Monday, 30 May 2011

A night in Ballinamore.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author.

Copyright © 1984 by Peter Damien Murphy

Where the road through Dromore made its last tired turn before sloping down to the wet places of Ceannabo it could be seen: Dolan's – the hub of the village since beyond memory. When the narrow gauge ran the bar was, by its proximity, the house of choice for the railwaymen who spent their days rubbing oily rags on the gleaming plates and great wheels of the engines that came all the way from Carrigallen on their way down to Killeshandra. At night they would gather over glowing balls of malt and dark pools of forgiving stout. This was the time between crude days of labour and lonely nights in the houses of women and children. Some would linger, clinging to each other while parting with hard won shillings that might have found better use.

These men were a breed apart from their agrarian neighbours – those that scratched the earth for the want of a trade in the vain hopes that God honoured the virtues of toil.

The Railwaymen, too, had their farms but they were men of the new age of machines and “travel only to arrive at a destination without ever savouring the twists and turns of the road," as the fiddler's father had noted. "The people can now travel all the way to Longford while learning nothing of anyone along the road. T'sure there's no luck in that.”

The trains were long gone, a victim of the future that trundled in their wake, but the railwaymen were still considered to be men of ‘learning’ in the ways of the new world and on an intellectual par with those who ‘had been in America’.  It was also widely held that their knowledge, like their ever-present grime, was absorbed into the pores and into the blood to be passed on to the next generation.  It was common for the farmers to speak of someone as ‘black with his father’.

Old man Dolan, who was long dead, had managed to maintain the loyalty of both camps and it wasn’t unusual to have the railwaymen drinking their wages in the company of some tight-fisted farmer ‘having a couple’ off the back of a pair of young bullocks now bawling consternation from the far corner of the next county. 

"It was," as McDevitt noted, "the only pub in the world where Neanderthals could rub shoulders with Rocket Scientists and neither would make the differ."


 Everyone knew that it had to be discussed. Rumours were rife for nearly a fortnight and had even travelled to the ears of the parish priest causing him to sermonize on the need to recant the old beliefs and embrace the "one true God and forsake the snakes of idle fancy."

With the subtlety of a Jesuit he called attention to the statue of Mary crushing the head of the serpent with her bare and shapely heel. "God’s own mother," he had intoned, "befouled her holy heel so that we might be free of the Devil and all those who would carry his idle thoughts. Be careful that your heads are not full with the thoughts of the serpent."

But no one was sure where to begin. This was a time-honoured tradition to be observed, rituals to be enacted – foreplay before social intercourse.

"T'is an odd class of weather, to be sure," offered a young farmer from Swanlinbar.

"T'is indeed," rang the response.

"To be sure, to be sure," chimed the two from Cloone, where people prided themselves on being different.

"T'is a local class of a meteorological phenomenon," stated McDevitt who owned the Chemist shop and had spent years in a University beyond in Dublin or some such place. Those around him stirred uneasily sensing that the man, who made a living selling cow powders and unexplainable items to women, might sully the sanctity of the evening.

"I have never seen such change," re-joined Swanlinbar.

“Never, never in all the days," incanted the Cloones and began to nod their heads causing ripples around the room. For a moment this eased the burden of anticipation but like the crows up by Duggan's scarecrow it soon settled again.  Everyone was waiting but no one was yet sure how to open the matter.

"T'was an awful year for rain," said McGovern who, like all farmers, knew that nothing could be discussed until the weather had been properly analyzed and all present had commented on the same. It was by these comments that men could measure the minds of others and know their thoughts and line of thinking.

"Never seen it so dry," puffed Dooner without removing his pipe. Dooner hated McGovern for some slight neither could now remember.

"Awful year for rain . . . so dry," echoed the Cloones in a disharmony that no one seemed to notice.

"T'was a most unsettled class of a year and a most disconcerting time for country folk," said Duignan whose sister was a nun and encouraged her brother to elevate himself likewise with affected speech and an intimacy with the deeper mysteries of religious matter. "T'is a good time to have faith with All Souls upon us", he continued and paused for breath so that he could launch forth. But McDevitt saved the day.

"It’s well known," he stated to his glowing whiskey, "that ever since the Russians sent that poor dog up to the stars that the weather is broken and with the killing of John in Dallas that nature can never again be put to right."

"God knows," cried Duignan, indignant at the intrusion and now ready to continue.

"T'is enough to make you wonder why there isn’t more born with two heads and the hag's mark on them," stated McDevitt flatly and with a feigned disinterest.

No one spoke. 

The matter was now upon the table and the room heaved a sigh of release, though all felt McDevitt guilty of a serious breach of protocol in rushing headlong into the matter before the weather could have turned to saving the hay which would have led to the price of cattle which would have led to the matter which was burning through the countryside and causing sleepless nights from Lough Sheelin to the Shannon. Patrick Galligan, a poor respectable farmer on the north side of Dromore, had recently added to the great wonders of the world when his old black cow had given birth to a two-headed calf upon whose rump, as plain as a nose, was the fiery imprint of the hand of Medb, the worst woman in the Underworld.

Galligan could have been suspected of dabbling in the black arts were it not for the fact that he had ‘two brothers as priests’ – and one of them was eaten by the Bulubas of the Congo. Some had claimed that it was at the paws of a lion that the holy father had gone to meet the Lord but up in Ceannabo, the image of Michael, naked and in among the assorted vegetables, in a great big pot, on top of a roaring fire surrounding by screaming black heathens whose genitals flapped in the hot jungle night, had become an entrenched part of folk lore. But even that conversational delicacy was now forgotten as all minds turned to mull over this sign from Lucifer himself that the end was upon us all.

In the silence that followed, men began to examine their pipes, searching for the next word. Billy Brown, whose hand had never felt his pocket lining, forget himself and ordered drink for himself and his neighbour – one Patrick Joseph Mulcahy, the biggest man in the county.

Seizing good fortune was the latter's only joy in life. He finished his pint in one long swallow and as he wiped the froth from his great moustache, calmly ordered a large whiskey too!

"You know," he said, not looking at McDevitt, "that t'is easy money that makes a man's head empty and ripe for planting foolishness."

"Is that a fact," retorted the bemused Chemist with sham indignation. "I suppose," he continued, "that you would be slow to credit that it was Medb herself, that confronted Tommy Clyne beyond on Drumbeag and whitened his hair and left him speechless to this day."

"Clyne's a fool, as were all belonging to him," snorted the big man, "and wouldn’t have known steam from Diesel even if the stoker had pissed upon him."

A murmur of approval ran through the railwaymen to the consternation of the farmers whose loyalty to Clyne, one of their own, must now be defended by the Chemist who they all considered ‘mad from reading books.’

"The only spirit that buccko saw was the bad poteen his stock have been peddling across the land since the Earls went to Spain," laughed Mulcahy.

The joke was shared by all the railwayman who patted each other’s backs and slapped their thighs and jeered at the farmers.

"T'is too true for you Pat," whined Creamer, a weaselly little man who now sidled up behind Mulcahy to bask in the deflected glory.

"T'is you that would know about that," returned the Chemist, "wasn't it from drinking the same that your father drove the ‘Lough Allen’ right through the sheds and into the convent hen house long ago."

Mulcahy flinched. No one else would have dared raise the matter for fear of a close encounter with his hammer-like fists – capable of changing years of genetic engineering and the geography of a man's face. But McDevitt was not the sort of man you could hit, him being educated and his sister married to Flanagan, the solicitor.

Sensing his advantage McDevitt returned to the sad tale of the hapless Clyne. "T'was known after that she sat there waiting for him gnawing on the hind leg of a dog and staring with her big red eye. She had teeth like a buck-rake and hadn’t a stitch of clothing for she didn't need any. Her un-Godly bulk was covered in slimy scales."

"Scales," shouted Mulcahy, "Scales you say, that's all ye can think of. Nothing but sceiles[i] as long as your arm or the bill you give the poor farmers for the useless medicines you do pass off on their poor, sick animals."

Now it was McDevitt’s turn to wound. No farmer liked to part with money and he always felt that they viewed him as a quack. However all men lived in dead of Broughton – the vet whose drunken brawls were infamous. No one dared to ignore his insistence on whatever strange and expensive dose he might order for some ailing livestock.

Seeking to regain his advantage, McDevitt searched his glass. Turning slowly he smiled at the big man, and in a low voice from a broadening smile quipped, "It's a pity your old fella' used up all his steam in the hen house and left none for you. The nuns tell me that the cock hasn’t had to work since."

The arrow found its mark on the childless Mulcahy who exploded into his great rage. He jumped to his feet knocking the hapless Brown off his stool and squashing the snivelling Creamer against the wall. "Lord Thundering Jazus," he roared, "if you were an honest man I'd kill you."

"Yerra go on with ya," sneered the Chemist who had seen the policeman enter and knew that no assault would take place while the long arm of the law was busy raising free pints, "when would you find an honest man in your company."    


Mulcahy, all in a rage, stormed from the bar and turned his hot flustered face for home. He would settle matters with the Chemist some other time but for now all that he wanted was to bathe his shame in his solution for all problems – work. He had plans. He would drain the wetland at the bottom of the big field and remove the row of Hawthorns that ‘did nobody a bit of good.’ Perhaps by the spring he would have the Widow Moran's holding out from under her – and for next to nothing.

"That'll learn them," he called aloud. "When I own half of the county – It's me they'll credit and have no time for chemists or sceiles of bitches or witches."

He had little time for superstitions that could distract his idle neighbours whose ill-fed cattle would come poking through the hedgerows were it not for his endless repair. His own cattle were fine beasts that stood in clover calling taunts to their scrawny neighbours. He believed in the future and longed for the day when it would come and ‘all the lot of them would be sent scattering for want of a bit of sense.’ "But they'll be too busy listening to McDevitt,” he mused and would have mulled some more over his recent wounds but he sensed that he wasn’t alone on this dark stretch of the road.

"Up there by the chestnut,” he whispered to himself, "one of them bastards is hiding – waiting to have sport with me.” He paused in mid-step and knew at once what he would do. Stepping through a gap in the hedge he would walk on the other side and come upon his ‘assailant’ from the rear. The moon would be before him and he would have the right light for a good swing. He gripped his stick tighter and moved forward.

There he is, he thought, hiding by that rock. Have sport with me, would he? I'll learn the bastard. He strode forward and raised his stick. The blood was roaring through him and he swung with all his might at the head behind the rock.

 Medb lashed out and broke his arm as the stick clattered down on the stones of the road. Her fingers were on his throat before he had time to cry out. Spider-like, she hauled her great bulk on top of him. She raised his face to her's and the light in her eyes was green. "Will you credit me now,” she hissed.

"No,” croaked Mulcahy, "you're nothing but a vile bitch spawned in Hell. T'is soon enough that you and your like will be no more.”

"It's you that will be no more,” she said tightening her grip, "you're nothing but the whimpering child of noisy engines and dirt. Be off with you now into the future you crave ".

After tearing out his heart she turned and waved her prize at the distant village and howled into the night. 

[i] Sceiles - from the Irish -meaning stories, usually false.