Chapter 19 - Tales of Long Ago
Their Daddy's homecoming in the evening was the highlight of the day for the O'Hara family. Once he was home the whole house felt secure. Kathleen's great pleasure was when her handsome father took her on his knee and talked about the past when he was a young lad in County Mayo. She was interested, as she didn't know any of her Daddy's family. His parents were dead and the longing for home lessened as his own family increased.
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His father was Headmaster of the local school and he could be stern at home as well as at school. Their Daddy was the youngest of seven sons and two daughters and his own father had been a seventh son too. He mentioned this one morning when in the mood for reminiscing.
"The seventh son of a seventh son is considered lucky, Daddy", remarked Kathleen, "but sure you know that anyway".
"Ah sure, I was the shakin's of the bag. I was still a young lad at school when two of my elder brothers were already established in America. The eldest went out first and found a job and then sent for the next brother. Eventually my two sisters followed too."
"And why did they cross the ocean to work?"
"Sure dear child, there wasn't enough work to keep them all at home, so when the time came they followed their elder brother, sure of a job and a place to rest their heads. Indeed wasn't it the same with all the neighbours around. Our place was small and was mostly run by my mother and two younger brothers still at home. That was until the younger of these two left to enter a Teacher's Training College. As a young lad I could speak the Irish language and I had a good palate for Irish whiskey too".
"I often wondered where you got the liking for it".
"Now Kathleen I took it in moderation and I still do. You know I used to run a mile to school, clutching me lunch in me hands as I crossed the fields and climbed the ditches".
"I suppose that was the short-cut Daddy".
"Well I suppose it was but we never thought about going any other way than across the fields. Do you know, I was so hungry betimes that I would have me lunch ate before I even got near the school and God knows I was starved by the time I got home again. Now as a little fellow I can still see me father, God be good to him, entering the house when the school was over. He was a big man and his frame darkened the door and he had to stoop to enter. My mother always had a good glass of whiskey waiting for him and while my parents conversed in Irish there was always a chance for me to have a wee sup too".
"Begorragh you started very young".
"Indeed I did child, around five years of age and as I said in moderation. I always thought it strange that me father who taught English at school all day, should fall into his native tongue when he crossed the threshold of his own house. I never heard my father and mother speak to each other any other way. It was a house of peace but we had musical interludes too. My father would take down the fiddle and play the old Irish melodies. We had an old organ too, sitting in the kitchen, that had been used by the older girls. Now it was my delight to sit down there and play away to my heart's content. Often my mother would sing along with me in her soft sweet voice while me father found a chair for her to sit close by. He'd stretch out his long legs and light up his pipe. Boy they were days of sheer contentment.
"I suppose it was a comfortable enough kitchen. It had a settlebed close to the wall and it's dark paint shone against the glow from the turf fire. From time to time my mother blew the bellows and the sparks flew up often catching the breast of the chimney, making wonderful designs in colours of the rainbow with the little pieces of soot at the back of the fire. With the kitchen aglow you could catch the eyes of my sisters looking out from their framed pictures on the wall, beaming their benedictions on us. They had young faces and their expressions were a wee bit on the haughty side. They wore fancy Victorian hats. Their pictures had pride of place on the kitchen wall and when the Family Rosary was said every evening at nine o'clock, they were never forgotten.
"The old house stood level with the road but the neighbour's houses were further down the boreen. They were whitewashed, thatched cottages all looking across Carrower Lake. Here we spent our childhood helping to cut the turf in the bog, bringing it home by pony and cart and stacking it neatly against the stone wall facing the kitchen door. The Docherty's were our neighbours and when it came to the cutting of the turf they all helped. Boys oh Boys! Weren't they the tall men that came out of the Docherty's wee cottage. They were all well over six feet tall and had to stoop as they entered and left their cottage. When the time came they all made their way to America too. They were tough but they rarely saw a joint of meat. None of us did. Most days it was praties, eggs and butter but we had plenty of fresh vegetables, turnips and parsnips. Sometimes there was a pot roast on Sundays. Then we stacked the hot turf on the lid of the pot and a juicier, tastier meal you couldn't find anywhere. An odd time during the week we might cook a chicken, but they were usually left in peace to scratch around the yard and produce their eggs".
"Did you not get playing at all?"
"Of course we did. We played and fought together and Carrower was a source of delight to us with lovely blue Nephin protectively close. Mind you it was said that if you could see Nephin it was going to rain and when you couldn't it was raining! We did our little bit of fishing and the fish were a welcome change on the dinner plate. Do you know Kathleen, I could while away the hours just looking at that lake and watching the birds sweep down for their catch, lying there on my back, stretched out between the rocks just watching nature at work. The birds were my special delight. I would gaze up to the sky, enthralled by the song of the lark, with the sweet air filling my lungs and the bog flowers tickling my nose. I could be King for a day. In the evening I'd hear the call of the curlew coming over the bog. Then I knew it was time for a young man to be getting home".
"It must have been a lovely place to grow up in. Did you not take a look at the girls?"
"Of course I did. Mind you the men of the west had to be tough and nature could be cruel. Those winds from the Atlantic brought their share of rain and gales. That's when we walked into the winds with our heads forward and down, fighting the winds and the rain all the way. The mists seemed to hang over the bog most of the winter and darkness came early. The turf had to be stacked close to the house ready for use. It could be very damp too but when the ould bellows got to work and the flames circled around the black singing kettle, they enclosed the whole room in their warm glow."
"You didn't tell me how you came to Crossmaglen".
"Work Kathleen. Work! I was the youngest and not married and not anxious to emigrate either, so I eventually landed up in Dublin Castle, a raw recruit for the Police. It was the only job I could get at the time and still stay close to my mother and father. Law and order, they said, was our job. The first years were peaceful and I loved the life. From 1916 onwards there were times of great divisions and uncertainty and wearing a uniform certainly wasn't the safest type of work. Indeed it left you a marked man."
"Will you tell us about the time you were kidnapped?"
"Yes Kathleen, but sure you must have heard it a dozen times or more".
As he was in the mood for talking she was quite happy to let him continue.
"I happened to be stationed in Camlough, a wee town I grew to love and indeed all its inhabitants as well. Lovely people they were. Here I had the mountains all around me, looking down on one of the loveliest lakes in all Ireland. Before we come to the kidnapping, let me tell you first about my introduction to Camlough as a young policeman. Remember, they were troubled times. I had my first baptism of fire when by some mysterious coincidence all the other policemen were out and I was the only one in the Barracks when it was attacked. The lone custodian. As I look back now, I realise just how young and innocent I was. How did I, the youngest and rawest recruit there, with divil a bit of sense, come to be alone in the Barracks? All my seniors had departed to destinations unknown and it was my duty to hold the fort.
"I must say I felt alone and nervous as night approached and this was heightened by the loud barking of the dogs and footsteps close by, accompanied by the rustle of leaves. Whether it was excess of diligence or just ignorance on my part I don't know but I found my feet propelling me to one of the large Barrack windows. There I was, framed in the window, when the sound of a shot made me duck quickly and not a moment too soon. A bullet whizzed past my ear and embedded itself in the wall behind me. Firing then seemed to come from all directions while I dashed to pick up a gun. There I was, rushing from one window to the next and firing out into the dark night and miraculously escaping bullets from experienced marksmen. I will never know how long I defended the Barracks alone, or why they always missed me. When a Police Van appeared later on, the attackers had gone, like shadows fading into the night. I can tell you now child, the Police got the tip-off and disappeared. I must confess had I the same information on that night, I would have disappeared too".
"But you were a brave man. Thanks be to God they missed you".
"Brave be damned child. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there was nothing else to do. It was later on when I was on my second spell at Camlough, I had my second experience. At that time I was courting your Mammy and I had become the proud owner of a new bicycle".
"Wasn't that a miracle you meeting her?"
"Well yes Kathleen, but only with the help of your sainted grandmother. I came to Mobane while I was stationed in Crossmaglen. I had heard about this house full of lovely girls and at the first opportunity I made my way up there. I was greeted kindly by your Grandmother and invited to have a cup of tea. She was a lady of kindness and hospitality and she had the gift of making you feel at home. She had lovely daughters indeed. Altogether there were six of them and wasn't I the lucky one to meet and fall in love with your mother?"
"Well you could have done worse Daddy and so could me Mammy. Imagine having a father like Willie McIlroy. He'd have us walking around in our bare feet and him a shoemaker".
"I think we're getting away from the subject, Kathleen. And will you leave poor Willie alone. He does no harm to any man. Now let's get back to the subject you're supposed to be interested in.".
Enough said. She knew it was time to shut up.
"I was walking my bicycle up a steep hill towards the Police Barracks at Camlough. I'd been transferred back there after spells in Crossmaglen and Warrenpoint. I was proud of that new bicycle with its shiny bell, pump and lamp. The sun glinted on the handlebars and even the chain looked bright and shiny. I always made sure it was well oiled. It was my day off and I was preparing to cycle to Mobane to see your Mammy. My thoughts were elsewhere and I failed to notice a van pulled up ahead of me. The next thing I knew masked figures appeared from nowhere, blindfolded me and hustled me into the back of the van. I didn't know where they were taking me but I could feel the steel of the bicycle against my leg.
"I suppose I was driven about fifteen miles when we came to a farm. Cows were nearby and the smell of the milking mingled with that of the dunkel. So I was close to nature, but a prisoner, blindfolded and at the mercy of those who guarded me. Evening faded and night was with us. The lady of the house lit the oil lamp and kept a good fire burning. She gave me some nourishment and I sensed her kindness as she fed me. She moved about quietly and when I asked for a drink of water she was very willing to oblige. I sensed her presence through the night vigil, and it was a very long night.
"My thoughts kept returning to my new bicycle. What would they do with it? Would they dispose of it or maybe one of the sons of the house would one day make claim to it. I didn't think much on my own life and I certainly didn't feel brave. I reckoned God and these men had already settled my life and there wasn't much I could do about it. Guarded footsteps came and went through the long lonely night and whispered conversations told me two men were guarding me.
"As day broke, the farm came to life. The animals needed attention. Yet they found time to give me breakfast. The morning rolled on slowly towards noon. I sensed a great deal of movement and activity. Shortly after, still blindfolded, I was taken out and put in a vehicle, presumably the van I had come in. My ear adjusted to sounds and distant movement and I felt I might be in the area of Crossmaglen. After a ride when my thoughts were confused, I was still worried about the new bike, the van stopped and I was forcibly ejected. I was left standing in the middle of the road with the blindfold still on.
"I thought my end had come. I fumbled in my pocket for my Rosary. I tried to say the Act of Contrition but God forgive me I couldn't pray. I waited and then as nothing seemed to be happening I pulled the blindfold off. I could scarcely believe my eyes. There I was, standing in the middle of the road, not a car in sight, not too far from the Police Barracks in Camlough. My brand new bicycle was standing against the ditch at the side of the road. I made a dart for it and found it to be in perfect condition. I mounted it and cycled to the Barracks, only one day late getting back. To this day I'm mystified why I was kidnapped in the first place and why the I.R.A. didn't shoot me, but I'll always be grateful too for the kindness shown to me at the farm house".
"Ah sure, they must have known you were courtin' Mammy and they didn't want to spoil the romance".
Her parents exchanged knowing glances but allowed Kathleen's opinion to go unchallenged.