An Update for Holly Brubach: “The Narcissus of Galbally” (A story from my mother.)

My recent posting on Holly Brubach’s review of the book “The Narcissus Epidemic” drew quite a response –and a pirate advt .for the book which you can see if you check the original post.
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(How is this done?, does anybody know? Is it legal? And shouldn’t they be paying some sort of fee?)
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In any event –all the talk about Narcissism reminded me of a wonderful little Irish story related to our global self-reflective fixation that my mother told me.
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She grew up in a little town called Mitchelstown, a country market town in the north of County Cork in southern Ireland, in a rich agricultural area known as the Golden Vale. Some famous villages are located in the area –Galbally, home of the O’Donnell side of my ancestry, for example. Ronald Reagan traced his ancestry to nearby Ballyporeen. Liam Lynch, head of the Anti-treaty forces in Ireland’s Civil War of 1922-23, –a cousin of my mother’s– hailed from close-by Barnagurraha.
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My grandparents, Patrick & Johanna (O’Donnell) O’Neill, ran O’Neill’s Hardware store on Baldwin Street in Mitchelstown. A photograph, taken about 1912 or so, shows a long low building with various agricultural tools and equipment –including a Ransomes, Ipswich, self-sharpening plough– on display outside on the sidewalk. The sign over the shop read “Hardware & House O’NEILL Furnishing Stores”.
As a young boy in the 1940’s I had often visited the store with my father on the way driving up to Ballyslateen in County Tipperary, so he could get in –as he put it– “a spot of dry-fly trout fishing” on the River Suir.
The store was quite substantial, with many different rooms and areas. One of these sounded very grand –the Manchester Department. My guess now is that that meant cotton goods. The aesthetic of the store –always called “the shop”– was one of absolute plainness, spareness, and quietness –with not a hint of our modern consumerism and advertizing to be seen anywhere. I seem to remember a large clock there, with a loud slow tick-tock. Uncle Alan –my mother’s brother, a permanently genial man– always had tuppence for me to run across the street and buy some “jawsticker”.
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[This shop, incidentally, is where Liam Lynch worked as an apprentice for 3 years or so, starting in about 1910. My new poem, “The Piano” –Part Two– tells the story of my mother as a young girl and woman, and her relationship with Liam; and of the powerful story of Liam Lynch’s short life and death in April, 1923 –the last shot of the bitter Civil War. I will be publishing the long narrative poem very soon, and will post the publication date beforehand.]
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In the 1912 photograph, standing on the sidewalk outside the shop is my mother as a young girl, Annie, dressed in what appears to be a pinafore over a dress. Her stance, with feet apart, is matter-of-fact and unselfconscious –one might even say ‘bold’– and she is looking directly into the camera.
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“The Narcissus of Galbally”

In one area of the store were displayed various items of House Furnishing –chairs, tables, cupboards, beds, mattresses, and such. One especially desirable piece of furniture was a wardrobe, with a long mirror.
Fair Day in Mitchelstown brought in its share of rural folk, including more than a few farm laborers. People would walk around the store. Shy. Curious. (Just looking).
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One day the young Annie sees a man, “a boy of forty” –he was from Galbally– looking at the furniture, somewhat bemused: he does not notice Annie. As he passes the wardrobe, a fleeting image catches his eye. It is the mirror. He stops, arrested, and very cautiously comes closer. Slowly he touches it.
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His unfamiliarity and wonder make clear that this is the very first time he has seen a mirror. More, even, –it is the first time that he has seen his own image!
Slowly, he scrutinizes his unfamiliar image.
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And then, Annie hears him speak –softly, to himself.
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He says: “Ah, shure, –I’m very ordinary looking!”
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As she tells me her extraordinary story –one of her lifetime collection– all those years later, my mother and I are sitting drinking tea in the kitchen in Cobh, with its red and blue tiled floor.
Silent, she let’s me absorb and savor it’s warm and wonderful quality, its warmth, its poignancy. What a gift it was; a story she had never forgotten.
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[I would imagine that Holly Brubach would find it a very gentle example of narcissism –indeed if it qualifies at all– next to the terminal variety of self-absorbtion that she wrote of in her recent review of “The Narcissism Epidemic” in the New York Times recently, that I had originally blogged about.
And yet.
And yet –we don’t really know what was in the mind of The Narcissus of Galbally, what picture of himself it was that he carried to the mirror that day in Mitchelstown.


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