About the Book
All families have secrets. Most go untold…
In the summer of ‘96, Benjamin Hackett has come of age, technically. And in the midst of the celebratory hangover, his world is whipped out from under his feet. His parents have finally shared their lifelong secret with him; he’s adopted.
At the age of 18, the boy still has some growing up to do, and with the help of JJ, his loquacious consigliore and bodyguard, he embarks on an adventure that’ll put to bed a lifetime of lies.
Over the course of five days, they find themselves caught up in the darker side of Cork. But when they sweep through the misfits blocking their way and finally discover the truth of it…now that’s the greatest shock of all.
The Origins of Benjamin Hackett is a tender tale of heartache and displacement told through a wry and courageous voice. Set in Ireland, it’s a timely reminder that the world hasn’t moved on just as fast as we fancy. Now, in this emotionally charged story, Gerald M. O’Connor explores conditioned guilt and its consequences in a country still hiding from the sins of its past.
O’Connor’s book draws on a time when the Catholic Church in Ireland would quietly take children from mothers in convents and Magdalene Laundries and deposit them into new homes, making it nearly impossible for these kids to find their real parents. Attempts by children to find their birth parents were often blocked by a dark web of secrecy and bureaucracy that, in many ways, still continues to haunt the country today.
Brimming with unfathomable escapades, a motley crew of characters and a healthy serving of Irish humor, O’Connor’s book is steeped in Irish culture told in the inimitable Corkman’s brogue. Set in a time before the chaos of modern digital culture, The Origins of Benjamin Hackett takes a step back, allowing space for readers to escape and think about the realities of growing up in a family founded on a lie. In his stylish debut, O’Connor shows an amazing ability to paint heartbreak and longing that will keep readers thinking about The Origins of Benjamin Hackett long after they finish the story.
Excerpt: Chapter 5
Rain. Jesus, the rain. It didn’t come bucketing down. No, that would have been too simple. A fine soft drizzle frittered from the clouds, the kind that hitches a lift on the wind and soaks you sideways. I’d barely beaten the tide back home when I dropped Ella off. Didn’t dare to enter the place for fear of Dad hectoring me again. After dealing with Nell, I was done with bickering. I simply watched Ella and Boots to the door, waded back down the lane with the Atlantic slipping up over the walls, and then I hurried the two-mile stretch back to Whitehaven.
It seemed my day was cursed for merciless hills. And here I was once more, leaning into another, soaked wet and with a bear of a hangover. In fairness, it wasn’t the canniest way to meet a priest. They were ninjas when it came to secrets. And Father Malachi Brogan was a 10th Dan master of the stuff. His parochial house sat at the end of a row of terraced buildings, perched right on top of Market Street. It lorded over Whitehaven, with the Holy Cross church to its left, like its big brother daring you to have a go. With its grey brick walls and pebblestone garden, it pretty much matched the bleakness of the man.
I paused by the front door and shook out my hands. I never imagined I’d be hanging around here looking for some guidance from a priest. A sense of dread took root in my gut. I pictured a Bible randomly opened and unleashed against me, like a cluster bomb of parables layering on the guilt in sweeps of Father Brogan’s clap-trappery. I shuddered and flicked my fringe from my eyes. It had to be done. He held the key to finding my parents, and I’d be damned if I left without it.
I plucked back the knocker and rattled it off the plate. A single, brassy note hummed. For the longest while nothing happened. Not even the streets showed any hint of livening up. It seemed like a fair clip of time to be stuck in His shadow and nothing moving but swollen clouds in leaden skies. The air grew heavy, as if I were breathing through damp cotton. I shook the rain from my eyes and was about to give the knob another rattle when the door creaked open, stopping on a chain. An elderly woman peeked out, whey-faced and gaunt.
“What do you want?” she asked, eyeing me up and down like I was a beggar.
She wasn’t his usual housekeeper. Miss Maguire was a real dote, always happy in her world sporting that cartoon smile of hers, always keen to get the priest to save your soul. Not this one, though. With her hawkish eyes and biting tongue, she seemed more like a miniature bouncer.
I cleared my throat and threw my best film star smile at her. “Where’s herself today?” I asked.
“Away on holidays.” She looked to the skies and grimaced. “And it’s a right dirty day out there to be on a break.”
“And you are?”
“Busy.” She clicked her fingers twice. “So come on. Tell me your business?”
“Is Father Brogan in?”
“Is Father Brogan in, what?”
I’ll admit this threw me. I wasn’t expecting riddles.
“Is Father Brogan in please, ma’am?”
“He might be. Depends on the reason you’re here.”
“It’s a personal matter.”
“Aren’t they all?”
She tried to close the door, but I jammed my foot in the gap. “He’s expecting me.”
“If he were, I would be. And I’m not.”
I clicked my teeth and breathed deep. “It’s an official church matter. I doubt Father Brogan would be happy with you delaying important information from being delivered to him.”
I held up the envelope and fanned it under her nose.
“And what’s this supposed to be?” she said.
“Letter from the Bishop. He had me swear I’d hand-deliver it myself. And I came as soon as I received it, despite…” I pointed at my neck, “being off duty myself.”
She grabbed the envelope, held it at arm’s length and studied it intently. The second her eyes copped the official diocesan stamp on the back, she gasped.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had word from the Bishop?” She slipped the chain off the latch and swung the door open. “Come away out of the rain immediately, Father.”
“Father in training,” I said, correcting her. It seemed more appropriate. “Not quite there yet. A year still to go in the seminary.”
“And which one are you at?”
I thought for a second. “Maynooth.”
“A fine establishment. I know you’re trying to be all modern and the rest, but the absence of the collar confused me. You’ll pardon my shocking manner?”
“Don’t give it a moment’s thought.”
Before I’d a foot in the door, she began sweeping the rain off me with a brush. I’ll admit I’d never been swept before, or had any all-body grooming in any form whatsoever. It was a strange experience, to be honest. I held my breath as she turned me about to do my front. When her hands approached the way-hey zone, she stood aside and pointed at a heavy mahogany door to our side.
“Why don’t you make yourself comfortable in the drawing room, and I’ll let Father Brogan know you’re here.”
The air inside hinted of incense and cloves. I sat on an old wooden chair with its arm worn down by centuries of parishioners looking for salvation. It sent a shiver of dread through me. I pictured a sinner picking the varnish off and him pouring out his heart, looking for his soul to be spared the short hike downstairs.
The room was composed of the usual religious iconography. A wooden cross hung by a nail on the wall. A picture of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane took centre-stage on the shelf. His eyes peered down at me, probing, his face drawn a porcelain white. I’d asked about his skin colour before. Apparently religion wasn’t open for discussion, and a bowsie like me should know better than to cause the Almighty sufferance with my ignorance. And I should be flagellating myself every night rather than using His gifts against Him. They were all-round champion people my teachers. I shook my head to clear away the slew of religious dogma stuffed in there by the priests. A man wouldn’t do well to focus on those high tales for too long.
A draft slipped into the room. Father Brogan appeared with a large Bible in hand and ebony rosary beads coiled thrice around his fingers. Armed to the hilt already, it seemed. His eyes were his true weapons, though. When the look of recognition came over them, they tore holes in me in an instant.
“Benjamin,” he said in that booming, preacher tone of his. “I understand you’ve just celebrated your eighteenth birthday. Well, to be young again. It must have been a serious session, judging by the colour of you.”
“Cheers, Father. Got a bit lairy there for a while last night. But we survived.”
His smile was all teeth and no eyes. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of mirth in the gesture. “You do know,” he said, “impersonating a man of the cloth is a sin?”
“Sorry, Father. Your stand-in housekeeper kind of came to that conclusion by herself.”
“Really?” He sat behind the desk and loosened his collar. “Now then, young man. What can we do for you today?”
“Well…my parents told me today that I’m adopted.”
He nodded. “Go on.”
“And Dad suggested you could help me track my real parents.” I gave him the envelope with my certificate. “That’s all I’ve I got to go on. So I was wondering if you knew how I’d go about it.”
He studied the document for what seemed like an age, eyes zipping down the page, lips sticking out in an exaggerated pout. “Tell me, Benjamin,” he said finally. “Have you decided what you want to do with your life?”
“Not exactly. No.”
“How about university? A bright boy like you should be able to secure a place fairly easily.”
“I can’t decide what I want to do, Father.”
“Can anyone?” He dipped his head in close. “Have you ever considered the priesthood?”
I swear to God my shadow tried to leg it. “To be honest, I haven’t. Never got the calling, as you say. I suppose I’m not the calibre of soldier Himself is looking for.”
“Pity. You’d make a fine bearer of the Word.”
Would I heck—maybe if the Word wore heels and had hips.
“Anyway,” I said. “Any idea about the parents, and so on?”
“Confession,” he said suddenly. “I notice it’s been a while since I cleansed you of your ways. Why don’t we wipe the slate clean before we go on?”
My hands gripped the arms of the chair, and I picked off flecks of varnish with my nails. “Shouldn’t we do it another time? You know…somewhere a bit more private?”
“There’s nowhere more private than here. After all, it’s only us and Himself listening.” He dragged his chair around to my side and shuffled in close. “On you go, Benjamin.”
The walls of the room seemed to shrink in towards us. Clamminess set on my skin. He was so close I could smell the soap on him and see the rivulets of sweat beading his top lip. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“It has been two months since my last confession.”
“That’s it…go on.”
“I did not love God when I…”
And I rattled off the usual litany of lies every child learns will satisfy the priest without annoying him.
Lied to my parents; check.
Used the Lord’s name in vain; check.
Had improper thoughts about Mrs Coveney the shopkeeper’s breasts; double D and the rest; check.
I finished it off with a few whitish ones, nothing too serious, misdemeanours really. Guaranteed to get a few decades of the rosary at a stretch.
By the time I finished the act of contrition, the sweat had soaked me through. Father Brogan had his eyes closed, listening to every syllable like it was his final fix. He mumbled my absolution, and for some strange reason I thought once more of Mrs Coveney’s breasts and my groin twitched. I tinkered with the idea of mentioning it, but decided it might ruin the moment for him.
“God forgives you, Benjamin. Despite your black deeds, He forgives you. Say three Hail Marys and four Our Fathers.” He made the sign of the cross and tapped me on the chin. “And make sure you play in the match tomorrow, won’t you? We need your skills against those Glenbridge lads. I hear they’re tricky ones.”
“Good man. Now off you go”
“Any chance, Father, you could possibly track back to the original question about my birth parents?”
He bolted up out of the chair, a foul mood reddening his skin. “Back to that nonsense again?”
“I…I didn’t think we’d left it.”
“And are you sure you want to go tormenting your family with this business? Aren’t you happy where you are?”
“Of course I am. It’s just since they told me I was adopted I kind of had a hankering to find out.”
“No good will come of this.” He pointed his finger at me. “Heed my words.”
I pretended like I was, but it was hard to act heeded. All I managed was to clasp my fingers together and stare forlornly at the floor. “In order to go forward, Father, I need to exorcise the demons of my past.”
Call the Army. Genius had invaded.
“Well now. That sounds like the mind of a cleric.” He hemmed his hip against the edge of the desk and chewed his lip in thought. “You may be saved yet.”
“Indeed,” he said, arching an approving eyebrow. “So is this really what you want?”
“Well, so be it. All I know is you were born in Barnamire Convent in Cork. The nuns there arranged your adoption and matched you up with your parents. I’ve no clue as to who your real parents are. Bring your paperwork with you and ask them there. They’ll probably redirect you through official government offices, but it’s worth a punt going there first.”
I stood and shook his hand. “But just so you know, Benjamin, whatever the circumstances they cast you astray to the world without so much as a by-your-leave. And it was your fine folks back up the road there, honest-to-God Catholic stalwarts, who took you in as their own. If you ever forget it, God help your soul.”
“I won’t, Father.”
“Good. Oh, and by the way, the convent is being closed down by the diocese next week. So I’d hurry up if I were you.”
The door slammed shut, and I stood alone on the road thinking if Father Brogan were the employee I’d hate to meet the Boss. He was hard to get the information from, but I had it. I’d sniffed out the name of the nunnery where I’d been dragged into this world and cast aside like the runt of the litter. A buzz of adrenaline seeped through me. It jettisoned the sting of my hangover. Only one thing would stop me—the place closing down. God knows where the files would end up.
I needed to get there fast.
I needed wheels.
I needed JJ.
Away from the church I went, scooting through an archway and down the brooding Speaker’s Lane with its psychedelic shop frontages. The footpath was thick with tourists plodding about, peering at maps and sporting those garish jumpers with shamrocks embroidered on the front. I threaded through them and nearly bowled into Don, the local tour guide, as he herded a group of tall Scandinavian types into the back of his beaten-down Volkswagen.
“Where’s the fire, Benjamin?” he asked, with the gritty voice of someone hungover.
“Have you seen JJ lately?”
“I have. Spotted him piling kids into the bus down by the school gates earlier. Think they’re all going to the summer camp up the road in the Mansion House. Probably be there all day I’d say.”
I nodded at the van. “Fancy dropping me off?”
“Sure. If you help me guide this lot around the Fort first.” He jammed a finger toward the mob inside. “They’re mad for questions. And to be honest, my head’s not up for probing today.”
“More like a heavy decade.”
I laughed a conspiratorial laugh. “Sorry. I’m a bit up the walls right now. But I’d appreciate a lift.”
Don cocked his head back and fidgeted with the keys. “Ah, I don’t know about detours. And there is the delicate matter of maximum passenger capacity to contend with.”
I got the hint. I dug into my pockets and threw him a tenner. A minute later, we were racing through the streets of Whitehaven, half-choked to death by diesel fumes seeping up through the floor. I sat with my back to the door and swayed with the motion of the van.
We’d barely crawled up the hill when the oohs from the Swedes grew to a new high. I’d heard the same gasps from many a tourist as I led them on a tour of the Fort. They were always composed of the same old lot—a bunch of well-heeled Yanks or jabbering Asians, combing the ruins, clicking away with cameras at every broken rock strewn here and there, cataloguing anything that sounded, smelled or feigned of Irishness. And just as the rain doused their mood, and they’d a notion to duck back to their hotels for a lick of the black stuff, the clouds scurried away, and the whole of Ireland erupted in a dress of greens and blues.
I looked down below as row upon row of waves slipped under the keels of boats anchored off Curtles Bay. Everything seemed to move in sync, bobbing and glistening in its own special way. It must have been the weird will of the weather, but for the first time all day my mind calmed. I closed my eyes, patted the envelope twice and let the phut-phut of the engine waft me away into a fitful sleep.
Copyright © 2017 by Gerald M. O’Connor.
Reprinted with permission of Down & Out Books.
About the Author
GERALD M. O’CONNOR is a native Corkonian, currently living in Dublin with his long-term partner, Rosemarie, along with their three children. He writes character-driven novels of various genres by night and is a dentist by day. When he isn’t glued to the keyboard, he enjoys sci-fi films, spending time with his family and being anywhere in sight of the sea. He is currently working on his second novel, The Tanist.