opened, stifling gust of ward aroma; orange peel, dettol and radiators that smothered the air and parched well meaning flowers and fruit,brought in by visitors who mostly never knew what to say.

“The man’s name is Sean O Faolain, he’s very well dressed, you’ll see him there by the third bed.”

She turned and locked the door behind me. Light streamed in through a large window that over looked the hospital garden. I could see the alcoves where the patients’ beds and meager privacy were. This ward immediately felt very different to mine. I was 17, everybody here seemed ancient, shrunken, unkempt. That ageless, shriveled state that the new born share with the soon to die. Hopeless, wordless, dependence. Being spoon fed, spoken to and misunderstood.

A woman sat in a chair, furiously moving her fists as though knitting a jumper only she could see.Violently tugging at thin air to pull more wool on to her needles. Phantom stitches, crochet for a lost or stolen child. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny.” I had never heard a name being stabbed like that before. It rose from her thin spittle lips like a knife. She raised her head, long silver hair,frayed curtains, framing the saddest stage ever. She was an apparition from a Funderland Ghost Train, eyes like marbles in egg cup sockets, fresh milk pupils and a mouth madder than anything I’d yet seen here. She was, that moment in a dream, becoming Mare, galloping and suffocating you at the last hurdle of your pillow.
Hag, forgotten, ward bound mother, knitting invisible clothes for long drowned, dead dream children. I’d been sent to the Poe ward and whatever was left of the Largactil, that daily dose of brain-wool, that numbed the mornings into a drowse-drizzle- daze, lost all of is fog-sodden-cock-limp power, and I was cursed with clarity. I’d never seen anyone as wretched and wasted before. Raging and ugly. Stretching the loneliest arms ever towards me, track suit bottoms and elastic- nappy waist line, maternal Gorgon. Her fists, clinging to some invisible trophy. Raising it like an offering, “Johnny.” A few more steps and I’d be passed her.

Peeping, from behind an alcove, two canoes that might rescue me, a pair of suede shoes, canopied by razor sharp, olive green flannel turn ups. “Mr O Faolain, I came over to see you from Saint Anne’s, the youth ward.”

He took my hand, came towards me, espionage intensity. “Has the place been divided up yet? Are we safe? You’ve met Rosemary, we all have clothes knitted by her, scarves, gloves, jumpers….but is she a spy? You might know.”

My first meetings with him were mostly fragments. Hallucinations begging to make sense. I’d come and see him most days and I learnt to be “Johnny” and tell my new hag-mother that I’d try on the jumper once it was finished and she’d now calmly say “You’re a good boy.” Happy as a cat licking at a new bowl. No longer a dream, customs’ officer on the dark boarder of a Mare, she was a happy mammy.”I’ll have it done in a week, you’ll look great in it.”

O Faolain would sometimes lurch towards lucid and I could follow him without having to refer to that now vastly expanded tome on lunatic learnt behaviours, that made it easy for me to slip on Johnny’s shoes just to avoid my new hag mother’s fury. Strange ways had found us. A jumper was being knitted for me, she took me for her son and I took her for my mother just so as I could meet O Faolain, without cause for violence.

The year turned, knowing no better, towards spring and we were allowed out to the hospital gardens, tended to by what we called “The Eternals.”

We walked arm in arm, now a new father too, but he called me “Billy”. Still, Johnny to needle mad Mammy. And he’d talk….fighting for a Republic…..a Socialist Republic….we were crushed by Rome…we didn’t get what we fought for…” Before coming here, the sisters who ran Parsons’ Book shop on the canal and Mick Riordan who had fought with the Communists in Spain were my school mitching teachers, Mechanical drawing Mondays bunked off in to Town to lap it all up and learn.

The Bell, Elizabeth Bowen, France, you should read “Night in Tunisia” by a new young writer Neil Jordan….it was taken from us, so many of us just want to serve, glad to take it…….he’d talk and mostly I’d catch sense somewhere. Look what it all became… much anger in his voice…..yet elegant too,poise and grace in how he waved his tired arms around when conducting a point. And so the last rings of The Bell are not rung out in the country’s streets but were ever more muffled in a hospital garden.

I can’t remember when I last saw him. One day he wasn’t there, nor was my mother. “They’ve gone home”, I was told.

Celebrating you today.