Short story by Andrej Novinec
I was never the rebellious one, but I knew a man who was.
My family lived in the outskirts of Dublin and we weren’t exactly poor, but not lavish or opulent either. If I had to rank us, we’d fall somewhere between the lower middle class and the self-proclaimed want-to-be-high-class bootlickers. The ones who spend a fortune on their shirts and dresses just to befit the company of advocates and doctors, but who also struggle to afford to eat toasted bread with anything but a thin layer of blueberry marmalade.
My mother was a clerk in a shoe factory a few blocks away from our modestly furnished apartment, working from seven to three, from Monday to Friday, and my father worked in that same factory – that’s how they met. All in all, our life wasn’t even remotely bad, at least from a nine-year-old boy’s perspective. But what did I know; all I needed was a football, a pair of sturdy shoes, and a piece of shepherd’s pie with a glass of milk in the evening – and my mum took care of that.
Shoes were in abundance, since Father brought me a new pair every couple of weeks; either because one of the holes for shoelaces was missing, or the sole was a bit uneven at the heel. Of course that meant that the shoes couldn’t be sold, but that didn’t bother me – I was the boy with new shoes every ten days, and I guess that’s the closest I ever got to being upper class.
I never had a reason to complain or to disobey my parents or teachers. I worked somewhat hard, got decent grades in school, and did all my work when required. I was especially good at grammar and Ms. Murphy, my schoolteacher, called me an ‘exceptionally fast and precise reader’ that one time, and I took great pride in that. I wasn’t like the rest of the boys – restless, disobedient, and always looking for a way to mess with Ms. Murphy. I liked my books (especially the old ones), the newspapers that my father read, and the leaflets which the wind brought from the fish market down the street from our home. They were special in that respect that they all came from a specific fishmonger, Mr. Moriarty, and he was a witty old man. He would write funny remarks, which I later learned were called puns, on the leaflets to attract his customers. ‘Something smells fishy, but not my trout or pike,’ or ‘This is a great oppor-tuna-ty to buy the best fish on the market,’ and the way he used language to his advantage really dazzled me.
However, the real mystery to me wasn’t English, but Gaeilge – the old Irish language. I’d read about it, but I didn’t know how to speak it and there was no way of learning it in Dublin. I knew that people still spoke it in the countryside, but even when I asked Ms. Murphy if she could help me, she disappointingly told me that as much as she wanted to, she unfortunately didn’t know a word of Gaeilge. And so I stuck to reading books by Maria Edgeworth, Jonathan Swift, and George Moore.
A few years passed by. When I was 14 Ireland beat Wales 2-0 – I remember the match because my dad took me there. I had finished grammar school and started going to secondary school where I soon picked up an extracurricular activity called ‘Gaelic History’. We would read texts, stories, even recipes from the time when the majority of people in Ireland still spoke Gaelic, which was, as they explained to me, another name for Gaeilge. Our group was small; only seven or eight other students regularly attended it, and that’s why we could do a lot of work and take a look at piles of weird-looking, intricately written texts.
At first, I had no idea how to deal with the odd, unknown symbols that are the Gaelic language. But because our teacher, Mr. Jones, really wanted us to learn and like this language – he said it was because of the culture and the legacy it encompassed, which I didn’t quite understand at the time – I soon got the hang of it. I would study the texts whenever I had the time, and I even started skipping football practice, which, to put it mildly, baffled my parents, since I wouldn’t usually miss one even if both my knees were bloody and both my shins completely bruised.
Towards the end of the semester, Mr. Jones told us that he would select one of the students for an apprenticeship at an organization which dealt with preserving and promoting the old Irish language, which was, in his words, ‘a national treasure and one of the fundamental elements of the Irish culture’. Just the thought of becoming a part of an organization like that sent shivers down my spine and my heart racing – this was the perfect opportunity for me to expand my linguistic interests and earn money while doing it. By the end of the semester, football practice had become a thing of the past, as I dedicated every spare moment to becoming fluent in Gaelic and understanding the history behind the old Irish texts.
The end of the year approached and so did the examination that would determine whether I would spend my summer slaving away in the shoe factory, separating faulty shoes from those worthy of being sold, or doing what I wanted to do in Mr. Jones’ organization.
The day of the exam came and by then I had probably read every book in and on the Gaelic language available in the school library. I felt prepared and I knew that I was going to be chosen for the apprenticeship. I finished the test, handed it in, and waited until the end of the class. Mr. Jones said that he would let us know the results the following day.
I didn’t sleep that night – that was really odd when I think about it now. A teenage boy with his entire life ahead of him, stressing over a position in an organization he didn’t really know all that well. But it meant something to me. I knew it was the first step towards becoming a teacher or a linguist or a writer (I still had to work that out).
The next day, all the students gathered in front of the bulletin board in the main hall, anxiously waiting for Mr. Jones to announce our scores. He arrived at around 8:15 and posted the leaflet with the results. I immediately noticed that my score was high – 87 out of 100 points – but at first, I didn’t notice that the next best score was 67. And that was when I knew I had passed the test with flying colors and that I would spend my summer working in an office, not in a dark warehouse. I turned to Mr. Jones, smiling at him, and he smiled back. It was a grin of approval, respect, and pride.
As the summer began, so did my apprenticeship. Both my parents were thrilled and happy for me, because they had realized that studying and exploring Gaeilge meant the world to me. I started as an errand boy at the Gaelic League – that was the name of the organization. I would run from office to office, deliver mail, make notes of things that the people who worked there told me, make sure that the printers didn’t run out of paper – the technical stuff, they told me. And I liked it, especially because every day I had half an hour to spend with the editors of the newspapers the organization would publish, learning from them, asking them what the deal in this organization was. And on one such occasion I met the man.
He was the main editor of our newspaper The Sword of Light and he was not much older than me – with his stubble and a short haircut he seemed about the age of the boys in the higher classes of the secondary school that I went to. He was different from the others; more energetic, more indulged, more engaged in all this ‘revival of the true Irish language’ as he often addressed the goal of the Gaelic League. I learned that he had been interested in the Gaelic language from an early age just like me. He was around the same age as me when he first joined the Gaelic League, and since the first day he had been working towards his only goal – the freedom of the Irish and their language.
I also learned that he had finished his studies in English, French, and Irish at the Royal University of Dublin prior to coming to work as the chief newspaper editor in the organization. Not only that, he also took the bar exam and became a lawyer. The words that I heard being used around the premises of the Gaelic League to describe the man were ‘radical’, ‘a nationalist’, ‘a loyalist’, and also ‘insane’ and ‘delusional’.
At the time, I could not comprehend what was so special about him, but that soon changed. He became my mentor, or at least I considered him to be one. He saw his younger self in me and he took the time out of his day to explain to me the idea of the Irish nation, the British oppression, and his dream of making Ireland independent one day – to make it a republic. I had a hard time connecting all the dots as I didn’t know much about politics and the problematics revolving around the Irish national identity, but I was eager to learn. I was taught about the history of Ireland, the terrors of the British rule, the failed rebellion of 1798, and about the injustice that had befallen the Irish. I saw the fire in his eyes and I knew he would go on to become someone great. But then, one day, he was gone.
By the time I heard of him again I had already finished secondary school and began a new chapter of my life, one in the groves of academia. I had started my studies in college as a student of literature and political sciences. I had been active in the Gaelic League and I had always strived to follow my mentor’s guidance, diligently working towards the goals that he had bestowed upon me. I could never have imagined that someone could have the ability to influence a human being in that kind of way. By no means had I become some radical nationalist with a deeply rooted hatred for the Crown, but I realized how unique and special the Irish nation and its language were.
In the second year of my college endeavors, one of my classes announced a visiting professor lecture from St. Enda’s School – a secondary school for boys, as I learned later. I didn’t think much of it, but I had always had a liking for guest lecturers from other schools and colleges – now that I think about it, I enjoyed being lectured to, and I feel that the experience and knowledge of those lecturers really influenced me.
Anyway, when the lecturer came to the podium, I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was the same man who had taught me about the beauties of Ireland. I felt overcome with happiness. It was as if I were reunited with an old friend after a long time, although he probably didn’t even remember me. He began explaining to us the importance of the Irish heritage and how valuable the old Irish language was. His voice was strong, confident, convincing – even more so than I remembered. He lectured with passion, guided by an invisible force that could be felt in his words and the melody of his speech. His eyes glimmered as he explained how he had decided to open a school intended for boys who wanted to learn both languages spoken in Ireland. To be quite frank, I wasn’t surprised that he would have gone to such lengths to keep Irish Gaelic alive and flourishing.
By the end of his speech I felt revitalized, bursting with energy, and happy – as if I had received the necessary boost and guidance to steer my life in the right direction once again. Not that I had derailed in any way; it was simply a refreshing experience to listen to the man who had helped me become who I still was, and am even today. It was a shame that, besides a few questions, I didn’t have an opportunity to talk to him. It would have been nice to ask him how he was doing and thank him – I felt that I had missed an opportunity.
I graduated after a while. I became a teacher of English and history. I met a beautiful girl and married her. She is cheerful, caring, sensual, and also a teacher. We have two children: Keith and Fiona. They are my treasure and the reason I wake up in the morning, day after day. I focused on teaching children, telling them what English was like, what Irish was like, and what Ireland was like. I taught them what I felt was important and I tried to persuade them to love the land and the language that embraced them.
I admit, my Gaelic got worse and I don’t read as many books as I did when I was younger. I might have lost some of that fire that has burned in me since I joined the Gaelic League, but I never forgot who I was, where I belonged, and what my history was – what our history was. I remember who took the time to explain the things that I was interested in, who sat down with me and taught me what it meant to be Irish.
Even though I hadn’t spoken to him since that lecture in the second year of college, I was there when he read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on Easter Monday in 1916. I was there when they rebelled; I listened to the guns and the tanks and I was there when the English quelled the rebellion. I was there when they gathered the leaders of the rebellion and sat them in front of a wall, kneeling, blindfolded. I heard the shots and I saw him fall – cold, dead, but proud.
I was never the rebellious one, but I knew a man who was – I knew Patrick Pearse.
Originally published in Issue XIX in December 2019.