An Irishman's Diary

 

Kerouac's grave was missing. We'd come to the Edson Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts, after nightfall, having lost track of a swift day. But there was no trace of his headstone.

Had Jack decided to take his plot back on the road? In awful dark, the car's clear headlights were now needed to find the writer's grave. And suddenly, there it was: headstone flush with the ground, bearing a devotee's folded paper note under a rock. Jack Kerouac's grave.

This grave was the sole purpose of the trip but we lost daylight to Lowell's underdog charm. Born in that Massachusetts town in 1922, Kerouac died 47-and-a-half years later in Florida. Best-known for writing On The Road (1957) he was fulcrum of the beatnik group that also included his friends Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lucien Carr. Free-spirited drinkers, they raced cars across the US and into the emerging 1960s counterculture. But Kerouac grew suspicious of the cult they spawned. In Big Sur (1962) written in the thick of his beatnik fame, he describes his hatred for the process by which star-struck strangers come up to him wanting to "hang out" as per his books and begging him to "be" the wild Jack Kerouac recorded in them. Describing himself as a "strange, solitary, Catholic mystic", he had a rich etymology for the word beatnik: while it was beat as in deadbeat, it was also beat as in the patterns of the jazz music he loved.

Most of all, however, it was beat as in beatific.

Beat-up is an appropriate term for Kerouac's hometown, a former centre of linen milling on the banks of the Merrimack river. That morning, in Mystic in Connecticut, we had nosed a hired SUV on to Interstate 95 and driven to Lowell, just 30 minutes beyond Boston. Ditching the detested vehicle in the first available car park, we found a place of disused red-brick factory chimneys poking up from tram-scarred streets. A stroll by the canal led straight to the city's Irish history: a fact plate explains the Irish were in Lowell way before our potatoes started to rot in the ground. In 1831, an estimated 500 Irish families lived in what were called the Paddy Fields.

Alongside New London, New Bedford and New York, this region was soon called New Dublin and then, finally, the Acre. These first industrial mills rejected the Irish as employees - they were deemed more useful digging the canals that turned the millwheels.

This emigrant backdrop may explain why numerous Irish names decorate Kerouac's work and life - the great Maggie Cassidy novel and the character of Dean Moriarty (based on his pal, Neal Cassady) for instance. Cassidy is a name connected with Ulster, itself once a hive of weaving. It's tempting to connect the cloth-making Cassidys there with those in Kerouac's hometown. Despite the vagaries of his travels, London was the closest Kerouac's peregrinations took him to Ireland.

The early milling industry of his town avoided the worst excesses of industrial England. Damn the dark Satanic mills; these were bright angelic ones. Even Charles Dickens was impressed by work conditions he observed in Lowell and, by 1886, there were around 100 cotton mill buildings.

Meanwhile, the Lowell Irish fattened from a pre-famine 500 families to around 10,000 by 1855, representing over a quarter of the city's 37,000 residents. Having dug the canals, they even started to get work in the mills. But the industry failed to invest and there was competition from the south. The number of workers dwindled - there were fewer loom-fixers and smash-piecers; fewer sweepers, battery boys, oilers, changeover men and scrubbers. Together with the fantastically named twisters, dropwire girls and second hands, they were no longer needed. In 1954, the vast Boott Mill was the last to shut. Today it's a museum. For the visitor, the flick of a button sets in motion a vast factory floor of surviving looms.

Through the industrial racket leap the ghosts of the twister, the dropwire girls and the sweepers.

But we'd come for signs of Kerouac. In the Mogan Cultural Center, there is a display case containing his core relics: his Underwood typewriter, his ever-ready backpack, his bottle-opener and a needle-and-thread kit (he did hail, after all, from a weaving town). Then we caught the Lowell Blues film in the National Historic Park Visitor Centre, soundtrack laced with his poetic words. And some time was spent transfixed in the Old Worthen bar in which Jack liked to quench his thirst. The bar sign bears a beer glass with an ebony bird perched on its rim - for this is also where Edgar Allan Poe supposedly composed The Raven. Inside: blue-collar workers drinking blueberry lager. Outside: Kerouac and the belief that hanging around on street corners is power.

In Bridge Street, there was more evidence of commemoration - Kerouac Park features a series of purple marble plinths engraved with the first paragraphs of various of his novels: Dr Sax, Maggie Cassidy, The Book of Dreams, The Town and the City, and On The Road. But dark was falling and Jack would probably be sloping into his bar.

The trip was nearly through and there was just one thing left to do: a flustered couple forced the hated SUV along a road that lurched toward Edson Cemetery on Lowell's outskirts. Through golden trees and industrial rust, we went to find and pay tribute at Kerouac's final resting place among the graveyard's dead leaves.