Kicking the Black Mamba

Robert Welch's moving account of his alcoholic son's death 'should be on every school curriculum'

Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol & Death is Robert Welch’s recital upon his son’s life and death. Welch is Emeritus Professor of English in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ulster, and a Cork man born and bred.

To recount the decline and death of your own son from, as they say, ‘natural causes’, would be hard enough, but to write a book about a son who was an alcoholic; that is Sisyphean. For disappointment, fury, guilt, despair do not make for literature. All too often, such accounts drown in their own sorrows.

But here is a book which sets out to find meaning in the death of Egan Welch, a voyage so grevious that, for most, would end in wreckage. Kicking the Black Mamba is staunch in its refusal of the Red Top standards of sentiment, sensationalism, prurience, cheap bought righteousness.

From the outset, Welch declares that the purpose of the book is not therapeutic, but a search for meaning in the life and death of his son. And for all of us, the death of a young person, especially one who seems to have, in every sense, met his death, confounds.

It is a senseless mutilation that severs hope. What choice has any parent, sister, lover, brother? To stagger under that shrill agony before falling to the loss of all meaning or to try, against the sirens beckoning to chaos, to make sense of what seems senseless, to shape some meaning.

For Welch, that meaning is wrought for through Christianity, through Irish history, through the post-modern condition. Very early on in the book, Bob quotes from Egan’s notebook: 'It is not alcohol that killed me, its [sic] something else.'

Egan had written these profoundly mysterious words before he had tried to kill himself. He recovered, for a wee while. But, as Bob tersely remarks, ‘His fate was heading towards him’. What was that ‘something else’? Welch does not know any more than we do. But he asks of himself and, of us, as readers, many questions in his lonesome voyage towards discovering a meaning for his son’s death.

Was it that Egan was a young man of his times, where the young have no longer any dreams or quests, but know they are doomed to post-modern limitation and failure of the powerless and disoriented individual? Is this the 'Black Mamba', the snake who kills the young in an epidemic of suicide?

So is the meaning of his death a recognition in us all of how lost are the young? How we have failed them with our lush cynicism and our ‘convenience’? The very definition of our times is the loss of meaning.

Was it that Egan took to himself failures that were not of his making? A sense of letting himself and his parents down in not getting the 11 Plus, a sense of his own unworldiness in being ripped off in business, a sense of not being there when his friend was murdered?

Or was it that Egan felt ‘mutilated’, cut between histories; his early years in the Cork Gaelteacht, his later years in Coleraine, aching for some other world he glimpsed in the graceful Irish of a man who, when he turned to English, was halting, awkward.

Could it be that Egan, named after the great Bardic poet, Aoghan O Rahilly, felt in some way that he belonged to an order, a way of being that was considered alien in this abrasive and material world?

The Irish scholar, Aodan Mac Polin cites the poet Hugh McDonnell, who Robert McAdam got up to work with him, by way of cover, in his Belfast Foundry. ‘It is not the English who are the intruders, but the Gaels who are aliens.’

There is no direct sense in the book that Egan somehow relived the cultural dispossession and riven identity experienced by Irish people over centuries. But there is no doubt that Welch’s own deeply felt sense of the fracture of self that is a corollary of post-colonial experience forms one kind of framework, one kind of meaning to his son’s dislocation and disorientation.

I cannot help but think of Van Morrison’s line, inspired, of course, by Black music: ‘Ain’t nothing but a stranger in this world.’ So, small wonder then, that Egan sought another world, a space unconfined, Promethean, liberating, imaginative. Welch talks of Brendan Kennelly’s description of the alcoholic’s space as an ‘otherworld’. Professor Kennelly had the most beautiful English I ever did hear.

But, as Brendan was to discover and as Egan was to discover, that otherworld was as fatal as it was attractive. The legend of Oisin in Tír na nÓg tells of a young man who discovers the land of eternal youth. It is an Elysium where every pleasure is possible, where every wish is fulfilled. But Oisin yearns to return to Ireland. The people of The Land of Youth warn him against going back. But he cannot but go back. And as soon as he sets foot back in Ireland he is turned into an old man.

Welch tells of the many times Egan tried to return from the otherworld. For a while he comes back and must be old and sensible. But he becomes more and more a stranger in that place. And returns to the otherworld. But that world turns to ash in his mouth; no longer a space, but a place of increasing confinement and diminishment.

The happy hours collapse to moments, and the search for those moments becomes increasingly desperate and degraded. Vomiting vodka to make room for vodka. The circle closing like a serpent’s tail. The ‘grim fixity’ wrought by drink.

Welch invokes Coleridge, himself an addict: 'He or she is locked in the monolith of the self and its ever decreasing circle of awareness. It is the condition of anti-imagination... because the imagination requires an outgoing of the seeking spirit, a participation with the Divine Mind as it works through the actual.’

So, where could meaning be in such a life and death? Many times, Welch bears witness to the talented, sweet-natured man his son was. There is meaning in that, for those who knew him. He tells of the youngsters who ask where the man is. And Bob must tell them that he got drowned and they say he was kindly to them.

And there is great comfort in that. In the meals he cooked for them and the derelict places he tried to repair and the fantastic work he did, intuitively with technology and in the stump of a tree he brought into the garden that had been felled in Coleraine that might be transformed into some work of art.

But it is the likening of Egan to a crucified Christ that is at the core of the book, ‘someone I had always known it would become necessary for me to meet'. For Welch, the suffering of his son revealed to him the actuality of Christ. 'In what Egan went through, he was the means whereby the reality of love was revealed to me. He was putting himself into the way of the cross.'

Bob cites the vision of Christ articulated by American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor: '[A] ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind.’

I cannot help but think of Sweeney, the ‘hero’ of a ninth century Irish poem. Sweeney is punished for defying the new order – Christianity. He is condemned by the prevailing order to be half-bird, half man, outcasted and astray, seeking shelter where he may. Caught between two worlds, he flits, as Flann O’Brien so brilliantly translated it, ‘a huddle between earth and heaven’.

So could it be that a young man becomes a stranger in this world and in the otherworld, fated to bear all our ills on the top of his own, Christ-like, suffering for all our sins?

‘Egan’s feeling capacity had the total purity of the saint.’ And yet, Welch is frank about the violence, the mess, the chaos of his son’s life and the ‘ceaseless turmoil’ he wrought around him and the sheer relief of even the most jagged days at the office.

He is self-lacerating about his own complicity, his ‘casual’ attitude to drink. Small blame to him and to Angela, his wife. It is clear that they were loving and compassionate parents. Egan knew that, but there was ‘something else’. Some cross he had to carry, for all their love.

It is clear in this book, also, that the current health system alienates in its often hurried relegation of alcoholics and other addicts to a sphere of disruptive abusive irresponsibility in which the revolving door is the most convenient professional reflex.

All very understandable. Drunks and junkies are a nightmare. But the remote control which flicks addiction and the most profound anguish of the soul, to become somebody else’s problem neglects the black depths of all our ills; our modern outcasting of those who are non-compliant, of those who dare critique our fragile and often self-satisfied rationality.

There is a scene when Egan has smashed up the house and Bob finally realises that his son will die, that he cannot kill the Black Mamba, and he takes him in his arms and says, ‘My poor man, my poor man.’ That the miracle will not happen. The unsaid thing; all of them will be crucified.

As to resurrection? As to some meaning for all that suffering? Welch has, with this extraordinary book, brought to life his son, resurrecting his vitality, his genius, his kindliness, his beauty, his suffering. He has killed the Black Mamba that killed his child.

This is a book that should be on every school curriculum, for it is a fine book and a book that illumines, in its searing honesty and its fortitude and resilience and in its moving insistence upon the beauty of life.

Kicking the Black Mamba is out now, published by Darton, Longman & Todd.