It was at Mick Harte’s funeral that I first met Paul Quinn, a popular and friendly man who was, before this occasion, a stranger to me. Paul, however, had been a very good friend to my Uncle Mick and he had, I was to discover, helped my father’s brother to avoid the full penalty of the law on many occasions.
“Mick was your uncle?” he asked as we walked behind the black hearse. “Then, it was Danny who was your father?”
“Aye, that’s right,” I confirmed. “Did you know them both well?”
“It was your father who was the eldest of the two and I got to know him. But it was your Uncle Mick and I who were the best of friends. In fact, Mick and I were born in the same week, just three or four months before the end of the great war.”
“I bet things in Ireland were a lot different in those days?”
“Aye, it was time when Ireland was very troubled and virtually lawless, and our early years were filled with a bitter and bloody struggle to gain our nation’s independence. The shock wave caused by the ‘Easter Rebellion’ were still being felt throughout Ireland, and the ‘Black and Tan’ thugs took the conflict to a higher level of cruelty and bloodletting, with neither side showing any pity to the other. We were still toddlers when the peace treaty was signed, and ‘Free State’ was created. But signing a treaty was much easier than maintaining lengthy period of peace.”
“I can imagine that it must have been an exciting time, but it must also have been very frightening,” I commented.
“Exciting is one word that could describe those days in our young lives,” Paul smiled as he searched his memories. “But it was a time of ambushes, guns, and the killing of Irish men by their fellow countrymen. There was one day, When Mick and I were only five years old, and we were playing in a field at the edge of town which ran adjacent to “Hennessey’s Wood.’ Without a warning there was an explosion of gunfire that appeared to us to last quite a few minutes, but it was probably only for a few seconds. We were shaking with fear as we lay in the grass, and we attempted to gather our senses quickly when the gunfire ceased so we could escape the danger. But from where we lay we saw twelve men coming out of the wood with rifles over their shoulders and bandoliers of ammunition across their chests. In their hands, however, these men were carrying a variety of birds and rabbits that would have provided them with a great feast. These were what our parents called ‘irregulars’ and they had been able to avoid the ‘Free State Soldiers’ that had been patrolling the area for the previous two weeks. For two very young boys who were only innocent children it was our first experience of the troubled country in which we lived.”
“Some experiences, Paul,” I commented as I slowly shook my head in wonder as we walked on.
“It was for someone so young,” said Paul. “My father, God rest him, had a worse experience. He was the owner of a busy local grocery shop and pub, and he owned one of only two cars in our small town.”
“What happened him?” I asked.
“It was in the summer of 1922 and there had been several skirmishes in the area around the town over previous weeks, mainly due to ambushes being set up by ‘irregulars. Well, it was daylight when my father was heading home in his car, and he had a keg of whiskey secured on the passenger seat. He was quite unaware that while he was away, some local irregulars had been busy excavating a trench in preparation for an ambush against an expected patrol of soldiers along the road. As usual my father was in a hurry and didn’t see the obstruction that the irregulars had placed in the road until he was almost on top of it. In his panic to avoid the obstruction he pulled on the steering wheel, forcing the car to swerve with a loud screech of brakes. But such was his speed and the sharpness of the swerve that the car overturned and crashed into the trench. The car was a complete wreck and the keg of whiskey it was carrying was busted open and splashed all over the small band of men, who were forced to jump out of the trench in which they were hiding. These armed men wanted to avoid being hit by an out-of-control car and they dispersed quickly, and the planned ambush did not take place. It was only after old Joe Murray came with his Shire Horses was the car pulled free of the trench and towed home. The news of the crash was the talk of the entire district for a month.”
“Dear God, that must have been some experience for your father?” I commented and was in two minds as to whether I should laugh or not. “What did Uncle Mick say?”
Paul smiled as he recalled, “Sure, Mick never said much about anything in those days, for in those days he was a bit of a tear-away himself.”
“Uncle Mick was a bit of a tear-away? That’s a bit hard for me to see, from what I know of him.”
“Aye! Mick was always a bit of an eejit, like myself,” Paul told me. “I’ll admit that things were much different in those days. The countryside around her was like a magical kingdom for two adventurous boys. We could have wondered anywhere without fear, and our parents had no concerns for our safety. There were many evenings that we would go after school to rob birds’ nests as part of our egg collecting hobby, which was a great past-time when we were young. You know, there were times when we would have to put an egg in our mouth so we could both hands to get down from the branches. It wasn’t always a successful choice, for there were times when the egg would break in our mouths as we descended and jumped the last few feet.”
We laughed together at the idea of birds’ eggs breaking in their mouths. “Aye! Egg collectors and poachers,” added Paul.
“Poachers?” I gasped.
“Aye, that’s right! We became very good friends and poachers when we were young, catching hundreds of trout by tickling them,” he told me.
“Did they just laugh their way into a net?” I joked.
Paul remained straight faced and began to explain, “In truth, it was Mick who was the real expert. His secret was to move his hand slowly and noiselessly under an overhanging riverbank, never hurrying or grabbing at his target. But when the opportunity came Mick would sweep the fish onto the bank with one swift scoop of his hand. At night we would take lamps and a gaff to catch the fish, but whether day or night we always had to be on our guard for police and gamekeepers. Maybe because we were so young, we never gave too much consideration to the punishment we might receive for our actions. We hunted hares, rabbits, pheasants, fish, and it was ‘Young Alo’, the postman in those days, who taught us everything about snares and other poacher tools. Now and again, ‘Young Alo’ would also bring his two big greyhounds and we would have great sport flushing out hares and rabbits, and watching the dogs chase them down.”
“Great times and great fun! Not at all like today?” I suggested.
There was now a more serious expression that came across Paul’s face as he remembered, “Well, life wasn’t all one period o constant joy and carefree abandon, for the people around here did face hard times. Most of the people around this place lived in stone and mortar cabins with thatched roofs. Although they made them as comfortable as they could, the homes were not luxurious homes. Poverty was widespread at that time, with Tuberculosis and other serious illnesses rampant, and alcohol and tobacco were their only means of relaxing. The Parish Priest, an old and spiritually gifted man, was constantly busy with his parochial duties, especially the funerals of those poor people who succumbed to the scourge of Tuberculosis, for which there was no cure. There were many funerals that Mick and I had to attend, for our schoolfriends or their parents.”
We walked on silently for a little while until Paul again began to speak. “There was not much in the way of work for a man in those days. The biggest employer in this area was ‘Tully’s Factory’, within which pigs were slaughtered and then processed to produce high quality pork and ham products. Of course, not all the locals were able to get employment there and those lucky enough to secure a job would stay for many years. It was said that you would have to shoot someone dead in the factory before you would face the possibility of dismissal. Just wounding a person would not even be considered a serious disciplinary offence.”
After lighting a cigarette, Paul continued to explain, “There were many others who indirectly benefitted from ‘Tully’s’ by gaining employment with the numerous pig farms that supplied the factory. Every Tuesday the pigs would be marched or transported in wagons and lorries from the nearby farms to the factory. On arrival they would be weighed and checked by the factory’s vet, for the better-quality pig would always be worth the greater amount of money for its farmer. It was a good time for the farmers, but as the prices for ham and pork products rose and fell, the farmers’ income could vary greatly, effecting the lives of their workers.”
Paul smiled as he told me, “There were, naturally, men who preferred to do little or no work, but still need money to survive. It was such men that found a home in illicit businesses, like smuggling and Poteen. However, there were more temperate people who were convinced that Poteen was the brew by which Satan entrapped mankind in permanent drunkenness. But the greater number were those who admired poteen and its manufacture. They considered the brew to be the ‘Nectar of the Gods’ which had been given to man to Pacify their hearts. Do you know that there are some men who will tell you that it is great stuff for rubbing on the backs of greyhounds, the forelocks of horses, and even the arthritic joints of men and women? But the truth of poteen’s attraction was that it could be made cheaply and sold at a good profit, and tax-free. Despite it being illegal, many stills were built and the people who made the spirit became socially acceptable to the community as a whole.”
“Surely the law came after them?” I asked.
“Of course, they did! In those days turf was used to heat the stills, which made the more easily detectable by the police and gaugers, who would destroy those they found. But there were those manufacturers who would double, or triple distill their poteen, improving its quality and bringing in a better price. Indeed, it wasn’t unknown, for some policemen and gaugers to ensure that they reserved the better-quality goods for themselves before destroying the still.”
“Ah, sure, you can trust no one. But the craic must have been good for Mick and you,” I smiled. “There mustn’t have been a corner of this county which was safe from you two rascals.”
“Travelling was not just as easy in those days,” said Paul as he caught his breath. “The roads were rough and very hard upon the types of motor vehicles as well as horses’ hoofs. Local Councils were constantly making efforts to improve road quality, sending out men to break stones as aggregate, which was then pressed and flattened by a steam roller. Travelling for fun by car or other vehicle was rare and there were many occasions when we would walk twenty miles to the nearest town, herding our cattle to be sold there. On those days we would accompany the cattle driver, who could earn a few extra shillings for his efforts. But the going with cattle was far from easy, especially when some of the moody beasts broke away from the herd and would run off in all directions across fields, bogs, and woods.”
Paul went on to explain, “On a fair day in town the sale of animals would begin about six o’clock in the morning and would last most of the day, with buyers and sellers coming in from miles around to bargain with each other. Big dealers would come from Dublin and as far away as England, and it would be to those places that most of the cattle went. The bullocks and bulls were the most difficult to handle, especially when they took the notion to wander off. Some of the farmers, however, would punch a hole in its ear and thread through some wild honeysuckle, which was said to stop the beast from trying to escape. It didn’t always work, however, and my father never believed in such old wives’ tales, preferring a much more hands on approach. There was one day when a bullock took a lunge at him and, without any fear, and with blood running down his rubber boot, he grabbed the beast’s head and thrust two fingers into its nose. With brute force he would twist its neck until it became still again. It frightened the life out of me, but he was a rough, tough man.”
“You know, there was one thing about people in those days,” he continued. “They were very much in favour of law and order, for they had seen enough destruction during the ‘War of Independence’ and the ‘Civil War’. I remember my parents were very strict, as were your own grandparents, and they had little patience for bad language or drunkenness. My own mother was always praying and saying novenas, and my father had very high morals, but neither of them would allow themselves to be dominated by any cleric. My father also detested anyone who would steal from him or tell him lies. He always said that you could watch a thief, but you could never watch a liar. Anyone who committed either offence against him would be severely punished with his fists, which were like giant sledgehammers beating down.”
“I can remember one fine summer day when Mick and I were playing just outside the local pub while both our fathers were enjoying a quiet pint together. But it didn’t stay quiet for long when Tom Riley, the leader of the local tinkers, arrived and was already the worse for drink. The barman refused to serve Riley and told him that he had enough taken. Riley, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to this and a war of words quickly broke out. The air was filled with all sorts of swear words and deadly oaths, which continued until my father spoke up, saying, “You have had enough now, Tom. It’s time to go.””
“Tom’s reply was to take a swing at my father, but he missed. My father drew back a little before he drove home a short jab, knocking the tinker chief to the floor on his back. The police were summoned to the bar and Tom was given a cell where he could sober-up overnight and get some treatment for the broken jaw he had suffered. That was the end of it and every time he came o the pub after this incident, he was sober and made welcome.”
The funeral cortege was turning into the cemetery by this time, and I said to Paul, “Well, it’s time now to put Mick in his place of rest.”
“Aye, its true enough,” replied Paul sadly, “and I never go a chance to say goodbye to him.” “Sure, you are saying goodbye now, and you have told me more about my Uncle Mick than I ever knew before. For that, Paul, I thank you.” I tried to comfort him and offered him my hand, which he took and warmly shook. At that moment the cortege came to a stop, for we had reached the church door and the priest began to say a prayer of welcome for the deceased.