God in his heaven never bettered this;
Never hit perfection more square-on.
Rugged cliffs lip the strand,
Opening to fields behind,
The Atlantic, white-layered,
Sweeping into the bay,
Its hurry washed-out
By the tug of sand, gently rising,
Before it.

A tangle of marram crowns the dunes,
Tousled, like windswept hair;
Whilst, on the slopes nearby,
A line of white cottages
Vie for prominence with the old church

Yet, it is the call of the waves
That steals most of the aces;
Those riderless white horses
Sweeping relentlessly in,
With their whispering lisps;
‘I love you, please don’t go,
I love you please don’t go’

And I, watching the ebb-tide dragging them back,
Silently mouthing in their wake;
‘She loves me, she loves me not,
She loves me, she loves me not…’



03-08-2015 14;05;03 

A View from the Green Room.

Pat McEvoy.

Arts Correspondent..WATERFORD NEWS & STAR


Johnjo McGrath enters singing ballad of The Rocks of Bawn and you just know that there is a story to be told. It was a favourite of his father who barely knew the words, or the notes, if the truth be told. A small landholder of twenty acres on the Comeraghs of which only five were arable, he carried ancient grudges around like boulders. Clearing land that was full of furze, rock and limestone, he cursed his circumstances and drank a lot of whiskey to dull the pain.

He references Crotty the highwayman and understands the shared experience of disenfranchisement. He curses the Curraghmores and their acres of lawns that would have fed the bellies of half-fed cattle. Not that he had too many of those. It’s the sense of privilege and entitlement about the Curraghmores that gets to him. It eats away at him and he sees no shame in stealing the odd sheep of theirs and selling it on to slaughter. He feels dispossessed and evicted from his land and blames it on the greed of the Anglo-Irish who never had enough.

A selfish father with a grievance, he drank all he had and when he drowned himself, Johnjo had to sell the bullock to meet the funeral expenses.   With only £2-10 the mother mortgages the land and moves into the town. A knife-incident leaving a man badly wounded, forces him to flee and it’s the boat in wartime for Johnjo.

Grim times. Working on the lump, with an array of identities to avoid detection, it’s a grim and lonely existence. Kavanagh’s lines of the women who love only young men ring in the ear of the aging man who moves between damp and over-crowded doss-houses while building the motorways. The gangers are always the same. Elephant John is a tough task-master who can really dish it out. And it’s always Paddy. Never Johnjo. Still no matter when you’re on the lump. The names tumble our like tourist dishcloths…Tom Dooley…Roy Rogers…Gene Aughtry…Donald F****in’ Duck.

But a life without children. And a wife. Before he knows it, he’s fifty. It’s been an empty existence claims Johnjo but odd facts begin to pop out from the coiled spring of resentment. Sexual ambiguities surface. He prefers the company of men. Their smell. Their friendship. A band of building brothers. It’s a world of sexual compromise and secrets hidden from even himself.

He hates Bannagher, the jumped-up Irish boss who also owns the pub in Cricklewood where the wages are paid. He only pays by cheque and charges 5% on cashing cheques for subbies who he knows can never have a bank account. When a trench collapses killing Johnjo’s only friendKennedy because of poor scaffolding, Johnjo settles accounts with Bannagher in the old time-honoured way of blood-payment.

Eamon Culloty is excellent as the spiteful-regretful-sexually-ambivalent Johnjo. In what was once a best suit, he brings the whole range of despised Paddy to the stage. It’s a performance that’s always highly charged and directed with great sympathy by James Power. The emptiness of a wasted life is what remains with you after the performance. There’s nothing simple about a performance that seems to constantly search for answers and, perhaps, other ways to have gone about his business. His father’s son, he doesn’t get his sense of dispossession from the ground. He doesn’t blame the father and scoffs at Larkin’s line: they f**k you up, your mum and dad’. ‘No’ Johnjo declares ‘I f**ked them up’.

Tom O’Brien’s writing always seems to drive Johnjo on to a conclusion based on the navvies’ experience.  His wisdom is bought at a price that no one  should really have to pay. O’Brien lays Paddy’s experiences in post-war Britain bare…lodgings in damp rooms crammed with other Paddies trying to get by. Weekends trying to dull the pain of existence through drink and then looking for a sub on Monday to get through the week.

Great to see Waterford playwright Tom O’Brien’s work on a Waterford stage. Let’s see more of it.




Dear Mother,
There weren’t too many occasions when I pleased you in life. My fault not yours, because we both know that I wasn’t what you would call ‘a dutiful son’. I probably pleased you when I got married, and when I gave you your first grandchild, but I think I pleased you most when I became an Altar boy.
I imagine you saw it as a kind of status symbol: because when other mothers boasted ‘my son is going to De La Salle College’, or ‘has a place in the Christian Brothers’, you could now reply ‘my son is an Altar boy’ with a certain amount of pride. And there weren’t that many of us in the vicinity – no more than a handful – which made it all the more gloat-worthy.
Even the Master acknowledged our special status; taking us up to the church several times a week after school for rehearsals before letting us loose on our first Sunday. He took the part of the priest himself; although he didn’t ‘gown up’ for the role. But I guess Fr. Sinnott, the parish priest, would have viewed as sacrilege the idea of somebody rummaging around in his wardrobe. Still, we were put through our paces until we had mastered our roles; bell-ringing, bringing the water and the wine, and, of course, learning to chant the responses in the appropriate places. I can still recite chunks of Latin after all these years – and I still don’t know what they mean.
In due course I discovered the pleasures of wine-drinking. Thomas K and myself usually served together, and as altar boys were responsible for filling the jugs with the water and wine to be used during the Mass. When the parish priest officiated, very little water but nearly all the wine would be used. However, with other priests it might be the other way round, and we were often able to transfer some of the wine to a spare vessel we kept concealed in a recess, topping up the priest’s jug with water.
We returned later and retrieved the wine, then sat amid the gravestones drinking it. Sometimes it made your head spin, and when we added the occasional Woodbine that I had fecked from your box on the mantelpiece over the fire in the kitchen, everything started to revolve. Trees, poles, even the gravestones; whirling around so fast you had to hang on tightly to something for fear of taking off.
Being an Altar boy had other rewards too; particularly when we ‘officiated’ at weddings, funerals and christenings, where, afterwards, you could guarantee that several shiny half-crowns or maybe even a ten shilling note would be pressed into your greasy little palm. Not that I depended entirely on these fairly infrequent occasions; I quickly discovered that the collections during Sunday Mass offered a steady source of income. I am sure you will recall that when the filled collection boxes were placed by the Altar rail it became our job to take them to the sacristy and transfer the money into the bags waiting there. Once inside, I found it quite an easy task to deflect some of the coins into my own pocket. And afterwards I was able to stuff myself with Rollos, Crunchies and bags of Tayto’s on the proceeds. I wonder if it ever crossed your mind that your very own ‘God’s little helper’ had become a thief?
Not all special occasions paid off, however. Do you remember the time that M’s latest child was being baptized and she couldn’t come into the service because she hadn’t been churched? I always thought that being churched was the result of some serious transgression and for many years I wondered what M had done. It wasn’t until much later that I learned it was a purification ceremony that the church carried out on women who had given birth. This is what I read.
‘The woman who has just had a child must first stand outside the church door and only when she has been solemnly purified by sprinkling with holy water and the prayers of the priest is she led back into the church’.
Apparently it goes back to the middle ages when the church decided that women who had given birth were unclean and therefore had to be ‘cleansed’. I had often seen women before, dressed solemnly in black, kneeling in the vestibule at the back of the church after Mass, waiting for the priest to come and attend to them, but it never occurred to me that the church was punishing them for having children.
I still remember how ashamed you all looked when the priest said the baptism couldn’t take place until M had been purified, and you all trooped away to Cullinanes Pub to put down the half hour wait. I suppose you had ‘a small sherry to settle your nerves’.
I had the task of following the priest about with the vessel of Holy water. He placed a lighted candle in M’s hand, and recited the Gloria Patri and the Kyrie as well as the Our Father before sprinkling her with Holy Water and inviting her into the chapel with the words,
‘Enter into the temple of God, that though mayest have eternal life’.
However, he made sure she was veiled before letting her pass, and I have since read that women who refused to cover their heads were often ex-communicated.
I think this was one of the few occasions where no shiny half-crown changed hands.
I never stopped to wonder at the time why there were no Altar girls. I suppose it was to do with the Church’s attitude to women even then (this was the late 1950’s) as exemplified in the ‘churching’.
Thank God things have changed a bit since my youth.
Your loving son

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Ring of Kerry, Lackendaragh                                                                                                                                            Fachta Finn and Gougane Barra                                                                                                                                       Ollam, Piper, Beann a Ti                                                                                                                                                         Farmer, Fiddler and Land-Lease                                                                                                                                          Viking, Norsemen and Wild Geese                                                                                                                                     Erimon and Fionn Macool                                                                                                                                                        De Danann and No Home Rule

Clonmacnois and The Dail                                                                                                                                                        Men of Erin, Fianna Fail                                                                                                                                                       Democrats and Labour too                                                                                                                                                   Gombeen men, the Dublin Zoo                                                                                                                                        Loonies, Moonies, Lords and Serfs                                                                                                                                         Poets, Painters, Suffragettes                                                                                                                                                Cowboy Pictures, Travelling Shows                                                                                                                                     Ceoltas Dancing, Frightening Crows

Tyrone, Tyrconnell, Red Hugh and Owen Roe                                                                                                                    Cromwell, Robert Emmett, Dev and Strongbow                                                                                                                   Pearse, Kevin Barry, Colm Cille, Maud Gonne                                                                                                                            St Patrick, St Brigid, Mac Murrough, Wolf Tone

Aonach, Feis, Connemara                                                                                                                                                 Irelands Own and Hill of Tara                                                                                                                                              Rock n Roll and fireside stories                                                                                                                                               Sorse Eireann and Mickey Magories                                                                                                                                        The Coleen Bawn, O’Donnell Abu                                                                                                                                  Leprechauns and Faeries too                                                                                                                                         Bloody Sunday, Black and Tans                                                                                                                                             Easter Rising, Bobby Sands                                                                                                                                                   Oisin, Cormac, Tigernach                                                                                                                                                   Cashel, Cratloe and Armagh                                                                                                                                                 The Hills of Tullow, Conor Pass                                                                                                                                             Sarsfields Ride and Dorans Ass                                                                                                                                            The Croppy Boy and Ninety Eight                                                                                                                                       Sassanach and Fenian blade                                                                                                                                                  The Clipper Carlton, Dicky Rock                                                                                                                                               St Stephens Green and Glendalough

Kilmainham, Kilmichael, Kilwarden, Kinsale                                                                                                                       Dungannon, Dunmore, Enistymon, Rathkeale,                                                                                                                   Fedelm, Eithne, Aofi, Kathleen                                                                                                                                               The Shamrock, the Harp, the Flute and Crubeen

Master McGrath and Brian Boru                                                                                                                                         Famine, Firbolgs, the H Blocks too                                                                                                                                        Ard Ri, Mountjoy, Parnell and Rynanna                                                                                                                                Step-dancing, Brian Boru, Big Tom and Setanta

Tir Na Nog, the Galway Blazers                                                                                                                                             Bord Na Mona, Macs Smile razors                                                                                                                                       Mummers, Druids, Unionists                                                                                                                                        Catholics, Jews, Adventists                                                                                                                                                     Malin Head and Poitin stills                                                                                                                                                    Ikes and Mikes, the Book of Kells                                                                                                                                         Shannon, Suir, Boyne and Nore                                                                                                                                            The Gallowglass and Take The Floor

Blackleg, Wrenboy, Blackshirt, Whitethorn                                                                                                                         Whiteboy, Boycott, Blueshirt, Blackthorn                                                                                                                             Plantation, Emancipation, Emigration, Liberation                                                                                                                O’Connell, O’Brien, O’Hanlon, One Nation                                                                                                                     Cuchullian, Rebellion, the Taylor and Ansty                                                                                                                                B Behan, O’Casey, Riverdance and Planxty                                                                                                                         Sean T, Mick Del, Sean Kelly, Glenroe                                                                                                                                James Joyce, Christy Ring, Arkle and Mick’O

IRA, BBC                                                                                                                                                                               UVF, RTE                                                                                                                                                                                 IRA and UCC                                                                                                                                                                            LDF and IRB                                                                                                                                                                             ICA and ESB                                                                                                                                                                          GAA and C of E                                                                                                                                                                Saints and sinners                                                                                                                                                                  C’est la vie                                                                                                                                                                             Everyone is you and me.





I never thought I’d say

That Ireland is to me

Just another piece of ‘real-estate’ today;

The place where we murdered rabbits

On nights both windy and dark

Giving them that old one-two

With a rigid hand behind the neck;

The place where we captured hares

For coursing in the glen

The blood coursing wildly through our veins

As Morrisseys lurcher

Swept them up from behind – again

The place where Mass was said

And Politics pled

On Sunday mornings

Outside churches

While inside, the sermon was read;

The little man was important then

And favours done, or causes won.

Were little enough

To cause much concern to anyone

Not any more

Now that the greedy guts hold all the floor

And all you hear is rampant cheers

And raucous shouts for more

And more…

And more…

And more…



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Dear Mother,

We never had much to say to each other when you were alive. I suppose that had a lot to do with you being grounded in the tranquility of rural County Waterford, while I misspent my youth on the mean streets of that area of London often referred to as County Kilburn. Even when we did speak it was only in platitudes; nothing of importance was ever touched upon. Mainly, I assumed, because nothing of importance had ever happened in our family’s history. So the chances of you surprising me from beyond the grave were very remote indeed.

It began with enquiries about your favourite son, John. Telephone calls to friends and

neighbours, even to the Parish Priest in Newtown. Nosing around, you would call it. Eventually the caller phoned John himself, which is how I became involved.

Apparently we were the beneficiaries of a legacy. A substantial sum of money was laying in British Government coffers, the trail of which led back to our paternal grandfather, Tom, and we were the next in line. Nobody ever spoke about grandpa Tom; Why was that?  And now that I think of it, why is grandpa buried in one parish – Newtown – and grandma in another – Ballyduff? And why did father scrupulously care for grandma’s grave, and not grandpa’s?

But back to the legacy. There was a catch – there always is – the caller required us to sign a contract giving him 33% of the estate before revealing details to us. As I happened to consider that excessive for a ‘finders fee’ I began my own investigations on the internet.

As far as I could see, the only family member who it could possibly be was Aunt Margaret.

When I had last seen her ten years ago, she was already an old woman, living in poverty in Lewisham. (I know you always said she had loads of money, but if you had seen how she lived then you would have changed your mind)

Anyway, after several hours of queries to Ask Jeeves and co, I came across a British government website called  I typed in a name and there it was in black and white! Margaret O’Brien…. Lewisham, died intestate 2005. Estate £XX,000 How well you knew her!

But of course you didn’t really. Nobody did. Not even my father – her own brother. He never spoke about her.  Why was that? She left Waterford in 1947 and was never seen by any member of the family again, apart from myself. Oh, I know you wrote her the occasional letter and she sent parcels of used clothes to you. ‘Her cast-offs’, you called them, before burning the lot.

What was it that caused her to go away and never come back?

She came to visit me in Kilburn shortly after Karen was born – was that your doing, giving her my address? – And we kept in contact until I moved away from the area. She liked the idea of having a niece, but I found her a strange, secretive woman.

When I last saw her she was housebound, living in a dingy council estate in Deptford. And given to calling me ‘Captain’ – because I don’t think she remembered who I was any more. After that I forgot about her.

To establish claim to the estate I have had to furnish various documents; birth, marriage, death etc. Which is how I learned that my father and Aunt Margaret weren’t the only children born to my paternal grandparents. There were three other children, John, James and Catherine. What

happened to those uncles and aunt? Father never spoke of them. They are not still alive as far as I can establish, but neither have I yet ascertained where and how they died and where they are buried.

But you, mother dear, served up the biggest surprise of all. On your marriage certificate, it says FATHER UNKNOWN. Why, in my childhood, did I never realize that your mother was unmarried? Or query the fact that your father had never been around. Oh, there was a man about the house – your mother’s brother Mikey – and maybe I subconsciously associated him with being  your father. Mikey, with his wooden leg -he had lost the real one fighting with the British Army in Flanders – lives on in my memory, and I can still recall trying to remove my leg as he did his, and wondering why I couldn’t. I almost wish now that he had been your father.

I have since learned that you did know your father. He was a friend of Mikey’s who had also joined the British Army, but had been killed in the same battle that had seen my granduncle lose his leg. Killed before he could make an honest woman of your mother.

Killed before he could respectably be put down on your wedding certificate as your father.

You never spoke about any of this. Not to me, anyhow. Was this what made you melancholy in your later years? The thought of your mother living all her life in her little thatched cottage in Grenan, the man she loved lying in an unmarked grave, lost forever in those green fields of France?

I think it’s sad that I find you more interesting dead than I ever did when you were alive.

Your loving son, Tom

  Continue reading

JOHNJO – an extract




 scene one

A darkened stage. We hear the sounds of a busy building site.  Then a voice…

VOICE:     Jaysus, Blondie…that’s a…a…

Then another sound – an explosion.


The light’s come up, to reveal JOHNJO sitting on a rock on a hill.  The hill looks down on some windswept, craggy fields, and, in the distance, faint outlines of farm buildings (unseen).  Johnjo is in his fifties, weather-beaten, but well-dressed…(suit, polished shoes etc) He is singing softly at lights-up.


JOHNJO:                               (THE ROCKS OF BAWN)

Come all ye loyal heroes and listen on to me.

Don’t hire with any farmer till you know

what your work will be

You will rise up in the morning

from the clear daylight till dawn

And you never will be able

For to plough the rocks of  bawn

My father was always singing bits of that song.

I don’t know, maybe he didn’t know any more of it,

but those are the only words that stick in my mind…


I suppose, though, they had a certain ring…


(he gets up and looks around)

I mean, look at it…

More rocks than bawn…

By God, if I had a penny for every stone we picked…

For every furze bush we cut down…

(imitates his father)

Fifty acres, boy…and five of them is a hill.

What good is a lump of limestone to a farmer?

You can’t feed beasts on rocks. By God, if I

had my way, I’d blast the whole lot to kingdom


(laughs, sings  I AM A LITTLE BEGGARMAN)

I am a little beggerman

and begging I have been

For three score and more

In this little isle of green

With me sikidder-e-idle- di

And me skidder-e-idle-do

Everybody knows me

By the name of Johnny Dhu.

That was his favourite song

He would sometimes sit me on his knee…

Johnjo ‘hears’ a woman’s voice calling.

‘VOICE’:   Johhny, Johnny where are you?

Out there in the cold with the child!

Come on in now and milk the cows… Continue reading



One of the best books I have read on the theatre, and on the people who people it,
is John Osborne’s DAMN YOU ENGLAND. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Surprisingly, he has plenty of time for Brendan Behan. Here he is on their first meeting;
“Brendan Behan lurched into my life early one Sunday New York morning. Pounding on my hotel
room door. ‘Is anyone in this fucking cathouse alive?’ he roared. ‘My name is Brendan Behan.
I don’t smoke, I don’t eat and I don’t fuck, but I drink. You can always tell the quality
of a country by two things;its whores and its bread. And neither of them are any fucking good here’.
Brendans life was a ballad, the wild outpouring of a pure, forgiving heart. Who is there in Ireland
or England to take up his matchless song now?



A chapter from my novel CRICKLEWOOD COWBOYS; available on Amazon.

chapter two

‘Bannaher? There’s plenty more like him around this town’, Larry remarked as we watched the subby heave Jonjo’s meagre belongings into the boot of his Mercedes.
‘One battered suitcase, not a lot for a lifetime, eh?’ Chris rubbed more dirt from our kitchen window as we peered into the street.
‘I’d rather starve than work on the effing buildings again’, said Larry as we watched the car pull away.
‘Again?’ I laughed. ‘Refresh my memory’.
‘Feck off, Byrnes. Anyway, working is bad for your health. Look what happened to Jonjo’.
Jonjo had lived in a tiny box room sandwiched between our couple of rooms and the bog. A small, wizened man, his face gleamed like polished leather. The sort of colour I had last seen when my ould fella was soling our shoes in the spare room back home in Croagh.
Jonjo was up and away by six thirty every morning. Hail, rain or snow. Six days a week. He returned around seven every evening, the Evening News, two small bottles of Guinness, and a parcel of food under his arm. He cooked his food in the communal kitchen, then retired to his room with his paper and his drink. You could always tell when he was in; his working boots stood on a sheet of newspaper outside his door.
We had got to know him quite well. He told us how he hated the building trade, and the lump system it had spawned. The subby attracted the worst of his criticism; ‘work, work, work…that’s all he wants. Sticks you down a hole in the morning, and expects it to be an underground car-park in the evening. And pays you nothing at the end of the day…’
‘Why do you do it?’ I asked him one night.
‘Because It’s all I know. And it’s not as bad as it used to be. When we were building the motorways years ago we lived in camps you wouldn’t keep a decent dog in. And you had fellas like Elephant John and Harry the Horse dogging you day and night. Ah, if you could survive that you could survive anything….’ Then his voice became hard. ‘Besides, it was better than working for those bastards in Lincolnshire’.
He revealed he had emigrated from Leitrim during the war to work on farms in the Lincolnshire area. Many of these farms had been specifically bought by wealthy Englishmen, for their sons ,to keep them out of the war. ‘The bastards didn’t know the first thing about farming, so we were brought in to do the work. They treated us like dirt; we had to live in stables and haylofts. Working all hours; picking spuds, muck-spreading, harvesting. We had no names; it was Paddy this, Paddy that, Paddy you thick c–t. The prisoners of war were treated better. A year of this slavery was enough for me. I took off for London and got a job with a subby working for McAlpines. I was always looking behind me though…always on the move…’
His conditions of employment required him to report to the local police every three months, otherwise he could be deported. Technically, he was still a fugitive.
‘Feck ‘em all’, he said to me one evening. ‘I’ll be fifty next year and I’ll have enough put by to get me a little farm near Drumshanbo. And maybe a decent woman to go with it’.
Now he would get neither. Buried alive in the hole he was digging. Three days ago – and nobody missed him. That’s how much his departure meant to the world. The absence of his boots had puzzled us a little, but it was only when Bannaher turned up that we learned of his fate. He was arranging for the body to be flown home after the inquest and wanted to send his belongings with it.
‘He was too old for this game, anyway’, he’d said before he left us. ‘Digging is a young man’s sport. Do any of yous want a start?’
‘A start! Did you hear the bastard?’, Larry raged as we watched the Mercedes vanish along the Harrow Road, Jonjo’s meagre belongings barely filling the old suitcase now resting on the back seat. ‘Jonjo isn’t even in his grave yet, and all he can talk about is a start. His kind will bury more than that place over there can hold’.
‘That place’ was Kensal Green cemetery, which ran parallel with the Harrow Road for some way, and was fronted by a high, ivy-encrusted wall. A wall so grime-ingrained that black might have been its original colour had not the sporadic repairs to the brickwork over the years given the game away.
Not that the view from our front windows bothered us unduly. Dead people were the quietest of neighbours. It was the trains to our rear, rattling our windows at all hours, which had us cursing. The railway embankment sloped up so close in places you could reach out and almost touch them as they rattled by.
‘I suppose his next port of call will be Mulligans, telling them all what a great man Jonjo was, before getting some other eejit to take his place’.
We knew Mulligans well. It was one of a litany of pubs we drank our way through. Big and boisterous, it was always packed. It was said you could buy anything there; tax-exemption certificate, dump truck, sticks of dynamite – even a job. You could also cash the likes of Bannaher’s cheques. Mulligan was onto a good thing; not only did he get his five percent on the cheques, most of the remainder found its way over the counter too.
Monday mornings at Mulligans were a sight to behold. Bleary-eyed and broke they gathered there; survival the only thing most of them had in common. A days work would assure them of a sub, and that would tide them over till the next pay-day. Then the sad cycle would begin again. Bannaher and his cronies had them by the balls alright – and they were in no hurry to let go!

By now I had been in London for almost a year, and very little of that time had been devoted to work. There were occasional early-morning forays to Mulligans when funds were low, but generally, signing on at a couple of Labour Exchanges, using Fergus’ name at one of them, brought in a steady income. Well…what Fergus didn’t know wouldn’t bother him…
Catching the eye of a subby in the early-morning fog wasn’t too difficult; some of the hopefuls looked as if they might struggle to lift a pint never mind a pick and shovel. The mystery tour we called it; you never knew where you would wind up once you plonked your arse in the back of that Transit van. One day you might be digging holes all over Watford, the next pulling cables outside Birmingham. Better than pulling you wire all day, Chris was fond of saying. Only just, boy. Only just.
Larrry never took part. The time of the first race usually dictated what time he got out of bed. If he wasn’t in the betting shops trying to relieve William Hill of some money he was dreaming up ways of relieving shopkeepers and other business people of their hard-earned cash.
The three of us had drifted together in the way that casual acquaintances tend to after a while. The group was fluid by nature, the faces constantly changing, but retaining a nucleus of half a dozen or so. Chris and Larry shared a double room in a rundown house off the Kilburn High Road and had secured a basement room for me. It had a picture of a tropical island painted on the front wall in place of a window, and a permanent smell of stale cabbage and greasy pans lingered in the air. McGinty, the landlord, appeared once a week to collect his rent, ignoring the fact that his pride and joy was falling down around us, complaining that he couldn’t afford repairs on the money he was charging. We decided to get out before they had to dig us out; hence our arrival in Kensal Green.
Chris, Larry and me, three friends with little in common except our gambling and thieving. There was our Irishness of course; though Chris reckoned he was London-born. He had spent his first couple of years in the East End until his mother had tired of his father’s beatings and left him. She had kept his step-sister and sent him to an aunt in Limerick. He had remained in ignorance of his true identity until the aunt confessed on her death-bed. He was seventeen at the time. Within a week he had stolen fifty three pounds from the local creamery and fled to London.
Larry had originated in the Ringsend area of Dublin. His mother still lived there and he visited her occasionally. These visits were very secretive, and I suspected there was a warrant out for him on some charge or other.
As for me, my story wasn’t much better. Ever since I could remember, I was a rebel. As Fr Maguire put it the night I tried to burn the school down; ‘that young man is going places, all the wrong ones’. Since being kicked out of school I had tried a variety of jobs, and had being kicked out of most of them. By this time my father had given up on me. His only comment when he found out I was headed for London was ’good riddance’. Mother cried and gave me ten pounds, a bottle of holy water and a picture of Blessed Martin. Fergus had chipped in with another tenner.
Living in London hardened me. Work became a dirty word – the only kind of work I was qualified for anyhow. I saw what too many days down damp holes had done to scores of my countrymen. You only had to walk down the Kilburn High Road or Cricklewood Broadway to witness it. In the cafes and pubs, in the clubs, in dingy little rooms that passed for home, old and bent before their time. And nothing to show for it. All pissed up against the pub walls or left in the clubs and betting shops.
I grew to hate the sight of a pick and shovel. Hate the blistered hands and the aching back, the company of loud-mouthed navvies with their passion for the pub at the end of every shift. Beery evenings in damp and mud-caked clothes, then back to a squalid room in a squalid house to consume pie and chips…Jasus, it was the stuff of nightmares. To contemplate doing it for the rest of my life….
‘This town is full of Jonjos’, I said now as we downed a few pints of the black stuff in his memory. Naturally, the venue was Mulligans. Mulligan himself was behind the bar on this occasion, lining up pints with all the finesse of an orang-utang.
‘Look at that ape’, said Larry. ‘He’d look more at home shovelling shit in a slurry pit. A bog man right up to his eyebrows’.
‘You can take the man from the bog but you can’t take the bog from the man’, said Chris.
Mulligan hailed from the wilds of Kerry, Killorglin I believe, and was famous in a minor sort of way. He had once been a strongman in Duffy’s Circus, and toured Ireland performing feats of strength. Later, he attracted a lot of publicity at shows all over England, pulling buses with the tow-rope held between his teeth, and taking on – and beating – tractors in tug-o-war contests. Or so the legend had it.
He flexed his muscles now as he placed our drinks in front of us.
‘What do you think, lads? Fifty next birthday and still fit as a fiddle’.
‘Jonjo would have been fifty next birthday, too’, I replied.
‘Is that a fact? Ah, poor fella. God rest him’. He blessed himself. ‘He didn’t come in here much. Only the weekend. To change his cheque. He wasn’t a one for the diesel’.
No he wasn’t. Not that there was any shortage of those, I thought, looking around. Some of those here could do without clothes, without food, without women: the one thing they couldn’t do without was drink. The diesel. I remembered Jonjo’s words to me once; ‘I like a drop of the diesel, Terry boy, but only now and again. Isn’t the craving an awful affliction? I do see men in the morning and they on fire for a sup of the craythur. That fire do be burning all their lives; it’s what keeps them down their damp holes, and in their squalid little rooms, their dream of going home just that – dreams. There’s men I know haven’t been home for twenty years. They’ll never go back now, or if they do it’ll be the one-way ride in the ould pine box. And many of them won’t even afford that’.
.’No, he wasn’t one for the diesel’…Mulligan was still talking. ‘Not like yourselves, eh? Still, it’s an ill wind. Mind you…’ He lowered his voice an octave and looked over to where Bannaher was holding court…’I heartell it was all getting too much for him. Couldn’t pull the socks off a dead man anymore…’ He shook his head and moved away to serve someone else.
‘You wait’, Larry raged, ‘before the week is out, they’ll have him dying of natural causes’.
‘Or committing suicide’.
The swing doors to our right crashed open as Chris spoke. A wild-eyed barrel of a man swayed in the opening momentarily, then stepped inside. His red beard contrasted sharply with the darker hair on his head. There was a momentary silence, then Bannaher stepped forward and tried to urge the newcomer towards the group. The other man shrugged the guiding hand away, and there ensued a heated discussion, although in voices quiet enough to prevent them being overheard.
‘Duggan’, said Larry. ‘Tanked up as usual’.
Mick Duggan, Dougie to most of us who knew him, was a one-man demolition gang who demolished buildings that were only one step away from falling down. Big Bertha, a fourteen-pound sledgehammer, was his favourite tool; he wielded it like a cutlass, scaling structures that lesser mortals feared to tread, and flattening them with his mighty swipes. Who needed a wrecking ball when you had Dougie! Besides, he was a lot cheaper. Bannaher was currently using him to flatten a street of terraced shacks to the rear of Willesden Lane.
Whatever the dispute between the two men was, it was quickly settled. Bannaher took a wallet from his pocket and passed some notes to Dougie, then patted him on the arm before returning to the group.
Dougie weaved his way in our direction, calling for a pint, before turning to us.
‘The three musketeers themselves! Well now, we don’t see much of you at the pick-and- shovel saloon these mornings’.
‘Ah no, we’ve given it up’, I replied. ‘It’s bad for your health’.
‘It was for Jonjo’s anyway’. This was Larry.
‘And what would you know about work? About as much as my backside knows about snipe-shooting’.
He drank deeply, almost half emptying his glass before replacing it on the counter. ‘He was packing it in, you know. A few more months. Goin’ back home in style, he said’. He gave a dry laugh. ‘Some style now, eh?’ The pint was raised to his lips again. ‘I could have saved him’. A pause. ‘I should have saved him’.
‘You were there?’
‘I was there, boy. Saw the whole thing. From the roof of the old school across the way. He was digging out around the footings of an old wall when the whole lot went in on top of him. Ah Christ, it took me five minutes to get to him – when it should’a taken two’. He waved the pint. ‘Too much of this, I suppose. That and the fact that I tripped over something and nearly broke me fucking neck. Anyway, when I got there it was too late’. He shook his head. ‘He shouldn’t have been down there at all. There wasn’t a bit of shuttering to be seen’.
‘Since when did the likes of Bannaher let a little matter like that bother him?’ This was Larry again. ‘Everyone around Cricklewood knows his slogan; ‘I’m paying you to dig holes not put up shuttering‘’.
Dougie’s grip on his glass tightened.
‘I wouldn’t go repeating that if I was you…’
‘No, you wouldn’t. But then, I don’t work for the bastard’. His glass banged on the counter. ‘Come on lads, there’s a bad smell in here – and it isn’t the drink’.
A few says later, none of us were very surprised when the inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure.