Many, many years ago the weddings of the Irish country peasants were conducted by the priest, who was paid by the voluntary contributions of those guests attending the wedding. The ceremony itself was usually celebrated in the evening and was followed, especially among the wealthier farming classes, by a great feast, to which the priest was always invited. After the supper, when the company are still merry with the food and drink, they have consumed, the hat was passed around for contributions.
Kitty Malone was the prettiest girl in the entire parish, the bridegroom was the luckiest of men on his wedding day. was the bridegroom. You wouldn’t have thought that if you had seen the expression on the man’s face as he stood, looking very ill at ease in a stiff, shiny, brand-new, tight-fitting suit of wedding clothes. Yet, he was the fortunate man to have won Kitty’s heart and was about to claim a beautiful bride, who had fifty pounds to her fortune and three fine cows.
Most of the guests, however, were looking at Kitty. She was sitting beside the priest, very pretty and modest, blushing at the clergyman’s broad jokes. But the female guests were admiring the beautiful ‘white frock’ that she was wearing, many of them envious of its ‘bow-knots’ and trimmings of white satin that adorned the many-skirted garment. “It’s as good as new,” the lady’s maid at the big house assured her when she had bought it. “It was made by one of the finest dressmakers in London, and it has only been worn at a couple of balls. Her ladyship is very particular about her clothes and wouldn’t stand for the slightest sign of a crush or soiling on her gown.”
There is no place where a priest is so good-humoured as when at a wedding. There, in the middle of his jokes and his jollity, he keeps his attention focused on the future dues he would get. All the while, to all the guests, he appears to be absorbed in giving his attention to the pretty bride, whose health he had just drunk to in a steaming tumbler of whisky-punch. But, Father Murphy kept his business eye on the preparations that were being made for sending the plate around the room for his benefit.
The stirring began at the end of the table where the farmers were gathered in a large group, and all of them dressed in their finery. Wearing their large heavy greatcoats of fine cloth, their finest trousers, and shiny shoes that reflected the candlelight as they walked. Their lady wives and daughters all dressed in capacious blue, green or scarlet cloth cloaks with a silk-lined hood, which, like the greatcoats of the men, are an indispensable article of clothing in social functions among their class, even on the bad days. And there, as usual, in the middle of that group was Paddy Ryan, who was a sworn friend and supporter of Father Murphy. Paddy was rather small in build and one of the least well-off men in the parish when it came to the possession of worldly goods. But although he had neither a large holding or dairy cattle Paddy was very popular and was considered by most of the men as being good company. Nevertheless, such was his loyalty to the priest, that he would have gone through fire and water to serve his Reverence. As the priest caught sight of his devoted follower, his mind concentrated on Paddy’s actions to the extent that a very nice compliment he was making to the bride was interrupted.
At first, Paddy Ryan took a hold of the collecting plate and appeared to be about to carry it around the guests. Then, as if suddenly remembering something important that he had forgotten, he stopped and threw the plate down on the table with a clatter and a bang, which cause the bride’s mother to wince, for it was one of the plates from her best china set. Paddy, however, now began to try all the pockets in his clothes. He searched his waistcoat, trousers, and the pockets of his greatcoat, one after another, but did not seem to find what he had been looking for. At last, after much hunting and shaking, and many grimaces of disappointment, Paddy seized the object of his search, and from some unknown depths, a large tattered leather pocket-book was withdrawn with great care. By this time, however, because he made that much fuss during his search, now everyone’s attention was fixed upon him. With great deliberation, he opened the pocket-book and peered inside, after which, having first ensured by a covert glance around that the guests were watching him, he took out a folded bank-note. He took great care unfolding the bank-note and, after spreading out on the table, he ostentatiously flattened it out smoothly to ensure that all who saw it might read the ‘Ten Pounds’ that was inscribed upon it!
Not surprisingly there was a sudden rumble of astonishment among the guests, with certain signs of dismay being seen among the richer portion. The thick, money-filled wallets, that only a few moments before were being brandished by their owners, were now quickly and stealthily pushed back into pockets again. For several moments there was a pause among the crowd that was followed by a great amount of whispering as the farmers began to consult one another. While this continued there were many anxious and meaningful looks directed to these farmers by their wives, along with various nudges, and severe digs into their ribs. In such circumstances as these, there was always great rivalry in the giving of offerings. Mister Hanratty, who drove his family to Mass every Sunday in his own jaunting car, would certainly not want to be seen giving less than Mister Wilson, who was also a charitable sort of man and earned plenty of money from his butter in the city market. Now, there was the threat of being outdone by the likes of Paddy Ryan! To contribute five pounds to the priest’s collection, when the likes of Ryan was seen by all to give ten pounds, could not even be considered! So, the result, after Paddy had put his note on the plate with a complacent flourish and had started to go around everyone with the collection plate, was the largest collection that Father Murphy had ever seen, and he was overjoyed as he began to stuff his pockets with notes.
But, as the priest was leaving the Malone home, Paddy came up to him and took hold of the bridle of the priest’s horse. “That was a quare good turn that I have done your Reverence this night, didn’t I? Such a collection of notes and piles of silver and coppers I have never laid eyes on before! Sure, I thought the plate would break in two halves with the weight of it. And now” — he took a quick look around to ensure there was no one listening to them and began to whisper, “you can slip my ten-pound note back to me.’
“Your ten-pound note, Paddy? What do you mean by asking for it back? Is it that you want me to give you back part of my dues?”
‘Ah now! Father Murphy, surely you are not so innocent as to think that note was mine? Sure, where would a poor man like me come upon such an amount of money like that? Ten pounds, Father! Didn’t I borrow it, from yourself Father, for the scam? And what a mighty good and profitable scam it was. Didn’t I tell you that the sight of me putting it on the plate would draw every coin out of all their pockets? By the good Lord, it did!’ This was, of course, a fact that the priest could not deny and, along with some interest, he refunded Paddy’s clever decoy.
You would never have described Jimmy Joe Cullen as being a young man, even if you were the most kindly of his neighbours. The same man, however, would not be at all pleased to hear any person describe him as being an old man. After all, Jimmy Joe was the youngest of three sons born to the Cullen family but, unlike his brothers, he had lived at home for all his fifty years. Quite recently, however, with the passing of his father, Jimmy Joe had inherited the home place and he made plans to improve his new-found status among the local population.
Jimmy Joe was already a well-known figure in the district, but many of those who knew him well were convinced that the man was not exactly the ‘sharpest knife in the box’. But, despite what others thought about him, Jimmy Joe had done well for himself in the world. Although he had no education qualifications, he had worked his way up the ladder from ordinary labourer to the position of Clerk of Works for the Housing Executive of Northern Ireland. But this post appeared to be the pinnacle of his career advancement since he had remained in this same post for over eight years. Despite his best efforts, and his constant attention to detail, it appeared to Jimmy Joe that he had now risen through the ranks and attained the highest level that he was ever going to achieve. He had begun to wonder if this was due to the low quality of education that he had or was it something else that was preventing him from taking the next step into higher levels of management.
Jimmy Joe’s father was one of the ‘old school’ fathers that filled Ireland’s homes and believed in the adage that says, ‘by sparing the rod you would spoil the child’. When his father was alive Jimmy Joe didn’t much like the man, but he respected him as his father and, now that he was gone, Jimmy Joe missed him. Nevertheless, with the old man’s passing, Jimmy Joe suddenly gained a new sense of freedom and was eager to experience that freedom by marrying the woman, who was the only love of his life, Nellie Maguire.
Just like Jimmy Joe, Nellie Maguire was no ‘Spring Chicken, and she wouldn’t tear in the plucking’. But, even though she was a lady of mature years, there were quite a few men who would who would agree that she had retained much of the beauty for which she was famed in her younger days. It was her beauty that had first attracted Jimmy Joe to her almost thirty years previously. There were many of his neighbours, however, who wondered what it was that she had seen in him. Although it was almost thirty years previously, Jimmy Joe could still clearly recall that night when he had finally plucked up the courage to ask Nellie for a dance at the weekly Parish Ceilidh. That night the local parish hall was filled with people from within and from outside the parish, and many were visibly shocked to see the very popular Nellie Maguire agreed, not only to dance with Jimmy Joe Cullen, but to allow him to escort her home when the Ceilidh had ended.
In her youth, Nellie Maguire, was a natural blond with her long, golden hair flowing over her shapely shoulders like corn-silk. Her skin was as smooth and unblemished as the finest porcelain, and her hazel coloured eyes were warm and inviting, like those of a well-known movie actress of the day. In fact, Nellie was so beautiful that there was not a man in the entire Parish who had not lost his heart to her at some time or other. At the same time, there was not there was not a woman in the district who did not envy Nellie’s beauty, as well as her popularity among the menfolk. Nellie, however, was a strong-willed woman who knew her own mind, and knew exactly what kind of man she wanted in her life. It seemed to all the neighbours that, so far, Jimmy Joe Cullen was the only man she wanted, from among the many men available to her.
For his part, Jimmy Joe could never have been described as an ugly, or repulsive man, but neither was there anything especially handsome about him. He was tall, with black hair and a face tanned by the sun as he worked outside every day on the farm, and the building sites. As was his habit, most days of his life, Jimmy Joe would wear his work clothes to go out and about his business. In fact, it was only when he went to Mass or the Ceilidh that he would change into his best suit, shirt and tie, and brogue shoes. But, even when the man dressed well and combed his hair tidily, keeping it in shape with a dab of ‘Brylcreem’ there was nothing that even suggested he could be a heart-throb to any girl. Even those people who knew both Nellie and Jimmy very well at this time were convinced that their relationship would not last very long. In fact, some of Nellie’s closest friends were of the considered her to be too fickle a person to tie herself down to one man. “Sure, that one will never go mad, that one. She’s never in the same mind long enough”, appeared to be the most popular comment among her friends at the time. They could not, however, have been more wrong in their judgement of her. To date the relationship between Nellie and Jimmy Joe had already lasted almost thirty years, and now there was talk of them getting married.
When he was a young man, Jimmy Joe was a shy and quiet type of boy, who felt awkward in the presence of women and didn’t quite know what he should say in their company. It was a trait that Nellie admired very much, which encouraged Jimmy Joe to accomplish greater things. They had begun dating and, after they had been dating each other for eighteen months, Jimmy Joe gathered every ounce of courage he had buried in his being and decided that now was the right time to propose. Dressed in his very best clothes he went walking with Nellie, and then suddenly he knelt on one knee in front of her. Taking her hand in his he nervously asked her to marry him and anxiously awaited her answer. While Nellie was genuinely overjoyed by Jimmy Joe’s proposal, she made it clear to him that she could not give him an immediate answer, because there were several items that she needed to have clarified before she could agree to marry him. Her main concern at the time was where they would both live after they were married. Jimmy Joe could not understand her concern because he had envisioned them living as a couple in the home place, with his father. But, it was Jimmy Joe’s father who was the stumbling block in Nellie’s mind. To his surprise and embarrassment, she emphatically told him “No!” to the proposal of marriage.
It was with a great sense of relief that Jimmy Joe was told that Nellie’s response was not a total rejection of his proposal. She told him that she would happily marry him, but she could not be a wife to him as well as a housekeeper for his father. She insisted that she would only move into the home place as Jimmy Joe’s wife when his father, Old ‘Joe Boy’ Cullen, had passed away.
Now, Old ‘Joe Boy’ was a very well-known character in the Parish and there were very few of his neighbours who had a good word to say about him. He was known for having a very bad attitude toward other people and treated too many of his neighbours harshly when it came to business. Noted for his miserliness and tardiness in paying what he owed others, ‘Joe Boy’ had been secretly accused by some of cruelly working his wife to an early grave. It was said that ‘Joe Boy’ had young when she died so suddenly and only a couple of years before Nellie and Jimmy Joe had met and fallen in love. Jimmy Joe, however, was sure that his mother would have approved of his choice.
Since his wife’s death, it seemed that ‘Joe Boy’s’ bad manners and habits had worsened, including his foul, abusive language and his rude behaviour to others. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Nellie, when she heard that they would be moving into that same house after they were married, told Jimmy Joe, “If you think that I would live in the same house as that ill-mannered old blackguard, lifting and laying for him every day, and listening to his foul mouth, then you have another thought coming!” It was a blunt rebuttal, but Nellie didn’t stop there, and she added, “He is an ignorant, crude, drunkard of a man and I would not be caught dead in the same house as that old villain.”
When Nellie had expressed these problems to Jimmy Joe almost thirty-years previously he was neither shocked or annoyed by her bluntness. He simply placed the engagement ring on her finger and hoped in his heart that it might not be long until the day for them to be married. At first, Jimmy Joe thought that he might be able to change Nellie’s mind. He quickly discovered, however, that this woman was not about to alter her decision and that he would have to bide his time until ‘Joe Boy’ He swore to himself that when the old man was dead the coffin bearers could carry him out the back door, while carried Nellie over the threshold of the front door. There might not, after all, be too long until that day came. Jimmy Joe was convinced that the amount of alcohol his father consumed would most certainly kill the man sooner, rather than later. Not for one minute did either Jimmy Joe or Nellie consider that it would take so long to see ‘Joe Boy’ to grow frail and die. They were long and frustrating years for the couple. “That old ‘get’ made sure he got his day in,” said Nellie, “You would nearly think that ‘old goat’ had purposefully lived all those years to ensure that I didn’t get into the house and change it. By God, but that man was one big pain in the arse and it must be said that hell will never be full until he is in it.”
“In the name of God, Nellie,” her friends warned her, “Be careful what you say, for that old bastard might come back and haunt you.”
“Don’t you worry about him!” laughed Nellie, “I’ve got Bobby Lennon, the undertaker, to nail the lid down with six-inch nails and to wrap the coffin with two strong iron bands.”
Old ‘Joe Boy’s’ funeral took place on a cold Saturday morning with a mizzle of rain falling on everyone. There was little fanfare and only a few people that accompanied his remains from the house to the church for the funeral Mass. Including the priest, Jimmy Joe, and Nellie there were only twenty-two people attending the Mass, and most of them were only there to make sure that the miserable old skinflint was truly gone. It could rightly be said that the entire Parish and district was in a state of euphoria to see the back of the curmudgeonly old devil. Then, the next day, at 10:30 Mass the same priest proudly announced that Jimmy Joe and Nellie would be married at the earliest possible moment.
Over the following three weeks the Church was booked, and the invitations sent out to the select few. At long last Jimmy Joe and Nellie were getting married after almost thirty years of courting and the event became the main talking point of the entire parish.
“The old man’s not yet cold in his grave,” said Sarah Gill, the village gossip. “Its all been a bit rushed don’t you think? I wonder is there any reason for the hurry? You know what I mean?”
Mary Jane looked at Sarah with complete amazement. “Hurried?” she asked with a laugh, “I think Nellie Maguire is just a little bit old to be needing a shotgun wedding!”
“Well, I still think that it is all a bit quick!”
“For Christ’s sake, Sarah! It has been nearly thirty-years in the making! That’s not exactly the speed of light, now! Is it?”
There was nothing special about Tim Scanlan. He was neither rich nor famous, for all his lifetime he worked as a labouring man. But, Tim was very well liked by everyone he met in the district and, therefore, when he died it was expected that his funeral would attract an unusually large gathering of mourners. There were great crowds of people who flocked to his wake, and a there was a large supply of tea, cakes, whisky, clay pipes, and tobacco made for those who would attend. Tim’s widow, as was the tradition, occupied her place of honour at the head of the coffin, and gave a great show of grief, with large tears she when joining in with loud weeping whenever the wailing was begun and led by the older women. But, she was a fair looking young widow. Those who didn’t know her would have thought that she was Tim’s daughter rather than his widow. Several years previously, however, she had come to Tim’s house when only a ‘slip’ of a girl to look after him, and Tim decided it would be better for him to marry her and from that day he ruled over her like a master to a servant.
The house was filled with people drinking and smoking and, as the night wore on, the whisky began to have a decided effect on those visitors who remained outside the room where the corpse lay. The noise of chatter, laughter, and argument increased to a level when you would have thought it loud enough to ‘wake the dead.’ On this occasion, however, much to the distress, anxiety and amazement of everyone present, the dead man, after a deep, loud sigh and various types of groans, opened his eyes and struggled to raise himself into a sitting position. When the shocked and startled people in the house came back to their senses, poor Tim was lifted out of his coffin and whisky was liberally poured down his throat. Disorientated by his sudden resurrection Tim was well wrapped up in blankets and brought over to a big chair by the fire, where he gradually revived from whatever the trance or state of stupefaction was that had been mistaken others for death. Still dumbfounded and amazed by events, the last of the guests left the small cottage, leaving Tim, still propped on the chair before the fire, was left to be cared for by his wife. But, instead of coming to her husband, however, she stepped away, cringing timidly, into a dark corner behind his chair, like a frightened puppy-dog. From that dark ‘sanctuary’ she stared at Tim with a great terror in her eyes and wringing her hands.
‘Mary!’ Tim called out to her in a stern voice, but his summons did not receive an answer.
‘Are you there, girl?‘ peering round the chair at her, his face quivering with anger.
‘Yes, Tim, I’m here,’ Mary answered in a quiet and faltering voice, but never moved from the spot she was standing.
‘Bring me my stick!’ he ordered
‘Ah, no, Tim! You won’t! Sure, you have never lifted a hand to me yet! And this cannot be the time, when you’ve come back from the dead, and right again that …’
‘Bring me my stick!’ he interrupted her, and Mary set about her task. She brought him the stick as he had asked, and she flopped down to her knees, cowering before her husband.
‘Well, you know that you deserve it, and more. You know, you damned thief and deceiver! You know that if I was to take this stick and beat you until your body is as black as a hearse it would serve you right, after the mean and dirty, shameful thing you’ve done to me!’
‘Aye Tim, it would. It would!’ sobbed the girl.
‘ Just you look here!’ scolded Tim, pulling back the blanket that covered him and showing her the old tattered shirt that he was wearing. ‘Look at this rag! Just you look at what you dressed up my poor corpse in, you witch! You shamed me before all my decent neighbours at the wake! And you knew as well as I did about the fancy, brand-new shirt that I had bought to have for my burying! This is a shirt that I wouldn’t have put on a dog never mind my own back. Aye, not even if I had to go about naked as a new born child! You knew as well as there’s an eye in a goat that I had it there in the chest ready and waiting. But, by God, you grudged it to my unfortunate corpse when I wasn’t in a position to speak up for myself!’
‘O Tim, my darling, forgive me!’ cried Mary. ‘Forgive me this once, and on my bended knees I swear I will never, never do the likes of it again! Sure, I don’t know what came over me at all. I think, maybe it was the devil, may the Lord preserve us! He must have been holding back my arms when I went to get the shirt out of the chest. The devil was tempting me and whispering to me that it was a pity and a sin to put good quality shirt like that into six feet of clay. Oh sure, how could I have done it at all?’
‘Now, you listen to me, Mary,’ said Tim sternly as he raised the stick and laid it on her shoulder. She knew then that he wouldn’t beat her even if he could with his trembling hands, but she pretended to wince and cower away from him. ‘Mind what I say, girl. As sure as you try to do the same thing to me again, and attempt to dress me in those indecent rags, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll walk!’
‘O don’t do that, Tim, don’t!’ cried Mary loudly as her face became as pale as ashes. ‘Sure, murder me now, if it pleases you, or do anything you want to me, but for Jesus’ sake, and that of his Holy Mother, and all the Saints in Heaven, keep to your grave! I’ll put the new shirt on you, and with my own two hands ‘ll starch it and make it as white as snow, after being left so long in the old chest. Sure, your corpse will look lovely, never you fear! And I’ll give you the grandest wake that ever man had, even if I must sell the pig, and part with every stick of furniture in the cottage to buy the tea and the whisky. By Almighty God, I swear to you I will, darling man. Here is my hand on it, this night!’
‘Well, make sure you do, my girl, or it will all be the worse for you. Now, Mary, give me a wee drop of water to drink, and put a drop of spirits through it for taste. Sure, I am almost ready to faint with the thirst and weakness.’
Indeed, Mary kept her promise, and no one could ever remember a wake like that of Tim Scanlan’s, when, soon after this event, the poor man really did breathe his last in this life. But, seeing Tim all dressed up in his fancy, brand-new shirt’ was the talk of all those who attended.
Big Tom Harte was his adopted mother’s jack-of-all-trades. In fact, I do not know how she could ever have managed the farm without having his clear head and sound judgment to guide her. Everyone in the parish knew Tom as a man well-trained in getting a bargain and, probably, the best judge of a ‘beast’ in this part of the county. Although I knew the man well, I truly believe he deserves all such compliments because I can never remember mother ever losing money on her cattle dealings, and at various shows and fairs our animals were highly regarded for their appearance. Tom did not regard himself as being wholly an Ulster-man and took a lot of pride in the fact that through his mother he could claim Scottish descent, and some said that much of Tom’s cautiousness with money and shrewdness in dealing with others was a result of this Scottish blood.
We, children were always rather in awe of him. He ruled over us and our lives on the farm with a rod of iron, and woe betide anyone who dared to enter the garden before the house had been supplied with ample fruit for preserving! Our lives would not be worth living if we decided to launch an assault upon his beloved fruit trees or damaged his trim flower-beds! Yet, it was very good for us that someone had been set in authority over the garden and farm-yard, for we were a rambunctious lot of fatherless ‘gorsoons’. But the years passed quickly as, one-by-one, we grew into adulthood. I, being the eldest, left home first and was the first to return, more alone after being so happy for a very short period of time. When I returned home, a young widow, the younger children had all flown the nest, and my mother now had no one left but me, and she was growing old. I decided immediately that I should put my future, and that of my son’s, into her hands, and soon we became thoroughly acquainted with Tom Harte. In his mind I was ‘the young mistress’ or ‘Miss Ellen’ and I can honestly state that I often felt at a disadvantage when I was in his presence. He had a widespread knowledge of subjects in which I was totally ignorant, he could calmly reject my farming theories without belittling me, he was always successful in all ventures that he undertook, and he completely overawed me to such an extent that, after a struggle or two, I would give in.
Although Tom must have been at least forty at this time, he looked quite a few years younger, was handsome, tall and well-built, and most importantly a bachelor. He had a bright twinkle in his grey eyes, which almost contradicted his firm-set mouth with its long upper lip and massive square chin. From his mother he had inherited a close calculating mind, which was hard to convince and slow to take on-board new impressions but would strongly retain these new thoughts once he had accepted them. From his father, roving Pat Harte from Donegal, he inherited an Irishman’s ready wit and nimble tongue, and under all an Irishman’s fickle heart, but not his warm affections, which went so far towards mitigating such fickleness.
Tom was unusual among men of his own class, for he was well to do. He had successfully speculated in cattle on his own account and he had money in the bank and a snug cottage of his own. Nevertheless, year after year, Shrove-tide after Shrove-tide, which was the marrying season throughout Roman Catholic Ireland, Tom could be found rejoicing in the blessings of being single. Yet, the man could not have had a comfortable home, for his old mother was a confirmed invalid and, as Tom was known to be very careful with money, he only provided her with the services of a little girl who was scarcely in her teens. I can recall that, on more than one occasion, mother had spoken to him about matrimony. But, on each occasion Tom would answer her with the argument, “Is it as easy to work for two as for one, ma’am?” Hearing this type of answer from him, she ceased bothering him about it.
On one bright frosty November day I sent Tom to the Ballygarr on very important business. Then, to assure myself that this business had reached a favourable outcome, I walked along the road to meet him as he returned home. But, I waited and waited for his return until the expected time of his arrival home had passed. The delay caused me to feel rather uneasy and I, therefore, quickened my steps along that winding sea-side road. Then, as I came around a bend in the road the reason for Tom’s delay was revealed to me. Ahead, I could see him walking beside a very pretty country girl, while another, not so young or nearly so pretty, lagged a little behind them.
“Well, Master Tom!” I thought to myself, “Are we to hear news of you this Shrove-tide?’
As I came forward, the two girls fell back, and Tom hurried forward to meet me. He looked shy and rather sheepish as he came toward me. I immediately recognised the pretty girl as being Mary Docherty, who was considered to be the most beautiful girl in the district, and she hung her shapely head, trying to hide her blushing face as she passed me by.
Tom was calm and very business-like as soon as the girls were out of sight. He had lodged money for me in the county bank, settled my own and my mother’s accounts with butcher, baker, and grocer, and transacted all our various businesses with care and correctness. Having given me a full account of what he had been doing, Tom hurried on, while I continued with my evening walk. Twilight was quickly falling when I returned home and, although more than an hour had elapsed since Tom had went ahead of me on the road, he was just entering the gate as I turned from the sea-road and on to the small path leading to the same gate. In the house, later that evening, I caused my mother to smile very brightly as I told her about what I had seen on the road. “But,” said she, “poor little Mary has no fortune behind her, and Tom will be looking for one with any girl he decides marry.”
A few days after this encounter, Tom quietly took me into his confidence. We were making our winter preparations in the green-house, putting away the summer plants whose flowering days were done, and filling up gaps in our shelves with bright chrysanthemums and other winter-blooming plants. Mother was exhausted after an hour of this work, and so Tim and I were left alone among the flowers. For a lengthy period of time he worked away at the task in silence, but I could see that he was longing to speak. Just as I was about give him the opportunity to speak, however, he forestalled me.
”It was a fine day that day I was in Ballygarr, Mrs Greene” he said, as he passed me carrying a huge flowering bush from one end of the greenhouse to the other.
“It was indeed, Tom. Had you many people about that day?” I replied.
“No, ma’am, there weren’t very many. Some of them soldier boys from the barracks.”
“Were there many people from around these parts?” I asked him.
“Hugh Docherty and his sister, and Susie O’Connor, were there ma’am.”
“Ah, sure you walked home with the girls. What became of Hugh that time?”
“Sure, you know what it’s like, ma’am, he just got overtaken with a drop of drink. I simply thought it would be a friendly gesture for to see the girls home safely.”
“I am sorry to hear Hugh was so bad as that, Tom.”
“Well, it was all his own fault, Miss Ellen, for he did not want to leave ‘Mrs Gallagher’s Pub’ no matter what we said, and so we just left him there. But! Miss Ellen, I’ve had some thought about a change to my life.”
“I am very glad to hear it, Tom.”
“Yes, Miss! Yes, indeed, miss. Sure, it is lonely work growing old with nobody to take care of you.”
“God bless us, Tom, that’s a selfish way of looking at things,” I told him.
“But, miss, why else would a man marry, but to have himself taken care of?”
“I suppose liking the girl he married would also be a reason too,” I responded.
“Oh aye! I’d still like to have a woman that I’d fancy, but she must be handy.”
“And who would you be thinking of?” I asked, as Tom bent over a box of geranium cuttings. “Whoever she may be, I hope she is nice and good, and that she will be kind to your poor old mother, as well as a good manager?”
“You can be sure that I wouldn’t take one that wasn’t that, Miss Ellen,” he replied, without raising his head. “But, sure it’s awful hard to tell how these young ones will turn out.”
“She is young then?”
“Young enough, and settled enough,” he told me. “There’s two that I’m thinking of.”
“Two!” I exclaimed. “Well that’s not the right to do, Tom. A man of your years is surely old enough to know what kind of wife would suit him best. Besides, it’s not very fair to the girls. They are related to each other, I believe. Those two young women you were walking home with on Saturday?”
“They are,” replied Tom, utterly unembarrassed by what he had said. “Mary Docherty and Susie O’Connor. Mary’s the prettiest, though,” he added in a sort of heartfelt sigh.
“Aye, I have always heard that she was as good as she looked,” I told him. “She has been such a dutiful daughter and a good sister to those wild boys, that she cannot fail to make a good wife for someone.”
“Maybe,” Tom replied. “But the Docherty family hasn’t got much money about them these days.”
“I know they are not very rich, Tim, but they are comfortable.”
“Aye, they aren’t begging, miss, begging your pardon. But, even you will admit that there is little comfort about the house.”
“Well, I suppose she has known what it is to want, and she will know better how to take care of plenty, when she gets it.”
“I don’t know about that! Maybe when she’d get her two hands full she’d be throwing it all away, for them that has been reared in poverty seldom know how to handle plenty when it comes.”
“Well, I have always heard Mary praised for being the prettiest and the best girl in the entire county, and I am sure you would think yourself a happy man if you could get her for your wife,” I said sharply.
“There’s not a word of a lie in what you say, Miss Ellen,” replied Tom, as he placed the last young geranium in its pot. “She’s a good girl, and as pretty a girl as you’d see in an entire summer’s day. But, I have a wish to step up and see all contenders before I speak to her.”
“Why, Tom, have things gone as far as that?”
“Well, I may say I have her courted up to the asking, miss.”
“And the other, Tom?” I asked him and tried desperately to hide my amusement.
“Truthfully, I don’t know, but I have her on hand too.”
“Now, is that fair to either of those wee girls?” I asked rather indignantly.
“Sure, I don’t know. All I do know is that a man has to look sharply before he jumps.”
“And who is the other girl? Mary’s cousin?”
“Yes, miss! ‘Long Tom O’Connor’s’ daughter, from Drumshesk. She’s up with Mary since Hollowe’en. Hughie’s looking after her.”
“She’s no beauty, Tom”’
“No, miss! But she’s settled. They tell me that her temper is a little rough, but she has the finest two-year-old heifer that I ever set my eyes on. A pure beauty, Miss Ellen.”
“Sure, what good would the cow be to you, Tom, if you had a sour cross-grained wife at home?”
“Aye, but maybe she wouldn’t be so sour or cross when she’d have a good house over her head and plenty in her hand. She’s getting old, Miss Ellen, and she sees the young ones coming on, and leaving her on the shelf. I tell you, there would be a ‘quare’ change in her if she had her own way.”
“By God, Tom, you seem to think much more of the cow than the girl!’ I retorted.
“Truthfully, it’s the prettiest of the two. But miss, I’m asking, what would you advise me to do?”
“You should marry the girl you like best, Tom, and never mind the cow. A young sweet-tempered girl like Mary, who has been so good to her sickly parents, so gentle and loving to those wild brothers of hers, cannot fail to make you a good wife. You will never be sorry, if you marry the girl you like best.”
“That would be right, ma’am. She is a good girl, and I’m in no doubt that I like her beyond any other woman in the world. But, Miss Ellen, I’d wish she had the cow!”
Next day I left home, and I did not return until the daffodils were glittering in the spring meadows around our home, and the rooks were cawing over their fledglings in the trees that stood behind our garden. Tom was married, for I had heard the news from my mother early in the year. But, I still did not know which fair maid he had decided to choose, and I was eager to find out. It was late at night when I returned home from my travels, and my mother had far too much to tell me about other than the termination of Tom’s courtship.
In the morning, I made my way into the garden, the farm-yard, the fields lying close by, and still I could not find Tom. I didn’t meet up with him until late in the afternoon, when I found him busily trenching up some early cabbages in the back-garden. He seemed rather shy of me, but I put out my hand and greeted him warmly.
“You’re welcome home, Mrs Greene, ma’am,” he said. He struck his spade into the fresh-turned earth and shook the hand that I offered him with more than ordinary warmth. “We’ve been waiting a very long time to have you back among us.”
“Thank you, Tom. So, I have to wish you every future happiness.”
Tim looked sheepish, but speedily recovered himself. “Yes, ma’am, if happiness it is to be.”
“Oh, there can be little doubt on that score, Tom. I hope Mary is well?”
“Mary? You mean Mary Docherty? Why, she’s spoken for with ‘Lanky’ Muldoon that owns the hotel in Ballygarr.”
“Well, Tom, I thought you were going to marry Mary?”
“No, Miss Ellen, I chose not to. I believe her and ‘Lanky’ were married last Saturday.”
“And what made you change your mind, Tom?”
“Well, I just took Susie. For you see, Miss Ellen, I decided that a cow would make the difference between any two women in the world”
“So, it was the cow that won the day for Susie, after all!”
It was a cold, wet evening as Dinny Sweeney returned home, a silent, plodding, and sorrowful young man who looked older than his twenty-five years. He had watched as his old, decrepit father became ill, faded physically, and was laid to rest in his grave. The sun was setting now, warmer than it had previously been and its glorious rays broke through the gaps that were now appearing among the scarlet and grey clouds that were dispersing. From the bough of a tree a thrush sang its song, and was a sound that would often gladden the hearts of those returning from their work in the fields. But, even this joyful tune could do little to lighten Dinny’s mood.
As he looked at the fields that he passed by, noticed just how fruitful they were and the half-matured crops promised the prospect of a good harvest, as well as a prosperous future to come. But, at that moment Dinny’s heart was heavy because it was filled with a deep, dark sorrow, and there was no room for the light of joy to enter. The usual good mood that filled his life had gone from him, and no cheerful birdsong would encourage it to return. The promises being made by the softly undulating fields of light-green wheat, or the silken-surfaced patches of barley, were ignored. Dinny was simply a poor, penniless, friendless, young man, who was groaning under the responsibilities that were now left to him. He was totally worn out by the grief he had born, and was continuing to suffer. At that moment it appeared that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
Sadly, and much to his embarrassment, the body of Dinny’s father had only received a proper burial due to the charity that had been shown by their neighbours. The country people of Ireland are known for coming together when a neighbour is in trouble, and ensure they overcome the problem. Among themselves the neighbours had collected money and made all the necessary arrangements for the burial of Dinny’s father. Such was the degree of respect that Dinny and his father were held within the local community that all their neighbours were saddened by the very low standard of living this hardworking father and son had been reduced.
They lived in an old, almost derelict building, which they called “home.” Dinny was a married man and he had left his young wife lying on an old iron-framed bed, listening to the hungry cries of two small children. As she lay there she awaited the time when she would become the weary, weeping mother of a third child. All the while, as he walked home, Dinny’s mind was filled with a deep bitterness for the family treachery, which left both him and his father to financial destitution. All these years, he and his father, both respectable and hard working men, could have been living a comfortable life in this world only for that despicable act of treachery. Not surprisingly, therefore, Dinny held a deep bitterness and anger at what had happened, and these feelings festered within him the more he contemplated those far off events.
After all these years, Dinny could now only faintly call to mind those days of his early childhood, when he lived in a large house with his parents, and was surrounded by servants and workers of all types. He could remember eating only the best of foods, dressing in the best of clothes, and sleeping on the most comfortable of beds. But, Dinny could also faintly remember that terrible day when their lives changed for the worse. His mind went back to the very strange and very rude people who had forced their way into the house, so many years ago. For some reason, unknown and unclear to him as a boy, his father, servants, and workers were all turned out of the house, and left without anything. It was something of a blessing that Dinny’s mother had died just prior to this event and she had not been forced, as they had been, to seek warmth and shelter in a place almost unfit for human habitation. It was only when Dinny had reached the age of eighteen years, that his father had given him a full explanation of what had happened all those years before.
Dinny’s father was the youngest son of a large, wealthy farmer, who divided his lands between his two eldest children. In those far off days it was tradition among Catholic families that the youngest son joined the priesthood. It was this that was to be the fate of Dinny’s father and the family sent him abroad for his education, providing him with a liberal allowance while he studied. But, a few days before he was due to be ordained he returned home to visit his family and friends, joining with them to celebrate the beginning of his priestly ministry.
Being the first person from the district to reach the stage of ordination, Dinny’s father soon became something of a minor celebrity and was invited into the homes of many of the local dignitaries from all faiths. It was while he was a guest in the home of one wealthy local Protestant family, that he met the owner’s sister. She was a very beautiful young lady, who was quite wealthy in her own right. When this young woman talked and smiled sweetly at Dinny’s father any idea of him being a candidate for priesthood began to disappear, and he fell totally in love with her. By the end of the evening he had abandoned the entire idea of dedicating his life to the service of others. But, such a relationship between Catholic and Protestant had its opponents, and the couple were forced to run away together and get married in private. By doing this, however, they brought upon themselves the deep hostility of both families, particularly his own. It took them a considerable period of time until they were eventually accepted by her kindly and generous brother. With the help and guidance of this man the young couple regained much of their reputation among their neighbours, and they settled into the house which filled much of Dinny’s childhood memory. It was in that house that he spent a very happy childhood, at least until he reached the age of six years.
This kindly man died quite unexpectedly a few years later and, being unmarried, his only direct heir was his brother. This uncle of Dinny’s was not, however, as generous as his brother and had spent a good portion of his life as an unsuccessful lawyer in Dublin. It did not take him long to show everyone that he had inherited his brother’s wealth. But, he wasted even less time to show that he had inherited very little of his amiability and generosity of character. The one thing that he did demonstrate quite rapidly was his deeply felt enmity toward his sister and her husband. He made it absolutely clear that his actions against this couple were his revenge for her decision to marry a Roman Catholic. Such was his enmity towards them that he refused even to see them when they came to welcome him after his arrival in the district. At the same time he would not even consider accepting any invitation to visit their home.
Dinny’s mother was very sensitive woman who disliked all forms of confrontation, and she had hoped the enmity of her family was a thing of the past. But, the conduct of her brother at this time caused the poor woman great stress and put a great deal of pressure on her unborn child. In fact, such was the strain on her that the lady went into premature labour, during which she gave birth to a lifeless baby, and she unexpectedly died due to the efforts she had made.
Because they were so young neither Dinny’s father or mother had expected her to die so suddenly, and without ever making a will in Dinny’s favour. Through various legal trickery and numerous underhand dealings, the brother-in-law successfully managed to have her private marriage to Dinny declared null and void. Under such circumstances the law declared that the nominal husband did not have any rights to her property. Both Dinny’s parents had been living of his wife’s wealth and , with her death, this was now the only source of income from which Dinny’s father could maintain his family in comfort. Almost immediately the avenging brother set about gaining control of his sister’s property, and had little trouble in achieving this. As a result, with hardly a penny to their name Dinny and his father were forced to take up residence in a distant, and almost derelict cabin. By hiring himself out as a field hand he was just about managed to feed and clothe his child, raising him up to be a fine, respectable young man. Then, as his father grew older and weaker, Dinny was able to shoulder some of the old man’s burden and work to better their lot in life. Now, after burying his father, it was to this ramshackle of a cabin that Dinny trudged home with heavy steps.
Dinny later discovered that this evil and malicious uncle did not enjoy his spoils for very long, but this certainly did not make him feel any happier. The uncle, in fact, only enjoyed his newly acquired wealth for only a very few years after he had gained possession of it. He was despised for the cruel manner in which he had treated his relatives, and for the scrooge-like meanness and vulgarity that he had displayed toward everyone. He constantly kept watch for any and all opportunities to use his wealth to gain revenge of all of his enemies. The only problem he faced, however, was that his legitimate income was totally insufficient to achieve his goal in a reasonable period of time. He had, therefore, to consider indulging in illegal means of gaining sufficient wealth to achieve his aims. Because he had lived so close to the coast he decided that his best route to obtaining a fortune was for him to engage in some large-scale smuggling operations.
Dinny’s uncle was not the businessman or criminal mastermind that he had thought he was. Despite every precaution that he took to ensure he would not be caught, the former lawyer did fall foul of the law and received some hefty fines that caused him to lose over half of his property. The ensuing bad publicity arising from his failed smuggling operations did, however, cause him to take much more desperate measures. Rashly he attempted yet another wild scheme, which he hoped would retrieve his fortunes, but was once again surprised by the forces of law and order. On this occasion he, and his gang of smugglers, were confronted by the revenue officers and, in the struggle that followed, he killed one of their number. In the confusion that followed the tragic incident the uncle had ran away from Ireland, and had not been heard of again for over twenty-years. Local people had speculated that he hid himself in London and was living somewhere in that city under an assumed name. One thing everyone was certain about was that he was financing his new life through some illegal means, that allowed him to continue to enjoy all the vices that he experienced when living as a Lawyer in Dublin.
Dinny had no idea about what his uncle’s fate had been, because all of these things had happened when he was only a child, and had no interest in the business of adults. He had learned about his uncle’s activities and his exile much later, and from the reports of others who had known his uncle well. As a matter of fact, Dinny did not even know what his uncle looked like and, in all honesty, he didn’t care to know. If Dinny had shown some pleasure at the downfall and disgrace of that man there would not have been one person who would have blamed him. But, Dinny showed not one sign of enjoying his uncle’s fate, because such thoughts could do very little, if anything, to alleviate the misery of his current situation.
Heavy footed, Dinny trudged under a large, open arch that was part of the Old Abbey ruin, and he then entered that squalid shed that he called home, which rested against the Old Abbey’s wall. Just at that moment his heart felt as if it had been completely shattered into so many pieces that he felt as dismal as those ruins that rose up around him. As he entered that cabin there no words of greeting between him and his young wife. She was sitting where he had left her, on the old iron-frame bed, mechanically rocking their youngest child in her arms. As she rocked slowly to and fro she emitted feeble and mournful noises that described her feelings of utter hopelessness.
Silently Dinny went to the makeshift hearth and set light to a fire of dry, withered twigs mixed with pieces of tree branch. As the fire took light he took from his several potatoes that he had been had been given by a kindly neighbour an hour or two earlier, and he placed these among the glowing embers of the fire. He watched as the potatoes were roasted to a satisfactory level before he removed them, and divided them between his wife and the crying children. The hours passed by silently until the moon rose high in the dark night sky, signalling it was time for bed. Exhausted by the day’s events, Dinny sank himself upon the couch from which his father’s mortal remains had been laid during the wake, and from which they had been lifted to be brought to the burial ground. He had not eaten that day, not even one of the potatoes that he had roasted, and yet he did not feel at all hungry.
As his beloved wife and children slept soundly in the quiet of the night, Dinny lay for hours unable to sleep or even close his eyes for any length of time. From the place where he lay, Dinny could see, through the large window at the front of the derelict cabin, and he contemplated the ruins of the old Abbey. He simply lay there, deep in his own thoughts. The silence that filled the cabin gradually brought a sense of desolation to him that felt almost like a special spiritual moment with God. The magical effect created by alternate moonshine and darkness, of objects and their various parts finally diverted Dinny’s mind but could not relieve it from its troubles. He finally came to his senses once again, remembered where he was, and he suddenly began to feel like he was an intruder among the dwellings of the dead.
Looking out of the cabin window Dinny also called to mind that this was also the time when spirits would reveal themselves in the remote, lonely and obscure place. They would flit here and there among the crumbling walls and intricate arches that had once formed the Abbey. As Dinny’s eyes fixed upon a distant stream of cold light, or of blank shadow, the movement of some bushes hanging from the walls, or the flapping of some night-bird’s wings, caused a stir of alarm as it came and went. He began to think that, perhaps, some ghost had shown itself challenged and disappeared so quickly that he had failed to see it. Dinny would, however, remember the causes of real terror even though he could not really tell if he was awake or asleep as this new circumstance caught his attention.
That night the full moon shone its light through the window of the cabin and settled upon the hearth. When Dinny turned his attention to this particular spot he saw, standing before him, the image of a man, advanced in years, though not very old. This image stood motionless with its gaze fixed upon him. Strangely, the still, pale face of the image shone like marble in the moon’s beam, and yet Dinny could not tell if there was any solidity to that strange image or not. The forehead of the image cast long, deep shadows over its eyes, but left those normally very expressive features both vague and uncertain.
Upon the head of the image was a close-fitting black cap, and the image itself was dressed in a loose-sleeved, plaited garment of white, which flowed down to the ground. In every way it resembled the costume which Dinny had seen in a small framed and glazed print that hung in the sacristy of the humble chapel, which had been recently built not far from the ruin. Those who had built the chapel were descendants of the great religious fraternity to whom the Abbey had belonged in its hey-day. With a puzzled expression on his face, Dinny returned the fixed gaze of this midnight visitor. Then he heard a voice speaking to him and telling him, “Dinny Sweeney, get yourself to London Bridge, and you will become a very rich man.”
“London Bridge? Aye, that would be right enough,” said Dinny as he rose quickly from his bed.
But, as quick as it had appeared the strange figure was gone again. With eyes still filled with tiredness, Dinny stumbled among the cold, black embers that were scattered on the hearthstone, where the image had been standing, and he fell prostrate to the ground. That fall caused Dinny to experience a change of sensation. Now he could see the objects surrounding him much more clearly, which he chose to explain to as being the transition from a sleeping to a waking state of mind.
Dinny managed to crawl back into his bed but he got very little sleep that night. His mind filled entirely with those words that the image had spoken to him, and wondered what the entire incident meant. As he thought about this encounter he felt it would be better if he said nothing about his vision to anyone, and especially his wife. In the present conditions, Dinny was worried that news of the encounter might just increase her present anxiety and her over the edge. As for the advice that the strange image had given him, Dinny decided to do nothing but wait to see if this messenger returned. Despite his initial doubts, the messenger did return, appearing in the same place, at the same time hour of the night, and wearing the same clothes. But, on this occasion, the expression on the face of the apparition had changed, now looking more stern and determined. “Dinny Sweeney,” the vision called out to him, “why have you not gone to London Bridge, and your wife being so near the time when she will need what you are to receive by going there? Remember that you have now been given a second warning.”
“But, tell me, what am I to do on London Bridge?” asked Dinny as he rose again and moved toward the figure. Once again, however; the mysterious figure vanished as quickly as it had first appeared. Nonetheless, the apparition had once again stimulated his interest in what he might find at London Bridge, if he should go there. At the same time Dinny was somewhat surprised and annoyed at the angry attitude that had been displayed by the apparition. But, that was another day wasted on worrying about how he could undertake such a long journey to London without a penny in his pocket. There was also the added concern that it was almost time for his wife to go into labour and give birth to their child. For Dinny such a journey was neither possible or sensible, and he wondered if he could bring himself to obey any such recommendation made to him under such circumstances. However, Dinny remained unsure about the validity of the apparition’s message, because he had been told that a dream instructing him how to get rich should be experienced three times before it could be considered authentic.
Dinny lay down again on the bed and hoped that his vision might just return a third time. Still, much to his surprise, this hope was realised. “Dinny Sweeney,” said the apparition, looking angrier than previously, “you have not yet gone to London Bridge, although I hear your wife crying out, telling you to go. This, remember, is my third warning to you.”
“I know that, but just tell me….” But, before Dinny could say another word the apparition disappeared and, at the same moment, he thought he could hear the voice of his wife. It was weak and was coming from the old iron-framed bed, and it sounded as if she was about to go into labour. Dinny went immediately to her and after brief, excited conversation he left the cabin in a hurry and went to fetch a neighbouring woman who would act as midwife to the poorest women who were in the same condition as his wife, Nancy.
“Please hurry over to her, Annie,” he urged the woman. “Do the best that you can do for her. Would you also tell her from me……” Dinny stopped, breathed heavily and wrung his hands nervously.
“Dinny, my son! What is wrong with you, boy?” old Annie asked him. “What in the name of God is causing you to cry so bitterly this early in the morning?”
“Will you tell her from me,” continued Dinny, “that I ‘ll be praying, both morning and evening, that God will give her ease in her ordeal and provide us with a good, healthy child, just like the other two that He has given us. Tell her I won’t be far away and I will be ready to return as soon as I can.”
“Just what are talking about, Dinny?”
“It’s not important, Annie. May God be with you, and with her, and with the wee ones! Just tell her what I have said, and also tell her that Dinny has left her at this time of need with more love in my heart for her than on the first day that we came together. I will be back, and of that she should have no doubt. Whether I will be richer or poorer when I return, God alone only knows the answer. So, I will say goodbye, Annie, and don’t let her go hungry for the sake of a mouthful of potatoes and cabbage, while I’m away. I must leave now because my dream commands it, and I dare not look at her in case one word from her would convince me to stay.”
With these final words Dinny rushed off, although he was not at all sure what roads would take him to London Bridge. He walked and begged his way along the coast to a port where he hoped to embark a ferry bound for England. Hiring himself out on the docks, Dinny gathered enough money for his passage to South Wales, from where he once again walked and begged his way to the great city of London.
Soon after my Cousin Sarah’s marriage, we were invited to stay with the newly-married couple, for a few weeks during the festive Christmas season. Away we set off with merry hearts, in the clear frosty winter’s air, and with the pleasant prospect ahead of us invigorating our spirits. We took our seats inside the first class coach on the early morning train, which passed through the town of Ballyshee, where Cousin Sarah lived. I can say without fear of contradiction that there was never a kinder or more genial soul than Cousin Sarah, and David Daniels, her ‘Good Man’, as she laughingly called him. If it is at all possible, David was even kinder and more genial still. Their home was filled with kinds of comforts, and they were always delighted to see friends in a sociable, easy way. They believed in making visitors snug and cosy, though our arrival was only the first of what was to be a succession of such arranged visits.
These evenings were both very amusing and enjoyable, for Con’s presence would always shed radiant sunshine upon a gathering, while David’s broad and honest face beamed upon her with a loving pride. At our house, during those days of their courtship, for sober middle-aged lovers, they had perhaps indulged in sweet talk and pecking each other a little too freely when they were in the company of others. This would leave them open to criticisms from the prim and proper brigade, who wondered why Miss Constance and Mr Danvers would make so ridiculous. But now, with marriage, all of this nonsense had calmed down, and nothing like that could be seen, except for the odd sly glance, or an occasional squeeze of the hand. When we talked about those bygone days, we would joke and declare that engaged couples pairs were usually a pain, and that you could always spot such a couple in a big crowd!
“’I’ll bet you anything you like,” cried Cousin Con, with a good-humoured laugh, “that among our guests coming this evening, you’ll not be able to point out the engaged couple among them. There will be only one such couple, although there are plenty of lads and lasses that would like to be so happily situated! But, the couple I allude to are real little love birds, and yet I defy you to find them!’
“That’s a bet, Cousin Con!” we exclaimed, “and what shall we bet?”
“Gloves! Those fancy French gloves!” cried David. “You Ladies always use gloves to bet. But, I warn you that my Con is on a safe bet now.” David rubbed his hands excitedly, delighted with his joke, which he thought would be at our expense. We, however, were already thinking about our existing collections of fine French gloves, and looking forward to expanding the collections with half-a-dozen pair of particularly expensive samples from Con’s large collection. As a result we watched, with extra interest, the arrival and movements of all strangers to the house that evening, in the hope of detecting the lovers who were engaged.
There were mothers and fathers that came in, both old and middle-aged ladies and gentlemen, until all the drawing rooms were filled with some thirty people. We closely watched all the young people, particularly the manner in which they interacted and we discovered several innocent flirtations. But, we saw nothing that gave us the appearance of a loving and engaged couple. After a while, however, we established ourselves in the corner of a room to closely observe a tall, beautiful girl, who never seemed to take her eyes from the door leading into the room. Each time it opened to admit someone this beautiful girl would sigh and look disappointed if the person entering was not the person she wanted to see. We spent some time enjoying ourselves by making up a romantic scenario in which this girl was the heroine. It was during this game that a little woman, dressed in grey, and aged about sixty years, took a seat beside us and began a conversation. She asked us if we were admiring the pretty Anna McKenna, as she worked out who we were looking at so intently. We had to admit that we were, and the old lady told us, “Ah, she’s a good, affectionate girl. A great favourite of mine is sweet Anna McKenna.”
“She’s waiting for her lover, no doubt?” we suggested to her in the hope of getting some information about engagement. “She is an engaged young lady, of course?”
“Engaged! engaged!” laughed the little lady in grey, “not at all, God forbid! Anna McKenna is not engaged.” The expression on the little lady’s face after we made our suggestion, demonstrated how ludicrous our supposition had been in her eyes. We immediately admitted that we had no knowledge whatsoever in this matter and suggested that our mistake was made through our own ignorance. The encounter had, however, given us both the time to examine our new acquaintance more critically. As stated, this old lady was dressed in grey, which blended in beautifully with her grey hairs, braided in a peculiarly obsolete fashion, and uncovered. She wore grey gloves, grey shoes, and, above all, gray eyes, soft, large, and peculiarly sad in their expression. And yet, they were beautiful eyes, which redeemed her grey, monotonous appearance from being absolutely plain. It is said that Mary Queen of Scots, also had gray eyes. But, even she, the poor lady, did not have the same knowledge of others, past and present, as did this little unknown gossip in gray. But our attention was soon diverted, by the entrance of another person into the room, to whom Anna McKenna darted forward with a cry of delight and welcome. This new arrival was a slender, elderly gentleman, whose white hairs, pale face, and benignant expression presented nothing remarkable in their aspect, beyond a certain air of elegance and refinement, which characterised the whole outward appearance of the man.
“That is a charming-looking old gentleman,” we said to the grey lady, “is he Anna’s father?’
“Anna’s father? O dear, no! That gentleman is a bachelor! He is Anna’s guardian, and has taken the place of a father to her, for poor Anna is an orphan.”
“Oh!” we exclaimed, and there was a great variety of meaning in our “oh!” We had, of course, read and heard of youthful wards falling in love with their guardians? Might not the fair Anna’s taste incline this way? The little gray lady had immediately understood our thoughts. She smiled knowingly, but she said nothing. Then, while we were absorbed with Anna and her supposed antiquated lover, the old lady moved into the circle, and presently we saw Anna’s guardian, with Anna leaning on his arm, exchange a few words with her in a whispering tone, as she brought them to an inner room.
“Who is that pleasing-looking old gentleman?” we asked our hostess, “and what is the name of that lady in grey, who went away just as you came up? That is Anna McKenna we know, and we know also that she isn’t engaged!”
Cousin Con laughed heartily as she replied, “That nice old gentleman is Mr Worthington, our poor curate, and a poor curate he is likely ever to continue, so far as we can see. The lady in grey we call, fondly, our ‘little gray gossip,’ and she is a darling! As to Anna, you seem to know all about her. I suppose little Bessie has been praising her up to the skies.”
“Who is little Bessie?” we asked her.
“Little Bessie is your little grey gossip. We never call her anything but Bessie to her face and she really is a harmless little old maid. But come this way, for Bessie is going to sing. They won’t let her rest till she complies, and let me tell you that Bessie singing, and Bessie talking, are widely different creatures.”
Widely different indeed! There was this little grey lady seated at the piano, and making it speak, while her thrilling tones, as she sang of ‘days gone by,’ went straight to each listener’s heart. As for the lady herself, she was looking ten years younger! When the song was over, I saw Mr Worthington, with Anna still resting on his arm, in a corner of the apartment, shaded by a projecting piece of furniture. At the same time, I also noted the tear on his furrowed cheek, which he hastily brushed away. He stooped to answer some remark of Anna’s, who, with fond affection, had evidently seen it also, and was trying to dispel the painful illusion which memories of days gone by brought about.
At the end of the evening, we found the company was separating, and our bet was still unredeemed. The last to leave was Mr Worthington, escorting Anna McKenna and little Bessie, whom he tenderly helped with her shawl, no doubt because she was a poor lonely little old maid, and she sang so sweetly.
The next morning over breakfast, Cousin Con launched herself at us with the support of Mr Danvers. They both demanded that we should give them the answer to the task we were given, or else hand over our fine French gloves! After a great amount of laughter, talking, and discussion, we had to finally confess that the question had defeated us, for there had been an engaged couple present on the previous evening, and we had failed to discover who they were. It was not Anna McKenna for she had no lover. Neither was it the Misses Halls , or the young Barton boys. We had seen them flirt and dance, and dance and flirt indiscriminately during the evening, but they were not interested in any serious engagements.
Who would have thought that romance, that was now divulged, was actually true? We wondered how we could have been so stupid as to not have seen the answer immediately. These questions are very common when a riddle has been unfolded to provide a solution that you did not expect. It is so easy to be wise when one has the answer in their hand. Yet we cheerfully lost our wager and would have lost a hundred similar ones just for the sake of hearing the following tale, which is so far removed from what is expected that it proves enduring faith and affection are not so fabulous as philosophers would have you believe they are.
Bessie Prunty was nearly related to David Danvers, and she had been the only child of a talented but improvident father, who, after a short, brilliant career as a public singer, suddenly sank into obscurity and neglect. The poor man had suffered a total loss of his vocal powers, which had been brought on by a violent rheumatic cold and extreme physical and emotional exhaustion. When this misfortune occurred, Bessie had almost reached her twentieth year, and she was still in mourning for an excellent mother, by whom she had been tenderly and carefully brought up. The descent from luxury and indulgence to poverty and privation was very swift. Although Bessie had inherited a very small income from the will of her deceased mother, which was sufficient for her own needs, and even a few comforts, it was totally inadequate to meet the numerous demands, whims, and fancies of her ailing and exacting father. For five years, however, she battled bravely with adversity, stretching out their meagre income by her great efforts, although, because of her father’s helpless condition, and the constant and unremitting attention he required, she was prevented in many ways from employing her efforts to more advantage. That poor, dying man, when he had been in excellent health, had contributed to the enjoyment of the more affluent in society, and in turn had been courted by them. But now, feeling that he had been forgotten and was despised, he bitterly reviled this heartless world, which he had once unceasingly attempted fill with cheering and applause. To his bitter and disordered mind the possession of wealth became the goal of life and he attached inordinate value to gaining wealth, while he felt very bitter about his own comparative poverty. He loved his only child better than anything else in this world, except for himself. Naturally, he wanted to guard the child from the dreaded evil of a life of poverty. In his misguided efforts, during his latter days, he gained from her a solemn promise that she would never become the wife of any man who could not settle upon her a sum of at least one thousand pounds, without any strings being attached.
Bessie, was a happy and lively girl who had no intentions of suffering all the slights and privations that poverty brings to a person. She, therefore, saw no reason as to why she should not bind herself to this solemn promise to her father. Even after her father breathed his last, she said that she had made his worries about her vanish quite easily. Little Bessie half smiled, even in the middle of her mourning and natural sorrow, to think how small and easy a promise her poor father had gained from her, especially when her own opinions and views so perfectly coincided with his. The poor orphan girl was taken in by the mother of David Danvers, and she continued to live with that worthy lady until the latter died. It was beneath Mrs. Danvers’ roof that Bessie first became acquainted with Mr Worthington, and that acquaintance quickly ripened into a mutual and sincere attachment. He was poor and had no one to sponsor him, and he had not progressed much in the years since. There was absolutely no likelihood of ever having a thousand pounds that belonged to him alone, never mind a thousand pounds that he could settle on a wife. Of course, it is possible, that with all the chances and changes that come our way during our lifetime, Paul Worthington might eventually succeed to some wealth. There were, however, many twists and turns, as well as ups and downs between him and the opportunity of becoming rich. Paul, was not the type to push himself forward, or to gain at the expense of others, and little Bessie was like-minded.
Paul Worthington was very rich in something that money could not buy, and which cold not be quantified. He had a pure and devoted heart that held great love for one woman, but he bravely endured a life of loneliness and because of the circumstances in which he and his loved one found themselves. Such was Paul’s love that he did not see Bessie grow old and grey, because in his eyes, she never changed. She was, in his eyes, still a beautiful, graceful, and enchanting girl, who was his betrothed. On occasion he would leave his books, and his arduous clerical and parochial duties, just to gaze at into her soft eyes. Then he would press her tiny hand, whisper a fond word to her, and then he would return to his lonely home, where he would bury his sorrows in long bouts of study.
Anna McKenna had been sent to him as a ministering angel. She was the orphan and penniless daughter of Mr Worthington’s dearest friend and former college friend, and she had come to find a shelter beneath the humble roof of the pious guardian, to whose earthly care she had been solemnly left. Paul’s curacy was not far from the town where Bessie had fixed her resting-place. Most of those personal friends, who knew the secret of little Bessie’s history, also knew that she regarded Anna McKenna with special favour and affection, from the fact, that Anna enjoyed the privilege of comforting and cheering Paul Worthington’s declining years. Each of them spoke of her as a dear adopted daughter, and Anna equally returned the affection of both.
Those poor lonely people! They had known long and anxious years, separated by circumstance, and yet united in their bonds of enduring love! In my mind I pictured them at festive winter seasons, it their humble solitary homes; and in the height of summer, when song-birds and bright perfumed flowers call lovers out into the sunshine. They had not dared to rejoice during their long engagement and yet Bessie was a sociable creature, who did not mope or shut herself up, but chose to lead a life of active usefulness, and was a general favourite amongst everyone. They had never even thought about the possibility of them evading Bessie’s solemn promise to her dying father. To their minds, that fatal promise was as binding and stringent.
When we first met the little grey gossip, we had humoured ourselves at her expense. Now, however, we looked upon her as an object of interest, surrounded by a halo of romance, fully shared in by her charming and venerable lover. And this was good Cousin Con’s explanation of the riddle, which she told with many digressions, and with animated smiles, to conceal tears of sympathy. Paul Worthington and little Bessie did not like their history to be discussed by the younger generation, who scorned such things. For Paul and Bessie their sacrifice was so unworldly and very sacred, but they looked forward with a humble hope that soon they would be united for ever in a better place. It simply pained them terribly and distressed them to be made a topic of conversation.
If we had been telling fiction, it would have been easy for us to bring this elderly pair together, even at the eleventh hour. Love and constancy can make up for the absence of the one sweet ingredient that fades but is so beautiful, namely youth. But as this is a romance made in reality, we are compelled by circumstances to divulge facts as they actually occurred, and as we heard them from authentic sources. Paul and Bessie divided in their lives, are now laid side by side in the old church-yard. He went first, and Bessie changed her usual grey for more sombre clothing of a darker colour. But, that loving little soul did not remain long behind him. She left her property to Anna McKenna, and warned her against long engagements.
The last time that we heard about of Anna, she was the happy wife of an excellent man, who, fully complied with the opinion of the little gray gossip by protesting strenuously against a courtship lasting more than six weeks, and he carried his point triumphantly.
“Wait ’til I tell you, Mickey Brennan, it’s not that I don’t have a great regard for you as a man. Indeed, it’s true that you are a decent sort of boy, and that you come from a decent family. But, I have to say that, the long and short of it is, I just don’t want you to be running about after my wee girl any more.” Such was the concluding portion of a very long and unfriendly speech that had been undertaken by old Brian Moran of Loughcroy. Old Brian’s sole purpose for giving such a speech was, simply, to persuade his daughter’s sweetheart to cease paying her any further attention. It is a difficult task that parents occasionally need to take upon themselves and it is a task that is never very easy to carry out. Indeed, the entire affair become even more difficult when the couple in question are unceremoniously separated from each other, having very much believed that they had been born for each other.
Everyone who knew Michael Brennan, knew him to be a quiet, unassuming young man who was always respectful to his elders. On this occasion, however, he was not very successful in holding either his patience, or his temper, on this occasion. “Why? Dear God, Brian Moran!” he exclaimed angrily, “I beg, in the name of all that is holy, just give me one good reason why I should be separated from her? Whether the reason be good, bad, or indifferent, and I’ll be satisfied!”
“Och, what am I to say to you, you unfortunate eejit of a boy. Now don’t be questioning me on this bloody decision anymore,” responded Brian in a way that suggested to Michael that he wasn’t entirely happy with the decision himself.
“And why shouldn’t I?” asked Michael. “Do you think that I should just give up so easily, and we playing together since she could walk. Has that girl not been the very light of my eyes and the pulse of my heart, these six long years since we reached a proper age to know how things were between us. Now, you tell me when, in all of that time, did either you or your good wife ever say, or even hint, until this damned minute that I was to cease from courting her? Will you just tell me that.”
“Would you give my head a bit of peace, Michael!” Brian groaned at the young man. He put his hands to his ears to keep himself from hearing the questions, especially when he did not have the ability to give the boy a straight answer to them.
“That’s true enough,” he finally conceded. “This whole mess is all down to Peggy,God forgive her, and I wish she she had told you herself. I knew how you would be when you were told this, and don’t blame you in any way for being angry. When she hears it all, it will kill young Mary completely.”
“Has this all come about because you feel that I am not wealthy enough to be keeping her in a proper manner?” Michael asked him with all the impatience of a teenager.
“Not at all, Michael,” Brian replied, “it’s nothing like that at all. But, if you want to be sure, can’t you wait an’ ask Peggy, herself?”
Michael chose to totally ignore any mention of Peggy’s name and asked ‘Old Brian”, “Is it because there’s something against me?”.
When Brian didn’t answer immediately, Michael asked him again, “Is it because there is something against me, I asked you? Is there a warrant, or a summons, or has somebody spoken against me?”
“Jaysus Christ! Did I not just say, no more questions?” sighed Brian, feeling overwhelmed by the young man’s questions. “Just wait a wee while and you can ask all you want to know off Peggy, Michael!”
Brian Moran really liked young Michael Brennan, and had encouraged the young man’s close relationship with his darling daughter, Mary. He could not ease the grief and uneasiness that he felt because of Michael’s constant questions. Mickey could see just how uneasy the old man was and the way he had tried to evade his “I’m being lied to, Brian. I know I am, and I know it all now,” he shouted as he began to lose control of himself. “Come on now, Brian, there is no longer any need or any time to be playing silly buggers anymore. I am not a child, you know, so you can tell me immediately who it was who spoke out against me. Just you tell me who it is and I will ram the damned lie down his, or her, throat, and I don’t care what it costs me!”
“No, Michael!” insisted Brian, “There was never a word said against you. My God, sure you have never done anything wrong that would cause a person to speak out against you. In all honesty, my lad, it is that which is breaking my heart. Total damnation to that bloody woman of mine, but this is all Peggy’s fault.”
“What?” exclaimed Mickey in disbelief. “I bet you that Peggy has had a bad dream about Mary and I. Come on, Brian! Out with it! Tell us what Peggy the Pishogue (Prophetess) has to say for herself. Come on, out with it, man dear!. My whole life is being tossed upside down for something your Peggy has dreamed up!”
“Oh Michael, for Jaysus’, be at peace, and don’t be talking that way about Peggy,” Brian told him. Mickey had offended him by talking in such a manner about his wife, whose previous visions had always come to pass. “Whatever she says, doesn’t it always come true?” Brian reminded him. “Didn’t it rain on last Saturday, even though the day looked fine at first? Sure didn’t Tommy Higgins’s cow die on him? Wasn’t Annie Creaney married to Jimmy Knox after all? And wait ’til I tell you, that as sure as your name is Mickey Brennan, what she says about you will also come to pass. In fact, God forbid that it should happen to anyone else of your decent family!”
“In the name of God, Brian, tell me what’s going to happen to me?” Mickey asked in a trembling voice, despite his efforts to adopt an uncaring attitude, especially after he had commented quite contemptuously upon Peggy’s reputation of being the wisest of women. In fact, Peggy’s reputation stood very high among the people of the district, and Mickey should not have tried to sound too unconcerned about being seen in unfavourable circumstances in any of her visions of the future.
“Ah Jaysus, Michael, don’t ask me such things. Please don’t ask me,” was Brian’s pitiful answer, “Maybe you should just get all your things together now, as quickly as you can, and go straight to Father Corry. The priest might be able to give you some sort of blessing that will give you a chance to escape all the bad luck that’s in front of you.”
“It’s all crap! Total bullshit! And, by the way, Brian Moran, you should be ashamed of yourself for spreading such rubbish.”
“There’s not one word of a lie in it, I’m telling ye,” Brian insisted. “Peggy seen it all last night, and, in all honesty, the poor woman is as troubled about it, almost as if you were her own flesh and blood. Look, sure isn’t that a mole you have there under your ear?”
“Well, and what if it is?” Michael replied in a quite uncaring tone. But, in reality, he was very disturbed by the concern that his future was causing both Brian and Peggy. “What if I have a mole? Sure there are many men who have a mole in the same place as myself!”
“That’s very true,” Brian replied. “But, Mickey, my friend, didn’t they have the same bad luck come to them as well. Now listen to me, you poor, ignorant wee crature, you would not want me to give my blessing to have my poor wee darlin’ girl marry a man who will sooner or later end his days swinging at the end of a rope on the gallows!”
“The gallows!” screamed Mickey Brennan,slowly, “Jaysus Christ and his Holy Mother! Is that what Peggy says is going to happen to me?” He tried desperately to laugh derisively and defiantly at what he thought was preposterous idea. But, Mickey could not do it. Deep down he was truly shocked by what Brian had told him. He knew that this was not a matter to be laughed at, and he had to finally give in to those fears he had tried so hard to resist. Almost as a sign of his surrender to the inevitable, Mickey buried his face in his hands as he threw himself violently to the ground.
Meanwhile, Brian was equally, deeply moved by the revelation he had made to Michael. Though it was his wife’s, Peggy, vision that he had revealed he sat down beside young Brennan and tried to console him as best as he could. Before all this talk of visions had gotten in his way, Old Brian had nothing but a good deal of admiration for young Michael. He was among the more well-to-do people of the district, and had gathered a small amount of wealth about him. Mickey owned a good, fertile piece of land and his farm produced a good harvest of crops, pigs, cows and sheep. The fact that he owned all these things in his own name made him the most eligible bachelor among all the young men of the district. Mary Moran, however, was more interested in Mickey’s handsome good looks and muscular physique.
Mickey’s family were all very well off and highly respected in the area, but both his mother and his father were dead and his only sister had gotten herself married just before Lent had began. Naturally, having all the advantages of wealth and freedom, you would think that Mickey could have selected any girl in the parish to be his bride. But, Mickey had made his choice of a wife many years ago. His eye had fallen upon Mary Moran and they had both given each other their hearts. Both Brian and Peggy were happy with their daughter’s choice and had never thought about disputing it. Brian didn’t even have second thoughts after he came to the decision that he would could give his daughter a money gift, which, at the time, amounted to double what Michael Brennan was worth. There was not, perhaps, the same certainty about the money gift when it came to Peggy. A mother always worries about her daughter and, being such careful creatures, they always want to see that any future son-in-law is financially independent. This is always true when it comes to an Irish mother who has a daughter of marriageable age.
Peggy Moran was as good an Irish mother as any other and she was somewhat concerned about the amount of money that Brian was about to shower on Mary. She argued strongly with Brian about the agreement he had made and she tried everything possible to change his mind. But, Peggy’s efforts were all in vain, however, because as much as Brian usually submitted to her advice, he loved his pretty daughter Mary. This great love that he held for his daughter strengthened his resolve in this matter. Every time Mary cried at her mother’s insinuations,, Brian always words to comfort her. On those occasions when Brian’s words of comfort were not enough, he always got Mickey and Mary together, and left them to settle the matter in their own way.
Peggy was not the type of woman who gave up easily, and she was determined that she would have her way in this matter. Such was her reputation as a seer, after all, that one word from her could break up any match that had been made in the district, and that included her very own daughter’s match whether Brian liked it or not. To this end Peggy now applied all her tricks, and every ounce of her cunning to the task. Firstly, she could not allow Brian to shower the young couple with all that money. And so, Peggy talked about the dreams that she had been given about the match between Michael and Mary. She read the tea leaves and consulted the burning embers of the fire in which she saw all sorts of strange signs concerning her daughter’s relationship with Michael Brennan. Calling upon her entire knowledge of magic and the world of spirits, she was rewarded with a vision that revealed Michael Brennan was destined to end his days on the gallows.
There were some parishioners, who thought themselves older and wiser than most, that considered the very idea of Peggy Moran being something of a prophetess as an ugly sort of joke. There were many more in the Parish who believed she had become so devoted to the dark spirits that her knowledge and skill in supernatural matters was very strong. They called her ‘The Pishogue‘, a name that implied she had a knowledge of more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed about. It was a title that was certainly not misplaced in Peggy’s case. There was not a university professor more deeply read in science and medicine than was Peggy when it came to all the signs and omens whereby the affairs of this world are foretold.
There seemed to be nothing too great or too small for Peggy to not get involved. She was expert in every form of fortune telling, from reading tea-leaves to magic. She could read a person’s future in the mystical dregs from a tea-cup, which assumed a variety of shapes that would puzzle any learned person. By just taking a glance at some symbol, or other, she could immediately detect its true meaning, and foretell deaths, births, and marriages, with the same infallibility as a newspaper. Even those dreams that would mystify the wisest of men would be quickly unravelled by Peggy. At the same time, there was not a ghost, or other spirit, in the entire country with whose haunts and habits she was not familiar with, almost as if she one of their number. There wasn’t a single fairy that could put its nose outside without being detected by Peggy. Meanwhile, there were many property owners in the district that employed Peggy to use her skills and charms against all manner of theft and loss. When news of these ‘Spirit Blessings’ became known the properties concerned increased a great deal in their value.
We could spend an entire lifetime describing every mystical talent that Peggy possessed, and to relate every one of the successes she had. But, it would a certainty that there would still be those among you who would still not believe in all the things that Peggy had said and done. Yet, the people of the parish were very much aware of Peggy’s achievements and had great confidence in all she said and did neighbours. Not only her friends and neighbours had trust and confidence in her, but also her closest family, Brian and Mary. With such a status within the community around her, it is no wonder why so many people believed her when she foretold the coming disaster that would befall Mickey Brennan.
It should come as no surprise to you then that Peggy’s revelation created a great sensation, especially after several old gossips, to whom she had imparted her discovery, were put on oath not to say one word about it. Instead they were told that they should hush up the entire matter for the young fool’s peace of mind. Those people who had a close friendship with Michael also worried about his fate, because not even the most sceptical among them would dare to question the truth and certainty of Peggy Moran revelation. Rather than scrutinising the sources of her information they preferred to view the entire matter as being one that required their sympathy for their friend. Everyone viewed Peggy’s warnings as being certain, and some of Michael’s friends even declared, “that since the thing cannot be avoided, and Mickey, poor fellow, must be hanged, we can only hope it is for something worthwhile, decent, and not thieving, or cheating, or anything like that.”
You can appreciate that in all of this the hardest task in this story is to describe the feelings that poor Michael Brennan, himself, felt about the situation. He did everything he possibly could to make Peggy’s revelations appear to be the foolish superstions of a very weird woman. Unfortunately, Michael had grown to believe in the apparitions just as much as any other person in the district. Though he tried very hard to ignore the revelations made about him, his efforts were fruitless and a dark sense of despair quickly overcame him.
Now it’s all very well and good for you to preach long and hard about the advantages of education, and its ability to overcome old superstitions. But, take my word for it, that it will take a very long period of time to root out the centuries held superstitions from the hearts of the Irish people. Be assured that, until that bright day dawns, Ireland’s many country villages will still have their ‘Wise Women’, and what they say will be regarded as gospel truth by the vast majority of their neighbours. Of course, there will always be a number of people who will pour scorn on such things, but there will be many more who will very respectfully beg leave to doubt them. There will always be, however, those who believe wholeheartedly in the words and visions of the ‘Wise Women’. If truth be told, in the more remote inland villages that dot the hillsides and mountains of Ireland, there are events occurring almost every day that are far more strange than anything that you are being told in this story.
Michael Brennan found it increasingly difficult to keep calm in the face of the denunciation that had been made. Sadly, only comfort that he could get from those people around him was, “The gallows is a good death for an Irishman.” In those days the majority of Irishmen who were sent to the gallows were considered martyrs for the cause of Ireland’s freedom from the British Crown and they were, therefore, considered by most to be good men and women. This, of course, was the last thing on Michael’s mind. Peggy’s revelation had caused him to begin losing any hope he had of becoming a husband to his beloved Mary. No longer having this hope filling his heart with joy, Michael began to wish that death, instant and immediate, would come quickly and carry him off. As his anxiety and depression grew, death, it seemed to him, would be a great relief and it would also show that Peggy’s prophecies could not always be relied upon to come true.
It will, therefore, come as no surprise to you to learn that, in the depth of the depression brought about by his mental suffering and fear for the future, Mickey made a failed attempt upon his own life. When he was sure, in his own mind, that there was no one close enough to stop him, Mickey plunged himself into a nearby lake. He quickly discovered, however, that he was not alone at that moment. A local man, who was looking after sheep, saw Michael plunge into the lake and went to rescue him. The shepherd, however, was quite a distance away and, by the time he had reached the lake, Mickey’s body was to all appearances lifeless. His discovery was quickly spread about the parish, causing shock to all who heard the news. It was like the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ that went the rounds and finally declared Mickey’s death, but the description of that death was different each time it was described. Some said that Mickey Brennan had lain in the cold, dark water for at least ten minutes, while others said a half an hour, half the day, and even since the previous night. There was only one point that was consistent in each story told, and that was the agreement saying that Mickey Brennan was as dead as a door-nail.
Only Peggy Moran didn’t believe the news that she was given. “Would you all stop your bleetin’,for God’s sake, sure the man’s not dead,” she told the crowd that had gathered.
“If you would all be quiet for a few minutes, the man might just come to! When have you ever known a man who is born to be hanged was drowned. So, just wait a wee while and hold your tongues, for this is all nonsense, I tell you. Mickey Brennan will live long enough to spoil somebody’s day, and more’s the pity.”
Her words seemed to fall on deaf ears, however, Many began to shake their heads, some even suggesting that Peggy had mistaken rope for water in her dream about Brennan. All their doubts soon vanished, nonetheless. Slowly and quite mysteriously, Mickey began to recover from his rash effort at suicide. By recovering, unfortunately, he fulfilled much of the destiny that Peggy had for him. At the same time, Mickey raised Peggy Moran’s reputation to an even higher point beyond than it had been previously.
During the days that followed Peggy’s fame rose even higher. She discovered six cases of stolen goods, twice discovered that the fairies had interfered with the milk churns on nearby farms belonging to their neighbours, and she was invited by a large number of people to tell them their fortunes. In the meantime, poor Mickey Brennan finally realised that his destiny could not be avoided so easily, and he resigned himself to what his fate would be. But, if he was to die on the gallows, he decided that he would seek out the best possible opportunity to face the gallows without any disgrace to his people, or family name. Mary Moran, however, was deeply heartbroken with grief at her beloved’s declared fate and she just could not imagine anything that could be worse for her to bear, though she would soon discover that there was .
In a very short period of time there began a new whisper that began to creep through the parish. This new whisper promised death and disaster on some very unlucky unknown person. Rumours said, “Peggy Moran has something on her mind,” and this alone made the people impatiently wonder as to what that ‘something’ could be. When anyone gathered enough courage to question her on the mystery, Peggy remained silent and slipped into a mysterious with a shake of her head. Constantly in her mouth was a lit ‘Sweet Afton’ cigarette, which she never removed unless she lay on her bed to sleep, or sat down at the table to her meals. The more people that now asked her questions, the angrier Peggy became, which was not usual for the woman. She began to avoid all sorts of conversation, which was very definitely not her way either. These actions, naturally, served to arouse interest and curiosity of her neighbours to an agonising pitch. Peggy now had every one trembling that the result of the new prophecy would be some terrible revelation that might affect any single one of them.
For every person in the district the question of who was the subject of Peggy’s new prophecy became the first question asked each morning, and the last question at night. Every word that Peggy spoke became a matter of the greatest speculation to every person who heard her. Such was the tension among the people of the district that there was a danger that the people themselves would go absolutely mad with fright if they were kept in the dark much longer. Eventually the secret was discovered, but at some cost the the discoverer.
One night Brian and Peggy were sitting together in front of the fire for a while before they went to bed. As he sat there with his wife, Brian head that he should try and discover the source of Peggy’s sorrow. After asking her many questions, and getting no straight answers, Peggy told him, “Brian darlin’ it is very good of you to ask and to show your concern. But, my darlin’ old man, there is no use in hiding it anymore. It is all about you.”
“Jaysus, Peggy, Lord bless us and keep us.”
“Indeed, Brian,” replied Peggy gently as she exhaled a large cloud of tobacco smoke from her mouth and nostrils. “ These last couple of days I’ve noticed that you just have not been at yourself.”
“Christ, Peggy! You could be right and maybe I am not at myself,” said Brian anxiously.
“Do you not feel something different about yourself, Brian. Maybe your heart darlin‘?”
“By God, I do. You’re right enough, Peggy. I do feel something different,” Brian told her, willing to believe almost anything she said about him.
“ It’s something like a pleurisy, isn’t it?” she suggested in a mournful tone of voice.
“Ay, right enough, Peggy. It’s just like a pleurisy and may the good God keep me safe from harm!”moaned Brian.
“And I’m sure you feel the cold these night, Brian?” continued Peggy.
“Oh! Holy God, Peggy! Sure I’m foundered! My body is as cold as ice,”answered Brian, and his teeth suddenly began to chatter as if he had fallen into an icy cold pond.
“And your appetite must be completely gone, darlin’?” Peggy continued with her questions.
“Isn’t that the truth of it?” he answered. Brain now believed completely that he had been struck down by some great illness. He had totally forgotten that less than an hour previously he had finished off a pot of potatoes, cabbage and bacon, washed down with a pint of buttermilk.
“Just look at that old black cat, taking a good look at you now, after it has licked her paw,” said Peggy.
“As sure as there’s an eye in a goat, there’s a divil in that cat! I wouldn’t put it past her that she is waiting for me to breathe my last,” said Brian sadly.
Peggy moved a little closer to her husband. “Let me feel your pulse, darlin’,” she said and Brian weakly submitted his trembling wrist for her inspection. As she checked for a pulse, Brian anxiously stared at her face to see if there was any indication as to what his fate would be. At length, a long, deep sigh broke from her lips, accompanied by another huge cloud of cigarette smoke, and she let go of Brian’s arm. Then, to Brian’s surprise, Peggy began to rock herself to and fro, muttering some words or other in a low, moaning voice. Brian was certain that this was an ominous sign of what his fate would be.
“Ah, Jaysus, Peggy, surely to God I am not going to die am I?” he asked his wife anxiously.
“Dear, Oh dear, my darlin’ man!” roared Peggy in anguish, “Never did I ever think that when I married you, Brian my love, that I would ever see the sorrowful day when I would cry the widow’s wail over you. God knows, Brian, but you were the best of a man to me, young and old!”
“Oh Peggy!” Brian sighed loudly as his wife continued her lamentations.
“Ah don’t talk, my darlin’ man, don’t talk to me. Sure I’ll never be able to hold my head up again in this district, so I won’t!” Peggy continued to lament loudly and her wailing quickly brought everyone in the house around her, and finally all the neighbours gathered.
As all these people gathered together there was a great uproar, with people giving mixed ideas with noisy explanations about the cause for Peggy’s lamenting. But, despite their best efforts, there were none who could provide consolation to either Brian or Peggy. Young Mary clung to her father in total despair and grief, while Old Brian mouthed over his prayers as fast and as correctly as his dismay would allow him.
As the morning dawned of the next day, Brian could just not gather the will-power to get up and out of his bed. He refused all that was offered him to eat, and he demanded that the priest should be sent for without delay. Every hour that passed seemed to be worse than the previous hour, as Brian moved from one period of unconsciousness to another. Those at his bedside received a running commentary on the symptoms he was feeling, which seemed to encompass every complaint that ever troubled mankind. He complained bitterly that he was crippled by pain in every part of his body, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. The doctor who attended him could make neither head nor tail of the illness, which had struck down Old Brian Moran. Totally mystified, this man of science declared that the complaint was the greatest oddity complication that he had ever heard of. In fact, he was so annoyed that he believed Brian was making the entire illness up and needed a good kick in the arse to pull himself out of his self pity. At the same time, the Doctor suggested that the best treatment for Peggy was to throw her into the nearest river to help calm her down.
When he arrived on the scene the Parish Priest was equally puzzled by what was happening. “ Brian, what in the name of God, Brian is wrong with you, man dear?” he asked.
“My body is being killed all-over the place with some sort of illness or other,“ replied Brian pitifully. The priest looked at the old man and had to admit to himself that he was bothered by the fact that a man like Brian could not rise from his bed.
Despite every urging of the priest to rise, Old Brian remained where he was and moaned, “What use is there in a man getting up from his bed, and him going to die anyway? Is it not far easier and more decent for me just to die in bed like a good Christian?”
“Ah now, Brian, sure God’s good and maybe this is not yet your time to die,” said the priest.
“Now, don’t be talking your old nonsense, Father. Sure doesn’t my Peggy know best?” Brian told him and with this he closed his ears to all words of consolation that people spoke to him. Even the tearful words spoken by his heart-broken daughter, Mary. Referring to traditional remedies the doctor decided he would try and apply a herbal poultice to the man. He made up a poultice, much stronger than was normal and assured everyone that it would have Brian up from his bed and walking by the next morning.
By this time there were a good many people gathered into the small cottage, hoping to witness Old Brian being cured. The doctor, however, was so distracted by their presence that he felt they could have all been done without. But, these people were a godsend for Peggy, and she turned to them moaning and weeping, and declaring her total lack of faith in any of these modern remedies. She kept on insisting that she had no other expectation than that she would be a sad widow by Sunday. Then, quite unexpectedly, Old Brian was roused a little by the application of the poultice and, with a weak voice, asked be heard.
“Peggy, my darlin’,” said Brian, “there’s no denying that you’re a wonderful woman and, since I’m going from you, it would be a great kindness if you would tell us all how you found out that I was do sick, even before I knew it myself. I’m only curious, darlin’ woman. I just don’t want to die and not know why, or for what reason. Wouldn’t I look the quare fool if someone above was to ask me what I died of, and I couldn’t tell them.”
Peggy looked sorrowfully at her husband, while she told him that she was willing to do him this last favour. In a sobbing voice, Peggy began to explain, “It was Thursday night week,” she began, “sure it’s a night I’ll never forget, Brian, should I live to be a hundred years old. It was just after my first sleep that I began to dream, and I dreamed that I went down to Danny Kelly’s butcher shop to buy a bit of beef. Surely, you remember, it was that day that he had slaughtered a young bull for the butcher’s block. I was sure that when I would go into his house I would see a fine carcase hanging of beef hanging but, all that I saw hanging up was an ugly looking carcase that did not smell too fresh. Says Danny Kelly to me, with a mighty grim look on his face, “Well, woman, what do you want? Is it some of this meat you’re wanting?” ‘Yes, says I, but none of that old rubbish! That’s not the type of meat we’re used to.’ “Ah sure, who cares?” says he to me, “I’ll cut you out a rib.” ‘Oh, no thank you all the same,’ says I and put out my hand to stop him, and what do you think he did? He raised the hatchet and brought it down upon my hand, cutting the ring on my finger into two.”
There were murmurs heard among the gathered crowd as her story came to its end. The meaning of the dream had suddenly been revealed to Old Brian and he unmoved for a while. Everyone in the room looked to Brian to see how he had taken the explanation as to his imminent death when, suddenly, he sat bolt upright in the bed, with his mouth and eyes wide open. “In the name of God, Peggy,” Brian slowly exclaimed, when he had recovered a little from the surprise, “do you mean to tell me that’s all that’s wrong with me?”
Startled by Old Brian’s extraordinary question, Peggy and her crowd of supporters stared at him. For a moment it appeared to them that he was about to leap out of the bed, and forcibly display his indignation to his wife. Although he was known as a quiet man, his temper was just well known. His bodily strength, however, failed him as he attempted to get out of the bed and, roaring with pain, he returned to is lying down position on the bed. Nonetheless, Peggy’s infallibility among the local people was now at an end. The doctor’s poultice had done the trick and in a few short days Brian was able to stump about as usual, threatening everyone with extreme violence if they dared to laugh at him. Laughter, however, is something that is not so easily controlled, and Brian’s foul temper was worsened to such a degree by the ridicule he had encountered, that he now became determined to seek a reconciliation with young Mickey Brennan. He decided that all of Peggy’s gloomy prophesies could go to the devil, and he would give the Parish Priest a job to do for the young couple. Mary and Mickey, as a result, were married and, thanks be to God, Mickey did not end his days on the gallows as Peggy had prophesied.
“Wake up there, Jenny!” shouted Bridie Ferguson as she ran up to her neighbour’s door.
“What in the name of Jaysus is wrong with ye?” replied Jenny Dunn.
“Did you not hear the news?”
“What news? What’s it about?”
Bridie shouted at the top of her voice, “Sure there’s a letter from Amerikay in the post-office.”
“Wheesht, now! Don’t be daft!” answered Jenny
“I’m telling you the truth, woman,” insisted Bridie Ferguson. “No word of lie! Micky Dunn brought word from the town this morning. He says that the letter is from Dessie McDowell to his old mother.”
“Oh, is that right? Well, now I know you’re telling lies! That dirty blackguard never had that much good in him from the day and hour he was born. He was always an idle, worthless ruffian, that was the ruination of every one he came in contact with. The dirty old——”
“Jaysus, Jenny, don’t be holding yourself back! But, let me tell you that you’re wrong this time,” Bridie told her. “The letter is from Dessie McDowell to his old mother, and it contains money, believe it or not!” Her friend Jenny looked at her in disbelief and listened to the rest of what Bridie had to say. She told how the postmistress had sent word that old Mrs. McDowell should bring some responsible person that might guarantee her identity. The old woman was a widow and the postmistress did not want to give the letter into the keeping of a frail old woman, especially when she did not know what might be inside the envelope. For the two greatest gossips in the area the outstanding question was to discover how that well known reprobate of a son had managed even to get the price of writing paper.
Jenny told her friend that she had seen old Sharon McDowell borrow a clean coat from her neighbour, and that she had sent for Conn King and his car. Mr. King was the local solicitor, who was known to everyone in the town, both rich and poor. Conn was going with the old woman to verify that she was Sharon McDowell of Tullybann, and the addressee of the letter from America. Bridie laughed at the idea, saying “That old crone is so well know that she could get every man, woman and child in the area to verify her identity. She didn’t need Conn King.
Dessie McDowell was the old woman’s only son, born to her when she was still freshly widowed. Sadly, Sharon’s husband had been killed by a falling tree before they had been married six months. All that was left to Sharon was her beautiful, curly-headed son and she lavished all her love upon him. She spoiled him terribly and as he grew up he became the greatest young hooligan in the parish. As a young boy he developed a knack for throwing stones, the results of which were gathered and reported back to his mother. There was not one day in his young life that passed without him earning the blame for a list of damages and disasters. There were complaints about the chickens and other birds he had maimed and killed with his stones, windows broken into smithereens, and children that had been cut or badly bruised. Dessie was simply a one boy disaster zone and all his poor mother could say was, “For Christ’s sake, what do you want me to do with him, for there is really no harm in my son, for it would do me no good?”
The neighbours and townsfolk held their patience with young Dessie for quite a number of years, but finally decided that something would have to be done. Not wanting him to be sent to any delinquent centre, for Sharon’s sake, they came upon another way to resolve the problem. Although not a permanent solution, the tactic that they had agreed upon had the potential to keep him out of their way for the greater part of every day. The opportunity to enjoy that much of their lives in peace was a chance they could not turn down, and even the clergy were glad to agree since the solution might just converting Dessie from being the parish nuisance into a useful member of the community.
Each house in the parish agreed to give a small subscription every month, which would be used to send Dessie to the Christian Brothers’ School in the next town. The brothers were noted for their rigidness and for their teaching ability, as well as for their sports skills. Accordingly, Dessie left home and was sent to this new school for the next five or six years. There was peace in the Parish for these years and Dessie studied hard at all the subjects he was given. But, Dessie was not an academic and preferred to make things out of wood and metal, becoming so proficient that his poor mother was able to boast of his success. Even the neighbours began to think better of him and his teachers spoke highly of Dessie’s abilities. In fact many of the teachers suggested that if Dessie could keep his head down to work then he would be a man fit for the company of any lady in the district. Encouraged by such compliments, Dessie attempted to keep his head down and work hard, putting his talent for metal and woodwork to good use. But in doing all these things Dessie came to ruination.
It was the end of his school days and Dessie knew that the time had finally come for him to make his way in the world. His mother, in an effort to help him get a good steady job, obtained a position for her son as a labourer on the large tract of land owned by a prominent businessman from the town. But, when he heard about the job, and what it entailed, Dessie was not in the least bit pleased. Sharon thought she had gained for him a good start in life, but Dessie was speechless, at first, when she told him. He asked her, “For why, then, did I go to school mother? Is this the sort of job that you want for me, and me qualified for better?”
Despite Sharon’s pleadings that he should not reject the offer out of hand, Dessie felt himself to be above such lowly work. He boldly told his mother that nothing but being a carpenter would satisfy his ambitions. People began to look at Dessie as a man who had ideas above his station in life. But, Dessie didn’t really care what anyone thought of him, and there was one other person who agreed with such thoughts. In fact, is it not a strange phenomena that the most mischievous boys in town always seem to attract the prettiest girls. This is exactly what happened to Dessie McDowell. Unfortunately, for this young couple the young lady, Nancy Doran, had friends and family who were not prepared to quietly allow their relationship to continue unopposed. Undaunted, however, Dessie and Nancy were driven to carry on their relationship in secrecy.
Driven by his great love for Nancy, Dessie urged Nancy her to elope with him. He believed that her family would, when they realised there was nothing else they could do, give Nancy enough money to set matters right with her. Nancy had not yet gathered enough courage or daring to elope with her man. She also, unfortunately, had not the courage to end the relationship with Dessie, or the increasing secrecy required for the relationship to continue. The affair was becoming increasingly more hopeless in her eyes and, as a result, she began to feel increasing sorrow and shame. Nancy’s bright eyes, that were once like a magnet to all the young men in the district, had now began to grow dim. Her once rosy cheeks, that had caused more than one suitor to write poems to her beauty, had now began to grow pale and sallow. Then, true to his old ways, Dessie had been less than a gentleman towards her and he was forced to flee the country to avoid the righteous and murderous anger of her family. He fled to America and safety, though it remains very much a mystery as to how had obtained the necessary finance. Now, after a period of almost a year and a half, a letter from him had arrived and there were many who hoped it would answer all their questions.
This story, as you must have realised, happened quite a number of years ago when travel to foreign parts was not the everyday event it is today for people. In those days America to be almost like a different planet, and there would be little chance of someone who went there ever returning home. You can imagine, therefore, the fuss and bother that a letter from America could cause when it arrived in any small Irish village. The news that such a letter had arrived quickly became a matter of public interest to everyone in the village, and it was looked after almost as if it was valuable joint property. Country people generally regarded such a letter as being a general communication from neighbours abroad to all the neighbours at home, and hearing what such a letter contained was a matter of intense interest to all those who have seen a family member joining the numerous emigrants from this land. So it was with the letter Sharon received from America.
When she arrived back home, after retrieving her letter from the post office, the old widow found herself pursued by a cavalcade of her neighbours. Every inch of the cottage interior was full to capacity and the crowd overflowed on to the entire area outside the front of the house. The door and the windows of the cottage were were almost completely blocked up with various heads that strained in a vain effort to hear even a little of what was being read to Sharon. In a low voice the was read out, but many couldn’t hear because of the squabbles between individuals, as they tried to get a better place to listen from.
“Damn you, Tom Burns, what the hell are you pushing me away for, sure I want to hear what’s happened with Dessie!”
“Ah, shut your beak, you eejit! Why wouldn’t I try to get in there to hear a letter about Sharon, sure isn’t she my sister-in-law?”
“Here boys! Does any of ye hear a word about my poor Paddy?” Biddy Casey called out from the back of the crowd.
For the past three years not a letter had come from America that Biddy had not gone to the addressee in the hope of getting some news about her husband,Paddy. He had been through some financially troubling times, which had caused him to become part of a trio of men who were rustling cattle and sheep. With the forces of law breathing down his neck, Paddy had gone to America to prepare a new life for his family. Regularly every market-day in town, Biddy went to the post-office and inquired if there was a letter from America addressed to her. But, week after week she received a negative answer, and her heart sank with despair. Biddy still attended the post office each market day, but could no longer ask the question, and only presented herself at the counter to receive the usual negative answer from the post-mistress. On some occasions she would turn her eyes to Heaven and pray, “God in heaven help me!”, as the tears flowed down her cheeks. From the day he left until the day Mrs. McDowell’s letter arrived, Biddy had never heard one word one word about her husband, or what had happened to him. The news contained in Sharon’s letter from America would give Biddy some closure on the labours and anxieties she had suffered since Paddy had left. Biddy learned that he was attracted to the city of New Orleans by the promise of high wages, but he met his end in the the deadly swamps that surround the city.
But, Dessie McDowell’s letter contained news for others. One such person was a red-cheeked lady called Peggy Dillon and, after getting her news, she elbowed her way out of the cottage and into the fresh air. She had tears in her eyes but, from the expression on her face, these were undoubtedly tears of joy.
“Well, Peggy? Is there any news of your Bridie?” came the questions from the crowd that was gathered outside the cottage. “From the smile on your face, Peggy, it must be good news.”
“Oh, sure its great news!” Peggy answered delightedly. “Bridie has a wonderful fine place for herself in America and another for me. She even has my passage paid and in five weeks I’ll be away myself. Woo! Woo! I’m so excited that I don’t know what to do with myself!”
It was, indeed, good news for Peggy Dillon, but others sought news for themselves from the letter. “Peggy darlin’, was there any news about our Mick?” asked someone from the crowd.
“Or our Sally? Our Johnny? Or our wee George,” came other questions with which she was inundated.
“Oh, I don’t know, I just don’t know. I couldn’t listen with the joy I felt in getting news of Bridie,” replied Peggy
Then, one more spoke out to her to ask he a very pertinent question, “But, Peggy darling, what will Tom Feeny think of all this? Do you just ignore all those vows and promises that you and he made to each other when you were coming home from the dance the other night?”
Peggy did not worry about such questions, for she knew exactly what was going to happen. With the very first money that she earned in America, Peggy would send it to the care of the Parish Priest to pay Tom’s passage out to her. She was sure that the Parish Priest would help if she assured him that she and Tom would be married as soon as he set foot on American soil.
As Peggy walked away with a huge smile across her face another happy face emerged from McDowell’s cottage. It was old Malachy Tighe and he was clasping his hands, together as he looked up toward heaven, silently thanking God for the good news he had received. His son, his pride and joy, was going to be home with him before harvest time, with as much money as would buy another bit of land. His son’s wife threw her arms around her father-in-law when she heard the news from him, and his grandchildren jumped around, screaming with delight. “It’s good news Malachy, Johnny is coming home!” the neighbours celebrated and wished him well.
As usual in these things not everyone would be destined to hear good news. There was a message from Mick Finn to his sweetheart, Susie, telling her that he would soon have her fare gathered and would be sending it on to her. Unfortunately, Susie was not going to hear the message, for she took very ill a couple of months earlier and died. It was six weeks since the poor girl passed away and the family had brought her to her last resting place in the cemetery at St. John’s Church. There in her grave Susie lay, and the daisies had already taken root, blooming there in the fresh air as beautiful as she had once been. Mick Finn’s words, however, had brought back the heartache and tears the family had shed in the days and weeks that had passed since her untimely demise.
“Johnny Gallagher has got himself married to a girl from Cork, who has a bucketful of money behind her,” they read from the letter and Big Nancy Mulroy burst out laughing. Everyone had thought, before Johnny went to America, that he and Nancy would have wed, or at the least engaged. She was a tall well-built girl that no man in the district would dare to cross and this laughter was simply her attempt to deny how she truly felt. Although she wished him good luck, Nancy just wanted to get her hands on the eejit. There had been talk that Johnny had only gone to America in the first place to get away from Nancy, and she now wondered if these rumours were true. This letter had been Johnny’s first convenient opportunity to break her heart.
While the letter was being read out there were quite a few listeners, who had become increasingly curious about the absence of Nancy Doran. She, after all, should have been the one most interested in the fate of Dessie McDowell, and yet she was nowhere to be seen. Nancy, however, was not far away and was sitting in the dilapidated cottage into which she had been forced to move when her family threw her out of the house. She had been pregnant to Dessie before he left and her father was incensed by the shame he believed she had brought to the family. As Dessie’s letter was being read, Nancy was sitting at her kitchen table with a pile of sewing, which provided the income she needed to support her and her baby. Every now and again she gave a sob, which would almost waken the baby asleep in the box beside her, though she tried to hide it. Nancy’s mother had quietly visited her daughter without the knowledge of her husband, and was seated on the hearth, angrily berating Nancy for feeling sorry for herself.
“Will you stop your weeping,” the mother told her daughter, “Get a bit of back bone, girl. It’s something that you have never had, because if you did have it you wouldn’t have gotten yourself into trouble with the likes of Dessie McDowell.”
“Mother, please,” Nancy answered the sufferer, “don’t always be condemning me. Is it not bad enough that I must sit here quietly, while his letter is being read out only a few doors away?”
“Well then, go to McDowell’s cottage and beg them to let you read it,” her mother told her angrily. “Go there, darling girl and find out for yourself how little thought he has for you, or the trouble he left behind him.”
“It’s not for me, mother, no, not just for myself,” Nancy sobbed. “I can live without his thoughts or favours, but I would just like to know what he has said about the baby.”
“Ah, be quiet!” exclaimed the mother. “You are always trying to get me to think about the whole bad situation. Wait ’til I tell you Nancy that I have never felt hatred for someone so badly as I do now. Please be quiet, I tell you.”
“You just have a very hard heart, mother,” Nancy told her.
“You have no place to talk dear,” replied the mother. “If your own heart had been a little bit harder, darling, your family wouldn’t have to walk away with their heads down every time that your name is spoken.”
A fresh burst of tears was all the answer that Nancy could give to this. It was an answer, however, that only caused an increase in Mrs. Doran’s wrath and lower the tone of her words. She had heard about the letter and had visited Nancy to persuade he to assume an air of quiet nonchalance, to demonstrate to neighbours that she had a “back-bone” in her character. It was obvious that Nancy had failed in her objective, and now Mrs. Doran directed her anger and frustration towards Nancy. In response, Nancy’s sorrow became louder, and, between crying and the shouting, the child was awakened from its sleep and began to add its bit to the general clamour. The noise did not lessen one little bit until a crowd unexpectedly gathered at the door Nancy’s dilapidated cottage and the voice of Sharon McDowell could be heard shouting joyfully over the din.
“Well, if the girl won’t come to us, ”Sharon called out to the crowd, “then we must go to her. After all, this news, is worth hearing!” Then, before another word was spoken Sharon, and a crowd of people, had made their way through the door without knocking, or asking permission to enter.
“God save all here,” old Sharon greeted them, “including yourself, Mrs. Doran. After all we must now forgive and forget all that has kept us divided.”
“And if I forgive and forget, what do I get in exchange?” asked an angry Mrs. Doran.
“It’s good news and much to be thankful for,” said old Sharon as she revealed the letter. But, for her part, Mrs. Doran was in no mood to listen to any news from the letter, be it good or bad. She rose up from where she was seated, gathered her belongings and haughtily pushed her way through the growing crowd. There was no word of goodbye to Nancy or the baby as she stormed out of the cottage.
“Cheerio, then, may the sun shine on your back,” said Sharon as she recovered from the undisguised contempt Mrs. Doran had shown toward her. “Away on with, and if you never come back, it’ll be no great loss, for there’s not one word about you in the letter, you old serpent,” Sharon called out to her and then she turned to Nancy and the baby.
“Now, Nancy, you and I should spend the whole of the day down upon our knees giving thanks, even though you thought the letter not worth your time,” said Sharon, and Nancy went down down on her knees clasping the baby close to her bosom. She raised her eyes to heaven and, oblivious to the crowd and commotion, with every nerve in her body trembling with excitement and joy, Nancy waited for old Sharon to ready a seat for the letter reader near to the window. As the reader settled himself into the seat, the old widow called out for silence and gave the letter over for it to be read out to the crowd for about the sixth time.
Dessie had grown to realise that survival in America was very much dependent upon his character, and he became very wary of not doing anything that might affect his character badly, even by the slightest degree. He was a changed man now; no longer an utter idiot, but a man of honour and integrity. All the while he never forgot Nancy Doran, nor his old mother, whom he had left behind him in Ireland. Images and thoughts of Nancy filled his dreams with such intensity that Dessie immediately began to put aside a little money every week so that he could send it to her, but he was ashamed to write to her until he had the total amount gathered. Unfortunately for Dessie his efforts were cut short and the money he had accumulated was used for his own subsistence. The event which had brought about this misfortune was the sudden death of the owner of the grocery business for which he worked. The unexpected death of the man who managed the entire concern caused the entire business to break up, and Dessie was once again unemployed. He found it very difficult to get another job and his small amount of savings was soon exhausted. Dessie decided it would be better to get out of the bulging city of New York and move westward, where labour was more plentiful and there were less people chasing each job.
Dessie travelled widely getting casual work as he went until, at length, he met a friend who had been one of the partners in the grocery business that had first given him a job. This man had money, but, he did not have the education or business acumen to put it to profitable use. He had no knowledge of reading, writing, or arithmetic. Now, these happened to be a specific talent that Dessie had cultivated when at school. One day, while talking to Dessie, he bemoaned his lack of a sound education which prevented him from using his capital to good effect, and Dessie very modestly suggested one way in which he could put his money to profitable use. After a little consideration of Dessie’s idea he invested his money and in a very few days a grand new store appeared in the town in which they now lived. Dessie became the book-keeper for the business, and was rewarded with a junior partnership in the business.
In the latter half of the letter he gave thanks for the education he had been given and the faith that his mother had handed on to him. Dessie then told her to take hold of the large amount of money that he had sent with the letter. He told his old mother to keep half for herself to make her old days comfortable, or to use it to pay her passage out to him in America. The remainder, he told her, was to be given to Nancy, the girl of his dreams who had suffered so much because of him, and he wanted to assure her that he would spend the rest of his life making it up to her and their child. H said that he would expect her in New York by the end of the month, and that Nancy was to immediately purchase a gold wedding ring, which she should place on her finger at once, without waiting for the priest. “I’m her sworn husband already,” he wrote, “and I will bring her straight to the priest the minute she puts her foot on American soil.” He added that they should write to him giving the date and means of travel, and named the place where they should meet. As a final surprise he told his mother, “When you write to me, address the letter to Desmond McDowell Esq. for that is what I am now, and I’m not kidding you.” The letter finally closed with Dessie wishing his mother and all the neighbours, “good luck.”
There was a loud cheer from the crowd as the reader finished the letter and they all rushed forward to congratulate Nancy and her infant. Old Sharon whispered in her ear, “It’s very hard to spoil an Irishman entirely, if there is any good at all in him.”
With the reader now having been shown the state of Eddie’s feelings for Nelly, we can leave these two companions as they once again resume their work. It is time I think that the reader should better know Miss Nelly Malone, for love of whom poor Eddie had tasted the wonders of the ancient Greek Muses.
In a neat little room that totally reflected the unmistakable evidence of a tidy woman’s care, sat the young lady in question. She busied herself, with her delicate, little fingers working with speed as she knitted a very small cardigan for herself. In that humble place there was no trace of wealth to be seen in this humble abode, but there was more than a suggestion of comfort there. At the open window blossoms of the honey-suckle and the sweet-pea peeped in, filling the air with a perfume, more beautiful than any parfumier could ever devise. On the walls hung small artless prints, and here and there a ballad was framed, which spoke of some heart-breaking subject. One ballad was the infamous ‘Highwayman’s End”, which began adventurously with:
“I robbed Lord Mansfield,
I do declare,
And Lady Somebody in Grosvenor
Elsewhere shelves and small tables were decorated with festoons of ribbons and cloth of the most colourful and dazzling variety. In a small open cage of was perched a fine, plump, contented lark, in an open cage, which he entertained the girl with its wild, sweet song. Dozing quietly upon the window-sill lay a beautiful sleek cat, whose furry coat shone like satin in the sun’s rays, purring softly and indicating that it was a very happy pussy. That house echoed with the innocence and beauty, that was Nelly Malone.
What thoughts, you wonder, were passing through that pretty Nelly’s head? Perhaps a There may have been some anxiety, or even some doubts, but there was no evidence of sorrow to dull the brightness of her lovely face. She speaks quietly to her cat, which is her most discreet confidante, as well as her most loved pet. “It’s foolishness, so it is. Don’t you agree puss?”
The cat didn’t show any sign of having heard or understood Nelly’s remark. “Now, Minnie, I ask you, isn’t it a terrible mistake? The most terrible mistake of all to be thinking about someone who gives absolutely no thought for me? I will not allow myself to do this anymore. Definitely not! Though I do wonder if holds any love for me? I somehow fancy he does, and yet again if he does, why can he not just say? There is one thing that is certain, which is, that I don’t love him! I mean to say, I won’t love him. Sure, what kind of an eejit would I be if I gave my heart to someone who wouldn’t give me his heart in return? That would be a really bad bargain, wouldn’t it, Minnie?”
The Pussycat remained quiet and Nelly took this as a sign that Minnie agreed with her.”But, oh!” Nelly continued, “if I thought that he did love me, silly me I’ve dropped a stitch. What in the name of all that’s holy am I thinking’ of? I mustn’t give way to such girlish foolishness. The little is done with her singing, and Minnie is giving me an angry stare out of her big eyes. Don’t be jealous, Minnie, you shall always have your saucer of milk, whatever happens, and — listen now! That’s his step, and he’s coming! I wonder how do I look,” and running to her little hand mirror, Nelly, with very understandable vanity, thought that there could be no improvement on her features. Nelly was not being narcissistic about her beauty because, curiously she was entirely right.
“He’s taking long time coming in,” she thought as she stole a quick glance through the white window-curtain. She saw Eddie approaching the garden gate slowly. Nelly, of course, just wanted to rush out to the gate to meet him, but such a thing would have appeared unseemly to her neighbours and she waited. For a moment she saw Eddie hesitate, but it was only to allow him to gulp in a few lungs-full of breath. He began to walk again, and he came closer to the house with every approaching step. Nelly could feel her pulse beat at a much higher rate, and she began to think that it might look better if he was to see her at work. With this thought in her mind she hastily took up her work, which was twisted and ravelled into almost inextricable confusion. Trying to maintain a calm face she mechanically employed her needles, and her heart gave a slight shiver as Eddie gave the door a short, nervous rap. Nelly opened it with a most deceitful, “Ah! Ned, is that you? Who would have thought it! Come in, sure.”
Inside Nelly, her feelings were at fever pitch, and yet she forced herself to remain cold and unattached, saying, “Take a chair, Eddie, won’t you?”
And there, sitting opposite each other, were two people, whose hearts yearned for each other. They looked at each other coldly, gazed at the wall, the floor, cat, or the lark. Eddie quite suddenly discovered something that needed some of his attention in the band of his hat. At the same time, Nelly suddenly began to show an extraordinary degree of affection toward the cat. In truth, it was evident to even the most casual observer that they were both very far from comfortable.
Eddie had thoroughly made up his mind to speak to Nelly this time, irrespective of the outcome, and had even gone so far as to have rehearsed his opening speech. But Nelly’s cold and indifferent attitude had frightened every word out of his head, and now it was essential that he should recover his senses. Eddie, however, seemed to think that twisting his hat into every possible shape, and tugging at the band, were the only possible means by which this could be accomplished. Once again all was arranged in his head, and he had just cleared his throat to begin talking, when the rascally cat turned sharply round and stared him straight in the face. In all his life, Eddie thought, he had never seen a dumb creature express such thorough contempt in its face.
“It well becomes me,” he thought, “to be demeaning myself before the cat,” and once again his thoughts away flew out of his head. Of course, all this was very perplexing to Nelly, who, in the expectation of hearing something interesting, remained patiently silent. There was another considerable pause until, at last, remembering his friend Mick’s advice, and cheered by a most encouraging smile from the rapidly-thawing Nelly, Eddie wound up all his feelings for one desperate effort, and blurted out, “Isn’t it fine today, Miss Malone?”
Breaking the silence so suddenly he caused Nelly to jump in her chair, while the lark fluttered in the little cage, and the pussycat made one leap back into the garden. Amazed and terrified by the results of his first effort, Eddie’s mouth went dry and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He saw little hope of discovering an easy way of overcoming his embarrassment, and the more he stuttered and stammered the deeper he got himself into a sticky situation. Finally, gathering himself together, Eddie made a dash through the door, and was off as fast as his legs would carry him. Nelly sighed with disappointment as she sat down to resume her knitting, and this time she felt very sad.
“Well, what happened?” asked Mick, as, nearly out of breath from running, Eddie joined up with him again in the meadow. “Have you broken the ice?”
“I have, certainly,” said Eddie, “and, better than that, I fell into the water through the hole.”
“Why? Would she not listen to you?”
“Yes, she would, but sure I didn’t give her a chance. My usual complaint returned to me very strongly. Christ’s sake! What’s the use in having a tongue in your head at all, if it won’t speak the words that a man needs to say. Aren’t I the great fool; a right eejit? She was sitting there, Mick, looking out at me from those big beautiful eyes. It was if she was asking me to speak out like a man, and her smiling softly, spreading over her lovely face, and playing among her beautiful dimples, like a merry moonbeam dancing on a lake. Oh, dear God! Mick, what am I going to do? I can’t live without her, and I haven’t the heart to tell her that.”
“Well, it is a terrible thing to see,” replied Mick, “a good-looking man such as yourself, strong and healthy, flinching from a pretty girl. Do you not think that it might do you a bit of good to go and kiss the Blarney Stone.”?
“That’s it!” exclaimed Eddie, joyously clapping his hands together. Clicking his fingers together loudly he declared, “Isn’t it a wonder that I never thought of it before? Sure, I’ll walk every inch of the way to it, though my legs should drop off before I got halfway there. Do you think it would do me good to kiss it?”
“I’d be certain of it! Sure, it was never known to fail yet,” said Mick, excitedly.
“Why, then, may I never eat another meal, if there is any truth in that stone, and if I don’t have the magic out of it.” And that very night, so eager was Eddie to get cured of his shyness that he set out for Blarney Castle immediately. It was a long and tedious journey, but the thought of being able to speak to Nelly when he returned, was sufficient to drive away his tiredness and gave him the determination to reach that far-famed castle, of which it is said,
“On the top of whose wall,
But take care you don’t fall,
There’s a stone that contains all the
Eddie climbed with caution, discovered the exact spot, and believing implicitly that his troubles were now over, he knelt, and with a whole-hearted prayer for his absent Nelly, he reverently kissed ‘The Blarney Stone.’ A true and devoted sense of love had given him the strength to overcome the difficulties of access to the stone, while his imagination did the rest. It was with a degree of humility and diffidence that he had approached the object of his pilgrimage. With the task achieved, Eddie descended from the stone’s location with his head erect and with a joyful expression on his face. He could feel confident now to tell his deepest feelings in Nelly’s ear. He was now very much a changed man and, as he left the castle, he encountered a very pretty girl, who officiated as guide. It was said that upon her pouting lips many men checked out how well the charm had worked. Not surprisingly, when she met Eddie at the archway of the castle, he took the opportunity to give her a hearty kiss. He astonished himself as much as he had the girl, and standing aback for a moment he watched the effect his kiss had., much more to his own astonishment than to hers, gave her a hearty kiss, starting back to watch the effect. There was no frown on her face, and there wasn’t even a sign of a blush in her cheeks. Eddie was utterly delighted that his wish had come true. “He could kiss whoever he pleased with his gift of the Blarney,” and feeling supremely happy, he did not lose another moment retracing his steps back home.
In the meantime, Nelly had been missing her shy sweetheart, whose absence had only served to strengthen the feeling of affection which she held for him. Day followed day as she waited for him and he did not come to her. Every long hour of watching and waiting for him tightened even more closely the chains of love that held her heart. Now, for the first time, she admitted to herself that he was essential to her future happiness, and she prayed fervently that the next day might see him return to her side. But, as each day passed, and his absence continued, Nelly quickly grew anxious until that anxiety turned into alarm.
The dark cloud of jealousy soon began to cover her heart and she became wretched in her impatience. Although she tried to convince herself that all her dark thoughts were unnecessary, the light that had once illuminated her life was almost extinguished and there appeared to be only gloom surrounding her. The once lively Lark in its cage appeared to share the young woman’s mood, its wing drooped, and its once happy song was silent. Her entire environment appeared to be greatly influenced by the spirit of the hour, and her once homely room began to feel cold, comfortless and solitary. Nelly’s love for Eddie was all consuming, filled with devotion and intensity. She believed that if she were to lose him it would be, effectively, the loss of everything that rendered life worth living for.
Every day she gazed out of her window in the faint hope of seeing something of her beloved, and one day her heart suddenly jumped in her breast with a new-found joy. She thought that she saw him approach, and her heart filled to bursting with joy that Eddie had finally returned to her. But, as she watched, she noticed that there was something very different about this man. At first, Nelly thought that her eyes had deceived, but her heart told her that it was indeed Eddie who was approaching.
What had confused Nelly was that the man who was approaching had not the downcast look and hesitating step that was common with Eddie. Instead, there was a joy in his face, a great smile on his mouth, and he walked with a new easy, lively, and careless gait. As he came nearer to her, Nelly thought that she heard him sing. When she realised that he was singing, Nelly was completely taken aback. She wondered if Eddie had finally broken out of his shell of reserve, and what this would mean for her. She had loved Eddie’s shyness and she was not sure if she wanted him to lose that, and yet there was something very impressive about the man coming toward her. It was now Nelly’s turn to be tongue-tied and stricken dumb. Despite her best efforts she could not utter a syllable, but trembling to her very core, Nelly sat silently in her room awaiting the moment she feared would prove to be the end of her happiness.
Whistling a merry tune, Eddie easily jumped over the little paling fence, and in a moment found himself in face to face with Nelly. She still could not speak, or move and his first greeting to her did not make Nelly feel any easier. “Nelly,” said he, “you drove me to it, but it’s done now! It’s done!”
“What’s done? What can he mean?” thought a greatly agitated Nelly.
“It’s all over now,” he continued, “for I’ve kissed it. Don’t you hear me, Nelly? I say I’ve kissed it.”
“In heaven’s name,” cried the pale, trembling girl, “what do you mean, Eddie. Who have you kissed?”
“It’s not a who!” said Eddie, laughing loudly, “but an it! I’ve kissed it!”
“The Blarney Stone, of course,” Eddie screamed at her, throwing his cap at the cat and danced a few light steps in delight. It was something that Nelly would never have thought she would see from Eddie. Anyone else who saw him conducting himself in this manner would have sworn that the man had gone insane. “Sure, I did it all for you, Nelly, my darling! Just for you! It has loosened my tongue, and now I can tell you how deeply my love for you burns within my very heart of hearts. I love you so much, my bright-eyed, beautiful darling!”
There is really no need for me to relate anything more that was said between the two. The world famous ‘Blarney Stone’ had lost none of its magic on this particular occasion, and continues to transfer that magic even today. Nelly, of course, went on to inform Eddie that, “You needn’t have gone so far!” The fact is that by perseverance the path of true love can run very smoothly. Three weeks after his return from ‘The Blarney Stone’ the chapel bells rang out across the parish to announce the wedding of Eddie and Nelly. The course of true love sometimes does run smooth, a great authority to the contrary, nevertheless, for in about three weeks’ time, the chapel bells rang merrily for the wedding of Edward and Nelly. It was a great day, enjoyed by all, and what’s more, neither of them had cause to regret Eddie’s visit to ‘The Blarney Stone’.