“The Betrayal” by President Michael D Higgins

A poem for my father.

© 1990, Michael D. Higgins
From: The Betrayal
Publisher: Salmon, Galway, 1990
ISBN: 094833939x

This man is seriously ill
the doctor had said a week before,
calling for a wheelchair.
It was
after they rang me
to come down
and persuade you
to go in
condemned to remember your eyes
as they met mine in that moment
before they wheeled you away.
It was one of my final tasks
to persuade you to go in,
a Judas chosen not by Apostles
but by others more broken;
and I was, in part,
relieved when they wheeled you from me,
down that corridor, confused,
without a backward glance.
And when I had done it,
I cried, out on the road,
hitching a lift to Galway and away
from the trouble
of your cantankerous old age
and rage too,
at all that had in recent years
befallen you.

All week I waited to visit you
but when I called, you had been moved
to where those dying too slowly
were sent,
a poorhouse, no longer known by that name,
but, in the liberated era of Lemass,
given a saint’s name, ‘St Joseph’s’.
Was he Christ’s father,
patron saint of the Worker,
the mad choice of some pietistic politician?
You never cared.

Nor did you speak too much.
You had broken an attendant’s glasses,
the holy nurse told me,
when you were admitted.
Your father is a very difficult man,
as you must know. And Social Welfare is slow
and if you would pay for the glasses,
I would appreciate it.
It was 1964, just after optical benefit
was rejected by de Valera for poorer classes
in his Republic, who could not afford,
as he did
to travel to Zurich
for there regular tests and their
rimless glasses.

It was decades earlier
you had brought me to see him
pass through Newmarket-on-Fergus
as the brass and reed bank struck up,
cheeks red and distended to the point
where a child wondered whether
they would burst as they blew
their trombones.
The Sacred Heart Procession and de Valera,
you told me, were the only occasions
when their instruments were taken
from the rusting, galvinised shed
where they stored them in anticipation
of the requirements of Church and State.

Long before that, you had slept
in ditches and dug-outs,
prayed in terror at ambushes
with others who later debated
whether de Valera was lucky or brilliant
in getting the British to remember
that he was an American.
And that debate had not lasted long
in concentration camps in Newbridge
and the Curragh, where mattresses were burned,
as the gombeens decided that the new State
was a good thing,
even for business.

In the dining room of St Joseph’s
the potatoes were left in the middle of the table,
in a dish, toward which
you and many other Republicans
stretched feeble hands that shook.
Your eyes were bent as you peeled
with the long thumbnail I had often watched
scrape a pattern on the leather you had toughened for our shoes.
Your eyes when you looked at me
were a thousand miles away,
now totally broken,
unlike those times even
of rejection, when you went at sixty
for jobs you never got,
too frail to load vans, or manage
the demands of selling.
And I remember
when you came back to me,
your regular companion on such occasions,
and said: ‘They think that I’m too old
for the job. I said that I was fifty-eight
but they knew I was past sixty.’

A body ready for transportation
fit only for a coffin, that made you
too awkward
for death at home.
The shame of a coffin exit
through a window sent you here,
where my mother told me you asked
only for her to place her cool hand
under your neck.
And I was there when they asked
would they give you a Republican funeral,
in that month when you died,
between the end of the First Programme for Economic Expansion
and the Second.

I look at your photo now,
taken in the beginning of bad days,
with your surviving mates
in Limerick.
Your face haunts me, as do these memories;
and all these things have been scraped
in my heart,
and I can never hope to forget
what was, after all,
a betrayal.

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