by John Fahey
There are times when an idyllic childhood in Ireland, even for just a few years, can sustain that child as he grows older, encountering physical abuse and terror. That was so for me between 1949 and 1953.
Ireland has been in my heart ever since.
My memoir is about a battering father who would not accept me as his son. It is about my love of Ireland sustaining me, giving me the courage to fight back against despair, to seek a better life through reading and hope and education. It is about never giving up. After a disastrous road accident which scarred my face at 17 and cycling from northeast England and across the Irish Sea to Knock, seeking a miracle, I found the burden of despair lifted from my shoulders.
In my memoir I write about being born in Tees-side in 1944, being taken to my grandparents in Ballybohan, Roscommon when I was almost five, finding love and safety, being torn away when I was nine and taken back to England to be battered continually through my teenage years by my father who called me a bastard.
I gained entrance to a Marist grammar school at age 11, St. Mary’s College, and sought a means of escape through reading as many books as I could from a local public library and my school books. Living with my battered mother, two younger sisters and two younger brothers in a slum, my father would threaten to blind me if he caught me reading.
I had to hide my books and study in remote places, forging my parent’s signature on report cards because I did so well. When I passed eight ‘O’ levels my father raged at me and told me I was going to dig ditches and reading was going to be beaten out of me. The Marist priests at my Marist College intervened and got me a job as a laboratory assistant in I.C.I., a bus ride from our house. By that time I cycled everywhere on my ten speed bike.
I’d begun newspaper deliveries when I was 11, earned money babysitting and continued studying for my ‘A’ levels at Stockton-Billingham Technical College, taking over paying for the rent and food for the table, battling my father demanding and forcibly taking my earnings.
I would not give up hope, would not let myself despair; I had my memories of Ballybohan and Ireland to take me through the worst times. I was hit by a car cycling to school when I was 17 and was horribly facially scarred and I was beginning to be aware I was attracted to other lads my age. I was horrified what I read in books about that. I pleaded and prayed that God would have mercy on me and take my life.
I took that cycle ride to Knock seeking a miracle – once there I instantly changed my prayers that a crippled child would get that miracle and I would accept my scarred face. I returned to Tees-side with even more hope and determination. I discovered books by Mary Renault on the life of Alexander the Great and his beloved Hephaestion.
It led me to reading about Achilles and Patroclus. I realized I was not doomed. It seemed as if it was a message from God because that first book was called ‘Fire from Heaven’.
I passed my ‘A’ levels’ and was accepted to the University of St. Andrews to study Chemistry. My father’s sister Josie protected me, having all letters sent to her house, for his signature to be forged. He attacked me when I told him I’d been accepted to University. I escaped on the train north to Scotland.
I went through emotional crises when there, became popular, loved music and dancing, graduated with an Honours degree in Chemistry, finally met other gay people in Amsterdam, got an invitation to visit New York, applied for and got a job and a green card from a Pharmaceutical Research Institute that was to launch me on a successful professional career.
I have never forgotten what my childhood in Ballybohan gave to me. I still weep for children who are abused. I wish that my account will give hope to others that no matter how terrible the circumstances determination and reading can offer a way to escape.
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