Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991) - The origins of Proxopera [Chap.: “To the Swinging Bars ...”

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[Speaking of a teacher, M. J. O’Curry:] What the book M. J. gave me was, I cannot now remember. But I carried it proudly with me to the new place I was going to, and was proudly able to say who had loaned it to me. For all over the Town he was a much beloved and respected man. He once said about me, although not to my face and I feel he may have meant it as a compliment, that I would go far. Because of that statement, reported to me by his widow, he was in my mind when, faraway in Oregon and on the banks of the Willamette river (but indoors and in the university of Oregon, at the pleasant city of Eugene), I was, in 1965-6, going through the motions of teaching. This, I said to myself, has to be what he meant. Not much further can I go, as Francis Drake found out, without beginning to come home again.

Then, ten years later, meditating I was on the banks of the Delaware where better men than me have meditated, and M. J. Curry came back into my mind and heart, if he had ever left them, and I began to write a novella that I called Proxopera . The year, as you may have readily worked out, was 1976, and the part of the world I come from, and the absurd political contrivance set up there, by the British and history and ourselves, in 1920, was falling or being blown to pieces. So my novella was about the predicament of an elderly man, a Mr Binchey, a teacher (retired) of history and literature. He lived in a white house by a lake near a town and had his own private stream bordering the lawn and gardens and flowing into the lake: and about how his house was invaded by masked gunmen who force him to drive the car-bomb into his own town while they, the faceless monsters, who have in their mindless minds so made themselves, hold as hostages his son and son’s wife, and two children and an elderly housekeeper.

Now, not history had that man taught but Latin and English literature. For when I wrote about him, I was thinking of Michael J. [145] Curry who came originally from the County Clare and who took his academic degrees across the water. For half a century or so he influenced the lives of wave after wave of men who passed through that school. His mannerisms, his remarks, his witticisms became portion of the folklore of the Town. Between that man and myself, I am happy to say, there was a happy relationship.

It may have been my reading (in Delaware), in a newspaper sent out from Dublin, about the man near the village of Kesh, County Fermanagh, who saw red and turned his bomb-burdened automobile on the gunmen who had so burdened it, and set them scarpering, for their precious, patriotic lives, all the way to Bundoran, County Donegal, that provided my initial impulse for the writing of that novella, Proxopera . Humour had thrown an odd Keystonish light on a particularly mean and cowardly form of intrusion and atrocity. But I was also remembering a day in class in the 1930s when M. J. turned from Livy XXII to ask me had I read Dan Breen’s book, My Fight for Irish Freedom, and if I had so read it, what did I think of it.

Happened I had read it for it was, about that time, almost compulsory Irish nationalist reading. But even though Dan Breen had to be accepted as a Tipperary hero battling in the 1920s against the pretty atrocious Black-and-Tans, my sophisticated secondary-school taste did not give a high rating to his book, not for political but for literary reasons. Don’t remember now, if I ever did know, whether Dan Breen wrote the book himself or had somebody do it for him. But it was a crude enough story and not too well told.

M. J.’s objections were more and other than literary. He held it no heroic thing to hide behind a hedge and shoot men in the back. His was an outdated standard of behaviour even then and one that would have imposed an over-rigorous discipline on the devoted guerrilla. Yet when, in later years, I met Dan Breen and found him to be a charming, humorous and human man, it occurred to me, from the hints I gathered from his talk, that his standards did not much differ from those of M. J. Curry. Deeds done in the heat of youth, and not only deeds of blood, seem different to the backward view of age. Naturally I did not raise the delicate topic with Dan Breen, to whom I was introduced by a celebrated Capuchin friar. But in the conversation that followed our introduction, he spoke broodingly of bad times and of things then done [146] that in the time and place he was talking in (Dublin in the late 1940s) would be difficult to justify. He was not speaking only of or for himself.

We have lived, some of us, to see better times and more abominable deeds.

So that it seemed to me, meditating by the banks of the Delaware, an obvious, perhaps too obvious, ploy to place M. J. Curry in the middle of one of our happy contemporary situations and try to imagine how he might react. For the sake of the story I gave him what you might call a false or another identity and background: an ancestry in the town, a son and grandchildren, a white house by a lake. The lake in which, in the novella, the murdered body is found is, in reality, in County Fermanagh. The man whose body was found in it I once met in a pub in the village of Trillick, not many miles from the house I was born in. But the lake I actually describe is close to my own hometown and a comic ballad about it, which I quoted, was written by that Shavian brother-in-law, already mentioned. The white house was there by the lakeshore and may still be there. But the stream at the fringe of the garden is to be found close to Sligo town and in front of the long house once inhabited by a relative of the poet, Yeats.

You pick a bit from here and a bit from there. (pp.145-47.)

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