This story is set in Northern Ireland, not so very long ago, and gives the reader some idea about the sectarianism that is prevalent in that land, which has been based on historical events over three hundred years ago. The characters are fictitious, though the sham fight continues to be played out every year on 13th July in the village of Scarva….
Tommy Hyde was a well-known, character in the area where I lived. He had the sagacity that long life can bring, but he could also be quite a cantankerous old man with a tongue that cut deeper than any knife. At first sight he could be described as a small man, though he was very broad and brawny in stature. He had a big, round face that had been reddened by years of working outdoors, attending to his fields in all types of weather. On his head of thick, grey hair sat Tommy’s trademark cloth cap. But, Tommy’s thick grey hair was also quite long for a man of his age, matching his thick, rather unkempt grey beard, spotted dark brown with the tobacco juice that he often spat out when smoking his pipe. In fact it was a rare sight to see Tommy without a pipe stuck in his mouth, and him puffing out grey clouds of that “Walnut Plug” tobacco that he so enjoyed.
It was one summer’s morning, as I was taking my customary stroll on the outskirts of town, that I encountered ‘Old Tommy’ standing at the edge of the narrow lane that was known to most as ‘Castle Lane.’ It was Tommy’s way to let people see that he was a very busy man and, when encountering a person, he could be found digging at this or hammering at that. On this particular morning I found him leaning on his hoe and contemplating the weeds on the roadside verge that, despite his attention, never seemed to decrease in number. Indeed, even when, on those rare occasions that actually began to do some work, the same man never appeared to be in a hurry unrushed and always carried himself with a certain, calm dignity. Tommy, however, fankly could not have cared less about what people thought about him. He had the attitude that whatever he decided he would do, or not to do, it was no person’s business but his own.
As I was approaching him I could see that he was ready for a bit of ‘Craic’ by the glint in his eye as he glanced at me. Putting down his hoe, Tommy leaned up against a nearby dry-stone wall, took a drag from his pipe, exhaled a large cloud of grey smoke, and spat a globule of deep brown saliva on the grass verge. Greeting him with a nod of recognition I ambled up to where he stood, and positioned myself next to him. In his gruff voice, and without removing his pipe he began, “Do you know, Jimmy, what I’m goin’ to tell you?”
I knew from experience that this was the way that he normally began a conversation. He does not, of course, expect you to answer him because you would need to be a clairvoyant of some sort to know the answer. But, Tommy did not say anything more for a moment or two, but lifted his hoe to raise a large weed out of the ground before placing it on the edge of the tarmac road. He took another drag from his pipe and, after exhaling, declared, “Do you know, Jimmy, there’s not a hair’s breadth of a difference between any two women that you would ever meet.”
This was definitely not a conversation opener that I had expected at that moment. Having absolutely no opinion on this subject, I found it very difficult to give him an answer. “There’s that boy of mine,” said Tommy, ” and although I say it myself, he’s a fine boy in many ways, so he is. There is no way is he a wrong one, who would cause trouble and strife.”
“That’s true,” says I honestly.
“And another thing,” Tommy continued, ” I can tell you that he’s as brave a boy as you’d ever wish for to see.”
“Aye!” I nodded in affirmation.
“Do you know, that from the time that boy was six years old, he was that particular about himself that he wouldn’t go to church without his Sunday boots on his feet. Those boots were great ‘creakers’, and you could’ve heard them all over the church when he came in for Sunday service, always just a wee bit late. But, that wee boy could rhyme off all the responses to the prayers better than a grown up. Mind you, Jimmy, that was no wonder since it was myself who learned him his religion, and encouraged him follow the example of him that has gone before us!”
I thought Old Tommy was going to take a bit of a pause at this junction, but devil the bit of him. He continued, “But then the buck eejit took to messing around with a group of wee fellas who hung around the corner at the top of ‘Irish Street’. That’s the truth, but I soon quit him out of that. Says I to him: ‘Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? Me heart’s broke with ye, so it is. I’ll have no messing about from only boy that I have, so I won’t. You’ll have no more contact with them, no, nor will ye pass the the time of day with anyone that’s not your own sort. None that would differ from the Very Reverend Clamp, me, Reverend Johnston of Ballykeel, and the Big Man himself. What’s that ye say? Who is the Big Man? Now! Now! Who else would it be, but yer man on the white horse?’”
Now, those of you who are reading this might wonder where the man rode a horse in St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse as recorded in the ‘Good Book’. But it is an easily recognisable image to those who are in the know, so to speak. It is an allusion to William of Orange, of ‘Glorious, pious, and immortal memory, Defender of Protestantism in Ireland’, who is always represented on a white horse. “But,” I argued with Old Tommy, “King Billy did converse with those who disagreed with him. It is even said, you know, that when he came to England he was subsidised by the Pope in Rome.”
Old Tommy, it appeared, did not hear a word that I had said and continued to rattle on about his son. “As I was saying to ye, that boy of mine has a mind to get himself wed. So I says to him, ‘There’s not a hair’s difference between any two of them.’ You see, it’s this way. He has the two of them courted down to the asking, and he’s afeard that if he asks one of them he’ll be always thinking about the other, or maybe he’ll think he’d sooner have had the other. He is not behaving well at all. He can’t, of course, marry them both, and yet he has raised hopes which must in one case be disappointed, and he might break the poor girl’s heart. Break her heart! What a load of bollix, heart is it?”
Old Tommy had told me on previous occasions what he thought about ‘love’ and the relationships between young boys and girls. “But,” I interrupted him, hoping that I could delve a little deeper, “Don’t you believe in love, Tommy?”
I knew, of course, that Old Tommy had been married to two different women. His first wife was called Peggy, and the poor woman only lived for a year after her marriage. I didn’t know the woman personally because she died before I was born, but those who did know Peggy say that she was a handsome woman and the love of Old Tommy’s life. The current Mrs. Hyde, has been his wife for twenty-five-years and he always spoke of her as “That oul’ widow woman.” She was once the wife of John Adams, who was a simple man whose only reason to be remembered seemed to be the fact that he was Old Tommy’s second wife’s first husband. For his part, Tommy had little time for the man or his memory, insisting that he held heretical views that certainly have prevented him from entering Heaven.
“Do I not believe in love, you ask me? Why, haven’t I seen it all myself? Sure, and didn’t I have an uncle, my own mother’s brother, that was taken in that way? And what do you think he went and did, but got the whole of Paul’s wickedest Epistle learned off by heart, so he did, and he offered for to tell it all to her in one single sitting. Boys, oh! but he was the quare poet! And she got married to a boy out from Ballinahoe, and do ye know what I’m goin’ to tell ye? He took to the hills and never did a hand’s turn after that.”
“Surely, Tommy you have been in love yourself. When you first met Peggy and now with your present wife? When you asked them to marry you, you must have had to at least pretend you loved them. What did you say to them at the time?”
“Well, I’ll tell you it was this way with me and Peggy. The two of us went the whole way to Scarva village on the thirteenth. Did ever ye hear tell of the ‘Battle of Scarva’? I mind it all so well. I had a packet of cold meat sandwiches in my coat pocket, and Peggy, she had taken a few wee home-baked buns. Says I to her, “Peggy, would ye care for a wee sandwich?” And says she to me, “Take a wee bun, Thomas!” And the very next morning I went in and gave our names to the Reverend Clamp, so I did.”
There are many worse ways to conclude such business , after all, and very few that would be more full of symbol. There is the mutual help, the inevitable “give and take” of married life. There is the strength and fulfilment of the cold meat sandwiches, combined with the freshness and sweetness of the maidenly home-baked goods. These were two souls that had been united in the flavour of both scents which, when combined, rose to heaven on the summer air. In all honesty, I cannot recall any tale or reminiscence of my married friends on this particularly interesting topic, that describes a “proposal” of marriage more delicately and less ostentatiously. While Old Tommy graciously accepted my congratulations on his elegant good taste, he was not as forthcoming about his current wife. When I asked about the manner of his proposal to his second wife, he only shook his head despairingly and muttered, “Them widows! Them widows!” In his answer to me there was almost a suggestion that he was taken at a disadvantage, but I could hardly give it credit. It seemed impossible to me that this crafty old man would not have extricated himself from such a situation with all the inspired dexterity of a Sherlock Holmes, or the undoubted abilities of a Disney hero.
“As I was saying,” he resumed, “Did ever ye hear tell of the ‘Battle of Scarva’?” I had, of course, heard of it. After all who has not heard of the open air, theatrical epic of the North? But just in case you haven’t heard of it, let me explain. Every year, in a quiet country village thousands of people gather at a pretty, wooded park, on a large open meadow that slopes down to a clear running stream. There, on 13th July, they enacted what is a veritable ‘Passion Play’ of the historically influential ‘Battle of the Boyne’.
“I suppose you have often been to the celebrations in Scarva, Tommy.”
“Indeed, I have me boy. Many and many a time. But there was one time when the battle beat all those before and since! Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would give a thousand pounds to see that battle again, so I would. But, me boy, oh! it was grand thing to see. There was my own aunt’s nephew acting as King William, and him on the top of the loveliest white horse ye have ever seen, with his flowing mane tied with wee loops of braid in orange and blue. Yer man had an orange scarf on him and blue feathers to his hat, and he looked just like one of them foreign Princes. And his Generals and officers were just the same, only not so grand. For the Papish King, James, they had a fine young horse under him that Dan Collins had bought off the Reverend Jackson in the Fair at Dungannon. But the horse set his ears back, and let a squeal out of him, and took a buck leap all over the place whenever Andy Watson came near to him. At that Andy, who was playing King James, shouts aloud, “I am not used with this sort of horse exercise, and I don’t trust that beast.”
“But,”’ says Dan Collins, “Get up there with ye sonny boy, and no more whining about it.
“Well, with that Andy turned about, and, says he, “I’ll ride no bloody horse out of Dungannon. Sure I’d sooner walk. I tell ye I’ll ride none, without I have my own mare that brought me and the wife and the children out of the ‘Pass’, so I won’t.”
“With that the Generals and the officers and the rest of the aide-Campuses headed off until they found Andy’s mare, which was eating on the grass by the roadside, and not too agreeable to coming with them. But, she was finally coaxed along by one of those de-Campuses boys who was sweet talking her and complimenting her, “There’s a good wee daughter, sure you’re a wee jewel.” At the same time one of those Generals was holding a bit of grass in the front of her, while another General persuading her in the rear. Finally, they got King James onto her, and the two armies was drawn up on the banks of the wee stream that was to be representing the Boyne River. It was then that they began, in a quite friendly and agreeable fashion, teasing each other with a, “Come on, ye thirsty tyrant ye,’ from King William. “Come on, ye low, mean usurper,” shouted James in answer. “Come on ye devil’s son, and enemy to civil and religious liberty,” William cried out to the cheers of the people attending. “Come on, ye glorious, pious, and immoral worm of a man,’ said James. “Are you going to come at all ye traitor to your people, ye Judas, and Rome lover,” calls William amid loud cheering. Come on ye parasite ye, and disciple of Cromwell,“ says James. “Here’s to the victory of God and Protestantism,” says William and with those words he began to go forward. At the same time James should have come forward in front of him, but Andy’s mare just planted her fore-feet into the ground and stood there like a statue that was growing up out of the ground. With that there was two of the Aid-de-Campuses came to his assistance and began to pull and haul at the old mare! But devil a toe would she budge, and all the boys began laughing and pointing, so they did.
Then William came up and says he, “Come on or I’ll pull the neck out of ye…. Come on, me brave boy…. Fetch her a clip on the lug! Hit her a skelp on the arse! Give her a jab with your knee, man alive. Och, come on, ye arsehole, ye!” Well, even having the skin of a Rhino wouldn’t let a man stand up and take that from anyone, and Andy, he was quick tempered at best and shouted back “Arsehole yourself.” And as soon as he had said that he let a growl out of him ye might have heard in Portadown. You have never heard the like of that noise and, what’s more, nor had Andy Watson’s mare. That old horse was so taken aback that she just took the one leap and she landed in the stream, just in front of William. Then King James took a tight hold of William, and screamed at him “Arsehole!” and with that he threw him off his grand white horse, and he dragged him into the cold stream water.
“Then all hell broke loose on the meadow and it was the best entertainment I have ever seen. Some of the people were for William, and some they were for James. But whoever they were for every one lifted his foot or raised his fist, or any other weapon that they came across. The boys were all thumping, and beating each other, drawing blood from all parts of the body and causing chaos and all sorts injuries.”
“I thought you were all friends at Scarva?” I asked Old Tommy.
He gave me a sly smile and a wink of his eye as he told me, “And so we were! Just friends fighting through one another.”
“But, was there any one hurt?”
“Was anyone hurt?” he laughed. “Sure, they were just trailing themselves off the ground. You would have died laughing. There’s Jimmy Hara who has never been his own man since then, and sure I had my nose broke and it still not fixed. There were some who said there was a wee man from Tandragee got himself killed.”
“What became of William?”
“Och, sure he was clean drowned.” Old Tommy told me, matter-of-factly.
“And King James?”
“He’s in hell with Johnny Adams.”
I tried to explain to him that I had not meant the King himself, but the actor whose nature had been stronger than his dramatic instinct. Old Tommy, however, could not or would not make a difference between the two. He really was not listening to me at all. I had come to a conclusion that over some time Tommy’s thoughts were wandering far from our conversation. Suddenly a spasm convulsed his features. With one hand he raised the hoe in the air like a tomahawk, disregarding the weeds and soil from his afternoon’s toil, which were left abandoned and helpless on the gravel of the road. With his other hand he grasped his side. For a moment, I was afraid that the old man was going to have a fit, but it was only uncontrollable laughter at some joke that I was, as yet, unaware of.
“Well, do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would just agree that William was a man of great cleverness, so he was. He was subsidised by the Pope of Rome, was he? Boys, oh! Do ye tell me that? Well I’ll tell you that beats all, and him going to do exactly the opposite of what he let on.”
Old Tommy, without question, was absolutely sober at the beginning of our conversation, and he had remained “dry” during our talk, but he now became gradually intoxicated with what had appeared to him to be his hero’s cunning ways. The thought of a genius who could outsmart someone else in a bargain rose to his brain like a glass of cold stout. He swayed on his feet and his words ran into each other. Old Tommy was now assuming a gaiety of manner and expression that was quite unusual for him. I stood still, watching him lurch down the walk, and then pause on the bridge. He supported himself by holding on to the wooden railing, which creaked loudly as he swayed to and fro, and he began to talk to the stream and the trees, “Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would just agree that he was a man of great cleverness, so he was.”