Living Life without Apathy
I came to Glasgow in the summer of 1936. It was three months past my thir teenth birthday, and I had fled my hometown of Armagh, Ireland, for, if not sunnier climes, then at least less politically charged ones.
In Ireland the landscape was bleak. Politics and religion controlled any and all aspects of our lives. My father’s once thriving farm was as barren and wasted as the hearts and souls of the people still living in the occupied six counties.
Over the past thirty years the people of Ireland had seen religious oppression, uprisings, civil war, brother turned on brother and we were now left tired wounded and defeated. The now ’free’ twenty-six counties were looking at a new beginning, a fresh start in a country of their own. But north of the border, the scar that now divided our homeland, in the place still left under foreign control, the rage and fire were gone.
We had bled alongside our brothers, suffered, strived and now all we were left with was a state of apathy. No-one cared any more, no-one had the heart to dream, to fight.
It no longer mattered who our homeland belonged to, which sovereign we pledged allegiance to, which parliament’s laws we followed.
They all blended together into one large totalitarian nonentity. We had fought, we had lost and now people were tired, fed up and uncaring. The weary faces, and stooped shoulders told of a worn out and disinterested race, no-one cared about looking for the light at the end of the rainbow anymore, they no longer believed it was there.
I had already decided I wasn’t going to be like them, I wasn’t ready to just accept my lot in life. I wasn’t going to just adjust to persecution and give in. With a fire in my belly and ideas in my head, I was determined to be something more, something better than a broken down farmboy from Armagh.
I headed to Glasgow with a few loose coins in my pocket, a throbbing red ear from my father’s disapproval and warmth on my cheek from the tearful goodbye kiss bestowed on me by my beloved mother.
Glasgow smelled completely different from anything I had ever experienced before. The smell of gas, dirt and chemicals hung in the air and the pungent stench of the River Clyde pervaded my nostrils, leaving them burning and sore with the acrid smell of pollution and sewers. It was so different from home, in so many ways. But I didn't care, the thrill of the new, the unexpected filled me completely.`
In my first week I got a job as a dock boy down at the shipyards, the only place really willing to take on a catholic immigrant with no literacy skills. It wasn’t much but it came with a modest salary and boarding at a nearby hostel.
It was my beginning.
I met May Gordon at a dance in the old Barras dance halls on the eve of my seventeenth birthday. She was a local Glasgow girl with four older brothers, and a stern father. She was also from a good solid protestant family. You may ask why this matters, but when you are an Irish Catholic Immigrant, believe me it matters. A lot.
She should never have said yes to my request to dance. I knew it, she knew it, and by the looks of disapproval on her friend’s faces, they knew it too. We came from two different worlds, she was respectable, privileged, well off. She was destined to marry some proud protestant man from her father’s lodge, and go on to become the perfect wife and mother. She was beautiful, fiery, educated and refined. She deserved a world of ease and elegance; all I had to offer was a Shipyard salary, the wrong religion and a lifetime of uncertainty. But that night nothing mattered except the warmth of her in my arms and the smell of her perfumed hair seeping into my skin, taking over my senses and finally filling me with a sense of home, of belonging.
Two days after her eighteenth birthday we married at Gretna Green, and she traded in her old life for a new start with me. We loved each other passionately, in the way only teenagers can in the first flush of romance. She was my everything, my sweet Scottish lass filled with wit, fire and intelligence. I never realised it then, but I was as much her rebellion as her passion. Her chance to breathe outside the confines of family commitments and high expectations.
She never expected to trade one prison for another of her own making. Six weeks after we married she fell pregnant.
Four months later, we went to war.
When I returned to Glasgow in the fall of 1943, shrapnel in my leg causing a limp that would remain with me for the rest of my days; I came back to a world that had shifted, changed. In the chaos of war, roles had been redefined, families has been destroyed, rebuilt and recalibrated. After the terror of war and the fear of dying, coming home should have been the easy part. But with a distant wife and the chances of a crippled catholic getting any type of decent job slim it wasn’t that simple.
But we didn’t dwell on the lack of money, the pain, the shame or, the gulf that had opened up between us, leaving us like strangers, instead we carried on.
After all that is what good Catholics do, we don't divorce, we don’t renege, and she was far too proud to ever return to her family, plus we had a child to consider.
A few years later saw five more children added to the flock, five sons and six daughters in all. They were good kids, never complained when there was too little food to go round everyone. The older ones bearing the burden of hunger along with me and their mother, to ensure the little ones didn’t go without too often.
In time they all took jobs, they began families. Left to our own devices the indifference between myself and May, turned bitter, and twisted until all that was left were sharp words and angry gestures.
My son Charles and I remained close, mainly because of his fascination with the country of my birth. He loved Ireland, studied its history and politics, until he was too embroiled in the hate and anger that was now at the centre of it to see clearly what lay beneath.
I took him over to visit for his twenty first birthday, it was the first time my feet had touched Irish soil in almost thirty years. I would like to say it felt like coming home, but it didn’t. The air was too clean, too fresh. I missed the smell of the city, the aroma of the Clyde and the cold air that so uniquely made up the town of Glasgow.
The people had changed too. In place of apathy the rage had returned worse than ever. We were smack bang in the middle of 'the troubles'. There were soldiers on the street, men starving themselves in prison. Children on both sides being taught messages of hate and distrust, over which side of which street belonged to whom. The fight was over freedom and religion, ownership and rights. But the hatred that festered was too deep for either side to ever view anything clearly.
Sitting in the kitchen of my fathers farm, I looked out of the window and saw two of the local farmhands talking about the 'peace' march and discussing what type of weapon is the easiest to conceal. For the first time in a long time I thought about the country that had once been my own, now torn and bitter, corroding the hearts and minds of those who claimed to love it.
My eyes came to rest on the face of my cousin, a tired, worn man with a gentle manner and kind heart. His family had worked this land since before I left. Under a merciless, never ceasing task master, with no thanks and little reward. In this country, now torn in two people lived in fear, rage or indifference. If you didn’t pick a side, you were invisible, overlooked, insignificant.
In the years I had been gone, nothing had changed, the hatred and bitterness remained, both sides refusing to give or yield. As I headed home to Glasgow on the ferry I didn't look back.
The best years of my life, were also the last ones. I watched my grandkids grow and not only finish school but some went onto university. My wife and I made an inner peace, and although we never returned to the fiery passion we once had, a mutual love and respect was born out of the ashes of old flames.
I was proud of my life. Of the choices I had made and the passion in which I had lived it. I had lost much, lived freely and loved fiercely. Overall I was a content man.
Until the day I woke up and had no idea what I wanted to do. Several months after that, it was a struggle to remember who I was.
I had bright spots, my granddaughter, Charles’ girl, the little girl with the love of books that I had tried to save so long ago came to visit. Her smiling face a blend of my son’s eyes and her mother’s smile. She sat excited, her hand wrapped around that of her young man's as she told me they were engaged. We drank a fifth of scotch to celebrate and her smile soothed my spirit.
As the darkness slowly took over, taking me away from those I loved more certainly than death ever could, snatches and flashes of life were all that remained. My days were spent living in the past. I saw my mothers smile more clearly than I had in forty years, remembered the gruffness of my fathers voice. When I looked at May I remembered the young girl I had loved with such sweet passion all those years ago.
On my eighty-fifth birthday, I knew my time was close. Each morning it was harder to remember why I cared about things any more. I was no longer sure about who or what I loved, the colours I liked. The smell of Ireland, the feel of home. I struggled to remember my wife's name, and that of my children. The past seemed never clearer and never more distant.
Twenty-one days later I gave into the darkness and took my last breath. I had lived a good life, raised a good family and loved a wonderful woman.
On the day of my funeral, my wife gave my diaries to my granddaughter. The girl who had taught me to read and write, her love for books as strong as my love of learning.
Through these she would learn more about me than most people ever knew.
My grandfather Patrick Michael Burns was taken from us on 29th March 2006, after a seven year battle with Alzheimer’s. Through his diaries I learned about his loves, his thoughts, his passions and his fears. I taught him how to read when I was fifteen years old and he was seventy. He kept a diary for six years before stopping. He taught me the meaning of courage, conviction, love and living life to the fullest. Making each day a day for remembering. After reading the diaries, my Nana and I spoke of them, she said she knew he had always felt that she fell out of love with him. When I asked her if she had, she said, and I quote:
"You don't.....can't spend over sixty years of your life with the one man and not love him at least as much as you want to strangle him. He was my Pat."
I hope in telling a (very small) part of his tale, that I have done him proud.
This has been my entry for therealljidol Week 12. All comments and constructive criticism welcome. If you liked this entry, please take a minute to cast a vote for me HERE
I chose “Apathy, What I should care about, but don’t.”
My partner the wonderfully talented beautyofgrey wrote a piece on current events linked to this entry. Please go HERE to read her entry and review.