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Authors: Jim Tully

Shanty Irish (16 page)

BOOK: Shanty Irish
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grandfather's nature was often serene and beautiful as heather in the sun. It could instantly become hard as a horse's hoof.

In long and far wandering I recall no other men who more definitely saw with their own eyes and followed their own instincts than my father and his sardonic witty sire. It never occurred to them to apologize for any failings which others thought they had. They walked as unconcernedly down their chaotic roads of life as two lions through a moonlit jungle.

Uncouth, even barbaric, their intelligence was never satisfied, always were they alert to life. They seem to me, even yet, like spectators drinking at a bar between the acts of a comedy.

At times my grandfather would swear slightly at the obscurity of his life and the narrowness of his sphere. His tantrum at fate would pass in an instant.

There was, at the back of his huge head, the feeling that he was a great politician who never had a chance.

He was always at the cross-roads of gayety and sadness. He never took the sad road so long as a drink was at hand.

If the hours hung heavy, as they often did in a small town, he would sit tilted back in his chair against the wall of a saloon, and hum a weird tune, which he often chanted with that strange gift of the Irish—the blending of tears with hilarity. But now he had the abstract manner of a man whose mind was far away.

The words, like the memory of old Hughie Tully, are still with me—

“I'm very happy where I am

Far across the say

I'm very happy far from home

In North Amerikay

“It's lovely in the night when Pat

Is sleepin' by my side

I lie awake, and no one knows

The big tears that I've cried;”

As if hiding tenderness, the old man would look sternly about the saloon.

“For a little voice still called me back

To my far, far counthrie

And nobody can hear it spake

Oh! nobody but me

“There is a little spot of ground

Behind the chapel wall

It's nothing but a tiny mound

Without a stone at all;

“It rises like my heart jist now

It makes a little hill;

It's from below the voice comes out

I cannot kape it still

“Oh! little voice; ye call me back

To my far, far counthrie

And nobody can hear ye spake

Oh! nobody but me.”

“Ho, ho, ho!” he once ejaculated, with a look of contempt when he had finished the words—“the likes ov a big man like me chantin' sich rubbish—it's like staylin' a baby's candy on Christmas mornin'!”

“When did you learn it, Grandaddy?” I asked him.

“I picked it up in a dhrunken moment frim yere grandmither—she's full ov sich swate-mates.”

I had never defended my grandmother before. To me she had always been tender, her voice ever a croon.

“I like grandmother—” I said impulsively—“I think she's smarter'n—,” I stopped with my grandfather's steel eyes narrowed at me.

“Yis, yis, smarter then me—niver sthop—say yere say—spake it out,” he said tersely.

He paused. His eyes went softer.

“Yere grandmither—but no one should talk about a good woman—it's the other kind that make the good stories—an' I'm an ould man.”

He became more pensive.

His fingers drummed on his knee.

“I wondher where John Crasby is—all day I've not seen his long shadow.”

He half smiled and hummed—

“I came from Alabama

Wid my banjo on my knee;

I' gwine to Louisiana

My true love for to see

It rained all night the day I left

The weather it was dry

The sun so hot I froze to death:

Susanna, don't you cry

“O! Susanna, O! don't you cry for me;

I've come from Alabama

Wid my banjo on my knee

“So ye sthick up for yere grandmither,” he said sternly—and stopped. “Well it's right ye should—it's nayther human nor crayture did she iver harm—I seen her nurse a wild rabbit in Ireland—an' close its eyes in the ind as if it were St. Pathrick.

“There's more in a woman's heart, me boy, then the Holy Mither Church kin iver git out.

“Yere grandmither is pure Irish—an' not like us—crossed wit' wind-rovin' Danes—an' there's a lot o' sins the Danes must answer for—the Irish were goin' along paceful sometimes wit' their own good dhrinks—an' then the Danes came an' taught 'em to make beer out ov heather—it tashted like rain water an' soap in a can—but the Irish—thim ov the weak minds would git dhrunk on the stuff—”

He paused, his face wrinkled in disgust.

“Ireland had a big navy—it was so big the admirals were common sailors—they could ate Inglind for breakfast before the Danes got thim to dhrinkin' beer—thin came the ind—it wasn't long before they begin rubbin' their hands an' bowin' whin the King passed by to kape a date wit' a bawdy woman—

“‘What strange payple,' said the king, ‘they bow an' they scrape before me who am not ov their blood—'

“‘Ah, don't you understhand,' says a fierce lookin' Dane—wit' hair longer an' redder then yere mither's—‘Yere scarlet Majesty,' says he—‘we give them beer to dhrink'—

“An' the king's royal fat sides wint thin with laughin'.

“‘What a joke to phlay on sthrong min,' says he—‘it's like fadin' crame to tigars and makin' em purr—. I ain't had sich a good laugh since the time I killed me royal father' says he—thin he rose to his four feet four—an' scratched the sores on his royal face.

“‘Bring the man before me who invinted givin' the Irish beer,” commands he.

“They brought before the king a shrivelled up Dane from whose hands dript blood. They looked like claws.

“A man behind him whispered—‘They got that way your precious Majesty from chokin' Irish babies for Cromwell.'

“‘Shut up,' growled the king—‘It is beer an' not blood of which we talk.'

“The beer invinter only had one eye an' it was at the ind ov his nose—there were siven strakes ov blood across it—an' it nary moved—like the eye ov a dead fish—it was his lip hung low, an' was heavy like liver.

“‘What a bea-utiful lip,' says the king—‘an' what a nice sad eye he has—'

“‘Eye ever faithful to the service of any king,' says the beer invinter.

“‘A Dane who should be Irish,' says the king—‘he'll serve anybody.'

says the beer invinter with the bloody strames across his eyes—‘I've been in Ireland long enough to learn obaydience.'

“‘Of sich is the kingdom of kings,' says the king—may God in His divine wisdom kape yere heart pure,' says he.

“The king scratched his royal sores, an' looked at the invinter ov beer.

“‘What a handsome man you are,' says he—‘how ilegant—an' what beutiful hands you have wit' their fine red color—it's like the sun glimmerin' on me palace walls—

“‘Even without a cint in yere pocket ye should climb far on the ladder ov glory,' says the king—‘yere hands are bint so as to hold the ropes—

“‘I'll make ye the Right Rivrind Royal Climber,' says his royalty—‘an' ye kin test the ropes ov the doomed that are brave enough to bethray me—ye shall soak the ropes in beer that the odor ov thim may help to kill traitors—'

“He kissed the man above the eye—

“‘Blissed be anither Royal Knight,' says he—‘Rope Tester and Beer Taster to the King—in all his terrible dominions.' He pinned a lot ov badges on the monster Dane—an' he slunk from the sight of men wit' 'em rattlin' on his breast.”

Old Hughie rubbed his forehead.

“But all that has nothin' to do wit' yere grandmither.”

His voice became lighter.

“If I do be tellin' ye—she was beautiful as the moon over Killarney when the sthars are dim. Her father was—Squire Byrne—he was considerable of a man—he was—but it's not who yere father was—except that if the father's a woman the daughter will be aven less—

“A man smashed out of rock he was—silent as the bog—an' sthrong as the wind on the ocean—he was like me own father—no pain iver bint him—Both of thim wint to the meadow ov the dead sudden—they're taythe still sthrong enough to ate the bones ov the dead.”

He looked about the saloon as if fearful that someone would hear.

“Yere grandmither is like him. The yares have come on her soft as the dew on grass. She's phroud as Lucifer on Sunday morning.

“Some people grow old like a withered quince—an' others like a big ripe apple in the sun—yere grandmither's like that. An' let no one tell ye, me boy, that yere grandmither has no nerve. One time, whin yere father was a baby he was about to die ov the closin ov the lungs. An' the doctor came into the room an says, ‘I'm sorry—but it's only a few hours now—at the most. Is the baby baptized,' he says. ‘That'll keep it outta limbo—an' its only right that sich a baby should not be forever in sich a dark place—but see the face of God.' Yere grandmither looked at yere poor father thin a few months old, an' she says to the doctor—‘Be gone with ye, sir, over the road through the bog, 'tis no man from the big college who kin tell me a baby's dead before it isn't.' She took onions and fried 'em in grease from the pet goose, an' she wrapped yere father up in it.” The old man chuckled. “An' she saved ye're father's life—an' played a joke on ye, my boy.”

“No heart-bitter wound would she iver show—aven if it killed her—

“She scholded me often for the dhrink—and has these fifty gone years—as she should—an' knowin' love as I do to be a paradise for fools that niver kin be—I'd marry her agin tomorrow—if she were brave enough to face the long throuble agin—”

He sighed deeply—

“It's no wonder she wrote jingles—livin' wit' the likes ov me—

“Wit' a heart bolder then murdher, her duty made her swate like a child—

“Poor Kath-u-rine!!”


crawled like a torpid river toward Old Hughie Tully's heart.

“Indade,” he would clutch his breast, “the rist o' me's good, but here I am playin' tag wit' the grave.”

A crucifix hung above his bed. Upon it was a plaster Christ with one arm and a broken foot. Old Hughie looked at the broken Christ.

“Oh, well—he died too,” he turned his heavy face away.

“But he come to life agin—so they say.”

Grandmother walked in and out of the room, as silent as a broken shadow on a grave.

She was bent nearly double in the vise of age. She held a corn cob pipe between thin tight lips and toothless gums.

Half her aged life was spent in keeping her pipe lit. On and on she would chatter in a ceaseless mirage of Irish nothings. She would then relight her pipe.

Now her pipe remained unlit.

Her lips seldom opened.

A once heavy woman, she had shrivelled to less than eighty pounds. Freckles dotted the edges of her deep wrinkles. Her heart had grown sweet in grief. Her soul remained strong with the years.

She was older than my grandfather.

An unyielding woman, the passion of her life had been Old Hughie and my father.

With that pathetic scuttering away from reality which is too typical of America I was early told of my grandmother's high breeding.

She claimed that she could trail her ancestry to the Spanish Celts who colonized Ireland hundreds of years before the coming of Christ. Old Hughie, at heart, thought little of grandmother's lineage. “We all come from somebody—and I came as far Kathurin—why it was one ov me own great grandfather's that dug the ditch that run through Rome.”

But the illusion of her great learning was ever with my father. “If ye inherited anything from anybody, Jim, it was from your grandmither—she was an educated woman.”

Always was she asking Old Hughie now, “can I do anything for ye Hughie?”

The kindly old despot would answer each time, “No Kath-u-rin—thanks be.”

She would look for a moment at the immense head of her master, buried in the pillow. Her mouth would contract and tremble at the edges. It would then become tight as she hobbled from the room.

“Poor Kath-u-rin,” murmured Hughie to John Crasby as he entered the room, “she'll kill me wit' kindness.”

The men looked at each other. Crasby's hand raised. “It's all right, Hughie.”

“Shure—an' it's all right—why wouldn't it be . . indade an' I'll pour beer over the lilies on your grave.”

“Sure you will,” returned Crasby, “well I know it.”

He stood in the center of the room.

Old Hughie looked at him with narrow eyes.

“How's the wither out, John?”

“Very good Hughie—we'll be takin' a walk tomorrow.”

“Not me John—niver no more—”

He looked up at the broken Christ.

“It's a ride I'll be takin.'” He pulled his arm from beneath the quilt, “To the cimetary—God help me…”

“You mustn't talk like that Hughie,” Crasby's voice was whisky cracked and soft, “you're good for many the year yet.”

“But not here John—out in the grave.” He looked keenly at Crasby again. “An' ye'll be braggin' how ye put me there—whin ye know that no man kin do that.”

John Crasby moved closer to the bed. A one time dandy, tall, with a long red nose, and nearly hairless head, he rubbed his thin throat.

“I'll be goin' ahead of you, Hughie, I'm seventy-three—no more signs to paint—no more work an' no more drinkin'—nothin'—”

Crasby looked around the room. “But I give you my word, Hughie—I'll tell 'em up town it's the rheumatiz what's wrong with you—and I'll tell 'em all you said hello—”

“Shure—an' do that, John—I'll not say it often any more.”

“An' I'll tell 'em you'll be up an' around by Sunday, Hughie,” Crasby added cheerfully.

“An' ye won't brag if I go—will ye John—for remimber—it's hard enough to lave—without that—” The last words fell into a whisper. “It's not much to ask ye, John,” he added slowly, “but ivery man has his pride.”

Crasby held out a long arm.

“Hughie—if I iver say a word you can ha'nt me. May I drink your ghost in ivery glass if I iver betray any word—but you're not going—ye old baby—we'll both live to drink fifty one-legged men under the table.”

Old Hughie smiled at the memory.

Late that afternoon Old Hughie Tully died.

My father followed my grandmother into the room.

They looked at the shaggy old man for a long time.

Sorrow was never endured with greater dignity.

For more than fifty married years my grandmother had stood by Old Hughie. It was said by some that as a ten year old girl she had taught him to walk.

“Well, Hughie's gone,” she said at last to my father. Her pipe fell to the floor. “Blissed Jasus have mercy.”

My father said nothing. He took his mother from the room.

The one negro in the town attended his funeral.

The priest said a few commonplace words over him.

Jack Raley and John Crasby did not go into the church.

In Mahon's saloon all drinking was suspended for one minute.

“That's long enough to hold your drinks, men—Hughie himself would have you hold them no longer—” he lifted his glass—All followed him. “It's bottoms up for Old Hughie.” Many voices chanted—“Bottoms up for Old Hughie.”

He lay in his yellow oak coffin, his gnarled hands folded on his broad chest, his head tilted back as if for a drink.

Saloon keepers and bartenders looked out of front doors along Spring Street as the funeral passed.

John Crasby was the last to leave Mahon's saloon that night. The roosters crowed as he walked, bottle in pocket, toward the cemetery.

With unsteady gait he made his way to Old Hughie's grave. He seated himself upon the newly upturned earth. He took the bottle and a small glass from his coat pocket. He filled the glass and held it so the moon's rays slanted across the red liquor. He looked carefully at the grave.

“Your head would be about here, Hughie—this'll soak down your throat.”

He poured the liquor on the ground.

“There's one for you, Hughie.”

He filled the glass and drained it.

“Here's one for me.”

“One more for you Hughie,” he poured again.

“Here's one for me.” He drank.

Glass after glass was emptied in this way. The bottle empty, he stood it upside down on the whisky-soaked earth.

For a long time he stared at the vastness of the midnight sky.

Rising unsteadily, he hiccoughed,

“G'by—Hu-gh-ie,” and staggered home.

BOOK: Shanty Irish
13.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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