St. Fiachra’s was not overly pushed about academic achievement. Other schools nearby pushed their students toward attending the best universities in the country. We were told we’d be lucky to attend one of the better universities on an oil rig.
Within this meagre orbit, I edged toward the top of the class. Not difficult, perhaps, if you share a classroom with Bartie Darkens - a boy who brought a beach ball to school with him every day for six months, a boy they just stopped calling in from lunch after a while. Even Trev Cassidy had to come in from lunch, and Trev Cassidy ate watch batteries. For three months at the end of fourth year, we sat in double Chemistry, and there would go Bartie, hurtling past the window, chasing crisp packets or blowing up that fucking beach ball down by the hockey pitches. These were my peers.
It strikes me that I was bad at cultivating allies. Felim Dundas was one such opportunity. He and I were fairly similar in several respects. While all around us ungodly brutes were sprouting beards, body odour, and baritone voices, we were bookish and slight, with little interest in sports. By 14 all puberty had gifted us was an Adam’s apple the size of a rugby ball and a voice like a rain-damaged trampoline. None of the body hair we’d grown thus far would have survived contact with a single, malevolent strip of Sellotape. Despite all this, we never really spent much time together until one day in 1999, which saw the end of us ever being friends.
We had been in double history. Mr. McCartney had told us to pick from a few different historical topics to write about as creatively as we could. Our writing could be historical, biographical, or totally fictionalized, so long as it wasn’t in essay-form. We began excitedly discussing our ideas. Caolan Dempsey was painting a watercolour of a death camp and Mickey Clark was doing a 10 minute play about Strongbow, set in 1920s Chicago. I knew little about either topic, but even I felt that they’d over-reached. Meanwhile, Conor and Moss Heap were writing reggae about Henry VIII and six separate boys were composing raps about the famine. 1
Amid this throng of inspiration, I became aware of Felim striding toward me. He squinted his eyes and, placing his hand on my forearm, he adopted the conspiratorial flair of an off-duty guard at a horse fair. He was hell-bent on doing a comic about Padraig Pearse, and asked me to pair up with him. Felim quickly explained the strengths of the idea: he’d been drawing Pearse for years so we could probably smash it out fairly quickly, with me writing and him doing the art. From his point of view, we could pay tribute to a great Irish hero and all I’d have to do is help him with the wording. It would also mean that we wouldn’t have to do a joint project with any of the other dumb-dumbs in the class. A resounding rubbery dolphin-squeak filled the room. As if in encouragement, Bartie Harkens was rubbing his beach ball across the window from outside. I immediately agreed.
We were to write it that night in Felim’s small, square house in Creggan. His family were proper Republicans - capital R - the type that are only about an inch away from sleeping on sandbags and brushing their teeth with holy water. To them, Padraig Pearse was a holy poet, a national icon and a martyr of uncommon valour. My family didn’t have commemorative plates of Padraig Pearse on their walls, I tried to explain. We had one plate on our wall for a while, but I think it was just celebrating a hundred years of the Blackpool Pleasure Beach. We’d kept it too close to the fryer and it went a bit yellow, so we took it down. By the time I’d finished saying all this Felim had left the room and returned with his notebooks.
Prior to this I hadn’t exactly been sold on Pearse. He seemed so pinch-faced and austere, a small, prissy man you might see on holiday ironing his ties in a tiny caravan on the Aran Islands. Even as a child I knew we wouldn’t have gotten along. Certainly not in the way he would have allegedly liked. (It should be noted that Felim had a particular dislike for me mentioning anything to do with Padraig Pearse kissing young boys. Looking back, my choice to repeatedly do so was a poor move on my part. This I can see now).
One thing that was clear from the notebooks, however, was that Pearse was undoubtedly the historical character Felim could draw best, unless you were to extend your definition of “historical” to include Alf, the affable, cat-eating, vaguely Jewish alien from the popular American sitcom of the same name. While Irish republican figures, flags, and emblems vastly outnumbered all the little Alfs he drew, there was a varied enough mixture of both to make those notebooks a lot more pleasingly surreal to thumb through.
Gradually we laid down the first sticky filaments of a story. We knew we wanted our comic to combine the historical savvy of a truly great biographical work, while also having the charm and pizazz of something more adventurous. At 14, we already saw ourselves as writers like Patrick O’Brian or James Clavell, only with bowl haircuts and Ellesse t-shirts. As our work pattern evolved, we moved away from slavish adherence to history and began speaking from the heart. I would suggest a panel and we’d talk through how best to frame it. Inch by inch we plodded forward and settled into a comfortable rhythm on his bedroom floor - both cross-legged and in silence, he drawing and me scribbling more nuggets of narrative gold. It crossed my mind that this was the sort of easy, co-operational spirit Van Morrison had dreamed of. Even the missteps were in their own way thrilling, particularly those points at which, with a weary sigh, we’d crumple some paper and throw it into bin from where we sat. It felt adult and exciting and dangerous to be writers. Struggling writers! We were proud when Felim’s mam called us for dinner and remarked on how messy the bedroom was. There were books open in all directions; papers, colouring pencils, and marker pens strewn everywhere you looked. Such was the artistic condition we reckoned. This was probably what Roddy Doyle’s gaff looked like, give or take a few pogs, or that sad army of stiff, roughened tennis socks under Felim’s bed.
We began to balance Felim’s preference for historical realism with my own taste for mild fantasy. I was cool so long as he didn’t make everything about the Brits, and he was happy if I kept references to paederasty to a minimum. I can see now that Felim had some valid concerns of his own about my contributions. It wasn’t that he wanted the whole thing to be a hagiography of the man per se. It was more that he didn’t think having Pearse getting trapped in a haunted house on the eve of the Easter Rising was necessarily the right direction to take. We compromised and moved toward finishing what we had in a timely manner, but I did begin to notice that what had once been a pamphlet had really quite recklessly expanded. Felim was in the grip of a fervent passion for his art and it seemed each time I looked up, there would be another new draft and another new dispute. Things came to a head when I looked up and found that the comic was now 16 pages long with 2 appendices. It had subplots and dream sequences. To make matters worse, I’d only narrowly vetoed a musical number earlier, so in the spirit of compromise I had to allow for the bewildering graphs and charts he’d added to page 6.
This was not the direction I’d anticipated for our project. We began to lash out at each other. Our teenage vocal chords were not ready for the onslaught. The volume increased and our sorry throats yelped and twanged, reducing us to undignified yodeling. I called him an artless hack. He called me a West Brit prick. I can’t remember who threw the first pencil, but it was I who began tearing pages strip-by-strip from the cardboard-lined pad he had filled with drawings. If we both had to start our stories from scratch, I didn’t care. This was a matter of principle. We hoarsely rasped insults and redoubled ripping and tearing every piece of paper in sight, showering ourselves in poorly daubed, historically-suspect confetti. When I eventually stormed out, I left the philistine alone in his nest of shreds, glowering from its centre like a massive Republican hamster.
Upon my arrival at school the next day, I saw Felim sitting near the front, awaiting his turn to address the class. He squeezed a weak, smug smile from his lips. I was just thinking how cool and collected this was on his part, when he almost immediately started giving me the finger. I glanced at the bulky ream of papers in the manila folder he was holding. Even from where I was sitting I clocked the bumpy, rag-tag shape of it, and the bags under his eyes suggesting he hadn’t slept. A knot grew in my belly as it became clear he’d painstakingly pulled the entire saga together, gathering all the scraps like a madman into one absurd patchwork of bits, the whole thing lumpy from revisions, shiny with Sellotape.
He’d even gone so far as to remove my contributions, tippexing over them with his own, and had the genius to represent its shoddy, patchwork appearance as a feature not a bug. This was, he said, all the result of this hallowed historical document, being trafficked and manhandled as samizdat for the guts of a century. Everyone stood up when he presented it, students and teachers alike, all oohing and aahing in a tight circle, like when Gary Butler found that dead bird and we all took turns poking it with a stick. And although the name did prove distasteful to many, Padraig Pearse & The Curse of the Gypsy’s Tears, it was clearly a huge success. A success I’d had no part in. I’d been brought low by my own lust for control, I’d tasted the bitter fruit of a writer’s life, and it would be some time before I wrote again.
The day wasn’t a total bust. I learned a lot about myself and, in fairness, my rap about the famine was generally well received. Felim and I did patch things up, but we lost touch after school. I eventually did go on to college, and though I did write again, I turned down the chance to write a foreword to Mad About The Boy, a warmly reviewed anthology of Pearse’s poetry. None of the old gang have heard from Felim in a few years, although Izzy Moynan said she’d been told he was now a tattoo artist in Bangor. She said she’d never forget the RA head who told her that Felim was the best inker in the business - all across his chest, the most gorgeous full-colour Alf he’d ever seen.