Memories of an Irishman


John Carroll – or Seamus, as he was known – was an Irishman who used to call Cape Talk when I was on air.

He would say such politically incorrect things that he made for riveting radio.

He would bring flowers, home-made trail mix and interesting books and leave them at the front desk for me.

A telephonic friendship of a kind grew. One night my friend Kate and I went to visit him. He was the greenkeeper and Security Manager of a Golf Club in Cape Town.

He was impeccably dressed in his whites, often changing several times during a day. He claimed to hate golf but was conceived somewhere on a golf course, he said.

He had an immense family who had immigrated to South Africa from Ireland, that land filled with enchantment and as narrow as a pig’s back.

They would come over on Christmas day and drink and sing Irish songs. Then they would recite the legend of Amergin – the first poem ever to have come out of Ireland. Perhaps it is the first poetry to have come out of Northern Europe.

“Amergin” is the word as it has been written in English, but the actual spelling of this name is “Amhairghin”. It means “Birth of Song”.

According to legend, Amhairghin was one of the leaders of the “Men of Míl”, who battled the Tuatha Dé Danann (or the Faery Clan) for possession of Ireland.

As he set his right foot upon Ireland, Amairgen Glúngel son of Míl recited this poem:

I am the wind that breathes over the sea

I am a wave of the ocean

I am the murmur of the wave

I am the great ox of the seven combats

I am the vulture upon the rocks

I am a beam of the sun

I am a tall green plant

I am a lake in the plain

I am a word of science

I am the death point of the battle spear

I am the god who kindles in the head of man

The fire of thought.

Who is it that casts light over the hosting of the mountain top

Who is it that proclaims the ages of the moon

Who is it that reveres the bed of the sun

Who, if it be not I?

He went to Rhodesia in search of adventure and became disillusioned with Robert Mugabe. He worked on oil rigs and had a girl in every port, to be sure, to be sure. Seamus had a brilliant mind, curious about everything, a voracious reader and probably too intelligent by three quarters. He could speak Spanish and French and enough Zulu to get by.

He was a generous host, though given to forgetting who still needed their dinner because like all Irishmen he drank. Copiously. One night he called me:

“Where the devil is my dining room table?” he demanded. He called me at least twenty times demanding to know what had happened to his kitchen table.

I suspect that he was at the local pub and had, in a fit of largesse, given the table away, but didn’t remember having done so.

“Where the devil is my dining room table?” he insisted.

When he had people over for barbecues he would put flower petals in the loo, for the benefit of the womenfolk. He was fastidious in the extreme.

He never married, preferring to invent goddesses along the way.

I was one such ‘goddess.’ He referred to me as the lithe leopardess. Or Jantigs – an invented name for the first letters of my name and Tiggy’s name.

(Tiggy was the name of my tiny Pomeranian whom he knew.)

He adored Vuilbard, his Bouvier des Flandres whom he taught to toyi-toyi. A six-foot ewok, he looked like, did Vuilbard, dancing on his hind legs.

One night while doing his locking up rounds, Seamus was attacked at the golf club by intruders and pistol whipped. The story made the papers.

Undaunted, Seamus carried on with his work. He was scornful of his attackers.

He developed a great friendship with a Congolese who started working at the club. They would jabber at each other on the radio in French.

When it was decided that his job should be given to someone less pigmentally challenged (after he turned sixty) I think the scaffolding was bulldozed from beneath him. Options for an unemployed white man in his sixties were scant. He decided to leave South Africa and travel.

He was forced to give Havoc up for adoption. Havoc was his constant companion after Vuilbard passed.

A husk of a man, Seamus returned to Ireland. He was still good-looking as a Norseman is good-looking, but the life force was a feeble pulse.

He never complained but didn’t indulge me or allow me to complain either. We never discussed our respective plights when we would speak on a ‘long tickey’ – him from a phone booth in a Pakistani Restaurant in Dublin.

He would tell me how the French were supplying the rebels with Agent Orange and the latest book he had read about Richard Burton (he meant the explorer, not the one who gave Liz the Krupp Diamond.)

His knowledge was both catholic and elitist, though he didn’t belong to any particular social group with whom to be snobbish. He was never snobbish despite his towering intellect.

For the sixteen years I knew him, he sent me cards and lit candles for me beside the tomb of St Valentine every Valentine’s Day.

Once, he even came to visit me in America when I was living with Miss Kate. His accent had changed. He sounded like an Irish Sir Laurens van der Post.

He asked us to admire his tanned ankles. To Miss Kate’s alarm he tried to make a braai in her tiny garden. Of course his anecdotes got in the way and a small brush fire had to be averted.

He was a wilful bloke, very Scorpio, given to all kinds of fantasies about my life. He insisted that there must be ‘intellectuals from Princeton’ who must be beating a path to my door.

He celebrated the fact that he was a Luddite. He wrote long letters – all in caps – on lined exercise paper. Thick soups of words telling of his adventures and how he had “bumped into that dreadful fellow – what the devil is his name – Colin Farrell – in his local pub. A culchimock (bog Irishman) to be sure!”

I had a brief conversation with him a week ago. He was in hospital, having undergone a triple bypass surgery.

He was aggrieved, as was to be expected, but I pointed out to him that he had the best medical attention free, thanks to being in Ireland. He was also aggrieved that I hadn’t mentioned him in my memoir.

A few days ago I got an email from his chum Killian telling me that he had passed.

We have lost a one-off, those who knew Seamus, even slightly, will agree.

Grief will murmur and tug at us for as long as we remember.

But I know that he is laughing down at us in that great publican house in the sky. Or possibly that great library in the sky since he was never happier than when surrounded by books.