A retired traveling salesman, Jim Kelly has been writing for over forty years. His work has been in War, Literature & the Arts, Harvard Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Switchback, The Coachella Review, and now Harvard Review Online. He won the 2017 George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press for his story collection, Pitchman’s Blues.
Dublin Summer 1970
By Jim Kelly
I’m nineteen, a windbag English major just finishing up my first year of college. Drunk on the sound of my own voice, do I spend the summer mowing lawns, again, for the same jerk boss, for minimum wage? Or, do I fly away to the ancient land of my people? Spend two months blathering about books in a thousand year old city? It was a package deal, my Dublin summer. Flat rate. Flights to and from Dublin, room and board, two col- lege courses, no prerequisites required. Literature, philosophy, history, archeology, you name it they had it. Pick two, any two, your choice. Mix and match encouraged.
They put us up in a nunnery. A defunct nunnery. It was a walled compound three blocks from the sea, from Sandymount Strand, and a short bus ride from downtown Dublin where the school was. The main building, a three story soot black box, was built right up to the street. There was an inner courtyard with a small chapel, a garden given over to cabbages, carrots and spuds. Around the perimeter were ten tiny, bare bones cabins. We bunked two to a cabin.
They were identical, these cabins. Cold lino floors, two narrow beds, two lumpy thin mattresses, no pictures on the walls, two simple desks, one small window facing the courtyard, no curtains, two hard seat, straight back chairs, no cushions, one small bath- room. The tub was made of metal. Cold gray metal. It was round, like the bottom of a barrel. The back half was a seat, the front half a well where you stuffed your feet and knees. You sat in it like you were sitting on a chair. Coins in a meter on the wall got you water up to your knees. Tepid water. Always tepid, never hot. Bathing quickly became an every now and then deal, more then than now.
Come home late and you were locked out for the night. The walls surrounding the compound were twelve feet high and topped with upright shards of broken glass, with sagging, rusted loops of barbed wire. There, from days past, to keep the secular world out? The restive nuns in? The brochure on the table in the front hallway of the main building didn’t say.
We washed our clothes, when we washed them, in deep cement tubs. Lumps of bar soap, coarse and gray, were there for our use. Part of the package. Part of the deal. A thicket of drying racks, ten and twelve foot slats hoisted up into the gloom by ropes and pulleys, kept pants and shirts, socks and undies motionless and damp. Left up there for a full day, they never got fully dry. Soon enough we all smelled like mushrooms, like standing water.
Classes were held in a three story Georgian mansion just down from St. Stephen’s Green, a fine park with walking paths, flower beds, benches, fountains and trees. Most of the twenty or so students, like me, were undergraduates off on a boondoggle. There were several high school teachers there to punch the certification card, earn a few col-
lege credits and prove, to school boards back home, that their minds were still improv- ing, still a good investment. There was one nun and one Vietnam Vet, my roommate Charlie.
On our first night in Ireland Charlie and I took a bus into Dublin. Neither of us had any Irish money, only the American coins and cash we’d brought with us on the flight over. We watched a publican pulling pints of stout in a busy pub. It was labor intensive. He’d pull a bit then let it settle, adding a bit to another glass, another glass and another beside that until each one was fully black, with only a thin brown head at the top. Drink- ing, we discovered, was democratic. All drinks cost fifty pence. A pint of stout, a pint of beer, a glass of whiskey, fifty pence.
“Two pints of stout” I said eventually, slapping two fifty cent pieces on the bar and turning my back on the publican, hoping he’d accept the money and not ask me for ID. A fat finger poked me between the shoulder blades. “Do you know what this is” the man asked, holding up one of my two coins?
“It’s American” said Charlie, moving up close to the bar. Leaning in now, like an old friend, smiling wide. “We’re summer students. We just got in to Dublin today. Just flew in from the States. We’re here to get in touch with our heritage, our roots. Pay homage to the land of our forefathers. We didn’t have time to change our money. Look, if this is a currency thing, if what we gave you isn’t enough, will this cover the difference?” He laid a five on the bar.
“It’s A Kennedy Half” the publican said, looking at us like we were idiots. “He was President of the United States. His people are from here, from Ireland. He’s Irish and he was President of the United States. Jesus, you don’t spend a coin like this, you keep it. Save it. Give it to your children. Your grandchildren.” We drank for free that night, learn- ing that stout, at first bitter and harsh, becomes, after a second, third and fourth pint, creamy and delightful, prompts conversation and makes you, or at least made me, laugh about nothing at all.
Charlie, I soon found out, didn’t want to talk about Vietnam. I did. How to avoid it. Come fall I’d be in the next Draft Lottery. Lose and I’d be a soldier. Charlie, though, wouldn’t talk about where he’d been for the past two years. Ireland’s past, that’s what he wanted to talk about now. Neolithic ring forts, beehive tombs and stone circles.
“If you can’t kill they won’t take you” a guy told me at a draft counseling center. “They can’t force you to be a soldier, to bear arms.” On the plane over I’d been reading a mimeographed stack of pages he’d given me. Quotes on pacifism by Gandhi and Thoreau, Tolstoy, Kant and all sorts of other people I’d never heard of before. Means and ends. I was a terror that summer on means and ends. “You can’t achieve good ends with bad means” I’d announce to anybody who would sit and listen. The world, by my lights, was simple. Violence, brute force solved nothing. Love, understanding, that was the ticket, was how civilized, enlightened people solved their problems, their dis- putes. In a land of ancient grudges, I got my ass handed to me more than once for that
line of talk. For the arrogance of telling perfect strangers what was what. Two incidents come quick to mind, one on a Dublin street corner and one on a medieval bridge in the north.
There was a tiny, canvas sided newsstand on the street corner where we caught the bus back to the nunnery. A silent crone worked it, usually saying nothing, not even to direct questions. She sold newspapers, magazines, cigarettes and candy bars. You could, if you were short of cash, buy one or two cigarettes or half a candy bar. She’d open the pack and shake out however many cigarettes you wanted. Since the candy bars were mostly molded into grids, into rows of equal sections, it was easy enough to snap them in two.
One afternoon, eating half a Cadbury Fruit and Nut Bar, I was reading a front page story. Not buying the paper, only looking down and reading what I could read for free. Quick scanning from the headline down to where the paper folded in half. It was about a reprisal killing in the north. A British soldier had been kidnapped. He’d be killed if a con- demned IRA gunman wasn’t released by a certain date. When I got to the fold at the bottom of the paper and couldn’t read what came next I decided it was time for me to comment, to hold forth.
The only person within ear shot was the crone behind the newsstand counter. “Isn’t this terrible” I said, pointing to the headline, the article. “Why can’t people just learn to get along? To do like Gandhi says? Try and see the world through your enemy’s eyes. Feel his pain. Sit down together in a spirit of love. A spirit of mutual respect. Try to un- derstand and accept one another. Is killing the only answer?”
“Don’t forget 1649” the crone shouted, shutting me up pronto. “I suppose sitting down with love in our hearts would have stopped Cromwell killing half the population of Ireland would it? Killing every Catholic man, woman and child he could stick a sword into? Filling every tree in the land with corpses, then having armed guards stand by so we couldn’t cut our sons down and give them a proper burial. Making it so we had to watch the birds eat them, bit by bit. Stand by while the bodies of our loved ones dripped down like tallow in the heat of the sun? Would your dot Indian in his diaper have stopped Cromwell from doing any of that? Leave off you, leave off. I’ve better things to do than listen to a fool like you.”
Ignorant and just nineteen, what did I know? I’d never even heard of Oliver Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell or his slaughter of the Irish in 1649. Still, a few weeks later, there I was, out and about telling strangers how to sort a situation. Offering up pacifist sound bites like I was the Mahatma himself.
It was a bank holiday, a three day weekend. I’d hitched across the border into north- ern Ireland, winding up in Londonderry, or Derry, depending on your allegiances. Half way across the medieval bridge out of town I was stopped by a sit-down strike. Hun- dreds of protesters with linked arms were blocking my way. No cars or trucks, no busses, bikes or walkers could get by them, get through them. It was Sunday and I
needed to get across the bridge, get to the freeway south and start hitching back to Dublin.
Always up for a colloquy, I asked what the sit-in was about. Rubber bullets they told me. Rubber bullets. The British soldiers were using rubber bullets to break up demon- strations by Catholics. They wanted that to stop. No more rubber bullets. They were not going to move until they had assurances that the British soldiers would quit using rubber bullets on Catholic demonstrators.
I was the very man for this line of talk, agreeing with all they said. Trotting out my means and ends slogans, concluding, grandly, that violence solved nothing. That vio- lence only begat more violence. That certainly rubber bullets could be just as deadly as real bullets if they hit someone in the head.
“What we want,” a young guy was explaining when I shut up long enough to listen, a guy about my age seated at my feet, arms linked in solidarity, “what we want is for the soldiers to quit using rubber bullets and start using live ammunition. Coddle the papist bastards and they keep making trouble. Shoot them down dead, that’s what we want.
Shoot them down like the rabid dogs they are. That’s what we want. That’s what we’re here about. And we won’t move until we get it.” A cheer went up all around.
I wanted to disappear, instantly. Close my eyes and pop back up at home. To be far, far away from ancient grudges. Grudges that wouldn’t quit. I wanted to be out walking, goofing in a field of flowers, wild flowers and tall grass, hand in hand with my beautiful brown eyed girlfriend. I wanted to be saying silly things to make her laugh, make her smile, get her, maybe, to kiss me again. Again and again and again.
Failure, that summer, as mouthpiece of pacifist dogma, I was lucky in the classes I took. My professor for both was Thomas Flanagan. He’d written a classic book about nineteenth century Irish literature. He took his job seriously, even though we were a mediocre bunch at best. During the school year he taught at University of California Berkley. Why he was treating us like we had brains that deserved to be in the same room as his I’ll never know. He chain smoked and posed questions, never lecturing. Drawing, instead, ideas out of us. Making us think, take stands, support what we said with specifics from the texts. His seriousness, his respect for the works at hand, for us as worthy to comment on them, made us want to rise to the occasion, to say smart things.
We had one thing in common. Not brains, but the blues for our sweethearts. In his case it was for his wife, his wife and daughters back in California. For me it was for my girlfriend back in Michigan whose kisses sprung me free. Each morning he and I were the first two to get to the school. We’d sit on the cement steps waiting for the woman who unlocked the fancy wooden door in the morning. She always arrived with the mail in a canvas sack. If either of us got a letter from our sweetie we’d scuttle off to a private place to read and reread it. Later, in class, we’d nod and smile if we’d gotten a letter, raise our palms and eyebrows, dejected if we hadn’t.
Years later he got famous for writing novels, historical novels about Ireland’s past, “The Year of the French,” “The Tenants of Time,” and “The End of the Hunt.” They were full of passionate talkers. Some were straight out of history, rebels or poets or generals who’d walked the earth. Others were dreamed up little people. Little people caught up in the chaos of their times. The best scenes, by my lights, were the ones where lovers, separated by events, yearned just to be back together.
On my last night in Ireland I went to a party in the Dublin mountains. The professor who threw it invited us all, everybody who’d been at the school that summer. He was American but had moved his family to Ireland “because Nixon was the next Savonarola.” Was going to round up all the intellectuals and “turn America into a police state.” At two or three in the morning, sitting across a small kitchen table from this long faced, gray faced guy with his whispy, Don Quixote beard, I realized that everybody else was gone. That, talking too much as usual, I’d missed the last ride down the mountain. If I didn’t get back to the nunnery by morning I’d miss my flight back to the States. Miss my flight and miss my sweetheart Annie who was going to pick me up at the Detroit Air- port.
A river flows from the Dublin mountains down to the sea. I followed it in the dark. Walked and stumbled along, drunk in the dark, keeping the lights of Dublin, the lights ringing Dublin Bay in front of me. The bus for the airport had long since left when I got to the nunnery. Charlie hadn’t. He’d packed our gear and was waiting out in front of the compound. We made it to the airport on time, the last two to board the flight for JFK, but we made it.
In New York, heading for our separate flights, mine to Detroit, his to Montana, we stopped to say goodbye. Charlie, in pantomime, poked me in the chest, then held up two fingers, a small empty space between them. “You know what this is?” he said finally. Still goofy with sleep I didn’t catch his drift.
“A Kennedy Half?” I said then, starting to smile, to wake up a bit. “ He was President of the United States you know. His people are from here, from Ireland. You don’t spend a thing like this man, you save it. Keep it. Give it to your children. Your grandchildren.” We laughed, shook hands and walked off to catch our flights home: Charlie, his war behind him, me with my war yet to come.
I enjoyed this story of the Jim Kelly’s past visit to Dublin, a time that clearly had great significance for him and his self-portrait as a young man. He touches on a great many themes, of historical and personal interest, from a comical and yet tragical perspective.