The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
The one that got away - loving and losing the neighbor’s daughter
Posted on Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 09:54 AM
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I'm telling this yarn exactly the way it was told to me a week ago by a wise man whose name I will hold back out of respect for his honesty and privacy.
I recorded it in his farmhouse home in sight of the thunderingly beautiful Cliffs of Moher on a surprisingly bright and mild January afternoon. We had the front door open all the time we were talking before his hearth fire.
It was cozy and heartening, both the chat and the location. His bachelor house is as bright and clean and tidy as any house minded and tended by a house-proud housewife.
He is as neat and tidy as that himself, through he is no longer a young man. His hair is snow white and he has a full head of it over bright sharp eyes that make him look much younger.
He was a farmer in his youth and into his early forties, and then he emigrated to the building sites of London, like so many more young men from the west coast. He came back home when he retired.
The home place had been let to a family member in his absence, and he just smoothly moved back home by agreement when he returned.
We drank strong tea by the fire as we talked and the fire whispered. He was talking about his youth on the farm and about loving and losing a neighbor's daughter.
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I loved the simplicity and hurt and essential innocence of the yarn. I hope ye do too.
"I was the youngest of three sons. The brothers were already in England, one of them married there, when my father got done up with the rheumatism very badly and they had to take me out of school in sixth class to take over the bit of land.
“I did not mind that at all because I liked the land and they were grateful and happy the way things worked out. It was hard living back then in the forties, but we managed well enough and I did a bit of
fishing as well sometimes.
“One of the brothers disappeared altogether from sight in Birmingham after a few years, but Andy the married lad and the wife and kids would come over always for a week in the summer and we loved that, especially my father who kept going downhill all the time.
“He had chest problems as well as the rheumatism in the end, hardly able to stand up, as weak as a kitten he was. He died when I was 24 but he was really dead in the bed long before that, just lying there with his eyes closed.
"My mother was one of the families from the very edge of the Cliffs. She was sharp enough even as a young woman, she'd chastise us with a sally rod like a shot, and she was tough all through. Sure the people had to be that tough in those times just to survive at all.
“I always got on well with her -- sure she was my own mother -- but many's the fight she had with neighbors, usually over land or cattle. People were afraid of her tongue when she got going, but she had a heart of gold behind it all.
"When I was 25 I took a strong notion of a neighbor girl down the road who was only 18 at the time and one of a houseful of girls, some of whom had already been claimed out to the States by relatives there. There was a lot of that in those times.
“I never had a girl before that, but I met her at a country house dance in the next parish one October and a fell for her like a shot. She liked me too, I know that, and we danced all night and I brought her home on the bar of the bike and courted her at the gable of the house.
“There was no serious stuff or canoodling then -- you'd be afraid of anything like that, not like now -- and I arranged to walk her home from Mass that Sunday and it started from there. We were a couple from there on.
“There would be the clear intention of getting engaged and married, and I was mad for it. She was a lovely dark girl with brown eyes, soft and round and gentle.
“We never told each other we loved each other anytime but that was understood. It was the way it was.
"The big problem was, of course, that there was no way she was going to marry me and come into the
house with my mother. She was afraid of her like so many, and she knew she'd never be the boss of her own house.
“I begged and pleaded up and down, but there was no way it was going to happen, and just at the wrong time for me the American relatives claimed her out to the States and she had a clear choice.
“Two nights before she left she cried on my chest at the cross below the house, and I cried too. I admit it. I begged and begged but it was no good.
“The morning she was leaving in the hackney for Cobh I went into my field across the road from her house and pretended to be mending the fence in case she would change her mind. She did not change her mind.
“I saw her getting into the hackney in her green tweed coat, and that is the last I saw of her for 20 years and more.
“It took me a long time to get over her. My chest was sore and my head was sore and my heart was broken entirely. I never wanted to get married after that.
“My mother lived for another 10 or 12 years and after she died, God rest her, I upped and off to England where I could get some kind of a woman any time I needed one and no questions asked, and I had good times there too until I came back home here. I'm glad to be back.
"There was one autumn morning when I was in here having my breakfast, the door open like now, the same kind of a day, and I looked up and there she was standing in the doorway. I did not recognize her at all.
“Her hair was blonde then, and she was sort of thin and hard-looking even though she was an elegant lady. Her voice was all Yankee and loudish and all the softness was gone out of her.
“We had a hug and I gave her tea and we chatted where we're sitting now. She did well in the States. She studied at night and got a big job as a manager in some big office in New York and married a German man, I think he was a teacher, but the marriage broke up after only a couple of years, no children, and now she was the owner of her own apartment.
“She said to me that I had never married and I joked that was her fault but, all in all, I was glad when she left the house and I never saw her again. Isn't it strange the way your life works out in the end?"
And it is indeed, is it not.....