Writer’s Note: Small Town came from observations when visiting my old home town irregularly over the years, noting the changes, occasionally spotting a familiar face – and sometimes being identified as one. If I could paint at all, I’d have painted it a thousand times in a naif style with something of Chagall, its very distinctive aspects and surrounding landscape so evocative, its basics unchanged for centuries, its origins firmly entrenched in a mythological cycle that I couldn’t begin to tackle here. It started as a lined poem that, as I edited, morphed into prose.
I saw ’60s Ireland, one morning last year, shuffling listlessly in shoes too big. He’d owned a shop, been on the council, his wife had taught, his children toed the line. First-to-the-altar, a cúpla focal* man, he persecuted us with the same few phrases as Gaeilge**, embarrassing us before friends and parents near the bacon slicer, when we did the messages. In cool autumns his daughters filled the bus with the whiff of still-warm cakes and crisply-starched aprons for Domestic Science class. On the same pocked footpaths came girls who should still be at school, pushing buggies bearing tiny images of themselves. ‘Did you notice,’ said Mother, ‘you can’t tell if the one in the buggy is the son or the brother?’ Sitting on a window-sill was one who’d supported the IRA, calling after dark on Saturday nights with the United Irishman, more wrinkled now, his boy’s head old but youthful still. Towering over their heads, down the same street we often called ‘mean’ – and meant what we said – high white trucks hurried north pulling cattle, and fodder. ‘Can them fellows up there not produce anything themselves?’ said Father. Handsome men – once vilified as ‘illegitimate’ – sat in Mercedes tapping their fingers to a radio tune, cocks-of-the-walk at last. A huge yellow field hovered above the castles on main street. Further out, the older houses of the 1960s rich looked dwarfed now beside the red mansions of the new new rich, with carriage lamps and nursery shrubs. Forgotten the former big men who in battered jeeps collected potato-pickers on damp November mornings – all dead now, and nobody brings bags of spuds to the nuns. Beyond all that, ensconced as ever, lay the Anglo-houses, dwarfed by nothing, invisible from the roads (back then, we hardly knew they were there) some still untouched, with tiled halls, stained glass, and red setters by the fire; others now hollow ruins. I saw him, old and shaky now, in a raincoat, head held high; he spat in the drain, all down the street, like one who’d lost his mind. I saw Ireland of the ’60s, one morning last year, shuffling listlessly in shoes too big.
cúpla focal; Irish for ‘a couple of words’, refers to someone who knows or is prepared to speak a little Irish.
as Gaeilge: in Irish
Mary Byrne is the author of the short fiction collection Plugging the Causal Breach (available from Regal House, Amazon, Book Depository, etc.).
Short fiction published, broadcast and anthologized widely. Writes the odd poem. Born in Ireland, she lives in France. Tweets at @BrigitteLOignon.