An Old Tale from the Annals of my Family
There was a time when every poor Irish peasant could tell you that he was the descendants of Chieftains and Kings, who were all beaten down by the vile English and had their lands stolen from them. Now, I am not going to tell you that my ancestry stretches back to one of the ruling families of old Ireland since I cannot trace my paternal or maternal line beyond ‘The Great Potato Famine in Ireland’, or as some would call it the ‘The Irish Genocide by the English.’ There are stories from days prior to the beginning of that terrible time that have been handed down but not earlier than the beginning of that century. It appears, after the failure of the ‘United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798’ the British Government decided to increase its military presence throughout the land. One area that saw an increase in the number of red-coated soldiers was the County of my forefathers, County Tyrone.
In the year of the ‘Union’, 1801, a certain regiment was ordered to Tyrone and was very soon dispersed over various districts of that County. One detachment was sent to be stationed in the townland of Sluggan, and their first impressions of that area were far from favourable. The detachment leader and his two assistants, however, soon discovered an Síbín (Shebeen), which was an illegal drinking place, where alcoholic drink was sold without a license and without having paid revenue to the government. This drinking den for the locals was based in the small, thatched cabin where the soldiers had been sent to be billeted. One night, soon after arriving, the three soldiers began to discuss the types of leisure-time amusement that were on offer, and they were quite quickly disappointed with what they found.
Under the instructions of their military superiors, the three men were not allowed to associate with the locals or get too friendly with them because of their rumoured rebellious nature. They sought further entertainment to keep them amused but, for them, there was no hunting, no shooting, no gaming, no horses to ride, no lively young ladies that they might flirt with. It should be understood, military men in those days rarely had an interest in literature, but books suddenly became very important to these men and, when they had read the few they had, they sent to the nearest town, which was quite a distance away, for more. Unfortunately, reading is not the sort of active amusement that young, healthy men truly yearned for.
One evening the three soldiers took a walk along some of the tracks and boreens of the district, and their faces soon brightened when they saw a local peasant boy, wearing a shabby hat, a torn coat, and a pair of britches that were held together by a single button and a rope belt. As he paraded merrily along his way, he was whistling a merry tune and, in one hand dangled two fine-looking trout in one hand. In his other hand he was waving a long ‘switch’, and he marched along the track with his curly red hair blowing over his bright, rosy-cheeked face in the fresh breeze. He was a picture of health and of careless happiness.
“Hello! My fine fellow! Where did you catch these trout?” asked the leading soldier.
“Now, your honour, in the small lake, just over ‘thonder’,” replied the boy with a smile, pointing back along the track
“’Thonder!’ Where the devil is that?”
“Do you see ‘thone’ hills? Well, just behind them hills there’s the lake with plenty of fish. By Jaysus, if I had but a decent fishing-rod, and something more sensible than a crooked pin!’
“Aren’t you a handsome intelligent boy! What are you called?’
‘Patrick McCoille, if pleases your honour.’
‘Well, Paddy, if you will show us the trout lake, I’ll give you a shilling.’
Paddy McCoille had heard of a shilling, but he had never yet seen one, so he was overjoyed at the prospects of getting one. He not only showed them the small lake but made rush-baskets to carry the fish they caught. He told tales to the three soldiers, sung them songs, and, by his good-humour and love of fun, very much enlivened their stay at Sluggan. He was happy to be at the centre of the soldiers’ attention and was happy to be doing anything for them that gained him a few coppers. Now, when the time came for the soldiers to leave the district, Paddy was genuinely sorrowful at their going. The soldiers decided that they could help the young lad by recruiting him as a boy soldier in the regiment.
In those days there was not much money in a family of Roman Catholic, Irish Peasants, and Paddy’s mother encouraged him to begin a military career as a fifer in the British Regiment. There he would get clothes, shoes, a bed of his own, and three good meals a day. When he was older, Paddy entered the ranks full-time and became valet to a Captain Chalmondley-Rowbotham. Within months Paddy’s extraordinary intelligence and military bearing brought quick promotion to the rank of Sergeant. There was a war with France at this time, of course, and on two occasions he showed great courage and wisdom while leading a detachment of men in battle. As a result, Paddy was unanimously put forward for officer training and once again succeeded in gaining the promotion. Despite his rapid rise through the ranks, however, he retained the good opinion and friendship of all who had been former comrades.
It is said that Paddy was considered by many to be a handsome man and, as we have seen a very clever person. What he lacked in education he took advantage of every opportunity to improve himself. But no one is perfect, and Patrick McCoille became extremely ambitious and ever vainer. He came to a point in his ‘new’ life that he did not want to remain in a situation where his very humble origins were so well known, and he finally transferred to another regiment, where he soon became equally as popular with his new companions as he had been with his old friends. Eventually, however, war with France came to an end and Paddy’s financial status quickly fell below that which he had been used to. He needed a new life and he decided to use his long-held talents to help him seek out a fortune and further growth in his social status.
With the peace gained, Paddy settled himself in a town that lay along the north coast of France and began to seek a wife that would bring with her position and wealth. He did not have long to wait. Having become a fluent French speaker and his quick wits helped him greatly to open many doors which were closed the higher born, but less talented army companions. Before long, he met the widow of a wealthy hotelkeeper who, though twenty years his senior, gave him clear signals that all he needed to do was to propose. Whether this was a case of him being greedy or a real case of love, it is hard to say. Nevertheless, they married, and lived together for three years, during which he was both affectionate and kind to her. Then, when his wife died, she left him all that she had, which, although much less than he had hoped for, made up, together with his army pension, a reasonably good income.
Although this amount of income would have represented a mere pittance to most men, it was a fortune to such an adventurer. Armed with this money and his natural talents, Paddy set out for Paris, where he made a great impression upon a young and beautiful widow who held a high situation within French society, and very soon after they met the two were married. One problem arose, however, during the nuptial preparations when the lady objected to his name.
“McCoille!” she cried, (pronouncing it as M’ecole — My School); “I cannot allow myself to accept such a name in my social circle. It is demeaning!”
“Well, my dear, I am very sorry about that, but it is my name.”
“Does your family not possess a title?”
“None,” said Paddy, who now insisted on being called Patrick.
“What, then, is the name of your father’s estate?”
Patrick’s thoughts turned to the small, thatched cabin in which he had passed his childhood. He recalled the pig that had once been a playmate before it was delivered to the landlord to pay the rent. He remembered his father, in his long, heavy coat, with a hay-band round his hat, and his mother, dressed in fluttering rags which so many of the Irish peasantry thought added smartness to their dress. After so many years he, perhaps, thought with regret of the warm, loving hearts that had beat beneath in their breasts, so fond and so proud of him. With quiet dignity, he told her, ‘Sadly, my love, it is no longer in our family.‘
“But” persisted the lady, “you were born near some village, or in some place that had a name?”
“The townland of Sluggan was where we lived.”
“Fantastique! That is just what is needed! You will call yourself the Baron de Sluggan!”
“Of course, and why not? I shall not object to being called ‘De Sluggan’”.
She accordingly had her cards printed ‘La Baroness de Sluggan,’ and her husband, who had a great love of his family name, now became known to all as ‘Baron McCoille de Sluggan’. One of these cards is preserved as a memento by one of my relatives and Paddy’s adventures are frequently repeated at wakes, weddings, and other family gatherings.