I wonder now if one of our ancestors was Black Tom Butler. The 10th Earl of Ormond, who resided in Carrick Castle in the 16th century? It has a nice ring to it don’t you think…descendants of the Earl of Ormond?
Their original name was Walter but it was changed to Butler when King Henry made Therobald Fitzwalter the Chief Butler of Ireland. Apparently in those days the Butler was the person in charge of the wine – a very important job it seems – and being Chief Butler entitled him to levy a tax on all the wine imported into the country. This soon made the family very wealthy.
Black Tom was a close friend of Queen Elisabeth 1 and indeed his eldest son, Piers (born illegitimate) was said to be her child. They were certainly very close because her initials could be seen in all the murals and frescos that decorated the castle at that time.
The story goes that Black Tom got his nickname when suppressing the rebellion against Queen Mary of Sir Thomas Wyatt, who was known as White Tom. I also read somewhere that Ann Boleyn was born in the castle – not that it did her much good at the end of the day!
There are links right through history up to the present day linking the Butler name with the present-day Royal families of the Windsor and the Spencer. Black Tom is said to be Princes Charles’ 11-great grandfather and Princess Diana’s’ 14- great uncle. If we could establish a connection to Black Tom we would probably have as much right to rule England as the present incumbents!
I don’t know what Carrick was like in those days, but when I was growing up it had a bad reputation. All hard chaws and chancers. There was an area in the town known as Treacy Park where I think they ate their young. I once walked a girl in that direction after a dance at the Ormonde, and hen we got within roaring distance you could hear them sharpening their knives and hatchets. Discretion overcame valor and I ran faster than Master McGrath when I heard the racket. The only decent thing to come out of Carrick – apart from the New Road – was the Clancy Brothers.
Flow on lovely river flow gently along
By your waters so sweet sounds the lark’s merry song
On your green banks I wander where first I did join
With you lovely Molly the Rose of Mooncoin.
That was one of the first songs I heard them sing. I knew it by heart because it was one of your favorites, and you had taught me to play it on your melodeon. You would have liked the Clancys. One of their best-known songs was ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. That would have appealed to you because you always had a drop of whiskey in the ould earthenware jar you kept in your room.
Your grand nephew
I suppose you were glad when I settled in Limerick in the late 1970’s. It meant that you would see more of us. Well, Karen anyway. Driving seventy miles from Limerick to Waterford was a lot easier than driving three hundred from London to Fishguard before crossing on the ferry to drive another seventy miles from Rosslare to Ballyhussa. I couldn’t have any excuse not to visit you more often now, could I!
Cappamore choose us rather than the other way round. We had been living in cramped conditions at the Hickey farm a few miles away in Croughlahan and someone suggested that if we intended to stay around the house in Cappamore was available at a reasonable rent.
Staying at the farm with Margaret’s brother had only been a temporary arrangement in any case, more of an extended holiday if you like., but the longer we stayed the hardedr we found it to make the journey back to London.
We had to a certain degree burned our bridges there. Or, in my case, demolished them. The council flat we occupied in Harlesden had been ‘sub-let’ to another family so we had nowhere to return to. We couldn’t in any case because I had practically demolished the roof of the house next door a week before our hurried departure.
This had come about because of the nightmare of having to live next to a group of squatters, most of them drug users, who played loud music at all hours of the day and night. And by loud I mean cups and saucers dancing on the table from the vibration. The police had been round but they were worse than useless, so one night, fortified with drink, I had climbed on to their roof and smashed it in with a shovel that I had found in a nearby skip.
Several of the squatters, one armed with a knife, had tried to get to me on the roof, but I was in no mood to take prisoners so none of them got brave enough. If one had I probably would have killed him or been killed myself. In the end they tried to dislodgeme by pelting me with broken tiles from the relative safety of the pavement beneath me
By the time the police arrived most of their roof was in their back garden or down below in the street, and I made my escape by clambering along the roofs of adjoining houses until I judged I was far enough to be unseen.
We spent the next few nights with Margaret’s sister. I arranged to ‘sell’ the lease on the flat to friends who had a young baby and who were desperate for a place. I returned under the cover of darkness a few times to collect all our personal belongings.
I suppose Cappamore would be comparable to Kilmac both in size and composition. A thriving country town with the usual clutter of shops and services, including a convent, a creamery, a Garda Station and a pub on every corner. For the more discerning shopper Limerick city was less than ten miles away; or if that was too far there was Cappamore’s bigger sister, Doon, a couple of miles away. ‘Miserable Doon’, as some poet once described it. Although I don’t think he ever went as far as John Betjeman, who urged German bombers to rain their missiles down on Slough.
Come friendly bombs and rain on Slough
It’s not fit for humans now
Blow to bits and smithereens
Those air-conditioned bright canteens…
I got work felling trees with Margaret’s two brothers in the hills outside the village of Morroe, a few miles away. This was on Forestry Commission land where large pockets of trees had been flattened by storms the previous winter. The newly opened chipboard factory in Scarrif had purchased the timber, and we were employed to cut it and get it to the roadside where it could be loaded on to lorries for transport to the factory. Most of it lay in a tangled mass on the side of the hills and we were supplied with chainsaws and horses to cut it and haul it to the access points.
This whole region was – and probably still is – poteen-making country. People made poteen here like others made homemade wine and beer, and it wasn’t too long before we discovered a still hidden away in the hills. It was in an old disused forestry workmen’s shed, well off the beaten track and long forgotten by everyone. Except the poteen maker, of course! Inside was all the equipment needed to make the uisce beatha, and a supply of turf to heat the brew. There was even running water, taken from the stream running past a few yards overhead, to cool the copper worm when it got too hot
. A burnt patch of heather on the slope behind the shed puzzled me for a long time. I mentioned it to father one day and he said it was tradition of poteen-makers to give the first part of the distillation to the fairies by pouring it over the heather.
A slab of creamery butter resting on the inside window ledge of the solitary window bothered me for much longer. Nobody knew what its purpose was. It is only recently that I learned that a small knob of butter was placed in the vessel to get the gravity right. Poteen and water were then poured in until the butter floated midway in the liquid.
Enough running water
Too cool the copper worm
The veins at the wrist
Vitriol to scorch the throat…
The above are some word from the poem ‘Poteen’ by Michael Longley.
It didn’t take too long to discover that the poteen maker was Tom Kemp, a local farmer who seemed to spend more time up in the hills than tending to his land. Some in the area suspected he was making it and the Gardai had made several searches in the locality but the hut was to remote for anybody to come across it by accident. We had only stumbled on it because one of our horses had strayed away one night, and our search for him the following morning had brought us upon it. After that we sometimes watched his movements to try to find out where he kept his stock. I bought an old pair of binoculars in a second-hand shop in a Limerick and discovered that he was hiding it in the hayrick in his haybarn. After that it was easy to remove a number of bottles when he was out and about in the hills. Later, we even substituted bottles of water for the poteen so it is fair to assume that he had some dissatisfied customers for a while. A postscript to the story is that a little while later the Gardia did discover a still in Cappamore itself - in an empty house a couple of doors away from the Station itself!
The hills around Morroe, and Keeper Hill behind the nearby village of Rearcross, reminded me that this was Galloping Hogan country, whose story you had told to me many times as a child.
Michael Galloping Hogan, from the village of Doon, at the foot of the Sliebh Phelim hills, was a soldier in Patrick Sarsfield’s army, and was helping in the preparations to defend the city of Limerick from William of Orange’s marauding forces. Twenty five thousand men, fresh from victory at the Battle of the Boyne, were camped on the outskirts of the city, awaiting the arrival of a siege train of heavy artillery from Waterford, which, when it was in position, would level the protecting walls of the city, thus allowing them to capture it. A deserter from the Williamites stole into the city and made Sarsfield aware of the approach of the siege train.
A plan was drawn up in which Sarsfield and a small force would ride out of the city under cover of darkness and ambush the siege train before it got to the Williamite forces. Galloping Hogan, who knew the area intimately, volunteered to lead them through the surrounding hills. Under his guidance they climbed over the Silvermine Mountains and down the west side of Keeper Hill and made their way through Knockfine and into Rearcross, before lying low in the vicinity of Glengar. From here you could see right across the Mulcair Valley as far as the Galtee Mountains. A couple of days later they spotted the siege train coming through the pass. They were able to follow its progress as it snaked through the low lying countryside between the hills. Nearing dark, it rested for the night near Ballyneety castle, some ten miles from the city.
As soon as it was quiet Sarsfield and his men stole down from the hills, meeting an old woman who had been selling apples to the Williamite soldiers and who had learned the password. It was Sarsfields own name!
They approached the camp and challenged the sentries, Sarsfield shouting; ‘ Sarsfield is the word and Sarsfield is the man’. They overwhelmed the sleeping camp; standing in their stirrups, charging left and right, cutting down any body that got it their way. They then gathered all the heavy artillery, guns and ammunition together and blew the lot to smithereens, leaving a crater so large that it is still visible today.
Thus the first siege of limerick was lifted. But the war continued until the Treaty of Limerick was signed in 1691. However, Galloping Hogan refused to accept the treaty and left Ireland with the last contingent of ‘Wild Geese’ to sail from Cork a few months later. He ended his career in exile, fighting as a senior officer in the Portuguese army. Patrick Sarsfield, too, was forced to flee, and was killed in action fighting for the French at the battle of Landen in 1693.
I didn’t know then, mother, what attracted you to military men. Men like Galloping Hogan and Patrick Sarsfield, and the countless others who went to fight in a foreign land and never returned. Now that I know your own father was a soldier, I think I understand a little better.
You only ever visited Limerick city a couple of times to my knowledge. What did you think of it? I expect you found it a lot more rough and ready than sedate Waterford. I don’t know if it was called ‘stab city’ back in those days, but I expect it was. I do recall your surprise one Sunday morning as we drove through Southill, on the outskirts of the city, and were confronted by horse-and-jarvey racing on the main road. This was all part of the entertainment the travelers, who had made much of Southill their own at that time, had dreamed up to keep themselves amused. Horse-and-jarvey racing wasn’t the surprise; merely the fact that they were using the main Waterford/Limerick road as the racetrack. Doing things differently was nothing new for the traveling community. Their animals occupied most of the council houses that they had been allocated in the area while they themselves lived in caravans parked in the driveways. Not that this was any comedown as most of the caravans were big, shiny and brash, a lot more impressive-looking than the houses.
The tinkers you called them – and I suppose you were right. No matter what labels people stuck on them they were still the tinkers. Sundays were the only times they had the jarvey-racing, but there was still plenty of excitement on other days as they rode their horses and ponies bareback around the roads, giving the whole area a Wild West feel.
I always felt the weight of Limerick’s historic past bearing down on me whenever I wandered through the older parts of the town. Particularly Thomondgate, where some of the old walls that gave shelter to Patrick Sarsfield and many others still stand, and the old bridge across the Shannon, where the horses carrying John Scanlon, the murderer of the Colleen Bawn, stopped and refused to go any further. It is said that Scanlon then marched across the bridge himself to his execution at Gallows Green.
I am sure you recall the story of the Colleen Bawn. I still have the book you gave me all those years ago about the tragic events and I am now trying to write a stage play about it. Dion Boucicault wrote a fictional version of it many years ago, but mine will be based on the true happenings. The following is a brief account of the facts;
In the autumn of 1819 the people of Limerick – indeed the whole country – were profoundly shocked by the discovery of the brutal murder of a young peasant girl, Ellie Hanley.
The victim, not quite sixteen years of age, was of outstanding beauty. In addition, she was of a bright and friendly disposition, which endeared her to all who knew her in the tight knit community of Ballycahane, near the village of Croom in county Limerick.
On June 29, 1819 she disappeared from the house of her uncle, John Connery, by whom she had been reared after the death of her mother when she was six years old. From the time of her disappearance nothing was heard of her until September 6th when her body was washed ashore at Moneypoint on the Clare side of the river Shannon, bearing unmistakable evidence that she had been murdered.
This appalling crime created feelings of horror and pity among all classes. Eventually, two arrests were made; the first a man in his twenties, John Scanlon, son of one of the leading families in the county, and until recently a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. The second arrest, months later, was of Scanlon’s boatman and general servant, Stephan Sullivan.
Both men were brought to trial and charged with her murder, but at different times, as Sullivan had gone on the run soon after the discovery of the body and was not arrested until May of 1820, some six months after Scanlon had been taken into custody, and two months after he was tried.
The trail of Scanlon created a big sensation, partly owing to the high social position of the family, partly because of the extreme youth and beauty of his victim, and partly because he was defended by Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator. As the trial progressed it became apparent that Scanlon had persuaded Ellie to abscond with him, taking all her uncle’s savings in the process. There were suggestions that they had been secretly married in Limerick city – certainly Ellie herself believed it - but no records were ever found to confirm this.
In Glin, a village in west Limerick, where Scanlon had taken Ellie to stay, disenchantment soon set in. Scanlon was more interested in fishing and drinkin with his friends than in presenting Ellie as his wife. Perhaps he realized she could never fit in his social circle, but he was soon looking for ways to rid him of her. Sullivan was a willing accomplice, and when he concluded that murder was the only was out it was Sullivan who took her out in a boat, clubbed her unconscious, and threw her bound and weighted body into the river.
Despite the overwhelming evidence against Scanlon, O’Connell almost got him acquitted, the jury failing to agree before being sent from the court to try again to reach a verdict. Duly found guilty this time, he was sentenced to hang at Gallows Green on March 16th 1820, where he declared ‘may the gates of Paradise be ever shut against me if I hand, act or part in the crime for which I am now about to suffer. If Sullivan is found my innocence will appear’.
Sullivan was not captured until four months later, when, in Tralee goal awaiting charges relating to passing forged notes, he was recognized. His trial excited almost as much interest as that of his master. Many people had believed that Scanlon was the victim of a miscarriage of justice – here at last was the chance to prove it.
Despite urging from many quarters, Sullivan could not be persuaded. He went to the gallows on 27th July 1820 declaring; ‘I swear before almighty God that I am guilty of the murder, but it was Mr. Scanlon who put me up to it’.
It’s a much different city nowadays, although Hanrattys Hotel in Bridge Street, which was a known haunt of Scanlon’s, still exists there. If indeed he did dupe Ellie into thinking he had married her I like to think he might have planned it in there. My belief is he got Sullivan to pose as a priest and some sort of ceremony took place that was real enough to convince Ellie.
After about a year of chopping down trees I got a job as a welder in the new chemical plant that was being built on Aughinish Island on the Shannon Estuary. As you know, I learned the trade of welding whilst in prison. Not with any great desire to pursue it as a career I have to say, merely to get myself out of the shithole that was Wandsworth prison.
If the course had been on how to milk giraffes I would still have applied for it just to get away! And here they were in Limerick crying out for welders for this construction job. They wanted hundreds of them and they weren’t to be had for love or money in Ireland. They were coming in from England, Scotland and Wales, even as far afield as France and Germany. They were also training people up in a welding school set up along the dock road in the city so desperate was the need. All in all, there were several hundred welders needed. This, along with all the other trades and labourers made it one of the biggest construction sites in Europe at the time. Would you believe that at its peak there were more than six thousand workers on site? We were practically falling over each other!
It was a far cry from my first few months there, when every week brought a new strike or walk-out. I suppose it was understandable in a way. It was a very large operation, and there were various unions representing different trades, all fighting their own corner. I believe there were no fewer than thirteen different unions at one stage; The Boilermakers, the EPTU, the TGWU, The Electricians Union are a few that come to mind, and they were all determined to get the best deal for their members.
Each union had it’s own shop steward representing them. I represented the Boilermakers, and when a shop steward committee was formed I was elected chairman of this committee, and of course was in the firing line and getting it in the neck from all sides.
It became a free-for-all; in the end the management shut down the site and locked us all out for nine weeks.
By now it was national news; massive newspaper and media coverage, with allegations of ‘reds under the beds’ and various communist plots, with yours truly being one of the alleged ringleaders. I took it all in my stride until I realized I was being manipulated by all sides. Not just the management; my own side weren’t averse to loading the gun and expecting me to fire the bullets.
After nine weeks we were selectively re-employed – I think they hoped to weed out the troublemakers in this way, although if that was the case then I slipped through the net!
Anyway, the new bonus scheme gave us a chance to earn some real money- if we were prepared to work for it. Some weren’t, but I was, and as a result I was eventually offered a job as a welding supervisor.
This was the period of the H-Blocks and the blanket protests in Northern Ireland and being a very strong Nationalist region there was a lot of anti British sentiment about. One English crane driver didn’t take it seriously enough and flew a Union Jack above his cab. He was asked to take it down but wouldn’t, and five minutes later was on his way to hospital with a broken jaw. He was flown straight back to England as soon as his jaw was wired up.
Every morning for months and months the approach to the site entrance was lined with ‘blanket protesters’ making their own personal protest about the vile H-blocks.
I was never particularly pro Sinn Fein or the IRA, but the prison protest was a legitimate one, if only because of the decision taken by the British Government to deem the conflict a criminal conspiracy and to deny that there was any just cause for resistance to British rule and policy in Northern Ireland. It was an insult to all the brave dead Irishmen who had gone before.
The reason the name stuck was because the Ira prisoners refused to wear uniform in protest at being criminalized. All they were given to wear instead was a blanket, and they were confined to their cells with a loss of all privileges such as exercise, newspapers and tobacco.
The protests led ultimately to the hunger strikes.
They came and came their job the same
In relays n’er they stopped.
‘Just sign the line’, they shrieked each time
And beat me till I dropped.
They tortured me quite viciously
They threw me in the air
It got so bad it seemed I had
Been beat beyond repair
This is the opening of a long poem by Bobby Sands, called ‘The Crime Of Castlereagh’ about his time in custody at Castlereagh. It was written less than a year before his death in 1981. I am trying to remember now how I felt on that fateful day when he paid the ultimate price for his hunger strike. I think the dominant emotion was rage; rage that the British Government didn’t take the protest seriously enough. They didn’t believe the hunger strikers would carry it through to the bitter end. Had they learned nothing from history? John Mitchell, Tom Clarke, O’Donovan Rossa all left their stamp on Irish republicanism in much the same manner.
The Aughinish site itself was a money-spinner for the IRA. Every Friday was collection day. At the various canteens throughout the complex the collection buckets went round without fail; Irishman, Englishman, Scotsman, German, it didn’t matter what your nationality was you were still expected to contribute to the bucket. It was blackmail of course, but those in charge turned a convenient blind eye to it. Well, I am sure they didn’t want the possibility of bombs going off on their six hundred million pound investment!
At that time the IRA had various sources of generating income. Robbing the security vans that transported money to and from banks was one of them. These were easy pickings until the government decided to provide them with escorts in the shape of an armed army convoy. Not to be daunted, the IRA turned to robbing the banks themselves. The local one in Askeaton, a few miles from the site, where, on Friday afternoons, those who wished to cash their pay cheques were given time off to do so, became one of their targets. This resulted in all the customers and staff being given a fireworks display before being forced to lie on the floor while they helped themselves to what cash was readily available.
Of course I know that you yourself were caught up in such a raid in the bank in Kilmac during that period, and looking back on it I don’t think you ever fully recovered from the experience. As I recall, you were one of only a couple of witnesses, and you were forced to lie spread-eagled on the floor while they ransacked the tills. I believe you saw the face of one of the robbers. The Guards expected you to give evidence, but at the end of the day you couldn’t bring yourself to go into the witness box. I can’t say I blame you.
I think it was around d this time that you developed the trouble with ‘your nerves’, and every year around the same time you needed to spend some time in hospital for electric shock therapy. The IRA has a lot to answer for. That is why, when I see the likes of Adams and McGuinness trying to justify their early years, my stomach turns. Oh, they don’t totally deny their IRA connections; they just didn’t see –or were involved in– any of the atrocities committed in the name of Republicanism. And there is no justification in them trying to say that the other side was worse. It is hardly the point, is it?
As elected representatives and NI Ministers – I am sure you would laugh if you knew McGuinness was made Minister for Education – I wonder how they can square that with their consciences? Someone once wrote that the past was another country; In their case I think we are talking about another galaxy.
Your loving son
I wrote this fragment the other day whilst I was sitting on a rock, looking out to sea, high above the town of Hastings. I don’t know why it brought you to mind, because the story has nothing to do with you. Maybe you will make more sense of it than I do.
‘Now that I have exceeded my allotted three-score-and-ten years I find I am walking the roads more and more. Just like those old fools I remember from my youth. Old fools with broken, tobacco-stained teeth, and wispy cotton-wool tufts of hair – what was left of it – poking out beneath grubby flat caps. Their clothes always looked like they were got in a jumble sale; ill-fitting and non –matching, buttons invariably undone or missing, a telltale dark stain usually visible around the crotch area. ‘Leaky waterworks’, Grandpa Tom used to say, before checking his own nether regions and brushing imaginary blotches away, ‘It comes to all of us boy’.
Well, now it’s come to me. Not the pissing myself yet - that’s a pleasure I still have to look forward to - but the leaky pipe syndrome. No matter how much you shake and wiggle there always seem to be a few drops that escape. Never wear bright trousers is my advice if you want to avoid the ten-pee dark blotch that is guaranteed to appear about ten seconds after you have emerged from the toilet. And always wear underpants as a first line of defense no matter what color your pants are.
‘Look at that old fool’, was one of our favorite cries when Staggery Power staggered down the boreen past our house, as he was his wont most days of the week; our own staggers in his wake much exaggerated and prone to sudden collapses and fits of laughter on the grass verge of the laneway.
‘Come in from there, you tinkers’, you would shout, swiping at us with the broom, ‘and leave the poor man alone’.
‘But what’s the matter with Staggery?’ we would continue, the general consensus in the neighbourhood being that he wasn’t right in the head.
‘I’ll give you Staggery.’ The brush would be working overtime, until you eventually got tired, and were forced to sit down and catch your breath on the whitewashed stone in the yard. ‘God gave the poor man a name like everybody else, so don’t let him hear you calling him that’. Your packet of Craven A would come out then – Craven A on Sunday, cravin’ butts on Monday you used to say – and you would light up and take a few deep drags before continuing. ‘That man was as straight as an oak tree when he was young. Then he went off to war and came back like that’.
‘Yes but what happened to him?’ we wanted to know. Was it because he was drunk he staggered?
The trouble was you didn’t know. Nobody seemed to know – not even Staggery himself. On the few occasions when he was lucid enough to answer our questions it was always the same answer. ‘It’s me head, me feckin’ head’. Many thought it was result of shell- shock, but he had been like that for so long that many more thought he had always been that way. And if it bothered any one they kept it to themselves; Staggery came out regularly to stagger a mile or so down the road, and then repeat the exercise on the way back.
Not that I’m in Staggery’s league yet. Not for staggering anyway. I shuffle a bit – not too steady on the old pins any more – a lifetime spent down too many damp holes has seen to that - but I can still get about. I walked about four miles the other day, hobnailed boots and all, and when I got back I felt that I could go around again. Mind you, there’s not too many of those days; usually after ten minutes or so the knees are beginning to ache so much you feel like hitting them with a hammer to get them to behave.
Maybe it’s the poteen that did it! I remember ould farmers rubbing it on rheumy cattle and horses in days gone by and it seemed to them a power of good. Not that I was going to rub it on my gammy pins; Jaysus that would be a right waste of a good drop. No, there’s only one way to administer medicine in my book, and that’s down the gullet.
The gurriers are still about, I see. Like the poor I guess; always with us. Although there does appear to be more gurriers than poor if you get my drift. This particular gurrier thinks I don’t know him; but his ferret-face and carrot-hair has him branded forever as a Connery in my mind. A superior brand of tinker was how I once heard you describe the whole tribe. All this meant was they lived in a house instead of a caravan. Well, in theory anyway. It wasn’t unknown for them to live in the caravan and keep their ponies and dogs in the house. Not that it was any skin off their noses; they were council houses and weren’t always fit for human consumption. And even if they were when the keys were handed over, it didn’t take the Connery’s too long to render them unfit.
This particular specimen looked about fourteen, and his particular pastime was hitting stones with a hurley. The sole object of the exercise seemed to be to strike me – perhaps he intended to award himself a goal when he succeeded? – and it was some consolation that his intention proved better than his aim, because he couldn’t hit the proverbial barn door with a banjo if he was standing next to it.
‘By Christ, I get hold of you I‘ll shove that hurley up so far you’ll think your on stilts’ I roared at him the other day, causing him reconsider his actions. Next morning, Peter – just call me Pedro – stuck his oar in. He was trying to look grand; a silk scarf tucked inside his open-neck shirt. By Christ, ‘tis far from silk scarves he was raised - as I felt like telling him. I suppose he considered it fitting for someone who considers himself head of the clan.
‘My son came home very distressed yesterday afternoon. Haven’t you got anything better to do than threatening young children?’
He was neither young nor a child – even Stevie Wonder could see that.
‘He nearly took the head off me several times with a stone the size of an egg’.
‘Ah, he was only playing. Weren’t you ever young?’
‘By Christ, if I was itself it was a long time ago. And we never went round blackguarding people. What if he took my eye out? Would you pay the hospital bills?’
‘What bills? There’s no fear of anything like that. He said he missed you by miles’.
‘More luck than judgment in my opinion’
‘He’s always gone out across the fields with his hurley and ball. There was never any trouble before’.
I knew what he meant of course. Before me. ‘The blow-in’, they called me. Him and his band of merry tinkers. I even heard his senile ould mother cackling the words one day last week. Well, what the fuck do they know?
‘He was trespassing’.
‘Sure it’s only a bit of ould bog. Where’s the harm?’
‘That may be so, but it’s my bit of ould bog’.
‘Jacky Kelly never objected’.
‘Your arrangement with Jacky Kelly ceased the day he shuffled off this mortal coil. Jacky Kelly’s bit of bog is now my bit of bog, and it’s off limits unless I say otherwise’.
That’s when I first heard the words’ blow-in’. It was said softly as he walked away, but not softly enough that I wouldn’t hear it.
It’s a strange feeling being called a blow-in in your own parish. Not that anybody would recognize me after all this time – not this end of it – although it is only about four miles as the crow flies to McGrath’s Cross. That’s why I bought this house and the couple of squelchy fields that go with it. You can look out across the valley and just about make out the spot where home used to be. I say used to because it’s no longer there. Not even the hill exists these days; the hill that comprised more than half our smallholding – yours and father’s I mean – airbrushed from existence in less than a lifetime.
A few miles further along the valley, just out of view, the Big House still stands - newly gowned and bewigged. I know this because I have made it my business to see for myself the effort and money the present incumbent has spent restoring it to its former splendor.
I do begrudge this bastard the pleasures he derives from living there. I begrudge him his comfort, I begrudge him his wealth, I begrudge him his very existence, and I intend to do everything in my power to hasten his departure from this valley.
You can never go back, they say. And maybe they’re right. They can’t stop you going back in your mind though. And right now mine has me sitting on a hill, looking down on some windswept, craggy fields. In the distance I can see the faint outlines of farm buildings. Our farm buildings.
Come all ye loyal heroes wherever you may be
Don’t hire with any Master till you know what your work will be
For you must rise up early from the clear daylight till dawn
Or else you won't be able to plough theRocks of Bawn
My father was always singing bits of that song. I don't know, maybe he didn't know any more of it, but those are the only words that stick in my mind. I suppose, though, they had a certain ring...Plough...Rocks...Bawn....I mean, look at it...More rocks than bawn...
By God, if I had a penny for every stone we picked...For every furze bush we cut down.
I can still hear him now:
‘Fifty acres, boy...and five of them is a hill. What good is a lump of limestone to a farmer? You can't feed beasts on rocks. By God, if I had my way, I'd blast the whole lot to kingdom come...’
Then he’d be off singing again
I am a little beggerman and begging I have been
For three score and more in this little isle of green
With me sikidder-e-idle- di and me skidder-e-idle-do
Everybody knows me by the name of Johnny Rhu.
That was his favourite song He would sometimes sit me on his knee, and while he was reaching behind him trying to locate the drop of poteen hidden under the rock, we would hear my mother calling;
‘ Johhny, Johnny where are you? Out there in the cold with the child! Come on in now and milk the cows...’
‘Shh…we'll be as quiet as two mice, boy…’
He would locate the poteen and take a good mouthful, then rub some on my lips.
‘Better than mother's milk, that is...’
Then he would tell me one of his stories
‘Did I ever tell you about the time Finn Macool picked up The Giants Causeway and threw it into the sea? He huffed and he puffed, and he humped and he jumped...
Anyway, he finally managed to get a hould of the Causeway in his arms and he heaved it into the water. And do you know why? So he could walk all the way to Scotland.’
Then he would laugh. 'Twas a long way to go for a job...’
The laugh would get mother going again.
‘Johnny...what ould rubbish are you filling his head with now...?’
He’d wait until she stopped.
‘All quiet on the western front again. Your mother is like Epsom Salts...best taken in small doses. De Valera is up there now, boy. Sittin' on the throne. The one he's always wanted. I only hope he knows what he's doing. Up Dev.’
That would set her off again.
‘You and your 'Up Dev'. When he gives us the extra land that he promised, then you can sing all about...Mr De Valera.’
‘Have no fear, Dev is here...’
‘Come down from there you drunken fool. And bring the child with you.’
Course the extra land never materialised. Politicians don't change, do they? Oh, some got a few acres here and there. Maybe they knew Dev's mother-in-law, or bought an ass from his cousin. But most, like my father, got sweet fuck-all. Mind you, Jackie Nugent, over in Carrickbeg got some. 'How much?', I heard my father ask him one day. 'Fifteen acres', he says...'when the tide is out'
You don’t mind if I take a sip of this, do you? I like a drop of deisel. I always have. There's no harm in having a little of what you fancy. Or a lot.
You can see three counties from here. That’s Tipperary over there... Up Tipp!
And there’s Kilkenny. Ah, Kilkenny…
And in Kilkenny it is reported
They have marble stones as black as ink
With gold and silver I will support her
But I'll sing no more now till I get a drink..
Up the Black and Amber, boys! And them's the Comeragh Mountains there...see? If I reach out I can almost touch them. And up there...look! Crotty’s Eye. That's where Crotty, the highwayman used to hide, waiting for his chance to rob the poor feckers passing by below.
I might have been a highwayman in different times. Well, why not? Not much for disenfranchised young Irishmen to do in those days, was there? Not like Crotty, though.
He was stupid; he got hung for his trouble in Waterford City.
The English...they loved hanging Irish people. Still do, given half a chance, I expect.
And there, see...that's Croughamore...all two thousand acres of it.You can just pick pick out Croughamore House. See...over there, where those trees are...well, what's left of it, anyway. There are no rocks in Croughamore. Least not unwanted ones.
And the grass is so sweet the cows’ bellies are almost touching the ground...
And Lord Croughamore - or whatever his title was - was an English bastard, born
D’you mind if I take another drink?
Burn everything British, 'cept their coal - that’s what I say...
The Big House, that's what we called it.Everyone did. It stood for something. A symbol.
Of...everything English. I would come up herewith father and watch him look at it with loathing.We used to throw stones at it...and it two miles away for fuck sake!
I can hear him again:
‘See that place, boy? Your ancesters and my ancestors were thrun off that land by his ancestors. Never forget that. Put out on to the side of the road, and their biteen of a
house sent tumbling down behind them There was nearly fifty families received the
same treatment...all tenant-farmers like our-selves. Mind you, they did get two pounds
each in compensation...
And what was it all in aid of? Greed, boy. The more land they had, the more they wanted.
Not that it's changed much since...Land does something to a man...affects his brain. Men have been known to kill for a bit of ould bog.
Look at the range wars in America...and the wiping out of the Indians and the buffallos...wasn't that only about one thing? Land.
And when countries invade other countries...what's that about only land?
Ah Jesus, boy, I wish I had some land...real land. And when I had it, I'd let no...Bastard
Take it away.’
He was never going to get it...not that he'd know what do with it, anyway. He was a farmer in name only; by nature he was a...I'd say he was a throwback to the Tuatha De Dannan. Able to do many things well...but not farming. He could tell stories; he could sing; he could dance.
Of all the trades a going, sure begging is the best
When a man is tired, he can sit down and rest
He can beg for his dinner, he has nothing else to
But to slip around the corner with his old rigadoo
Mother knew him only too well; I suppose that's why she kept on at him. Who knows
what he might have done if she hadn't? The only thing she couldn't control was the poteen and the Woodbines. He'd smoke Woodbines till the cows come home.
Then the war came and everything was rationed. He'd cycle into Town every now and again.
‘ Fifteen miles!’ she would say. ‘Fifteen miles for a fag, and you wouldn't walk half a mile down the road to get a loaf of bread for the table.’
Sometimes he'd be gone for days and I would be sent to find him.
He was usually down by the quay, watching the ships coming and going.
On the rocks...high up. I was always afraid he might fall in...
‘And who'd miss me if I did?’ he would ask, before taking another drink
I'm a rambler I'm a gambler, I'm a long way from home
And if you don't like me just leave me alone
I'll eat when I'm hungry, and I'll drink when I'm dry
And if moonshine don't kill me I'll live till I die.
I often thought he was thinking about...you know, jumping...but I never let on to mother...
Everything seemed to be going okay until the day we heard the sound of a plane overhead. He got very excited and dragged me with him to the highest point on the hill
‘Come on, boy! That's a German plane, I fever I heard one...’
And he’s away, making firing noises all over the place, running this way and that.
‘That's it...that's your target... the Big House…you can't miss it…’
In his excitement, he tripped over a rock, and crashed headfirst into a bigger one.
He lays there, blood pumping from his head. Somehow, I knew it was over.
‘ Daddy! Daddy! Don't die. Please don't die...’
I cradled him in my arms as his life ebbed away and the only thing I could think of was that he had never told me he loved me
‘Johnjo! Come on down from there. You have things to do in the morning.’
I had indeed. I was taking our last remaining bullock to Buckleys level- crossing...putting him on the train, and taking him to the market in Dungarvan ten miles away
Everyone was sorry for my trouble. I was myself. But the time for sorrow was over. Life had to go on. And the funeral had to be paid for...
‘Twenty eight pounds ten, twenty nine...and ten shillings for luck...’
I had twenty eight pounds and ten shillings in my back pocket, and the bullock was heading in the Cork direction. I got the bus back to the village, went round to the undertaker and paid him his twenty-three pounds. Then I called on the parish priest and gave him his three pounds for the funeral service and the Mass. When I got home, I gave my mother the two pounds ten shillings I had left. She said it was all we had between the poorhouse and us.
I wasn't long changing all that.
It was something father had said...another one of his stories.
Francis Wyse, a self-righteous bastard of a landlord...oh back in the time of the famine...had evicted all of his tenants the day after they finished the harvest. Not the day before, mind – the day after. Anyway, they all ganged-up and stormed the place a few nights afterwards, shouting; 'your corn or your life'. They cleaned the place out.
Your corn or your life!
I need another sup of this diesel.
Nothing so dramatic for me. I was green but I wasn't gormless. Just the odd sheep. There was a butcher I'd heard about in Dungarvan who wasn't too particular where his supply came from. And it was always cash up front.
Occasionally he'd kill one for me. I'd salt it and store it for our own use. Ma and me.
I know what you're thinking...stealing from people no better off than myself.
No, that wasn't it.
Croughamore House, that’s where I got them. They had so many they'd never miss a few. Least that's what I thought...
Isn’t it funny how a few shillings in your pocket changes your outlook on lif?
You could go to the pictures...a dance...maybe have a few jars in a pub...
You think I was a bit young for the pub?
I looked older than my age...and to be honest, they weren't too fussy.
Carrick - where I used to go - was like a ghost town as far as men were concerned.
I suppose the war had a lot t do with it. Even though it was an English war, a lot of Irishmen were fighting in it.
But it was the times as well; there was no work. Dev’s vision of a homely, self-sufficient nation was a joke - and those who weren't off fighting were over in England working in the factories and on the farms...sending home money to their families - when they thought of it.
And places like Carrick were full of women looking for a man. Any man. A young fella
of seventeen was in great demand...
One of the hotels used to run dances, and were so short of men, they used to send
the barman out in an old Transit van. Round-up time, he called it.
It was the beginning of a life-long association between me and the back of Transit vans.
A lot of the time it was all innocent fun; a few drinks,a few dances- and if it wasn't always like that, sure, isn't that what made the world go round.
There was one song that always got me going at the dances.
Flow on lovely river, flow gently along
By your waters so sweet sound the larks merry song
On your green banks I wonder there first I did join
With you lovely Molly The rose of Mooncoin.
Another of my father’s songs. And whenever I heard it sung everything would well up inside me. He had been singing it in the field as we rebuilt a stone wall just minutes before the German plane came into sight. I never knew what that plane was doing in our vicinity, but I guess the pilot must have got lost. He was certainly well off the mark if his target was London or the South Coast of England, and I guess if he hadn’t strayed then father wouldn’t have died like that. A casualty of war is how it would be described I suppose, though in my book German stupidity had something to do with it.
Everyone called me Blondie now. Well, I was as blonde as a...Viking. Maybe I
was a Viking...not my father's son at all. I mean...when I thought about it - and I was thinking about it a lot more lately - there wasn't much resemblance.
What was it I read somewhere?
‘The natives are ugly, squat people, with low foreheads…’.
That was him to a tee...Looking back on it now, I remember him him looking at me out of the corner of his eye sometimes...sizing me up. I suppose he was wondering the same as I was.
At first it was great. Women all over me. And drink. I wasn't getting home till all hours.
Mother knew something was going on...but I think she was too afraid to ask. I said I was
helping the butcher out, to account for the money. Well, he had an ould slaughterhouse
the other side of the hill...I think it half convinced her.
She had this idea in her head: we'd sell the farm and move into Town, and she'd buy a shop. I'd be able to get a decent job, and after a while, I could take over in the shop. There was one flaw; there were no jobs – decent or otherwise. And if there were, what was I qualified for? Apart from making piles of rocks? Anyway, I wanted to see a bit of the world. Somewhere that didn't remind me of a hill farm. I had already made up my mind;
Oh Mary this London's a wonderful sight
Where the people are working by day and by night
They don't sow potatoes or barley or wheat
But there's gangs of them digging for gold in the street.
I was off to England as soon as I could get a few more shillings together. And pluck up the courage to tell her!
It was St Patricks night, and everyone had been wetting the shamrock since early in the day; singing, dancing and generally acting the eejit. I went to watch the Parade in town - they had a band and marching girls down from Down. Down from Down!
Anyway, I bumped into the butcher... Wet the shamrock? We drowned it!, and in the course of it I outlined my plan.
I would...liberate ten sheep from The Big House - well, who would take a blind bit of notice on St Paddy's night? - and drive them to his slaughterhouse.
The rest was up to him. He hummed and he hawed - I thought he was a bit off-hand to
be honest - but in the end he agreed. There was only one little problem; I would have to wait a couple of days for my money.
Have you ever tried to drive sheep in the dark? Well, not completely dark; there was a bit of a moon, but the state I was in wasn't helping things...
How's ever, I managed it. Well, five sheep anyway. That's all I had left by the time I got to the shed. That's all his slaughterhouse was...a big bloody shed.
I expected the door to be open – and it was. What I wasn't expecting was the reception when I drove the sheep inside...They were waiting for me; O'Shea, the farm manager, and two others who I didn't recognise.
It was a set-up.
I can still hear that fucker O’Shea
‘By jaysus, McGrath, by the time we're finished with you; you'll wish you hadn't been born. I suppose you think you are carrying on a long line of tradition. Your father's gone, and now it's your turn. Your sheep-stealing father.
They hung sheep-stealers not so long ago. How would you like to be strung up like your ancestors? Your fucking sheep-stealing ancestors?’
I wasn't waiting to find out how I would like it. Christ! I felt like I was going to choke.
I could feel the rope tightening around my neck as he spoke.
There was bench with several butchers knives...I grabbed one and made a run for it...
Somehow...I don't know how - I think they must have stepped back when they saw the knife - I was through the door.
Then I realised there was blood everywhere...and when I turned round O'Shea was lying there in the moonlight, the knife sticking out of him...
I don't know...I must'a seen red...It was all a blur...
My father a sheep-stealer? He never stole anything in his life...
I must'a just...just...
I cleaned up myself as best I could in the stream, then I went home, put a few things in a bag, put the few shilling I had saved in my pocket, and woke mother.
I can hear her now;
‘Ah, Johnjo, don't go. Johnjo, why? Why must you go...?’
I couldn't tell her why. She'd find out soon enough.
‘How's she cutting, Blondie...?
‘Hey Blondie, get your arse over here and get the beers in...’
Oh the crack was good in Cricklewood
But t'was better in the Crown
There were bottles flying and Biddies crying
And Paddies going to town...
‘Are you goin’ home for the Christmas, Blondie…?
Home for Christmas? I hadn't been home for more than thirty years...
What's that saying? You can never go back -unless you have a hundred pounds
in your pocket....or haven't a charge of attempted murder hanging over you.
What's the statute of limitations for that now?
I was a wanted man.
I almost expected to see my picture on wanted posters.
You know…like Jesse James or Billy The Kid...
WANTED -DEAD OR ALIVE - JONJO MCGRATH -ALIAS BLONDIE. LAST SEEN HEADING FOR LINCOLNSHIRE....
Why Lincolnshire? I don't know. It was farming country; I read somewhere there was loads of work going there. And I thought I might be well away from Mr Hitler's doodlebugs. I was - and so were a lot of others...
Wealthy Englishmen who had bought up a lot of the farms in the area - with the sole intention of keeping their sons out of the war...
Doing their bit for their country?...Hah!
They knew fuck all about farming. That's why they hired eejits like me...
They treated us like shit. We had to live in stables and haylofts. Working all hours. Picking spuds...muck-spreading...milking...harvesting...you name it. We had no names.
It was Paddy this...Paddy that...Paddy you thick cunt.
The prisoners-of-war were treated better than us. But what could I do? I was on the run.
And to make matters worse I had to report to the local police station every three months.
Otherwise I could be deported. I was bollixed whichever way I turned...
Oh, the praties they were small over here
The praties they were small over here
The praties they were small
But we ate them skins and all
They were better than fuck all over here...
There's Big Houses wherever you go in the world. And people to go with them
Did you ever heartell of Elephant John? No not the Elephant Man.
Mind you, he was an ugly fucker. I will say that. Not that his looks held him back; when you look at all the millions he has now you might even conclude that his looks were his fortune. The right mixture of brawn and brain, I guess. Well, what else? We both started off on the same level – and look at him now.
He has a lot to answer for... Elephant John. I suppose he was a trendsetter of his time.
Setting a style in fashions that thousands followed. The badly undressed look, I guess you would call it…
Just take a stroll through Cricklewood or Kilburn
You'll recognise him half a mile away
On his backside is tattooed the map of Ireland
And a big black wart stands out on Galway bay...
Elephant John had a lot in common with Finn McCool. He could move mountains...or
mountains of muck anyway. Trouble was, he expected everyone else to do the same. Stuck you down a hole in the morning, and expected it to be an underground
car-park in the evening. The subbies friend, until he became one himself.
Mind you, there were plenty more like him. Re-building England...what was left of it after Mr Hitler had finished.
I didn’t hang around Lincolnshire too long after the fighting was over. I'd had enough of those bastards. And as for the police...I thought I'd keep them in the dark too.
I might as well be hung for a lamb as a sheep!
Building the motorways kept me busy. And we were always on the move - which suited me. We lived in camps you wouldn't keep a decent dog in. And with fellas like Elephant
John dogging you day and night, I often felt I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. But I was free.
Whatever that meant.
You know the great American Dream? Life, liberty, and freedom for all...
Or something like that.
Well, this was its Irish cousin...work, drudgery and sweet fuck all.
BUT I WAS FREE.
We played cards to pass the time. Ah jaysus, I was a martyr for the cards. Thirty and forty five...
'Hey, Blondie, you reneged that one...'
'Tray of spades...I led the tray of spades...'
'Ah Jaysus lads, can't someone stop the jink...'
You could lose your week's wages in one night. And some of us did. Then you'd be stuck in the camp for the weekend, the lucky ones living it up in Kiburn and Cricklewood at your expense.
'Take your partners for a Seige Of Ennis...’
The Buffalo...The Galtymore.... The Banba ...We rubbed bellies in all of them.
The Banba.... where they held a tea dance on Sunday afternoons- and us drunken Paddies went to sober up for the night ahead. Or fought running battles with members of the Sunshine Gang, who saw that particular stretch of the Kilburn High Road as their exclusive territory.
They say that behind every drunken Irishman is a sober Irish woman...and all trying to wean their fella off the bottle. I suppose it's true. All those doe-eyed colleens slaving away in the sweatshops of Kilburn and Cricklewood during the week; McVities, Heinz, Smiths, Staples; and looking for love in the Galty at the weekend.
Keeping their legs so tight together that jackhammers couldn't prise them apart...
If marriages were made in heaven, they were negotiated in places like the Galty...
And if you wanted to get your leg over, you had to put a roof over their heads first.
Maybe that's why I never...took the plunge. I never cared for the game in the first place.
But there were other...considerations.
Not least of them being that I was now living in a totally male environment. There
were no women digging holes for McAlpines or Murphys. At least I never saw any.
And I was quite happy for it to be that way.
If you get my drift.
There was no big revelation. No big dawning. I just kind of...drifted into it. Weekends at the camp. There were others like me...
Ah, fuck it - I wound up sleeping with men...
I liked sleeping with men...
I still do...
It was better than sticking it in a sheep -like I saw plenty do in the wilds of Lincolnshire and Bedfordshire.
And so what?
It was no big fucking deal. And it's my business, anyway.
The other thing that put the kybosh on marriage -oh aye, it was still in the back of my mind then, get married and have children - was the fact that I was on the run.
In two countries.
There was no future for anyone with me. Unless I was prepared to give myself up.
And that was one thing I wasn't planning on.
I was thinking afterwards, that if I had killed that fucker O'Shea, and had been convicted, I could have been swinging from the gallows in Kilmainham before the year was out.
Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head Tom Dooley. Poor boy you're gonna die
Poor boy you're gonna die...
When the lads first started calling me Tom, I'd be looking around to see whom they were talking to.
Well, I couldn't use my real name, could I? So Tom Dooley it was. Mind you, most
were calling me Blondie soon enough.
It was great gas, seeing the names going down on the worksheet on a morning. Robin Hood. Gene Autry. Donald Duck. Even Nelson Rockerfellar.
'And what's your name?', the subby asked one fella
'Sammy Davis Junior', came the reply
'Where have you come from?'
'Oh aye. And where are you heading... Hollywood?'.
Some of them should have been actors. Hollywood navvies, we called them. You
know the type; designer wellies, shirts off at the first hint of a bit of sun. You'd know,
in the back of the Transit, after the first day, that they wouldn't be back...
Ah, the crack was mighty then...
You don’t mind if I have another of these…?
Whenever I had a few shillings to spare, I'd send it to my mother. I used to get one of the lads to post the letters, all from different places.
You couldn’t trust any of those fuckers back home; The Gardai, the Post Office, they're all the same. They could be steaming open the letters...how the fuck would you know?
And then I heard of a way.
You could have letters sent to you, addressed to a named post office. It was called post restaurant or something.
I took my friend, Fergal, along the first time. Well, if they were waiting, and they picked
him up, they'd soon find out he wasn't me.
I needn't have worried. I was investing them with qualities they didn't possess...
Oh, don't let the cut of me fool you. I mightn't have went to school, but I met the scholars - as they say.
Then I had a letter from Ma:
Are you ever coming home again? That
was an awful thing you did to Mr O'Shea,
and he married with five childer. He was in
hospital for six months. Sergeant Foley says
it would be best if you gave yourself up. He
says he'd speak for you. Mind you, I wouldn't
trust that fecker to spit straight.
The bank is being very good, letting me have
money and all. I told them it might be a while
before we could pay it back, but they said
not to worry. Wasn't that nice?
I don't do much these days, but Jim Foley, the
butcher, the one you used to do the bit of work
for, has taken some of the land for grazing for
his sheep. They say he got them cheap from
the Big House....
Got them cheap! The slimy bastard...!
I suppose I should have gone home, took the medicine, as they say. But what good could I do mother in goal? Besides, I was afraid of what I might do - to certain people...you know?
After about six or seven years the letters stopped. Just like that. When six months had gone by I knew something was up, and I was thinking maybe I should sneak home - just to see what was going on.
Then one more letter arrived. It was official looking, so I knew it was bad news.
To Mr John McGrath, or his representatives;
Over a period of time, we advanced your mother
sums of money against her property at Knockbawn.
Since her death last year, we have been unable to
see any return on our investment, and have
now foreclosed on the mortgage. The land
is now the property of the bank, and will be
sold by public auction in due course. Should you
wish to negotiate re-purchase of the property, you
may of course do so any time before the auction date...
Since her death last year…
That was the first I heard of it. I know she drowned herself. Oh the inquest said it was accidental, but I know different. She couldn't swim a stroke, so what was she doing
out swimming? And why Clonea Strand? She never went there. We never went there.
It was always Bonmahon.
Do you know how I found out how she died? I hired a private detective
The Acme Detective Agency. I'm not making it up. It was the only way I could think of...
I think he thought I was mad. But what did I care?
In Dixieland I take my stand
To live and die in Dixie
That's where I was born
Early Lord one frosty morn
Look away, look away
Look away, Dixieland
They fuck you up, don't they? People I mean. I don't mean my mother and father. I fucked them up. Well, my mother anyway.The way I left her like that. My father was always fucked up. In the conventional sense. He didn't conform, you see. I mean...a farmer who didn't farm. You can see how it looked to others.
He wasn't a fucking sheep-stealer!
I fucked up. That's what I did. I fucked up my whole life. I mean, who am I? Look at me!
I'm not Blondie. Not any more. Am I Johnjo McGrath?
Who is Johnjo McGrath?
Who am I?
I have a library card that say Tom Dooley. It’s got my signature. That proves its me. That’s the only bit of paper I have with my name on it.
A bloody library card!
I don't exist officially
I never have.
Yet I got by.
No tax, no insurance, no driving licence.
Never paid any. Never had any.
Yet I got by.
I was fifty last year. Or is it this? See how difficult it is when you're...
Certain dates stick in the mind. But not my own birthday.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Dallas, Texas, November the twenty-third, nineteen-sixty-three. I well remember where I was that day. I was up to my goolies in shite, digging
a trench for Mr Bannaher. But then, I was most days.
July the twentieth, nineteen-sixty-nine, when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, where was I? Up to my goolies in shite, digging a trench for Mr Bannaher. But then, I was most days...
If you listen closely you can hear the sound Transit van revving up in the distance, and shouts and laughter coming from inside. It’s half past six on a frosty March morning, and most of Kilburn is turning over for its second sleep. And us lucky ones are all aboard the Orange Blossom Special, calling Kilburn, Cricklewood, Hendon, Watford, and all stations south of the Gap...
‘Jump in there, Blondie. I see you spent another night looking at the stars.
‘But not from the gutter. Ah...you're nothing but a shower of tinkers. I’ll have you know
I slept the night in a grand warm bed. Mrs McGinty. She keeps lovely rooms. Round the back of the Elephant’
'You slept at the foot of the fucking Elephant, pissed as a fart!'
‘I'll have you know that not a drop of alcohol has passed my lips for a fortnight now...
'You must be dying for a dhrop then. Here...'
'Twas down the glen came Bannaher's men
Like a troop of Bengal lancers
One in ten were time-served men
The rest were fucking chancers.
The mystery tour, we called it. Arses plonked in the back of that Transit van, then off to
God-knows- where. Heads down, arses up for the rest of the day, up to your goolies in muck.
'Hey Blondie! Are you pulling that cable or what?
'Leave him alone, he's pulling his wire'
'Keep the big mixer going, boys'.
After pulling Bannaher's wire all day, you wouldn't be in much form for pulling your
own that night. Or anyone else’s. A few pints in the Crown or the Nags Head,
Then back to a damp room - if you were lucky. And nothing to look forward to the next
day except more of the same. And the day after that.
All pissed up against the pub walls. Left in the clubs and betting shops of Kilburn and Cricklewood...
Isn't the craving an awful affliction? I do see men in the morning and they on fire for a sup of the craythur. That fire does be burning all your life. It's what keeps you down that damp hole. What keeps you putting your hand out to men like Bannaher. 'A sub, a sub, my soul for a sub'. That's what you do. You sell your soul to the subby.
Well, who else would want it? Sure isn't that where we lord it over the English?
We can breed bigger and more ignorant bastards than they can, any day of the week.
Bastards like Bannaher. And to cap it all, we're all in here...in the bar of the...Heartbreak Hotel, propping it up, or being propped up, falling over each other to ingratiate ourselves with the Big Man.You could understand all the forelock-tugging and arse-licking if he was a Sassanach - after all, we've had centuries of practice – but a jumped-up bogman with the skid-marks still showing...
They're happy...They're fucking happy!
Some say the devil is dead,
The devil is dead, the devil is dead
Some say the devil is dead
And buried in Killarney
More say he rose again,
Rose again, rose again
More say he rose again
And joined the British Army.
‘Shut up Duggan, you ould bollix!’
That's Dougie. Another of Bannahers wirepullers. He's on a special assignment at present. Instead of digging one of Bannahers holes, he's buried in one. In a coffin. In the back garden of the pub. Oh, it's only a temporary arrangement. We hope. And it's all for a good cause. Charity.
At least that's the official line.
I asked Dougie if he was doing it for charity and he nearly choked himself laughing. 'Charity me hole! I'm getting five hundred quid off Bannaher for it'.
I only hope he asked for his five hundred in advance.
I mean, look at him. Look at the Big Man. The crease on them trousers is so sharp you could cut yourself...
I can see what's in it for him, of course. The publicity. When he bought this place a few
months ago, there were more pigeons than customers. Look at it now! He's even got his own tame bank manager. Every Friday evening. Changing cheques. Five percent. Oh, it's big business. Well, how many the likes of me have bank accounts? Or would want one?
It was easy in the old days - cash in the paw and no questions asked.
And they're his own cheques for fuck sake!
He pays you by cheque, and then charges five percent to change the fucking thing!
And most of it finds its way back over the counter again before the weekend is out...
That's why, come Monday morning, you'll find us out there again, bleary-eyed and broke, looking for a start. And more importantly, looking for a sub. Anything to tide us over till next pay day.
I'm too old now, to lie next to anyone. And, to be honest, I don't want to anymore.
Keep myself to myself, that's my motto. And play with myself too. It's less...taxing.
There was a time when I was in demand. Blondie was in demand...big time.
Ah, but what can't be cured must be endured, as someone once said.
Besides, there's no one I would want to...with...anymore.
You’ll excuse me am moment now while I…
A bit of shuttering, that's all it wanted. A bit of fucking shuttering...
‘Oh Christ, Fergal, hang on under there...I'm digging, boy...I'm digging...oh Jesus...I'm digging...’
I gave Fergal the kiss of life, but I knew it was too late.
And do you know what that pointy-toed fucker, Bannaher, had said a few days before?
'I'm paying you pair to dig a trench, not put up shuttering'.
They should have put that on Fergal’s gravestone.
All for the want of a bit of shuttering.
And now he’s after twisting the knife a bit more.
'I think now, Blondie, you're getting too old for this game'.
Sure, maybe he's right It's a young man's game...
But not some young men.
‘How's she cutting, Terry? Terry now, he's a different generation. No better educated, but he has a different outlook...
'I'd rather starve than work on the fucking buildings'...that's his outlook.
Not that he ever would.
'London's a great place for people who don't like getting out of bed in the morning', says he to me once.
The time of the first race dictates when he gets out of bed.
He's steal the cross off an ass's back, that fella. He's just after doing eighteen months inside. They deported him, but he's back again.
‘Looking for work, Terry?’, I says to him the other day.
‘Maybe’, he says
'Bannaher's big mixer, is it?'
'You must be fucken joking', he said. 'I have plans that will put Bannaher in the ha-penny place'.
Well, so have I.
He comes from near me at home...Terry. Not that he knows it of course. Or that I would ever dream of telling him.
He tells me that Bannaher has bought the Big House. He probably got it for a song. It was falling down, anyway. Crows flying in and out of it. Lord what's-his-fucking-name long gone.Lord Croughamore.I think the IRA put the wind up him. A few bullets through his dining room window one night, spoiling his after-dinner port.
Terry is a mine of information.
'There's an ould hill farm next door he bought too, that he's turning into a concrete batching-plant. Well the hill bit anyway. They say he's going to make a fortune out of it. Ah, it's been derelict for years. No one would buy it or go near it. They say it's haunted. A weird family lived there.
Apparently, the father hung himself and the mother drowned herself. And the son...well he stabbed several people in a fight, and was never seen again. Mind you, he must have been the weirdest of the lot because afterwards they found all these blond wigs in his room...
Ah, maybe it was all made up though. It all happened a long time ago...’
That's the story he told me. ‘Course I didn’t tell him my story…
I always wanted to see Nashville And The Grand Ole Opry; Roy Acuff. Bill Munro, Patsy Cline.
From The Great Atlantic Ocean
To the wide Pacific shore
From the queen of the flowing mountains
to the southbell by the door...
Look at him there behind the bar. In his counting house. I’ll wipe that fucking smirk of your face…
‘Hey, Bannaher, I’ve got something for you. Something you lost a few weeks ago. I’m here to return in it person…
‘Jaysus, Blondie, that’s a fine chest you have there.
‘What’s that yoke with all the wires? Is that your pacemaker?
‘For Christ sakes can’t ye see it’s dynamite. Ah Jesus Blondie, no! Run for it, lads!’
As you probably guessed, I didn’t finish the story in one sitting. I don’t know where it came from but come it did. But that’s writing for you; sometimes the characters lead you up paths you have no inclination to go. But when they decide to go all you can do is follow. Or tear the story up!
Your loving son
I don’t suppose you ever realised that I helped myself to some of your First Holy Communion money. Dear, trusting Brendan, resplendent in your new suit and your shiny knees, you were more than happy to hand it to me to ‘look after it for you’. This was after the ceremony when the likes of the Mrs Kelly and Mrs Cummins had patted you on the head and told you what a grand little fellow you were, whilst at the same time placing shining half-crowns in you eager little palm. You could see the other ould ones watching like hawks, to see what denomination coin exchanged hands – they wouldn’t give any more, but they certainly wouldn’t give any less. After about ten of them had passed you by, your hair was more tousled and the stack of coins in your fists much bigger – and my eyes more bulged! And while mother was distracted among the shiny perms and shawls I was able to transfer the load to my trouser pocket. What later came out was certainly less than what went in! And I had added to my stack of Johnny Mac Brown comics before the day was out.
You were seven years younger than me, and looked up to me in more ways than one. Well, you were the baby, weren’t you? Always tugging at my kneecaps, looking to be taken places and given things – and giving father a hard time. He was forever chasing you but could never catch you. You were faster than Master McGrath himself. Still he got his own back when you eventually came inside. Even then you crawled under the bed to get away from him. But he had the answer to that tactic too, didn’t he? Prodding away with the broom handle until you were forced to admit defeat.
I missed most of your formative years; you were only eleven years old when I caught the cattle boat to England, and for the next five or six years I caught only occasional glances of you during my spasmodic visits home. You were becoming a young man and I didn’t even notice. Mind you, I was preoccupied myself during this period; several spells at HM pleasure meant I had other things to occupy my mind. And when that period ended there were other distractions such as getting married, starting a family and being busy with all that entailed. Before I noticed you were twenty-one and living in London yourself.
You got yourself a job working for British Rail and rented our spare room in Harlesden Gardens.
Do you remember that song you used to sing when you had a few jars?
In eighteen hundred and forty one, I put my shocking pink britches on.
The Kilburn railway had just begun,
Working on the railway,
The railway, I’m weary of the railway.
Oh Brendan works on the railway.
Your own version of the song I believe. You lasted a couple of years, but you never really liked London, did you? Anyway, you packed your bags and returned to the nest, never to leave again. At least you were never like me; yo-yoing between the two islands never quite making up my mind where home was. And I am still yo-yoing all these years later.
Course, John never left the country at all, did he? Not even for one day. Never set foot on John Bull’s Island. Never even ventured as far as the Arran Islands; those wet rocks in the Atlantic as Synge referred to them. I think I could name on one hand the places John has been to; Killarney, Cork, Dublin, Thurles, Kilkenny. I’d say that’s about it.
If you think he was bad in your time, you should see him now. You remember Lackendara the hermit who lived in a cave up in the Comeraghs Mountains? That could be John. What am I saying – that would be him if he lived a few miles nearer the foothills.
He went to pieces after you and mother died. Oh, It wasn’t apparent straight away; it took many years to manifest itself physically, but it had clearly been eating away at him for years without anybody realising it. I don’t think he even realised it himself. He took your death very hard; I think he felt that he had treated you very badly over the years – you know, the house being his, and making you feel you weren’t wanted – well, I think he wanted to tell you that he didn’t really mean any of it. But as is nearly always the case in these matters, the remorse came too late.
To say the house became a pig-sty understates matters; I am sure mother would roll in her grave if she could see the state he let it come to. Meamie did her best; but you know John, contrary is his middle name. The paper and paint was peeling in every room, nothing got thrown away, so that it came to the stage that you almost needed a shovel to get in the front door. One thing will amuse you; he used to get Spot, the dog, to lick the dinner plates clean. That way he didn’t have to wash them up!
I spent six months living with him in the winter of ‘96/97 and as fast as I tried to clean the place he dirtied it again. What was I doing there? Well, I came there to finish the writing of a book – oh yes, I am a writer these days (of sorts) – and thought the peace and quiet would be ideal. I nearly froze to fucking death! John would be out all day working – yes, still on the County Council chain gang – and the house would be like an ice box when I got up. Lighting the fire and getting the place warmed up took most of the morning, so that it was near lunchtime when I was ready to do any writing.
And then a funny thing happened; I had come over to finish one book, but I wound up writing a completely different one. I called it ‘Confessions of an Altar Boy’ and it was about my childhood growing up in Ballyhussa, ending on the day I got on the boat train for London. To be honest it wrote itself; I just sat there and typed as this stuff poured out of me. It was like being in a room and opening a door, going into that room and finding another door…and so on. And in all the years since, I have to admit I have never found anything that gives me more pleasure than writing. Not even sex! Well, these days that doesn’t give me any pleasure at all, because I don’t have any! But that’s more to do with my own physical ailments than anything else. But that’s another story…
Anyway, back to John; it would be a few years more before he finally hit rock bottom. To be fair there were a number of external factors that added to his troubles; the house was broken into several times and stuff taken. The first time it was his shotgun – his pride and joy –, which turned up for sale in Dublin a few weeks later. He got it back but I think it was the invasion of his privacy that hit him hardest. The second time it was a brand new stove that he had bought a few weeks earlier. It was cast iron and must have weighed as much as a tractor! No one was ever caught, but I think it is a sure thing that it was someone local either doing themselves or tipping the wink to somebody else.
No one is quite sure what actually happened to John; he says himself that he felt a bit weak going to bed and grabbed at the wardrobe to save himself from falling. This, he says, brought the wardrobe down on top of him, trapping him underneath for most of the night. Knowing how heavy it must have been with all the rubbish he kept inside it, I suppose it could be true. Anyway, he says he managed to get out sometime in the morning, got dressed and went off to work. Whatever the truth, the other workers found him at the depot, wandering round in a daze, not knowing where or who he was. He was taken to hospital, where he had a complete mental and physical breakdown. And by that I mean unable to speak or move, or recognise anybody. I don’t think he even knew who he was himself.
Meamie had to sign papers to have him committed to the mental section in Ardkeen Hospital, and he was there for months having all sort of treatment, including Electric Shock Treatment. He himself stills believes he only had a couple of sessions of that, but Meamie says it was much more. And she should know – she sanctioned them! He was eventually discharged, but only on condition he went to live with Meamie. They wouldn’t allow him back to the house because of the condition it was in. The County Council retired him on health grounds and gave him a lump sum, which he used to do up the house. You wouldn’t recognise the place now; new kitchen, new bathroom, new bedroom, all mod cons. Mother would be in her element. You wouldn’t though – your old room is the new bathroom!
I am chuckling a bit now as I recall how you christened the boreen Elm Street. I guess you loved that ould place. And Newtown. I know you had divided loyalties as far as frequenting Nugent’s or Micky Kent’s. I suppose you balanced things out like you always did; a few bottles here, a few whiskies there – and sure aren’t that what makes the world go round!
I still call it Nugent’s, even though they are long gone. I suppose I have a soft spot for the place; after all they kept me supplied in reading material on many a dark night in those far-off days. Samuel Johnson and Gulliver’s Travels by candlelight – and the ould fella shouting up from the bedroom ‘put out that feckin candle before you burn us out of house and home’. Sure how else could I travel the world except by books? It was more than worldly travel; to me it was a form of time travel; sneaking into that old outhouse and coming away with all sort of treasure under my jumper. I wasn’t interested in anything else, only books and magazines. Dusty, fusty, musty instruments of time travel.
Later on, you got the bug too. I saw stacks of old literature and comics hidden away under your bed; well thumbed and well loved. And from where did you get them except from similar sheds and outhouses to Nugent’s scattered throughout the locality? And what harm did their removal do to anybody? In a few years they would have been harrowed into the soil, lost forever as the buildings were sent toppling to the ground
in the relentless pursuit for progress.
Micky Kent’s almost met that fate itself. It might have been a shebeen, but it was the most civilised shebeen in the country. ‘The intellectual’s shebeen, you called it. And so it was. Many of the best brains – and worst drunkards – frequented it. Doctors and bank managers, paupers and poets, they came in their droves. From all over the world, many going out of their way to make second and subsequent visits. The postcards on the walls were testimony to that. Micky didn’t stand on ceremony; there was no running water – glasses were washed in cold water from the village pump, if you wanted piss you had to go into the orchard, and bottles of stout and beer were pulled from their hiding places with the dust still rising off them.
But the place had character. And Micky was the biggest character of all. And told the tallest tales! Some true and some not. But what did it matter. He was a born seannachai.
And the world is sadder for his demise.
After he died the pub became more and more derelict – if that was possible – and lay empty for years. It was rescued by Maurice Lenehan of all people, and has now been renovated and extended to such a degree that it has all but lost its unique selling point. Whatever that might have been! There has been one saving grace though; it has been officially named the Donncha Ruadh Bar. I am sure Micky would be pleased, seeing as he christened it that many moons ago.
Talking about Donncha; a festival in his honour was organised a couple of years back – John was on the committee – and yours truly was invited. I was the only 'famous' ex-pat they could think of... be jaysus they were scraping the bottom of the barrel there - but it did mean mingling with the elite of Kilmac and Newtown at the PP's house. He even dished out a drop of Diesel. Anyway, after that we all trooped down to the chapel to pay homage to Donncha. I never got to say my piece; Sean Murphy (Sir Sean!) started spouting about the Newfoundland connection, and then began listing all the local surnames prominent out there. He could still be listing them for all I know; I had a reeling in me head and had to go outside for some fresh air. There was supposed to be a festival in the pump field the next day; parades, marching girls, bands, the whole works, but it lashed out of the heavens all day so they had to cancel it. It must have cost the committee a fortune, because everyone had to be paid. We all spent the day - and the night - getting flutered in the bar. (Poor Micky, he would have loved it, god rest him). Lar was there bawling his eyes out, the PP was pissed out of his head, and some little gurrier was walking out wearing my leather jacket when I caught him by the scruff of the neck.
And then the little gurrier had the cheek to say he thought my jacket was his. He then started rooting around looking for the 'missing' jacket - and everybody knowing he had come in wearing a gansy. I said to him 'maybe someone stole it!' To be honest in the end I wound up buying him a pint. He reminded me a lot of another little gurrier of thirty years earlier! No prizes for whom guessing that might be! Ah, glory days
Like I said before, you looked up to me – and I honest-to-jaysus don’t know why. Because I was a right bastard. I stole your money – and I don’t mean your communion few shillings, as you well know – but that three or four hundred you had under your mattress. All English notes, and all hard-earned from your occasional forays across the water with that flooring company who occasionally hired you. Do you want to know what I did with it? I blew it all in a couple of weeks at various Ladbrokes and Hills betting shops around Paddington. Like all gamblers I was full of optimism that this time I was going to crack it, but at the end of the two weeks the only thing that was full was the bookies satchel. And I had to come crawling back to Limerick and try to patch things up with everybody. I know you got your money back eventually, but do you know who paid most of it? Mother. I was full of good intentions of course, but after a few moths I was back to my old, selfish, ways, with the result that she wound up footing most of my bill.
I thought I had learned my lesson then. But when did I ever learn from anything?
Let me tell you how it was. I was brassic (skint) and sleeping rough in empty houses along the Harrow Road by Kensal Green cemetery at the end of the two weeks, freezing my nuts off every night, wondering how I was going to get back to Limerick. And then it struck me. Vince Power. Yes, old pal Vince. Except we weren’t pals anymore; not since he had stitched me up good and proper over that picture he had sold at Sotheby’s. The last time we had spoken – a couple of years ago – we had almost come to blows.
Anyway, he now had several second-hand furniture joints on the go, and had, I had just learned, recently bought Terry Downes old nightclub in Harlesden High Street. I figured he was rolling in it.
I walked the four miles from Kensal Green to Cricklewood Lane early the next morning, knowing that he was likely to breakfast at the café adjacent to his shop there, and waited for him to turn up. Sonny and Christy were with him (minders?) and I managed to catch Sonny’s eye. Sonny was the best of them - a bit too like myself for my own comfort. I say was, because he died a few years ago. May he rest in peace.
Anyway, he took my message to Vince, who came out to see me. After listening to my tale of woe, he took out a roll of notes that would choke a horse and peeled of forty quid, telling me he never wanted to see me again. I thought it was a bit rich him lecturing me about gambling considering his track record on the subject. Talk about the kettle calling the pot black! Anyway, fair dues to him, it did get me out of a hole, and probably saved my marriage as well.
I know you often wondered what the time I spent in prison was like. I tried to tell you several times, but you cant really ‘tell’ something like that. I think you have to experience it. That’s out of the question for you of course – unless wherever it is you are currently residing is a form of prison itself?. Maybe I can give you a flavour of it with the following passage taken from my latest book ‘Confessions of a Corner Boy’, which, although fictional, has a lot of me in it.
“It wasn’t such an earth-shattering experience as I though it might be the day I was
banged up for eighteen months. The judge who sentenced me gave me a stern lecture on the abuse of trust and the sanctity of other peoples’ property, and then said the public had a right to protection from people like me. I thought the ould fucker was going to give me five years, so the eighteen months came as a bit of relief. He also said I should be deported at the end of my sentence, which upset me more than the deprivation of my freedom. The bird I could do standing on my head, but…I had been slung out of a few places in my time, but never a country.
The two months I had spent on remand in Brixton had been easy-going, but Wandsworth was something else. Dark and foreboding, it was a Dickensian shambles of a place. ‘Get those clothes off…get cleaned up…’ the reception screw shouted as we filed past him, filtering us through a disinfecting process that was similar to sheep dipping. Some of the dirtier inmates were poked and prodded with long-handled loofahs as they shuffled along the line.
Afterwards, I was paraded in front of the prison doctor, who felt my pecker before passing me fit for general duties. All my wordly possessions - one Timex watch and ten shillings and sixpence- were then sealed in a grubby brown envelope and my name and number written across it, and I was issued with my prison kit. A couple of John Players - which I had concealed in my hair - slipped to the reception con, ensured that the clothes fit me. It was only when the heavy steel door to my cell slammed shut that it hit home I wouldn’t be seeing daylight for some time to come.
Prison mornings are not for the faint -hearted. Doors kicked and slammed open, steel landings echoing to the ring of hob-nailed boots, yells from every direction: ‘Right you lot, slop out! The wing I was billeted on had four landings, each with its own recess for getting rid of the shit and piss accumulated during the night. The stench was unbearable. It lingered for hours - long after the cleaning crews had done their bit. I thanked God I was on the topmost landing; the contents of some of the pots never made it to the sinks, but were tipped over the railings into the void below.
No inmate was allowed to keep a razor blade in his cell. Each morning the landing screw issued a blade from the folder he carried with him. If you were lucky, it might be the one you used the previous day.
The cell housed a steel bunk bed along one wall and a single frame bed along the other. You weren’t allowed to lie on the bunk bed during the day, and the single bed had to be dismantled and stood against the cell wall each morning. The bed linen had to be folded in a certain way, and if the screw didn’t like your handiwork, he tipped it on to the floor and made you re-do it. There were three small lockers, three chairs and a single table.
Each prisoner was allocated one pot, one plastic jug, one mug, plastic cutlery, one razor, one pair of boots, one pair of slippers, two pairs of socks, two vests, two shirts, one jacket, one tie, one soap dish, one toothbrush, and a copy of the prison rules.
Outside each cell was fixed a small card rack containing information on its occupants. Name, prison number, work category, religion and length of sentence. It soon became apparent to me why the place was such a shit hole: It was inhabited mostly by dossers, tramps and petty thieves, all short -term occupants, who, when released, did their best to get back inside again.
I soon discovered that tobacco was the currency the prison ran on. All those little extras that made life bearable - that extra pair of socks, the jacket that fitted, yesterday’s newspaper, a not-so-used copy of Playboy - they all had their price. Every Friday the money you earned could be spent in the prison shop, and items such as tobacco, soap and toothpaste could be purchased. You could buy up to a half ounce of tobacco, and this was the first item you purchased - whether you smoked or not. You could then sell it or trade it for something else, gamble with it or, if you were hard enough, become a tobacco baron. I usually bought soap or toothpaste with what was left over, the prison soap being vile and the toothpaste only fit for scouring your pisspot.
In due course, I was allocated work in the mailbag shop; a long, narrow workshop where the seating arrangements resembled those in a school. One screw prowled the centre aisle, whilst another sat on a platform overseeing everything. We weren’t allowed to smoke during work, and the mobile screw’s main function appeared to be to shout ‘one off, Mr Beasley’ to his seated companion each time one of us requested permission to go to the bog. We weren’t supposed to smoke in there either, but they didn’t seem too bothered about it. I thought it hilarious that they had to address each other as ‘mister’.
My companion during working hours was Derek, and it was only natural that we should talk. Or to be more accurate, Derek did. Non-stop. About trucks. Big trucks. Enormous bloody trucks. Fucking boring trucks. He expected the rest of the world to have an orgasm when he talked about his Scannia. At first I thought Scannia was his wife. After a while I perfected a nodding technique, which allowed me to concentrate on more important matters. Like how much time I had left to do: two months on remand…a third off for good behaviour…that still left another ten months. I couldn’t take ten months of Derek and his jabber. Then I read on the notice board of a welding course in a nick up the country, so I put my name down for it. A few weeks later I learnt that my application was successful.
HMP Mousehold was classed as semi-open. The main block didn’t look much different than Wandsworth; a big, rambling, decaying construction, but there was another section known as The Huts. These were Nissan huts, each holding twenty in a dormitory environment. Each was self-sufficient, the occupants being responsible for cleaning and maintaining it. We fetched our grub from the main hall, and apart from roll-call each morning and evening, were left mainly to our own devices.
Our hut was reserved for those on the welding course. Strangeways, Barlinni, Camp Hill, they were all represented. Most were English; there was a sprinkling of Taffys and Jocks, and myself the only Irishman. There were no Blacks, which surprised me considering the numbers I had seen in Brixton and Wandsworth.
I was known as Paddy despite my repeated attempts to furnish my real name. In the end I gave up. The best response to a taunt of ‘what’s a thick Mick like you doing on a welding course?’ was to shout back ‘the same as you, you scabby Limey cunt’.
Jet Lag was one of the characters on the course. A recidivist of more than twenty years standing, his presence was the result of a prank. He had applied for a gardening course, but not being able to read and write too well, had asked somebody else to fill in the form for him. ‘Jesus Paddy’, he said to me one day, ‘what do I want to learn welding for?’ The authorities didn’t care one way or the other; a welding course he had put down for, a welding course he would do.
Lefty, whose bunk was next to mine, was doing two years for hijacking a lorry-load of shoes. Unfortunately for him, the consignment consisted entirely of left shoes, something that caused much amusement amongst the rest of us.
‘Is there a big one-legged population in Bethnal Green then, Lefty?’ ‘Found yourself a niche in the market, Lefty? ‘ ‘The Old Bill reckoned you didn’t have a leg to stand on’…
For my own part, I found myself up before the Governer within days of my arrival. My appeal against my deportation had been turned down. I had hoped that common sense might prevail; I mean, what was the point of teaching me a trade then chucking me out? But bureaucracy knows no logic.
‘However’, the Governer waffled on, ‘it’s no concern of this establishment that an expulsion order has been served on you. Our job is to see that you complete your sentence here. You will then be released in the normal manner. What happens after that is up to the appropriate authorities…’
Fuck me, I thought… would it be too much to hope that the matter might slip their minds altogether?
Life in the dormitories was a million miles from prison life in many ways. The dreaded slopping-out routine for one thing, the constant banging of doors, the turn of a key in the lock. In certain respects it was like being in the army - if you kept the rules the screws never bothered you much.
Yet when the lights went out at night, and you lay there looking out at the lit-up walls with their coils of razor wire on top, you were forced to admit that your dreams of freedom were just an illusion. I would watch the twinkling stars overhead, see the glare from the city of Norwich hanging like a shroud above the wire, and imagine the hordes of people out there. All drinking, fighting, making love, living life unfettered. And I felt a lump in my throat.
Then I pictured Tessa lying in Larry’s arms, could almost smell the betrayal, and somehow it didn’t seem too bad where I was. I killed them all in my fantasies. A thousand times over. Tessa I saved the worst fate for; she had made a fool of me and that was hard to forget. Sometimes I thought of Fergus, deep in the cold and lonely soil, his eyes open and reproachful.
I hardly thought of my parents at all; didn’t know if they knew where I was, didn’t really care. I received no letters, I wrote none. I retreated into a world of imagination. In reality, I was lying on my bunk staring at something on the ceiling, but in my mind I was lying on the beach in San Tropez, or trekking across the Arizona desert. Years later, when I read Pappillon, I was able to understand how its author, Henri Charriere, managed to survive the French penal colonies. He wasn’t really spending his years in a rat-infested dungeon that got flooded at every high tide; he was out walking the world of his imagination.
When I wasn’t in foreign lands, I was learning to weld. I had no desire to pursue it as a trade - it was just something to pass the time - but our tutor had other ideas. Day after day, week after week, he kept us at it, so that by the end of the course even Jet Lag could fuse two bits of metal together.
At the end of the course I was assigned to one of the tradesmen screws.
‘Done a plumbing?’ He asked me the first morning.
I shook my head. We had been assigned to the screw quarters outside the gate, and I was busy re-discovering that long-legged women in short skirts were real, not just images I had wanked myself silly over for the past ten months.
‘Well, never mind. Once you’ve done one it will be a piece of cake…’
It was too. I discovered that all we were doing was renewing the taps on the sinks and baths in each flat, something that took very little time and effort. Not that we seemed to be in any great hurry.
‘Don’t get carried away, lad. This has to last us at least a month…’
There was no better man for making easy work look hard. Hadn’t I years of practice…
The arrangement was that I would do upstairs and he downstairs, so I was left more or less to my own devices. I began to take books with me to put down the time. If I wasn’t going to work myself to death, I might as well learn something. It was better than wanking myself to death I concluded, thinking of all the starched hankies under my pillow.
I was alternating between reading Borstal Boy and The Ginger Man when it suddenly clicked what had been niggling me. Barney Berry, one of the characters in Donleavy’s book was none other than Behan himself!. I speculated on whether they had known each other; Behan rolling in and out of places such as McDaids or Mary The Whore’s, Donleavy following along making notes…
Or maybe he was rolling too… Sebastian Dangerfield…. now who was he based on…
You had to hand it to Behan. All his life he had been a drunkard, a layabout and a loudmouth - but he could write. And he had the gift of the gab.
Reporter: ‘What do you think of Canada, Mr Behan?’
‘Ah, ‘twill be grand when it’s finished’.
‘And what do you think of the Irish?’
‘Ah sure, God love them, if ‘twas raining soup they’d be out with knifes and forks’.
Maybe I liked him because he was working class. A house painter that had seen the gutter, had lain in the gutter, and hadn’t been afraid to write about it. His description of the Dublin slums was something I could relate to. I had seen poverty too, albeit in a rural environment. But when it came down to it, there wasn’t much difference between stealing turnips from a market barrow or a farmer’s field. His book about his time in Borstal was riveting
Between the bouts of working and reading there was plenty of fags and coffee to be had. I got the impression that some of the women liked having me around the house. It was just that little bit…risky. Maybe it turned them on; there were sometimes glimpses of thighs and stocking-tops, or a blouse undone a button more than was necessary. Lets face it, most of their husbands were miserable bastards, and they were stuck in this hole just as much as any of us prisoners - with little hope of remission.
I was trying to crack the seal on a stubborn pipe beneath the washbasin one morning when I noticed her standing there. The woman of the house, looking down at me. She had a cup of coffee in one had, the other was resting on her hip.
‘Do you know how to use that King Dick?’ she suddenly asked.
The monkey wrench fell from my grasp and I could only nod.
She knelt down beside me and placed a hand on my thigh.
‘That’s alright then. Only my husband hasn’t got a clue about…things like that’.
She knew about King Dicks alright. Before I could say a word she had unzipped me and was squatting over me, her hands gripping the edge of the basin to give her leverage. It didn’t take too long. The next morning - and most subsequent ones - I returned to the flat for what we now called my ‘elevenses’. The screw, I learned, was also occupied. She told me he was conducting affairs with several of the women. I never found out who though, because he never talked about it. It was as if our sessions with the women never took place; he showed me the flats we were to work on each morning and that was it.
I sometimes thought of him as screw that did a bit of plumbing, but mostly it was as a plumber who did a bit of screwing. I could see now why he wanted to drag the job out. Afterwards, I wondered why the wives indulged in this little game of theirs. I didn’t flatter myself that I was the only one singled out; there were other gangs - carpenters and painters - and I was sure they got similar privileges. It had to be because of boredom; it was a dreary fucking hole if you didn’t have to be there; ‘having it off’ with a prisoner was their way of bringing a bit of excitement into a drab existence.
Christmas, normally one of the loneliest times in prison, didn’t bother me at all. Most of my Christmas’s since leaving home had been shitty anyway. Seeing all that happiness on the faces of others made me want to puke. There was a festive air about the prison; the screws even locked you up with a smile. It amused me to see slices of turkey, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes and plum pudding all heaped together on one steel tray. But not so much as to make me want to ape Jet Lag, who alternated a forkful of meat and gravy with one of pudding. There was even some hooch, brewed from ingredients spirited out of the kitchen. A small glass of it immobilised Lefty and had him howling like a dog on the floor. After that we diluted it.
I even got religion for the day, attending Mass. Religion was optional here. Not like Wandsworth - where I tried to have atheist written on my cell card. ‘You have to have a religion’, the landing screw had insisted, so I put down Jehovah Witness. This meant I was effectively excused religious duties, there being no service for this particular sect. Instead, I took a perverse satisfaction at watching Songs Of Praise on Sunday nights, following the camera as it panned over the unsuspecting audience. I would select the most angelic face I could find and invest it with the vilest characteristics I could dream up.
The highlight of Christmas day was the concert, put on by a bunch of local do-gooders. It was beyond me that people were willing to give up their boozing and celebrating to come and entertain us.
‘They must be facking mad’, said Lefty, who, like most of us, had put in an appearance only in the hope of seeing a bit of tit or leg on display.
Soon it was New Year and before I knew it I was on my last week. I hadn’t really thought much about freedom before, but now that it was staring me in the face I became apprehensive. What would I do? Where would I go? I felt no different about life then when I came in, so what had it taught me? I was wiser perhaps, but I felt no better for the experience.
Was I a hardened criminal? I doubted it. Hardened criminals were a bit of a myth in Mousehold as far as I could see. The system weeded out the real hard cases and sent them to where they could act like James Cagney. Most of the cons I was acquainted with were like myself - lonely and mixed up. They missed their wives, their girlfriends, and their families. Some got ‘Dear- John’ letters and cracked up. Sometimes they didn’t get them and still cracked up. And sometimes the screws didn’t wait for them to crack up, but banged them up in chokey before giving them the letter. Some were like Jet Lag; pathetic no-hopers who couldn’t make up their minds where the real world lay - inside or outside. Me? I had no doubts. I wasn’t planning to come back.
The afternoon before my release I said goodbye to all my friends. I was then taken to reception to return all my prison belongings. In return, I received my Timex watch, ten shillings and sixpence, a travel warrant and my own clothes. To be fair to the prison, they had cleaned and pressed my dark suit and cream shirt, so that I was leaving cleaner than when I arrived. I felt nearly human again as I was taken to the holding area to await my freedom next morning.
At seven am the gates clanged shut behind the group of us that been freed. Loved ones, friends who had been holding a dawn vigil, surged forward to kiss and hug us. Two burly coppers greeted me. They didn’t hug or kiss me, but re-arrested me and told me I was being escorted to Heathrow for deportation.
It had never occurred to me before, but I realised I was afraid of flying. I had never seen the inside of a plane before; all I knew was that passengers climbed steep steps, disappeared inside those enormous bellies, and that was it. For all I knew they could be eaten alive once inside.
Well It was too fucking late now, I was flying whether I liked it or not.
My two companions seated either side of me in this greasy spoon, were there to ensure that I did. Deported, slung out on my ear, the ignominy of it. I had done my time, paid my debt to society, why couldn’t they leave it at that? What had I ever done to England to deserve the big boot in the arse? And why couldn’t it be by boat? It was good enough for Brendan Behan.
‘D’you want a sandwich Paddy?’ one of the coppers asked me. His heavy blue tweed overcoat contrasted sharply with my own lightweight suit. I could see the fields through the window, grey with frost. Jesus, my knackers were about to drop off.
‘What county are we in?’ I asked, washing down the greasy bacon with sweet tea.
‘Bedfordshire’, came the reply.
I looked around. Flat, barren land as far as the eye could see.
‘It must be the arsehole of England then’. I laughed at their proximity to me. Any nearer and they’d both be sitting on my lap. ‘Afraid I might make a run for it? Where would I hide? Under a stone?’
They both laughed, then the older one took out a packet of Embassy and offered them round.
‘Only doin’ our job Pat. We have to make sure you get on that plane. We don’t want no slip-ups, see?’
I took several deep drags. There hadn’t been many of them in the past year.
‘What age are you, Paddy?’ It was the younger ones turn now.
‘Got any family?’
‘I had a brother but he’s dead’. Poor Fergus.
‘’I expect your mum and dad’ll be glad to see you’.
I nodded, but inside I knew it wasn’t true. I hadn’t spoken to my old man for more than five years. And my mum, well…since Fergus died I had no idea how she might be feeling towards me.
‘What devilish crime did you commit? It must be something big to get you chucked out…’
I shrugged. ‘I robbed a few pubs is all’ A few thousand quid I could do with right now.
He shook his head. Couldn’t understand it, he said.
‘Still, you must have it stashed away, eh?’
I laughed. ‘I gave it all to William Hill’. I had too. Every fucking penny.
‘Gambling? So that’s what got you into this mess?’
I nodded. ‘Fast women and slow horses’. It was mostly the latter though. The only fast woman around was Tessa…
The older one stubbed his butt on his saucer. ‘Here’s some free advice, lad. Keep your money in your pocket. Only one lot get rich from gambling - and it’s not mugs like you. My uncle gambled everything he owned - and quite a lot that he didn’t - and he wound up jumping off the Mersey Bridge….’
I had heard it all before. Same song, different singer. There was a long-playing record of it spinning permanently inside my head. Still, it passed the time till we got to Heathrow. Boarding time soon came round, where the sight of my expulsion order soon wiped the welcome off the stewardess’s face.
‘Don’t come back Pat’, said the one whose uncle had jumped.
‘No fucking way’, I replied.” “
That’s how it felt – and was- Brendan. You could say that Terry had a lot of me in him, and his experiences aren’t a hundred miles from my own. I just wish you were around to read the thing.
You dying like that was hard to take. I mean who falls of their bicycle and dies as a result? I mean look at me; I crashed off my Honda and suffered head injuries like you. We both wound up in Ardkeen Hospital, probably in the same ward – maybe even in the same bed for all we know. The only difference is I woke up you didn’t. Did you feel anything - know anything- as you lay there? I didn’t, and I hope to God you didn’t. If dying is like that then sure there’s nothing to it. I was going to say it’s like riding a bicycle, but perhaps not eh?
My guess is you had a few drinks? But even so, a slight collision with another cyclist, in which he gets up and dusts himself off and you suffer massive head injuries, must be odds of many thousands to one against that particular outcome. You were only thirty-nine, and I remember thinking at the time ‘what a waste of a young life’. What was the point of it? What was the point of anything? Coming only a few months after mother’s death, it was hard to take. But there was one slight consolation; she, at least didn’t have to mourn the loss of her youngest.
I should have gone home for your funeral I know, but I couldn’t honestly face another so soon after mother’s. And anyway, I did my grieving for you in my own way. I can say this now; you were my favourite brother. And if you are residing in a graveyard with the likes of Donncha Rua and Micky Kent then it can’t be all bad!
Your loving brother
This is my last letter to you. Without Aunt Margaret’s legacy I wouldn’t be writing any of this, and your secret would never have been discovered. Not by me anyhow. I wonder if you knew that John knew? He isn’t inclined to say himself, but I suspect the answer is yes. He said he doesn’t remember who told him – but perhaps it was you? In a way it might have been better if the particular stone had been left unturned. And I suspect that those who know won’t particularly thank me for going public with it, but to be honest I don’t think the wider public (whoever they are!) will care too much after all this time.
Or will they? Because there is a slight problem
By my calculations you were born eighty-seven years ago, which puts your birth at 1919 or 1920. But the man who is supposedly your father was killed in the trenches at The Somme in 1917. It doesn’t add up, does it? Somebody somewhere is being economical with the truth. What really happened all those years ago during The Great War? I have been told that grandma spent some time in England during the period. Were you born there? Was aunt Kathleen? What is the real truth?
So you see, I am not much further down the road than I was at the first letter. There is a mystery here that I am going to do my utmost to unravel, and until I do so I must leave you
I remain your most loving son
© Tom O’Brien 2006