Chapter 4 The Boy Who Would Be King
I was born in the parlor of an Irish witch, on the banks of the majestic River Shannon in the small farming town of Athlone. Athlone was at the center of nothing very special at all, half way between the east and the west coast of Ireland, half way between the cities of Dublin and Galway, half way between the Irish Sea and the Atlantic ocean, and itself split in two by the Shannon.
The only two things of any real significance in the entire town were the river and the barracks. The Shannon was so long and wide it nearly cut the entire country in two, with just a small sliver of land above the pot of the river in the north of the country holding the two sides of the island together.
The fort, the barracks, was of even greater significance, at least to me. The Custume Barracks, the 400-year-old headquarters of the Western Command of the Irish Army, was the biggest employer in the town and my father’s safe and forever home. Until he met my mother and her kind.
To be greeted into the world by a crooked claw on a cold flagstone floor might seem a little demeaning for a boy king, but I had no control over it or recollection of it. The witch’s name was Mrs Gleeson, a registered nurse and wandering midwife who lived a couple of row houses up from my grandmother’s house where my parents were living at the time.
Nurse Gleeson was pointed out to me years later, a bony but determined-looking woman with a piercing gaze and dressed from lace-veiled hat to the wrinkled laced-up boots in a worn shade of black. It was hard to avoid her, living just two doors away on a very short dead-end street, but I was finally able to at the age of six when we moved a couple of streets away to a bigger house for a growing family and no witches that I knew of.
I have no idea why my parents chose Nurse Gleeson’s front parlor as my birthplace when there was a perfectly good hospital just up the road. But I imagined it was all just part of the tradition and the secrets.
My father was an army captain stationed at the Barracks on the west and opposite side of the river. His military life was modeled very much in the style of the former British military colonists because they were the only role models the Irish army really had. That life consisted largely of repetitive and unnecessary drills, endless ceremonial marching from one end of the yard and then back to the other, and augmented by a very active social and golf life. All aided and overseen by a smaller army of dutiful batmen assigned to commissioned officers at the time.
The army was his life and a comfortable one at that. His only sibling, an identical twin brother, had spent a few years in the army, as had his father, my grandfather. For my uncle and grandfather, the army seemed to be little more than a safe wage as they waited for some better opportunity to come along on a little island that offered few.
But for my father, it seemed that his greatest wish was to finish his military career in Athlone, perhaps rising to the rank of Colonel like most of his drinking and golfing companions. He expected to only occasionally dress for combat as part of some peace-keeping mission to Cyprus or the Congo. And even that was no sure thing given his obvious disability.
He had broken his right arm badly when fell off a heavy Norton motorcycle while trying to race it in the Wicklow mountains, and because the setting was even worse than the break he was forever left unable to properly hold a rifle.
My mother’s life was a greater struggle with little comfort or joy, even though her family was better off and more successful than most in the area. She was the sixth generation of her family to run Athea Mills, an isolated farm six miles outside the town that consisted of a small dairy herd, some scraggly sheep, a peat bog, and a mill for serving the surrounding farms.
Although life was harsh and bleak and often cruel, she was no worse off than most other Irish farming families in the 1940s and in many ways better off. Her family enjoyed a good reputation and reasonable prosperity, and even enough to afford a small collection of rental properties in the town.
But as a daughter and the third born of six children that had survived, she had absolutely no chance of inheriting the farm or any part of it, or even being allowed to remain on it as soon as the eldest brother found a wife. Which he did very quickly.
Instead she would likely end up married off to some elderly widowed or perhaps never-married cousin whose nearby farm was in need of younger blood to keep it solvent and younger hips to give it heirs.
Like almost every other farmer’s daughter, my mother’s only chance for escape from the bleakness was at one of the regular dances in town, those ballrooms of romance that all the young women in search of a husband hoped would be attended by something slightly less repulsive than a drunk old widower. Or at the very least unrelated.
It was at one such ballroom, the Crescent by the river and where Army band members would cross the Custume bridge to play for fun, that she met my jug-eared red-headed father. Five years later she was the wife of a respected young army officer who had a steady paycheck, a guaranteed pension, and a home with a maid. She was safe now.
They were married in St Peter and St Paul’s in Athlone, a mock Medieval cathedral that backed up to the southern wall of the barracks right next to my father’s quarters, and giving him little more than a few feet of a walk to his own wedding.
Although the wedding was insignificant to most of the townspeople, it was still a minor military spectacle. As my father emerged from the Cathedral in his full dress uniform, from the Sam Brown Cross belts to the riding jodhpurs and highly-polished knee-high brown leather boots, he escorted his rosy-cheeked wife under a guard of honor of his fellow officers who lined the steps with their ceremonial sabers forming an arch over the newly married couple.
My awareness of the possibility of royal lineage, and the concepts of kingdoms, started just a few years after that ceremony. The fact that my mother was an O’Brien mattered more than I understood, it was whispered. Her family could possibly be descended from the great O’Brien himself, Brian Boru, the last and greatest of all the high kings of Ireland. Which would have made perfect sense since the history books all said that Boru himself visited the town in the year 1001 on his way to yet another conflict.
Not to be outdone, those same whisperers planted the seed that my father’s family was just as directly related by blood to the Princes of Annaly, whose family sept was located less than 30 miles up the road in the town of Longford. And to place the theory beyond any reproach, there was even a Farrell listed as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with that same great High King Boru at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. They were faded signs. But still signs.
So there was little doubt that there was at least a very reasonable chance that I was descended from kings. It didn’t matter, or maybe never struck me, that in a tiny island where every family was a clan and every clan a kingdom, there were very few who couldn’t claim some kind of birthright to some throne or other.
But my suspicions about lineage would be finally confirmed when the family moved to Dublin, the capital of it all, the black pool, when I was eight years old. And not long afterwards, quietly but joyfully introduced to my soon-to-be very own kingdom. My parents didn’t share the same excitement, about any of it, and there was no doubt that the leaving of Athlone summoned up a fog of sadness and melancholy over my parents that shrouded them for years afterwards.
My mother knew she’d have to leave the farm, whether she was ready or not, because tradition was the rule. But she never expected to leave Athlone, to leave her mother and massive family, the peace and beauty of that precious and ancient land, all that she knew and loved. Marrying my father and the Barracks was supposed to guarantee that.
In Athlone, she knew just about every face in the town and had a never-ending cobweb of near and distant cousins. But in the suburbs of South Dublin no one would know her nor even want to, and it would take her years to make the very first approximation of a friend.
My father was just as comfortable in the predictable and stress-free routine as an officer in an army that would never see war. He had hoped to retire as a Colonel, like most of his friends, whose only battles were fought on the golfing links at Hodson Bay just north of the town.
But everyone’s plans were disrupted when the call went out that our family Kingdom in the distant capital was in trouble because everyone in it was too sick to run it. His Majesty my Grand Aunt Francie was beginning to suffer from both the early death of her husband Michael a few years earlier, and debilitating bouts of arthritis in her hands.
My father’s only sibling, an identical twin, had also quit his job with a British textile company in Cork to help run the Kingdom, but even that didn’t seem to be enough hands to run both the factory and the estate and the only one left to call on was my loyal and obedient father. Who naturally enough knew nothing about running a business or a kingdom and wanted nothing to do with either.
He answered the call in 1967 by resigning his commission and I think he regretted every day since. He would take the long drive on those dark narrow roads and in a very unreliable car, a drive half way across Ireland and leaving each Sunday evening to return late on Friday. And many times not returning at all but staying away for weeks. My mother kept busy managing a house with five unruly children all under the age of 12, while also trying to manage the sanity of her mother who was now also cruelly forced to relinquish the same farm she’d run on her own for decades.
My father was always a distant and unemotional man, a strictly army-discipline-and-order man, and I’m not sure at that age if we missed him at all or even noticed his prolonged absences. But we always celebrated his returns because of the gifts he brought with him.
I don’t recall meeting my grandfather until I had just turned eight, although he regularly sent us back gifts that Dad would hand around on Friday evenings. Or at least some Friday evenings. The gift was the same each time. A metal tin of Old Virginia pipe tobacco with most of the tobacco replaced by broken pieces of Cadbury’s milk chocolate and all cradled in a thin paper filter that took up most of the can.
It was the plainest of all the chocolate that Cadburys made but it was the most delicious and important. We adored that chocolate, the brittleness and the snap of each piece as we devoured it, even if we had to spit out tiny pieces of Old Virginia along the way. It never dawned on me why Cadbury’s chocolate bars smelled like Granddad and his pipe but it probably only added to the experience.
The day Granddad first came to town, just a few months before we were all uprooted and headed to Dublin to join Dad permanently, was special in so many ways. He looked just like a grandfather should, even if I’d never given any thought to it. A mane of slicked-back gray hair and a stiff gray mustache, a wrinkled gray three-piece herringbone suit accented by a gold pocket watch that matched the round steel glasses half way down his nose, and all accented by the black and brown pipe that was always either protruding from the side of his mouth or peering out of the breast pocket of his jacket.
The introduction was awkward. We really had no idea who this gray old man was, other than the man who had Dad bring us chocolate. He patted each one of us on the head, ceremoniously handed each of us a tin of tobacco chocolate from his bulging pockets and the introduction was over.
But not the excitement. Perhaps he’d traveled all those hours on that narrow country road to cheer on my parents as that awful and sad day approached. Or maybe it was just to show off his brand new sky blue Rover 3500 that now sat gleaming in the sunlight right in front of our house on Ashley Crescent. For everyone in the cul-de-sac to see.
We had never heard of a Rover and it might as well have been a Rolls Royce. It had to be. It was one of the biggest cars in Ireland, a massive growling V8 engine with a luxurious interior in off-white Connolly hide and accented in polished walnut. When Grandad finally agreed to take us all for a drive around the town, and maybe just to get us out from under everyone’s feet, it was the most luxurious sick maker I’d ever traveled in.
And it didn’t help much as a show-off either, because we sank back so deeply in the rear leather seats it was hard to see out the window. Or be seen. What made it so much worse was Granddad’s driving. It was though he was nervous of the power he was in control of and kept changing his mind about unleashing it.
He’d accelerate sharply and the V8 would awaken and surge. But no sooner had the British beast roared than he would take his foot off the pedal and slow it back down. And then off again and then slow again. And every time he went through the same cycle we were all thrown back in our seats and I don’t think a single soul even noticed us.
It was about eight weeks later that we finally left Athlone for good, although before then we’d never left Athlone at all other than the six miles out to the farm in Athea. I don’t remember much about the leaving, other than a few tears and hugs from Madame Mel and Madame Tekla, my favorite teachers at the Fair Green national school. I knew it was an important day because I thought from all the sad goodbyes it meant that I’d never have to go to school again.
And it meant that I’d dodged an even more terrible fate. If I’d stayed a couple more years I would have ended up in the most feared place of all – the dreaded Bowery school up on Retreat Hill where everyone knew you had to learn quickly to be tough to survive. And I would never be much good at either.
My last memory of my childhood in Athlone was the nighttime car ride out of it. The five of us were so tightly packed into the back seat of the small Hillman Minx that I spent most of the three hour journey stretched out on the rear parcel shelf and watching the ghostly trees wash over the car as we drove through the night. I didn’t know it, but I was on my way to the fulfillment of the prophecy of my royal lineage and a world of magic not even a child’s imagination could conjure up.