Sunday, October 5, 2008


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 16, Number 6 (June 2005), p. 31.

“One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.” So says the narrator of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), establishing in the opening paragraph of that classic novel the meta-fictive foundation that the book is constructed on. Asserting not many pages later that “a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham,” the narrator clearly licenses the reader to break the rules of reading just as willfully as O’Brien and his narrator (a college student writing a novel within O’Brien’s novel) break the rules of writing.

Having first plunged into that marvel-filled book back in 1977-78 when I was (like the narrator before me, and like O’Brien before his narrator) a student at University College Dublin, I instinctively thought of it—and indeed took license from it—when I picked up The Last of the Bald Heads (Hodder Headline Ireland, 2004), a hot-off-the-press memoir by Ferdia Mac Anna, for a very brief time one of my classmates at UCD. Thus I have to confess that after a cursory glance at the opening pages of the opening chapter, I immediately broke the first rule of reading by fastforwarding until I got to almost literally the dead center of the book—the chapter dealing with the author’s abbreviated attachment to UCD’s Master of Arts Program in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama. Having had the distinct pleasure some years ago of discovering myself immortalized in a photograph (shot in the National Library of Ireland) included in Frank Delaney’s book James Joyce’s Odyssey, a companion to Joyce’s Ulysses, I just had to know (O, the vanity of human wishes) whether I had made the pages of Mac Anna’s book as well.

And I had!

Well, sort of . . . to the extent that I at least recognized myself in Mac Anna’s thumbnail sketch of the students enrolled in the M.A. program: “It turned out that I was the only Irish person in a class composed of a couple dozen Americans and several Canadians.” Hey, I was one of those Canadians! Kudos to Ferdia Mac Anna for making that distinction regarding the North Americans who made up the bulk of the group. Had he stayed in the program longer (Ferdia, we hardly knew ye!), he might also have distinguished the Austrians, the Italians, and the one Japanese student who rounded out the class roster. Looking around our seminar room, we laughed among ourselves that the M.A. program must be sponsored by Bord Fáilte/The Irish Tourist Board. Mac Anna may have laughed with us, but if so, I daresay his chuckles were spiked with a healthy measure of irony—and of skepticism. As he admits, “I found it hard to motivate myself to study—I kept feeling that I should be doing something else, something more worthwhile.” Ouch.

The curmudgeonly Prof. Roger McHugh thwarting his ambition “to write a novel while writing a thesis about writing a novel” (Flann O’Brien would have approved), Mac Anna was not long for the world of the M.A. program, and to a great extent The Last of the Bald Heads recounts his quest for that elusive “something else.” Like any quest narrative worth its weight in paper and ink, this one has its share of detours and diversions along with the ordinary twists and turns on the switchback path of life. The book covers a lot of territory.

As it turns out, I was on board—at least as a witness, at least at the start—for the most exhilarating part of the journey: Mac Anna’s short-lived (but repeated and later reprised) foray into the world of Irish rock-and-roll as the frontman for a band with the clearly-intended-to-provoke name of “Rocky De Valera and the Gravediggers.” As Mac Anna recalls—and as I recall right along with him—the band, its lead singer flamboyantly decked out in dicky bow and black eye patch, made its debut in the student pub on the Belfield campus of UCD early in 1978: “The place was packed. We started with ‘Peter Gun,’ then went into ‘Shakin’ All Over.’ It was like a riot. At some stage I threw myself into the front rows and the front rows threw me back. The crowd loved us and we got three encores.”

Obviously, the experience was intoxicating, figuratively as well as literally, for the newly fledged vocalist: “Afterwards we sat in the bar, drenched in sweat but beaming with satisfaction. People came up to congratulate us. We were bought pints. A Students’ Union guy came up and booked us for a lunchtime open-air gig the following week. I decided that I would not be completing my Master’s after all. There would be no more lectures. No more tutorials. No thesis. I was enrolled full-time in the University of Rock.”

To the best of my recollection, that was the last time I saw Ferdia Mac Anna. He fell off the face of my earth in Dublin. Or I fell off the face of his.

Either way, his entertaining account of his on-again off-again career as Rocky De Valera, which I had seen launched all those years ago, sufficiently piqued my curiosity about the man behind the eye patch that I decided to read both backward and forward (again, Flann O’Brien would have approved) from that point where our lives had briefly converged at UCD.

The Last of the Bald Heads actually both opens and closes on rather sobering notes, as both before and after regaling the reader with tales of his boyhood and adolescence (and then his protracted adolescence) Mac Anna recounts, with humor-laced candor, the details of his surviving first a brain aneurysm and then testicular cancer. Bookending the memoir, those experiences lend a moral anchor to the story of a life of typical restlessness spiced up by some not-so-typical episodes.

Among these are the ones that involve cameo appearances by Bono and U2, by former Jimi Hendrix bass player Noel Redding, by novelist Roddy Doyle, among many other “names.” Not that Mac Anna needs to name-drop—and not that he does. The son of renowned Abbey Theatre director Tomás Mac Anna, he grew up in Howth mixing with “celebrities” of one sort or another (mainly bohemian) and, thanks to the paterfamilias, even landed a minor acting role or two himself, including a walk-on in a Paris production of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. He also had a part in the celebrations at Croke Park marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Uprising. Recollecting that the four-night spectacle was afflicted by terrible weather, he takes obvious pleasure in recounting how, assigned the task of holding up the final letter “E” on a set of placards announcing the birth of the Irish nation, he played a small role in the rewriting (as it were) of Irish history: “On the third night the wind snapped off the bottom half of my letter. From the stands it appeared that the glorious, heroic blood sacrifice of 1916 had culminated in the birth of the new republic of ÉIRF. Diehard nationalists must have been mortified.”

Perhaps inevitably, the natural father-son tension of Mac Anna’s growing up that runs like a thread (at times like a threaded needle) through this book came to a head during a school pageant, directed by his famous father, at Coláiste Mhuire, at that time Dublin’s only Irish-language school for boys. Playing the role of Noah’s son Japheth sharing a vision of heaven, young Mac Anna froze on stage when the time came for him to recite the host of Irish heroes found in the divine afterlife. Unable to recall the names of Finn McCool, Cúchulain, Michael Collins, James Connolly and Brian Boru, he improvised wildly: “Mussolini was the first. There was a huge gasp from the audience but, unable to stop myself and not knowing what I was saying except that I had managed to finally remember the names of some famous people, I went on—James Bond, Taras Bulba and Genghis Khan . . . I may have added Rasputin and Stalin to the company, I can’t remember. I’m nearly positive that I didn’t say Hitler.”

That scene is one of many set during Mac Anna’s time at Coláiste Mhuire—a period that he records with a wit that is at times almost as savage as the Christian Brothers who ran the school. Practicing a ministry of fear—a particularly vicious brand of Catholic Nationalism—the Brothers obviously deserve the scornful treatment the author affords them.

But Ferdia Mac Anna has tales to tell out of school, too, and the third major episode of his life that he documents (after his boyhood dramas and traumas and then his stint as Rocky De Valera) involves his two-season hitch as a producer for Gay Byrne’s ever-popular The Late Late Show on RTÉ. Eventually, though, even the allure of rubbing shoulders with the likes of novelist James Baldwin, actor Oliver Reed, and singer-songwriter Dory Previn wore off and the allure of “Beer and Blood and Rockandroll” (the title of the book’s penultimate chapter) took hold of Mac Anna’s life once again. Until cancer took hold.

The brief Afterword to The Last of the Bald Heads begins: “After cancer, my life became a lot simpler. . . . I became a bit of a recluse and that was when I started to write.” And write. And write. Since putting down his memoir, I have read cover-to-cover (Flann O’Brien might not approve!) the three wonderful comic novels that Mac Anna has penned since settling into married life with three children: The Last of the High Kings (1991), The Ship Inspector (1995), and Cartoon City (2000). Who could have guessed that Ferdia Mac Anna had so many words in him? Certainly not I, his erstwhile classmate at UCD more than a quarter-century ago. Ferdia—or Rocky—we hardly knew ye, indeed!

Postscript (10/1/08):
In 2006 The Last of the Bald Heads was reissued with a new Afterword and a new title—The Rocky Years: The Story of a (Almost) Legend. In the Afterword, Mac Anna presents an engaging account of the resurrection of Rocky De Valera and the Gravediggers in the Summit Inn in Howth on the night of December 30, 2005. Despite a broken guitar strap (on the first tune, no less), an almost-swallowed harmonica, and a complete power outage, the event proved a resounding success. As a recent YouTube video testifies, Rocky and the lads continue to live on . . . and to rock on.

No comments: