Honeyed words

A SUMMER STORY A short story by John McGahern. Illustration by Daniel P udles
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I grew up in the living quarters of a police barracks along the Boyle River, a small tributary of the upper Shannon, and late one summer there I was presented with a gift of incalculable richness that changed my life.

We lived in the barracks because my father was the Garda Sergeant. His three fellow gardai had rented rooms or houses about the village, but one of them had to come and sleep each night in the day-room, beneath a phone that seldom rang, against the wall of a lock-up that had held only one prisoner in eight years. One of the last regular sounds we'd hear each night was the slow heavy boots of the orderly taking the mattress and grey blankets down the stairs from the storeroom to make up his bed for the night. The earliest sound of the morning was often the same footsteps taking mattress and blankets back upstairs to leave the black iron bed beneath the phone bare for the day.

The village was small: a few shops and houses and bars, a post office and church scattered randomly about a large triangular field. No two houses or shops adjoined one another. They had sprung up like grains of wild wheat the birds had dropped.

Almost everybody was poor. There was no crime. Police work went into the taking of rainfall readings from a copper gauge in the garden, checking that the local dogs were licensed, cutting the tongues from dead foxes brought for the government stipend, putting out posters that warned of fines under the Noxious Weeds Act if thistle, ragwort or dock were allowed to proliferate in fields, and, above all, endlessly patrolling the empty, potholed road on their bicycles. Accounts had to be written at some length into a heavy ledger. In good weather these patrols must have been pleasant enough. In foul weather they were never made unless the superintendent's car was prowling around. Whether they were made or not they always had to be written up. As I was often in the day-room, sometimes I'd be called to help. In a way, they were the first fictions I took part in: "John, if you can risk it, would you ever stick your head out the door to see if you can discover the exact location of that bloody wind? I saw a man in Donegal caught out once because he hadn't checked." "It's coming straight from the priest's boathouse, Guard Cannon." "Wind accompanied by heavy rain blowing so hard from a south-westerly direction that when I turned at Knockvicer I was forced to dismount and walk," he'd call out as he wrote the words into the ledger. "Patrol of the imagination concluded," he'd laugh as he signed and closed the book.

The police themselves were as poor as most of the people they policed. Most of them had large families and supplemented their meagre salaries by cutting and saving turf, growing potatoes in fields the farmers gave them. Over this enclosed Catholic world of the Ireland of the Forties and Fifties the Church held almost total power.

The Church proclaimed that this life was no more than a place or time of trial of uncertain duration here on earth to prepare ourselves to face the Eternal Judgement. Hell and Heaven and Purgatory were nearer and more real to us than Canada or Australia. The doctrines were so real that they passed into ordinary speech and superstition. All manual work was forbidden on Sundays and Church holidays, but nearly all Gaelic games were played on Sundays. Once, the football in the village burst during an important match. In a panic it was brought to the barracks, where there was an old guard who had been a shoemaker. As he took out his yellow awl and started to wax together the long white threads of hemp, I heard him tell them good-humouredly, "Do you boys realise what you're asking? I hope through the mercy of God to scrape into Purgatory some day. Do you know what I'll have to do there? I'll have to undo every stitch I put into this football with my nose. How long do you think that will take?"

The ordinary farming people had to conform to the strict observances and to pay their dues to the Church from small resources, but outside that they paid it little attention. They went about their sensible pagan lives as they had done for centuries, seeing it as just another of the fictions that they'd been forced to kowtow to, like all the others since the time of the Druids. They knew that if their few sheep or cattle didn't thrive, their crops to fail, they'd have to go without, or emigrate.

In the barracks we were closer to the Church and more vulnerable in that we belonged in the lower rungs of an administration that had become, to all effects and purposes, a theocracy. We believed everything we were told, both of this world and the worlds to come, absolutely. Pleasure and the sources of pleasure were frowned upon. The stolidity of the long empty grave face became the height of decorum and profundity.

A few miles away, toward the Plains of Boyle, was another society, though even then it was fast dwindling. Behind the high demesne walls of Rockingham, with its many gates and gatehouses, Sir Cecil Stafford-King Harmon lived in the beautiful white house above Lough Key designed by Nash, and close to the demesne walls were a number of rich Protestant farms. There was no friction between the two societies. Catholics pitied Protestants since they were destined for hell in the next world because of their heretical beliefs. This was sharpened because as a people they were considered far more abstemious and honest and morally more correct than the general run of our fellow Catholics. In turn, there is no doubt that the Protestants looked down on the Catholics, but their old sense of unquestioned superiority was under threat in the new State, and many were turning toward Canada, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Australia.

The Moroneys, father and son, Old Willie and Andy, were Protestants, but they had fallen close to the level of their Catholic neighbours. They lived in a two-storeyed stone house, surrounded by a big orchard, handsome stone outhouses, and beautiful trees - drooping ash, copper beech, chestnuts. Each spring the great drooping ash outside the library window was ringed with narcissi. Willie must have been well into his eighties and Andy was about forty. Their natures were so stress-free that it is no wonder they were both to live into their nineties. Old Willie, the beekeeper, with his great beard and fondness for St Ambrose and Plato, "The Athenian bee, the good and the wise... because his words glowed with the sweetness of honey", is wonderfully brought to life in David Thomson's Woodbrook.

Thomson, who was reading history at Oxford, had come as a tutor to Woodbrook, a big Protestant house about two miles from the Moroneys. After a painful experience trying to take honey from old beehives that hadn't been touched for years, he was forced to bring Willie to Woodbrook, to settle the hives. Thomson's portrait is extremely accurate as well as vivid. Willie had not gone upstairs since his wife's death, nor had he washed, and he lived in royal untidiness in what had once been the dining room, directly across the stone hallway from the library, that dear hallway with its barometer and antlered coat rack, and the huge silent clock. Thomson describes how he was admitted by the open front door. It is possible that the front door was left open in a rare spell of hot weather, but, more likely, it was specially opened for Thomson and his pupil Phoebe, Major Kirkwood's daughter. They would have been rare and important visitors. In my memory, the front door, with a small brass plate shaped into the stone for the doorbell, was never opened. All access to the house was by the back door, up steps from the farmyard, and through the littered kitchen to the hallway and stairs and front rooms.

David Thomson describes the Moroneys as landless, which is untrue, for they owned a 170 acres of the sweetest land on the lower Plains of Boyle, itself some of the best limestone land in all of Ireland. The farm was beautifully enclosed by roads which ran from the high demesne wall of Rockingham to the broken walls of Oakport. The Moroneys should have been wealthy. They had to have money to build that stone house in the first place, to build and slate the stone houses that enclosed the farmyard, to acquire the hundreds of books that lined the walls of the library: David Thomson, though, is right in spirit, for Willie and Andy had all the appearance of being landless. Most of Andy's time was taken up with the study of astronomy. Willie lived for his bees. He kept the hives at the foot of the great orchard. They both gathered apples, stored them on wooden shelves in the first of the stone houses of the farmyard, and they sold them by the bucketful, and seemed glad enough for the half-crowns they received.

I first remember going to the house to buy apples. Then I began to help Andy about the farm. My father and he had become friendly. He was the only Protestant to join the local company of the defence forces during the Emergency, had been given a commission, turned out to be a crack marksman, and had achieved celebrity by leading his riflemen to victory in the Western Shield. How much time he spent studying the heavens on clear nights I do not know, but he never rose till late.

Once, we loaded lambs into the back of the old Ford transit van, and Andy and myself headed for the Dublin market, a hundred miles away. He had imported a rare breed of sheep from Scotland and felt he wouldn't get a true price in the local markets. We reached Dublin in the evening, unloaded the lambs in the old market off the North Circular Road, and saw them pinned. We then drove across the city and out into the Wicklow Mountains. We parked on the very top of one of the peaks - perhaps the Little Sugar Loaf. It was a clear frosty night and very cold on the mountain. I had never looked down on a night city before, and thought the patterns of the lights far more amazing and beautiful than the stars. Andy had brought a little stove and kettle to make tea. We ate bread and jam, and then he set up his telescope and pointed out many things, but I was frozen and tired and still hungry and must have been a hopeless student. After what seemed an age we rolled ourselves up in old overcoats in the back of the van to sleep before the market opened.

We had to scrape the frost from the windscreen before we drove down to the city. In the market I was weak with hunger, but Andy assured me we'd eat as soon as the lambs were sold. Many years later I realised that he probably didn't have the money for us to eat until he was paid. There was a big hotel in the cattlemarket, and as soon as the lambs were sold we entered the main dining room. In its Victorian splendour, amid the prosperous merchants and dealers, we must have looked a dishevelled pair, but any question of our right to enter would have been quelled at once by Andy's accent. We were brought a big pot of tea and enormous plates of liver, chops, sausages, black pudding, eggs, bacon, onions. I was just about able to walk out of the big dining room into the sharp air of the market, caught between pure gratitude and sleep and an even purer bliss.

It was a gift fit to mark the end of any summer or harvest, but before the winter set in the old beekeeper was to present me with something that was to last for a whole life. While it was Andy I helped on the land, it was with the father I talked. "You enjoy reading, Master John?" "Except there aren't books to read, Mr Moroney."

There were a few dozen books in the barracks, and I had read them all, many of them more than once. They were of a nationalistic or romantic bent, relics of my father's and my mother's youth. I must have talked about some of them to Willie.

"There are hundreds of books here and nobody to read them. You should have spoken up, Master John," and he led me up the hallway and pushed open the door of the library beside the antlered coat rack. The air was stale and musty and he had difficulty opening the warped wooden shutters. There were hundreds of books all around the walls and a tall slender ladder for getting to the books on the higher shelves.

"You are too young for Plato, Master John. I read many of these books long ago but now I remember hardly anything of any of them. My head is just full of bees, Master John; happy bees, I'm glad to say - bees making honey."

Two of the books he did pick for me, though, were Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, but he had no interest in directing or guiding my reading - he just gave me the complete freedom of the library.

Every fortnight or so, for years, I'd return with five or six books in an oilcloth shopping bag and take five or six more away. What books were on those shelves? There was Scott, Dickens, Meredith and Shakespeare, books by Zane Grey and Jeffrey Farnol, and many, many books about the Rocky Mountains. Some person in that 19th century house must have been fascinated by the Rocky Mountains. I didn't differentiate, I read for nothing but pleasure, the way a boy nowadays might watch endless television dramas.

No curb was put on my reading at home as long as it didn't take from prayer or work. The roots of this are, I think, more complicated than the original gift. My father remained friendly with Andy Moroney, and there was a definite prejudice in favour of the gentle eccentric Moroneys, and Protestants in general. The books may have been thought to have been as correct as outward Protestant behaviour, as harmless as their gentle owners. I also learned to be secret. I saw that whenever I talked about my reading it incurred suspicion and resentment. I learned to be silent. This was no virtue. I would have talked my head off if anybody would have listened. And I tried to read in as out-of- the-way places as possible, but it couldn't have been all that hidden. I remember being shaken out of a book in the middle of the large living room in the barracks, to find myself surrounded. My sisters had unlaced and removed one of my shoes and placed a straw hat on my head. Only when they began to move the wooden chair on which I sat away from the window did I wake out of the book - to their great merriment.

The life of the barracks went on without much change or obvious purpose, except that we were all somehow mystifyingly together in this one place on the face of the earth. The greatest excitement was caused by the transfer of one guard, the arrival of another. I continued going to the Moroneys, not only for books but to help around the farm and house. I even took part in the big washing up, an unusual system of housekeeping. They'd use every clean cup and plate and knife and fork in the house until they were all used. Then they'd do a big washing up every month or so and start all over again. I attended Mass and the Sacraments and the Feasts of the Church, their ceremonies and rituals, their warnings and their exhortations, and we prayed aloud before going to bed each night.

Before the printed word, churches have been described as the bibles of the poor. The Church was my first and most important book. Afterwards, because of the Moroneys, I had many books.

My friend the beekeeper died. Andy Moroney got married. That ended his studies in astronomy. I grew up. The way I read, the books I sought out, changed. What hasn't changed is that I still read for pleasure and think it the surest guide to what is good.

I have one memory of that time and that priceless gift that appears to stand outside of time. Willie and myself are sitting at the cluttered table in the kitchen. The bag of books I've brought back rests on the flagstones. The door is open on the yard. "Your head must be full of stories and marvels now, Master John. My head..." Willie is saying as he pours the tea. We are eating buttered slices of bread with raspberry jam. The morning is one of those true mornings in summer before the heat comes, a certain blue in the air that is like the shade on plums. His long grey beard that covers his shirtfront is stained with food and drink, and as he talks bits of the raspberry jam fall into the beard. Earlier that morning he must have been through his hives because the jam sets off an immediate buzzing within the beard. Without interrupting the flow of his talk, he rises and shambles to the open door, his long delicate fingers extricating the errant bees caught in the beard, before releasing them one by one like blessings on the air of the yard

John McGahern was born in Dublin. His novel 'Amongst Women', published by Faber and Faber, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990

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