Young Tom Phelan at home on the farm in the early 1950s.
By Tom Phelan
[This is the latest in the author’s series about growing
up in Mountmellick, Co. Laois, in the 1940s and ‘50s.]
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When I was 10, Uncle Jack left our house to live with his sister Maggie and her family. He would spend the rest of his life working a hand tool for the Laois County Council. When he died four decades later, he bequeathed thirty-seven pounds and fifty shillings to me and each of my siblings; his thoughtfulness, his affection, his love were the most precious part of the gift.
Shortly after Jack’s departure, one of Mam’s other brothers, Paulie, moved in with us. Perhaps his sister Bess, still living at Mam’s home place with my grandfather and Paulie, was fed up with two snarling, demanding, self-absorbed alcoholics, and asked Mam if she and Dad would take in Paulie for a while.
I imagine there were conditions attached to his lodging with us. Dad and Mam were Pioneers and had never tasted alcohol, and Dad especially had an unforgiving attitude toward men who squandered their income and their lives on drink, particularly married men with children
If he’d had any educational opportunities, Paulie might have soared in academia. His extraordinary memory alone would surely have boosted his skyward climb in several fields. But the times and the circumstances were not favorable and so his intellect, like that of so many of his contemporaries in Ireland, was wasted on the bog air. At age eighteen he had his first glass of porter, at Mam and Dad’s wedding reception in the front garden of my grandparents’ house. It was the start of a lifelong addiction. For the rest of his days, except for a few valiant Lenten efforts to remain sober, he drank whenever he had a few shillings.
Paulie once had a relationship with a woman–chaste, I imagine in keeping with both the mores of the time and the lack of contraceptives. But his girlfriend eventually gave him a choice: ‘It’s me or the drink, Paulie.’ He could not promise he would stop drinking.
Before he came to stay with us, “drunk Paulie” stories were grist for the town’s gossip mills, all of them funny except to the people directly affected by his behavior. Mam winced at every tale she heard. ‘What a wasted life!’ she’d say.
For the first couple of months he lived with us, Paulie seemed to have his liquor intake under control. But then one night in the dense dark of the unlit countryside, Paulie waddled along our lane on his bike after drinking himself stupid in the Hill Bar.
Half a mile from our house he rode off the lane into Rourke’s Drain, fell eight feet into fourteen inches of mucky water, and landed on his hands and knees. He stumbled around for a while in the stygian blackness, fell over his bike several times, and finally, when he failed to establish his whereabouts, sat down with his back to one side of the drain. He slept till sunrise, then dragged his lower body out of the sucking muck. It was the shape of a large and familiar whitethorn bush above him that helped him get his bearings. Recovering his bike, he pulled it along the drain until he reached a right angle turn and saw the underside of Rourke’s Bridge. He found the place where we children climbed down to make echoes on our way home from school.
Instead of entering our farmyard through the wicket door and risk waking my parents, he sloshed into the garden and went into the Car Shed by its back door. In the shed, he removed his shoes and socks and the rest of his clothing. Hungover, naked, and spattered with mud, he stepped into the farmyard, slipped into the kitchen, tiptoed through a room with two sleeping children, and got into his bed.
When we arrived home from school that afternoon, my sister was sent up to Doctor Cosgrove’s house with a note. Paulie was sick.
Doctor Cosgrove arrived two hours later in his black Austin Minor and parked in the middle of the lane outside the wicket gate. Cosgrove, a former rugby player, was a tall and gentle red-headed man. He was also drunk on arrival. When he came to the door he swayed, banged his head on the lintel, and stumbled down the two-inch step into the kitchen. He had to ask Mam to send one of the children out to his car for his bag. Mam showed him to Paulie’s room and then quick-stepped out to the farmyard to tell Dad about the doctor’s condition.
Dad called for my brother Eddie and me and led us out onto the lane. Without mentioning Cosgrove’s “disability,” he told us we were going to turn the car because the doctor might drive into the ditch when he was leaving. Our neighbor, Missus Black, had fallen into the same ditch six months earlier and broken her leg.
‘But he’ll know we turned it and he’ll be cross,’ I said.
‘He won’t even notice,’ Dad replied.
Dad knew nothing about cars, would not have known if the car had been left in gear or if the handbrake was engaged. Eddie was put kneeling on the driver’s seat and told to turn the wheel when instructed. Dad and I took up position at the rear of the car and pushed. The car moved forward in short jerks as if we were crossing a deeply corrugated surface. From rear to front of car we traveled many times, with Dad whispering steering directions every time he passed the driver’s window.
We left the Austin Minor facing the town. Eddie and I ran into the haggard and climbed a pile of chopped wood so we could peep over the wall. Eventually, Doctor Cosgrove swayed out onto the lane, opened the car door, sat in, and drove away.
The drunken doctor had told Mam that hungover Paulie had developed pneumonia. It took Paulie a week to get back on his feet, and when he did, Dad sent him packing the next day.
He had lived with us for nine weeks.
© 2017 Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd.
The paperback edition of Tom Phelan’s “Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told (Arcade) will be launched on Tuesday, March 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Garden City Public Library, 60 Seventh St., Garden City, NY. Publishers Weekly has called the book a “witty novel” and notes the “humor and the plentiful details of the farming lifestyle do much to enrich Phelan’s entertaining murder mystery.” For more about the author, go to the author’s website.