Her eyes were beautiful – I was only telling the truth

Dermot Healy once remarked that the people with the most beautiful eyes in the world often live by the ocean, which is certainly true for Belmullet

‘I never read as much of James Joyce’s work as I pretended to, and one night in bed a woman caught me out.’ Photograph: C Ruf/Archive Photos/Getty

‘I never read as much of James Joyce’s work as I pretended to, and one night in bed a woman caught me out.’ Photograph: C Ruf/Archive Photos/Getty


I was in a chip shop in Belmullet talking to a beautiful woman and it was almost midnight. Apart from the two men with white hats behind the counter shaking wire baskets of chips in the oil and slicing meat for a kebab, we were alone. And I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.

“Well,” she asked, “did you enjoy Belmullet?”

“I couldn’t be happier,” I said. “And you have beautiful eyes.”

“That’s a shocking thing to say to a stranger in a chip shop,” she said, and the conversation went no further. It was probably a mistake to be so forward, but I was only saying the truth. Dermot Healy once remarked that the people with the most beautiful eyes in the world often live by the ocean. Spending the weekend in Belmullet had convinced me that not only is Healy a great writer but that the people of Belmullet do have extraordinary eyes.

But I didn’t have time to invoke the writer’s name before the woman picked up her bag of sausages and chips and headed out the door.

Sometimes when I’m driving through the country I feel like I’m tripping over great writers at every turn. For example, John McGahern haunts the hedgerows in Leitrim, and I can never walk along the Erne without being reminded of Shan Bullock’s wonderful novels of 19th-century life on the Cavan-Fermanagh border.

Then there is James Joyce, who dominates Dublin. I know yesterday was Bloomsday, but I’m not fond of that great master. I had a problem with him growing up. I never read as much of his work as I pretended to, and one night in bed a woman caught me out.


Literary experience

She made a reference to the male member as being lethargic. I didn’t catch the reference and she knew instantly that I was not as au fait with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy as I claimed. I protested that I didn’t think sleeping with someone should be essentially a literary experience, but nonetheless we drifted apart within weeks.

I even had to look up “lethargy” in the dictionary at the time, because I felt it had been slung at me like an accusation. But I don’t think she meant it in a sexual way. She was referring to my emotional paralysis, a condition I suffered when I was threatened with intimacy and that was only relieved in adolescence by embracing images of various saints as I lay in bed at night. Which is why I spent my teenage years absorbed in private prayer rather than the works of James Joyce.

Had I gone to a posh secondary school such as Clongowes I might have read Ulysses more closely, although I did make a retreat in a Jesuit house in Offaly one time. There was a statue of St Ignatius leering at one end of the refectory where we got tea and biscuits at night. St Teresa of Avila stood at the other end, grimacing in an ecstasy that suggested she wasn’t a woman who could be accused of lethargy.

We were obliged to maintain silence on the retreat, although occasionally people exchanged brief whispers amid the clinking of the teacups and the munching of biscuits at supper time. One night I joked to a friend that I feared we ought not leave Teresa alone overnight with the leering Ignatius.

“Don’t be such a dickhead,” he muttered, clearly more intent on keeping retreat than I was.

“Dick” is not a word we used when we were young in Cavan. We thought it rather American. Our preference was for the more Beckettian “prick” to describe the masculine organ that preoccupied our teenage years.


Term of derision

“Prick” was also a common term of derision for other boys. For example, they called me the biggest prick in the class, not because they had measured my masculinity but because I was caught one day with rosary beads. That’s the kind of dick I was.

And I went to Confession every Saturday night with the same regularity as I polluted myself on every other night of the week; which raises another problematic word, because back then pollution referred to nocturnal emissions rather than carbon emissions. So I suppose I did share some of the preoccupations that made Joyce into a great writer. Although when it came to study I was definitely lethargic, and I always regret not reading Ulysses earlier in life. But I suppose I was far too absorbed with the girls on the school bus and the wonderful comfort I found in their eyes.

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