I shall always remember my first ‘big’ scheme to make money – its implementation and eventual outcome and above all its hazardous execution.
I lived in a small insignificant town in the south of Ireland where my parents kept a public house. My mother had just died and I, at the age of eleven years, was left with my three brothers and two sisters to the care of my father, who came from farming stock – and who had just acquired a farm to supplement a precarious livelihood from the pub.
He was big boisterous man, a talented musician in the old traditional manner, able to play the melodian, concertina, fife, flute, uileann pipes and above all the violin. He was known locally as Bill the Fiddler. He was anxious, particularly, to please the farmers of the area who frequented the premises. After all, he was now one of them, and depended on their assistance at times of harvest.
I had watched their antics in the pub with disdain – where they over indulged on a Fair Day. This was the market day held on the first Thursday of the month, where they sold cattle, sheep and pigs on the street, and bacon at Mansfield’s shop because it was much cheaper than the home produce. This was in the early thirties, when a new political leader named De Valera had assumed office, and when everyone seemed to be asking “when will the economic war end?” Times were hard and the farmers were cautious with their money.
My brother, Frank, twelve months my senior, was my inseparable companion and we were unanimous in our opinions of the local farmers “why!” Frank would declare, “How can James McGrath go to heaven when instead of buying two small bottles of stout for himself and his workmen at sixpence each, he buys one large one for ninepence and then asks for two glasses?” I couldn’t agree more remembering the day when I had forgotten to add the cost of a box of matches to his bill, and when I told him so, came the bellowing reply, “Good God, must I strip myself for a penny?” He had carefully put his money in the inside pocket of the innermost of his three waistcoats across which he had fastened a huge safety pin.
But my money making plan was forming, and I outlined it to my brother. The pub was situated in the main street, and had a big eight-stable yard at the rear leading into Mill Street. My father gave the farmers free stabling for their horses whereas other publicans in the town charged six pence, and some even a shilling.
When finished in the pub, a farmer would go out the back into the yard, lead his horse from the stable, tackle him to the cart and go home via Mill Street.
The following Fair Day the plan went into operation. I watched the first farmer leave the bar, and proceeded to the yard where Frank was waiting to tell him that we had started charging. How well I remember his demand “Mister! Mister! What about the money!” and the surprised reply “the money for what maneed?” “The stable of course, we are charging you ninepence now!” Nearly always the plan worked, and if Frank met an awkward customer, a whistle would bring me hurrying to the yard. I was the more agile, and so I would leap on to one of the rear butts or saleans of the cart, and raise myself up and down from the sitting position as the horse moved away. It harassed the driver so much that in the end, in exasperation, he would throw back sixpence or a shilling. I would then nimbly dismount and pick the coin off the road. That evening we would divide the spoils equally and gorge ourselves with Half-Time Jimmy, a popular chocolate of the time. Whatever money was left over was hidden separately as a residual reserve for the future. I frequently changed my hiding place in the house, always fearing that the one previously selected was somewhat accessible.
We gradually moved into the money bracket, and had all of thirty bob each in the reserve fund when disaster struck. I had always avoided a confrontation with James McGrath, but never admitted to Frank that I was such a coward. When, in the case of McGrath, the distress whistle sounded, I would pretend not to hear, and so he would go scot free. Yet, I couldn’t risk my brother losing faith in his strong-arm partner, and I decided to tackle the transgressor.
One Fair Day the whistle sounded, after Mac had left the bar. I rushed into the arena. There he was, a dudeon clenched firmly in his teeth, cabeen askew, and shouting “Not a penny! Since when did Bill O’Donnell join the stable profiteers?” He went out the yard gate at a brisk pace, and I jumped on my perch at the rear. However, instead of hitting the Mellerary Road for home he turned left in a semi-circle, and stopped at the front door of the pub. I had by this time dismounted and rushed back to warn Frank “McGrath is going to blow the gaff to Dad! We’re in trouble! Give up your money as being the lot, and we’ll divide mine later!” I glanced into the bar, McGrath was speaking to my father in a mournful tone which Guinness and whiskey always seem to bring to the Celtic nature. “Bill!” he said, (and as I saw the beginnings of a tear, I was somehow reminded of our Bible lesson of the day before at school, dealing with Moses bringing forth water from the rock), “I never thought I’d see the day when you would join the stable suckers!”
I put my rather dubious gotten gains in a hiding place, and waited for the storm to break. When I returned, the screams of Frank warned me what to expect, and I was given equal punishment.
That, was of course, the end of our scheme, and my story should end here except for an unusual post script.
When I went to find my reserve I had forgotten where I had hid it. I told Frank. We searched all the likely places but to no avail. He knew that I was no double-crosser, and believed me. I never found the hoard.
Many years later, I revisited the town for the first time. The old home was still there but now under a new name. Prior to leaving I decided to visit the old pub. I sat at a table in the tap-room, and memories came crowding in. My father had long since died, the family had scattered, Frank had emigrated, and new unknown faces surrounded me. I sat, deep in reverie, and suddenly from the vista of the years I saw McGrath, the unwilling stabler. I spoke to the landlady, telling her who I was, and said “In the olden days we had one room called the Dark Room. It was next to the parlour on the first landing, would you be kind enough to let me see it?!” She readily agreed adding, “it is not dark anymore, since new and brighter electric lights have now been added.” I went up the stairs, and opened the room door. I dived to the corner behind it. The whole place had been decorated, and looked brighter than I had ever seen it. But in that corner the skirting board was still a good half an inch from the floor, and had not been rectified. I put in my hand, and withdrew thirty five shillings – thirty bob being the reserve, and five shillings being the gains of the day of the disaster.
I quickly returned downstairs, a tear started to form which I quickly stopped, reminding myself that Guinness and whiskey always bring mournful tones to the Celtic nature. I asked a man who sat near me “Have you ever heard of James McGrath from Ballinamut?” “Oh yes!” he replied “I’m from there myself, but he’s been dead for years.” “Any family?” I asked “Yes” he said “as a matter of fact his grand-daughter is making her First Communion next Sunday.” I pressed the thirty five shillings into his hand “Could you please do me a favour, and buy her flowers, and a suitable gift with this money?” “Who shall I say gave them?” he said in consternation. “Tell her, two of the sons of Bill the Fiddler”, as I finished my drink, and went into the night.
By William O’Donnell – 02.02.1977
©2013 The estate of William O’Donnell (Chiswick)