The Piper’s Three Tunes

If ever you were expecting to visit the county of Armagh in the early decades of the nineteenth century, you may have been advised, beforehand, to keep watch for a tall, stout, lazy-looking man, with sleepy eyes and a huge cocked nose. He dragged his feet along as if they were heavy wooden clogs that had been forced upon him by nature. They deliberately restrained his movement rather than helping him move forward as he dawdled along the highways and byways of the county. More often than not, however, he could be caught lounging about a public-house, with a green bag under his arm. That man was Tim Callaghan and you would have been advised to be wary of him and his ways. The following account by a fellow traveller who met with Callaghan will, perhaps, shed more light on the subject –

piper“When first I met Tim Callaghan, he assured me that he had served seven long years with, as he said himself, ‘as fine a piper as ever put chanter under an arm.’  He said that at the end of that well-spent period he began to enchant the gentry of the county on his own account, being the owner of a splendid set of pipes, and three whole tunes that earned him a good living. This puzzled me for a time and as we chatted quietly I asked him, quite innocently – ‘Isn’t it a pity Tim, that with your fine taste in music and possession of top-class set of pipes you didn’t try to learn a half dozen tunes at least?’

“Immediately, I knew that had annoyed the man by the sulky expression that crossed his face. ‘Oh now, friend,’ he answered me, ‘that very same question has been put to me by dozens of people, before you and I hate to hear it! It was only yesterday that a lady asked me that same question. ‘Dear madam,’ said I, ‘did you ever play a tune on the pipes in your life?’ ‘Never, indeed,’ said she, looking a bit ashamed by her ignorance, as she should have been. ‘Because if you did,’ said I again to her, ‘you would soon say, “great job, Tim Callaghan, to get over the three tunes so well, without asking people to do what’s impossible.” And now I appeal to you, Sir, what use is there in complicating people’s brains with six or seven tunes when three does my business just as well?’  After I told him that I could not fault his argument we became very good friends. Being grateful for my patience and forbearance, he eternally murders those three unfortunate tunes for my pleasure. In all honesty I doubt now if I could truly enjoy those tunes being played well, because I have grown so accustomed to Tim’s efforts.

“Tim Callaghan, it must be said, was a politically astute character, and his three tunes were expressly chosen and learnt so as to win over the ears and the acclamation of all denominations of Christian men. Thus, the “Boyne water” is the tune played to please the Protestant audience, while “Patrick’s Day” was just the tune to satisfy an audience of Roman Catholics, and when Tim’s not sure of the creed of the audience he wishes to please, to suit Quakers, Methodists, and other non-conformists,  “God save the Queen” is the third tune. For many years he was perfectly content to give these favourite tunes in their original musical purity, but some wicked gobshite, probably another piper, persuaded him that his melodies would be totally irresistible to the audience if he would add some ornamental variations to them of his own choosing.  Tim was a man who was unaccustomed to flattery, and so naïve that he would never suspect someone having a joke at his expense. Not surprisingly, then, he jumped at this bright idea, overcame his natural and acquired laziness, and made an effort to add variety in his tunes. When Callaghan thought he had mastered the difficulties of the task, he decided to do me the honour of appointing me as the person to pronounce judgement on his melodious additions. All I shall say about those variations is, let the dumbest eejit that ever looked dreamily down an empty well, listen to Tim Callaghan’s variations, and watch his face while he performs those variations. I promise you the man will require heavy drugs if he would ever get time to sleep for laughing!

“When Tim arrives at the door to a gentleman’s residence, he usually begins to entertain with a suitable serenade, and he will drone away at that until the few pence he receives for piping permits him to leave contented. But if he is kept waiting too long, and he sees that there is no real chance of a reward   he becomes furious, and in his anger he will begin to play that one of the three tunes which he believes is the most disagreeable and opposite to the politics of the offender. If the party is a Roman Catholic, he will be unpleasantly shocked, and all his prejudices aroused, by “the Boyne water,” performed with unusual vigour. If the offender is a church-goer, he will never recover from the trauma of “Patrick’s Day,” that is given with an energy that would shatter any goodwill between the parties. Should Tim be asked to play a person’s favourite, or a popular tune, it would be like asking him to stand up and repeat a passage from Homer in the original Greek. If you are lucky he might even give you a civil reply along the lines of, ‘I haven’t got that, but I’ll play one that is as good,’ and one of his trio of tunes would follow. If the customer is keen on something new being played he could find himself cut short with, ‘Who do you think you are to telling me what to play. Anyone else, better even than you, would be content with what I gave you and reward me handsomely’.

“The first occasion that I had the pleasure to see and hear Tim Callaghan, was in the middle of the dark and dreary winter, and in a quiet country home of a local minister. It was so quiet, in fact, that even the vile screeching of a tin whistle would have been welcomed until we had something better. You can imagine the joy we felt when the inspiring drone of the bagpipe caused our ears to prick to attention and expectation! The Minister’s servants were excited, noisily expressing their absolute delight, and in asking the minister to permit the piper be brought into the house and play the pipes. Their request was granted, the minstrel was allowed in, and seated in the hall. Well, Tim’s first tune in the minister’s house was, of course, ‘the Boyne’, which he played with a great spirit.  Moreover, he played very accurately on the whole, with the exception of a few rather essential notes that he omitted as being unnecessary and troublesome, or, some servants believed, because his fingers were so cold. Finally, Tim was led into the kitchen, where they seated him opposite a blazing fire. ‘Now he’ll play in earnest!’ they cried out with one voice, and they all gathered around him in expectation of more music.

“Tim was now in the house of someone he considered to be in the lower levels of the gentry, but he was willing to please all requests and conditions. Hesistation came when he began to wonder whether he shall repeat the ‘Boyne,’ or begin to play all-enlivening ‘Patrick’s Day.’ In an attempt to gain an answer he turned to a little boy who was gaping with wonder at the grand pipes that Tim was holding. ‘What religion are the servants?’ he asked the boy

‘They are of all sorts, sir,’ whispered the little boy, Tommy in reply, blushing all over because the piper had taken notice of him.

‘Of all sorts!’ muttered Tim and instantly decided, with much solemnity of face to play ‘God save the King.’

“The butler listened awhile with his expert’s ear. ‘You’re a great performer on the pipes!’ he told Tim at length, and with a hand on each hip. ‘and that’s a fine piece of Hannibal’s composition! But it’s not suitable for all occasions, and a livelier air would agree with our temperament much better. Change it to something new.’ Then, tucking his apron aside, the butler gallantly took the rosy tips of the housemaid’s fingers and led her out, while the gardener politely did likewise with the cook. The piper looked a little sullen, and he still continued the national anthem as if he knew what he was doing, and was determined to play out his tune. But, the butler did not like being ignored and his temper began to bristle.

“‘Really,’ he observed with a snobbish smile, ‘we are very loyal people around here, but at this particular moment we don’t want to join in a prayer for our sovereign’s welfare! Stop that melancholic thing, man! give us one of Jackson’s jigs.’

“’Out of fashion?’ asked Tim sullenly, ‘but I’ll give you all one as good,’ and ‘Patrick’s Day’ set them all in motion for a quarter of an hour.

’Oh, we’re all quite tired of that!’ the housemaid said at length, ‘do, piper, give us a waltz or quadrillel. Do you play ‘The Haymaker’s Jig?’ for Jem Sidebottom and I used to dance it beautifully when I lived at Mr Andrew’ s!’

“’What do you call it?’ asked Tim rather sneeringly.

’The Haymaker’s Jig,’ replied the young lady, drawing herself up with an air enough to kill a piper.

’Phew!’ replied Tim contemptuously, ‘that’s out of fashion too. But, I’ll give you one as good.” and the “Boyne” followed, played neither faster nor slower than he had been taught it, which was in right time, and nowhere near dancing time, much to the annoyance of the dancers. Another and another jig and reel was demanded, and to all and each Tim Callaghan replied, ‘I haven’t got that, but I’ll give you one as good,” and the “King,” the “Boyne,” and the “Day,” followed each other in due succession.

“Was there anything more provoking! There stood four active, zealous dancers, with toes pointed and heads erect, anxiously awaiting a further top class exhibition of Tim Callaghan’s powers! There stood the dancers, looking beseechingly at the piper. There sat the piper staring at the dancers, wondering what in the name of God they were waiting for, quite satisfied that they had got all that could be reasonably expected from him. ‘And have you nothing else in your chanter?’ the butler angrily demanded at last.

“’E— ah,’ Stammered Tim Callaghan, as if he did not understand the question. But, the question was put to him again, slower and a little louder. ‘Jaysus, you are powerful for asking questions of a man!’ Callaghan retorted impatiently, ‘your master would be content with what I played for you, and he would be grateful for it!’

“’By all that’s holy!’ exclaimed the butler, ‘this beats everything I ever heard of about entertaining! Tell me, did you ever attend a concert for the nobility? — Ha! ha! ha!’

“‘As sure as God,’ laughed the housemaid, ‘I am certain that this boy is going to get a great many more kicks than pennies! — Ha! ha! Ha!’

“’And that’s good enough for him!” added the gardener, ‘for a man that has only three half tunes in the world, and none of them right! Jaysus, what is your name, friend?’

“’What’s that to you?’ growled the Callaghan.

“’Absolutely nothing, friend! Only I thought that you might be the piper that played before Moses — Ha! ha! ha!’

“’Oh! This eejit wouldn’t even know who Moses was,’ said the cook, as she returned to her kitchen. The butler, meanwhile, had had enough and showed his disappointment and displeasure in Callaghan by taking hold of the piper and throwing him out from the comforts of the fire and the house.

“It was after this that I once again had the delight of hearing Tim Callaghan play. It was in another part of the county, where he was not so well known. A lady had gathered a number of young people to a sea-side dance one evening. But, just before the dance was to begin, she had heard that the fiddler she had employed had become ill, and could not possibly play that night. There was, as far as she could see, nothing that could be done. So, when the guests arrived, and the terrible news communicated to them, the gentlemen in spite of themselves looked very disappointed, as if they anticipated a dull evening ahead. The lovely bright faces of the ladies were overcast, though as usual, they tried to hide their disappointment and continued to act as if nothing was wrong. In this middle of this dilemma one of the young men suddenly remembered that he had seen a piper coming into the village that evening. He told the organisers that he thought it was probable the piper would stop for the night at one of the public-houses nearby. There was now a fresh sense of hope that instantly illuminated all faces, and a messenger was immediately sent for the piper. For my part, whenever I heard mention of a piper, I knew who was going to appear before me.

“’What sort of person is your piper?’ I asked the gentleman that had introduced the subject.

“‘A tall, stout, rather drowsy-looking fellow,’ he told me.

“’Oh!’ cried I, ‘it is the unique Mr. Tim Callaghan!’

“I was eagerly asked if Callaghan was a good piper. But, as I was reluctant to give an answer, another person, who knew honest Tim and his ways, answered, ‘Now, anyone in their right mind will not attempt to trumpet the praises of any other person, because one person’s opinion may not match another’s opinion.  For this reason, then, we leave Tim Callaghan’s musical merit to speak for itself.’

“At this time I can relate another anecdote that occurred while the messenger had gone to retrieve Callaghan. Another servant, called John, was once sent on a similar errand. John’s master had friends spending the evening with him, and he wanted his servant to procure a musician for the young folks for whatever price he could get. After half an hour John returned home to report that his search had proved fruitless. But, instead of simply saying that ‘he could not find one,’ he flung open the main living-room door, and announced his failure in the following way —

“’I searched the city’s cir-cum-fe-rence round,

And not a musician is there to be

found!

I fear for music you’ll be at a loss,

For the fiddler has taken the road

to Ross!’

John then made his bow and retired.

“Tim now made his appearance, and was seated in place at the top of the room, with the attention and respect that was due to his abilities. For my part, the very sight of Tim, and the thought of his consummate assurance, or stupidity, in attempting to play for dancing, amused me beyond any expectations. But, I suppressed all urges to laugh, and kept my eyes and ears on the alert, wondering what was going to come next.

“A bowl of his favourite punch was prepared for him, and while he was sipping it, I thought he cast a scrutinizing and anxious glance at the company that was assembled. I am quite certain that Tim was probably thinking how he should adjust his politics to suit those ready to listen to him. But, poor Tim had little time to settle, for a quadrille set was immediately formed, and he was called on to play! The eager ladies and their young men never once thought that a modern piper might not play quadrilles. In truth, I found it extremely difficult to stop myself from bursting into laughter! There stood the eight elegantly dressed and refined dancers ready to begin, and there sat Tim Callaghan in all his surly stupidity, with a dreadfully puzzled look on his face. He hummed and hawed, tuned and droned much longer than  was really necessary, completely unaware of the demand that was about to be made on him and his pipes. He was much more interested in wracking his brains as to which of his three tunes he should play first.

“’A quadrille, piper, when you are ready!’ one of the gentlemen called out.

“’E— ah!’ stammered Tim Callaghan as he opened his sleepy eyes wide with surprise and began to fiddle some more with the pipes.

“’ A quadrille!’ repeated the young gentleman.

“Ogh,  sure all of that is out of fashion, but I’ll give you one just as good,” and because the company was a mixed one, of whose political opinions he could not be sure, the dancers were suddenly astounded with the most unpleasant rendition of  “God save the King” that they had ever heard!

“All stared at him in disbelief, and most laughed heartily, but what was more hurtful to poor Tim was that his arm was grabbed roughly, and he was forced to stop in the middle of his tune. Then there was an angry demand that if he could not play any quadrilles he could play such and such a waltz, and the names of a dozen popular waltzes were called out to him. Unfortunately, Tim had never heard of any of them in his life! In his confusion and panic Tim began to play “the Boyne,” and some person angrily called the lady of the house. The name called seemed to Tim to be a Catholic one, and a sudden ray of joy shot through his body to his ends of his fingers, and from there to his pipes, and “Patrick’s Day” was the result. A kind of jigging quadrille was then danced by those people who were not so fussy and wanted just to have fun. But, one fussy couple, which included a finely dressed and perfume soaked lady and an aristocratic looking man with his nose permanently stuck in the air, returned to their seats with looks and gestures of horror and disgust. Tim was too busy to notice any of this as he threw himself wholeheartedly into his piping, excited that the ‘quality’ was actually dancing to his music!

“Well! As there seemed nothing better to be had, “Patrick’s Day” was played continuously, as a quadrille, then as a country-dance, much enjoyed by all who preferred dancing to sitting.  He played it before and after supper until, at last, everyone was weary of it, and the general view was that Tim should drop the “Day” and take up the “Boyne,” and try to make it move as best he could. By that time, too, Tim had become very tired of the patron saint’s tune, and now that he had drunk his fourth full-flowing tankard of punch he was more inclined to have a sleep rather than play more tunes. But he was soon roused by our worthy host, who was a man who enjoyed fun and was the very soul of the party. ‘For pity’s sake, piper,’ he said, ‘try to give us something that we can put bit of a step to! I wasn’t in the right mood for dancing to-night until now. If you are an Irishman at all, just take a look at the pretty girl that is to be my partner for the next dance, and perhaps those lovely eyes might inspire even you, you sleepy sot, with a bit of movement to perform some sort of a miracle on those pipes!’

“Short as this address was, and lightly as it was uttered, it had no effect on Tim other than making him even more ready to sleep. While the elderly host was speaking, the drowsiness was descending upon Tim faster and faster. He dozed and was shaken awake again. ‘What do you want?’ he growled loudly. ‘What the devil do you all want?’ Looking down at the assembled crowd as he was, I expected him to say, poetically, ‘Now my weary lips I close; Leave me, leave me to repose.”

“‘Play more music! More music!’ said our host, laughing loudly. ‘Any sort of music, any sort of noise,’ and he left the piper and took his place amongst the dancers. Tim mechanically fumbled at his pipes, while the gentlemen busied themselves in procuring partners. There was silence for some seconds until our host called out to him. ‘Begin, piper.’

“‘Out of fashion,’ muttered Tim in broken half-finished sentences, ‘but— I’ll— give— you  one— as— good,’ and a long, a loud reverberating snore at that instant almost made good his promise of music as harmonious as the sounds obtained from his pipes!

“You can just imagine the scene that followed. The smelling salts and perfumed handkerchief of the ladies were immediately required as they began to feel that they were about to faint! Those who were nervous jumped at the sound, as if a gun had been fired, while others simply joined in a chorus of laughter.  This laughter quickly changed to a degree of regret when it was realised that the Inimitable, and undisturbed, continued to sleep prolonged his sleep, and his nasal performance was his grand finale to the evening. ‘Now’, said the friend who had quietened my attempt to praise the piper, ‘hasn’t Tim Callaghan made his own speech of praise? Hasn’t his talent spoken for itself? What a figure our famous piper would have cut, had we ushered him in here with great words of praise!’

When the storm of laughter had subsided, and when all considered that their unrivalled musician had had enough sleep, he was once more aroused, to receive his well-earned reward, when the following discussion began:

“’Tell me, piper, what is your name?’ asked our host with all the gravity of a judge, as he took out a notebook and pen

“’E— ah? Why, Tim Callaghan.’

“’Ha! Tim Callaghan,’ said the host as he wrote down the answer, ‘I shall certainly remember Tim Callaghan! I suppose, Tim, you are quite famous?’

“’E— ah?’

“’I suppose you are very well known?’

“Why, those that know me the once, will know me again’  said Tim Callaghan.

“’I do believe so! I think I shall know you at all events. Who taught you to play the pipes?’

’A man called Tom Harte, of the county Derry.’

“’Had he much trouble in teaching you?’

“’Him! Trouble! I know nothing about his trouble, but I can well remember my own trouble! There are lumps on my head to this very day, from the unmerciful cracks he used to give it when I went astray.’

‘“Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, poor fellow! Well, farewell, Tim Callaghan! I hope your path through life will be pleasant, and may your fame spread through the thirty-two counties of green Erin, until you’re rewarded by playing the pipes in heaven!’

‘”Sure, I’d rather be rewarded with a good dinner!’ said Tim Callaghan, and made his exit.

“For a couple of years afterward I quite lost contact with Tim, and I began to fear that he had vanished from the earth altogether, without leaving a trace. But, this very summer, that particular bright star appeared again, with a strapping big wife, and a young boy called Timothy at his heels. The child being a perfect copy of his father, his nose, sleepy eyes, shovel feet and all, and all the family apparently surviving very well on Tim’s repertoire of three basic tunes, and their variations.”

The Sham Fight

Sham FightThis 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.”

The Water Carrier

In Ireland, even today, there are so many superstitions, rituals and traditions in the day to day life of its people. This is especially true when it comes to the passing of dear friends and relatives, their funeral arrangements, and their final interment. These superstitions and traditions might vary slightly from family to family, but each holds strongly to their own. In fact they hold so faithfully to their own family rituals that on occasions they can lead to anger and physical violence when different families come together to mourn in different ways.

When I was a young man my favourite way of spending my leisure time was to take long walks through the countryside and sketch many of the interesting sites that I would come across. Over the years I had filled my artist’s sketch book with pictures of beautifully sited thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, and old churches. On one particular sunny day, I was sitting alone on a grassy embankment at the edge of the desolate graveyard and church in Drumm. In that beautifully quiet place I became almost totally lost in my efforts to capture, on paper, that special scene that lay before me. Occasionally I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook to look directly at the detail that was present in this interesting ruin which I was attempting to paint. It was also an opportunity wipe the perspiration from my brow, that was caused by the heat of the sun radiating down upon my head.

The quiet stillness that had prevailed all that particular day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly, the strange sound startled me and caused me to stop my sketching for a moment or two. Alone in that graveyard I began to listen nervously, waiting for that strange sound to repeat itself. I didn’t have to wait very long for this weird, unearthly sound to once again vibrate through the still air of the evening. It was now even more loud than it had been at first and, as I listened to its strange vibration and tone, I decided that it could be likened to the sound made by many glasses, ringing and tinkling as they are crowded in together.

I stood up, rising from the place where I had been seated, and I began to search around for the possible source of this strange noise. There was not another body in my vicinity when, once again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air about me with its wild and wailing intonation. At first the sound reminded me somewhat of a tune being played upon an aged harp. When another burst of the sound came forth, it became quite obvious to me that it was the sound of many human voices that were being raised in lamentation somewhere close by. It was a loud, heart-chilling, wail of sorrow about which, before this occasion, I had only ever heard only rumours. Now, for the first time in my life I heard that wild and terrifying sound and shivered with cold fear. Those who read this tale, and who have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how anxious I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.

funeral (1)As my eyes scanned the area outside of the graveyard I could clearly see, in the light of that day, a crowd of local people, both male and female. In an orderly line they wound their way along a low path that led them toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them the strong men carried the coffin of someone who was a dear departed friend or relative. As they came closer toward me, occasion I heard a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow that arose from the mourners in that crowd. The voices rang loudly, in a wild and startling unison, as they moved up the hill, until the sound gradually descended in its volume, finally becoming little more than a subdued wail. Diligently, these local people continued to carry their loved one’s body onward, but not in the same measured and solemn step as before. Now, they were moving in a much more rapid and irregular manner, almost as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside, which was the much hoped for culmination of all their efforts.

The overall effect of this large local rural funeral was, I must admit, certainly more impressive than any of the other funerals I had ever seen in my short life. There was very little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals I had observed, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths. But, the equal of the pallbearers could never have been found as they steadily bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until they reached the cemetery. The male friends and relatives of the deceased person carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin. There the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at some distance. The young men paused in their work, and they turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.

As I looked up I clearly observed that another funeral procession was winding its way slowly around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside returned to their work with greater effort than before. As the spades dug into the black soil anxious shouts from onlookers constantly encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some of the more polite followers shouted, “For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry.

Shift your big arse, Paddy!” others called.

Friends of some of the men shouted out to them, “Put your back into it, Mike!

If you could shift the sod as quick as you shift the ‘Guinness’, it would suit you better,” others laughed aloud.

By this time the second funeral party, that was approaching, could see ahead of them that the churchyard to which they were going was already filled with people. Almost immediately this second funeral party quickened their pace, and their sounds of mourning rose more loudly in the morning air as they came nearer to the churchyard. Quite unexpectedly, a small detachment of men, carrying a variety of picks and spades, came forward out of the main party. Then, without warning, this group of armed men rushed headlong up the hill toward the churchyard, accompanied by loud shouting. At the same time an elderly woman, her eyes streaming with tears and her hair dishevelled, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. Arms raised, she ran towards the young men who were digging at the ground with all their might and, passionately, she begged them to do their work more quickly. “Ahh Boys! Sure you wouldn’t let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, alone on these long, dark nights. Please dig hard boys. Lay into it with all your power and gain, for yourselves, a sorrowful mother’s blessing for ensuring my wee Paddy will have rest.

Standing among those men in her bedraggled appearance, and the intensity of her manner as she pleaded with them, I thought the poor woman was crazy. In fact, such was her condition, that I could barely  make out what she was saying to the young men, and I was obliged to inquire off one of the bystanders if they could fill in the blank spaces.

Are you asking me because you believe she is going crazy? ” said the person that I had asked, as he looked at me in a very puzzling manner. “Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn’t want her dead son to be walking about in the night, as he must, unless those boys are smart.

What do you mean, walking about in the night?” I asked him. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Whisht! whisht!” he urged me to be quiet. “Here they come now and, in the name of God, they have Joe Gallagher at their head,” he said  to me as he anxiously looked towards the advanced-guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They quickly leaped over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the newly excavated grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.

Stop what you are doing there, I tell you!” shouted Joe Gallagher to those men who were working at opening the ground and were still using their implements with great energy.

Stop it now, or it’ll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?” said Gallagher again, as he laid his muscular hand on the arm of one of the young men who were digging, suddenly stopping him from continuing his work.

Of course I heard you, Gallagher,” said Rooney; “but I just chose not to listen to you.”

Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man” Gallagher warned him.

By God, Gallagher, but you’re a brave man and very fond of giving people advice that you should listen to yourself,” Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged his spade into the earth.

“Didn’t I tell you to stop, you Gobshite?” Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll  put my boot so far up your arse, Rooney, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”

“Get away out of this, Gallagher! What brings you here at all?” interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”

“Sure what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?” said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Sure, don’t you know by now that there’s always a quarrel whenever there’s a Gallagher about?”

“You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don’t make you take those words back with some pain,” Gallagher told the old man as he glared at him.

There was a time,” warned the old man, “when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me.” As he spoke the old man drew himself up with an air of great dignity. He wanted everyone to see that he was still a tall man and had retained a broad chest, which would bear the truth of the statement that he had made. There was a bright, but briefly lived flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance quickly gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.

Listen to me, old man, I’d have beaten you more stupid than you already are, even on the best day you ever had,”  sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.

Don’t you believe it, Gallagher!” said a contemporary of the old man, who had known him in his younger days. “You have plenty of conceit, and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!

Isn’t that the truth,” said Rooney. “He’s a great man in his own mind. By God I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth, and sell him at what he thinks he’s worth.

A loud, mocking laughter rose up among those gathered at the graveside, causing Gallagher’s agitation to increase tenfold. There was a deep darkness that came across the big man’s features, and Gallagher immediately took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and told him, “By God, Eddie there’s going to be ‘wigs on the green’ before too long!

The man was to be proved quite right in his prediction. Scarcely had the words been uttered by him, than I began to see many of the men around me taking off their heavy coats and jackets, and rolling up the sleeves of their jumpers and shirts. The entire scenario turned much more menacing when the men began looking around them for anything that they might use as a weapon. With their weapons in hand there was a general closing-in of the bystanders around this group, which made it perfectly clear to me that a huge and bloody conflict would soon begin between the opposing groups.

It did not take long before the entire world seemed to come crashing in around me. There was a general melée that began in the centre of the gathering, with the main antagonists passing through the whole group until, finally a mass battle began. Such was the speed of events that within very few minutes the belligerents had dispersed themselves throughout the ruined churchyard in various battling groups. As a spectator, I stood back from the topmost step of a style that led into the burial-ground. It was obvious to me that it was better, for my continued good health, not to stand too closely to where the action was happening. As I stood watching the battle my attention was attracted by the sudden appearance of a man, who was exclaiming at the top of his voice: “Oh, you evil people! Stop this, I tell you, you heathen people! Are you even Christians at all?

This loud intruder was a tall, thin, pale man, who was wearing a hat which, from exposure to bad weather, had its broad, slouching brim crimped into many fantastic shapes. The crown of the hat was depressed in the middle, and the edges showed the paleness of wear, that was very far removed from its original black. He wore no collared shirt and had a narrow white scarf drawn tightly around his neck. A single-breasted overcoat of rusty black, with standing collar, was tightly buttoned nearly up to his chin, and hung over his frame to the knees of his black trousers, beneath which peeped well polished black leather shoes. He pushed his way through the fighting men and quickly climbed the stile upon which I was standing, politely saying, “Excuse me, sir,” as he pushed by.

From the top of the stile he jumped to the ground, and he proceeded with long and rapid strides, towards the groups of combatants. In his hand the man brandished a heavy bullwhip with which he began to lay about each and every one of the brawlers. In equal measure and with total impartiality, he began dealing out a heavy-handed justice. I was also greatly impressed by the fact that all these blows inflicted on them by this newcomer were not at all resented by those whom he assaulted. It almost appeared as if they had decided resistance against this man was futile, choosing instead to begin fleeing quickly before his blows. They looked like so many frightened school-boys before an angry teacher and they gathered together in one large group, which immediately became pacified by his presence.

As I watched these events happening I stepped down from my perch at the top of the stile and ran, towards the place the man was admonishing the crowd. There I found this tall, thin man delivering a severe reproof to the crowd he had quietened down. The more he reproved them for their “unchristian acts” the more evident it became that he was a religious leader of this group of troubled people. But his reproval of them was short, sharp and certainly impressive. His speech was well delivered in simple terms for the audience to whom it was directed. It was simple in the language it used and solemn in the way his deep, gritty voice spoke the words. “And now,” added the clergyman, “let me ask you why you are all fighting like so many wild savages? Your conduct makes me think that you are more likely to be savage animals  rather than intelligent human beings who have been raised within the hearing of God’s word.

There were a few moments of silence following his question until someone among the crowd mustered enough courage to answer the cleric. He told him that the entire fracas was, “due to the burying.”

There is no more solemn a sight,” replied the priest, “But, is the burial of the departed not enough to keep the evil passions of your hearts in check?

The truth of the matter, if it pleases your reverence, is that there was nothing ill-natured in it. It was only a good-natured turn we were doing for poor Paddy Mooney that’s departed this life. You know it’s to yourself that we will be going for masses to be said for the poor boy’s soul.

Now!” answered the priest. He was anxious to nip this appeal to his own interest in the bud. “Don’t you dare talk to me about doing a good-natured turn for any person.” He stared at them all sternly, telling them, “Prayers for the souls of the faithful departed are taken up by the whole Church. But, what has such a good act have to do with your scandalous and lawless actions that I have just witnessed you all committing.

He now turned to the last speaker, “You were one of the busiest with your weapon and you are the most riotous of the group, Rooney. You had better take care that I don’t speak out against you from the altar.

Oh, God forbid that your reverence would have to do the like of that!” cried out the mother of the deceased, imploring him as big teardrops chased each other down her cheeks. “Sure it was only that they wanted to put my poor son in the ground first. It’s just, as your reverence knows, that they did not want to have my poor Paddy-

“Tut, tut! woman!” interrupted the priest, waving his hand rather impatiently, “don’t you let me hear any nonsense.”

I ask your reverence’s pardon for I am not the type of woman who would knowingly offend my very own clergy — may God’s blessing be upon them night and day! But I was only going to put in a good word for Mick Rooney. He and everyone else of us wish for nothing but peace, but it is Joe Gallagher, who just would not leave us to do our peaceful duty.

Gallagher!” said the priest, in a deeply reproachful tone. “Where is he?

Gallagher did not come forward when called, but the crowd drew back, and left him revealed to the priest. On his face he wore and expression of sullen indifference, and he also seemed to be the only person in the crowd who was totally unfazed by the presence of the cleric. The priest now moved towards him and, extending his hand in the attitude of denunciation towards Gallagher, he spoke very solemnly, “I have already spoken to you in the chapel and now, once again, I find myself having to warn you to be careful. Wherever you go trouble and strife seems to always follow you. You are a disgrace and if you do not quickly reform your life I will have no choice but to seek your expulsion from the Church. Make no mistake, Gallagher, I shall pronounce a sentence of excommunication upon you from the altar, if I feel it is necessary.

Everyone within hearing distance was overcome by the solemnity and severity of the priest’s words. When the word “excommunication” was uttered by the cleric, a thrill of horror seemed to run through the assembled crowd. It appeared to me that even Gallagher betrayed some emotion when he heard that terrible word. Yet, for a moment he managed to show no emotion and, turning on his heel, he retired from the scene with some of the swagger with which he had entered it. The crowd opened to let him pass, giving him a wide space, as if they sought to avoid contact with one who had been so fearfully denounced.

Calling upon the entire crowd to hear him the priest told them, “You have two coffins here. Now you will immediately begin to dig two graves, and allow both bodies to be interred at the same time, and I will read the service for the dead over them.” With these instructions ringing in their ears the crowd wasted very little time in carrying them out. The narrow graves were quickly dug and the bodies of the dead were consigned to their last long sleep, as the deep, solemn voice of the priest was raised in the “De Profundis”. When he had concluded this short and beautiful psalm, the friends of the deceased closed the graves, and covered them neatly with fresh cut sods.

You know things have been done right,” said Rooney, “when you see that the ‘Daisy Quilt’ is finally put over them.

The priest, now that his job was done, retired from the churchyard and I followed him with the sole purpose of introducing myself to him. I was seeking from him a clear and simple explanation of what was still a most intriguing mystery to me, namely, the actual cause of the quarrel with Gallagher. From certain passages in his address to the crowd I could grasp that he understood the cause and could, perhaps explain it to me. I quickly caught up with the cleric and introduced myself to him. Thankfully, he received me with a great deal of courtesy and politeness, which was to be expected from a man with such a good heart. Now, having gained his attention, I tried to assure him that my curiosity was simply because I wished to understand the reasons for the fight that had taken place, and to which he had put a stop. I was hoping that he would not think that I was overbearing when I asked him for an explanation.

It is no intrusion, sir,” answered the priest very frankly. He spoke with a rich, soft brogue, whose intonation expressed his inbuilt good nature. The brogue, with which he spoke, reminded me of someone from an upper middle-class and well educated family. There was no trace of the more vulgar expressions that is usually found in the manner in which the ordinary working class speak. There are those, of course, who try to sound more genteel than they really are by grafting a posh English accent to their brogue. But they often trip themselves up because the accents of the two countries can never be truly blended together. Far from making a pleasing accent, it conveys to the listener that the speaker is trying very hard to escape from his own accent, which they consider to be inferior. It is a vain attempt to demonstrate some finesse, which fails because their vulgarity is so deeply inbred.

This was not the case with the way in which Father Donnachadh Ryan spoke to me. His voice was both deep and rich in tone, a true manly voice that had boomed when he had admonished the crowd for their violent attitude. Even when he was engaged in a less formal conversation his voice lost little of its richness or depth. Still, I listened intently while the priest proceeded to enlighten me on the subject of the funerals’ etiquette, and the reason behind the quarrel that had arisen between the two groups. “The truth of the matter is, sir, that these poor people are possessed of many foolish superstitions. We might, as men, pardon their errors and simply look upon them as fictional tales that take hold in fertile imaginations. Just because we can understand how such suspicions take hold in the minds of the less educated and more susceptible, we cannot, as their spiritual leaders allow ourselves to admit openly to them that such superstitions are in error.

His explanation, however, quite surprised me. I did not think I would find a clergyman, especially a Catholic priest, say such a thing. “The superstition that I speak of,” he continued to explain, “is just one of the many that these warm hearted people indulge in, and it is not a particularly evil one.” Then he suddenly ended his discourse and pulled out a richly cased, antique gold watch of great workmanship. “Now, sir, I must ask your pardon; I have an engagement to keep at my home, which obliges me to immediately make my way there as quickly as I possibly can. But, if you have enough time to spare, you can walk with me to the end of this little road and I shall be able to make you well acquainted with the nature of the superstition in question.

I was happy to agree with his proposal and we set off together. As we wound our way down the little stony path that led to the main road, Father Ryan began to give me an account of the cause behind all the previous trouble. “There is a belief among the local people here that the ghost of the last person interred in the churchyard is obliged to travel, unceasingly, the road between this earth and purgatory, carrying water to slake the burning thirst of those who are confined in that terrible place. The ghost is, therefore, obliged to walk through the wasteland during the middle of the night, until some fresh body is placed in the grave and supplies a fresh ghost to relieve the guard. In this way the supply of water to the sufferers in purgatory is kept up unceasingly.

This was the reason why the violent encounter had come about, and why the old mother had called out that her,  “darling boy should not be left to wander about the churchyard dark and alone in the long nights.”  In his explanation, furthermore, Father Ryan gave me some curious illustrations of the different ways in which this superstition influenced his “poor people,” as he constantly called them. But I suppose you have already had quite enough. I shall, therefore, say no more of these other cases and I am happy that I have at least provided you with this one example. Sadly, even in these more modern times such wild superstitions still exist in our land and undoubtedly owe their continued existence to the goodness of the Irish heart and the poetic imagination of our people.

Quinn Undertakers

 Hugh Quinn was the only undertaker in the entire district. Others had come and gone, but Hugh Quinn had become “Mr. Death” in Ballysheen. As well as the undertaking services he had created the monumental sculptors, and even arranged with the local churches to have the graves opened. At the same time, Quinn’s funeral cars would also undertake a transformation and act as wedding limousines for local brides, and Hugh also supplied Marquees for those couples who wished to have their wedding celebrations held at home. Moreover, Mrs. Quinn, Hugh’s hard-nosed business-woman wife, set herself up as a small outside catering contractor whose services were often called upon.

It was into the tender care of Hugh Quinn and his son, also known as Hugh, that Theresa Grogan and Father Donnelly entrusted the old woman’s corpse for preparation. Gathering themselves together Hugh and his son prepared the hearse and a simple coffin to go and bring the body back to their premises. They drove out to the Grogan house to begin their work, to which Theresa left them by themselves. It took the two men just less than two hours to complete everything and return  to the funeral parlour, where the remains were respectfully transported to the treatment room. The preparation room was at the rear of the premises and before beginning their tasks the Quinn men changed from their formal day clothes and into their work suits.

Young Hugh was well-liked person in the village and known to many by the name “Quasimodo”, because of the hunch in his back and his way of walking with a slight limp. This could have been considered to be in bad taste by some people, but those that knew him by that name made sure that young Hugh didn’t know what they called him. The young man now helped his father to lay out Mrs. Grogan’s corpse on the preparation table and his father set about collecting the various equipment that would be needed for the job at hand.

“Old Mrs. Grogan would be embarassed if she knew that I was looking at her naked body,” commented Hugh senior, lightheartedly.

“It’s a good job she is already dead then,” smiled Quasimodo.

“Aye, it is a good job! She was one cantankerous old villain when she was living.”

“Villain?” questioned Quasimodo. “ Did you know her well?”

“I knew her well enough”, Both her and her husband, Quinn Senior, remarked as he began to prepare the body for her coffin.

“Her husband?”

“Larry Grogan. A good man and a perfect gentleman,” replied Hugh senior. “When Larry was a young man there were many who considered him to be the best labouring man in the district. In fact such was the reputation he had built-up for himself that many of the big farmers and businessmen in the area would bid big sums of money to ensure he worked for them. That man could turn his hand to anything. He could thatch and he could dig. Larry Grogan could work in the fields from dawn to sunset digging over the ground with a shovel and spade. Come rain, hail, or snow Larry Grogan would always finish whatever job he had set out for himself.

“Sure there are any number of big, brawny men in the district but none of them have any sense. What was it made Grogan so different?” asked Quasimodo.

“Larry Grogan might indeed have been quite brawny, but he also had a good brain. He was a man who would never rush into making a decision, preferring instead to think about what the consequences of decision may be beforehand.”

“Well, tell me Da, how did Larry Grogan, as a labouring man, ever come to own that house that the Grogan’s live in now?”

“Grogan could thatch, lay bricks, plough, fence, construct, dig ditches and undertake a host of other things. That man could do the work of two men and, in all honesty, I can never recall the man ever taking a day off for sickness. Larry Grogan would have worked the two minutes silence and any who took him on knew that they would get more than a fair day’s work for the money they paid him. But, there was one other outstanding trait that Larry Grogan had and that was his ability to save money. He saved enough money to first buy that bit of land outside the village and immediately set about building his house upon it.”

“He built it himself?”

“Every brick and rafter, and he made one hell of a good job of it. Furthermore, he turned that ground around the house from rough grazing land into fertile soil. At the same time he reclaimed some of the land from the bog by digging ditches and draining it.”

“He didn’t leave much time for socialising. It is a wonder he was able to meet a girl at all!”

“Dear God, Hugh, but you are one miserable sod,” His father commented. “Grogan was a very active young man. He loved to play football and thoroughly enjoyed frequenting all the places that young men can find diversions. He was as much one of the boys as any of them.”

“He liked the ladies?” laughed Quasimodo, with a slight blush.

“He liked a drop of ‘Guinness’ and the odd glass of ‘Powers’ whisky. There was many a night, after a few drinks, that Larry Grogan would dance the night away at the Ceilidh. He was a great dancer and he always wore nothing but the best in clothes. There were not many in Ballysheen who could afford to have such a wardrobe and yet save in the manner that Grogan did.”

“Hardworking, popular and with plenty of money! Grogan must have been a good target for the ladies to catch?”

“He would have been a good catch for any woman at the time, but Sally was the one who caught him, God rest her. She was Sally Lowry at the time and lived at the far end of the village. She was older than me, but when she was young she was a fine looking woman with plenty of life about her, and good hands for the work. Every time she went to the dances or ceilidhs  she always wore something new and modern. She was the great one for the style, always preening herself and showing off to attract the boys. In recent years she was know for her temper and vicious tongue, but I remember a different Sally Grogan; confident, pleasant and always smiling. She was the sort of woman who knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. Sally wanted Grogan and the poor man never stood a chance when she made her move on him. Within a week or two of meeting the two of them got together as a couple, and they were courting over the next five or six years.”

“Five or six years?” Quasimodo gasped in surprise.

“That was a short engagement in those days,” the older Quinn laughed. “Nowadays a man and woman just have to look at each other and they’re hopping into bed and never mind the wedding! But Larry and Sally did manage to become the centre of village gossip for a period of time at least. People began to notice that the two of them would disappear many a Sunday after Mass, and they wouldn’t be seen until evening, with great satisfied smiles on their faces. Also, after the dances, Larry would leave Sally home and stay there with her until the early hours of morning.”

“So you were all at it even in those days?” giggled Quasimodo.

“Nothing much has changed, son. Even in those days except when you played with fire you almost certain to get burned. Larry and Sally, it seems, played with fire, got burned, and were obliged to undertake each other for better or for worse. It was Larry’s older brother, Tom, who pulled the shotgun when Larry and Sally came to seek his advice. Within these very short weeks the two of them were married by the priest and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Good God, when you look at her lying there, ready for her coffin you would think she was a good, god-fearing woman and that butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth,” Quasimodo remarked.

“The vicious tongue and bad temper that woman had would tell you that she feared no one. Even solid iron would have melted in that foul mouth of hers,” replied Hugh senior as he began putting the finishing touches to the corpse.

The Cailleach of Ballygran – Part V

Baby

ChangelingThe news about Maura’s illness spread quickly around her neighbours and friends. Johnny, of course, kept Luig up-to-date about Maura’s condition. For the first time since he had met this strange, fascinating woman he felt the pangs of conscience sliding in and it was causing him to have some second thoughts. He had known Maura since they were both teenagers and he had loved her forever, it seemed. Johnny could not quite comprehend what had caused him to have such a strong reaction to a woman who was not his wife. Now that Maura was seriously ill, she would require Johnny’s full attention to be paid on her and her needs. “Maybe,” he thought for the first time, “this affair should be brought to an abrupt end, and as soon as possible.”

One afternoon, in the club, Johnny confided in his best friend, Seamus, his intention to end his liaison with Luig. “It’s just sex,” Johnny told him and Seamus thought that it was all such great joke. When he heard about Maura having cancer, Seamus had suggested that Johnny should terminate his affair, but he had thought that it was more than just physical between the two of them. He was surprised to learn different and he encouraged his friend to act quickly, and yet he knew Johnny preferred to avoid confrontation rather than face it.

When Dympna Murphy heard that her friend had contracted cancer she was heartbroken for her. She called at the house to see Maura and to enquire if there was anything that she could do. Dympna had not forgotten about Johnny and Luig, but she was reluctant to tell Maura that her husband was a cheat. She thought that Maura had enough troubles on her mind without her adding to them, but there was a need to put a stop to this affair once and for all. Fiona was strong-minded woman and would appreciate the truth, even if it was about her father and another woman. Dympna now turned to Fiona and one Saturday afternoon invited her for a coffee and a chat in town.

It was just after two o’clock in the afternoon when Fiona came into the coffee bar and sat down at the table that was already occupied by Dympna. There was quite a bit of small talk while the two women waited on their coffees and, finally, dympna decided to ‘bite-the-bullet’ and approach the delicate subject of Johnny’s affair. “Fiona, I don’t want you to think that I’m just another old gossip, but I have been given some information that I think you should hear,” said Dympna mysteriously.

“I would never call you an old gossip, Dympna,” Fiona laughed, “Tell me what you have heard. I’m all ears.”

“This information concerns your mother, and your father,” Dympna began.

“Oh yes?”

“You know how close I am to Maura, and I don’t want to say anything to hurt her, or you. But, to be honest, I don’t know how I should tell you.”

Fiona laughed at what he thought was mock concern being shown by Dympna. “You’re an awful case, Dympna,” said Fiona, “Now tell me why I am here. I know you’re worried about Mammy, but we all are.”

“It’s that, Fiona. What I have to say can change lives and, maybe, for the worse. I just don’t like being the bringer of bad news.”

“For God’s sake Dympna,” said an exasperated Fiona, “Will you just sill it out?”

“You Daddy is having an affair with that woman that calls herself Luig,” Dympna told her, all in one breath. “There, I have said it, and I am sorry.”

Fiona looked at the woman seated in front of her with shock in her eyes. Her face went pale as the blood drained from her, and she tried to make some sense out of the words she had just heard. Firstly, she wondered if she had accurately heard what Dympna had said, and shaking her head slightly she asked her, “Could you please repeat that, Dympna?”

The older woman took a deep breath and repeated her statement word for word, though in a slightly lower voice. Fiona couldn’t believe what she was hearing and, at first, she felt a great anger toward her friend. “How dare you?” she asked, “You’re supposed to be a good friend of my mammy and you start spreading gossip about our family?”

“No, Fiona,” Dympna insisted. “The gossip is already out there, for God’s sake, and I am just making you aware of what people are talking about behind your back. Don’t shoot the messenger because you don’t like the message they bring.”

“But it’s gossip, Dympna. Lies! All damned lies!” Fiona insisted as a tear came to her eyes.

No, Fiona! It’s not lies. It is the truth, because I saw the together with my own eyes in the Club,” Dympna informed her.

“In the Club?”

“Yes! In the Club!”

There was a light of rage that suddenly came into Fiona’s eyes. “I am going to get to the bottom of this,” she snarled bitterly, “and if this is true, by God he and his fancy bit will get a huge come-uppance.”

“You can count on my help,” said Dympna as she took a comforting hold of Fiona’s hand.

**** —****

As Fiona and Dympna were discussing Johnny Magowan’s affair with Luig, the two guilty parties were having a quiet lunch together in a small bistro on the edge of the town. “This is a nice surprise, Johnny. It’s not often that we have lunch together on a Saturday,” smiled Luig. “What’s the special occasion?”

Johnny had just finished eating the last few chips on his plate, and was wiping his mouth with a serviette to remove any ketchup, when Luig spoke. In a short moment he was able to answer her and said, “There is something that we must talk about, Luig.”

“Oh! Johnny you sound so very mysterious. What is it all about?” asked Luig.

Johnny’s throat suddenly went dry and his heart began to pound a little heavier. There were serious matters on his mind and he knew what had to be done. He had chosen this day, and these surroundings to bring an end to this mistaken affair. Johnny coughed dryly and began to speak what he had prepared for this occasion. “Maura is very ill, Luig, and she is not going to get any better,” he began.

“I’ve been told she has cancer, poor woman. I have already heard all about it and I am sorry to hear it,” said Luig, “but what has that got to do with us?”

I’m sorry Luig, but she needs me now more than ever,” he began to explain. “And as the weeks go by, Maura will require more and more help, and she will look to me to provide it for her.”

“And what?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“And what has all this to do with us?” Luig asked. “Are you going to tell me it is over between us because you have to spend more time with our, poor sick wife?”

“I’m not going to cast you to one side, Luig!” he explained. “But, maybe, we should stop seeing one another for a while. We can still be friends.”

“Friends?” Luig snarled at him, almost spitting out the word. He had never seen this side of her personality before and he did not like it. “We are lovers, Johnny,” she added, “not just friends with benefits, as they say.”

“You have to understand, please,” he pleaded. “I just need to be there for Maura. She is my wife after all.”

“Your wife?” Luig sniggered at the thought. “What about me, then? Am I just a bit on the side for you? And what about our unborn child?”

The words were like a huge hammer that had just hit him on the head. There was silence, and Johnny’s head began to pound heavily as an anxiety began to build up inside him like a pressure cooker. He looked at Luig, but could not see her clearly and the sounds of the bistro seemed to fade away.

Well, Johnny, what do you say, now?” she asked, bringing him back to reality.

“Ch-Child?” he stammered. “What child?”

“Our child, Johnny! The child that I am carrying now!”

“How can that be? I thought you took precautions, and anyway are you not too old now?” he asked.

“I’m not that old, you bastard! And contraception is not one hundred per cent, you know. Any way you weren’t thinking about any of that when you were enjoying yourself!”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” exclaimed Johnny in despair as he put his head in his hands. “Why tell me this now?”

“Well, now is as good as any other time, considering what we have been talking about,” she told him.

“Are you sure? How long is it since …?”      

“A woman, especially at my age is always sure of such things,” Luig interrupted him. “And as far as how long have I known, the answer is six weeks only.”

“Six weeks?” he sighed. “Have you been to the doctors, yet?”

“What is a doctor going to tell me? ‘You’re pregnant!’ I already know that I’m pregnant. My question is, ‘Do I keep it or not?”

“Oh! My God!” Johnny exclaimed again in total exasperation, “This just cannot be happening!”

“Well, it is happening Johnny, so you need to man up and help me decide what I am to do,” demanded Luig. “This is all about you and me, Johnny, and if the people were to find out, your reputation would be destroyed!”

“What about Maura, and the children?” he asked with tears of desperation.

“That is the first time you have thought of them. You have never thought, or spoke, about them before this, and especially when we were in bed together. But, of course, that is when you were enjoying yourself, and telling me how much you wanted me. Well, Johnny you have had me, numerous times, and I am not going anywhere!”

In that moment Johnny Magowan could almost hear the trap-door closing firmly behind him. His mind was just simply filled with confusion and concern, wondering how he could get out of all this mess that he had gotten himself into. He just wished that he could turn the clock back and, if he could, he would never go anywhere near this woman. But, now Luig was pregnant and there was absolutely no possible way that such a condition could be kept hidden from Maura and his family. This was such a small area that everyone knew everyone else, and nothing could be hid from public view. Moreover, a few of Luig’s friends were also friends to Johnny’s sister, Marian, who lived not too far away.

Unknown to Johnny, Marian had already heard some of the rumours about his relationship with Luig McGirr, and she was not at all impressed. She had only heard about Johnny’s activities a very short time before, but she was ready to confront him about them, as soon as possible. Some forty years before, Marian had suffered at the hands of another woman in similar circumstances. Her husband ran off with another woman, leaving Marian alone with her teenage son to rear to adulthood. She remembered the heartbreak and the anger she felt at the time, and the shame of being abandoned. She, personally, had nothing to feel ashamed about, but the broken heart she suffered was almost impossible to live with. After twenty years of marriage all he had left her was an envelope on the fireplace that contained a letter and two ten pound notes. Her concerns grew as her son appeared to enter a dark world of anger, depression and revenge. It took her a long time, she recalled, until she once again had a smiling, happy, and content son who could see hope return to his life. There was much then, that she wanted to say to Johnny.

****—****

Fiona was, by now, completely aware of her father’s extra-marital affair. She had no idea who this woman was, calling herself Luig. But she was determined not to waste any time in filling in those areas where her knowledge of this woman was lacking. There was some little doubt left in her mind that these stories were true, but she was set on finding this out for herself. She decided not to inform John, or her younger sister, at the moment but would wait patiently until she was certain of the truth in this tale.

Much later that evening Fiona came home early from visiting her mother in the hospital. When she got to her father’s house she found that it was empty. Johnny was already away to the club and Fiona decided that she should follow. She just might, she thought, discover if any part of the rumour was true.

Leaving her car outside the house Fiona walked through the estate to the club. The building itself was lit up as usual and people were coming and going to and from it. Some were carrying kit bags loaded with training clothes, and others were going home after having a drink, or entering the premises to get themselves a drink. Fiona met and greeted several people, with whom she was acquainted as she walked through the front doors to the club. She moved down the corridor towards the bar, and came upon the ‘Snug’. The walls were clear, thick, soundproof glass, which kept out the hustle and bustle of the public bar. As she looked through the clear glass, Fiona anticipated seeing her father with his friend Seamus sitting beside him. But, Seamus was not to be seen, while Johnny was sitting beside some woman that Fiona did not recognise. When she saw this, Fiona’s heart sank but her determination to seek out the truth remained strong.

She opened the door to the ‘snug’ and walked directly to where her father was sitting, beside this strange woman. “Hi Dad,” she said.

Johnny looked around to see his eldest daughter standing over him. His heart pounded and the blood left his face as he stared at Fiona, stumbling for something to say.

“Can I sit down?” she asked as she moved to a seat across the small table from Johnny and his female companion.

At last Johnny found his voice and spoke nervously, “Hi, Fiona, what are you doing here?”

“I’ve just come from the hospital, and I thought I would come and tell you the outcome of the tests she had done,” she told him. “Can we talk privately?”

“Oh, this is Luig. She’s a friend of Seamus and I, so its alright to speak in front of her,” said Johnny.

“Hello,” said Luig with a smile, “Your Daddy has told me so much about you, your brother and sister. How is your Mammy doing?”

The woman’s smile looked pleasant, but Fiona could see something poisonous behind it. There was also something unpleasant about her voice and the way that she greeted Fiona. While she looked at the woman, her body gave an involuntary shudder. Even as she looked into Luig’s eyes she felt that she could see that there was some kind of evil buried within the woman. There was a darkness in those eyes that looked as if they were mocking Fiona, and the angry young woman just wanted to hit out.

Well, what’s happening?” Johnny asked.

“Daddy, I don’t know this woman or who she is friends with,” Fiona said tersely,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

The smile left Luig’s face and she stood up from her seat to face down this young opponent, but she found that Fiona was unmoved by her action. Luig could see the deeply seated hatred in Fiona’s eyes and decided that, on this occasion, she would be better giving way. “I have to go the ‘Ladies’”, Luig excused herself politely as she lifted her handbag from beneath the table, and she left the ‘snug’ without speaking another word.

“That was a bit rude,” said Johnny, after Luig had left.

“Rude?” Fiona retorted. “How rude is it for you to be sitting here with that old ‘floosie’ and drinking, as if there was nothing to worry about, especially when your wife is in hospital.”

But, she’s only a friend, Fiona. Nothing else,” Johnny insisted.

“Have you no male friends, Daddy? They might be better drinking buddies for you. They might even be able to give you some support when you hear that Mammy has a terminal illness!”

“What?” Johnny exclaimed in disbelief at what he had just heard.

“Your lawful and loving wife is in hospital, having been told today that her illness is terminal. She needs you, Daddy!” Fiona told him.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” sighed Johnny, putting his hands to his head in horror at what he had heard.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Fiona told him getting up from her chair and leaving the ‘snug’. As she walked back up the corridor, toward the front door of the club, Fiona came to a sudden stop outside the ‘Ladies’ Toilet’ from where Luig walked out. Fiona, quick as a whip, grabbed her by the lapel of her jacket, and pulled Luig closer to her.

“You better listen to me, you bitch! That man you are with is my father and you keep both your hands and eyes away from him!” said Fiona.

“But …,” Luig went to say something but she was not allowed to finish, as Fiona tightened her grip on the jacket’s lapel.

“No buts, ands, or ifs!” insisted Fiona. “Let me assure you that if I see you anywhere near my Father again I will kick you from here into town, and there is not one wall you won’t be hit off on the way! Understood?” There was a fire in her eyes that demonstrated to Luig that Fiona was a woman of her word.

“Understood,” said Luig, and Fiona released her grip, shrugged her shoulders and left the club, feeling quite satisfied with herself.

It was only a few minutes after Fiona walked into the house that Johnny stormed in. Throwing his jacket on the sofa he confronted Fiona. “Where do you get off with threatening people?” he thundered.

“Did your lover complain, then?”

“She’s not my lover! You have it all wrong, Fiona. I swear it’s the truth,” he answered more calmly. “But, you had no need to threaten her!”

“I didn’t threaten her, Daddy! I just made a promise,” Fiona smirked.

“Look, Fiona, your mammy does not need all this trouble now!”

“No, she doesn’t need trouble. She needs rest and looking after. She may only have a short time left to her, and you are not going to start being adulterous now, and especially with that ugly bitch!”

“Fiona!”

“Is that a bit too rough for a young lady like me? Well, you need your eyes tested, Daddy, if you would take the likes of that over Mammy. Or is it your just like other dogs and chase after any bitch in heat?”

“You have it all wrong, Fiona! Believe me!” urged Johnny.

“Then, half the town, and most of the estate, have got it wrong and haven’t seen you being a little more than friendly towards that Luig woman.”

“Lies!” he screamed.

“No, Daddy! It’s the truth because a very good, trustworthy, friend of mine saw you both,” Fiona told him. “I don’t want Mammy to know anything about any of this, so you finish it now. If you don’t I will be the first to let Mammy know the type of man she is married to, and then I will sort out that damned woman.”

“Please believe me,” he pleaded, but any plea fell on deaf ears and he could only watch as Fiona stormed out of the house.

****—****

Johnny had just made himself a cup of hot tea when the mobile phone in his pocket rang. He removed it, looked at the screen and immediately identified the number that was calling him. It was Luig and he was not in the best frame of mind to be speaking to her, and allowed the phone to ring out. But, almost as soon as the phone stopped ringing, it began ringing again from the same caller ID that had called previously. This time Johnny decided to answer the call and pressed the green receive button.

“Hi, I just missed your last call,” Johnny lied to her.

“Did you sort that cheeky, wee bitch out, Johnny?” Luig demanded to know. “Or are you just going to allow her to talk to me like that?”

“I can’t handle this at the moment, Luig,” Johnny told her. “I have too much on my mind. Let me ring you back.”

“Well, thank you very much, my hero,” Luig responded satirically. Johnny shook his head in a sense of hopelessness and just continued to listen to Luig rant, without making any reply, remembering that the least that is said the soonest it is mended.

“Are you still there, Johnny?” She finally asked after a long period of silence.

“I am,” Johnny replied wearily.

“In my condition, you know, I cannot be put under such stress.”

“I know,” he told her. “Just you leave this with me tonight and I will see you tomorrow.”

Annie’s Wedding

Wedding CoupleMany years ago at Irish country weddings, the priest who celebrated Mass and conducted the marriage ceremony was paid through voluntary contributions made by the wedding guests. The marriage, in those days, was generally celebrated in the evening, and they were followed, especially among the farming community, by a grand feast, to which the priest was always invited. After the supper, when the stomachs of the company are filled with fine meats and vegetables, roast goose, ham, and whisky-punch, the collection box goes around.

Annie Malone was the prettiest girl in the entire parish, and the bridegroom was a lucky boy on his marriage day. On the day of the wedding, it must be said, the lucky young man looked very ill at ease in his stiff, shiny, brand-new, tight-fitting wedding suit. Nevertheless, in addition to her good looks, the bride brought with her a marriage dowry of money, and three fine cows. Their married life would have an excellent start to it.

Annie looked very pretty and modest as she sat beside the priest, the blushing bride wincing often at the priest’s jokes, which were normally not to be heard in the company of women. She looked very handsome in the white frock she was wearing, which was a many-skirted garment, adorned with bows and trimmings made from white satin ribbons. It had belonged to one of the daughters from the big house, and had been sold to Annie as ‘nearly new’. The maid who had sold the dress assured her that it had been created by the grandest French dressmaker in London, and it had only been worn at a couple of country balls. The daughters of the ‘big house’ were very particular about their garments and could not abide a crease, crush or even slight soiling of the cloth. Furthermore, wearing a dress twice at any social function was not to be tolerated among the upper classes.

It is common knowledge that a priest always has his eyes on future dues from his parishioners, and there is nowhere a priest is as good-humoured as he is at a wedding. This priest, Father Murphy, was in the middle of his humorous remarks, while apparently absorbed in paying attention to the pretty bride. Annie’s health had just been drunk in a steaming tumbler of whisky punch, and the priest was keeping his business on the assembly as preparations were being made for sending around them the plate for contributions to pay him. The stir of preparations began at the end of the table where the big and wealthy farmers were thickly gathered. They were a proud set of people, stood in their large, heavy dress-coats, all of which were well tailored. All dressed in beautiful white shirts, well pressed trousers, and shoes that shone bright in the light. At their side stood their beautifully attired wives and daughters in bright coloured silken clothes.

In the middle of this group stood Jim Ryan, who was a sworn friend and follower of Father Murphy. He would have gone through fire and water to serve the priest, and kept a close watch on the parish on his behalf. Ryan was a rather small man in the parish, possessing very little as far as worldly goods were concerned. But, though he had no land or farm, Jim Ryan was a highly popular man who was thought to have a dry sense of humour, which made him very good company. When the collection plate reached Ryan his actions brought great surprise to the eye of the priest, causing him to hesitate in the middle of a pretty compliment he was making to the bride.

Jim Ryan first took hold of the collecting plate, and it appeared as if he had chosen to carry it around the crowd. Then, as if suddenly surprised by some thought or other, he stopped himself, and slammed the plate down on the table with a loud clatter, and a crash that made Mrs Malone wince, for it was a plate from one of her best china sets. The next thing that Jim did was to search all of his pockets. His fingers dived into his waistcoat, his trousers, and his fancy overcoat pockets, searching one after another, but not seeming to find what he wanted.  Finally, after much hunting and shaking, and many facial expressions of disappointment, Jim took hold of the object he had been searching for. From some unseen place he carefully pulled a large and tattered leather wallet. By this time, as was his intention, everyone in the room had fixed their attention upon him. At this point he deliberately opened the wallet, and, after taking a sneaky look to ensure that those assembled were watching him, he took out from it a well folded bank-note. This note, when unfolded, was spread out and ostentatiously smoothed on the table, so that all who looked could see that had ‘’Ten Pounds’ inscribed upon it!

There were gasps of astonishment that spread through the wedding guests, and some expressions of dismay among the more wealthy of them. Fat pocket-books filled with notes,  that a few moments previously were being pompously produced by their owners, were now very stealthily put back into pockets again. A sudden pause was followed by a great whispering and consulting among the farmers. At this point there were anxious and meaningful looks given by the wives of the wealthier men-folk, along with expressive nudges, and digs into their ribs where practicable. There was, therefore, a good deal of rivalry between the wealthy couples as they bid for their position in the local social hierarchy. Mister Hennessy, who drove his family to mass every Sunday in his own pony and trap, would not be seen to give less than Mister Welsh, although he too was a decent man and always got the best price for his butter at local market. And now, the shame of being outdone by Jim Ryan had to be faced! To offer the priest five pounds, when the likes of Ryan was giving ten pounds! Such an eventuality could not be allowed to happen! Therefore, after Jim had put his ten-pound note on the plate with a bit of a flourish, and had gone his rounds with the plate, it turned out to be the largest collection that had ever gladdened the heart, or filled the pockets. of Father Murphy.

As the priest was leaving the house, Jim came up to him and put his arm on the priest’s shoulder. “I certainly did you a good turn this day, your Reverence, didn’t I? Such a collection of notes, silver coins, and coppers I have never laid eyes on before this! I thought the plate would be broken in two halves with the weight of it all. And now you can give my ten pound note back to me?” he whispered, while looking around to ensure no one could hear him.

“Your ten pound note, Jim! What do you mean? Is it that you want me to return to you a part of my dues?”

“Ah, now, my dear Father Murphy, surely you’re  not so innocent a man as to think that note was mine! Where, would the likes of a poor man such as I am get such an amount of money as that? Ten pounds! Sure, didn’t I borrow it, your Reverence, for a scheme I had in mind. And, I tell you that my scheme has turned out to be a mighty good and profitable one. Sure, I knew that the sight of that ten pound note would cause them to bring the money out of all their wallets.  And by God, so it did!”

This was something that the priest could not deny. With a large grin on his face he refunded Jim’s “bait” and added to it a few pounds worth of thanks. Needless to say, both men left the wedding very satisfied by the day’s events.

© Jim Woods November 2017

A Wake

IrishWake

It was a sad day when Tim Scanlan died. All his life he had been a labouring man, working hard in whatever work he could find, and receiving very little in remuneration for the effort he put in. But, Tim was well known and well liked in the district. Everyone agreed that his funeral would be an unusually large gathering and, most likely the biggest to be seen in many a year. Great crowds of people flocked to Tim’s wake, and there was a major effort undertaken to provide sufficient tea, cakes, sandwiches, whisky, beer, and tobacco for all who attended. As is common in these things, Tim’s widow occupied her post of honour at the head of the coffin, and gave an excellent display of grief for her dead husband. She wept bitterly on her own and, joined in loudly when the loud group wailing, or ‘keening’, was led by the older women. The widow was, however, young enough to have been the daughter of the dead husband. She had come to Tim’s house as a very young servant-girl, whom he had conveniently married and ruled over all these years past.

As the night wore on, the amount of whisky that had been drunk was beginning to tell on those wandering outside the room where Tim’s corpse lay. The crowd noise inside the house increased to a level where some began to complain that it was loud enough to wake the dead. Quite unexpectedly, and much to the consternation and amazement of every one present, the corpse gave a deep sigh and several loud groans, opened his eyes and struggled to bring himself up into a sitting posture in the coffin. When the startled company in the house had recovered from their shock, they helped lift poor Tim out of the coffin, and whisky was liberally poured down his throat. They wrapped Tim up well in warm blankets and helped to seat him in the big chair by the fire, where he gradually revived from the trance, or stupor, that had been mistaken for death. When the last of the guests had departed from the cabin, Tim, who was still propped up beside the fire, was left to the tender care of his wife. But, instead of coming near her husband, she chose to creep away quietly to cringe timidly in a dark corner behind his chair. From her hiding place she directed frightened glances at her husband, who had appeared to have been resurrected from death.

“Mary!” Tim called out to her in a stern voice. But, he did not get an answer.

“Are you there?” he asked as he peered around at her, his weak face quivering with anger.

“Yes, Tim, I’m here,” Mary’s voice faltered, but she did not stir an inch.

“’Bring me my stick”’

“Ah! No Tim! No! Sure you’ve never lifted your hand to me yet! And you’ll not do it now, surely, when you’ve come back from the dead in one piece.”

“Bring me my stick.”

The stick was brought to him, and down on her knees beside the big chair Tim’s cowering wife went. “Well you know what you deserve. You know, you young deceiver, that if I was to start this minute and beat you as black as a hearse, it would only serve you right, after the mean, dirty, and shameful thing you’ve done to me!”

“Aye, Tim! It’s true, it would!” sobbed the girl.

“Look at this!” gasped Tim, opening his funereal jacket to show an old and tattered shirt. “Just look at these rags! Look at what you dressed my poor corpse in, shaming me before all my neighbours and friends at the wake! And you knew, as well as I did, about the elegant brand-new shirt I’d bought to be buried in. It’s a special shirt that I wouldn’t have put on my back if I was still alive. No, not if I had to walk about naked! But, you knew that I had it stored in the chest there, and you begrudged it to my unfortunate corpse when I couldn’t speak up for myself!”

“Oh Tim, darling, forgive me!” cried Mary. “Forgive me this once, and on my two knees I promise that I will never, never do the likes of that again! I don’t know what came over me. Sure, may the good Lord save us, I think it was the devil who was guiding me when I went to get out that shirt. He tempted me, by whispering that it was a pity, and a sin, to put good clothing like that into the clay. Oh, how could I do it?”

“Now, listen to me, Mary,” said Tim as he raised the stick and laid it on her shoulder. She knew that he wouldn’t beat her even if he could with his trembling hands, but she pretended to wince and cower away from him. “You mind what I say to you. If you ever do something like this again, and dress me up in those indecent rags, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll haunt you!’

“Oh don’t do that, Tim! Please don’t!” shrieked Mary, her face as pale as ashes. “Kill me now, if that’s what you want, or do anything to me you like, but for the love of the blessed Virgin and all the Saints, keep you to your grave! I’ll put the new shirt on you. My two hands will starch it and make it as white as snow, after it being laid aside so long in the old chest. You’ll be a lovely corpse, never fear about that! And I’ll give you the greatest wake that ever a man had, even if I have to sell the pig, and part with every stick in the cabin to buy the tea and the whisky. I swear to you I will, on this blessed night, my darling man.”

“Well, mind that you do, or it will be all the worse for you. And now give me a drop of water to drink, and put a taste of that whisky through it, for I’m ready to faint with thirst and with weakness.”

Mary kept her promise to her husband. Never in the history of that parish was there such a wake was that given for Tim Scanlan. It all occurred very soon after the events described above. Poor Tim really did depart this life, and manner in which his corpse was laid out, with his “elegant brand-new shirt”, was the admiration of all beholders of all who saw it.

© Jim Woods Nov 2017