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An Irish Valentine

Every male falls in love one time or another, and having gone through the experience once, thinks he is an expert on the subject. That proves he is an ignoramus. To speak at all knowledgeably, one must repeat the exercise a number of times. Take me. I've been falling in love all my life.

The first time was with Noreen O'Shea. Now there's a name my wife has never heard. She knows of my lifelong fascination with--damn, what's that film star's name, the one with the big brown eyes, Italian--how could I possibly forget her name? Not Gina. It'll come to me. Anyway, my wife chides me about her from time to time. Sometimes I think she's just a wee bit jealous. Now she'll have to cope with with another who captured my heart in the long, long ago.

Noreen never knew of my infatuation. She was a teenager who came dashing into my life when I was six going on seven. She used to drop in to see my mother after school. Somehow she had discovered mother had a reputation for reading tea leaves. Of course this was when tea was made with tea leaves, not the paper bags of dust that pass for tea nowadays. The patterns that the leaves left in a cup when the tea had been drunk were supposed to tell one's future and, as with any teenage girl, Noreen wanted to know what the future held for her, when and how she would meet her one true love, what dark stranger to beware of, and would she travel over the water to foreign lands.

Noreen would throw her overcoat on the parlour table before heading into the kitchen, and it was that coat that did it. Apparently young misses, forbidden the use of makeup or perfume in those far off days, contrived to spread a seductive aura around themselves by sprinkling a dusting of perfumed powder in their coat pockets. In that way they could truthfully say, "No, Reverend Mother, I am not wearing perfume."

That coat scented the parlour air, and I, the youngest of four boys, no girls, was smitten by it, and by extension with its wearer. I fell head over heels in love with Noreen, her coat, and her scent of perfume. I looked forward to her visits, and was sorry when she would leave. The one-sided affair ended when we moved house, moved towns, and the cruelty of parting nigh broke a young boy's heart.

But the young are resilient. And broken hearts mend. One day in my new town, boom, just like that, I was smitten for the second time.

The way home from school passed through the main shopping street. In that street there was a store, not just any store, but one filled with everything to to fill young and old with desire. For youngsters it had a year-round toy section, something which no other shop could boast of, and a candy counter with the most enticing array of sweets to make the taste buds of customers water at the sight. And presiding over that counter was a goddess, the first I had ever seen.

She was so lovely that each day after school I made straight for that store just to see her. I had no money for candy. In fact I didn't want any. Just the sight of the presiding goddess was all I wanted.

Eventually my emotions overcame my shyness, and I had to confide in someone.

"Mammy, come and see her! You must see her!"

Fortunately Mother treated my affliction with the seriousness it deserved. She didn't laugh. Her son had found the love of his life, and she respected his choice.

Next day she accompanied me to the store where I pointed to the object of my affection and blurted out "Isn't she lovely!"

My goddess and my Mother exchanged looks, and in the way of grown-ups exchanged grown-up understandings. Neither treated the affair with levity, and it wasn't until many years later that Mother teased me about it.

I had learned an invaluable lesson in that Woolworth's store in Sligo town--to love, without any expectation of return. That was when I was seven going on eight. I never even learned the name of the goddess.

The pattern had been set, and was to repeat itself throughout my growing-up years, teens, twenties, thirties, and it wasn't until I was married over thirty years that, finally and irrevocably, I woke to find myself totally, completely, without reservation of any kind, in love.

You've got to be kidding!

Nope. This was the real thing.

I'm grateful that I had all the other experiences, grateful to all the ladies who inspired feelings of admiration and infatuation, reciprocated or not. Any of them still living are now in their sixties, seventies or eighties, but I remember them as they were, the young girl in candle-lit sideface at a service in the Franciscan Friary at Rossnowlagh, the miss in brown slacks tripping along the sunlit street outside the railings of Trinity College, Dublin, the waif-like young cousin with the laughing eyes, on a pavement in London.

Now don't become maudlin!

Me? Maudlin? Without a single drop of the craythur passing my lips for the past three years! Bad scran to the doctors who forbade it. I wish the same on each and every one of them.

The day of revelation came for me when I awoke in the recovery room of the local heart institute following an operation to patch a hole in my heart, a hole that had been there since birth. As my eyes focused I saw true beauty for the very first time. She was sitting in a chair, watching, waiting, smiling. Of all the women who ever were, or may yet be, she personified beauty.

No, it wasn't a near death experience. No aura, of blue or any other hue, surrounded her. She was real, she was beautiful, and to my surprise then, and since, that beauty was, and is, the lady who is my wife, Betty. The planes of her face, the curve of her lips, and her crowning head of glory, all are unequalled in womankind.

Fate and good fortune have blessed me far beyond my realisation. Each day from that day onward I see what had hitherto been hidden. Until that day I saw but had not seen. Truth and beauty and goodness. And a loving mother of two beautiful daughters.

That's when I knew what love really was.

Now when I tell her she is the light of my eyes, the beat of my heart, the breath of my soul, there isn't the slightest trace of blarney in it. Neither is there any when I tell her that her voice to my ears is as soft as the tinkle of temple bells in the hush of an evening in the far Himalayas.

My tale is in no way unique. A staple of the concert platform in earlier times was the song which went:

At seventeen he falls in love quite madly with eyes of tender blue,
At twenty-four he's got it rather badly with eyes of a different hue;
At thirty-four you'll find him flirting sadly with three or four or more,
And when he thinks he's past love, it is then he finds his last love,
And he loves her as he's never loved before.
They knew a thing or two away back then.

There is a curious ambivalence displayed in the poetry of Ireland to female persons, viewed as objects of fiery passion, practitioners of piety, patriotic firebrands, or the very inculcation of innocence. Despite what may be perceived as echoes of Sir John Suckling's "The Constant Lover" in this tale of love extending over one man's lifetime, I have always attempted to uphold the canon laid forth in the following lines from a fourteenth century Irish poem attributed to Earl Gerald Fitzgerald:

Woe to him who decrieth women, fools are they who shun them;
all the evil said of them, I know they earned it never.
Gentle worded, deft of voice, a sect I cherish greatly; woe to
those who blameth them--woe to him who decrieth women.

Treachery and shameful deeds they do not, neither slaughter;
church and cell they pillage not--woe to him who decrieth women.
Never save from womankind, came king or bishop hither; no,
nor prophet, faultless found--woe to him who decrieth women.

Ancient, fattened, grey-haired men, as company they like not;
but (poor lad!) a lusty youth--woe to him who decrieth women.

Woe indeed!

The vanishing art of reading tea leaves has also been celebrated in poetry in Ireland, notably by the Belfast born Louis MacNeice (1907--1963), in his nine-verse poem "Prognosis", from which the following two verses are given:

Goodbye, Winter
The days are getting longer,
The tea-leaf in the teacup
Is herald of a stranger.

What will be his message --
War or work or marriage?
News as new as dawn
Or an old adage?

Now I recall the name. Sophia. Sophia Loren, she of the dark brown eyes. At last I am ready to meet even that test--I think.

And I still have the hole in my heart. Bad cess and bad scran to the surgeons.


St. Valentine's Day 2001

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