Friday, September 23, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt seventeen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

I got my first job in the summer of 1972, working as a boy assistant for Dunnes Stores in George’s Street in the centre of the city. I remember the year because it has a soundtrack. My immediate boss John – really just a nineteen-year-old trainee manager in a cheap pinstripe suit – lived three stops further up the 81 bus route from Crumlin into town. I had no choice but to sit beside him for the journey. He was a nice guy but he liked to sing on the bus. At the top of his voice. And he had one song, the one that had been playing over and over for months on Irish radio, Shel Silverstein’s ‘Sylvia’s Mother’. John would start low, as we went down Clogher Road. But by the time we got to Leonard’s Corner, he’d be sobbing in a Texas-Crumlin drawl: ‘Pulleeese Mississ Ay Vurry, I’ve just godda talk to err / Ah’ll owny keep errr a why-ill.’ He would do it every morning and every morning I would sit rigid with mortification. It was not just that people would think I was part of this shameless act. It was that this histrionic mishmash of Ireland and America was hideously uncool.

It is not quite as decorous as Proust’s madeleine, but John’s renditions of ‘Sylvia’s Mother’ came into my head twenty years later in February 1992 when the news broke that Ben Dunne, scion of the retail dynasty that owned and developed the Dunnes Stores chain of clothes and food shops that were a cornerstone of Irish modernity, had been arrested in Florida, charged with trafficking in cocaine. He had gone crazy in the Grand Cypress hotel in Orlando. There was something apt about this other mishmash of Irish history and expensive American hotels. Just as Annie Murphy’s last encounter with Eamonn Casey in the Grand Hyatt the previous summer had opened an aperture into one kind of Irish reality, Ben Dunne’s freak-out in the Grand Cypress lifted the lid on another.

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