An Evening in the Life of Sean O

Home » Library » The Athenry Journal » Record

Sitting in his living room on a fine summer evening, his legs stretched out, his head resting on the back of his favourite armchair, Sean O looked a picture of contentment. His wife busied herself in the kitchen whilst the rest of his family read and watched TV. One would have thought that he would not have been an easy person to move; still his wife and those around him could sense an uneasiness about him.

Their suspicions were confirmed when he shook himself up and remarked, “I’ll need to see Frank O’Reilly about that bit of fencing”. The man had a telephone at his elbow, so contacting Mr. O’Reilly wasn’t such a problem but nobody remarked on this, just passed knowing glances at each other, aware that there was only one place where “the fencing man” could be found at this time of the evening, namely, a certain establishment where advice, gossip and a bit of business could be transacted. Sean was well aware that going to the man’s house indicated that “the job” was urgent, which in turn could mean a slightly inflated price. Meeting in the pub meant that both were on neutral ground and the job in question could be introduced after first discussing the weather, the price of stock and perhaps the result of a recent sporting fixture.

At this point Sean got his coat, threw it over his shoulder and remarked to no one in particular, “I’ll see you later”. He took off walking at a brisk pace, as was his usual habit on a fine evening, as he said to himself, the couple of miles did him good both physically and mentally. In the peace of a quiet stretch of road one could ponder on many things, especially of the past, as one passes by the houses of friends and neighbours, some long gone, of work and problems shared and of the satisfaction gained from helping others.

As Sean walked along his eyes took in everything; the neat houses and the tidy fields, well stocked with sheep and cattle, here and there the odd new house being built by people, perhaps having moved into the area. He couldn’t help but notice the fine farm buildings and a number of structures in which small new businesses had started up. Surely, he thought to himself, a sign of prosperity. Of course, this was not the sort of thing which was said out loud, as it is not in the nature of farmers to sound overly optimistic. Things could change and others could get the wrong idea. Presently, he came by the yard of Mick Dan, a man never referred to by his surname, or his father before him, for that matter. A middle-aged bachelor, Mick Dan was a man of unusual habits. He could never be described as an early riser and he was heard to say on one of the few occasions on which he held forth on a subject “that it is the early worm which gets caught”. In fact, most of his work started as the sun was going down and could continue into the early hours of the morning. At a time when tillage was more prevalent, his little grey Ferguson could be seen by its lights going up and down the fields. When on the odd occasion he sauntered into town, never, of course, at an early hour and had his few pints, he liked to sing a song and if a concert was being staged he always gave his party piece, needless to say, at the last minute. His party piece was “The ship that never returned” and it was always received with prolonged applause.

One of the remarkable things about Mick Dan’s little farm was its tidiness. His house was neatly thatched and there was never a question of a door falling off its hinges but, as the man said there was a “fly in the ointment” and this was the presence, at the gable end of his barn, of the remains of a car of pre-war vintage and many wondered at this blob, on what was a picture postcard scene. But Sean O knew, that there lay a story.

Mick Dan’s mother was known as a “returned Yank” by the name of Mary O’Rourke, and Mick Dan’s grandfather got wind of the fact that she had a considerable fortune, and through the good offices of the local matchmaker, he proceeded to woo her. Now the most remarkable thing about the match-maker involved was the fact that he himself was unmarried but, on reflection perhaps, the reason was fairly obvious. He lived with his brothers in a run-down cottage about a mile from town. he stood about 5’2” tall, had a thin pointed chin and an equally pointed nose surrounded by a pair of bushy eyebrows and ears that stood out a mile. To say that he was a crotchety person would be putting it mildly. When he went into the house his brother went out. They couldn’t stand the sight of each other.

When he approached a house, the dogs cringed and slunked away with their tails between their legs. He was usually dressed in an old black coat and a scarf knotted around his neck. He could never be accused of not wearing a clean shirt because he was never seen without the scarf. The only beverage which ever passed his lips was strong black tea – so strong the locals said that a mouse could trot across it. His pallor closely resembled the strong tea and like a bird of prey he guarded his territory jealously and woe betide the competitor who tried to encroach upon it.

The dirtiest word in the dictionary as far as he was concerned was romance. The sight of a couple “walking out” without him having a say in the affair was like a red rag to a bull. His comments on the likely future of such an affair would simply be unrepeatable. How then did he succeed in his chosen calling? For one thing it was his only source of income and was ensued with a dogged persistence. He could be seen at night and early morning eyeing up the value of a man’s property.

Every eligible girl for miles around was known to him without their being aware of it. In the dance halls he could be seen peeping out from the crown of men standing along the side. At the fair he could be seen talking to elderly men who had sons on the look-out for a wife and equally he could talk to their wives in a way that would put a Reverend Mother and the sternest P.P. to shame. For every match arranged there was a fee for his services and the greater the dowry the more he stood to gain. On the odd occasion when his endeavours failed he took to his bed for weeks and the only thing which finally roused him was a shortage of money for his diet of tea and a loaf of bread.

Mary O’Rourke was a fine cut of a woman, tall and stately with a head of red curly hair. But at the time the thing that put her head and shoulders above the rest was the little green book, which proved that she had deposited in a Boston bank what might only be described at the time in Ireland as a considerable fortune, earned over the years in America in domestic service and looking after elderly couples. As was the custom of the time the agreement was that the money would be lodged in the local bank in the safe name of Mick Dan.

In return she was getting a place, the sort of arrangement which would hardly find favour with the cailíní of today, but at the time it was the accepted practice. But Mary O’Rourke wasn’t giving up everything, America had taught her a thing or two. Her part of the deal was that a family car would have to be provided so after much head shaking and “to-ing” and “froing”, the deal was struck. So, the transition was made from the teeming masses and hurly burly of America to the quietness of rural Ireland. The car was purchased and ran for a couple of years, but with the arrival of a family and changing fortunes it was finally parked never to run again.

In the course of time, a son, again named Mick Dan, took over the farm and he married the present Mick Dan’s mother, a kindly thrifty woman in her time. Fowl played an important part in farming activity and the sale of eggs kept the wolf from many a door. She kept a yard well stocked with turkeys, geese, ducks and hens and was recognised as an expert on all aspects of poultry keeping. At the appropriate time of the year, women from the surrounding areas could be seen carrying their hen turkey on the carriers of their bikes for a rendezvous with her superior breed of cock-turkey. Woe betide the fox who had the audacity to visit her. Visit her he did occasionally and, on one occasion, one of her prize hens went missing and no amount of searching could locate her. But, low and behold, about four weeks later she reappeared, hungry and slightly bedraggled. Needless to say she was watched carefully and was later seen to head for the old car and inside for all to see was a clutch of chicks.

This event occurred for five consecutive years and the great mystery was how the fox never got her. By a quirk of fate there was an opening which only the hen could negotiate, thus ensuring her safety. For her performance that bird was credited with almost magical qualities and woe betide the man of the road who might enquire “if the old car was for sale, sir”. The old lady in her turn passed on to her reward and among her heirlooms and prize possessions which Mick lovingly retained was the old car. As Sean passed by he reflected on all of this and on Mick Dan’s sometimes peculiar habits and not, by any means a man given to flowery prose, he thought of the scribe who penned the words “Tread softly for you tread on my dreams”.

After walking for a fair distance he felt a certain dryness of the throat, not surprising bearing in mind the distance he had covered and the many times he had stopped to chat with neighbours and acquaintances, being a man of peace he could look any man in the eye and the idea of passing by without a few words wouldn’t enter his mind.

As evening grew into night he quickened his step and as he entered the town most of the shops were closed, apart from one, where a lady was busy with floral arrangements for a wedding the following day. As was his habit he greeted her and stopped in the doorway for a moment. As he quietly admired the bouquets and colourful floral displays he stepped inside and almost unknown to himself and in spite of being a man who could never see the point of buying flowers when his own garden was ablaze with them, the seeds of an idea were germinating in his mind. The florist, being an astute business woman sensed this as she watched him over the top of her glasses. “Perhaps”, she thought, “maybe a daughter’s birthday or homecoming or could it be a relative’s christening or a new arrival”. Finally, the wife even came into her reckoning. Now, the flower lady was a woman of many talents and artistic abilities, a keen golfer and lover of music, but no great painting composition or the greatest tune ever written could equal the mellow tones of the ringing of her till. She felt she had a customer and all her great qualities would be challenged into directing a prospective customer’s cash in her direction. She suggested to Sean a number of blooms and arrangements, for his part the only reaction being, “whatever you think yourself’. He did however, request that they be wrapped carefully and the astute woman that she was realised that he was not going to be seen with anything which remotely resembled a bunch of flowers.

He paid over the requested figure, no haggling or asking to throw off a bit. For the lady it was a case of painless extraction. As it was now getting late and the dryness in his throat was not improving. He picked up his parcel and headed for his favourite stool. He entered the pub quietly nodding and exchanging a few words with the regulars. Sitting down he placed his bundle on the cross bars of the legs of his seat. On most occasions he would hook the heel of his shoes on those very bars as most people did. It was not unusual to find remnants of the good earth on that very spot and the resulting odour sometimes might not compare with what would come out of the most expensive bottle of perfume.

Sean exchanged his drink and looking about him noticed that the man he had come to see was not present but that hardly mattered. There would always be another time. He settled himself down and joined in the buzz of conversation. The man sitting on his left-hand side was a stranger but he was soon made feel welcome, whilst the man on his right was an old acquaintance, one Barney McGlade by name. His father had come from the northern part of the country many years before and between them they had travelled the length and breadth of the country dealing. Their “calling”, they described it. They had their good days and bad, their profits and losses.

They sold many a good horse and a few bad ones as well. The stories of their exploits were endless and they could embroider a yarn as good as the best. They could tell of selling horses for sky high prices to the British Army during the First World War and of how, when the conflict ended, they had turned them worthless out on to the sides of the roads. There were stories of horses walked from Ballinasloe and Spancill Hill to the fair at Ballycastle and of show horses shipped to all parts of the world. In the years they seemed to neither get richer or poorer but they always had horses, which, to them was the thing that really mattered. There are those who love the animals above everything else and life without them would seem hardly worth living. His greatest favourite in the entire world was the Irish Draught, as he said himself, a horse which could pull a plough all week, take a family to Mass on Sunday under a trap or sidecar and carry a 16 stone man all day on the hunting field. He spoke of that noble animal with a conviction and tenderness which belied his gruff demeanour.

Such was Barney, now well into advancing years, a giant in stature, a tiny hat perched on the top of his head and a coloured handkerchief around his neck. A pint glass in his great hand looked like a tiny thimble, but his outstanding feature was his nose. To describe it as large would not be doing it justice. Some would say it was the hallmark of his forebears down the ages whilst others would claim that it was acquired through drinking poteen from the Glens of Antrim to Puck Fair. It was in fact well known that he was something of a connoisseur of that clear fiery liquid. His opinion was that the best brew of all was made by a turf cutter somewhere in Fermanagh. He could be sometimes seen crossing the border in his battered old truck, a few bags of oats and malting barley thrown the back, not all of which was destined for the nose bags of his horses. The use of gas canisters for heating the still was heresy, turf was your only man and he was a firm believer in giving the stuff a second run, which meant that the product was put through the still again.

A drop never touched his lips without first undergoing the test of his uncanny sense of smell. There was no question of passing a glass from left to right while holding it delicately by the fingertips, it was more a matter of holding it in the heart of the fist and inhaling deeply. If the verdict was favourable it was a case of straight down the hatch. If the sample was not up to his exact standards, the reaction was not for the drawing rooms of the hoi polloi.

Sean and Barney passed the time of day and a lively discussion ensued until suddenly the man froze. The pint in his hand suspended in thin air, his sense of smell had suddenly been assaulted by a scent which bore no relation to the pungent acidic smell of horses. His great nose quivered as if seeking out the refuge of this foreign invader, which wafted its way through the bar. As if given a cue from Barney conversation ceased, and all movement came to a halt. It was as if a great engine had stopped, its pistons at different levels within its cylinders. Some pints had barely left the counter, others were halfway to the lip while some had just tickled the postate. It was as if everything was in suspended animation.

Nothing moved for what seemed an eternity but in reality was only a matter of seconds. The only person unruffled was the lady behind the bar. Crisis and the unusual she took in her stride. Her mind went on high gear. Was there something the matter with the drink or were her customers affected by the ball of smoke which hung over the bar? Had they all succumbed to the rigours of a hard day’s work and the effects of a few pints? Action had to be taken fast, she suddenly shouted, “Last drinks folks, please”. The effect was magical if not miraculous.

Everything was in motion once again. The crisis was initiated by the fact that the wrapping on Sean’s flowers had come loose, perhaps, through the stem tearing the paper. One of the blooms happened to be a freesia hated for its strong scent. This Sean realised as he glanced towards his feet. He had enough sense to know that in the mayhem of last orders he could escape. So, shifting quietly off his stool he headed for the door. As for Barney his nostrils were still dilating, his other senses still in shock. The bearer of the flowers headed out for home, but that’s another story.

– –

About this record

Written by Paul Thompson

Published here 27 Oct 2022 and originally published 1995

– –