THE CHURCHYARD GATE
By Mattie Lennon
Eighty-seven-WW five- one eight.
The front numberplate appeared around Dillon’s corner.
Shafts of weak Autumn sunlight filtered through Birches and the exterior of Cleary’s hearse became……… quite a kaleidoscope.
Gestures were made towards hats and caps as hands darted vaguely towards foreheads shoulders and breasts in unison and with varying degrees of sleight-of-hand.
No interruption was evident in the conversation, by Templebennett Cemetery gate, at the approach of the cortege. The crowd, waiting in groups, outnumbered those following the hearse. Such is the custom around Glengowna that it is not perceived, (as in other places) a display of half-hearted homage, and does not in any way diminish the respect for the deceased, or the next of kin, to meet the funeral at the graveyard rather than accompanying it from the Church.
The assembly represented sections of the community as diverse as their transport, which only included one bicycle. Both sides of the road were taken up with vehicles ranging from an old Ford van, straw peeping under it’s rear door, and a canine as a captive occupant, to a left-hand-drive, Yellow Convertible saloon bearing Californian licence plates.
The owner of the former, shearing champion, Herbert Connell, commented on the driver of the latter, how he had negotiated the deceptive hairpin, at Larkhill Chapel, the previous evening, “wud wan lock”, an unusual feat for a stranger.
The subject of the complimentary remark, middle-aged, with a pleasant, tanned face, was standing across the road exchanging the odd remark with a couple of less-than-articulate locals.
He was staying, for a few days, at the small Chesterfield Arms Hotel in Ballycorrig, and this morning he had informed residents and staff that he was ; “ going to a real Irish funeral”. Though words like “mortician” and “necropolis” were now being uttered with a Montery drawl, the Havana was not held ostentatiously; rather he was toying with it and flicking what appeared to be a gold cigar-cutter, with the other hand.
A stonecutter, an inquisitive individual, (recently nicknamed Paddy Brasswings, after the character in Seamus Murphy’s “Stone Mad”), who had the dubious talent of being able to eavesdrop on a number of conversations simultaneously while at the same time interrogating the person nearest to him now spoke. “Yer man….the Yank….he must be the first outsider ever, not to pass remarks about the Indian design of the parapets of Templebennett Bridge”.
The bridge, which stands about a hundred yards to the South of the graveyard, was built as a Relief Scheme by local Landlord, Col. Smith, who had served with the East India Company.
The kindness of the Landlord, and the Relief Scheme, were discussed now, as they always were when Templebennett Bridge came up as a topic.
On this occasion one of the listeners, paying attention, with toothless abandon, was a “harmless lad” from Knockstook, John Norman, whose habit it was to express agreement with all comment, by replying in the affirmative, having first called on his Maker to sanction it.
Now, when it was said that the Relief Scheme was a great help to the people of the area, John replied; “Be God it was,……….sure they would have died wud the hunger around here on’y for the famine”.
An event which took place a century after Black Forty-seven was also being discussed, by the little bands, as the hearse inched it’s way down the Pay Bank towards the entrance which had admitted the Faithful Departed for a millennium and a half.
When Publican, Liz O’Byrne’s kind comments about the deceased, were answered in a monosyllabic undertone by Joe “the poet” Donovan, she didn’t see it as dismissal. Liz knew “the poet” well enough to perceive that he was daydreaming. Joe had read somewhere that every word spoken is recorded somewhere in the universe. And he was now thinking that if, through an astral, as yet intangible dimension, the tangle of murmuring voices around him could be recalled, the full story of the corpse under discussion would emerge.
Fr. Martin, red-faced and new to the Parish waited. Had he moved close to any of the small clusters the conversation would cease, or at least change. Some would fear being branded scandalmongers but most would feel they lacked the sophistication to impart a tale so delicate to The Lord’s Anointed.
One person who did not share the peasant feelings of the majority- superficially at any rate- was James O ‘Connor. James was a plumber by trade, but would be seen as someone who considered himself “a step above buttermilk”.
The ability to comment on classical music, justify every aspect of his own life and his moderate success at shedding the Glengowna accent placed him apart.
He walked with assurance, which he, no doubt say as dignity. He was always referred to, by children, as Mr.O ‘Connor and by a proportion of adults as “that bollix”.
He now stood, well dressed, sporting a soft hat, with the new Priest, traces of pipe-jointing compound, on his hands, the only tell-tale sign that he was working class.
With rounded vowels and eloquence he was imparting to the Clergyman, what perhaps a hundred others were ruminating in the vernacular of the countryside.
When the hearse wheels came to rest on the grass, Fr. Martin began to unroll his Stol. His body inclined forward, but his feet, for a couple of seconds seemed reluctant to follow.
As duty dragged him away from the words of James O ‘Connor, heads were bared and the Sign of The Cross was made by all, slowly and devoutly.
When Martin Cleary, and his son, slid out the coffin, as burly men offered assistance, the Breastplate, inscribed with MARY DALY AGED 92 seemed to produce a light of it’s own. The hum of half a century’s reminisces lowered a few decibels but, for the most part, continued in whispered intensity.
On an April evening in 1947 as 15 year-old Johnny O ‘Shea was chopping firewood in Daly’s haggard he felt…..looked down…..and…..saw…….half of his index finger on the ground.
A year earlier, on leaving Knocknacarrig National School, he came to work for old Pat Daly and his 42 year-old daughter Mary.
When Pat , like many others in the Parish went to his reward in the bad winter of 1947 Johnny remained to look after Mary’s forty-five mountainy acres.
Predictions of litigation were delivered, with the certainty of all fireside-law, by neighbours: “They’ll put her out on the road”……….an’ him a class of a citeog as well…..ambi…..whatsomever you call it”.
All forecasts proved inaccurate ….the O’ Sheas did not sue.
Despite the fact that Johnny was nicknamed “The Ramrod” by some patrons of De Vesey’s Barn-cinema his new found responsibility did not bring arrogance. He was young and the slight over-usage of the personal pronoun-when occasionally referring to the stock and crops as “mine” was allowed.
When he sold 4 two-year-old Shorthorns, in the October fair of Ballycorrig, his ashplant was held with quite confidence. A pair of red boots (the authentic trademark of the farmer-cum-jobber) drew the odd comment.
Compliments about his bargaining powers, for one so young, were shrugged off without trace of haughtiness and neighbours who inquired……” Why didn’t yous Winter them” got evasive answers.
As the veil of night crept down Church Mountain, farmers who were out once a year told each other; “You didn’t go home yet”.
Crude forestry-pole barriers were removed from pub doors, and cow dung was hosed and converted into slurry (‘though the word would not be coined for another two decades).
Johnny O ‘Shea was seen boarding Duke’s cattle-lorry bound for Dublin.
Mary Daly had not authorised, agreed to or received any proceeds from the sale.
For most of the Winter, the seed, breed and generation-maternal and paternal- of the O’Sheas were analysed around Glengowna and surrounding townlands; where emphasis was put on pedigree more than on track-record.
In this case the consensus was that; “….it’s not in his race to do such a thing”.
Through December the cattle incident slowly descended the list of conversation priorities.
On Christmas morning a woman from across the hill, in Larkhall for her Christmas Duty, commiserated with Mary, only to be told; “I hope he took enough”. A search of her eyes for sarcasm or bitterness proved fruitless.
February told a tale.
The most innocent remark, about anything, took on a double meaning in Glengowna.
The practice of locating sheep buried in snowdrifts, by probing with a rod (a method known as “poleing”) provided a welcome double-entendre for the punsters.
“She won’t die like a mule anyway”…….”It won’t spoil her growth” and such clichés were the order of the day, and any mention of Johnny O ‘Shea would be met with some variation of; “It was only his finger he got with the hatchet”.
On a March evening, with Slieve Airgead showing all the signs of a favourable spring, Martin’s hackney car collected Mary.
The neighbours looked after her farm for three weeks and children were told she was “…….gone to stay with a cousin one side o’ the Curragh”.
Uncharacteristically, for Glengowna, feelings dictated that events of that year would be put firmly in oblivion, or as firmly as is possible, in such cases.
Years later when a stranger, a schoolmaster, referred to Mary’s “tragedy” he was let know that he was talking out of turn and using the word out of it’s capacity.
Ration-books went and electric light came. Glengowna moved with the times, like most other places, except in the area of charity, where it remained rooted in the past. An old-fashioned kindness prevailed to the extent that any farmer would leave his own work undone to give Mary Daly a hand. And he would not even be subjected to the customary good-natured slagging for doing so.
And so 1947 was merely a milestone. A milestone on a road that was to wind through disappointment and contentment for four decades.
A quartet of males, representing four generations, had collectively digressed and was reminiscing about the palatal pleasure given by the sloes in Templebennet Graveyard on the journey home from school over four-score years. The youngest of the four made an unappetising remark about the source of the nutrition to the Blackthorn bushes but the oldest participant was no longer listening……
In the hope of getting his Kapp-and-Peterson filled (ready for the post-funeral “blast outa th’ oul pipe”) 89 year-old Tom Lawless vigorously ground Potamac plug tobacco with trembling hands. He spat at regular intervals, each time adding to the build-up of saliva on his lapel. (A neighbour with a mathematical turn of mind had earlier calculated that Tom had smoked three quarters of a ton of plug tobacco in his lifetime) Now, he stepped forward, as if symbolically breaking ranks. Shuffling his feet he gave a nervous laugh accompanied by the clank of ill-fitting dentures. With a glance to each side, to establish that he had commanded enough attention, he, audibly, gave his throat a final clearing, which said; “I’m now taking centre stage”.
His pipe is filled he’s ready. Indicating the Yank’s cigar-cutter he said; “…….Begob that’s a dangerous looking weapon…….but it was hardly wud that that he cut the top off his finger”.