Monthly Archives: November 2015

‘The longest way round is the shortest way home’ – James Joyce’s Leitrim origins

james-joyceMore people start reading Ulysses than will ever finish it. It is a difficult novel to read, crafted as such by the author, who himself declared ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality’. Yet despite all this complexity tackling the greatest modernist novel of all is a rewarding experience. Some commentators note that this ‘Selective secrecy’ on the part of Joyce was in fact ‘a brilliant marketing strategy’ ensuring that ‘scholars still debate the mysteries of this obscure and difficult text’ ad infinitum[i].

I was intrigued to find out a few years back that the creator of the enigmatic modern hero, Leopold Bloom, had strong Leitrim connections and in particular with the parish of Gortlettragh. Joyce’s maternal ancestors were the Murrays, tenant farmers on the shores of Lough Rynn, about 3 miles south of the town of Mohill in the townland of Tulcon. Well-known local historian Michael Whelan wrote an excellent article some years back about the family. Joyce’s grandfather was a John Murray who was born in Tulcon in 1829. The infamous Lord Leitrim, William Sydney Clements acquired the Tulcon lands in or about 1862. He immediately set about reducing the number of tenants on the lakeside and took the best of the Tulcon lands into the Lough Rynn home farm. In 1866 Hugh Murray (granduncle of James Joyce) and family had been moved to the other side of the lake. They took up residence in the townland of Gortlettragh from which the parish bears its name. Hugh’s brother, Patrick Murray was the Parish priest in Carrick-Finea parish on the Cavan-Longford border and became well known in the area for helping to found the United Land League in Mullahoran in 1879.

By the time the Murrays had left Tulcon, John Murray had already established himself in Dublin. In 1854 he married Margaret Theresa Flynn whose family owned the iconic ‘Eagles Nest’ public house in Terenure. Margaret herself was the licence holder in 1860. The Flynn family were well known in business circles in Dublin where Patrick Flynn was master of a spirit store and later a starch & blueing factory, at 53 Back Lane. Margaret Theresa Flynn had two sisters Elizabeth and Anne Flynn who ran schools for piano and singing. It is believed the Miss Morkans of the famous short story “The Dead” is based on them. It was also said that Elizabeth Flynn may at some point have been a governess at the court of Louis Napoleon of France. “The Dead” was subsequently made into a feature film by John Huston in 1987.

In 1859 Mary “May” Murray, the future mother of James Joyce was born. May was an accomplished pianist, no doubt influenced by her talented Aunts. At this time the family had moved to 7 Clanbrassil St. It was on this very street that John Stanislaus Joyce, a charming, failed medical student, amateur tenor and incompetent business man met and fell in love with 20 year old May Murray. Joyce had moved to Dublin from Fermoy in Cork where his family were modest landlords and business people and firmly part of the rising Catholic middle classes.

According to Michael Whelan[ii], John Stanislaus Joyce was secretary at a distillery in Chapelizod where John Murray also transacted business. It is also known that May Murray and John S Joyce both sang in the choir at the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar. The young couple married in Rathmines Church on the 5th May, 1880 to the disapproval of both the Murrays and Mrs Joyce; the latter who returned to Cork after the nupitals and never reconciled with her son. On return from honeymoon in London the newly-weds settled at 47 Northumberland Ave., Kingstown. A first child John Augustine Joyce died in 1881 and their second, James Augustine Joyce was born on the 2nd February 1882, at their next home in 41 Brighton Sq. W., Rathgar.

John S. Joyce spent most of his life dodging creditors. After James the couple had three more boys and six girls. The youngest, Freddie, died in infancy in 1894. There is evidence that John S Joyce may have been violent towards his wife when drunk and at least on one occasion the police became involved. Joyce moved from job to job, selling off assets, taking out mortgages, moving house. Through all this May Murray-Joyce’s health began a long spiral of decline. Another son George died in 1902 and this was a huge blow to her as was James’ rejection of his Catholic religion.

James visited her from Paris over Christmas 1902 and she appeared to rally. Within a few months however she was confined to bed. She does not seem to have confided in James on how ill she really was. On Good Friday morning 1903, Joyce sent her a postcard asking her to tell him what was wrong, but when he returned to his hotel that evening he found his father’s telegram informing him that his mother was dying. May Joyce was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver but it is now believed this was a misdiagnosis and that she was dying of cancer. Joyce returned from Paris to be with his mother who lingered on throughout the summer in great discomfort until her death on 13 August. It is said that Joyce and his brother Stanislaus refused to kneel and pray at the bedside of their dying mother, despite being ordered to do so by his uncle John Murray. Mrs Joyce was laid out in a brown habit at their house at St Peter’s Terrace before being buried in a plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. A year later Joyce writing to Nora Barnacle said that when he looked upon his mother’s grey and wasted face as she lay in her coffin, he knew that he was looking on the face of a victim, and he cursed the system that had made her a victim.


In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Stephen Dedalus describes his father Simon – for whom John Stanislaus Joyce was the model – as having been a ‘medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.’

 When he died James remembered his father to his friend Harriet Shaw Weaver in the following terms:-

“My father had an extraordinary affection for me. He was the silliest man I ever knew and yet cruelly shrewd. He thought and talked of me up to his last breath. I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him. His dry (or rather wet) wit and his expression of face convulsed me often with laughter. When he got the copy I sent him of Tales Told &c (so they write me) he looked a long time at Brancusi’s Portrait of J.J. and finally remarked: Jim has changed more than I thought. I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition (out of which, however, the greater part of any talent I may have springs) but, apart from these, something else I cannot define. But if an observer thought of my father and myself and my son too physically, though we are all very different, he could perhaps define it. It is a great consolation to me to have such a good son. His grandfather was very fond of him and kept his photograph beside mine on the mantelpiece.

 I knew he was old. But I thought he would live longer. It is not his death that crushed me so much but self-accusation …”

Whilst Joyce had a very dysfunctional upbringing his parents ensured he did receive a classical Jesuit education. 

His extended family contributed many characters that appear in his works and he in turn gave the modern world its greatest novel. He may not have been over-enamoured with his Murray ancestors who had made their money purveying ‘grog’ to the city. In the cyclops chapter Bloom muses,

Where do they get the money? Coming up redheaded curates from the county Leitrim, rinsing empties and old man in the cellar. Then, lo and behold, they blossom out as Adam Findlaters or Dan Tallons. Then think of the competition. General thirst. Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub”.

In the age of constantly changing fashions and almost a century since publication, it is remarkable that Ulysses still occupies such an exalted position in literature. My favourite story about the often cantankerous Joyce is the one in where he is confronted by a former British Officer shortly after the end of the Great War. It was the era of men recounting what military campaigns they had fought in and how they had helped shape history. Not been a part of the ‘action’ was frowned upon in much the same way as a draft dodger is in an American election campaign today. The seasoned British officer seeking to embarrass the Dublin exile in front of a gathering asked, ‘and what did you do during the War, Mr. Joyce?’ to which the prompt reply was ‘Why I wrote Ulysses, what did you do?’ I’m sure his Leitrim cousins would have approved.

“What’s in a name? That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours.” 


[i] Dr Sarah Davison, University of Nottingham

[ii] Michael Whelan ‘James Joyce Leitrim Conncection’ – Leitrim Guardian 2004 ed

The Moustache is hiring

Bar in QueensAs he crossed Queens Boulevard and strolled up the wide sidewalk towards the Bar, Tommy McKillen checked his watch again, 8.45pm. His mate Jimmy had said he’d be there by 9.00pm. Tommy didn’t want to be late. He wondered had Jimmy changed much? He hadn’t seen him in five years now. They had grown up beside each other and were inseparable. Jimmy’s family had returned to the States when he was 14. Growing up in the North West there were several American born kids in school? There was the Harrington’s who were from New Jersey, who could ever forget Colleen Harrington playing basketball in the front courts at school. Tommy remembered how they had all gone to support the school team in the Connacht Finals but the truth was they had all gone to watch Colleen strut around the court. Tommy was shy back then and if she had spoken to him he knew he would have probably died there and then. Joe Burke and Jimmy were from Sunnyside, Brian O’Donnell was Chicago. Then there was that lad from Cashel who was from San Francisco, he was Moran, Tommy couldn’t recall his first name. He did remember him out at Annagh Lake one summer, at swimming lessons, bragging about little league baseball.  Jimmy later punched his lights out at the back of the school gym. God knows what had ignited the row but he recalled afterwards that Moran and Jimmy shared a cigarette; Moran’s hands were trembling so much he could barely hold the match to light his smoke.  Later he gave the entire pack to Jimmy, a sort of peace offering or reparations. We smoked some of the cigarettes under the Cryan’s Bridge until Tommy was dizzy and sick. Then we smoked some more that evening when Jimmy came with me to count the cattle over in Annagh. That’s when he told me they were going back.

Approaching the Bar the Elevated line roared overhead as the Number 7 braked for its stop at the 40th Street station. The old steel frames vibrated, the rails rattled all the way to Manhattan. The Citibank building in the distance stood there proud, alone defiant against the bigger skyline across the East River. Inside the bar was quiet. Tommy pulled in halfway down the bar and picked the middle of three vacant stools. Two older guys on his left were talking about a ball game. Slowly he got his bearings relishing the air-conditioning. There were two girls and a guy on his right who were shooting the breeze about some friend of theirs who had flunked in College. The girl looked nice, a lovely tan, blonde hair and white teeth. Frankie the barman nods as they make contact, Frankie the Greek/ Italian/ Irish barman. “Hey Tommy, What’s up?’ his right hand outstretched to shake mine as his left throws a fresh beermat on the counter. ‘I’m good Frankie’, a cold bottle of Bud is placed on the beermat. Jimmy threw down a few bills beside it. ‘Has Jimmy McHugh being in yet?’ ‘No haven’t seen Jimmy in months. He’s living up state now. Up around Tarrytown’. Tommy nodded and sipped the cold beer. He had telephoned Jimmy’s mother on Tuesday, or was it Wednesday. He wasn’t sure now but she told him shed she’d be speaking to Tommy. When he spoke to her again yesterday and she said Tommy would be here by 9.00pm. He sipped some more.

New york bar‘Jimmy’s a good guy. I like him. We went to the same High School’ utters Frankie as he passes by wiping the counter with a cloth, fastidious, clean cut Frankie. Tommy notes that there a baseball game on the television. He hates the isolation and sitting here listening to other people’s conversations, longing to join in. He checks his watch again, 9.10pm and wishes Jimmy would arrive and not leave him waiting like this.

Tommy’s contemplation is broken by one of the guys on his left, ‘give us two more here Frankie….. and two Irish Whiskies’ Tommy could see the moustachioed guy in the mirror behind the bar. ‘Here you go Roger, what type whiskey you want, I got Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Paddy?’ The Moustache thinks before replying ‘Two Jameson on the rocks and have one yourself my friend’. Tommy takes out his cigarettes and lights a Parliament before stopping to read the matchbox.

‘American Festival Café, Rockefeller Center, 600 5th Ave, New York, NY 10020’

He hates his job there, hates been out in the sun all day, hates the way he must play this phoney friendly waiter all day long. The match card has the famous statue as its centre piece. One of his colleagues Andy said he likes the statue at work, said he saw it in a movie, ‘You do know the Restaurant closes in winter and is turned into an ice rink’. Tommy nodded before telling Andy that the statue is of Prometheus. ‘Oh yeah’ shrugged Andy, ‘that’s cool’ before racing off to berate the two Bengali busboys again. A few days ago he argued with Tommy that the correct term was Bangladeshi when Tommy said you could also say Bengali. Tomato, Tomato, who cares, whatever, fini

Tullamore DewFrankie comes back with the whiskies. ‘Hey aren’t you having one yourself? C’mon Frankie I’m buying, have a drink with us even if those Mets suck, at least the Knicks are flying’ the Moustache is well on it, looks like he’s been here all evening, getting slowly pissed and gradually louder. Frankie takes a shot glass and grabs a bottle of Tullamore Dew, he pours himself a drink. Tommy sucks on his Parliament watching the proceedings out of the side of my eye and through the mirror. Where the fuck is Jimmy, 9.21pm. ‘Here’s to those Knicks, going to do it this season, you heard it here first, and don’t forget it’ Yeah that’s a very loud moustache, muses Tommy, his mate doesn’t even respond, the glasses raised, clink and down the hatch. Tommy watches Frankie; the whiskey doesn’t knock a stir out of him. He recalled one of the Barmen telling him that sometimes Bartenders have their own favourite shot. ‘So it goes like this’ he explained, ‘Couple of guys want a Jaeger, you fill them a Jaeger and then they start putting pressure on you to have one, so you have your own bottle, let’s say it’s a whiskey, so you take out your bottle of Tullamore Dew and fill your glass, you do the shot with them, and the next one and so on. They think you’re a great guy, part of their night out, but they are getting wasted, you’re not because your Tullamore Dew is filled with Iced Tea, all you have to do is clean up the fucking tips’. Frankie has a bottle of Tullamore Dew which he returns under the counter not on the shelf, he’s in on it notes Tommy, determined some night to play him at his own game just to let him know, that he knows. It won’t happen tonight because Tommy is skint. He is hoping Jimmy has some contacts, anything, a phone number, Tommy needs work.

So Roger is the name of Moustache. Now he’s telling his mate about his little girl and what a smart kid she is. Tommy notices the girl to his right again, lovely long tanned legs, hint that she’s been out on the beach, it reminds me to call out to visit his Grandmothers cousins in Breezy Point. She looks about 21. She lazily drapes her arm over the shoulder of one of the guys with her. He is in the middle of some story too, stories being told all around him but what story am I in?wonders Tommy. Then it kicks off to his left ‘Get the fuck out of here, you fucking asshole’. Tommy turns just in time to see Roger the Moustache jumping up and over his mate who is now stretched on the ground with a right hook, his stool is lying beside him, he is gingerly getting to his feet, raising a hand as if to protect himself from any more punishment. Tommy didn’t see the punch clearly but the blood now trickling from the guy’s mouth suggests that it was a sweet connection. Frankie has jumped the counter and is holding the Moustache, ‘Easy Roger, not here man, take your quarrel outside, not here’, ‘You dirty bastard’ the moustache roars trying to kick his former mate, ‘douchebag’. The wounded friend is now on his feet backing away to the door, then he is gone, his shadow passing by the window heading towards Woodside. Frankie still has a bear hold of the Moustache who stretched out is a big unit, 6’2 or 6’3 at least; they go over to a corner by the pool table. Tommy sips his beer again. Move on, nothing to see here, move along.

JukeboxThe girl next to Tommy asks ‘What is that all about?’ ‘I have absolutely no idea’ gesturing with open arms to reinforce his view. They all laugh and shrug shoulders, bemused. The girl gets up and goes to the juke-box, she starts flicking through the lists. ‘You’re Irish’ says one of the guys. ‘Yes I can’t hide it can I?’ ‘My family are Irish, from County Cork; my Gran never lost her brogue even though she is here since the early 50’s’. ‘I’d imagine that it’s hard to keep your accent in a place like this’ I reply for the sake of replying. Tommy remembers a girl who went to work in Bundoran for a summer, seven weeks later and it was all ‘Ock aye’ and ‘wee’ this and ‘wee’ that. Frankie comes back behind the Bar. ‘Sorry about that folks, excitement over. The guys had a bit of a disagreement, Roger there was right though so I’m letting him stay of that’s okay. He’s a good guy, he’s from the neighbourhood’. A few minutes later Roger the Moustache comes back from the restrooms, he has on a Polo shirt, cream shorts, white socks and sneakers. He takes up again on his stool, gathering his money, folding the bills before placing them again on the counter in a neat pile.

Tommy lights another Parliament, the jukebox kicks into life, Ace of Base. The trio on his right start chatting again, he is on his own again, and he is going to kill McHugh, 10.04pm. ‘I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign…’ Frankie comes back with some bowls of pretzels, placing one in front of the Moustache and one in front of me. ‘Cheers man’ says the moustache ‘I’m sorry Frankie you know I’m not like that but fucking hell what an asshole’Frankie is working his way along the bar only half listening, so the Moustache starts talking to Tommy. ‘You just never know do you?’ he says. ‘Know what?’‘This guy, I was drinking with him for like two hours, seemed like a decent guy, he was Navy so was my Dad, ya’know, just having a beer. I was telling him how my father was chosen to be Neptune when they crossed the Equator, you know the tradition right, meant so much to my old man’ He stopped for a moment and threw his whiskey on his head and slammed the glass on the counter. ‘Son of a bitch! So I was telling him about my daughter and showed her photo like this’ he takes his wallet out and shows Tommy a photo of this young oriental looking girl, his daughter. Must have got a mail order wife assumes Tommy, Thai, Filipino somewhere like that. ‘So he says nice kid and asks me do I want to see his, I say yeah sure, I thought you weren’t married blah! Blah! and he takes out his wallet and shows me some pictures of young kids nude, disgusting man, young kids, fucking paedo, sick bastard!’Christ I think, he was right to box him so, ‘I’m sorry kid but this guy really got me, if Frankie wasn’t here I would have done some real harm, Frankie give is two beers and I’m gone’ Frankie places two fresh beers on the counter, ‘There on me’ The moustache is off again, ‘I was just telling your friend here about that creep, fucking hell’ Frankie winks at me without the Moustache seeing and heads back up along the bar. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get your name kid, I’m Roger by the way, Roger Wallstein’ his hand is out so I shake hands, ‘How are ya, I’m Tommy’‘Irish huh, this neighbourhood was all Irish once upon a time, when I was growing up it was all Irish, all the businesses too. I’m Catholic, German, family, Bavarian, yeah a good Catholic boy. So what’s your story Tommy?’ 

Tommy takes a drag out of his cigarette before answering, ‘Well I was supposed to meet a mate of mine but he’s stood me up. Irish guy I grew up with, well he was born here but family came back to Ireland and then back over here again. Frankie knows him. I’m looking for work to be honest, only been here six weeks. Have a job in a bar in midtown but the hours aren’t great’ ‘Midtown not great for tips either save Thursday and Friday afternoons’ says Roger. ‘There’s some temporary positions going in our place, easy work, money is okay’. This sounds good thinks Tommy, ‘Where bout’s that? Doing what?’ ‘It’s an apartment block on the Upper East Side, concierge, you know, Doorman, elevator cars that sort of thing. You might get a few months’ work, who knows’. ‘That would be great, really need something soon’. ‘Frankie give me a pen’ When the pen arrives Roger starts writing an address and number,

Empire House, 180 East 72nd St 3rd & Lex., Shaun Richards

‘You give them a call or call in and speak to Richards. Who knows he might give you a break’. The Moustache looks at his watch ‘Oh my god, I’m out of here!  Nice talking to you ….’ ‘it’s Tommy’ ‘yeah Tommy’ he throws his bottle on his head, picks up his Bills and throws a twenty back on the counter, ‘Thank you Frankie, I’m sorry about earlier buddy’. With that Roger the Moustache is gone. Tommy looks at the napkin, Upper East Side he thinks and places the napkin in his wallet. Frankie is over and picks up his tip and wipes the counter down, ‘Roger was in good form tonight eh Tommy?’ ‘Yeah, certainly was a bit of drama alright, I never met him before’. Frankie continues wiping the counter ‘I suppose he told you all about the wife leaving him, he really misses his daughter. He met this girl Chinese or something through some agency in the church, she comes over, they marry, have a kid, lovely little girl, then she ups stick and are now living in Manhattan with some other Chinese guy. Roger thinks he was set up, maybe he was but he certainly got her a green card and she’s here to stay but he’s left paying the bills. He’s drinking a good bit these days. I worry about him’. Frankie reaches into the under-counter fridge and pulls out another Bud for me ‘That guy surely ruffled his feathers earlier’ Frankie goes through the whole story about the  porn pics in the wallet and the man claiming they were his kids. ‘Dirty bastard’ Tommy shakes his head and then asks ‘What does Roger do for a crust? ‘He works in some building in the city, security or something. Not sure Tommy’

apartmentBack in the Apartment Tommy tip toes by their Ecuadoran room-mate. There is no sign of Andy in the bedroom, out on the town again. With the stifling heat, Tommy can’t wait to turn on the fan for some relief. There is no air conditioning in the apartment and they struggle to sleep. The noise of the city wakes him up and he looks at his watch; it’s just after 7.30am and he is covered in a lather of sweat. The pillow is soaked through and the sheets also. He even kicked off his boxer shorts during the night. Not able to sleep any more he takes a shower, relief, relief god that water is good he thinks but then he can’t dry himself with the towel, as he starts sweating again. He hates this heat, he hates this apartment, but most of all he hates being broke in this city. In a few minutes he is gone down the stairs out into the bright, blinding white of day. He wants to go home but he can’t. In the Diner he has some breakfast Canadian bacon, eggs and coffee. He can feel a slight thud in his forehead. Jimmy never showed. He takes several refills of coffee and read the The Post.

Two hours later and he comes up out of the subway station. He takes a few seconds to orientate when he does he continues over East 72nd Street and into a shady atrium. Tommy walks to the front door and is met by a man in a smart uniform and white gloves. ‘Can I help sir?’ he asks, stretching his arms across to ensure Tommy doesn’t consider entering the building. ‘Can you show where the reception is?’ ‘Reception’ he looks curiously ‘this is an apartment building not a hotel. This is the main entrance and is for tenants only sir; you’re going to have to move on sir’. Tommy turns to walk away but then shouts after the Doorman, ‘I’m looking for the manager Mr. Richards, Shaun Richards?’  ‘Go back to the service entrance on the corner of 71st and 3rd, you better go now’.

The building is huge, Tommy looks up at the sky and it seems to cover an entire city block, a central tower with two substantial wings with probably several hundred apartments in total. He walks around the block and thinks about abandoning his mission. He stands at the entrance for a few seconds. This is not near as glamorous as the entrance on the other side of the building where he’s just been. A couple of men point me towards the office and he enters the bowels of the building, down a ramp and into furnace like heat and the deafening noise of a rubbish compactor. Men in overalls push overflowing garbage bins up the ramp to waiting trucks. At the bottom of the ramp a corridor leads on and he sees a sign for the office. There is a glass window and he can see a number of men inside deep in conversation. There is a time clock on the wall and a large board with dozens of employee’s time cards in neat rows. Tommy pauses before knocking on the door but when nobody answers he just opens it. A man is sitting at a desk; he is on the phone but momentarily puts the mouthpiece to his chest and says ‘What you want?’ ‘I’m looking for Mr. Shaun Richards’. He points towards another door, returns to his call and I go on further, knock on the door,

‘Come in’ is the reply so Tommy opens the door, ‘C’mon, c’mon I don’t fucking bite, what can I do for you?’ says a Burt Lancasteresque figure in a sharp suit. ‘I’m here to meet Mr. Richards’ ‘Oh yeah well I’m Richards, Shaun Richards, who are you?’  he roars, why is he roaring? ‘Tommy McKillen, here about the job, Roger sent me’ He gleams with big white teeth showing and a powerful stare. ‘Roger?  Roger who?’ ‘Roger Wallstein’ I reply. ‘I have no idea what the fuck you are talking about son, Saunders! Saunders get in here!’ the man on the phone rushes in., ‘Saunders are we hiring? Summer relief? You know anything?’ ‘Well yes sir we do need some cover yep’, ‘Listen this kid looks the part, and he’s got balls to walk in on me like this’ says Richards as he reverts his gaze back on Tommy‘ look son we have a few weeks work that’s all but there may be something more permanent come out of it. Be on time, always be on fucking time and be polite to the tenants, if you’re not, you’ll have me to deal with, now get the fuck out of here’.

Saunders leads Tommy out of the office and down the corridor where he takes out a bunch of keys and opens the door. When the lights flicker on Tommy can see rack upon rack of uniforms, some still in dry-cleaning covers. ‘What size waist?’ asks Saunders ‘34”’ ‘Here try these’ the trousers don’t fit so Tommy tries another. With trial and error he gets fully kitted out and is then given a locker in the changing rooms to keep his stuff in. ‘Get a lock, get 3 or 4 white shirts, always come in clean and tidy. No bad breath or BO, you start tonight at 11.00pm, you be here by 10.30pm and relieve the man at Elevator 6 at 10.45. You give good relief you get a good relief. In the morning your replacement will try and be in for 6.45am. Where are you living?’ ‘Oh Elmhurst, just off Broadway’ replies Tommy. ‘Okay, if you haven’t shirts there is a Sears out at the Queens Center, it’s just another couple stops on your train, get some’

At 10.44pm that night Tommy takes the service elevator up to the lobby. It is a beautiful hall of mirrors with a water feature behind the main entrance where he had initially been this afternoon. Two door men look towards him and he can sense they are checking him out. Tommy has a piece of paper with instructions about polishing brass and cleaning mirrors, on the other side is his Roster for the next 3 weeks. He walks towards where I’ve been told Elevator 6 is. A uniformed man with a moustache stands outside the car, looking in the mirror, fixing his collar, ‘Hi Roger I got the job’ Tommy announces excitedly, ‘Hey kid, thanks for the relief’ he looks peculiarly at Tommy, ‘We met in the Blackthorn last night, remember?’ but Roger just frowns, ‘The Blackthorn?’ he looks at Tommy vacantly.  ‘Yes remember the old guy with the kid’s photos?’ Roger opens the door to the service elevator, grabs his bag and says ‘I’m sorry kid I think you must be mixing me up with someone else, have a good one’

Dithane and Doodlebugs

'Turf Rearing' P Brennan ‘Turf Rearing’ P Brennan

My Granduncle lived a very regimental and ordered life, practically all of it in the industrial heart of England. It was a country where my young mind believed the trains always ran on time and drivers never exceeded the speed limit. The Granduncle was in London first but then moved to Coventry where he had secured a job in the Standard Motor Company factory. A company that was standard, what more could a standard Irish migrant want.  

The factory later became the even larger Massey Ferguson plant, ‘Twenty Thousand people walked through those gates every day’ he’d boast. The uncle always simply called it Massey ‘Oh aye’ which suggested he hadn’t much time for the Ferguson half of the operation.

He came home every summer without fail, using up all his annual holidays. He brought us a bag of Humbug mints each – which none of us liked. He smoked Players cigarettes, tip less and toxic and his long thin fingers were like stained amber with years of nicotine layers. The first cigarettes myself and my brother ever smoked were pilfered from his box. We would smoke them in the hay-shed; it seemed to us a logical place to smoke back then. Unfortunately this logic put paid to a career in the local Fire Service, something about ‘deficit in risk assessment and prevention’.

During his holidays my father would bring the Uncle to town every Saturday night and occasional visits to our many relatives houses. My father would often be working on the farm until nine or ten o’clock at night and the Uncle couldn’t understand why Irish people only went to town at half past Ten, “some of them don’t even come in until after eleven’ he moaned.  In the UK, he often reminded us, people would be going home at that time, they had to he said, ‘last bus goes at half ten’. Somehow I don’t think he ever missed that last bus of a Saturday night in Coventry.

I was always interested in history. After much prising, the Uncle might be encouraged to give up some titbits about life in London, particularly about the Blitz which he had lived through. He pronounced the word Bomb as Bum so we of course mischievously kept asking him about the Blitz just to hear him say Bum over and over; ‘Oh they pounded London with bums, all bloody night, those bums raining down, fires everywhere’. I never heard him say he was afraid but he must have been, a 20 year old lad thrust from a small farm in the North West of Ireland into this cauldron of fire and death.

My Grandmother and another brother were with him at the time. My grandmother also spent time in Manchester but came back to Ireland and soon after met my grandfather and married. It was 1942.

The Uncle stayed on. He got work down near the South Coast ‘where they were sent’. I couldn’t understand that part of it, who sent them? Of course it was a well-kept secret what was happening but the Uncle told us he knew well they were getting ready to cross the Channel and invade France. No flies on him, he knew all about D-Day months before everyone else.

Back in London he recalled the V2 rockets landing; ‘if you heard it coming you were fine, it meant it had already passed you by’. I explained to him this was because the rocket was travelling faster than the speed of sound so it arrived at its target before you heard it. I told him that the speed of sound was 768 miles per hour; he informed me this couldn’t be as he had once seen a V2 flying in the sky and it wasn’t going that fast!

I, like many young boys my age idolised the great Liverpool team of the 70’s and 80’s. The Uncle had no time for them; he said that they scored a goal and then just kept the ball, passing it over and back to each other. I fancied that this was quite a clever way for a team to fill the Club’s trophy cabinet but he was having none of it.

He liked his home town club, the Sky Blues, Coventry City, who at the time were a mid-table team in the First Division who occasionally survived tense relegation dogfights.

I began to memorize the players babes from Panini sticker books. I asked the Uncle if he ever went to games in Highfield Road; ‘Oh aye’. He told me later that the the last time he was at a game there were over 60,000 there. I couldn’t fathom this as at the time Coventry was averaging about 20,000 attendances per game. I remember checking the record books and discovered that there was over 50,000 at a match in 1967 when they beat Wolves to gain promotion. Was this the last game the Granduncle was at?

My father visited him in 1985. My mother and he were over visiting our maternal Uncle who was gravely ill in London. My father got the train up to Coventry and the Uncle met him at the station.

He asked my dad if he was hungry and the pair went in search of a renowned Cafe which the Uncle proclaimed served the best roast dinner in town. They walked around for nearly an hour, passing dozens of Asian and Chinese restaurants, before the Uncle gave up aghast; ‘it used to be around here somewhere’. It may have been there in 1967 when he last ate there, perhaps on the way to the big game.

The Granduncle lived in a small neat bedsit in a large building with dozens of other Irishmen of similar age. I remember my father was moved by it, surprised even, maybe he had expected that he had a nice mock-Tudor semi-d in the suburbs.

When he came home the Granduncle liked the open fields, the cattle, making the hay and silage pits but most of all he loved the turf bog. He would be on the bog by eight o’clock in the morning. He couldn’t understand how we young fellas only went down at ten. When we got there we often broke the tedium by having mud fights – throwing buts of wet turf at each other. Sometimes we would abandon our posts and head off over to the high bank, jumping drains and bog holes, catching frogs, chatting with other people on the bog.

But the Uncle would stick at it, back bent, a steady pace, slowly but relentlessly making his way down the plot of turf. He often chastised our father for not having control of us but my father only told us what was being said about us. The day after these tell tales we would give the Granduncle the silent treatment.

My father liked to foot the turf once, making small footings but the uncle insisted on lifting them, turning them, this was only stage one of a laborious process. It became our summer penance. When this was done he went back to the beginning and made small footings of six to eight clods and then when that was done he would wait a few days before starting all over again and making them into bigger clamps.

He would look with disdain at a neighbour whose turf were cut weeks and lain untouched, green grass growing high around and sometimes through them. The neighbour would then come down nonchalantly and make a start, work for fifteen minutes, chat, smoke and then head home. The Uncle couldn’t understand it. Yet I often remarked that the neighbour usually got his turf home as soon as we did.

The summers of 1985 and ’86 were terrible in the bogs and in the meadows. The farm felt like a Gulag. The turf was the new sausage machine variety and they were impossible to work with. They just broke and crumbled in our hands and we all cursed them but none more so than the Uncle who lamented the old ways of slan and barrow.

In 1987 he retired from Massey (I don’t think he ever developed any fondness of Mr. Ferguson because he was again not mentioned). He got a Gold watch from the company, just like thousands before him. I don’t know who instigated it but he packed his bags there and then and came home. Maybe he had always planned to come home. He had been away forty eight years but he still only had one home.

The house he had grown up in was still standing and home to his older brother and his wife. They had married late in life, well past child bearing years. The house was pretty much as it had been in the 1930’s when the rest of the family took the Mail-boat to Holyhead.

The Uncle adopted a superior tone when speaking about his elder brother who had never left home, but it seemed lost on him that this man never had to leave home, and it wasn’t as if his own decision was one of choice, the reality being that it was one of economic necessity. So when he came home he moved in with my Grandparents who lived up the lane from us.

After leaving a life that was ordered and routine it must have been difficult for him to adjust. It showed in little things like when he smoked he seldom finished his cigarette. He usually butted it out halfway down. The habit was obviously borne out of the short ciggy breaks in the East Midlands factory where he had been incarcerated.

The rigidity and regimental nature of his working life was completely out of sync with the more laid back life in the rural west of Ireland. It wasn’t that people didn’t work hard, they often worked harder, it was just that they were not slaves to the clock. They didn’t clock in but they never clocked out. No 5 o’clock finish in the evenings, they would work to midnight if they had to or if felt like it. The only things exercising any control of their time were the seasons. To me it seemed a more natural way to live life.

The homecoming year of 1987 was also a monumental year for Coventry FC. They won the FA Cup beating a highly fancied Spurs team at Wembley. The Uncle didn’t even watch the match and seemed indifferent when I told him the news. He did have interest in GAA and could recall cycling to games including a Junior All-Ireland Semi-Final in Breffni Park in the early 40’s.  Leitrim were going well against Meath until the great Red Moran from Aughavas broke his leg. He also extolled the skill and strength of the larger than life, Jack Bohan, centre half back on the Leitrim team in 1927.

When we were younger we thought the Uncle had built every Massey Ferguson tractor that had ever ploughed a field. We had an old Ferguson Twenty and a 1968 MF 165. Surely he had built some part of these tractors. One Saturday morning my father asked the Uncle to hop up on the 165 to tow the Twenty (the last time there was a battery in the Twenty was when it left the Massey plant in the early 50’s). So the Uncle got up and let the clutch up too quickly and the engine conked out. He began fidgeting and it quickly became apparent that he didn’t know how to start a tractor. How could this be? How could a man that worked in a factory for over forty years, the place where hundreds of thousands of tractors were built, including the one he was now sitting on, not know how to drive one? My father wasn’t that surprised and he soon let us know that he had heard that the Uncle had worked all those years in the stores.


If there was one other job that animated the Granduncle it was spraying the spuds. The name itself was weighted with danger, you’d never call a child or a family pet Dithane! The anti-fungal powder had replaced bluestone as the number one agent in fighting the dreaded potato blight.

My father would drop down a couple of barrels of water to the bog garden where we grew the spuds. The spraying paraphernalia was quite simple. A plastic knapsack, with a handle on one side and nozzled hose on the other, a plank of timber, a thick branch or brush handle, a jug and a pair of Granny’s old tights. The Uncle or my Granny would throw the tin of Dithane into the barrel of water and mix it with the branch. When the Uncle did it he invariably stood downwind for some reason? The contents of the barrel were now what Patrick Kavanagh called ‘the copper-poisoned ocean’.  The plank of wood was placed across the barrel and then the knapsack on top. The lid was screwed off and the tights placed across the opening of the tank which was filled using an old plastic jug.

When full I would reverse like a donkey into a cart, be strapped in and away I’d go down between the potato ridges, pumping the lever whilst arching the nozzle left and right spraying the stalks with this chemical mist, him thinking of the floury spuds on the table next year, me about the life cycle of ‘Phytophthora infestans’ that we were studying in Biology at school.

The Uncle didn’t trust me by this stage and he would watch my every move making sure I didn’t miss any stalks. He insisted I got in under the leaves as well as covering the top side. The trust was gone, too many times I had been found out by him, the stolen cigarettes, the little lies. One time my parents were away and we never checked the cattle. There were 45 cattle in one holding, 15 weanlings in one field and 30 cows and calves in another. ‘Did you check the cattle down in Lily’s?’ he asked ‘I did’ I said without flinching, ‘How many were there?’ ’15’ ‘Oh is that right well there was 30 cows and calves there this morning’. Other indiscretions such as skipping church on Sunday and then been asked who had said eleven o’clock Mass, ‘Fr. Corcoran’ says I, ‘Oh that’s strange because he also did Half ten in Gorvagh’. I was never going to amount to much in his eyes, only a passing interest in cattle or farming, just dossing, or staying in the house like a woman, reading books.

It had already been established that the Uncle, for a man who had spent his entire career in the auto-motive industry was not very mechanically minded. He was always breaking things, wrenches, spanners, vice-grips, vices, hacksaw blades, shovel handles, axe-handles, measuring tapes and my father’s patience. He could however fix a puncture on the High Nelly bike he had commandeered from my Grandmother.

He was suited to manual labour and would toil all day at the same task unmarred by monotony. At silage time he would spend two days trimming the sides of the pit until you could almost hear the big clamp of freshly cut grass cry, ‘enough! enough!’ He would bend into a yard-scraper pushing slurry ahead of him until he got to the chute leading to the slurry tank, then back again repeating the process again and again. If there was a quick, easy, mechanical way of doing a task he would favour the slow, grinding, back breaking method. He did this well into his eighties but slowly and surely he had to relent, but, he wasn’t done fully, he became the obstinate overseer, watching everything that was done on the farm and passing judgement.

Nobody was immune from his scrutiny. He commented on the time you got up in the morning to the time the light went off in your room at night. He had an indomitable spirit and great work ethic but his life did not have to be so hard, so dreary, and so weary. When he ended up in hospital after taking a fall off his bike the nurse gave him painkillers to take. He couldn’t swallow them, he didn’t know how. He had never taken a tablet in his life, he was Eighty two. He knocked in another few boundaries after that before he got bowled out.

  Spraying the Potatoes 

(an extract)

The barrels of blue potato-spray

Stood on a headland in July

Beside an orchard wall where roses

Were young girls hanging from the sky.

The flocks of green potato stalks

Were blossom spread for sudden flight,

The Kerr’s Pinks in frivelled blue,

The Arran Banners wearing white.

And over that potato-field

A lazy veil of woven sun,

Dandelions growing on headlands, showing

Their unloved hearts to everyone.

And I was there with a knapsack sprayer

On the barrel’s edge poised. A wasp was floating

Dead on a sunken briar leaf

Over a copper-poisoned ocean.

The axle-roll of a rut-locked cart

Broke the burnt stick of noon in two.

An old man came through a cornfield

Remembering his youth and some Ruth he knew.

He turned my way. ‘God further the work’.

He echoed an ancient farming prayer.

I thanked him. He eyed the potato drills.

He said: ‘You are bound to have good ones there’.

By Patrick Kavanagh

© estate Patrick Kavanagh