My parents were militantly radical Dubliners working in Belfast when their first-born – me – came along. My mother, Celia, was vivacious, highly strung, something of an actress, both metaphorically and literally: she had had a brief career with the Unity Theatre in Euston and played the part of Ethel Rosenberg in a play whose title and author I can’t remember. She also – or so she told us – was once invited by Charlie Chaplin to audition for a small part in City Lights, and thereafter was often to be heard humming the ‘Limelight’ theme tune in memory of the chance she declined or was unable to take (the invitation came when her marriage was falling apart). My father, Jim, was a hard-drinking raconteur, the best I have ever known, who could reduce an audience to tears (from laughter) and drive them crazy with an art of detour and digression that would have them on tenterhooks for the climax of his narrative. Never happier than when down the pub, he was completely unsuited to domestic life.
After his separation from my mother, Jim spent many years in a semi-vagabond wilderness, ‘home’ a cupboard of a room in pre-gentrified Tufnell Park. He remarried in 1958 and I went to live with him and my stepmother, Mollie, during my holidays from boarding school. A year later, after a series of infractions, I was expelled from school, and moved in permanently until I left for university. On marrying him, Mollie had some idea of what she was taking on, but while she remained loyal and supportive to the end, his drinking habits drove her to despair. When I joined them, one of my jobs was to fetch him from the pub. This was a task that demanded not taking no for an answer, with the result that as a teenager I acquired an absurdly fearsome reputation among some of the toughest drinking men of working-class London, though of course I, as messenger, was only the medium through which deference was shown to Mollie, whose hospitality towards assorted wandering Irish, British and Polish souls was legendary. The parties would often go on until the small hours, usually ending with a round of Irish rebel songs, lead by the melodious tenor of Sean Malarkey, a shy man who had to be prevailed on to sing. One night he regaled us with an anti-colonial number that included the line ‘Out, out, ye Saxon dogs’. An Englishman called Don Griffin, who, like my father at the time, worked as a guard for British Rail, took offence. Out the Saxon dog went and off down the high street, with my father in hot pursuit, and me in hot pursuit of my father. At the end of the street there was a cemetery. Don leapt over the wall, my father followed, with me bringing up the rear, all chasing one another like ghosts among the gravestones.
His luck finally ran out, however. Coming home one evening seriously the worse for wear, he slipped on the front steps, fell backwards and cracked his skull on the paving. He went immediately into a coma and, after two weeks on the life-support machine, the doctors gently told me that the case was almost certainly hopeless and asked if we would agree to the machine being switched off. Mollie, distraught beyond description, left the decision to me. I hope never to be confronted with another like it. There was a degree of mystery as to the cause of his accident. The most likely explanation was loss of control while tanked. But there had also been a recent history of occasional blackouts, for which the only explanation the doctors could come up was that they were a delayed consequence of being shot in the side as a young man in the Spanish Civil War. I was always called ‘Kit’, after Kit Conway who died fighting alongside my father in the Battle of Jarama.
My father’s death secured him not one but two funerals. The first took place in London, starting with a procession of friends, colleagues and banners before we made our way to Golders Green crematorium, the keynote speech given by Mick O’Riordan, then general secretary of the Irish Communist Party. The second took place some months later in Dublin, where I took his ashes to be buried in a plot of unconsecrated ground in Mount Pleasant cemetery belonging to the Gannon family. Bill Gannon, many years my father’s senior, had been weaned by my father from his allegiances as an IRA gunman to the cause of revolutionary Marxism. When Bill died, the Gannon sons invited Jim to be the impresario of the funeral. This he did with great panache, and presided with even greater abandon over a protracted wake. The local boys thought it was getting out of hand, and so frog-marched him to the port to catch the night-boat to Holyhead. Jim cunningly gave them the slip, their relief at imagining him safely far from Irish shores shattered by consternation at later finding him ensconced in a Dublin pub, grinning over his pint of Guinness. He returned to London wrecked, but with an idea lodged in his head that never left him, though it was to be expressed only intermittently, and more than a little sentimentally, when he was in his cups: ‘When I go I want to be buried alongside Bill.’ He’d put this request to Bill’s sons at the wake and they had offered him the resting place he apparently desired.
When he died it seemed best, or right, to take his wish at face value. And so, after myriad preparations, off I went to Dublin. I was ill at the time and have only hazy memories of the funeral. But there were hundreds of mourners. I recall a gun salute (probably by Officials, though my father was never a member of the IRA and heartily loathed the Provisionals). There were speeches (I don’t remember by whom). And then I placed Jim’s ashes in the grave of Bill Gannon. But something else I don’t remember – a detail that was to have some material relevance – is whether I put the urn into the grave or emptied the ashes from the urn into it.