Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas in the Fifties (in Rural West Cork)

by Nuala Ní Loinsigh © 2012

Christmas was a special time in my childhood, full of excitement and activity. In early December, the writing of letters and cards involved us children, as my mother gathered ideas from us. This task was done on a Sunday night, when Dad went for a scoráiocht (visiting the neighbours) and we had Mom to ourselves. The two most important letters were sent to Sr. Patricia in Manchester and Sr. Cecilia in Glasgow, my father's sisters. Her letters were not very long but conveyed the most recent news of the family. Each letter had a postal order for ten shillings enclosed, a generous sum from a family who had little to spare. 
The letter contained a comment on the price of cattle, pigs, milk and eggs. The weather of the previous summer and fall was described, in so far as it affected us, in saving the main crops of hay, turf and corn. Our stage in school was related and a comment on our diligence - or lack of diligence - with our lessons. We, as children, made suggestions and, as we got older and more mature, corrected my mother regarding commas and full stops. Mom had an idea that full stops were to be used sparingly and she would respond to our criticisms with "I have a full stop up there and that's enough".

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Musical Christmas

© 2012 Maírtin Ó Connallan

It was Christmas Evening
I settled softly into the old armchair
Sipping a glass of warm mulled wine
All was well
And God in his heaven
A huge yew log
Hissed and spat
Midst the dying embers
A gentle calmness lulled me
Into another place and time

A soft Overture of strings and wind and flute and drum
Then bodhrans
And amhrans
Then up they started
First on stage came
And then sweet Grieg
And next Rossini
Right behind Henry Mancini
What Christmas fayre
I did not dare
Disrupt the concert
of the old armchair

Wee Daniel and Big Tom
Accompanied Luciano with Nessuan Dorm-a'
Slackening of pace
Comes Chopin slowly
Then Schubert's "La Truite"
Wafted soft and lowly
Then Finbar singing Vogel's "Green Fields of France"
Followed up by Wogan
With "The Foral Dance"

Scott Joplin
In Rag time
Doing C and W
With Patsy Kline
Nigel Kennedy
And Liam Og Flynn
With a Celtic version
Of "The G String"
Max Boyce and the Welsh Male Choir
Hymns and Arias
By the Yuletide fire

Here's Michael Coleman
Backing Leonard Cohen
Fiddling his way
Through "Going Home"
On comes Edith with Eminem
Rapping out "Je ne regrette rien"
Is that Shane
With Johann Strauss
Backing Count John on
"Bless This House"

Boxcar Willie
And Finbar Wright
With a country version of
"Holy Night"
Janis Joplin high as a kite
Placido Domingo
In full flight
Haendel with "Messiah"
Tom Jones, "Delilah"

Rimsky Korsakov and Matt Molloy
With a Russian version of "Danny Boy"
Who's that with Callas
'Tis T.R. Dallas
Hitting high C's
At Caesar's Palace
Mirrors cracking from side to side
I bolted upright
Eyes open wide
In the hearth the shattered glass I spied

What a glorious musical Christmas

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Cork International Short Story Festival

 by Cecily Lynch      © 2012 

In the august surroundings of Triskel Christchurch, participants in the International Short Story Competition gathered to read their stories aloud to us, denizens of Cork. The audience varied from the teenage student to the portly professor in his eighties. The authors came from far-flung places such as Shri Lanka, New Zealand, Manitoba, Israel. They mounted to the stage, the lights dimmed, the mic was adjusted and it was take-off time into the unknown.

It was a magic carpet, bearing me to exotic places and emotionals depths. The authors read of strange lands, where whales basked, where special people rode the whales and so became leaders of their tribe. They read of love, loss and suffering, the basic motifs of humankind: fathers and sons, conflict and reconciliation, rebellion and freedom, and the approach of death.

The stage was like a United Nations conference:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Importance of Being Joyce

 by Musetta Joyce   © 2012

I was living for nearly a decade in Sicily when I decided to try and get a job teaching at Messina University. Back then I had no idea of the extent of corruption in the institution. That knowledge was to come gradually, and the reason I did manage to get a job at all might never have happened if my mother had married somebody else.
    It was with the innocence of ignorance that I approached with awe the impressively ancient arched entrance of the university quad and asked a security officer where I could find the English Language department. He told me that a professor of English was just passing by.
I stepped in front of the tall thin man and introduced myself. (Married women don't change their original surnames in Italy.) If I had suddenly acquired a halo he could hardly have been more impressed.
'Your name is – Joyce? Are you by any chance a relation of the great writer?'

Monday, November 26, 2012

Seeking Wellbeing

 by E. Alana James, © 2012 
The Nature of Reality, and the Power of Pets

How do we go through life? Happy, eager, full of zest? Or perhaps stressed, challenged, or even, depressed? To what extent are these feelings within our control and, to the extent they are, at least partially, something we can change, how do we do it? What is the nature of our personal realities and what do we need to do to seek wellbeing?

Scenario: I'm typing away at my computer, in a mad rush because of a deadline. The next thing I notice (it's hard not to notice) is this huge black furry head with a ball in its mouth pushing my hands off the keyboard. Better yet, my dog Peter may have, instead of his ball, his rather ragged stuffed elephant. How can I resist?

"OK, OK just a throw or two!" Then of course, we must have the obligatory neck rub, which inevitably leads to his collapse on the floor to expose his tummy for a good rub there as well. Five minutes later he leaves me alone and goes back to his cushion in my office.

But wait? What has happened? I have a huge grin on my face as I get back to work. What has changed?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Seventieth Party

© 2012 Nuala Ni Loinsigh

On entering Big Dan's lounge in Sliabh Luachra, on Saturday June 9th, the blaze of coloured balloons and various bright candles set the atmosphere for this enjoyable party, when Hannah celebrated her seventieth birthday. Nobody was in any doubt about which birthday it was, as the number was conspicuously placed  on each wall and on the balloons. Her age was no secret. In fact, she was proud to proclaim it to all the sixty people who attended, between family, extended family and good neighbours. There were various plates of food, salads, meats and mouth watering confectionery, all prepared by themselves.

On the night, with her natural curly grey hair framing her face, Hannah was dressed elegantly in a silk-like floral dress. She cut a dash as she entered the room.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Grandmother's Walking to Mass Story

by Sarah O’Mahony© January 2012

One day as I was visiting my grandmother. She sat back in her chair and started to tell a story about long ago when she was a small girl. She used to walk to mass every Sunday with her older sisters, mother and father. Her face started to light up and her eyes had a tiny sparkle in them.  I knew that she was about to share something that she really loved doing when she was small.
She lived in a small farmhouse that had lovely little green fields around it. The house looked out to the sea. The walk took them over the little narrow boreens (in Ireland these are narrow roads with a ridge of green grass going through the centre of them) and paths across the hills to the village. The journey took place every Sunday morning in wintertime and summertime. It was very long walk indeed. It took over three hours at least to do. She would be tired and very hungry by the time they made it back home later that day. 
The part of the journey that she liked the best was on cold wet wintry and very windy days she and some of the other children would either hide under or behind the big enormous skirts that the older women of the peninsula used to wear. It was really warm and cosy to shelter in these skirts! The women’s skirts were so big and long and warm they went all the way to the ground, the material that they were made from was very strong and the rain never got through. 
The skirts were called frieze skirts (pronounced like fry’s). The women made the material themselves at home. They used the wool from their sheep. The sheep were always glad of having their woolly coats removed. This would happen before it got too warm in the summer time. Then the sheep were free to grow a nice new coat again for next winter.
The women washed the wool and removed anything stuck in the wool. There could be briars, thorns, and even insects like flies and smelly maggots tangled in it. They spun the wool on a spinning wheel to make the woollen thread. Then the spun wool was put on a loom. The women pushed and pulled the handle of the loom and this magic machine turned the thread into material for the skirts. The material was a kind of coarse woollen cloth. 

In those times nearly all of the people that lived there didn’t have a “motor car” and people used horses and “cars” (carts) or walked mostly. There were parts of the road that were sheltered by a “high stone ditch”. Or there could be a hollow in the road before she would have to climb up steeply. The women walked and talked to each other about “women’s matters” such as children, relatives that were sick and dying, cows, baking cakes and “all other important farm matters.”
The sky could be dark and there could be a heavy shower of rain coming in from the sea.  So shelter had to be thought about quickly! It was important to keep warm and cosy. The children got nice rosey red cheeks from the cold sharp frosty wind. They would have to keep their heads down and face into the wind.
That was the journey west-ward home. There was a lot to see “going west the road”. Looking over the little stone ditches. The cows and cattle would be out on the fields munching grass. 
So on Sunday morning each week and in all sorts of weather this journey would be made. What a journey to make each week! Once one Sunday was over, it was time to get ready for the next Sunday’s adventure out again.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Going through Saddam's Ring of Steel

by Dan Coakley     © 2012    

An Irish Engineer passes through the Iraqi Military Area on the Borders of Kurdistan.

I was on my way to the Autonomous Kurdish Region in early 1998 to assess the Electricity Sector there. I was apprehensive, as I left Kirkuk, at the unpleasant prospect of going through Saddam's exit procedures. I soon passed through the northern city military checkpoint, left Kirkuk behind and headed for the border with Kurdistan. On the road north I soon began to realize what my mission was all about. Some High Voltage Transmission lines followed us all the way up and for a distance of 70km each mast was either wholly on the ground or broken in two with the upper half leaning drunkenly back to the ground. It looked as if the tops were pulled down by tractors with wire hawsers. The destruction was complete. For the entire route not one mast remained intact. I estimated that to replace one line alone would cost $8.25 million and for parts of the route there were many parallel lines. 

A damaged high-tension power line tower. 
(Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Sean Riley, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division Public Affairs)

Imagine similar damage to every mast on a line 60 or 70 Km long  in the sanctions era of 1998 and the work required to reconstruct it.
We then drove through a barren area with many ruined villages. However they were not devoid of life. One could see rows of tank gun barrels poking out over the ruined walls as Saddam's Tank Brigades nestled in the homes they destroyed during Saddam's savage campaign against the Kurds. Now they were menacing the precarious Autonomous Region of the Kurds to the North. The scene was replicated in every former village we passed. One could see Iraqi conscripts walking along the road leading donkeys with panniers of water, filled from the adjacent streams, to service their comrades in the large camps dotted across the landscape. In many instances the conscripts were barefoot and wore their berets in a very casual manner like chefs' hats. They certainly did not give any indication of being an elite fighting force. We passed many Soviet type T54 tanks broken down on the road. The T54 had a notoriously un-reliable engine and the old Iraqi ones would not pose much of a threat to any potential modern adversaries. Further north the wide open plain was dotted by earthen-walled square forts each about an acre in extent and guarded at the four corners with small  Chinese made ZPU-1 and ZPU-2 anti-aircraft guns constantly manned by conscripts. Not much of a defence against supersonic planes with air to ground missiles I thought. Any future conflict with a modern western army would result in slaughter for those poor souls and I felt genuinely sorry for them and their families. It must be remembered that this was a conscript army that endured sadistic discipline and as it contained Kurds and Shia was ruled by terror. I have seen videos of a line of Iraqi soldiers being forced to shoot a line of their comrades who were sitting on the edge of a pit (their future grave) with their backs to their executioners. I also noticed that the senior officers on their constant visits between the various units traveled in battered civilian cars. This was obviously an army in decline. As we passed the destroyed villages and the Army that wrought such devastation on their countrymen the Kurdish drivers remained stoic and drove on without comment. At that time Saddam was still very much alive and the Kurds had to rely on the guarantees of Powers that reneged on their promises in the past (Britain after World War 1 and the US after the first Gulf War). What must have gone through their minds as they saw their powerful oppressors right on their border, choking the life out of their little country?

Shewi Qazy, a destroyed Kurdish village. 
(Photo source Twana Mardowkii)

The former inhabitants of this village are probably mouldering away in some mass grave in the desert.

Soon we came to the last Iraqi military checkpoint before we crossed the border into the Kurdish autonomous zone. This checkpoint was the real thing and stretched for about 200 metres along the road. It was the lock on Saddam's Ring of Steel. Each vehicle was minutely searched by armed soldiers. There was an open shed where the men were body searched with an equivalent closed tent-like structure for searching the women. Nobody seemed to mind as they joined long queues snaking back from the search units, the women in their long black chadors chatted away as they awaited their turn. Once or twice an army deserter was discovered. I saw one of these unfortunates being kicked the entire length of the checkpoint area by an Iraqi army NCO. One could only speculate at the poor boy's fate as he was thrown into a military truck and carried away. The people at the checkpoint, overwhelmingly Kurds, pretended not to notice and averted their gaze as their compatriot was brutalized in front of them. This was their reality in Saddam's Iraq.

Tankers being inspected prior to joining an American Army convoy in post-Saddam Iraq. 
(Photo by Brandon Questor US Army)

I noticed the long line of massive sanctions-bursting oil tankers cruising slowly past. Lines of tankers were at every checkpoint during my time in Iraq. One Iraqi soldier was positioned along their lane and as each truck passed him the driver dropped a number of Iraqi 250 dinar notes into his hand. It was said that this oil trade was a tripartite trade run by Saddam's son Uday and the profits were shared three ways between Uday, the Kurds and Turkey. Our papers had to be processed by an officer and again the Irish passport evoked a friendly response. Soon we were on our way and crossed into the Kurdish Autonomous area.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The World's Door

Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara          ©  2012


The skull is hailed
And hauled and held.
The feet are last.
The heels wriggle
Along the soft
Inside of thighs
Print a farewell.

Wild punches, kicks
Seek the world's door.
It gapes open
Walls all vanished.
In unison
With the first howl
The whole ward breathes

As its bounty
The visitor.
Before I do
They know and tell
It's a boy
A beautiful boy.

And I pretend
I take it in
New face, new soul
New man, new me.
I make believe
We could do this
Most every day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mr Dan and the Dams of Kurdistan, 2

by Dan Coakley          © 2012

I took the lift to the foyer where I saluted the Mukhabarat (Saddam's secret policeman), whose job was to monitor all who entered and exited the hotel lifts. Like all his colleagues in the Hotel Babel (Babylon) he was well dressed and very courteous though distant.  He had none of the brooding menace of his equivalents (ex-KGB) in Kiev.  While there, an informer in an Artioma Street apartment building we were visiting contacted the immigration police and reported that foreigners were visiting an apartment in the building. In Soviet times each apartment block had its own commissar whose duty it was to report suspicious or anti-state behaviour. So the former commissar in this apartment block was loath to give up his position of power and persisted in carrying out his policing duties right into the post soviet era. In Artioma Street many of the apartment buildings had their doors in the back and had to be approached from a commonage, via an arched opening off the street. All doors opening on to the commonage were permanently open and the snow would form drifts in the hall in the night temperature of -200C. The street, commonage and the hall were in pitch darkness and we had to pick our way through the snow drifts with torches that were mandatory. On entering our friends' house one night we noticed two men on the stairs above us furtively examining the numbers on all the apartment doors. Shortly after we got into our friends' apartment via the double steel security doors someone was banging loudly on the door and yelling in Ukrainian. As there were four of us in the room we were confident that we were able to look after ourselves so we opened the doors to be confronted by the two men we had seen on the stairs. One was dressed in a leather hat and long leather greatcoat and the other was armed and wore a leather jacket and long leather boots. They were immigration police and when we could not produce our registration documents were clapped in handcuffs.  At the time the USSR had just disintegrated and I reckoned that the Soviet prisons had not caught up with the new political realities. I pictured myself being shipped off to a gulag in a cattle wagon. However a quick-witted member of our group, Michael Crowley of Mallow Co. Cork, saved the day by phoning Uri, our liaison contact, behind the policemen's backs.  Uri, who had previously worked in the Immigration Department, contacted the relevant government official who ordered our captors to free us. This they did after a long one way interrogation when they insisted on asking the same aggressive question again and again despite all our answers "Where are your registration papers?" We were euphoric when we were left off the hook as the photo below demonstrates.

A very relieved pair, Louis Healy left and the author right show off after being informed by Kiev Immigration Police that we were no longer under suspicion.

Back to the Hotel Babel in Baghdad, I was quickly located by my driver who introduced himself as Ayad H. Humayde. The UN has a custom of recruiting local people with university degrees relevant to the work of whatever UN agency that employs them. In the Electricity sector therefore this meant that most of my Iraqi staff were engineers or had technical degrees. Hence Dr. Ayad who had been an electronics lecturer in the University of Baghdad became one of my drivers. I felt like the proverbial "Pukka Sahib" as I seated myself in the white air-conditioned land cruiser waiting for me in the car park, with the letters "UN" emblazoned on its side.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Eulogy of a Poet

© 2012           by Marie Guillot

Sean was not selfish on his tin whistle, and not shy on his pint. His poems were multiple and various, published in local newspapers, and often after the application of some censorship.
When I first met him at one of our historical society meetings, he introduced himself as a heretic, who never married but had loved. His view of life was simple, using only one principle: Don't do unto others what you don't want others to do unto you. Indeed, the old Golden Rule from the likes of Confucius and Plato. 

One year, a group from our society went to Paris. There, Sean did not miss any opportunity to play the tin whistle, always secured in his pocket: in our hotel, at  the top of the Eiffel Tower and in the Montmartre Irish pub.
He wanted to visit Balzac's house, now a museum. Duly provided with written instructions in French (just in case), he boarded a taxi and reached his destination safely. To celebrate the occasion, he subsequently went to a nearby bistrot for his pint. Still full of his thoughts, he suddenly found himself at a loss, and did not know how to proceed towards the next step. Passing by a police station, he entered and used the French-for-emergencies he remembered: Je m'appelle Sean; j'habite en Irlande. He then pulled out his French note. The policiers called a taxi for him, direction the Louvre, his next destination. He was back on track.
During the 4-day journey, we all wrote our impressions in a journal-cum-scrapbook. Here are some excerpts from Sean's input: Versailles was a little bit extravagant,  just a little bit, a tinsy winsy bit. Quoting Balzac: This poor lad thinks he is an angel, exiled from Heaven. Who am I to undeceive him?. He added for himself: We are all angels, exiled from Heaven. It's just that Heaven hasn't really touched-down yet.
He was happy to come back home, to his farm. The farm where he was born and where he had been raising sheep all his life. Self-sufficient and self-educated in everything, from music to writing to painting, he also took vet skills in his stride. He was not demanding and lived on little. 

He died at the age of 63. Not from cancer or heart attack, not in a car accident. His killer took his time; years in fact. The farm was damp and insalubrious. One day Sean felt weak and drove his veteran car to the hospital. His agony was short; as short as the insidious disease had been there long. Dying of tuberculosis is not fashionable any more. Even cattle deserve good treatment nowadays.

Sean, the dreamer, the eccentric, you have now been through your own touch-down. Hopefully, the very one you were seeking.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hotel Babel

by Dan Coakley  © 2012

My wife with her Nargila on the Corniche in Beirut.

After a shower and shave I would descend to the restaurant by 7 o'clock.  The first job was to wake the waiters who used to sleep on the restaurant floor fully clothed, while the more senior ones would enjoy the luxury of lying on the large oriental cushions from the area set aside for the nargila or water pipe smokers. It was located in a corner of the restaurant and was draped with Persian rugs and lined with large cushions to simulate a Bedouin tent. No concerns here for a dense cloud of tobacco smoke wafting around the evening diners. 

Unwashed, the waiters would immediately clean-up after the night before and set about preparing the coffee and the freshly squeezed orange juice.  Some of their fellows would wander into the kitchen to wake up the staff there.  With this type of staff accommodation I wondered how it got its 4 star appellation or who conferred it. The menu was simple, fresh orange juice with eggs, either boiled, fried or in an omelette.   It went on its slow funereal course, while the waiters who moved around like some sedated undertakers studiously ignored their diners.  This problem was eventually solved by the application of a few dinars as a tip.  There after I only had to look up and was immediately assailed from a number of directions by competing, reactivated waiters.  
In spite of the tip, breakfast usually took about 45 minutes and frequently was not complete when the driver called with the Land Cruiser to take me to work.  So, in spite of brutal dictators the pace of ordinary life was relaxed and definitely an antidote to ulcers and hypertension.  It reminded me of the relaxed world of my childhood, a world fast disappearing. However the staff's lack of hygiene periodically took its toll and the drivers used to laugh at me as I entered their vehicle clutching a bottle of 7-up. That and Imodium would have to be my bill-of-fare for the following few days. They were familiar with the symptoms from my predecessor Tom Brosnan.
I had the choice of two Hotel Babil restaurants.  One was the Iraqi one where I used to take breakfast and the other was a Thai one.  There was little between them in the matter of speedy service.  However the Thai one won hands down in the matter of diversion as it featured Rosy.  I had heard from the UN staff that Tom my predecessor had labelled her "The Honey-pot".  She was an antique brunette having earned the adjective at least 35 years ago. The restaurant had a number of enclosed cubicles and these were Rosy's main grooming areas.  She would single out her victim early on in the night and would make him the focus of attention until negotiations concluded to her satisfaction.  She was well known in every sense with the UN MAG people (UN Mine Action Group) as they stayed a night in the hotel on their way up north.  
As the restaurant was huge but usually had less than half a dozen diners there any night I soon got the treatment.  She assured me that she adored the Irish and that she made great friends with some Irish doctors who worked in the nearby Park Hospital in the early nineties. Now when I meet one of them I mentally conjecture if he knew Rosy.  Over a few visits the ante was raised and she "shyly" made a pitch for some expensive perfumes, naming them.  I assured her that I would bring a few litres of each kind the following night.  At this she invited me to her apartment.  She was a great romanticist "Mr Dan, you come to my apartment.  It is looking over the square with the Ali Baba statue.  We can lie there and watch the dawn come up over Baghdad".  
I assured her that there was nothing I would like better as I visualised mental images of the Mukhabarat in the next room, observing me and Rosy, watching the dawn rising over Baghdad and wondering if they had set the aperture of their cameras correctly. I told her that I had an important meeting after the dinner but would be delighted to take her up on her offer the following night.  "Oh Mr Dan you are so handsome" she cooed as I sidled out the door.  I felt her compliment was a little effusive and maybe not entirely subjective as I made for the safety of the foyer. As I entered the foyer I was accosted by the owner of the hotel clothes shop opposite the Thai restaurant.  "Mr Dan, Rosy is not a nice girl", he warned me.  He had seen the fond farewell of Rosy and decided that some customer care was in order for No. 1 customer (me).  The following morning the UN Land Cruiser called to take me to Erbil in Kurdistan and I kept well away from the Hotel Babel thereafter.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Declined Conjugation

        © 2012          by  Marie Guillot

Poem, I read you
Poet, I envy you
Poetry, I am exploring you

Poems, you are praised
Poet, you are inspired
Poetry, you exist

Poem, it's printed
Poet, it's what you are called
Poetry, it's an emotion

Poems, we recite you
Poet, we respect you
Poetry, we gather for you

Poems, you flourish
Poets, you innovate
Poetry, you are worshipped

Poems, they survive
Poets, they die 
Poetry, they say you are eternal

Monday, August 27, 2012

Learning to Drive

Ireland in the 60's                 by Nuala Ni Loinsigh   © 2012  

I was only seventeen when I learned to drive. My brother Donal had a car and my parents depended on him to drive them to Mass on Sunday morning. However, being a teacher and with his long summer holidays, he wanted to go to London and leave me the car to drive my parents.
When the saving of hay and turf was completed, Donal was free to go. Hence I was taught to drive, receiving lessons in late evening, after a day in the hayfield. Thus, I was tired before I started my lesson. However, I was instructed on the changing of gears and off we went to a level road by the halfway between Macroom and Ballyvourney, or Cork and Killarney, or Bantry and Killarney. 
Sitting behind the wheel, I changed gears in the stationary position and then started the engine. After a few abortive attempts and the car jumping to a halt, I managed eventually to get going. Then there were further instructions to press the brakes but I pressed the accelerator and hit the ditch. It was only a little scrape but frightened me just the same. There were a few screams, but not too much to be fair to Donal. 

There was a series of nights like this and then came the day that my brother drove to the Cork Ferry Port, to board the Innisfallen. The return journey was to be negotiated by me, who was not only a poor driver, but also not too familiar with the city. Luckily, I met my cousin Monica, who was an excellent navigator and directed me out of the city to her rural home. After dropping her off, I made my way home and parked on the L-shaped yard by the house, having struggled up the steep narrow boithrin (lane).
Mom had occasion to go out and noticed a red light on the dashboard. She remarked to me: "I don't think that light should be shining". Of course, she was right. I neglected to turn off the ignition, having ground to a halt suddenly.
The following morning, Dad needed to go to town, so his new driver was pressed into service. Starting again was jumpy and my nervous father  was nearly catapulted through the windscreen. My little confidence was being slowly but surely eroded by Dad. We managed to reach the town without incident, but parked a half-mile outside.

I had plenty of practice all that summer and was delighted to have mastered the skill and gained independence. There is nothing like necessity to encourage learning.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Al Sha'ab Prison

by Dan Coakley © 2012

Al Shaab Stadium (Photo source A H al Nakeb)

The Iraqi Al Shaab National Stadium was on the route to the Canal Hotel and as I was passing it I was impressed at its size and facilities. Built in 1966 with a capacity for 60,000 it is multipurpose, catering for football and athletics. It must be the only sports stadium in the world with a football hero buried within its walls. Ammo Baba was the greatest striker and football coach that Iraq ever produced. He loved football and Iraq so much that he separated from his wife and family when they went to the United States. Ammo elected to stay in Iraq and when he died he asked to be buried in the stadium. It must also be the only stadium that contained a Muhabarat prison and torture facility.  

Two of my friends, Tom Lynch of Cork and John White of Limerick were incarcerated in the Al Sha'ab under atrocious conditions during 1990. They had been working in an oil facility near Tikrit in Iraq at the start of the war and were attempting to escape from the country, as they learned from their World Radio that foreigners were being rounded up by Saddam's forces to be used as human shields. The foreigners were to be dispersed to strategic sites to deter allied planes from attacking them. Tom and John decided to try and escape by going to the ancient desert city of Hatra and then driving across the Syrian Desert west of Hatra to the Syrian border and take their chances in escaping across it. John improvised a compass and it proved quite effective in guiding them across the trackless waste. As they were approaching the border they were captured by relatively friendly Iraqi military that had to hand them over to the dreaded Mukkhabarat (Saddam's secret police). 
They were immediately taken to an up-market hotel in Baghdad to join other Western prisoners. While there their captors decided what sites their "guests" were to be assigned to. One day Tom found a phone with a live tone but without a dialling plate in one of the hotels en-suites. By tapping out the numbers on the phone cradle they were able to contact the Irish Embassy and made their plight known. A vice-consul from the Embassy came to visit them but could do little for them. While there they were witness to the western captives being led off in small groups by their captors to the various sensitive sites where they were to be exposed as human shields. This was done in front of their screaming wives and children who felt that they would never see their loved ones again. Tom and John were led out eventually but to their horror were consigned to a prison where they became part of the Iraqi criminal system. At night their sleep would be disturbed as they were wakened by volleys of gunfire as some of their fellow prisoners were executed. Terrified they awaited heir turn. 
However after some days they were suddenly removed to the dreaded prison at al Shaab where they were horror-stricken by the continuous screams of the prisoners as their torturers slowly and sadistically murdered them. In the mornings they were witness to the sight of mutilated bodies left hanging in the view of other prisoners after the torturers finished their grisly work. Living conditions were atrocious. They had to sleep on the floor of the filthy over-crowded cell among the decomposing carcases of rodents and had to scrabble with the other inmates to pluck morsels of food from the communal bucket. They were eventually told that they were to be tried for attempting to leave Iraq without a visa and for being found in a prohibited military area. The second charge carried a sentence, if found guilty, of 18 years in prison. Eventually they were dispatched to Mosul by bus to stand trial at the High Court there. Before they departed one of the centres most enthusiastic torturers closed all the air-vents on the bus and they made the long journey north with an outside temperature of 50ºC. 
The inside of the bus was like an oven and a number of prisoners succumbed to the suffocating heat. They faced trial at the High Court in Mosul and to their delight were found not guilty. This was another instance where their Irish citizenship stood them in good stead as Saddam was depending on the importation of Irish beef at the time. They rushed out of the court to where the embassy vice-consul was waiting with their own car that had somehow been recovered from the authorities. It would take them on the first leg of the long journey home. I worked later with them in Basra. Their story was recorded on the second episode, series seven (2010) of "Banged Up Abroad" on the National Geographic television channel. 

I passed Al Sha'ab at least four times every week yet not once did our drivers ever mention its grisly secret.

Saint Patrick’s Day in the British Army Base in Basrah International Airport. Left to right: Tom Lynch Cork, John White Limerick, Flip South Africa, Steve Flint Cork, Paudie O’Halloran Cork, An Australian Army major and the author.