Now available on Amazon as part of THE WATERFORD COLLECTION
JOHNJO @ Central Arts Waterford review:
A View from the Green Room.
Arts Correspondent. Waterford News & Star
DISTURBING ‘JOHNJO’ AT CENTRAL ARTS.
Johnjo McGrath enters singing ballad of The Rocks of Bawn and you just know that there is a story to be told. It was a favourite of his father who barely knew the words, or the notes, if the truth be told. A small landholder of twenty acres on the Comeraghs of which only five were arable, he carried ancient grudges around like boulders. Clearing land that was full of furze, rock and limestone, he cursed his circumstances and drank a lot of whiskey to dull the pain.
He references Crotty the highwayman and understands the shared experience of disenfranchisement. He curses the Curraghmores and their acres of lawns that would have fed the bellies of half-fed cattle. Not that he had too many of those. It’s the sense of privilege and entitlement about the Curraghmores that gets to him. It eats away at him and he sees no shame in stealing the odd sheep of theirs and selling it on to slaughter. He feels dispossessed and evicted from his land and blames it on the greed of the Anglo-Irish who never had enough.
A selfish father with a grievance, he drank all he had and when he drowned himself, Johnjo had to sell the bullock to meet the funeral expenses. With only £2-10 the mother mortgages the land and moves into the town. A knife-incident leaving a man badly wounded, forces him to flee and it’s the boat in wartime for Johnjo.
Grim times. Working on the lump, with an array of identities to avoid detection, it’s a grim and lonely existence. Kavanagh’s lines of the women who love only young men ring in the ear of the aging man who moves between damp and over-crowded doss-houses while building the motorways. The gangers are always the same. Elephant John is a tough task-master who can really dish it out. And it’s always Paddy. Never Johnjo. Still no matter when you’re on the lump. The names tumble our like tourist dishcloths…Tom Dooley…Roy Rogers…Gene Autry…Donald F****in’ Duck.
But a life without children. And a wife. Before he knows it, he’s fifty. It’s been an empty existence claims Johnjo but odd facts begin to pop out from the coiled spring of resentment. Sexual ambiguities surface. He prefers the company of men. Their smell. Their friendship. A band of building brothers. It’s a world of sexual compromise and secrets hidden from even himself.
He hates Bannagher, the jumped-up Irish boss who also owns the pub in Cricklewood where the wages are paid. He only pays by cheque and charges 5% on cashing cheques for subbies who he knows can never have a bank account. When a trench collapses killing Johnjo’s only friend Kennedy because of poor scaffolding, Johnjo settles accounts with Bannagher in the old time-honoured way of blood-payment.
Eamon Culloty is excellent as the spiteful-regretful-sexually-ambivalent Johnjo. In what was once a best suit, he brings the whole range of despised Paddy to the stage. It’s a performance that’s always highly charged and directed with great sympathy by James Power. The emptiness of a wasted life is what remains with you after the performance. There’s nothing simple about a performance that seems to constantly search for answers and, perhaps, other ways to have gone about his business. His father’s son, he doesn’t get his sense of dispossession from the ground. He doesn’t blame the father and scoffs at Larkin’s line: they f**k you up, your mum and dad’. ‘No’ Johnjo declares ‘I f**ked them up’.
Tom O’Brien’s writing always seems to drive Johnjo on to a conclusion based on the navvies’ experience. His wisdom is bought at a price that no one should really have to pay. O’Brien lays Paddy’s experiences in post-war Britain bare…lodgings in damp rooms crammed with other Paddies trying to get by. Weekends trying to dull the pain of existence through drink and then looking for a sub on Monday to get through the week.
Great to see Waterford playwright Tom O’Brien’s work on a Waterford stage. Let’s see more of it.
LOOKING FOR GOOGLE
Oops! mind that blind…
Oh, what the Dickens!
The lingua franca
In Google we trust,
In God if we must.
Look, no hands!
It’s not a boast
It’s a statement of fact,
I don’t drive, it’s all an act.
The phone on my table
Speaks in eighteen different languages if tasked
And can answer questions –
Sometimes before they are asked!
Now they have sent ten thousand
Helium balloons into the stratosphere
Seeking all the disconnected;
Wi-Fi for all – and soon
They could – in theory – I guess
Set up shop nowadays on the moon
This is their ‘toothbrush’ test;
“Focus on the user and all else follows”
Culture and success go hand in hand;
If you don’t believe your own slogan
You’re already in no-man’s land.
SEPTEMBER IS THE LOVELIEST MONTH
September is the loveliest month.
The sky is on permanent fire
The trees painted many colours
Burnished, it seems, with pure desire
In the park, ducks glide silently by
And the always busy seagulls
Coming in to land from on high
Whilst near the dozing oak tree
The squirrels nutmeg each other
Each acorn hoarded
For the soon-to-come cold weather.
Your arm in mine
We stroll down the park
Heading towards the sunset
Home before dark.
THIS IS NOT YOUR COUNTRY
Which begs the question,
Who does it belong to
If not me, him, her or you?
It must belong to somebody;
Though come to think of it
It was here long before
Humans ever set a foot upon it
Perhaps Tyrannasaurus Rex
Can lay claim to it,
But I doubt it.
From the fogbound coastline of Newfoundland
To the deserts of North Africa
From the rainforests of Queensland
A mere half a billion years ago
The first legs walked upon this land,
But whose were they?
I HAVE BEEN TOLD
That Ireland is a country of love not greed.
If you take away the hands that feed
The wanker bankers who make
More money than
They can ever need,
Whilst pauperizing those
That trusted them –
On that the country is agreed.
And so were forced to turn to shyster politicians
In their darkest hour of need.
Decibelisation was old
When Dresden’s china charred the ashes
When the war to end all wars
Turned Flanders fields to mushy poppies
When Cromwell’s convoys rattled on
The cobbled streets of old Kilkenny
And still, today, those echoes throb
When walking down some quiet lane, I hear,
The rumbles of some distant noisy mob.
The cigarette smoke hangs like tear gas
In the mean little honky-tonk
But nobody really gives a shit because Jerry is in town.
He arrives without fanfare and seats himself down
Gimme my money and show me the piano
And don’t try and act the hound, This is rockabilly, baby
Forget about Elvis and Johnny
Jerry has just kicked the door down.
Jerry can conjure a thousand songs
And play each one seven different ways
He can make your high heel sneakers
Dance the legs off every other cat in the place
I ain’t no phoney, I ain’t no teddy bear
And I don’t talk baloney ,as I say to my bass player
I ain’t no goody-goody, but I was born to be on the stage
It was all I ever dreamed of, from the very earliest age.
Jerry plays it slow and mournful or hard and fast
He once told Chuck Berry he could kiss his ass
And across the arc of bad-boy rockers
Who have come and gone
Jerry is the only one still rocking on
Sure, there were some bad times that caused his
Rocket ship to sputter
Like the year he crashed a dozen Cadillac’s
And was heard to utter
You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will, oh what a thrill
Goodness gracious great balls of fire
When the Milesians conquered Ireland, c 1000 bc, Amergin invokes the powers of the Land here upon first stepping ashore in Ireland. These words came from Amergin’s “imbas” (‘poetic inspiration’) and they marked the start of battle over sovereignty of the Land. With the words of this poem, Amergin claims the elements of Ireland. This gesture displays his Otherworldly wisdom and power over the elements. Here, he is actually “becoming”… all of these elements, or “duile” as they were called by the Druids. He joins himself (his “Fein” and internal “duile”) with the spirit that controls the elements of the Cosmos. This could be looked upon as merely symbolic, but however you wish to see it, it got results. The wind died down and the Gaels claimed sovereignty on Ireland .
SONG OF AMERGIN
I am a stag of seven tines,
I am a wide flood on a plain,
I am a wind on the deep waters,
I am a shining tear of the sun,
I am a hawk on a cliff,
I am fair among flowers,
I am a god who sets the head afire with smoke.
I am a battle waging spear,
I am a salmon in the pool,
I am a hill of poetry,
I am a ruthless boar,
I am a threatening noise of the sea,
I am a wave of the sea,
Who but I knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen ?
Review in Munster Express on 16 Aug 2016
now available on Amazon in paperback & ebook
LETTERS TO MOTHER AND OTHER DEAD RELATIVES
The Waterford-born writer
and playwright, Tom O’Brien,
has a new semi-autobiographical
book out and he uses the literary
device of letters to dead
relatives to retrace growing
up in the cruel poverty of the
fi fties and sixties generation.
Circumstances and a ‘jackthe-
lad’ existence of bravado
and dipping into the collection
basket as an altar boy sets him
on a rocky road to seek work,
good times, fame and a place
in the world.
His previous books and
plays refl ect on a grey, unforgiving
youthful ‘divilment’ was not
only frowned on but actively
and forcefully hammered out
of him. Yet there is hardly a
trace of bitterness in this book
with the long title – Letter To
My Mother And Other Dead
Relatives. He was a product of
a secretive time where ‘least
said, easiest mended’ and ‘keep
yourselves to yourselves’. He
clearly didn’t have a happy
childhood and you sense the
painful ‘distance’ between him
and his mother and relatives.
The death of an aunt in
London who died intestate
caused O’Brien to seek out
his family history and the revelations
became the subject
matter of these ‘Letters’ and
some of his London produced
The opening sentence in this
book says it all: “Dear Mother,
we never had much to say to
each other when you were
alive”. Within these letters,
there is not only a chronicle
of as possibly misspent youth
from job to job, from digs to
digs, with midnight fl its and
bills unpaid. A lot of drink
is consumed, dodgy deals
attempted, gambling scams
and a wonderful period when
he was in partnership with the
Mean Fiddler owner and childhood
friend, Vince Power.
I am not sure how much
O’Brien has embellished the
aspects of his ‘jack-the-lad’
existence, and his deportation
from England at one stage.
He is an excellent and colourful
writer, as his London successes
will attest to. I suspect
he dresses up the truth to keep
the reader attentive but, in the
process, he reveals a lot of hurt
and possibly regret. He seems
to need not just recognition
and affi rmation in London but
also to be accepted in his home
place. This ‘dislocation’ and
realisation that, in a sense, ‘you
can never go back’ to the past
yet you cannot shake off that
past is evident in these Letters.
Sometimes, writers reveal
more than they might wish or
realise and that is the fascination
of Tom O’Brien’s story. I
suspect that fame in London
does not compensate for a lack
of recognition in his home
How long have they sat there,
Tensed in the sand
Brunting the snarling sea
Washed over again and again
Licking endless salt wounds away.
From these high cliffs I see them clearly
Waiting patiently for prey
Yesterday it was desolate;
Now there are tigers in the bay