A wonderful new voice.Joseph O’Neill

Rickard Velily’s first job in New York was as a reporter for a small local newspaper. He did not stay long in the job because it was apparent that the other people who worked in the newspaper were doing so as a sort of retirement project. He felt guilty spending time with them when, after all, he had fled his elderly parents in Ireland. The stories the newspaper wanted him to investigate seemed designed to frighten him off New York. In his first week he was asked to write about the city’s wild shih-tzu population. It was said that a person was never more than twenty feet away from a shih-tzu in New York. A small number of these shih-tzus were the creatures that looked like paper lanterns that were jogged around on the ends of leashes but most shih-tzus in New York were wild creatures with orange in their beards that lived in pipes under the street. Rickard could not find evidence to prove that any of this was true. The proprietor of the paper was a billionaire’s widow who involved herself in its newsroom affairs because she felt she owed something to society. She had come to New York as a child during the golden and only age of airship travel and she had an ambition to bring back this method of travel. Somebody put it to her that the gases that had been used in airships were dangerous. She said she would not use combustible gases in her airships but normal air filtered of the heavier pollen released by genetically modified crops and urban tree cultivars. Before she had a chance to rope Rickard in in some way on this folly or on some other aspect of her life he was gone.

Now he was idle and, thinking of things he could do to occupy himself, he settled on trying to realise a recent and half-baked ambition to become a singer. Lately he had discovered he had not only a certain unrefined talent for singing but a repertoire of songs within him that he had not known was there. All of this emerged on his last night in Dublin when his parents put on the traditional emigrant’s wake. This had been an unexpected move on their part because his father did not have much of an attachment to Irish traditions and his mother had a learning disability. To the last minute they misunderstood why he was leaving for America. They thought it might have been because he was angry over his sweetheart. He was angry over his sweetheart, it was true, but people do not move away from the sources of their anger unless they have been told to do so by a counsellor or a court. No, he left for America mainly because of his parents: he had been an only child and he did not want to have to care for them and he could not suffer to see them decline. About his absence from their lives, he hoped that they would remain healthy enough to care for one another to the end of their days, and that they would die more or less simultaneously. He comforted himself with the thought that they had good neighbours and many relatives, and that he was not, in any event, very entertaining company for them.

He did not like to think about his parents now because thinking about them, and how they had driven their son to the brink of suicide and ultimately America, made him feel like a tragic cabbage-scented character in an Irish rural drama. But happily there was another reason for leaving Ireland that he could dwell on, and this reason was wholly of the modern world.

Quite suddenly Rickard had come to loathe the tasks being asked of him.. to leave his position he had to leave the company, and the only good reason he could give for leaving the company was that he wanted to leave the country.”

In the end, leaving his parents in Dublin had proven not as difficult as leaving his job in Dublin. The company that Rickard had worked for in Dublin was called Verbiage. It specialised in “the mining and re-purposing of online text”. Only two people had worked for Verbiage – he had been the familiar of a man who looked after all the computer and technological aspects of the job. Quite suddenly Rickard had come to loathe the tasks being asked of him, and the feeling would not let go. There had been no possible way to move sideways within the company with just the two of them working there, and so to leave his position he had to leave the company, and the only good reason he could give for leaving the company was that he wanted to leave the country, “to explore new horizons”, et cetera. His boss was upset to hear this, and tried to convince Rickard to stay. He asked him wasn’t he a little old to be starting a new life abroad, alone, which only hardened Rickard’s resolve all the more, and not because he wanted to prove that he was young (which he proudly was not; he was forty-one), but because he felt that his boss (who was twenty-six) was being ageist, and he wanted to show that a forty-one-year-old was just as capable of starting again, abroad, alone, as a young person was. His boss, again and again, and finally (with his face in his hands), said that Rickard was irreplaceable, and that he would be admired and appreciated in time. “But this is just the problem,” Rickard did not say. At the end of the exchange Rickard realised that he had committed himself to leaving the country, and that the unpleasant sensation he now had (with eyes closed) was one of floating in or falling through space, his insides pressing against him in all sorts of new ways, and that he was about to be reborn. He put his hands to his face just as his boss had done, cried with him, felt his face become hot and wet, opened his hands, and enjoyed the fanning of circulated air.

Alone, again, abroad, in his accommodation in New York, he understood that one of the reasons he had left his newspaper job in New York was that he was worried it might have taken a similar turn to his job in Dublin. The pattern would have gone something like this: he would recognise a sarcastic and assertive tone in his voice, and he would only have to find this tone once, as surely he would, because it was easy to be sarcastic and assertive in writing, and it was not so much that he would hit on this tone as slip down into it, and he would find it fun to express himself in this way for a while. And his editor, and the billionaire’s widow, would see something of value in it, and before long he would be asked to condemn seven or eight different people, cakes, films or pieces of street furniture a week. The seven or eight different subjects would be his to choose, but he would discover that it was hard to come up with things to have an opinion about every week: he was simply not opinionated about enough things. Once he had decided on what he would be opinionated about, however, the words of opinion would come easily. And then he would become nauseated by his false disgust or disapproval or cynicism, and every time his actual bile would rise at this false bile in print he would look at his byline photograph, which would capture nothing of the real contours of his head. He would hate this person, and this person would have hated him if he had existed. He believed these phenomena – graphics, with lives behind them – were sometimes known as ‘avatars’.

* * *

He had dreaded the prospect of the emigrant’s wake. He feared it would be awkward, a big ritual, all dry mouths and hesitant gestures. It was in fact a lively and easy occasion: eighteen of his mother’s surviving siblings turned up, and he had forgotten what good sport they could be when they were all together. Early on a guitar and an accordion were produced, and a cousin cleared the lid of the piano of boxes, and by the small hours the blue-painted wall in the living room, which was the inside of a cold gable wall that faced the sea, was damp with condensation. They were all in their turn called on by one of the more socially confident neighbours to sing a song. When it came around to Rickard he sang the music-hall standard ‘Come Off It, Eileen’. It was not an imaginative choice but it was said to him that night that no one in their life had heard a better version sung. He went on to sing, to everyone’s astonishment including his own, selections, some obscure, from the songbooks of Challoner, French, Ffrench, Balfe and Moore. He was told that he had great volume and vibrato, which he understood to mean that his voice wobbled to pleasing effect. These were certainly things he was aware of as he was singing, although he may have been helped on the night by the acoustic qualities of the corner into which he sang.

The cover was green and sticky and embossed with shamrocks, harps and gold lettering, and a reassuring beeswax-like smell rose up with the purr of the pages.”

The next morning, feeling sorer of head than he would have wanted before a long flight to America, he was presented with a 1908 edition of Chauncey Challoner’s Airs of Erin of 1808. His father said he had been inspired to root it out after Rickard’s performance the night before. He described it as a sacred ‘codex’, which Rickard thought was a strange word, suggestive of future or futuristic technology, for this repository of songs gathered in long-gone romantic days of muzzle-loading firearms and symbolic bitterns. The cover was green and sticky and embossed with shamrocks, harps and gold lettering, and a reassuring beeswax-like smell rose up with the purr of the pages. Every few pages a colour plate or a title would cause him to pause and realise that he should not have been surprised to know such essentially Irish songs as ‘O Truncated Tower’, ‘The Clover and the Cockade’, ‘Wigs on the Green’, ‘Dempsey of Dunamase’ and ‘The Order of the Emerald’ (in school they used deliberately to mishear it as ‘The Ordure of the Emerald’). Other titles – ‘The Snow-flake on Art’s Greying Lip’, ‘My Grand-father’s Fighting Stick’ – were not known to him but were enough to evoke a world.

Afterwards his father attempted to impart some wisdom to him before his leaving. He began by mumbling unintelligibly in Irish as if scanning his stock of the language for a pithy phrase. This was another surprise, as although his father was a speaker of Irish he hated it because he had had it beaten into him by religious brothers who had also beaten ambidexterity into him.

Switching back to English his father said, “You must know at least one phrase of the Irish language. If you are on public transport and you see a black person and feel the need to talk about them to someone else for whatever reason, do not refer to them as a black person but as a dinna gurrum.”

Then his father got on to what he really wanted to say:

“New York is a tough city and it would be easy for a man to fall on hard times. Don’t let this happen to you, son. Fortunately for you, there is an institution in that place where you will always be welcome.”

His father of course was referring to the Cha Bum Kun Club, of which he was a long-standing member. It had clubhouses in all the major cities of the world, plus Thule, Greenland; Puerto Williams, Chile; Leverkusen, Germany; and Ceduna, South Australia; and several clubhouses in remote locations through the Korean peninsula and islands.

His father gave him a shining leather tie box.

“I went to Rostrevor Terrace yesterday and finally got this off the President. These are not handed out at random. Only one scion per cell every six years is allowed to possess a tie. They had been considering my application for weeks. I am so relieved to present this to you. You will never go hungry or homeless with one of these. If you wear it to the New York clubhouse you will be given a room and a stipend until you are capable of supporting yourself. But you must wear it in the special way.”

The tie’s design was of left-to-right-slanting blue, orange and cream stripes. Overlying the field of stripes, at the thickest part of the tie, was the black, white, blue and red Cha Bum Kun roundel, and below the roundel a white box inside which were stitched, in blue, the characters “< V.V.”: V.V. being Rickard’s father’s initials and < signifying ‘less than’.

His father showed him how to tie the knot in the special extremely tight manner, so that the knot looked less like a knot than a hard seamless node.

“The trick is to pull and pull until your hands burn,” he said. “Put your back against a wall if it helps.”

Extracted from Chapter 1 of Green Glowing Skull.


Gavin_Corbett_290Gavin Corbett was born in the west of Ireland and grew up in Dublin, where he studied History at Trinity College. Green Glowing Skull is published in hardback, eBook and digital audio by Fourth Estate. Read more.

Author portrait © Rich Gilligan


Read Gavin’s essay on adapting to Irish-America and finding inspiration in the life and legacy of Irish tenor John McCormack.