Stories of Seamus No 12

Beautiful Sally – A Tale of Lough Neagh

In the pretty lough-side village of Montaigh, which looks out over the waters of Lough Neagh, there lived an old man called Paddy Sullivan, who was a boat-builder of many years’ experience. Around the shores of the lough, Paddy’s reputation for building boats was unrivalled and the village was only renowned for being the place where he built his boats. But, because of the fame he became convinced of his own importance and often declared that if there were any man who could beat him in the design, construction and finishing of a racing dinghy, he would give up his trade. Other than designing and building boats, Paddy’s pride was centred upon the only other thing that he loved, and that was his daughter, Sally. He had every right to be proud of her, for she was a beauty, and many thought her to be the epitome of an ‘Irish Colleen. She was a true ‘Irish Rose’ with a pair of roguish black eyes, blooming cheeks, and rose-coloured lips that did not quite hide her two rows of the prettiest, whitest teeth that ever a man had seen.

In his small boat-building yard, Paddy employed a young apprentice upon whom he placed some of his most important boat building secrets. Paddy was very fond of this young man and planned, at some distant date, to place with him all the knowledge that he had gathered over a lifetime. He was called Danny Cullen, a fine-looking young man who stood just about five-feet and ten-inches tall, quietly spoken and polite to all whom he met. Danny was also an active young man, who enjoyed sports of all kind and had a very athletic body, which was admired by many young ladies in the district, including Paddy’s daughter. Sally Scullion, in fact, thought that he was a very handsome man and confided in her girlfriends that she thought Danny had the brightest pair of eyes she had ever seen, and loveliest head of brown, curly hair that any man had ever possessed. Danny, however, was quite speechless every time he encountered Sally, finding it almost impossible to fully praise all her good qualities, including her calm temperament and her warm, sweet, and merry laugh. Even the most neutral of observers could see that these two young, warm-hearted, and amiable people were very much in love with each other. Old Paddy, however, did not dream that the two most important young people in his life had such deep feelings for each other.

There can be no doubt that Paddy was very knowledgeable when it came to boats and had great skill in building them. But when it came to affairs of the heart he was as blind and ignorant as most Irishmen of his age. For instance, Paddy could not even imagine that his daughter’s frequent visits to the boat yard were due to anything other than a natural and genetic interest in the art of boat-building. Moreover, Paddy had a habit of not wearing his spectacles in the workshop and, probably, failed to notice the reddening of Sally’s cheeks, or the added sparkle in her dark eyes, when she spoke about Danny’s abilities and artistry in boat building.

It was at the beginning of May that a well-dressed gentleman came to the work-yard and ordered a racing-gig from old Paddy. At least once every week subsequent to the order being placed the buyer sent his agent, who was called Duggan, to report on what progress was being made on the boat. Duggan, however, was no ordinary man from the area, but had a great reputation as the best oarsmen on the Lough that he had earned from many races that the fishermen held during the summer. But anyone who had ever come to have contact with him was immediately struck by his prideful and conceited manner. He wasn’t a tall man, but he had strong arms and features. Furthermore, people recall that his most distasteful features were his peculiarly cunning expression around the eyes, and the strange sneer that was always on his lips.

Duggan had, of course, already heard of Sally Sullivan’s reputation as a famed local beauty and was convinced that he would make a good match for the girl. Undaunted by the age difference between them, Duggan was determined that he would win the girl over to him and, with her, the fortune that old Paddy would undoubtedly bestow on her. In the meantime, Paddy and Danny had laid the moulds down and very soon after the proposed race-gig began to take graceful form in the boat-yard. “How are you, curly?” called a voice from outside the yard, giving warning that Mr. Duggan was approaching.

He had come that day to give his opinion on the work that had been completed, and to give his input into what still needed to be completed. But, as he entered the yard, he immediately noticed Sally, sitting on a chair completely involved in some task or other. The one thing that ‘Curly’ knew for certain, however, was that this beautiful girl was not looking at him. She was fixed upon every move that young Danny Cullen was making as he busied himself on the building of this new and wonderful boat. Sally had, of course, seen ‘Curly’ Duggan enter the yard but did not want to suffer the stare of his wickedly leering eyes and decided to leave. Quietly excusing herself she gathered up her things and retired to her father’s neatly painted cottage. Even as she left, Sally could feel that heat on her back from Duggan’s lustful gaze. As for young Danny Cullen, he looked up from his work with a bitter feeling of jealousy filling his body as he watched the way that ‘Curly’ Duggan was looking at his love. From that moment on, Danny formed a long-lasting dislike for this self-opinionated oarsman.

By the holy God!” exclaimed Duggan, “Sure, isn’t that the neatest and tidiest looking wee boat ever you saw? Now, my boy, what would your name be? For I see you looking closely at that pretty thing, the old man’s wee girl.

Yes, she is,” growled Danny,” and here we call her Miss Sullivan!

She’s a natural beauty, sure enough,” Curly sighed. “I suppose she has a heap of men chasing after her, boy?

How the hell would I know anything? I’ve enough trouble minding my own business, never mind someone else’s!” replied Danny angrily.

Ah, now!” said Duggan. “Sure, I only asked a civil question and a civil reply would be nice.”

Well, that’s the only answer I can give you,” Danny told him.

Curly never replied, but he began walking studiously around the half-built boat making snide remarks that demonstrated his complete contempt for Paddy Sullivan’s design and the way in which the work was progressing. “Would you ever look at that?” he smirked as he pointed toward the boat’s keel, “That’s a bloody disgrace! Sure, a barge could be turned quicker in the water than that.!

Deeply annoyed by Duggan’s comments about the boat, Danny gritted his teeth and continued to concentrate on his work. After a moment or two he felt calm enough to respond to the man’s disparaging remarks. “Well, this is no barge, that’s for sure. So far as that keel is concerned, it will give her a sure grip of the water and make her hold her line.

Aye? And who would be able to judge that among tour lot?” Curly sneered.

Some of the finest judges in any harbor on the lough!” insisted Danny Cullen. “Joe McGrath, Eddie O’Hagan, and Marty O’Brien, among others. Everyone of them will tell you there are no better men at handling an oar to be found in day’s journey!

Get away out of that with you!” scorned Duggan, “Sure I wouldn’t believe a word any of those boys would tell me. Your man McGrath is just a ‘gobshite’! Sure, I know more about deep-sea diving than he does gig-racing. McGrath couldn’t pull a bell rope, never mind an oar.

Well, I know little about deep-sea diving or pulling bell ropes, myself,” snapped Danny, “but I’ll tell you one thing for nothing; the four of us will beat your shambles of a boat in the race for the ‘Lough Cup’.”

You’ve a bit of a mouth on yourself, wee man, but I’ll take the bet and you can’t go back on it,” laughed Duggan confidently, sure that he and his crew would win the prize.

Don’t you be worrying about that,” Danny told him firmly. “I have never broken my word yet, and I can tell you that I am not about to start now.”

Curly now turned his attention back to the criticism of the boat and he said that he was totally dissatisfied with the project in Sullivan’s yard. His behavior was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back, but rather than cause a customer to walk out of Paddy’s yard he decided to get control of his growing anger. But Duggan had not long left the work-yard when Danny suddenly heard a loud shriek coming from the Sullivan cottage. Without even a second thought, Danny threw down the wood-plane that he was using and rushed to the cottage to see what was causing the disturbance. As he entered the building, he was shocked to see Sally struggling, with all her might, to free herself from Duggan’s arms as he tried vainly to snatch a kiss from the beautiful lips. “You dirty blackguard!” Danny screamed as he hurled himself at Duggan, gripping him by the throat and flinging him head-first to the floor.

Duggan was momentarily stunned, but when he recovered after a moment, or two, he raised himself to his feet again. He looked at both Danny and Sally with a certain menace in his eyes as the ‘red-mist’ of revenge filled him. “Take my word for it, Cullen, I’ll get even with you for this or the devil take me if I don’t! So, boy, make sure you keep your eyes open and your wits about you. As for you Sally Sullivan, I will just say good morning. Oh, by the way, Cullen don’t forget the race unless you are too scared to enter!” With these words Duggan stormed out of the cottage and left the work-yard. Sally, who had been very frightened, broke down into floods of tears. She had been terrified by Duggan’s brutality towards her and, after a while, she allowed herself to be consoled by Danny, who used all he knew about her to calm her down and dry her tears.

Not unexpectedly, advised by Duggan, the client rejected the new racing-gig and it was left with Old Paddy, who had no prospect of a customer for it. Naturally, Sullivan was upset at what had happened to his daughter. But he also regretted that he had been painfully struck down with gout, which he blamed for preventing himself from supervising the work and making the boat a model of perfection. Danny, stood by his work, and manfully faced all the negative remarks of neighbours. To comfort old Paddy, Danny also prophesied that, two days after the upcoming regatta, the gig would be sold at a large profit. So, when she was finished, launched, and christened ‘The Beautiful Sally’, after Paddy’s daughter, Danny helped the young woman fit a flag to the boat’s bow, which she had made from a remnant of white silk.

Now summer had arrived, and the sun shone in all its glory on the calm waters of the Lough. It was glorious July and the entire lough was busy with fishermen and boating tourists. The local regatta had been a great success so far and this was the last day of the festival. On the water a fleet of fairy-like yachts powered by a light breeze that swept over the lough’s surface forming tiny waves, through which the boats dashed, skimming like gulls over the water and creating a silver surf with their bows. The water’s surface blazed with light and the green hills nearby encircled the small cove, and the cloudless skies promised ideal weather to come. Larger boats rode at anchor with various flags and streamers fluttering from stern to bow. Several sand dredgers were also there and decked with a great number of fluttering flags and banners. Dotted over the lough were hundreds of leisure boats of all sizes and shapes, from the one oared punt to the family-sized whaler, or well-manned race-gig gliding from one place to another, giving great animation to the entire scene.

On the regatta quay by the lakeside there were crowds of people all dressed in the most elegant of clothes. Sailor outfits appeared to be the choice of most females but some of them did nothing to improve the look. Local notables of all sorts were also ambling about the quayside chatting to each other and smiling with those made up smiles that people use when they meet someone they would rather not. There was even a local brass band sat atop of a platform, which kept their playing of fine music and popular airs such that they blended beautifully with the hum of human voices, mixing with the soft murmurs of the Lough’s waters lapping the shore.

A little further back there were tents of every variety erected. In some of these beer and stout were sold along with numerous glasses of whisky. In other tents traditional music played and dancers skipped and clipped to their hearts’ content, competing in the local ‘Feis’ (Irish Dancing Competition). There were tents in which people could play hoops, throw darts, or try to hook various wooden animals to win a prize. Children sat before a ‘Punch and Judy’ show calling out when it was expected and laughing at all the correct moments. There were, of course, your usual mix of tricksters, encouraging the men and boys to part with their cash in a gambling game called ‘Finding the Queen’ or ‘Find the Pea’. But there was a lot of fun and frolic enjoyed by those who were in attendance, especially with it being the last day of the regatta. Everyone waited for the final rounds and the giving of prizes.

A warning shot was fired, and a fleet of small yachts drew up in a line close to the starting buoys. For a moment their mainsails flapped idly in the breeze until another shot was fired. With this second shot the jibs went up with other sails, causing these ‘Queens of the Lough’ to move forward in a cluster of snow-white canvas. In the beginning they seemed to be scarcely moving at all, but as the breeze caught their sails, they began to get underway and the waves on the lough were broken into foam. Meanwhile, Sally was sitting in the well-cushioned stern of her father’s four oared racing-gig, which old Paddy himself was steering.

Sally was wearing her best summer bonnet, sitting next to her broad-shouldered, honest old father. She looked as pretty as a pink summer rose that was blooming in the sunshine. But Sally was also becoming increasingly nervous as the time for Danny’s big race approached. She could see Curly Duggan’s boat and crew already out on the water and, from what she could see of the boat gliding through the waves, and the strong pulling of the crew, Curly’s boat appeared to be a certain winner. ‘White Falcon’ was the name that was boldly and decoratively painted on the outside of the boat’s prow. At her tiller stood one of the best oarsmen on the lough and he was proud of the muscular chests displayed by his oarsmen, and their powerful limbs with which they pulled the oars so swiftly. As the blades of the oars rose and dipped into the water, springing ‘White Falcon’ forward, his heart swelled in his chest as he imagined the great victory that they would all win together. “Sally darling,” said Old Paddy, “would you take the ropes for a minute, and watch what you’re doing, girl.”

Paddy stood up in the boat to see how the preparations for the race were going, but he had hardly done this when the bow of the gig came up against the side of a larger boat and the jolt left the old man sprawled in the bottom of the gig suffering from concussion. Sally began to scream loudly at seeing her father’s condition, although it was her who caused the boats to come together. She had taken the tiller ropes as directed by her father, but her mind was not concentrating on what she was doing. “Back water, old fool! Are you trying to sink us all? Open your damned eyes, eejit!” came cries from the other boat as old Paddy struggled to gain his feet again.

Get away from this, you pile of gobshites!” Paddy shouted back. “just look out for yourselves, damn you all!” After this one word followed another. Both sides heaped the choicest of insulting words and phrases on each other until the boats pulled away, with both sides believing they had gained a victory.

Come on now, boys,” Paddy urged his crew. “Heave ahead! Let us see if they are all getting ready for the start of the race.” A few moments later they reached the area where Danny Cullen and his companions were busily preparing the bottom of the new gig.

Well, Danny, my boy, how’s it going? What do you think of her now? Isn’t she a beauty?

Aye, Mister Sullivan, she looks beautiful,” answered Danny, who was admiring Sally.

Is the paint hardened, Danny?” asked Paddy.

Paint? Paint her?” exclaimed Danny in disbelief and still looking at Sally.

What the hell is wrong with you, Danny? I asked is the paint dry?

It’s alright, Mister Sullivan. Sure, it’s as hard as a rock.”

That’s great, boy. Now see that the stretchers are at the regular length and well lashed down.” Although old Paddy received a positive response to this instruction, he was not totally satisfied until he had personally ensured that everything had been attended to by Danny. “Sure, it’s great now, Danny! I hope she’ll do the job!

Don’t you worry about that. If we don’t come in first, it won’t be our fault. By the way, did you not hear the good news, Mister Sullivan? A gentleman called into the yard on Friday looking at the boat and he has just come up to me and said if we won the race, he would give you the price you were looking!

Jaysus!” exclaimed Paddy. “That would be great news if we stood any sort of chance of winning the race! But we can’t do anything about that now, more’s the pity.

Well, Mister Sullivan, we will just have to do our best, won’t we boys?” smiled Danny confidently as he turned to his crew.

We’ll try, anyhow,” the crew replied in unison as they lifted the racing-gig carefully from its resting place and gently floated her on the water.

Danny, here’s the flag,” said Sally. “Oh! There’s the gun!”

It’s the gun, sure enough, Sally. I’ll bring you home the cup! Come on, lads!” urged Danny, “Take your places, men. McGrath, be careful and watch the way you are standing on the ribs!

Run down a bit,” said old Paddy, “let me see your trim. Give the long steady stroke, for the breeze is freshening. Now, get underway and, Danny, my boy, make sure you win!

They pulled away from the shore and, as they moved out quickly, Paddy could not help exclaiming with delight, as he noticed just how evenly the gig went under the stroke, and how regular was the time kept with the oars. But Paddy’s former concerns returned to him and he remarked to himself the problem the boat had when being brought around. Meanwhile, Duggan was dashing about on the lough, attracting every observer’s gaze toward the ‘White Falcon’.

Clear the course! Course! Clear the course, pull out of the way!” bawled the racing steward, as bit by bit he succeeded in clearing sufficient space for the rival boats to line-up. “Take your places!” he shouted again through the megaphone.

Sally’s heart beat loudly as she saw the racing-gigs line up opposite the quay where the local dignitaries had assembled. She leaned against her father for support, as she observed the crews gently ‘backing water’ to keep on a line until the signal was given. “What side will you take?” asked the coxswain of the ‘White Falcon.’

They’re all the same, boy! Just stay as you are,” Duggan answered in confident voice.

Ready!” the starter shouted, and all oars were thrown forward, as the oarsmen bent, ready for that initial dash. “Fire!

Almost at the same instant a gun shot boomed and the blades of the oars were dipped into the water together. “Pull, boys, pull!” the coxswain of the ‘White Falcon’ roared loudly.

Heave away, lads, heave! Now for the start!” cried the others eagerly.

After about five strokes the ‘Falcon’ took the lead by a boat’s length from the ‘Sally’. A bitter sneer of triumph broke across Duggan’s lips as he took the lead. But, a few moments later, the powerful and steady pull of ‘Sally’s’ crew gained water until they came alongside their main competitor. For a very short distance the two boats were travelling neck and neck, exchanging stroke for stroke, as they made for a large buoy, around which they had to turn. The coxswains urged their crews to greater efforts as their oars caused waves to foam under their rapid strokes. Duggan’s crew pulled with a desperate vigour in order to gain the turn first, but Danny’s crew continued their same regular, even pull that kept them close.

Look now, father! Is the white flag in the lead? Is Danny in front, daddy,” asked Sally excitedly.

No, child. The ‘Falcon’ is leading – Wait now! – no she isn’t – Bravo, Danny! They’re pulling away from the ‘Falcon’!” It was true, for Paddy saw the ‘Sally’ pull almost six lengths ahead of the ‘Falcon’ and she was making more distance with every stroke. It was when they reached the buoy that the real difficulty began.

Backwater, starboard, pull-pull on the starboard!” roared the coxswain.

Heave, McGrath! That’s the way, O’Brien,” shouted Danny at the top of his voice, as he backed with all of his might.

We’re catching them now! Pull, boys, Pull! Hammer into them!” bawled the ‘Falcon’s’ helmsman, his voice hoarse from his exertions.

Before ‘Beautiful Sally’ could get underway correctly after the turn, while the ‘White Falcon’ darted around the buoy and was quickly three lengths in the lead. “Dear God, they’re beat!” sighed Paddy as he sank back on to the cushions in despair.

Don’t say that, daddy! Take another look!” Sally begged him.

There!” cried the old man, as he took another look. “She’s clear ahead again! Well done, Danny! Stick to her, my boy! Aye, there she moves, the beauty! I always said there wasn’t your equal except for myself at building a gig! Now boys,” he continued, addressing his own crew. “Pull over a wee bit, boys, and we’ll give them such a cheer! Heave, my lads – that’s it; bend your lazy backs!”

The course itself was about two or three miles in length, from the buoy to the old sand dredger. It was around this dredger that the boats would have to pull before they made for the quay from which they had started, and which was also the winning line. The struggle between the boats was now a sight to behold as, from time to time, the positions varied from boat to boat. The crews, although tired, appeared to gain renewed strength from the cheers that came from the numerous boats which met them on the course. The increased long stroke employed by her crew helped ‘Sally’ to stretch her lead ahead of the ‘Falcon’ once again. She was speeding toward the old dredger when misfortune struck, and the bow-man’s oar snapped. There was now utter confusion. The ‘Falcon’ came on. But, at that moment, Paddy Sullivan arrived, and seeing the trouble that the ‘Sally’ was in he reached down for an oar and threw it within reach of the bow-man. “You have it now, my boys! Now Danny, pull ahead!” Paddy shouted, and the crew cheered him as their oars dipped into the water and charged after the ‘Falcon’.

Within thirty strokes the two boats were neck and neck again. They drove on at speed and the struggle was now to round the dredger first. ‘Sally’ continued with their quick stroke while the ‘Falcon’ continued to keep. The stern of the dredger was neared, with the ‘Sally’ five boat lengths ahead and the ‘Falcon’ pressing on gallantly in her wake. Both captains urged their crews to greater effort and then shouted out the orders to turn the boats.

‘Sally’ did not round the dredger very well and allowed ‘Falcon’ to catch up and, once again, the two boats were neck and neck. It was now time for the capabilities of the two captains and their boats to decide the result, as a breeze had sprung up from the west and was blowing against both. Loud shouts now greeted the gigs as they came to the end of their final leg, and the winning line. Old Paddy had once again caught up with the race and he began to loudly urge on Danny and his crew. Meanwhile, Curly Duggan began to foam at the mouth as he worked his oar in great desperation, because he could hear young Danny loudly shouting encouragement to his crew to pull. The men responded well to Danny’s calls and, despite all of Duggan’s urges, the ‘Falcon’ began to drop back as the ‘Sally’ swept on to the finish. Curly cursed and raved as the ‘Sally’ powered forward, but he knew it was in vain, for the high-pointed bow of his gig had caught the wind and no longer had the same power as his competition.

Stand-by the final gun!” shouted the race steward. “Here they come with the ‘Sally’ well ahead! Fire!

There was a loud bang and a flash of light and smoke as the finishing gun fired. In that same instant the crew of the ‘Sally’ tossed their oars high in the air as the boat itself proceeded gracefully ahead. Great shouts, cheers and applause rang out across the lough as the winning crew dropped their blades into the water and they rode the boat into the landing place to receive their trophy. Paddy stood with tears of pride and joy in his eyes, while standing at her father’s side in sheer delight at the victory. The race steward took the large silver cup in his hands and presented it to Danny, who was still breathless and excited from his exertions and eventual triumph.

The gig ‘Beautiful Sally’ was immediately purchased for its asking price, plus ten-percent, and old Paddy received orders to build two more identical boats. Meanwhile, Duggan quietly disappeared in the crowds, never again to race the course or approach Sally Sullivan or make good his threats against Danny. It is said that old Paddy was somewhat taken aback when he heard the true feelings that Danny and Sally held for each other, but he gave his blessing to them both, and they married.

Stories of Seamus No10

Hugh John

Hugh John McClean was a perfect example of a rural Irish man; he was a good neighbour, a hard worker, and a man always on the look-out for an easier way to make his living. All of his life he had lived in a small country cottage, which was eventually left to him in his late father’s will. He had died quite unexpectedly when Hugh John was just a young man of eighteen years. In his father’s will, however, it had been stipulated that Hugh John’s mother would be ‘given her day’ in the cottage. In short this clause meant that the mother would be guaranteed to be able to live in the cottage for the remainder of her days. This was something, of course, which Hugh John was very happy to allow his mother to live in the cottage for the rest of her life, because he had no other person who would wash and iron his clothes, cook him hearty meals, or make his bed in the manner in which he had become used to.

It had been Hugh John’s father who had gained for him his first job in ‘Deeney’s Bacon Factory’, which stood about two miles from the family cottage and to which he could cycle his bike, both evening and morning, in just over fifteen minutes. Unlike his father, Hugh John was not exactly ‘the brightest knife in the drawer’ and he was, therefore, not suitable for many of the tasks available within the factory. His first job was simply to count the pigs that farmers had brought to the factory for slaughter. On those days when there were no pigs arriving Hugh John was given the task of keeping the yards and buildings clean, and for packing produce in preparation for delivery. Mick Deeney, the factory owner, took a particular liking to Hugh John, ignoring his lack of ability and often praising his work ethic. There was none who could deny that Hugh John worked hard from Monday to a Friday and socialised well at the weekends. On the occasional Thursday evening he would, however, gather with several local friends and fellow workmates to play a few hands of cards.

To the rear of ‘Wee Jimmy’ McGinn’s house there was a ramshackle hut that had been constructed from various bits of spare wood, packing cases, corrugated iron and many other recycled materials, all of which had been painted a deep red colour. The local men who had come together to build this ramshackle, but solidly constructed, hut decided that they would call it “The Pigeon Club” though it never covered one pigeon in all of its existence. It was supposed to be a private, members only social club although only one of its members kept a pigeon coop. The main purpose of this building was a social meeting place for the local men, where they could enjoy a game of cards and a few pints of beer. They had no license to sell alcohol but you could bring in whatever you wanted to drink on the premises quite legally. Each Friday one of the committee members would buy a hundred or more cans of various beers and a few bottles of whisky, brandy, rum and vodka. The members would then ‘ donate’ a certain amount of money each time they wanted a drink and by ‘donating’ avoided the illegal selling of alcohol.

The nearest public bar for this area of the country was four miles away and no one wanted to risk drinking and driving. Some would have called it a “Shebeen” (Illegal Drinking Den), while others referred to it as a members only club and its membership continued to grow. The local women would have avoided “The Pigeon Club” because it was seen to be mainly for the men of the district, who enjoyed the various gambling games that were played there. It was even decided to buy a television for the club so that they could watch the horse racing on television, betting on the races by telephone call from “Wee Jimmy’s” house. There were occasions, however, when the wagers placed could be quite high and the losses significant, especially on those nights when “the drink was in and the wit was out,” as people say.

One particular night Hugh John reduced his alcohol intake, drinking considerably less whisky and beer than some of the other members. It was one of those rare occasions when he came home from the club reasonably sober and with a considerable amount of winnings from playing cards. The very next day, Hugh John went into the factory and began negotiating with a colleague for the purchase of a small Honda motorbike. Several men within the factory advised Hugh John that he should avoid buying the motorbike, but he was not to be deterred and spent all his winnings on the purchase. He was determined that he would have a mode of transport much better than a bicycle to get him to and from his daily work.

The Honda motorcycle was black in colour and its chrome handles shone brightly in the afternoon sunshine as he rode it home at twenty miles-per-hour with the red crash helmet on his head that had been thrown into the deal for free. When he reached home Hugh John’s old mother was very surprised to see him on a motorcycle and marched up to him, telling him, “In the name of the good Christ Hugh John, what the hell are you doing on one of those modern contraptions.

Ah, Ma! Sure I’ll be alright once I get used to driving it,” he told her proudly and proceeded to park the vehicle at the side of the cottage.

On the first Saturday that he had the motorcycle Hugh John rode it into town, parking outside the “Bookies’ Shop”, where he always placed his bets for the week-end and had some craic with friends. Unfortunately, friends with much more experience of motorbikes chose this time to inform Hugh John’s Honda motorcycle was actually a Honda moped. When they pointed this out to Hugh John he felt a great disappointment, but this became anger when he told them the price he had paid and they laughed. In their experience they felt that the moped was worth far less than the amount of money that he had paid. Several of his friends came outside to examine the purchase and he was told that the engine on the moped was not sounding very healthy and would need to be looked at. Upset and angry, Hugh John rode home that evening and immediately rolled the cycle into the kitchen of the cottage and fetched his toolbox.

Holy Jaysus!” said his mother when she saw him bring the cycle into the kitchen, “What are you doing now Hugh?

One of the boys in town said that the engine was running a bit rough and needed looking at,” he told her. “I’m just going to fix it.

Sure what do you know about these modern machines, son?” she asked. “And the kitchen is not the place to do that dirty work.

It can’t be that hard. Sure there’s not a great difference between a motorcycle and a bicycle, mother. There’s only a small motor and sure that can’t make much of a mess.

Opening his toolbox Hugh John selected a set of spanners and began to strip the moped down to its most basic parts. This was the easy bit of the exercise and it did not take him long to complete it. But, as he looked at the many parts of his moped spread over the kitchen floor Hugh John became totally confused about what to do next. Putting everything back in place and in order was not going to be easy. Hugh John had never thought there would be so many individual parts to such a small engine and he wondered if he could return the engine to its original condition. In the beginning he was convinced that if he took the engine apart in a certain sequence then, by reversing that same sequence, he could easily reassemble the engine. Hugh John, however, did not have the talent for clear and organised thinking, falling quite easily into difficulty through ‘Murphy’s Law’.  This unwritten law is familiar to all Irishmen and is quite simple to follow, stating “If something can go wrong it will!” Try as he might, Hugh John could not recollect the sequence in which he had dismantled the engine. He simply could not recall which piece went into, beside, through, or on top of another piece.

Quite a few hours later, lunchtime the very next day in fact, the moped began to resemble the machine it was prior to Hugh John’s efforts at repair with screwdriver and spanner. Unfortunately when Hugh John tried to turn the engine over there was no kick whatsoever from the moped.

What’s wrong with that damned thing now?” his mother asked him.

I don’t know Ma,” replied Hugh. “I’ve done everything that I can.”

Then, what is all that stuff on the floor over there?” she asked him.

That’s what is left over, after I had put it all back together,” he told her. “There was no room for that stuff.

Well, just you take that load of scrap, and that bike, down to young Geordie’s and get him to fix it. At least he knows something about those modern contraptions.

More money!” sighed Hugh John.

You broke it, now you fix it,” his mother told him.

Right, Ma!” he snapped like a child in a tantrum.

A day or two later Hugh John gathered the bike and the box of leftovers and wheeled them down the narrow country road to Geordies’ house and workshop. Geordie was a well known mechanic in the area who was fully employed in repairs of cars and motorcycles. It was said that what Geordie didn’t know about cars and motorcycles wasn’t worth knowing. For this reason Hugh John left the moped and all the spare engine parts with the man, asking only that Geordie didn’t “stick the arm in up to the elbow” when it came to price.

It took Geordie a few days to strip the moped down again and to put it back together in the right way, ensuring everything ran smoothly. While he was at it he increased the power output from the small engine, making it reach speeds that it had never reached previously, and delivered it back to Hugh John. When he started the moped Hugh John was not expecting the speed at which this small machine could travel, which frightened the life out of him. “In the name of Christ, Geordie, are you trying to kill me altogether!” he complained. “I almost crapped myself going down that road!

The very next morning Hugh John rode the moped very slowly to work and offered it for sale and little Des Connolly jumped up and offered him his price immediately. “That is just the thing for me and Bernie to get about on,” he said. Bernie was his wife and, while Des was small and thin, Bernie was almost six feet tall and eighteen stone in weight. Hugh John did not choose to tell Des that the moped was incapable of carrying both of them at the same time. In fact he was concerned that the moped might not even carry Bernie alone. But, he shook hands with the man and the deal was sealed. A few days later he watched Des riding the motorcycle along the road with Bernie on the back, and the front wheel at forty-five degree angle in the air. Although Des did not confirm it, there was a rumour that the entire rear of the moped collapsed under the strain, coming home from church one Sunday morning and Hugh John never saw it again.

After the moped incident Hugh John, as is the case with most young men of his age, began to take a healthy interest in the female sex. Encouraged by his friends Hugh John began to attend the various dances that were held in the local “Calypso Ballroom”, but he did not actually dance very often. He would often be found near the soft drinks bar admiring the young ladies on the dance-floor, displaying themselves in their best dresses. Unfortunately for the young man he could never have been considered to be among the best dressed males in the area, and he would never have been considered a “Gene Kelly” on the dance-floor. The man had two left feet and the only foxtrot that he knew was the one a fox did after a farmer shot at him. At one time he spent a considerable sum in buying himself a “Teddy Boy” outfit with drainpipe trousers, long jacket and blue suede shoes with crepe soles. Rather than improve his reputation among the ladies he became known to them as “The Calypso Kid.”

Fortunately for the “Kid” not all the female attendees at the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ thought he was a fool. One night he was persuaded to ask a young lady to dance, while his friend asked her companion to dance with him. That was to be his first introduction to Winnie Lavery, who was a big girl in more ways than one.

Winnie had the build of a Russian weightlifter and the voice to match. Many people suggested that Hugh John only continued to date her because he was afraid to say that he didn’t want to see her again. When he danced with Winnie it appeared that Hugh John simply floated across the dance-floor, but it was more likely due to the fact that Winnie held him so tight the man’s feet never touched the floor. For a considerable length of time, Winnie had been seeking a man who just might make a good husband for her, and Hugh John McClean fitted the bill perfectly. He was a quiet sort of man whom, she felt she could dominate. He was a good worker, well-mannered and, best of all in her book, not too bright. Winnie had now set her sights on marrying this man and becoming Mrs. McClean and assuming control of his house irrespective of the fact that Hugh John’s mother, Mary, still lived there. Not surprisingly, with a woman so determined, within six months of their first meeting in the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ Hugh John had been persuaded to believe that he had met the woman of his dreams and, as she expected, he proposed to Winnie. She ensured that the engagement was a short one and they were eventually married in the local church and honeymooned in Dublin for a few days.

On the return of the happy couple Hugh John had little choice but to settle down into married life, while Winnie immediately gave up the job and began to make the house her own, much to the Mary’s resentment. Instead of involving the elderly woman in any of the changes she was making, Winnie began changing the furniture and fittings to a style of her own liking. By ignoring the feelings of the elderly woman, Winnie had stoked up years of animosity between the two women in Hugh John’s life and the years that followed could not have been worse for Hugh John. The happy life that he had thought he was getting when he married, suddenly became a nightmare.

The constant battle of wills between Mary and her daughter-in-law gradually wore the older woman down, causing the old lady’s health to deteriorate. When Mary eventually passed away some months later there were many of her neighbours and friends who were deeply saddened by the passing of such a generous, kind-hearted lady. Hugh John was particularly upset by his mother’s death and he never quite forgave Winnie for all the grief she had caused the old woman. From that day they continued to live as husband and wife in public, while they lived like strangers in private. Although Winnie quickly discovered that she no longer had the influence over husband that she once had, Hugh John did not prevent her from continuing to furnish the home. Perhaps it was this growing distance between them that the couple never experienced the joy of having a family of their own. Over the years that followed Hugh John spent gradually began spending less and less time at home. He preferred to spend much of his leisure time in the company of friends in “The Pigeon Club”, or in the public houses of the nearest town.

“McKeever’s” was noted in the town for quality of its draught Guinness stout and became the favourite drinking place of Hugh John, where he would spend two or three nights every week, drinking with friends and workmates. The bar was also noted for being the oldest public house in the town and attracted all types of people to it. There were, for example, quiet, easy-going types who enjoyed the occasional drink among good company. But, as is often the case, the bar also attracted the more boorish type of person who could not enjoy a few drinks without causing or encouraging trouble. One such visitor to the bar was a well-built young man called Jimmy Duggan, known to all in “McKeever’s” as ‘Mean Jimmy’ because he was the greatest bully in the town. Jimmy was so filled with well toned muscles that he always appeared to be ready to burst out of his clothes. Hugh John was a quiet peace loving man who had never given Jimmy any reason to confront him. But, one particular evening, something about Hugh John’s appearance changed everything. It was a typical Saturday evening in the bar when Hugh John walked in wearing his best suit and a brand new pair of brown leather brogues.

Where are you going?” asked the barman.

I’m going to Wilson’s wake,” Hugh John told him.

Jaysus, I heard the man was dead. When is the funeral?

Tomorrow, after twelve o’clock Mass,” replied Hugh John as he took a drink from his pint of Guinness.

Those are nice shoes, Hugh John,” commented Jimmy Duggan, interrupting the conversation between Hugh John and the barman. “I wouldn’t mind those shoes myself.

Thanks,” said Hugh John. “I bought them in the sale at Clarkes.

Good for you,” replied Jimmy in a quiet, but more threateningly. “You’ll be able to get yourself another pair easy enough, then.

Hugh John laughed, “And why would I want to buy another pair?

Because, Hugh John, I want those shoes you have on your feet,” Jimmy told him coldly. There was no sign that he meant it jokingly.

These?” laughed Hugh John. “Are you joking?

Jimmy Duggan drew closer to Hugh John and told him, “I never joke. Now take the shoes off.

And what am I supposed to do?” asked Hugh John.

Have you never been in your sock-soles? Now, just take them off before I rip them from your feet!

Not one person in the bar saw where that punch came from. They only heard the loud crack as the fist connected with chin and, as they turned to see what had happened, they saw Jimmy Duggan’s body rise into the air. Hugh John had hit Duggan so hard that he was lifted off his feet and seemed to float, airborne, for several yards before he finally crashed to the floor. Jimmy Duggan lay unconscious on the floor of McKeever’s bar and from that moment Hugh John’s reputation in the town was made. He became a man with the courage of a tiger and the strength of a bull elephant, making him a man that nobody wanted to upset or trifle with.

Hugh John’s new reputation as a ‘hard man’ with great courage could have taken a very serious knock if news had been spread, about his fear of mice. Even Winnie, for such a large woman, could not her paralysing fear of these small creatures and she did everything she could to ensure none would ever enter their home. But, there is no such a thing as complete security in anything, and there is always “Murphy’s Law” that applies to most things in life – “If something can go wrong, then it will.” One morning as Winnie cooked the breakfast she noticed a mouse, scampering across the kitchen floor and immediately squealed, in her terror, “Mouse!

That terrible squeal of anguish that echoed through the house caused Hugh John to run immediately to the aid of his terrified wife. But, when he heard the word ‘mouse’ he suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Just you hold on here, Winnie!” he called to his wife. “I will be back in a few minutes!!”

Hugh John left the house and ran the entire distance to Billy Robb’s shop and garage, which was about a quarter of a mile distant. Breathlessly he asked Billy, “Have you any mouse-traps?

I have,” answered Billy, “How many do you want?

How many have you got?

Surprised by Hugh John’s question Billy pulled out a box from under the counter and, after a moment, he told Hugh John, “A dozen.

I’ll take them all!

Jesus, Hugh John, you must have a plague of the wee devils!” said Billy.

No, thank God, just the one,” explained Hugh John as he reached into his pocket for his wallet.

Twelve traps for one mouse?” exclaimed Billy. “Do you call it Houdini?

Aye, very funny. Just give them here,” said Hugh John.

Still laughing heartily, Billy handed the box of traps to Hugh John and took the man’s money. With a box of traps in his hands, Hugh John returned home and found Winnie just where he had left her, standing on the kitchen table shaking in fear. One by one Hugh John laid out the traps across the kitchen floor and just as he set the last trap one suddenly snapped as it was released. The spring in the trap had been tripped and the trap snapped on to the fragile neck of the little creature, killing it. A dead mouse, however, did not suddenly cure Hugh John’s fear of the creature and, despite Winnie’s continued for him to remove the little corpse, he would not go anywhere near it. Instead, he went outside and retrieved a long-handled shovel with which he scooped up both the mouse and the trap. Keeping his catch in the shovel she guided it through the back door of the cottage and disposed of it in the bin. With the terrifying creature gone, Winnie came down from the table still shaking and the domestic life of the cottage continued much as it had previously.

Just after his fortieth wedding anniversary Hugh John woke one morning to find that Winnie had passed away, while sleeping beside him in the bed during the night. Although Winnie and Hugh were no longer a loving couple, it was still a shock to him and he was a little sad that she was now gone. It may not have been a marriage filled with romance and good times, and Hugh John may have found it difficult to be in her presence for any length of time, or truly communicate, but he did retain a certain affection for her and he missed her when she went from his life. Hugh John was now left all alone in that small cottage, retired from work and with plenty of time on his hands. But, housekeeping and cooking were talents that Hugh John did not possess and the house began to quickly fall into a very untidy condition. Winnie’s sister, Bernie, was the first to pick up the courage to tell him that he needed to do something about taking care of himself and the house.

You need somebody to do the cleaning and cooking for you, Hugh John,” she told him.

Can you not do it?

Certainly not,” Bernie told him bluntly. “I have my own home, husband and children to take care of. Why don’t you advertise for help in the local paper?

Sure I wouldn’t know what to say, or pay,” he told her. “You do it for me, Bernie.

After giving the matter some consideration Bernie placed the following advert in the local paper – “Young, single woman required as live-in housekeeper for an elderly gentleman. All interested parties please apply to 4 Damson Terrace.

When the newspaper came out, the following Thursday, the news of Hugh John’s search for a housekeeper  became widespread throughout the entire area. The idea of such a search caused considerable humour among the neighbours and several jokes did the rounds of the various public houses, many suggesting that Hugh John was searching for a new wife rather than a new housekeeper. There were quite a few of Hugh John’s neighbours who thought the old man should be thinking about his ‘plot’ rather than a young housekeeper, whose very presence might cause over excitement in a man who had been so deprived of female company for such a considerable time. One local, young man with a mischievous mind thought he could get some fun out of the situation if he was to dress up in female clothing and present himself for interview. He decided to put his plan into action on the Saturday morning, and encouraged several local people to observe the practical joke at first hand by secreting themselves at various observation points.

Tommy was the young man’s name and he convinced his sister, Mary, to assist him with his female disguise. She began by dressing him in a brassiere around his chest, filling the cups with tissue paper and couple of pairs of socks. Over a pair of football shorts, Tommy wore a brightly flowered skirt that stretched almost to his ankles. He borrowed a large woollen jumper and on his feet he squeezed a pair of black, patent-leather high heels. Once her brother was dressed , Mary sat him down in a chair beside her dressing table and began to apply make-up to his face. She applied foundation before applying eyelash and eye-brow make-up, and finally red lipstick. To add authenticity to this great plan of deceiving old Hugh John, Mary finally placed a wig of long, shiny, flowing black hair upon her brothers head. So complete was the disguise that, when Tommy left the house, it was virtually impossible to tell that he was a man and not a female. Those who witnessed the transformation were certain that Hugh John would not recognise the deception which was going to played upon him.

Tommy walked down the terrace of houses until he came to the entrance into Hugh John’s cottage and stopped. In his best female manner he opened the ornamental mental gate and walked up the path to the front door, which he knocked loudly. None of those watching the scene could be observed, but they could see all that was happening. Tommy was standing on the doorstep when the cottage’s front door opened and Hugh John came out of the house leaning on a walking stick. “Hello,” he greeted what he thought was a young woman standing before him.

“Hello, Mr. McClean,” Tommy greeted the old man. “I have come to apply for the housekeeper’s position.

Come on ahead in,” Hugh John invited the visitor cordially and Tommy went into the cottage. When the door closed behind Tommy, those who had been watching the action began to giggle and snicker at the thought of Hugh John being so easily fooled. But the laughter was quickly silenced when a loud scream of terror echoed from the house and all the neighbours waited to see what had happened. There was another loud scream and the sound of raised voices that seemed to originate from the rear of the cottage. Several of the neighbours now rushed to better positions that would allow them to see exactly what was happening and the sight that met their eyes was almost unbelievable. They saw Tommy, dressed as a young girl, running as fast as his feet would carry him across the field that stretched uphill from the rear of the cottages. Holding his dress up with his hands and having no shoes on his feet, Tommy was making good progress and putting good distance between himself and his pursuer. Behind him, Hugh John was limping after Tommy with his walking stick in hand and he was shouting at the top of his voice, “Come back wee darling. Let me show you just what I want you to do!”

But Tommy was not answering.

Stories of Seamus No 11

Ireland’s Last Hope

Over one hundred years ago Britain still governed the entire island of Ireland. In many major county towns throughout the country the British Army had established barrack buildings and, through a variety of methods, continually made an effort to recruit young Irish men to the regimental colours. In fact, over the many centuries since the English Crown occupied Ireland, their military leaders had always looked upon the country as a fertile ground where they could recruit Irish blood into their ranks. The men and officers, who had been born and raised in Ireland fought gallantly on many of the battle fields that became an integral part of the British Empire’s glorious martial history.  These men made up many world famous regiments, such as “The Dublin Fusiliers”, “The Connaught Rangers”, “The Munsters”, “The Inniskillings”, “The Leinsters”, and “The North Irish Horse”. Many other regiments, however, filled their ranks with brave Irish men from every strand of society, whose valour in battle could never be questioned. But bravery, heroism, fame and medals were never the main reason for such men to enter into the ranks of the British Army.

Ireland under British rule has always been a troublesome country. Over the many centuries there had been countless armed rebellions and protests that had cost many lives and divided loyalties. In general, in the two decades prior to the “Easter Rebellion” of 1916, anti-British feelings among the general population were actually confined to a small minority. It was, therefore, not uncommon to see the various British regiments organising military exercises, with marching columns of uniformed men and military bands, often accompanied by mounted cavalry in the rural towns and villages of Ireland.

It was not uniforms and pageantry that encouraged young Irishmen and  For the majority of Irish men and boys to enter the army’s ranks. The major factor that persuaded most Irish recruits was that they was that they would receive a regular wage. Such was the poverty among working class Irish people, at this time, that the fact each soldier received three good meals each and every day was a great attraction on its own. In addition soldiers each had a clean bed of their own, an excellent pair of working boots, and a complete set of new clothes. In a time when there were often families of ten and more in a single room tenement, or cottage, sharing beds, sharing clothes, and being lucky if they had one small meal during the day, the attractions of the army were obvious.

There were, however, many men who preferred to avoid service under the crown’s colours, and these men did everything possible to evade the clever ploys of the nomadic recruiting sergeants. On many occasions young men and boys were very keen to sample the adventurous life promised by service in the army of the Empire. But, these young men and boys were, more often than not, prevented from acting on their impulses by their parents and other family members. One young man who could be numbered among this latter group was a certain Mick Farrell, whose mother had been raised in a family that had absolutely no love for ‘redcoats’, their triumphant trumpets, or their pipes and drums.

It began with rumours that the army was about to undertake a series of military exercises in the area, and the news spread like wildfire among all the young men of the district. Other rumours told that a detachment of locally based soldiers were about to leave their barracks and carry out several gruelling route marches along the country roads and tracks that surrounded the village of Killyconn like a geographical spider’s web. These exercises were an excellent opportunity for the local army commander to make an impression on the local male population with his fine men marching in unison, and dressed in colourful uniforms. This spectacle, however, was one that Mick decided didn’t need his attendance. He simply wanted to avoid further heartache and he decided that he would take a nice long walk and enjoy the fresh air. There was, to be honest, very few things in life that Mick enjoyed more than a good stretch of the legs through the fields and the peat bogs of the Killyconn district. Mick was certain that, because of the lack of roads in these places, there would be virtually no chance of encountering those ranks of marching soldiers.

Unlike many young men of his age, Mick preferred to avoid quite a lot of the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the soldiers when they were on exercise. This avoidance of the pageantry was not due to any dislike of the Army on his part, or the army’s presence in the district, but he had been totally humiliated when his mother had forbidden him to ever enlist in the British Army. The other villagers, however, would spend most of the day, standing or sitting, admiring the ranks of uniformed soldiers marching and parading with their rifles and bayonets resting on their shoulders. Many of the inhabitants of Killyconn, especially the young ladies, would seek out the very best vantage points from which they could see the soldiers, while also being seen by them. Naturally, being Ireland, there were some people who were opposed to, what they saw as, the occupation of the country by the British forces, and they protested the army’s presence in their area. This small group of opponents were all members of a recently formed republican organisation that had dedicated itself to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland, and replace it with the establishment of a totally independent nation for its people.

The commanders of various military regiments in Ireland were very much aware of just how valuable route marches, band parades and other ceremonial exercises were to the recruitment of men into the ranks. In rural Ireland, especially, these ceremonials often encouraged the young men to come forward and accept ‘The King’s Shilling’. But, the recruitment sergeants had not been able to enlist any big, healthy men from Killyconn area in many months. For this reason, the powers that be had decided that they should make some kind of effort to reverse this trend, and ordered the new exercises to be staged in that particular area. In response to orders from higher authorities all types of military formations were ordered into Killyconn district to undertake a variety of ceremonials and war-game exercises.

As the soldiers marched through the village and its environs they gathered large audiences of admiring followers that travelled from many miles away. Along all the various roads that criss-crossed this area there were large numbers of followers who had assembled to watch the spectacle, which was becoming a rare event and was always unforgettable to those who saw it. The army officers, of course, hoped that when all the exercises were completed, to the satisfaction of the audiences, many of the young men witnessing the great spectacle would be convinced that they were missing out on a new,special and exciting opportunity.

In the past large numbers of young men and boys had eagerly sought to put on the uniform and experience the life of adventure imagined lay ahead of them, but found themselves to be bitterly disappointed at the reality. Even the old men, the infirm and ladies felt a certain disappointment at their fate when the spectacle ended. They were, of course, aware of their inability to join the ranks of the army, but they were also aware of missed opportunities they had when young or in much better health. Thankfully, their disappointment never lasted too long because life in the countryside meant that there were always jobs to be done, and these would soon take their minds off any disappointment they might feel. Meanwhile, young and healthy boys and men would seek out the recruiting sergeant in the local pub. There they would sign their enlistment papers, and celebrate their decision with a few pints of beer, costing the shilling that they had just been paid. Those who could write their name and those who just made their mark, returned some time later that evening to their homes to face their parents, or spouses, without a penny left from the ‘King’s Shilling’ they had been given.

Mick Farrell was a broad-shouldered, healthy young man of less than twenty years, who had never been shy of doing a hard day’s work. The man was always in demand employment with local landowners and businesses in the district, and he had no pressing need to be enlisting in the army’s ranks. He knew very well that by enlisting his family would still be better off in some ways, but he would not go against his mother’s will. It was she who held who held sway over the family and she was very determined that none of her children would become ‘cannon fodder’ to enhance the glory of the Empire. Since the unexpected death of her husband, Mrs Farrell had worked her once pretty hands to the bone to raise her two daughters and two sons. To make ends meet she had taken in washing,  and she had carried out other menial jobs at the houses of the more prosperous people in the district. Through hard back-breaking work she had managed to put sufficient food on the table and decent clothing on the backs of her children. Her eldest son, Barry, had gained a good position as a game-keeper for a rich English Lord, who had a great estate in the west of the country. The eldest daughter, Elsie, had done well to be married into a farming family and now wanted for nothing.

Mick, the younger of her two sons, was her favourite and she watched him work all the hours God sent, just to earn a wager. Being a casual labourer meant that there was no guarantee of work, of course, and regular wages often depended upon seasonal work, good weather, good harvest, and good prices for the crop. There were numerous occasions when Mick had gone, cap in hand, to seek jobs with local farmers and could find none. But, Mrs Farrell, was as stubborn as a rock and consistently barred Mick’s entry into the army with her obstinacy.  

The colourful military exercises lasted the entire week-end, which ensured good crowds of people, who had been attracted to the various venues by the noise and clamour of the activities. On Sunday morning, just after Mass, Mick met his oldest and best friend, Paddy Brannigan. This was not an unusual meeting the two young men, but on this occasion, Paddy had come to an important decision and he wanted to discuss the entire matter with his best friend. Brannigan went on to tell Mick that he had decided to enlist, next day, at the regimental barracks, which did not really come as a surprise to Mick. But, although it wasn’t a surprise, Mick was filled with envy and a little angry that his friend’s had decided to enlist. To Mick, it was as if that almost all of his closest friends had now enlisted in the army, and he was worried that with Paddy’s departure he would be left all alone. Mick was angry because, although his mother had seen all of his friends go  she still frustratingly and very stubbornly, refused every request by her son  to join them.

With Mick encouraged by Paddy’s news and the fact that his friend would be at his side, Mick was re-invigorated. He confidently marched off, determined to persuade his stubborn mother to give in to his wishes. He was more confident than ever that on this occasion he could persuade his stubborn mother to finally change her mind and, with a certainty in his step, Mick and Paddy marched off. As expected they eventually came upon Mrs. Farrell standing at the kitchen sink and washing a few shirts. As the two young men entered the kitchen by the small cottage’s back door and Mick told her. “Get your hands out of the suds, Mother.

Mrs Farrell stopped her work and turned from the sink to see her son and his best friend,Paddy, standing smartly in her kitchen. “Now, mother, salute the brave new soldier who has come this day to bid you farewell!” Mick announced with a snigger, and Paddy bowed politely, as if he was a gentleman. Mrs. Farrell, however, as she dried her hands appeared to be greatly confused by her son, Mick’s, announcement.

Paddy is away tomorrow, Mother,” said Mick. “He’s going to enlist in the local battalion. This will mean that he will be stationed near at hand for a good while yet and we will still be able to see him regularly,” Mick said comfortingly.

Sure, it’s congratulations I bid to you, Paddy Brannigan,” said Mrs Farrell. “I am sure your family will be proud of you, all dressed up in your uniform. The army is a good life for any young man, who has the inclination to be a soldier.

Thankyou, Mrs Farrell,” replied Paddy shyly.

As for Mick, he had seen his mother’s kind words as an opportunity for him to bring up his wish to enlist in the army, There should be no hesitation he decided, although he would not just approach the subject in a direct manner, but would first try to build up the life that a soldier could lead. “You know, mother, it’s a great healthy life for a young man like me, isn’t it Paddy?

Paddy knew he had to be supportive of his friend and he nodded his head in agreement, confirming, “Oh it’s a wonderful life indeed, Mick!”

Armed with this positive response, Mick pressed home his argument, “There is no other life that even comes near to that of a soldier, mother.” Once again he looked to Paddy for affirmation.

The question caught Paddy a little off-guard. He coughed, stammered and stuttered for a few moments before he could manage a reasonably intelligible response. “Seven or eight shillings, at least,” he spluttered. You could tell from the tone of his voice that he was not boasting, even though this amount of disposable income was considerable for a young man of his age to earn. “Well, it could be a little more than that,” he added, hesitatingly. “All that money and I still get the best of grub and drink each and every day. Three good meals and a whole set of new clothes I get, and I don’t have to spend one penny unless I need something for myself.

Brimming with confidence, Mick now turned to his mother and, with a large smile across his face,he said quietly,”Isn’t that great news Mother?

But Mick had interrupted Paddy in mid-flow and, realising his error, he gave way to Paddy’s next positive point. “Wee Tommy Murphy was telling the other day that a few weeks ago he had business in the Post Office and found that the place was packed with soldiers. He said that these men, had just received their pay and they were at the Post Office to get some of those ‘money order’ things that they could send home. Murphy also told me that the Post Office was so full of them that he could hardly get old Sally, the postmistress, to sell him a stamp because her hands were so full.

“Isn’t that great news to hear, Mother?” said Mick. “All these young men like us sending money home to help their families rather than spending it foolishly. And another bit of good news is that each of them only has to serve three years in the ranks before they are free to return home to their families. Now, three years is not a very long time, Mother.”

Sure, that’s no time at all, Mrs. Farrell” Paddy reinforced Mick’s statement. “Sure it will all be gone in the blink of an eye.”

Mrs Farrell stayed silent and just continued to stare at the two young men. Mick , however, could discern a minute change in her expression, which began to cause him some concern. He was awaiting the expected verbal tirade from his mother, but still it did not come. Instead, Mick’s mother quietly explained that three years can actually be a considerable period of time for some people.

When there was no tell-tale sign of emotion crossing her face, Mick chose to take this as a positive omen. He began now to press his mother to abandon her objections to his enlistment. “Don’t forget,” he said, “that there is also a great amount of leave that a soldier gets. And he gets paid for it. Isn’t that right, Paddy?

Once again Paddy had been taken by surprise with Mick’s question and did not answer at first. “Don’t forget the great amount of leave that you get in the army, Paddy!” Mick reminded him.

Aye!That’s right, Mick” Paddy answered with a slight hesitation.

Sure, isn’t it a fact that those soldiers appear to at home on leave more often than they are on active service. The army gives them all free travel and, sure you know yourself, that they are never off the trains and buses going to and from home.

Free travel passes, is that right?” She asked as she stared at Paddy.

As true as I am standing here,” he replied, hoping to God that what he was saying was indeed true. “Every one of us is entitled to a free travel passes, Mrs. Farrell, when we need to go home on leave. Sure Mick would be able to nip home and see you whenever he has a mind to.” There was a new sense of excitement in Paddy’s voice, confident that Mick and himself were breaking down Mrs Farrell’s opposition. It was herself that had asked about the free travel passes, after all, and this was the first positive sign that she had, perhaps, given up her objections. But, typical of Paddy, he had jumped to the completely wrong conclusion, and he had used both feet without testing the water first.

Mick?” demanded Mrs. Farrell with a deep scowl.

Her scowl made Paddy jump and he was taken aback so much that he had to gather himself by gathering a huge lungful of air. Now, Paddy realised that he had, perhaps, just one step too far. He now thought it  would be better to back-track a little to try save the situation for his friend, Mick. “You know, Mrs Farrell,” he began. “I have been told that the Army will even arrange a special train for a man in case he needs to get home quickly. That’s the way the army treats its men.

But, Paddy could not just leave well enough alone and went on to add, “What is even better, they will promote good, healthy fighting men from being just ordinary soldiers to corporals, sergeants and sometimes higher. Promotion would mean more money in your pocket and sure there is no limit to what a good man, like Mick, can achieve.”

He was on a roll now and Paddy decided to give his argument one final push. “Sure, it would be a special woman you would be Mrs. Farrell. In fact, I would say that any mother would be very proud to know that she stood firmly behind her son, and did nothing that would hinder his advancement in the world,” he told Mick’s mother. “And when it comes to the end of his army service, a man will receive a handsome pension that will give his family great comfort in the years that follow.

Aye, but, please God, that will not be for a very long time,” insisted Mick. “But, Mother, there is a very good living to be gained and great prospects for an ambitious man in the army.

And the food that they give out to their men is second to none,” added Paddy. “Those who have already joined the ranks have told me that the army only feeds them the best of everything, cooked and uncooked. There are joints of meat on the bone and off the bone, alongside plump chickens, juicy fresh fruit and vegetables, and all manner of fresh fish.

Both young men now took turns to point out the good life that they could live when among the army’s ranks. Mrs. Farrell still made no reply, but listened intently as the two men before her tried their utmost to convince her to give her permission to Mick. But, while she listened, Mrs. Farrell continued her task of washing shirts, rinsing them in clean water, and then wringing out the excess water before putting them out to dry in the fresh breeze. In an almost robotic fashion she continued with her work, repeating each part of her task both silently and efficiently, until all the shirts were washed clean.

By her silence, Mrs. Farrell had led both young men to believe that she was prepared to agree that Mick could enlist in the army. There was no open show of celebration between the young men. Nevertheless, they did offer congratulations to each other with a series of winks, nods and smiles. Mick and Paddy, overjoyed with their apparent success, now left the house to stretch their legs in the afternoon air. It would be an excellent opportunity for both men to talk over what the future might just hold for them now that Mick’s mother seemed to be ready to permit her son to enlist. Sensible men, however, know that assumption is not the basis of fact.

Feeling extremely happy, and with a new spring in his step, Mick returned home that evening just as the sun began to set. Outside the cottage he saw his mother feeding the flock of excited chickens from a small pile of corn feed that she carried in her apron. The cottage in which they lived was the last of a small row of white-washed and thatched cottages that were sited just on the edge of town. Each of the small homes gave their occupiers a wonderful view of the valley that swept from one hill to another. Mick stopped for a moment to study the scene that was spread out before him, and the triumphant marching tune, that he had been whistling since he parted from Paddy, fell silent. As he looked at the chickens clucking around his mother’s feet it suddenly became apparent to Mick that at least one chicken was missing from the group. He doubled the speed of his march to the cottage and, when he came before his mother, he asked, “Where is the old speckled pullet? Has it gone off wandering the countryside again?

When his mother did not reply to his questions he told her,”I will get myself ready as quickly as possible and go look for her after I get myself a drink of water. She’ll be hungry and will not be too far away.

There is no need,” his mother answered him at last.

No need?” he asked in a puzzled tone. “Why would there be no need to look for our plumpest chicken?

Mrs Farrell looked her son directly in his eye and revealed to him,”I’ve sold her!

Mick was almost speechless, so shocked was he at his mother’s revelation and he wanted an immediate explanation as to why she had sold his favourite chicken. So, as she fed the remaining chickens she began to explain,”I have too many chickens to be looking after all by myself, Mick,” she said. Totally taken aback by this explanation, Mick chose to say nothing for the moment. “I sold that old hen this morning to Mrs Dunne, who lives below, and she gave me a good price for it!

But, you loved that old speckled hen, mother. It was almost like a pet to you,” Mick said.

Well, Mrs Dunne will look after her now. She has been looking to buy that speckled hen this long and many a day, but I never had the heart to sell it until this very day.

But, why today?” he demanded to know.

She had now grown impatient at the manner in which Mick was questioning her decisions, and she curtly told him, ”The food required to feed those damned chickens gets dearer and dearer, and so I sold it.”

Shaking the remaining corn out of her apron, Mrs. Farrell turned to her son and told him, “Your supper is ready to put out. It has been ready for some time now and you had better eat it before it gets spoiled. Your sister isn’t home yet and there’s only the two of us, so come now and let’s eat.

Mick now quietly followed his mother into the cottage and the familiar aromas of smoke from the turf fire mixed with the smell of fresh bread being baked on the griddle. Mrs Farrell now lifted the griddle from the range and brought it over to the kitchen table. While they were still hot she removed the farls of bread and, cutting one, she spread fresh butter thickly on the each slice of soda bread.

Any Irishman or woman will willingly tell you that there is nothing in this whole wide world that is as nice as rich, creamy butter spread thickly upon fresh-baked, still warm, soda farls, and the way that the butter melts into white, fluffy bread. Without hesitation, Mick reached out and took two thick slices of the soda farl, beginning to hungrily eat it and wash it down with a large mug of hot, strong, sweet tea. “Take some of that sliced cold meat with your bread and tea, son” Mrs Farrell suggested.

Mick, of course, did not require a second invitation and hungrily helped himself to several slices of cold brisket that his mother had laid out on a serving dish in and placed in the centre of the table. On many occasion you must have wondered at the way that fate intervenes in our lives, and causes changes in those ideas that we may have formed, or arrangements we have made. It feels almost like fate is making fun of our decisions and the plans we have made for the future. Even as Mick sat in the kitchen of that cottage he quickly came to realise that any hope he may have had for a future in the army was dead for him. When he was asked what he thought about his supper, Mick smiled at his mother and gave high praise to her culinary skills. Then, almost without thought, the young man began to describe various proposals he had for improving the small land holding that they owned.

These are all good ideas,” Mrs Farrell said in praise of her son and they began to discuss each of his proposals while they ate their supper. She seemed to be very happy that the plate of cold meats and fresh-baked bread seemed to have helped remove all thoughts of joining the army from Mick’s mind. This, of course, was exactly what she wanted to achieve and with as little fuss as possible. Content in her own mind that her son would be staying, Mrs. Farrell sliced and buttered more bread, after which she refilled his mug with more fresh, hot tea. Her happiness began to show in her demeanour as she began chatting merrily with Mick about even the most frivolous of things. Mick, meanwhile, tried to reflect on how he would set about the problem of explaining to Paddy Brannigan why they would not be comrades-in-arms after all.

So, as soon as supper had ended, Mick got up from his chair, telling his mother that he had decided to go to hid friend’s house and tell him the bad news face-to-face. The sun had already set but there was still a bright and clear sky in which the stars had just begun to emerge, and a crescent moon was arising in the east. Outside the small terrace row of cottages children were still at play running, skipping, jumping, and laughing as they enjoyed their last moments of play before they would be sent to bed. On the outskirts of town, other children helped their parents in the fields to herd the goats, pigs, and sheep together before settling them down for the night ahead.

Mick continued on his path, down past the other cottages until, in front of the last one, he saw Fibber Morrissey sitting on a small stool and playing his violin. Now, Fibber had been blind from the moment he was born and he was a man of some fame in the area. His constant scraping and twanging on the violin strings, however, resulted in a wonderful variety of music being played every day by the blind man. Mick greeted Fibber as he walked past him and, as usual, the old man returned his cheery greeting without even skipping a beat. He had recognised Mick’s voice and raised his violin to him before resuming his playing. In the meantime, Mick continued on his way, following the path and humming to the tunes that old Fibber was. He began to notice, now that the sun was well down, the cool evening breeze had begun to blow a little stronger. There were scraps of straw and pieces of paper that were picked up by this breeze and blown down the road ahead of him and, without even realising he was doing it, Mick loosened a small stone from the edge of the road and kicked it with the toe of his boot.

Direct capture

He hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards from the blind fiddler when  Mick came upon an old friend of the family. Peter McGann had been a close friend of Mick’s father and here he was, driving home a flock of ducks and ducklings from a nearby water hole. Every time that he saw Peter herding his flock of ducks Mick could not help but laugh to himself at the sight. Peter McGann was a large, burly man, with great broad shoulders and it was highly amusing seeing such a man herding ducks. Armed with a long, willow rod Peter was “shoo-shooing”, in an increasingly frustrated manner, his ducks and ducklings in an effort to ensure they did not straggle and wander all over the place.

A good evening to you, young Mick Farrell,” Peter greeted Mick cheerfully as they approached each other.

Mick, for his part, was rather distracted and he didn’t quite hear Peter’s greeting. “What the hell is wrong with you, Mick Farrell?” asked Peter curtly. “Do you not return a greeting that has been given to you?

Peter’s curtness brought Mick back to his senses quick enough to answer the rebuff he had just received. “I’m sorry Peter,” he apologised. “ My mind is so full of other things at the moment.”

Peter laughed and asked, ”A wee girl, I suppose? Sure what young man, like yourself, would not be distracted by some lovely wee girl?

 “It’s not a girl, Peter. I want to join the Army,” Mick began to tell him. “I want to make a life for myself but my mother is dead set against it and I cannot go. Now I have to tell my best friend that he will be enlisting on his own tomorrow.

Joining the Army?” asked Peter, almost as if he didn’t believe what his ears were hearing. “You want to join an Army that has tormented your people for centuries? You want to join an Army whose sole purpose is to ensure that the people of Ireland give up any hope of freedom and self-determination, and  do what they are told to by their English masters?

Jesus Christ, Peter?” Mick exclaimed in shock at these words. “Be quiet before someone hears you! If somebody reports it you could be looking at being charged with high treason!

Treason my arse!” Peter sneered. “Sure it is you who are plotting the treason! You who is about to betray our people, your faith, your country and your ancestors! Just who do you think you are? Do you want to die for England or to live for Ireland?. You know Mick Farrell that it only on stout, hardy young men like yourself and Paddy Brannigan who are Ireland’s only hope for freedom. In fact, it is only the likes of you who maybe our last hope! So I plead with you to keep true to your own, Mick, and don’t join the ranks of the enemy!.”

Ireland’s last hope?” Mick muttered to himself as he stared down at the ground to avoid Peter McGann’s eyes. A moment later he raised his head to thank Peter for his advice but found that Peter had vanished, the same way that any ideas of enlisting in the army had vanished.

The Stories of Seamus No9

Mr. Mangin

Last week as I drove home from my work office I passed by my old primary school, which caused me to recall the days that I spent there, so many years ago. As I thought about those days, a certain image returned to me and was very clear in my mind. It was the image of one of my teachers, Mr. Mangin. Even when he had taught me, all those years ago, Mr. Mangin was a very old man who must have been near to retirement age. He had a head of silver-grey hair which, unusually for a schoolmaster in those days, reached just over the collar of his shirt. A small, knowledgeable man with thick rimmed glasses, Mr. Mangin was given a lot of respect among the people in the area where I lived. To most of those people he was known simply as “Master Mangin”, and he was considered by all to be a respectable, a decent, and a religious man. He was also believed by many to be a man of great generosity, of whom it was said that, “He would go out of his way to do another person a good turn.”

Being the oldest, Mr. Mangin was also the most senior teacher in that school, which was actually a small, two-roomed, unprepossessing building situated in the countryside about four miles from the biggest town. Despite its age and outward condition the school was just about big enough for the townland population for whom it had been built so many decades before. The roof of the school was covered with ‘Bangor Blue’ slates, and the two chimney pots in the centre protruded upward to expel the smoke from two old pot-belly stoves that were the only source of heating in the classrooms. The solid stone walls of the building had been plastered over on numerous occasions and were regularly whitewashed by willing volunteers. In those far off days when it was first built there was little thought given to cavity walls and to insulation, and I still remember how bitterly cold those classrooms were in the winter months. In each of the two classrooms were two medium sized windows with squared panes of single glazing that did little to help improve the temperature in the building.

At one end of the old stone building there was a playground, which was enclosed by a high, rough-stone wall. The playground floor had been constructed of solid concrete and, at the farthest end, were two toilet buildings. On the left stood the boys’ toilet and to the right was the girls’ toilet, each made private by slatted wooden doors, which had been painted a dark olive-green colour. Adjacent to one side of the school ran a main road while, on the other side of the building stood a row of three mature trees. Some of the older boys would carve their names in the tree trunks while others stuck old pen nibs or drawing pins into the trunks in a variety of patterns. During the summer, which was our favourite time of the year, the classroom windows would be opened wide and the rustling leaves filled the air with their sounds when the breeze blew heavily. The windows on the side adjacent to the road would always be closed in a vain attempt to keep the noise of tractors, lorries and cars at a low level. At the same time, it was a gallant effort to reduce the strong natural smells of the countryside from wafting into the room on those days that muck-spreaders and the like were busy at their work. In the winter, however, the windows on both sides of the classroom were firmly closed, and through them we would watch the rain-drops on bare twigs slowly develop into icicles as the temperatures dropped. Overall then, the old school building was a cold, damp structure that was particularly uncomfortable from Autumn until Spring, a period that covered the larger part of the school year. Master Mangin, meanwhile, was a man who always complained about the cold, even in the early Autumn when the weather was quite mild. On those days he would always wear a heavy overcoat over his thick woollen jumper and rubbing his hands together roughly he would complain, “By God boys, it’s very cold today. All the ‘brass monkeys’ will stay indoors on a day like this.

In our efforts to please Mr. Mangin we would confirm his observations by saying, “It is very cold, Sir. It’s Baltic!

Outside the wind would be blowing a storm, forcing the last dead leaves from their refuge on the branches of the trees. Occasionally they would rattle off the classroom windows when the wind was particularly strong. Above us, along the edge of the school’s roof ran the guttering which channelled the rainfall to the damaged down-spouts and would regularly splash on the window pane. The very sight of a cold, wintry day outside those classroom windows had the effect of making you feel cold without any other help. Not surprisingly, therefore, we would quite often follow Mr. Mangin’s example by keeping our coats and scarves wrapped closely around us while we sat in class.

One other unforgettable habit that Mr. Mangin possessed was his almost compulsive efforts at maintaining his personal hygiene and grooming. Three or four times each day he would take his black comb from an inside pocket of his coat and use it to tidy his hair, whether it needed attention or not. He also consistently kept cleaning his hands, washing them constantly with soap in a basin of ice-cold water and drying them on a roller-towel that was fixed to the inside of a tall cupboard door. In Spring and in Summer he always hung his coat tidily on a hanger and, throughout the year, he would use a clothes brush to remove chalk dust and fluff that seemed to accumulate on his clothes every day.

I will always remember November and March as being among those months when we experienced the most rain and the heaviest winds. During those months four or more buckets would be strategically placed on top of desks throughout the classroom to catch the drips that fell from various leaks in the roof. As we studied at our desks we could hear the music caused by the drips of rainwater as they plopped into the buckets with varying amounts of water in them. They were usually accompanied by different tones of whistling as the wind blew over the multitude of holes, cracks and loose frames that were so much a part of that old building. Then, every now and again, one of us would be called upon to empty a bucket that was almost filled. On almost every occasion it was a boy who was selected to lift the bucket and carry it outside, where it would be emptied down one of the drains before being returned to its place on top of a desk. On each of these occasions Mr. Mangin would ask, “What’s happening out there now?

All the old man had to do was to look out of the classroom window for a weather update. Instead he would ask the windblown and wet boy carrying the bucket back into the classroom. Despite his frustration and discomfort the boy would always politely reply, “It’s still very wet and windy, Sir.

There was, however, one talent which Mr. Mangin possessed and that was the manner in which he could always use his time to his own best advantage. He would often write a series of mathematical problems on the blackboard, which we were expected to write down and answer in our exercise books. At the same time, he would appoint one of the older boys in the class to monitor the students while he went out to the school porch to enjoy a quiet smoke of a cigarette or two. There were other occasions when he would sit at his desk and read the racing pages of the daily newspaper, while we completed our mathematical exercises. Some days he would write down a theme for a story on the blackboard and, while we wrote, he would take his coat and disappear for periods of up to fifteen minutes. It was much later that I found out that, at these times, Mr. Mangin would walk to Billy Whyte’s house and use the phone there to place a bet or two on the horses he had picked.

During these periods of the teacher’s absence the boys would usually play mock battles, fighting with rulers like knights of the round table. Paper darts would fly from every corner of the room and, sometimes, balls of paper dipped in ink would be catapulted across the classroom using the wooden rulers. It is needless to say that we went through quite a number of those twelve-inch wooden rulers and the noise level we caused would rise to such a pitch that the lady teacher next door was forced to act. Miss O’Neill, as she was known, would storm into our classroom through the adjoining door and scream, at the top of her voice, “SILENCE!!!”. Not being a woman who was known for her gentle manners, Miss O’Neill would let loose with her “adder-like” tongue, spitting out an unending stream of poisonous invectives at her targets. “You are all low lives! Just good-for-nothing corner boys who will never amount to anything in life! Its Borstal you need and not school. Just wait until Mr. Mangin returns and I will tell him what sort of evil brats you all are!”

I can recall at least one occasion when that old witch picked me to shake her bony fist at, hissing, “And you boy! I will give a good account of your behaviour. Serving the priest at Mass like an Angel in whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt, while you act like the devil you truly are the rest of the week! I have my eyes on you, boy!” The class, however, would remain silent in the face of her verbal onslaught and we would turn our minds to the music of the drips that fell into the various buckets. Thankfully she never tarried long in our presence because her own class would begin to fidget and make a fuss while she was away from them.

Whenever Mr Mangin returned to the classroom the first question he would ask was if we had disturbed Miss O’Neill. Of course, he knew the answer even before he had asked the question. Our silence and the condition in which he would find the classroom always confirmed his opinion of our behaviour. Turning to the blackboard he would commence writing the answers to the mathematical problems he had written there and then call us up one by one to recite aloud the stories we had written. As he listened to our efforts Mr. Mangin would stare out of the classroom window and study the great beauty that nature presented. He would often say, “There can be no other county in all of Ireland that has the natural beauty that County Armagh possesses. When the songwriter wrote that, “There’s one fair County in Ireland”, he never spoke a greater truth.

One December Mr. Mangin became very ill and was told by his doctor to remain in his bed for at least two weeks before going back to work. Later he would say that these were the longest and most tedious days that he had ever spent in his entire life. When he did, finally, return to the classroom he still retained a sickly pallor about him and his physique had failed considerably. But, to ensure that he would have no relapse of his illness, Mr. Mangin immediately began to block off the ventilators in the classroom with perforated plywood. At the same time, he stuffed blotting paper into the wide gaps that existed at the door frames. On one of the windows there were several muddy marks caused by a ball that had been kicked by several of the boys. The ball had hit one pane so forcefully that a large crack in the glass had been created. When Mr. Mangin saw this crack in the window pane he smiled softly to himself and said, “Someone has created a map of the Shannon.” Every occasion after this when he taught us geography, Mr. Mangin would point to that pane of glass and simply tell us, “Take a look at the Shannon.

Another important feature of the classroom, especially in winter, was the fire, which was required to be ‘banked-up’ with coal on a regular basis. On occasion, when our ration of coal was used up, Mr. Mangin would send one of the boys down to Billy’s house to borrow a bucket or two of coal, which he would ensure was repaid. The student selected to go to Billy’s house for the coal was always given a reward by Mr. Mangin, which was usually in the form of a couple of ‘Jelly Baby’ sweets that he took from a packet that he always kept in his coat pocket. Sometimes the fire would burn out and on these occasions one of us would be called upon to get it lit again. From a corner of the room we would retrieve several old and well-used exercise books, which we would crumple up before placing them in the hearth. Bits of stick and other kindling would be placed on the top of these crumpled books, while coal was carefully placed upon this. Finally, the exercise book would be set alight and very soon thereafter a warm fire would be blazing in the small hearth. On one occasion I can recall stretching a newspaper across the fireplace, which helped in lighting the fire by causing an upward draught. But, on this occasion the newspaper caught fire and from that moment Mr. Mangin nicknamed me ‘The Arsonist.’

I can recall one time, just after the Christmas break, when the first heavy snows of winter fell across the province and the countryside was almost cut-off from the town. But, in those days, the school did not stop because of the weather. In fact, even if someone had blown up the school the students would have been expected to report to class the next morning. On the occasion to which I refer, however, some person or persons climbed over the school yard wall and stole away the school’s entire supply of coal. Mr. Mangin sent no student to Billy’s to borrow a bucket or two of coal and we had, therefore, no choice but to suffer the cold as best we could. The stone floor of the classroom was constantly wet from the shoes and boots that we all wore, and it was so cold that when we breathed upon the window panes it frosted over immediately. When the door from the classroom to the outside was opened an icy-cold wind would rush in and instantaneously remove all the air that had been warmed by our bodies and breaths.

Under our desks, and as quietly as possible, we would regularly move our feet in a fast, dancing motion, while sitting upon our hands to keep them warm. It would have put you in mind of a flock of swans upon a lake, with our upper bodies unmoving and straight while hidden from view under the desks our feet and legs worked double time in a vain effort to keep them warm. On the coldest days Mr. Mangin would make us stand at our desks and sing “McNamara’s Band”, stamping our feet on the spot as if marching. All the tricks that he did teach us helped us greatly to almost forget just how cold we were. But, most of all, on a freezing-cold day we could always look forward to Mr. Mangin’s science lesson. On a side counter there was a ‘Bunsen Burner’ attached to the gas supply of the classroom. As soon as Mr. Mangin set light to this ‘Bunsen Burner’ everyone in the class knew what was to come, namely the usual experiment that demonstrated the processes of evaporation and condensation. Although it was the same experiment on each occasion we didn’t mind because the ‘Bunsen Burner’ gave us a source of heat around which we could all gather. It was only many years later that I came to understand the true purpose of the experiment when I saw an old uncle set up similar equipment to distil poteen.

I will show you how to get pure water from even the dirtiest of waters,” he would tell us. In a large glass jar he had poured a dark-brown, almost black, liquid. The one occasion when I caught the smell from the container I recall the aromas of treacle, fruit and other sweet things. Mr Mangin would empty some of the liquid into a long glass tube and showed it to the class.

From this liquid,” he would say, “I will show you how a clear, pure, drinkable liquid can be produced.” To us innocent children, of course, there was nothing untoward happening and we would watch attentively as the experiment proceeded. First, Mr. Mangin would set the burner under the long glass tube and allow the flame to bring the dark liquid to the boil. The steam produced by the action was then trapped in a long-necked flask that was hung over a small basin, and the cold-water tap would pour water over this flask. No matter how many times we saw this experiment we were always amazed at what happened. We would see the bubbling liquid create steam and then the steam turned into drops of liquid which quickly fell to the bottom of the flask. The air in the classroom was filled with a sweet, malt smell and the only sound to be heard was the hiss of the ‘Bunsen Burner”. Finally, the burner would be turned off and he would hold up the flask, which now contained a clear liquid. To prove that the liquid was pure to drink he would pour some into a tumbler and delicately bring it to his lips. “That’s pure!” he would say.

Looking back on it now, I can understand why he did not choose any of us to test the liquid and left us to study the scum that had been left behind by the process. After the experiment, while he continued to quench his thirst, Mr. Mangin would ask us questions about what we had seen. To add an interesting item to the experiment he would tell us that if we were trapped in a jungle we could get pure water from dirty river water by doing this. There was, of course, more chance of aliens landing on earth than there was that any of us would ever find ourselves trapped in a jungle. Nevertheless, at least once a week, throughout the winter he would set up the equipment and carry out the same experiment every time.

When I see that old two-roomed school now I can see a patch of new slates on the roof, various repairs to the whitewashed walls, and an ugly iron barrier at the big metal gate, which is there to prevent the children from rushing onto the road immediately after the last bell sounds to send them home. There are no children in that old schoolhouse now, but there are those who look at such a building and wonder just how children received an effective education within its walls. As for me; I have no complaints. I gained an interest in science and, after university, I secured a job in the production department at one of Ireland’s largest whisky manufacturers.

The Stories of Seamus No 8

Curious Coincidences

Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”

When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.

Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.

There was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.

There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have belief in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.

The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.

The Stories of Seamus No 7

Bob Harte

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.

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 Stories of Seamus No 6

Biddy

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.

The Stories of Seamus No. 5

Beggars

This is a tale of Famine Ireland in a time when a Viceroy of the British crown ruled in Dublin and the peasant Irish were dying because they could not afford to eat. They called it a famine but there was plenty of food under British control and they refused to release it to feed the millions that starved throughout Ireland. There were beggars in the towns trying to get enough to feed themselves and their children, but they were not wanted and great efforts were made to remove them. As far as the authorities were concerned it was better to have those starving people out of sight and out of mind.

In the towns the authorities used the offices of the ‘Poor-House’ and the police force to considerably reduce the presence of the Irish peasant beggars. But, in the countryside and remote mountain areas ‘the beggar’ had become and still remained an institution. The peasant beggars abhorred the very idea of the ‘Workhouse’ because of its slave conditions and lack of hygiene, brutal discipline, and backbreaking work. The British put such abhorrence by the peasantry as their inherent stubbornness. It was said they preferred any amount of suffering to confinement, enforced hygiene, and the discipline involved. But, what free man does not prefer the fresh air and freedom to choose, rather than the bars of a jail and being beaten into submission. The following gives a view of the Irish Catholic Peasantry of famine times as seen by those paid allegiance to the British Crown.

It is often reported in commentaries of the time that the Irish poor are indifferent to the basic comforts of life, preferring a more barbaric way of life. It was said that they love freedom, sleeping under a hedge or under the sky eating what and where they can. They were said to be like the dog that preferred freedom and getting the odd scrap of food, to the good feeding and luxurious living conditions of his tied-up friend.

A wretched old beggar woman, decrepit and barefoot, appeared on the front-door steps of a house that she was in the habit of visiting. Those who would give her money would try to convince her to enter the poorhouse for her own good, but however delicately they approached the subject the old woman would reject any suggestion of entering such a place.

“Now, Biddy, it is all very well to go about the place in summer, but in this bitter wintry weather, would you not be better to go where you would have a good bed and shelter, be warm, fed, and comfortably clothed. It can’t be good for you to be shivering with the cold in ragged clothes, and always hungry. Sure, why not try it only for a wee while, you know, until summer comes back? Go on, Biddy, why not try the poorhouse?”

“The poor house!” she cried out angrily. “Sure I’d rather die than go there! I’d rather lie down under the snow at the side of the road and die! But sure the neighbours will help me. There isn’t one that will refuse me a seat by their fireside, or a bed for the night, or maybe a bite and sup of an odd time. And you’re going to give me something yourself, my lady, darling, you are! Don’t I see it in your face? You’re going to bring out the dust of dry tea and the grain of sugar, and the couple of coppers to the poor old granny. Ah yes! And maybe the maids will have an old cast-off petticoat to throw to her, for to keep the life in her old carcase this perishing day.”

It must be said that before the famine of 1845, which brought about a change in the food of the Irish peasant, systematic begging was an annual custom. Potatoes were then the sole food of the peasant classes, and the farmers paid their labourers by allowances of potato-ground measuring a half or quarter acre, and with seed to till it. Money, therefore, was not very often circulated among the peasantry. There was usually and interval of some six weeks between the eating of the last of the old potatoes and the coming in of the new potatoes. This was known as “The Bitter Time” and there was always some privation and distress to be suffered. In such times entire families might leave their cabin, locking the door behind them, and be seen walking the country roads, while the father would go ‘harvesting’ or getting work where he could. As the family went along the roads, stopping at every cabin on their route, a few potatoes would be handed to them, depending upon the stock the donors held. Often, by nightfall, the bag carried on the mother’s back would have enough potatoes to provide a good meal for the family. By such means they continued to survive until the new potatoes were fit to dig. At that time the cabin-door would be unlocked, and plenty of food to eat was once again the order of the day.

In those days, as well as the present, the charity of the poor to the poor in Ireland is widespread and very touching. The people of our country are famed for their good-natured ways and kindly impulses. Moreover, they attach a superstitious, almost religious value to the blessing of the poor, with an equal dread of their curse. There is a story concerning a fatal instance of the latter feeling, which occurred many years ago near the city of Limerick.

A young man fell in love with a girl, but she did not return his affection, and plainly told him that it would be useless to persevere in his pursuit, because she could never care for him. He was broken-hearted by his failure and, fleeing the country, he went to America. The young man’s mother had lost her only son, her pride and joy, and her only support. Being a widow she was maddened with rage and despair at what had happened. The bereaved mother gathered her things and went straight from the ship to the young woman’s house. There she knelt down upon the threshold and, stretching her arms skyward, she called down Heaven’s vengeance on the young girl. With frantic movements she called down terrible curses upon the girl’s head.

By the broken heart of her son; by the widow’s hearth made desolate; by the days and nights of lonely misery before her, she cursed the girl! The young girl was totally appalled by the widow’s bitter words and was superstitiously convinced that her terrible curses would grievously affect her life. She never recovered from the terror and the shock to her nerves of this vindictive assault upon her. The young woman’s health went into a rapid decline, haunted by the old woman’s dreadful curses, and her death confirmed the popular belief in such things.

We can now return to our subject of beggars. Although the use of Indian-corn meal and griddle-bread as articles of food in place of the exclusive potato helped reduce annual begging migrations. The other factors brought into play were an increased wage and the payment of labour in cash instead of kind. The annual scene of beggars moving along the roads soon disappeared, but beggars were still to be found, especially in the tourist season when they would once again be as numerous as flies in summer, and equally troublesome.

Once there was a party of English clergymen visiting Killarney’s beautiful Lake District where they were pestered by beggars, as most travellers usually were. These reverend gentlemen had, for greater convenience, decided to wear less formal clothing, except for one who preferred to wear his clerical outfit, with all its adornments. But, his choice caused him to be mistaken by the local peasants as a Roman Catholic priest wherever he went. He was very startled in the town of Tralee, when a girl threw herself down on her knees before him in the muddy street to ask for his blessing. The abject obeisance of the people to their priests in those days was not a sight to which an English clergyman was accustomed. He did, however, soon become accustomed to the position and even used it for the benefit of the entire group. They were tormented on one occasion the crush and cries of a crowd of beggars who followed them, and the English clergyman stopped quite suddenly. Drawing a line across the road with his walking stick, the clergyman told the followers, “Pass that mark, and the curse of the priest will be upon you!” In an instant the entire crowd of beggars had fled.

On another occasion this same clergyman used what he had learned in the cause of humanity. The party were travelling by jaunting car and, as they travelled up a steep hill, the driver began flogging the horse unmercifully.

“My friend,” said the clergyman, addressing the driver, “Do you know what will happen to you, if you do that, when you go to the next world?”

“O no, your Reverence. And sure how could I know that? What is it now?” pulling off his hat and looking very frightened.

“You will be turned into a horse, and devils will be employed to flog you, just as you’re now flogging that poor beast of yours.”

“Ah, don’t, yer Reverence! Don’t say that now! For the love of God, sir, don’t! And I’ll promise on my two knees to give him the best of treatment from this onward, and never to lay the whip into him that way again.”

For those of you who have witnessed the beggars in towns, you will undoubtedly agree that their remarks are often very caustic. They also indulge in personalities in a way more witty than polite, when they are unsuccessful in their demands. A late but very well-known Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, was remarkable for having a peculiarly shaped and very ugly nose. On one occasion while resisting the pleas of a woman for “a ha’penny for the honour of the blessed Virgin,” she turned upon him. “May the Lord forgive you! And may He may preserve your eyesight, for truly you have a terrible bad nose for spectacles.”

Another spiteful old hag of a woman came at a well known member of the aristocracy for alms, after following him down the entire length of what is now O’Connell Street. The baronet had tender feet, which with several other infirmities caused him to walk not to gracefully. “You won’t give it, won’t you?’ the woman cried out in an angry whine. “Well then, God help the poor! And look now, if your heart was as soft as your feet, it wouldn’t be in vain we’d be asking for your charity this day.”

“That the ‘grace of God’ may never enter into your house but on parchment!” was the terse and bitter curse in which another old woman gave vent to her wrathful disappointment. She knew that all writs were written on parchment, and had probably learned the formula with which they commence from cruel experience, “Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen, &c.”

There is, of course, the story of Captain Chevely and his meeting with beggars in Mullingar. When he was about to be quartered with his troop of men in the town, he was told by a friend that the place was infested with beggars. He was also told that his predecessor, the commanding of the previous troop, had been greatly annoyed by them. Chevely listened attentively and resolved to take measures to deal with the problem. On the night of his arrival at the hotel he summoned the waiter and said, “I am reliably informed that you have a great many beggars in this town.”

“Yes sir! We certainly have,” replied the waiter.

“I wish to see them all of them, collected together under the windows of this hotel. Do you think that could be managed?”

“Yes, if you wish, sir,” said the man, with the usual waiter-like readiness to promise everything under the sun, albeit he was a little taken aback by so unusual a request.

“Very well, let them be all here to-morrow at twelve o’clock precisely.”

It was a motley assembly of rags and wretchedness that was presented beneath the hotel windows the next day. The news had spread like wild-fire, and from every lane and alley of the town they came crowding in. There was the blind, the lame, the maimed, the aged beggars, deformed, idiots, and the idle in all their varieties. Curiosity and greed were equally on their minds, and the excitement of the eager crowd may be imagined. Then, when the captain appeared on the hotel balcony, a breathless silence came over the crowd.

“Are you all here?” he asked, “every one?”

“Every mother’s son of us, if it pleases your honour, except for Blind Bess with her crippled son, and the General.”

“Then call Blind Bess and the General,” instructed the captain. “I want you all here.”

“Sure enough, here’s Bess,” cried a voice, as a large fat beggar in the shape of a blind woman, with a sturdy cripple strapped on her shoulders, came in a hurry.

“And here’s the ‘General’ driving like a mad man up the street. But sure your honour won’t give him anything—a gentleman that keeps his carriage!” shouted a joker in the crowd. Coming along the street was a dilapidated old hand-cart, being dragged by a girl. It was covered at top with a piece of tattered oil-cloth, and from a hole cut in the middle of this protruded the head of ‘the General’, on which sat what remained of an old cocked-hat. The shrivelled face of the old cripple was half covered with a grizzly beard, and his rheumy eyes peered helplessly about in a feeble stare.

“Now,” said the captain, “ladies and gentlemen”. At this there was a murmur in the crowd, especially among the females.

“Ah then, bless his darling face, it is him that has the civil tongue in him, and knows how to speak to the poor!”

There’s not a bit of pride in him. No more than in an unborn baby!

“Sure anyone would know he was good man, you just have to look at him! Isn’t it written upon his features?”

“He’s no old misery like the one that was here before him, that old bastard never gave a poor man as much as a dog would keep in his fist.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are, I am told, all assembled here. I have requested your attendance in order to state that I have given, for your benefit, one pound to the parson, and one pound to the priest of the parish. And I further inform you that during my stay in Mullingar, not a single farthing beyond these sums will I bestow on any one of you!”

A howl of disappointment arose from the assembly, but the captain did not wait to note the effect of his words. He disappeared into his room in time to be out of reach of the chorus of abuse, which his enraged audience hurled at him after they got over their first surprise over—his speech.

The Stories of Seamus No.4

Absence makes…

She was just a little girl, slender and insignificant. It was only her love that made her heroic. Meanwhile, the man was big, broad, a man to be noticed in a crowd, but his love made him as helpless as a little child. They were standing opposite each other in the poor, shabbily furnished little room. His eyes scanned her face wildly, incredulously, but her eyes were, all the time, fixed upon a great hole in the faded carpet on the floor. Her mind seemed to be in a state of chaos, for with his eagerly spoken words of love came others that totally bewildered her. Alongside the man’s passionate words of love for her, his yearning to have her for himself and the promise to live and work only for her happiness, the man added other words. He spoke of his ambition and great hopes, of his intention to travel the world far and wide, of his hardships and discomforts that he would have to bear for the sake of a book that was yet to be written. It would be a book, he was certain, that would bring fame and great satisfaction to its author. As he spoke, his words held a deep note of earnestness and strength, which overpowered those eager, pleasant tones that had been pleading to her so wildly.

“I called you ‘Kathleen My Darling’ last night. Do you remember? You smiled and blushed as I spoke!” he protested to her. “Why did you do it, Kathleen? I know you love me, you do! Why don’t you speak to me? I tell you, I have seen it in your eyes. So, why do you deny it now?”

The girl shook her head, and in an agonising tone of voice she pleaded with him to tell her, “How long? How long?”

The man held out his arms to her despairingly and in a humble, quiet voice that was unnatural to him he asked, “Won’t you try, then? For Kitty, little Kitty, I cannot live without you!”

Calmly and quietly she told him, “I have a singing lesson to give at one o’clock,” and in response the man’s arms fell limply to his sides.

The sun was streaming through the window and on to the pretty, pale, face of the girl, as well as on to the white, haggard face of the man who stood opposite her. There were no shadows in that little room, for it was all glare and shabbiness. “I will leave,” the man said curtly, and then his eyes began to fill with an angry fire. “But, you are a flirt! Do you hear me, a pitiable and heartless flirt! You have led me on and played with my feelings for you. You have softened your eyes, made your lips sweet and tempting, and amuse yourself at my expense! How can you do such a thing?” He gave a little cynical laugh and then continued, “You have been very clever in your own way – you know——” and he moved towards the door. As he reached the door, he stopped and turned toward the girl, saying icily, “I beg your pardon, I should not have spoken so to a woman. Good-bye.”

“You will begin travelling now?” she asked.

He laughed and said, “Why keep up the pretence? It’s rather late now to pretend you have any interest in my life.” For her part, she was silent and watched as he paused at the door. This was a proud man, and he had an iron will. But his love for this woman had made him helpless and weak as a little child. “Kathleen,” he breathed, “you are sure?” As he awaited her reply for a moment, she stood still and rigid as a statue. “Oh, little one, I love you so much,” He sighed, his voice soft and caressing. Her love, however, made her heroic and strong. She raised her head and steadily told him, “I am certain,” she said steadily.

The young girl sat in a corner of the warm, well-furnished drawing-room, and she wished that people would not nod and stare at her so energetically as they passed by. She was used to it by now, but she had grown very tired of it. In fact, she had never liked it, but accepted that fame brings notoriety with it, and notoriety, unfortunately, brings nods, whispers and stares. She was dressed beautifully. It was not a major surprise, for she had always liked pretty things, and now she could have as many as she wanted. But, a man standing in a doorway across the road was watching her with contempt in his eyes. He had not seen her for five years, and as he stood there another man approached him and spoke. “Looking at our wee star, are you?” the passer-by asked. “That wee girl is the best thing that ever happened to this place, you know. Have you ever heard her sing? No? Well, maybe you’re just back from your travels and sure you can go to the Town Hall tomorrow evening. She’s going to sing there, and her voice is something wonderful to hear. Now, I never go to hear the girl myself for it makes me so sad, like a miserable sinner somehow. But, I’ve heard her twice, and then I stopped, because I didn’t like feeling so bad.”

The man slowly walked away again, and the watcher with contempt in his eyes continued to stare at her. The girl’s head was turned away from him, allowing him only a view of her soft, fair cheek and little ear nestling in a soft mass of hair, a white throat, and a lot of pale chiffon and silk. And suddenly the cheek and even the neck were flooded with a red blush, and then they looked whiter than before. He wondered at the cause for a moment, and he smiled bitterly as he did so. The girl’s eyes, however, remained firmly fixed, eager, and fascinated on the long looking-glass before her. But, she was not looking at herself. Afterwards he sought her out. “You were wise,” he spoke mockingly, and her normally soft, sweet eyes grew dark with pain. Meanwhile, he took the vacant seat beside her and played with the costly fan he had picked up from a dressing table. “I must congratulate you,” he said indifferently and with a wave towards her dress and the diamonds around her throat he added, “This is much better than the old days.”

“Yes,” she replied softly “But, perhaps you have forgotten since it has been, how long? Is it ten, no, five years ago?”

“No.” For a moment she furled and unfurled the fan in silence, admiring her beauty and wondering who had given her the Parma violets blooms for her hair. “Your book?” she asked timidly. But, as he stared back at her blankly she could feel herself begin to slowly redden. “You were going to travel and write about your adventures in strange places …” she continued falteringly.

“Oh, yes, I believe I was, some five years ago,” he replied and her face returned to its normal colour.

“Have you travelled far?” she asked.

“Oh, yes! I’ve done nothing else for five years. I’ve shot tigers in India and bears in the Himalayas. I’ve lived with Chinamen and African tribesmen, even making friends with cannibals on one occasion. Oh! I’ve had a fine time!” he declared with a laugh. Her eyes were filled with yearning as her hostess brought up a man to be introduced. Then, when she turned again to the other man she saw that the chair was empty again and she did not see him again for two weeks.

In those days there was an added sadness in her beautiful voice as she sang. But, although she brought tears to many thousands of eyes, her own were dry and restless. It was now beginning to dawn on her that she had made a mistake five years ago.

“Have you seen Hugh Hagan?” she heard one man say to another. “Never have I been so disappointed in a man in all of my life. Several years past he had the promise of being able to achieve some fame. Those articles that he wrote about ‘Foreign Ways and Customs’ made quite a sensation, you know. There was also some talk of wild travels and a book that was going to be a ‘Best Seller”. Well, he has had the travels alright, but where’s the book?”

“It’s down to the usual thing. A woman,” the other man replied. “Didn’t you know? Some pretty young thing. The usual scenario, but the cost to him was heavier than he could handle. It knocked the life out of him, you know. I don’t think I have ever saw a fellow so hard hit. That all happened five years ago, and he’s never written a line since. Poor fellow!”

The knowledge that she had made a mistake five years ago was becoming much clearer in her mind now and, at the end of the fortnight, she met with him and asked him to come and see her. Although he smiled pleasantly he chose not to visit and this upset her very much, causing her eyes to swell in her small, sad face. Then, she met him again, and when she asked him why he had not come, he looked down into her soft, sweet eyes and immediately began to feel love for her weakening his will once again. Once more he promised that he would come to visit her. But, when he came, he only stayed with her for five minutes. As she opened the door to him, he looked at her sternly and greeted her tersely. “Why do you want me?” he asked her, and watched the colour come and go in her cheeks with his pitiless eyes.

“We used to be friends,” she replied in a quiet and halting voice. He stood before her and laughed.

“Never! I never felt friendship for you,” he said mockingly, “nor you for me. You forget. Five years is a long time, but I have a retentive memory. I forget nothing.”

“Nor I,” she murmured.

“No? Then why did you ask me to come and see you?” When she gave him no answer, he looked round the pretty shaded room for a moment and he laughed again. “There is a difference in you too,” he told her.

She looked up at him quickly and confidently said, “I am the same.”

“Are you?” he asked and there was anger in his eyes.

“Listen,” he said, in a low, tense voice, “I am five years wiser than I was, then and I will never be anyone’s plaything again. You have ruined my life; doesn’t that make you happy? I would have staked my life on your goodness and your purity in those days. But, I can’t allow myself to believe in the goodness of any woman since you, with your angel’s eyes, proved to be so false. I used to be full of ambition and hope, but you killed both in me. I even tried to write my book after we had split, and I found that I couldn’t. Now, I shall never do anything and never be anything. I despise myself, and it’s not a nice feeling for any man to live with. It makes men desperate. But, still I love you. Do you understand? I have loved you all the time, and I hate myself for it.” His voice changed. “You may triumph,” he said, “but now that you understand, I will not come again.”

She stretched out her arms after him, but he was gone. And in that one moment she knew quite clearly that she had made a terrible mistake five years ago. She did not see him again for three and a half weeks. Then she saw him, one day when he thought he was alone. From a distance she studied his face and her eyes ached at what they saw, bringing her almost to tears. Then she decided to go to where he was sitting, and she touched him gently on his arm. “Well?” he asked, feeling the softness of her touch.

“Will you come,” she said in a soft voice, “to see me——”

“Thanks, but no thank you,” he told her as his eyes rested bitterly on her rich gown. Nevertheless, it came across his mind again just how wise she had been. Being tied to him, he was convinced, she could not have been as she was now.

“I have something I must say to you,” she said nervously, “will you please come, just this once?” He looked down into those soft, warm eyes with the beautiful light in them.

“I would rather not,” he said gently, but firmly.

The weariness that was in his eyes brought a sob to her throat and she pleaded with him, “Ah, do! I won’t ask you again.”

He looked at her, not really believing she meant what she said, and then he turned away. She had looked the same way that she had looked five years ago. Then she laid a small, despairing hand on his, and the iciness of her touch went to his heart. “I will come,” he said gently, and went away. On this occasion, when he came, he wondered at the apparent agitation in her small white face. Her eyes were red with the tears she had cried, and he waited silently and watched her twist her hands restlessly together. He noticed that she was trembling, and he drew a chair forward. “Please, will you sit down?” he said.

She sat down in a nest of softest cushions. “I, I,” she began to speak hesitatingly, and put up her hand up to her throat, “I want to, to, to explain.” His face darkened as she rose from her seat restlessly and faced him. His thoughts turned to that time when they had faced each other before, in the shabby, glaring little room, and his face hardened toward her. “When you,” she began, “I thought it was for you. I had heard you say.”

“Are you going back five years?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then please don’t,” he said. “There can be no good come from it, and to me at least it is not a pleasant subject.”

“I must!” she burst into tears. “Oh! Can’t you help me? It is so hard!”

As she held out her hands pathetically toward him, a darkness came over his tanned face, and he stood still, looking at her with a strange expression. “I think I will go,” he said; “there is no use in prolonging this.”

“Do you love me still?” she cried suddenly.

He turned on her in a white passion of anger. “You’re not content yet?” he breathed. “What are you made of? Do you want me to show you all my degradation? Why? Oh, Kitty, Kitty, be merciful! Be true to those eyes of yours.” He abruptly stopped speaking and moved over to the door.

“Hugh, I love you!” She said in the quietest of whispers, but it forced him to stop, and it brought a great light of happiness leaping into his eyes. Just as quickly that light died down again.

“It is too late!” he said wearily and turned away from her again.

“Hugh, please listen! I have always loved you, even five years ago. It was for your sake …”

“Kitty?” he said uncertainly, as he turned back to her.

She went on bravely, encouraged by the deep love she felt for him. “I was a poor and insignificant person, while you were ambitious and clever. I had heard all your dreams for fame and greatness. Hugh, how could you travel into those wild countries with me? I knew you would give up your dreams, and how could I bear that? To be a drag, a hindrance to you! And in the coming years I thought you would resent me. Hugh, you were poor, too, though not so poor as me. I did it for you and it nearly killed me, Hugh. I was ill after we parted, but it was for you!”

As her voice died away into silence, Hugh stood very still, and his face turned was white, as if it all the blood had drained from it. But within his eyes there was a new reverence for the woman before him. “Forgive me!” he said urgently.

She smiled softly at him and said, “Oh, yes.” The cynicism had gone from his face, as well as the hardness and bitterness he had felt.

“Oh, can’t you help me? It is so hard!” He pleaded and, as she looked at him wistfully, he turned his head away from her eyes and hid his face in his hands. “It was a mistake,” he said, slowly, and dully.

“Yes,” she replied softly, and she waited to see his face. When he finally looked up she tried to read his face but failed. It was sad, and set, and yet there was also a new light there.

Hugh now gently took her hands in his, and told her, “Kathleen, God knows what I think of you, and I can work now. So, Good-bye to you my dear.” She was mystified by his response and she raised her eyes anxiously to his. He answered the silent question in those eyes, very gently, but with a firmness that would ensure there was no mistake. “You are famous,” he said, “when I have made a name for myself in the world I will come to you. Will you wait for me, Kitty?”

“For ever, Hugh,” she answered, knowing that this answer was enough for him.

He now bent forward and tenderly kissed her hands.

****

Kitty knelt at the side of Hugh’s bed. She paid no attention to the nurse at the other side of the room, and her warm, soft tears flowed from her eyes, wetting his hand. His right hand and arm were swathed in bandages, and he smiled sadly as he looked up at her. “I am a failure,” he said.

“Ah, no, no! All of Ireland is filled with praise for your name, Hugh,” she said, her face all alight with pride and joy. “You are famous now!”

A little flush rose to his white face as she spoke. “Nonsense,” he replied, “rescuing a woman and a few children from being burnt to death. Sure, anyone would have done the same.”

“Ah, no, Hugh! Not just anyone! Brave men shrank back from that storm-tossed sea and burning ship!”

He lifted his bandaged hand and after looking at it for a few moments he said, “I must learn to write with my left hand.”

Kitty bent closer to him and whispered, “Let me write for you. Let me finish your book, Hugh, while you dictate it to me. I do not sing now in public, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” he said and drew her closer to him, resting cheek against her soft hair. “I said I would not come to you again until I had made a name for myself in the world. I am a wreck now! I shall be a wreck for a long while …”

“But you are famous, my darling!” she interrupted him lovingly.

“I cannot do without you any longer, Kitty,” he sighed, “I am a beaten man at last. Will you take a wreck?”

“I will take you, Hugh, a famous …”

“A famous wreck,” he finished with a smile.

The Stories of Seamus No.3

Bisto and the Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be quiet, woman,” snarled Bisto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzie Kelly was a lady in her early sixties, a widow, and the housekeeper for the priests in the parochial house. Father Lennon always enjoyed his Sunday morning stroll and he always looked forward to the Sunday Dinner that Lizzie prepared. There was always a Steak Roast, done to perfection in the oven and accompanied with peas, carrots, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes and a thick, brown, onion gravy that sat in a porcelain gravy-boat in the centre of the table. Father Lennon could smell the beautiful aromas of the Sunday meal wafting from Lizzie’s kitchen. She, however, met him at the door of her kitchen and told him rather sternly, “There is someone here who has been waiting almost an hour for you, Father.”

“Who would that be?” he asked.

Lizzie was back at her usual station, fussing around all the pots and pans that were smoking and hissing on top of the stove. But she stopped for a moment and told him, “It’s that woman from the Primary School, Father. She is sitting in the parlour.”

“Ms. Ryan the headmistress?” he asked.

“That’s right,” replied Lizzie without even looking at him. “It’s Philomena Ryan, with all her airs and graces,” she sneered, putting her nose in the air at the very mention of Philomena Ryan’s name.

Father Lennon was puzzled as to why Philomena Ryan would ask for him. “I wonder what she would want me for?” he said aloud.

Lizzie’s didn’t know and could care less about what Philomena Ryan wanted: the food was almost ready to be served and she had no time to spend answering such questions. More importantly she did not like Philomena and just wanted her to leave. “Now, that woman would not tell the likes of me what she wanted, Father,” Lizzie told the priest. He immediately realised the error of his ways, for he knew that there was not one person in the entire district who would confide in Lizzie Kelly. She knew it as well as he did.” Better you go and see to it Father, you have only ten minutes until I put the lunch on the table.”

“Better get to it,” he said as he left the kitchen and Lizzie could get on with the meal. He walked across the hallway to the parlour, where the headmistress was waiting for him.

“Hello Ms. Ryan,” Father Lennon greeted the lady, politely. She was sitting on a high back chair that sat at a huge, highly polished, rosewood table near to the window. “I am so sorry for keeping you, but the duties of a priest you know,” Fr. Lennon explained to her with a polite smile. But Philomena Ryan maintained her stern pose as if she was set in granite. She was a typical middle-aged spinster and was totally self-obsessed with her status as an important personage in the town. Usually Ms. Ryan was usually the first to be consulted by certain groups, concerning “run of the mill” problems encountered within this Parish. Only, on this occasion, it was the mighty one who was the person needing guidance on handling some difficulty or other.

“It is of no concern Father. I fully understand” she politely assured Fr. Lennon. “But, the matter I need to speak to you about is an extremely serious problem,” Philomena told him in a quiet voice that was deliberately hard to hear since she did not want to be overheard discussing such things with a priest. “This problem, Father, is so serious that it requires your immediate attention before things get out of hand.”

The priest could hear a definitive tone of concern in her voice and he was eager to discover what had caused her so much consternation, “My dear Ms. Ryan, whatever has caused you so much trouble? Please tell me what has happened?”

“It’s that old pervert, O’Dee, Father,” she told him quietly and took a quick glance around the room to make sure no one else could hear.

“Slinky O’Dee?” Father Lennon asked in a similarly quiet voice. He should have known that it would be about that lecherous old man. Almost every other day the priests or the police received a complaint about this troublemaker and, yet, the priest was slightly amused by this mention of one of the district’s oldest perverts.

Ms. Ryan’s face blushed red as she answered, “Yes Father. I believe that is the name he uses to describe it.” She lowered her eyes to the ground in embarrassment at the fact that she had to discuss such things with a member of the clergy.

“Calls what, Ms. Ryan?” asked Father Lennon, already knowing the answer but wanting to make things a little bit more difficult for this interfering busybody.

Again, her eyes scanned the room in search of prying ears before she answered him, very quietly, “His thing, Father.”

“His what?” asked the priest, pretending lack of understanding.

“His penis,” Philomena hissed out at him, as if spitting the words out of her mouth. She was annoyed at having been obliged to use the word, which she believed no lady should have to utter.

“Ohhh! I see” said Fr. Lennon,” His thing?”

“Yes, Father,” the embarrassed woman told him. “He has been exposing his “Slinky” to the girls on their way home from school after classes.”

“Disgusting beast,” the priest said. “And where does he expose his Slinky?”

“He lies in wait in the trees and bushes around the corner from the bus stop. When the girls least expect it, he jumps out from the trees into the middle of the girls, wiggling it about in front of these children. He is a disgusting little man and should be put away,” she demanded. Then, believing she had misspoke in the presence of the priest, she stopped and apologized, “I beg your pardon for my coarse language and anger.”

“Please Ms. Ryan,” he assured her. “There is no need for embarrassment. Your feelings are quite understandable under the circumstances.” He contemplated for a moment then, speaking directly to her, he said, “Something must be done.”

She smiled slightly at Father Lennon’s assurances and continued, “He has done the same thing with older girls and even women, but he soon found that they were fit for him and his ways.” Ms. Ryan pointed out. “Mrs. Brady grabbed him by the collar one evening and gave him a good hefty kick in his Slinky. He couldn’t walk properly for a week after it.”

Fr. Lennon laughed to himself quietly at the idea of wee Mrs. Brady assaulting Slinky O’Dee. But Father Lennon quickly realised that incident was a serious escalation in “Slinky” O’Dee’s actions and that he had to do something to stop him.

“This might mean we will have to involve the police,” Fr. Lennon suggested and noticed that Ms. Ryan flinched, almost in horror, at the prospect of involving the police.

“Dear God, Father,” she said. “I don’t know about involving the police. It would mean I would be called to give evidence against the man. We must think about the school and about the children. Whatever would people say?”

Father Lennon fully appreciated the woman’s concerns and tried to ease her anxieties. “Just you leave it to me Ms. Ryan. I will sort it out quietly,” Fr. Lennon assured her.

“Thank you, Oh, thank you, Father,” she said with great relief. Now that she had told the Priest she felt much better. Furthermore, she knew that whatever the priest eventually decided to do, it would be the right thing. Much more content, Ms. Ryan shook Fr. Lennon’s hand firmly and left the presbytery.

As he closed the front door on the departing Ms. Ryan he sighed with relief, “Now for my dinner.” It was yet another duty done but not yet fully completed Fr. Lennon said aloud to himself with a sense of relief.

The next day, Monday, at quarter-past two Father Lennon went into the hallway of the parochial house and put on his overcoat. He had decided to go to the bus stop where, it was alleged, Slinky O’Dee was causing some trouble. The children would soon be getting out of school and he wanted to get himself into position before anyone else arrived. When he reached the bus stop he chose to conceal himself in some bushes, which gave him an excellent view of the road. He heard the school bell ring loudly in the afternoon quietness, informing the children that it was time to burst out of the gates and go home. But, as the sound of the school bell ringing came to an end, Father Lennon heard a suspicious rustle among the bushes a few yards from where he was hiding. It was Slinky and he waited until several young girls had gathered at the bus stop before bursting out of the bushes. Out he jumped with his trousers around his ankles and exposed the entire lower half of his body, making lewd gestures and laughing lecherously. Swiftly the priest moved against him, grabbing Slinky by the scruff of his neck and pulling him backwards into the bushes as the girls looked on in amazement. Once he had gotten Slinky into cover of the bushes, Father Lennon lifted his big, heavy boot and planted it firmly into the old pervert’s backside. Slinky howled with the pain as the priest’s boot connected with his cocyx and, just for good measure, Father Lennon gave him two more hefty kicks in his rear end. Slinky screamed loudly with the pain and began to beg Father Lennon for mercy. The priest showed mercy by letting him go and pushing him away but, the force of Fr. Lennon’s push threw Slinky to the ground, where his bare buttocks settled into a patch of stinging nettles and thistles. Father Lennon bent over the crying man and warned him, “Now you listen to me, Slinky O’Dee! You ever do anything like this again I will give you the biggest kicking you have ever gotten in your life. Then, when I am done I will ensure you get jail as a sex pervert. Now get out of here and sin no more.” Still screeching, Slinky squirmed and shuffled to remove his red, bruised and stinging backside out of the nettles. Very little was seen of him again in the town and there were no more incidents reported. The duties of a priest in Ireland are not just to lead people in prayer.