Like me, my father was named Patrick Joseph Ryan. He died at the age of forty-five when I was four and my sister was ten. I always envied her the greater familiarity she had with him. For me he was a charcoal sketch made after his death that hung on a wall in our living room; a copy of it now hangs in my office. Prayer to Jesus as a Brother was always easier for me as a young Jesuit than prayer to God as a Father, so little imagination did I have for such a figure. With the coming of age, however, I have come to know something like fatherhood from the decades I spent as a priest and teacher in Africa, especially when younger African friends died. I can never forget the first time I read the concluding words of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” I read them now differently than I did in my twenties. I am no longer young Icarus, who flew too near the sun, but Daedalus, the father who knew the tragedy of loss.
Lately I have engaged in some family history, and especially the history of my father before he came to New York from Ireland at the age of thirty. The Roman poet Horace describes in Ars Poetica how the great authors of epic poetry, such as Homer, did not begin their tales of gods and heroes “from the egg” (ab ovo), starting with first things first. Instead, they plunged their listeners and readers “into the middle of things” (in medias res), eventually explaining what had come before by means of flashback or other literary devices. Let me do the same with the story of my father.
There was an assassination in Ireland a hundred years ago on May 14, 1921. It took place at a bend in a country road in County Tipperary called Coolboreen, not far from the town of Newport. The intended victim was a twenty-six-year-old English-born district inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary named Harry Biggs. The principal protagonist in this event, at least for me, was my father—a twenty-two-year-old militant active in the Irish struggle for independence from the United Kingdom. He was better known at the time as Paddy Ryan “Lacken” (“Lacken”—from the Irish leaca, or “flagstones”—is a sobriquet meant to distinguish our Ryan family from thousands of others with that surname in southwestern Ireland). He had what he believed was a good reason to seek the elimination of Biggs.
Biggs fought as a British soldier in World War I, during which he had been censured by military authorities for erratic behavior, before coming to Ireland in 1920. He promptly established a particularly hateful reputation for himself in the Newport area, humiliating local Irish people by, among other things, forcing them at gunpoint to sing “God Save the King.” In the winter of 1921, Biggs also burned down my family’s home in two parts—the new house built a few years earlier, then the old house, once a hunting lodge—in retaliation for the guerrilla activities of my father and his brother, Martin. My two aunts, Julia (sixteen at the time) and Nonie (thirteen), were twice driven out of their beds, along with their parents, and witnessed the conflagrations from a farm shed. Biggs also took my grandfather, then fifty-eight, hostage against my father, imprisoning him in the Newport police barracks. Sometimes Biggs forced my grandfather to ride around tied-up in the front seat of police vehicles traveling through the countryside, where the ditches that hemmed in narrow rural roads made them suitable sites for ambushes.