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The Sham Fight
This story is set in Northern Ireland, not so very long ago, and gives the reader some idea about the sectarianism that is prevalent in that land, which has been based on historical events over three hundred years ago. The characters are fictitious, though the sham fight continues to be played out every year on 13th July in the village of Scarva....
Tommy Hyde was a well-known, character in the area where I lived. He had the sagacity that long life can bring, but he could also be quite a cantankerous old man with a tongue that cut deeper than any knife. At first sight he could be described as a small man, though he was very broad and brawny in stature. He had a big, round face that had been reddened by years of working outdoors, attending to his fields in all types of weather. On his head of thick, grey hair sat Tommy's trademark cloth cap. But Tommy's thick grey hair was also quite long for a man of his age, matching his thick, rather unkempt grey beard, spotted dark brown with the tobacco juice that he often spat out when smoking his pipe. In fact, it was a rare sight to see Tommy without a pipe stuck in his mouth, and him puffing out grey clouds of that "Walnut Plug" tobacco that he so enjoyed.
It was one summer’s morning, as I was taking my customary stroll on the outskirts of town, that I encountered 'Old Tommy' standing at the edge of the narrow lane that was known to most as ‘Castle Lane.’ It was Tommy’s way to let people see that he was a very busy man and, when encountering a person, he could be found digging at this or hammering at that. On this particular morning I found him leaning on his hoe and contemplating the weeds on the roadside verge that, despite his attention, never seemed to decrease in number. Indeed, even when, on those rare occasions that actually began to do some work, the same man never appeared to be in a hurry unrushed and always carried himself with a certain, calm dignity. Tommy, however, fankly could not have cared less about what people thought about him. He had the attitude that whatever he decided he would do, or not to do, it was no person’s business but his own.
As I was approaching him, I could see that he was ready for a bit of 'Craic' by the glint in his eye as he glanced at me. Putting down his hoe, Tommy leaned up against a nearby dry-stone wall, took a drag from his pipe, exhaled a large cloud of grey smoke, and spat a globule of deep brown saliva on the grass verge. Greeting him with a nod of recognition I ambled up to where he stood and positioned myself next to him. In his gruff voice, and without removing his pipe he began, “Do you know, Jimmy, what I’m goin’ to tell you?”
I knew from experience that this was the way that he normally began a conversation. He does not, of course, expect you to answer him because you would need to be a clairvoyant of some sort to know the answer. But Tommy did not say anything more for a moment or two, but lifted his hoe to raise a large weed out of the ground before placing it on the edge of the tarmac road. He took another drag from his pipe and, after exhaling, declared, “Do you know, Jimmy, there’s not a hair’s breadth of a difference between any two women that you would ever meet.”
This was definitely not a conversation opener that I had expected at that moment. Having absolutely no opinion on this subject, I found it very difficult to give him an answer. “There's that boy of mine," said Tommy, " and although I say it myself, he’s a fine boy in many ways, so he is. There is no way is he a wrong one, who would cause trouble and strife."
"That's true," says I honestly.
"And another thing," Tommy continued, " I can tell you that he’s as brave a boy as you’d ever wish for to see."
"Aye!" I nodded in affirmation.
"Do you know, that from the time that boy was six years old, he was that particular about himself that he wouldn’t go to church without his Sunday boots on his feet. Those boots were great ‘creakers’, and you could’ve heard them all over the church when he came in for Sunday service, always just a wee bit late. But that wee boy could rhyme off all the responses to the prayers better than a grown up. Mind you, Jimmy, that was no wonder since it was myself who learned him his religion and encouraged him follow the example of him that has gone before us!”
I thought Old Tommy was going to take a bit of a pause at this junction but devil the bit of him. He continued, “But then the buck eejit took to messing around with a group of wee fellas who hung around the corner at the top of ‘Irish Street’. That’s the truth, but I soon quit him out of that. Says I to him: ‘Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? Me heart’s broke with ye, so it is. I’ll have no messing about from only boy that I have, so I won’t. You’ll have no more contact with them, no, nor will ye pass the the time of day with anyone that’s not your own sort. None that would differ from the Very Reverend Clamp, me, Reverend Johnston of Ballykeel, and the Big Man himself. What’s that ye say? Who is the Big Man? Now! Now! Who else would it be, but yer man on the white horse?’”
Now, those of you who are reading this might wonder where the man rode a horse in St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse as recorded in the ‘Good Book’. But it is an easily recognisable image to those who are in the know, so to speak. It is an allusion to William of Orange, of ‘Glorious, pious, and immortal memory, Defender of Protestantism in Ireland’, who is always represented on a white horse. “But” I argued with Old Tommy, “King Billy did converse with those who disagreed with him. It is even said, you know, that when he came to England he was subsidised by the Pope in Rome.”
Old Tommy, it appeared, did not hear a word that I had said and continued to rattle on about his son. “As I was saying to ye, that boy of mine has a mind to get himself wed. So, I says to him, ‘There’s not a hair’s difference between any two of them.’ You see, it’s this way. He has the two of them courted down to the asking, and he’s afeard that if he asks one of them, he’ll be always thinking about the other, or maybe he’ll think he’d sooner have had the other. He is not behaving well at all. He can’t, of course, marry them both, and yet he has raised hopes which must in one case be disappointed, and he might break the poor girl’s heart. Break her heart! What a load of bollix, heart is it?”
Old Tommy had told me on previous occasions what he thought about ‘love’ and the relationships between young boys and girls. “But” I interrupted him, hoping that I could delve a little deeper, “Don’t you believe in love, Tommy?”
I knew, of course, that Old Tommy had been married to two different women. His first wife was called Peggy, and the poor woman only lived for a year after her marriage. I didn’t know the woman personally because she died before I was born, but those who did know Peggy say that she was a handsome woman and the love of Old Tommy’s life. The current Mrs. Hyde, has been his wife for twenty-five-years and he always spoke of her as “That oul’ widow woman.” She was once the wife of John Adams, who was a simple man whose only reason to be remembered seemed to be the fact that he was Old Tommy’s second wife’s first husband. For his part, Tommy had little time for the man or his memory, insisting that he held heretical views that certainly have prevented him from entering Heaven.
“Do I not believe in love, you ask me? Why, haven’t I seen it all myself? Sure, and didn’t I have an uncle, my own mother’s brother, that was taken in that way? And what do you think he went and did but got the whole of Paul’s wickedest Epistle learned off by heart, so he did, and he offered for to tell it all to her in one single sitting. Boys, oh! but he was the quare poet! And she got married to a boy out from Ballinahoe, and do ye know what I’m goin’ to tell ye? He took to the hills and never did a hand’s turn after that.”
“Surely, Tommy you have been in love yourself. When you first met Peggy and now with your present wife? When you asked them to marry you, you must have had to at least pretend you loved them. What did you say to them at the time?”
“Well, I’ll tell you it was this way with me and Peggy. The two of us went the whole way to Scarva village on the thirteenth. Did ever ye hear tell of the ‘Battle of Scarva’? I mind it all so well. I had a packet of cold meat sandwiches in my coat pocket, and Peggy, she had taken a few wee home-baked buns. Says I to her, “Peggy, would ye care for a wee sandwich?” And says she to me, “Take a wee bun, Thomas!” And the very next morning I went in and gave our names to the Reverend Clamp, so I did.”
There are many worse ways to conclude such business, after all, and very few that would be more filled with symbolism. There is the mutual help, the inevitable “give and take” of married life. There is the strength and fulfilment of the cold meat sandwiches, combined with the freshness and sweetness of the maidenly home-baked goods. These were two souls that had been united in the flavour of both scents which, when combined, rose to heaven on the summer air. In all honesty, I cannot recall any tale or reminiscence of my married friends on this particularly interesting topic, that describes a “proposal” of marriage more delicately and less ostentatiously. While Old Tommy graciously accepted my congratulations on his elegant and good taste, he was not as forthcoming about his current wife. When I asked about the manner of his proposal to his second wife, he only shook his head despairingly and muttered, “Them widows! Them widows!” In his answer to me there was almost a suggestion that he was taken at a disadvantage, but I could hardly give it credit. It seemed impossible to me that this crafty old man would not have extricated himself from such a situation with all the inspired dexterity of a Sherlock Holmes, or the undoubted abilities of a Disney hero.
“As I was saying,” he resumed, “Did ever ye hear tell of the ‘Battle of Scarva’?” I had, of course, heard of it. After all who has not heard of the open air, theatrical epic of the North? But just in case you haven’t heard of it, let me explain. Every year, in a quiet country village thousands of people gather at a pretty, wooded park, on a large open meadow that slopes down to a clear running stream. There, on 13th July, they enacted what is a veritable ‘Passion Play’ of the historically influential ‘Battle of the Boyne’.
“I suppose you have often been to the celebrations in Scarva, Tommy.”
“Indeed, I have me boy. Many and many a time. But there was one time when the battle beat all those before and since! Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would give a thousand pounds to see that battle again, so I would. But me boy, oh! it was grand thing to see. There was my own aunt’s nephew acting as King William, and him on the top of the loveliest white horse ye have ever seen, with his flowing mane tied with wee loops of braid in orange and blue. Yer man had an orange scarf on him and blue feathers to his hat, and he looked just like one of them foreign Princes. And his Generals and officers were just the same, only not so grand. For the Papish King, James, they had a fine young horse under him that Dan Collins had bought off the Reverend Jackson in the Fair at Dungannon. But the horse set his ears back, and let a squeal out of him, and took a buck leap all over the place whenever Andy Watson came near to him. At that Andy, who was playing King James, shouts aloud, “I am not used with this sort of horse exercise, and I don’t trust that beast.”
“But”’ says Dan Collins, “Get up there with ye sonny boy, and no more whining about it.
“Well, with that Andy turned about, and, says he, “I’ll ride no bloody horse out of Dungannon. Sure, I’d sooner walk. I tell ye I’ll ride none, without I have my own mare that brought me and the wife and the children out of the ‘Pass’, so I won’t.”
“With that the Generals and the officers and the rest of the aide-Campuses headed off until they found Andy’s mare, which was eating on the grass by the roadside, and not too agreeable to coming with them. But she was finally coaxed along by one of those de-Campuses boys who was sweet talking her and complimenting her, “There’s a good wee daughter, sure you’re a wee jewel.” At the same time one of those Generals was holding a bit of grass in the front of her, while another General persuading her in the rear. Finally, they got King James onto her, and the two armies was drawn up on the banks of the wee stream that was to be representing the Boyne River. It was then that they began, in a quite friendly and agreeable fashion, teasing each other with a, “Come on, ye thirsty tyrant ye,’ from King William. “Come on, ye low, mean usurper,” shouted James in answer. “Come on ye devil’s son, and enemy to civil and religious liberty,” William cried out to the cheers of the people attending. “Come on, ye glorious, pious, and immoral worm of a man,’ said James. “Are you going to come at all ye traitor to your people, ye Judas, and Rome lover,” calls William amid loud cheering. Come on ye parasite ye, and disciple of Cromwell,” says James. “Here’s to the victory of God and Protestantism,” says William and with those words he began to go forward. At the same time James should have come forward in front of him, but Andy’s mare just planted her forefeet into the ground and stood there like a statue that was growing up out of the ground. With that there was two of the Aid-de-Campuses came to his assistance and began to pull and haul at the old mare! But devil a toe would she budge, and all the boys began laughing and pointing, so they did.
Then William came up and says he, “Come on or I’ll pull the neck out of ye.... Come on, me brave boy.... Fetch her a clip on the lug! Hit her a skelp on the arse! Give her a jab with your knee, man alive. Och, come on, ye arsehole, ye!” Well, even having the skin of a Rhino wouldn’t let a man stand up and take that from anyone, and Andy, he was quick tempered at best and shouted back “Arsehole yourself.” And as soon as he had said that he let a growl out of him ye might have heard in Portadown. You have never heard the like of that noise and, what’s more, nor had Andy Watson’s mare. That old horse was so taken aback that she just took the one leap and she landed in the stream, just in front of William. Then King James took a tight hold of William and screamed at him “Arsehole!” and with that he threw him off his grand white horse, and he dragged him into the cold stream water.
“Then all hell broke loose on the meadow and it was the best entertainment I have ever seen. Some of the people were for William, and some they were for James. But whoever they were for everyone lifted his foot or raised his fist, or any other weapon that they came across. The boys were all thumping, and beating each other, drawing blood from all parts of the body and causing chaos and all sorts injuries.”
“I thought you were all friends at Scarva?” I asked Old Tommy.
He gave me a sly smile and a wink of his eye as he told me, “And so we were! Just friends fighting through one another.”
“But was there any one hurt?”
“Was anyone hurt?” he laughed. “Sure, they were just trailing themselves off the ground. You would have died laughing. There’s Jimmy Hara who has never been his own man since then, and sure I had my nose broke and it still not fixed. There were some who said there was a wee man from Tandragee got himself killed.”
“What became of William?”
“Och, sure he was clean drowned.” Old Tommy told me, matter-of-factly.
“And King James?”
“He’s in hell with Johnny Adams.”
I tried to explain to him that I had not meant the King himself, but the actor whose nature had been stronger than his dramatic instinct. Old Tommy, however, could not or would not make a difference between the two. He really was not listening to me at all. I had come to a conclusion that over some time Tommy’s thoughts were wandering far from our conversation. Suddenly a spasm convulsed his features. With one hand he raised the hoe in the air like a tomahawk, disregarding the weeds and soil from his afternoon’s toil, which were left abandoned and helpless on the gravel of the road. With his other hand he grasped his side. For a moment, I was afraid that the old man was going to have a fit, but it was only uncontrollable laughter at some joke that I was, as yet, unaware of.
“Well, do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would just agree that William was a man of great cleverness, so he was. He was subsidised by the Pope of Rome, was he? Boys, oh! Do ye tell me that? Well I’ll tell you that beats all, and him going to do exactly the opposite of what he let on.”
Old Tommy, without question, was absolutely sober at the beginning of our conversation, and he had remained “dry” during our talk, but he now became gradually intoxicated with what had appeared to him to be his hero’s cunning ways. The thought of a genius who could outsmart someone else in a bargain rose to his brain like a glass of cold stout. He swayed on his feet and his words ran into each other. Old Tommy was now assuming a gaiety of manner and expression that was quite unusual for him. I stood still, watching him lurch down the walk, and then pause on the bridge. He supported himself by holding on to the wooden railing, which creaked loudly as he swayed to and fro, and he began to talk to the stream and the trees, “Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would just agree that he was a man of great cleverness, so he was.”
In Ireland, even today, there are so many superstitions, rituals, and traditions in the day to day life of its people. This is especially true when it comes to the passing of dear friends and relatives, their funeral arrangements, and their final interment. These superstitions and traditions might vary slightly from family to family, but each holds strongly to their own. In fact, they hold so faithfully to their own family rituals that on occasions they can lead to anger and physical violence when different families come together to mourn in different ways.
When I was a young man my favourite way of spending my leisure-time was to take long walks through the countryside and sketch many of the interesting sites that I would come across. Over the years I had filled my artist's sketch book with pictures of beautifully sited thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, and old churches. On one particular sunny day, I was sitting alone on a grassy embankment at the edge of the desolate graveyard and church in Drumm. In that beautifully quiet place, I became almost totally lost in my efforts to capture, on paper, that special scene that lay before me. Occasionally I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook to look directly at the detail that was present in this interesting ruin which I was attempting to paint. It was also an opportunity wipe the perspiration from my brow, that was caused by the heat of the sun radiating down upon my head.
The quiet stillness that had prevailed all that particular day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly, the strange sound startled me and caused me to stop my sketching for a moment or two. Alone in that graveyard I began to listen nervously, waiting for that strange sound to repeat itself. I didn't have to wait awfully long for this weird, unearthly sound to vibrate through the still air of the evening once again. It was now even more loud than it had been at first and, as I listened to its strange vibration and tone, I decided that it could be likened to the sound made by many glasses, ringing and tinkling as they are crowded in together.
I stood up, rising from the place where I had been seated, and I began to search around for the possible source of this strange noise. There was not another body in my vicinity when, once again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air about me with its wild and wailing intonation. At first the sound reminded me somewhat of a tune being played upon an aged harp. When another burst of the sound came forth, it became quite obvious to me that it was the sound of many human voices that were being raised in lamentation somewhere close by. It was a loud, heart-chilling, wail of sorrow about which, before this occasion, I had only ever heard only rumours. Now, for the first time in my life I heard that wild and terrifying sound and shivered with cold fear. Those who read this tale, and who have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how anxious I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.
As my eyes scanned the area outside of the graveyard I could clearly see, in the light of that day, a crowd of local people, both male and female. In an orderly line they wound their way along a low path that led them toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them the strong men carried the coffin of someone who was a dear departed friend or relative. As they came closer toward me, occasion I heard a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow that arose from the mourners in that crowd. The voices rang loudly, in a wild and startling unison, as they moved up the hill, until the sound gradually descended in its volume, finally becoming little more than a subdued wail. Diligently, these local people continued to carry their loved one's body onward, but not in the same measured and solemn step as before. Now, they were moving in a much more rapid and irregular manner, almost as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside, which was the much hoped for culmination of all their efforts.
The overall effect of this large local rural funeral was, I must admit, certainly more impressive than any of the other funerals I had ever seen in my short life. There was truly little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals I had observed, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths. But, the equal of the pallbearers could never have been found as they steadily bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until they reached the cemetery. The male friends and relatives of the deceased person carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin. There the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at some distance. The young men paused in their work, and they turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.
As I looked up, I clearly observed that another funeral procession was winding its way slowly around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside returned to their work with greater effort than before. As the spades dug into the black soil anxious shouts from onlookers constantly encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some of the more polite followers shouted, "For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry."
"Shift your big arse, Paddy!" others called.
Friends of some of the men shouted out to them, "Put your back into it, Mike! "
"If you could shift the sod as quick as you shift the 'Guinness', it would suit you better,” others laughed aloud.
By this time, the second funeral party, that was approaching, could see ahead of them that the churchyard to which they were going was already filled with people. Almost immediately this second funeral party quickened their pace, and their sounds of mourning rose more loudly in the morning air as they came nearer to the churchyard. Quite unexpectedly, a small detachment of men, carrying a variety of picks and spades, came forward out of the main party. Then, without warning, this group of armed men rushed headlong up the hill toward the churchyard, accompanied by loud shouting. At the same time an elderly woman, her eyes streaming with tears and her hair dishevelled, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. Arms raised, she ran towards the young men who were digging at the ground with all their might and, passionately, she begged them to do their work more quickly. "Ahh Boys! Sure, you wouldn't let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, alone on these long, dark nights. Please dig hard boys. Lay into it with all your power and gain, for yourselves, a sorrowful mother's blessing for ensuring my wee Paddy will have rest."
Standing among those men in her bedraggled appearance, and the intensity of her manner as she pleaded with them, I thought the poor woman was crazy. In fact, such was her condition, that I could barely make out what she was saying to the young men, and I was obliged to inquire off one of the bystanders if they could fill in the blank spaces.
"Are you asking me because you believe she is going crazy? " said the person that I had asked, as he looked at me in a very puzzling manner. "Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn't want her dead son to be walking about in the night, as he must, unless those boys are smart."
"What do you mean, walking about in the night?" I asked him. "I don't understand what you mean."
"Whisht! whisht!" he urged me to be quiet. "Here they come now, and, in the name of God, they have Joe Gallagher at their head," he said to me as he anxiously looked towards the advanced guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They quickly leaped over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the newly excavated grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.
"Stop what you are doing there, I tell you!" shouted Joe Gallagher to those men who were working at opening the ground and were still using their implements with great energy.
"Stop it now, or it'll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?" said Gallagher again, as he laid his muscular hand on the arm of one of the young men who were digging, suddenly stopping him from continuing his work.
"Of course, I heard you, Gallagher," said Rooney; "but I just chose not to listen to you."
"Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man" Gallagher warned him.
"By God, Gallagher, but you're a brave man and very fond of giving people advice that you should listen to yourself," Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged his spade into the earth.
"Didn't I tell you to stop, you Gobshite?" Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll put my boot so far up your arse, Rooney, that you'll be chewing leather for six months!"
"Get away out of this, Gallagher! What brings you here at all?" interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”
"Sure, what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?" said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Sure, don't you know by now that there's always a quarrel whenever there's a Gallagher about?"
"You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don't make you take those words back with some pain," Gallagher told the old man as he glared at him.
"There was a time," warned the old man, "when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me." As he spoke the old man drew himself up with an air of great dignity. He wanted everyone to see that he was still a tall man and had retained a broad chest, which would bear the truth of the statement that he had made. There was a bright, but briefly lived flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance quickly gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.
"Listen to me, old man, I'd have beaten you more stupid than you already are, even on the best day you ever had,” sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.
"Don't you believe it, Gallagher!" said a contemporary of the old man, who had known him in his younger days. "You have plenty of conceit, and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!"
"Isn't that the truth," said Rooney. "He's a great man in his own mind. By God I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth and sell him at what he thinks he's worth."
A loud, mocking laughter rose up among those gathered at the graveside, causing Gallagher's agitation to increase tenfold. There was a deep darkness that came across the big man's features, and Gallagher immediately took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and told him, "By God, Eddie there's going to be 'wigs on the green' before too long!"
The man was to be proved quite right in his prediction. Scarcely had the words been uttered by him, than I began to see many of the men around me taking off their heavy coats and jackets and rolling up the sleeves of their jumpers and shirts. The entire scenario turned much more menacing when the men began looking around them for anything that they might use as a weapon. With their weapons in hand there was a general closing-in of the bystanders around this group, which made it perfectly clear to me that a huge and bloody conflict would soon begin between the opposing groups.
It did not take long before the entire world seemed to come crashing in around me. There was a general mêlée that began in the centre of the gathering, with the main antagonists passing through the whole group until, finally a mass battle began. Such was the speed of events that within very few minutes the belligerents had dispersed themselves throughout the ruined churchyard in various battling groups. As a spectator, I stood back from the topmost step of a style that led into the burial-ground. It was obvious to me that it was better, for my continued good health, not to stand too closely to where the action was happening. As I stood watching the battle my attention was attracted by the sudden appearance of a man, who was exclaiming at the top of his voice: "Oh, you evil people! Stop this, I tell you, you heathen people! Are you even Christians at all?"
This loud intruder was a tall, thin, pale man, who was wearing a hat which, from exposure to bad weather, had its broad, slouching brim crimped into many fantastic shapes. The crown of the hat was depressed in the middle, and the edges showed the paleness of wear, that was far removed from its original black. He wore no collared shirt and had a narrow white scarf drawn tightly around his neck. A single-breasted overcoat of rusty black, with standing collar, was tightly buttoned nearly up to his chin, and hung over his frame to the knees of his black trousers, beneath which peeped well-polished black leather shoes. He pushed his way through the fighting men and quickly climbed the stile upon which I was standing, politely saying, "Excuse me, sir," as he pushed by.
From the top of the stile he jumped to the ground, and he proceeded with long and rapid strides, towards the groups of combatants. In his hand the man brandished a heavy bullwhip with which he began to lay about each and every one of the brawlers. In equal measure and with total impartiality, he began dealing out a heavy-handed justice. I was also greatly impressed by the fact that all these blows inflicted on them by this newcomer were not at all resented by those whom he assaulted. It almost appeared as if they had decided resistance against this man was futile, choosing instead to begin fleeing quickly before his blows. They looked like so many frightened schoolboys before an angry teacher and they gathered together in one large group, which immediately became pacified by his presence.
As I watched these events happening, I stepped down from my perch at the top of the stile and ran, towards the place the man was admonishing the crowd. There I found this tall, thin man delivering a severe reproof to the crowd he had quietened down. The more he reproved them for their "unchristian acts" the more evident it became that he was a religious leader of this group of troubled people. But his reproval of them was short, sharp, and certainly impressive. His speech was well delivered in simple terms for the audience to whom it was directed. It was simple in the language it used and solemn in the way his deep, gritty voice spoke the words. "And now," added the clergyman, "let me ask you why you are all fighting like so many wild savages? Your conduct makes me think that you are more likely to be savage animals rather than intelligent human beings who have been raised within the hearing of God’s word."
There were a few moments of silence following his question until someone among the crowd mustered enough courage to answer the cleric. He told him that the entire fracas was, “due to the burying."
"There is no more solemn a sight," replied the priest, "But, is the burial of the departed not enough to keep the evil passions of your hearts in check?"
"The truth of the matter, if it pleases your reverence, is that there was nothing ill-natured in it. It was only a good-natured turn we were doing for poor Paddy Mooney that's departed this life. You know it's to yourself that we will be going for masses to be said for the poor boy's soul."
"Now!" answered the priest. He was anxious to nip this appeal to his own interest in the bud. "Don't you dare talk to me about doing a good-natured turn for any person." He stared at them all sternly, telling them, “Prayers for the souls of the faithful departed are taken up by the whole Church. But what has such a good act have to do with your scandalous and lawless actions that I have just witnessed you all committing.”
He now turned to the last speaker, "You were one of the busiest with your weapon and you are the most riotous of the group, Rooney. You had better take care that I don't speak out against you from the altar."
"Oh, God forbid that your reverence would have to do the like of that!" cried out the mother of the deceased, imploring him as big teardrops chased each other down her cheeks. "Sure, it was only that they wanted to put my poor son in the ground first. It's just, as your reverence knows, that they did not want to have my poor Paddy-"
"Tut, tut! woman!" interrupted the priest, waving his hand rather impatiently, "don't you let me hear any nonsense."
"I ask your reverence's pardon for I am not the type of woman who would knowingly offend my very own clergy -- may God's blessing be upon them night and day! But I was only going to put in a good word for Mick Rooney. He and everyone else of us wish for nothing but peace, but it is Joe Gallagher, who just would not leave us to do our peaceful duty."
"Gallagher!" said the priest, in a deeply reproachful tone. "Where is he?"
Gallagher did not come forward when called, but the crowd drew back, and left him revealed to the priest. On his face he wore and expression of sullen indifference, and he also seemed to be the only person in the crowd who was totally unfazed by the presence of the cleric. The priest now moved towards him and, extending his hand in the attitude of denunciation towards Gallagher, he spoke very solemnly, “I have already spoken to you in the chapel and now, once again, I find myself having to warn you to be careful. Wherever you go trouble and strife seems to always follow you. You are a disgrace and if you do not quickly reform your life, I will have no choice but to seek your expulsion from the Church. Make no mistake, Gallagher, I shall pronounce a sentence of excommunication upon you from the altar, if I feel it is necessary."
Everyone within hearing distance was overcome by the solemnity and severity of the priest's words. When the word "excommunication" was uttered by the cleric, a thrill of horror seemed to run through the assembled crowd. It appeared to me that even Gallagher betrayed some emotion when he heard that terrible word. Yet, for a moment he managed to show no emotion and, turning on his heel, he retired from the scene with some of the swagger with which he had entered it. The crowd opened to let him pass, giving him a wide space, as if they sought to avoid contact with one who had been so fearfully denounced.
Calling upon the entire crowd to hear him the priest told them, "You have two coffins here. Now you will immediately begin to dig two graves and allow both bodies to be interred at the same time, and I will read the service for the dead over them." With these instructions ringing in their ears the crowd wasted little time in carrying them out. The narrow graves were quickly dug, and the bodies of the dead were consigned to their last long sleep, as the deep, solemn voice of the priest was raised in the "De Profundis". When he had concluded this short and beautiful psalm, the friends of the deceased closed the graves, and covered them neatly with fresh cut sods.
“You know things have been done right,” said Rooney, “when you see that the 'Daisy Quilt' is finally put over them.”
The priest, now that his job was done, retired from the churchyard and I followed him with the sole purpose of introducing myself to him. I was seeking from him a clear and simple explanation of what was still a most intriguing mystery to me, namely, the actual cause of the quarrel with Gallagher. From certain passages in his address to the crowd I could grasp that he understood the cause and could, perhaps explain it to me. I quickly caught up with the cleric and introduced myself to him. Thankfully, he received me with a great deal of courtesy and politeness, which was to be expected from a man with such a good heart. Now, having gained his attention, I tried to assure him that my curiosity was simply because I wished to understand the reasons for the fight that had taken place, and to which he had put a stop. I was hoping that he would not think that I was overbearing when I asked him for an explanation.
"It is no intrusion, sir," answered the priest very frankly. He spoke with a rich, soft brogue, whose intonation expressed his inbuilt good nature. The brogue, with which he spoke, reminded me of someone from an upper middle-class and well-educated family. There was no trace of the more vulgar expressions that is usually found in the manner in which the ordinary working class speak. There are those, of course, who try to sound more genteel than they really are by grafting a posh English accent to their brogue. But they often trip themselves up because the accents of the two countries can never be truly blended together. Far from making a pleasing accent, it conveys to the listener that the speaker is trying awfully hard to escape from his own accent, which they consider to be inferior. It is a vain attempt to demonstrate some finesse, which fails because their vulgarity is so deeply inbred.
This was not the case with the way in which Father Donnachadh Ryan spoke to me. His voice was both deep and rich in tone, a true manly voice that had boomed when he had admonished the crowd for their violent attitude. Even when he was engaged in a less formal conversation his voice lost little of its richness or depth. Still, I listened intently while the priest proceeded to enlighten me on the subject of the funerals' etiquette, and the reason behind the quarrel that had arisen between the two groups. “The truth of the matter is, sir, that these poor people are possessed of many foolish superstitions. We might, as men, pardon their errors and simply look upon them as fictional tales that take hold in fertile imaginations. Just because we can understand how such suspicions take hold in the minds of the less educated and more susceptible, we cannot, as their spiritual leaders allow ourselves to admit openly to them that such superstitions are in error."
His explanation, however, quite surprised me. I did not think I would find a clergyman, especially a Catholic priest, say such a thing. "The superstition that I speak of," he continued to explain, "is just one of the many that these warm-hearted people indulge in, and it is not a particularly evil one." Then he suddenly ended his discourse and pulled out a richly cased, antique gold watch of great workmanship. “Now, sir, I must ask your pardon; I have an engagement to keep at my home, which obliges me to immediately make my way there as quickly as I possibly can. But, if you have enough time to spare, you can walk with me to the end of this little road and I shall be able to make you well acquainted with the nature of the superstition in question."
I was happy to agree with his proposal and we set off together. As we wound our way down the little stony path that led to the main road, Father Ryan began to give me an account of the cause behind all the previous trouble. "There is a belief among the local people here that the ghost of the last person interred in the churchyard is obliged to travel, unceasingly, the road between this earth and purgatory, carrying water to slake the burning thirst of those who are confined in that terrible place. The ghost is, therefore, obliged to walk through the wasteland during the middle of the night, until some fresh body is placed in the grave and supplies a fresh ghost to relieve the guard. In this way the supply of water to the sufferers in purgatory is kept up unceasingly."
This was the reason why the violent encounter had come about, and why the old mother had called out that her, “darling boy should not be left to wander about the churchyard dark and alone in the long nights." In his explanation, furthermore, Father Ryan gave me some curious illustrations of the different ways in which this superstition influenced his "poor people," as he constantly called them. But I suppose you have already had quite enough. I shall, therefore, say no more of these other cases and I am happy that I have at least provided you with this one example. Sadly, even in these more modern times such wild superstitions still exist in our land and undoubtedly owe their continued existence to the goodness of the Irish heart and the poetic imagination of our people.
Over the decades there have been many admirable tales that attempt to give us some understanding of the Irish character, including the details of the effects that a weak resistance to the fascinations of strong drink bring. These tales always seem to carry with them a moral, which the writers have intended for us Irishmen and women to take on board in the hope they could change what they see as a flaw. On this occasion, however, the tale of the events that I am about to relate will bring with it no moral. It is a simple and very true record of a terrible calamity that befell the people who form the principal characters of my story, and includes all the sadness, unaccountability and fatality of madness. There is no person who would try to warn another against the dangers of unexpected and sudden lunacy. It makes sense, then, that narrating an event at which I was only a spectator should have no moral to convey.
It has been my experience of human character among the native Irish that there are, in fact, two classes of drunkards in the country. One class of drunkard is composed of those persons, who, at first are very much in favour of being moderate in all things, and subsequently, allow themselves to be foolishly led on by the charm of good fellowship to create for themselves an artificial need. It is this artificial need, which in the end leaves them the helpless victims of a miserable disease. They begin by taking a little, continuing by taking just a little more and deceive themselves by saying “Sure, it’s only a drop”. From this point it is an easy step for them to fall into excess drinking, losing all sense of decorum, and becoming mean and unapologetic in their craving after alcohol. They are subsequently unfit them for an upright and honourable course of thought and action in any of the details of their daily life. A slow disappearance of their mental functions quickly accompanies their oppressive tiredness, while their hand trembles, their brain wanders, and they finally fall into the tragedy of ‘delirium tremens’. This stage is a rapid onset of confusion, which is usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol, and is better known to some as “The Horrors.”
But there is another class of drunkards, and this group could well be designated as one for those who are ‘drunkards by necessity’. But, when it comes to this category we must consider their domestic situation, economic condition, education, or other causes that may modify the result in individual cases. Of course, there is the argument that no person is born into this world with an inordinate desire for drinking alcohol of any kind. These unfortunate victims of alcohol do not begin with a thimble filled with drink, and progress into taking glasses filled with liquor. It comes upon a person, suddenly, like a thief in the night. It can happen when a person reaches their prime in adult, while others may experience in the flush of youth. In these modern times we have, unfortunately, seen its increase in the thoughtlessness that often accompanies boyhood and girlhood.
With these ‘drunkards of necessity’, abuse of alcohol becomes a passion with them, almost a type of madness. You can, occasionally, recognise one of these unhappy drunkards, especially those who might be very young. They usually enter the public house in the early morning, looking sullen and pale, and they sit down silently and alone over a measured double-shot of undiluted Scotch whisky. In fact Scotch whisky is, probably, the only drink suitable for one of these people, since the worst and most fierce tasting stuff that can be made is generally the most acceptable to him. This drunkard’s palate is too long subject to abuse to be able to distinguish between tastes and flavours, and its only ‘liquid fire’ or ‘rocket fuel’ that he wants. You can recognise this person by his pitiable imbecility, which drives him in his awful craving for more alcohol by reaching his tumbler to his lips with both hands. With the taste upon his lips he drinks until the glass is emptied, and does so with all eagerness of having a terrible thirst. This type can also be recognised by deep and frightful sleep, that begins, continues, and closes in horrific dreams! While the wife and family of the occasional and progressive drunkard can be said to be wretched, worse still must be the constant misery suffered by the wife and children of a madman like this.
In the spring of 1968 I was living in a relatively middle-class neighbourhood of a small country town, that stood in one of the most fertile and prosperous counties in Ireland. The population of this town was almost all industrious working and middle class people who were almost entirely free from the abject and squalid poverty that could be seen in some of the larger towns in this land. This particular town had many small and very productive factories that made a wide range of merchandise that was exported to many places in the world. It could also be said that the area around this town had a large proportion of respectable, gentlemen farmers who, in Ireland, at one time would have been called ‘squireens’.
To this group of ‘gentlemen farmers’ belonged the heads of two branches of the same family, Peter and James Caniffe. Both men resided in the environs of the town, and were brothers. Peter Caniffe was the elder of the two brothers by quite a number of years, and he had a family that consisted of three grown-up sons and one daughter. He had married early in his life, but his wife sadly died when giving birth to their fifth child. Unfortunately, the child only survived its mother’s death by a few weeks before it too passed away. James, the younger of the two Caniffe brothers, had a large family of young children. In fact, Peter’s only daughter, Alice, was being brought up within her uncle’s household. Her father thought that she might receive the education and care which a girl of her tender age, which she might have otherwise obtained from her deceased mother. It was believed she might just benefit from the kindness and affection that might be shown by her nearest female relatives.
In practical terms, then, Peter Caniffe’s family consisted of himself, his three sons, and an old widow woman who was employed as a housekeeper. She was a woman of at least seventy years and she was habitually lazy, her only aim in life being to avoid as much activity and exertion as was possible. But, the household of a widower from a middle class background is rarely ordered with any regularity and decorum, and Peter’s household was no exception to this general rule. Every room in the family home had a certain untidy and discomforting look about it. The floor-boards, or the staircase were seldom washed or swept. In fact the housekeeper rarely cleaned the windows, or the fireplace swept, the tables rubbed, or the chairs dusted. Things that had been soiled were never cleaned, while things that were broken were never mended, and things that had been lost were never replaced. As each member of the family felt, at one time or another, the inconvenience of things were in the home, but each reacted by throwing the blame upon the other, which meant nothing positive could be achieved to remedy the situation. Everyone who knew Peter Caniffe thought considered him to be a good practical farmer, and a shrewd man-of-the-world. They were extremely surprised, then, that Peter should appear to care so very little about the comforts or conveniences of life.
Peter, however, thought that he had one special household virtue that he could be proud of. Very early in life Peter had narrowly escaped disgrace and ruin by dropping any association he had with a group of youths who were widely known for their overindulgence in sensual pleasures. It was they who had led him, step by step, into all the dark recesses of debauchery. But, he got out of the group before it was too late, and the memories of what he had seen, done, and suffered was more than enough to make him resolve that his sons should never be tempted in a similar manner.
The eldest of his sons, Richard, was now twenty-one, the second eldest, Matthew, was nineteen, and the youngest son, Gerald, was only fifteen years of age. None of them had ever taken any alcohol, though their father was not as abstemious as he had compelled his sons to be. Every day, since they had first learned the taste of whisky, they had all been tantalised with the sight of the “materials” that made up their father’s favourite beverage. But, although Peter Caniffe was a temperate man, could never have been described as being a generous man. He was not one of those type of parents who will continue to fulfil their appetite, with every delicacy, while their children are looking on with eyes filled only with hope, and their stomachs are hurting with hunger. Peter, however, did get his reward when, one day, his two eldest boys, Dick and Matt, were carried home from a neighbouring fair. Both young men were falling-down drunk and this was the first occasion that they had ever been so intoxicated. Their condition, however, was due inexperience of alcohol rather than the trifling quantity they had taken. Nevertheless, from that moment onward, their father was more watchful than ever in an effort to prevent them from repeating the exercise.
As was usual, when it came to punishing his sons for any wrongdoing, Peter Caniffe was not particularly harsh, but you would have thought that neglecting his strict commands with regard to alcoholic drink would be sure to be met with great severity. Peter Caniffe’s method of handling such misdemeanours were wretchedly inconsistent. Other wrongdoings of a greater degree of immorality were winked at, even encouraged, by Peter. These young men, however, could never have been considered naturally vicious, but when they discovered that they could curse and swear in their father’s hearing, they quickly found that even some of the graver offences against society could be committed without fear of their father’s punishment. It was no wonder then, as they grew older they should also grow in their wickedreprehension, was it any wonder that they should also grow in wickedness?
Matthew and Richard dressed in a manner that showed them to be accomplished village scamps. They wore battered caps that were set, jauntily on one side of the head rough, deep-green corduroy trousers, and heavy brown brogue boots with nails like the rivets of a steam-boiler. These two young men were, undoubtedly, the hardiest men in a fight, the first men to sit at a card table, and the deadliest shots at a mark in the county. They always appeared to have plenty of money in their possession and there no one who dared to ask them how they came by it? Their father always had lots of cash lying about the house, and as selfish and alert as he was, there was many a large handful of cash that he was relieved of by his dutiful sons.
As the two boys grew up, they cared less and less for their father’s anger, as his vicious habits appeared to become more settled and systematic with them. They drank to great excess whenever they had the slightest opportunity to do so. It was a fact that no one ever saw them, for twenty minutes at a time, without having full proof that they were slaves to the ‘gargle’. It ruled over them like a tyrant making the almost slaves to the odious and disgusting tastes that anyone ever created for another. Beside the ‘drink’, no one ever saw them for any period of time without a cigarette or pipe between their teeth, and surrounded by the fouls smelling smoke, spitting on the street, and coughing their foul germs all over the place without regard for bystanders.
Despite all their many faults there many who would agree that the entire county had finer looking men than Richard and Matt Caniffe when they were dressed for Mass. It was a duty, to which they still attended with a punctuality that would have been much more praiseworthy if it had sprung from any other motive than vanity and pride. In a different culture, the two young men might very well have become excellent and valued members of society. They had still some faint pretensions to generosity and spirit, and there were many pretty young ladies in the district who believed, wholeheartedly, that they were capable of persuading these young men to return to their more innocent ways.
The youngest son, Gerald Caniffe, was a youth of fifteen years, and he was a lad of a much different type than his elder brothers. He was both an open-featured and an open-hearted youth, who was never seen with a cigarette, or pipe in his mouth, nor had he ever a tattered “racing calendar” sticking out of his pocket. Furthermore, while his brothers were out on their sporting adventures, or amusing themselves in a less innocent way, Gerald would journey across the fields to his uncle James’s garden, where he would walk, talk, read, or play with his pretty little sister Alley, or enjoy games with his pretty little cousins Bill and Bess, and Peter and Dick, after school had finished.
Alley and Gerald were as fond of each other as they could be, and not least because they did not live entirely together. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is as true a phrase as ever was spoken, whether we apply it to the lover and his mistress, or the brother and his distant sister. There are many of us, with our sighs and tears, can testify to the truth of this. It was lovely to see a loving brother and his sister sauntering along the country lanes in the wild-strawberry season, with their arms around each other as they picked their fruit. Eventually, they had to bid each other good-bye for another day, returning home with slow, lingering steps.
This was the way the three young men were when Peter Caniffe passed away, after a short illness. In his well he left what was left of his property to be equally divided between his children. Richard and Matt, however, did not appear to be sorry for the loss of their father. On the night of their father’s wake, they collected all of their idle and profligate friends to come to the house and, as might be expected, the entire event became one dreadful feast of drunkenness. The more respectable inhabitants of the neighbourhood saw how things would be now that Peter Caniffe had passed on. Everyone agreed that the previous restraint, overseen by their father, would now rapidly disappear, and shook their heads, as they considered what they believed would be the coming calamity.
Earlier, that same night, little Alley began to feel that all was not right with her brother, Gerald. She had seen Richard constantly giving him liquor, which he had, at first refused, but afterwards accepted. He had taken the drink in a stealthy manner, with his face blushing with embarrassment as he saw the first reproachful glance from Alice. Gradually Gerald gave in to the temptation, and again and again a glass followed another with less hesitation, while his brothers seemed to be happy with the idea of making this innocent boy just as guilty as themselves. The devil surely leads those who take great joy in encouraging others to abandon a positive way of life for the same sinful pleasures, for which others have sold their own souls. Eventually, she became frightened at the idea that Gerald seemed to change and boasted of his feat. When Gerald had asked for more whisky, and had been given it by Richard, who, half drunk himself already, was determined to make Gerald drunk for once in his life. The boy was now as drunk as his brother had wished for by his brother, and he had slipped behind Matt’s chair. Alice could see her brother’s head hanging upon one shoulder, while his eyes began to close in a drunken stupor of intoxication, and he was about to fall to the ground. Quietly she moved to his side, and leaning her head upon his shoulder she whispered, “Gerald, I didn’t think you would drink so much. Why did you?”
“Don’t tell uncle James, Alley, if he hasn’t seen me this way, and I promise I will never drink so much again.”
“Hold up your head for another bucket, you eejit,” said Matt, as he heard the boy speaking behind his chair. At the same time, with several drunken hiccoughs, he offered his brother another glass. “Come on, Gerald, another will do you no harm. They say that sorrow makes you dry, and the good Lord knows that you’ve wept enough all day for a little fellow.”
“Please Matt, please don’t ask him to drink more,” pleaded Alice.
Matt, however, was not the type to take objections lightly and, with a brutal cuff, he struck his little sister, who fell to the ground. Turning his attention back to Gerald, Matt tried to force the liquor on him. But, in the drunken effort, the glass fell from his hand, and Alice got up and quietly took her brother from the room.
After Peter Caniffe’s funeral took place there was another drunken party, more disgraceful than the first. This was followed by another, and another, and another, until the week was out. When Gerald’s uncle saw how completely dependent on alcohol that his nephews had become, he took Gerald to live with him. But, by this time, it had become too painfully evident that Gerald had acquired a taste for the liquor, which had already turned his two brothers into drunken beasts. Poor little Alice wept over the change that had overcome her brother. There was no more reading, or playing, or wandering through the country together. Instead, he would sit sulky and silent in the house all day, more like a poor relation living on charity rather than the joint-heir of the largest farm in the parish. This state of affairs, however, was soon to come to an end!
It had been a month since the death of Peter Caniffe, and with great zeal the eldest of his heirs had by this time drunk up his entire stock of “Poteen”. Quite by surprise, however, in an out-of-the-way nook they accidentally discovered five gallons of malt whisky, which had , probably, lain there for many years. It was on a Saturday morning that this hidden ‘treasure’ was found, and one of the Caniffe boys was heard making a vow that he would never quit drinking the whisky until the last drop was drained. This was intended to be the last party before they set off for Australia, where they intended to emigrate that very spring. They had, with their uncle’s consent on behalf of the two youngest Caniffe children, converted their land into money to finance their new life on the opposite side of the world. One or two of their friends had been invited to join them, but these begged to be excused since, like so many others, they had also become appalled at the dreadful excesses of their one-time companions. Towards evening it was noticed that Gerald had been missing from his uncle’s house for some time. James Caniffe guessed where he was and, with little Alice in his hand, he went to his late brother’s home. The door to the house was locked on the inside, and on asking for Gerald the uncle was told that he safe in there he was told that, “there wasn’t any admission for any damned teetotaller.” Shocked and angry, James Caniffe went away from the house with his dejected niece in tow.
The next day was Easter Sunday and the feast day had occurred much later in spring than is usual and, as a result, there was already a foretaste of summer in the air. It was a lovely fore-noon when James Caniffe, his wife, Alice, and the children, walked out in their Sunday-best outfits to the parish chapel. The sky was dotted with light silver clouds, and the fields were already green with the new growth of the grass. The hawthorn bushes in the hedgerows were visibly bursting their buds, while the furze bushes were exploding in a blaze of golden beauty, and the birds, especially the red-breast, were chirping away with great intensity. As they walked onward the bells of the neighbouring church stuck their celebration of Easter with such sweetness that they filled the air with Joy. They walked on past the church, where groups of laughing children were playing hide-and-seek in the graveyard. There, among the graves, towered five or six large chestnut trees that reached the height of the ancient steeple, among whose branches was a rookery that was now in full song. Surprisingly, the voices of the children and the cawing of the rooks, though disturbed by the sudden peal of the bells, mingled with their chimes without causing any discord to the ear. Alice’s eyes glistened for a moment when she recognised her youthful playmates, because her heart was heavy and felt that she could not laugh with them. At last they came to the door Peter Caniffe’s house. The house, however, showed no signs of life, and they thought maybe all were still asleep.
“Let us go in, uncle, and tell them all to get up,” little Alice urged.
“Let the scoundrels sleep it off!” was the indignant reply from Uncle James, and they passed on to the church.
After about an hour and a half, this same group were on their way home, with their hearts filled with joy by the imposing church service which they had just witnessed. But there was a gloomy expression on the faces of both James Caniffe and his little niece, as they walked along the street with their very happy and smiling neighbours. Questions were also being asked, since none of Peter Caniffe’s three sons had ever before been known to have missed Sunday mass. Their absence from Church on that most holy of holy days was of course a subject of wonder among all the neighbours. “I would not have thought it possible,” said James Caniffe in a grave tone of voice, “that they could suddenly become so uncaring so quickly wicked all at once—God forgive them! God help them!”
“Oh, uncle!” cried Alice, as the house came into view once again, “those boys are not up yet! See, the shutters are still closed!”
Then, as they moved in front of the house, Alice begged him, “Dear uncle, please go into them and bring out poor Gerald, so that he can eat his Easter dinner with us.”
A thought suddenly struck James as he knocked loudly at the door. There was no answer. Then, after another loud knock, and a long pause, there was still no sound coming from within the house. Alice’s little heart echoed each pound of that last unsuccessful knock. It was almost as if said, “Waken, Gerald, Can you not hear us knocking.”
But, Alice could not endure the suspense any longer, and, running to the gavel verge at the side of the road, she lifted up a heavy stone, which she used to batter the panels of the hall-door for as long as her strength allowed her. When she was obliged to stop battering, her screams could be heard widely, and yet there was no sound from the house. James Caniffe, meanwhile, had dispatched one of his little boys to a neighbouring cottage to borrow a crow-bar. The boy quickly returned to his father with the crowbar, and James, assisted by the crowd who gathered by this time, was not long in forcing the door open. “Wait now friends,” said James to the anxious company that had gathered, “don’t any come in until I tell you, for there’s no use in bringing further shame of my brother’s house.”
He and Alice, accompanied by one or two chosen people, entered the hall of the house with faltering steps, and then closed the front door behind them. The first object that they saw was Peggy, the old housekeeper, who was lying on the mat at the foot of the staircase in a drunken sleep. From what they saw it appeared the old woman had fallen down the stairs in an effort to reach the door, and there she lain insensible for several hours. Alice jumped over her, and darted up the stairs with the speed of lightning. James and his companions, had made a vain attempt to arouse the old housekeeper, before they followed her.
At the top of the stairs they entered the room immediately in front of them, on the landing. The thick stench of tobacco-smoke, mingled with the fumes of ale and whisky, almost overpowered them. The room itself would have been quite dark had it not been for a small lamp with two dim bulbs, which sat like a large old-fashioned branch candlestick on a small side-table. James went to the window, opened the curtains, and let down the sash. The glorious sunshine streamed into the reeking apartment, with the refreshing fresh air that was so badly needed. How strange the room appeared with the glow of daylight. The three young men were lying on the floor, at some distance from each other, around the legs of a crazily shaped table that stood in the centre of the room. On the table were huddled together the fragments of salted fish, cheese, bread, broken glasses, half-emptied decanters, and the other usual detritus of a bachelor party. James immediately recognised what had been going on in this room the moment he had drawn the curtains on the window. He stooped over one of the prostrate bodies, and saw it was Richard. Then, as he turned up his face, he exclaimed, “Dear God!” What he saw was the face of a corpse! He smothered another groan as he rushed towards the next body. It was Matt Caniffe, who was also deceased and his corpse was quite stiff! James and his friends now looked at each other solemnly, and in silence. Simultaneously, they turned their glance toward the place where Gerald was lying and they hesitantly moved to the spot. There, on the floor, lay Gerald, with Alice by his side where she had fainted. The boy’s eyes were glazed, the skin of his face tightened over his nose and cheek-bones, and his lips covered with viscid froth. Gerald’s beautiful brown hair was tossed backwards from his damp forehead, and was glistening in a streak of sunshine that fell upon it through the open window.
“He is alive still!” all three exclaimed, “he might recover!” At the same time one of them ran to the window and signalled to the neighbours that they should come in. The room was soon full of horrified spectators, who helped part Alice from her dying brother, and bring both of them out into the open air as quickly as possible.
In the middle of the loud cries and lamentations of the bystanders Alice recovered from her faint. She sat for a while upon the grass and tried to recall her scattered senses. The sight of Gerald lying near her, as the crowd opened to allow the fresh air to his face without obstruction, soon brought the whole terrible truth back to her mind. She stood up with difficulty, but, gathering her strength from her recollection, she succeeded in breaking away from the woman who was taking care of her, and in a moment the head of Gerald was pillowed upon her bosom. The soft cooling breeze had restored the unfortunate boy to a moment of consciousness, but he was barely able to turn his head towards Alice to acknowledge that she was there. Then, as he began to recognise his sister, a sign of pleasure was expressed through his glassy eyes.
“Won’t you speak to me, Gerald? Won’t you speak to your own wee Alley?” The boy shook with a convulsive shudder, but could not utter a word in answer.
“Don’t die, Gerald! Please don’t leave poor Alley all alone in the world!” pleaded she in the her agony of childish despair, “he’ll never be the same again! He’ll never speak to me again!”
The boy now made an effort to bring Alice’s ear to his clammy lips, and she tried very hard to hear the almost inaudible whisper which passed between them. “Is — uncle James — here?” gasped the dying boy in a stammering manner. “Tell him — I — couldn’t — help it! Oh! Alley! oh!” With this groan he gradually died away, and with it the spirit of poor Gerald Caniffe. Alice realised what had happened as soon as any of the bystanders, but her high and shrill scream soared above the wailing which now arose from the others. Once again the girl sank down in a faint that her great anguish had so mercifully caused.
A coroner’s inquest was held on the bodies of the three sons of Peter Caniffe, not far distant from the scene of the fatal party. A rumour had been doing the rounds saying that poison had somehow or other been the cause of their death. There was a thorough post-mortem examination carried out, which resulted in a verdict that said the three Caniffes had died “from the excessive use of alcohol.”
I began this tale by saying that I would not be pointing to a moral. But, there is a moral. It is a moral to selfish and ill-judging parents, and also to ill-judging societies, who believe that coercion will have a better effect than a fair and consistent example. So it is with the Irish father who would exorcise the demon of alcohol out of his children by pledges of abstinence, or threats of punishment, while, he continues to believe that he can still enjoy the luxury of alcoholic drink.
Hugh Quinn was the only undertaker in the entire district. Others had come and gone, but Hugh Quinn had become “Mr. Death” in Ballysheen. As well as the undertaking services he had created the monumental sculptors, and even arranged with the local churches to have the graves opened. At the same time, Quinn's funeral cars would also undertake a transformation and act as wedding limousines for local brides, and Hugh also supplied Marquees for those couples who wished to have their wedding celebrations held at home. Moreover, Mrs. Quinn, Hugh's hard-nosed business-woman wife, set herself up as a small outside catering contractor whose services were often called upon.
It was into the tender care of Hugh Quinn and his son, also known as Hugh, that Theresa Grogan and Father Donnelly entrusted the old woman's corpse for preparation. Gathering themselves together Hugh and his son prepared the hearse and a simple coffin to go and bring the body back to their premises. They drove out to the Grogan house to begin their work, to which Theresa left them by themselves. It took the two men just less than two hours to complete everything and return to the funeral parlour, where the remains were respectfully transported to the treatment room. The preparation room was at the rear of the premises and before beginning their tasks the Quinn men changed from their formal day clothes and into their work suits.
Young Hugh was well-liked person in the village and known to many by the name “Quasimodo”, because of the hunch in his back and his way of walking with a slight limp. This could have been considered to be in bad taste by some people, but those that knew him by that name made sure that young Hugh didn't know what they called him. The young man now helped his father to lay out Mrs. Grogan's corpse on the preparation table and his father set about collecting the various equipment that would be needed for the job at hand.
“Old Mrs. Grogan would be embarassed if she knew that I was looking at her naked body,” commented Hugh senior, lightheartedly.
“It's a good job she is already dead then,” smiled Quasimodo.
“Aye, it is a good job! She was one cantankerous old villain when she was living.”
“Villain?” questioned Quasimodo. “ Did you know her well?”
“I knew her well enough", Both her and her husband, Quinn Senior, remarked as he began to prepare the body for her coffin.
“Larry Grogan. A good man and a perfect gentleman,” replied Hugh senior. “When Larry was a young man there were many who considered him to be the best labouring man in the district. In fact such was the reputation he had built-up for himself that many of the big farmers and businessmen in the area would bid big sums of money to ensure he worked for them. That man could turn his hand to anything. He could thatch and he could dig. Larry Grogan could work in the fields from dawn to sunset digging over the ground with a shovel and spade. Come rain, hail, or snow Larry Grogan would always finish whatever job he had set out for himself.
“Sure there are any number of big, brawny men in the district but none of them have any sense. What was it made Grogan so different?” asked Quasimodo.
“Larry Grogan might indeed have been quite brawny, but he also had a good brain. He was a man who would never rush into making a decision, preferring instead to think about what the consequences of decision may be beforehand.”
“Well, tell me Da, how did Larry Grogan, as a labouring man, ever come to own that house that the Grogan's live in now?”
“Grogan could thatch, lay bricks, plough, fence, construct, dig ditches and undertake a host of other things. That man could do the work of two men and, in all honesty, I can never recall the man ever taking a day off for sickness. Larry Grogan would have worked the two minutes silence and any who took him on knew that they would get more than a fair day's work for the money they paid him. But, there was one other outstanding trait that Larry Grogan had and that was his ability to save money. He saved enough money to first buy that bit of land outside the village and immediately set about building his house upon it.”
“He built it himself?”
“Every brick and rafter, and he made one hell of a good job of it. Furthermore, he turned that ground around the house from rough grazing land into fertile soil. At the same time he reclaimed some of the land from the bog by digging ditches and draining it.”
“He didn't leave much time for socialising. It is a wonder he was able to meet a girl at all!”
“Dear God, Hugh, but you are one miserable sod,” His father commented. “Grogan was a very active young man. He loved to play football and thoroughly enjoyed frequenting all the places that young men can find diversions. He was as much one of the boys as any of them.”
“He liked the ladies?” laughed Quasimodo, with a slight blush.
“He liked a drop of 'Guinness' and the odd glass of 'Powers' whisky. There was many a night, after a few drinks, that Larry Grogan would dance the night away at the Ceilidh. He was a great dancer and he always wore nothing but the best in clothes. There were not many in Ballysheen who could afford to have such a wardrobe and yet save in the manner that Grogan did.”
“Hardworking, popular and with plenty of money! Grogan must have been a good target for the ladies to catch?”
“He would have been a good catch for any woman at the time, but Sally was the one who caught him, God rest her. She was Sally Lowry at the time and lived at the far end of the village. She was older than me, but when she was young she was a fine looking woman with plenty of life about her, and good hands for the work. Every time she went to the dances or ceilidhs she always wore something new and modern. She was the great one for the style, always preening herself and showing off to attract the boys. In recent years she was know for her temper and vicious tongue, but I remember a different Sally Grogan; confident, pleasant and always smiling. She was the sort of woman who knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. Sally wanted Grogan and the poor man never stood a chance when she made her move on him. Within a week or two of meeting the two of them got together as a couple, and they were courting over the next five or six years.”
“Five or six years?” Quasimodo gasped in surprise.
“That was a short engagement in those days,” the older Quinn laughed. “Nowadays a man and woman just have to look at each other and they're hopping into bed and never mind the wedding! But Larry and Sally did manage to become the centre of village gossip for a period of time at least. People began to notice that the two of them would disappear many a Sunday after Mass, and they wouldn't be seen until evening, with great satisfied smiles on their faces. Also, after the dances, Larry would leave Sally home and stay there with her until the early hours of morning.”
“So you were all at it even in those days?” giggled Quasimodo.
“Nothing much has changed, son. Even in those days except when you played with fire you almost certain to get burned. Larry and Sally, it seems, played with fire, got burned, and were obliged to undertake each other for better or for worse. It was Larry's older brother, Tom, who pulled the shotgun when Larry and Sally came to seek his advice. Within these very short weeks the two of them were married by the priest and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“Good God, when you look at her lying there, ready for her coffin you would think she was a good, god-fearing woman and that butter wouldn't melt in her mouth," Quasimodo remarked.
“The vicious tongue and bad temper that woman had would tell you that she feared no one. Even solid iron would have melted in that foul mouth of hers,” replied Hugh senior as he began putting the finishing touches to the corpse.