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An Allergic Reaction to National Anthems

By Donal McLaughlin – No harm to Lizzy or anyo­ne else, but it wasn’t the Queen they wai­ted up for but: it was the late‐​night hor­ror film. DON’T WATCH ALONE was the name of it, not that the­re was a hope in hell o’ that in the O’Donnells’ house – not wi’ a house­ful of weans lik yon, the­re wasn’t.

The craic them Saturday nights was some­thing else, right enough. They’d all be sit­ting the­re, sure, watching it in the dark – wee Orla and Cahal would’ve been cudd­led up against their mother or father or some of the big­ger ones – and the­re wouldn’t’ve been a cheep out of them, not a sin­gle one of them – until, that is, every time Dracula was about to bite neck, and their da would free him­s­elf from whoever he was sit­ting besi­de and creep up behind the set­tee that was pul­led up in front of the fire, and drop his falsers out of his mouth and down the back of some of their necks. Ye want to have heard the screams out of them! Half the sus­pen­se would’ve been won­de­ring which of them their da would go for next; and he would do it to ye even if he’d pro­mi­sed FAITHfully never to do it to ye again. Ciara, say, would be sit­ting the­re thin­king she was safe, thin­king he would keep his pro­mi­se – she, after all, had been theonetomakehimamugoftea‐​andthenext thing she knew his slab­be­ry oul fal­se teeth would be tumb­ling down the back of her wee frock. Then

THE END

would come up – and it was stran­ge going from that to the pho­to of Lizzy on her hor­se and

GOD -

                          SAVE –

                                                                OUR –

They never got past OUR‐ in the O’Donnell house‐ hold. It wasn’t even as if the Queen got zap­ped with the remo­te con­trol, eit­her. Naw, we’re tal­king the days befo­re remo­te con­trols here, when you had to get up off your backsi­de, cross the room, and press but­tons or turn a dial. Not that the O’Donnell weans let that stop them but:

NO WAY!

No mat­ter how tired they were, sure -
No mat­ter how late it was -
No mat­ter how many o’ the wee bug­gers had dozed off on the floor or set­tee, clai­ming they were res­ting their eyes and refu­sing to go to bed -
Even if they were out for the bloo­dy count, for Godsake -
Or if the wee‐​est ones were past their sleep and grum­py as hell -
I’m not jokin ye: when it came to the band striking up GOD SAVE LIZZY, the who­le bloo­dy clan of them would come back to life and race from wha­te­ver cor­ner of the livin­g­room they were in and descend upon the poor tele­vi­si­on set, each despe­ra­te to be the one to reach the ON‐​OFF but­ton first. ‘CHRIST SAKE, WEANS!’ Bridget would scream out of her as – yet again – holy hell bro­ke loo­se. She’d visi­ons every time of the TV set com­ing off the top of the trol­ley and down on top of one of them. No mat­ter how much she loo­ked at thon hus­band of hers for sup­port but, he would only laugh – plea­sed to see he was suc­cee­ding in rea­ring his weans up pro­per­ly.

In the ear­ly days, when the race to turn the Queen off was begin­ning to be a regu­lar occur­rence, one of the Big Ones would nor­mal­ly have bea­ten the Wee Ones to the but­ton. Ye could nor­mal­ly have put money on Annette who was as deter­mi­ned and as swift as she was shy and quiet. Liam, the eldest, might’ve had a good head on him, he was no ath­le­te but, no mat­ter how much it hurt his pri­de not to win the race.

The same boy – ye have to hand it to him – could cer­tain­ly pro­du­ce the odd stro­ke of geni­us but. Even his father had to laugh the night the wee bug­ger sat wit­hin easy reach of the plug and – cool as you like – just whip­ped the thing out as the rest clo­sed in on the set. Lousy shi­te: when the others rea­li­sed what had hap­pen­ed and tur­ned to face him, he’d his head back, laug­hing, was gloa­ting and goa­ding them: twir­ling the plug above his head, the bug­ger was, lik it was Mick Jagger’s mike. Another night, – Annette, hoping he wouldn’t noti­ce, had alrea­dy instal­led wee Orla and Ciara to defend the sockets – he stood up and left the room as the anthem was about to start. To look at him, ye’d’ve thought he wasn’t goney com­pe­te; that he’d deci­ded the who­le bloo­dy thing was bene­ath him. Turns out he was on his way to the fuse‐​box under the stairs. The looks on the faces descen­ding on the tel­ly were a pic­tu­re, appar­ent­ly.

Rest of them were deman­ding re‐​writes of the rule book thon night, so they were. The wee cho­rus of ‘and se‐​ent them home‐​ward, to think a‐​gain’ from bene­ath the stairs was the final bloo­dy straw. ‘Daddy, tell Liam he’s not allo­wed to do that, Daddy!’ ‘Mum, tell Liam that’s not fair, Mum!’ they cho­ru­sed. ‘Think you’re a smart arse, do ye?’ was all Annette said when Liam re‐​appeared, loo­king plea­sed with him­s­elf.

Aye, Annette and Liam cer­tain­ly had their moments of glo­ry, no doubt about it. If ye stu­dy the form over the mon­ths and years this carry‐​on went on but, it was Sean – Bridget and Liam’s second boy and the reser­ve goal­kee­per in the school team – who stop­ped Lizzy in her tracks most. The young fel­la could be flat out on his back on the mat in front of the fire – and he’d still mana­ge to turn and gli­de through the air, fin­ger and thumb exten­ded to ste­al the moment of glo­ry from whiche­ver of his bro­thers and sis­ters might have been ahead of the pack this time. ‘Bonetti the Cat’ or ‘Pat Jennings the Second’ his father would call him, laug­hing as the young fel­la avoi­ded the trol­ley and com­ple­ted his vic­to­ry roll in the kit­chen, retur­ning gul­ping from a pint glass of water, stop­ping only to hold it aloft. Ye had to mar­vel at the wee bugger’s agi­li­ty; his cou­ra­ge. It’s a won­der, in fact, he never got hurt, the way the rest of them cras­hed down on top of him. Still, it was good prac­tice for the penal­ty area on Saturday mornings, his father sup­po­sed.

Naw, the­re wasn’t oncet, not a sin­gle once, the young fel­la shed a tear, no mat­ter how often or what way the rest of the mahoods lan­ded on him. Naw, if it ended in tears, it was more likely to be one of the Wee Ones, incon­so­l­ab­le at not being the one who’d tur­ned the TV off. Sometimes, to paci­fy them, their mother or father would’ve had to turn it back on again for wee Cahal or Orla to switch off – and ye’d get a snatch of REIGN – O‐​VER – US befo­re Lizzy was cut off in her prime again. Their mother or father inter­vening would put an end to the water­works, alright, nor­mal­ly; ye could see deep down, but, that even wee Cahal and Orla, God love them, knew that their mother or father set­ting it up for them wasn’t the same as get­ting to the set first in the first place.

It didn’t help, of cour­se, that one night, Ciara, the wee bitch, spel­led it out to Cahal who she was in a huff wi’ at the time: ‘Don’t know what you’re loo­king so hap­py about, ya wee cry‐​baby,’ she’d snee­red. ‘Jist cos your dad­dy tur­ned it back on for you to turn off again doesn’t mean you stop­ped the Queen first. It was still Sean first, even if you got to do it, too!’ That had star­ted Cahal bubb­ling again so Ciara got a cuff round the ear, was sent to bed, and was told in no uncer­tain terms it would be a long bloo­dy buc­k­in time befo­re she’d get stay­ing up long enough to see the Queen again.

It was a dif­fe­rent sto­ry, of cour­se, when they were lis­ten­ing to Radio Eireann and the Soldier’s Song came on. The fact the recep­ti­on was rot­ten on their tin­ny wee tran­ny was neit­her here nor the­re. Their da had picked the thing up for some­thing like 20 new p. at the school jumble‐​sale, and it stood on the mantlepie­ce with the aeri­al ful­ly exten­ded. Big Liam, whoever saw him, would’ve been foo­te­ring about all night with it, try­ing to get decent recep­ti­on: try­ing tricks like having the aeri­al lea­ning against the clock or tou­ch­ing the mir­ror. ‘Ye wouldn’t think it was just across the Irish Sea -’ was what he usual­ly said. ‘God’s my judge: we got bet­ter bloo­dy recep­ti­on the night the Tic play­ed Ujpest Dosza in buc­k­in Hungary!’

Rotten recep­ti­on or not, the Irish natio­nal anthem was allo­wed to play right through. It was rou­sing stuff, wi’ bits whe­re ye could join in. All ye had to do was sing ‘God – bless – them!’ bet­ween the lines some­ti­mes – as if it was a rug­by or a foot­ball song. Not that Wee Liam, for examp­le, did, but. Not bloo­dy likely! Even at that age, the young fel­la was all­er­gic, sure. No way could he’ve lis­tened and, in his own mind, seen, say, foot­bal­lers lined up, chewing gum and having a good scratch to them­sel­ves. Naw, even at that age, visi­ons of rai­sed rif­les and men’s heads in bala­cla­vas would’ve got in the way.

The sur­pri­sing thing is that the young fel­la can’t mind the words no more. What he does mind is his da always get­ting to his feet in his tea‐​stained vest: he’d still’ve had his mug of tea in his left hand and a fag in his right, and he would’ve peste­red the rest of them to get up off their arses, too. ‘Show some bloo­dy respect, would yis!’ he’d say, tug­ging at their slee­ves. There was some­thing comi­c­al, right enough, about their da stan­ding the­re, salu­ting the tran­ny, and try­ing to drag Liam or Sean up to do the same. Sometimes, but, he’d total­ly lose his tem­per and claim they’d a buc­k­in cheek cal­ling them­sel­ves Irishmen – or even Celtic sup­por­ters! ‘The maca­roon bars and spear­mint chewing‐​gum – that’s all yis bloo­dy go for! That’s the only rea­son yis bloo­dy go. Buckin maca­roon bars and spear­mint chewing‐​gum! Don’t think I don’t know!’

There was hard­ly a night they were up late, nevertheless, pas­sed, but, wit­hout the odd one or two of them joi­ning in – for the final cho­rus, if no‐ thing else. The Wee Ones didn’t know any bet­ter, and even they could reco­gnise when the orches­tra was com­ing to the end. The big­ger ones would or wouldn’t’ve, depen­ding on the mood they were in. Annette or one of the other girls might’ve, I sup­po­se, – if only to plea­se their dad­dy. Certainly, if any of them had got into trou­ble during the day, it was well‐ known that joi­ning in – or offe­ring to make him a cup of tea – was a short‐​cut back into the good books. As for their mother: the­re was no way on this earth ye would’ve got Bridget O’Donnell sin­ging. She was total­ly brow­ned off wi’ the who­le thing, was past fin­ding it fun­ny, and nor­mal­ly just disap­peared into the scul­le­ry. Not that it mat­te­red, right enough: sure when it came to the last line, it didn’t mat­ter how many were sin­ging: they always took the roof off with that one.

There came a time, of cour­se, when the older ones would’ve joi­ned their mother. The fact their father cast it up to her, cal­ling her a trai­tor and clai­ming she’d spent too long in England as a wean, wouldn’t’ve stop­ped them.

Liam was in the­re, exch­an­ging looks with her, the night the poli­ce tur­ned up at the door. It was the night Northern Ireland beat Scotland one‐​nil in

a fri­end­ly at Hampden, wi’ George Best sco­ring the only goal. It was their mother’s first‐​ever foot­ball match, and her and their father had gone along wi’ ano­t­her coup­le – from Limavady, ori­gi­nal­ly. Bridget had been so busy tal­king to the other woman but, she mis­sed the bloo­dy goal. ‘Never mind, sure I’ll see the replay!’ she’d said, as Georgie and the rest of the boyos dan­ced their way back to their own half. Their da had loved tel­ling the weans that one. ‘Never mind, sure I’ll see the replay!’ he kept repea­ting, tears of laugh­ter floo­ding out of him.

Anyway, thon was the night the poli­ce tur­ned up at the door, and the O’Donnells were still so over the moon at Northern Ireland bea­ting Scotland, ye’d’ve heard them back in Derry. No way were they goney sett­le for sin­ging the Soldier’s Song just once that night: naw, even as it was play­ing on Radio Eireann, sure, their da loo­ked a sin­gle out which had it on the B‐​side – and he kept the arm back on the record play­er so as it would play over and over again. Wee Sean – trust him! – was kil­ling him­s­elf when he rea­li­sed, and tur­ned it up full blast, the ras­cal.

It’s not a bit of won­der they didn’t hear the bloo­dy poli­ce! Liam and his mother wouldn’t’ve heard them, for chris­sa­ke, if they hadn’t been in the kit­chen. Saying that, the two of them weren’t even sure it was a knock, so Bridget had asked Wee Liam to go to the door with her. She near­ly bloo­dy pas­sed out when she saw the two poli­ce­men – mana­ged to say ‘Go and get your Daddy, son’ befo­re they said anything but. Strange thing was: the poli­ce had actual­ly wai­ted for the man of the house. Must’ve seen the shock writ­ten all over the poor woman’s face.

It was pan­de­mo­ni­um, of cour­se, when Liam ope­ned the livin­g­room door. He’d to shout ‘THE POLICE WANT YE, DA!’ twice, for Godsake, befo­re the rest of them began to calm down. His da said, ‘What?’ and Liam repeated it again. ‘They’re at the front door wi’ Mum,’ he said, then mar­ched over to inter­rupt the record. There was a ter­ri­ble scratching kin­da sound the way he did it; not that his da said anything.

The weans wat­ched in silence as their da pul­led his shirt on, quick. He was on the ver­ge of lea­ving the room, when he stop­ped to put his tie on after all, and used the mir­ror above the fire­place to strai­gh­ten it. Only oncet he was satis­fied did he go out to face the music. The poor youngs­ters could only look at each other, ter­ri­fied. Finally, wee Orla, God love her, couldn’t take it no more and bur­sted into tears, thin­king her mam­my and dad­dy were going to be arrested. Annette had to com­fort her.

Ye could’ve heard a bloo­dy pin drop. Not a word was spo­ken as they tried to hear what was hap­pe­ning. All they were able to make out, but, was their dad­dy using his poli­te voice to do the apo­lo­gi­sing and exp­lai­ning. ‘I can assu­re you two gen­tle­men it won’t hap­pen again,’ he said, then a poli­ce­man said, ‘That’s fine then, Sir. Good night then, Sir’, and they heard the front door shut­ting.

Their mother and father came back into the room.

‘Bloody buc­k­in bitch next door!’ was all their father said.

‘May she roast in buc­k­in Hell!’ he added, after a minu­te.

He was raging, cry­ing, near­ly, and was still shaking his head as he sat down, so livid was he at what had hap­pen­ed. Ciara, her wee eyes fil­ling up, God love her, was on her way over to fling her arms round him when sud­den­ly he loo­ked up and star­ted giving the woman next door the vicky. Ciara stop­ped in total shock: She couldn’t belie­ve her dad­dy would do a thing like that. Michael Duffy had got four of the belt at school, sure, four sore ones, for doing that. She loo­ked over at Annette; Annette just shrug­ged like she was hel­pless, but.

‘One‐​nil, ye bitch ye,’ their da was jee­ring.

The more he did it, the more the colour was disap­pearing out of Annette, the quiet one’s face. Her dad­dy was just making things wor­se by cur­sing. That was two sins on his soul.

There was no stop­ping him, but. Their mother couldn’t do not­hing eit­her. The stu­pid big lump was waving his fin­gers at the divi­ding wall, and he just kept doing it – with both hands, too – until his two arms tired.

‘Buckin‐​one‐​buckin‐​nil!’ he his­sed, final­ly. Bridget saw her chan­ce.

‘That’s enough of that, Liam O’Donnell, in front of the weans!’ she said.

Their da didn’t take her on.

She tur­ned to them ins­tead. ‘Right, folks, BED!’, she said. ‘NOW!’

It was only after the last of them had left to go upstairs, with their mother fol­lo­wing after them, that their da noti­ced the cack­le and hiss of Radio Eireann after close‐​down. He was dam­ned if he was going to stand up but and go over and turn it off.

‘Knock that off for me, love, would ye?’ he said when Bridget came back down.

Donal McLaughlin

Donal McLaughlin’s short sto­ries fre­quent­ly draw on Irish‐​Scottish expe­ri­ence. His ‚Liam O’Donnell’ sto­ries cover a peri­od of about twen­ty years, move bet­ween the West of Scotland & Northern Ireland, and use the lan­guages & voices of both the­se pla­ces. Background mate­ri­al on ‚An Allergic Reaction to National Anthems’, pro­du­ced by the British Council, can be found online: www2​.bri​tish​coun​cil​.org/​s​l​o​venia (see ‚OUR PREVIOUS TEXTS AND AUTHORS’ under ‚READING GROUP’)

© Donal McLaughlin
Bild: Martin Zelmenis, Riga
ensui­te, Mai 2004

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Artikel online veröffentlicht: 2. Juni 2017