Im not saying my father hated the
English, God forbid. If he were still alive, hed hate to hear me say
that. Hed correct me right away and say he didnt hate the English.
Truth be told, he despised the English, especially the Black and Tans. They
were the troops the English sent to take over Ireland before, during and after
the Troubles in 1916. That was the time when the Irish first fought seriously
for their independence.
My father would tell me often about what
the Black and Tans did to him in 1920 at age 16 when he was captured while
running guns for the IRA through marshes in rural Ireland. He knew the marshes
in County Kerry very well because he was reared there as a farm boy. The IRA
thought a boy like him would never get caught. But a boy carrying guns was not
a common sight in the marshes of County Kerry.
The Black and Tans put him in a cell
with a dirt floor. He sat on that dirt for a month after they broke both his
legs with rifle butts. They were in no hurry to summon a doctor.
A cellmate gave him a pad of paper and
he would sit on the dirt writing his name backwards with his left hand until
his signature matched the normal one written with his right hand.
Decades later in America, after he had
been expelled from Ireland and had married my mother and settled down with a
job in Chicago, I heard many stories not only about his life in a jail cell but
his life milking cows and goats on a dairy farm as a young boy. He had to do
that if he wanted his oatmeal for breakfast.
I was in grammar school in the Forties
when I heard a lot from my father about the Irish seeking their independence.
His stories were a lot better, I thought, then paying 25 cents on Saturday
afternoon to see a Western with Gene Autry at the local movie house, even if
the movie was followed by 25 color cartoons.
One day after school I had some friends
over at the house. My father, a man of many moods not identified yet as PTSD,
took a pad of paper and with a pen in each hand signed his name forward with
one hand and backward with the other simultaneously. He then held the pad up to
the long mirror in the hallway and, of course, the signatures were identical.
My friends and I, crowded around him, were very young but even if we had been
adults we would still have been amazed.
After my friends went home, I asked my
father how he learned to do that and he told me about the Black and Tans, their
gun butts and that pad of paper the cellmate gave him. Rather than write
letters to his family and upset them by letting them know he was in prison, he
practiced writing his signature backwards with his left hand. This was one of a
number of odd things that my father had mastered, all of them interesting to a
child, but not worth going into at the moment or Id be typing for a long
Eventually I grew up, went to college,
married and moved to another city and my father wanted to come and visit us and
see his first grandson. Fine with me, I thought. I just hoped his affable mood
would last and not disappear during the visit. I didnt want to impose on
him the nighttime crying of an infant since he had lived through that with me
as a colicky child and my mother said he didnt weather it well, having to
get up early for work the next morning. So I decided to get him a room at a
nice hotel. However, I picked the wrong one.
I made the mistake of making a
reservation for him at the Henry VIII Hotel, named after the English monarch. I
can still hear my father yelling when I mentioned the Henry VIII Hotel over the
Indeed the Henry VIII was a nice hotel
decorated in an English style that would truly have enraged my father. It was
torn down not long after he died. But he had never been a guest at the Henry
VIII, having stayed at another hotel free of any English taint. And his visit
went well, all things considered. No outbursts or commotion.
Had he lived long enough, however, my
father probably would have been far more upset to learn years later that his
grandson, after graduating with honors from the University of Chicago, went to
England to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Tuition, room and board and books were
free but Oxford, of course, was in England. And it was England that had sent
the Black and Tans to Ireland and it was the Black and Tans who had broken my
Sometimes I think about what it might
have been like had he lived long enough to learn that my son had won that
scholarship. I imagine calling him to tell him the news. And suddenly I can
hear him yelling louder than when I told him about the Henry VIII Hotel. This
time he would sound like a muezzin in a minaret on top of a mosque. Only he
wouldnt be summoning the faithful to prayers.
Joseph Francis O'Mahony, first row, third from left, circa 1920, age
16, all dressed up and looking older than 16 as a prisoner of the English on
Spike Island a few years before he emigrated to the United States. There he
became a citizen and the judge told him to change his name to Mahoney, a
decision he would bemoan like a banshee for years.
Permission to use this
photo has been obtained from the Waterford County Museum in