Chapter 32 - The Flavour of Mobane
Mobane was decidedly the flavour of the year for Kathleen and when the school summer holidays came she wasn't slow in getting herself invited to spend her holidays there. For her it was a glorious time. She was free to move amongst the friendly neighbours, walk the lanes - called 'loanins' locally - where the wild flowers grew in abundance, foxgloves mingling with the large blue thistles. Honeysuckle covered the hedges and here and there the blue periwinkles and the White Star of Bethlehem peeped out in clusters to gaze at the sun. Conviviality reigned in the house and each evening the locals would sit around the fire and exchange crack and jokes with the promise of a game of cards in the offing.
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They had their own Card School and spent most of their evenings playing Solo Whist or Poker. Kathleen found herself making tea for twelve or maybe sixteen people. It was all great fun with her Aunt and Uncle playing as well. Sometimes the older men might decide to cross the border to have a drink in McGinty's Pub. The drink was cheaper in The State. Kathleen had never been to McGinty's Pub but she had seen the results of some of the escapades connected with it.
The men always took the short cut over the bog and across the river which meandered between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Once they had walked the plank across the stream, they were over the border. Bogland was "No Man's Land" and a favourite route for smugglers. Many a man had walked the plank to get his few glasses of porter at the cheaper price. Returning home could be more hazardous depending on the amount of drink taken. From time to time someone would miss the plank and land in the stream pulling one of his companions in along with him. Willing hands always revived them when they reached Mobane House. Dripping clothes were hung from a brass rod over the fire and the Card School went on as thought nothing had happened.
Three regular visitors to McGinty's were well known to Kathleen. They were Gerry Devlin, Mickey McEnteggart and wee Mickey O'Brien; all grand men when sober but they could be as awkward as tied asses when they got jarred. They enjoyed arguing with each other. As there was no way of stopping the arguments she settled down to listen whenever possible. After all, Gerry was her Godfather, not that it was anything to boast about as he never bothered to mention it. Big Mickey McEnteggart and wee Mickey O'Brien made a comic pair. If little Mickey aspired to fade into the landscape, his attempts to do so certainly had the opposite effect. When alongside Big Mickey who was tall, sparse and thin, the effect was laughable.
To start with Mickey O'Brien was short of stature but always wore an overcoat
more befitting a tall man. He draped his small body in a voluminous coat that met the top of his hobnailed boots. A small hat, greasy and old, was pulled well down over his face until it almost rested on his walrus moustache. Between the large overcoat and the hat there was very little of Wee Mickey's face to be seen. He kept his hands dug deep into the capacious pockets of the coat hanging low around his legs. Under the coat he wore a neat, brown and shiny suit which was well aged and looked as if it knew every bone and sinew of his body. He must have been a shy man for whatever gifts nature had bestowed on him he covered up to the best of his ability. Out of the house about all you could see of Mickey were boots, overcoat, moustache and hat. Mickey was a widower and lived with his son.
Wee Mickey was the perfect foil for Big Mickey, for where the one was small, covered up and hidden, the other was very tall, angular, bony and sharp, all arms and legs which protruded. Every suit he ever wore was too small. The trousers covered most of his legs but never reached his ankles. There was always a good display of sock complete with coloured darns. He was forever pulling down his sleeves but to no effect. They managed to cover his sharp elbows but no way could they ever reach his wrists. It was the same with his shirtsleeves. He pulled so had on them there was never a button left and they were fastened with safety pins. In repose his face had a sad and mournful expression. Tall and gaunt, he almost looked like a scarecrow just because he never managed to get a suit to cover up those long arms and legs of his. Nevertheless, he was a fine looking man, with a mop of dark wavy hair, dark eyes and good looks, marred by his disinterest in shaving. He spoke very fast and his conversation as peppered with the exclamation, "It's a terror", sometimes repeated twice, or varied into "It's a holy terror", and in extreme cases "It's a holy divine terror". When the two Mickeys walked along together Big Mickey leaned constantly to one side, the better to hear Wee Mickey's conversation. A fount of wisdom he was. A constant flow of good-natured banter passed between them and they didn't spare each other when commenting on each other's appearance. Big Mickey was a bachelor who lived alone.
This evening the pair called in on their way from McGinty's Pub ready for a game of cards. Big Mickey stretched out his legs to the fire exposing his darning to all around.
"I didn't know you liked darning Mickey", said Kathleen.
"Oh Jasus gersha I don't and I never will".
"Who did your darning then?"
"Now that would be tellin'".
He gazed down at Kathleen.
"Next thing it would be all round the school like wildfire".
She blushed, lowered her eyes and decided it would be better just to watch the cards.
Little Mickey had the reputation of being a wealthy man in his day, having made his fortune in America. He drummed a rhythm on the table and clutched his cards to his chest while the others maintained an unnatural calm. Sharp glances were made from one to the other across the table.
"I'll raise you Mickey", called Gerry as he placed his money on the table carefully and belligerently.
"This time I have the batin' of ye".
Mickey quietly surveyed the players. There was no further competition and he said,
"I'll raise ye again".
"And with what?" asked Gerry, "You've got all you have on the table. Now just give in like a dacent fella. I'll collect the pot".
"Just a minute Gerry. Take it aisy. I'm not finished yet. In fact I'm only startin'".
He fumbled in one pocket and then in the other. Eyes around the table followed all his movements. Finally, he extracted an old wallet from his inside pocket, produced some old rolled-up notes which he carefully placed on the table. With all the time in the world he unrolled each note and tried to iron out the creases with the back of his hand, all the time eyeing his audience over the rim of his glasses. The look had a question mark with it.
"We'll be here for a month of Sundays", was all Kathleen heard as feet shuffled under the table and hands beat out a rhythm of impatience accompanied by loud sighs and the muttering of his companions.
Kathleen never knew the result that night as it was time for her to go to bed, very unwillingly, but on the following day she approached Mickey O'Brien on the subject of his wealth. He told her he had travelled the world and made his fortune, returning home with a chest full of treasure. Kathleen had seen a big black chest through the door of Mickey's bedroom when she called one day at his home with a can of buttermilk. It seemed very securely locked.
"Tell me Mickey, what is that chest of yours worth?"
"Why dear child, it's priceless. You don't think I carried that chest all across America for nothin'. It was with me when I swam the Missouri River, tramped the snows of Yukon, and when I stretched me limbs out in the warm waters off Florida. Aye and when I rode the prairie lands and climbed the High Sierras".
He raised his arms skywards as though he was still in those far off mountains.
"Lord Mickey, weren't you the wonder? You must have met a lot of nice girls. Did they speak English?"
He didn't hear her. He was back in the past.
"Ah even when I .... Well anyway all the time I was fillin' that chest with treasure".
She was round eyed with wonder.
"Ah you're a wonderful man Mickey".
She meant it. She really loved wee Mickey.
Not long afterwards Kathleen heard quite a different story from Uncle Ned, as he sipped his tea in the kitchen, in his favourite position, lying on the sofa. Wee Mickey always used the short cut to the border pub, with Mickey McEnteggart and Gerry, his regular companions. On this occasion Gerry made an excuse that he wasn't feeling too good and said he would stay at home and take an early night. Uncle Ned said,
"Mickey was flabbergasted".
He said, "Bejabers, I don't know what the world's comin' to when you need an early night. A man of your age should be up and going. Now if you had my years on you, you might just have an excuse".
Gerry had arranged with Ned that as soon as the boyos were clear, they would go to Mickey's house and investigate the black trunk containing his treasure.
Wee Mickey's house sat snugly in from the road at the bottom of John Aisy's hill and not two minutes from Mobane Crossroads. The boys sauntered down, opened the barred gate into the yard in front of the house and made for the front door. Mickey's old collie appeared out of he darkness and started barking.
"I nearly had a fit Kathleen when that dark shadow came out of the night. Anyway, the old dog gave us a good sniff, recognised the two of us and quietly returned to the hay shed to sleep. We were timid enough as we unlatched the front door and stepped into the kitchen. Of course Gerry had to fall over the churn standing right in the middle of the floor. We couldn't see one another for a while. Presently, by the light of the turf glowing in the hearth, our eyes began to focus around and then we discovered the bedroom door ajar. I felt myself being pushed towards that door. It was a dark stained door, which creaked as I pushed it open.
"By now we were getting impatient. I shone me torch around but there wasn't much to look at. He hadn't bothered to make his bed and his clothes were bundled on a very old chair with an upright cane back. The door of the wardrobe was hanging on its hinges and he hadn't bothered to open the curtains on the little window."
"'Come on Ned, where's the chest?' Gerry called out to me as he was sounding impatient. So I moved forward and with me stalwart friend giving me an extra push I nearly fell over the bloomin' chest. There it was, the famous treasure chest, old, black and firmly padlocked. It had a certain battered dignity about it as though it had been dragged through a lifetime of escapades. We stooped and tried to lift it but sure we could be lifting yet. It wouldn't budge an inch.
"'God that treasure is heavy enough', said Gerry, and try as we might it wouldn't open. In the end Gerry got down on his knees.
"'I'll have to pick the lock', says he 'and I'm the one that knows how to do it'. That was strange coming from Gerry. I knew he was a good bricklayer but never knew he was an expert on locks. It was one of his hidden talents. Anyway, he set about it with a piece of wire and the next ten minutes seemed like an eternity. The auld clock in the kitchen ticked away and time wasn't on our side. Me hands were sweating and I could hear the pounding of me heart.
"Suddenly the lock gave. Reverently we raised the lid. I shone the torch all round the inside of the trunk an divil a sign was there of a treasure. It was empty except for a battered, old, hard hat resting right in the centre and smelling of mothballs. When we lifted the hat we found the chest nailed to the floor with good strong nails. Sure no wonder we couldn't lift it. And that was all we saw of Mickey's treasure, if there was one.
"Later on, wee Mickey got wind of our breaking into his house and he was fit to be tied. We had no right, says he, to enter his house without an invitation, yet he was never out of ours and I never remember giving him a special invitation.
"'After what you hooligans have done', says he, 'you can understand why I have to take precautions. I have a fortune alright but its where it is that's a secret I'm keepin' to meself'. And sure enough he did. To this day no one has set eyes on Wee Mickey's fortune, if there was one. Certainly he never throws his money about and he's never stopped trying to bluff Gerry at the poker table".
During Kathleen's holidays in Mobane it wasn't unusual for her Uncle Ned and his pals to spend some nights fishing for eels. All she knew was that he left the house at midnight and was back home about eight o'clock the next morning. A rowdy lot they were, pulling off long wading boots and wet suits. Recently she had heard them talking about damming the river just beyond Hughie's where it was narrow and they'd have a good catch. Hughie was one of Ned's pals and his home was right on the border. In fact part of the house was in the North and the smaller area containing the shop was in the Free State. He couldn't have asked for a better arrangement and made a good living from the situation.
Kathleen was dressed and eating her breakfast when her Uncle walked in the back door straight into the kitchen after one of his nocturnal fishing expeditions, bleary eyed and red in the face. He threw a large sack on the floor, sat on the sofa and peeled off his waders.
"Well Kathleen, I bet you never saw a sight like that before".
Her gaze followed his to the sack and she shot up from the table. Her plate fell in pieces close the sack which was heaving on the floor, indicating that something very much alive was inside it. From her illness, she still had a horror of snakes and was speechless with fear as she watched the sack heaving and writhing.
"Don't worry Kathleen, it's all in a good night's work and what better for a man's breakfast than a nice fresh eel?"
By now he was undoing the sack and a long snake-like fish slithered to the floor. Kathleen's fear of snakes was vivid and she recoiled but her feet wouldn't move.
"Hurry up Eileen and get the pan on. We're in for a treat".
She watched, petrified, as he picked up one of the long silvered slinky creatures, laid it on the table and started to chop it up with a very sharp knife. He cut the pieces like steaks and put them into the pan of hot dripping. Glory be the pieces were still wriggling in the pan.
Kathleen was finally galvanised into action. She rushed upstairs, shouting her commands,
"Get those awful things out of here before I come down. You frightened the life out of me. I'm going home straight away".
"Ah Jasus gersha, didn't I stay up all night catching these eels so you could have a nice treat and there you are runnin' away like a frightened kitten. Anyway I'll leave them down at the back of the shop and you can forget all about them".
Before she came down again she had a good look over the banisters. There he was eating fried eel and by the way he was smacking his lips he was thoroughly enjoying it.
One evening Gerry and his friends decided to cycle to Dundalk to see a bit of life, the girls and the bright lights and to sample the porter there. There was no 'bus service from Crossmaglen to Dundalk. The nearest route was from Dundalk to Castleblaney and the nearest stop to Mobane was where the road across the bog came out on to the main road at a place called McShane's Cross. This was a good three miles from Mobane Crossroads. The 'bus services were infrequent and at inconvenient times, apart from the long walk to reach them. Most people preferred to cycle and for quite large distances. Dundalk was twelve miles away but mostly on a downward slope from the hilly country to sea level. When cycling one took the most direct route past Sheelagh Chapel, coming out on the main road at one of the Custom's Huts, which were rarely occupied.
Some of the boys didn't have bikes of their own and ladies' cycles were borrowed and pressed into use for the occasion. The journey to Dundalk was pleasant as they had a never-ending view of a range of mountains called "The Cooleys". These mountains were a lovely smoky blue and looked breathtaking in all weathers. They dominated the Dundalk scene, their gentle limbs stretching out and sweeping down to the sea.
The drink and the crack were good when they reached Dundalk. They visited as many pubs as they could before calling at the Pork Butchers to buy their well-known sausages, white pudding or brawn. If they could manage a cooked ham that found a place on the back of the bike. The hills they had freewheeled down on the outward journey became obstacles as they struggled homewards with their heavy loads of porter and parcels hanging from their handlebars. No sooner was the top of one hill reached it seemed, than another loomed out of the darkness. Gerry found the going hard. Having taken a few drinks, he had studiously avoided the houses of his relations that were now a few miles back down the road. At the next hill he decided to get off and walk, thinking to himself, "Better late than never".
"Go on boys. I'll catch up with you later".
"Are ye sure you can make it Gerry?"
"Of course I can Mick, I'm just getting me breath back".
"I'd have thought a fella with your physique could climb a mountain any day".
"I'll take you on tomorrow, when I get me senses back".
Eventually Gerry lost his friends somewhere in the darkness but ploughed on doggedly towards home. After all it was a well-known route. Finally he made the farm house. Home at last. Singing a bar or two of "Come back Paddy Riley to Ballyjamesduff", helped his concentration considerably. Once inside, he put a few sods of turf on the fire, got the kettle singing and made himself a cup of tea. Then he settled down in the chair by the fire, exhausted, and fell into a deep inebriated sleep.
When he woke light was breaking and he couldn't make head or tail of his surroundings. He sat up in the chair, surveyed the kitchen and realised he had never been here before. He could see the mug on the dresser sanding beside a bannock of bread that he must have tackled some time during the night. It had a good chunk hewn out of it.
"Begorrah this is a holy divine terror alright".
He was in a strange house. When he heard footsteps overhead and the creaking of boards he came to life quickly. He made a quick dash for the door and he and his bicycle arrived back in Mobane about seven o'clock in the morning, none the worse for his experience.
He hadn't the foggiest idea where he had spent the night except that it was a couple of miles up the road, near Sheelagh. Gerry was the first to admit,
"They must have been dacent people right enough not to interrupt me night's sleep and boy did I need that cup of tay".