Bisto and the Priest Part I

The small town in which I have lived most of my long life is not much different from any other small rural town in Ireland. There are some towns that may be larger than others, and some that are smaller, but in each of these towns lives at least one character whose reputation is known both far wide. Sadly, almost every town contains some people who are known for their anti-social activities, which attract the anger of their fellow residents. Their actions within the community gain for them disparaging names, such as ‘Wastrels’, ‘Spongers’ and ‘Jam Trampers’, among their neighbours. While the offenders might be worthy of such names, in many cases, the community is inclined to rush to judge others, based on the antics of one person. Far too often people are too quick to “tar” a troublemaker’s entire family with the same “brush”. They fail to accept that each person is an unique individual in their own right and they fail to measure each on their own individual merits. In my own town, most of the anti-social behavior that we experience can be traced to the age-old human weakness for alcohol, which seems to be an ever-present problem for some within Irish society.

As a proud Irishman I confess that I am not teetotal. I enjoy the occasional drink or two, and I can see no reason why any hard-working man or woman should not be allowed to enjoy one or two glasses of their favourite alcoholic beverage. The choice, after all, is theirs and so long as they can afford to buy the drink, who has the right to stop them. My tolerance, however, does start to wear a bit thin when a man or a woman drinks excessively, spending all that they have without giving a thought to the welfare of their spouse or children at home.

In my hometown the majority of those who take a drink are, thanks be to God, very mature people who enjoy moderation in all things. They are not the type of people, from my experience, who would ever consider leaving their families short of money and food just for the sake of alcohol. But, as is the case in most things, there are exceptions to any rule. There are always those who have no sense of responsibility or feel accountable for any of the actions they take. We have all seen men and women, both young and old, who seem to always spend their government welfare benefits on beer, lager or spirits without much thought being given to the family at home. Even worse are those who work all week and, after getting their wages, they spend it all on alcohol even before they reach home. When they eventually stagger home all they bring with them are empty pockets and a foul mouth for those left hungry and bedraggled. Sadly, in my opinion, the spouses would be much better off as single parents to enjoy life without fearing the mental and physical abuse that an alcohol dependent man or woman can bring to a family.

Now, I am only too aware that such things are not confined to Ireland or the Irish people in general. Yet, I can tell you that in our small town one of the most sober, considerate and compassionate men is the Parish Curate, Fr. Lennon. He stands over six feet tall in his socks, and he has been graced with a physique like a main battle tank. The man’s hands are just massive lumps of flesh and bone, resembling great sledge hammers that are ready to deal out punishment to any potential opponent.

Within our small town and the county Father Lennon had built a big reputation for himself as a tough centre full-back for the County Football Team. Although he wears the garments of a man of God there are very few members of the opposing teams who could get past him with the ball in their hands without first suffering some sort of injury, minor or otherwise. Then, at the lectern, every Sunday morning the same man preaches proudly about sin, violence, fair play, sex and the evils of alcohol.

Every Sunday, since he retired from playing football, there was no activity that Fr. Lennon liked to do more than to take a leisurely walk through the town. His usual route took him past “River View”, which was one area of the town that was one of the most socially challenged areas of the town, because it mostly low-income families that resided there. Consequently, it was an area that Father Lennon frequently visited in his Parish pastoral visits and, in its two hundred feet length, there were six very small, old, two-bedroom cottages without central heating or indoor plumbing. The families that lived in this small street were obliged to draw fresh water from a pump at the foot of the lane. They were also obliged to share the discomfort of a communal toilet area, with a chemical toilet, at the back of the cottages. It was, for the want of a better description, a slum area that was long-past its time for redevelopment. For a long time, Fr. Lennon had been urging the local authorities to demolish the cottages and rehouse the residents in more modern accomodation. His appeals, however, had been falling on deaf ears.

One Sunday morning, as he turned into “River View” he was almost knocked over by a small, scruffy boy who looked to be about eight years old. The boy had been running so fast, and with his head down, that he had not noticed the priest walking on the footpath. Father Lennon managed to stop the boy from crashing into him by grabbing his shoulders and, steadying him. He asked the boy, “Where in the name of God are you going to?”

Breathlessly the boy replied, “Oh Jesus, Father! My Da is murdering my Ma!” Through the grubbiness of the boy’s face, and the long, tatty hair that flowed almost to his shoulders, the priest could see a great fear in the boy’s eyes. “I need to get away from him before he starts into me!” he stammered.

Dublin Slum ChildrenFr. Lennon immediately recognised the boy as being Sean Mackey, and one of fourteen children that belonged to Mary and “Bisto” Mackey. Sean bore such a resemblance to his father that anyone who knew “Bisto” could easily identify the son, and “Bisto” was, by no means, unknown in the small town. He was, without doubt, a troubled man and was known to regularly beat his wife, which Fr. Lennon thought was a disgusting act to be perpetrated by any man. It was time, he thought to himself, to take some action and try to get “Bisto” to desist from acts of violence against his wife and family. Bracing himself to face down an angry “Bisto” Mackey, Father Lennon moved down the row of houses until he came to the Mackey’s bright blue, front door. It was already slightly opened, probably caused by young Sean’s hasty escape, and he could hear raised voices coming from within, swearing and damning each other. Without knocking on the front door, or even announcing himself, the priest walked on into the house, to the living room. Here he saw Mary sitting on an old, battered armchair in a very bedraggled condition, tears in her eyes and her mouth was bleeding slightly. As he came closer to the woman, Fr. Lennon noticed that one of her eyes was very badly swollen and several bruises were beginning to rise on her face. “Bisto”, was standing over his wife, shaking his clenched fist at her, and he was shouting all sorts of obscenities at the poor woman.

“Ah, just shut your big gob, Bisto!” and angry Father Lennon demanded. “If you put that fist of yours near her again I will personally lay you out flat on your back!” the priest warned.

“Bisto” immediately stopped his threatening manner and stared sullenly at the priest. “This is none of your business,” Bisto told Father Lennon angrily. “Do you think that dog-collar you wear will save you from a thumping?”

“I don’t need a dog-collar to protect me,” replied the priest confidently and drew himself up to his full height, showing his muscularity to its best. Bisto took a second glance at the clergyman and began to regret his antagonism toward him.

“Now, just you sit yourself down there, Bisto,” Father Lennon said calmly, pointing toward an empty armchair. “Let us try and get this nonsense sorted out.” As “Bisto” moved toward the chair Father Lennon scanned the room and noticed several young girls huddled in a corner and seeking protection beneath a heavy table.

“You,” he called out to one of the girls who appeared to be the eldest. “Will you please get me a clean cloth and some clean water, so we can get your mother cleaned up.” The young girl said nothing in reply, but she crawled from under the table and nervously moved into the kitchen.

“This is all that bitch’s fault, Father,” Bisto said. “No matter what I say or do she just continually nags me. She drives me mad, the ungrateful trollop!”

“Bitch, Trollop, these are not words a man uses to describe his wife, the mother of his children, and a woman as good as Mary,” Fr. Lennon told him. With this said he spoke no more but lifted the bowl of clean water from the young girl. Using the clean cloth that had been brought he began to gently dab at the cuts and bruises with the cool, clear water. “Tell me, Bisto,” he said after a few minutes, “what kind of a thrill does it give you to beat a defenceless woman? The mother of your children.”

“It is not enjoyment, Father,” Bisto told him angrily. “She drives me to it. Mary’s always nagging me about having a few drinks, and about spending time with my friends”.

“Because you are never out of the pub,” snapped Mary with a fire in her eyes and wincing under the attention Fr. Lennon was giving her eye and nose. “You spend every penny you have on your friends and drink. We have no food on our table and our children run around in rags. I don’t see too many of your so-called friends giving us anything. Yet you still buy them drinks.”

Bisto jumped to his feet once again and moved toward Mary. “Do you see what I mean Father?” he asked.

Mary visibly trembled with fear as Bisto came closer. “I don’t have to open my mouth for him to give me a dig in it. He comes home drunk and lashes out at me for no reason. If there’s no food on the table he beats me,” Mary declared.

Bisto shook his fist threateningly at Mary and told her, “Just keep your mouth shut and do what I tell you!”

“Will the two of you be quiet?” demanded an exasperated Fr. Lennon as he continued to clean up the cuts on Mary’s face. “The two of you are concerned about little victories over each other and don’t seem to care about what your fighting is doing to those poor children,” he pointed out to them. “I think it is time that I talked some sense into you both.”

The Priest finished cleaning up Mary’s cuts and bruises. Handing the bowl back to the oldest girl in the family he turned to face Bisto, who appeared to be still quite inebriated. He looked up at the husband, who was now standing above him and asked, “Where did you get the drink so early on a Sunday morning?”

“’Wee Minnie’s’ Pub, Father,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     ”Bisto replied. “All you do is rap the back door and you can get whatever you want, Father.” He was smiling very slyly at the priest and winking his eye conspiratorially. “It’s all done on the quiet, Father. You know what I mean?”

Angrily Father Lennon snapped at him, him “No! I don’t know what you mean, because it is illegal!”

“Ah, but sure everyone does it,” Bisto laughed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

“That doesn’t make it right,” replied the priest. “But I would know how you paid for it.”

Bisto shied away a little and muttered, “I had a few pounds.”

“I understand that, but where did those few pounds come from?”

“Tell him,” interrupted Mary. “Tell him what you did!”

“Be quiet, woman,” snarled Bisto.

Father Lennon looked sternly at the man and urged him, “Come on Bisto, man up and tell the truth.”

“With the last of the Family Allowance,” he confessed.

“The last bit of money we had,” cried Mary.

“Do you want another slap woman?” Bisto asked angrily and lifted his hand to Mary threateningly.                  

The priest now stood up, towering above Bisto, and asked, “Would you like me to give you one?” He then moved closer to the drunken man and told him, “I will lay you out flat if you ever touch her in my presence, you gobshite!” He sat                                                                                                                                        down on a chair for he was not about to take any chances with this bulk of a man, man of God or not.

“Father,” Mary interjected. “There is no food for the children and he has left me with no money to buy any. What am I to do? I can’t let them starve.” She was crying, and her tears ran down her cheeks. Mary’s eyes, red and swollen from the battering she had received at Bisto’s hands were beginning to darken as bruises formed. The right eye, particularly, was almost a purple-black colour already.

She nodded her head in agreement saying, “Yes, Father.”

“You’re far too kind Father,” said Mary, lifting the corner of her cardigan to wipe the tears in her eyes. Fr. Lennon replaced the wallet into his pocket before turning to both Mary and Bisto, telling them, “Listen, both of you. Someone has to look after this precious family for you two are not doing it.” He had succeeded in calming down both parties to the dispute and now began the task of negotiating a settlement and some sort of reconciliation. He looked kindly at the children and said to them, “Why don’t you go outside and play in the Lane for a while? Don’t come back in until I call you. Ok?”

“Yes Father,” they replied, almost in unison.

Over the following two hours the priest tried everything he knew to get the warring parties to agree to a cessation of their hostilities and set up a peace plan of sorts. By the end of the first hour Bisto had regained at least some sobriety and he began to weep as he answered the priest’s questions. He was encouraged, thereafter, to talk about his feelings and particularly his feelings for his wife. Bisto talked about the difficulty in finding work, his depressed condition at the lack of money the concern he had for his children living in a totally unsuitable house. He also professed his deep sorrow at having hit his wife and he vowed that he would never raise his hand to her again. At the same time Fr. Lennon succeeded in persuading Mary to accept her faults in the relationship. She was still weeping, and she got down on her knees, swearing she would never say another nagging word to Bisto. He now got down on his knees in front of his wife and they embraced each other comfortingly.

“I swear no more squandering money on drink, Mary!” Bisto told his wife tearfully.

“We will work our way through all these difficulties,” Mary told him, still sobbing. “There is absolutely no problem that we cannot overcome if we work together.”

Putting his hand on top of his wife’s head, Bisto stroked her hair softly. It is something he used to do when they were a courting couple and Mary enjoyed these special moments. “We will overcome these difficulties, Mary. You take the next family allowance payment and get yourself a new pair of shoes, or a skirt, or something.”

It was a special moment and Mary was happy to hear Bisto being so concerned for her welfare. But, Mary believed there were more important things that they needed to do. “We should see to the Kids first,” she urged

They were now hugging each other and kissing as Fr. Lennon turned and moved toward the front door. His job was done, and he decided he could now leave them to their own devices. It was time for him to now hurry home to the presbytery, hoping that he would not be too late for lunch. Father Lennon had been obliged by circumstance to forego his usual Sunday walk and yet, in his opinion, the time had been well spent and he was satisfied.

Bob Harte Part II

It was over a year since the tragic death of Paddy Slane when the Curate of the Church was given a letter that was delivered to him by hand. The letter that he received was a polite request for a funeral to be conducted within the Church, and it contained a series of instructions as to how the family wished the grave to be prepared. Because it was not the responsibility of the Curate to act upon such instructions personally, and he, therefore,     sent a message to Bob Harte, asking him if he would call at the Curate’s house to be briefed on the family’s requests.

It was a heavy, early autumn night and there were large numbers of threatening thunder-clouds slowly rising from the earth, loading the sky with a dark and foreboding storm canopy. The deep, low growl of a distant thunder and could be heard echoing over many miles on the dull, still air of the night. It appeared almost as if all of nature had chosen to cower under the threatening influence of the approaching storm. The old clock in the hall had just struck nine o’clock when Bob put on his coal-black coat, and he readied himself to attend to the Curate’s message.

Listen to me now, Bobby darlin’,” said Bob’s wife quietly as she handed him his hat, after she had taken it from the hat-rack. “Will you just go straight there and come straight home again,  won’t you Bobby darlin’? You’ll not go near, the you know where?

What are you talking about, woman?” he replied rather tersely and snatched his hat from her hand.

Ah, Bobby, sure you’ll not go near the pub at all?” she asked, in a pleading tone of voice, as she moved her hand away to avoid her husband’s grasp.

Now, why would I want to be doing such a thing, woman? Just give me my hat, for God’s sake, so I can be on my way! It’s already late.

But, Bobby, will you not just promise me you won’t? Now promise me, darling!” she pleaded with him as tears filled her eyes.

Ay, ay, of course I’ll promise you. Sure, why would I not?” he replied in a way that showed his frustration with his wife’s constant pleas.

Ah now, Bobby, I hear you talking, but you’re not giving me your solemn promise,” she pressed him.

Listen, woman!” said Bob, “May the devil take me if I should take a single drop of drink until I come back home again! Now, will you give my head a bit of peace now?

It will my darlin’,” she smiled, “and may God keep you safe.

With this parting blessing from the lips of his wife, Bob Harte went out of the door, breathing a lot easier as his wife closed the door behind him. The night was, by this time, quite dark as Bob stepped out on to the street, while his wife, contented by her husband’s promise, returned to her armchair in the living room, where she resumed her knitting and would wait until he returned. These last few weeks she had been very worried that, perhaps, Bob had taken to drinking much more often. This would, of course, be inconsistent with his apparent reformation from previous indiscretions. Her deepest fear, however, was the temptations provided by at least a half-dozen public houses that he would have to pass on his way to the curate’s house, which stood at the other end of the town. Despite the lateness of the hour, these ‘pubs’ would still be open for business, and they gave off a sweet aroma of whiskey and porter, which smelled so enticing to a drinking man. But, true to his word, Bob continued on his way, passing each of them without once turning his head in their direction. Bob deliberately put his hands into his coat pockets and looked straight ahead as he walked, whistling a merry tune to himself, and thinking only of his forthcoming meeting with the curate and the fee that he would get for the work he would be asked to do. In this manner Bob made his way, safely avoiding all temptation, to the curate’s house feeling very pleased with himself.

At length, Bob reached the curate’s house and knocked on the front door, which was answered by the housekeeper. She informed Bob that the curate had been called out unexpectedly to attend to a very ill parishioner, but she told him that he could sit in the hall and await the curate’s return. There Bob sat in a large blood-leather armchair amusing himself by reading some magazines, that lay on the hall table, and biting his nails until the clergyman returned home. The minutes passes slowly into hours as he waited and waited. But, it was not until almost half-past eleven that the cleric returned home, and it was just gone midnight when Bob finally set out on his journey home. By this time, however, the storm clouds had gathered to a deep, pitch darkness and the roars of thunder could be heard above the barren rocks and hollows of the distant mountains. Pale, blue lightning flashes broke the darkness, reflecting upon the rain soaked facades of the houses. Bob was fully aware that, by this time of the night, every door in the street would be closed and securely locked. But, as he trudged his way home, Bob’s eyes strained through the gloom as he sought out the public-house which had once belonged to late friend, Paddy Slane.

XMAS 3When he came to the building, Bob noticed a faint light making its way through the slats in the window shutter, as well as the frosted-glass panes over the door-way, which created a sort of dull, foggy, and mystical halo about the front of the public houses. Now that Bob’s eyes had become very much accustomed to the darkness of the night, that faint halo of light was just enough illumination to allow him to see a strange figure of a man before him. The closer that Bob came to the strange man he began to notice that the man was wearing a type of loose overcoat, which was tightly pulled around him as he sat upon a wooden seat that was firmly fixed into the pavement below the pub’s huge main window. The seated figure was also wearing a large, broad-brimmed hat that hung very much over his eyes, and he was smoking a long, strangely shaped pipe.

On the seat, at the side of the stranger, Bob could just discern the outline of a glass and, also, a half -bottle was dimly noticeable on the pavement, just to the side of his foot. The longer that he watched this strange figure, the more certain he was that there was something extremely odd about him. This stranger had the appearance of travelling man, who had simply stopped to refresh himself on that wooden bench in a rain-soaked street. At first, Bob thought it was likely this stranger had been drinking in the pub when it closed for the night. He thought that, perhaps, this stranger had taken what remained of his drink out to the seat, where he could enjoy it as he watched the lightning flashes light up the sky. At any other time, it is likely that Bob would have given the stranger a friendly greeting as he passed him by. On this particular night, however, Bob Harte was feeling quite low in his spirits, and was certainly not in any kind of mood to be genial to any stranger. Just as he was about to pass the seated man without greeting him, the stranger lifted his half-bottle of whiskey and, without removing the pipe from his mouth, he beckoned Bob over to him. At the same time, with a slight nod of his head, and a shrug of his shoulders, the stranger indicated he wanted Bob to share his seat and his bottle.

Bob watched as the man shifted along the seat to the end, making room for Bob to sit down. There was a wonderful aroma of malt whiskey coming from the area where the man sat, and Bob was sorely tempted by it. But he recalled the promise he had made to his wife, which reinforced his will-power just as it began to weaken, and he politely told the stranger, “No. But, I thank you for your kind offer, sir, but I cannot stop for a drink this night.”

The stranger, however, was not to be so easily placated, and he beckoned to Bob even more vehemently. He pointed to the empty space on the seat beside him, as if commanding Bob to sit. This time he gave the strange man a smile as he, once again, began to excuse himself, “Thanks again for your very polite offer, but I’m very late as it is, and I don’t have any time to spare. So, I wish you a very good night.

 Jingling his glass against the neck of the whiskey bottle, the stranger was suggesting that Bob could at least swallow one mouthful of the whiskey without losing much time. He was sorely tempted, and he wondered what harm a mouthful of whiskey would him. Although his mouth watered at the prospect, he remembered the promise that he had made. Bob shook his head strongly to demonstrate that his decision was now final and, there was nothing that would move him from his resolve. But, as Bob walked on, the stranger arose from his seat with his pipe still in mouth. He had the whiskey bottle in one hand, the glass in the other, and he now began to follow close behind the sacristan. This now caused Bob some major concern, and he quickly became very suspicious of the stranger’s intentions.

Bob now began to quicken his step and listened intently as the stranger followed close behind him. The sacristan now began to feel very anxious about this pursuit and he nervously turned around to face the stranger. He was still very close behind Bob, and he was continuing to invite him to share in his liquor, with increasingly impatient gestures.

I have already told you,’ said Bob, who was both angry and frightened, ‘I don’t want a drink and that’s final! Now just go away! Take yourself and your whiskey bottle and go!” The stranger, however, continued to approach him very slowly, causing him to become irritated and angrily he shouted at him, “In God’s name, get back from me and stop tormenting me in this way!

But, even as he spoke these words Bob recognised that his words and attitude had only increased the anger building within the stranger. In response to Bob the stranger began to shake the whiskey bottle toward him with violent, menacing gestures. Bob continued hastily on his way and the distance between him and the stranger increased considerably. As they both continued along the street Bob could see the stranger following behind, because his pipe gave off such a warm, wonderful red glow, which duskily illuminated the stranger’s entire figure despite the darkness of the badly lit street. Bob stopped again and called out to the stranger in a rage, “I just wish you would go to the devil, whoever you are!

Just get away from me!” he shouted as he hurried away. But, as he walked and looked back, over his shoulder, to discover that much to his dismay, the infuriating stranger was as close as ever to him.

Damn you to hell,” cried out Bob in desperation as he began to feel himself almost overcome with fear and rage. “Just what is it you want of me?

The strange man just ignored Bob’s anger in Bob’s voice and approached him even more confidently than before. He continued nodding his head and extending both glass and bottle toward Bob as he moved ever closer. Then, out of the darkness behind the stranger , Bob noticed a large black horse following them in virtual silence.

You can keep your temptations to yourself, you devil, for there is nothing but a dark evil that surrounds you,” cried Bob Harte as he felt a real sense of terror spread rapidly through his entire body. “Will you just leave me alone?” he called out aloud as he fumbled through his confused mind for a suitable prayer to rescue him from what was, he thought, a servant of Satan. Realising that he was now very close to his own front door, Bob quickened his pace to a jog rather than a walk.

As he came to the front door of his house, Bob hammered his fist upon it and called out, “Let me in, let me in, for God’s sake! Molly, please open the door!” He was breathing heavily by this time and, weak with exhaustion, he leant his back against the heavy wooden door. From the street the strange man now confronted him and, although there was no longer a pipe in his mouth, a dusky red glow still lingered around him. From the depths of his body the stranger uttered some indescribable, cavernous sounds, which imitated closely the growls of a great wolf, or some other indescribable beast. Meanwhile, just as he uttered his strange howl, he poured some of the liquid from the bottle into the glass.

Hysterical with fear, Bob kicked at the front door with all the force he could muster and, despairingly, he tearfully screamed, ‘In the name of God Almighty, once and for all, leave me alone!

After Bob had recovered he was told that it was likely the strange figure of a man, who had sat upon the wooden seat outside Paddy Slane’s ‘pub’ was actually the spectre of Paddy’s suicide. It was suggested to Bob that this spectre had been summoned by the ‘Evil One’ to lure the church sacristan into abandoning the promise that he had solemnly sworn to his wife. The person who interpreted Bob’s encounter with this evil spectre suggested that if the apparition had succeeded in his task, it is more than likely that the ghostly, black horse that had appeared would have carried a double burden back to the underworld.

As a matter of proof that these events happened as described, the old thorn tree which overhung the front door of the house was found, in the morning, to have been blasted with the infernal stream of fire flung by the evil spectre from the glass. It looked just like a lightning-bolt had scorched the front of the house, and it was to remain in that condition for several years, because people of the town were too afraid to repair the damage they believed had been caused by the ‘fires of hell.”.

Tobacco Road Part II

Part II

Jaysus, Paddy,” said Shane loudly, “watch where you’re putting those feet of yours. Better take it easy friend, for one little mistake might just send you, arse over tit, two hundred feet down to where you could become supper for the sharks. There are very few that would dare venture down here, wee man, except for the odd wild fox and the honest smuggler. God help them, for they are both poor persecuted creatures, but the ‘Big Man’ has given them good helpings of gumption that allow us to find a place of shelter, where we can enjoy the rewards of our good work. Glory be to his holy name!”

Shane knew this place well and was not far short with his estimate of the sheer cliff’s height. The fearful cliff overhung the deep Atlantic Ocean, and a narrow pathway wound its way, snake-like, round and beneath so many terrifying precipices. It was likely, that if Paddy Corr had realised his predicament in the clear light of day, he may have been so frightened that he may have slipped in his fear and became a cold meal for sharks, just as Shane had intimated. Being ignorant of his frightening situation was the thing that saved Paddy’s life. Shane, meanwhile, had an inherent knowledge of this secret pathway, and a limberness of muscle unknown to most men. It was his ability to move so assuredly and smoothly that allowed him to swiftly follow every twist and turn of that treacherous path as it wound its way downward.

As the two men moved down the path the wild sea birds were disturbed from their sleep and swept past them from their nests, screeching cries of alarm that aroused others that were resting farther down the path. As they moved around the foot of the cliff, where the projecting crags formed the sides of a little cove, a harsh and threatening voice demanded “Who goes there?”

The voice echoed along the receding wall of rocks and sounded like the challenge from a huge guardian that was conducting its nightly patrol of the area. Those loud words blended with the sound of beating wings, and the frightened cries of sea birds. The horrid sounds of these cries were multiplied a thousand fold, almost as if all the demons of Hell had chosen to gather in that lonely place at that hour, and add their shrieks of terror to the wind.

Who goes there?” demanded the guardian of this wild place and once again brought about a cacophony of terrifying noises.

A friend, my old pal,” Shane answered. “Peadar, big man, what powerful lungs you have! But keep your voice a little bit lower, my friend, or you might waken the guagers and they could grab you when you least expect it.”

Shane Fee! You old thief!” the guardian replied. “Is it yourself?” Both men laughed and big Peadar turned his attention to Paddy, saying “You, wee man, take care of that tall, pasty-faced schemer doesn’t take advantage of you. But, I will shake your hand in the knowledge that Shane will yet come to a nasty end. Not another creature, except maybe a fox, could creep down that cliff in the full dark of night. But I know what saved your arses. Fate says the man that’s born to be hanged will not be drowned!”

By Jaysus, Peadar,” said Shane, who was rather annoyed by the manner in which the big guard had made fun of him, “do you carry that big gun over your shoulder to convince people that you are not the wee woman that you truly are? Aye, just like a woman you wave the gun about and scare every bird on the cliff with your bull-roar of a voice! Now, make way there, you big gobshite, or I’ll stick that gun’s barrel up your arse and pull the trigger!”

Away to the boss, bucket mouth,” replied the big guard. “I swear that, as sure as there is an eye in a goat, after you have danced on the gallows, you blackguard, I will buy your corps from the hangman and use it as a scarecrow!”

smugglersAfter they had moved on a few paces along the narrow ledge that lay between the steep cliff and the sea, Shane and Paddy entered a large cave excavated from the rock, which seemed to have been formed some kind of volcanic activity when the world was young. The path running through the cavern was covered with fine sand that had been hardened by frequent pressure, and it caused the sounds of their feet to reverberate in the gloominess. Ahead of the two men a strong light gleamed, piercing the darkness and partially revealing the walls of the cavern. The far space beneath the lofty cavern roof, was impervious to the powerful light and extended onward, dark and undefined. From this darkness came the sound of human voices shouting and laughing uproariously. As Paddy and Shane moved onward a strange scene burst into view.

Before a huge, blazing fire which illuminated all the deep recesses of the high over-arching rock that rose to form the lofty roof of this Gothic cathedral, sat five strange and unkempt men. They were wild-looking men who were dressed in a variety of seamen’s clothing. Between the men was a large sea-chest, upon which was placed a large earthenware flaggon, from which one of the men, probably their leader, poured sparkling amber liquid into a single glass that was quickly passed around each of them. As they drank, the men joked, laughed and sang loudly echoing throughout the expansive cavern.

Well men!” said Shane loudly as they approached the group of men. “Ah! Mister Cronin, it looks like you and the boys are having great fun. Let’s all have another glass of Brandy and we can all laugh and sing together. How is it with that big hound of a dog, that knows how to bark so well at those dirty, plundering thieves of guagers?”

Ah! sure you’re very welcome, Shane,” replied Cronin with a large smile across his face. “The customer you’ve brought us may be depended upon for his discretion, I hope. Sit down, boys.”

We thank you,” Shane answered. “As for being dependable, there is no decenter man in this land than Paddy Corr, that stands here.”

Come on boys, and get yourselves a wee drink of our best Brandy, while I help you to some ham,” the smuggler offered. “I know you Shane Fee, you have the stomach of a shark, the digestion of an ostrich, and the good taste of the connoisseur.”

By God, that’s a compliment when it comes from your mouth, Mister Cronin,” replied the much flattered Shane. “Gentlemen, here’s a toast to free trade among honest men, and hang all informers from the highest trees! By all that’s good!” he said , smacking his lips, “But that’s the quare stuff! It brings a powerful warmth to the stomach!”

You are welcome to our home, Paddy Corr,” the leader of the group spoke loudly, “there’s a roof over our head, the rent is paid, and the barrels of best Brandy have not been watered down. So eat, drink, and be merry. When the moon reaches its highest point, we can proceed to business.”

Paddy, being the gentleman that he was, made ready to thank his host until Shane Fee again interrupted. “I have never saw a man, himself and his friends. Drinking and womanising on land, and spreading the sails of that boat of yours ‘The Black Widow’ over the sea. By the Devil, if I had Donald the Piper beside me, and that barrel of Brandy, sure I’d drink and dance until morning. But here’s to God’s blessing on us all, and success to our trip, Paddy, my friend.” And with those words he drained his glass.

Then, after many successive rounds passed by, the emaciated looking Shane Fee became totally intoxicated, and he called out at the top of his voice, “Silence now, boys, untl I give you a song.” In a squeaking, non-melodic,and out of tune voice he began to sing:

“Ah, will you come to the bower,

O’er the deep and thunderous ocean,

Where stupenduous waves roll,

In deep and thunderous motion.

Where the mermaids are seen,

and the fierce tempest gathers,

To Ireland the Green,

Dear home of our fathers.

Will you come?

Will you? Will you?

Will you come to the bower?

Tobacco Road Part I

For many years before Ireland became free of the British Crown and its oppressive offices, the vast majority of the population held a particular revulsion of men in uniform. Though these groups included soldiers, sailors and policemen, the most severe treatment was reserved the members of the Royal Customs and Excise. Even in these modern times, in certain places the men of the Customs and Excise, whether Royal or not, continue to be reviled by a wide variety of social classes on this island. Although these men do not raise their hands against all men, it can be truly said that almost every man’s hand is raised against them. Most will smile cordially at the ‘Revenue Man’, but those officers are very much aware of the unmitigated hostility that those same people hold against them throughout their career. Those people look upon the smuggler as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure who supplies untaxed goods such as alcohol, tobacco, and luxury items. The ‘Revenue Men’ are seen as the evil forces of the law who try to stop them.

Known to the old-time Irish smugglers as ‘Guagers’, the ‘Revenue Man’ has often wrongly been depicted as being a ludicrous figure of a man. Those many occasions on which the ‘Revenue Man’ showed generosity, a sense of justice, and a certain abandonment of the strict rules have, for the most part, been entirely forgotten by writers. In this story we will see reasons as the why ‘Gaugers’ should not be the butt of ridicule, and that their virtues should not be ignored.

Our story begins one foggy November evening many years ago as two men made their weary way along a muddy road that wound its way through the wild mountains that stood guard over a remote area of Ireland’s far west. Now, as then, it was a wild, savage, and lonely scene that surrounded these two men. Ahead of them, in the far distance, they could just see the wild, heaving waters of the broad Atlantic Ocean, upon which the lowering clouds appeared to be settling themselves. Scattered over the surrounding moorlands arose a variety of misshapen rock formations, like large fingers of stones that have been carved by the winds and rains into a vast range of picturesque shapes. Around their bases and within their niches grew thick holly bushes and hardy mountain greenery. On the highest peaks of the nearby hills roamed herds of sheep and goats, scampering from place to place as they took full advantage of their freedom.

These two men, each of whom was leading a small pony that bore an empty sack along that difficult road, were widely different from each other in both form and appearance. One of the men was a small thickset man whose broad shoulders and muscular limbs showed that he possessed a degree of strength. But, he was a man who also possessed soft, blue eyes and a kind, good humoured face that would convince any observer that this man’s strength amd muscular arms had never been involved in any act of violence. He was dressed in a heavy brown jacket and corduroy trousers, while on his head he wore a broad brimmed, tightly woven straw hat that made him look like an outcast from the American ‘Wild West’.

This man’s companion, however, made a much more strange and unseemly figure of a man, being taller than his friend. In fact, he would be considered to be taller than the great majority of local men. His arms hung loosely together and seemed to accompany his extremely thin body with some reluctance, being literally nothing more than skin and bone. His head was a conical shape, thinly covered with rusty coloured hairs than were so thin they waved about his face in the light evening breeze. The tall man’s complexion was a greasy, deathly yellow colour, and highlighted by his rheumy sunken eyes, his highly prominent nose, the thin livid lips, half showing a few of his rotten, well-spread teeth. In fact he could have been held up as an excellent example of how disease and misery can affect the human body. He moved like a human skeleton and the pony that he led was hardly able to keep pace with the swinging unequal stride of that gaunt man, whose fleshless limbs did not fill the clothes that flapped and fluttered around him as he strode along that chilly moorland path.

As the two men and their ponies proceeded along the road, they were able to walk side-by-side and enjoy a good conversation with each other. The smaller of the two men pushed forward and renewed a conversation that had been interrupted some yards earlier as the path had narrowed to only allow passage in single file.

You were saying, Shane,” said the small fellow, as he came up alongside of his lean, taller companion. “You were saying about that face of yours being the means by which we can keep the ‘guager’ from our wee bit of baccy (tobacco).”

Aye, not one of those ‘gaugers’ will ever get a smell, never mind a squint, at even one bit of that baccy,” Shane promised, “as long as I am with you. In all the twelve months that I travelled with Tim Casey there was not one ‘gauger’ who even suspected the man. If that ‘buck eejit’ of a man had taken me with him that day, his load of best Brandy would still be his and he wouldn’t be sitting in a cold jail cell. If I had been with him he would now be stting at his own table, in front of a blazing fire, tucking into a good steak!”

Paddy Corr laughed heartily at his companion’s comment and then roguishly told the taller man, “The worry on my part is that it wasn’t much of Tim Casey’s profits that came your way, more like the cheap change, and that was what caused the poor man’s fate to change.”

It’s you that could be laughing heartily on the other side of your mouth, Paddy Corr, should a ‘gauger’ got a sniff at your taste of ‘baccy’,” Shane replied. “There’s no doubt that he would take all that you have if I was not there to frighten him off, just like I have done, so often before.”

But, could we not just put our ‘baccy’ in a couple of panniers on the backs of our ponies, put a few fish and oysters on top, and pretend that we have just been out fishing?”

I know what I am talking about, mark my words, Paddy Corr. I was taught the trade by an old man whom the devil could could not out do when it came to committing a bit of roguery. So, Paddy, put your goods in the pony cart and spread an old sheet over them. Then I will lie down on that and you can tell any ‘gauger’ that we meet that I was on my way to the fair in Ballintree when I came down with a bad fever. You tell them that, as an act of mercy for my poor mother, you are taking me home. Say that it was Father Brady who had seen to me, and that he had said it was the worst case of the spotted fever that he had seen in the country for almost ten years. By Jaysus if that doesn’t frighten the nosey bastard, then you can be sure that someone has sold you out, and me alongside you”

By this time they had reached a deep ravine, through which a narrow stream pursued its slow, murmuring course. At this point they stopped, left the horses, and, gathering up some empty sacks, they walked on until they reached the edge of a steep cliff. In the dark void below them could be heard the great, hollow roar of the heaving ocean, as its waves smashed against this towering granite barrier. All along the dark outline at the foot of the cliffs great mounds of foam were created, as the snowy-white crests of never ending wave formations angrily vented the last vestiges of their strength in constant flashes of phosphoric light, that sparkled and danced splendidly to the wild and sullen music of the crashing sea.