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Poetry Magnum Opus

The Conversion to Islam of Conor Mac Art (part 4)


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Late September, 1563


Is féidir le fir mór agus is minic a ríthe a bhás tú


'Tis a glorious great thing to be young and alive,

to be in possession of your heart and liver and lungs,

feet and hands, ears and eyes and lips and teeth, and ...

taking a quick glance at the blubbery Yoonix beyond,

some other things as well! Hup, get a move on, Bert,

arse in gear, yeh fat oul bowzy, get a move on!



Trot, trot me oul' segoshia, earn your bleedin wages!

Wyjess? Wotfackinwygessthenseeinasowyounevah ...

Tut, tut Bertie Boy, you've been stealing me blind,

and look at the belly on you hanging over your belt!

Any lip out of you, and it's back to the galleys you go!


I gave him a kick up the arse by way of punctuation,

for I'd seen the way he'd chopped off heads on the slaver.

I wasn't about to give this murderous little tyke an inch,

for he'd be quick to go back to his lethal practiced ways.

I was his present saviour and he knew it, but even so,

I chained him to the wall each night like a rabid dog.


Being in fine fettle, I gave him another good boot

just to remind him what was what, then went strolling,

very large and wide, shoving all the civilians to the side

with a pleasant smile, benevolent in my yellow pantaloons,

my green crushed velvet jacket all festooned with pistols,

and a great white turban topped with a pink feather.


O God, wasn't I the fine lad, stepping high with a lovely smile?

'Twas a far cry I was from the sheep and the goats of Connemara,

and the way they'd be looking at you, the brown eyes on them,

with their jaws half-hanging down, just waiting for the Latin.

I was a grand scholar of the Latin, but it's the Turkish tongue

I'll need presently, at the stern request of the Sultan Himself!


You have six months within which you will learn our language,

he'd told me in his mildly diffident, cold-eyed manner, after which

you will be required to take an examination. It would not be

in your best interests to fail this examination, you do understand?

I understood him all too well, The Old Boy has a sense of humour.

He plans to let Bert wield the sword if I fail to meet his standard.


God knows it's a frightful bloody language, difficult and perplexing,

every nuance and modification tacked on to the same word root,

but none of the logical clear inflections of the Greek and the Irish.

It's subtle, not a bit like the Bearla (English) which is why fat Bert,

my probable executioner, after fifteen years among these people,

knows only gutter words for drink and whores. The Sultan knows this.


This frightens me. He is a more subtle killer than Shane O Neill, perhaps

more dangerous. A shudder passes over me on this bright sunny day

as I stride along the broad streets in my bright yellow pantaloons,

not the sort of thing (I smile) you'd be doing often in the County Tyrone

where even the sheep and the goats would be looking at you askance!

Here it's the most normal thing. I laugh. Cheer up. It will be all right!


My mammy always said I had a lovely way of soothing people,

even as a wee babby, when I'd be pulling the tail off of the cat

or shoving my sister into the fire. I had a way, she said, of making

evil people smile, so that they'd lose the urge and will to kill me.

That was before I had met mad-eyed Shane O Neill. The very thought

of him frightens me even now, never mind the cold-eyed bloody Sultan!


I had to run off to France because Shane was of a mind to kill me,

but I've already told you of that. Some poisoned words, even though

we'd been together at the court of the pale peculiar English Queen ...

and didn't he move like lightning, as always, and spear one of her lapdogs

with one of his hidden daggers (one of the many they never found)

and drink the blood of the poor squealing beast while looking at her?


He smiled at the Queen all the while, smiling through his red teeth,

and didn't she clap her hands, eyes locked, and smile back at him?

There was a pair of them in it. And I knew in that moment as the chill

froze my ears to my skull, that there would be cruel war between us,

and that I had no safety in Ireland while this madman Shane was alive.

I was on the boat from Galway, later, when his killers came calling.


Following certain events in France, I went to cousin Rodrigo in Spain

for a few healing months on horseback, roving around the estancia,

shared for several quiet centuries in a long entwined family connection.

All this ruaile buaile with the Turks might never have happened

if I'd listened to Rodrigo, and never taken the wine cargo to Sicilia.

But I did, and we were fallen upon by a fleet of Turkish pirates.


The Sultan suddenly calls for me in the morning. Bert! Sah? Coffee!

(This is a most refreshing drink; I think it would taste better with sugar.)

Is this the examination? I'm only three months in, where are my notes?

We hasten away. There are five circles of gates at the Topkapi Palace,

each more closely-guarded than the last. Bert was thrust aside, glowering,

ouside Gate Two, half-hoping ... hoping what? I was escorted inside.


Allah barış, sen genç adam olmak. Sana sağlıklı olacağını umuyorum?

Sire! I answered the Sultan nervously, in a highly polite form of language.

Not at all bad, Conor, but I think you still have some distance to go.

But, Sire, you said six months! ... a languid hand. Never mind that now.

I have something entirely different in mind for you at the moment.

Have you ever heard of an ancient city by the name of Yerushallem?


Yerra-what, Sire? Is ...is this some place you'd expect me to know about?

O, I think I would. We both know, Conor, you were once a Christian.

He smiled an icy smile. My mind started racing, I told myself calm down,

this is not Shane O Neill, Shane would cut your throat and then kiss you,

but ... but this fellow only has to lift his finger and .... a city? Yeru, yerra,

shallem, shalom, what in the name of God is he talking about?


I have a mission for you, said the Sultan. It is of the utmost importance.

I want you to go to this city.


(to be continued)

Drown your sorrows in drink, by all means, but the real sorrows can swim

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