The Origins of Benjamin Hackett
by Gerald M. O'Connor
Genre: Coming Of Age
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.
Life was lived in the quiet moments; all the rest was pure bluster. I was paraphrasing of course. I hadn’t the foggiest who’d said those words, or whether they were ever uttered out of the mouth of anyone at all, and if by happenstance they had it probably was more succinct. But the thought cropped up in my head then, watching my dad visibly stutter less than the width of a jab away from me.
“There’s no way in hell I’m adopted,” I said.
“You are a bit.”
“You can’t be a bit adopted.”
Dad seemed to consider this for a moment, before shrugging and smiling wanly. “No…I suppose you can’t.”
“This is a pile of unadulterated nonsense. You’re both having a laugh, right? Some twisted revenge for me not applying to college?”
Dad reached inside his shirt pocket, pulled out a manila envelope and laid it on the table. “This,” he said, tapping it twice with his index finger, “contains your adoption certificate. We decided to keep calling you by your birth name, Benjamin. Seemed the correct thing to do at the time.”
He held up his hand to hush me. “It’s the original document we received the day Father Brogan brought you here and made it all official.” He slid it over to me. “It’s yours now.”
I picked up the envelope and tore it open, unfurling the paper inside and laying it flat on the table. My eyes skimmed over the document, flitting from word to word—adoption, adoptees, dates, signatures and the official diocesan insignia on the envelope. They were all there, all the bureaucratic paraphernalia of the state and church.
I held his stare, neither of us flinching. “Am I really adopted?”
My throat turned to dust. Call it the formality of the letter, or the way the word cut short on his breath. I thought of Mam’s delicate frame and barley-blonde hair. We looked nothing alike. But Dad? He was meant to be the exception. We both towered over her. We both had lanky frames. Hell, we even shared that same terrible torture of walking on long, flat feet that no shoe, no matter the cut or cobbler, could fit comfortably.
Reams of memories of years gone by played on a loop in my head. “Sure, isn’t Benjamin the spit of his old man,” they’d said. “Dug from the same field, no doubt about it. Oh, he’s a Hackett all right, this fella.” And my parents had lapped it up. Like the time in Hay Street, in the bustle of market day, when they nodded in tacit agreement at some hunched-over old coot as she tousled my hair and told them how my curls were the carbon copy of Dad’s.
“But we look alike?” I said.
“You know we do.”
He leaned in closer, dropped his voice to a whisper. “Truth is, we’ve been secretly dying your hair since you arrived. You’re actually ginger.”
I shoved the table into him and threw my hands up. “Jokes? You think now is the time for messing about? For having a bit of a laugh?”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, showing his palms in surrender. “It just snuck out…but seriously, you’re not going to make a big deal of this, are you?”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
“Because it’s not what Hackett men do.”
“Well, I’m clearly not one of them, now am I?”
My comment flushed crimson high in his cheeks. He balled his hands twice and relaxed them flat on the table. “You’ve been long enough on the farm,” he said, quieter now. “Long enough to know that animals of all sorts adopt strays and nurture them as their own. And there’s not a blind bit of difference in them when they mature. Attitude is more in the rearing than the genes. You’re my son and a Hackett. Adopted or not.”
“So you’re calling me a stray animal now? Christ, Dad, you’re some piece of work.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it. Don’t go all melodramatic on me now. We’ve enough histrionics happening outside already.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “I think we’re allowed this one time to have a bit of a barney.”
“Well, you’re not. No son of mine is going to throw a tantrum over something like this. Adoption happens all over the world, every day of the week. Just because you came out of another doesn’t mean we’re not your parents. And let me tell you this now. If I hear any of that sort of nonsense when your mother’s about I’ll—”
“Ah, nothing.” He leaned back, folded his arms and studied his feet for a while. His standard move whenever his mood blackened. “You know,” he said after a while. “I never wanted to say anything. But your mam wouldn’t have it. Have you any idea how difficult it was for her to keep this a secret all this time?”
“And if it was such a burden on you two, why didn’t you relieve yourselves of it sooner?”
“Because we thought if you knew too soon it’d mark you, hang over you like a shadow looming large. Scar you for life. Father Brogan advised us to tell you early, but your mother thought it was best you didn’t know. She thought you’d settle better and handle it easier as an adult rather than a child. I don’t know…maybe we should have taken the priest’s advice and told you sooner?” He stroked his stubble and sighed. “It was bad enough you’d that birth mark on your face without lugging this around as well.”
“Nice one, Dad,” I said, and instinctively I felt for the port-wine stain on my face. I couldn’t help myself. It was an old habit, hiding behind my veil of fingers and thumbs. “An Angel’s kiss” Mam had called it when I was finally tall enough to catch sight of myself in the mirror. Even at three years of age I knew it’d be a burden. Angel’s kiss was such a pile of nonsense. It was more like ten of them took turns to give me a six-inch hickey from cheek to chin. I stopped wearing camouflage since the age of twelve. No matter how you applied the green-tinted clay, it always came out a weird shade of vomit.
“Okay so, Mister Automaton,” I said. “Tell me this, then…who are my real parents?”
“Not a clue. All we know is what’s in that letter, and we never felt a need to find out more. Do you?”
“Ah, I don’t know what I want to do with all this. I mean…who would? Springing it on me now after all these years with my head all over the shop.”
“Well, if you do, Father Brogan’s your man. He knows all about this revelation today. I expect it wouldn’t be a surprise to him if you turned up there later.” He pushed up and away from the bench. “Right so, that’s that.”
“Seriously? That’s all you’re going to give me?”
“Well, as much as I’d like to stay and chat the farm won’t work itself. Fancy helping me spraying weeds in the paddock?”
“What do you think?”
“Suit yourself, then.” He buttoned his overalls, swung his arms into his mac and zipped it up to his neck. With a hand on the door handle, he inched it ajar, before turning around once more. “You know, Benjamin. We’ve farmed this patch of land for near on ten generations. And do you know what I’ve learned from the three decades I’ve held it together? Tides come and tides go. Every bit of sand laying on the beach below us today will be somewhere else entirely tomorrow. Nothing stays the same. All this is just noise, a glitch in your life. By tomorrow, or next week, or ten years down the line, today will be a distant memory to you. Hell, you’ll probably even laugh about it.”
“I doubt that.”
“Well, whatever your plans are from here, don’t go leaning on your mam too much. Do what you have to do, but do it gently.” He fixed his cap on his head and held a finger up as if he’d just remembered something. “Oh, and make sure to collect Ella from Nell’s before you trot away into the day. And get her home before the high tide. It’s a spring one and it’ll cut the road off. If Ella misses her lunch, there’ll be hell to pay.”
I snorted. “And we can’t be having that.”
“Nope. You’re right on that point,” he said, the trace of a smile brightening his face. “You see? We are alike after all.”
Away up the yard he pottered, hands tucked into pockets, shoulders hunched forward, with a host of grey clouds looming above him. I raced upstairs and changed out of the flag into a plaid shirt and black denim jeans, and a whole load of questions kept buzzing about in my brain. One kept barging its way towards the front and trampling over the others. “What you gonna do, Benjamin?” it said, over and over again, mockingly.
I looked through the attic window and spied Mam down in the yard with pegs clipped to her blouse and her sheets being harassed by the weather. She must have sensed me staring because she glanced up and immediately gestured me down.
“You going out?” she asked, when I appeared.
“I am. Going to pick up Ella from Nell’s.”
“Thanks for doing that…” Her voice trailed off, and she turned away, and I knew she was lining up the sentences in her head.
“And then?” She picked up a duvet cover and laid it across the line.
“Then I’m going to see Father Brogan.”
A peg fell from her grasp, and she kicked it away across the yard. “I thought you might.”
She nodded over towards Dad. “Did he handle it okay? Explaining things, I mean.”
“I suppose so.”
I shrugged. “Just the one.”
“Ah, I’ll wear him up the road—”
“It was a pretty good one, though, in fairness.”
The wind stiffened. Wisps of hair slipped across her mouth. She tucked them back behind her ear, and her eyes met mine. She looked scared standing there and frailer than her years. “You won’t stop until you find them, will you?”
I shook my head. “I’m the odd man out. I have to find out why.”
And with that I turned on my heel and strode out of the farm and away from the people I thought were my family. The weather seemed to match my mood; a gale rose up and blew in my face. In the distance, the seas roared thunder.
I stopped by Mosses Point and walked out to the ledge where the whole sweep of the coast stretched out beneath me. The isle of Inis Saor stood less than a mile from shore as a tall and immovable mule of rock. Normally, a quick glimpse of the place would take the breath clean out of my chest, pulling any bit of foul mood with it. Not today, though. For some unknown reason, I thought of Dad, of him leading me into the fields with my wellies two sizes too big and the chill of dawn biting at my skin. I remembered the shakes I’d felt, as I stood rooted to his side with one tiny hand clutched in his. The black-and-white giants plodding toward us with their teats swollen terrified me.
“You have to be brave, Benjamin,” he’d said. “If they rush you, wave your hands, stand tall and make as much noise as humanly possible.”
And I did. I was only five, but I’d waddled over to the nearest one with my boots sticking in the muck, and I’d barked until they clomped the ground with their hooves and shied away back down the farm. When I’d looked at Dad he’d this honest-to-God warmth to his smile that had me brim with happiness.
“That’s my boy,” he’d said, like the big liar he was.
All the frustration in me erupted. I opened my mouth wide and screamed into the winds until my throat ran hoarse. One thought played over in my head—I’ll find my rancid parents. And when I do, I’ll punch them square in their goddamn noses. And with the fire in me stoked up nicely, I cinched my shirt closed and headed up the road to Nell’s.
Copyright © 2017 by Gerald M. O’Connor.
Reprinted with permission of Down & Out Books.
The Origins of Benjamin Hackett takes place in your hometown of Cork, Ireland. For people who are not familiar with the region, what is it like and why did it become the perfect setting for your book?
The county of Cork is no small place. It is a big unwieldy organism that is almost impossible to pin down without living it. I would need a year to decipher it properly to do it justice, but even then I fear I would fail miserably. But you did ask, and so I will try. First a few fun facts: Cork is known as the rebel county. The Irish for Cork is Corcaigh translated as “marsh” as it began life on a swampy estuary. We are best known for Murphy’s stout, All-Ireland winning teams, a glorious coastline, a rich vibrant history and our bullet-speed wit. As with all populated areas, there are the good and the bad parts. The locals can swindle or charm you on the whim of the weather, but at the heart of Cork is its inimitable character.
It has the layers and complexities of an urban area with solid rural roots. It has been the center of rebellion and republicanism for centuries. It was the only place in Ireland the English could never truly tame. It is surrounded by the Atlantic sea and has some of the sandiest beaches you will see the world over. Some say God gave us foul weather to counterbalance the beauty. And I’m fine with that, as it keeps the fair-weather types away! I firmly believe there is no better place to be than down at Barley Cove beach when the summer is at full-throttle, and the sun decides to shine. At the heart of Cork are the locals, or Corkonians as we call ourselves. We are a fiercely loyal, bitingly bright and determined people. I have never been in any other city where I have felt that same burning sense of belonging than when I lived in Cork. If you are from there, you will recognize the words I am saying as unadulterated facts. If not, the county may sound like some Fenian stronghold that still thinks the War of Independence rages.
In our hearts and minds, we are unique, abandoned by those up in Dublin, constantly fighting for our share of the pie, stuck at the bottom of an island that’s barraged by sleet and rain. We are often negated or chastised as insular or bull-headed, but we do not give a damn. Because we are proud of that community mind, the hive mentality. If you ever come across a Cork man or woman anywhere in the world, in any walk of life, I can wholeheartedly say that not a single one will talk with anything but fondness for the county at the southern tip of Ireland. I do not imagine there is a better plaudit than that as proof of our county’s effect on its natives.
I set the novel in Cork for various reasons. First, I know it better than any other part of the world, so it was natural for me to use it as a setting. And second of all, despite us having a host of fantastic writers from our city—Seán Ó Faoláin, Frank O’Connor and Joseph O’Neill to name but a few—there is a real lack of recent Cork-based Irish literature in comparison to other parts of Ireland. I hope my writing this novel may have righted those scales a bit. But predominantly I focused it on Cork because of the lilt of the locals, the characters I have met and known throughout my life, and the sheer breath-taking beauty of its landscapes and surrounds. To use the old adage, I wrote what I know, and I know Cork.
What inspired you to write a coming-of-age novel? Did your own childhood influence your characterizations of Benjamin or JJ?
I have always been drawn to these type of tales. In many ways, that period in your life, when you are on the cusp of adulthood with all the hormones and fears of the future spinning your head into glue, can be the most traumatic of our lives. Having something that upends your sense of self is almost always a shortcut to figuring out the convoluted mess of life. If stories are all about trouble inducing change, I can think of no greater contrast in character than the growth from child to adult. Setting a story in this borderland of life always seems to be fertile ground for wild adventures. You can never get away with the same level of naivety, or ill-considered actions, in someone other than a youngster. Rip their idealized life apart and the reaction is nearly always bedlam. I wanted the freedom to write a story fueled by the white hot rage of teenagers. The coming-of-age adventure story allowed me to do so without the rigid logic of maturity stifling the madness.
As to whether or not my own childhood influenced the characterization of Benjamin and JJ… in truth, I am not too sure. I know I did not consciously draw the characters from my life growing up in Blarney. I was not adopted, nor did I know anyone who was. I had a large group of friends from the estate and village where I lived, but none bear any true resemblance to these characters. But we are the sum of our experiences, and my childhood clearly influenced me in my life, so there must be some subconscious part of me that comes out in those two lads. If it is not in their stories then it is most likely in their camaraderie and kinship and general outlook on life. I had a fantastic close-knit crew, still do to this day in fact, and it would not surprise me if they saw threads of themselves in the characters on the page. But rest assured, if they do, it is by pure happenstance rather than design.
Your book tackles some serious topics, including the main character’s quest to find his birth mother, but you eloquently infuse the story with a bit of humor. How would you describe your sense of humor, and how does it play a role in your novel?
As with most of my fellow countrymen, my sense of humor is severely grounded in self-deprecation first and foremost. I do not think anyone could survive growing up in any parish in Cork without having that quality ingrained into you. We use humor as a shield in Ireland, hiding our fears and insecurities behind it, and as a weapon to bludgeon anyone with notions (people with an inflated opinion of themselves). It is like a code in its own right, nuanced, secretive and governed by rules only understood by those who grew up there. Cork is a county dripping in good-humored mockery. And nothing is sacred. Everyone and everything is a potential target.
Sometimes we go too far, of course, and the line between genuine comedy and thinly-veiled insults becomes this shady, intangible thing defined by the mood of the person on the receiving end. But on the whole, we manage to strike the balance just right. The general rule is this—if you ever find yourself on the sharper end of our tongues, then you probably deserve it.
For the uninitiated arriving in Cork, though, be warned. You had better do so fully-armed for banter. We slag and hop the ball, mock and deride, and there is nothing in the entire world that can savage your ego faster than a quick one-liner from a Cork-born native who is in the mood for badness. And God help you if they know you, because they will have total knowledge of all your weak spots and will package their goading up into perfect bullet-shaped assassins and riddle you senseless. If I ever get too big for my boots, all I have to do is pop down to my local, and I’ll be righted within the hour.
So as you can probably imagine, comedy is not a construct or a style choice used for any particular reason in my novel. It is there simply because that is how we behave in Cork. I could never have written a story set in my homeland without infusing that quality into it. It would have been dishonest to my roots.
Over the course of their road trip, how do Benjamin and JJ develop as characters?
To answer this truthfully would force me to spoil a lot of the surprises. So I am reluctant to go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, at the start they are at sea in life, unsure of what they want to do, as is the fate of many teenagers the world over. JJ is the straight-man in many ways, loyal to a fault and a lot more emotionally balanced than Benjamin. There is not too much in the way of change for him from beginning to end. Benjamin, though, goes through a large evolution in character. He does not cure himself completely, as he is still naïve and reckless by the end. But his reaction to the adoption and his ultimate decision at the close of the book shows how he has matured from a boy to a man and begins to see the world through adult eyes. It is the natural arc for a tale like this, really.
How does the history of adoption in Ireland play a role in this story?
Adoption plays a massive part. Benjamin’s story solely exists because of him being secretly deposited into a new family without the knowledge of his birth mother. The history of adoption in Ireland is a sore point and still very current. In the mid-20th century having a baby out of wedlock in Ireland was culturally unacceptable and would result in rejection by family, friends and society in general. The stigma was so bad that many unmarried women would be sent away to convents and Mother and Home facilities run by the church and funded by the government. For example, in 1967 over 97% of all children born out of wedlock were adopted and the vast majority were done without the full knowledge and consent of the mother. I did an almighty amount of research into it while writing this novel. It is funny in a way, because there’s barely the thread of the facts I uncovered in the book. I think you could have a lifetime of material if you researched the stories hidden behind the doors of those convents and Mother and Baby homes.
What can you tell us about your next book, The Tanist?
My new book is a world apart from this one. It is a thriller set in a turbulent Celtic world, drawing on the folklore and myths of the early 14th century in Ireland. I cannot divulge too much as I am in the midst of finishing the first draft, and a lot may change by the time I have a polished product ready for publication. But The Tanist is a far darker novel, devoid of humor and set in a violent and unforgiving time. The tag line goes something like this: “Unjustly banished for murder, an innocent boy must survive three impossible tests in a foreign land, before his city is destroyed, his people enslaved and his freedom lost forever.”
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.
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