Many, many years ago the weddings of the Irish country peasants were conducted by the priest, who was paid by the voluntary contributions of those guests attending the wedding. The ceremony itself was usually celebrated in the evening and was followed, especially among the wealthier farming classes, by a great feast, to which the priest was always invited. After the supper, when the company are still merry with the food and drink, they have consumed, the hat was passed around for contributions.
Kitty Malone was the prettiest girl in the entire parish, the bridegroom was the luckiest of men on his wedding day. was the bridegroom. You wouldn’t have thought that if you had seen the expression on the man’s face as he stood, looking very ill at ease in a stiff, shiny, brand-new, tight-fitting suit of wedding clothes. Yet, he was the fortunate man to have won Kitty’s heart and was about to claim a beautiful bride, who had fifty pounds to her fortune and three fine cows.
Most of the guests, however, were looking at Kitty. She was sitting beside the priest, very pretty and modest, blushing at the clergyman’s broad jokes. But the female guests were admiring the beautiful ‘white frock’ that she was wearing, many of them envious of its ‘bow-knots’ and trimmings of white satin that adorned the many-skirted garment. “It’s as good as new,” the lady’s maid at the big house assured her when she had bought it. “It was made by one of the finest dressmakers in London, and it has only been worn at a couple of balls. Her ladyship is very particular about her clothes and wouldn’t stand for the slightest sign of a crush or soiling on her gown.”
There is no place where a priest is so good-humoured as when at a wedding. There, in the middle of his jokes and his jollity, he keeps his attention focused on the future dues he would get. All the while, to all the guests, he appears to be absorbed in giving his attention to the pretty bride, whose health he had just drunk to in a steaming tumbler of whisky-punch. But, Father Murphy kept his business eye on the preparations that were being made for sending the plate around the room for his benefit.
The stirring began at the end of the table where the farmers were gathered in a large group, and all of them dressed in their finery. Wearing their large heavy greatcoats of fine cloth, their finest trousers, and shiny shoes that reflected the candlelight as they walked. Their lady wives and daughters all dressed in capacious blue, green or scarlet cloth cloaks with a silk-lined hood, which, like the greatcoats of the men, are an indispensable article of clothing in social functions among their class, even on the bad days. And there, as usual, in the middle of that group was Paddy Ryan, who was a sworn friend and supporter of Father Murphy. Paddy was rather small in build and one of the least well-off men in the parish when it came to the possession of worldly goods. But although he had neither a large holding or dairy cattle Paddy was very popular and was considered by most of the men as being good company. Nevertheless, such was his loyalty to the priest, that he would have gone through fire and water to serve his Reverence. As the priest caught sight of his devoted follower, his mind concentrated on Paddy’s actions to the extent that a very nice compliment he was making to the bride was interrupted.
At first, Paddy Ryan took a hold of the collecting plate and appeared to be about to carry it around the guests. Then, as if suddenly remembering something important that he had forgotten, he stopped and threw the plate down on the table with a clatter and a bang, which cause the bride’s mother to wince, for it was one of the plates from her best china set. Paddy, however, now began to try all the pockets in his clothes. He searched his waistcoat, trousers, and the pockets of his greatcoat, one after another, but did not seem to find what he had been looking for. At last, after much hunting and shaking, and many grimaces of disappointment, Paddy seized the object of his search, and from some unknown depths, a large tattered leather pocket-book was withdrawn with great care. By this time, however, because he made that much fuss during his search, now everyone’s attention was fixed upon him. With great deliberation, he opened the pocket-book and peered inside, after which, having first ensured by a covert glance around that the guests were watching him, he took out a folded bank-note. He took great care unfolding the bank-note and, after spreading out on the table, he ostentatiously flattened it out smoothly to ensure that all who saw it might read the ‘Ten Pounds’ that was inscribed upon it!
Not surprisingly there was a sudden rumble of astonishment among the guests, with certain signs of dismay being seen among the richer portion. The thick, money-filled wallets, that only a few moments before were being brandished by their owners, were now quickly and stealthily pushed back into pockets again. For several moments there was a pause among the crowd that was followed by a great amount of whispering as the farmers began to consult one another. While this continued there were many anxious and meaningful looks directed to these farmers by their wives, along with various nudges, and severe digs into their ribs. In such circumstances as these, there was always great rivalry in the giving of offerings. Mister Hanratty, who drove his family to Mass every Sunday in his own jaunting car, would certainly not want to be seen giving less than Mister Wilson, who was also a charitable sort of man and earned plenty of money from his butter in the city market. Now, there was the threat of being outdone by the likes of Paddy Ryan! To contribute five pounds to the priest’s collection, when the likes of Ryan was seen by all to give ten pounds, could not even be considered! So, the result, after Paddy had put his note on the plate with a complacent flourish and had started to go around everyone with the collection plate, was the largest collection that Father Murphy had ever seen, and he was overjoyed as he began to stuff his pockets with notes.
But, as the priest was leaving the Malone home, Paddy came up to him and took hold of the bridle of the priest’s horse. “That was a quare good turn that I have done your Reverence this night, didn’t I? Such a collection of notes and piles of silver and coppers I have never laid eyes on before! Sure, I thought the plate would break in two halves with the weight of it. And now” — he took a quick look around to ensure there was no one listening to them and began to whisper, “you can slip my ten-pound note back to me.’
“Your ten-pound note, Paddy? What do you mean by asking for it back? Is it that you want me to give you back part of my dues?”
‘Ah now! Father Murphy, surely you are not so innocent as to think that note was mine? Sure, where would a poor man like me come upon such an amount of money like that? Ten pounds, Father! Didn’t I borrow it, from yourself Father, for the scam? And what a mighty good and profitable scam it was. Didn’t I tell you that the sight of me putting it on the plate would draw every coin out of all their pockets? By the good Lord, it did!’ This was, of course, a fact that the priest could not deny and, along with some interest, he refunded Paddy’s clever decoy.
You would never have described Jimmy Joe Cullen as being a young man, even if you were the most kindly of his neighbours. The same man, however, would not be at all pleased to hear any person describe him as being an old man. After all, Jimmy Joe was the youngest of three sons born to the Cullen family but, unlike his brothers, he had lived at home for all his fifty years. Quite recently, however, with the passing of his father, Jimmy Joe had inherited the home place and he made plans to improve his new-found status among the local population.
Jimmy Joe was already a well-known figure in the district, but many of those who knew him well were convinced that the man was not exactly the ‘sharpest knife in the box’. But, despite what others thought about him, Jimmy Joe had done well for himself in the world. Although he had no education qualifications, he had worked his way up the ladder from ordinary labourer to the position of Clerk of Works for the Housing Executive of Northern Ireland. But this post appeared to be the pinnacle of his career advancement since he had remained in this same post for over eight years. Despite his best efforts, and his constant attention to detail, it appeared to Jimmy Joe that he had now risen through the ranks and attained the highest level that he was ever going to achieve. He had begun to wonder if this was due to the low quality of education that he had or was it something else that was preventing him from taking the next step into higher levels of management.
Jimmy Joe’s father was one of the ‘old school’ fathers that filled Ireland’s homes and believed in the adage that says, ‘by sparing the rod you would spoil the child’. When his father was alive Jimmy Joe didn’t much like the man, but he respected him as his father and, now that he was gone, Jimmy Joe missed him. Nevertheless, with the old man’s passing, Jimmy Joe suddenly gained a new sense of freedom and was eager to experience that freedom by marrying the woman, who was the only love of his life, Nellie Maguire.
Just like Jimmy Joe, Nellie Maguire was no ‘Spring Chicken, and she wouldn’t tear in the plucking’. But, even though she was a lady of mature years, there were quite a few men who would who would agree that she had retained much of the beauty for which she was famed in her younger days. It was her beauty that had first attracted Jimmy Joe to her almost thirty years previously. There were many of his neighbours, however, who wondered what it was that she had seen in him. Although it was almost thirty years previously, Jimmy Joe could still clearly recall that night when he had finally plucked up the courage to ask Nellie for a dance at the weekly Parish Ceilidh. That night the local parish hall was filled with people from within and from outside the parish, and many were visibly shocked to see the very popular Nellie Maguire agreed, not only to dance with Jimmy Joe Cullen, but to allow him to escort her home when the Ceilidh had ended.
In her youth, Nellie Maguire, was a natural blond with her long, golden hair flowing over her shapely shoulders like corn-silk. Her skin was as smooth and unblemished as the finest porcelain, and her hazel coloured eyes were warm and inviting, like those of a well-known movie actress of the day. In fact, Nellie was so beautiful that there was not a man in the entire Parish who had not lost his heart to her at some time or other. At the same time, there was not there was not a woman in the district who did not envy Nellie’s beauty, as well as her popularity among the menfolk. Nellie, however, was a strong-willed woman who knew her own mind, and knew exactly what kind of man she wanted in her life. It seemed to all the neighbours that, so far, Jimmy Joe Cullen was the only man she wanted, from among the many men available to her.
For his part, Jimmy Joe could never have been described as an ugly, or repulsive man, but neither was there anything especially handsome about him. He was tall, with black hair and a face tanned by the sun as he worked outside every day on the farm, and the building sites. As was his habit, most days of his life, Jimmy Joe would wear his work clothes to go out and about his business. In fact, it was only when he went to Mass or the Ceilidh that he would change into his best suit, shirt and tie, and brogue shoes. But, even when the man dressed well and combed his hair tidily, keeping it in shape with a dab of ‘Brylcreem’ there was nothing that even suggested he could be a heart-throb to any girl. Even those people who knew both Nellie and Jimmy very well at this time were convinced that their relationship would not last very long. In fact, some of Nellie’s closest friends were of the considered her to be too fickle a person to tie herself down to one man. “Sure, that one will never go mad, that one. She’s never in the same mind long enough”, appeared to be the most popular comment among her friends at the time. They could not, however, have been more wrong in their judgement of her. To date the relationship between Nellie and Jimmy Joe had already lasted almost thirty years, and now there was talk of them getting married.
When he was a young man, Jimmy Joe was a shy and quiet type of boy, who felt awkward in the presence of women and didn’t quite know what he should say in their company. It was a trait that Nellie admired very much, which encouraged Jimmy Joe to accomplish greater things. They had begun dating and, after they had been dating each other for eighteen months, Jimmy Joe gathered every ounce of courage he had buried in his being and decided that now was the right time to propose. Dressed in his very best clothes he went walking with Nellie, and then suddenly he knelt on one knee in front of her. Taking her hand in his he nervously asked her to marry him and anxiously awaited her answer. While Nellie was genuinely overjoyed by Jimmy Joe’s proposal, she made it clear to him that she could not give him an immediate answer, because there were several items that she needed to have clarified before she could agree to marry him. Her main concern at the time was where they would both live after they were married. Jimmy Joe could not understand her concern because he had envisioned them living as a couple in the home place, with his father. But, it was Jimmy Joe’s father who was the stumbling block in Nellie’s mind. To his surprise and embarrassment, she emphatically told him “No!” to the proposal of marriage.
It was with a great sense of relief that Jimmy Joe was told that Nellie’s response was not a total rejection of his proposal. She told him that she would happily marry him, but she could not be a wife to him as well as a housekeeper for his father. She insisted that she would only move into the home place as Jimmy Joe’s wife when his father, Old ‘Joe Boy’ Cullen, had passed away.
Now, Old ‘Joe Boy’ was a very well-known character in the Parish and there were very few of his neighbours who had a good word to say about him. He was known for having a very bad attitude toward other people and treated too many of his neighbours harshly when it came to business. Noted for his miserliness and tardiness in paying what he owed others, ‘Joe Boy’ had been secretly accused by some of cruelly working his wife to an early grave. It was said that ‘Joe Boy’ had young when she died so suddenly and only a couple of years before Nellie and Jimmy Joe had met and fallen in love. Jimmy Joe, however, was sure that his mother would have approved of his choice.
Since his wife’s death, it seemed that ‘Joe Boy’s’ bad manners and habits had worsened, including his foul, abusive language and his rude behaviour to others. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Nellie, when she heard that they would be moving into that same house after they were married, told Jimmy Joe, “If you think that I would live in the same house as that ill-mannered old blackguard, lifting and laying for him every day, and listening to his foul mouth, then you have another thought coming!” It was a blunt rebuttal, but Nellie didn’t stop there, and she added, “He is an ignorant, crude, drunkard of a man and I would not be caught dead in the same house as that old villain.”
When Nellie had expressed these problems to Jimmy Joe almost thirty-years previously he was neither shocked or annoyed by her bluntness. He simply placed the engagement ring on her finger and hoped in his heart that it might not be long until the day for them to be married. At first, Jimmy Joe thought that he might be able to change Nellie’s mind. He quickly discovered, however, that this woman was not about to alter her decision and that he would have to bide his time until ‘Joe Boy’ He swore to himself that when the old man was dead the coffin bearers could carry him out the back door, while carried Nellie over the threshold of the front door. There might not, after all, be too long until that day came. Jimmy Joe was convinced that the amount of alcohol his father consumed would most certainly kill the man sooner, rather than later. Not for one minute did either Jimmy Joe or Nellie consider that it would take so long to see ‘Joe Boy’ to grow frail and die. They were long and frustrating years for the couple. “That old ‘get’ made sure he got his day in,” said Nellie, “You would nearly think that ‘old goat’ had purposefully lived all those years to ensure that I didn’t get into the house and change it. By God, but that man was one big pain in the arse and it must be said that hell will never be full until he is in it.”
“In the name of God, Nellie,” her friends warned her, “Be careful what you say, for that old bastard might come back and haunt you.”
“Don’t you worry about him!” laughed Nellie, “I’ve got Bobby Lennon, the undertaker, to nail the lid down with six-inch nails and to wrap the coffin with two strong iron bands.”
Old ‘Joe Boy’s’ funeral took place on a cold Saturday morning with a mizzle of rain falling on everyone. There was little fanfare and only a few people that accompanied his remains from the house to the church for the funeral Mass. Including the priest, Jimmy Joe, and Nellie there were only twenty-two people attending the Mass, and most of them were only there to make sure that the miserable old skinflint was truly gone. It could rightly be said that the entire Parish and district was in a state of euphoria to see the back of the curmudgeonly old devil. Then, the next day, at 10:30 Mass the same priest proudly announced that Jimmy Joe and Nellie would be married at the earliest possible moment.
Over the following three weeks the Church was booked, and the invitations sent out to the select few. At long last Jimmy Joe and Nellie were getting married after almost thirty years of courting and the event became the main talking point of the entire parish.
“The old man’s not yet cold in his grave,” said Sarah Gill, the village gossip. “Its all been a bit rushed don’t you think? I wonder is there any reason for the hurry? You know what I mean?”
Mary Jane looked at Sarah with complete amazement. “Hurried?” she asked with a laugh, “I think Nellie Maguire is just a little bit old to be needing a shotgun wedding!”
“Well, I still think that it is all a bit quick!”
“For Christ’s sake, Sarah! It has been nearly thirty-years in the making! That’s not exactly the speed of light, now! Is it?”
There are many people who have heard about the adventures, but there are only a very few who may have heard of what caused all the perils he faced, which was the error of having slept beneath the walls of the Pooka’s tower. He was a man that I was very friendly with and many were the times that I visited his house at the bottom of ‘Shields’s Hill’, where he told me his story. This tale I now write it down for you …
“Sure, I am often asked to tell my story, so this is not the first time that I relate it. The Squire’s son had finally come home from foreign parts, much to the joy of his parents. In celebration of his return the Squire organised a great meal to which all the people of the district were invited, high-born and low-born, the rich and the poor. And what a feast it was, the best of everything and plenty of it. We ate our fill, and we drank our fill, and we danced the night away. In short, as you have undoubtedly guessed, I became quite inebriated. I was as drunk as a Lord and so, as I was taking the stepping-stones to cross the river at Ballyknock, I slipped, missed my footing, and fell head over heels into the cold water. ‘Ah! Good Jaysus!’ I shouted, ‘I’ll be frozen to death if I don’t drown first!’ But, Ibegan to swim and swim, as fast as I could. I swam for my dear life until I finally I reached shore, which I did not recognise. By some strange means I had swam to the shore of an abandoned island.
“I wandered about that island, not knowing where I was going or what I would meet, until my feet took me, stumbling, into a large bog. The moon was shining as bright as day, and my eyes searched to the east and west, and to the north and south. But, wherever I looked my eyes could only see a vast swathe of bog land. I began to scratch my head in my confusion, and I whistled a sorrowful air as I began losing hope of seeing home again.Suddenly, the sky grew darker and the moon grew black. In my fear I looked and saw something that appeared to be moving swiftly down between the moon and me, and I could not tell what it was. Down it swooped toward me, and it looked at me full-square in the face. By Christ, it was an eagle, and it stared into my face and spoke. Says he to me, ‘Well, Daniel Burke, how do you do?’
‘Very well, I thank you sir,’ says I in return. ‘I hope you’re well also.’ You can be sure that, even as I spoke to him, my mind was busy trying to reason how an eagle could speak to me like a mortal man.
‘What brings you here, Daniel?’ he asked.
‘By God, sir, I wish I knew,’ says I, ‘I only wish that I was safe home again in my own house.’
‘So, Dan, you want to go out of the island?’ says he.
‘Oh, you can be sure of that!’ says I.
‘Daniel?’ says he, ‘You know fine well that it is not the proper thing to do for you to get drunk on a feast day, but you are a decent and, normally, sober man, who attends Mass regular. You are also not one of those who throw stones at me or mine or shouts out at us when we are in the fields. So, my friend, get upon my back and take a tight grip in case you fall off, and I will fly you out of this place.’
‘Would you get away out of that?’ says I, ‘you’re trying to make an eejit out of me, Sir. Who has ever heard of a man riding horseback on an eagle before?’
‘I swear to you, Dan,’ said he, ‘I am being straight with you, so you can either take up my offer or starve in the bog. By the way, don’t take too long to make up your mind for your weight is sinking the stone in the bog.’
“Aye, it was true enough, for I found the stone sinking further and further every minute I was standing on it. ‘I thank you, Sir,’ says I without hesitation, ‘for the offer and I accept it!’ I, therefore, climbed upon the back of the eagle, and clasped my arms tightly around his throat, and up he flew in the air as graceful as you like. At this time, however, I had no inkling of the trick that he was going to play on me. Upward, upward, and upward still he flew until I lost all idea of how high we had risen, dear knows how far he flew. It came to me at this moment that, perhaps, the eagle did not know the right road to my home. ‘Excuse me,’ said I to him in a quiet and civil way. I did not want to upset him, especially when we were so high above the ground and I was so vulnerable. ‘Sir,’ says I, ‘I don’t mean to be disrespectful or discourteous, but if you would just fly down a bit lower you will find that we are just over my wee cottage, and you could drop me off there with my deepest gratitude.’
‘Are you mad, Dan?’ says he, ‘do you think me an eejit to be putting you down there? Take you a wee glance at the next field, and those two men down there with a gun! It would be quare joke on me to be shot by such men, while I helped a drunken blackguard that I took off a sinking stone in a bog.’
Well, kept, flying, flying, upward despite all my pleas to him to fly down. ‘Could you tell me, sir, just where in the world are you going?’ I asked him.
‘Ah, Dan, would you whisht (be quiet) for a minute! Just you mind your own business, and don’t be trying to interfere in the business of other people.’
“Finally, where should we come to, but to the moon itself. You can’t see it now, but there is, or at least there was in my day, a reaping-hook sticking out of the side of the moon, like this –’ (Dan began to draw the shape of the reaping-hook on the ground with the end of his stick).
‘Dan,’ said the eagle, ‘I’m absolutely exhausted after this long flight. My bloody wings are aching! I had no idea that it was so far.’
‘And, who in the name of God asked you to fly so far?” says I. ‘It wasn’t me! I was the one on your back begging, then praying and finally beseeching to stop half-an-hour ago!’
‘Now, there’s no use giving out, Dan,’ says he, ‘I’m too tired to listen, so just you get off now, and sit down there on the moon until I rest myself for a wee while.’
‘What? Sit down on the moon, did you say?’ asked I. ‘You want me to sit upon that wee round thing? Sure, I’d fall off in a minute, and be killed and split, and smashed all to bits! You are some saviour, so you are.’
‘Ah, sure don’t be like that, Dan,’ said the eagle. ‘You can take a tight hold of that reaping hook that’s sticking out of the side of the moon, and that will stop you from falling.’
‘Indeed, by God, I won’t,’ said I.
‘Maybe you won’t,’ he said to me under his breath. ‘But if you don’t, I might just give you a shake, and a slap of my wing, and send you down to the ground again, where every bone in your body will be smashed to smithereens and splashed all over the place.’
‘Well, that’s a lovely thing to say,’ I thought to myself, ‘how in the name of Jaysus did I ever get mixed up with the likes of him,’ and so I called him the worst word I could think of, in Irish of course in case he would understand what I had said. I slipped off his back, nervously taking hold of the reaping-hook, and I sat down upon the moon. That was a mighty cold seat, I can tell you that.
“When he was sure that I was secure the eagle turned to face me and said, ‘Good morning to you, Daniel Burke,’ said he. ‘I think I’ve certainly got you now. You are the blackguard that robbed my nest last year, and your reward is that you are very welcome to pass the time dangling your heels from the moon. Thief!’
‘Is that it, and now this is the way I am to be, you brute?’ I shouted at him in anger. ‘You are nothing but an ugly and unnatural beast that would leave me in such a predicament.’ But, all my anger and shouting made not one bit of difference. He turned away from me laughing loudly, spread out his great wings, and flew away like he had been shot out of a gun.
‘Stop!’ I bawled after him, but I might as well have been shouting in the wind for all the attention he took. Away he flew, and I never saw him again from that day to this, may he fly into a cliff the blackguard. As for me, I can tell you I was both heartbroken and very afraid. All that I could do was angrily call out all sorts of insults to the one who had abandoned me. Then, to my complete surprise a door opened, with a great creaking noise, right in the middle of the moon. Such was the noise that you would have thought the door had not had its hinges oiled or greased in an age. But, who do you think walked out of the door? None other than the man in the moon, himself. I immediately recognised him by the beard that he wore.
‘Good day to you, Daniel Burke,’ says he, ‘and how are you keeping?’
‘I’m doing very well, thank you,’ I told him. ‘I hope you are doing well, yourself.’
‘Whatever has brought you here, Dan?’ he asked.
So, I began to tell him the whole sad and dreary tale. ‘Dan,’ said the man in the moon as he took a pinch of snuff, ‘You can’t stay here! when I was done, ‘you must not stay here.’
‘Is that right?” I replied rather sarcastically. ‘Allow me to inform you that I am here very much against my will, and I just want to go home. My only problem is that I don’t know how to get back.
‘Well, Dan, that is your business,’ said he. ‘Mine is to inform you that you cannot not stay, so be off now as quickly as you can.’
‘Sure, I’m doing no harm,’ I insisted, ‘I am only holding on tightly to the reaping-hook, in case I fall off.’
‘That’s just what you must not do, Dan,’ says he.
‘Just a minute,’ says I, ‘may I ask you how many there are in your family, since it must be the size of the family that persuades you not to give a poor traveller a lodging. I’m sure that it is not very often that you’re troubled with strangers calling to see you, for it’s a long way to travel.’
‘As a matter of fact, I’m by myself, Dan,’ says he, ‘but you would be better letting go of the reaping hook.’
‘I know what you are saying,’ I told him bluntly, ‘but, I’ll not let go of my grip, and the more you tell me to do so, the tighter will my grip become.’
‘You had better, Dan,’ says he again.
‘Well, my wee bucko,’ says I, taking in the entire build and stature of the man in the moon from head to foot, ‘there are two words I could say to you now but won’t. I will not budge one inch from this place, but you may if you like.’
He was not at all pleased at how I had spoken to him and he sternly answered, ‘We’ll just see about that.’ He went back through the door and loudly slammed it behind him, the shudder that it brought almost convinced me that the moon would fall from the sky.
“I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for the trial of strength with him, that I was sure would happen when he came back again. And come back again he did, only this time he had a kitchen cleaver in his hand, and without saying a word he too two almighty swipes at the handle of the reaping hook that was holding me up, and with a loud crack it snapped in two.
‘Good morning and Goodbye to you, Dan,’ said the old blackguard, spitefully, as he saw me falling downward with a bit of the handle still in my hand. ‘I thank you for your visit, and now Daniel, cheerio!’
It all happened so fast that I did not have time to answer his jibe, for I was tumbling over and over, and rolling, at such a speed that it would have taken the light from your eyes. ‘This is not good,’ said I to myself aloud, ‘for a decent man, the likes of me, to be seen in this mess! By God I am rightly f—.’I did not get to finish what I was saying as my attention was taken by a loud ‘swishing’ noise as a flock of wild geese flew by, close to my ear. They must have flown all the way from my own bog of Ballyknock, for how else could they have known who I was?
The old gander, who was their leader, turned his head toward me and cried out, ‘Is that you, Dan?’
‘It is,’ said I, not at all surprised that he knew my name because, by this time, I had become used to all kinds of strange things happening. Besides this old gander was no stranger to me.
‘Good day to you,’ says the gander, ‘Daniel Burke, how are you keeping this lovely morning?’
‘Very well, sir,’ says I, ‘and I thank you kindly for asking. I hope you are the same, old friend.’
‘I think you are falling, Daniel,’ says he.
‘Well, I suppose you could say that,’ says I.
‘And where are you going to that you have travel so quickly?’ asked the gander.
So, I began to tell him the whole sad, sorry tale of falling into the river, the eagle taking abandoning me on the moon, and the old man in the moon causing me to fall.
‘Don’t worry, Dan’ says he, ‘Just take hold of my leg and I’ll fly you home.’
‘You are a life-saver!’ says I, though I wasn’t sure if I could trust him. But what could I do only take hold of his leg as tightly as I could. We flew, and flew, until we came over a wide ocean, which I knew well. On my right I could see Cape Clear, sticking up out of the water.
‘Friend!’ I called to the goose, ‘just fly me to land, please.’
‘That’s impossible, Dan,’ he replied, ‘because we are going to Arabia.’
‘To Arabia!’ I gasped, ‘surely that’s a foreign place, and far away. Oh dear! There’ no man to be more pitied than me.’
‘Whisht, you eejit,’ said he, ‘would you hold your tongue. Arabia is a very decent place, not unlike Ballyknock, only with a wee bit more sand.’
Just as we were talking, a ship came in sight. ‘Ah! Would you kindly drop me on that ship, please?’
‘We are not rightly above it,’ said he.
‘We are,’ I insisted.
‘We are not, and if I dropped you now you would splash into the sea.’
‘I would not,’ says I. ‘I know better than that, for it is just under us, so let me drop immediately.’
‘If that’s what you want,’ said he. ‘There you go,’ and he opened his claw, and, sure enough, down I came right into the very bottom of the salty sea! I sank to the very bottom, where I gave myself up for ever. But, a whale now walked up to me, scratching himself after his long night’s sleep. He looked me full in the face, and said nothing except he raised his tail, splashing me all over again with cold, salt water until there wasn’t a dry stitch on my entire body.
It was then that I heard a familiar voice speaking to me and saying, ‘Get up out of that you, drunken old fool!’ Startled by the voice, I woke up, and there was Jenny with a tub full of water in her arms, which she was splashing all over me. God love her, she was a good wife to me, but she could never bear to see me drunk, and she had a bit of a fist of her own.
‘Get up,’ said she again, ‘for of all places in this parish you would have to choose to lie in drunken sleep beneath the old walls of Carrigaphooka, and I could wager that you did not rest too easily there.’
By God she had the truth of that. I was almost driven insane with meeting the eagle, the man in the moon, flying ganders, and whales. My head was astray with being driven into bogs, and up to the moon, and down to the bottom of the green ocean. I can tell you that no matter how much drink I’d taken, it would be a long time before I’d lie down in that same place again, that’s for sure.”
At the end of the nineteenth century the only good and reliable washerwomen that existed in England were women from our own ‘Emerald Isle’. It was often said that laundresses were “two a penny”, while real washerwomen were thin on the ground and all of them were Irish. What made them so valuable was that when an Irish Washerwoman promised to wash the muslin curtains as white as “a hound’s tooth”, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” she told the truth. But when she promised to “get them up like new” she usually fell short of her promise. In the vast majority of cases, the Irish Washerwoman often marred her own admirable washing abilities by a carelessness in the final process. She often made her starch in a hurry, though it required great patience in its blending. It had to be stirred incessantly, almost constant boiling, and in the cleanest of all large metal pots. Unfortunately, tradition and lack of education appeared to prevent her from accepting the superiority of powder over ‘laundry blue’, which was a household product that was used to improve the appearance of textiles, especially white fabrics. She would simply snatch the blue-bag, usually made from the “toe” of a stocking, from its storage place beside a shapeless lump of yellow soap, left over since the last wash. She would squeeze the bag into the starch, which she may have stirred with a dirty spoon. From that moment there could be no possibility of clear curtains, or clear anything.
“Biddy, these curtains were as white as snow before you starched them.”
“That’s true, ma’am dear.”
“They have now turned blue, Biddy.”
“Not all over, ma’am.”
“No, Biddy, not all over. But, here and there.”
“Ah, get away with ye, ma’am, will ye? Sure, it’s not that I mean. There’s a hole that’s worked in the blue-bag, bad luck to it, and more blue than I wanted got out. Sure, didn’t the starch get lumpy and became all bollocksed up?”
“It would not have got ‘lumpy’, Biddy, if it had been well blended.”
“Sure, didn’t I blend it like butter; but I just left off stirring for a minute to look at the parade.”
“Ah now, Biddy, an English laundress would not have stopped to look at a parade!”
This remark by her mistress offended Biddy’s scruples and she went off in a “huff,” muttering to herself that if they didn’t “look after a parade, they’d follow behind it. English laundresses indeed! Sure, they haven’t the power in their elbow to wash white.”
Biddy said all this, and more, for she was proud of being an Irishwoman, and wondered why anyone would prefer anything English to everything Irish. But, she knew that the fact remained that the actual labour necessary at the wash-tub is far better performed by the Irish than the English. But the order, neatness, and exactness required in “finishing off,” is better accomplished by the English than the Irish. This state of affairs, she accepted, was perfectly consistent with the national character of both nations.
Biddy Mahony was said by many to be the most useful person that they knew, and she was fully aware of that fact. But, she knew it, and yet she never allowed herself to be presumptuous. It was not only as a washerwoman that her talent shone out, and she got through as much hard work as any other two women. Nevertheless, as she says herself often said, “the mistress always finds fault with my finishing touches.” But, although she was not young, she was still a fine-looking woman with a large mouth that was always ready with a smile. She had the features of a person filled shrewd good humour, her keen grey eyes were alive to everything around her, not resting for a moment, and filled with female cunning. The borders of her cap were always twice as deep as they needed to be and flapped untidily about her face. She wore a coloured handkerchief inside a dark blue spotted cotton gown, which wrapped loosely in front, where it was held in place the string of her apron. Biddy’s hands and wrists had the appearance of being half-boiled, which looked more painful than it really was. She did not use as much soda as an English laundress would, but she did not spare her personal exertions, and rubbed most unmercifully. Then, one bitter frosty winter’s day, Biddy was seen standing near the laundry window, stitching away with busily.
“What are you doing, Biddy?”
“Oh, never heed me, ma’am.”
“Why, Biddy, what a state your left wrist is in! It is positively bleeding. In fact, it looks as if you have rubbed all the skin off.”
“And aren’t I going to put a skin on it?” she said, smiling through the tears which had been drawn from her eyes by the pain she was suffering, in spite of her efforts to conceal them. In her hands she was holding a double piece of wash leather which she was sewing together so as to cover her torn flesh. Now, that was heroism, and Biddy was a heroine, without even knowing it.
Like many others of her sex and country, her heroism is that of being a patient, self-denying character and does not show her true thoughts to others. She was an extraordinary patient person, who could bear a great quantity of abuse and unkindness and knew quite well that to a certain degree she was living in an enemy’s country. Half the bad opinion of the “low Irish,” as the English often insultingly termed them, arose from old national prejudices, while the other half was created by themselves, by often presenting themselves as being provokingly uproarious, and altogether heedless of the manners and opinions of those people among whom they live. This, however, was not the case with Biddy. She had a great deal of cunning and tact. While you thought she was only pulling out the strings of her apron, she was always alert, listening, and understanding, like a stalking cat. If she decided to make some kind of quiet joke about the peculiarities of her employers, there was nothing particularly vicious in it. After all Biddy’s betters often did the same and called it “teasing”. Unfortunately, however, the poor are not always judged on the same level as the rich.
Among all the young servants in the house the Irish Washerwoman was always a favourite. She was cheerful, turned a cup to read someone’s fortune and usually, I am sorry to say, had half of a dirty and torn pack of cards in her pocket for the very same purpose. She would sing at her work, and through the wreath of curling steam that wound from the upraised skylight of the laundry, could be heard some old time-honoured melody, that in an instant brings the scenes and sounds of Ireland to the listener. She will soften the hearts of her listeners with “Danny Boy,” or “Noreen Bawn,” and then strike into “Galway Bay” or “St Patrick’s Day,” with the feeling and heart that only an Irish person can bring to the songs of the old country. The Old English servants regarded the Irish Washerwoman with deep suspicion. They thought she did too much work for the money she received, which reflected on attitude the “Missus” had toward their wages, and yet they were always ready enough to put their own “clothes” into the month’s wash, and expect Biddy to “pass them through the tub;” a favour she was always too wise to refuse.
The upper classes were happy that the management of their households did not bring any temptation to thievery, which they believed existed in the homes of the Dublin gentry. They believed that servants in Ireland were allowed what was termed “breakfast money,” which meant that they were not to eat their employers’ food but were to ‘look out’ for themselves. Not surprisingly, such a restriction was considered to be the greatest possible inducement to picking and stealing. English gentry were happy to believe that their English servants had no need to steal the necessaries of life, because they were fed, and they were treated as human beings. As a consequence, they thought that there was not a fraction of the extravagance, the waste, and the pilfering that took place in Irish kitchens. They were too blind to see that it was the system rather than the servant that was the true problem. Meanwhile, washerwomen like Biddy continue to adjust to every modification of system in every house she goes to. The only thing she cannot bear to hear is her country and its people being abused, even when such abuse takes the form of a joke. In such circumstances the blood would rise and her cheeks flush with anger, and some years ago there was an occasion when Biddy answered in an appropriate way. One thing about the Irish that lifts them above others is their earnest love for their country when they are absent from it. Your polite, diplomatic Irishman might look a little disconcerted when you question his country, and with an oily, easy, musical swing of his voice asks innocently just how you knew he was Irish. They might even suggest, “that people cannot help their misfortunes.” The working-class Irish, however, will not be so pleasant, just as Biddy did when she was challenged as to her nationality.
“Aren’t you the clever one, madam? I am Irish, sure, and my people before me, God be praised for it! I’d be a long and sorry to disgrace my country if I denied it, my lady. Fine men and women live in it as well as those who come out of it. Sure, it’s an awful pity that so many need to leave. It’s well enough for the likes of me to leave it, for I could do it no good. But, as to the gentry, the sod keeps them, and sure they might keep on the sod! Ye needn’t be afraid of me, my lady; I would do nothing to disgrace my country. I am not afraid of my character, or the work I do, for it’s all I have to be proud of in this wide world.”
How much more respect does this attitude deserve in every right-thinking mind, than any mean attempt to conceal a fact of which we all, as well as poor Biddy, have a right to be proud! Biddy’s reply to someone of her own social stature might have received a much different reply such as – “Am I Irish? I am to be sure! Do ye think I’m going to deny my country, God bless it?! Truly I am proud to be born Irish and to be called Irish! I cannot think of anything else that I would want to be!”
You should have a great deal of sympathy for poor Biddy, because her life has been one long-drawn scene of incessant, almost heart-rending labour. From the time she became eight years old, Biddy earned her own bread and it is a wonder that having endured such a hard life that Biddy retained her habitual cheerfulness. Every evening her hearty laughter could be heard echoing through the house, while she would treat the servants at every kitchen Christmas party with a lively Irish jig. But, one Christmas, Biddy was not as happy as she usually was. One of the pretty housemaids had, for the past two or three years, made it a regular request that Biddy should put her own wedding ring in the kitchen pudding. No one knew why Jenny continually made such a request because she never had the luck to find it in her slice of the pudding. But, she did.
Christmas eve was always a merry night in the homes of ‘the Quality’. The cook, in her kitchen, was puffed-up with her own importance and weighed her ingredients according to her recipe for “a one-pound or two-pound pudding.” She would inspect her larded turkey and pronounce her opinions upon the relative merits of the sirloin which was to be the “roast for the parlour,” and “the ribs” that were destined for the kitchen. Although she had a great deal of work to do, like all English cooks, she maintained a most sweet mood, because there was a great deal to eat. She looked proudly over the dozens of mince pies, the soup, the savoury fish, the huge bundles of celery, and the rotund barrel of oysters, in a manner that had to be seen to be believed. At the same time, the housemaid is equally busy in her department, while the groom smuggled in the mistletoe and the old butler slyly suspended from one of the bacon hooks in the ceiling before he kissed the cook beneath. The green-grocer’s boy would have been scolded for not bringing “red berries on all the holly.” Then the evening would be wound up with drinks, a half-gallon, of ale and hot elderberry wine, and a loud cheer would echo through the house when the clock struck twelve. In those times a family would be considered to be very poor if they had no meat, a few loaves of bread, and a few shillings, to distribute amongst some old pensioners on a Christmas Eve.
In that particular household, Biddy had been a positive necessity for many Christmas days, and just as many Christmas eves. She was never told to come, because it was an understood thing. Biddy would ring the gate bell every twenty-fourth of December, at six o’clock, and even the English cook would return her national salutation of “God save all here,” with cordiality. Jenny, as I have said, was her great ally and had been found at least sixty husbands, in the tea cups, in as many months. One Christmas Eve morning, however, Biddy didn’t come to the house. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, and still the maids were not up and at their work. They didn’t know what time it was because Biddy had not rung the bell and the entire house was collapsing into a state of commotion. The cook, in her panic, declared, “How will it all end? Isn’t it always the way with those Irish. The dirty and ungrateful woman. Who is going to heat the water, boil the ham, look after the celery, butter the tins or hold the pudding cloth?
“Or drop the ring in the kitchen pudding!” whimpered Jenny
Instead of the usual clattering domestic bustle of old Christmas, everyone looked sulky, and, as usual when a household is not fully awake in the early morning, everything went wrong. The lady of the house was not at all pleased with what was happening, but she had promised herself that she would never speak to a servant when she was angry. Instead, she put on her fur coat, and set out to see what had become of the poor industrious Irish woman. She went to the place where Biddy lived on Gore Lane and made her way into the small cottage that the washerwoman rented. Although it was not a tidy house it was, nevertheless, clean. She found Biddy sitting over the embers of a dying fire and, instead of being greeted with the usual beaming smile, the washerwoman turned away from her and burst into tears. This was not what she had expected and the anger she had felt back at the house now disappeared entirely.
Biddy had happily rid herself from the burden of a drunken husband several years ago, and she worked hard to support three little children without ever having thought once about sending them to a workhouse. She had people for whom she washed at their own houses, and even took in work at her small cottage. To help her in this task she employed a young girl called Lisa, whom she had taken in from the streets and saved her from ‘a fate worse than death’. Biddy had found Lisa starving on the streets and she brought fever amongst her children. At the same time Biddy lost much work through her charitable act but she nursed the young girl through her sickness, and never regretted having befriended a motherless child. People who demonstrate such charity to others deserve any praise they might receive, and Biddy acted like a mother to the girl.
Turning to her employer Biddy began to explain her absence, and the cause of her tears, “I came home last night, as usual, more dead than alive, until I got sitting down with the children. As usual I put two or three potatoes on to heat on the stove and then, tired as I was, I thought I would iron out the few small items that Lisa had put in to wash. These included a clean cap and handkerchief, and the aprons for to-day, because you like to see me nice and presentable. My boy got a prize at school, where I took care to send him that he would get the education that makes the poor rich. Well, I noticed that Lisa’s hair was hanging in ringlets down her face, and I says to her, ‘My honey, if Annie was you, and she’s my own, I’d make her put up her hair plain. It’s the way the quality wears and I think it would be good enough for you Lisa.’ Then says she to me, ‘It might do for Annie, but for me it’s different because my mother was a tradeswoman.’ I tell you, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from hurting her feelings by telling her exactly what her mother was and bringing the blush of shame to the girl’s cheeks.
“But I waited until our work was finished over, and, picking her out the two potatoes, and sharing, as I always did, my half pint of beer with her, I tried to reason with her. Then I looked across to where my three sleeping children were lying, little Jimmy’s cheek was blooming like a rose, on his prize book, which he had taken into bed with him, and I promised God that although my heart was drawn more to my own flesh and blood, I would look after her as I would them.
“She didn’t answer me, but put the potatoes aside, and said, ‘Mother, go to bed.’ I let her call me mother,” continued Biddy, “it’s such a sweet sound, and doesn’t do any harm. Saying might have helped her not feel so alone in the world. The word can be a comfort to many a breaking heart, and can calm down many a wild one. As old as I am, I still miss my mother still! ‘Lisa,’ says I, ‘I’ve heard my own children’s prayers, why not kneel down dear and say your own?’
“‘My throat’s so sore,’ said she, ‘I can’t say them out aloud. Don’t you see I could not eat the potatoes?’ This was about half past twelve, and I had spoken to the police to give me a call at five. But when I awoke, the grey of the morning filled the room. I knew where I should be, and I quickly got dressed in my clothes. Then, hearing a policeman below the window, I said to him, ‘Please, could you tell me what time it is and why you didn’t call me?’ ‘It’s half past seven,’ says he, ‘and sure the girl, when she went out at half past five, said you were already up.’
‘My God! What girl?’ I asked him, turning all over like a corpse, and then I missed my bonnet and shawl, and saw my box empty. Lisa had even taken the book from under the child’s cheek. But that wasn’t all. I’d have forgiven her for the loss of the clothes, and the bitter tears she caused my innocent child to cry. I’d even forgive her for making my heart grow older in half an hour, than it had grown in its whole life before, but my wedding ring, ma’am? That girl’s head often had this shoulder for its pillow, and I would throw this arm over her, so. Oh, ma’am, could you believe it? The girl stole my wedding ring off my hand, the very hand that had saved and slaved for her! The ring! Oh, there is many a tear I have shed on it, and many a time, when I’ve been next to starving, and it has glittered in my eyes, that I’ve been tempted to part with it, but I couldn’t. It had grown thin, like myself, with the hardship of the world, and yet when I’d look at it twisting on my poor wrinkled finger, I’d think of the times gone by, of him who had put it on, and would have kept his promise but for the temptation of drink, and what it leads to. In those times, when trouble would be crushing me into the earth, I’d think of what I once heard that a ring was a thing like eternity, having no beginning nor end. I would turn it, and turn it, and turn it and find comfort in believing that the little penance here was nothing in comparison to that without a beginning or an end that we were to go to hereafter. It might be in heaven, or it might, God forbid, be in the other place; and,” said poor Biddy, “I drew a great deal of consolation from that, and she knew it, the serpent. She that I shared my children’s food with, knew it, and, while I slept the heavy sleep of hard-work, she had the poison in her to rob me! She robbed me of the only treasure, barring the children, that I had in this world! I’m a great sinner; for I can’t say, God forgive her, nor I can I bring myself to work. The entire thing has driven me away from my duty and Jessie, the craythur, always laid ever so much store by that ring, on account of the little innocent charms. Altogether, this has been the worst Christmas day that ever came to me. Oh, sure, I wouldn’t have that girl’s heart in my breast for a golden crown, her ingratitude of beats the world!”
Lisa’s actions were truly the most callous case of ingratitude that I have ever known. What a wretch she was to rob the only friend she ever had, while she slept in the very bed where she had been attended to, and cared for, so unceasingly. “She could have taken all that I had in the world, if only she had left me that ring” Biddy repeated continually, while she rocked herself backwards and forwards over the fire. “The little bit of money, the rags, and the child’s book. She could have had them all and I would not have cared a bit. I could have forgiven her from my heart, but I can’t forgive her for taking my ring. Not for taking my wedding ring!”
This was not the end of it. The girl was soon traced and taken into custody by the police and, that same day Biddy was told she must go to the police station to identify the prisoner. “Me,” she exclaimed, “Sure, I never was in a police station before and don’t know what to say other than she took it.”
In an English police court of the period an Irish case always created a bit of jollity. The magistrates would smile at each other, while the court reporter cut his pencil and arranged his note-book, and the clerk of the court would cover the lower part of his face with his hand, to conceal the smile that grew around his mouth. They watched, amused, as Biddy attempted an awkward curtsey before she began to speak. She began by wishing their honours a merry Christmas and plenty of them, before expressing her hope that they might continue to use the power of their office to do good until the end of their days. Then, when Biddy saw the creature whom she had cared for so long, in the custody of the police, she was completely overcome and mixed her evidence with so many pleas that the girl be shown mercy, that the magistrates were sensibly affected. Though there had only been a short time between Lisa’s running away and her capture, she had pawned the ring and spent all the money. There were, however, at least twenty people who extended their helping hand to the Irish Washerwoman with money to redeem the pledge.
Poor Biddy had never been so rich before in all her life, but that did not help console her for the sadness she felt at the sentence that was passed upon Lisa and it was a long time before she was able to regain her usual spirits. She weakened, and she grieved, and when the spring began to advance a little, and the sun began to shine, her misery became quite troublesome. Biddy’s continual cry was, “for the poor sinful creature who was shut up among stone walls and would be sure to come out worse than she went in!”
The old English cook lived to become thoroughly ashamed of the things she had both thought and said about Biddy, and Jenny held her up on every possible occasion as a being the ideal image of an Irish Washerwoman.
It was over a year since the tragic death of Paddy Slane when the Curate of the Church was given a letter that was delivered to him by hand.The letter that he received was a polite request for a funeral to be conducted within the Church, and it contained a series of instructions as to how the family wished the grave to be prepared. Because it was not the responsibility of the Curate to act upon such instructions personally, and he, therefore, sent a message to Bob Harte, asking him if he would call at the Curate’s house to be briefed on the family’s requests.
It was a heavy, early autumn night and there were large numbers of threatening thunder-clouds slowly rising from the earth, loading the sky with a dark and foreboding storm canopy. The deep, low growl of a distant thunder and could be heard echoing over many miles on the dull, still air of the night. It appeared almost as if all of nature had chosen to cower under the threatening influence of the approaching storm. The old clock in the hall had just struck nine o’clock when Bob put on his coal-black coat, and he readied himself to attend to the Curate’s message.
“Listen to me now, Bobby darlin’,” said Bob’s wife quietly as she handed him his hat, after she had taken it from the hat-rack. “Will you just go straight there and come straight home again, won’t you Bobby darlin’? You’ll not go near, the you know where?”
“What are you talking about, woman?” he replied rather tersely and snatched his hat from her hand.
“Ah, Bobby, sure you’ll not go near the pub at all?” she asked, in a pleading tone of voice, as she moved her hand away to avoid her husband’s grasp.
“Now, why would I want to be doing such a thing, woman? Just give me my hat, for God’s sake, so I can be on my way! It’s already late.”
“But, Bobby, will you not just promise me you won’t? Now promise me, darling!” she pleaded with him as tears filled her eyes.
“Ay, ay, of course I’ll promise you. Sure, why would I not?” he replied in a way that showed his frustration with his wife’s constant pleas.
“Ah now, Bobby, I hear you talking, but you’re not giving me your solemn promise,” she pressed him.
“Listen, woman!” said Bob, “May the devil take me if I should take a single drop of drink until I come back home again!Now, will you give my head a bit of peace now?”
“It will my darlin’,” she smiled, “and may God keep you safe.”
With this parting blessing from the lips of his wife, Bob Harte went out of the door, breathing a lot easier as his wife closed the door behind him. The night was, by this time, quite dark as Bob stepped out on to the street, while his wife, contented by her husband’s promise, returned to her armchair in the living room, where she resumed her knitting and would wait until he returned. These last few weeks she had been very worried that, perhaps, Bob had taken to drinking much more often. This would, of course, be inconsistent with his apparent reformation from previous indiscretions. Her deepest fear, however, was the temptations provided by at least a half-dozen public houses that he would have to pass on his way to the curate’s house, which stood at the other end of the town. Despite the lateness of the hour, these ‘pubs’ would still be open for business, and they gave off a sweet aroma of whiskey and porter, which smelled so enticing to a drinking man. But, true to his word, Bob continued on his way, passing each of them without once turning his head in their direction. Bob deliberately put his hands into his coat pockets and looked straight ahead as he walked, whistling a merry tune to himself, and thinking only of his forthcoming meeting with the curate and the fee that he would get for the work he would be asked to do. In this manner Bob made his way, safely avoiding all temptation, to the curate’s house feeling very pleased with himself.
At length, Bob reached the curate’s house and knocked on the front door, which was answered by the housekeeper. She informed Bob that the curate had been called out unexpectedly to attend to a very ill parishioner, but she told him that he could sit in the hall and await the curate’s return.There Bob sat in a large blood-leather armchair amusing himself by reading some magazines, that lay on the hall table, and biting his nails until the clergyman returned home.The minutes passes slowly into hours as he waited and waited. But, it was not until almost half-past eleven that the cleric returned home, and it was just gone midnight when Bob finally set out on his journey home. By this time, however, the storm clouds had gathered to a deep, pitch darkness and the roars of thunder could be heard above the barren rocks and hollows of the distant mountains. Pale, blue lightning flashes broke the darkness, reflecting upon the rain soaked facades of the houses. Bob was fully aware that, by this time of the night, every door in the street would be closed and securely locked. But, as he trudged his way home, Bob’s eyes strained through the gloom as he sought out the public-house which had once belonged to late friend, Paddy Slane.
When he came to the building, Bob noticed a faint light making its way through the slats in the window shutter, as well as the frosted-glass panes over the door-way, which created a sort of dull, foggy, and mystical halo about the front of the public houses. Now that Bob’s eyes had become very much accustomed to the darkness of the night, that faint halo of light was just enough illumination to allow him to see a strange figure of a man before him. The closer that Bob came to the strange man he began to notice that the man was wearing a type of loose overcoat, which was tightly pulled around him as he sat upon a wooden seat that was firmly fixed into the pavement below the pub’s huge main window. The seated figure was also wearing a large, broad-brimmed hat that hung very much over his eyes, and he was smoking a long, strangely shaped pipe.
On the seat, at the side of the stranger, Bob could just discern the outline of a glass and, also, a half -bottle was dimly noticeable on the pavement, just to the side of his foot. The longer that he watched this strange figure, the more certain he was that there was something extremely odd about him. This stranger had the appearance of travelling man, who had simply stopped to refresh himself on that wooden bench in a rain-soaked street. At first, Bob thought it was likely this stranger had been drinking in the pub when it closed for the night. He thought that, perhaps, this stranger had taken what remained of his drink out to the seat, where he could enjoy it as he watched the lightning flashes light up the sky. At any other time, it is likely that Bob would have given the stranger a friendly greeting as he passed him by. On this particular night, however, Bob Harte was feeling quite low in his spirits, and was certainly not in any kind of mood to be genial to any stranger. Just as he was about to pass the seated man without greeting him, the stranger lifted his half-bottle of whiskey and, without removing the pipe from his mouth, he beckoned Bob over to him. At the same time, with a slight nod of his head, and a shrug of his shoulders, the stranger indicated he wanted Bob to share his seat and his bottle.
Bob watched as the man shifted along the seat to the end, making room for Bob to sit down. There was a wonderful aroma of malt whiskey coming from the area where the man sat, and Bob was sorely tempted by it. But he recalled the promise he had made to his wife, which reinforced his will-power just as it began to weaken, and he politely told the stranger, “No. But, I thank you for your kind offer, sir, but I cannot stop for a drink this night.”
The stranger, however, was not to be so easily placated, and he beckoned to Bob even more vehemently. He pointed to the empty space on the seat beside him, as if commanding Bob to sit. This time he gave the strange man a smile as he, once again, began to excuse himself, “Thanks again for your very polite offer, but I’m very late as it is, and I don’t have any time to spare. So, I wish you a very good night.”
Jingling his glass against the neck of the whiskey bottle, the stranger was suggesting that Bob could at least swallow one mouthful of the whiskey without losing much time. He was sorely tempted, and he wondered what harm a mouthful of whiskey would him. Although his mouth watered at the prospect, he remembered the promise that he had made. Bob shook his head strongly to demonstrate that his decision was now final and, there was nothing that would move him from his resolve. But, as Bob walked on, the stranger arose from his seat with his pipe still in mouth. He had the whiskey bottle in one hand, the glass in the other, and he now began to follow close behind the sacristan. This now caused Bob some major concern, and he quickly became very suspicious of the stranger’s intentions.
Bob now began to quicken his step and listened intently as the stranger followed close behind him. The sacristan now began to feel very anxious about this pursuit and he nervously turned around to face the stranger. He was still very close behind Bob, and he was continuing to invite him to share in his liquor, with increasingly impatient gestures.
“I have already told you,’ said Bob, who was both angry and frightened, ‘I don’t want a drink and that’s final! Now just go away! Take yourself and your whiskey bottle and go!” The stranger, however, continued to approach him very slowly, causing him to become irritated and angrily he shouted at him, “In God’s name, get back from me and stop tormenting me in this way!”
But, even as he spoke these words Bob recognised that his words and attitude had only increased the anger building within the stranger. In response to Bob the stranger began to shake the whiskey bottle toward him with violent, menacing gestures. Bob continued hastily on his way and the distance between him and the stranger increased considerably. As they both continued along the street Bob could see the stranger following behind, because his pipe gave off such a warm, wonderful red glow, which duskily illuminated the stranger’s entire figure despite the darkness of the badly lit street. Bob stopped again and called out to the stranger in a rage, “I just wish you would go to the devil, whoever you are!”
“Just get away from me!” he shouted as he hurried away. But, as he walked and looked back, over his shoulder, to discover that much to his dismay, the infuriating stranger was as close as ever to him.
“Damn you to hell,” cried out Bob in desperation as he began to feel himself almost overcome with fear and rage. “Just what is it you want of me?”
The strange man just ignored Bob’s anger in Bob’s voice and approached him even more confidently than before. He continued nodding his head and extending both glass and bottle toward Bob as he moved ever closer. Then, out of the darkness behind the stranger , Bob noticed a large black horse following them in virtual silence.
“You can keep your temptations to yourself, you devil, for there is nothing but a dark evil that surrounds you,” cried Bob Harte as he felt a real sense of terror spread rapidly through his entire body. “Will you just leave me alone?” he called out aloud as he fumbled through his confused mind for a suitable prayer to rescue him from what was, he thought, a servant of Satan. Realising that he was now very close to his own front door, Bob quickened his pace to a jog rather than a walk.
As he came to the front door of his house, Bob hammered his fist upon it and called out, “Let me in, let me in, for God’s sake! Molly, please open the door!” He was breathing heavily by this time and, weak with exhaustion, he leant his back against the heavy wooden door. From the street the strange man now confronted him and, although there was no longer a pipe in his mouth, a dusky red glow still lingered around him. From the depths of his body the stranger uttered some indescribable, cavernous sounds, which imitated closely the growls of a great wolf, or some other indescribable beast. Meanwhile, just as he uttered his strange howl, he poured some of the liquid from the bottle into the glass.
Hysterical with fear, Bob kicked at the front door with all the force he could muster and, despairingly, he tearfully screamed, ‘In the name of God Almighty, once and for all, leave me alone!’
After Bob had recovered he was told that it was likely the strange figure of a man, who had sat upon the wooden seat outside Paddy Slane’s ‘pub’ was actually the spectre of Paddy’s suicide. It was suggested to Bob that this spectre had been summoned by the ‘Evil One’ to lure the church sacristan into abandoning the promise that he had solemnly sworn to his wife. The person who interpreted Bob’s encounter with this evil spectre suggested that if the apparition had succeeded in his task, it is more than likely that the ghostly, black horse that had appeared would have carried a double burden back to the underworld.
As a matter of proof that these events happened as described, the old thorn tree which overhung the front door of the house was found, in the morning, to have been blasted with the infernal stream of fire flung by the evil spectre from the glass. It looked just like a lightning-bolt had scorched the front of the house, and it was to remain in that condition for several years, because people of the town were too afraid to repair the damage they believed had been caused by the ‘fires of hell.”.
The following story concerns a well known character, who resided in this town over one hundred years ago, which was just before the Great War began in 1914. He was employed as a church sacristan and caretaker who worked in and about the town’s impressive Church of Ireland Church. Known to all as Bob Harte, he was a familiar figure about town, who was much respected by some, and disliked by most of the young boys in the place. He spoiled every effort they made to play truant from school in the expansive grounds that were a part of the Church. There and in the adjoining grave-yard these children would play their war-games among the many trees and tombstones. In the warmth of long summer evenings Bob would chase and chastise the local boys whom he found climbing the many bushes to seek out the nests of bats, sparrows and other birds.
There were occasions, while patrolling the grounds, that Bob would discover groups of boys peeping through a small, mysterious window that gave them a view into a dark, dusty room within the Church basement.They would gasp at the lidless coffins that gaped horribly back at them from among large, tattered wine-coloured, dust filled, velvet drapes. In the dim light that was provided by several small windows the observers could see what appeared to be various bones that lay strewn over the floor and covered with the dust of time. But, the enterprising young observers almost always were caught by the constantly alert Mr. Harte, who could often deal out his own form of punishment. These local boys considered Bob Harte to be a scourge on their enjoyment, constantly terrorising them. Even Bob’s personal appearance did not help to improve their perception of this man, because he was always dressed in black from head to toe.
Bob Harte was an imposing figure of a man; tall, thin and lanky, who seemed always to wear the same clothes, which never appeared to fit him correctly. He had a small, pointed and emotionless face covered with a sallow coloured skin that was matched by his cold, grey eyes. To add to the man’s strange appearance, his head was crowned by a mop of rust-brown hair that he usually left ungroomed. To many of the older generation Bob’s appearance was not at all startling, and they considered him to be a very devout man adhered strongly to his very strict conservative moral standards. In reality, however, just because he loudly upheld such convictions didn’t mean that he had no vices. Just as working in the Church and its grounds did not make him a saint. There were many occasions when Bob’s apparent severe sense of morality took time out and he suddenly became a genial sort of a man, who very much enjoyed some of life’s vices, particularly smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.
The caretaker had many hidden talents that very few knew about, one of these was the great memory he had for recalling tales of all kinds, and a real talent for being able to relate those stories to others in a very entertaining manner. Being a man of almost sixty years, he was a deep well of knowledge about the history of the town and the people who lived in it, both past and present. One thing always seemed to surprise those who would listen to his tales and that was the seemingly never ending supply of local stories, which were often true and very amusing. But, at the same time, Bob was also very well known for telling dark tales of terror, which he particularly relished relating to an attentive audience.
In most people’s eyes, Bob’s job as a caretaker and a, sometime, grave digger gave some semblance of truth to the stories that he told. He appeared to know what he was talking about when he began to speak of graves, goblins, ghosts and banshees. At the same time, his involvement in church weddings, baptisms and other Church celebrations helped him in maintaining when relating stories about the fuss, the tears and the secret meetings between men and women on such occasions. Furthermore, being aged sixty-years old, Bob had the great ability to tell interesting stories concerning the history of the town, because he had personally gathered an almost inexhaustible amount of accurate and entertaining local anecdotes during his lifetime.
Common sense would tell you that working for the Church as a sacristan and caretaker was not among the most financially reading of jobs in any society. In fact, the income that Bob earned from his work in the Church could hardly provide him with what would be normally regarded as a living wage. As a result, therefore, he was often called upon to supplement his meagre wage with income from several other jobs, for which he had the necessary talents. Indeed, quite a few of these extra employment opportunities would be considered by some as being far from dignified work for a man of his standing within the community. As in many of these cases, however, it was always a case off “when needs must” that encouraged Bob to take them upon himself.
One particular, and sometimes unpopular, way that Bob had was his regular gate-crashing of parties. There was also his annoying habit of imposing himself on small drinking groups that might just contain one or two people that he knew only as a passing acquaintance. But, wherever he was and whatever group he would impose himself into, Bob would entertain the people with his amusing stories. When the occasion demanded, he would select tales of terror, or local anecdotes, from his huge reservoir of stories. His one saving grace on these occasions was his choice not belittle himself by accepting drinks of any type as payment for telling his stories. He preferred payment in coin that was given to him, or he underhandedly salted away from those careless enough to leave their change on a table, or counter-top.
There was one particular person, called Paddy Slane, who had a genuine liking for the company of Bob and, indeed, always welcomed him to enjoy his ‘craic’. Paddy Slane was owner of a popular local public bar that stood in the centre of the town, and quickly became Bob’s local public bar. But, Paddy was far from any person’s idea of a jolly, fun-loving barkeeper, because he was, probably, the most gloomy and depressing person you could have ever had the misfortune to come across. Normally, when left to his own devices, Paddy never drank excessively. It must be said, however, that being a sombre man with a melancholic personality, Paddy always found himself in need of something, or someone to raise his spirits from the depths of the despair into which he fell. Bob Harte was just the man to fill this need, and Paddy began to develop a close with him. Over the years that followed Bob became the only real bright, entertaining source of light in Paddy’s dark personal life.
When he was in Bob Harte’s company, Paddy appeared to be a different man. He seemed to be freed from all of his melancholia, smiling as he listened to the fascinating stories and marvellous tales that Bob told him. It is, sadly, a fact that their friendship did not contribute positively to the credit, or the honour, of either man with regard to their reputation, or prosperity. In this case it wasn’t a matter of Bob taking a coin as payment for telling his stories. He would much rather accept a drink. Bob’s apparent conservative moral values did not quite stretch to his enjoyment of strong alcohol, and it was not unknown for him to drink far more than was good for his health.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Bob’s drinking habits did very little to enhance his character as a functionary of the church. At the same time, Paddy Slane found himself being drawn into a very similar lifestyle because he too began to find it was increasingly difficult to resist the urgings of his gifted and genial companion to enjoy himself. Paddy, being the owner of the public house in which Bob always drank, continually felt that he, under the circumstances, was the person to pay for all the drinks they had consumed. All the other regulars of the public house could only sit and watch what was happening to Paddy. As the weeks passed into months, these customers became increasingly aware that both Paddy’s wallet and bank balance was suffering just as much as his head and liver because of this friendship with Bob Harte. The men could see exactly what was happening and began to hold Bob Harte responsible, as the man who had turned the once respectable businessman into a virtual alcoholic. As the rumours about him spread Bob’s reputation in the town slid rapidly downward with his character, in the estimation of many.
There were some in the town, however, who saw Paddy Slane as the man who had encourages Bob Harte to be an even bigger blackguard than he had been before they met. Because of his generous habit of buying all the drinks for his binges with Bob, it came as no surprise to many that, under such circumstances, the accounts of Paddy’s public house became somewhat disorganised. Very quickly his once lucrative town centre hostelry began to become overcome with financial difficulties, increasing Paddy’s depression. Finally, one bright summer’s day, when the weather was warm, heavy and humid, Paddy decided to leave the bar in the capable hands of one of his barmen.This was not unusual for him to do this and quietly retire into the quieter back room, which was his office.
The accounts books for the business were laid out untidily across a large desk, behind which was a tall dirty, dusty window that overlooked a boring, red brick wall that hid the outside world from view. Paddy turned the key in the lock and then went immediately to sit down on the office chair at the desk. The small desk drawer to Paddy’s left was nervously pulled out to reveal everything that he had expected to be in it. Reaching quite gingerly into the desk drawer, Paddy took hold of a loaded pistol that he had kept hidden there. Hesitatingly, Paddy gripped the muzzle of the gun, wrapping his fingers around it and guiding the pistol into his open mouth. Then, closing his eyes, Paddy muttered a short prayer to himself, and gently squeezed the trigger. There was a mighty explosion that echoed throughout the back area of the public house. At the same time the upper portion of his head was blown off by the force of the shot. Blood, splattered out of the large exit wound in his head, which spread widely across the ceiling above, and the dusty window behind him.
The barman and the customers in the bar heard the explosion of the bullet, and immediately rushed to the office door in the rear of the building. Finding the office door locked against them, broke the door open and saw Paddy’s body lying on the floor at the rear of his desk. As they stood over the body the witnesses saw deep red blood flowing rapidly across the linoleum floor covering to form a large pool. The news of Paddy Slane’s tragic death spread throughout the town like an uncontrollable bush fire, and there was a deep sense of loss felt by many of the residents, who had once held the man in high esteem.
Bob Harte was, himself, very shocked by the news of the horrible incident, and the manner in which Paddy took his own life. Paddy had, after all, had been both his benefactor and his friend. There were some in the town whose opinions had turned against Bob and, quite uncharitably, suggested that the grief he was feeling was due, entirely, to selfish reasons. His sorrow, they alleged, was due, for the most part, to the fact that he would now find it very difficult to find himself a new source of free hospitality on the scale that he had enjoyed from Paddy Slane. But, for a period of time after the tragedy, Bob stopped drinking alcohol in any form, and he also ceased his once frequent calls on the town’s many public houses.
During this short period of time, Bob presented himself almost as a paragon of virtue; a perfect example of temperance and sobriety for others. There were some, of course, who preferred not to believe that Bob’s new sober lifestyle was simply a pretence. They spread rumours that Bob, on several recent occasions, had been found to be rather the worse for wear a far as his alcohol intake was concerned. Some suggested that people had found Bob late at night, on several occasions, in a drunken stupor. Others said that he was, sometimes, found wandering the streets of the town in a highly intoxicated condition. Many of the rumour mongers tried very hard to convince people that Bob had been forced to change his wicked ways simply because of the threat made to him by church authorities. It was said that he was made aware of the possibility of dismissal from all his church offices if he did not curb his over indulgence in alcohol. The truth, however, was that Bob Harte was determined to observe his resolution to remain sober, much to the pleasure of his wife, and to the total surprise of his neighbours. Never again was Bob Harte found drunk in public or, for that matter, even the slightest bit tipsy. In fact, so incredible was the overall change in the man that people who, at one time, would never have given him the time-of-day on the streets of this town, now greeted him warmly as he passed them by.
Over the decades there have been many admirable tales that attempt to give us some understanding of the Irish character, including the details of the effects that a weak resistance to the fascinations of strong drink bring. These tales always seem to carry with them a moral, which the writers have intended for us Irishmen and women to take on board in the hope they could change what they see as a flaw. On this occasion, however, the tale of the events that I am about to relate will bring with it no moral. It is a simple and very true record of a terrible calamity that befell the people who form the principal characters of my story, and includes all the sadness, unaccountability and fatality of madness. There is no person who would try to warn another against the dangers of unexpected and sudden lunacy. It makes sense, then, that narrating an event at which I was only a spectator should have no moral to convey.
It has been my experience of human character among the native Irish that there are, in fact, two classes of drunkards in the country. One class of drunkard is composed of those persons, who, at first are very much in favour of being moderate in all things, and subsequently, allow themselves to be foolishly led on by the charm of good fellowship to create for themselves an artificial need. It is this artificial need, which in the end leaves them the helpless victims of a miserable disease. They begin by taking a little, continuing by taking just a little more and deceive themselves by saying “Sure, it’s only a drop”. From this point it is an easy step for them to fall into excess drinking, losing all sense of decorum, and becoming mean and unapologetic in their craving after alcohol. They are subsequently unfit them for an upright and honourable course of thought and action in any of the details of their daily life. A slow disappearance of their mental functions quickly accompanies their oppressive tiredness, while their hand trembles, their brain wanders, and they finally fall into the tragedy of ‘delirium tremens’. This stage is a rapid onset of confusion, which is usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol, and is better known to some as “The Horrors.”
But there is another class of drunkards, and this group could well be designated as one for those who are ‘drunkards by necessity’. But, when it comes to this category we must consider their domestic situation, economic condition, education, or other causes that may modify the result in individual cases. Of course, there is the argument that no person is born into this world with an inordinate desire for drinking alcohol of any kind. These unfortunate victims of alcohol do not begin with a thimble filled with drink, and progress into taking glasses filled with liquor. It comes upon a person, suddenly, like a thief in the night. It can happen when a person reaches their prime in adult, while others may experience in the flush of youth. In these modern times we have, unfortunately, seen its increase in the thoughtlessness that often accompanies boyhood and girlhood.
With these ‘drunkards of necessity’, abuse of alcohol becomes a passion with them, almost a type of madness. You can, occasionally, recognise one of these unhappy drunkards, especially those who might be very young. They usually enter the public house in the early morning, looking sullen and pale, and they sit down silently and alone over a measured double-shot of undiluted Scotch whisky. In fact Scotch whisky is, probably, the only drink suitable for one of these people, since the worst and most fierce tasting stuff that can be made is generally the most acceptable to him. This drunkard’s palate is too long subject to abuse to be able to distinguish between tastes and flavours, and its only ‘liquid fire’ or ‘rocket fuel’ that he wants. You can recognise this person by his pitiable imbecility, which drives him in his awful craving for more alcohol by reaching his tumbler to his lips with both hands. With the taste upon his lips he drinks until the glass is emptied, and does so with all eagerness of having a terrible thirst. This type can also be recognised by deep and frightful sleep, that begins, continues, and closes in horrific dreams! While the wife and family of the occasional and progressive drunkard can be said to be wretched, worse still must be the constant misery suffered by the wife and children of a madman like this.
In the spring of 1968 I was living in a relatively middle-class neighbourhood of a small country town, that stood in one of the most fertile and prosperous counties in Ireland. The population of this town was almost all industrious working and middle class people who were almost entirely free from the abject and squalid poverty that could be seen in some of the larger towns in this land. This particular town had many small and very productive factories that made a wide range of merchandise that was exported to many places in the world. It could also be said that the area around this town had a large proportion of respectable, gentlemen farmers who, in Ireland, at one time would have been called ‘squireens’.
To this group of ‘gentlemen farmers’ belonged the heads of two branches of the same family, Peter and James Caniffe. Both men resided in the environs of the town, and were brothers. Peter Caniffe was the elder of the two brothers by quite a number of years, and he had a family that consisted of three grown-up sons and one daughter. He had married early in his life, but his wife sadly died when giving birth to their fifth child. Unfortunately, the child only survived its mother’s death by a few weeks before it too passed away. James, the younger of the two Caniffe brothers, had a large family of young children. In fact, Peter’s only daughter, Alice, was being brought up within her uncle’s household. Her father thought that she might receive the education and care which a girl of her tender age, which she might have otherwise obtained from her deceased mother. It was believed she might just benefit from the kindness and affection that might be shown by her nearest female relatives.
In practical terms, then, Peter Caniffe’s family consisted of himself, his three sons, and an old widow woman who was employed as a housekeeper. She was a woman of at least seventy years and she was habitually lazy, her only aim in life being to avoid as much activity and exertion as was possible. But, the household of a widower from a middle class background is rarely ordered with any regularity and decorum, and Peter’s household was no exception to this general rule. Every room in the family home had a certain untidy and discomforting look about it. The floor-boards, or the staircase were seldom washed or swept. In fact the housekeeper rarely cleaned the windows, or the fireplace swept, the tables rubbed, or the chairs dusted. Things that had been soiled were never cleaned, while things that were broken were never mended, and things that had been lost were never replaced. As each member of the family felt, at one time or another, the inconvenience of things were in the home, but each reacted by throwing the blame upon the other, which meant nothing positive could be achieved to remedy the situation. Everyone who knew Peter Caniffe thought considered him to be a good practical farmer, and a shrewd man-of-the-world. They were extremely surprised, then, that Peter should appear to care so very little about the comforts or conveniences of life.
Peter, however, thought that he had one special household virtue that he could be proud of. Very early in life Peter had narrowly escaped disgrace and ruin by dropping any association he had with a group of youths who were widely known for their overindulgence in sensual pleasures. It was they who had led him, step by step, into all the dark recesses of debauchery. But, he got out of the group before it was too late, and the memories of what he had seen, done, and suffered was more than enough to make him resolve that his sons should never be tempted in a similar manner.
The eldest of his sons, Richard, was now twenty-one, the second eldest, Matthew, was nineteen, and the youngest son, Gerald, was only fifteen years of age. None of them had ever taken any alcohol, though their father was not as abstemious as he had compelled his sons to be. Every day, since they had first learned the taste of whisky, they had all been tantalised with the sight of the “materials” that made up their father’s favourite beverage. But, although Peter Caniffe was a temperate man, could never have been described as being a generous man. He was not one of those type of parents who will continue to fulfil their appetite, with every delicacy, while their children are looking on with eyes filled only with hope, and their stomachs are hurting with hunger. Peter, however, did get his reward when, one day, his two eldest boys, Dick and Matt, were carried home from a neighbouring fair. Both young men were falling-down drunk and this was the first occasion that they had ever been so intoxicated. Their condition, however, was due inexperience of alcohol rather than the trifling quantity they had taken. Nevertheless, from that moment onward, their father was more watchful than ever in an effort to prevent them from repeating the exercise.
As was usual, when it came to punishing his sons for any wrongdoing, Peter Caniffe was not particularly harsh, but you would have thought that neglecting his strict commands with regard to alcoholic drink would be sure to be met with great severity. Peter Caniffe’s method of handling such misdemeanours were wretchedly inconsistent. Other wrongdoings of a greater degree of immorality were winked at, even encouraged, by Peter. These young men, however, could never have been considered naturally vicious, but when they discovered that they could curse and swear in their father’s hearing, they quickly found that even some of the graver offences against society could be committed without fear of their father’s punishment. It was no wonder then, as they grew older they should also grow in their wickedreprehension, was it any wonder that they should also grow in wickedness?
Matthew and Richard dressed in a manner that showed them to be accomplished village scamps. They wore battered caps that were set, jauntily on one side of the head rough, deep-green corduroy trousers, and heavy brown brogue boots with nails like the rivets of a steam-boiler. These two young men were, undoubtedly, the hardiest men in a fight, the first men to sit at a card table, and the deadliest shots at a mark in the county. They always appeared to have plenty of money in their possession and there no one who dared to ask them how they came by it? Their father always had lots of cash lying about the house, and as selfish and alert as he was, there was many a large handful of cash that he was relieved of by his dutiful sons.
As the two boys grew up, they cared less and less for their father’s anger, as his vicious habits appeared to become more settled and systematic with them. They drank to great excess whenever they had the slightest opportunity to do so. It was a fact that no one ever saw them, for twenty minutes at a time, without having full proof that they were slaves to the ‘gargle’. It ruled over them like a tyrant making the almost slaves to the odious and disgusting tastes that anyone ever created for another. Beside the ‘drink’, no one ever saw them for any period of time without a cigarette or pipe between their teeth, and surrounded by the fouls smelling smoke, spitting on the street, and coughing their foul germs all over the place without regard for bystanders.
Despite all their many faults there many who would agree that the entire county had finer looking men than Richard and Matt Caniffe when they were dressed for Mass. It was a duty, to which they still attended with a punctuality that would have been much more praiseworthy if it had sprung from any other motive than vanity and pride. In a different culture, the two young men might very well have become excellent and valued members of society. They had still some faint pretensions to generosity and spirit, and there were many pretty young ladies in the district who believed, wholeheartedly, that they were capable of persuading these young men to return to their more innocent ways.
The youngest son, Gerald Caniffe, was a youth of fifteen years, and he was a lad of a much different type than his elder brothers. He was both an open-featured and an open-hearted youth, who was never seen with a cigarette, or pipe in his mouth, nor had he ever a tattered “racing calendar” sticking out of his pocket. Furthermore, while his brothers were out on their sporting adventures, or amusing themselves in a less innocent way, Gerald would journey across the fields to his uncle James’s garden, where he would walk, talk, read, or play with his pretty little sister Alley, or enjoy games with his pretty little cousins Bill and Bess, and Peter and Dick, after school had finished.
Alley and Gerald were as fond of each other as they could be, and not least because they did not live entirely together. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is as true a phrase as ever was spoken, whether we apply it to the lover and his mistress, or the brother and his distant sister. There are many of us, with our sighs and tears, can testify to the truth of this. It was lovely to see a loving brother and his sister sauntering along the country lanes in the wild-strawberry season, with their arms around each other as they picked their fruit. Eventually, they had to bid each other good-bye for another day, returning home with slow, lingering steps.
This was the way the three young men were when Peter Caniffe passed away, after a short illness. In his well he left what was left of his property to be equally divided between his children. Richard and Matt, however, did not appear to be sorry for the loss of their father. On the night of their father’s wake, they collected all of their idle and profligate friends to come to the house and, as might be expected, the entire event became one dreadful feast of drunkenness. The more respectable inhabitants of the neighbourhood saw how things would be now that Peter Caniffe had passed on. Everyone agreed that the previous restraint, overseen by their father, would now rapidly disappear, and shook their heads, as they considered what they believed would be the coming calamity.
Earlier, that same night, little Alley began to feel that all was not right with her brother, Gerald. She had seen Richard constantly giving him liquor, which he had, at first refused, but afterwards accepted. He had taken the drink in a stealthy manner, with his face blushing with embarrassment as he saw the first reproachful glance from Alice. Gradually Gerald gave in to the temptation, and again and again a glass followed another with less hesitation, while his brothers seemed to be happy with the idea of making this innocent boy just as guilty as themselves. The devil surely leads those who take great joy in encouraging others to abandon a positive way of life for the same sinful pleasures, for which others have sold their own souls. Eventually, she became frightened at the idea that Gerald seemed to change and boasted of his feat. When Gerald had asked for more whisky, and had been given it by Richard, who, half drunk himself already, was determined to make Gerald drunk for once in his life. The boy was now as drunk as his brother had wished for by his brother, and he had slipped behind Matt’s chair. Alice could see her brother’s head hanging upon one shoulder, while his eyes began to close in a drunken stupor of intoxication, and he was about to fall to the ground. Quietly she moved to his side, and leaning her head upon his shoulder she whispered, “Gerald, I didn’t think you would drink so much. Why did you?”
“Don’t tell uncle James, Alley, if he hasn’t seen me this way, and I promise I will never drink so much again.”
“Hold up your head for another bucket, you eejit,” said Matt, as he heard the boy speaking behind his chair. At the same time, with several drunken hiccoughs, he offered his brother another glass. “Come on, Gerald, another will do you no harm. They say that sorrow makes you dry, and the good Lord knows that you’ve wept enough all day for a little fellow.”
“Please Matt, please don’t ask him to drink more,” pleaded Alice.
Matt, however, was not the type to take objections lightly and, with a brutal cuff, he struck his little sister, who fell to the ground. Turning his attention back to Gerald, Matt tried to force the liquor on him. But, in the drunken effort, the glass fell from his hand, and Alice got up and quietly took her brother from the room.
After Peter Caniffe’s funeral took place there was another drunken party, more disgraceful than the first. This was followed by another, and another, and another, until the week was out. When Gerald’s uncle saw how completely dependent on alcohol that his nephews had become, he took Gerald to live with him. But, by this time, it had become too painfully evident that Gerald had acquired a taste for the liquor, which had already turned his two brothers into drunken beasts. Poor little Alice wept over the change that had overcome her brother. There was no more reading, or playing, or wandering through the country together. Instead, he would sit sulky and silent in the house all day, more like a poor relation living on charity rather than the joint-heir of the largest farm in the parish. This state of affairs, however, was soon to come to an end!
It had been a month since the death of Peter Caniffe, and with great zeal the eldest of his heirs had by this time drunk up his entire stock of “Poteen”. Quite by surprise, however, in an out-of-the-way nook they accidentally discovered five gallons of malt whisky, which had , probably, lain there for many years. It was on a Saturday morning that this hidden ‘treasure’ was found, and one of the Caniffe boys was heard making a vow that he would never quit drinking the whisky until the last drop was drained. This was intended to be the last party before they set off for Australia, where they intended to emigrate that very spring. They had, with their uncle’s consent on behalf of the two youngest Caniffe children, converted their land into money to finance their new life on the opposite side of the world. One or two of their friends had been invited to join them, but these begged to be excused since, like so many others, they had also become appalled at the dreadful excesses of their one-time companions. Towards evening it was noticed that Gerald had been missing from his uncle’s house for some time. James Caniffe guessed where he was and, with little Alice in his hand, he went to his late brother’s home. The door to the house was locked on the inside, and on asking for Gerald the uncle was told that he safe in there he was told that, “there wasn’t any admission for any damned teetotaller.” Shocked and angry, James Caniffe went away from the house with his dejected niece in tow.
The next day was Easter Sunday and the feast day had occurred much later in spring than is usual and, as a result, there was already a foretaste of summer in the air. It was a lovely fore-noon when James Caniffe, his wife, Alice, and the children, walked out in their Sunday-best outfits to the parish chapel. The sky was dotted with light silver clouds, and the fields were already green with the new growth of the grass. The hawthorn bushes in the hedgerows were visibly bursting their buds, while the furze bushes were exploding in a blaze of golden beauty, and the birds, especially the red-breast, were chirping away with great intensity. As they walked onward the bells of the neighbouring church stuck their celebration of Easter with such sweetness that they filled the air with Joy. They walked on past the church, where groups of laughing children were playing hide-and-seek in the graveyard. There, among the graves, towered five or six large chestnut trees that reached the height of the ancient steeple, among whose branches was a rookery that was now in full song. Surprisingly, the voices of the children and the cawing of the rooks, though disturbed by the sudden peal of the bells, mingled with their chimes without causing any discord to the ear. Alice’s eyes glistened for a moment when she recognised her youthful playmates, because her heart was heavy and felt that she could not laugh with them. At last they came to the door Peter Caniffe’s house. The house, however, showed no signs of life, and they thought maybe all were still asleep.
“Let us go in, uncle, and tell them all to get up,” little Alice urged.
“Let the scoundrels sleep it off!” was the indignant reply from Uncle James, and they passed on to the church.
After about an hour and a half, this same group were on their way home, with their hearts filled with joy by the imposing church service which they had just witnessed. But there was a gloomy expression on the faces of both James Caniffe and his little niece, as they walked along the street with their very happy and smiling neighbours. Questions were also being asked, since none of Peter Caniffe’s three sons had ever before been known to have missed Sunday mass. Their absence from Church on that most holy of holy days was of course a subject of wonder among all the neighbours. “I would not have thought it possible,” said James Caniffe in a grave tone of voice, “that they could suddenly become so uncaring so quickly wicked all at once—God forgive them! God help them!”
“Oh, uncle!” cried Alice, as the house came into view once again, “those boys are not up yet! See, the shutters are still closed!”
Then, as they moved in front of the house, Alice begged him, “Dear uncle, please go into them and bring out poor Gerald, so that he can eat his Easter dinner with us.”
A thought suddenly struck James as he knocked loudly at the door. There was no answer. Then, after another loud knock, and a long pause, there was still no sound coming from within the house. Alice’s little heart echoed each pound of that last unsuccessful knock. It was almost as if said, “Waken, Gerald, Can you not hear us knocking.”
But, Alice could not endure the suspense any longer, and, running to the gavel verge at the side of the road, she lifted up a heavy stone, which she used to batter the panels of the hall-door for as long as her strength allowed her. When she was obliged to stop battering, her screams could be heard widely, and yet there was no sound from the house. James Caniffe, meanwhile, had dispatched one of his little boys to a neighbouring cottage to borrow a crow-bar. The boy quickly returned to his father with the crowbar, and James, assisted by the crowd who gathered by this time, was not long in forcing the door open. “Wait now friends,” said James to the anxious company that had gathered, “don’t any come in until I tell you, for there’s no use in bringing further shame of my brother’s house.”
He and Alice, accompanied by one or two chosen people, entered the hall of the house with faltering steps, and then closed the front door behind them. The first object that they saw was Peggy, the old housekeeper, who was lying on the mat at the foot of the staircase in a drunken sleep. From what they saw it appeared the old woman had fallen down the stairs in an effort to reach the door, and there she lain insensible for several hours. Alice jumped over her, and darted up the stairs with the speed of lightning. James and his companions, had made a vain attempt to arouse the old housekeeper, before they followed her.
At the top of the stairs they entered the room immediately in front of them, on the landing. The thick stench of tobacco-smoke, mingled with the fumes of ale and whisky, almost overpowered them. The room itself would have been quite dark had it not been for a small lamp with two dim bulbs, which sat like a large old-fashioned branch candlestick on a small side-table. James went to the window, opened the curtains, and let down the sash. The glorious sunshine streamed into the reeking apartment, with the refreshing fresh air that was so badly needed. How strange the room appeared with the glow of daylight. The three young men were lying on the floor, at some distance from each other, around the legs of a crazily shaped table that stood in the centre of the room. On the table were huddled together the fragments of salted fish, cheese, bread, broken glasses, half-emptied decanters, and the other usual detritus of a bachelor party. James immediately recognised what had been going on in this room the moment he had drawn the curtains on the window. He stooped over one of the prostrate bodies, and saw it was Richard. Then, as he turned up his face, he exclaimed, “Dear God!” What he saw was the face of a corpse! He smothered another groan as he rushed towards the next body. It was Matt Caniffe, who was also deceased and his corpse was quite stiff! James and his friends now looked at each other solemnly, and in silence. Simultaneously, they turned their glance toward the place where Gerald was lying and they hesitantly moved to the spot. There, on the floor, lay Gerald, with Alice by his side where she had fainted. The boy’s eyes were glazed, the skin of his face tightened over his nose and cheek-bones, and his lips covered with viscid froth. Gerald’s beautiful brown hair was tossed backwards from his damp forehead, and was glistening in a streak of sunshine that fell upon it through the open window.
“He is alive still!” all three exclaimed, “he might recover!” At the same time one of them ran to the window and signalled to the neighbours that they should come in. The room was soon full of horrified spectators, who helped part Alice from her dying brother, and bring both of them out into the open air as quickly as possible.
In the middle of the loud cries and lamentations of the bystanders Alice recovered from her faint. She sat for a while upon the grass and tried to recall her scattered senses. The sight of Gerald lying near her, as the crowd opened to allow the fresh air to his face without obstruction, soon brought the whole terrible truth back to her mind. She stood up with difficulty, but, gathering her strength from her recollection, she succeeded in breaking away from the woman who was taking care of her, and in a moment the head of Gerald was pillowed upon her bosom. The soft cooling breeze had restored the unfortunate boy to a moment of consciousness, but he was barely able to turn his head towards Alice to acknowledge that she was there. Then, as he began to recognise his sister, a sign of pleasure was expressed through his glassy eyes.
“Won’t you speak to me, Gerald? Won’t you speak to your own wee Alley?” The boy shook with a convulsive shudder, but could not utter a word in answer.
“Don’t die, Gerald! Please don’t leave poor Alley all alone in the world!” pleaded she in the her agony of childish despair, “he’ll never be the same again! He’ll never speak to me again!”
The boy now made an effort to bring Alice’s ear to his clammy lips, and she tried very hard to hear the almost inaudible whisper which passed between them. “Is — uncle James — here?” gasped the dying boy in a stammering manner. “Tell him — I — couldn’t — help it! Oh! Alley! oh!” With this groan he gradually died away, and with it the spirit of poor Gerald Caniffe. Alice realised what had happened as soon as any of the bystanders, but her high and shrill scream soared above the wailing which now arose from the others. Once again the girl sank down in a faint that her great anguish had so mercifully caused.
A coroner’s inquest was held on the bodies of the three sons of Peter Caniffe, not far distant from the scene of the fatal party. A rumour had been doing the rounds saying that poison had somehow or other been the cause of their death. There was a thorough post-mortem examination carried out, which resulted in a verdict that said the three Caniffes had died “from the excessive use of alcohol.”
I began this tale by saying that I would not be pointing to a moral. But, there is a moral. It is a moral to selfish and ill-judging parents, and also to ill-judging societies, who believe that coercion will have a better effect than a fair and consistent example. So it is with the Irish father who would exorcise the demon of alcohol out of his children by pledges of abstinence, or threats of punishment, while, he continues to believe that he can still enjoy the luxury of alcoholic drink.