Thursday, December 29, 2016
Figures who know nobody - the banished unfortunates
You would see them the year round. Single men of a certain age, looking as though they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, always on their way somewhere and always on their own.
Every Irish town had them. They were men who knew nobody and who nobody seemed to know. Women could easily find themselves among their number too.
Sometimes they’d own an old bicycle; sometimes a lost looking dog would follow them a few paces behind. More often they were on foot and passing through town without stopping or speaking to anyone.
Alone, and dying of it, they looked to me like people who had stopped expecting anything from life. They often wore heavy woolen overcoats, seemingly part of the uniform of the Irish forgotten, year round.
When you saw one you immediately knew more about them than it was comfortable to admit, and your discomfort was part of what kept you silent, kept your gaze lowered.
There were people in my town who were neither seen nor heard, and there seemed to be unspoken community guidelines about how to handle them. Elderly single women who worked for the nuns, widows with no family left to look in on them, middle aged single men who lived in remote cottages and kept to themselves and spoke to nobody, a cast of lonesome old characters who had somehow seen their roads run out.
When I was a teenager I would occasionally see other young people give them a hard word as they passed. It’s because we all understood or had intuited that when you don’t have a good part in the great Irish play that you’re expendable, and that implies you’re of less value, unworthy of respect.
No one directed these mouthy kids to give insults to these solitary misfits, but no one spent a great deal of time instructing us to esteem people who didn’t fit into our narrow understanding of worthwhile citizenship either. So the abuse they received was often an expression of a wider unspoken unease as much as contempt.
I think many of these lonely men knew that. I think they could feel the cold threat they represented.
What happened to me could happen to you, their presence said. I once stood where you stand. Watch yourself.
The Irish countryside can offer the great gift of solitude, but that gift can just as easily become a curse. If the delicate threads that connect you to the living are cut by circumstance or tragedy or an unspoken heartbreak you can find yourself marooned, suddenly abandoned in the midst of many.
When my community decided that someone had crossed the invisible line that took them from citizen from outcast I never once saw us reconsider. Ireland has a reputation for friendliness but it should have one for ruthlessness too, I think. For every hand rose in welcome, I saw a portcullis drop.
That’s because in Ireland your story matters like few places on Earth. If you have a role in our society you better pray it's a good one, because if you find yourself written out there won’t be a thing you can do to change your casting.
The thing I remember most is that it was clear these lonesome men all knew. It was obvious they knew.
I’m utterly abandoned, their faces spelled out. They knew that simple fact was what made them so frightening.
Here I am passing through on my way to buy some turf or spuds. Here I am on my way for a quick jar. Please don’t hassle me, please don’t hurt me, their faces pleaded.
There’s an Irish way of banishing the unfortunate to our peripheral vision. It’s the way we remain conscious of them and conscious of our wish to overlook them.
It’s as if we fear that whatever has claimed them could be contagious. It’s a coping reflex we have that we rarely think about.
Later on we know we will read about these lost men in the local paper. Sometimes they will walk into the tide. Sometimes they will be discovered stretched out in their remote cottage. Their old bicycle would be found tied to a railing.
Every Irish town knew them, knows them, and knows what’s waiting for them. And every Irish town shrugs and looks away.
Chair O' Doherty