This summer our weather has been terrible with lots and lots of rain and cool, cloudy days giving no heat to make the grass grow and crops to flourish. It has been a farmer’s nightmare wondering where the hay and silage for next winter’s feeding is going to come from. The height of our summer was a lovely week in March and that is a distant memory now.
However, as with everything there has been a massive contradiction. We have had an abundance of blackcurrants, better than anything I have seen from our bushes that surround the timber portico we latched on to the back of our house here in Boyle. For the last week between showers, I have been out picking this fine crop and nearly every spare container is full of this delicate fruit. Amongst other things Helen makes the finest jam with it, more in the French style of confiture, with less added sugar to give it a slightly runny, tarter taste than traditional Irish and English jams. She also makes and I do not want this to get out to the authorities, but she also makes a wonderful cassis, an alcoholic liquor with a wonderful fruity taste and quite a kick, unless you dilute it in white wine to make a kir.
Anyway, yesterday afternoon she was bringing two of these containers from the fridge to the sink and I suppose because of the weight, she had them held at a certain degree off the perpendicular, when the overburdened jugs let slip some of their load onto the floor of the kitchen. No harm, I had them picked up in seconds and washed but that little vignette immediately threw my mind back 43 years, to the lovely summer of 1969 in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, where I was based working on various motorway construction projects.
Before I start to explain why and how Helen’s little mishap clicked a tag in my memory, let me tell you about Martin Tom “Watt” Henry. The Henry family came from the village of Rooskey in Maygo, that shadowy land on the Mayo/Sligo border about six miles north, north west of Charlestown. It was common in that part of the world to give each family a nickname especially when there was lots of families with the same name. So Helen’s family were the “Tom Bill” Toweys after the fusion of Helen’s grandfather’s and great grandfather’s names. Other Towey’s I knew were the “Celia” Toweys, after a matriarchal ancestor and the “Miller” Toweys because sometime in the 19th century they milled corn driven by a lttle stream in their yard. The Watts got their name from Martin Tom’s father, Walter, whose soubriquet was Watt and who died a tragic death when he fell into a lime kiln at the back of his house and slowly burned to death, nobody equipped to rescue him. He left a wife and 11 young children to struggle through in those unaided years before the Second World War.
The Henry house must have been built around the time of the Famine in Ireland, probably in the early 1840s. It was of its ilk, two bedrooms and a main room that did as a kitchen, living, dining and washing room. It had no sink, stove or running water, just a turf fire on which old Mrs Henry cooked every morsel of food with which to feed her family of eleven children by means of a contraption called a crane, which slung various pots and pans over the heat of the fire by slewing them with steel arms from a post set in the floor. Mrs Henry was a lovely old lady, well into her 70s when I met her first in the Christmas of 1968. In my memory she sat there in her chair at the side of the fire swinging, pots, pans and griddles over the heat. I cannot remember ever, her getting up, to go to bed even. She made the most delicious potato cakes I have ever tasted lathered with her own butter; I could eat them all day long.
Mrs Henry had eleven children as I said, her husband dead for many years and most of her birds had flown out of economic necessity more than anything else. Two had stayed close, Verona had married a Sligo man and Johnny, who was an albino and would not have survived in foreign climes but could look after cattle and do odd jobs round their small landholding. However both were geniuses on the fiddle, both All Ireland champions in their time, Verona subduing her talents to give Johnny the chance to shine. The area round there, they call it Colman Country now, after a local famous fiddle player who made it big time in America and had a particular style of playing, was teeming with impoverished but famous musicians who I doubt had ever had a music lesson, never mind read a sheet of music in their lives. People used to come from many a mile away to listen to these remarkable people play in their particular soft, smooth, south Sligo style.
Before Johnny and Verona, the eldest in the family was Bea Ann who had married an Englishman, then there was Chris, a man who had made a name for himself in the boxing rings of London during and just after the Second World War and had gone on to be a successful contractor. And in no particular order after that there was three who went to America, Kevin a pipe player in Boston, Andy who was a fine singer who made a very good living singing and recording songs for the immigrant population of Chicago and Madeleine in New York, who had elegant hands and was famous as the go-to person in America if you had new nail polish or jewelry to advertise. Her hands were all over the magazines of America. There were two more, Mary Kate and Walter who had also set up home in the South East of England. The youngest in the family was Carmel, who had gone to England in the 1950s and met and married Jim McHale, from Thurles on the Swinford road out of Castlebar and had an attractive entreprenurial spirit about him. It was from Carmel, a fine singer herself, that I received my introduction to this family. Last but not least there was Martin Tom who was born in the middle of the family somewhere.
Martin had emigrated along with nearly all his contemporaries to England and to London in particular, brought there by the lure of the post war construction frenzy that was trying to rebuild and re-equip England to its original splendour after its battering by hostile forces.
Now Martin Tom was not the most successful in his family, he was afflicted with a certain gaucheness, a certain social unease, that made him stand out in company for all the wrong reasons. There was a lack of grace about his mien and he was more than slightly clumsy and not always attentive. He always seemed to be thinking of something other than what the topic of conversation was about. But do not get me wrong, Martin Tom was a lovely generous man, who would always give you his last shilling and with Martin Tom he was often reduced to this state himself.
His natural ungainly and impractical manner did not suit the hard physical work that was the raison d’etre for the presence of him and his contemporaries in England. So he had to rely on his brother Chris and his brother in law, Jim McHale, to fix him up with shifts whenever he was out of work, which was often. However Martin had an amazing saving grace. He could write poetry and the lyrics of songs like no other, giving his work out to people who often plagiarised his talent. Take for example the song McAlpine’s Fusiliers, written by Martin in the early 1950s but absorbed and advertised by Dominic Behan as being his own work. You could tell it was Martin Tom’s hand with the line “I stripped to the skin with the Darkie Finn”. The Darkie was what you would call a long distance kiddie, flitting between London and Reading in the main, all his working life, never staying anywhere for too long but who was brought up in the in the house next to where Helen was born in Shaskin and was at school with Helen’s mother at Derrikinloch which was where Martin had gone to school.
Any way to get to the crux of my story and a short story it is once it is untangled. On this lovely sunny Sunday morning in 1969 news came through that Chris had had to let Martin go, the other lads in the gang complaining that he was not pulling his weight. It was not Martin Tom’s fault, for he had no weight to pull, but the news was that he was looking for work and could McHale in Cheltenham help. So myself and Jim jumped into the car and headed off for Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, Martin Tom’s last known address, me out of a sense of inquisitiveness to see what this much talked about man was like and Jim McHale out of a sense of charity towards his brother in law as he knew the only way he was going to get to Cheltenham was by walking as Jim knew he would not have the money even for his bus fare.
We searched the village of Brize Norton in its couple of pubs knowing the only place Martin would be at noon on a Sunday was in licensed premises. We even went into the Naafi of the military base that was there but we found nobody. We extended our search to Burford thinking he might have gone up there because it was on the bus route, we visited every pub but not daring to slake our thirst until we had acheived our quest. By this time it was 2.00pm and closing time for all licensed premises, we cursed Martin Tom and went for a well earned feed in a roadside cafe and then cruised back along the A40 to Cheltenham.
With everything it was approaching 6.00pm when we nosed into McHale’s road, hot , dusty and thirsty and there like an apparition was Martin Tom, sat on Jim’s garden wall, cooly smoking a cigarette in the warmth of the evening sun. He was full of greeting and cheer for us, McHale was full of oaths at him but eventually tempers cooled and it was decided to go for a pint but there was nearly an hour to wait before the 7.00pm Sunday opening hour. We went into the house where, after feeding Martin Tom, still had plenty left to make up two dinners. We ate without revealing our recent history and set out with our big thirsts. When I think of it in those days women always used to cook a meal always expecting three or four big hungry men to come unexpectedly walking through the door. Nobody was ever turned away there was always enough.
For some reason we did not go to our local pub but McHale drove to downtown Cheltenham, to a pub ran by a Cork man which we often used to visit on our way back from the races. As soon as we were in the door, Martin Tom, as if trying to make up for our afternoon’s discommodement, ushered us to a table away from the bar and went up and ordered three pints off the Corky in that slightly confusing foreign manner he had. The landlord asked him to repeat his order and gradually translated it into three pints of bitter. The twang of Maygo and Cork never went together. Martin paid for his order and picked up two foaming pints and made his way back to our table and just like Helen yesterday, the pints were held at a few degrees off the perpendicular and the further along the walk from bar to table, the nearer to the horizontal the glasses became, thus leaving a trail of beer all the way across the landlord’s freshly mopped floor.
The already suspicious innkeeper quickly misinterpreted the scene. “That ‘s it” he said “finish those and be off. Ye’ll get no more in this house tonight”. He thought because of Martin Tom’s caper that we were drunk, whereas in fact, we were suffering an almighty drouth and to make matters worse, by the time we received our drink, it was over half spilt and there was only a couple of thirsty mouthfuls left in each glass.
“Fuck this” said the truculent McHale, “I’m off” and out the door he went followed by a bewildered me and a stuttering Martin Tom. He got his few shifts off McHale but it was many years later when he was an old man before I got that promised pint off Martin Tom, after he had come back to Ireland for good and we were in the security and insanity of Micky Benson’s pub in lovely Rooskey.