The Irish Jig
The ghost was back in the night.
Not the tall shadowy one with the terrible scars but the other one the
tiny spidery old one who visits me in my room. She smells of mothballs.
Mummy and Daddy know about her too. I think they’ve seen her, but
no one will talk to me. My brother screams in the night because something
is breathing under his bed. Mummy says Grammy thinks we should have
the house blessed by Father Dunn. Daddy says she’s nuts and that
the entire Catholic world is making him insane. Particularly the
Irish Catholic world. The sound of their voices in the kitchen comforts
me even though they are getting very ugly with each other again.
Grammy, who lives two flights down, below the landlord, says Daddy is a
Protestant Orange Man and is disgusted with my mother for having brought
him into the family.
Grammy was nasty to most everyone,
but she saved her greatest violence for grandchildren. She believed
that she was the owner of the front hall and wouldn’t allow children to
use it. An interloper grandchild seeking refuge there caused her
to limp down the three flights swatting and bellowing in a pinched and
outraged voice. She always went for the face, wildly slapping and
demanding an explanation. Which was in no way an invitation to explain.
Excuses and opinions from children were in themselves bold acts of subversion
and not to be tolerated.
To me there was something irresistible
and magical about the hall. It offered a fragile harbor from the
threat of my parents’ conflict. Instead of concentrating on
avoiding the front hall, I concentrated on avoiding Grammy. Most
often I was alert enough to escape a confrontation – if I heard her door
open, I scurried back inside my apartment, knowing she would never enter
I don’t remember when Grammy stopped
coming to our apartment. She hated my father and the feeling was
mutual. But it wasn’t just my grandmother who refused to step through
our door. No one in the family ever came to our flat. Unlike
my grandmother, whose conduct was accepted as the privilege of her status,
my father’s conduct alienated everyone. He didn’t mind. He
had as little use for any Catholic O’Toole as they had for his Protestant
ways. I grew up watching the two sides of my family recreate the
streets of Belfast in a new geography, the new Irish homeland of Boston.
The hatred they felt for each other could never be confined by anything
as abstract as latitude or longitude. But I wondered what had been
the final offense that caused them to draw a line through the middle of
the house, making a no-man’s land of the second floor. I guessed
that it had something to do with my father’s tendency toward stormy mood
swings and uncontrollable fits of rage. These fits were underscored
by my mother Molly’s inability to really bond to him, or anyone who was
not an O’Toole.
My mother’s “people”, as she called
them, arrived at the front door of the house intermittently but steadily
one Sunday afternoon. We were drowsing in the living room, still
deep in the stillness and heavy humidity of summertime. The visitors
had left Mass in various family groups and arrived still dressed in their
finest church clothes. I heard them going up the stairway and listened
to the sound of their voices echoing as they went. I slipped out
of my chair, ran quickly through our flat and up the back stairs to my
grandmother’s kitchen door. No one heard me, so I went quietly inside
without saying “hi”. I hid and watched from the corner by the glass
cupboard where Grammy kept the cups and saucers.
The entire clan was there, laughing
and merry, interrupting each other, catching each jocular remark in mid-flight
and tossing rebuttals into the air like the plate twirlers I had seen at
the circus. My grandfather came out of the bathroom in a white tank
tee and dark green pants.
“Hi, Pa,” said all the smiling uncles
and they went to him and slapped him on the back. Grampy took a cup
and saucer out of the cupboard and I sidled a little farther into the corner.
He poured himself a cup of tea and lit a cigarette. He placed the
smoldering white thing carefully in a glass ashtray and reached his hand
into his baggy pants pocket. It came out holding something silver
and I stood on my toes in a futile effort to see what the flash of reflected
light was. He put it to his mouth, took a breath, and began to tap
his foot on the floor. Music spilled from his lips and leapt into
the air like a genie being released from a bottle. His mouth ran
back and forth along its edges and it mattered not one whit whether he
was inhaling or exhaling. The joyful sounds entered and left his
body with each sweet breath.
“Dance a jig for me now, Helen Coyle,”
he said to my great auntie. “You were a beauty then and you’re no
less a beauty now, me girl, and ye dance as fair as any miss in County
“Listen to himself,” said Grammy.
“So full of the blarney it’s sinful.”
No one was offended, and Grampy
winked at me. I was amazed and delighted that he noticed me.
Auntie did a jig that was exhilarating and complicated, but my grandmother
was right. Aunt Helen was no beauty, and all the blarney in the world
wouldn’t make it otherwise. She looked like an old bullfrog as her
body bounced up and down on the kitchen floor. Her torso was rigid,
fixed in space; her arms were glued to her sides, but her legs were flying
all over, kicking, double jointed at the knees, and I couldn’t tell where
they were going next.
“Diddle dees” and “ey-tee-ty-tees”
were coming from every corner of the room as my aunt continued pounding
the floor with her black old lady shoes, breasts heaving and sweat flying.
All of a sudden she didn’t look like a bullfrog any more. She looked
like a lady having fun, and I laughed along with the others feeling like
a small part of something for the first time. The floor began to
heave up and down, creaking in time with the bobbing of her extraordinary
breasts, when there was an abrupt pounding on the door which rivaled the
banging of Auntie’s clogs.
“Shut’tup in there you O’Tooles,”
came the muffled and outraged voice of my father. And Grammy immediately
started in on Grampy.
“Look what you’ve done, you old
fool! He’ll have the landlord put us out on the street, and then
what? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and all the saints, stop it now!
Ye’re daft and you’ll bring us all to ruin!”
Grampy was still in charge of the
mood and it remained unchanged, only now they were like children, all laughing
and shushing each other. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket
and wiped the laughter from his eyes. “The Divil with the landlord,
may he rot in hell.”
Gasps came from all the aunts who
said in unison and without punctuation, “God forgive you Pa dear Jesus
he doesn’t mean it poor Mr. Stanton God bless him he’s a good soul and
God forgive our Molly’s man he’s a good soul too.”
That was going too far for Grammy.
“A good soul indeed!” She glared at Grampy.
He grinned back, ferociously.
“Sure and I’m goin’ down there and give that good soul a sound rap on his
noggin’s what I’m doin.”
We all knew he was just codding.
It was part of the game he played with Grammy and we loved him for it.
It offered permission to all of us to play along.
“Please, Pa,” said Margaret, who
wasn’t as sure as the rest. “Please don’t shame us all by acting
like a hooligan for all the world t’see and on a Sunday, yet!”
“Shut tup now Peggy,” he said to
her. “Stop your complainin’ now. Little Chief Yellow Hair has
a song for us.” He nodded to my beautiful cousin Bridget and began
to play again. The party was soon back in full swing.
My father banged on the door again.
“Listen, you O’Tooles! My girl Alice better not be in there or I’ll
tan her hide! And all of you stop that noise before I call the police!”
Through the door I could hear my
mother pleading with him, “Awww, c’mon! They’re just having a good
time. We could go in and join them. Have a drink or two.”
“Shut ‘tup, you! I’m not being
with the likes of them. Your mother is an ignorant goddamned meddling
old farm hand and every one of your brothers is a brawling, potato eating
drunken Irish pig.”
On my side of the door the aunts
gasped, and at the sound of a scuffle going down the stairs, my uncles
poured unsteadily out the door.
My mother could never make a move
on her own. She had to run everything by her mother or her priest
or she would be adrift in an ocean of indecision. She took me with
her to Father Dunn, for my father was in a rage and she was afraid to leave
I still remember how impressive Father
Dunn was in his black robes. He had a rich deep voice that resided
somewhere inside his rib cage. Before uttering intelligible words,
his voice would rumble inside his chest like a dragon waking from a deep
Despite his substantial height, his voice
didn’t seem to belong to him, and he was aware of this fact. He was
never quite comfortable with its sound and always appeared to be somewhat
startled by the resonance of it, as though he was hearing it for the first
In the face of a family crisis,
Father Dunn was so woefully unfamiliar with the intricacies of marital
terrain that he assumed an autocratic role purely in self-defense.
“Divorce is simply not allowed in
the Catholic Church, Molly; we went over this years ago.” He spoke
to my mother with the arrogance of one who had been given authority by
God and the Church to represent Jesus on earth, and the spokesman for Jesus
waited to hear what my mother might say next.
“Father, you don’t know how hard
it is. It’s very, very hard.” She hesitated and recomposed
herself to begin again. “He works less and less. I’m waiting tables
to make ends meet. He hits me and the children are aware of what’s
going on. He hits our son and my girl here is high strung and nerved
up all the time.”
Father Dunn’s concern for the life
of this little sheep of his parish was no match for his concern with the
law and order of church doctrine. Aware of his position, he spoke
to her as a child and thought it proper to do so.
“Mixed marriages are bound to be
difficult.” He said this knowingly and with regretful compassion.
My mother had carried a faint and
fragile embryo of hope to Father Dunn. Maybe she entertained, just
for a moment, the possibility that Jesus wouldn’t want her living her life
in a perpetual state of humiliation. I later wondered if my mother
hoped that the very issue which kept the Church from blessing her marriage
to begin with would be the loop hole which might work in her favor.
“A union of two souls is exactly
that, and not reversible.” The black frocked priest looked meaningfully
at me, to be sure that I understood this point. Then he stood and
said to my mother, “I’m sorry, Molly,” indicating that the counseling session
Divorce was not available to her.
A mortal sin. She was not strong enough to face the fires of hell
or the disapproval of her family without her Church behind her.
Dismissed from his office, mother
rose to her feet, took my hand, and went home.
Father Dunn went to his quarters.
He sighed heavily and poured himself a snifter of brandy and sat down in
his favorite upholstered chair. He picked up the evening paper and
sat, shielded from the frailty and mistakes of the world, as night came
Patricia Murphy Bolton is a fine artist living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. This is her first published work, an excerpt from a novel based on her family.