Those precious gifts we take for granted



My brother used to say that if New York was the equivalent of a free house full of teenagers whose parents had gone away for the weekend, then Boston was the decorous home of their grandparents.

The first time I visited New York the city was in the middle of a garbage strike; by the time I got there, rats were telephoning the sanitation department looking for some action on the litter problem. Mounds of rubbish smouldered by the subway; dry, restless faces loomed out of the smoke and stench. I was 19. It was the first time I’d been alone, the first stamp on my passport. I was terrified.

I left New York, and went to Boston with the promise of a bed in a town called Belmont. In school, we had boogied our way through The Merchant of Venice for our Leaving Certs. I could remember only two lines. One began: “In Belmont is a lady richly left . . . ” The other was Antonio telling his mate Bassanio that he was seriously cheesed off with life and was feeling so bleak and out of sorts that he had “much ado to know himself”.

This latter quote was a fairly accurate description of how I was feeling, skulking around Manhattan, trying not to trip over haughty poodles and their diamante-studded owners, and wondering why I wasn’t enjoying myself. But surely Belmont was an omen. Things were looking up.

Belmont was a dry town then. I don’t know if it still is; I never knew such places existed. A friend and I arrived there mid-afternoon, toxic New York clinging to our shoulder pads. We went looking for a beer and ended up in an ice-cream parlour.

I went from fearing New York to missing it in about the time it took the banana split to melt. And although our hostess was generous, the sidewalks pristine and the verges manicured, it wasn’t long before my friend and I got back on the grimy bus to Port Authority.

I’ve been back to Boston since. I like it; I like the elegance, the low rumble of old money. It is a dignified city, polite, cultured, cautious.

I was in a play in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about 20 years ago; afterwards, some blue-haired doyenne of the city offered us hospitality.

“Have you heard of cucumber?” she whispered, offering us a plate of delicately cut sandwiches, as if she was tempting a drove of savages to her table.

Belmont was fleetingly mentioned on the rolling news last week. It’s not too far from Watertown, where the younger Boston marathon bomber brother hid out in a boat in somebody’s backyard.

I watched footage of locals cheering after his arrest. I was surprised. I hadn’t expected that ferocity from Bostonians, though that’s naive of me. Their city had been attacked, their loved ones mutilated. A child had run out of the crowd of spectators to embrace his father; moments later, he was dead. The phrase “the finish line” had become eerily, sickeningly portentous.

I had been to a play that afternoon in Axis, an arts and community resource centre in Ballymun in Dublin, which is a fantastic venue staffed by warm, imaginative people.

It houses a theatre, rehearsal rooms, a dance studio, a recording studio, a gallery, various classes and a cafe, and hosts an eclectic range of local, national and international arts events and projects.

The next time you find yourself in the area looking for a rattan chair from a Swedish furniture chain, you could do worse than to ditch the meatballs and drop into Axis for a coffee and to peruse its programme.

The play was The Hijabi Monologues , a series of recollections and stories from Muslim women, which began in the US six years ago and had its inaugural European presentation in Ballymun. It includes stories from Irish Muslims.

It was the familiarity of the accounts of life beyond the hijab that was so striking. There was the overweight teenage girl who becomes pregnant by the first young man who shows her affection, before abandoning her to the waspish cruelty of her friends.

And the modest mother of four who experiences a wonderful freedom to embrace the sea when covered from head to toe in her sky-blue burqini.

And the student convert, washing her feet in a basin in the ladies’ loo before prayer, and encountering the tender curiosity of the college cleaning ladies.

One moving story from a Baghdadi teacher, now living in Ireland, resonated with me this week as I watched the unfurling of events in Boston. She told how, gradually, as civil war took hold in Baghdad, her life began to crumble, until finally her small teenage son was carried to her door, unable to walk or stand, having been brutally kicked and beaten by much older men for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She kisses the ground now, here in our damp country, every morning when she wakes. There are two gifts, she wrote, invisible until you lose them: peace and health.