Six Selections from The Courtship Stories: Tales from the West of Ireland
Josie Gray & Tess Gallagher
A Blind Tongue
TOMMY FLYNN HAD a band. Its foremost member was Josie McDermott. Josie was born with very bad eyesight. I believe his father must have died when he was young, or at least I never heard mention of his father. Josie. in any case, was reared by his mother, a small woman who lived in a cottage at Coolmeen in County Sligo. Eventually the mother died and Josie lived on in the cottage alone.
Josie's eyesight was getting worse and worse, but he kept learning instruments. Any wind instrument you could think of, Josie McDermott could play. He composed songs and was a lovely ballad singer. His songs were about local places and people, and he appeared on national television and radio singing and performing them. Actually, he became famous and there is a monument to him now in the village at Ballyfarnon.
Josie eventually went stone blind. The disco scene came on for awhile and Tommy no longer had his band, but Josie would always come to another neighbor, Michael Ewings. Every Thursday night of the year Josie would land at Ewings's and eventually get into Michael's car and they'd drive out to Tommy Flynn's cottage on the shores of Lough Arrow. They would ramble there for a few hours-chat and maybe play a few tunes, then go home again.
This particular Thursday night Josie had a button missing off his shirt, and before he left with Michael for Tommy's he asked Mrs. Ewings for a needle and thread. With the talk and all, she forgot to give it to him, so he landed out to Flynn's and had to ask him for a needle and thread. Flynn got them down, shook the dust from the spool, bit off a length of thread and started poking and stabbing, trying to put it through the eye of the needle. Failing at it, he began yapping and talking and fussing. Then Michael Ewings says, "Give it over to me. I'll try it." But he had the same problem. They were at it for ages. Josie could hear this carry-on and finally he says, "Give me that needle and thread, you pair of blind bastards." He stuck the needle in at one side of his mouth, then pushed the thread in at the other and closed his mouth on the lot. Seconds later he took out the needle, fully threaded. He'd done it all with his tongue. Next he took the shirt to the needle and sewed on his button. He did everything by feel.
Josie's kitchen, I was told, was immaculate. All the neighbors who went in learning music from him said his entire cottage was immaculate as well. Everything in its proper place. But if anybody went to the kitchen to help him clean up, Josie would stop them immediately and send them out, because if they moved anything at all, he wouldn't know where the pan was, or the kettle. He had his little spot for everything and he navigated by some intricate way a thing sat in his head next to this or that other thing. That's the way he kept the world.
Much earlier, when Josie was a young fellow and his eyesight had begun to get poor, he would walk home from rambling at night in some local house, accompanied by the neighborhood boys. They knew Josie didn't want to admit how blind he was getting and they got up an act to cause him to miscalculate the entrance to his driveway. Yards before his gate they'd make a good show saying, "Goodnight, Josie! Goodnight. See you tomorrow." Then they would stand back a few paces and watch him step boldly off into the ditch. He would have to paw his way out and go the rest of the way home by prayer and a guess. Such were the humors and delights of young boys. But Josie never complained or shunned anyone or spoke badly of others. In this too, his tongue was far from blind.
An Irish Solution
THIS LITTLE COTTAGE of Tommy Flynn's stood against a bank with a hill behind it. It was a beautiful cottage really, but there was no running water and no toilet, except under the back hedge.
When a heavy rain came, it would rush in under that foundation at the back, then flow out Tommy's front door. He had three inches of water standing on the floor during one flood of a particular Saturday evening in April. What did you do? we asked him. Tommy rubbed his hands together like a man before a good fire. "Well, be-Je, the first thing I did was to throw the spuds on the floor and wash them for Sunday dinner!"
Another time we were in the near-dark chatting Tommy at his cottage. He prided in showing off his shoes and boots, and his little green jacket-a jacket that wasn't actually big enough for him. He looked so comical, like a pea bursting its pod, squeezed into this little jacket. He'd have a green cap on to match, and blue trousers. He had a lot of clothes and he'd bring down the shoes and, to make certain you'd properly appreciate them, he'd say with a sober look, "They cost me ten pounds."
Once he brought out these lovely leather boots with three inches of blue mold on them. He'd taken them from under his bed. His house was really a damp cave of a place. still. Tommy lived out his life there, and would go in and out of it like the king to his castle: "My cottage," he'd say. "Come in! Come in!" he'd call to you, if he had a good fire on and wanted company. And you'd go in, and he would probably play you a tune or two on the fiddle and, between those walls that were nearly weeping with the damp, time would pass like the snap of a twig.
A Wild Hand
TOMMY FLYNN HAD a good neighbor who gave him dinner every Sunday. She'd bring him in and sit him down at her own table. Her husband was a fruit wholesaler, and if they had a little box of bananas left after the day of selling, he'd bring it into the house and leave it in the entry.
This particular night Tommy was babysitting for this couple. He decided to go up to check on the children, but on the way down the stairs he spotted the bananas, and was tempted. He took a banana and brought it to where he sat on his chair in front of the fire to eat it.
The couple had a Stanley range like his, but it was coal and turf they burned. Tommy never sat to one side of the hearth. He'd sit square in front of it with a leg spread to each side of the fire, enjoying the warmth. He had false teeth that wouldn't tolerate bananas very well, so after peeling it, he took out his teeth in order to eat it.
When the couple came home, the wife says to him, "Fair play to you, Tommy, you've a great fire on." Tommy looked up very sheepish like and said, "Pity it oughtn't. There's thirty six pounds worth of teeth in that fire!"
When he'd taken out the false teeth to eat the banana, he'd had the skin and the false teeth in the same hand. Without thinking, he'd opened the door of the range and pegged all in. Ever after, when the family looked into the range, they thought they could see Tommy's false teeth still glowing among the coals, content in their new life, enjoying a steady diet of fire, long into the darkest night.
TOMMY FLYNN HAD to fill as an undertaker once. This old English Colonel had died and left the request that his ashes be spread out on a particular day over Lough Arrow. The weather happened to be rough and should have kept anyone with good sense on shore. But Tommy was to get twenty pounds for the job, which is a cheap burial for anyone.
He got another local man, also named Tommy, to help him. So out they go onto the lake and the other fellow is standing up in the boat, waves slapping the bow, waiting to spread the ashes on the water from a little silver box. He tosses a pinch of what remains of the Colonel overboard, only to have the wind gust up and carry the ashes back into the boat. So he sat down and made no further effort to discharge his duty. Flynn eventually tells him: "Tommy, get the man overboard!" Tommy was on his knees by then, hanging his head over the side. "Have you got rid of him yet?" asks Flynn. "Ah," he says, "the box is empty but half the fecker is in my eye!" He was determined to release any tears with any speck of the colonel into his intended watery grave. Meanwhile Flynn was busily stirring lake water with his oar, as if the Colonel had become some sort of royal soup.
When finally they reached shore Flynn looked down and saw a powdering of ash in Tommy's pant cuff, but instead of calling his attention to it, Flynn tipped his hat overboard and charged Tommy with wading out to retrieve it. He had a high sense of duty and didn't fancy being haunted the rest of his days by an English Colonel. "We sprinkled him like the Good Lord himself anointing the multitudes," Flynn told everyone who didn't ask. "But, you know, we fell short having enough of him. Still, anyone wants a touch of the Colonel can swim for it now." And that was the last that was said about the last of the Colonel.
The Major and the Ditch
BECAUSE MAJORS WERE scarce in the locality, we decided to manufacture one. The Major's father was nicknamed The Miner and I don't know why, since he never worked so much as a day in a mine.
The Major was an awful man for drinking and was known locally as a handyman. Everybody wanted him, because you wouldn't have to tell him what to do. Just let him alone, and he would see things to be done and do them. First thing you knew, he would be out cleaning the yard, or painting the side of the house. But he was paid every night, and if you didn't pay him you wouldn't have him.
Next he'd go to the pub, and he'd drink that money. If he met a few people at the pub, you wouldn't see him all next day, no matter that you'd paid him. He'd be too sick. It was no wonder he was a good worker because, with all the days he took off, he only worked four and a half months of the year.
The Major was his own boss and he was very good to himself. People who needed his help used to go up and knock on his door, and if he didn't feel like working, he'd hide. Or he'd shout from upstairs, "I'll be down in a minute!" then he'd slip out a window at the back of the house and disappear. People had been known to go into his place afraid he might be dead, only to find the house empty, as if he'd just evaporated. Anyway, the Major came working for us.
Mattie Reagan was another fellow who worked for us on a steady basis. But Mattie, unlike the Major, had given up the drink. This drinking had gotten Mattie into rows and scrapes before he came to us. He told me he was fighting a fellow one evening and the two of them fought and fought until the two heads were as black as crows, and the strokes were like the swallows. "Who won the fight," I asked. No one, not even Mattie, knew. Another time Mattie got belted out of a pub and was knocked to the ground. I asked if he knew who hit him. "No," he said. "And I didn't want to know!" One round with whoever had done the damage was enough. He wasn't going to discover who it was and maybe get another such belt.
After that episode, Mattie gave up drink altogether. In two or three years he was a sensible human being. Still, he was always a bit touched in the head. But my father took him in and he lived in a little cabin at the back of our house. He wanted company, but our house was busy. There were lorries moving in and out, and people coming in to shop. Nobody had time to pamper or chat him.
Eventually, after being sober awhile, he came around to himself and was perfect. So perfect, in fact, that he learned to drive a car. At that time land reclamation was going on. There were no bulldozers much, or excavators, but we had a little compressor to drill holes so blasts could be put into the biggest rocks. There might be forty boulders in a farmer's field, awkward enough if you wanted to plough that field. The government had given grants to shift these boulders, and Mattie's job was to clear the surrounding fields.
His stint with the Major came before Mattie could be trusted with a car, so somebody, in this case the Major, had to drive him twenty miles to the area he was working. When he arrived he got out the compressor, a little portable jackhammer. But, before he'd start those jobs, he'd always go to the farmer and demand tea. Even if it was a strange house, that's the first thing he'd do. He' take his tea, then set to work and bore out all those rocks. He'd have his gelignite sticks, his fuses and the detonator from which he'd make up his blast. Then he'd blow forty boulders before he'd stop again.
This particular day the Major was driving Mattie to help the farmer clear stones. He landed Mattie into a place called Bellaghy, and Mattie started off boring holes. The Major was supposed to get the blast ready. But as soon as he got Mattie working, the Major started the car and drove off with enough explosives to blow up the Mansion House in Dublin.
The Major drove down to this family that owed money from the previous day's work and said that Joe Maye, his boss, told him to collect his money. The farmer paid him and the Major headed directly for the pub-then from one pub to another. By four o'clock, which was getting dark, he still hadn't turned up for Mattie. So Mattie put the compressor in the farmer's shed and started walking the twenty miles home. There was Mattie heading down the road cursing the Major, when about two thirds of the way, this car passed him, zigzagging across the road. He looked up and saw it was the Major, who was so drunk he hadn't even seen Mattie.
The Major stayed on the road another four miles. Eventually Mattie came to the turn off the main road, then took a side road to our house. There was the dynamite-stuffed Volkswagen, the tail end sticking up out of the ditch with the Major sound asleep behind the wheel. He was snoring, with sticks of dynamite gel, detonators and fuses around him like spuds to a suckling roast. Mattie couldn't wake him, so he went looking for a local farmer to come with a tractor. The farmer said he'd tow the car out in the morning. That night they lugged the Major out of the car, and the farmer got both men up on the tractor and carried them home.
The next morning we all had to pull a Volkswagen full of dynamite out of the ditch. If it sparked, the Major would have been blown to bits. It was a narrow escape and we all told the story later, how "minced Major" was nearly served up to the countryside on the road to Ballindoon.
A Stray Bullet and Sick Cattle
THE MAJOR USED to get drunk. He'd come, during those times, and slip into Mattie Reagan's cabin while he was out feeding the cows. It was handy, Mattie's little house on the bank. In winter he would have a big roaring fire down beside his bed, and this particular day, I remember, he had the coal fire blazing. When he came in for a rest, who did he find but the Major, snoring away in his bed beside the fire.
Mattie said later, "If a man can't come home to his own empty bed, what can he do on this wide earth?" As he didn't want to appear inhospitable that day, however, he looked around for a solution that would clear his bed without his having to tell the Major to leave. He happened to have a little stray bullet out of a .22 rifle, and he just went over and dropped it into the fire. Then, quick as he could, he stepped out the door and around the corner to wait. The next thing, there was this ferocious bang. Sparks and smoke came out the door, as if the devil himself had landed. But it was only the Major, covered in soot. Mattie said, "A swallow never came out a door as fast as the Major!"
Everybody liked Mattie Reagan. He'd go over to the lake looking at cattle nearby, and would chat Tommy Flynn-who hired out boats on the lake. If Mattie caught Tommy at home he'd ask Tommy to come stand on the road near the gate to keep it open and then to shut it so he could change cattle from one field to another. Mattie always called Tommy "Mister Flynn." So after Mister Flynn helped organize the cattle and had closed the gate after them, it would be Flynn's turn to seize his chance. "Now, Mattie," he'd say, "you'll give me a hand to teem a boat." It was a five-minute job to drain water from a boat, but Mattie would look at the ground and answer him, "Oh, Mister Flynn, I'm not my own boss at all." Mattie wouldn't help him one whit and would point over his shoulder at my father (his boss) to step shy of Tommy. It's true he didn't want to lift and turn and maybe hurt his back, but more than that, he just refused for sheer devilment.
Flynn had two cattle ailing one time. They were brought out nearly on stretchers off Flynn's Island. Tommy called in two vets to examine these cattle to see what rare disease might be perplexing them. The boys were asking Flynn that night, at the rambling house, what the vet had said about his sick cattle. He started explaining how one vet said to give this bottle or that tonic as a remedy. Mattie Reagan was standing behind these neighbors who were asking the questions. The next thing, Mattie spoke up, bright as you please, and asked, "Tell me, Mister Flynn, did they say nary a word about a wisp of hay?-as much as to say what everyone knew-that these island cattle were likely dying of starvation. For it was a lot of trouble for Tommy to take the boat to his island and carry hay to these animals. Nobody knows how many cattle languished or perished on Flynn's Island, but these ones at least had the benefit of Mattie Reagan's quick tongue that night.
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