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Authors: Jim Tully

Shanty Irish (5 page)

BOOK: Shanty Irish
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learned, with my brothers, the tricks of the woods. We knew how to go with the wind when tracking rabbits. We used the moss on the trees as a compass, claiming that it was always on the north side of the tree.

We once robbed a quail's nest and placed the eggs under a setting hen. Two of the eggs hatched in a few days.

The hen, feeling that her task was done, rose from the nest.

No larger than hickory nuts, the two quail followed the hen about the place.

They were a constant grief to mother. Several times she gave us ten cents each to lose them in the woods. We were careful to see that they found their way back to the barnyard. In a few days, mother would give us ten cents again. The large red hen would cluck at her two nervous children in utter dismay.

At last they went to the woods, and returned no more.

When my clothes were fit to wear I went to mass on Sunday with my ragamuffin brothers and sisters. The church was situated in Glyn-wood, an Irish village, five miles from St. Marys. Across the road was a cemetery where rustic wanderers, far from Ireland, were buried. Children, early exhibiting an Irish contempt for death, played tag upon the graves.

Three saloons were close to the church. My father often dallied too long at the bar. He often reached his seat in church without reverence in his heart.

Shoes were scarce in my childhood. From early spring until late fall I wore them only on Sunday, when I called at the house of God.

Barefooted, I ran in the early morning frost to bring the cows from their straw shed in the woods. I would warm my feet where they had lain all night.

The roads in our section were merely wagon tracks through woods and fields. Often, when father drove his oxen to town, I would go along. My bare feet would hang from the wagon and trail in the muddy water.

My father seldom talked to me. There was a restful kindness in his silence. His personality, save on a few dramatic occasions, was negative. My mother's was positive. They lived together peacefully for sixteen years.

The county paid a bounty of one cent each for dead sparrows. I was too young to kill, but my older brothers each owned a sling shot and rifle. I accompanied them to the county commissioner, who lived eight miles from our home.

Down the road we went with our hundred dead strung across the neck of the Blind Nell.

As though in mourning for the occasion, the horse walked slowly. As she could not be made to move faster, my brothers jumped off her back and ran ahead.

When we reached the commissioner's house, I rode into the lane like a freckled king delivering a dead feather-ruffled army.

The commissioner counted the birds as a miser would pennies. He loomed large to me.

His beard was heavy. There were two red spots on his face which it did not cover.

A great many pigeons hopped about his barnyard.

He gave us a silver dollar and scolded us for killing the birds.

Years later I heard that he had been in love with my mother.

She did not want to marry “out of the church.”

We would often wander through the woods and tap the sugar maple trees.

Our mother had a reason for the sweetness of the water:

It was a very hot day in August. Three fairies wandering from Ireland sought rest under the shade of many trees. All would draw in their leaves at the approach of the fairies.

Worn in body and foot sore, they came at last to a small tree. It had been beaten sideways by the wind. Its leaves became larger than elephants' ears when it saw them approach. They rested under its shade a long, long time. When all was ready for the journey back to Ireland, a heavy wind roared over the meadows and through the woods. It bent the little tree until its branches touched the ground.

The fairies could hear the tree's heart aching. One branch said to the other, “If we break now we will never be able to give shade to such sweet tired little people again.”

The other branch said … “Oh, we cannot break—not for ourselves, for that doesn't matter—but suppose we were all wrinkled and dead and some one needed shade on a hot day like this—these little people are so woebegone that we must fight to keep alive for their sake—and the sake of others.”

The fairies heard the words. For, according to my mother, it is the gift of no other fairies in the world but Irish fairies—to hear pine trees whisper to birds in the mountains—to hear eagles talk to tigers in the sky. The head fairy said to the others: “I want to be alone for just a little moment.”

He waved at a passing cloud. Out of it stepped a beautiful young lady dressed in blue. Her blue eyes danced like the sun on Easter morning. Her skin was whiter even than mother's. Red roses were in her cheeks. Her dark hair was studded with golden stars. She wore a large cloak with vivid red lining. She stepped down and talked to the head fairy.

He motioned to the bent little tree. The other fairies heard the beautiful lady say, “How lovely—such a good deed should never die—and just think—those branches thought not of themselves at all—at all.” The three fairies and the beautiful lady looked long and admiringly at the little tree. The beautiful lady threw a kiss to each branch.

Suddenly the tree grew many feet. It became the most shapely tree in Auglaize County. Birds came from all the directions of heaven and sang within its branches. There were orioles green and gold, and eagles—red, purple and blue. The eagles sang like canaries, until many scarlet birds came and took up the song. Then the beautiful lady whispered:

“Give the tree and all its sisters eternal life, and make their blood sweet and warm, and their roots to go deep down into the earth so that no wind only out of the hand of Almighty God can ever make it bow.”

A mighty roar was heard in the woods. It was all the other trees complaining.

“We intended to give shade,” they said.

And the beautiful lady called back to them, her voice softer than dew under the feet of the child Jesus:

“I shall not judge you … but these little travelers could not find rest under the shade of your intentions. It was a happy chance that I happened to be coming by this way. I have so many worlds in which to see that the flowers grow properly that I have not been over this section in a million years.”

She paused, the roses glowing in her cheeks.

“But I shall carry your good intentions to our Heavenly Father—and he will judge you kindly.”

She turned to the little fairies:

“Would you like to ride to Ireland with me?” she asked.

“Yes, indeed, most beautiful lady,” they replied.

A cloud swooped out of the sky. It was more graceful than an eagle on a windy morning.

“We shall be in Ireland in thirty-two minutes,” said the beautiful Lady.

They waved at the friendly and now beautiful sugar maple tree, and were lost to sight in a second.

We took our dog Monk everywhere with us. Always the vanguard of adventure, plumed tail ever wagging in joy, his eyes were ever sad.

The priest gave him to my mother when he was a puppy six weeks old. I learned to walk by holding to his side.

A thoroughbred collie, he carried himself among Irish peasants as if they were his equals. He associated with no other dogs.

One day Monk ventured too near a rattlesnake. It struck him on the shoulder with enough force to knock him backward. He ran yelping away. Forgetting the snake in our anxiety for the dog, we followed him to the bank of a large ditch which ran in front of the house and circled back through the woods.

Monk hurriedly buried himself in the mud until only his head was exposed.

All our coaxing would not make him move. My father told us that it was a dog's way of curing itself of poison. It would require four or five days.

Patiently we waited. Each night before going to sleep I would think of Monk, alone, out in the mud.

We carried meat and water to him every day. He would touch nothing, and growl his disapproval if we came too near.

He finally came home with a starved appearance and a limp in his shoulder.

The Prodigal Son was not treated with greater kindness.

A culvert six miles away was often our destination. Its roof was a “cattle guard” made out of steel spikes to keep cattle from wandering on the railroad tracks.

We could tell time by the position of the sun. We knew just when the train passed the crossing. We were literally tattered sun dials.

We awaited the approaching train in the culvert with Monk. It vibrated over the ground a half mile away and bore down upon us with a terrible roar.

One day we decided to tease Monk. We crawled into the culvert without him. Monk tried to follow. We would not let him in.

The train roaded toward the culvert.

Monk, baffled, ran barking up and down the tracks. We yelled … “Get away! Monk! Get

But Monk, feeling that we were in danger, dashed along the rails.

We scampered from the culvert. The whirling dust made it impossible to see or talk for a short time.

At last we regained our voices.

“Monk—Monk!” we yelled.

We could not see him.

“Monk, Monk! Come Monk—come Monk! Nice Monk—come on—we was only teasin'! Come on, Monk!”

Tom, my older brother patted his knees and snapped his fingers.

We scanned the tall grasses on each side of the track.

At last Tom said: “Maybe he got mad and run on home—dogs do that.”

To console me, he added: “That's jist about what he did—we'll find him right in the summer kitchen with mother.”

Tom fell on the ground a short distance further.

“Monk — Monk — Monk! Please look, please, please. We didn't mean it Monk,

Monk's eyes were partly open. His legs were bent under him. His body still quivered. He tried to open his eyes. They went shut.

We placed him in an easier position.

He moaned; and moved no more.

We laid him upon a board. Murderers could have felt no worse.

A freight train passed, on its way to St. Marys. I can still see the engineer, red kerchief about his neck, waving, these thirty years.

“Will we tell Mother and Virginia how it happened?”

Tom, my nine year old brother, replied slowly—“Yes—”

A farmer, hauling gravel from the Forty Acre Pond stopped his team.

He was a shriveled, weather beaten man with a face the color of burnt brick. He put his hand on my shoulder.

“Lost your dog eh—oh well—don't you cry—you kin git another one—there's lots o' dogs.”

He helped us place Monk in the wagon.

As it stopped in front of the house mother and sister Virginia came to the road.

Monk's mouth was grim in death. His front paws were crossed. They cried over the thoroughbred martyr for the peasant Irish. Red-eyed with weeping, mother looked at me.

“What will you do?” she asked.

Tom said, “Mother.”

Holding both her hands to her ears, she said: “I know, I

Monk's name was never mentioned to mother again.

We buried him in a far corner of the woods. Three hard maple trees formed a triangle over his grave.

We built a fire upon it, and chanted all we could remember of the Litany for the Dead.


Lawler was the father of as passionate, unyielding and stubborn a group of men as ever turned over the ground for grub. More like robber barons than peasants, four of his five sons were as unrestrained as eagles.

They were all devout Catholics during mass on Sundays. Roisterers, drunkards, braggarts, picturesque men and poor farmers, they made of their parents' lives a long tornado.

If not mad, they were at least not completely sane.

They were physically brave. Their tempers were impetuous; their intelligence always superior to their environment. Open to every impression, they were extremely volatile. They lacked perseverance. They resented discipline. Boastful and quarrelsome, they were excessively vain.

Their simplicity was often childlike. Their feelings were always austere and intense. They were violently active and lazy by turns. Their interests were as narrow as those of savages. They followed the four seasons without the pain of wonder. If a neighbor died, he went to heaven, hell or purgatory. His destination was not debated among them. They feared death—more as a cessation of violent living—than as an eternal quietus.

They often wept over trifles, and were adamant over events that would have wrecked less primitive men. They could veer suddenly from tears to the crashing laughter of barbarians.

No man among my mother's brothers was less than six feet tall, and none weighed less than two hundred pounds. Well built, well muscled—they were neither gaunt nor fat. No Lawler ever died slowly. Each man went—sudden as a pistol shot.

There was in all of them, a holdover from ancient days—a deep mystical strain.

They believed in ghosts, in fairies and in witches. In their hearts, ready to germinate at any moment, were the wild seeds of fanaticism and bigotry.

My mother was baptized Maria Bridget Lawler. It was shortened to Biddy. Maria, we were told as children, was the name of the mother of Jesus. St. Bridget was said to have been the foster mother of Christ. My mother was proud of the name.

Her father first came to America from Ireland in 1850. It was said of him that he was “as good a man as ever lived.” His wife, ever a bitter woman, the apple of whose life had early turned sour at the core, followed him a few years later.

Only once did he ever do anything in anger. That was when his daughter Moll Lawler had astonished the countryside by attempting to join the Walnut Grove Methodist Church.

She had been working as a “hired girl” in the home of a farmer six miles away. Her brother Dennis, driving through the neighborhood, told the family that Moll was nightly at the Mourners' Bench.

The Lawlers were seated at the supper table.

“It's a Methodist she'd be,” Dennis said to his father.

“A Mithodist—niver—” my grandfather thundered. “I'll skin her alive first—rather indade were she in her grave.” He crashed his fist on the table. A heavy plate rattled to the floor.

“Hitch the bay mare up Dennis—we'll save the soul ov Mollie.”

Dennis hurried to the stable. In a short time the horse and buggy awaited grandfather.

The old man stood on the porch for a minute and watched the night creep down the road. His lips shook.

“All right, father,” yelled Dennis. Grandfather climbed into the buggy beside his son.

Neither of them spoke for over a mile. The bay mare trotted swiftly. Dennis said at last, “Even the mare's in a hurry.”

“She's a good horse,” returned my grandfather grimly, “more sense than Moll, she has.” He scraped his heavy boot on the dashboard. “What in the whole world puzzest the girl?” he asked suddenly.

“Maybe the devil,” replied Dennis, “they say he likes to steal the souls of good lookin' girls.”

“Well it's not Moll's that he'll steal this night … I'll bash in his skull before he does.”

The lights of the church could be seen in the distance.

It was full of country folk in whose hollow souls echoed the myths of Salvation. They called on the Lord for strength to rise washed and dripping in His precious blood.

They screamed, knelt, expostulated, and rolled on the floor.

The preacher was a man with fanatic eyes sunk deep in his head. He lived on a farm and preached at two country churches.

A heavy black mustache hid his mouth. He wore a long tailed coat and leather boots. His energy was dynamic, his voice deep and vibrant. In a section of the world where all men were religious fanatics, he gave other creeds no quarter and asked none himself. He called the Catholic religion rottener than hell.

His name was anathema in Irish homes.

The Lawlers, always headstrong, fanatic and opinionated, could never forgive a man as bitter as themselves.

He walked up and down in front of the Mourners' Bench, his arms frantically waving. He removed his long coat and threw it across the large Bible. A woman rose from the Mourners' Bench, perspiration dripping, bonnet hanging down her back, hair falling over her face. She clapped her hands together and screamed, “Only Jesus can satisfy me!”

“That's right, Sister—only Jesus can satisfy you—”

He droned the words.

“Only Jesus can satisfy me …

“Only Jesus can satisfy me …

“Glory to God, sister—you are right—only Jesus can satisfy the women of the world.”

She kissed the minister fervently.

They all gathered about my Aunt Moll who knelt at the Mourners' Bench, body swaying back and forth. Her dark hair touched the floor. The minister placed both hands on her head. The young girl sobbed convulsively.

The minister sobbed with her. Then his heavy voice boomed the first line of a song.

“There were ninety and nine that safely lay—”

It was taken up by the entire congregation.

“In the shelter of the fold

But one was out on the hills away

Far off from the gates of gold

Away on the mountains wild and bare

Away from the tender Shepherd's care.”

The next verse was filled with the thunder of hysteria. Male voices, cracked, powerful and weak, sang the words:

“Lord thou hast here thy ninety and nine;

Are they not enough for Thee?”

But the Shepherd made answer, “One of mine

Has wandered away from me;

And although the road be rough and steep

I go to the desert to find my sheep.”

The song reached even greater heights:

“But none of the ransomed ever knew

How deep were the waters crossed

Nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through

Ere he found his sheep that was lost

Out in the desert he heard its cry

Sick and helpless and ready to die.”

The voices became lower, more plaintive … pleading … questioning. For kneeling before them was one from a hated church.

“Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way

That mark out the mountain-track?

They were shed for one who had gone astray

Ere the Shepherd could bring her back

Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?

They are pierced to-night by many a thorn.”

The voices raised.

“But all through the mountains thunder-riven

And up from the rocky steep

There rose a cry to the gate of heaven

‘Rejoice! I have found my sheep!'

And the angels echoed around the throne

‘Rejoice, for the Lord brings back his own!'”

The preacher wiped his forehead.

“Ah, Brothers and Sisters—we are the shepherds of the long lost sheep brought back from the vale of ignorance and superstition. Beautiful and contrite in the sight of the Lord—long wandering in the meadows of hated Rome. Hands rent and torn from saving a lamb from the hideous mouth of hell.”

“Amen! Amen!” the congregation shouted, “Hallelujah, Thine the Glory—Hallelujah! Amen!”

The preacher continued:

“Ah—twice more glorious in the sight of God to bring back one who is perishing away from the true light. We should be shepherds of the blind multitude who stumble on paths far from the seat of God, the most beloved. Torn by the briers of hate, our sister here is yet to know the saving grace of our Savior …”

Suddenly an old farmer jumped up and down.

“Another sinner bound for glory,” shouted the minister, as the farmer sang—

“Blessed Lord I'm glad I'm free—

No more of the devil's chains for me—

Glory to God in the Highest—”

He fell to his knees, shaking in a frenzy of rustic delirium.

“Let us hear more of the Lord's power, Brothers and Sisters,” shouted the minister.

A heavy red-faced woman jumped up. By her side sat a little farmer in overalls.

“I thank God that my husband here is now a laborer in the Vineyard of the Lord. He saw the light after thirty years of blindness. All his bad habits dropped from him.

“Goin' home he took it out an' I pleaded wit' him an' he fought wit' me.”

“Amen Sister—Amen,” from many voices.

“He took it out again an' I pleaded wit' him—an' at last he threw the whole terbaccer plug into the ditch.”

“Glory to God,” the minister shouted.

“Stand up Brother Ed—so all can see the great victor over evil.”

Bashfully the farmer rose.

“Give us the testimony, Brother,” loudly suggested the preacher—“Tell us of the sheep long lost in the wilderness who saw the light at last—”

The farmer tried to sit down. His wife pushed him upward. The congregation joined the preacher in asking his testimony.

“Well, I'll tell you Brothers an' other folks ‘sembled here under the Lord's roof that we fixed last year. I ain't much on speech makin' but I wanta say—that my heart ain't been so light in nigh on thirty year.

“I worked in the vineyard when I was a boy over in Lucas County—but then I got married an' back slid as it were—an' I took to chewin' terbaccer an' drinkin' a glass o' beer when I drove to town wit' a load o' corn—an' went from worse to worser until I became so low I'd sit an' play cards in the saloon. My wife here prayed all that time—or them years, I mean—she musta got to thinkin' I'd never come back to the fole—then when our pet cow died—I give in—an' Brothers and Sister-folk—here I am glory-be.” He made an ineffectual attempt at feigning joy.

“Amen,” was shouted often.

His wife rose again.

An old man stood quickly and talked faster.

“Brothers and Sisters, the Lord cured me of paralysez when two big doctors from Lima failed—”

“Praise be his Holy name—cured of paralysez—think of it Sisters—two big doctors failed—praise be the power of the healing Lord,” the minister clapped his hands.

The farmer's wife still stood. She started to talk.

Another voice from a young woman drowned her words—

“Blessed be the Lord's name—he took the measles away from my baby, and chicken pox away from me in a week.”

“Blessed be His name,” from the preacher, leaning over my aunt again.

Many hands clapped.

A voice started:

One more river—

And that there river is Jordan—

One more river—

There's one more river to cross—”

“There is no more rivers to cross for our new found brother in the Savior,” shouted the preacher, “He is washed in the blood, my friends—washed in the blood—”

The rustic chanted—

“I am washed in the blood of the Lamb, Lamb, Lamb—

I am washed in the blood of the Lamb—”

The preacher and other religious farmers hugged Moll in the delirium of salvation. They shouted, “Holy God—Let us pray—”

They dragged each other about. Rustics in the rear of the church flirted and laughed.

Suddenly, so strong is suggestion to vacant minds, they too would hear a divine voice and go forward to the Mourners' Bench. There they remained kneeling, often night after night. Then exalted by bovine madness, they acknowledged their Savior and their God.

My grandfather and his son entered.

Moll, their Catholic pride and joy, was being caressed in the name of religion by a group of fanatic farmers.

Amid hysterical and convulsive sobbing and groaning, the preacher began to sing,

“At the cross, at the cross

Where I first saw the light

And the burden of my heart rolled away—

It was there by faith

I received my sight

And now I am happy all the day.”

A lull followed.

My uncle shouted a parodied line of the verse just sung—

“And now I am in the family way.”

All arose from the Mourners' Bench, and turned to the door.

There stood my grandfather and my uncle, the former calm, the latter defiant. They towered above all the other men in the church. They walked to the Mourners' Bench.

Methodists and those about to become such made way for the strong apostles of the Pope.

Their heavy boots could be heard pounding on the pine floor.

Dennis Lawler grabbed his sister. He held her, screaming, tight. He put a heavy hand over her mouth.

My grandfather faced the fanatic audience—

“Ye ignirint Methidist devils—it's me own lamb ye want—to nibble at lies with yere brayin' goats—an' divilish well ye prove that if he throw yere seed on the ground with enough madness it'll take root—The nerve of all of ye Protestint bastards, to lay yere dirthy hands on a daughter of mine! Indade I'd sooner see her rottin' in her grave than to become one o' ye. A lot of Mithidist spalpeen ye are—Stay in yere own hog pens and go to hell in yere own way without draggin' her that is mine. Agin I say ye durthy bastards—”

BOOK: Shanty Irish
10.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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