A blog inspired by the beautiful County of my birth, Leitrim on the Shannon. I sometimes go off on tangents so be tolerant of my waywardness, I always come back home, eventually. Typically you'll find here a little history, a few short stories, some of my favourite poems, musings, scribblings and travelogues. To summarise – a busy fool beneath an unruly sky. COME IN, WE'RE OPEN
And you’re thinking about the Game, the tickets are sorted, the train booked, the Whatsapp group buzzing, what time to meet, where to meet and what if…
And you’re thinking of that moment this fine young team, race down the tunnel and on to that verdant green patch of Dublin, running in their Green & Gold colours, our beautiful colours.
And part of you fears for them, wants them to do well, pray they do well, hope they give a good account of themselves but another part of you says, even if they don’t, sure what about it…
And you’re thinking of the awestruck kids who look up to these local heroes, heroes who generously pose for selfiesand take time to autograph match programmes on the backs of future stars,starting the cycle off yet again. You think of these young warriors running themselvesto a standstill, dragging their boots through the mud and slop of winter pitches,in rain, wind and sleet….
And you’re thinking of all the people around this world that are also thinking about this team, emigrants and the sons and daughters of emigrants. Young men with the red dust of the Pilbara on their overalls, young women standing on busy Subway carriages in rush-hour, or running up escalators on the Tube, descendants of the men who mined deep under the dark Pennsylvanian soil, men who dug the canals, laid the railway tracks, built the motorways of Britain, who drove the buses and trains and policed the streets of New York. And your thinking of the women who delivered thousands of babies in London, Birmingham and Manchester, waited on tables in diners in Brooklyn and Dorchester, and you’re thinking of today’s boys and girls who plot their own paths and carve out their own niches.
Because its all there, bound tightly into an identity of a small, often forgotten place, where the soil was too poor to feed them all, and no government cared enough to do something for them, where nobody shouted stop. Let them scatter, let the leaves blow and the seed spread and hope they’ll land on fertile ground. They survive, some thrive and tied by bonds often unknown and unseen but somehow creating this shared identity. Oh it’s there and its real and its more than just bloody football, it’s much more important than that. It’s the hill of Sheemore and the majestic Glenade Valley, and the wandering waters of Glencar and the calmness of the Shannon calloughs, it’s in the music of Carolan and writings of McGahern, the fiddle and the Uileann pipes, its there, it exists, it will be all there at three o’clock Saturday and it will be there the day after, and the day after that……
And I’m thinking about all these things because that’s what football does in a football mad place, where parishes games have imperial importance and where every field, rock and bush has a name and every family a nickname and everyone has Aunts and Uncles in the Bronx, or Chicago, and cousins in Manchester and Melbourne and a thousand other far off places.
And I’m thinking, but possibly I’m dreaming, because that line is blurred at times like these, and I’m wondering, what if the Gods favour was with us this day? What if they were in a benevolent mood? What would it be like to see a son of Leitrim raise a piece of silverware aloft in the Dublin sky, overlooking those blessed three acres? When generations to come will hear old people say things like ‘That was the year of the Brexit bother’.
Well I’m dreaming but I’m also thinking, I’m thinking wouldn’t it be just GRAND!
And perchance tonight I’ll have a pleasant dream and I’ll wake up with a smile.
It was the Summer of 1994 I was working in New York. It was my first time to fly on a plane and it was good to get away from Ireland for a little while. It was exciting, it was exhilarating, an amazing experience for a young buck from the west of Ireland who thought he knew it all. I lived in Elmhurst, Queens in a diverse ethnic neighbourhood but where the majority seemed to be either Colombians or Koreans. I had secured a Doorman’s job in a large Manhattan Apartment building and a couple of day jobs as well. Earning plenty of dollars I was able to pay the rent and have plenty of beer money. Mid-week we got the train up to Van Cortland Park for pretty basic Gaelic football training. I remember there was a rock on an outcrop overlooking the playing fields and Broadway with an Irish Tricolour painted on it. At weekends we played matches in Gaelic Park and met people from home in the bar afterwards. I threw myself completely into the City and when I was off work into Irish-Americana. An Irish-American friend gave me tours of old Bronx Irish neighbourhoods such as Fordham, Kingsbridge, and Bainbridge and regaled me with stories of famous local characters. We drank together in neighbourhood bars. With one ear we listened respectfully to ‘old-timers’ and with the other it was all Nirvana and Pearl Jam from the jukebox.
In many ways that summer was a rite of passage for me and my first real foray into the a wider world. I still longed for news from home. Occasionally I bought the Leitrim Observer in an Irish shop in Jackson heights. For national news I sometimes bought the Irish Independent from a Yemeni man who had a small kiosk not far from where I worked.
The start of the summer for us was the World Cup and that memorable game in Giants Stadium. Who can forget that moment Ray Houghton chipped Pagliuca. It was a great day to be Irish. It also gave us bragging rights in a City which culturally was so dominated up to that time by the Irish and Italian communities. It felt strange at the time defeating a big time soccer nation like Italy.
Later in the summer my native County also made history by winning the Connacht Championship for the first time in sixty seven years. The previous year Derry had won their first All-Ireland. There was much new ground broken in those crucial years, the collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the USSR. All these things were unimaginable and improbable just a short time earlier.
Despite all these new beginnings the Troubles in the North lingered on. A number of events stood out for me in 1993; the IRA bomb in the Shankill, the UFF massacre at Greysteel and the naked sectarianism on display in Windsor Park on the night Ireland qualified for USA ’94.
One other atrocity earlier that year had a huge effect on me. It happened in a town called Warrington which is about half way between Liverpool and Manchester. The IRA made a warning call to the Samaritans in Liverpool saying that they had planted a bomb outside Boots Chemist. The authorities still maintain that the caller never said what Boots shop the bomb had been placed at. Just 30 minutes later a bomb exploded outside Boots in Warrington. As people ran from the scene they were caught up in a second bomb planted outside Argos.
The bombs were placed in cast iron bins which ensured there was lots of shrapnel. Johnathan Ball died at the scene, only 3 years old he was in town with his babysitter. She was buying him a Mother’s Day card. About fifty people were injured and maimed by the explosions.
A few days later the parents of 12 year old Tim Parry had to make the awful decision to turn off his life support machine. The aftermath consisted of the IRA blaming the Police for not acting on precise warnings and the Police and most right thinking people blaming the bombers. The weeks following the bombing were punctuated by even more sectarian killings in the North. Tim Parry’s father made a huge impression on me when I heard him speak about reconciliation and conflict resolution on TV.
One morning late in my summer sojourn I was walking south on 3rd Avenue. I had walked past Hunter College and The Armoury. Suddenly I heard someone calling me. It was Asil the Yemeni kiosk owner. He was shouting ‘Irishman, Irishman, look, look, peace in your country’. He was holding up the latest edition of the Irish Independent an in big back letters I could clearly read the words ‘ITS OVER FOR GOOD’.
He looked like Neville Chamberlain come back from Munich. Of course my reaction was that this can’t be true and I think I actually said this to Asil. I was certainly dismissive. Nevertheless I bought the paper, which is probably what Asil really wanted. I read it as I walked and read it again several times on the subway home. It slowly began to sink in. It was true. It really was. Peace in our time. Ironically the roles are now reversed and I wish peace for Asil’s home country of Yemen.
The only reason I’m recalling those crazy days of 1993 and 1994 is the sad passing of Dolores O’Riordan. The Cranberries were the soundtrack of that period for thousands of young Irish people like me. The Band released the album ‘Everyone else is doing it why can’t we’ in 1993. In a way the title sums up how we felt when we beat the Italians over in New Jersey. The Cranberries were heading for rock stardom. They were touring the UK when the Warrington bomb went off. In the aftermath Dolores apparently penned the words to the song ‘Zombie’ . It would be released on the 1994 Album ‘No need to argue’ and later be a number one single. The song would also win best song at the MTV Music awards.
Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence caused such silence
Who are we mistaken
It’s not necessarily the Cranberries best song and is very much a departure from their songbook even if the instantly recognisable grungy riffs are still to the fore. It is at its heart a quintessential anti-war song and it struck a note big time with many of us, expressing as it did how we had come to feel about the Troubles. It was also marvellous that it was this feisty little rock chick from Limerick telling the World how we felt. There will be enough commentary about the premature passing of Ireland’s first global female rock star. For many of us she will always be simply the voice of the generation who lived either side of the watershed of peace on this Island. That’s how I’ll remember her.
On Sunday the 8th of August 1948 it was standing room only at St. Manachans Park, Mohill, County Leitrim. The grounds were by now the premier football ground in the County since their opening in 1939. They hosted many inter-county games and County Finals but this day saw an unusual pairing. It was a game that captured the imagination of all Leitrim Gaels, home and abroad. The crowd was estimated at in excess of 8,000. The reason, the visit of the Leitrim Club from New York, led by their mercurial Manager and Mohill native, Michael ‘Nipper’ Geelan.
Geelan had been a star player with his native Mohill and lined out for the County at Junior and Senior level whilst still in his teens. His nickname apparently arose when a Galway mentor enquired from a local who was the ‘Nipper’ playing havoc in the full forward line. Geelan was born in Laheenamona in 1901 where his father, a native of Cashel in Bornacoola had settled. Whilst the Nipper is probably better known for his on field exploits he was also a member of Fianna Eireann and later of ‘A’ Company, 3rd Battalion, Leitrim Brigade of the Old IRA. He debuted for Mohill at the age of 15 and played for Leitrim from 1921. He was a regular until in the spring of 1926 he decided to emigrate to New York. He teamed up with many Leitrim emigrants and helped get the club competing for the New York Championship then dominated by the famous Tipperary Club. One of the great GAA organisers at the time was another Mohill native, John McGuinness of Tulrusk/Drumhanny. McGuinness was formerly Leitrim County Board Chairman who was elected to the same position in New York in 1932, a rare achievement. Had Nipper Geelan not emigrated when he did it is certain that he would have been part of the Connacht Championship winning team of 1927.
In 1932 the Leitrim Club won the New York Championship with a talented team that included Eddie Maguire, uncle of Packy McGarty. Commentators thought that this was a team that would go on and dominate the club scene in the Big Apple. Sadly the effects of the Great Depression and tighter immigration laws saw the club began to flounder. Starved of fresh blood off the boat the club folded. It was not until after the end of the Second World War that a group of Leitrim exiles got together and started to put in action a plan to reform the club. The GAA was beginning a revival and the next few years were a golden period in North America. In 1947 the All-Ireland was played in the Polo Grounds, the only time it was every played outside of these shore.
‘Nipper’ Geelan also coached a successful minor team called Incarnation. At the time the underage structure in New York saw many teams associated with their local church. Incarnation was a team attached to the Church of the Incarnation on 175th St which drew its players from the Irish communities of Inwood and Washington Heights. The star of this minor team and future star with Leitrim and New York was a young Jimmy Geelan, the Nippers own Nipper so to speak. 1947 saw the Leitrim play for the first time in fourteen years. The Nipper even managed to get some game time at 46 years of age when he lined out against Down alongside his son Jimmy, the match report said that “the younger Geelan is certainly following in his after his father’s footsteps and in a few short years will be competent enough to compete with the best in the division.”
The Leitrim Club were also active off the field; the Irish Echo reported that a Dance would be held in Croke Park Pavilion (Gaelic Park) on the 2nd August 1947, where the musical entertainment was provided by “May Rowley of West 161st St, a recent arrival from Mohill, Leitrim, an accomplished pianist and soprano as well as being very easy on the eyes”.
It is not known when the trip back to Ireland was first planned but the plan was widely known by December 1947 when the Club held its annual dinner dance in the Dauphin Hotel. All through winter and spring the fundraising continued. Geelan was in bullish form ahead of the Tour, telling one reporter ‘We’ll lick any team in the old sod’.
The Leitrim team sailed for Ireland in July 1948 aboard the SS Washington and docked at Cobh on the 1st August where they were met by Secretary of the County Board, Michael Reynolds NT and other officials. After settling into their lodgings in the County Hotel, Carrick-on-Shannon the team headed to Manorhamilton where they drew 2-5 each with a North Leitrim selection. Sean McGowan from Cloonturk scored 2-1 for the visitors in an exciting game. The team also paid a visit to Kiltyclogher where a crowd of 1,000 people saw Geelan lay a wreath at the Sean MacDiarmada memorial.
The following night the County Board met to finalise arrangements for the big game in Mohill. The following stewards were requested to report at Mohill Park at 1.00pm ‘L. Moran, Robert Moran, Billy McGowan, J. Flynn, J. Gordon, James Canning , Charles Kilkenny, Charles Keegan, Sean Reynolds and Patrick McCrann’ and from Gortltlettragh ‘P. Reynolds, C. Reynolds, J. Milton, J. Booth and P. Gannon; Bornacoola – T. Aherne, Michael McGowan, H. O’Brien, P. Greene, Bert Faughnan and J. Notley; Shannon Gaels – McNally, McGuinness, Newton and two from Carrick-on-Shannon; Aughavas – Carroll and Reynolds’.
Meanwhile Geelan took time out to write a telegram to John ‘Lefty’ Devine the GAA correspondent with the ‘Irish Advocate’ in New York. It read-
Co. Leitrim August 4th 1948
A short line to let you know we are having a wonderful time here. Also to apologise for not getting a wire to you in time for Croke (Gaelic) Park. Communications are not the best in Leitrim. Of course you have already heard we tied our first game against a good selction from North Leitrim.
On behalf of the team I again want to thank you and also please convey again my thanks to John (Kerry) O’Donnell for the inspiring support he gave us. Its men like O’Donnell that make it easier for us all to keep the Gaelic games alive. I did not forget the ball for Jacky. I may not be able to get the shoes as they seem to be very scarce in Ireland. I am enclosing a few cuttings and will forward more as time goes on. Incidentally the score was 2 gl. 5 pt to 2 gl. 5 pt, McGowan 2 gl. 1 pt, Brennan 4 pt. Regards to Mrs. Devine.
Manager of the touring Leitrim Club.
A few days later the scene was set for a grand homecoming for Nipper in his home town where his exiles would face the full Leitrim team. The town was buzzing from early in the day. Two fife and drum bands led the teams out to a wall of applause and excitement. Dan O’Rourke, the President of the GAA was even in attendance. The game was refereed by Peter O’Rourke, Tully (Carrigallen) who was also the Chairman of the Leitrim County Board. Canon Masterson threw the ball in and a rip-roaring game ensued. Jimmy Geelan, still a minor was amongst the scorers. Leo McAlinden was the star of the home team. The final score was a draw, 2-3 each and everyone thought it a fair result. It can be well imagined that the celebrations went on well into the night around the town.
The tour continued the following week and entered its most controversial phase. The team was scheduled to play Armagh in Davitt Park, Lurgan on the 15th August. The team cars proceeded to Lurgan on the Saturday night festooned with Tricolours and Stars and Stripes. Some of the cars and players were attacked and attempts made to grab the ‘Free State’ flags but the game proceeded before a crowd of 4,000. The exiles lost 1-6 to 0-5 but gave a good account of themselves against an Armagh team who were preparing for the All-Ireland Junior final. In press reports mention was made of the American’s ‘forceful’ and ‘unorthodox tackling style’. On the way back to Leitrim the team played an exhibition game in Garrison against a Fermanagh select. Thus the touring party achieved one of Geelan’s aims by playing in the ‘occupied part of the country’.
Armagh v Leitrim New York Team at Lurgan
Geelan wasn’t prepared to let the roughing up of his team of US Citizens in Lurgan go and wrote to the American Consulate in Belfast. He received a polite and courteous reply which reminded him that –
‘the United States government does not wish its nationals to take part in political affairs or events in foreign countries. When American Citizens acquire allegiance to the United States it is intended that they shall give up all allegiance to any other country. Failure to do so certainly impairs the right of this individuals to claim the protection of the United States Government while abroad’.
In other words one cannot claim the benefits or protections of US Citizenship when attacked whilst flying the flag of another nation. Geelans reaction is not recorded but can be surmised.
The final game of the tour was against the Dublin club St. Caillins, recently formed in the Capital and made up primarily of Leitrim players. The game was played in Fenagh but the result is unknown. There then followed a reception and dinner held at the Vocational School in Mohill (then ‘the Castle’ former residence of the Crofton family). Peter O’Rourke, Chairman of the County Board proposed a toast to the exiles saying that ‘they gave a very fine display’ and he hoped that their visit would be ‘an encouragement to the younger generation of Leitrim to go ahead and win an All-Ireland’.
The Exiles were then presented with miniature shields sponsored by the Connacht Council, silver medals from the County Board and cigarette cases from the Armagh County Board. Nipper Geelan presented the County Board with a special gold cup, the McTague-Galligan Cup which was played for in the drawn game earlier. The Cup was subsequently presented to the winner of the Leitrim Senior Championship until the onset of the current Fenagh Cup. Finally a farewell dance for the travelling party was held in the ballroom at Fenaghville.
The tour was undoubtedly a success on the field. The Leitrim Club were subsequently unlucky to lose two New York Finals in 1948 and ’49. The ‘Irish Advocate’ concluded ‘perhaps the greatest feat in the history of the local Leitrim Combination was made when they decided to sponsor a tour to Ireland, where they made a meritable showing against men of experience and full training. They were happy to record the fact that seven native born American boys were included in their line-up of players which gives them the right to say that Leitrim was the first to ever send back to the old sod the lads who learned the fine points of the game on the sidewalks of New York’.
However the tour did leave considerable debt and ultimately nearly sank the club. By the end of 1950 the club had lost over 22 players and had to rebuild again. One of the casualties was ‘Nipper’ Geelan himself who was uncompromising in defending the Tour against detractors. The Nipper left and was soon involved in coaching teams such as Kildare and Tyrone. The Leitrim club did recover though and one of its proudest days came when they won the 1958 New York Championship. One of the stars of the team was the now veteran Jimmy Geelan. The younger Geelan had already represented the New York Senior team that won the National League in 1950, defeating Cavan. “Nipper” Geelan had plenty more good days in football. He trained the New York Senior Teams from 1955 to 1963 in what was a hugely successful period for the exiles. He even trained a New York team that played In Wembley. In 1968 he was honoured by the New York Association for a lifetime of service. He passed away suddenly in December 1974.
Whatever about the financial success of the 1948 Tour it had a hugely positive effect on people throughout Leitrim. Emigration had tended to be one way traffic but this team in their bright suits and New York tans must have seemed a little exotic in a place where war rationing was still the norm. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the game in Mohill and its record attendance. It must surely have been one of the proudest moments of Michael ‘Nipper’ Geelan’s career.
Walking across 23rd street Michael Brennan must have seemed calmness personified. The military step that he had honed in the barracks of Galway and Aldershot made him look purposeful and assured. Inside though he was a ball of nerves, his heart racing so much, he thought it might leap out of his chest at any moment. It wasn’t too late to turn back but he knew in that racing heart of his that he would go through with it. There were a myriad of excuses he could choose from, the may have been delayed on the train, and he may have just missed Moloney by seconds or just lost him in the crowded streets of midtown.
He paused at the corner of 3rd Avenue and lit a cigarette. As he placed the matchbox back in his pocket he felt the cold, hard shape of his revolver and it somehow reinforced his resolve to do just one more job. At the end of the day this was simply a business transaction but it was one that would help Mary and their little girl. Maybe he might leave this godforsaken country and go home. The letters from home had kept him informed of the goings on; land was cheap now and since the election many of his former comrades seemed to be starting to get on their feet. The Commandant had even left for Dublin and gotten a job as a Tax Inspector, his past as a mail train and bank robber hadn’t mitigated against that. The Mitchells were also doing fine. Sean was now a Sergeant in the Police and Eddie would soon be ordained. If only Mary and him could catch a break, he thought. Maybe he had been too rash to leave, maybe he should have stuck it out but he had enough by then. It wasn’t so much that he hated his native country but perhaps he had loved it too much. He often asked himself what it was all for? Instead of having the English for their Masters the poor now had the Princes of the Church and a the Bowler hat elite. He thought of Eddie Mitchell again. They had lain together for two nights in a soggy daring hiding from the tans. Eddie of the soft laugh and the firm handshake. He would make a great Priest?
It was time; he threw his cigarette butt into the gutter and crossed the street. Eight years in this country he thought and here he was a gun man once again. Only this time at least he was being paid. It is just a business transaction he kept telling himself, one more job, this would be the last.
Six days later and the knock on the door woke Mary Brennan. t took her a few seconds to come to. She had fallen into a deep nap; ‘Coming, just a minute, who is it?’ as she opened the door she was met by the sight of a Police Uniform pegged on a strapping man standing over six feet.
– Hi Mary, is Mike home?
-No he’s not, no, but he’s due any time now, is everything okay?
– Everything is fine Mary, nothing to worry about it’s just a small matter I was to meet him about
– Well why don’t you come in Pat, he can’t be long, you know the way it is on the railroad Pat.
I have some fresh currant cake, come on in and you can tell me how Annie is doing?
Officer Leyden sloped inside, all the while his eyes circling, surveying the neat little apartment . He had to meet Brennan anyhow he thought and so he may as well wait here as out in the cold patrol car. Mary had turned her back on him momentarily as she began unwrapping the cake on the work top.
– Annie is doing well, we have just had another baby Mary, a little boy.
Mary froze for a second and Leyden realised the effect of his words and the cause of her response.
-I know you had some bad luck last year. I heard through Fr Casey. Annie has been meaning to call by. At least God has spared your little Maggie.
Mary did not respond but gathered herself and began slicing the currant cake into thick slabs. Leyden thought Mary looked well. She still had that lovely, delicate porcelain complexion and a fine figure. It can’t be easy for her living with Brennan and him in and out of work, on and off the bottle, stubborn bastard that he is. She was always too good for him. Leyden remembered the first time he saw Mary, it was at the Embassy Ballroom in Sunnyside. Brennan may have been a big dog back at home. That was where farmer’s sons like him looked down their noses at townie corner boys like Leyden. In this New World the tables could be reversed very quickly. Leyden knew that in this City there was a different game to played from back home, with very different rules. Men like Brennan thought they could change the world but they were only dreamers. He now had Brennan where he wanted him and he was going to put him to good use.
-Is it hard to get into the Department these days Pat? I mean is there anything you could do for Mike? Please don’t tell him I asked, you know how he is, he’s proud but we could do with something regular.
Mary placed the cake on the table and a small dish with a tiny piece of butter. She began pouring Leyden a coffee into a handless cup. Her eyes barely left the floor the whole time.
-I’ll see what I can do Mary. He is not twenty one anymore and they prefer to have them at that age, I just got lucky.
Their chat was interrupted when the door opened and suddenly there stood Brennan. He was surprised to see Leyden and his expression was dour. He looked at Leyden and then at Mary before putting a brown package down on the dresser. Mary knew it was from Lombardis down the street where Luca often saved some of their off cuts for Michael.
– What are you doing here Pat? I told you I’d meet you downstairs.
Leyden stood up, half a slice of cake still in his hand.
– Well you were late Mike and I just called up to give my regards to Mary here.
Brennan opened the door and gestured towards the landing – ‘Let’s go’
He knew now that Mary would be asking questions, awkward questions. He didn’t want her to know that he had any dependence on rats like Leyden. Pat Leyden had never been any good. He had watched him growing up and was surprised to see him sign up in the summer of ’15. He remembered Leyden going home on furlough and how he had stolen a barrel of porter from Malcolmson’s yard. It was a nonsensical crime but Leyden got a month in Sligo Jail and it prevented him leaving with the 6th Battalion for France. Leyden had the survival instinct of a sewer rat and he had avoided the big push and the German Machine Gunners. Brennan remembered talking to some of the boys at home. They said that Leyden had woken up all the men on Little Water Street to share the barrel of porter with. It only confirmed to him that Leyden had pulled a stunt.
– Why did you come to my home Leyden? I told you not to, I told you Mary wasn’t to know.
– I didn’t tell her anything’ I was freezing my socks off out here in the patrol car and you were late. You were supposed to be here at seven. I thought I might have missed you that’s all. C’mon you can tell her I just wanted to ask you a few questions about a fight on the train. You’ll think up something. It’s not the first time you’ve told her a white lie.
It was done before he knew it. His two clenched fists rested snugly underneath Leyden’s chin, the stiff uniform collar tightly twisted in his fingers.
-Leyden, I’m warning you, don’t ever underestimate me. You might think you are a big boy over here with friends in high places, but if anybody ever comes near my family, I don’t care who it is, I’ll snuff them out.
-Jesus Christ man, you’re a fuckin crazy son of a bitch. I’m here to help you Michael’ Leyden was now shaking uncontrollably. ‘C’mon we go way back, the men of the west stand together for one another.
– Did you stand with us in Ypres or at Ballymacowen Leyden? Where were you then Leyden when you were needed?
For a few seconds Brennan thought about apologising but he couldn’t bring himself to. He despised Leyden, he despised his type. The type of men that professed their love of Ireland in drinken song and yet couldn’t live there, the run with the hare, run with hound man, the type that scavenged on the bones of a carcass but would never kill themselves, yet here he was again, he Mike Brennan, even the width of an Ocean couldn’t quench the sense of Deja Vú, he was killing again to keep even more ungrateful Irishmen in privileged positions, positions they neither earned nor deserved, leeches, leeches all.
The Patrol Car took off across town, crossing the Bridge into the man made canyons of Manhattan before turning North and eventually stopping outside an impressive apartment building near Columbus Circle. Leyden hopped out and spoke to the Doorman whilst pointing back at Brennan still seated in the back of the patrol car. Leyden then opened the door;
– Lemmy will look after you from here and you can make your own way home Mike. We’ll forget about earlier. I’m sorry I shouldn’t have gone near your apartment. I just wasn’t thinking.
-This way sir’ and the door man ushered Brennan into the building before handing him over to another staff member, a young lad who brought him up to the 8th floor and an impressive suite. ‘Miss Slowey will see you in a few minutes Sir’. He sat down on a chaise longue admiring the luxury of his surroundings.
-Mr. Brennan I presume’ A slim blonde lady dressed in evening wear approached him from down the corridor.
-Yes Miss ….
-I’m Evie Slowey, pleased to meet you at last. Come this way….. I can’t thank you enough for what you have done for us, well for me personally. Did you know Larry?
-No mam, I heard of him and saw him once. I read about him but no, I didn’t know him
-He would be happy that he was avenged by one of his own. My pappy always told us that we should forgive our enemies, but not before they are dead.
–I think I heard that saying before, mam.
–Cut out the mam stuff, I don’t do titles, I’m just a girl from Texas made it to the big lights and got lucky. Larry left me a wealthy gal ….. but I do miss him terribly. He was dashing and boy did he have a wardrobe fit for a king. There’s no one like him left about this town, there’ll never be another Larry Fay. Did you know this guy Moloney?
-I never knew of him until I got here.
-He was a no-good double crossing rat Mr. Brennan. You have done this city a great service but you have done me a great honour. I have your reward here. You received the down payment already. The Commissioner advised me that the Department have to carry out an investigation…. Don’t worry it’s a formality ….. you have nothing to worry about.
-That’s good, I have a young family, I can do without the hassle.
Miss Slowey handed the package to Brennan. He had never held so much money in his hands before. His younger brother had written to him last month. Land prices had dropped dramatically at home. What he earned on this one job could buy a fine place. Mary would need convincing to go back. They had Maggie to think of now too and maybe her best chances were here in America. He was torn but at least now he could pay off his debts, perhaps rent a bigger apartment up in the Bronx and with what was left he could send some home, maybe buy a few acres to begin with.
–Just one thing Mr. Brennan, Did he suffer? Did you make that bastard suffer? Did you let him know that this was because of what he did to Larry?
-Yes it was the last thing he heard before he left this mortal earth Miss Slowey, he knew he was going to die for killing Mr. Fay.
Of course it wasn’t exactly how it happened but he had to tell his employer what she wanted to hear. She looked content now. She wanted revenge pure and simple, an eye for an eye and if he learned anything from his life, Brennan knew that soon the whole world would be blind from eye gouging every beef. The ‘job’ hadn’t played out like he told her, he didn’t want her gloating over the death of a brave man, that wasn’t part of the deal. He had already disarmed Moloney before he walked him down the alley behind the Pearl Street Warehouses. Their conversation if it could even be classed as such was brief and to the point. Moloney knew he was going to die at any moment. It struck Brennan how calm he was, even having the presence of mind to make three final requests; ‘do it quick and clean brother and say an Act of Contrition before you leave me here tonight’. He wanted to make peace with his maker and Brennan nodded that he would do that for him. Who can blame a man for hoping to save his soul, even at this late stage . The third and last request worried Brennan, who was conscious of leaving any clues that might link him to the killing. Moloney asked that he take the holy scapular from around his neck and post it to his mother in Tipperary. Miss Slowey was done with him now and she walked him towards the elevator.
-Thank you so much Mr. Brennan They shook hands and he noticed the size of the diamond rings she was wearing. -Who knows we might do business again. Now Schulz will see you out. The young bell hop came out from the shadows at the end of thehall.
–You’re welcome Miss Slowey but it’s not a business I’m intending to expand.
–What a shame, you are very good at it!
It was a business transaction. That is all. As the elevator began its descent Brennan recalled how Moloney had called him brother, somehow that had made his task easier.
-I won’t shake hands with you in this life brother, whoever you are, but at least I know who sent you and I know why.
–It’s a crazy country we left and a crazier one we came to’ replied Brennan.
-I’d imagine we have both done things against God but if he does show us mercy and we meet in the hereafter, we will share a glass and toast dear old Ireland.
Brennan did not reply, he squeezed the trigger. Thy will be done. Tears began to roll down his face as he stood over the body of his fallen countryman. He had killed a brother but wasn’t this the way it was always destined to be. What a fool he had been to think that their noble fight back home would have changed anything. When the dust settled and the guns put away, and the men had no work, their families had no food. What difference did it make to the rich in their comfortable drawing rooms,? Not a whit. He was finished railing against the world. He opened the dead mans blood soaked collar and tag the penknife from his hip pocket he cut the scapular from around Moloney’s neck. He saw that the wound was neat passing right through the base of the neck. Oblivion was instant. The exit hole in his throat was large but the morticians would cover it and the family, if he had one out here, could have an open casket.
Brennan rolled up the scapula and the little medal attached to it before carefully placing it in his inside jacket pocket which it now shared with the .38. He knew that he would find out over the next few days where Moloney was from. Word would quickly pass through the bars and speak-easys about the killing. He would find out more details about his victim, whose fate had been handed to him. He scooped out the contents of the dead man’s wallet. He would send on the contents too to the relatives anonymously. This would also make it look like a robbery saving the Cops having to invent a motive. Finally with the chorus of foghorns, steamers and an overhead train, he knelt down on the cold cobbles. Holding the still warm hand of the man he had just killed, he leaned in and whispered contritely into his ear.
‘O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee’
As 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.
‘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
Frankie 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.
The 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’
Back 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 71stand 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’
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.