The Avondhu - By The Fireside
SPECIAL CONNECTION WITH NATURE
My grandfather’s name would have been ‘Grandad’ if my first cousin Marie McCarthy, who was two years old, wasn’t living with us at that time. She called him ‘Gangie’ because she couldn’t pronounce the word ‘Grandad’. I was one year younger than her and I was just learning to speak. Even though he was “my grandfather”, he became Gangie to me as well because Marie said so. And for the rest of his life he was Gangie to all his grandchildren and to the other children in the neighborhood. I think Marie did us all a favor because the word Gangie sounds more like a term of endearment, than just a name for a grandfather.
Gangie was 68 years old when I was born and he was my godfather as well. He and I had a special connection. He was tall and thin in his day with brown hair. By the time I was born he was a little shorter with little strands of grey weaving through his hair. And for some unusual reason he had a foxy red moustache. Because he was a very even-tempered man, he hardly ever raised his voice to us and never to adults. When he was annoyed, the only thing I ever heard him say was ‘Mnnnn’!
Because I was a very observant child, I watched everything that was happening around me. I saw Gangie take off his hat before he sat down to eat a meal, out of respect for the food that was set before him. He also blessed himself with the sign of the cross before and after each meal in thanksgiving to God. He even prayed on his knees at night-time before he went to bed. At night when it was tea time and we all sat down at the table together, he didn’t have a minute’s peace. We handed him our bread to dip into his cup of black tea and then into the sugar bowl for flavour. I always stood beside him because I didn’t want to miss anything. We called it ‘Gangie’s guddy’ and we thought it was the best thing in the world. But real ‘guddy’ was boiled milk poured over white cubes of bread, sprinkled with sugar. Children often ate it at night as a snack before bedtime. But we liked ‘Gangies guddy’ better. By the time he got through with us, his whole cup of tea was gone! But there was always more.
Friday was old age pension day. That afternoon those who were seventy years old or older walked to Rathcormac village to collect their pension from Hetty Cotter’s Post Office. After they counted their little bundle of money to make sure it was correct, some of the men headed to the pub to relax after a long week of hard work.
Sometimes the rain didn’t make it any easier for them to save the crops. Pubs were social places and Gangie’s favorite one was Tom Mulvey’s. Before he sat on his usual chair inside the door, he ordered himself a pint of Guinness at the bar. Men were very respectful of each other at that time. Others knew that was Gangie’s seat every Friday afternoon and no one was allowed to sit there. If a stranger came in and attempted to, they would say “that’s Bill Hogan’s seat, and you can’t sit there”. Of course an occasional wise guy would say, “I don’t see his name written on it!” But nevertheless they had to skedaddle.
I visited Gangie in there a couple of times after school. Each time he ordered me a glass of red lemonade and I drank it as fast as I could and left. Tom Mulvey was a serious looking man and I knew I wasn’t going to have any fun with him, like I did with the other shop owners. They teased me and I gave it right back to them.
Gangie loved the camaraderie of all the people in the pub. And occasionally instead of calling him Bill, they would say Gangie with a big belly laugh.
He loved talking about politics to Tom Mulvey and the other patrons that were interested. He voted Fianna Fáil and he would argue with those who voted Fine Gael. He talked about David John Barry sending a car to his house to make sure he got to the village to vote. In our house, voting was always a big deal. Gangie was an IRA member in the 1916 Rising and he had attained some medals. I remember my mother kept them in a tin panny cup on the dresser. Over time, they got lost because we played with them when we were children.
As Gangie told his friends stories about the Rising, they leaned forward in interest with their first finger and thumb clasped around their jaw and sometimes with a cigarette or pipe in their mouth as they listened intently, until it was time for them to tell their story. They talked about how the weather affected the crops and how much a bushel of corn cost. They talked about their exploits ploughing and harrowing the fields. Saving the hay and cutting turnips and mangals. They reminisced and trashed all their exploits out there in the pub. After a couple of hours and a few pints of Guinness, Gangie walked home through Lisnagar passage. Depending on the time of the year, it was either bright or dark when he got home.
THOSE ‘BULLS EYES’
Even thought he spent a couple of hours in the pub, he didn’t forget his grandchildren. As soon as he came in the door he said, “Come here, come here”. and we all gathered around him while he put his hand in his pocket to pull out a fistful of Bulls Eyes. They were round black and white rock sweets. And they looked like bulls eyes. “Big bulls eyes”. They were sticky because there was no wrapping paper around them. And it didn’t help that Gangie kept his pipe tobacco in his jacket pocket. And some of it always spilled out of the package and it stuck to the Bulls Eyes. We didn’t care, we just spat out the tobacco grains as we tried to chew them. They were so hard it’s a wonder we didn’t break all our teeth.
After supper he sat beside the fireplace and because he had a few pints of Guinness he was feeling merry and he would start singing one song after the other. But his favorite was ‘Tommy Legs Upon the Hob and Jackie’s Something Higher’. I visualised a skinny man leaning on the back of his neck and shoulders with his legs up the fireplace hob wall. And the other fellow doing the same thing with his legs even higher. My imagination went wild. Or he took the accordion out and he played a selection of songs, jigs and reels. My favorite song that he played was ‘Oft In the Stilly Night’.
‘MY IMAGINATION WAS GONE MAD’
Other Friday nights he told us ghost stories. Now that put the hair standing up on my head. Supposedly a church ruin stood inside a field about a mile from the end of our boreen and a horse was seen going out the gate to the main road with a headless man riding it. That vision gave me shivers down my back. “A man with no head!” But I still wanted to hear more and besides, it kept me up longer. I suppose it was the fear and excitement all at once.
An old lady was seen sitting under a tree not far from the end of our boreen. Someone else was seen near Tubberneague
Another pension day before Christmas, Gangie decided to buy us a present at Eily Daly’s shop, a music box between the four of us. It played nursery rhymes. It was a cream cylinder style with music notes written all over it. It looked so beautiful to me and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. He sat on the stool at the top of the table and he twisted the handle and it played ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. And it’s a wonder Billy, Mary, Bassy and myself didn’t kill each other reaching out our hands and pushing and shoving each other out of the way, trying to take it away from him. He kept saying “Hold On, Hold On”, but it fell on deaf ears. But as luck would have it and because I was the oldest and the tallest, I won out.
Because Gangie was a spiritual man he was very connected to nature. He told us the names of birds and which one was singing at that time. That some of them flew away for the winter only to return in the spring. On my tenth birthday, he called me to the kitchen door to hear the cuckoo sing happy birthday to me in the glen. He showed us the difference between flowers and weeds, mushrooms and poisonous pukepiles. And which direction the wind was blowing from. When we looked upward at the night sky he showed us the man on the moon and we saw the stars and the planets through his eyes.
Once I watched him write a letter to his oldest daughter, Margaret Hogan Bixby in America, because he needed to buy a horse for the farm that cost eight pounds. He received a return letter from her within two weeks with ten dollars enclosed. He blessed himself when he received it and he thanked her even though she was three thousand miles away. She was the first of his four daughters to immigrate to America, when she was eighteen years old. And he never saw her again except from pictures.
My father and Auntie Jule stayed home. When family or close friends passed away, he wore a black band on the sleeve of his jacket for a month or longer depending on the relationship to him out of respect for them. We followed him around the yard and the fields and sometimes he tied our shoelaces