Something forgets us perfectly

The Blarney Stone: "The Blarney Stone, standing at the corner of acres of nothing; a last headstone to a lost Gorbals."

The Blarney Stone: "The Blarney Stone, standing at the corner of acres of nothing; a last headstone to a lost Gorbals."

I stumbled across this article about The Blarney Stone last week through some random fluke.

When I read it the hair stood up on the back of my neck and the spaces above my cheek-bones ached with the pressure of welling tears.

This was where one of my father’s uncles, Joseph Callaghan, took me for a pint one Saturday morning in May of 1973. He wanted me to see where my father’s family had lived since at least the middle of the 19th century: that notorious Glasgow neighbourhood known as the Gorbals.

An immigrant district, the Gorbals was predominately Irish Catholic, Jewish and Italian in character. It once owned a vile reputation: disease-ridden tenements, drunken mayhem, sociopathic razor-gangs.

Here’s an account by Ralph Glasser, a noted economist who would have grown up in the Gorbals at the same time as my father:

“The streets were slippery with refuse and often with drunken vomit. It was a place of grime and poverty… The Victorian building, in red sandstone blackened by smoke…was in decay. Splintered and broken floorboards sometimes gave way under your feet. Interior walls carried patches of stain from a long succession of burst pipes. Rats and mice moved about freely…”

My grandmother, the late Marion Nedley Bell, bore four children. Two never reached adulthood: a two year-old boy who died of a lung disease and a 12-year-old daughter who burned to death on a cold day when she stood too close to the fire and the flames ignited her dress.

Notwithstanding all that, for most of its residents the district’s poverty was the immigrant poverty of those who are on their way up in the world. The descendants of its immigrants became immigrants themselves, and they still turn up in the oddest places.

I’m  amused to discover that a trendy restaurant called The Gorbals opened last year in the arts district of downtown Los Angeles, winning good reviews back home. Its menu includes a delightfully Glaswegian form  of cultural miscegenation: “bacon-wrapped matzo balls.”

Post-war Labour governments swore to knock the tenements down and replace them with vast new public housing projects. In the 1950s my dad’s family were among 30,000 or so slum-dwellers to be relocated within a big, modern housing estate called Castlemilk. My grandparents moved into a snug little two-room flat at 19 Drakemire Drive that featured an indoor toilet, a refrigerator and a coal-burning fireplace that was later replaced by an electric grill.

But the former residents of the Gorbals always longed for the intimacy and warmth of their old community, most of which had been bulldozed away by the end of the 1960s.

So every Saturday morning my Uncle Joe and many others in Castlemilk took the bus down to their old local: The Blarney Stone. For some reason, the bulldozers never touched it. I remember the “stoory rubble” that stretched for acres on either side of the street and the garish shamrocks that decorated its grimy interior. I like the way Gary Boyd tells it:

And I imagine them coming back then. The trickle of decanted and dispersed Gorbalese, clinging to lost dreams of their demised community, commuting from their new homes in the new peripheral estates, communing with old friends and comrades shunted out along with them to a prescribed new life at the four bleakest corners of the city: Castlemilk, Easterhouse, Drumchapel, Pollok.

My uncle knew I was just a gormless 19-year-old kid, so he warned me not to get into a fight “wi’ they big Irishmen.” Then he let me drink as much beer and whiskey as I wanted.

A small rheumy-eyed old man whose name I can’t remember moved away from a knot of loud, drunken workingmen and stood in front of me. He squeezed my elbow and looked up at my face.

“Ah mind yer faither, sonny-boy. Jimmy Bell wiz a gallus case,” the old man said.

He actually meant my late grandfather, whose name was also James Bell, and who worked in the shipyards as a hammerman, or metal-worker. He and at least three or four generations of my family’s men-folk gathered at The Blarney Stone for decades to drink, smoke and swear. Of course, no women ever drank there. That would have been a sacrilege.

I don’t remember much about how I got back to my grandmother’s flat after the pub closed that afternoon at 2:30, though I do recall helping my uncle not fall off the back of a doubledecker bus we rode on. After we sobered up my grandmother and her sister treated my uncle to a long, brutal tongue-lashing. My reward was an evening’s worth of cold stares.

In 1998 they finally got around to obliterating The Blarney Stone. There is nothing left now except these and other dim memories. In time, they too will be obliterated.

Layer after layer of autumn leaves

are swept away

Something forgets us perfectly

Leonard Cohen — For E.J.P.

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