Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Drogheda & a severed head

Straddling the Boyne, founded by Vikings, fortified by Normans, fought over by rebels, this market town to me'd long been a traffic jam. My family, coming down from Belfast, would get stuck in the bend of the main road over the river. Less scenic if similarly configured to Derry, Drogheda now hosted me, for the friends with whom we'd visited in Belfast themselves had moved south.

From the airport to the bus to a walk up the steep south bank past Millmount and its Martello Tower (more on this place under my Tara and Loughcrew entries, to my surprise on returning and researching) I arrived mid-morning at my hosts (having thanked them personally, I'll keep them anonymous here and in my next post as both the husbands involved work as journalists and this still is-- or is near enough-- to the North in both cases to allow for discretion). I tottered up, after the usual long flight from L.A. to Chicago, a long layover before a red-eye that had no in-flight entertainment but a "Transformers 2" movie that banged and whizzed in my headset. I never slept, and the boy hacking nearby, despite the flu signs everywhere, when I looked up out of my sleepmask (not that I got any sleep) was then way over the other side of the cabin with his own mask on-- over his mouth. The flight, after all, was half-empty.

No more non-stops from the West Coast; San Francisco's had terminated but the weekend before. I walked down the international departures terminal to stretch and found that night only eight at most of the twenty-two or so gates opened for even one flight each, such was the emptiness; I also strolled into Aer Lingus and through security without any delay. Lots of time to sit or stroll and ponder the recession's impact on travel.

My hosts' children, four and eight (more or less to my bleary recollection) had not seen me for two years. Their mother was kerfluffled that I'd come a day early to her own bleary recollection, and the kids, it turned out, were off school for a mid-term week's break. Nice Halloween touch. So, one day I made up for my unexpected stay by helping clean the playroom, all sticky plastic and discarded paper, up. This led to wailing and gnashing of daughter's teeth, if son's younger non-plussed resignation, and a bag for the bin that even my earnest SoCal efforts to sort by recyclables had met with efficient rejection by the mistress of the manse.

It was good to have strong tea, for even the water makes it such in Ireland, and to talk about issues. They were as diverse, or related, as the secrecy over homosexuality in Irish republicanism; a much-acclaimed if to us bewilderingly so thriller just out about the Troubles; the lack of a principled, if fictional, republican protagonist who proved neither a tout nor a scum; the controversy over what the 1981 hunger strikers were offered by Thatcher-- but which was possibly held back by Adams and cronies so as to ratchet up their own political plans-- as a compromise to meet the prisoners' demands. Perhaps rather arcane material to you, but it made for hours of conversation for us. It was as if we picked up where we'd left off two years earlier, such is friendship when a shared interest entangles and enchants us both.

Host number two had a run-in with dentistry gone bonkers, and this did not bode well for those like me chuckling over the Simpsons' with its "British Book of Dentistry." Still, he regaled me with spirited insights into his reading of Richard Dawkins and his fervent trust in evolution and reason rather than saint's relics and sectarian strife. I thought ruefully of my own recent root canal's quick (if over three visits) repair by our trusted dentist back in Pasadena, as opposed to the botched job on my host, who at one point feared the infection would swell to cut off his breathing. Luckily, it never got that bad, but all this had happened while I was preparing for or was in transit over there, so I had truly no idea at what a bad time I'd arrived. (Later, my second host's wife suddenly became ill stranded up in Belfast while me and my first hosts were hosting him down in Drogheda a few days later; my last morning there, I'd reached up to pull a towel and took down the whole shower curtain rod, unable to jam it back up. Buses failed to show, planes flew in an hour late. It was that kind of week.)

As for the city, my medieval bent was roused. A couple of ruined gates, however, were about it. In 1649, the decade's rising had been crushed here. Cromwell supposedly had murdered 2000 (I think they used to say much more) Confederate Catholics in his suppression of the Boyne rebels, and this city had long nursed bitterness as the symbol of massacre. 3,000 defenders were said to have died in battle. Millmount saw the end of the leaders; the wooden leg of its governor Aston was said to have been used to beat him to death by soldiers angered that the limb did not hide gold within its recesses. The city's ethnic cleansing led to those who had fled into the Church of Ireland-- the other St. Peter's-- being burned alive. They died in its wooden steeple. The tower of the Catholic church, however, loomed higher, still barely the landmark over the town today despite a trendy "d hotel" and a waterfront lined with the Brú bistro, refurbished docks, and a handsome iron Victorian rail viaduct bridge.

I knew of St. Oliver Plunkett's preserved head in St. Peter's Catholic cathedral in a glass reliquary. On West street, still despite mall competition (mighty such for a small town with so many shrines to yuppiedom that confounded me) the old shopping corridor, you can see his head, along with his prison door from London's Newgate where the archbishop had been held for eight months before his martyrdom in 1681; his show trial as a French-loving agitator the first time having collapsed, he was simply retried and then hanged, drawn and quartered-- thus his grimace. I bent down to see it in the reflection of my own head's shape. I had done this at the British Museum to see if my head "fit" into the Sutton Hoo helmet, and it overlapped in my gaze that one better than the saint's blockier skull. It reminded me of a slightly shrunken voodoo prop. Or a wooden carving as a trophy.

There was a difference. For the Celts, the power lay in the enemy's soul, captured in his victor's decapitated trophy; what use did the English have for the Hiberno-Norman Irishized prelate's head? Yet, it was the French nuns who rescued the relic to restore to Ireland. Ireland's first saint to be canonized in modern times did have it easier in one way-- the second miracle was waived, part of John Paul's massive campaign to make saints that'd please so many peoples, so many interest groups, so many worshippers.

Still, I said a prayer for my Catholic friends and family as I do when getting bonus points for entering a new church. Like the prison door, such relics from the past remind me of how short our ancestors were. (At Maynooth the next night for a conference, I'd stoop through the main door cut into the twin wooden door at the entrance to St. Patrick's Seminary, closed at night I suppose to horses if not people, before curfew. I found out the other day we are about 55% larger than our ancestors two centuries ago, by the way.) I wanted a postcard of our saint's severed head-- that old Celtic totem even for a man of quite a Norman surname-- to send to a prisoner who'd requested a card from Ireland, but none were to be procured.

What else could I recommend in Drogheda? Lunch at Stockwell's Artisan Foods could please even my foodie wife and her pals; similarly, the magnificent dinner at the Eastern Seaboard restaurant just a walk away from my hosts in a ordinary strip mall could stand against fine dining in my hometown easily. If you want to walk around, as we did, without kids in tow, the Gymboree in Scotch Hall afforded them genial fun. Other moms walked about, kids like mine and my hosts, and I remembered my own.

The winding streets seemed colder up here, the faces more worn, the lines etched deeper. I compared them to those of my sunny, smoggy city, where despite its international quality, perhaps matched in the world only by London or Paris, the skin seemed softer, the wrinkles-- allowing for botox-- less prominent, and the gazes more placid. Or, it may have been that whenever we roam, we exaggerate the small differences we encounter into national qualities.

Of course, the rain threatened. We ducked into one shop on what had been a street hard hit by the economy. Boarded up stores, some with African or Polish signs. A butcher there forever but his own shop without customers; I wondered how Scotch Hall and Dunne's had taken away his business, or the retail park by the new motorway (less traffic jams at least in the medieval city center), or the half-built mall I passed on the bus in from the southside amidst raw estates as this city became sucked into the bedroom community exurbia of massive Dublin.

On West street, Boyne Books was pricy-- 45 euro for a tiny Mercier Press paperback by Padraic O'Farrell on Ernie O'Malley seemed outrageous-- but it had a well-stocked selection of books especially on Irish history the past century. There was also an Eason's and a Waterstone's, the latter featuring my host's own book on display and where I scored, despite my vow not to add to the one small suitcase I lugged about any more weight, a couple of Irish-language paperbacks I knew already I'd been unable to get Stateside. The staff there were patient as the young man before me kept regaling them in a sort of autistic repetition his stream-of-consciousness riffs on money. Sort of like a stand-up comedian's Andy Kaufman act, but no acting.

I thought, as in other small exchanges I'd witnessed with kind bus drivers, a postcard seller at Downpatrick's Cathedral, the Gymboree folks, the man running Stockwell's counter, how despite the rush of Irish life now, perhaps my Yank romanticism was not to blame. I try to be patient and genial in my interactions with put-upon clerks and agents who must put up with same parade of inquiries over and over, day in day out. Perhaps still among such in Drogheda-- I kept seeing people greet each other as they walked on West street and its older environs, perhaps more than at Scotch Hall-- there persisted a genuine notion to take a bit longer to stop and listen to people, to help them, that at its best pervaded traditional Irish hospitality. Stereotypes, after all, can be positive.

Photo: Stephen Durnin, Wikipedia entry on Drogheda 2007. You can see a photo of the reliquary at the Wikipedia entry on "Oliver Plunkett." He was born near the site of the Loughcrew Cairns in Co Meath, a subject of one of my next blog installments.


tamerlane said...

Funny tricks one can do with genealogy: I once worked out that my distant ancestor and my thoroughbred's distant ancestor fought on opposite sides at the Battle of the Boyne. (My horse's people won.)

Fionnchú said...

Of course this reminds me of Brendan Behan's definition of the Anglo-Irishman: "A Protestant with a horse." Good to find you over here at another blog, comrade.