I am about 10 years old and we are visiting my mother Mary’s family home in a townland called Mountdrum outside the small town of Lisbellaw in the North.
I love going there because there is a genuine cowboy saddle mounted on a trestle in the corner of one of the family rooms, and when you reach 10 years you are allowed to use a stool to climb up and sit in it and dream of being a cowboy in states like Wyoming and Nevada and Texas, and you have a Colt on both hips and you are lightning fast on the draw and afraid of nobody or nothing along the trail.
And, like so many other elements of childhood, I’d forgotten all about that old saddle until recently when a story surfaced in the national Irish media about cattle rustling becoming a real problem nowadays in all but a bare handful of the counties in the deep south.
There was always a minute element of cattle theft along the border, especially when there was a significant price differential between the marts and markets of the North and those of the Republic, but now, according to leading Fine Gael politician Charlie Flanagan, it is not just “a country and western frolic” anymore, but a major state problem.
The number of thefts has trebled in the last two years, and now many hundreds of valuable beef cattle are being rustled from farmers right across the nation. An incredible development altogether.
And reading the story jogged my memory back down the years and into that old cowboy saddle in Mountdrum and, because it was attached to one of the most colorful and wild black sheep in the MacConnell family cupboard, I have been telling everybody about him all week.
It is a yarn that ye deserve to hear too because he lived for 30 or 40 years in the real Wild West over 150 years ago as a cowboy and maybe an outlaw too, and he came home to Ireland as an old man bringing his saddle and some earthy yarns back along with him.
His name was Paul McCusker, and it is no surprise at all that his memory survives strongly in the family folklore because of the appalling mortal sin he committed in Lisbellaw Chapel when he was a mere 14 years old.
It was because of that crime that the family exported him to the U.S. about two years later. And it was because of that dreadful deed too that there were always reservations about our clan, especially my mother’s Bannon connection, right up until very recent years.
You see, what happened was that young McCusker was a very fiery child right from the beginning of his life. It is recorded that he even stood up to his father from the age of five or six when he had to be chastised.
It is also recorded that he was what we call a citeog — a left hander — and citeogs are always a bit different over here.
And the awful thing that happened took place before a crammed chapel in Lisbellaw on the day of young McCusker’s confirmation, with all the other children of the parish, and it happened (the Lord between us and all harm) because the Bishop of Clogher of the day, who was administering the sacrament, was very old and frail and doddery.
He stumbled as he reached young McCusker, and instead of giving him the ritual gentle pat on the cheek as the sacrament demands, he gave him a significant slap.
And, like a shot, McCusker unleashed his lethal citeog punch in response and downed the poor little bishop, crozier and miter and all, inside the altar rails before the horrified congregation. Even now I shudder at the folk memory and the related story that the poor wee bishop never fully recovered afterwards.
The shamed Bannon/McCusker clan, of course, had to hide the culprit up in the hills for a couple of years before he was old enough to be sent out to America out of sight of the locals.
And, true to form, he did not settle in any Irish ghetto in any of the cities but headed away out West, climbed into his cowboy saddle and rode the range.
When he came home as a fierce old man one sentence indelibly survives from his many wild stories: “I took out my six-shooter and blew off his bloody head!!”
There are family suspicions that he was more likely to have been an outlaw and rustler than a decent, hardworking cowboy.
I think my mother knew more about his history than she ever told us because she did not like talking about him and, perhaps significantly, he was always one of the “trimmings” to our nightly family Rosary.
I remembered sitting in his huge old saddle again for the first time in decades when the rustling story broke here this week. Strangely, I also remembered that the church he had offended so grievously by downing the bishop forgave him after his return and fortified him with the Last Rites and the appropriate blessings before he took his last long ride into the sunset.
I bet the priest that gave him the Last Rites still was wise enough to do it from the right hand side of the bed to avoid that lethal citeog!
Original Irish Jack-o-Lanterns were truly terrifying and made of turnips