available in paperback or ebook on Amazon

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 www.bonavacantia.co.uk  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



Wormwood isn’t here

The sign said, rather waspishly.

It wasn’t the Wormwood I remembered;

Scrubs Lane on a wet Sunday

The outback in West London

No buses, no cars, no people

Just limp grass, acres of the stuff

And, oh yes, the finest redbrick edifice

Victoria’s henchmen could construct.

No rotting bodies in here, my friend.

Not Newgate, not by a long shot

Though debts must still be paid

And some may still get laid

Lord Alfred Douglas lay here,

As did Charles Bronson,

Keith Richards, Leslie Grantham.

And  George Blake

Scurrying along in his traitor’s gait

Till the day he pole-vaulted to freedom

More or less

Before waving goodbye

To his English life,

His liberty and his wife

And all those Wormwood scrubbers





In Cricklewood we had the crack
We went to town and some came back
In Kilburn and Willesden too
We danced in The Banba and the Club 32
(A ramshackle house of bones
In Harlesden High Street
Where the girls danced round their crucifixes
Who knows whom they hoped to meet?)
If you owned a car and didn’t drink Guinness
You were good for a feel if nothing else
But if you wanted to get them into bed
You had to put a roof over their head
Oh, and two little words were important too
And they wanted to hear them loud and clear;




Falling in love with a poet
May be the closest you will come to living forever
Be the wild card in his pack
In a world where lonely queens never say never
Go live in the desert rather than a fancy hotel
Eat with rusty cutlery, drink cider instead of Muscatel
Visit no mans land, but once only
Then come back and you will never feel lonely
Remember that underground city that once glowed
Red in the dark
Go limber up in hilly Montmartre
Then go barefoot in Gaudi Park
Dance with demons and devils on some remote island
Then go toss some cabers in the godless Scottish Highlands
All this you must do, while your poet’s mouth opens and closes
As you dance along some cobbled street singing
Oh, for the days of wine and roses.



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.


I knew Kensal Rise, or is that Kensal Green
When upward mobile and genteel
Were hardly to be seen
When Harlesden was such a pain
And we all avoided poor Scrubs Lane.

The Harrow Road was long and lonely
Fit for trucks and tractors only
Most estate agents did a swerve
And said that sellers had a nerve
To say it was just off Queens Park
Where gentrified had made its mark

The cemetery stood gaunt nearby
With its patchwork bricks
And walls so high
Though Ladbroke Grove might still be seen
By standing on a mausoleum

Queen Victoria and Mark Twain
To Kensal Rise they both came
And a library they did endow
That’s the talk of London now
Today there’s cafes, bars, boutiques
And Chamberlayne’s the hippest street
Where Lily Allen and Sophie Dahl
Rub shoulders with the great and small
And Ian Wright and Zadie Smith
Have made the area quite a hit.
I wonder if they all will stay
Like Harold Pinter to decay
With William Makepeace Thackeray