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A Horrible Little Thing
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A Horrible Little Thing
Another short autobiography about my early childhood in Northern Ireland.
[1,077 words]
[August 2006]
Acceptable Level (Non-Fiction) A short autobiography of a Northern Ireland, teenage, half-Protostant half-Catholic immigrant in America. [1,248 words]
A Horrible Little Thing

A Horrible Tiny Thing

In my home were I used to live; in my home back in Ireland, there was a part, a part alongside the long brick wall, the peace line, they called it, with the graffiti cursing at the British in English and Irish alike. There was an area alongside that wall where you could see the Tricolor, the flag of the Irish Republic, waving if you stepped out of my block of flats and turned left, you could see it there. There was nothing particularly special about it - there were the Republican flags flyin’ everywhere in those parts - only that right behind it, only feet away, was a Union Jack. The two were separated by the wall, but you couldn’t see that with all the houses and the smoke, all you could see was the Catholic Tricolor and then the Protestant Jack, and we used to have a great laugh over it, them waving there so close.

Where I lived in Ireland, there weren’t many people like us. Catholics, that is, and the only Catholics in town were packed into our small area and surrounded with the wall. We didn’t mind it though, the wall, because we’d be scared if it wasn’t there, wasn’t there protecting us from the people beyond it. There was a part of the street a block behind mine, the street I played football on, I never went beyond the one part of that street, because the Orangies were on the other. There was a mark on the pavement, and I never passed it, never saw what the other end of that road looked like. I remember I was listening to some hoods, years back, and the two of them started walking, they were complaining about me followin’ them, I remember, and the first stops mid-stride, and lets the second go on for a wee bit, and he says, “I’m not goin’ there, Paddy. I’ve never been on that side the road and I’m not plannin’ to, either.”

I remember the first time I saw a Protestant. I was seven, and it was on the airplane to America.

When I was seven, there was a bomb in Omagh. It is the only bomb I clearly remember hearing about. It scared my parents, who thought the Troubles were pretty much over, and that’s why we left. But I think they were just waiting for an excuse - I think they’d wanted to leave for a long time.

I remember our flats clearly. There were three children, my mam, and my dad. That was the best-kept secret in town, that my Dad was a Protestant. So I suppose my first Protty was my father, but he doesn’t really count - I didn’t even know until we’d gotten to Chicago.

I bunked with my brother and my sister, who were older than me, and we hardly fit there in the bed. We always fought over who slept where, and I got the worst spot every night - sleeping horizontally under Angela and Peter’s feet. Because I was small, they said to me, Because you’re a horrible tiny thing.

And my parents - they were in a second room next to ours, and we used to throw things through the gap where the dividers of the rooms didn’t quite connect with the ceiling, we’d throw wee bits of paper and things over to them, drive them mad.

Some of the residents in other flats had toilets, or people who lived in nearby houses - they always had them - but there was also always a lavatory somewhere in the neighbourhood, kind of similar to the bathroom on Foster Beach here in Chicago the way they were built, but also with the people almost completely in the nip with no shoes on and sand and dirt about their ears and their hair. We’d always try to go to the private toilets first, beg for a quick piss, and they’d let us in if they saw me because wasn’t I a sweet wee thing, and I shouldn’t have to run outside for a piss, sure I’ll get it all over meself, and what a mess that would be. Me poor parents, Och, me poor parents, but isn’t there something strange about yer man? Och, If I didn’t know better, I’d see he was a bit orange, yeh know?

Tommy Tiernan, an award-winning Irish comedian, once said that, when he left school, Ireland had the “largest unemployment in Western Europe, and we were secretly delighted; you couldn’t find a job if you looked for one!”

He goes on to say priests now show young children pictures of poor kids in the ‘80s Ireland to scare them, and parents will terrify them with such thing as butter vouchers. A joke, clearly, but show me a butter voucher today and it will scare the shit out of me.

Me mother, I would see her when I was playing Barricades with some of the lads after school, and she’d try to hide what she was doing, going into the stores, arguing for the better quality of mattress or better milk to store in the ice box. I pretended I didn’t know; I pretended I didn’t know she had gotten the vouchers again, and I pretended I thought we actually had the money for what we had.

I saw her begging once, and that was enough. That’s when I told her, when I told her I knew about her vouchers and her food that she didn’t earn, about the begging outside the church and the rich houses, and that I couldn’t be seen in school anymore for fear of being known as the son of a tinker. She slapped me. She cried, and she slapped me.

In Ireland, my dad was in school. He always said to me Ma that he should leave and get a good job, but she said she needed an educated husband if we were going to leave Northern Ireland and go somewhere prosperous, "Wouldn’t that be grand, me wee Mikey?" She asked me. "To leave this place?" And I looked at her eyes and through the barred windows onto the streets were there were four kids a bike, and all me mates from school swingin’ left and right of the poles, the dogs and cats jolting rabid on the pavement, and I thought, No. I wouldn’t leave Ireland for the world.


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© 2006 O'shea
August 2006

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