First of all, I’d like to say how much I wish I had been recording this conversation I had with Liam, because I’m reconstructing his speech now & forgetting a lot of really delightful manners of speech, which really does no justice to his craft of storytelling. Context: following a Shell to Sea discussion, everyone relaxes with each other in a nearby pub. This was all taken down with frantic memory logging and absorbed conversation. I’m very pleased with myself for remembering so many of his facts & ‘yarns’ even with several hot whiskeys stirring about my brain.
I’m sitting at the end of a large group of people – spread laterally along a table, so I am not really near anyone I want to talk to or who isn’t already engaged in conversation. Then this 77 year-old man comes shuffling over, spilling his coffee into his saucer, and sits down next to me. First slips the spilt coffee back into his cup (timeworn gesture, probably spills a bit of every cup of coffee), then sets his drink down & looks up at me, obviously up to something: tremendous smile & sparkling eyes magnified behind coke bottle glasses. (I know “sparkling Irish eyes” is quite the cliche, but there’s no more accurate way of describing Liam’s eyes), and from the depths of his pea coat he pulls out this tiny dispenser and shakes a tiny bit of whatever is inside into his coffee.
“Do you know what that is? Coal sugar. Each particle has the sweetness of a spoonful of sugar; about 300 times as sweet as sugar. Carcinogenic, you know. Saccharin is anyway.”
Now that I look this up at home, he’s quite right Saccharin is a coal-tar derivative 300 times as sweet as sugar. I was rapt from the moment I realized he was coming to sit with me, anticipating the conversation. All he wanted was someone to talk to & the only thing I felt capable of was listening (not that he understood most of what I said when I did have any exciting interjection: “Whahuh?!”).
“Hope you don’t mind my asking, but does anyone in your family have a history of varicose veins?”
“Hmmm, I don’t think so, what I should be mainly concerned about is osteoporosis.”
“Oh, see you should have cheese, milk products, you know. Chocolate is good. Supplements. Anyway, my ancestors had varicose veins & I’ve cursed them my whole life, why they gave me veins instead of brains. Varicose veins may mean you have bad veins and good circulation, or it could mean you have poor circulation and good veins, for example. I nearly died not long ago, ulcers in my leg and my veins bursting. A hole in your leg, you know. The description I could give you over a meal! Ha – ha! I was in my kitchen and just happened to look down & see a puddle of blood in my sock, so I called my doctor, doesn’t live too far away, and he told me to elevate my leg and lay down. Of course I didn’t lay down, didn’t know if I’d get up, so in the few minutes it takes me to elevate my leg, I must’ve lost a few liters of blood. The doctor gets there shortly after, calls an ambulance – should’ve just done that meself – then they fix me up. Say it could happen again & you know it could kill me. The good part of this whole story is that it got rid of that bad vein ha – ha!”
“Speaking of blood, did ye know that Dracula was Irish in origin? Of course there is no other kind of folklore or Irish mythology that concerns vampires, but your man was Irish. Mostly they’re concerned with fairies that are as large as humans or larger. “Sheehogue” in Irish. A diminutive of “shee” in banshee, you’d know. Fairies would be “deenee shee”. You’d also be terrified of walking home at night on account of the evil donkeys, they’re talking donkeys.” (I wish I could remember the Irish word for this spirit; the kind of donkey he described.)
“Well there was a man, I’d say about 1846 during the famine, who was a Protestant landlord and demanded the blood of his tenants. Think of the gaunt, pale look of the famine. Also “Droch Ola” in Irish means bad blood and the latin word for dragon is “draco-onis”. The Romanian word for dragon is “dracul” and “draculea” means son of the dragon. Well, once they realized what he was doing, they had to hang him. At that time, Kings and such were buried standing up at the time, but in this case they buried him upside down, put a rock over his gravesite and then built a house above him so if he were to come back to life he’d have an awful time getting out. This is in Derry. I’ll tell you the story of a man I knew who was possessed, I swear to you. We all believed this not long ago.”
Insert long story, which I’ll paraphrased as such:
Young man and his two brothers have to walk home late at night from a dance. There’s a short way and a long way. “The interesting thing about the ‘long’ road is that it went by the name of,” (I forget the name) “which signifies that the road was built during Cromwell’s time, so you know that it’d have to be a straight-running road because they were build for cavalry. Anyway, so your man decides he’s not superstitious and takes the short way alone. At one point he sees glowing, red eyes which can be explained on account of the lighting in the forest. Well, no one knows what happened from there until he got home, but once home the dog of the house is going wild … Your man was to wake up at four am for the town fair and when his mother went to wake him, as all mothers of the time were up early, he seemed very unwell. They called a doctor and he said he had a fever, but then they thought to call the priest, who asked that all windows & doors be sealed & that the chimney be unblocked. The priest realized that the spirit occupying the body was actually that of a woman that had died in the area about a hundred years ago. She’s telling the priest all sorts of things about himself that only he knew, disturbed him very much, and commands the spirit out of the boy.”
– Insert a lot of talk of exorcism; black magic…
– My small contribution: the Master and Margarita which led to Faust, Mephistopheles, Dr. Woland, tangential literature & biographical information about Bulgakov…
– He gives me lots of references to Irish folklore (I don’t seem to remember or know anything, it was all names & titles & no expounding).
– He goes on a tangent, talking about opium and morphine (which he had to take for the ulcers) and the history of opium in India and its connection to the British, then the attempt by the British to introduce opium to China…
“Do you know, I can pick change up from the ground without bending down to get it. Do you believe me? Would you like to see how?”
He pulls out a collapsible, magnetic wand from his pea coat, drops a two-euro coin, extends the wand out and picks it up.
“I find a lot of money this way, it accumulates you know. It’s very bad luck to spend money you find, so I collect it all and give it to a children’s charity. Do you know that I can hold you still & you won’t be able to move with just a finger? I’ll show you.” He puts his finger out and presses between my eyes.
“Now, try to move. See, you can’t! Ha – ha!”
At this point I realize everyone has stopped their conversations and has been watching us interact with great amusement for who knows how long. Eugene and Chris get up and join our conversation. Liam asks Chris what he is here for (Chris is from Southampton & obviously not from Ireland) and Chris says that he does carpentry work building tree houses. Then Liam lights up and starts to talk about working as a welder. He pulls out a tiny pendant from his pea coat: a heart with a sort of box inside of it.
“Do you know what this is? I was walking out with a girl long ago and around Valentine’s Day I had the idea for this design. See the heart? What do you think that represents? St. Valentine, of course. And inside? What is that?”
“The cross of St. Bridget?”
“And so they’re united and that’s not all, there’s much more to their commonalities.”
– Lots of discussion of patron saints, etcetera. Suddenly we are talking about Irish nationalists & Irish MPs & imprisonment in Big Ben & especially these two Irish MPs from Tipperary & Kerry.
“Did you know that Washington and Theobald Wolf Tone were drinking buddies? Said Washington was an alcoholic. Loved the whiskey. Do you know of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington? He was a Dublin-born man, actually Irish, and when asked about being Irish his famous reply was ‘everything born in a stable is not a horse’!”
“I have been told that ‘Dublin’ is an Anglicized name, can you tell me the Irish name for ‘Dublin’?”
“Well the county is Baile Átha Cliath or black pool, and then Dubhlinn, dubh meaning black in Irish.”
Unfortunately the place is closing, so we’re all going home. I ask Eugene if Liam is really a human encyclopedia or how accurate he truly is.
“Oh, absolutely 100%. Liam doesn’t put up with nonsense and false information. He is a 77-year old guerilla. Wants to see radical change in the world – great inspiration.”
Liam comes out with a pilot’s cap on, ski gloves, very bundled up and grabs his bike. When he realizes I don’t have a way home, he says:
“Well there’s space on my handlebars ha-ha!”