The West was published in 1990, not long after I had emigrated from Ireland to the US. It received very good reviews and stories from the collection were republished in a variety of anthologies worldwide. The West is available as a Kindle book now and below is a story from the collection.
Sounds from the town seeped through the tall Monastery windows and mingled with the Hail Mary. The whine of the sawmill, milk churns rattling home from the creamery. Horse carts creaking. Motor cars honking, people hailing each other. An assurance that there was another world out there after school. Some day, the Monastery would only be a memory. But now we were having a prayer break with Brother Mahon.
Back at class he resumes the tirade, prancing around the room like Groucho Marx. Mahoney hears the little rattle as he passes and writes TABLETS on the cover of his grammar book. I make a check mark with my finger: Brother was back on the tablets alright, it was written all over the Monastery.
“The trouble with ye is that ye don’t want to learn,” he fumed. “Now it isn’t the lack of brains that’s effectin’ ye... and I’m sayin’ that in plain English so that ye’ll understand me...no...ye have brains alright...but ye’re as lazy as Sin.”
He halted behind the table and waved a bundle of homework copies like a tomahawk. He glared at us and asked,
“Have ye any shame?”
Then he closed his eyes and leaned forward on his tip-toes. A smile ran around the class.
“Alright,” he whispered, dropping the bundle of blue copy books on the table with a dull thud. “Alright. Now a simple three-page composition called ‘What I Can See from My Front Door’ is not a lot to ask twenty hardy young fifteen-year-old fellows to do...I was making it easy for ye.” He paused and his eyes shot open.
“But such...such utter trash,” he wailed. “Such utter filth...I have never read in my entire life. Stop grinning Horan! I’ll wipe that leer from your puss when your turn comes and you can be sure of that my boy!”
Brother Mahon could go any way with the tablets. Sometimes he jumped over desks three at a time, kicked our school bags and glared at us like he said God would on the Last Day. Other times he could be great fun and tell us stories about the world and how happy he was to be a monk. One day he played the whistle in class and we sang rebel songs, but that only happened once. It was hard to tell how the dice might roll with the tablets. But things were looking grey today.
Today he had no hope for us. He said we had nothing to look forward to but an Bád Bán--the emigration boat. We were born to emigrate, he said it was in our blood. We were not worth educating--sons of small farmers and publicans, we were the flotsam left behind by the tide. His eyes closed slowly and he beckoned us to stand. Another Hail Mary for Our Lady smiling in the corner.
Brother Mahon rapped the copy books against the table.
“I have a few right gems here. First, O’Loughlin’s. Where is O’Loughlin?”
“O’Loughlin...what in Hell’s Blue Blazes are you doing sitting in Friel’s desk?”
“Brother O’Brien put me here.”
“Am I Brother O’Brien? Am I? Is this Brother O’Brien’s class? Come up here near me! And stay in your own sty in future!”
O’Loughlin moved like a defendant crossing the courtroom.
“Now,” began Brother Mahon, “we all know that Master O’Loughlin is descended from a great line of bards. His family were once Chief Bards to the Earl of Killty.” The eyes closed slowly. “But that was a long time ago. Now O’Loughlin...tell us where you live.”
“Now O’Loughlin, if you live in Castletown, how in the name of God and his Blessed Mother can you see the Aran Islands from your front door? And before you answer, spell Island?”
“Dooney. Spell Island for your cousin.”
“Now O’Loughlin. Remember that...you glugger head. But now, tell us how you can see Aran from your front door.”
“I was just using my imagination,” he muttered.
“Well don’t bother to use your imagination...use your brains instead. Sit down and give me peace.”
He made exceptions for O’Loughlin who had an uncle in the order. O’Loughlin was timid. But not so his cousin Fanta Dooney.
“Dooney did you write this?”
“I did brother.”
“Are you sure you didn’t get a bit of help from someone.”
“No brother --I mean yes brother.”
“Which is it?”
“I did it myself brother.”
“Hand me up a copy without paw marks the next time.”
Coyne was nibbling paper when his turn came.
“Coyne you fathead!” bellowed the monk. “ Stop chewing the cud like a good bullock.”
Coyne was a nervous wreck and fidgeted with the piece of paper he had been nibbling. A white envelope with a note from his mother which he handed to the monk.
“What it it this time?” he mocked. “Ye ran out of candles? Or have you given me that excuse already?”
Brother Mahon knew that Dada Coyne drank the creamery check every month and was more often in court than most lawyers. Willie could only muster up a half page about a view that was part of a nightmare. Brother Mahon read the note, closed his eyes and whispered--
“Take this copy back and have a full page for me by Friday.”
He beckoned us to rise for another prayer.
A few copies skimmed through the air, nothing of great substance, fair attempts conceded the monk. Then there was Murphy’s. Waving Murphy’s copy, he glanced around the room. Murphy had switched seats and was now sitting at Clancy’s desk.
“Murphy! Yes you! Get back to your own stable. What in the name of God are you doing in Clancy’s seat?”
He didn’t answer, just flashed a grin and zipped back to his own perch. Murphy was world-wise, smoked Woodbines, drank beer, backed horses and played poker. For him school was a place to pass adolescence, punch in time between summers and getting wiser in the ways of the outside world. He had run away from three boarding schools before joining our team, a high-risk pupil, even though he was the sergeant’s son. He had the finest of vistas from his front door-- his house looked down on the town and the strand. But he ignored it all and wrote about the Monastery instead. Brother Mahon cleared his throat and read in a mocking voice:
“The Monastery was built in 1829 by a band of monks from Dublin. It has very big gardens and one time the monks used to make cider which they sold. The monastery is across the road from the dancehall...”
He shook his head.
“I was waiting for him to tell me that the band of monks played in the dancehall. Trash! Murphy, what in the name of God has any of this tripe to do with anything?”
Murphy shrugged and smiled as if saying--life’s like that. A nervous titter escaped from the back bench and Kerrigan was ordered to stand at the head of the room and face the statue of Our Lady.
“It’s the likes of you Kerrigan who encourage Murphy to dish up this tripe. And I wouldn’t mind... but nowhere does he mention the name of the monastery-- Murphy... stand up. What is the name of this school?”
“Saint...ahmm the Monastery.”
The monk looked at us, his jury, and shook his head.
“Saint Patrick’s!” he howled, arching his back like a cat. “But what does it matter to you? Your father’ll find your way into some job. Sit down you clown.”
Malone’s copy fell apart as it sailed over our heads, cover departing from body. Mine was next, then Friel’s, then Horan’s.
“Horan come up here to me. Do you hear me? Come up!”
Horan edged to the head of the room and the monk withdrew the black leather cosh from his robe.
“Out with it.”
Horan’s hand trembled and the monk lashed it six times, becoming more demonic with every stroke. His eyes were blazing and his head and neck glowed when he turned around.
“Horan,” he panted, “handed me up a yarn about a football match. It had nothing to do with his front door, he titled it ‘A day I will always remember.’”
The taste of blood put Brother Mahon into another world. The animal in him was roused and he became a schoolboy’s nightmare. His nostrils flared and he looked possessed, satanic. The voice got shriller and he strutted around the room pelting abuse at us. We were failures, and if we were the best our parents could produce, then God help Ireland. But while we were in class we would pay attention to him and do the correct homework, not like Horan.
He rummaged through the copies. He was frantic and scattered them all over the table until he pulled Kerrigan's from the chaos.
“Where are you Kerrigan?”
“Behind you brother.”
“Well stand over here where we can see you...and don’t always be looking like a moon calf. Kerrigan--what is the meaning of this drivel? Where do you live?”
“Boland’s Lane what?”
“Boland’s Lane, brother.”
“Alright. And have you anything else to write about but a... a tinkers’ brawl? Hah? How dare you hand me up this... this drivel about two families of tinkers murdering each other!”
“That’s all I could think of...we had Yanks home from Boston...”
“Shut up you lout and come here to me!”
Brother Mahon gaffed him by the ear and lifted him like a piece of meat. Kerrigan pleaded--
“Now listen to this all of ye! Kerrigan is the type of fool who is a cute fool. When he leaves here in a couple of years what will he do? Like his father before him, his first port of call will be the dole office. Then he’ll put his feet up, warm his toes to the fire and wait for Wednesday--dole day. Alright...he’ll get married, get a council house, free milk and shoes. His wife will give him a child every year and when they’re crying for attention, our hero will be down the town --strapping pints of porter or holding up Coleman’s Corner with his broad back, passing smart remarks to other cute fools like himself. Alright?”
Kerrigan wept and wriggled with rage. He staggered loose with a scream and Brother Mahon jumped away from him.
“Go back to your hovel Kerrigan.”
The class was battered, beaten and humiliated. The monk closed his eyes slowly and whispered that we could always pray. Prayer could move mountains and even get us to heaven--if we were lucky. But we were too lazy to pray, he said softly. And everything began with prayer. If we didn’t pray right, then nothing could be right.
From there he wandered off to the foreign missions and explained the great work monks were doing harvesting souls in darkest Africa. He wondered aloud if any of us would like take up the work. But our heros were not in the black cloth. Anyway, seams of outside world had already permeated the class. Cigarette smoking was rife, swearing was commonplace and girls came up in conversation--there were few vocations here.
A cloud came over his brow when he picked the last blue copy book from the table: the Main Feature.
“Stand up Gregory McNamara and face the class. Now McNamara, I know all your brothers and those who went before them, but you are the worst of the brood, you great big jackass. What in the name of God do you mean by handing me up a shovel of dung like this for my breakfast? What?” His eyes darted from pupil to copy.
“A simple essay that a nine-year-old child in the heart of London could write...and a fifteen-year-old sutach from Ballyglan can only come up with this...this manure.“
McNamara was doomed for the back streets of Soho like his brothers before him, Brother Mahon told us. Bound for sleaze and slaughter. Not even a flicker of hope for him.
“Stand to attention McNamara and face me...and before we start...the next time you hand me up a copy, give me one without the butter and jam...spare the butter and jam for your lunch. Alright? Alright, to begin at the beginning:
‘It was only early yesterday morning that I was wondering what kind of view we would have if we had a front door to our house. We have only a back door to the kitchen...’ Alright? So far, so good... but listen to this...‘Our house faces north..’ spelled n-o-r-d...‘in the direction of Russia where Napoleon was born.’ His voice trailed off in horror.
“I’ll read that again, just in case ye didn’t hear it...’in the direction of Russia where Napoleon was born...’ and listen to what comes next...’The great monk Rasputin was Napoleon’s son and a neighbor of my grandmothers knew Rasputin.’”
A red flag to a bull. Brother Mahon was aghast. He closed the eyes and seemed to be praying for patience, or the school bell or maybe a tablet.
“That’s true,” bungled McNamara. “Oh God...my grandmother told me that.”
“You bloody bogman!” bellowed Brother Mahon, tears in his eyes. “You Heretic! How dare you insist that Napoleon was born in Russia...or that he sired Rasputin.”
McNamara blushed and looked towards the Blessed Virgin. The monk was breathing heavily, his knobbly fists clenched white.
“And on top of all that heresy, McNamara drops this bombshell on me...‘they make great vodka in Russia.’ They make great vodka in Russia! What in the name of God and his Blessed Mother has all or any of this to do with the great view you have from the front door ye don’t have? Answer me McNamara you ass!”
McNamara awkwardly shifted his weight from foot to foot and stared at his desk. Brother Mahon was tortured. Mention of drink, Rasputin and red Russia in the same page was the height of treason. He dabbed the beads of sweat from his brow.
“ANSWER ME!” he screamed, stamping his foot.
“I was stuck for something to say,” McNamara said suddenly--hoping to stonewall the charging monk.
Gregory ducked Brother Mahon’s fist and slid under the desk like an eel. The monk ordered him to stand by the wall, firing in threats of expulsion and terms in hell. He moved in on his prey and lashed out his boot as McNamara darted beneath the desks. We scattered out of their way and grouped at the head of the class room.
“Jaysuz lads,” whispered Murrihy, “but this is serious.”
“Come out of it McNamara! Out!” roared Brother Mahon, kicking over school bags and thumping desks.
“Come out of it and get up to the Superior you pagan!”
He flushed McNamara from cover and lunged at him with a primeval groan. Suddenly, alarm flashed across Brother Mahon’s face. We saw him stagger, then tumble heavily on the floor, brought down by Murphy's schoolbag. The door banged and McNamara was home. The monk was robbed of the kill.
Brother Mahon struggled to his feet and dusted himself. He stared at us, and looked bewildered, as if he had just fallen through the roof.
“What are ye doing standing there like a flock of sheep?” he demanded, “Go back to your seats! Quickly!”
We were only sitting down when he ordered us to stand and face the statue of the Blessed Virgin.
“We are now going to offer up a decade of the rosary for those in need,” he said quietly, eyes closing slowly.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” began Brother Mahon, tears rolling down his face.