Aclare Old Fair Day (Revived) 3rd Aug 2013

Earlier posts recall the days when Aclare village in County Sligo hosted one of the busiest Fair Days in the region. Back in the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, the main focus of attention for buyers and sellers alike was the trade in farming livestock, followed by boisterous quaffing of ale and whiskey in the village’s many old public houses.

Today, prompted by the more genteel and nostalgic mood of The Gathering of 2013, Aclare has stepped back in time and the dozens of long-deserted old shops and business premises have risen from the grave for one weekend only. There are not many beasts of the field around (for which the Tidy Towns’ appointed street-cleaner is eternally grateful), but market stalls are displaying farming antiquities alongside freshly baked breads and cakes, lovingly made in the old farmhouse kitchens of the surrounding countryside. With an old-style Dinner Dance (for the traditionalists) and a Disco (for the younger brigade) to follow, boisterousness in the pubs might yet make a comeback.

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Aclare Old Fair Day (Re-visited) 2013

Early morning – Aclare Old Fair Day (Re-visited) 2013

Thankfully, a growing tourism trade in our secret part of South Sligo is boosting the local economy, year on year. The unspoiled mountains and lakes appeal to young and old alike. More information about the area can be found via the link to our Walking Festival brochure (below). Everyone will be made more than welcome. Don’t all come at once though …. the beauty is in the serenity …. followed by great music and craic in the bars.

2013 South Sligo Walking Festival Brochure

The Holy Lamb

I have previously referred to a Black Sheep in the family, in the form of an abusive priest of the worst kind. I am pleased to be able to introduce the antithesis of the abuser, the holiest man in my Family Tree, none other than Father Matthew O’Rourke, my first cousin once removed.

Matthew was born on 7th November 1918 in the Bronx district of New York City. He was the middle child of five O’Rourke siblings born to one of my grandfather Ned Neary’s sisters (Margaret) who had emigrated from the Sligo farmstead to New York in 1905. In the Bronx, Margaret married her brother-in-law, John O’Rourke, a Leitrim native and a fully-qualified and respected Civil Engineer who worked on many important NY infrastructure projects.

Margaret Neary’s first child, a daughter called Mary, died before the age of two when Margaret was six months pregnant with her second child. The new baby would have started to console John & Maggie O’Rourke over their sad loss, as this child was also a daughter, honourably christened as Margaret Mary in September 1916. The new baby developed into a strong, bright and independent young lady. By 1938, Margaret Mary had breezed through college studies and went in search of a career having been awarded a Major in the field of Chemistry. In 1940, Margaret Mary would have witnessed her younger brother Matthew leaving college with his own BA degree and then attending St Joseph’s Seminary to study to enter the priesthood. Matthew’s life choices must have influenced his older sister because in 1949 Margaret Mary gave up her well-paid employment and became a nun in the Order of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, Margaret Mary lived her own long and holy life as she too devoted herself to God, becoming a Catholic teacher of native Najavo Indians in Arizona before eventually retiring to her convent in Pennsylvania. Margaret Mary died on 7th November 2008 in the convent hospital, aged 92, an event which upset Fr Matthew … for he was still going strong, and it was his birthday and he related the news of Margaret Mary’s death to me with much sadness in his voice.

During his seminary studies, Matthew was sent in 1944 to work in the poorest black communities of the Southern US states. He spent about a year in these communities, and what he saw was to inspire the majority of his adult life. Matt was fully ordained as a Josephite priest on 10th June 1947 after completing his ecumenical studies in Washington DC. He was awarded his first ministry as an associate pastor in a mixed race city center parish of New Orleans, and here he was horrified to experience segregated white and black RC mass services. Worse still, the local white kids received a decent education at small publicly-funded schools, but the black children got no formal education at all.

Fr Matthew O'Rourke SSJFr Matt had a vision of opening the deep South’s first mixed race Catholic High School, and so he attended night classes at the local New Orleans university for 5 years graduating with yet another degree; this time a Masters in Education. During this period, Matt became an active campaigner in the burgeoning civil rights movement of the time, trying to gain equality for black Americans. Traditional white supremacists sneered at the Catholic Church’s involvement, and several senior priests were arrested on trumped-up civil disturbance charges. Looking back, Fr Matt wrote:

“Discrimination because of race was almost total. Segregation was everywhere — in the schools, in public transportation, in the stores, in banks, in restaurants, at lunch counters, in the movie theaters, in the parks and swimming pools. Worst of all, there was de facto segregation in the southern churches.”

During these mature student days, Fr Matt eventually assumed full authority over the Raymond Parish of New Orleans. At the time of becoming PP, his city center Catholic Church was still holding one Sunday mass for the white congregation, and then a separate service for the black parishioners, mainly because the influential local white politicians demanded that segregation must be upheld in all public places. Fr Matt announced one week after taking control that there would be just one combined mass service under his ministry, in future. The New Orleans white so-called Christians were up in arms. Fr Matt told them to accept the way forward, or to go and find a different religion. The whites reluctantly accepted Fr Matt’s decision, and crowded into all the pews up front, with the blacks having to stand at the back. Fr Matt wasn’t finished. During his first combined mass sermon, he asked the black senior citizens to walk up the aisle, and he instructed the white families to shuffle around and find seats for their elderly fellow-parishioners. The “change” in local society had started.

In 1950, Fr Matt presided over the building of a new Josephite catholic parish high school. He was appointed the first-ever principal of St Augustine’s in 1951, and served in this role for a decade. Fr Matt invited the “excluded” local black children to attend his school, again to the alarm of much wealthier white families. Even the uneducated black kids were disinclined to join academic classes, so Matt recruited top sports coaches and encouraged the reluctant scholars to venture through the school gates and form initially all-black sports teams. A major turning point came when Matt arranged end-of-term challenge matches in football and basketball, whites v blacks. The whites scoffed but were forced to eat their words when the “Negro teams” trounced their new schoolmates at everything, including track and field events.

Soon after, Matt organized sports tournaments with neighboring schools. Most were unwilling to permit games with St Augustine’s mixed race athletes, but St Augustine’s teams invariably won the scaled-down competitions – and so each exclusive whites-only school lined up to attempt to beat the New Orleans champions from St Augustine’s; a mixed bunch of intelligent liberal white boys and promising muscular black athletes. Integration had been commenced forever, unwittingly in the eyes of white bigots. Of course, Fr Matt was soon able to tell his black sports stars that they had to join the academic classes if they wanted to remain on the sports teams.

Matthew’s foresight and determination was soon recognized by his superiors. He o+rourke+st+augustineeventually rose through the ranks of Josephite society, and became Director of Education during the turbulent 1960’s decade. Fr Matt now had the power and ability to mould the curriculums and entrance policies of every Christian school or college across America. Today, many black Louisiana politicians, business leaders and sports celebrities pay homage to Fr Matt (fondly nicknamed “The Chief”) and their all-round education at St Augustine’s during the 1950’s and in subsequent years. In truth, most African American students in the USA, past and present, should thank my Irish American first cousin for his relentless courage in gaining equal access to educational institutions for all races – something which is now taken for granted.

Photo (ReverendMatthewJosephORourke)Fr Matt visited his mother’s Irish hometown of Tubbercurry on several occasions, and composed his own hand-written version of a Family Tree after seeking out and interviewing relatives. About 10 years ago, I was privileged to be personally introduced to Fr Matt by a new-found NYC-based cousin, as Matt served in his last SSJ role as the Rector of St Joseph Manor in Baltimore, a retirement home for ailing priests from the 1990’s onward. He graciously sent me his detailed O’Rourke Family Tree, and I was therefore able to vastly expand my Neary Family Tree. I reciprocated his kindness by retrieving several Irish vital records featuring his father and uncles, and their forefathers, which Matt had never been able to locate. He said that I had made him a “very happy and contented old man” as he prepared to meet his Maker.

Shortly after his sister Margaret Mary died in Nov 2008, Matt took a heavy fall and broke his hip in seven places and fractured his femur. He was now aged 90 and even his nursing staff felt that the much-loved Fr Matthew would never recover from this devastating accident – but he did. Eventually confined to a wheelchair, Matt was able to communicate with me in Ireland via the phone and with his regular letters and blessings. Remarkably, Fr Matt had become fully computer-literate in old age, and he even sent me the odd e-mail as a disabled nonagenarian to advise me of the births of new family tree members across the world.

The renowned published author, civil rights pioneer and former School Principal and President, with the film star good looks, the Very Reverend Father Matthew Joseph O’Rourke, SSJ, passed away peacefully on 9th March 2012 at St Joseph Manor. He was buried on 14th November at the New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore.

2012 photo (Fr Matt)

Last photo: Fr Matt, The Chief (1918-2012) RIP

Irish Nature

One of the joys of living and working in the rural West of Ireland countryside is that you become well-acquainted with all species of domesticated and wild creatures which you rarely get to see in the towns and cities – and I’m not talking about the human varieties, such as Hughie & Maurice!

Gazing out of my office window on my half-acre plot, depending on the time of year, I view in close-up all manner of things from the animal and bird kingdoms. There’s hares and rabbits peeping out from the edge of the woods opposite, and often a beautiful fox stealthily creeping across the meadow in search of his long-eared prey. Thankfully, we never see the “kill” as foxes drag their quarry to undergrowth for the final execution.

In the next field, there are two donkeys which roll on their backs in play when the sun shines. Maybe they are discouraging pesky insects from crawling inside their thick coats. Donkeys must always have company to thrive – so never rear a donkey in isolation.

Cattle and sheep are rotated on the meadow. The sheep are the loudest, especially just after lambing when the ewes call out for their twins or triplets. Each ewe has a distinctive voice, and the lambs instantly recognize the call of their mother and frolic back to her side, leaping and high-kicking their young limbs, when they’ve wandered too far away. Some ewes sound scarily masculine with deep booming voices. Many is the day that I’ve turned toward the meadow believing that one of my male farming neighbours is calling for my attention. The cattle get louder in winter when brought indoors to their sheds. If one old girl calls out for her daily silage feed, then she sets off a chain reaction of incessant “loo-ing” until the herdsman dishes out the grass. Cows in Connaught “loo” not “moo” – it’s a subtle difference.


American mink: not nice to cats

It’s always a treat to see the hedgehog or badger ambling along at dusk by the river. At the other end of the spectrum, everyone rushes to chase off the non-native [American] mink, if spotted. These fine looking animals were introduced into Ireland and farmed for their fur. Unfortunately, many have escaped their compounds and now they breed freely in the countryside. The problem is that these creatures are “killing machines” pure and simple. They will attack and destroy any other small animal on their patch, whether it be cats, dogs, hens or other wildlife. Minks kill to dominate territory, whereas a fox will only kill for food.

Bird-life is abundant in our garden. We put out feeders and seed to encourage our feathered friends, all year round. There are the noisy black crows who feed at dawn, and squabble among themselves. If we fatten the crows up here, then the local grain and vegetable growers stand a better chance of maintaining a healthy crop, we believe. Next in at breakfast time are the gentle wood pigeons. I call them Love Birds. They always go around in twos, one male and one female, and reputedly keep the same partner for life. Aw!

The little fellas arrive soon after. The big wild pigeons happily share their meal with the sparrows and finches and tits and thrushes. Now and again the robin shows his face and chest. Always a loner, not like the loved-up pigeons. The timid wrens from the riverbank sometimes swoop in as well if the weather determines that worm and insect-hunting is leaving them a bit famished. We have been particularly pleased this year to see that the once-rare goldfinch is thriving around our garden. In fact, just of late, this pretty yellow-feathered species might be outnumbering all the rest. It is hard to count numbers accurately when you reach 30+ for one breed and all the recently hatched goldfinch chicks won’t keep still, busily cracking open the Niger Seeds.

Of course, my favourite birds refuses to partake in the freebie meals on offer. These are the fiercely independent and abundant swallows – after returning in the spring or early summer from their winter vacation, thousands of miles away in sunny Africa. With their own in-built SatNavs, somehow year after year the same pairs return at gradual intervals to our relatively tiny garden, or more precisely the roof eaves and outbuildings. Before long, a dozen or so spruced up mud nests appear, and mating begins during dazzling aeronautical displays. Then you notice that the ladies retire to the nests for a while, and leave the man of the house to get the groceries. In no time at all, chirping is heard above the window tops or in the barn roof, and soon after three or four tiny faces peep out from their dried mud homes.

It is the biggest delight of all to watch the baby swallows grow, day by day, until the very hour that mother has to be cruel to be kind. This is the time when she watches from afar but refuses to feed her chicks ever again. The youngsters must now fend for themselves – and this means attempting that strange exercise of flying at which their parents are so adept. Some chicks need more encouragement than others. Dad often soars and swoops doing his loop-the-loops right outside the nesting zone. The kids get the message. They must make a leap of faith and test out their wings. I was privileged last year to witness the very moment when one young swallow made his maiden flight. He leapt from the nest rim, and fell towards the ground flapping for all his worth. Miraculously, he never hit the deck because in an instant of wonderment, the tiny bird hovered a few inches off my concrete path. And then, the knack of flying was discovered. He started to rise, slowly; just enough to clear the roof of my car – until dad swooped by and said “Follow me.” The offspring did as he was told, and commenced his first horizontal journey, soon followed by a climb, a sharp turn, a dive and a well-deserved short breather on a branch of the willow tree by the river.

His two siblings soon joined him, making almost identical take-offs as they jumped like virgin parachutists from their former home in the eaves.

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Get ready … to go

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………… going …………..

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Almost GONE (one minute later the nest was empty)

Ned’s Field

Apart from my grandfather Ned being (in)famous for funding Ireland’s longest ever pub crawl, I have only managed to pick up one or two other snippets of information about his life in south Sligo prior to his lifelong relocation to the windy moors of east Lancashire.

I am proud to say that one particular field in all of Sligo is still referred to as Ned’s Field. It’s a grand field, leading uphill to an ancient ring fort. It was sold to good neighbours called O’Hara in the 1930’s in order to finance the family’s “emigration” to the Promised Land of booming Lancs (just before WW2 broke out). I like to walk up Ned’s Field. It’s a pity that Ned’s cottage is no more – but Uncle John Neary’s place, right next-door still remains, and was occupied by John until very recently.

Tullinaglug #2

John’s cottage and his auld Raleigh bike

Prior to the departure of my Neary ancestors, a few memories remain, recalled by folk old enough to remember. For instance, old “uncle” John James Neary (2nd or 3rd cousin) born in 1924 laughs when he tells me how Ned saved on the regular cottage heating fuel of turf sods cut from the local bog (and dried and turned for weeks on end). Uncle John can recall going into Ned’s cottage and witnessing him burning a fallen tree trunk which was so lengthy that one end was on the fire whilst the slimmer end was poking out of the cottage door and into the “street” (as John describes a single track lane used by just two inter-related farming families). This tree trunk would burn away for a week or so, and would be shunted up to the fire by a few inches when necessary. Talk about domestic health & safety! These cottages had thatched roofs made of dried straw or rushes. Very flammable substances. A spark could have set the whole place alight – but it never seemed to happen. The Neary family would sleep through the night with their own form of central heating. The fires in south Sligo never went out, 24/7.

John also told me that “Kit” (Kate) Stenson, aka grandma [1852-1944], was always in her bed in the “top room” when he was brave enough to venture into Ned’s shack. The “top room” was the only separate bedroom in a traditional Irish cottage. The other 10 or 12 or 14 younger occupants (plus sow) lived in the same cramped space, maybe separated by thin cloth sheets hung from the rafters at bedtime. John told me that Kit was very kind to the young kids. She would put down her clay pipe and reach under her bedclothes and produce the equivalent of sweets or toffees for the modern child. John loved his childhood treats.

My dad’s best school friend pal in the 1930’s was Eddie or Ned Moran. This man is still living, but sadly he is now inflicted with total blindness. His memories are vivid. He tells me of rushing home from school with my dad (both bare-footed) with the intention of riding Ned Neary’s donkeys bareback, up on Ned’s Field. Worryingly he says that “Ned’s asses” were so thin that they would “split you in two”.

Ned Moran was also there when my Neary clan pulled out of the “street” and never returned. Apparently my dad shouted from the cart that he would see Eddie next summer. The two school friends never saw each other again. Unbeknownst to them, a simmering Neary feud about a trespassing sow or a wandering cock determined that Ned Neary’s family would never again set foot on their home sod [until I instigated a truce 70 years later]. Details to follow.

Eddie Moran said that he was brave as he waved my father off to England. He kept smiling and laughing, as instructed. His mother (Annie Gilmartin) had told him to be strong. Then Eddie brought a tear to my eye as he explained that he cried all the way home across the field, after Ned Neary’s ox-cart had departed for the railway station. His best mate, John Thomas Neary, never saw or contacted Eddie Moran again – but Eddie remembers him with fondness, and chuckles away at his memories of Ned’s Field, eighty years ago..

My Grandad’s (In)Famous!

When you research your family history, you secretly hope that you will uncover a tale or two which makes your ancestry unique, and possibly famous. You know, the type of story you can impress your friends with over dinner or whilst sharing a pint. By interviewing old folks who remembered my Irish grandfather’s existence in Sligo, before his permanent relocation to England, I was able to verify one such story. More than one person recalled the same tale – so this saga was “famous” considering that the events happened over 80 years ago!

At the time, my grandad Ned Neary was approaching 30 years of age, married with a clutch of young kids, with my dad being the eldest born in 1925. It was the day of the Old Fair Day in Tubbercurry renowned for fast and furious livestock sales, all conducted on the narrow streets and pavements of the town. Ned knew that the Old Fair would attract some cash-laden jobbers down from the North. These were cattle-dealers contracted to buy up the best stock in the Republic and cart them back to wealthy farmers in Ulster where beef prices were sky-high. As a result, Ned spent the eve of the Fair Day sprucing up his two finest calves. Their coats were washed and brushed until they were gleaming.

Early next morning, as planned, Ned’s best friend Tailor Currane from Gurtermone, ambled down the lane to the tiny Neary farmstead to assist with the transportation of the two prized calves. This involved attaching a leash to each young animal and then walking them all the way into town, ensuring that they remained in pristine condition. The plan went like clockwork, and Ned secured a prime bartering position at the bottom end of The (triangular) Square in Tubbercurry, just as the jobbers rolled into town. No-one quite knows what happened next, but clearly more than one jobber took an instant interest in Ned’s calves, and the outcome was a bidding war which resulted in Ned reputedly receiving a handshake of honourable spit – and the highest sum ever paid at the time for a pair of wee calves. Something in the region of £20 or more; a fortune circa 1930.

Well now, Tailor Currane was not stupid, although he was not a good tailor, and consequentially virtually penniless. He knew that his wages for the day would be paid in the form of a slap-up breakfast and a few drinks from the proceeds of the sale. He also knew that Ned was a fierce drinker, as witnessed when Ned’s notorious home-brewed Mad Man’s Soup was often devoured before it had cooled from the Still. So right enough, Ned and Tailor Currane went for a celebration drink right there in the town square. Flush with pound notes they had large measures – and to Hell with breakfast.

By late morning, Neary and Currane decided to embark on a pub crawl, to get farther away from the noisy farmers and jobbers who were now all arguing about the ridiculous price standard set by Ned’s early sale. All had to settle for less, except Neary and Currane who drank their way to the edge of town by mid-afternoon.

Their bahaviour was becoming more raucous, and not welcomed in the more respectable Tubber hotels, so Ned bought a drink for a farming friend from Curry on the agreement that he would ferry Ned & Tailor to their local hostelry at Kilcoyne’s in the back of the farmer’s ox cart. When passing Rhue, Ned decided that it was too early to be heading homeward, so he told his taxi driver to take the passengers all the way into Curry village. “We’ll have one or two in Cawley’s bar,” shouted Ned, to Currane’s delight.

Well, one or two became three or four more, and our intoxicated duo rambled from public house to coaching inn to hotel. When no longer tolerated in Curry, Ned and his buddy staggered down the main road south towards Charlestown. They’d worked up a big thirst by the time they reached the first bar in Bellaghy – so they had a drink. Onward they trekked. Ned was in Mayo by midnight, in the bright lights of Charlestown. He was now farther away from his wife and family than he had been at breakfast time, but he was in no fit state to go home. Anyway, Ned had hardly made a dent in the proceeds from his cattle sale – so he negotiated the purchase of a few after-hours drinks at Top Dollar provided that he and his comatose friend were granted lodgings for the night. The innkeeper obliged and showed Neary & Currane into a chic barn in the back-yard which had a welcoming hay-loft above. The intrepid duo drank themselves to sleep in the penthouse suite.

When morning came, it was time to attempt to eat something – for the first time in 36 hours. Currane was sent to contact Room Service. The innkeeper’s wife brought out a few boiled eggs and slices of warm soda bread. Soon, the boys were ready to hit the road. Now – Charlestown had many, many hostelries back in those days. Word had spread that Ned was in the locality, and each pub landlord made the Sligo lads more than welcome. “Try this new drink”; “Check out this whiskey from the north”; “Put a bit of soda with it”; “Down in one!”

A second day of celebration passed in no time at all. It was late into the evening before a fracas with some passing tinkers caused a few breakages of glassware and pub furniture. Another sympathetic (and opportunistic) landlady offered bruised Ned and battered Currane a lie-down on her bar-room benches. Another drink-filled day had passed.

The next day, Neary & Currane replenished their bloodstreams with plenty alcohol in Charlestown, but the drinking pace was slowing down. Ned was getting worried about the reception he would get at home from his dear but fearsome wife, Ellen. The local innkeepers read these signals the wrong way and ushered him and Currane out of their doors much faster than the day before. They thought that Ned was running out of money and would soon be seeking credit. This was far from the truth. He still had a pocketful of pound notes. Or maybe it was the smell of Currane’s body odour that made yesterday’s friends turn up their noses.

The poor tailor had a temporary solution to Ned’s woes. “Let’s walk south down to Ballyglass. We’ll get a good welcome at Billy Gallagher’s place. I made him a suit for his wedding.”

“Yes. I remember,” agrees Ned. “A bad suit.”

They got a great welcome at Billy’s bar, with Billy grateful for any midweek passing trade. Similar receptions were experienced at Tommy Murphy’s and Dicky Flynn’s (et al), and in another day or two the Sligo lads had bypassed Knock Shrine, and all its guilt-ridden reminders that Mass had been missed, and they were on the road to Ballyhaunis. In this town, Ned had to admit that funds were getting low. The poor tailor Currane could not contribute a penny, so he reluctantly agreed that a pub crawl homeward was on the cards.

The route home passed back through Charlestown, on the townsfolk’s very own market day. The pub’s were jumping. It would have been ignorant not to thank each innkeeper for their earlier hospitality. And so it passed that Ned Neary spent every last shilling on whiskey and beer … and then trooped home in his worn-out old boots.

Many in the area can still recall or have heard about this world-record pub crawl. Differing reports talk of Ned being away for “over a week”. By my calculations based on the buying power of £20 at 1930’s shop prices, it is more likely that Ned had enough cash to endure a fortnight’s drink-fest for two. It’s a funny story, and on another level, a rather sad story. Just imagine how it felt for Ned’s wife (my grandmother) as she tried to feed herself and her babies – and maintain the farm – with the man of the house away on an unannounced rambling holiday. Somehow, Ned & Ellen remained together for the rest of their long lives, and made more babies. That’s how it was back then. No divorce or separation.

The infamous saga of Ned Neary’s pub crawl is recounted to me every time I bump into Hughie O’Gara, a man who was a neighbour of Tailor Currane. This usually occurs in the Roaring Cock, with Hughie shouting his recollections across the bar in his booming Dalek-like voice for all to hear. As such, the story can never be forgotten locally. Hughie chuckles with laughter, his shoulders bouncing up and down, thinking that he is embarrassing me.

On the contrary, I have turned the tables and I demand that when Hughie next sells two calves for a decent price, then me and he will re-enact the Neary Ramble, although I insist on crashing out at decent 3-star hotels. It’s about time a Gurtermone man paid back his dues to the generous Neary clan, after Currane’s mighty free-loading escapade. I have also told Hughie that I have applied to Mayo Council to get a commemorative Blue Plaque erected in Charlestown, by the horse trough used by Ned for his ablutions, to remember Ned’s distinguished contribution to the Licensed Trade.

As a consequence of all this, Hughie’s weekly chuckle-some greeting to me, in that Dalek voice of his, is always the same:

Are we going to Char-les-town today?

“What Hughie?”

Char-les-town! CHAR-LES-TOWN!

Okay, Hughie

Okay, Hughie

Clada Asses in the 1600’s

Down Survey Map

                     Down Survey Map

We don’t mind if we couldn’t spell, or use proper grammar. We could talk. We did talk (in our own language).

And we told tales, and if the townsfolk didn’t like it, so what? We looked after our own; yes, our own asses. I am proud to be a Claddagh Ass. We survived, and we watched them come and go. Where are they now – those that mocked? In the New York smog, or Boston slums; or drinking dewdrops from the mountain, and eating salmon from the Fiddann? We wish them well. They probably wish they never kicked a Claddagh ass.

Older than ye think, are we

Old Clada asses are older than ye think

Déantús an Phoitín

Poítín Recipe


  •  Granulated Sugar – several stones
  • Yeast – a few pounds of the stuff
  • Spring Water – gallons and gallons
  • For a pleasant change, try an alternative malt and barley mixture, plus yeast, in the same secret quantities.

Get an old barrel and make sure that it is washed out properly. Then melt the sugar but don’t let it burn. The sugar semi-liquifies as it begins to melt. Place the yeast in another container or bowl and break it up with your hands.

Heat the barrel with a drop of hot water. When heated, put a fistful of yeast into the barrel and then pour in some lukewarm water on top of it. Add a good dollop of melted sugar. Throw a wet cloth on top of the barrel and let the sugar and yeast dissolve into the water. The cloth helps to keep the smell down, which is very important.

Place the barrel in a secret dry place. Put hay all around it, including under it, and over the top. Leave it like this for three days. When you go back to the secret place after three days, repeat the same procedure over again, in the same way you did it before, with the yeast, sugar and lukewarm water. Keep doing this over and over, over several weeks, until the barrel is almost full. You now have a wash.

Poitin making sketchWhen the mixture is ready, thin it out with water, preferably potato water. For added flavour, put a bit of treacle through it. This crucial preparation stage is now complete, and the mixture is ready to run.

To run it you will need a steel drum with a lid, copper piping plus a basin with a hole in it. The hole must be the exact same diameter as the copper pipe – because the end of the pipe is pushed neatly through the hole. A worm is also needed and placed into the drum. Always ensure that your drum and worm are thoroughly clean.

Heat the drum gently on a turf fire, and watch as the steam turns magically into whiskey, in the form of a totally clear water-like liquid. Continue running your mixture very gently. When the running is near to completion, gather your whiskey from the still and worm, and then put it back into the top drum one more time and run it again.

When cooled, drink in moderation with your appreciative neighbours – but only after treating the fairies. It would be a pity to be cursed for the rest of your life, after all that patience and endeavour.

If you opt for the malt and barely alternative, there is a lot more hard work involved. Say, you had four stones of malt and barley, then you would have to leave it in water for about three weeks until buds appear. Next, you throw the mixture out onto a dry loft and you have to keep tossing it every day. Do this until the bud goes back into the seed. Finally, you crush the seeds and then put them into the wash barrel with some yeast and lukewarm spring water. The extended process is worthwhile. You will be rewarded with a spirit which your neighbours will declare is ‘The Best of Whiskey’.

Quality Control 

To test the success of your distilling skills, light a small piece of paper and put it into a small sample glass of the liquid (whiskey). When it stops burning, the remaining liquid should only be pure water. If there is a good flame burning from the liquid, that suggests that it is a good whiskey, and can be classed as Mountain Dew. Also check that a nob of butter sinks in your filled whiskey glass. If the butter floats on top, then you still have too much water content and you should return to the still and run away.

A surefire way of testing the alcohol strength of your brew is to boil the whiskey and then let it cool off. When the bead on top is not too strong, run it another time and throw some salt into it. If big bubbles appear at the top of the whiskey, it is strong stuff. This spirit is categorized as Mad Man’s Soup; true poítín.

Always, ALWAYS, throw the first drop of poítín to the fairies. Otherwise, supernatural beings will haunt your furtive drinking session. In modern parlance, this is called “hallucination”.

Various Uses for Poítín: 

Never let poítín into the wrong hands. Share discreetly at local weddings or for a wake house or with someone who is sick – but never let it into the wrong hands. Your livestock will appreciate a drop as well. To liven up your cattle, mix it with milk and let them slurp away. Poítín is particularly beneficial for people with Arthritis or Sciatica or pains in their knees. For additional pain relief, use internally and externally. Rub the poítín into the affected area. The first run of whiskey is considered the best for aches and pains, or maybe you just don’t feel anything when you sample the second or third runs.


Distribution of your excess whiskey for commercial gain is fraught with danger. When caught on the road, Master Distillers of old were rarely transported overseas, but the County Court Judge will impose hefty financial penalties in the knowledge that your neighbours and customers will stump up a few quid in order to ensure that the still is removed to an even more secret place. Use vigilance and cunning. Here’s an example from our parish:

In the troubled times of 1921, an old woman used to bring Póítín into Tubbercurry and sell it to the big shots in town. She was a mighty woman. The ruthless Black ‘n’ Tans were around at that time; and they used to hold people up on the road, checking their carts. Our heroic old lady used to transport the poítín in kettles. She would fill the top of the spout and seal the lids on each kettle with buttermilk. The soldiers would ask her what was in these kettles and she would reply, “Can you not see that it is buttermilk which I sell to the poor people at the Tubbercurry market each week.” She was known to have one of the most popular stalls on the market, so the local army sergeant was suspicious.

One time, the soldiers followed her out of her village, on her way to Tubbercurry, intending to conduct a thorough search of her cart, away from the busy main road where rebel youths stoned the Brits if they hassled the old locals too much. Word of the soldiers’ presence in the parish was quickly passed to the farmers up the lanes, and a baying mob attempted to delay the platoon as it marched behind the old lady’s cart, passing through Banada. The commotion allowed just enough time for our heroine to lead her ass to the River Moy bank for a drink, out of sight, below the bridge.

Quick as a flash, she tied together the kettles containing whiskey with a string, and dropped them down into the river below the reed beds. She always had them well-sealed, so the Mountain Dew was safe. When the soldiers eventually caught up with her on the riverbank, the sergeant hinted that he would instruct the Moy to be dredged. Not to be outdone, the brave old lady grabbed her carbolic from the cart and immediately started to strip off her clothes. “Will you give me the courtesy of bathing in private – or do the British men have no scruples at all?” howled the old woman. With her underwear now in full view, the soldiers did not know how to react, but the cursing farmers made a decision for them with their shouts from Banada Bridge. “Let a lady wash in peace! Get back into town or we’ll send word to get your barracks burned down!” The red-faced soldiers beat a hasty retreat just as our dear old poítín pedlar plunged fully naked into the icy waters. She was a hardy woman, LORD HAVE MERCY ON HER, and she was never stopped on the road again.

Hiding places: 

Bogs, drains, hen houses, haystacks and manure heaps are recommended common places to hide poítín. However, having uploaded this info into the public domain, you had better not hide your poítín in bogs, drains, hen houses, haystacks or manure heaps.

Poítín & The Fairies:

If you drink poítín in the company of more than one person, then you must always pour out an extra measure for the fairies. One measure is sufficient because they are very small in stature compared to the human frame. Leave this tot outside of your drinking den, in the open-air. It will always be gone by the time you wake from your poítín-induced coma.

Scientists have discovered that virtually pure alcohol rapidly evaporates when left in an outdoor atmosphere – but what do they know? It’s better to be innocent and safe, than sorry.

This stuff is no good - it's legal

          This stuff is no good – it’s legal

The Fair Day in Aclare

(Recounted by John Sheerin, 25th February 2001)

“On the fair day each townland had its own area where they kept the cattle.  The people from Gurterslin and Drumartin areas always parked near the entrance of the village on the low road. The people from Tourlestrane, Carrane, Tubberoddy and Coolreagh parked from the barracks up the high road.  Carrowloban, Kincullew and that area parked down the main street. The Killassers parked on the bridge.  Each townland had their own place to park.  When the cattle were sold they were put into Leheny’s yard. Then they were loaded on to lorries up the road.  Before my time, the pigs were taken to Sligo. The farmer of that time would bring the pigs by horse and cart to Sligo. They would bring loads of meal and flour back on the return journey. 

There were a lot of pubs in Aclare in those days. Some shops had both groceries and hardware on sale. There was Kathleen Feehely, Loftus’s, Higgins’, Ellen Haran’s (which became Mayes), Bradleys, Flatleys and Quinns. We had the fair winter and summer.  Each farmer herded his animals in a cluster. The villagers from each townland would hold their animals together up against a wall or steer them around the street. Everyone watched their own cattle. 

The sheep were on the backway. They were held with the dogs. They stayed together. When they had walked ten miles they were damn glad to stand for a while. When they were bought they were taken home on carts. 

Aclare market, Co. Sligo

                                     1961 Aclare Fair Day

The country people brought the banabhs in on carts.  They’d sell them in front of Gallaghers. Touhy’s from Ballaghaderreen came with lorries for banabhs, which they kept in crates. 

On the fair day the village was hard to pass through. It was noisy with voices bargaining, donkeys braying, the mooing of cows and baaing of sheep. The smells were strong. The place used to be in an awful mess when the day was over and the animals were taken home. The next day the County Council would come and sweep the streets. There was no water or electricity that time. We didn’t get the electricity until the 50’s. In the late 50’s we got the water on tap. 

Of course there was many a row on a fair day. When the tinkers were around we often had fights with them. Mind you, not on fair days. One day there were only two guards in the barracks and a row got up. The guards came looking for help to put the troublemakers out of the village. Four or five of us tackled them with the guards. We put them out over the bridge and gave them a good hoisting. Nobody got injured and there were no bad feelings. The fair days were great.  I miss them.  They ended sometime in the 60’s.  Then the mart was started in Aclare by Kennedys.  That continued for about ten years. 

The village had a shoe maker called Dinny Walsh. Kate Fahy was another shopowner. She sold sweets. Other owners were Bretts, Sheerins, McAllisters and Evans. Each shop had a hardware section. Charlie Brett was the blacksmith. Years before I remember there were three bakeries in Aclare; Loftus’, Higgins’ and Lundys. There was also a cooper who lived down at the edge of the river where the car park is now. I don’t remember him but he was in it. There was also a butter house down along the river.  

But getting back to the fair day. It was one of the best fairs in Ireland. The jobbers used to come from Sligo, Ballina, Northern Ireland and Roscommon. The fair was held on the last Wednesday of the month. We stayed in the shops and protected the outside by putting barrels and bars on the streets. These stopped the cattle coming up on the footpath and breaking the windows. 

The jobber would come along and ask the farmer the price of the animal. They made the bargain and finished the thing with a slap of the hand. The deal was made. After that they’d go into the pub and have a drink.”

Manners and Customs in Old Kilmactigue

The reverend James Neligan (1752-1833), who was the Rector of Kilmactigue from 1802 until his death, has left us a most interesting insight into the lifestyle of this once densely populated Parish in the south-west of County Sligo. In his dual role as vicar and magistrate, he was well-placed not only to observe but also to comment on the manners and customs of his fellow parishioners, the majority of whom were Roman Catholics. His relationship with his co-religious was such that on occasion he rented the local chapel for the use of his small flock.  In his obituary in ‘Saunders News Letter’ he is referred to as a “scholar, poet and gentleman”.

 “ The parish of Kilmactigue, which has a rectory and vicarage, is situated in the barony of Liney, county of Sligo, and diocese of Achonry.  It is six miles in length by four in breadth; bounded on the east and south by the parish of Achonry; on the north and west by those of Killasser and Attymass.  A long range of mountains passes through it, most of which is pasturable; it also contains large tracts of wet bog. No woods are to be met within the parish; although in former ages a great part of it must have been covered with timber.

The number of families – by a return made last year by the priest – amounts to twelve hundred Roman Catholic families, to which may be added to the ten Protestant families, four of which have come lately to the parish. The number of houses is stated to be eleven hundred and fifty, to which are to be added those of the Protestant part of the population; in many of these there are two families living together.  Many of these families keep a servant boy or girl, and sometimes both, for three, six or nine months in the year, to assist them in their work.  It is computed that there are on average five children in each family, or rather a house, which however must be a rather large a computation, as many are old people, and many newly married.  The proportion of males and females is nearly equal.  They are mostly poor, maintaining themselves on small portions of land, for which they generally pay a very high price.  There are not thirty families in the parish who pay any of the public taxes included under the hearth and window duty, they are notwithstanding, tolerably healthy, though confined to poor diet, such as potatoes, with milk and eggs occasionally. The population, as well as the prices of provisions, must  have increased very much within the last forty years, as that time Archdeacon Hutchinson,  who was the incumbent, could set the thythes (both rectorial and vicorial) for only £85 per annum, which now exceed £400.

Early marriages is perhaps the principle cause of the great increase in the population.  The young women are generally married from the age of fifteen to twenty, and the men from twenty and upwards.  The portion usually given, is from ten pounds to fifty with the girls, and the young man has generally a smallholding of land, with perhaps a few cattle, to begin the world with. A few instances may occur where one hundred pounds may have been given as a portion with a bride, but such may indeed be called a ‘rava avis’. These marriages are contracted in most instances, without any regard to love, affection, or any of the finer feelings, and are concluded between the friends of the young people, without any reference to their choice or judgement; and it frequently happens, that the bride is dragged to the hymeneal altar, bathed in tears, and compelled to take a companion for life, who is chosen by her parents from prudential motives.  The chief time for marriages is from Christmas until Lent, being the season of the year when people have the most leisure for settling such business.

 When the parents of a young man think it is time for him to take a wife, they consider what young woman in the neighbourhood will be likely to answer the purpose, and having determined on one, the party goes to make the match, as they term it, which is done by sitting up the whole night, talking over the terms, drinking whiskey and smoking tobacco.  The match being concluded, the day is appointed for the marriage, at which time the parties assemble at the abode of the woman, where the priest attends and a plentiful dinner or supper is prepared for the occasion, at which a large number of the friends are entertained, and the abundance of whiskey distributed amongst them; perhaps ten gallons, or more, the price of a middling cow; this, with the accompaniment of a piper, enables them to pass the night in the utmost of festivity. Dancing makes a considerable part of the entertainment, and is considered as a necessary accompaniment amongst them; and hundreds who have never learned the alphabet, or spoken a word of English, have regularly attended the dancing schools, and, at no small expense, become adept in that science.  Singing the old Irish songs makes also a principal part of their entertainment, which they execute with great correctness, as many of them have sweet and melodious voices, well adapted to these melancholy and plaintive strains. Things go on very well in the beginning of the night.

 As long as the reverend pastor holds the chair, he keeps them to regularity and good order; but afterwards the scene changes, and exhibits chaos of tumult, vociferation and drunkenness.  Perhaps three musicians may be  found playing to as many as sets of dancers, a dozen men and women singing as many different songs, and other groups employed in altercation and quarreling. Thus two or three days and nights are spent, before the parties disperse’ and it frequently happens that there is as much money lavished on the entertainment as would amount to half the fortune of the bride.  Such however is the custom of the country, and such the pride and spirit of the people, that they would lay out their last shilling to furnish the feast rather that be thought singular or churlish.

It is only on such occasions as weddings and christenings and at Easter and Christmas, that they afford themselves any sort of animal food. Potatoes furnish the standing dish three times a day throughout the year, except that in summer, when they begin to grow scarce, those who can save a part of their oats from the landlord’s rent, make little meal, which they use either for bread or to make gruel, which they make with their potatoes.

 Although almost every family has one cow, and many of them more than one, yet their pasture is so bad, and their winter feeding so scarce and indifferent, that they have very little milk at any time; but for the winter and spring months scarcely any, particularly if their cows are in calf.  Those who have even one cow put by all the sweet milk for the churning, and use none but the buttermilk; by so doing, they make half a hundred weight of butter in the season, and perhaps more, which they will sell at Sligo, where it is brings from £5 10s to £6 10s. per cwt. and which enables them to pay their rent. They have a good many fowl, and plenty of eggs, which the women sell to procure the price of tobacco, (a luxury to which they are immoderately attached), and such is their infatuation, that, notwithstanding their poverty and nakedness, each family will expend from 10d to 1s 8d per week on that abominable weed, where it is used by the man and wife; for although they could buy as many salt herrings for that money, as would afford them nearly every dinner every day along with their potatoes, they prefer eating them dry, to the want of their beloved tobacco.

The understanding of the inhabitants of this parish, though uncultivated, is acute; they are generally hospitable, complaisant and honest.  The Irish language is universally spoken, but few of them can speak English.

A great number of Saint’s days are observed, which, however, are spent in idleness and drinking, to the great injury of the people, both as morals and industry.

The Lady Days are observed with the most scrupulous attention, that is to say, so far as abstaining from all kind of daily labour, or following trade or calling, although their sanctity does not operate on their minds so as to induce them to refrain from sports and pastimes, cursing or swearing, or frequenting tippling houses, and drinking to excess. At the same time it is not unusual to see then actively employed on Sundays at their usual labour, without seeming to think that they are transgressing a positive command of God, or doing an act either sinful or indecent.  With an equal strictness they observe the fast from flesh meat on Fridays, and during Lent; although if an opportunity offers, they would not scruple to get drunk at these times. On making enquiry from some of the more decent of them, why they acted thus and why they transgressed the positive commands of God, with so little feeling, while they obeyed the ordinances of mere men with such exact devotion, the writer was informed, that their church, which taught them to do so, was infallible, and that it was their duty to obey its decrees.

To the fondness they have for observing holidays, may be added another propensity highly injurious, that of attending at the fairs and markets in their neighborhood, although they have no business to transact there.  From these they seldom return without laying out some part of their small means for whiskey, which often produces rioting and fighting; this is followed by a further loss of time, and waste of money, in going to the Magistrates to obtain justice, and from thence to the Sessions to prosecute their suits. Often indeed they settle their disputes at home, by reference or by arbitration, and the same ingredient which originally produced the quarrel, and marked their heads with bleeding scars, becomes the means of adjusting the dispute; for the compromise is never entered upon but where whiskey can be procured, and here the parties are well fined, by paying for the liquor employed in treating the Brehons, (for thus the arbitrators are called in Irish) and the friends and witnesses who attend at the reference. 

Another source of idleness amongst them, is the constant attendance given at the wakes and funerals of their neighbours; the neglect of which would be considered as a crime of the blacked dye, and an offence not to be forgiven.

It is also a custom amongst them, that when any person dies in a village, all work and labour is totally suspended by all those living in the village, or within a short distance of it, until after the interment; the intermediate space is usually employed in visiting the house where the corpse is exposed, smoking tobacco, or entertaining themselves with certain plays or tricks, which are practiced by the young folks, (some of which are particularly expert in performing these) and which enable them to pass away the long night in the greatest mirth and hilarity; so that a person unacquainted with their customs, passing by, or visiting the house, would be led to believe that they were assembled for the purpose of celebrating a marriage, or commemorating some joyful event rather than condoling with the disconsolate friends of the deceased.  Among the more wealthy people, victuals are provided for those who come to the wake from a distance, and also a due proportion of whiskey and abundance of tobacco and pipes; some of which is also brought to the burying place, with which they regale themselves while the ceremony is being preformed.

These several expenses, which are deemed to be indispensable, and highly creditable to the deceased and to their friends, together with the fees to be paid to the priest, amounting to eight shillings for each person, and the Masses read for the soul of the departed, to bring him out of purgatory, amount to a considerable sum.  The burial of a wife with all the necessary appendages, may in many cases, amount to half the portion which the husband, wife, or child is spoken of, the complaint does not seem to turn so much on the loss of the person, as on the money it has cost the money for the interment.

Among the genteel and opulent families, besides the usual Masses celebrated for the souls of the departed, there is another, no less strange, but to which an uncommon degree of merit and virtue is ascribed; this they call ‘A Month’s Mind’.  The ceremony is attended by as much of their clergy as they can procure at the house where the person dies; where the forenoon of a certain number of days is dedicated to Masses and prayers, for the liberation of the soul of the deceased from its intermediate prison and to send it to the abodes of the blessed; whilst the afternoons are spent in conviviality and innocent recreation, for the purpose the best meats and drink which the country can afford are procured.

The surest proof of the goodness of a man’s life seems to be the largeness of his funeral; and therefore great care is taken to have the remains numerously attended; so that the hundreds, and sometimes thousands are seen assembled to commit one poor putrifying body to its kindred earth, whilst the air resounds with the melodious voices of a large assemblage of females, notwithstanding the doleful and melancholy cries uttered by them, are totally unconcerned about the deceased, and never sully their cheeks with a falling tear, to denote their grief.  A priest was stationed here lately, who, if he had continued, seemed likely to remove some of their gross prejudices, and some unreasonable practices.  He began by prohibiting the use of this Irish Cry at funerals, as being in itself useless, and only fit for uncivilised society.  Reason and good sense, aided by the authority which the Catholic clergy possess over the minds of the people, produced the desired effect, and put a stop to that practice so long as he continued on the parish; but on his removal, they fell into their old practice as fully as ever, so difficult is it to eradicate prejudice confirmed by long custom.

Extract from ‘Parish of Kilmactigue’  by Revd. James Neligan,, rector and vicar- as published in Mason’s ‘Parochial survey of Ireland’, Dublin, 1816

 Blimey – nothing’s changed.


Irish Ancestry Research HQ


*** Winter sunrise at Claddagh HQ ***

Winter wonderland

Fiddann River frozen solid Christmas 2010

Anyone for rafting?

The big Fiddann thaw after the big freeze

Another WM mystery

Where’s Shankley?

This Bengal cat knows the answer.

A Bengal pedigree hybrid cat is the fourth generation offspring resulting from breeding an Asian Snow Leopard with a domestic feline. These beautiful animals of gentle temperament retain the golden-spotted markings of a leopard on their underside, a tiger-like shiny striped coat and distinctive “mascara” markings around the eyes and face.

Bengal Beauty

Back to More Merrill Musings


John James Cosgrove died last night, 20th March 2013. He was born in Leitrim in 1927, VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310Wand relocated to the south of County Sligo aged 20 in 1947. After a difficult start in life, he devoted his remaining days to helping the Sisters of Charity raise and teach unwanted children and orphans at Banada Convent. In return, they helped him to find a home and an identity in County Sligo. John James never married, but he loved traditional Irish music, a game of 25’s, and the craic. He also preserved the ancient Irish art of brewing a “fine drop” with the blessing of the fairies.

A while back, a local radio station visited his “local” to record the music and story-telling. John James was full of amusing stories from the auld days and he was asked to give a recitation to the listening audience. After a couple of refusals, and a couple of brandies, this is what he got up and recited to an enthralled audience:

It was a few days before the All-Ireland Football Final, way back in the 40’s and 50’s, when this lad from Tubbercurry decided he’d like to see the big game. All the trains and buses to Dublin were fully booked for a week in advance, so Paddy made a plan to cycle all the way to Croke Park. He set out in good time on the Thursday. He had a mate in Longford who put him up for the first night in a pub just outside the town. Then on the Friday he cycled all the way to Maynooth where he had a cousin in the seminary, training to be a priest. Paddy said a few prayers in the Maynooth chapel on Saturday, and then headed off to the big city for the big match the following day. He got digs with a nice family near the stadium, and he was all set for the Football Final after mass on Sunday.

Paddy had about four hours until the throw-in, so he ventured into a few pubs. The Sligo and Leitrim buses were pulling into town and the fun to be had was mighty. If all truth be told, he had a few too many pints of porter. Anyway, the pubs started to empty as the teams began to line out, and the lad from Tubber was carried along by the crowd heading for Hill 16. The game passed in a blur. It was a close game and it didn’t matter who won or lost. It was a thrill to be there, simple as that.

After Sam was awarded, all Paddy’s new friends headed back to the north Dublin pubs outside Croke Park. The lad from Tubber thought “I’ll just have a roam, and then find some more digs on the way home.” Well, he had one for the road, and then one or two more – and then he couldn’t remember where he’d left his trusty bike at a quarter to four. He was sure he last saw his bicycle outside a pub near Parnell Square, so he had a few more jars up the top end of O’Connell Street but the bike was not there.

As midnight approached, he searched the back alleys. Apart from courting couples trying to hide, the Sligo lad could find nothing to ride. Before he knew it, he was down by O’Connell Bridge. It was late, and cold, and he was hungry, and exhausted from his day out in the capital city. He saw a few vagrants laying out beds on the bridge’s wide parapets; they looked lost but okay. He grabbed some cardboard boxes, and down beside the tramps he lay.

Paddy must have dozed off because the next thing he knew, a big chauffeur-driven car pulled up by his pew. The rear door opened and a pretty blonde lady said, “Why are you sleeping here, when I have a bed?” Well the lad from Tubber woke with a start, and he climbed into the back of the wealthy lady’s cart.

As they drove through South Dublin, our laddo told his tale. The kindly lady said, “I’ve no bike, but I’ve got hot food and ale.” The chauffeur dropped them outside a big house, and he was welcomed inside. The blonde lady prepared him a hot bath, and a clean robe she did provide. She told him that she’d cook him a steak dinner to be washed down with cold beer. Paddy was in heaven, thinking “I’ve hit the jackpot here.“

After dinner, they danced and started to kiss. I’m nearly at the end now, if you’re needing to p …. pay a visit.

“Now Paddy,“ says she. “Go warm my bed up, whilst I powder my nose“. Without no more prompting, young Paddy lay his head on her pillows.

And then she appeared in a see-through negligee, and the boy from Tubber thought this really is my lucky day. “Move over” she said, as she climbed in the bed, giving our Paddy a peck on his forehead.

“Move over a bit more.“ The room span and he went all dizzy in a jiffy. And that’s when our Paddy … fell into the River Liffey.

County Sligo have never appeared in a Men’s All-Ireland Football Final in Dublin. Neither have John James’ native county of Leitrim. That’s what makes John James’ story-telling all the more ridiculous and charming.



Missing Persons

Loss is a small word but the cause of a massive array of overwhelming emotions. Loss of a loved one through natural death is hard enough to cope with, but losing someone unexpectedly because of an accident or criminal intervention multiplies every difficult emotion. What could be worse?

There is something worse which thousands of unfortunate people have to deal with every day. And for most of them, I mean “every day” of their lives. This is the utter devastation caused by losing someone suddenly when there isn’t even a corpse to grieve over. In fact, the sufferer does not know if there has been a death, and that is what makes this condition worse than anything. Each country around the world recognizes this topic as Missing Persons, and it is a tragic and bizarre phenomenon.

When you tot up the worldwide numbers, hundreds and hundreds of human beings, all belonging to families of one description or another, just VANISH every year from the planet.

Of course, as you start to interrogate the statistics, many missing persons’ cases begin to fall into possibly explainable categories … but the analysis still leaves many, many mysteries. Regardless, the “not knowing for sure” element torments the family relatives left behind in every case where the body or whereabouts of the missing person is never identified.

The “lost soul” could be a child or adult. The children’s category brings its own set of woes. A younger child would not deliberately run away from home, so the worst is feared. Having to imagine the end is more terrible than knowing a young life has perished for certain … but what if he or she was inexplicably abducted, and lives on? The pain of uncertainly is merciless.

When an adult disappears, the concerns are initially different. A mentally competent adult has the right to break contact with blood relatives or loved ones, if he or she so wishes. Police agencies will not investigate a missing person case until it has been established that some form of misadventure has caused the sudden loss. Thankfully, though, national agencies are starting to track and log all categories of reports involving missing persons so that the phenomenon can be better understood. The collated figures are mind-boggling, especially in the densely populated countries.

For example, in the USA, over 700,000 names per year are classed as “missing” at some point. That’s around 2,000 people per day being reported missing – after local searches! I was relieved to learn that the FBI can remove the vast majority of these American residents from their database as each temporarily missing person is traced. However, at any one time, about 48,000 Americans are being actively searched for to some extent.

We need to examine smaller numbers to really grasp the situation. In my own country of Ireland, with a modest population of circa 4.5 million in the Republic, it is reported that about 8,000 people per annum turn up on the Missing Persons register, for a while at least. Not including the rarer cases of missing young juveniles, that works out to reveal that 1 in every 500 resident Irish adults could be declared as “missing” – each year. When the voluntary runaways and the mentally vulnerable have been traced, we are still left with a few dozen folk who just vanish, year on year, on a comparatively small but civilized island. And the few dozen excludes “missing bodies” not recovered after a known catastrophe, such as fishermen lost at sea following a shipping disaster. This state of affairs is repeated around the world, on a much bigger scale. Put crudely, there are permanently Missing Persons everywhere. So, where do all these recognizable and often much-loved people disappear to?

A gruesome but converse section of national databases is sensibly being put together by the authorities in each country responsible for logging names and descriptions of Missing Persons [MP]. This is a growing worldwide register known as the MPUB index. The UB part stands for “unidentified bodies.” A strange twist to the MP phenomenon is that a worryingly high number of dead bodies remain unidentified around the globe, every year. Modern technology is finally allowing a few of the long-lost missing persons to be chalked off the statistics when a match is found in the UB section, somewhere. For some desperate families, peace of mind is granted and the natural grieving process can run its course.

It is a controversial subject as to whether the public at large should be allowed to view the growing UB database. I give advanced warning to anyone who comes across the accessible sections of the MPUB online to be prepared for some disturbing images. Viewing human corpses is a very unpleasant business for most of us delicate souls – but how else can tormented relatives complete the ultimate search for their particular MP? Advances in DNA technology are permitting family matches to be made to some UB’s. As you might imagine, visual recognition is impossible in many circumstances. The UK is taking the lead with this sensitive project. In Britain alone, over 1,100 dead bodies from the last 50 years are unidentified and therefore unclaimed. UB’s discovered as far back as the 1950’s are being exhumed from burial grounds to allow DNA testing samples to be taken. Believe me, it is better to know where your loved one rests rather than live a life in purgatory, if not Hell on Earth.

This subject matter came to my attention midway through my search for Merrill. He was an undeclared Missing Person, some time just before WW2. I started to weigh up all the options. What happened to a fairly well-known man about town? There was absolutely no evidence to support the theory of Merrill living in secret under an alias, until a natural death in old age. In fact, we unearthed one vital piece of paper which tells us that his life ended abruptly. As such, we knew the time and place of death within a rational envelope of accuracy, but we had no info about the circumstances.

Suicide in a remote wilderness was ruled out after I researched psychopathic tendencies. For about the last decade of his life, Merrill’s behavior matched the clinical definition of a psychopath on many counts. An undiscovered accidental death? Unlikely in the populated towns and cities which Merrill frequented. Sudden natural death? Only if Merrill was alone on a mountain top. Implausible. All these scenarios would normally lead to an eventual UB or John Doe of some description, even if it was just skeletal remains. Whilst the police authorities in Midwest America of the 1930’s did not have the modern advances in post-mortem science, they did circulate regular regional bulletins to notify other law offices and the general public about unclaimed corpses. The relatives of missing citizens would have been contacted after each grisly find. The disappearance of a high-flying businessman and family man would have remained in the public eye – had it been reported.

But all this becomes inconsequential. At least one person knew that Merrill was gone forever. My “Where’s Merrill?” novel exposes who this was. Nonetheless, the more intriguing aspect of Merrill’s demise is that it was not officially registered. To some, Merrill was gone. To others, he was a Missing Person. My job was to work out how many associates of Merrill fell into the first category. We did find evidence that more than one close associate knew more about the “end game” than they ever disclosed. That nugget of info has not been published … yet.

The coming together of those who worked on the “Where’s Merrill?” project resulted in a strange MP coincidence. Obviously, Tim had a Missing Person; a grandfather without even a name, at the start. The mystery surrounding Merrill’s unconfirmed resting place still niggles away at a grandson who never got the chance to meet his mother’s parents. But it was only by accident that the research team members realized that each was familiar with the never-ending despair of the MP syndrome. Kathy from the Midwest has a fondly-remembered relative who qualifies for inclusion on the discomforting MP database which every family should dread. As with all MP cases, personal circumstances suggest possibilities, but the nightmare of uncertainty consumes the MP’s nearest and dearest.

Sue and I have that associated hole in our hearts too. Without belittling the magnitude of human loss, the sudden disappearance of a pet animal evokes all the symptoms of MP anxiety in its own way. Many small pets are classed as full members of the household and when they’re not around one day, the whole ambiance of a family home is changed forever. We “lost” a much-loved pet on an ill-fated day and, despite endless and fruitless searches, the “not knowing” is a painful memory that is excruciatingly hard to subdue. A cruel consolation is that I can now empathize more fully with the suffering families of a missing soul of any description. As shown above, there are a lot of us around.

Of course, there are increased reasons for a roaming domestic animal not returning home. There are predators lurking everywhere, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. In the quirky world of Gearoid O’Neary, my own heartache helped to answer that bothersome question, “Where’s Merrill?

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Where’s (Merrill) the Synopsis?

“Where’s Merrill?” is a uniquely crafted mystery thriller based upon real life historical events. In fact, it is two inter-related stories in one novel set in different time-frames  namely the past and the present. An Irish genealogist called Jed is commissioned by Tim, an American client, who needs to understand more about his mysterious maternal ancestry. Fate had dictated that Tim never got the chance to meet his grandparents, and he didn’t even know the name of his mother’s father. She refused to tell Tim, even on her death bed. Why? That was a question which troubled Tim as he witnessed his mother’s melancholy throughout his adult life, and after her death he resolved to find some answers – and peace of mind.

It was also a question which intrigued Jed after he learned that Tim’s grandfather simply “disappeared”. No death record, no burial – nothing. Jed identifies the “missing” grandfather to be Merrill Harrison. Within weeks, Jed becomes obsessed with Merrill’s life, as he embarks on a personal crusade to find Merrill’s resting place. If he is to ever achieve his goal, Jed needs to fully understand the complex twists and turns linked to Merrill’s existence and apparent disappearance. As a result of his findings, the Irish researcher is led along a fascinating historical trail stretching back to the pioneering immigrants of Midwest US, through the following decades of social change in America and eventually all the way to the White House during WWII.

A web of worrying deceit woven by Tim’s ancestors is gradually unraveled. Once hidden family secrets are exposed. Jed turns from genealogist into cold case detective as he comes to the conclusion that multiple criminal misdeeds have been covered up … but where’s Merrill?

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Rest In Peace

The research process to fully understand Merrill and his extended family lasted through most of 2011. During this time, the research “team” suffered one sad tragedy of their own. The father of our local Midwest research assistant, Kathy, died suddenly and unexpectedly. The project went on hold as all involved instantly recollected the real pain of losing a truly loved one. Family history researchers spend a fair amount of time retrieving and studying death records; some remain detached from their findings. Not us. Compassionate genealogists empathize with the feelings which their surviving research subjects went through when a close relative passed away. The death of Jack Haley made us all take stock of our lives, and say a few prayers of remembrance for the dearly departed whether they be our own ancestors or those of our research clients.

Jack Haley

John E “Jack” Haley (1936-2011)

Obituary: Jack Haley lived what he loved: planes, trains and real estate.

He became a pilot after joining the Air Force in 1958 and continued to fly planes the rest of his life. During the Vietnam War, Haley completed more than 100 combat missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He later spent six years flying first families — including Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, on occasion — vice presidents, Cabinet members, senior military members and elected leaders. He also routinely flew Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Gen. Omar Bradley. Jack Haley retired from the Air Force in 1978.

Haley began his real estate career while in the service, initially purchasing rental homes and small apartment communities. At the time of his passing, he owned 10,000 apartments in 10 states.

Always fascinated by railroads and an avid model railroader, he owned two railroad companies from 1984 to 1991 which formed an 850-mile stretch of railroad between Chicago and Omaha.

Kathy’s personal tribute:

It has been my privilege to have had my parents into adulthood. My parents witnessed the births of their grandchildren and great grandchildren, gave me pure unconditional love and shaped the woman I am and the mother I am to my children. I have been very blessed.
July 2, while walking with my step mother on a beautiful summer morning, my father, suddenly feeling tired, sat down on the neighbors front lawn and quietly and peacefully died, and with the mercy of God, quickly. Despite his age, it was unexpected. I have lost a wonderful friend.
Yesterday, we gave our final farewell and salute to Dad. He was buried with full military honors and a patriot guard escort. He was proud to be an Irish American. His friend flew over the cemetery with a fly over, nodding his Aerostar to the ground below three times. It was a beautiful tribute which Dad would have loved. He also loved God and his country. He loved his faith.
Dad had ran marathons until he was 70, then he walked. He quit smoking over forty years ago. He had flight physicals, (more rigorous than the standard) and did everything in his power not to die of a heart attack, to live a long, healthy and productive life. But God had other plans. He had a faulty heart valve, a condition of age, nothing he could control. We believed he had years left, years remaining to share with him. Time. How ironic his certificate will list a heart attack as cause of death.
Well “the old man” is in heaven now; smiling, maybe singing a favorite Irish song of the same name, and dancing with his own father, both watching the planes soar in the sky. With an old Irish Blessing, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Personal Possessions

Family history researchers can build up a realistic mental image of ancestors they never met if the ancestors in question featured now and again in local newspapers, and if these contemporary articles were preserved and can be found in newspaper archives. The news stories might just be local trivia, or you might get lucky and find tales of involvement in major incidents and even alleged crimes. The journalists of old had a tendency to describe the physical appearance of the persons being reported on, and sometimes these hacks would also arrogantly assess (in their biased opinion) the personality of the characters in a newsworthy story. The wealthy friends of the press of yesteryear were always fine, upstanding pillars of the community, and the common hard-working labourer was generally to be viewed with suspicion, regardless of his faultless life to date.

You can get even closer to a long-gone ancestor if you are fortunate enough to discover that your deceased relative made a Will prior to death. The retrieval of a probated Will can often reveal a list of the most valued personal effects of the person in question. You can also get a clear insight into which family members or friends of the deceased were truly respected, and maybe also those associates who were to be taught a lesson with derisory bequests.

In this regard, the research into the relatives within Merrill’s extended family unearthed several Wills which, in the main, simply confirmed the mental pictures we had built up of the more crucial characters. For instance, we know that Uncle Hubert Forster was a country sports fanatic from both newspaper articles and the fact that he left his prized fishing tackle and rifles to his nephew Horace. He also gave the younger generation of Forsters first refusal to take over ownership of a very trendy automobile (in its day), this being Hubert’s classy Pierce Arrow car. A photo of a surviving model is shown below. It is not beyond the realms of belief to imagine that a certain upwardly-mobile young businessman from Mason City might have taken a great interest in a valuable car going for a song.

As such, Hubert’s former car becomes the vehicle of choice in my novel for Merrill Harrison, the husband of Hubert’s niece.

A great car in which to race a Ford Model T

In a similar but much more poignant vein, we also discovered through Wills that the ladies in the Forster clan had a love of Hudson Seal fur coats and accessories. Whilst these fashion items are not so politically-correct these days, an expensive fur coat would have been treasured in the early decades of the 20th century. When the owner of a Hudson Seal Coat passed on, you can be sure that their fur coat passed on too, usually as a bequest to a favourite younger female relative. It was only when we studied again the beautiful portrait photo of Merrill’s young wife, Madeline Forster, that we realized that she was wrapped in an elegant fur stole – perhaps one of the very same Hudson Seal creations mentioned in her relatives’ Wills.

Madeline Forster (photo)

Madeline Forster in fur

We hope that Madeline’s daughters also got the chance to parade around in fur for a while, later on, as unbeknownst to them, Merrill was chaotically frittering away family finances, chasing his own selfish dreams of eternal wealth.

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A Soundtrack In My Head

The prologue of Where’s Merrill makes reference to the fact that I wrote large portions of the novel with a certain piece of music playing in my head. This was the rather unique instrumental titled Music For A Found Harmonium, and a link to the original and most fascinating rendition of this tune by The Penquin Café Orchestra is provided below. This piece of music was composed by the co-founder of the experimental orchestra, namely Simon Jeffes. Appropriately enough, the story behind the composition is that Simon found a harmonium whilst on tour in the Far East and sent it to a friend’s house in Kyoto. When he later visited his friend and his “found harmonium”, he was inspired to write an unforgettable yet simply structured composition which suited the quirkiness of the instrument.

In turn, Jeffes’ relentless harmonium tune inspired me to put into print the passages which describe the research processes used by modern genealogists … and the confusion and/or excitement generated by first discovering a new fact which forms part of a much larger multi-dimensional puzzle.

Music For A Found Harmonium has been compared in style to a traditional Irish reel. Indeed, many talented Irish musicians have recorded or performed their own take on the composition. Check out Sharon Shannon’s version, for example, if you would like to hear a more up-tempo, foot-tapping rendition. I have no doubt this association is the reason why the tune became my overriding theme song for Where’s Merrill because the novel jumps back and forth between present-day Ireland and often hectic goings-on in Midwest America of yesteryear, especially near the end as Merrill himself jumps from place to place. Music For A Found Harmonium can be played on any instrument, at any tempo, but the resultant output always evokes images of normality being turned on its head, and then the temporary mayhem being restored after a while – in my opinion. The music also seems to fit the diverse locations and eras in which the book’s main characters, Jed and Merrill, dwell.

I don’t know how other authors work, but during the writing of Where’s Merrill, I found myself getting into a routine wherein I would naturally wake up early in the morning, between 4 and 5am, with a multitude of ideas buzzing around my brain. I would then sit in silence in the dawn light with just hot coffee for company as I scribbled down a few scene-setting notes. And then as I expanded each passage of the complicated story, I found myself subconsciously writing to music. I was not playing the radio or any other physical music-playing device. The tunes just jumped involuntarily into my mind as I focused on each developing scene. Before long, I had a complete soundtrack in my head covering the whole novel. I could jump from scene to scene, and mood to mood, by simply recollecting each inspirational piece of music.

I can only think that I was influenced by modern film-making techniques which sometimes use completely random background music to emphasize key moments in movies. It does not seem to matter anymore if the film director’s choice of music is historically or chronologically out of sequence with the action being portrayed. It is the “mood” or sentiments of the musical pieces which matter more than period appropriateness. In effect, I eventually realized that I was not really creating a story in “black and white,” in the conventional style of a creative writer. On the contrary, I was writing down, as quickly as possible, my description of a colorful movie being shot on location in my head.

There are other references in the Where’s Merrill novel to musical accompaniment. Early on, Jed’s sidekick and faithful partner, Sue, tells him that his ultimate research quest is like looking for a “Needle In A Haystack” and they sing along to this classic 60’s pop song by The Velvelettes. At this point in the story, Jed is upbeat and enjoying the developing search for Merrill, so a fun song is quite fitting.

In a similar vein but with darker undertones, there is a reference to another hit record from the “Swinging Sixties“. This occurs when a Swing Band from the 1930’s plays a number to which the young dancers sing out loud the chorus, i.e. “they seek him here, they seek him there,” etc. The song influencing my thoughts at this point was Dedicated Follower Of Fashion by The Kinks which itself was influenced by music heard in earlier generations in the Dance Hall era. At the time of the song’s release in 1966, the composer, Ray Davies, was lampooning both the London fashion scene as well as the type of music his parents used to enjoy. Whilst the original lyrics do not sit well with the antics of Merrill Harrison in the 1930’s, I did find myself changing the title line to “Dedicated Follower Of Finance” when thinking about our anti-hero and his tendency to turn up in unexpected locations.

I found that writing passages set around weddings and funerals with their church connections to be relatively straightforward in the context of my spontaneous musical play-list stimulation. We have all heard very moving music played at church services, even though we often haven’t got a clue what the pieces being performed are called, and maybe even less so, who composed them. Many of the most memorable pieces of church music were written centuries ago by classical composers such as Bach, Handel and Purcell. This pedigree of musical maestros used to claim that church compositions were just simple tunes created almost as a whim, and that is why we probably retain these moody melodies somewhere deep inside our consciousness. They were the pop singles of days gone by, and the more complex album tracks were only played in the theatres and opera houses. The composition that came back to me instantaneously one bright summer’s morning was the once-lost Canon In D by the German composer, Pachelbel. It is strange to think that this now instantly recognizable tune was tossed aside as a bit of lightweight fun and not played for about 200 years. The fact that it was lost, then found (like Jeffes’ harmonium), seems to have some perfect irony when I link Canon In D to my search for Merrill.

I once heard Canon In D played “live”, many years ago, by a talented chamber quartet who were busking (of all things) on a Dublin shopping street. Back then, I didn’t know what the piece was called. I thought to myself, “Where have I heard that before?” A mental image of a church, and then a wedding, popped into my mind. I couldn’t recall a specific wedding I attended where it was played – but now the Canon In D and weddings seem to be forever intertwined. In hindsight, my resourceful mind was being quite logical when it decided that Madeline Forster should walk up the aisle to Merrill to the advanced strains of Pachelbel’s delayed pop song.

I have got to admit that I struggled to find the right background music to accompany the closing sequences of Where’s Merrill. I reckon that the reason was twofold. Firstly, the scenes and dialogue had to describe sinister events and the majority of my mentally-retained musical repertoire is of an uplifting nature. Secondly, I initially did not know the precise details of how Where’s Merrill ends because there was no corresponding text in my research notes to guide me. So, how could the brain cells in charge of associated memory-recall link something musical to passages which were not fully defined?

I am a believer in fate, and that’s how my writing dilemma was resolved – not for the only time during this adventure. I went for a short, late morning drive in my car and turned on the car radio. I normally listen to a station dedicated to 24/7 news; all chat and nothing else. So how come it was playing the opening chords of a very vaguely familiar pop record? I turned up the volume trying to work out what was being played. The chords struck a chord, and the initially jolly tone of the song became shadowy and eventually threatening enough to suit the “end of Merrill.” I started to listen to the lyrics, and they matched the murky mood as well. It was probably the first time that I had re-heard the particular song on the radio in over 20 years. The radio presenter never did explain why he was playing a peculiar old pop tune in an interlude between “deep” discussions on current affairs. Fate.

The radio song was Skin Deep by The Stranglers, a perhaps under-rated group of talented musicians who hid behind their self-created image as the intimidating Men In Black. My fateful hearing of the song helped me over the finishing line and the main body of the novel took its final shape. The closing chapters of Where’s Merrill see multiple characters acting deceitfully, some even pretending to be completely different individuals. Watch out for the skin deep. The Velvelettes never warned that sometimes it’s tougher to look than to leap when we started looking for that Needle In A Haystack.

Many people tell you that they’re your friend
Believe them, you need them for what’s round the river bend
Make sure that you’re receiving the signals they send
‘Cause brother, you’ve only got two hands to lend

Maybe there’s someone who makes you weep
And some nights they loom up ahead when you’re asleep
Sometimes, there’s things on your mind, you should keep
Sometimes, it’s tougher to look than to leap

Better watch out for the skin deep
Better watch out for the skin deep
Watch out for the skin deep
Watch out for the skin deep
Better watch out for the skin deep

One day the track that you’re climbing gets steep
Your emotions are frayed, and your nerves are starting to creep

Just remember the days as long as the time that you keep
Brother you better watch out for the skin deep

The timely intervention of The Stranglers also led me to listen again to my favourite composition by this band, the eerie but entertaining instrumental titled Waltzinblack. I now retrospectively attach this scary waltz to my vision of Mame Novak dancing all over the best endeavours of poor Horace as he attempted to keep the financial affairs of incarcerated “Aunt Edith” in proper order.

Other pieces of music played their part during the conception and delivery of Where’s Merrill, but two songs from the same genre crept into my head during the laborious proof-reading and pre-publishing phase. Strangely, without knowing it at the time, both of these songs produced in the familiar American Country Music style turned out to have been written by Europeans in the mid 1970‘s. I have written a separate post about one of these two songs, a country lament which I now call the Merrill & Sabrina Love Theme.

The other song was actually a record I grew to loathe when it hit the Number One spot in the pop music charts in 1976. I am referring to Mississippi by Pussycat, (apparently) a Dutch band led by three sisters. The song got so over-played, and usually with the same badly-mimed video backing, that a catchy ditty turned into parody of itself within one month, to be only ever heard again on Golden Oldie radio shows decades later. But as I finally published my Where’s Merrill novel after months of toil, an overwhelming sense of relief engulfed me – and the first song I randomly heard on a TV music channel that evening was a “new” (to me) and “live” version of Mississippi complete with full orchestral backing. Fate? It sounded wonderful, and I just sang along, and laughed and danced, and laughed some more. I had got to the final end credits of the movie in my head.

If you read Where’s Merrill, then you might appreciate the absurdity of Merrill’s researcher singing about the Mississippi just “rollin’ along until the end of time.” The search for Merrill might never end, and the empathy for many of his tragic extended family members might never go away – but Merrill’s grandson and I have learned that life must go on, and we can sing and dance when the mood takes us.

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In our search for Merrill, we traced the lives of all his possible associates. This meant researching the whereabouts of all identifiable members of Merrill’s complicated extended family. In doing so, we came across one very eccentric character called Andrew Hessler who led a fascinating life with echoes of the Mystery of Merrill, although this man’s antics occurred a few decades earlier and culminated with his shocking death in 1915. As a result of my strange findings, I christened Andrew as Mini-Merrill.

If you‘ve read Where‘s Merrill, you will recall that Horace Forster’s mother was Amelia, and when her husband Leo Forster Jr shot his brains out after five years of marriage in 1886, we found out that Amelia eventually got married again to this fellow called Andrew Hessler – but this second husband “disappeared” (just like Merrill) during 1900 amid rumours of suicide.

I take some comfort regarding my ultimately frustrating search for Merrill’s whereabouts after 1936 in that I was able to track Andrew down across several far-flung American states after his particular reported “disappearance“ in 1900. Here’s a summary of Andrew Hessler’s crazy life:

  • Born 2nd June 1850 in Rosenburg, Baden (now Germany).
  • 1868 – residing in Philadelphia.
  • 1869 to 1873 – residing in Saginaw IL; working as a barber.
  • 1880 to 1889 – residing in Indianapolis; still a barber, but now renowned on the entertainment circuit as an accomplished tenor singer. Reportedly spent some time in Cuba to refine his opera singing talents.
  • 1890 to 1900 – residing in St Paul. Initially a barber-cum-singer. Marries widowed Amelia in April 1892, and becomes Horace’s stepfather. Amelia had some theatrical interests, so a romance may have blossomed “on the boards”. By 1900, Andrew is wealthy enough to invest in a restaurant and liquor sales outlets.
  • In May 1900, Andrew is reported to be missing from St Paul. A friend says he’s in Denver. The Forsters say he has “headed west” looking for a business location. Others say he has committed suicide.
  • 1901 to 1903 – Andrew secretly reappears in Seattle WA, alone, and working as a barber again.
  • 1904 to 1906 – Andrew relocates way south and lives in San Diego CA. Here he takes joint ownership of a saloon bar, and marries Catherine Rausch on 12th March 1906 after a courtship of only a few weeks. For a while, he takes sole ownership of his bar.
  • 1907 to 1911 – After his second marriage, Andrew moves north again, this time to Portland OR. He starts trading as a real estate salesman, mainly selling saloon bars located on the west coast. The marriage to Catherine does not last long. By 1908, his second wife has sought refuge in Chicago where she dies aged just 50. An extract of her Will referring to Andrew makes newspaper headlines all over America (see below).
  • 1912 to 1915 – Andrew heads back to San Diego. The end of his life in 1915 mirrors events in the St Paul home of Leo Forster Jr way back in 1886. Andrew shot his brains out on Santa Fe Wharf with a Smith & Weston revolver tied around his neck with his shoelaces.

It is clear that Andrew could never settle down in one place. This tells us something about his personality, perhaps reflecting a character akin to Merrill in later life. Thankfully, newspaper reports provide more than just hints of what was going on. It is apparent that Andrew was considered as the equivalent of a musical pop-star of his generation, and reaped the financial benefits. In each city where he lived for a while or more commonly visited “on tour“, he organized sell-out musical shows. Andrew gained the support of town dignitaries by offering to make charitable cash donations to local worthwhile causes, agreeing to meet the unaware benefactors at noon on the day after his recitals. It seems like Andrew was regularly trusted to act as banker of the concert takings at his overnight hotel – but Andrew was always long gone after a hearty breakfast and probably beyond State borders by noon the next day.

When his voice started to fail, he turned his hand to the management and sales of saloon bars. More opportunities for some dodgy dealing. As with Merrill post-1923, it is also clear that Andrew sought out wealthy brides to help him to finance his lifestyle. It’s my bet that Hessler “disappeared” in 1900 with his own chunk of the growing Forster Fortune. The Will of Catherine Rausch is an amusing “classic”. What better way to shame a dastardly husband? Referencing Andrew, this is what she had calculatingly had written up and witnessed:

To the individual who married me in San Diego, California, and who got from me thousands of dollars and when he could get no more, deserted me, I give one dollar payable in monthly installments of 25 cents.

The newspaper hacks in 1908 reported that “Hessler’s present whereabouts are unknown (again!) but I found him – again.

And the whole tale came full circle when I finally found Andrew’s funeral notice and brief obituary. It mentions his stepson Horace. Bizarrely, it seems that Andrew kept in touch with Horace from a distance, or at least made his late-life friends aware that he had a stepson. Imagine how Horace must have felt upon hearing the news from San Diego about Hessler’s dramatic suicide; both his biological father and stepfather had now raised a pistol to their own temple – and pulled the trigger – albeit 30 years apart.

Andrew’s obituary concludes by stating that “in recent years, Hessler was financially embarrassed.” This statement also resonates with our main missing man, Merrill, except I believe that Merrill learned how to hide that embarrassment by adopting the persona of an always comfortably well-off businessman … and then conning foolish associates into investing in his dubious schemes. In the end, Merrill was showing classic psychopathic tendencies, and psychiatrists tell us that extreme psychopaths cope with life by believing in their own deceptions as though it were true.

Medical experts also tell us something else: psychopaths do NOT commit suicide.

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The Saintly City

If asked to name some places where the infamous American mobsters of the 1930’s plied their illegal trades, most people would probably refer to New York and Chicago – and they would be quite correct because these great cities have been used as the glamorous backdrops for many gangster movies and stories featuring real-life criminals from that era. However, one US city is rarely mentioned when tales of crime capers of old are regurgitated for our general entertainment. Perhaps understandably, until quite recently, the current governors of this particular city preferred “no publicity” on this score, in order to attract new investment and to maintain its new-found clean environment. This city is St Paul in Minnesota, arguably the most dangerous metropolitan area in America in the 1930’s, and which just happened to be one of the last places on earth to where the elusive Merrill Harrison can be traced in this decade. The liberal-minded modern citizens of St Paul are now proud to boast that they live in the former “Poison Spot of American Crime”, a tagline created by leading politicians from New York City in the Depression era – and these guys had gang leaders Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel on their own doorstep.

If you think that my description of St Paul back then is exaggerated, then consider some of the names who were known to frequent the city at the same time as our Merrill. You will have heard mention of some of these scary characters before, but you don’t have to be an expert in historical crime to figure out that this lot were an unpleasant bunch just by reference to applied monikers. The list of outlaws includes Machine Gun Kelly, Creepy Karpis, Babyface Nelson, John Jackrabbit Dillinger and of course Ma Barker, who (some say) was the meanest of them all and the mother of the four Barker Boys, a whole new generation of hoodlums. A fair chunk of the FBI’s Most Wanted list of Public Enemies chose to make St Paul their home.

It was the formation of the illustrious Barker-Karpis Gang in the side streets of St Paul which provides one verifiable link between Merrill and the mobsters in the native city of his first wife. You could argue that it’s a tenuous association, but it is a connection to a shady underworld nonetheless. We know that Merrill was related to wealthy “Aunt Edith” Forster through his first marriage, and we discovered that Edith’s last residence was 671 Greenbrier Street in St Paul. During the grim 1930’s, this address featured in an audacious crime which sent headlines around the nation.

Hamms Brewery

Hamm’s Brewery in St Paul

In the summer of 1933, William Hamm Jr, the multi-millionaire heir to the city’s Hamm Brewery empire, was coolly kidnapped in broad daylight as he strolled between his workplace and his mansion home, the big house on the hill with the formal address of 671 Cable Avenue, later re-assigned as 671 Greenbrier Street. Creepy Karpis was driving the car into which Hamm was shoved, and Dock Barker placed a pillow-case over the victim’s head as he politely asked Hamm to lie down on the floorboards of the gang’s Hudson automobile. A day later, a brewery manager received a ransom demand of $100,000 for William Hamm’s safe return. The corrupt police chiefs of St Paul were slow to react, and the Hamm family sorted things out for themselves. The brewery boss was back home in his hilltop mansion four days later, and the Barker-Karpis Gang were a hundred grand richer.

William Hamm Jr

William Hamm Jr

Speculative arrests of small-time crooks were made, but each villain was acquitted due to lack of evidence of involvement in the kidnapping. The Hamm caper must have been considered so successful that Ma Barker’s boys outrageously repeated the crime six months later. This time they nabbed a millionaire banker named Bremer who belonged to the wealthiest family in St Paul. Through his father’s marriage, Bremer also happened to be in the Schmidt dynasty of local industrial brewing giants. Again the police stood back, and the kidnappers were always curiously one step ahead of the Schmidt family’s private investigators. Another cleverly-planned handover of cash reportedly swelled the coffers of the Barker-Karpis Gang to around $3 million, gathered in little over two years during the mid-1930’s. Perhaps they were trying to outdo their bank-robbing pal and often fellow-citizen John Dillinger who violently “withdrew” over half a million dollars from Midwest banks almost single-handedly, during the very same era.

The lawlessness of St Paul at this time even attracted the considerable wrath of President Roosevelt. His personal friends were being kidnapped and the law enforcers appeared helpless. It took a while before the FBI detected that the high-ranking police officers of St Paul had enormous bank balances which could not be justified from their salaries alone.

So – this was the scene at a time when Merrill was in a big financial mess, and dodging around the Twin Cities of Minnesota. We know for certain that the gangsters knew exactly where the thrifty offspring of German immigrants, like the Forsters, lived and worked in St Paul, and we know that they knew how to extort money from these ultra-wealthy families. And research indicates that before 1940, the Hamms from Greenbrier Street vacated their eerie mansion overlooking the brewery with all its bad memories, and for reasons not fully understood a certain “insane” Aunt Edith then takes up residence at this landmark house. The surviving Forsters must have been acquainted with the socially-elite Hamms, and probably the Schmidt and Bremer families too.

The Hamm mansion was destroyed in a fire in 1954, but Aunt Edith’s tragic life of isolation had ended three years earlier. Why did she live in the reputedly haunted house on the hill? Was it a nursing home, or a high-class prison for Aunt Edith?

Maybe a local historian can help answer these questions. All information welcomed.

More info about St Paul in the 1920’s and 1930’s is attached here in this excellent article by Paul Maccabee: St Paul Gangsters

And here’s a typical US newspaper front page from 1933 reporting on events in a faraway Midwest city which was rapidly gaining the reputation of becoming America’s “major” crime capital: 1933 Hamm kidnapping

Back to More Merrill Musings

Census of 1659

There are returns available for 26 counties, and some of these returns are incomplete.  It is thought that these figures were compiled by surveyors working for Sir William Petty, Surveyor-General of Ireland, who mapped confiscated lands from 1655 to 1659. The returns indicate the number of people living in each townland, and whether they were native Irish or of English origin. 

Figures for the parish of Kilmacteigue:

Irish                            English                        Total

224                                 6                                  230

1659 chart

The Merrill & Sabrina Love Theme

Stranger In The House by Elvis Costello, here dueting with the wonderful George “No Show” Jones.

This never was one of the great romances
But I thought you’d always have those young girl’s eyes
But now they look in tired and bitter glances
At the ghost of a man who walks ’round in my disguise
I get the feeling that I don’t belong here
But there’s no welcome in the window anyway
And I look down for a number on my keychain
‘Cause it feels more like a hotel everyday

There’s a stranger in the house; nobody’s seen his face
But everybody says he’s taken my place
There’s a stranger in the house no one will ever see
But everybody says he looks like me

And now you say you’ve got no expectations
But I know you also miss those carefree days
And for all the angry words that passed between us
You still don’t understand me when I say

There’s a stranger in the house; nobody’s seen his face
But everybody says he’s taken my place
There’s a stranger in the house no one will ever see
But everybody says he looks like me

Fans of Elvis Costello have often debated what the lyrics of this curious song mean. When first heard, the casual listener might think that it’s just another plaintive Country song about a guy who has lost his lover to another man. But then you delve deeper, and it’s something else.

First off, the song was written by an Englishman from an Irish ancestral family. Elvis Costello was born as Declan Patrick McManus but took his stage name from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll plus the maiden name of an Irish great-grandmother. He was born in London and raised on Merseyside, near the Liverpool homes of The Beatles. Secondly, Stranger In The House was written circa 1976 and first released in 1978 by Elvis Costello, an artist who at this time had come to prominence on the popularity of the British Punk Rock / New Wave scene. Costello manipulated the musical mood of the late Seventies with tracks like the brute-force “Pump It Up” and the clever and poetically majestic “Oliver’s Army”. The latter hit single hinted that Declan McManus was not just a thrash metal merchant. Costello went on to dabble successfully in all musical genres, collaborating with established stars from the world of Pop, Rock, Jazz & Blues through to Classical.

So this partly explains why Costello passes through Nashville writing and performing Country Music songs which the likes of George Jones gratefully covered. The story goes that Costello developed a love of slower ballads and sad country songs as a youngster listening to his father, Ross, a moderately successful vocalist fronting old-styled Big Bands. Somewhat unfairly, the biggest claim to fame of Ross McManus is that he was the memorable voice of the hit TV commercial “I’m A Secret Lemonade Drinker” – yes, R Whites! Family connections got the then unknown Elvis (Jnr) a welcome appearance in the TV ad campaign, but around this time, at about age 21, young Declan must have penned his mysterious ditty, Stranger In The House.

To me, the song is not about a rival lover. On the contrary, it is about a man trapped in a love affair who is unable to reveal his true self. This man has kept to himself so many profound secrets that he no longer recognizes his original personality. As he continues and extends his web of deceit, his faithful partner is also feeling the strain of maintaining a loving relationship. How did a 21 year-old dream up this intense domestic scene and then manage to convey it in song in just a few short lines? Not many people know of such a man, do they?

And then I wrote the novel Where’s Merrill …. and then I heard the haunting song Stranger In The House again. I played it over and over again one night. It seemed to me that I had just “met” the lonesome lover in the song. His name is Merrill, and I subtitled the piece as “Merrill & Sabrina’s Love Theme“.

 Back to More Merrill Musings

Black Sheep

Former parish Priest’s Death:

The death took place after a long illness at Árd na Gréine Nursing Home, Enniscrone, of Conor Liam Cawley, retired parish priest of Charlestown. His remains were removed to St James’s Church, Charlestown, and his burial mass took place in church grounds. He is survived by his brothers xxxxxx and xxxxx, his sister xxxxxx, brother-in-law xxxxx and sisters-in-law xxxxxx and xxx, nephews, nieces and friends. The late Conor Cawley was parish priest in Charlestown for a number of years until his illness and retirement. He did much good work in the parish and was hugely involved in the big renovation work of St James’s Church. Sincere sympathies are tendered to the bereaved.

This “man” was a relative of mine. You cannot choose your relatives or ancestors. This bland obituary hides the criminal allegations laid against Fr Cawley long before his death. In Ireland of old, The State and Judiciary were loathe to prosecute the fine, upstanding men who served as Roman Catholic ministers especially if they were “sick”. In the locality, Father Cawley was renowned for his indiscretions, of a sexual nature. Employed as a schoolteacher, alarm bells should have rang out loudly. Nothing was said. As a consequence, Fr Cawley was promoted to Canon, so he continued to enjoy swimming with the nuns and the orphan girls.

Whilst my distant cousin rotted away in Enniscrone, attended to by dedicated nursing staff, one of his victims of childhood abuse could no longer live with the scars of being disbelieved. She committed suicide. Again – nothing was said.

No prosecution was ever forthcoming from the Garda Síochána; the guardians of the proud Irish Republic.

Bin Day

Today is Pension Day again. A day of great excitement in the parish. All the old folks are flushed with Euros, and the taverns are a-jumping. Well, they are until about 6pm when the OAP’s need a lie-down.

Friday is also Bin Day – my particular highlight of the week. To see a big truck on our single-track lane is quite exciting, only beaten by Nathy’s heating oil tanker which (thankfully) calls less frequently – especially if it’s the 6,000 gallon monster, totally unsuitable for South Sligo’s winding farm tracks.

Our local arrangement, trash-wise, is that we have alternate collection weeks for our two types of waste produce; domestic rubbish and recyclables. Today is recyclable rubbish day which is called The Green Bin Day – and that means putting out the blue wheelie bin. And of course, next Friday is a Black Bin Day for the landfill stuff, and that means we must all put out our green-coloured bins. Only in Ireland could such a simple and memorable system have been developed.

Dividing waste up into landfill and recyclable is a fairly new exercise in the west of Ireland. I often wonder if the local licensed waste carriers are as regimented as our old Bin Wagon service was over in Dublin. Over in the capital city, the Bin Man called every week to empty not one but three separate wheelie bins containing trash carefully divided up by each householder. There was landfill domestic, recyclables and also garden waste. However, I noticed that, each week, our Dublin bin man simply emptied all three bins into the same compartment at the rear of his huge truck. Having observed this, one time (after a house party) I placed some empty bottles into the garden waste bin. Later on in the week I was reprimanded by our conscientious bin man with an East European accent: “No bottle in garden,” he lectured.

“Just this once, please,” I pleaded. He reluctantly agreed, and then tossed the contents of all three bins into the landfill crusher of his shiny wagon. I waved him off, vowing to never break the (environ)mental rules again.

Sheep Fancying

Compared to the chill of the Galician mountains, the west of Ireland has been unseasonably warm and dry. About time too – and perfect for the weekend Festival festivities.
I bet you are dying to know what happened on Sat & Sun [wot d’ya mean, no?], and I wish I could tell you. It wasn’t just the Friday night introduction of Blur, it was the onset of exhaustion which put me out of action for a while. I just couldn’t raise myself from the couch on Saturday evening, especially after Blackburn Rovers conceded yet another late equaliser.

Apparently you cannot play “live” music for 24 hours non-stop during a weekend festival. There has to be a minimum one hour’s break, for some daft reason. So Friday officially ended at 6am – and Saturday’s session started at 7am. Considering that Tony Marren led the opening musical ensemble at 10pm on Friday night, we must congratulate him that he also closed the Day 1 show only a few minutes past six o’clock the following morning. Then the musicians had a drink.

I was informed that Saturday saw a conveyor-belt load of renowned Irish trad music stars for the unplugged section of the festival. The tin whistles started dead on 7am, and rarely stopped during the next 24 hours. In fact, I’m told that some fiddling went on beyond the 6am Sunday morning curfew. It was gone seven o’clock when the last diddly-dee-er passed out. Hughie told me that he was very annoyed when he went down to the village on his tractor, a little earlier than normal, for his pre-Mass Sunday morning pint, only to find the Cock locked up. He said he could see about a dozen prostrate bodies through the frosted glass of the main bar-room window – but they were well out of it. No-one answered his desperate calls to “open the shop”. He told me that it was nearly “chihuahuas!” before the first corpse returned to life. Lazarus gave him a pint of Guinness, and then went back to sleep on the bar top.

I had stopped in, recovering in front of the TV on Saturday evening. Good decision. A respectable Sligo family were on Family Fortunes up against some Dublin gangsters. Mincin’ Alan’s first tough question: “Name something you’d find in a newsagents?” The Sligo captain jumped straight in with “newspapers”, and control of the board. Up Sligeach! Next Sligo family member says, “Fruit and veg.” UH-OH!! It’s not on the board. Now – that’s not as stupid as it sounds. Every rural newsagents in Sligo sells fruit and veg. Our Tom in Killybacside sells tractor parts alongside the Irish Times … and local fruit and veg … and ear muffs. All the typical things you might need to get through the day.
The Sligo crowd were in the lead until Alan the Mincer threw in his usual cringe-worthy question: “Name something you sit on?” Our county representatives came up with chair, couch, stool, etc – but then got stuck. Over to the Dubs, who all delighted in taking their turn saying “Yer arse, yer arse, yer arse – Alan”. The Sligo churchgoers were flummoxed.
Alan says, “Let’s see if yer arse is on the board. Yes! It’s there – on the bottom.” Is this show scripted?

Fell asleep. Woke up bright and early Sunday, raring to go. Heard that some attractive black faced mountain breeds were descending into the valley. Old Uncle John wanted to see these too – but he thought they were going to be grown-up African babies. Some said that the beauty pageant was fixed. Young Odhran O’Connell’s fleecy ram swept the board, winning some Worm Drench and a bag of nuts. Fingers were pointed at part-time farmer and local cab-driver, Paki Durkin – the chief judge. Was he got at, or just distracted? I reckon that our constant mobile phone calls to Paki from the bar, shouting “Where’s me taxi?” in an assortment of accents, as he felt up the sheep in the car park just didn’t help.
And then Con got his flute out …. and off we went again. Yee-hah.
Rollin’ in the hay, a-rollin’ in the hay …”