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Authors: Jim Tully

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BOOK: Shanty Irish
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“But his daughter—how be-utiful—she didn't have a brain in her head—as no woman should—but she could make a poor sad pidler forgit Holy Communion at the hour of his death—ah—a man of miny loves is always a sad man—that's the pain of it—but it's all ye have lift in the ind—an' niver kape thim too long—they git old an' faded—the stalk when the rose is gone—oh well—I thought I'd niver get out of Asheville—I had to walk two nights to make up on me route—but I wint back agin—an' agin—that's long ago now—fifty years maybe—”

He looked down at his right foot which rested on the brass railing… “Yis—yis—that's long iver ago now—she died of the consoomption.”

The bartender laughed. The old man looked sternly at him.

“The likes o' ye would laugh at the spaych of your bitters,” he said quickly. “I'll spind me other four nickels ilsewhere.”

We left the saloon.

Owing, no doubt to his three wandering years as a peddler, my grandfather knew the locations of towns and villages everywhere in America. He also knew which mercantile commodities were most in use in that section.

He was at heart a politician. He had been an election tout in the South. For a fee, he adroitly told of a candidate's many good qualities across a state.

His memory was tenacious. It retained, as if in a vise, the tiniest incident.

He could play a fiddle and sing a ballad.

Walking vagabonds with fiddles would often play in Ohio saloons. Old Hughie would take the fiddle and help entertain until, and often long after, the saloon closed. He had picked up stray negro tunes in the south. I can still hear the magnificent old lover of life chanting with terrific gusto—

“I wish I waaz an apple—

An' my yaller gal waaz anither

An' O—how happee we would be—

On the tree together—

“Oh how jealous the niggahs would be—

When by my side they spied her—

An' oh how happee we would be—

All smashed up into cider—

“One day we lubbed along the ribber—

An' de win' blew kinda hard—

Till it made my little Dinah shibber—

Just like some new made lard—

“An' wit' her little hips a-quibber—

Into my arms I caught her—

An' when the win' blew up again—

It blew us in the water—

“An' she stayed right on close to me—

Her little hips a-quibber—

Dat I forgot mos' happily—

Dat I was in de ribber—

“An' dey took my Dinah on de shore—

An' sabed her from de drowned—

An' I had to swim around' some moah—

Foh me dey nebber found—”

The happy crowd would buy him many drinks. It was a tacit understanding between bartenders and old Hughie that when other people treated him that the liquor was to be of the best. Whether he drank five hours or ten, Hughie Tully never lost control of his senses. Liquor merely made him more alive and charming. It made him forget the shovel and the ditch and the wretched cottage in which he passed as few hours as possible.

A keen old actor; he knew how to play upon the moods of people.

The little yellow fiddle seemed a toy with the immense arms about it. The red flannel undershirt was rolled to the elbows. The great muscles of his forearms bulged like pieces of broken whipcord. Now the old man was really in his element. His hair, like withered gray wild grass, was in a heap of tangles on his head. The vagabond fiddlers, glad of a recess, entered into the spirit of each song. Old Hughie took all the drinks offered. But when the hat was passed, all the money went to the strolling players.

There was a path reserved at the end of the bar where Hughie's glass and bottle stood. The entertainer had need of drink after each song. No man ever stood in that path.

The bartender would raise his hand. Many hands would be raised. Old Hughie was to sing again. His manner was that of a man whom no one dared to disturb. With squat heavy body tense, his head hung low, his lips held tight and firm, he would move toward the bar and pour himself a glass brimful of Three Star Hennessy while the crowd watched expectant.

Then with heavy resonant voice he would begin…

“Look down, look down—dat lonesome road—

Hang—you head—an' cri—ee—

De best ob friends—must hab to pa—ht—

So why not—you an' I—ee—”

The voice clutched everything hard from every face. They went soft like children's.

The fiddle crooned low. Men entering the saloon were swept into the mood at once. They walked softly.

“True love—true love—what have I done—

That you should treat me—so—?

You caused me joy I had wit' you—

Like I nevah had befoah—

“Look down—look down—at lonesome road—

Hang youah head—an' cri—ee—

De best ob friends must hab to pa—ht—

So why not you—an' I—ee—.”

Applause and drinking followed.

Old Hughie suddenly shifted the mood. He handed the fiddle to the strolling vagabond. Clapping his hands on his knees, feet keeping time on the floor, he chanted…

“Moses an' Noah went to jail—

But de ark kep' floatin' on—

De Lawd came down and went dere bail—

An' de ark kep' floatin' on—

“‘Whaddye mean,' said de Lawd mos' high—

While de ark kep' rollin' on—

If you don't behave I'll bust you in de eye—

While de ark kep' rollin' on—

“‘For I've got a whole lot moah to do—

Dan keep dis ark a floatin'—

I gotta keep track ob de Wanderin' Jew

An' kep dis ark afloatin'—'”

No one ever knew where he learned the many stories he told. But he always had a new tale to tell.

“Did ye iver hear of the man who drank too much? Well, he worried his wife till she went to the praist wit' her troubles. ‘Father,' she says—‘he drinks like a well—an' no prayers of me own can stop him.'

“The praist heard her wit' a button off his cassock.

“‘Wait'—says the holy man—' 'tis I that will stop him an' put the fear of Almighty God in his heart.'

“So that night he wint to Michael who was so dhrunk he thought he was the Black Pope.

“‘Michael'—says the holy father—‘if the good Lord answers yere prayers will ye quit dhrinkin!'

“‘Yis'—says Michael—‘I'll be quittin' even if his mother answers thim.'

“‘All right,' says the praist—‘we'll pray to the Blissed Virgin.'

“‘An' what will ye ask her'—asks the praist.

“‘I'll ask her'—says the dhrunken scoundrel—‘For the loan of tin dollars.'

“‘All right'—says the holy father—‘go ahead and ask the Holy Mother for tin dollars.'

“Michael knilt on the hard road with the praist at his side.

“‘Swate Virgin, Mither of a man without min—' he said— ‘may the prayer of a poor bedraggled soul wantin' the loan of tin dollars float up to ye and into the corridors of heaven—it is only tin dollars I would be havin' an' it's me first chance to iver git so much money out of a virgin woman—'

“The praist felt in his coat pocket. There was only four dollars. The praist forgot for a minute. Then he put the four dollars in Michael's coat pocket.

“‘Feel in yere pocket, Michael,' says the praist—‘An' see if yere prayers be not answered.'

“Michael felt in his pocket and drew out four dollars.

“He looked at the money dolefully.

“‘Did she give ye the tin?' asked the praist.

“‘No, begorra—' says Michael—‘she owes me six dollars yit.'

“‘Well, she'll pay that aisy'—says the holy father— ‘just remember it an' lo an' behold—some day the Blessed Mither will remimber it too—an' pay you in the gold she scrapes off the stars on Aister Sunday.'”

The old man chuckled.

“Michael got dhrunk on the four dollars.

“The woman hurried to the praist agin.

“The good man waited for Michael to come home late at night. A white sheet was about the Holy Father's head as he stood behind a tree in the road. As Michael came along singin',

“‘It's the purtiest God damn country that iver yit was seen—

Where they're hangin' min an' wimen for the wearin' o' the green!'”

“An' who should step right out but a ghost from behind the trae.

“Michael shivered at first an' was afraid to run so he became brave.

“‘An' who may ye be?' he asked, his taith rattlin' like stones in his mouth.

“The ghost answered in a voice dayper than thunder in London.

“‘I'm Jasus Christ.'

“Michael was relieved right away, away.

“He held the ghost in his arms…

“‘Oh, I'm so glad to see you', he said—an' he held him close—

“‘Yere mither owes me six dollars—'”


a swamp was that section of Ohio in which my relatives settled. It was an abiding place for mosquitoes and ditch diggers.

Men became proficient with the pick and shovel more than eighty years ago. At that time the St. Marys reservoir was completed. It is perhaps the most dismal sheet of water that ever stretched muddy malarial waves under the sun. About ten miles long and from four to eight miles wide, it remains ever the same.

The moon throws a sad light of beauty over the still water. And that is all. It is turned then, by a glorious transformation into a floor of gold.

Clouds hang above it during the hot months as if too listless to move. But in my bedraggled boyhood they were many colored castles of the sky. Hot winds would tear them apart and send them slowly over the sky. They would soon reunite.

The reservoir, in its natural state, was a prairie and a forest. It was formed by the raising of two walls to the east and west. They were several miles in length. The natural elevation to the north and south then formed a basin which retained the water.

It is used as a feeder for sixty miles of the Miami Canal. It rolls in muddy waves into the Maumee River at Defiance.

Wild fowl often gathered in the spring and summer of the year. They brought a touch of beauty to the dismal lake. Most of them were shot by the citizens of Ohio. The rest flew away to wilder and grander scenes. They never returned.

The sun has burned the bark from drowned trees, which project, smooth as boards, from the stagnant water. Those scavengers of still water, the carp, thrive on decayed vegetable matter. In earlier summers the odor from the dreary lake was enough to drive even the Irish away.

The Legislature passed a law which made it compulsory to remove all timber from the site of the proposed reservoir. It appropriated many thousands of dollars for the purpose. The law was not heeded. The water was turned in on a forest of trees. The money was squandered elsewhere.

Scores of farms had not been paid for by the state when the reservoir was completed. The water rolled over growing crops of wheat and corn.

A public meeting was held.

State officials were warned that the bank would be cut through. The reply came back.… “The guards will rout you.”

Then several hundred citizens, armed with picks and shovels, in two days tore a vast hole through the embankment. Men quarreled for the chance to be the first to turn the water loose. It soon hurled fifty yards below.

Six weeks passed before the water subsided.

Warrants were issued for judges, county officials and leading citizens engaged in the work. No grand jury could be found that would return an indictment against them.

Farms and roadways needed ditches which drained toward the reservoir. Often large creeks, many miles long, were dug with horses and scrapers through woods and fields. Tile ditches were laid across farms. Open ditches were dug along the roads. At this hard labor, my grandfather early trained on the bogs of Ireland, became expert. He early taught my father who was rated as the best “open ditch man” in Auglaize, Van Wert, Paulding and Mercer counties. Not a week passed in fifty years that my father had not a shovel in his hands. He lived at lonely farm houses in the four counties named, contracting the digging of ditches at so much a yard. Saturday afternoon and Sunday he would spend at a saloon in a nearby town.

If the town were fifteen miles away and the mud ankle deep, he would walk. He never asked any man for a ride. Like a gorilla he would swing his mightily-muscled body over the mud.

My grandfather was a better “tile ditch man” than my father. This required more painstaking labor. The ditch, from three to five feet deep, slanted downward slightly, according to the length of land which needed draining. The tile, which measured from six to twelve inches across, would be laid carefully, like a red stove pipe under the ground.

The work would be done in rain and wind. Old Hughie, mud bespattered, a stub pipe in his mouth, which in working hours was never lit, could dig a tile ditch straight across a meadow without the slightest deviation.

He would eat his dinner from a tin bucket in the open field. A compartment for liquid into which a cup was fitted, was at the top of the bucket. Black coffee was not alone used in the tin compartment. An equal portion of whisky was mixed with it.

Garrulous often, the old man was strangely silent at work. In summer or winter his sleeves were always rolled up.

A light eater at midday, he would throw most of his lunch to the birds. He always rested a half hour. During this time he would slowly drink his whisky-flavored coffee; as though it were something to be enjoyed.

Like my father, there was in him no sentimentality. In spite of the long streams of ignorance and superstition which ran in their blood, each man had a faculty of seeing beyond the surface of life. That is perhaps why they drank so much.

With limitations over which they had no control, they were callous-handed but tactful connoisseurs of life.

No man could insult either of them in a public gathering.

Once my grandfather was called a son of a bitch. The epithet has caused murder to be committed. Men waited. The old man shrugged his shoulders—“Well—well,” he smiled, “a bitch or a woman—what matter?”

The man who had offered the supposed insult bought plenty of liquor for the old diplomat that day.

Breweries and distilleries were plentiful in Ohio. Saloon keepers paid their bills every two weeks. Collectors for Cincinnati breweries, generally large good natured German men, visited St. Marys regularly.

My grandfather knew just when each man would arrive. They all knew him by name.

Each saloon keeper was glad to have plenty of customers in the place when the collector called. When the bill was paid, the collector always treated the house several times. If no one were in the place the saloon keeper lost money.

Old Hughie Tully, always glad to help his friends and himself, would make the rounds of the saloons with the collectors.

It was an unwritten law never to drink whisky when a collector for a brewery treated.

But the old man made his own laws.

“Indade,” he used to say to them, “it's a man I am, an' not a barrel—let the Germans dhrink the sthuff—it's nothin' but yellow water anyhow.”

With this pronouncement he would drink the best grade of whisky all day long.

Other men would fall by the wayside before the collector had received half the money due him. Old Hughie, faithful to the last, would never miss a drink.

Often the collector would visit for an hour or more in an important saloon. If my grandfather were engaged in conversation when the collector was ready to leave, he would always call:

“Come on Hughie,”

Together they would walk to the next saloon.

Every now and then as a compliment to the beer collector, the old man would expostulate on the merits of beer. Pointing a shovel twisted fore-finger he would say loudly: “Sh—ure—an' beer is good for the health. There was a man over in Lima who had tumors bigger than balloons. He started to dhrinkin' beer an' they all wint away.”

“Why don't you drink it then—” the collector would ask.

“Indade an' I have no tumors, glory be to God—I dhrank it whin I was a young man in Dooblin—but whin the famine came I told Almighty God if he'd be so thoughtful as to save me I'd niver dhrink another dhrop—unless I had tumors. I kept my word—but I'm damned glad I didn't make it whisky. Indade I'd sooner of died in the famine …”

Hughie was always accompanied by William Webb. I have changed his name for fear that his family might remember him. His face was heavy and red with laughter. His paunch shook far in front of him as he walked. A bachelor, he was an habitué of St. Marys saloons for thirty years.

He died at last of delirium tremens. Old Hughie walked across the town on a blizzardy night in December. His heavy feet crunched the snow. The intense cold drove the rheumatism deeper into his bones. But a drinking comrade was reported dying of the D.T.'s. He had yelled in his delirium for my grandfather.

Old Hughie often told of the time when Webb had wounded a burglar.

“Did ye shoot him in self defense?” asked the sheriff.

“Indade and I didn't,” answered Webb. “I shot him in the rump jist as he was gittin' over the fence.”

Webb was tearing at the bed clothing and throwing snakes out of the window, when Hughie entered his little cottage.

“God, Hughie—they're after me—chase 'em off, chase 'em off—they're bigger than whales—ah—ah!—ah!! There's one on the bed.”

My grandfather sat near the bed as a doctor gave the snake-demented bachelor a hypodermic. Then William Webb shut his eyes, opened his mouth, stretched his three hundred pounds across the bed and lay forever still.

“It's jist as well,” commented old Hughie—“Whin a man can't carry his dhrink like a gintleman it's time to go to the arms of Jaysus who dhrank only wine.”

Money was scarce that winter in St. Marys. Funerals were many. A saloon-keeper advanced enough to bury Webb.

Old Hughie had said to Webb's friends: “It's bist we have a wake for the dare old frind—we that were his frinds should niver disert him in the hour of his death.”

Crasby, Hughie and others of the pious, laid Webb on a table after the body had been washed.

“Handle him keerful,” said Hughie—“for he'll soon be dirthy enough in the ground.”

They laid him out with black ribbons tied about him.

“Oh God,” said Crasby, “he wasn't married—and it's white ribbons for them that are not.”

“Be sthill,” flared old Hughie—“He's married to the Blissed Virgin forever—and worry he'll not about the color of a ribbon.”

Whisky and food in abundance for the occasion was furnished by several saloon keepers.

Lighted candles were placed on the table about Webb, who lay, a mountain of flesh towering in the middle. His hands seemed to fold with an effort across his breast, so short were his heavy arms.

Three old women soon entered. They were the keeners, or professional mourners for the dead—for a fee.

They looked at the body now with eyes full of tears.

“Oh—why did he die?” they asked in unison. “Oh—why did he die?”

“It's too early to ask that!” retorted old Hughie—“there's some more people comin'.”

For Hughie and the German saloon keepers had allowed the news to be spread about that Webb was to have a wake.

Many men left the saloons early. Others came later.

The rooms of death were crowded.

It was thought best not to ask the priest to attend with prayers for the dead.

Old Hughie retired to another room with some bosom friends and the whisky.

Crasby received the guests.

“There's no wakes in Ameriky like them we had in Ireland,” began Old Hughie, when the bottles were opened.

“They used to gather in Ireland before the man died like a lot o' happy buzzards—Glory be to God.”

He chuckled.

“It was like a show—an' the payple would come from far off to see it. An' they'd always buy the licker an' the grub for what with so many wakes an' one thing an' another, the payple in Ireland were poor—

“An' one time two Englishers wanted a wake—as though they hadn't seen enough o' the Irish dead—an' Paddy Fitzpatrick was sick an' he wasn't dyin'. So we got Paddy to play dead for the dear English who bought the whisky.

“An' they all come—an' the keeners cried—an' he lay there like the good actor he was—until one o' the Englishers put the hot ind of a cigar on the cold ind of Paddy's nose—”

Old Hughie drank and chuckled.

“An' Paddy rose from the dead quicker thin Lazrus—an' he wint bounden outta the room as though a lump o' hell fire had fell on him.

“He took the shroud wit' him—an' away he flew over the hills an' the bogs.

“Thin the Irish got mad because the English had sacrileged the dead—an' they run thim over the hills an' the bogs too—the poor shports.”

Soon the cottage was full. The Irish dread the thought of death perhaps more than any other race. This may explain their seeming contempt of the dismal collector.

Laughter and jokes were everywhere about the big shell that had once been Webb.

Jack Raley was there. He had been working as a printer on a newspaper in Lima. He had come, not to bury Webb, but to drink liquor at his wake.

It was the duty of the keeners to learn the biography of the man who was dead.

This learned, they would chant his good deeds through the house.

Always would they end with the question—“Oh—why did he die?”

A group of Germans were gathered about a barrel of beer which had been tapped under an apple tree. Two lanterns hung above it.

They were the friends of the leading German contributor of liquor.

Soon the voices of the keeners were heard. At first they were faint—quavering old women in tears. Then they rose in a witches' unison.

Tight black gowns over bony wrinkled bodies, they clenched their hands on their breasts.

One stood at Webb's head, one on each side.

The candles spurted about the dead drunkard who died of exhaustion while running away from snakes.

Old Hughie, John Crasby, Jack Raley, and their friends crowded into the room.

As if tired of the pose, the hands of William Webb had come slightly apart.

Jack Raley folded them again.

“He was niver one to pray for long,” grinned my grandfather.

“Not if there wasn't a dhrink comin',” smiled Jack Raley.

“May his soul rist in peace,” put in John Crasby.

“Why wish him thet?” asked Hughie. “There's no dhrinks where there's peace.”

The voices of the keeners rose in a terrifying wail.

BOOK: Shanty Irish
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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