When I was considering names for this blog, one of the first that came to mind was Up the Bare Stairs. Thinking it a little-long winded, I asked Hazel Gaynor, whose blogging course I was doing at the time, for her advice and she insisted the title worked well.
“Up the Bare Stairs” is a short story by Cork writer Sean O’Faolain which featured on the Inter Cert English course that I studied at secondary school for my 3rd year state exams in 1991. I was fortunate to have an excellent English teacher most of way through secondary school, Michael McGowan. He must have seen something in me because in 2nd year, he gave me a copy of that year’s Inter Cert novel, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to read and I devoured it eagerly. Along with History, English was by far my best subject.
I thought “Up the Bare Stairs” was one of the most fascinating things I had ever read. I’ve re-read it dozens of times since, trying to understand its essence.
Opening with the quote ‘A pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love,’ and set in post-independence Ireland, it tells the tale of an encounter between two men on the Dublin to Cork train, one of whom is returning his mother’s body to their native city for burial. The man, Francis James Nugent, recounts to his travelling companion, the narrator, the story of his relationship with his parents and a secondary school teacher, Brother Angelo, a hard task-master. A member of the British civil service, Nugent has been made a Baron for ‘war services,’ and he tells the narrator of the exact moment he swore to himself that he would be a success. He recalls how in class, Angelo used to set one group of pupils against the other, based on allegiance to either branch of the pre-independence Irish Parliamentary Party, headed by John Redmond and William O’Brien, respectively. When Nugent gets a Euclid problem wrong, thus losing a quiz for the Redmondites, the pro-Redmond Angelo humiliates him by keeping him back for two hours at the end of the school day. At home, Nugent’s parents, who are eager for their son to do well at school and take the family out of poverty, humiliate him further when they discover the reason for his detention, with his father particularly enraged at his son for letting John Redmond down.
The following day, Angelo asks Nugent to repeat the same problem and when Nugent gets it right, he mocks Angelo by telling him he hadn’t felt like doing it correctly before. Angelo beats Nugent and insists on him doing more Euclid problems, all of which the boy gets right. For the rest of his time at school, Nugent works to, in his words, ‘get out.’ He comes first in the British Isles in three out of five subjects for the Civil Service entrance exam. He never allows Angelo to make it up to him and his resentment of his parents gradually turns to pity at what he perceives to be their wretchedness. His spirit having been broken, Nugent tells the narrator that he worked hard out of ‘pity and hate and pride and contempt.’
In my next post, I will explore what I think the story might have meant to me and I will try to set it in the wider context of the tradition of the short story.