Ireland’s dirty little secret.

The early years

As far back as I can remember, when I was a very small boy my father, Sean O’Kane was very proud of his Irish heritage. He was a loyal listener every Sunday at 4 pm to an Irish themed radio program geared for the expat community in Los Angeles (the name of that program escapes me). As well, there was a constant stream of Irish music being played in the family car and at home throughout my childhood. At events that were going on for the Irish community in Los Angeles (concerts, sporting events, festivals), my Dad and our family were loyal attendees. I never questioned any of this patriotism as I was too young to understand the genesis of this loyalty, all I knew was that I was Irish and that I was proud of it (more on my dads connections to Ireland and my heritage later).

July 7th 1968 is the day that changed the course of my life forever, beginning a sequence of events that eventually led to me living, working and having a child born in Ireland. For on that day my father, along with Jerry (a family friend), drove together in my dads car 150 miles north of Los Angeles to Bakersfield to pick up my Mothers father (Rex) who was incapable of driving himself. When they arrived in Bakersfield Jerry, along with Rex, got into Rex’s car with Jerry driving for the return trip to LA. My dad followed behind after refueling.

While on route during the night and with no street lights on a desolate stretch of a rural California highway, my dad passed a police car stopped on the side of the highway. As he passed the officer, my dad looked down at his speedometer and while taking note of his speed, a large pickup truck with no headlights on, driven by a severely drunken man and driving on the wrong side of the highway in the opposite direction to my dad, collided head on with my father’s car. That driver was thrown through the windshield(no seat belt) and died instantly. My dad (wearing a seat belt but before shoulder straps were introduced) suffered sever life threatening injuries that ultimately forced the doctors to remove half his stomach and a quarter of his intestines. Not having a shoulder strap forced his upper body and head onto the encroaching steering wheel while the lap belt pinned him to the seat. My dad woke up 4 days later with a priest standing over him, whom he told not so politely to leave (my dad was an atheist). How fateful was the timing of this accident in my estimation? If it were’t for the fact that this accident happened in very near proximity to a police officer parked on the side of the road, my dad would have died on the scene. If my dad had left one minute earlier or one minute later he never would have been involved in the accident. If it wasn’t for that accident, I would never have moved to Ireland 12 years later, never having to experience the pain living there had created for me and my family.

I won’t go into the 2/3 years of tumult and recovery that ensued after that horrific event, but what unfolded in the investigations was that the driver of the other vehicle was absolutely drunk and he was driving his company vehicle at the time of the accident. Those two facts meant that a my dad was due large compensation for his troubles and at the end of those negotiations my father became very wealthy.

My dad was a film editor for NBC News at the time of the accident. He was extremely competent at his job, receiving awards commendations and acknowledgments from prestigious entities within the television industry in Los Angeles & New York.  After the settlement, we moved from the very middle class area of Silver Lake to the posher area of Los Feliz into a 3 story mansion.  It was during this time that my dad was to become a partner with 3 Irish brothers (Timothy, Peter & Eddie) in a venture to own & run 2 Irish pubs. One was located in Van Nuys , an LA suburb, that was named ‘Ireland’s 32’ , and the other was located in the Clontarf area of Dublin named ‘The Pebble Beach’. The oddity of his decision to invest in the endeavor of owning pubs, is that he used the money he received due to his car accident with a drunk driver to do it.

Over the next few years, I saw very little of my dad as he was either working at NBC or at his bar, with frequent trips to Ireland to look into his business there. These frequent absences along with the toll they were taking on my mother made me resentful of my dad, and coupled with the fact that I was growing through puberty with my own set of issues to confront, I grew to hate my dad. After he returned from a 7 months absence to Ireland, he announced that he was moving the family to Ireland. It turned out that he had landed a job with the Irish National Broadcaster, RTE, which was opening a 2nd station. Apparently some genius at RTE had decided that having a person with my fathers qualifications in its employ could only be a good thing for the station. Knowing the corrupt bureaucratic semi-state body that RTE was then,  I commend this unknown individual for the testicular fortitude to do such a thing as hiring a eminently qualified person such as my dad.

I was 15 at the time of my dads announcement and I was having none of it. Watching my mother breakdown over his frequent absences, going through the experiences of having to move out of the mansion in Los Feliz and return to Silver Lake while he was in Ireland for reasons unknown to me at the time, as well as overhearing phone conversations my parents were having with my mother crying and begging my father not to leave her ensured I wanted nothing to do with my dad or Ireland. The stress my mother endured broke her and sent her over the cliff emotionally. Coupled with things in her past that created a perfect storm of mental strife, she broke down and never recovered from it, becoming paranoid and delusional to the point that medication was the only option for her to keep the demons at bay.

When my family left for Ireland, I had already been out of the family home for a year, staying with a school buddy’s family as I refused to live at home and refusing to relocate to Ireland. The night before they set off my dad came to visit me, he left me a TV, handed me $50 and wished me good luck. That was in 1978 and I was 16 years old.

Moving to Ireland

On the advice of a close family friend who I was staying with, when he suggested that I go to Ireland to be with my family, I decided to go. I had mellowed out some, was done with school and was a loose element of sorts, couch surfing with no firm plans of what I was going to do. I left on Sept. 20 1980.

When I arrived at Dublin airport, I had to make my own way to the center of town via the bus, where I would meet my mother who was working in a restaurant washing dishes. Nothing was beneath my mom, but washing dishes seemed unbecoming for an American housewife living in Ireland. I discovered as well that my dad was working there too, doing the same job. But what about the job at RTE, I wondered. Apparently there were complications that prevented him from fulfilling his duties full time, so he was on call. But washing dishes? What about the pub? A few years before, the Pebble Beach was fire bombed. It was during a volatile time in Ireland when the IRA and and Unionist were at full scale war. The bombing was in all the papers at the time. But it turns out that the fire bombing was just an insurance scam. It also turned out that the Pebble Beach was sold unbeknownst to my dad. Basically, my dad had no formal partners agreement with the brothers, and his role was as an investor with Timothy being the managing partner. The brothers fiddled my father out of thousands of dollars, then spun a yarn about how they were forced to sell because of the bombing and that they’d get him his money as soon as the insurance came through. It never happened.  On a side note, when my mother was leaving the restaurant, she placed scraps of food wrapped in tin foil in her bag to take home. Why? to feed her family of course. I was mortified. I was discovering that the move to Ireland was not panning out the way it was billed. They were barely employed in a country that was experiencing a government mandated belt tightening with 20 percent unemployment, while living in a rented terraced council house in Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. It was a far cry from Los Feliz, or Silver Lake for that matter.

There were relationships that my dad had with many people in Ireland. He loved Ireland and the Irish, I didn’t warm to them so quickly though. I wanted to be back in California. I remember the first time I walked into the Central pub in Kilcoole, the entire pub came to a stand still, including the Juke Box. For me, I was embarrassed by my parents circumstances, and given the provincial mindedness of small town rural Ireland, I felt like I/we were a freak show in the town. I couldn’t relate at all. My parents though, in spite of the hard times and mental illness, took it all in their stride. It was during one session in the Central that my dad revealed to me that he was born in Co. Derry. What??!! I grew up to believe he was from Spokane, Washington. There were pictures to prove it. But there I was confronted with this new reality. I mean, even though things didn’t add up with this new narrative,  it did explain a couple of things to me like, how he was allowed to live and work in Ireland legally, and it also explained his fondness for and loyalty to Ireland. When I went to the tax office to obtain a PRSI number, the assistant asked me how I thought I was entitled to one, I told him my dad was born in Ireland. That was it. No proof needed. No ID required. I received my number in the mail 2 weeks later. It turns out though that my dad had been spinning a yarn. He was born in Chicago, Illinois. His parents were born in Nebraska, his grandparents parents were born in mid west America also. It was my dad’s great grandparents who were from Ireland.  My dad’s affinity for Ireland and the Irish was so overwhelming that the gave up a good life in the US and altered his identity to be more like them. It was bizarre behavior to say the least. With his relevant lineage being so far removed, he could easily have been Polish. This was no justification however, for the way he was treated by the people he embraced and invested in.

RTE

The primary reason for the move to Ireland according to my dad was because he was hired to assist in the opening of Ireland’s 2nd television station RTE2. But there were problems with his on boarding process there, which at the time I didn’t understand, but it all came to a crashing halt on a very snowy evening in Dublin 1981/2.  The background story is that being heavily unionized, the shop stewards at RTE were not comfortable with this unknown entity from America joining the Union, so they had put my dad on some sort of probation. To complicate matters further, my dad was making a show of the employees and their work practices at RTE by completing tasks in hours that took everyone else days to complete. He wasn’t doing this to upstage anybody, its just the way he rolled. He was showing the people that hired him that they had made a wise decision for doing so. Was a slight bout of showboating involved? possibly, as he had an ego. He was a highly talented award winning film editor and slow, shoddy work was unacceptable at NBC. You had to bust ass to keep a job there. Not at RTE though. People who worked as tea makers and floor sweepers at RTE1 were given jobs as film editors and producers at RTE2 thanks to the Union and they didn’t appreciate a blow-in making them look bad. So on a day when no one showed up for work due to a bad snow storm, my dad made it into work even though he didn’t own a car, there was no public transport available and the roads treacherous. Back at home, we turned on the TV to discovered that there was a snap strike called by the union at RTE and that there was to be no programming until the dispute was resolved.  What we didn’t know at the time was that the Union had had enough of my dad making their members look bad (which they were) and refused to work as long as my dad was at the network ( The 15 mile trek to work in a snow storm was the last straw for them). The management at RTE, who made a half-hearted effort to back my dad, capitulated to the union and let him go.  Looking back on it years later, those were horrible days for my dad. As if the traffic accident wasn’t enough hardship for one lifetime, the people my father invested in and embraced as one of his own were screwing him over at every turn. First his Irish partners ripped him off, The the Irish company that persuaded him to move his family from the US to Ireland to work for them, abandoned him. Not for doing a bad job, but for doing a good one. One thing stood out to me through all the bullshit though, and that is my dad never complained about the way he was treated. Either by his partners, his so called friends from his pub experience or RTE. Sadly, these episodes were only the beginning for my dad.

The National College of Art and Design

Thanks to a friend of my dad, who was the Headmaster of a school in Dublin for children with developmental needs, my dad secures part time employment at that school. Doing what? I have no clue. During the summer months, my dad went on the dole. Brian and my dad were drinking buddies, and Brian’s largesse was vital in allowing my dad to tread water until something more suitable arose. After a couple of years, a position at the National College of Art and Design became available. This opportunity appeared in a fashion that most opportunities arose in Ireland, through word of mouth and an acquaintance. In Ireland it wasn’t what you knew, but who you knew, ala RTE.  This opportunity gave my dad a position in the video department, but only part time. This distinction was important as it capped his earning potential and prevented him from building a pension and by extension security. Again, it was a union issue, as they wouldn’t accept my dad into their ranks. The irony of these Irish trade unions issues with accepting my dad into their ranks, is that my dad was an avowed socialist, and had been since his day at NBC, which to this day is a breeding ground for liberal progressivism. There’s was no more a pro union man than Sean O’Kane. So the financial insecurity continued. Added to this was that he was getting on in age and his opportunities were diminishing with each passing year.

The years of financial uncertainty, the state of his health and the mental state of my mother had taken a toll on my father’s mental state and peculiar behaviors started to emerge. Throughout the town of Kilcoole, my dad was seen regularly walking the streets, to the shops, to bus stops or to the pub, picking up litter. He was obsessed with this practice and was well known in the town for doing it. He took pride in the town he lived in and assumed the duties of keeping it tidy, in spite of the incessant mutterings from some in the town ridiculing the behavior. In social circles he also developed a reputation as a Walter Mitty, revealing unbelievable stories from his past about remarkable encounters and feats. I won’t go into detail but some of them were true and some of them were bullshit.

My dad loved the Irish and Ireland so much so, that no matter how horrible he was treated or how miserable his circumstances were, he doubled down on keeping a pleasant, positive spin on his life and circumstances. He never complained about anything. It was quite remarkable to witness and has provided much inspiration for me as I deal with my own regrets with Ireland.

A sad but heartening end

In 1993, I was living in Palm Beach, Florida with my Irish wife Elizabeth (there’ll be an entire blog post related to her soon). We had recently married in July of that year and had embarked on our life together there. On my birthday, the following year, after a day of golf, I returned to our apartment to find a birthday card from Liz on the kitchen table. Inside of the card was the results of an in-home pregnancy test. It was positive. 2 days later my dad called me with the news that my mother had collapsed and died of a heart attack. Needless to say, we made immediate plans to return to Ireland for the funeral. Liz had made a deal with me to return to Ireland to have the baby, and that we would return to the US after she was born. As a result, I never told my parents about the pregnancy, choosing to surprise them when we arrived back. Unfortunately, my mother never learned that her oldest son was going to produce a grandchild for her. Sad.

The morning after we returned to Ireland, there was a service at the local church for my Mom. What I witnessed at that service completely floored me. The funeral of this American women living in a very close knit Irish village, turned out the locals in their hundreds. I was heartened by this outward showing of respect for my mother, who I discovered, that in spite of her illness was loved and admired by many of the locals in the town. Her earthy, no holding back approach to everything in life was just the ticket for many of the locals who only knew Kilcoole for their whole life.

A couple years later I was in Canada( I will explain why in a future post) where my bother lived when, in an email, our dad revealed to us that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Our immediate decision was to go to Ireland, tidy up his affairs and get him to Canada where he could be properly cared for by his family. The night before we left for Canada, there was a going away party for my dad at the Local Pub. Everyone understood that they were never going to see him again and just as for my mother, the locals came out in droves. the showing of love and admiration for my father that night was overwhelming. People who I thought were antagonists were actually the opposite. There were thoughts and acts of begrudgery among some of the locals about our presence in Kilcoole over the years, which I regretted, but that night none of it was in evidence.  There were a lot of laughs and a lot of tears that night.

 A final kick in the teeth.

After settling in Canada, my dad took a trip to San Diego where his sister and my other brother were living with their families, to visit and to say his goodbyes. While there he had a seizure and was taken to the hospital. After an exam he was asked by the attending doctor why his cancer wasn’t treated in Ireland. Though his condition was considered terminal in Ireland, it was actually far from it. The seizure was the result of the cancer spreading to his brain and it was the opinion of the Drs. in San Diego, at a hospital that specialized in cancer treatment, that if my dad had been offered treatment, the cancer would have been treatable. But in Ireland my dad was on the public health scheme. It was decided that considering his age, 59,  and his preexisting condition related to the traffic accident, it wasn’t in the systems interest to provide the resources necessary to treat him. As he could not afford private insurance, he was basically told by the powers that be in Ireland to get his affairs in order.

That reality enraged me. I thought, how many butt-fuckings had this man gone through based on the decisions of people from a country my father adored and revered. He had nothing but love for Irish and sacrificed everything to live among them. But at every turn from his Irish business partners, to the RTE brass and trade unions, to the Irish health system, they all let him down, without regret and with a straight face. It was the ultimate insult to a man who, again, gave so much to a country that provided little in return except hardship.

I was fortunate to spend everyday of the last 6 months of my dads life with him. I was in my late 30’s and for the first time I was finally getting to know my dad. As I laid with him while he took his last breaths, I was overcome with an overwhelming feeling of respect and admiration for a man who was treated horribly by so many he revered, yet never losing his self respect and never complaining about his circumstances or how life unfolded for him in the only place he wanted to live. If anyone was entitled to complain, it was my father Sean O’Kane. There are a few in Ireland who should be ashamed of themselves, though I doubt few will care.

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