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.

Lady Betty

The Irish Hangwoman

The Noose

The following is an old tale, whose source I do not know. The problem is that we do not know if it is true or simply another superstition.

The old jail of Roscommon stood, and, although now converted to other purposes, still stands in the marketplace, in the centre of the town. It is a very high, dark, and gloomy-looking building, with a castellated top, like one of those ancient fortresses that we have often seen tower above the houses in many of the cities on the Continent. It can be seen from a great distance outside the town and, when added to the very extensive ruins of ‘O’Connor’s Castle’, in the suburbs, as well as the beautiful abbey that sits on the other side of the town, it appears to be another example of architecture that had been constructed during the middle-ages.

The fall from the gallows at Roscommon jail was considered by many to be the highest ‘fatal drop’ in Ireland. It consisted of a small doorway at the front of the building’s third storey, with a simple iron beam and pulley above. The gallows stage upon which the condemned stood awaiting execution was merely a horizontal door that was hinged to the wall beneath. When the appointed execution time arrived, this door was let fall by means of a sliding-bolt, which was pulled from the main wall, and the condemned person was consequently hanged. This elevated platform of execution was a fearful sight to behold for the folk of the town, and it was a unique in its construction. However, the gallows were no more unique than the person who acted as executioner and carried out their duty on that platform. This was no decrepit wretch of a human being, or a crime-hardened ruffian. Neither was it one of those secret and mysterious personages, who were occasionally produced by the authorities, disguised by mask or hood, to undertake this dreadful trade in public. Removing the most likely candidates for the role, you might wonder who was left that would not recoil from the unpleasant and terrible actions that were carried out on these high gallows. In fact, it was a female! She was a middle-aged, stoutly built, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking woman. She was widely known as ‘Lady Betty’, who carried out the final judgement and was regarded as the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit court for many years, with Roscommon being her main place of business.

Children born or reared in County Roscommon, two centuries ago, would often be frightened, when mischievous, into ‘being good,’ and going to sleep, and not crying when left alone in the dark, by the promise of a visit by a ‘Pooka’, or, by being told Lady Betty would get them. There is little firm evidence of ‘Lady Betty’s’ life and what we have learned about her is mostly hearsay. We are told that she was a person who had a very violent temper, although her manners were said to be rather above those of the common folk, and she was supposed to have possessed some formal education. It was rumoured that she was born and raised in the County Kerry, and that by her harsh treatment of her only son she drove him away from her at an early age. Apparently, he enlisted in the army and, after many years, he returned with a small fortune in his pocket, which he had gained through his many campaigns. On his return home he knocked at his father’s door and asked if he could get a night’s lodging. It appears that he was determined to see for himself whether the brutal mother he had left behind had in any way repented for what she had done. He wanted to know if she had softened her ways over the years before he would consider revealing his identity. He was brought into the house but was not recognised by anyone. The mother, however, discovered that the ‘stranger’ had quite a bit of money on him and during the night, as the man slept, she coldly murdered him. The crime was quickly discovered, and the wretched woman was sentenced to be hanged. She had to share the ‘dock’ along with the usual sheep-stealers, ‘Whiteboys’, thieves, and ruffians who had ham-strung cattle. Such criminals were usually brought into the dock seven or eight at a time and were invariably executed within twenty-four-hours after being sentenced by the court. But, on this occasion, no executioner could be found despite the best of efforts. The local sheriff and his deputy, considering themselves to be men of refinement, education, humanity, and sensibility, would not carry out such an odious duty. They maintained this attitude although it was a part of the office they had sworn to undertake, and for which they received payment. The wretched, murderous woman was the only person in the jail who could be found to perform the executions, and under the name of ‘Lady Betty’ she carried them out without mask or disguise. For many years after this she officiated as hangwoman and she used to publicly flog criminals in the streets, as a part of her office. There are numerous stories told about this woman’s exploits and we have not enough room here to relate them all. But we can mention one extraordinary feature of her character, which was the habit she had of drawing portraits of all those whom she had executed on the walls of her room with a burnt stick.

Roscommon Jail