Over the decades there have been many admirable tales that attempt to give us some understanding of the Irish character, including the details of the effects that a weak resistance to the fascinations of strong drink bring. These tales always seem to carry with them a moral, which the writers have intended for us Irishmen and women to take on board in the hope they could change what they see as a flaw. On this occasion, however, the tale of the events that I am about to relate will bring with it no moral. It is a simple and very true record of a terrible calamity that befell the people who form the principal characters of my story, and includes all the sadness, unaccountability and fatality of madness. There is no person who would try to warn another against the dangers of unexpected and sudden lunacy. It makes sense, then, that narrating an event at which I was only a spectator should have no moral to convey.
It has been my experience of human character among the native Irish that there are, in fact, two classes of drunkards in the country. One class of drunkard is composed of those persons, who, at first are very much in favour of being moderate in all things, and subsequently, allow themselves to be foolishly led on by the charm of good fellowship to create for themselves an artificial need. It is this artificial need, which in the end leaves them the helpless victims of a miserable disease. They begin by taking a little, continuing by taking just a little more and deceive themselves by saying “Sure, it’s only a drop”. From this point it is an easy step for them to fall into excess drinking, losing all sense of decorum, and becoming mean and unapologetic in their craving after alcohol. They are subsequently unfit them for an upright and honourable course of thought and action in any of the details of their daily life. A slow disappearance of their mental functions quickly accompanies their oppressive tiredness, while their hand trembles, their brain wanders, and they finally fall into the tragedy of ‘delirium tremens’. This stage is a rapid onset of confusion, which is usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol, and is better known to some as “The Horrors.”
But there is another class of drunkards, and this group could well be designated as one for those who are ‘drunkards by necessity’. But, when it comes to this category we must consider their domestic situation, economic condition, education, or other causes that may modify the result in individual cases. Of course, there is the argument that no person is born into this world with an inordinate desire for drinking alcohol of any kind. These unfortunate victims of alcohol do not begin with a thimble filled with drink, and progress into taking glasses filled with liquor. It comes upon a person, suddenly, like a thief in the night. It can happen when a person reaches their prime in adult, while others may experience in the flush of youth. In these modern times we have, unfortunately, seen its increase in the thoughtlessness that often accompanies boyhood and girlhood.
With these ‘drunkards of necessity’, abuse of alcohol becomes a passion with them, almost a type of madness. You can, occasionally, recognise one of these unhappy drunkards, especially those who might be very young. They usually enter the public house in the early morning, looking sullen and pale, and they sit down silently and alone over a measured double-shot of undiluted Scotch whisky. In fact Scotch whisky is, probably, the only drink suitable for one of these people, since the worst and most fierce tasting stuff that can be made is generally the most acceptable to him. This drunkard’s palate is too long subject to abuse to be able to distinguish between tastes and flavours, and its only ‘liquid fire’ or ‘rocket fuel’ that he wants. You can recognise this person by his pitiable imbecility, which drives him in his awful craving for more alcohol by reaching his tumbler to his lips with both hands. With the taste upon his lips he drinks until the glass is emptied, and does so with all eagerness of having a terrible thirst. This type can also be recognised by deep and frightful sleep, that begins, continues, and closes in horrific dreams! While the wife and family of the occasional and progressive drunkard can be said to be wretched, worse still must be the constant misery suffered by the wife and children of a madman like this.
In the spring of 1968 I was living in a relatively middle-class neighbourhood of a small country town, that stood in one of the most fertile and prosperous counties in Ireland. The population of this town was almost all industrious working and middle class people who were almost entirely free from the abject and squalid poverty that could be seen in some of the larger towns in this land. This particular town had many small and very productive factories that made a wide range of merchandise that was exported to many places in the world. It could also be said that the area around this town had a large proportion of respectable, gentlemen farmers who, in Ireland, at one time would have been called ‘squireens’.
To this group of ‘gentlemen farmers’ belonged the heads of two branches of the same family, Peter and James Caniffe. Both men resided in the environs of the town, and were brothers. Peter Caniffe was the elder of the two brothers by quite a number of years, and he had a family that consisted of three grown-up sons and one daughter. He had married early in his life, but his wife sadly died when giving birth to their fifth child. Unfortunately, the child only survived its mother’s death by a few weeks before it too passed away. James, the younger of the two Caniffe brothers, had a large family of young children. In fact, Peter’s only daughter, Alice, was being brought up within her uncle’s household. Her father thought that she might receive the education and care which a girl of her tender age, which she might have otherwise obtained from her deceased mother. It was believed she might just benefit from the kindness and affection that might be shown by her nearest female relatives.
In practical terms, then, Peter Caniffe’s family consisted of himself, his three sons, and an old widow woman who was employed as a housekeeper. She was a woman of at least seventy years and she was habitually lazy, her only aim in life being to avoid as much activity and exertion as was possible. But, the household of a widower from a middle class background is rarely ordered with any regularity and decorum, and Peter’s household was no exception to this general rule. Every room in the family home had a certain untidy and discomforting look about it. The floor-boards, or the staircase were seldom washed or swept. In fact the housekeeper rarely cleaned the windows, or the fireplace swept, the tables rubbed, or the chairs dusted. Things that had been soiled were never cleaned, while things that were broken were never mended, and things that had been lost were never replaced. As each member of the family felt, at one time or another, the inconvenience of things were in the home, but each reacted by throwing the blame upon the other, which meant nothing positive could be achieved to remedy the situation. Everyone who knew Peter Caniffe thought considered him to be a good practical farmer, and a shrewd man-of-the-world. They were extremely surprised, then, that Peter should appear to care so very little about the comforts or conveniences of life.
Peter, however, thought that he had one special household virtue that he could be proud of. Very early in life Peter had narrowly escaped disgrace and ruin by dropping any association he had with a group of youths who were widely known for their overindulgence in sensual pleasures. It was they who had led him, step by step, into all the dark recesses of debauchery. But, he got out of the group before it was too late, and the memories of what he had seen, done, and suffered was more than enough to make him resolve that his sons should never be tempted in a similar manner.
The eldest of his sons, Richard, was now twenty-one, the second eldest, Matthew, was nineteen, and the youngest son, Gerald, was only fifteen years of age. None of them had ever taken any alcohol, though their father was not as abstemious as he had compelled his sons to be. Every day, since they had first learned the taste of whisky, they had all been tantalised with the sight of the “materials” that made up their father’s favourite beverage. But, although Peter Caniffe was a temperate man, could never have been described as being a generous man. He was not one of those type of parents who will continue to fulfil their appetite, with every delicacy, while their children are looking on with eyes filled only with hope, and their stomachs are hurting with hunger. Peter, however, did get his reward when, one day, his two eldest boys, Dick and Matt, were carried home from a neighbouring fair. Both young men were falling-down drunk and this was the first occasion that they had ever been so intoxicated. Their condition, however, was due inexperience of alcohol rather than the trifling quantity they had taken. Nevertheless, from that moment onward, their father was more watchful than ever in an effort to prevent them from repeating the exercise.
As was usual, when it came to punishing his sons for any wrongdoing, Peter Caniffe was not particularly harsh, but you would have thought that neglecting his strict commands with regard to alcoholic drink would be sure to be met with great severity. Peter Caniffe’s method of handling such misdemeanours were wretchedly inconsistent. Other wrongdoings of a greater degree of immorality were winked at, even encouraged, by Peter. These young men, however, could never have been considered naturally vicious, but when they discovered that they could curse and swear in their father’s hearing, they quickly found that even some of the graver offences against society could be committed without fear of their father’s punishment. It was no wonder then, as they grew older they should also grow in their wickedreprehension, was it any wonder that they should also grow in wickedness?
Matthew and Richard dressed in a manner that showed them to be accomplished village scamps. They wore battered caps that were set, jauntily on one side of the head rough, deep-green corduroy trousers, and heavy brown brogue boots with nails like the rivets of a steam-boiler. These two young men were, undoubtedly, the hardiest men in a fight, the first men to sit at a card table, and the deadliest shots at a mark in the county. They always appeared to have plenty of money in their possession and there no one who dared to ask them how they came by it? Their father always had lots of cash lying about the house, and as selfish and alert as he was, there was many a large handful of cash that he was relieved of by his dutiful sons.
As the two boys grew up, they cared less and less for their father’s anger, as his vicious habits appeared to become more settled and systematic with them. They drank to great excess whenever they had the slightest opportunity to do so. It was a fact that no one ever saw them, for twenty minutes at a time, without having full proof that they were slaves to the ‘gargle’. It ruled over them like a tyrant making the almost slaves to the odious and disgusting tastes that anyone ever created for another. Beside the ‘drink’, no one ever saw them for any period of time without a cigarette or pipe between their teeth, and surrounded by the fouls smelling smoke, spitting on the street, and coughing their foul germs all over the place without regard for bystanders.
Despite all their many faults there many who would agree that the entire county had finer looking men than Richard and Matt Caniffe when they were dressed for Mass. It was a duty, to which they still attended with a punctuality that would have been much more praiseworthy if it had sprung from any other motive than vanity and pride. In a different culture, the two young men might very well have become excellent and valued members of society. They had still some faint pretensions to generosity and spirit, and there were many pretty young ladies in the district who believed, wholeheartedly, that they were capable of persuading these young men to return to their more innocent ways.
The youngest son, Gerald Caniffe, was a youth of fifteen years, and he was a lad of a much different type than his elder brothers. He was both an open-featured and an open-hearted youth, who was never seen with a cigarette, or pipe in his mouth, nor had he ever a tattered “racing calendar” sticking out of his pocket. Furthermore, while his brothers were out on their sporting adventures, or amusing themselves in a less innocent way, Gerald would journey across the fields to his uncle James’s garden, where he would walk, talk, read, or play with his pretty little sister Alley, or enjoy games with his pretty little cousins Bill and Bess, and Peter and Dick, after school had finished.
Alley and Gerald were as fond of each other as they could be, and not least because they did not live entirely together. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is as true a phrase as ever was spoken, whether we apply it to the lover and his mistress, or the brother and his distant sister. There are many of us, with our sighs and tears, can testify to the truth of this. It was lovely to see a loving brother and his sister sauntering along the country lanes in the wild-strawberry season, with their arms around each other as they picked their fruit. Eventually, they had to bid each other good-bye for another day, returning home with slow, lingering steps.
This was the way the three young men were when Peter Caniffe passed away, after a short illness. In his well he left what was left of his property to be equally divided between his children. Richard and Matt, however, did not appear to be sorry for the loss of their father. On the night of their father’s wake, they collected all of their idle and profligate friends to come to the house and, as might be expected, the entire event became one dreadful feast of drunkenness. The more respectable inhabitants of the neighbourhood saw how things would be now that Peter Caniffe had passed on. Everyone agreed that the previous restraint, overseen by their father, would now rapidly disappear, and shook their heads, as they considered what they believed would be the coming calamity.
Earlier, that same night, little Alley began to feel that all was not right with her brother, Gerald. She had seen Richard constantly giving him liquor, which he had, at first refused, but afterwards accepted. He had taken the drink in a stealthy manner, with his face blushing with embarrassment as he saw the first reproachful glance from Alice. Gradually Gerald gave in to the temptation, and again and again a glass followed another with less hesitation, while his brothers seemed to be happy with the idea of making this innocent boy just as guilty as themselves. The devil surely leads those who take great joy in encouraging others to abandon a positive way of life for the same sinful pleasures, for which others have sold their own souls. Eventually, she became frightened at the idea that Gerald seemed to change and boasted of his feat. When Gerald had asked for more whisky, and had been given it by Richard, who, half drunk himself already, was determined to make Gerald drunk for once in his life. The boy was now as drunk as his brother had wished for by his brother, and he had slipped behind Matt’s chair. Alice could see her brother’s head hanging upon one shoulder, while his eyes began to close in a drunken stupor of intoxication, and he was about to fall to the ground. Quietly she moved to his side, and leaning her head upon his shoulder she whispered, “Gerald, I didn’t think you would drink so much. Why did you?”
“Don’t tell uncle James, Alley, if he hasn’t seen me this way, and I promise I will never drink so much again.”
“Hold up your head for another bucket, you eejit,” said Matt, as he heard the boy speaking behind his chair. At the same time, with several drunken hiccoughs, he offered his brother another glass. “Come on, Gerald, another will do you no harm. They say that sorrow makes you dry, and the good Lord knows that you’ve wept enough all day for a little fellow.”
“Please Matt, please don’t ask him to drink more,” pleaded Alice.
Matt, however, was not the type to take objections lightly and, with a brutal cuff, he struck his little sister, who fell to the ground. Turning his attention back to Gerald, Matt tried to force the liquor on him. But, in the drunken effort, the glass fell from his hand, and Alice got up and quietly took her brother from the room.
After Peter Caniffe’s funeral took place there was another drunken party, more disgraceful than the first. This was followed by another, and another, and another, until the week was out. When Gerald’s uncle saw how completely dependent on alcohol that his nephews had become, he took Gerald to live with him. But, by this time, it had become too painfully evident that Gerald had acquired a taste for the liquor, which had already turned his two brothers into drunken beasts. Poor little Alice wept over the change that had overcome her brother. There was no more reading, or playing, or wandering through the country together. Instead, he would sit sulky and silent in the house all day, more like a poor relation living on charity rather than the joint-heir of the largest farm in the parish. This state of affairs, however, was soon to come to an end!
It had been a month since the death of Peter Caniffe, and with great zeal the eldest of his heirs had by this time drunk up his entire stock of “Poteen”. Quite by surprise, however, in an out-of-the-way nook they accidentally discovered five gallons of malt whisky, which had , probably, lain there for many years. It was on a Saturday morning that this hidden ‘treasure’ was found, and one of the Caniffe boys was heard making a vow that he would never quit drinking the whisky until the last drop was drained. This was intended to be the last party before they set off for Australia, where they intended to emigrate that very spring. They had, with their uncle’s consent on behalf of the two youngest Caniffe children, converted their land into money to finance their new life on the opposite side of the world. One or two of their friends had been invited to join them, but these begged to be excused since, like so many others, they had also become appalled at the dreadful excesses of their one-time companions. Towards evening it was noticed that Gerald had been missing from his uncle’s house for some time. James Caniffe guessed where he was and, with little Alice in his hand, he went to his late brother’s home. The door to the house was locked on the inside, and on asking for Gerald the uncle was told that he safe in there he was told that, “there wasn’t any admission for any damned teetotaller.” Shocked and angry, James Caniffe went away from the house with his dejected niece in tow.
The next day was Easter Sunday and the feast day had occurred much later in spring than is usual and, as a result, there was already a foretaste of summer in the air. It was a lovely fore-noon when James Caniffe, his wife, Alice, and the children, walked out in their Sunday-best outfits to the parish chapel. The sky was dotted with light silver clouds, and the fields were already green with the new growth of the grass. The hawthorn bushes in the hedgerows were visibly bursting their buds, while the furze bushes were exploding in a blaze of golden beauty, and the birds, especially the red-breast, were chirping away with great intensity. As they walked onward the bells of the neighbouring church stuck their celebration of Easter with such sweetness that they filled the air with Joy. They walked on past the church, where groups of laughing children were playing hide-and-seek in the graveyard. There, among the graves, towered five or six large chestnut trees that reached the height of the ancient steeple, among whose branches was a rookery that was now in full song. Surprisingly, the voices of the children and the cawing of the rooks, though disturbed by the sudden peal of the bells, mingled with their chimes without causing any discord to the ear. Alice’s eyes glistened for a moment when she recognised her youthful playmates, because her heart was heavy and felt that she could not laugh with them. At last they came to the door Peter Caniffe’s house. The house, however, showed no signs of life, and they thought maybe all were still asleep.
“Let us go in, uncle, and tell them all to get up,” little Alice urged.
“Let the scoundrels sleep it off!” was the indignant reply from Uncle James, and they passed on to the church.
After about an hour and a half, this same group were on their way home, with their hearts filled with joy by the imposing church service which they had just witnessed. But there was a gloomy expression on the faces of both James Caniffe and his little niece, as they walked along the street with their very happy and smiling neighbours. Questions were also being asked, since none of Peter Caniffe’s three sons had ever before been known to have missed Sunday mass. Their absence from Church on that most holy of holy days was of course a subject of wonder among all the neighbours. “I would not have thought it possible,” said James Caniffe in a grave tone of voice, “that they could suddenly become so uncaring so quickly wicked all at once—God forgive them! God help them!”
“Oh, uncle!” cried Alice, as the house came into view once again, “those boys are not up yet! See, the shutters are still closed!”
Then, as they moved in front of the house, Alice begged him, “Dear uncle, please go into them and bring out poor Gerald, so that he can eat his Easter dinner with us.”
A thought suddenly struck James as he knocked loudly at the door. There was no answer. Then, after another loud knock, and a long pause, there was still no sound coming from within the house. Alice’s little heart echoed each pound of that last unsuccessful knock. It was almost as if said, “Waken, Gerald, Can you not hear us knocking.”
But, Alice could not endure the suspense any longer, and, running to the gavel verge at the side of the road, she lifted up a heavy stone, which she used to batter the panels of the hall-door for as long as her strength allowed her. When she was obliged to stop battering, her screams could be heard widely, and yet there was no sound from the house. James Caniffe, meanwhile, had dispatched one of his little boys to a neighbouring cottage to borrow a crow-bar. The boy quickly returned to his father with the crowbar, and James, assisted by the crowd who gathered by this time, was not long in forcing the door open. “Wait now friends,” said James to the anxious company that had gathered, “don’t any come in until I tell you, for there’s no use in bringing further shame of my brother’s house.”
He and Alice, accompanied by one or two chosen people, entered the hall of the house with faltering steps, and then closed the front door behind them. The first object that they saw was Peggy, the old housekeeper, who was lying on the mat at the foot of the staircase in a drunken sleep. From what they saw it appeared the old woman had fallen down the stairs in an effort to reach the door, and there she lain insensible for several hours. Alice jumped over her, and darted up the stairs with the speed of lightning. James and his companions, had made a vain attempt to arouse the old housekeeper, before they followed her.
At the top of the stairs they entered the room immediately in front of them, on the landing. The thick stench of tobacco-smoke, mingled with the fumes of ale and whisky, almost overpowered them. The room itself would have been quite dark had it not been for a small lamp with two dim bulbs, which sat like a large old-fashioned branch candlestick on a small side-table. James went to the window, opened the curtains, and let down the sash. The glorious sunshine streamed into the reeking apartment, with the refreshing fresh air that was so badly needed. How strange the room appeared with the glow of daylight. The three young men were lying on the floor, at some distance from each other, around the legs of a crazily shaped table that stood in the centre of the room. On the table were huddled together the fragments of salted fish, cheese, bread, broken glasses, half-emptied decanters, and the other usual detritus of a bachelor party. James immediately recognised what had been going on in this room the moment he had drawn the curtains on the window. He stooped over one of the prostrate bodies, and saw it was Richard. Then, as he turned up his face, he exclaimed, “Dear God!” What he saw was the face of a corpse! He smothered another groan as he rushed towards the next body. It was Matt Caniffe, who was also deceased and his corpse was quite stiff! James and his friends now looked at each other solemnly, and in silence. Simultaneously, they turned their glance toward the place where Gerald was lying and they hesitantly moved to the spot. There, on the floor, lay Gerald, with Alice by his side where she had fainted. The boy’s eyes were glazed, the skin of his face tightened over his nose and cheek-bones, and his lips covered with viscid froth. Gerald’s beautiful brown hair was tossed backwards from his damp forehead, and was glistening in a streak of sunshine that fell upon it through the open window.
“He is alive still!” all three exclaimed, “he might recover!” At the same time one of them ran to the window and signalled to the neighbours that they should come in. The room was soon full of horrified spectators, who helped part Alice from her dying brother, and bring both of them out into the open air as quickly as possible.
In the middle of the loud cries and lamentations of the bystanders Alice recovered from her faint. She sat for a while upon the grass and tried to recall her scattered senses. The sight of Gerald lying near her, as the crowd opened to allow the fresh air to his face without obstruction, soon brought the whole terrible truth back to her mind. She stood up with difficulty, but, gathering her strength from her recollection, she succeeded in breaking away from the woman who was taking care of her, and in a moment the head of Gerald was pillowed upon her bosom. The soft cooling breeze had restored the unfortunate boy to a moment of consciousness, but he was barely able to turn his head towards Alice to acknowledge that she was there. Then, as he began to recognise his sister, a sign of pleasure was expressed through his glassy eyes.
“Won’t you speak to me, Gerald? Won’t you speak to your own wee Alley?” The boy shook with a convulsive shudder, but could not utter a word in answer.
“Don’t die, Gerald! Please don’t leave poor Alley all alone in the world!” pleaded she in the her agony of childish despair, “he’ll never be the same again! He’ll never speak to me again!”
The boy now made an effort to bring Alice’s ear to his clammy lips, and she tried very hard to hear the almost inaudible whisper which passed between them. “Is — uncle James — here?” gasped the dying boy in a stammering manner. “Tell him — I — couldn’t — help it! Oh! Alley! oh!” With this groan he gradually died away, and with it the spirit of poor Gerald Caniffe. Alice realised what had happened as soon as any of the bystanders, but her high and shrill scream soared above the wailing which now arose from the others. Once again the girl sank down in a faint that her great anguish had so mercifully caused.
A coroner’s inquest was held on the bodies of the three sons of Peter Caniffe, not far distant from the scene of the fatal party. A rumour had been doing the rounds saying that poison had somehow or other been the cause of their death. There was a thorough post-mortem examination carried out, which resulted in a verdict that said the three Caniffes had died “from the excessive use of alcohol.”
I began this tale by saying that I would not be pointing to a moral. But, there is a moral. It is a moral to selfish and ill-judging parents, and also to ill-judging societies, who believe that coercion will have a better effect than a fair and consistent example. So it is with the Irish father who would exorcise the demon of alcohol out of his children by pledges of abstinence, or threats of punishment, while, he continues to believe that he can still enjoy the luxury of alcoholic drink.