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The snake that got away - a breed of “gombeen” that St. Patrick didn’t banish

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Illustration by Caty Bartholomew
Even if I told ye the yarn years ago about the venomously mean cobra that good St. Patrick forgot about when he banished all other snakes from Ireland centuries ago, it is sadly opportune to deal with the matter again because the cobra's last victim died recently in hospital long before his time.

The breed seed and generation of the snake Saint Patrick forgot to banish is still well-known, and his good widow is still alive so I have to be careful.

I will call him Cooney and state simply that he was a real cobra in his village. He was the local gombeen man.

He owned the pub, the attached shop, the hardware yard and a big farm behind the buildings. He was one of the two undertakers in the district, had strong political connections, was a peace commissioner so he could sign official forms, and he was the only travel agent in the region.

If you were born and reared in his village the chances were that he robbed you blind in all transactions and finally charged you an arm and a leg to export you out of Ireland altogether.

He had a wicked narrow slash of a mouth, green eyes, a bald head and very pale skin. His eyes looked through you.

Cooney took over the business from his father in his late twenties. There was a lovely young shop assistant girl as one of the two employees, and somehow he was able to talk her into marrying him.

The other employee was a giant shopboy we will call Jody who was as strong in the body as any three men, but very weak and innocent and trusting in his mind.

Jody lived over the shop in a small room, and people claimed Cooney only paid him a tiny wage because he was so mean. People also claimed he was too mean to give his wife the boon of a family because of the cost of rearing children.

When he was given only three months to live in his early sixties he was also too mean to give his funeral to his local rival in the trade. He wrote down detailed instructions for his disposal.

He was to be cremated in Belfast, the ashes returned home without any ceremony, and the urn to be placed on the parlor inside windowsill behind the big leather couch. The urn was open.

I saw the ashes once shortly after he came back home. They were greyish-green and coarse.

The gentle wife followed all his instructions to the letter. She and Jody continued to run the business well and with more fairness and compassion than had ever been seen under that roof before. They did well.

Jody idolized her as a child of five or six years idolizes his mother. They got on well.

It was a visiting tradesman that reported seven or eight years later that there was some kind of plant growing out of Cooney's urn. The tradesman said it would frighten you because it was green and looked like a cross between some kind of cactus and a Venus Flytrap plant.

He said it had a narrow slash of mouth exactly like Cooney's and was five or six inches tall, nearly as high as the back of the couch.

Two or three years later, one wintery night after the bar closed, the decent widow, probably being lonely, invited Jody into the parlor for tea and sandwiches. That often happened before but on this night, for whatever reason, she gave poor innocent Jody a big bumper of hot whiskey because he had a touch of flu. Jody swallowed his first ever strong drink in one long swig, shook his head from side to side for a moment, and then lunged along the couch to hug the gentle widow and kiss her passionately.

And if he did, then what happened (the widow told the police herself later) was that this green cobra of a horrific yoke of a thing darted venomously over the back of the couch and fastened its mottled mouth on poor Jody's left jugular vein! It was the dreadful resurrection of Cooney. Awful.

Jody screamed, fainted, and it is fair to say that he lost all use of his innocent mind afterwards. He never worked again, and had to be admitted to a special care unit in the county hospital where he passed away recently.

The widow survived by selling the place inside three months and going out to her sister in Florida for her retirement. I've heard she is still very well there.

Being a hack, I wanted to find out what happened to the cobra that Cooney became after the event. To the best of my knowledge the urn was delivered to the Gardai (police) as a major element of their investigation into the incident.

I gather there was no sign of any strange plant or cobra at that time, though the volume of the ashes was sharply reduced. The wise local sergeant kept the evidence in a safe for one year and one day, as is required by law, and then threw it out the backyard on a hard frosty night.

Either the frost or a band of rooks disposed of what was left of Cooney or else, cunning as he ever was, he is still lurking out there in the Celtic undergrowth this very Saint Patrick's Day too, that killer cobra that Saint Patrick failed to banish.

Despite that strong probability I still wish all of you a happy and safe St. Patrick's Day. And if you are going to spend it in Ireland do keep yours eyes open.

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