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Authors: Jim Tully

Shanty Irish (6 page)

BOOK: Shanty Irish
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The preacher rushed forward. My grandfather's heavy hand laid against his devout jaw. He rolled near the pulpit.

The religious fanatics gathered in anger about the two apostles.

“Take Moll,” my uncle commanded, “and follow me.”

Never did devotion charge more viciously.

Methodists fell to right and left, nursing bruised jaws. Women scratched at my uncle. He pushed them among the seats.

My grandfather followed with his burden. Moll's recent brothers and sisters at the Mourners' Bench tried to snatch her from his arms. They tore her clothing from her.

At last they reached the buggy and drove away.

“Ah, Denny,” laughed my grandfather, “it's proud of ye I am this night—for ivery time ye stuck out yere fist a Mithidist fell down.”


mother's oldest brother began life a horse thief—and died a banker under an assumed name in Canada. He ruined his parents and served thirteen years in the Ohio penitentiary.

At seventeen he came to America from Ireland, to join his parents. He brought his younger brother and sister with him.

John Lawler was tall, reticent, with an aquiline face and a hot temper. In mentality, the greatest of the tribe, he was ruthless, relentless, and domineering.

He watched his brother and sister lowered into the sea—dead from fever.

On reaching Ohio his mother asked for her other children.

“They died on the way over,” he said.

His mother's face went gray with horror. She closed her eyes for a moment, opened them suddenly and closed them again. She clasped and unclasped her hands. Staring as if in a trance, she screeched at her son:

“Did ye save no medals—no trinkets—nothing?”


He worked on a farm until he was twenty-two.

A girl whom he had with child sued him for three hundred dollars.

He induced his mother to pay the amount.

Under pretense of future matrimony, he borrowed the money from the girl, and went to Illinois. He remained three years.

After he had defrauded the girl out of the money, his mother had, in the manner of an Irish virago, put a curse upon him.

“Aw—an' ye traitor—to drag your ould mother's good name in the dirt—God'll forgive ye this—Indade an' indade an' may the divil make a rubber ball outta your soul to bounce aginst the gates o' hell for all eternity …

“An' may it bounce in an' outta the flames, agitin' scorched a little at a time foriver an' foriver …

“An' may the ghosts of all the men who've betrayed women hant ye till the day ye die—an' may they throw rocks on your coffin—a-kapin' ye awake and smotherin' inside …”

But this was only an outburst. When anger was not upon her she remained loyal.

John Lawler developed a mania for well harnessed young horses and new wagons.

When the girl in Ohio was safely married to another yokel, he stole a team and wagon and returned to his parents.

He sold the outfit in Ohio, and reëntered Illinois with a team stolen near home.

A country maiden in Illinois became with child by him. Undoubtedly embarrassed, he went back to Ohio and confined his operations to that State.

He sold the team and wagon with which he arrived and bought two decrepit horses and an old wagon. He drove eighty miles to a large new barn which stood a half mile from a house.

He put the old team and wagon in the barn, and drove away with a young team and a new wagon. He burned the barn.

Charred remains of horses and wagon were found among the ashes. In time it was apparently forgotten.

He went to his parents' home and remained two years. He had undoubtedly given up his penchant for other men's horses. He worked steadily on his father's farm with the team.

A silent fellow, and working always alone, he had left few traces of himself.

One morning two strange men called at the Lawler home. My grandmother received them cordially. They wanted to visit her son, John. He would not be home until late that day.

The men had dinner with my grandmother and waited. She talked long of her eldest son. When he drove the handsome team into the barnyard, he was arrested.

He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years in the Ohio Penitentiary.

The team which he had stolen wore no shoes. The horses, which he had burned alive, were well shod. This oversight made him a convict for thirteen years.

Grandad Lawler was unusual among the Irish. He forgave everything. He was the first to relent toward his Methodist-chasing daughter.

He had, like my mother, a phobia—love of God.

His wife had long since left him. He lived at our house.

His sensibilities were not those of the horse thief offspring, with whose fate his mind was corroded.

An immense Irishman, with blue pockets of pain under his eyes, he would sit in a chair and rock back and forth an hour at a time.

Rubbing the gray beard that had once been fiery red, he would say—

“I'm the father of John Lawler, I am, I am—and may God have mercy on his soul—and

And mother would say to him—

“Never mind, father—God has a purpose in all this.”

He would break in with,

“Yes, yes Biddy—I know, I know—may God forgive me—I didn't mane it.”

Another blow awaited him.

His second son, Dennis, was a drunkard.

Of softer material than his brother John, he too, was hard.

He deserted the old man when needed most.

“And have ye heard from Denny?” he would ask my mother.

“No, father—but I'm sure he will—Denny was never a hand to write much.”

Grandfather rocked in his chair, while mother stood in the doorway, her apron to her eyes, crying.

I could not get the full significance of the parting at the time.

I can still see the old man rocking fiercely, and my mother crying, as the form of a young, heavy-shouldered red-headed man faded down the road.

His dog followed him a short distance then returned to the house.

My mother's hair fell in long coils over her breasts. As Uncle Dennis turned on the main road, she dropped her apron, sobbing convulsively, clutched the braids of hair tightly as if they were ropes upon which she was swinging.

She walked to the road, and returned to the house.

They never heard of Dennis Lawler again.

The Lawler farm was lost in the battle of Irish sentimentality with justice.

After their son's journey to the penitentiary the proud old man and his virago wife went down the muddy road, penniless—in another man's buggy.

They left the farm in the hands of a rich German landowner and separated later over my grandmother's temper and the conduct of their son.

My uncle, Tom Lawler, married the German's daughter. His children inherited the land.

It is still the Lawler farm.


uncle rode to the prison with a fat Irish deputy sheriff. He had taken prisoners to Columbus for twenty-one years.

They traveled half the distance without talking. His arm fastened to a seat by a handcuff, the sardonic horse thief looked out of the window at the dreary Ohio scenery.

“Fifteen years ain't long,” said the deputy—“a lot of men get life.” The horse thief looked at him—and nearly smiled. “You'll get usta it after a while—MAYBE—”

A man with neither remorse nor pity, Lawler looked out of the window again.

Two other prisoners came aboard at a county seat. The guards chatted. The train stopped. Passengers rushed to the depot dining room.

“You'd better eat a lot—it'll be your last chance for fifteen years,” reminded the guard with a touch of malice.

He ate in silence, his leg chained to the leg of the table.

By noon Lawler was in prison garb. There had come over him blank dismay.

A brigand at heart, he had an eagle's pride. He entered the prison, silently defiant. He remained the same during thirteen years. Prisoners around him were in endless turmoil with the guards.

He practiced no wiles to gain favor. Whether it was aloof poise or a silence that bred respect I know not. But in thirteen years no unkind word was said to him.

The deputy warden called him the first day.

“Go your own way,” he said to him, “Hold your head high and tend to your own business. There's no horses here and no women—you'll have a chance to go straight—and remember keep everything to yourself. You'll be safe then. For if two men know a thing in here—I'll know it—I know everything any two men in here know—don't trust anybody but God—and don't pray out loud.”

Lawler stood with intense silence before him. His manner must have worried the deputy warden—

“Tell me,” he said quickly, “how you came to be a thief.”

Lawler made no answer.

The deputy handed him a book of rules and a card. “Read them good,” he advised, “every time the card's taken away it'll mean you stay here that much longer.”

Lawler nodded his head.

The deputy handed him a sheet of paper, a pencil, an envelope and stamp. “You can write a letter now to whoever you want to—and one each month. The State'll furnish the envelope and stamp.” Lawler handed the writing material back and shook his head, “No.”

“Don't want to write?” asked the deputy.

Lawler answered tersely—“No.”

For a month he was lonely and unbroken.

The deputy warden talked to him at the end of ten days.

“It'll come easier,” he said, “soon you can get a banjo and a boy and settle down for a while.”

The years drilled deep into his consciousness.

He learned that a prison was also run by politics. He learned the wisdom of the deputy warden. News traveled as if on invisible wings. Everything seemed written on faces for all to read.

He was in charge of the “condemned cells” during the last two years of his imprisonment. He carried food and solace to men about to die. He often found notes in the cells of the men who had gone.

One man was hung a week before another who had turned state's evidence.

“I'm damn glad to go,” he wrote, “I can hear the white buzzards of death flyin' around my cell now. I'll get started ahead of —— and wait along some dark road of hell and cut his throat as he passes by.”

No one met John Lawler when he came from the penitentiary. He arrived in St. Marys at night—alone.

My mother as usual, had been silent and sad. She walked between me and sister Virginia in the woods until sundown.

Slowly, a few feet apart, we approached the house.

The sun was a caldron of many colors. Above it were dark clouds. An owl hooted and made me afraid. Woman and girl caressed me, saying no word.

Six miles away, the lights of St. Marys made a white splotch in the night.

We walked into the yard. My father sat, in mud spattered overalls, near the kerosene lamp.

The light shone through the window on the face of my mother. Her brown eyes were heavy with tears. The newspaper rattled in my father's hands.

Mother stepped backward as she reached the door.

My sister urged her.

“In just a minute.” she said. “You get supper, dear.”

Virginia went into the house.

Mother took me by the hand and walked toward the road. She looked intently toward St. Marys.

A man came out of the dusk. Mother held my hand.

The man drew nearer, greeted my mother, and passed on.

The echo of our neighbor's feet could be heard on the lonely road.

Late that night John Lawler came to the house. Three of his brothers were with him.

Heavy bodied, they talked in low tones.

He finally said: “They may want me in Illinois. If they get me—they'll get me dead—I'm not safe here …”

The arrival from prison was silent as doom.

“This is Virginia,” my mother said, “she was born afterward.” John Lawler nodded his head. “The three others were born

The ex-convict looked at my father whom he had always liked. For Jim Tully had never passed judgment upon him.

“And how are you Jim?”

“Fine John—are ye going to stay among us—there's a home here—”

“No Jim—thanks,” was the answer—“it's away I'm goin' before the morning sun!”

Bottles of liquor were on the kitchen table.

The five men drank.

“Gawd Almighty,” the ex-convict jerked the words—

“What a hell of a price—what a God damn hell of a price—I'll burn in Hell forever before they get me agin—”

“John—John—” muttered my mother.

“Biddy—be kind,” urged my father.

“Yes Biddy—you and all—it's the mud of Ohio I'm shakin' from my feet forever—and never again will I look a horse in the face.”

He jerked one of the bottles from the table. The whisky gurgled down his throat like water.

“God in Heaven, John,” implored my mother. He looked at her, the quart bottle in his left hand, nearly empty.

His magnificent body trembled as if fire had shot it through. A rough bravado came to him.

“Biddy,” he ripped out, “it's thirteen years I was in Hell for horses that are dead and the hunger of woman so great I'd have slept with a hag—”

He looked about him sternly—

“There's only one way to know a prison—Biddy—steal horses—God damn my black soul a fool I've been, eating my heart out till I wished to God the jail would burn—thirteen years—think of it—the same place at the table—the same grub—the same cell.” He shuddered. “God Almighty.”

A noise was heard outside.

His father and mother entered.

Long separated, they were not joined in the misery of their son's homecoming.

They advanced with hesitation. They looked at their eldest born as if he were from a strange land.

A gust of wind blew the door open. It made the lamp smoke.

There was scarcely a greeting.

“There is much I niver can say,” mumbled the old man.

“And much that I daren't,” added the old lady.

The ex-convict laughed bitterly. His teeth showed white and strong in the light.

“There's much I never want you to say—enough has been said and enough has been done—it was I that took the punishment—that had the mares of horrible night in my cell.”

The horse thief's mother smiled forlornly.

“It was not alone were ye punished—we who niver stole horses suffered the nights and days with ye,” she snapped.

“Maybe so,” returned the son quickly, “but I was the one who went to the pen and stared at the night till my eyes burned hot in my empty head.”

“And will ye,” asked the mother, “take Aggie Regan with ye as yere wedded wife—she's been waitin' all these years.”

The ex-convict laughed again.

“Indeed and I shall not—I'll pick up a woman when I get there.” He gurgled another drink. “It won't be hard now that I'm out of jail.”

The old lady looked at her son with scornful eyes.

An uncle peered out of the door.

“It will soon be light in the east,” he said.

Several roosters crowed, one after another. The group listened. My grandmother passed within a few feet of my father. Both their faces were stern set.

They did not speak. It was through them that all the brood of trouble was in the room. But of that they were not aware.

“So ye won't take her with ye,” my grandmother snapped, as if it had suddenly dawned upon her.

“May the Mither of God forgive me for bringin' into Ireland a child with nayther a heart nor a soul,” she moaned.

“Mother—please,” pleaded my mother. “John will soon be leaving us.”

“Yes mother—soon will I be leaving—and forever and forever—that will be long enough—the damn sun can burn everything in Ohio—and no bucket of water would I pour on it.” He looked at my mother—“except you Biddy—yere too white an egg for a black nest—may your bed be made of roses in Heaven.”

He turned and looked into the unyielding eyes of his mother, then walked toward her. Sons and husband assembled in a group about the old lady. The horse thief pushed them aside.

“Let me hug you mother—once for all and forever—there is much to forgive me mother—”

He held the flinty old woman in his arms.

“John—John—” she half moaned—“I forgive—I forgive—maybe it was you that suffered—maybe—” Her voice trailed. Her aged arms went around him. Her limbs bent at the knees. She crooned to herself: “God—God—God—the breakin' heart o' me.”

Her old face went stern and hard again. Her limbs straightened. “I'll forgive ye John and swallow the hard words I've said even if they choke me—an' belaive me my son—who came first—may the sun niver shine on my grave if I don't mane it.”

“I believe ye Mother—you and all—for all has been done that ever can be done—I'll die of my own poison like a snake in the mud.”

My father stood apart. My mother stepped close to her own aged mother.

The door opened. Another uncle entered.

He wore a mackintosh with a cape. Rain drops glistened upon it. My father offered him liquor. He accepted quickly. Finishing his glass, he sighed with satisfaction.

He took my father's arm and stepped into the corner. All eyes followed him.

“Say nothing to the women,” was the uncle's advice.

John Lawler caught my father's expression.

“It's time I'm going—good-bye to ye father—mother—” his eyes half circled the room—“and you Biddy of the good heart—and—and all—and all.”

“We'd better hurry,” advised the uncle in the mackintosh, “it may rain harder—and we've got some muddy road to travel—I've got the curtains up—no one can see you.”

“But no one would know him after all these years,” declared my father.

“Not even God,” said the ex-horse thief.

My grandmother sobbed … “That the Lawlers be brought to this—sneakin' out agin in the night.”

Soon mother love conquered shame. “Oh—oh—oh,” she moaned.

John Lawler and his brother in the mackintosh hurried toward the door. Biddy Lawler and her father followed them. “My peace be with you,” murmured my grandfather.

The old man's dignity must have touched John Lawler. Saying, “Father—Father—what a good man you are,” he put his arm about him. “Peace can never be with me father—so long as I remember you.” The old man stood, with weather beaten hands trembling and wrinkled.

Seven months with child, my mother, with sudden vehemence rushed into her horse thief brother's arms. Her hair fell in heavy red waves on her shoulders. All were astonished.

The pet of the Lawler tribe had fainted.

My father dashed a glass of water in her face.

The horse thief knelt suddenly and kissed her tragic wet mouth.

“Another drink Jim—please—please—the hard heart of me must be harder made—not even a hangman—”

My father cut in with:

“Take this quart with you,—it's a twelve mile drive you have.”

The horse thief jerked the cork from the bottle impatiently.

“Let's all drink,” he sucked at the bottle feverishly and handed it to his brother in the mackintosh. It ended in my father's hands. One more swig and it was empty.

My grandfather helped my mother rise.

Rain slashed at the window viciously.

“It's far ye can go yet—they don't expect ye here till to-morrow,” a voice said.

The horse thief patted the shoulders of his mother and sisters.

The rain swept into the house as the door opened.

“Good-bye all — good-bye — good-bye — good-bye—and Biddy.” The horse thief's voice was near to going soft. He turned swiftly and bolted after his brother in the mackintosh.

BOOK: Shanty Irish
9.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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