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Nolan, an Exegesis

New fiction from a talented young writer

I knew him when he was still in school, young enough not to be called solitary or to be called anything at all except Nolan. Young Nolan, that was. Before it all happened to him and then it was just Nolan and his father became the father of Nolan. They lived in a council flat off the Ballymallin Road and he used to be friends with my Des before all of this happened. Then, it was like he didn’t need any friends and finally he needed nothing but. But, sure, isn’t it always like that?

—Mary Dowd, acquaintance



Four hundred and twenty-seven still photographs. (Second photo dated 93/8/3: Castlebar Herald pg. 3; Headline: Medical Mystery Draws Attention of Specialists.) Seventy-one appearances on television, including the Panorama Interview (total elapsed time 2 hours 48 minutes 13 seconds, courtesy of Radio Telefis Éireann/ITN/BBC/CNN). Last photographed on a closed-circuit security camera 95/7/29 in a Boots Pharmacy, Hampstead, England.



What did I like about it? I don’t know. I suppose it was that
when he showed it he had to shut up, you know? It’s what
I imagine you would call a paradox, a trick. He had to show it, but couldn’t talk about it; and if he wanted to talk about it, he couldn’t show it. I told him that he reminded me of a film, you know? The Invisible Man. But the Eurovision shite, with him swaying in the background and having to stick his tongue out, that was too much. It was probably Mr. Symes’ doing. They had him playing the tambourine, I suppose that he had to, it is a song contest and everything, you can’t just stand there with your gob open.

—Des Dowd, acquaintance


To speak of Martin in the past tense, I’ll have you know, is extremely hurtful to his family. He will come back, I am sure of that, because there is a strength in that family that will bring him back home. There is healing to be done there, but there is also love. As to his refusal to help the archdiocese, we must be guided by conscience but also by duty, and let it be said that the disagreement started there. After our investigation it was felt best to let the matter drop.

—Rev. R. S. O’Keefe, SJ


Initially I resisted speaking on the matter for reasons of doctor-patient confidentiality. I maintained this silence for as long as I could but there came a time when I had to speak out. We must live in a society that has some common values beyond superstition and fear; that’s the reason I came forward and it was also my prime motivation for my book Speaking of Tongues.

—R. Edward Leets, MD, FRCS
Consultant in Otolaryngology


I thought he was quiet at first. I liked that, the feeling that he was shy and didn’t know exactly what to do. He wasn’t like the other lads, all talk and the like. I have to say that he struck me as being different, but then it was obvious why he was so bloody quiet, what with the image of Christ across his damned tongue. Oh, you just never know about people. When I saw him on the television news, a clip from the Eurovision last year, I thought, Well, he’s famous now, more famous, and I had my chance.

—Deidre Connelly, acquaintance
Following arraignment for solicitation 95/05/04


I find it interesting that nowhere is it recorded what he thought of it, the significance of the image. I suspect that the cardinal asked him and, further, that the answer caused the whole investigation to be abandoned. I doubt that Martin thought that it was God’s mark, but if not that, what? Why are you special then, Martin? No one asked that. I like to think I would have if he had ever come back.

—Sean Phillips, MD, FRCP
Consultant in Psychiatry


Well, in Chapter Three, which is somewhat technical but not gratuitously so, I describe the history and clinical features of the condition. Geographic tongue is essentially an inflammatory process; the papillae are affected, usually following a non-specific viral infection, and the raised papillae take on a different appearance than the intervening and unaffected lingual tissue. What is unusual here is not the image that the inflammatory process was interpreted as having, that is entirely beside the point, but the fact that the inflammation lasted so long and in such a consistent configuration. That was really quite unprecedented.

—R. Edward Leets, MD, FRCS


Let the matter drop, is that what the priest said? Are you sure he’s a Jesuit? Let me tell you, a Jesuit’s likely to learn sign language if only for the pleasure of harassing the occasional deaf-mute. Let the matter drop, that’s brilliant. I’ll tell you what, the last thing they thought about was whether or not the tongue or the image on the tongue was real. Martin’s doubt was what they came to assess, and when they found out he was a smart-ass kid that they couldn’t trust, not even after twisting his
mother against him, then they declared him not to be authentic. For all the nonsense the others put him through, at least they acknowledged him as a freak.

—Emma Ryan, journalist, Castlebar Herald


That first photo in the Herald showed several young men and woman leaving the regional school following a ceremony and presentation of leaving certificates. Our man is the second from the left, second row, beside a woman identified as Bernadette Leary. The mood is celebratory and he, like the others, poses playfully. Thumbs up, all around. Three cheers! He sticks out his tongue at the moment the flash goes off and the shutter clicks. How long was it out there for everyone to see, taking its first tentative tastes of the world and its promise? A second? Two?



 They wouldn’t let the poor bastard have a drink or a smoke and they kept the girls away from him too. He only really liked Bernie, anyway. And the girls, that was an odd situation, because half of them wanted to see it and in an odd way I think they found it a turn-on, something sinful and holy all at once, like a toweling-off with the shroud of Turin or something.

—Des Dowd


This generally falls under the category of stigmata and revelations and the archdiocese becomes involved to the extent that it designates an investigator and should the investigation have significant merit it becomes a matter for the cardinal. So it is all very regulated, many checks and balances, and all of the mysteries—Fatima, Lourdes—they all went through the verification process. In Ireland, outside of the apparition of the Blessed Virgin at Knock, there have been few verifications: a statue of the Blessed Virgin in Navan that cried, stigmata (usually at Holy Week), etc. We regard them all with equal gravity and with circumspection.

—Rev. R. S. O’Keefe, SJ


The Magistrate’s POV, looking down at your man in the dock.


Answer the question Mr. Nolan. 

Actually she misheard me. I asked her if she’d
like to meet a cunning linguist. 

General uproar.


Order! We will have order!



From Revelation by M. Symes
©Revelation Films, 1997
All Rights Reserved



It was, as they say in American parlance, a grand slam: an apparition of the face of Christ on some young lad’s tongue, a nice-looking fellow too, very photogenic other than the fact they always had to have him opened up like a clothes dryer, and then there was the endorsement potential. Everyone was interested, quite naturally. I got a call from his father, whom I knew from the weekly local talent show, about the week after it was discovered and though I don’t represent this type of client—I handle mostly musical acts—I agreed because it was just so captivating. There was a possibility for widespread appeal. There was a religious resurgence, and, initially, a lot of support from the archdiocese. And then there was the liaison with Mr. Callaghan at the Mayo Development Corporation. If there is one thing I regret, it’s the ill will that has come about from all of this. But he made his choice, that’s what the archdiocese and his father and Callaghan didn’t understand. He grew weary of being manipulated.

—G. Symes, representative



Discharge Summary
Admitted 94/4/21 discharged 94/5/11

Admission Diagnosis: Major depressive disorder

Discharge Diagnosis: Depression (see below)

axis I—293.83 mood disorder; mixed features, due to medical condition
axis II—799.9 deferred
axis III—529.1 geographic tongue
axis IV—problems related to primary support group

Folstein Mini-Mental Status Exam: 27/30

Toxic Screen: Amp—neg. Benz—neg. Cocaine—neg.

Microbiology: VDRL—neg. HIV—neg.

CT Head (without contrast): normal.

EEG: non-specific slowing centro-temporal regions bilaterally. EEG (sleep deprived) nil epileptiform, normal background.

Following failed attempt at self-harm. Secondary stressors include recent relationship failings. Some delusions of grandeur. Responded well to cognitive psychotherapy, initial plan for treatment with SSRI opposed by patient, family. Patient agreed with conservative management and was discharged once it was felt that he represented no harm to self or others. To be followed in the outpatient clinic.

—Dictated by G. Musgrave for Dr. S. Phillips (not read)


I only had one problem with Nolan senior and it was getting that agent involved. From that point on we found ourselves constantly having to submit any plans to Mr. Symes, who, I think it must be said, was not supportive of the idea that Martin’s condition should best be used to further the interests of the community.

—Victor Callaghan, Mayo West Development Corp.


Silence. Cold jets in your face and then just relief. But the stink! Hell’s own chamberpot. A sniff would have been enough, but a mouth full of the Liffey would kill you faster than the drowning. It would erase your visage and his, this baptismal font. Is that what you want? They will ask. A pivotal moment here, celebrated with our own Zapruder film, 8mm, looped and grainy. What would a nadir be without one? Run it backwards as you thrash, your clothes harrowing and thick in the tannery soup, watch the distant siren approach, an ambulance careening in reverse, screeching to a quayside stop. The men race out, leap backwards to the doors, pull them open and out you come on the stretcher, on which they cart you to the edge. Now there are ropes, a harness around you, lowering you in your wet clothes into the river where you meet yourself, from another film. This swimming is not in sync, you say, and so it isn’t because your twin submerges, the water swells and froths and now your errant friend explodes out of the water like a minion of Seaworld, shot into the sky, clothes dried by flight, to gently land feet first and circus-fancy on the O’Connell Street bridge. A look at the river, a look up. Off you go down Dolier to Pearse Street, no one the wiser to your odd gait as they all walk backwards too. And suddenly there you are, on a bench by the green with her. Your very own Jackie O, no funny hat but bits of you all over her. Her words are incomprehensible in this rendition. Your heart does not heal. The image skips, the frame appears, disjointed, shuddering, and everything—the girl, the green lawn of the university, the sky—bubbles and dissolves in the heat of the projection bulb. Back into the water with you! An extra gulp of Liffey piss. In the distance the braying of an ambulance. They’ve come for you.




Daily Mirror 94/4/17
Violent Outburst Mars Eurovision Celebration


Amsterdam—In the midst of the celebration of an upset victory at the Eurovision Song Contest, police were called to restrain the most renowned member of the Irish entry, Martin Nolan, who had become violent and begun destroying the backstage lounge.

The reasons for the outburst are unclear, although Nolan seemed to become enraged after seeing himself in performance on the monitor. “He has been under a tremendous amount of stress,” said Mick Symes, co-performer and son of Mr. Nolan’s agent, Gerry Symes.

Dutch police estimate the damage at approximately £2000. No one was injured in the incident although the Italian entry, the folk-singing duo of Anno and Ciaphi, was shaken up. Mr. Nolan was detained and then released into the custody of his agent. Princess Diana, in Amsterdam at the time, was not in attendance (See page 3: “What’s the Stigmata with Martin?”)


My understanding is that they wished to preserve the image on his tongue, and that his various handlers forbade him to ingest any chromogen, anything that would discolour the tongue. Tobacco, food, antibiotics, anything could disrupt the image.

—R. Edward Leets, MD, FRCS


Why should it happen to him? Why anyone? I wish I knew but these things are mysteries beyond our apprehension. We must be contented by that.

—Rev. R. S. O’Keefe, SJ


I think it’s wrong to blame the parents for everything. I know that may be considered heretical given my occupation but I would like to say, in their defence, that their son refused therapy and was judged to be competent to do so. He could have chosen to walk away from any of this at any time. His life with the tongue made more intuitive sense to him than life without it. It is not a psychiatric disorder to make bad choices. Not yet.

—Sean Phillips, MD, FRCP


Castlebar Herald, 93/10/1
Persistent Image Draws Papal Envoy


Mr. Martin Nolan Jr, age 18, was questioned by a contingent that included Father Robert O’Keefe of the archdiocese and Reverend Cardinal Miguel Auroyo of Santiago, Chile. This was followed by a meeting that included representatives from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. No disclosures of the meetings were made public and the participants had no comment.




I had an opportunity to discuss the situation with his family, with his mother, really. His parents were recently estranged and she had come from Mayo to see him when he was admitted. His father chose not to make the journey. His mother was a quiet woman. She asked intelligent and appropriate questions about Martin’s condition and re-enforced the son’s wish not to receive pharmacological treatment. She didn’t wish to speak to him but had the opportunity to watch him as he slept in his room. As I left the hospital I saw a car from the archdiocese waiting for her—it had been there all afternoon, the driver told me—but apparently she wished to walk.

—Sean Phillips, MD, FRCP


I’m reminded of those stories where an amateur astronomer, any one of those backyard hobbyists with a store-bought telescope, first sets eyes on a comet or an asteroid or whatever. The comet is always named after them. It’s touching, I suppose, to the outside world—a world made up of other novices—but I can’t help but think of the serious scientists who have devoted themselves to this pursuit and lived a hermit’s life in a mountain observatory. I wonder whether they cry or seethe. Or whether they take to their telescopes to have a look for themselves. Anyway, in my pursuit there were never any real comets. Maybe that’s what did me in.

—R. S. O’Keefe
From the documentary
After the Vow, 1998


We had in mind a contextual development. It’s no use plopping the lad down and having people pass through, it would have been no better than the set-up his father contrived. A plan like that tarnishes the community and casts a bad light on all of us. We proposed something of a higher quality: permanent construction, a site overlooking Clew Bay, good roads, security. The stumbling block was the archdiocese, which still carries considerable weight, even on the commercial zoning board, and of course Martin’s father and Mr. Symes. His mother was on the side of the church, or at least expressed her concern for Martin’s future in manner identical to the official statement of the archdiocese. All of this can descend into farce, you know, and it has before. There was once a cow, in County Cork I think it was, who had on her side a patch of brown that was said to resemble the Blessed Virgin; well, they penned it up and renamed it Fatima and even took to selling the milk and promoting its possible medicinal powers. Bloody 2% Milk Fatima, they called it in the end. Sad. I didn’t want that for Martin.

—Victor Callaghan, Mayo West Development Corp.



When he told me how he felt about me I wasn’t shocked or surprised even. We spoke a lot, until this happened to him. Then, when he told me how he felt, I didn’t know what he meant. He said that he needed to be grounded and that I gave him that. That surprised me because he never used words like “grounded” and I didn’t know whether I was to take it as a compliment. I told him no, anyway. My parents thought that it was for the best as I was going to stay at the university. We spoke about it the day it happened. Of course I felt responsible. But I had to be honest with him and so I told him no and he made a joke about Jesus but I knew it was because he was hurt, so I didn’t mind. I told him no. It was for the best.

—Bernadette Leary, acquaintance



The importance of the Mayo Geographic Tongue Representation, aside from the obvious patriarchal connotations, is that of an alternate expression. It is perhaps the first time in this society that faith has been represented in a non-traditional physicalized manner (the stigmata of the puncture wound as traditional) much less a sexualized one. This is very important in a cultural sense, for it is the concept of Christ as someone who left footprints, who felt his joints ache as he turned to face his accusers in Gethsemane, a Christ tumescent, who experienced physical sensations other than the agony of death. It is the eros to the established agape (cf. Kristeva) and is a new and frightening concept for many people in this society. 

—Kirsten Hall, PhD
Semiotics and Longing
©Samourais Press, New York, 1996


I was appalled. I went unannounced, of course, because Nolan senior threatened to have me barred from ever talking to Martin again. But I went and I was appalled. There was a line stretching out for at least two hundred yards, over a small hill it weaved like it was just another stone wall, and as I progressed through it, past the chip vans and the stalls selling the dashboard mementos, I saw where they were keeping him. It was a caravan, pulled up to the spot by a tractor, you could see the tire marks. Inside there was big Nolan holding court with his cronies. Your man Symes was there with Nolan. I suspect they were discussing how they stole the trailer and perhaps it wasn’t such a grand idea to invite half the country into a pasture to witness their thievery. In front of them was a sign explaining what was behind the curtains, as though people wouldn’t know after marching through the bog what they were there for. It explained it all as something mysterious and awesome, something the church was investigating, and implied that special healing powers had been attributed to just the sight of the tongue. It also asked the pilgrims to “give what they could into a black satchel.” “Ah, that’s the stuff, sure,” was what was said as I slid ten quid into the sack, velour on the inside. Ahead of me were two men speaking German, one so thin and sickly that he had to be helped by the other. They were crying. The lighting was subdued, for the mood I imagine, and I stepped behind the curtain to see him sitting there, looking tired and wan, dressed in a white terry-cloth bathrobe, small white Christmas tree lights strung over him. It looked like the bloody tinkers. I stopped and looked at him and was glad he didn’t recognize me because I couldn’t decide for whom I felt more embarrassed. Then he showed me.

—Victor Callaghan, Mayo West Development Corp.



Your love is a lasting love
Of things not yet begun.
These words, like the song of birds,
Find their place upon my tongue. 

Though these feelings give me life
They will remain unsung
And be more precious for having to
Remain upon my tongue. 

My tongue, my tongue, that which gives me voice.
My tongue, my tongue, in this I will rejoice. 

Only you see the beauty
In what I have become.
Know your name is the only word
That dwells upon my tongue.

—Lyrics from “My Tongue”
©Revelation Music, Symes and Symes. 1994


Can tetracycline do it? Absolutely. It produces a condition known as hairy tongue, a dark, very pronounced discoloration. It is a powerful chromogen. Again, much of this is covered in my book.

—R. Edward Leets, MD, FRCS


We had nothing to do with that. It was unauthorized. The souvenirs were of a dubious quality and were not offered by vendors authorized by the archdiocese. Unfortunately, because of the legal proceedings we cannot discuss that incident in further detail.

—Rev. R. S. O’Keefe, SJ


I met him in London. I hadn’t heard from him in more than a year. He went to London because he said it was easier on him there. He wrote to me and asked me to meet him at a specific place and time. I didn’t tell my parents, I told them I was visiting my sister. When we met, I could see how he had changed. His eyes were the same but he was nervous, as though someone was about to barge in on us there in the coffee shop. He said he had plans and that he was going to turn his life around. He was going to find a job and make people forget about his tongue. He looked as if he hadn’t been sleeping and I asked him if he was all right and he said yeah, and then I asked if he was taking drugs and he said only if oxygen was a drug, and then he laughed and told me he wanted to go back to school and go into computers but felt that it might be difficult, that he was a freak now. I told him that I missed him. He kissed me on the cheek and asked me not to mention our meeting to anyone.

—Bernadette Leary



An empty cold-water flat, the windows closed and blinds drawn. A light bulb hangs by a wire. There is no phone, no radio, no television, only a forlorn cot with a sheet draped over it. The door sits on rusty hinges and must be forced open. The two officers take in the atmosphere. One looks behind the bed, the other opens the door to the bathroom.


Well, he’s not in the tub. 

(Bending down to pick up a piece of paper behind the bed)


Hello, hello. What’s this?


Officer #1 joins his partner. 

OFFICER #2 (cont’d.)
A receipt for a prescription. 

For what? Sleeping pills? 

Tetracycline. Tetracycline 500 mg four times daily.





A grainy closed-circuit television image of a man in a hat and glasses, standing in line.


Once at the front of the line, he hands a piece of paper to an unseen person in a kiosk.


The music to “My Tongue” rises.



From Revelation by M. Symes
©Revelation Films, 1997
All Rights Reserved