“Bless me father for I have sinned.”
How many times have you heard that phrase? To me, they’re simply empty words on deaf ears from forced confessions of the indoctrinated - a practice passed down by each generation to the next gullible crowd of oppressed souls, fearful of divine retribution.
I was born into an Irish Catholic family, so these archaic beliefs were acted out before me every Saturday and Sunday, firstly at confession then followed by the next evening with holy communion. As a reluctant child dragged to the weekly ritual at the ‘Confess and be forgiven’ musical, it was a learning opportunity – a study, of what we mortals on the ground can get away with in everyday life.
Witnessing the transparent hypocrisy in my own family, I quickly grew weary of the practice of faith. Being repentant, didn’t stop my uncles from brawling, it didn’t stop my grandmother from ignoring her youngest son’s temper-fuelled tirades, and it certainly didn’t prevent my grandparents from living two separate lives under the same roof. It was the 1960s, and divorce was not Catholic – especially Irish Catholic. Like most things Irish, you had to show resilience, be fighting Irish and get on with things.
As a child, I was powerless to stop the constant in-fighting and bickering. Essentially, there were three separate enclaves of one Irish clan living in a four-storey house in London, so once havoc was cried, the dogs of war were indeed let slip. On the ground floor lived my middle uncle, his wife, and two kids - a boy and a girl. On the subsequent three floors were my grandparents, my mother, my youngest uncle, and me. Surprisingly, the house had three kitchens, perfect for the approaching 1970s boom of sub-dividing renovations; where London houses were bought up by rich developers, who immediately doubled or tripled their investment by sub-dividing these spacious homes, then re-selling them. It didn’t take separate front doors and walls to divide my family. They were already demolition experts.
The irony of this communal living agreement was that several years before I was born, my grandmother decided to move everyone to England to get her middle son away from a woman she despised. This abandoned Irish girl eventually tracked him down and some years later, ended up as co-owner of the above-mentioned house, living under the same roof with her new mother-in-law – and lifelong nemesis. An unwisely arrangement that sparked many a confrontation between the two women. Arguments would lead to shouting, then the brothers got involved, and when the brothers got involved, fists usually flew.
Violent behaviour used to be my uncle’s outlet of frustration and self-loathing, and to witness it was very distressing to all. Trying to justify his behaviour and deflect any fault away from her father, my mother would recall how my grandfather had wanted to take my uncle under his wing because he was running a little on the wild side. When he was ten years old, he started to show symptoms of epilepsy – the result of a fall from a tree, my mother would repetitively explain – in defence of her brother. My grandfather thought that he could tame him, teach him to control his emotions; however, when my grandmother ordered him to leave the boy alone, my grandfather lost control of the family. It was now in the hands of the matriarch, and her youngest son was not to be pitied for his unholy affliction, nor blamed for his temper, and not to be held accountable for the fallout it created. He was to be mollycoddled, controlled, and overprotected. A failed decision that rebounded back on her like the uncontrolled snapping return of a stretched rubber band exceeding its stress level. She bore the resultant wrath of my uncle. Although he did not actually kill her, on occasion, he did harm her physically, and I believe most certainly that he helped speed up her eventual demise. Those moments of parent abuse were hidden from view and only discussed between mother and daughter. When my mother felt it necessary to pass on details of the saga to me, my grandmother was no longer part of this life.
Not personally witnessing that escalation of anger, I can only recollect one intense incident - when I was 11 years old - that involved my grandfather and the angry one. I was in my bedroom, a haven I usually escaped to when tempers flared. The walls weren’t thick enough to block out the offensive noise to my young ears of eleven years, but it helped muffle the language of the very loud argument on the other side of the wallpapered room division. Sounding like being under the water at the swimming baths when someone was shouting at you, the heated cacophony ended abruptly with the sound of glass shattering. I had to see what it was. An out of the ordinary sound within the confines of a family household needed investigating. Rushing into the front room – as we called it, I witnessed my uncle tightly gripping onto my grandfather’s cardigan, like an afterthought to violence – that getting your breath back moment or like you’ve just finished a bout of heavy drinking. My uncle was soaked from head to waist. I could see there was broken glass on the floor surrounding both men’s feet. They both stood there silently rocking - ever so slightly, then my uncle released his grip, staggered from the room, down the stairs, and exited through the front door, out onto the street. Inquisitively, I rushed to the window to see where he was headed. My insides were nervously upset but at 11 years old, I had already started to develop an emotional defensive wall, so I just stared blankly through the window at the street below, as my uncle hovered on the edge of the curb between two parked cars - my grandmother pleading with him to come inside.
I don’t recall what or who started the argument but that was never a question to be asked in my family. When the blood heated up, they just let it boil and dealt with the aftershocks later. ‘Don’t analyse it, just move on to the next argument,’ seemed the family creed. That practice solved nothing and just created resentment and emotional distancing in a never-ending circle of angry confrontation before everyone calms down, before the denial of it happening, before forgetting why it happened, before everyone to their own corners, before we all argue again.
I can only guess how the clash between my grandfather and uncle began; however, when physically threatened in that moment, my grandfather chose to resort to violence – the only time that I ever knew him to lose his temper completely. He loved his fizzy lemonade and the red bottles of Tizer that were popular at the time. Back then, all soft drinks came in large glass bottles, and sadly, it was one of the full fizzy lemonade bottles that he smashed over my uncle’s head while defending himself. In my rush to the scene, I saw no blood, so either my uncle had the skin of a crocodile, or he just got lucky. Anyway, he had already left the current scene to start a brand new one – in public, and in front of the neighbours.
Historically, my uncle took a long time to calm down after getting worked up, and he was as far from the sea of tranquillity as the Apollo Eagle’s moon crew training on that day when a car came into my peripheral view, just up the road, to my right. Unexpectedly, the driver had locked up his wheels in the sudden challenge to immediately stop his car. In the left corner of my vision, I saw my uncle attempt to dive under the car’s oncoming wheels. Thankfully, the car stopped just short of rolling over him, its front bumper resting gently on his back. My grandmother screamed at him, praying to Saint Anthony, Saint Aloysius, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Almighty. Anyone possibly looking down on her from heaven received a mention. Unaware of the drama outside the house, my grandfather remained in the front room, trying to sweep up the shattered remnants of his fizzy lemonade bottle into a small dustpan - silently processing the drama that had taken place inside the house just moments before. In retrospect, it seemed symbolic of the splintered state our family existed in.
My grandfather was not the healthiest of men, physically. Ten years prior, he had part of his stomach removed due to a cancer, leaving him extremely thin but on the surface, looking alive as could be, and still able to protect himself - albeit this time at a cost to his own mental resolve.
I looked up to my grandfather. Being named after him, we had a strong bond between us that lasted until his death - four years later at the young age of sixty-seven. Visiting his grave has always been slightly unnerving, seeing my own name imprinted onto a headstone. I don’t think he and my uncle ever discussed that moment of reactionary violence. As with everything uncomfortable, my family just moved on to the next disagreement, not versed enough in intelligent objectivity to get to the core of their problems.
The action of throwing himself under an approaching car being as unsuccessful as the driver’s impressive and more successful reaction, did not satisfy my uncle’s quest for a conclusion to his dramatic act. Frustrated, he jumped up, swore at the driver, then stormed off up the road and out of view. It was later in the evening that he returned, face bloodied; his nose smashed and twisted in several directions, his verbal responses garbled and slurred. In his rage, he had picked a fight with two random strangers in the street – about a five-minute’s walk from home. His misshaped nose, plus reconstructed facial surgery, and a weeklong recuperation in hospital will give you an idea as to how he fared. However, come the following Sunday, he, my grandmother, and my mum were on their knees praying to motionless and inanimate statues of all-loving and all-forgiving deities, to help this poor misfortunate son, and cure him of his ailment.
My emotions bottled up when visiting him in the hospital, and I kept my distance from him; fearful that his rage – like a virus - was contagious. I could not comprehend the level of anger my young years had witnessed. None of my uncle’s violence had ever been directed at me but it was played out in front of me. As a consequence, I subsequently avoided any potential signs of violent scenarios. The emotional trauma I suffered prohibited me from helping teenage friends in fights, and it also prevented me from stepping in to help quell any physical conflicts I witnessed during my young adult life. I remained a reluctant spectator. However, that all changed early one 1990s morning inside the premises of a 24-hour diner in Southern California. What happened to me transformed my outlook on life and rid me of any lingering fear that had encrusted my decision making up to that point. The damage was severe but paradoxically, it created a path to happiness. But that is another story.
Out of my grandparents, my parents, and my three uncles, the only one left alive is the angry one. Not so confrontational these days, sitting in an Irish care home named after another saint that once cared for the sick. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the onset of dementia, he has long ago rid himself of hostilities. Existing in quiet contemplative mode in a parallel world of his own, his memories are muddled and his speech sounds like an arctic explorer shivering alone on a frozen iceberg with no reserve energy for a final objective analysis of his life. Time has taken its toll on the casualties of his past rages. Sadly, we no longer hear their songs of praise. They – like my grandparents - are now just reflections in life’s pond, referenced in a future passed by and a past long gone, eternally resting without worry, without pain, without conflict. The finality of my uncle’s existence is that he is alone with no family willing or able to visit him. My cousins - who live closer to him than I do - want nothing to do with him. They saw more of his anger long after I moved continents, so I’m not judging them. I just question their lack of compassion. Caring for him now, is the nursing staff dutifully looking after his every need. I live on the other side of the planet, and send him the occasional birthday and Christmas card, but I don’t think they register with his confused consciousness. Gone is his raging fire that terrorised the household, gone is his astute awareness of life around him, and gone is his past – the recollection, that is.
Maybe my grandmother’s prayers had been answered. Part of my uncle’s ‘affliction’ had gone. How? I can’t explain. Maybe, he just outgrew the anger. The reasons for his fiery turmoil can never be explained, just irritatingly recalled by the remaining sentient family members. A lasting memory that will remain until its last spoken remnants ultimately crumble into dust and fade into oblivion. My uncle is not dead, yet I mourn him. I lament the life he could have had because he is not a stranger, he is family. I bemoan the fact that I may not see him again for the journey is long and living in the pandemic era makes it too risky to travel. To talk to him on the telephone is like talking to an empty shell, once filled by a thinking person of free will. His world now, is in a separate universe to mine, with different conclusions at a distance too far to reach. The answers I seek to my questions are in there – never to be revealed. I can only speculate that being told how to live his life by an overpowering mother may have sparked it. To blossom and to grow into the world, a young man needs to unshackle himself from his mother’s grasp; however, the fallout, the cost of his rebellious behaviour, caused a fractured family to disperse to the four corners of the globe, leaving him pinned to his mother’s apron - analogically speaking. Regrouping occasionally, reforming, never; the damage to the family unit was irreversible. In a way, distancing themselves became the best way to maintain peace.
My grandmother was wrong to sideline my grandfather’s influence. He could very well have steered my uncle toward a near-normal life. The religious programming would not have stopped. That is endemic to the Irish way of life. No matter what the chaos, my uncle never lost his religion; however, as soon as I could run faster than my own mother, religion was a dissipating thing of the past to me, and I never looked back. Being a Catholic and more so, a Catholic of Irish descent, meant being exposed to a high degree of narcissism, insularity, and hypocrisy – the I’m okay, you’re not okay clannish practiced behaviour, I once learned about in a Sociology 101 university class. I also had a ticket out. I was born on English soil and attended Church of England schools, so escaped the oppressive teachings of the Nuns. Through the years, I had heard many stories from my uncles about the brutality of their teacher nuns at Leamy's School in Limerick, and I was thankful to have not been subjected to that kind of harmful experience.
What had been exhibited to me in the mercifully short time as a Catholic, was the message that whatever you did, whatever the sin, it was easily absolved by reciting three Hail Mary’s and the Lord’s prayer. What value does forced confession have, anyway? If the punishment fit the crime, and involved hard labour, then the 11-year-old me would have thought twice before stealing ten shillings out of my grandmother’s purse. Instead, I was forgiven by an act of contrition, but I never forgave myself. If I was a religious person, if I was a practicing Catholic, my cynical response to all of this would most likely be,
“Thank you, God… Thanks an awful lot…”