The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
A casual encounter between an American gangster and an Irish immigrant
Posted on Thursday, February 02, 2012 at 08:53 AM
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It was the kind of story you don't forget, and I recall having to write it very obliquely for the newspaper I was writing for at the time.
Ireland was different then, anything to do with sex was almost taboo in print, and out in Connemara and across Galway Bay in North Clare it was commonly believed that married couples routinely turned bedroom holy pictures to face the wall before engaging in any kind of intimacy in the marriage bed.
I met the old lady in her own neat home in the ancient Woodquay area of the city. I don't recall anything about the story that brought me across her doorstep, but I certainly recall the real life experience she saltily recounted when the interview was over and we were chatting in the parlor about her emigrant years in Chicago after leaving home as a teenage girl to go into domestic service there.
It was an experience she shared with tens of thousands. She was different to most in that she eventually was able to return home to spend her last years in the family home in Woodquay.
She was a formidable lady, sparky and extremely likeable. As straight as a die.
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At the height of the gangster era she was a maid with an Irish American family that was connected by profession only to a lot of the bloodletting on the city streets -- they were undertakers! It seems that many of the victims at all levels in the gang wars were of Irish and Catholic extraction.
It was accordingly a busy season for the family she was working for. At the height of it there was a funeral out of their funeral parlor every second day of the week.
This also meant the family maid was very busy. In addition to the ordinary household duties, she also had to dust and clean the funeral parlor in readiness for the following morning's ceremonies there.
She told me that at first she felt frightened by the fact there was usually a corpse in the casket there while she was tidying, but after a while she'd just say a Hail Mary or two for the dead man and go on about her business normally.
A Galway girl grew up fast in Chicago!
And then there came a night when she was in there alone with her dusters and mops and there was a gangland corpse in the casket again.
She said her routine Hail Mary and worked away for a while as usual. Because she was tired after a long day she gave herself a break and rested in one of the benches.
She closed her eyes and maybe she dozed off. But she sharply awoke when she suddenly heard a scraping noise from the roof.
Looking up, she saw that the skylight had been opened and a pair of long and immaculately tailored legs were already through it.
In a second or two the rest of the mobster known as Legs Diamond dropped down like a cat right in front of her. She did not recognize him as Legs Diamond until much later, she told me, because what she saw was a very handsome young man who smiled at her and put his fingers to his lips in a silence signal and somehow put her at her ease immediately.
She stayed silent. He sat down in the bench beside her.
Legs Diamond told her that the boy in the casket was one of his best friends and associates. He'd come to pay his final respects through the roof in the dead of night because there was obviously no way, as a wanted man, that he could attend the funeral the following morning. He would not last 10 minutes in broad daylight with things the way they were in the city.
He knelt down beside the casket, as she watched, and prayed for his lost friend. She thought he wept as well.
Eventually he came back to her and they chatted in whispers, and one thing led to another after he kissed her and she kissed him back!
That old lady, there in Woodquay in Galway, in direct, blunt language, informed me that Legs Diamond was the first man she'd ever kissed, and their intimacy did not end there either.
She lost her virginity with enthusiasm and no regrets at all in the darkest corner of the funeral parlor in the presence of a corpse.
The bishop of Galway at the time was Cross Michael Browne, so there was no way I could publish all the story then. I had to stop at the kiss!
But the old lady said that Legs Diamond was a perfect gentleman she was glad she met. And her eyes were shining like a girl's as she told it all.
She even told me about worrying how to tell the mortal sin at her next Confession and being so relieved to meet an understanding priest in the box. And of being even more relieved at not becoming pregnant afterwards.
She thought she fell in love with Legs Diamond that night. All the working men she met afterwards were boring by comparison and made no impression on her at all.
She gave me a big warm hug when I was leaving and I never met her again.
But I can always claim that I hugged the lovely girl who hugged Legs Diamond!