Chapter 6 - The Keeper of the Crook
Christmas was a busy time in the O'Hara house. Mary, now Mrs Finnegan, still came in daily and helped to make puddings and cakes. Mostly they were Christmas puddings, but still the New Year saw them with a surfeit of Christmas cakes, minus their icings. Now that Kathleen did all the shopping she was happy as most of the Grocery Shops were sure to give her a Christmas Box.
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It was the custom around these parts to be presented with a calendar of the house, an iced Christmas cake, and sometimes, a pound of tea and four pounds of sugar, depending on the size of the order. Kathleen spent her time spreading their custom around the shops, coming away with the usual iced cake. Grand people they all were and she was never backward in saying "Thank You".
When the children fancied something sweet, which was pretty often, they systematically denuded one cake after another of its icing leaving the cake to go stale. Why their mother put them so far out of reach was a mystery to them! They were stored away on the top shelf in the kitchen. The tallest child had to stand on a chair on top of the kitchen table to retrieve a cake for de-icing when their mother was preoccupied elsewhere. Either Kathleen or her elder brother would do the climbing, but mostly it was Kathleen.
When Mrs O'Hara paid her annual visit to Bill O'Connell's shop, Kathleen always made sure to accompany her. Bill was the local Resident Magistrate and him with a grand Grocery Shop and Pub. Unlike other shops it didn't have a shop front. One part was a Public House and Betting Shop, while the room facing out on The Square was preserved for those ladies who might feel in need of a "wee drop of the cratur", or for those who preferred drinking in private. The shop was sandwiched between this room and the large kitchen, which also served as a Dining Room.
While her mother shopped, Kathleen kept her vigil in the passage, her eyes glued to the front door. Mr O'Connell spent most of his time in the public bar next door and only came through to the kitchen when he was called for a meal. He was a large man with an oversized stomach, sporting a gold fob watch, and with the gentlest of manners. Apart from her father, she often thought Mr O'Connell was the finest gentleman in Crossmaglen. He was well known for his generosity and wasn't that a good reason for her to look out for him now!
His large frame cast a shadow on the door and there he was, shaking hands with Mrs O'Hara, asking after the family and persuading her to have "one on the house". His eyes fell on Kathleen and his hand went to his pocket.
"Isn't she making a great recovery Mrs O'Hara. Sure Dr O'Brien will have her right in no time".
Endearing words to Kathleen from an endearing man!
"I suppose you're expecting a visit from Father Christmas?"
"Yes Mr O'Connell but I'm only askin' for very little".
"Well I could do with a Fairy Cycle to get to school on time".
"Now Kathleen, you know you're not fit for school and it could be six months yet".
"Ah Mr O'Connell God's good and so is Daddy Christmas. Anyway I'm learning to ride on me brother's bike and it's not fair having to share".
She gave him a sidelong look to see if he believed her. He smiled as he took his hand from his pocket and there were two shiny half crowns which he pushed into her hand.
"A Happy Christmas Kathleen O'Hara. Maybe you'll find time to visit the Crib and light a few candles for me".
"Deed I will. You're such a good man. I hope you'll always have plenty of money for giving away".
With the usual Christmas presents, the O'Haras received an uncooked ham, a bottle of Port and a bottle of Sherry. Then they entered the "Holy of Holies". Her mother drank a glass of sherry and Kathleen enjoyed her glass of lime juice. She looked out on the bleak Square. It looked so deserted and lifeless, just as she remembered other winters. With her nose pressed against the window as usual, she spied old Rosie Brady wheeling round the corner into The Square. Rosie lived about 100 yards down the road, the last white cottage at the bottom of the hill. Behind her cottage loomed Slieve Gullion, always beautiful whatever the season. On days like today it was a clear cold blue, capped with snow. It dwarfed Rosie's little cottage.
Rosie was quite a well known character, small, wizened and old but she walked with the agility of a two year old. She had a rasping tongue of knife edge quality if anyone got on the wrong side of her. Her black shawl enveloped her from head to knee and partially covered a voluminous skirt. It had its purpose with two capacious pockets large enough to hold her bottles of stout and her "wee drop of the cratur". She smoked a "dugeen", a white clay pipe of a type smoked at all the Wakes. Since Rosie was fond of paying her respects to the dead, it was no wonder she had the largest collection of clay pipes in the district. She had about her an aroma of tobacco and maintained that all her life she had never broken her Confirmation Pledge. This left room for doubt about the nature of the Pledge she had made as the only drink Rosie ever abstained from was water.
Each day she left her little cottage and went straight into O'Connell's Snug. This was her favourite haunt and the first pub she met on her way into town. Here, she was able to enjoy her drink and put a bob or two on a horse. In common with most of the locals, she had a passion for horse racing.
Catching sight of Kathleen's little face she called out to her,
"Sure 'tis the broth of a girl you are now - puttin' on the weight and gettin' the rosy apples back in your cheeks".
"Thank you Rosie".
Kathleen was always respectful to Rosie, not wishing to get a lashing from her tongue.
"God bless ye child; may the Mother of God shower blessin's down on ye and all your family".
Despite her shortcomings, Rosie was a religious soul, who attended Mass daily, winter or summer and was always making her Novenas. Yet if you crossed swords with her you were sure to get a spurt of caustic invective.
"Ye'll come down and see me now one day child. A plate of good "stirabout" is what you need and Rosie's the girl to make it for you. None of your ould milk either. We'll smother it in sweet buttermilk. Sure you'll be standing on your head in no time. Ould Rosie knows what she's talking about".
Kathleen didn't risk telling her she refused the same porridge at home and had Indian Meal porridge made specially for her. She could never stomach buttermilk either and wondered how she was going to overcome this situation. She decided she would just have to take the porridge neat.
"If you like I'll call down tomorrow".
"If it suits you of course it suits me. You know I'm an early riser and I'll be there most of the day".
Then she was gone like a flash and Mr O'Connell's bar door opened and closed very quickly behind her.
She was a fairly frequent caller to Rosie's door as she was also the "Keeper of the Crook". Rosie lived opposite the best spring well in Crossmaglen. The water was clear and cold as if from a mountain stream. She took a great interest in the well and scrubbed the stone flags surrounding it daily. The hedge over and around it was kept clipped and neat and in a small niche in the rock overhead stood a small statue of Our Lady put there by Rosie herself.
She had the cleanest well in the town. Those unfortunate enough to spill some water were invited to kneel down and clean the flagstones and at the same time not to forget to say a wee prayer before the Mother of God. It was a deep well and very popular so the crook was used frequently. It hung inside Rosie's front door which was always open and those who came down for their bucket of water just called out to her as they borrowed the crook. She was its sole custodian. She was fond of a wee bit of crack with the children and told them she got awful lonely. Mothers often had to wait for an hour or so before their young ones returned with the water.
A couple of weeks earlier, Kathleen had the same experience. She got as far as the door when Rosie latched on to her. She was kneeling in front of her little "Sacred Heart" altar saying her Novena and she invited Kathleen to join her. This was followed by saying the Rosary and numerous prayers she had never heard before.
"Rosie I haven't made me First Communion yet so I don't know all the prayers".
"Ah never mind, you'll soon learn".
She was ashamed to admit it but she had been glad when her mother came looking for her. Tomorrow would be different she told herself. She was invited to dine!
She was there the following morning, ready and waiting at 11 o'clock. An unusual hour perhaps but one when she was sure to find Rosie at home. Later in the day she would be busy behind one of her stalls in the Market Square. Rosie Brady's kitchen was kept clean, with scrubbed flagstones for the floor and turf burning in the open hearth. The wooden chairs and stools were also scrubbed white and the dresser held a variety of bowls and mugs with not a saucer in sight. Her collection of clay pipes were neatly stacked over the fireplace, some still filled with tobacco from the last wake.
Holding a prominent position in the little kitchen was a large picture of the Sacred Heart. In front of it stood a little red lamp always alight, and surrounded with small vases of wild whin flowers. Small statues of Our Lady and St. Teresa, the Little Flower of Lisieux completed the little altar, all sitting on a gleaming white cloth.
Kathleen stood by the fire and waited with great expectancy. She got her large bowl of "stirabout", oatmeal porridge flavoured with salt, but no buttermilk, thank God. Katie had forgotten it. Rosie boiled eggs in a little tim can with a spout on it and then proceeded to use the same water to make the tea.
"Katie, I've never had tea made with egg water before".
"That's you trouble gersha. You never took anything that was good for you",
The tea was given to Kathleen in a large bowl.
"Begorrah Katie, you're a quare one. Where are the cups with handles?"
"If you want a sup of me tay you'll stop being so pass remarkable. Less of your wingin' and get on with it".
She had never tasted better tea and hadn't to bother with handles or saucers.
"This is a great breakfast Katie. Does Mr Brady have the same?"
"Him and his tay", she sniffed, "He'd drink a well dry if you get me meanin' gersha".
She gave Kathleen a wink as her gaze turned towards the window.
Outside, "the master of the house" was filling his cart with boxes of fruit, mostly apples. These boxes were stored in the bedroom where Rosie took her to pick a large juicy one. It was too dark in this room for her to see well and she was whipped back into the kitchen before she had a chance to have a good look around. Rosie was proud of her little house and the apples they grew, mostly in their own garden.
Later on, Kathleen walked with Rosie and her husband up to the Market Square where she watched them erect their stall. As well as selling fruit and fish, Mr Brady as a tinker, making and repairing saucepans, kettles, cans and frying pans. These were hung from one of the stalls.
It was hard to know if the fish was fresh. Rosie had a habit of disappearing into the nearest public house, returning after a decent interval with a can of water which she threw over the fish every so often. This no doubt was the reason the stall always seemed to stand in a pool of water.
Rosie's familiar shout was,
"Fresh fish - only the best and freshest sold here.".
She was quick to grab a customer, holding a non-stop conversation.
"God bless ye ma'am, you're a dacent woman. May The Lord shower blessin's down on ye and here's a little extra for the babby".
She always tried to send off her customers happy that they had made a good bargain and sure maybe they had!