Chapter one (a boy named Sue):
“I tell you, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.”- Shel Silverstein
It was bad enough being called Connor O’Connor but the sad truth was that his name; proper and complete, was Connor O’Connor Junior or Connor Òg O’Connor as his father insisted on calling him- although when he was young his father didn’t speak to him much at all.
His name had been a constant source of amusement to the other boys in school. His initials “C.O.C.” was pronounced as ‘Cock’ of course and he seemed to be easily associated with Daniel O’Donnell*, who appeared to be the only person in the public eye with a similarly alliterative name that anyone could come up with.
His uncle could play guitar and would song Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue” sometimes. It quickly became Connor’s favourite song. At least it gave him an opportunity to attach a gritty kind of dignity to his predicament. With his eyes closed he could imagine himself as someone made formidable by his name but with his eyes open he felt only small and ridiculous.
St. Stephen’s Christian Brothers School, an old building that had that particular large grey presence achieved only by Catholic schools and reformatories, was surrounded by a series of concrete blocks called “the sheds” and sat heavy as phlegm under several large crucifixions. It was a tough place to be for anyone, make someone an obvious target and things got really tough.
In Primary School and the early years of Secondary the teachers dominated the boys with violence and the boys dominated each other the same way. When the boys got to be fifteen or so the teachers stepped back and let the boys get on with it.
You learned things there though; learned things by rote. It was a reality that many of the boys in the school would be emigrating and exam results were one way to stay in the country. Whether one was right to want to stay in Ireland at that time was a question which was not discussed.
Away from school he grew up towards a pair of old running shoes thrown over a wire.
Fear and violence ran the school. The place where he lived as a child was run not by fear and violence but by heroin, which kindly provided the fear and the violence should you have gotten used to them in the education system.
There’s a story by Chekov, something about a gardener, in which a crime is committed that is so terrible that no one can believe a human being could have been responsible for it. Therefore when they find the criminal he is released, simply because no one wants to accept that anyone could be capable of such a thing. Better to pretend it never happened.
That’s how anyone with any power felt about the presence of heroin in Dublin from the time it started coming in in the late seventies until the people at the top of the government and the police started to take any notice of it by the end of the eighties. By then King Heroin ruled in parts of Dublin.
There is a strong argument to be made for the social and personal benefits of the use of certain drugs but there is no such argument for heroin. Heroin, as William Burroughs observed, is pure need, pure commodity. “You don’t sell heroin to people, you sell people to heroin.” People find it strange when heroin is compared to or described as a supernatural, monstrous force but nothing describes it better.
Brewery Field was never a genteel place but generations were ruined in only a decade or so by the evil spirit opiate.
Connor observed it as a child, only half aware, the reverse of evolution, families of junkies with broken bodies, baby’s skin and nothing behind the eyes. The sickness getting worse and taking hold faster in each successive generation like drosophila in a lab or pigs in a factory farm too close together and full of too many antibiotics.
His father was a Garda, the jailer in the holding cells in one of the two biggest police stations in the centre of the city and he was also at the centre of a simple but catastrophic mistake of strategy. He lived and worked within a fifteen-minute walk door to door. This meant that the people he locked up were also his neighbours. This made things tough for him. People knew where you lived and might come to the door. A man in that position; and he was in it for twenty years or more, had to have a certain presence about him and it came at a price.
The other factor in the atmosphere in which Connor grew was, of course, religion- more specifically- The Holy Roman Catholic Church.
The influence of this organisation was everywhere in Connor’s early life. It might safely have been described as the Prince to Heroin’s King- a strange coincidence of history. When he was in his early teens Connor would conflate King Herod and “King Heroin” in his mind, not consciously, it just happened.
The character of Irish Catholicism was for Connor best expressed in the person of his severe Grandmother who lived next door to him for the first thirteen years of his life.
His grandmother went to mass at least once a week her whole life and for all the time that he knew her, never paid attention to one moment of it as far as he could tell. He later believed she deeply resented being told what to do by anyone, priests included, but a combination of superstition and cultural pressure made it impossible for her ever to express that feeling.
She sat with her family or in a long line of old ladies like herself. They all wore thick stockings; sheep’s wool lined zip up brown suede boots; long skirts and headscarves and they all rocked gently back and forward, eyes blinking rapidly, threading the beads of their rosaries between the proto-arthritic knuckles of strong thumbs and first fingers. They were all old and established in this role in their fifties.
Their like was to be found in Spain, Italy and all over the Catholic world at that time. I’m sure they are still around, in smaller numbers yes, but they are tough troops.
They ebbed there in a trance and what was going on on the alter was none of their business (or none of their concern). A friend of Connor’s once told him that he imagined them repeating “And then I went through the windscreen, and then I went through the windscreen..” mantra like, hitting the windscreen over and over in an imagined car crash of their minds at the apex of their forward arc.
Friedrich Nietzsche understood the Jesus story as a continuation of the history of religious human sacrifice. That line stretched to Connor’s Nana and her fellows. It stretched to all of them.
It is the power of that central image which keeps so many fixed in orbit around it. The image of the crucifixion, the transubstantiation at the centre of the mass performs the function of a human sacrifice weekly without the need for too much blood shed.
“Er lasst sich nicht lesen”
Edgar Allan Poe talks of a German book which does not permit itself to be read in “The Man of the Crowd”. Mass was something about which, for people in Connor’s local church, opinion was not possible. The facts of Roman Catholicism were as fixed as the five elements.
Opinions were not required. From the old ladies and from the rest of the congregation, only unconscious physical participation was necessary to feed the machine.
*Daniel O’Donnell was the most prominent example of a particularly Irish type of soft country music performer which included such people as “Big Tom and the Mainliners” (the bands name had to be changed for performances in America) and Johanna and Tequila Sunrise. Daniel was famous for speaking in a babyish voice, talking endlessly about his Mammy and making tea for his hordes of elderly fans.