This is the story about a little guy called Joey.
He would be my age now had he lived . He was an orphan and was in the custody of the Irish Christian Brothers when I got to know him.
He was about eleven at the time .
He died , not in the orphanage , but while out on a weekend sleep-over with the Magee family ; one of the wealthiest families in my town.
They found him dead on a rocking horse , in the morning . Just slumped across it dead . He was eleven .
This is his story.
Joey was frequently taken out of care for weekends by the Magees .
It was an act of charity . They were a well intentioned family and believed in their social obligations . Though in this tale their social conscience may have seemed displaced or contradictory ; and perhaps it was . They didn’t differentiate between Christianity and Catholicism. Believing that if they adhered fervently to the orthodoxy of the church and observed it's sacrament s , as was their natural inclination - they would have acquitted themselves in terms of their commitment to social justice.
Their faith was simple and absolute . They would not have been afflicted with the great avante garde debates of the day .
They believed absolutely in the authority of the church ; Rome was too distant and too complicated to understand so they surrendered all of their religious commitments to the bishop.
The bishop was a lofty man with a hooked nose. His presided rather than resided in his palace which was situated on the same fashionable hill as the Magees . And in terms of 'presiding ' the bishop did so as if with assumed regal entitlement .
Neither he nor the Magee s socialised to any extent .
The bishop confined himself to the comforts of the palace , his books and his fine brandy.
The Magees found all the all the diversions they ever required in their musical evenings . Mr Magee played the cello, Mrs Magee the piano and two elderly aunts who played violin; they met up each Saturday evening to play chamber music. That was their passion and the only pastime they enjoyed or cared to engage in. Perhaps they found it ennobling to play uplifting music . But they played for the enjoyment of the music ; the sheer and simple joy it gave them .
The orphanage where Joey resided in was run by the Christian Brothers ; a Catholic order of Brothers who were engaged in preparing the kids for life , mostly as shop assistants , after they left the school.
It was a grim grey stone building between the city and Salthill .
There were other things going on in that school which are only now emerging , so it seems even grimmer now as I look back;
The vileness of the child abuse at the hands of these clergymen had yet to be discovered and is still now too awful to contemplate , and in this I am afraid, that all of my generation were somehow all complicit.
I came from a middleclass background , my father a dentist , my mother a teacher .
No one questioned the clergy of the day. Those who did found they were without a job , and were forced into exile . They became bitter and vengeful.
The clergy colluded with the business sector in an almost medieval alliance to provide cheap labour force for the business sector .Hence the rather prescriptive name ' Industrial Schools ' and while some of the kids there did learn trades such as shoemaking and carpentry , even these lads then were extorted in their long apprentices ; a tyranny foisted upon them by other who had traversed the same route into their respective trades . These would have been shoemakers , carpenters - and these foisted their own form of tyranny on their apprentices ; It was cheap labour , and no one complained One might have expected that these tradesmen who had has come through the same appalling regimen as their trainees might have shown more empathy towards their charges .But this did not ameliorate their attitude towards their wards ; if anything it rendered them more exploitative in many cases .
The Magee family were also business people . They were at this stage the third generation in business .
By the third generation , most of the business families had lost the entrepreneurship of their forbearers, and by the fourth the businesses were often sold on to a new hungrier generation of more enterprising young Turks .
When a general strike was called by the workers for an increase in wages of about two ponds a week , the business men collectively met and discussed the merits of the workers case . Not an entirely unreasonable request they thought ,but equally they thought with asperity , that they should first consult with the bishop before conceding to any wage demands .
They were willing to concede thirty shillings , which the workers would have been quite happy to accept .
But the bishop railed against them with all the might he could muster and forbade them on their very peril to make any concession to the workers . He told them he was aware of ’creeping communism ’ in the town , and he was relying on the business community to assist him to nip it in the bud.
The business men were basically fair-minded people , and considered the wage increase not excessive .
Now, however they were forbidden to make any overtures whatever to the workers.
The strike ran for about two weeks ; the strike funds soon ran out . The workers returned to work demeaned , humiliated and deeply resentful and their employers became rueful and plagued a sense of guilt . But the bishop was adamant ; his hatred of communism so all consuming that he would frequently send his sermons to be read out at Sunday masses warning of the perilous threat which existentialism and communism posed to the Catholic church. No one understood what existentialism meant but we accepted that whatever it was , it was something vile and corrosive .
Such was the power of the church in the late 50’s early 60’s in Galway.
It pervaded every aspect of society. The little people did what they were told , and the business and professions either rowed in with the bishop or incurred his wrath . And he could exercise a wrathful vengeance on those who he suspected might dare challenge the supremacy of his authority. His power thus became consummate.
My friends family owned the biggest store in town . They had a lavish house on spacious grounds of several acres with open fields ; tall mature trees, a tennis court ; lawns front and back . Orchards , a massive kitchen garden ; a croquet lawn. It was the first house I’d seen with bells in each bedroom which rang on a box in the kitchen. It was my first experience of the upstairs- downstairs relationship between domestic staff and the householder.
There was a playroom about the size of a modest bungalow at the rear .
The whole thing was a kids paradise. The open meadows in Summer ; the giant trees ; the thick bramble spreading extensively on all sides, making for a warren of ‘secret passages ’ . It seems to me now to have been quite a different world to the way the rest of us lived . They had a nanny who would come to the front door and ring a big gong to call us in from play for ’elevenses ’.
If it was a different world to me , it was a different planet to Joey.
Though he had stayed with the Magee’s many times I never knew Joey’s second name . It was something you didn’t ask . Even as kids , while often capable of cruelty, we were sufficiently discrete to skip over unnecessary embarrassments . But this Joey was so gentle and retiring that no one could dream of hurting him. We all had a sort of innate sense of obligation to protect him . He was that kind of a lad.
They said he was delicate ; a delicate child ; ’delicate ’- whatever that meant. But he had that sad faded look about him. He reminded me somehow of a flower wilting on the altar.
And when they found him dead on the rocking horse in the morning , they said his soul went straight to heaven.
At this remove I still see the little guy - I always think of him as little , although he would have been the same age as me now and was much the same size as me then though frailer - I still see him standing always , a little on the fringes of all our games . It was as if he didn't want to totally commit . Or was it trust.?
Either way, we couldn’t have known that after each of his little interludes of happiness , he would be whisked back to the Industrial School ; where the dark vileness of sexual abuse and the stark misery and bleakness of the soul awaited him always.
None of us then could never comprehended his solitary suffering . It must have been hell on earth for him ; not knowing who or when to trust .
Maybe he didn’t want to share the warmth at our hearth knowing he always had to go back into that cold dark night. Back to that pit of vileness , all of which he endured in silence - . Ours was not his real world , and he so I think he really dreaded even pretending for an instant that it was ever to be part of his , and knowing he was consigned to returning to his gruesome reality .
In that manner I think now that perhaps he'd rather not have sensed something he could ever enjoy with any real expectation of it enduring ; maybe it was better not to taste the sweet apples at all knowing his would always be the sour ; such was his destiny . Such was the quirk of fate . Such was the trick God played on him and all the other little guys down there .
That last weekend of his life he was staying with the McGee family up the hill . We played in the fields , climbed the tall ash and chestnut trees ; rode the family pony almost to the ground - and that particular Saturday seemed to go on for ever as some happy childhood days will do ; we seemed to do everything to the excess of blissful exhaustion.
I remember calling to the house in the morning . Joey had died. They found him dead on this big wooden rocking horse they had in the playroom.
They had found him in his pyjamas slumped across the rocking horse in the playroom. He had been dead for some time , they said.
I was eleven at the time .
The playroom was a across the yard from the kitchen. You had to leave the main house to access it .
When we were told he had died we were taken out to the playroom. There was a drape over the rocking horse , a candle burning and some flowers laid out on the ground. It would have been about this time of year ; maybe early May.
The kids said a decade of the rosary around the horse and we went off to pick flowers for Joey.
The others went to the garden and picked roses and other colourful flowers. For some reason I went down the avenue to where there was a big chestnut tree. It was so old that the boundary wire had cut through its bark , and the tree grew right over it; the wire buried now beneath the bark . It reminded me somehow of an elephant, though I cant say exactly why . I think that it was that I felt that the tree had conquered the barbed wire so easily and without any fuss; and the tree now had captured the boundary fence itself; something like that . Its hard to describe .
In the dark at it’s trunk these little blue flowers grew. It was the only place I’d seen them and they looked so small and delicate they reminded me of Joey, though I couldn’t say how either .
When Mr Magee gently asked me what sort of flowers they were I said -I said - 'Bluebells ' and putting them in a jam jar , he smiled and looked over at Mrs Magee who nodded solemnly and approvingly to me and turned away . And I remember her mouth quivered as she did ; maybe they weren’t bluebells ; maybe they were a weed . I didn’t care . They looked nice , even in a clump in the jam jar.
I was going to explain about the tree trunk and the wire cutting through it , but they wouldn’t understand .
It was a Sunday . On Sunday afternoons the Magee family , like the four or five other big business families in Galway went to Benediction in the Poor Clares.
It always struck me as strange . It must have been by invitation or something . The local judge who lived next door to us also attended , as did the surgeon - he had his hands blessed by the Pope , or so they said . It was strange set up indeed . You couldn’t see the nuns . They were an enclosed order and were forbidden to mix with the public.
You could hear their beautiful voices singing these soaring notes from behind the altar through a circular aperture , high up near the ceiling leading to their cloister ; sounding like angels from heaven .
But more strange to me was seeing a nun trying to serve Benediction from outside the altar rails( women weren’t allowed inside the rails at the time - 1960/61 - I think) .
And as I was a server ; an acolyte -in the Jesuit primary school at the time I was sensitive to these liturgical variations ; the theatre of the church always fascinated me . It just looked all wrong ; the priest coming down to pour the incense on the charcoal and nun swinging the thurable outside the altar
If it weren’t such a solemn occasion it might have seemed even funny .But nothing was funny that day.
We went back to Magee’s after Benediction .
It was a grey grey day , and even the bird song all along the avenue seemed mirthless and forlorn ; as if the birds too , like us were lost.
Their aunt was a doctor who lived at the bottom of the avenue,
Later that afternoon she came up and explained how Joey had a weak heart ; asthma ; it could have happened any time , she told us , and that he really just went to sleep.
He didn’t feel any pain or even notice his own dying ; he only felt the ease and joy of going straight into Heaven , she said . She was a stern authorotive woman ,and soothing though her words were supposed to be , I couldn’t get still believe or accept that he could die just like that.
Wouldn’t it have been better if he died climbing the dam tree, or falling of it for that matter or if he fell off the pony , or drowned in the river - I just didn’t know .. I wanted desperately to know which was better .
And worse . I had to keep my doubts to myself . I knew the other kids were watching to see how I'd take this.
I was the one after all who pushed the others to climb the highest tree, swim against the current in the river, dive from the highest platform on the diving tower , at Blackrock .
Was I a bully. I like to think I wasn’t . I never asked any of them to do any thing I hadn’t done ; But no. I don’t suppose that absolves me either .
I was every parents nightmare ,( to my shame now. )
But mostly they were spared the excesses of our childish mischief until a slightly later period when I started experimenting with bombs - but that’s a different story.
So in that sense I was the worst element in an otherwise timid pack of kids. - the leader of the pack I suppose- and the whiff of danger always lured the others on to where they might not have otherwise gone ; but I always knew they’d follow . And they did.
But to return to Joey.
I just couldn’t figure the whole thing out . There were too many whys , and hows , and I couldn’t think these through with the other kids . Not out loud. In age , I came in between the eldest and the second eldest McGee . I knew that they too doubted the simplicity of this story about his death but also knew that they would more readily accept this easy explanation .
And I too wanted dearly to just believe it , but something inside kept knowing at me . And it wouldn’t go away.
We never went to his funeral. We were told he was in heaven and the Brothers wanted to leave him with all the other angels and for us not to be sad any more.
They took off the drapes from the rocking horse , and things went on as before .The sadness was natural we were told .But it would be wrong to stay sad for too long as Joey was happy now.
If he was so happy , why did he get up in the middle of the night to cross the yard and ride the rocking horse.
There was something very unexplained about the whole thing . I liked things to make sense .
And then I became convinced that all the crazy stuff we were doing on that long Saturday afternoon had caused his weak heart to stop. Nothing could dissuade me from this. It was my fault. Was it ? I just couldn’t let it go' or more precisely ;it wouldn’t let me go. The thought haunted me ; followed me everywhere; in my sleep and during the day; in school ; everywhere ; it wouldn’t leave me.
I prayed to God to give me the belief . But it gnawed away all the time , without relent .
So a couple of days later I went down to see the aunt. I waited in the bushes till her last patient had gone . Then I knocked on her door. She was a stoical , no nonsense sort of woman. Didn’t particularly like kids , and didn’t seem to like the look of me now. She regarded me huffily and brought me in . Her surgery smelled of that disinfectant and that spirit they rub on your arm before an injection , which then seems to take for ever to come . That smell quite terrified me . Or was it waiting for the jab . don’t know really - but now I didn’t care ; I wanted her to tell me straight . Did I somehow cause his heart to stop. Tell me !- Just tell me ..please !
I just blurted it out . I implored her for the truth . I had to know .
And then something strange thing happened which frightened me at first. Then puzzled me .This hard austere woman ; she cried . She turned away from me but she didn’t speak. I could see her shaking against her desk. Then I felt worse . I knew I did it. I was responsible . So I started to go out , but she stopped me , and I could see her eyes were red , and there was a tremor in her voice . She asked me to kneel down with her and say the Our Father . I started . She didn’t say the response even though I waited for her .
I don’t think I 'd ever seen an adult cry before . And I cried now for the first time . And when she was letting me out she put her hand on my head and said -' Bless you' - and this struck me as odd but comforting because she never showed any physical affection to her nieces or nephews. She turned away and started fumbling in her white coat . I knew she was looking for money .
But money was not at all important to me at that moment .
I knew I was closer to understanding something far greater than I had ever dared to consider . It was like asking me to believe in communion.
Somehow I was being told that there really were some things that even people like her didn’t understand.; inexplicable things . That’s what I took from the ' bless you'.
Walking down the hill . For the first time I began to feel a bit better . Because now I knew that she didn’t know why Joey was taken either . And when this austere woman cried and I cried with her I was finally able to put my guilt to rest. Or to place my guilt elsewhere somehow . At least some of it ; at least temporarily.
Strange , when I read this now . But that’s how it was . Almost fifty years ago , this year.
There was one less mystery in knowing that even adults didn’t understand all mysteries themselves sometimes.
But irrational though all this is , now half a centaury years later , I reflect on the whole episode , with great sadness. And perhaps a measure of guilt .
I see his frail waifish figure standing always , uncertainly ion the fringes of the gang. ; timorous - like a caged and frightened bird somehow; I see the draped rocking horse ; with the jam jars clumsily stuffed with flowers; I see his grave and wonder if it bears his name ; and I think of the seasons - and they are always winters ; beating down relentlessly on his grave and him lying there ; alone even now ; frail , fragile and timid even in the clay; on the periphery of the other souls ; remote, shy , and hesitant to commit.
I don’t see him smiling ; I don’t ever remember him ever laughing -ever .
And my sadness now is not for the fact that Joey died , or even now -how he died ,but for that fact that he didn’t die sooner. That he might have been spared the wickedness at the hands of his vile paedophile predators , night after night , as the and the other little guys down there were brutally raped by these brutish thuggish men . Monsters in dog-collars , acting in the service of God.
Sad for the fact that he would never more share for a few moments at our hearths ; to even get a little warmth to lighten his burden ; Even if he had leave our hearths again and go out into the terrible , and excruciating dark night of his life; alone in the corridors , and the bleak dormitories in the Industrial School.
But I'm not sure Joey even wanted to taste the good life . He knew that his fate was so different from ours. He was powerless to change it and we were powerless to understand it . And Joey.. well he could hardly explain it ..
But I'm not even getting this across ; not even now and so there I stop , and thank Christ for the fact that he was delivered finally from all possible pain.
No God could inflict Joey with a Purgatory - of that I was sure , even way back then , when this was not an optional extra threatened by the church on defaulters , but one inflicted by the spokesmen for God , at their ordination.
I was certain of that even when I realised that all the certainties and things that only adults could understand were predictable and determinable
Of this one thing , I was certain . I was also certain of one further thing ,Joey had no pain . Anymore.
But I would rather he had died in one moment of exuberance ; just one vivid flare of delight and liberation form his all of his endurance - and that he died in one soaring daring moment of bliss , and that his life were then extinguished in that moment . But no. It wouldn’t be like that .
He died alone in the middle of the night on a wooden rocking horse .
And I’ve come at last to realise that life is just like that.
Some taste the sweet apples ; and they will always be sweet , and others if they taste them at all , sadly will always be bitter
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