From Boy to BonoBono The New Yorker
I was born with melodies in my head, and I was looking for a way to hear them in the world.
I fear it was worse than that. That we rarely thought of her again.
We were three Irish men, and we avoided the pain that we knew would come from thinking and speaking about her.
Iris laughing. Her humor black as her dark curls. Inappropriate laughing was her weakness. My father, Bob, a postal worker, had taken her and her sister Ruth to the ballet, only to have her embarrass him with her muted howls of laughter at the protruding genitalia boxes worn by the male dancers under their leotards.
I remember, at around seven or eight, I was a boy behaving badly. Iris chasing me, waving a long cane that her friend had promised would discipline me. Me, frightened for my life as Iris ran me down the garden. But when I dared to look back she was laughing her head off, no part of her believing in this medieval punishment.
I remember being in the kitchen, watching Iris ironing my brother’s school uniform, the faint buzz of my father’s electric drill from upstairs where he was hanging a shelf he’d made. Suddenly the sound of his voice, screaming. An inhuman sound, an animal noise. “Iris! Iris! Call an ambulance!”
Racing to the bottom of the stairs, we found him at the top, holding the power tool, having apparently drilled into his own crotch. The bit had slipped, and he was frozen stiff with fear that he might never be stiff again. “I’ve castrated myself!” he cried.
I was in a state of shock at seeing my father, the giant of 10 Cedarwood Road, fallen like a tree. And I didn’t know what that meant. Iris knew what it meant, and she was shocked, too, but that wasn’t the look on her face. The look on her face was the look of a beautiful woman suppressing laughter, then the look of a beautiful woman failing to suppress laughter as it took hold of her. Peals of laughter like those of a bold girl in church whose efforts not to commit sacrilege just make for a louder eruption when it finally arrives.
She reached for the telephone, but she couldn’t get it together to dial 999; she was bent double with laughter. Da made it through his flesh wound. Their marriage made it through the incident. The memory made it home.
Iris was a practical, frugal woman. She could change a plug on a kettle, and she could sew—boy, could she sew! She became a part-time dressmaker when my da refused to let her work as a cleaning lady for the national airline, Aer Lingus, along with her best friends from the neighborhood. There was a big showdown between them, the only proper row I remember. I was in my room eavesdropping as my mother reared up at him with a “you don’t own me” tirade in her defense. And, to be fair, he didn’t. Pleading succeeded where command had failed, and she gave up the chance to work with her mates at Dublin Airport.
Bob was a Catholic; Iris was a Protestant. Theirs was a marriage that had escaped the sectarianism of Ireland at the time. And because Bob believed that the mother should have the deciding vote in the children’s religious instruction, on Sunday mornings my brother and Iris and I were dropped at the Protestant St. Canice’s Church in Finglas. Whereupon my da would receive Mass up the road in the Catholic church—also, confusingly, called St. Canice’s.
There was less than a mile between the two churches, but in nineteen-sixties Ireland a mile was a long way. The “Prods” at that time had the better tunes, and the Catholics had the better stage gear. My mate Gavin Friday used to say that Roman Catholicism was the glam rock of religion, with its candles and psychedelic colors, its smoke bombs of incense, and the ringing of the little bell. The Prods were better at the bigger bells, Gavin would say, “because they can afford them!”
For a fair amount of the population in Ireland in the sixties and seventies, wealth and Protestantism went together. To be mixed up with either was to have collaborated with the enemy—that is, Britain. In fact, the Church of Ireland had supplied a lot of Ireland’s most famous insurgents, and south of the border its congregation was mostly modest in every way. My da was hugely respectful of the church community he’d married into. And so, having worshipped on his own up the road, he would then return from his St. Canice’s to wait outside our St. Canice’s to drive us all home.
Iris and Bob had grown up in the inner city of Dublin around the thoroughfare of Oxmantown Road, an area known locally as Cowtown because every Wednesday it was the seat of the country-comes-to-the-city fair. In nearby Phoenix Park, Bob and Iris loved to walk and watch the deer run free. Unusually for a Dub, the term for an inner-city resident, Bob played cricket in the park, and his mother, Granny Hewson, listened to the BBC to hear the results of English Test matches.
Cricket was not a working-class game in Ireland. Add this to my da’s saving up to buy records of his favorite operas, taking his wife and her sister to the ballet—and then not letting Iris become a “Mrs. Mops,” as he called it, even though her friends were—and you can sense that there might have been just a bit of the snob in Bob. His interests were not the norm on his street, that’s for sure. Actually, the whole family might have been a little different. My da and his brother Leslie did not even speak with a strong Dublin accent. It was as if their telephone voice was the only one they used.
My da’s family name, Hewson, is also unusual in that it is both a Protestant and a Catholic name. I once saw in a posh pub a death warrant for the beheading of Charles I, with one John Hewson among the signatories. A republican? Good. One of Oliver Cromwell’s henchmen? Bad.
As a kid I could see that Hewsons tended to live in their heads while Rankins were more at home in their bodies. The Hewsons could overthink. My da, for example, would not go to visit his own brothers and sisters in case they might not want to see him. He would need to be invited. My mother—a Rankin—would tell him just to go on and drop in on them. Her siblings were always dropping in on one another. What’s the problem? We’re family. Rankins are laughing all day long, and, if the Hewsons can’t quite do that, we do have a temper to keep us entertained.
There’s another difference. The Rankin family is susceptible to the brain aneurysm. Of the five Rankin sisters, three died from an aneurysm. Including Iris.
My mother heard me sing publicly just once. I played the Pharaoh in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” It was really the part of an Elvis impersonator, so that’s what I did. Dressed up in one of my mother’s white trouser suits with some silvery sequins glued on, I curled my lip and brought the house down. Iris laughed and laughed. She seemed surprised that I could sing, that I was musical.
As a very small child, from when I stood only as high as the keyboard, I was transfixed by the piano. There was one in our church hall, and any time alone with it was time I held sacred. I would spend ages finding out what sounds the keys and pedals could make. I didn’t know what reverb was; I couldn’t believe how such a simple action could turn our church hall into a cathedral. I remember my hand finding a note and then searching for another note to rhyme with it. I was born with melodies in my head, and I was looking for a way to hear them in the world. Iris wasn’t looking for those kinds of signs in me, so she didn’t see them.
When my grandmother decided to sell her piano, my hints about how well it would fit in our house could not have been any less subtle. “Don’t be silly, where would we put it?” was the reply. No piano for our house. No room. When I interviewed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School, in the city center, the principal asked if I had any interest in joining their famous boys’ choir. My eleven-year-old’s heart stirred. But Iris, sensing my nervousness, answered for me: “Not at all. Paul has no interest in singing.”
My attendance at St. Patrick’s was ultimately unhappy for me and unhappy for them. I lasted just a year. The final straw involved a Spanish teacher known as Biddy who I was convinced put lines through my homework without even looking at it. When the weather was good, Biddy would take her lunch from a clear plastic Tupperware box on a park bench in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral. Schoolboys were not allowed in the park at lunchtime, but I’d found a way to mount the railings, and one day, with a couple of accomplices, I successfully lobbed dog shit into her lunchbox. Unsurprisingly, by the end of term Biddy wanted this little shit-throwing shit out of her hair, and it was suggested I might be happier elsewhere. In September, 1972, I enrolled at Mount Temple Comprehensive School.
Mount Temple was liberation. A nondenominational, coeducational experiment—remarkable for its time in conservative Ireland. Instead of an A class, a B class, and a C class, the six first-year classes were D, U, B, L, I, and N. You were encouraged to be yourself, to be creative, to wear your own clothes. And there were girls. Also wearing their own clothes.
It took two bus rides to get to Mount Temple, a long journey into the city center from the northwest side and then out to the northeast. Unless you cycled, which is what my friend Reggie Manuel and I began to do. It was on one never-ending incline of a hill that we learned how to hold on to the milk van. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as free as I did on those days cycling to school with Reggie. If the weather meant we couldn’t cycle all the time, leaving us to the drudgery of the bus, compensation would come on Fridays, when we would stop in the city center after school to visit the record store Dolphin Discs, on Talbot Street. This is where I first saw albums like the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” and Lou Reed’s “Transformer.”
The only reason I wasn’t standing in the record store at 5:30 P.M. on May 17, 1974, is that a bus strike meant that we’d had to cycle to school. We were already home when the streets around Dolphin Discs were blown to bits by a car bomb in Talbot Street, another in Parnell Street, and another in South Leinster Street, all within minutes, a coördinated attack by an Ulster loyalist extremist group that wanted the south to know what terrorism felt like. A fourth explosion struck in Monaghan, and the final death toll stood at thirty-three people, including a pregnant young mother, the entire O’Brien family, and a Frenchwoman whose family had survived the Holocaust.
That same year, in September, we celebrated my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. They danced and sang Michael Finnegan’s reel. My mum’s da, “Gags” Rankin, had such a high time that his children worried he’d wake in the night and not make it to the bathroom. They left a bucket beside the bed. And my grandfather left this life kicking that bucket, with a massive heart attack on the night of his wedding anniversary.
Three days later, at the funeral, I spot my father carrying my mother in his arms through a crowd, like a white snooker ball scattering a triangle of color. He’s rushing to get her to the hospital. She has collapsed at the side of the grave as her own father is being lowered into the ground.
“Iris has fainted. Iris has fainted.” The voices of my aunts and cousins blow around like a breeze through leaves. “She’ll be O.K. She’s just fainted.” Before I, or anyone else, can think, my father has Iris in the back of the Hillman Avenger, with my brother Norman at the wheel.
I stay with my cousins to say goodbye to my grandfather, and then we all shuffle back to my grandmother’s tiny red brick house, 8 Cowper Street, where the tiny kitchen has become a factory churning out sandwiches, biscuits, and tea. This two-up-two-down with an outdoor bathroom seems to hold thousands of people.
Even though it’s Grandda’s funeral, and even though Iris has fainted, we’re kids, cousins, running around and laughing. Until Ruth, my mother’s younger sister, bursts through the door. “Iris is dying. She’s had a stroke.”
Everybody crowds around. Iris is one of eight from No. 8: five girls and three boys. They’re weeping, wailing, struggling to stand. Someone realizes I’m here, too. I’m fourteen and strangely calm. I tell my mother’s sisters and brothers that everything is going to be O.K.
Three days later Norman and I are brought into the hospital to say goodbye. She’s alive but barely. The local clergyman Sydney Laing, whose daughter I’m dating, is here. Ruth is outside the hospital room, wailing, with my father, whose eyes have less life in them than my mother’s. I enter the room at war with the universe, but Iris looks peaceful. It’s hard to figure that a large part of her has already left. We hold her hand. There’s a clicking sound, but we don’t hear it.
My father was a tenor, a really good one. He could move people with his singing, and to move people with music you first have to be moved by it. In the living room, standing in front of the stereo with two of my mother’s knitting needles, he would conduct: Beethoven, Mozart, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” Or “La Traviata,” eyes closed, lost in reverie.
He is not precisely aware of the story of “La Traviata,” but he feels it. A father and son at odds, lovers torn apart and reunited. He senses the injustice of the human heart. He is broken by the music.
After my mother’s departure, Cedarwood Road becomes its own opera. Three men used to shouting at the television now shouting at one another. We live in rage and melancholy, in mystery and melodrama. The subject of the opera is the absence of a woman called Iris, and the music swells to stay the silence that envelops the house and the three men—one of whom is just a boy.
My brother Norman has always been a fixer, an engineer, a mechanic who could pull things apart and put things back together. The engine of his motorcycle, a clock, a radio, a stereo. He loved technology and he loved music. A large chrome Sony reel-to-reel tape player took pride of place in our “good room,” and Norman was enterprising enough to figure out that the reel-to-reel meant he didn’t have to keep buying music. If he borrowed an album from a friend for an hour, it was his forever.
Because Norman, seven years older than me, was already a working man when I was in Mount Temple, the reel-to-reel was my only company when I got home from school. Some late afternoons I’d arrive so hungry but soon forget who and where I was. I’d stand in front of the stereo, just like my father, and let the house burn down while I listened to opera. Rock opera: “Tommy,” by the Who. Charcoal smoke would fill the kitchen and seep into the living room.
Norman taught me to play guitar. He taught me the C chord, the G chord, and, much more difficult, the F chord, which requires holding down two strings with one finger. Especially difficult when the strings are quite a way from the fretboard, as they were on Norman’s rather cheap guitar. But with his guidance I learned to play “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I worked out how to play “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Dear Prudence,” and “Here Comes the Sun” on my brother’s guitar.
Norman and I fought a lot. He’d come home from work and I’d be watching the telly, not doing my homework, not having prepared the tea. He would give me some lip. I would return it. One of us would end up on the ground.
He had a bad temper, but he was a clever boy who, like his da, should have gone to university. He’d won a scholarship to an institution called simply the High School, a prestigious Protestant secondary school that leaned in the direction of maths and physics but was best known as the alma mater of William Butler Yeats. But Norman never felt very welcome there with his secondhand uniform, his secondhand books, and the secondhand religion of his Catholic father. He was upbeat by nature, except when the melancholy had him. Then it really had him.
The quality of my schoolwork had improved when I’d first arrived at Mount Temple, and I’d done better there than I had at St. Patrick’s, but when Iris died I lost all concentration. Teachers lamented my scrawly handwriting, noting that my father’s letters to them about me were in such beautiful calligraphy. While I loved poetry and history, I didn’t feel as clever as my friends. I was afraid deep down that I was average. I even stopped playing chess, which I loved, because I’d begun to think of it as “uncool.” And I had no mother to tell me that nothing cool was “cool.”
My da had taught me to play chess one summer in the seaside town of Rush, just outside Dublin on the north coast, where Grandda Rankin had turned an old railway carriage into a summer chalet. There was nothing much to do at “the hut,” save for a few card games that didn’t interest me. I was interested in my da, and if he wasn’t golfing or reading or hanging out with his brothers-in-law I would try to catch his attention. I remember walking the pier and feeling the warmth of his hand on my neck.
At first I thought he was letting me win, but eventually I noticed that he wasn’t. This was how to take his attention off whatever he was thinking about and put it on me. To best him, to beat him! Bob didn’t like losing, and maybe that’s where I learned that I didn’t, either.
Bob loved music, but, in tune with his wife, he never suggested we get a piano. Nor did he ever ask me about how my music was coming on. He talked about opera, just not to his sons. For years after Iris died, he would serenade rooms of relations with Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” I still wonder if he was singing it from my mother’s point of view: “I’ll get along, you’ll find another.”
He once told me that I was a baritone who thinks he’s a tenor. One of the great put-downs, and pretty accurate. I, too, had the seeds of a performer, and, above all, performers don’t like to be ignored. Maybe Bob didn’t take me too seriously as a teen-ager because he could see I was doing a great job of that myself. But I can still hear his voice in my head, especially when I sing.
In those days, when I remembered to eat, I’d return from Mount Temple with a tin of meat, a tin of beans, and a packet of Cadbury’s Smash. Cadbury’s Smash was astronaut food, but eating it did not make me feel like Elton John’s Rocket Man. In fact, eating it was a lot like not eating at all. But at least it was easy. You just put boiling water on these dry little pellets, and they would shape-shift into mashed potato. I’d add them to the pot in which I’d just cooked the tinned beans and the tinned meat. And I ate my dinner out of the pot.
I still don’t enjoy cooking or ordering food, which may go back to having had to cook my own meals as a teen-ager. That was when food was just fuel. We used to buy a cheap fizzy drink called Cadet Orange because it had enough sugar to keep you going but was so foul you would want nothing else down your throat for hours. I’d drink it after I’d spent my food money on something more important—Alice Cooper’s “Hello Hooray,” for example. Sometimes such a purchase—Santana’s “Abraxas” or Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”—required my investing the whole family’s grocery money. On those occasions, I confess, I’d sometimes have to borrow the entire grocery list from the shop, and fail to give any of it back. It was easy, apart from a loaf of sliced bread, which was difficult to hide up your jumper. But I didn’t feel good about it, and by the age of fifteen I’d put away a life of crime.
In 1975, Norman got a job at Dublin Airport. Airports in the seventies were even more glamorous than color television, especially if you were a pilot. Norman had applied to be a pilot, but his asthma disqualified him from the trainee program, and instead he got work in Cara, the computing department of Aer Lingus. Computers, Norman told himself, were even more glamorous than airports, and he committed to learning to fly small airplanes, just as soon as he’d made some money.
Thousands of Irish plane twitchers would turn up at Dublin Airport each weekend to see flying machines defy gravity, taking off for somewhere else. Every flight was a reminder that there was a way out of Ireland if it was needed. In the fifties and sixties, more than half a million Irish people bought themselves one-way tickets out.
The good fortune for Da, Norman, and me at 10 Cedarwood Road, just two miles from the end of Runway 2, was that Norman managed to talk his bosses into allowing him to bring home the surplus airline food. The meals were sometimes still warm when he carried them in their tin boxes into our kitchen, to be heated in the oven for twenty-three minutes at three hundred and sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit. This was exotic fare: gammon steak and pineapple, an Italian food called lasagna, or a dish in which rice was no longer a milk pudding but a savory experience with peas. I told Norman that this was the worst dessert I’d ever had.
“It’s not dessert, and by the way half the world eats rice every day.”
Norman knew stuff that other people didn’t. If my father and I were proud that my brother had relieved us of the need to buy groceries or even to cook, after six months the aftertaste of tin was all we could remember. At night, I took to eating cornflakes with cold milk.
I thought another culinary salvation had arrived, this time at Mount Temple, when the end of the lunchbox era was announced. Imagine a fanfare of trumpets and cheering at assembly—that’s how excited we all were at the dawning of the age of school dinners. But I was punching the air only briefly. The school dinners, the headmaster explained, would not be cooked in the school canteen. It wasn’t big enough. Instead, they would be arriving by van in tin boxes . . . from Dublin fucking Airport! They would be heated, he announced proudly, at three hundred and sixty-five degrees for twenty-three minutes in new ovens the school board had paid for.
I had never been on an airplane, but already my romance with flying was over. Airplane food for lunch and airplane food for tea was more than any budding rock star could handle. In time, with my band, I would take to the skies, and on those early Aer Lingus flights I would look out the window and try to see Cedarwood Road. As I finally left this small town and small island and rose above these flat fields, my mind filled with memories of the phone box on the street, teen-agers with broken bottles and hearts, sweet and sour neighbors, and the vibrant branches full of cherry-tree blossoms outside our house. At which point the air hostess would arrive and place one of those little tin trays right in front of me.