O’Doherty’s ashes

Short story by Dan Casey from McGlinchey Summer School Proceedings, Vol. 10. Dan Casey has written hundreds of books, monographs, articles, as well as fiction and poetry. His prize-winning documentary, ”The Green Square Mile: Story of the Charlestown Irish” has won critical recognition in Ireland and at home.

It’s beginning to snow, so you search the dashboard for a wiperswitch or a knob. One blade lurches into action, scraping the wrong side of the windscreen, but the defroster responds and, in time blows the lower half of the window clear. By scrunching down and adjusting your glasses, you can just make out the line of the road. What you need is radar. What you’ve got is another sign of what the in-flight magazine called “Irish technological genius.” Thank God, the road out of Galway is nearly deserted this time of the morning.

You’ve paid through the nose for this miniature green banger. The wizened Limerick horsetrader who pawned it off on you at the airport sniffed your impatience and sprang straight for the jugular.” Yes, a fine-tuned machine , sir,” he said. “No, I couldn’t hire it by the day,” he said. “I’d be pleased to oblige but our bastard of a managing director holds a tight rein on us. There’d be hell to pay if we ignored the rules.”

So you shelled out $200 – the week in advance- rather than haggle, and he bent, furrrow- browed, back to the task of “several little add-ons” with a pencil stub-computer that made it, in the end, $310 even. No time to renegotiate, as if you were in a position to renegotiate anyhow. In a single sweeping motion, Tracker Sean cleared the greenbacks, produced a key, raised an arm in the general direction of the carpark. A sideward squint, a wry smile, and he vaporized back into the early morning blackness of Shannon.

The Cortina, green to be sure, was enveloped in a cloud of exhaust, its fine-tuned engine left running. The only other sign of life, this dark frigid morning, was near an antique hearse with a wrap around window onto which four men were loading an ornate coffin. You might have traded the Cortina for the hearse but for the rule-conscious managing director.

You had begun paying the parasites, including a piper, ever since the Old Man died on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t enough that his undertaker Hanratty arranged the lavish seasonal send-off in the funeral parlor at four grand, further tributes were or were to be exacted on both sides of the Atlantic. Half of Park Slope drank his memory in the pub that he’d bought after the war, and all of clan O’Doherty were yet to be oiled and fed up in Donegal. His Air Line joined the throng of beneficiaries and clipped you for another $982 at Kennedy. He rode free.

If the situation weren’t so desperate, you might shrug it off as another of Michael O’ Doherty’s impractical jokes, empty the contents of the oriental tea canister out the window, and abandon the absurd mission altogether. You might yet, but the window of this rolling disaster probably wouldn’t work either, and he’d only have another laugh at your expense. As it was, he reposed, dust in a tin box, on the next seat, urging you on to Crocknasmug, on to the sacred burial grounds of the O’Dohertys, on to God’s own country on the edge of the world. It was Sam Mc Gee and his reluctant cabbie mushing through white Klondike fury all over again. And “Sam Mc Gee””was one of his recitation pieces. He loved Robert Service.

Not only had Michael O Dohrty inconsiderately cashed out on a cot in the storeroom of his saloon on Christmas Eve, casting a monstrous pall over the holidays, he’s let his faithful and obedient wife with detailed directives on “ the final disposition.” These marching orders were stashed in an oversized metallic strongbox under the bed, wherin he was wont to collect private papers – wills, deeds, certificates, ledgers, racing tallies, and a personally autographed photo of JFK. While the world chorused, “Alleluia, He is born in Bethlehem,”your mother heard “He is dead in a bed in Brooklyn” You were shocked. She was not.

With solemnity, she read from sheets of legal-sized, yellow pad – official O’Doherty letterhead – his last requests. More like last demands, to your way of thinking:

The Old Man would be waked by Donal Hanratty, prayed over by Monsignor Connifry, and after cremation, his ashes transported back to Crocknasmug in Donegal to be spread over ancestral graves by his son and heir.

Unlucky for you, you were an only child. “He was a good husband and father, a good provider, a generous man, and surely we can do that much for him,” your mother pleaded. It was clear that Michael O’Doherty was still calling the shots.

You never really knew the Old Man. He was an apparation whose comings and goings were, most days, signalled by folded copies of The Post, toast-crumbs, and by faint echoes of radio voices through the appartment hall in the wee hours.Your paths crossed occasionally, usually on Sunday mornings between masses when he rehashed the news of the world or chronicled the humours of his own pubworld for the edificaation and amusement of your mother and yourself. You enjoyed listening to him size-up international crises with Solomon-like astuteness or hearing him recount how, the night before, he dropped a drunken lecher on the prowl at the back of Holy Name Convent, assuring him that he’s find what he needed behind those broken doors. He showed those rare flashes of wit and genius. But what you remembered best was that he slept when you didn’t and your mother telling you that you’d have to play quietly. Well, he’d sleep the long sleep now. You look to the tin box – your mother’s homey notion of an urn – as if for confirmation.

As Joyce once said, snow was general over Ireland and it was softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves and falling on Michael Furey. It will soon be falling on Michael O’ Doherty as well. The Cortina skates slightly over a covered ice patch, and you’re on the wrong side of the road again.Another four or five hours crawling time to Crocknasmug and the final disposition.

At Sligo town you decide to break the journey. You glance into the rearview mirror and see a likeness of the Old Man, minus his El Producto cigar, and sporting his impish cat-swallowing-the-canary grin. “Maybe we’ll stop for a tea and a pee,” you say to the sham Ming canister and, having made the gesture, you’re bound to carry him along. Box in hand, you start for Ben Bulben Inn, a modest hotel and restaurant forty yards up the street.

Oversized John Hinde photographs of Ben Bulben, Knocknarea and the Lake Isle of Innisfree grace the diningroom walls. A chatty matronly waitress ushers you in and takes the order for tea and scones. When you set the Da on the table, she jokes about you being a serious tea man. Then, oblivious to the other patrons, she begins a discourse on “the greatest poet of our century, Mr. W. B. Yeats. The others, serious eaters by the looks of them, have likely been discoursed before.

“And, the Yanks all love the poet,” she says. “They come in droves to visit him over in Drumcliff – it’s up the road on the right, you know. That’s where he is buried. ‘Cast a cold eye on life on life on death. Horseman pass by.’ That’s chiselled on the stone, but nobody really knows its meaning. Strange man, strange words,” she concludes. You smile politely at the irony of it. “Guess we’ll never know. Dead men tell no tales,” you say.

When you return from the toilet you realize that something’s amiss, but you can’t put a finger on it. Then the lightning strikes and you begin to search anxiously, first under the coat, then under the table, for the damned Chinese tea box. A wild panic seizes you and you begin to hyperventilate. The alarmed patrons, forks poised, stare in your direction as you leap from the seat gasping and shouting, “ Someone has taken my father.”

A young priest abandons his auntie and moves to your side to calm you, tell you that your father has probably only stepped out for a jar. You’re on the verge of screaming, “ My father is a jar.” No use adding to the contagious frenzy of the room. Then the lightning strikes a second time. You wrench free of the long-visaged cleric and bolt for the kitchen, upsetting the stacks of delph, sending them clattering in your wake. Greasy Joan, about to spill the Old Man into a pot of boiling water, shrieks and dodges, and you’re just able to catch the canister before it hits the floor.

In the diningroom rumours of the kidnapping are already circulating freely, but you cannot stay them. Holding Michael O’Doherty closer than you ever did in life, you collect your coat and exit the Ben Bulben, making for the sanctuary of the Cortina. The patrons and waitress, led by the young curate, trail you out to the pavement and stand in a body at the restaurant door waving their napkins in the Sligo gale. “May you soon be reunited with your sainted father,” prays the priest as you pass. And Crocknasmug may be nearer than you think.

The coast road north from Sligo winds between broad shouldered Ben Bulben and lofty Knocknarea of the John Hinde photos. And Yeats in his churchyard lies undisturbed by the apocalyptic horsemen who must have gone their way, as you must go yours. You can’t resist telling the Old Man, after the restaurant fiasco, that he’s better watch his ash. Not your kind of humour at all. It’s his. And the scene ahead had a déjà vu familiarity, though you’ve only once passed this way sixteen years ago, when the prodigal father travelled home to Crocknasmug to bury his father.

For ten days Michael O’Doherty presided over Olympian funereal rites, marathon feasting and drinking sessions, dawn to dawn singing and storytelling. Your mother, never more content, made the rounds of friends and relations, and you consumed more sweets and crisps and minerals than was good, ever for a seven-year-old with a cast-iron stomach.

The doting O’Dohertys with one family face fussed over the Old Man like a triumphant chieftain home from the front. And, being the decent publican he was, he decided the spoils, dispersed sureties, and obliged with hard-rhymed ballads and pub-lore from both worlds. The Crocknasmug O’ Dohertys hung on every word, interjecting, in turn, accounts of the Old Man’s escapades in days of yore. Each page began the same – “God, weren’t you the awful man, Micky.” And, after a “Do you mind the time, “ another chapter came suddenly alive in laugh-filled, smoke-filled kitchens.

You rehearsed those stories periodically and tried to measure the Old Man against the legend. They’d told how he’d once arranged a marriage between an agreeable celibate uncle and a nymphomaniac Norwegian fisherwoman on shore-leave in Derry. And, another time, how he’d closed school for a week, summoning the pompous master up to Dublin to be decorated for services to God and country. And how he’d once returned from a summer working-holiday in Kerry with an actor friend and orchestrated a first-stage canonisation hearing for “the Blessed Dicky Mulhall”, a deceased rogue and womaniser from nearby Stroove. He played to the crowd and there was no end to the madness. You wondered how the O’Dohertys, who’d dated and filed those sagas for posterity, were reacting to news of the Old Man’s death.

In the last half hour the snow has nearly stopped. You’re beginning to warm to meeting the family again. You flip on the radio to see if they’re still playing carols three days after Christmas. What they’re playing is “I’ll be home for Christmas”, one of the seasonal favourites that Hanratty piped in at the wake. “We’re late as usual,” you say to the Old Man, “but, never mind, it won’t be long now.”

Bundoran should materialise in a few minutes, and you’re ravenous. You might chance another pitstop, if only the Old Man will behave himself and stay in the car this time. With that, a welcome roadsign comes up on the left. “Phoenix Hotel, Bundoran, 2 miles. Food. Drink.” For once the gods smile on you.

You’re more relaxed now, keeping time to “Adeste Fideles” on the steering wheel, when you catch sight of a car rounding the bend and careering towards you on both lanes. It’s out of control, the driver desperately trying to steady it on the icy surface. So you pull the Cortina onto the verge and watch helplessly as the oncomer strikes off the ditch and rotates in slow motion into wingless flight. Something shatters the windshield as the hurtling mass disappears thunderously into the bog below. You snap to and rush to the ditch just in time to see it roll over onto its wheels in the marsh.

A man in a cap darts from a nearby cottage, urging you to climb down and lend a hand to the poor unfortunates, and you descend through the ticket to do just that. But the man in the cap stands anchored on the roadway, flailing his arms, shouting to you that he’ll muster assistance from passing motorists.

The young woman, face bloodied, jacket and blouse in tatters, screams hysterically as she straddles the back seat, while the driver, cut and bruised, extricates himself by climbing through the windshield opening. Now he begins searching the high weeds and muttering frantically. “The infant! Where’s the infant?” And the infant’s cries are barely audible beneath the wreckage.

The two of you move to the rear of the car and hoist it off the ground. “Hold it there while I slide under and get the child,” he implores. So you hold it steady while he disappears into the muck and reappears seconds later with frightened crying parcel in arms. It’s then you hear a sharp crack in your back and release your grip and fall backwards into the soft, wet clay.

You’re vaguely aware of a commotion on the road above but, when you raise yourself, you see only the silhouette of a coffin resting on the hedgetop and four shadowy, black-clad figures pushing their way down through the thicket.

They’re coming straight for you and, Good God, it’s either a surrealist nightmare or you’ve died a samaritan in a bog. The Old Man’s still up in the Cortina looking like dried tea leaves or bouillon powder or some other damned gourmet edible and he’ll never make Crocknasmug and your mother will never will never forgive the unpardonable sin.

Four variations of the O’Doherty face stand above staring fixedly into your O’Doherty face. You’re waiting for someone to speak or to strike up “The Last Post”, but no one does. Instead the bearers shift you onto a plywood board and manoeuvre back up to a hearse very like the one you saw at Shannon with the wrap-around glass. You see the holy family from the accident ushered into a waiting ambulance and a crowd of curious, solemn passers-by whispering and admiring the workmanship of the ornate casket.

The nurse in charge tells one of the bearers that you should be seen to in hospital, but he answers “He will not. He’s one of our own and he’ll be going home with us – home to Crocknasmug for a grand wake and a funeral, please God.”

You’re still confused. Can’t seem to work out the scenario at all. But one of the men in black who calls himself your uncle works it out for you. “We were instructed to collect Michael’s body at Shannon and to follow you with this Chinese box full of ashes back to Crocknasmug. The way it was, Michael thought you serious, too much into the books. He wanted you to have a good story to remember him by. It was what he loved most – a good story.”

With that he pops the lid off the tea canister and broadcasts the ashes over the bog. “El Productos, they were, weren’t they?” He laughs. You laugh with him.

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