Back in 1953, when I was eight, I was generally considered a "nice" boy. But I often stole and lied and only a very few people knew about it. I nervously rifled the pockets of my father's brown corduroy trousers hanging at the end of our bed while he was asleep after his return from his local pub. A snore from him, a plunge from me, a retrieval of half a crown or at least a shilling; an alert pause, another snore, and a plunge again, until my intended trove was complete. I stole plywood panels from a little workshop in a back alley in Dublin as I meandered home with a school friend, stole toy soldiers from Woolworth's in Henry Street (buying the one that was held out to the careless assistant, secreting the other in my sweating palm), and stole larger sums of money from the till of my grandmother's pub during my summers with her in the country. I lied, almost always, when I was challenged on any matter. But the lie that bothered me the most was a relatively unimportant one: when people wanted to know where I lived, I usually said I was from Phibsborough, the slightly more prosperous neighborhood that bordered ours and where the houses had front gardens.
My friends who knew the truth teased me about the matter, and I too felt bad about not wanting to admit that I came from Kirwan Street. My aunt said you should never be ashamed of a thing like that. But I was, and I could see that I wasn't going to change no matter who took me to task or how ridiculous I realized my attitude was. I was keenly aware that the boys who teased me all lived in slightly better houses than I did.
It wasn't that way when Kirwan Street comprised my entire world. I'd arrived there as a four-year-old following my mother's death and my father's decision to move back in with his unmarried sister long after the rest of their family had decamped to other parts of the city. The street was situated between a convent and an asylum in an area known as Stoneybatter, on the north side. Its forty-three row houses, built in the early twentieth century for "respectable" artisans, were two up-two down, except for a couple at the end that were larger and had gardens. Their brickwork was of muted, variegated color, making the street more attractive than the streets nearby that were all red. There was a high stone convent [End Page 9] wall in front of us, rather than another row of houses. Ours was a quiet street and I always liked that.
In the years following World War II, old ration books still lay in our kitchen drawers, and grocery shops in Stoneybatter were patronized or shunned depending on how they had sold scarce goods during the conflict. There were lots of stories about covertly sending bacon to relatives working in England and how the Irish authorities would issue a stern warning whenever the "rashers" were caught. Out on the street, the gaslamps were lit by a suited man on a bike, and the street gutters cleaned by one with highly polished shoes. Our bread was delivered by a horse-drawn van; our milk was deposited in the foot scrapers that no one ever used. Mail and newspapers—the Irish Independent and Evening Herald for Fine Gael supporters, the Irish Press and its evening edition for Fianna Fáilers—arrived twice a day. We had regular confrontations with our English newsagent, "Hoppy." He was moustached and pompous and ever-befuddled about the accounts, and his Stoneybatter wife was his irritated but customer-friendly nemesis: the two were a version of Basil and Sybil in Fawlty Towers. I bought my sweets and comics there too, even when our neighbor, Mr. Madigan, said that the reason Hoppy had a car was that I was buying so many things I didn't need from him.
Except for his pub night on Friday, my father arrived home promptly...