Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sean "Red" O'Connor (???? - April 10, 2013) - In Memorium


“Can’t they create their own fuckin Gods without bastardising ours?” 


 PROFANITY WARNING: Red’s speech tended to be profane and I’m not going to water him down to make his words acceptable to sensitive ears.  Neither am I going to soften his speech and attitudes toward England and Englishmen.  He detested both and that was part of him.  He liked English women just fine, though, except for the nobility.  When I tried to get him to see the illogic of this stance by reminding him that all men - even Saxons -  come from women, he'd narrow his eyes and snort.  A real snort.  "I suppose every fuckin, bloody Saxon" - he rarely used the word English and never Angle - "has a mother, but we don't think of that.  Woman embodies life, even a Saxon woman.  And we Celts honour life."  As usual, I found arguing with him just left me feeling a bit dizzy.  Anyway...  
·         
I generally don’t mix my physical universe friends with my online friends, but this time, I simply must introduce you to a very old friend of mine, Sean “Red” O’Connor, a Communist and a Republican.  That statement is meant to confuse my “American” friends, but will be immediately understandable to my friends from Éire.  (In Red’s honour, I will not use the name Ireland in this piece; Red disliked it intensely.  “Ire Land.  Land of Ire?  Sure and that’s wrong.  Irish are people of joy and laughter, song and dance, not ire.  Until you get us riled, I mean. Then we fight.  Like England.  You’ve heard of England?  Damned, fucking Saxon scum, don’t have the sense enough to stay in their own friggin land.  The name is Éire.”  I make no attempt to write his brogue into this; I used to tease him that he sounded like a stereotype from James Joyce that no one could understand.  He’d beam with pride, “Sure and I am, at that, me girl.”  He used “Sure and…” as a stereotypical Canadian uses, “eh?”)

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know Red.  Colourful, loud, brazen, profane, given to outbursts of temper one minute, gentle, calm, poetic the next.  He saw no point in a balanced approach to life.  Life is to be lived to the fullest, without reservation.  Anything else would be the purest blasphemy. 

Speaking of blasphemy, religiously, he was a very odd duck.  An atheist Catholic.  He used the most evil of women to explain his atheism.  “Most lovely creatures, these ladies, the real ones, I mean, not the demons.  Me girl, what sort of God could create Maggie Thatcher or Indira Gandhi?  More like a devil, if you ask me.  Bah!  The Old Religion had the right idea.”  (He was very sympathetic to the Sikh Cause, as well as the Irish Republican.)  Although he denied belief in a God, he was a great admirer of Jesus and, of course, Ste. Brigid and St. Patrick and St. Columba.  I remember him once telling me that Ste. Brigid is really Érun, Mother Éire herself.  He never styled himself a Celtic priest or Druid or any such and had great contempt for the neo-pagans who fancied themselves somehow spiritual descendants of the ancient Celts.  “Can’t they create their own fuckin Gods without bastardising ours?”  That would call for a shot of Kilbeggan.  After a couple belts of whiskey, he'd toss back his thick mane of gloriously shining red hair and proclaim, "You know, those bloody, fuckin Saxons can never defeat us.  You know why?"  Of course, I knew;  I had heard this dozens of times, but I loved it and always played along. "No, Red, why?"  His eyes would get that twinkle I so loved, he'd put on his biggest, most mysterious grin, "We're Celts!  We're magic! Can't no mortal fuckin Saxons defeat magic!"    

He was a staunch Irish Republican, supporter of sending the British back to where they came from (“Hell!”) and reclaiming all of Éire, “to make our land a nation once again.”  It was from him that I first heard the phrase “England’s Last Colony,” or rather “Fuckin Bastard England’s Last Bleedin Colony.”  For the sake of my “American” friends, I must point out that Irish Republicans are polar opposite of American Republicans, who tend to be conservative, mean-spirited, hard-hearted, rich and humourless.   The Irish Republicans I have known are generally socialist, generous, kind-hearted working class people with humour emanating from the pores of their bodies, until their freedom is jeopardised.  Then they fight in any way necessary to be free. 

One slight oddity about him.  He disliked the flag of the Irish Republic and refused to fly it because he considered the orange an insult to the Irish Republican patriots and insisted that if they must have a tricolor,  it should be the true Irish colours, green, white and gold, not orange.  In truth, though he really preferred the old golden harp flag, which does have the advantage of being most distinctive.  This is very similar to the one he flew each year on St. Patrick's Day.  And Ste. Brigid's Day.  And St. Columba's Day. And other occasions and non-occasions as the fancy struck him.




Red’s dearest wish was to go to Éire and join the IRA (Irish Republican Army).  That, however, was impossible.  From early childhood, Red’s body was confined to a wheelchair, a result of polio when he was little more than a baby.  He had been brought to the Canada for medical treatment and, although he lived, his physical recovery was incomplete and his health always precarious.  Not only were his legs withered, but he also had great difficulty breathing.  Until his marriage, he lived with his parents, a sickly young person, with the spirit of a dragon.  At home they mostly spoke Irish (Gaelic) and he developed an almost exaggerated brogue.    Unable to go fight, he had an old but still serviceable Armalite rifle that he slept with – fully loaded, I must add – and many the times, I’ve heard him singing (yes, he did keep changing  the location.  This was his favourite.):

                    And it's up close near to Long Kesh that’s where I long to be
                    Lying in the dark with a Provo company
                    A comrade on me left and another one on me right
                    And a clip of ammunition for me little Armalite!

Somewhere in the midst of his life, I think before I was born, Red met and fell in love with the lady who was to be his lifelong companion, Mary.  I never learned her maiden name and I suppose it doesn’t matter.  He called her Fiona, much as he used to call me Maeve.  All the women he cared for, in fact, were given good, strong Irish names.   Anyway, we all called her Fiona, too, which always made her smile.  Life could not have been easy for her, with such a spirited, yet sickly husband, but she was one of those people who seem only to grow stronger with adversity.  They were very much in love, although they bickbickered nonstop, and were, sadly, childless, I imagine because of Red’s illness, but, of course, I never asked.  Both loved kids and wherever they were, you could be sure to find a group of young people, eating Fiona’s delicious snacks and being indoctrinated by Red’s leftist politics.  He could, and did, go on for hours about the evils of capitalism and the genius of Marx and Engels.  I suppose from an ordinary mortal, it might have gotten old and dull.  But this was Red O'Connor.  Nothing about him could possibly get old or dull.  

Red was a great friend to me.  Whenever I would get teary about some real or imagined wrong as little and sometimes big girls do, he’d become the gentle man of love and sweet words.  He’d always sing to me,
                                      
                                       There's a tear in your eye,
                                  And I'm wondering why,
                                  For it never should be there at all.
                                  With such pow'r in your smile,
                                  Sure a stone you'd beguile,
                                  So there's never a teardrop should fall.
                                  When your sweet lilting laughter's
                                  Like some fairy song,
                                  And your eyes twinkle bright as can be;
                                  You should laugh all the while
                                  And all other times smile,
                                  And now, smile a smile for me

Of course, I’d smile – how could I not? – and he’d go on at the top of his lungs
                  
                                       When Irish eyes are smiling…

I’d try to interrupt, “But Red, my eyes aren’t Irish!”  He’d lean over and stare into my strange blue-green-grey-brown eyes, smile and just keep singing.

 "Ye're a Celt, me girl. A bloody fuckin magical Irish Celt. Sean O'Connor knows 'em when he sees 'em." At such moments he was charming and irresistible beyond words and I tried not to get angry at the people and situation that so often had him upset and angry. And, of course, he was right. I was much-delighted to learn from genealogical research and DNA testing that I really have a strong claim to being Irish. I'm enough of a lady (in public) to leave offthe various adjectives he used.

Back in 1967 he introduced me to the Irish Freedom fight and I have been a supporter ever since, although, I admit, not with his fervor.  He understood that I have my own people and my own battles to fight.  He taught me all the revolutionary Irish songs, old and new, and he introduced me to some of the people who came to be so much a part of my life, Wolfe Tone, Roddy McCorley, Kevin Barry and his great hero, James Connollly, among others.  He would sing the Connolly ballad at the top of his lungs, stopping at the curse on England, speaking, not singing it, in his most virulent tones and his slightly altered words:

                     God’s curse on you, England, you cruel-hearted monster,
                     Your vile deeds they shame all the devils in hell.

He would always end the song with a bellowing FUCK THE QUEEN!  Followed by a softer, “if you’re not afraid of getting syphilis.”  In spite of this, his hatred of England did not extend to his social life.  Although everyone knew his strong beliefs, he had quite a few English friends.  He did not moderate his speech around them in the least.  I suppose they must have understood that his vitriol was aimed at the situation and those actually fighting and not at them.

His health was so precarious that he was only twice able to return to the land to which he dedicated his existence.  The first was before I was born.  I remember well when he returned from his second visit in 1980, at the heights of what is euphemistically called the Troubles  with two tattoos:  Tiocfaidh ár lá with a shamrock and the cryptic  26 + 6 = 1     He avoided “The Occupied Counties” (he never called them  anything else) only because of his health.  It's hard to be a freedom fighter when you can neither walk nor breathe.  I believe the most significant stop on his visit was at Errigal. (“Just Errigal, any more name is gilding the fuckin  lily.  Heaven on earth it is and where my soul will journey when at last I escape this useless body.  Sure Errigal is heaven, nowhere else.”)  When he returned, I saw a man on fire and could only wonder what he might have been if his body were whole.  I understand now very well the frustration of wanting to do so much but being held in check by a disabled body.  One, perhaps small thing, after his return, I never saw his Armalite.  When I asked him about it, he grinned widely and said, “I expect it’s lying with a comrade on its left and another one on its right with a full clip, ready for action.  How he managed that I’ll never know, but he was a determined and resourceful man who pretty much did whatever he wanted.  Except to walk, of course.

The deaths of the ten hunger strikers in 1981 did something hard and permanent to him.  He was still our friend Red, of course, and he still had his considerable charm and spark of life, but there was new depth in him, a sadness, a seriousness, perhaps a bitterness, which had been lacking before.  There was no bottom to the pit of his hatred of Margaret Thatcher.   Those deaths were very personal to him, as if they were his own brothers.  I guess they were, at that.  I think it was no coincidence that he died two days after her. He couldn't make that final journey until he knew that she was safely dead and burning in a hell he didn't believe in. 



 One strange and very visible outcome of the death of the ten patriots was that he vowed never to cut any hair anywhere on his body until Éire was united and free.  He never  lost his hair and although I didn't see it, Fiona tells me that his once-red mane was a dirty grey and nearly to his waist and his beard was to his chest.  "A mess that birds could have nested in," in  her words.  And by the way, I asked her her maiden name.  She giggled and said, "Ellstrom.  Swedish."  So I guess you never know.  

The last time I saw him was in the mid-1990s, during my last trip to New York City, where he had moved for medical care.  We were both older and possibly wiser and had been through our separate wars.  He was very ill and the doctors told Fiona to prepare for his funeral. A priest, whom he promptly threw out, came to give him last rites.  He weakly sat up and started singing Finnegan’s Wake, a totally memorable occasion for me in a decade where I have lost most of my memory.  He grew stronger with each note and by the end, he was sitting up unaided.   He bellowed, OK, it wasn’t quite a bellow, but it was a strong request, a demand actually, for a full bottle of Kilbeggan.  Proof again that doctors only believe they are gods.

So how old was Red when he died?  That's anybody's guess.  I asked him once when he was born and got a bunch of silver-tongued malarkey about being born before the days when Mother Érun rose the land from beneath the seas.  At least I think it was malarkey…

He was a controversial figure, loud, brash, often violent (verbally only, though), bad tempered, smoking and drinking way too much.  Opinionated, rough, prejudiced, with a really wicked sense of humour.  But he was also as he would have put it, "damned, bloody, fuckin lovable. "   And magical.   There was something magical about the man.  The world is a bit less colourful with him gone.

I have taken a picture of Errigal and placed it in the heavens.  I think he is that greenish galaxy near the summit and believe I can see him throwing Maggie Thatcher off it, presumably to her eternal damnation.




Godspeed, Red, wherever you are.

NOTE:  If some of the names and events I've written about here are unknown to you, I suggest to google them. Irish history, both modern and ancient is fascinating.   Assuming you are reading this online where I published it, you have at your fingertips the sum total of the knowledge of humanity, almost all of it anyway.  I suggest you use it. Likewise with the lyrics to the songs. I believe all are easily available except "The Eyes Of Th IRA Are Upon You."

RELATED SONGS either mentioned or implied.  Many of these songs are IRA songs and the language will be offensive to some.  The ideas in them might be even more offensive to certain people.  Tough.  I believe in free expression.  And I support the cause of Irish freedom. 
  
There are many videos of these songs.  I have chosen ones Red would have liked.  I know he especially loved the Kennedy Memorial, singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."  This video of Finnegan's Wake has an introduction that sort of explains the song and is well worth listening to.







Fiona asked me to design a mural in his memory for a wall in their family room.  I had not intended this to be it, but she loves the picture, so there you have it.  I'll make an Irish Republican picture for another wall.  He deserves both.

And I know Queen Maeve is generally considered to be a blonde.  I have taken artistic licence and given her black hair;  I like the effect.




About the picture:  Queen Maeve and Mother Érin accompanied by St. Patrick in the shadow of Errigol, a tribute to a dear friend who fought the good fight for many years against all odds. I have no doubt Red is even now somewhere expounding upon the Communist Manifesto, his dear old Armalite slung over one shoulder and a banshee-screaming Maggie Thatcher slung over the other. A happier sight never before seen.  Queen Maeve deserves a faery relaxing on her cairn. The prototype for the Ladies is from a painting by Bottecelli

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