He comes back to my mind when I smell wood smoke. We had a clear and crisp October that year, and a simple white plume of smoke rose through the trees from his fairy-tale chimney. The long, quiet lane ended at his gate. My nose wrinkled as I climbed out of the car. Applewood? Not sweet enough. Beech? Possibly, from the old mansion demesne across the road. Could it be elm? Twenty years later it would be, as the elms died everywhere.
A white fence protected his small yard and its long rectangles of grass. He had a yellow garden bench and rosebushes, pruned to austerity. Around the side of the house I counted one, two, three fruit trees. If, on a calendar, a tourist brochure, or a postcard, you saw such a scene, with the golden roof of thatched and smocked straw, a pleased smile would cross your mind.
Not a sound to be heard, not a dog nor a bird. My breathing went short and shallow, and I swallowed, trying to manage my anticipation. Somebody had polished the door knocker so brilliantly that my fingers smudged the gleaming brass.
They said that he was eighty. Maybe he was, but when he opened the door our eyes came exactly level, and I was six feet three and a half inches. He shook hands as though closing a deal, and I was so thrilled to meet him at long last that my mouth turned dry as paper.
“Do you know anything about houses like this?” he asked as he led me into the wide old kitchen.
I knew everything about the house, I knew everything about him—but I wanted to hear it in his words, his voice.
“It feels nicely old,” I ventured.
He laughed. “Hah! ‘Nicely old’—I’ll borrow that.” Then, with some care, he turned to survey me, inclined his head a little, and smiled at me as though I were his beloved son. “I’m very pleased to meet you at last.”
I said, “I’m more than pleased to meet you, sir.”
He waved a hand, taking in the wide fireplace, the rafters, the room.
“This was what they called a ‘strong farmer’s’ house. Now with ‘all the modern conveniences,’ as they say. I suppose you know what a strong farmer was?”
“Wasn’t it somebody who supported his family from what he produced on his farm?”
“The very man,” he said.
He showed me the walls—two feet thick: “They keep in the heat for the winter, and they keep out the heat of the summer—those boys knew how to build. And look, I can put wide things on the windowsills.” He lifted a great bowl of jade, glinting with dragons. “Feel the weight of that. I carried it all the way back from Ceylon in 1936.”
Looking up, he stretched an arm and patted a beam.
“Did you know that people used to hide weapons in their thatch?” He had a habit of nodding when he made a statement, as though agreeing with himself.
Such endearing pride: he drew my attention to everything—the floor of huge flagstones, shaped by a local stonemason; the handmade chairs from a neighboring carpenter, who had also built the long table dominating the middle of the room. He rubbed it with his hand. “In the original they’d have used a timber called white deal. I had to settle for pine.”
“When did you buy the place?” I asked.
“Twenty-eight years, two months, and four days ago. When I finally came in off the road.” He surveyed the walls. “There was only the shell here. It was burned out by the redcoats in 1848—there was that bit of a rebellion that year, and evictions everywhere. When I bought it you could still see the black streaks at the top of the walls where they’d burned out the straw on the roof.”
He gave me the tour—but let me cut this short and give you the essential fact. This man, regarded (and jealously guarded) by the Folklore Commission as the most powerful remaining storyteller in the country, and possibly in the world, had restored fully an old farmhouse of considerable proportions. The conservationists, while allowing for the modern plumbing and electricity, had applauded him. “An elegant and authentic reconstruction,” they’d said, “solid, proud, and wholeheartedly traditional.” And that’s what I mean by “the essential fact”: the house was the man, and the man was the house.
He stood with his back to the fire. “So I’m to be yours now, am I?” he said. “How’s James doing?”
“I believe he’s holding on.”
Mixed feelings were always going to leak into this visit. For years, my superior, my mentor, otherwise so good to me, had kept this man for himself, and I had not been allowed to visit him, write to him, have anything to do with him. But now my mentor had bequeathed him to me because he himself, the inimitable James Clare, lay silent and still in Dublin, his lungs closing down day by day to emphysema. That morning I had made a note in my journal: I think that James will die soon.
“He won’t hold on long,” said Mr. O’Neill—full name, John Jacob Farrell O’Neill. “What color do you think Death’s face will be when it comes for James?”
“Gray,” I said, without thinking, “It’ll be gray.” I knew that color. From the war.
“That’s what I think, too.” He nodded, and turned his head around to look into the fire. When he turned back he said, “Then you’ll be ready.”
My mind asked, Ready for what?
Even though I didn’t speak the question, he answered it.
“Ready for everything.”
He couldn’t have known what “everything” would come to mean—or could he?
I wasn’t ready for anything—and in particular, not for the events of the next day, when I halted for a pub sandwich in the little town of Urlingford.
It was the siesta time, and raining. Nothing should have been happening, and nothing was. Using no energy, I eavesdropped on the silence around me, punctuated by snatches of idle conversation.
“They say she will.” This came out of the blue from an old coot at the bar, his nose hooked as Punch’s.
“I bet she won’t,” said his drinking companion.
“She told Midge Corcoran,” said the barman, “that all he wants to do is look at her.”
“God, then he’s paying dear for that,” said Punch, whose pal had wide-open nostrils like little gun barrels.
The pal said, “There’s fifty-two years between them.”
To which Ted, the fat and fatuous barman, said, “One for every week of the year.”
I knew these people well—not as individuals, but as a culture. Filthy old cords, worse boots, scant hygiene, no (you can bet on it) underwear. Every day of the week I saw men like them. Sitting at some bar everywhere, gossiping like knitters, stitching and bitching. Doing no work because there was no work, rarely a job that one could call a decent hire. Just sitting there talking. Talking, talking, talking. Or being silent. Silent in the hatred of their lives was what I’d always figured, until I realized that their emotions stood at zero. Their needles flickered only for sport or gossip.
In their faces I could see the blue veins of perdition, lines on a map of the country. That’s why I listened but kept my distance: I didn’t want to be infected with their ruin or catch their low-rent banality. Shallow as a saucer, they had no value to me in terms of what I collected.
Yet they caused some affect. For no reason that I could identify, I felt my chest tighten, and I heard the question in my mind: What’s making you anxious?
Ted the barman had a smarm to him, aiming to please everyone. In the past, before I’d mellowed down, I’d have needled him, picked a fight. The frosted glass panel beside me hadn’t been cleaned in a generation.
Most Irish pubs had a snug, a little room shuttered from the world, open only to the barman, where, typically, ladies were supposed to do their drinking because it was too indelicate for them to be seen in the public bar. Thus, I often found the snug a useful place to sit and listen.
My anxiety climbed. I fought a pricking of my thumbs and turned my ears inward. A frigid Saturday in late 1956, in my struggling, depressed native land.
Silence fell. We had a cough or two, a clink from a glass, a match being struck to light a cigarette. The rain no longer lashed the window. Weak sunlight spread a mild and yellow fire on the roofs of the houses across the street. With a clang of a latch rudely lifted, the pub’s front door burst open. Jimmy Bermingham flew in, landed, and came straight toward me. Thus began the most dreadful part of my life.
Once upon a time, and it was a long time ago, when boys were boys, and girls were girls, and bears combed the fur on their coats, and the soldiers of the north carried spears of ice, and giant frogs who spoke in rhymes ruled our hemisphere, there lived a man who had a love as noble as the mountains, and as deep as the deep blue sea.
The story John Jacob Farrell O’Neill told me on that night of my first heady visit to him took so long that we didn’t part until three o’clock in the morning. With the comfort of the chair by the fireplace, and the logs he kept heaping on the broad orange flames, I felt so safe.
“What’s that you’re burning?” I asked.
“Believe it or not,” he said, “cherry. For the aroma. I had an old cherry tree out the back—I tried for years to save it, but it wanted to go. And do you know what? When they took it to the sawmill they found a musket ball in the heart of the wood.”
From the mantelpiece he took down a small white dish, in which, like a little iron eye, rested the old musket ball. We marveled together.
He cooked for me. From a pot hanging over the fire he produced an excellent meal of lamb stew, with onions and carrots and potatoes. He moved around his large kitchen with the agility of a girl. The silver watch chain on his vest caught the light from the fire.
His various tics interested me. I’ve mentioned the nodding, though he didn’t nod after everything he said, and soon it calmed down—perhaps it was a shyness response. Now and then he fiddled with his breast-pocket handkerchief, rebunching it. When listening to me (not that I spoke much), he pursed his lips into a small bow.
I looked at him, thinking, but not saying, I wonder if he has always cooked, if he never married? And he said, “I’ve always cooked. You can’t have a wife if you spend your life on the road—’twould be unfair to a woman. So I never married.”
Here’s a note I made that night: Such a practiced voice, educated by the universe, every word clear and warm. But—he’s an uncanny man. Don’t yet know how or why.
James Clare had said to me: It all comes together in this fellow. He’s the culmination.
This is what James meant: in his years and mine, traveling as collectors for the Irish Folklore Commission, James and I had heard all kinds of things: herbal cures, rambling ballads, family curses, jigs and reels played on fiddles and pipes, nonsense verse, riddles and recitations—and, above all, stories. Call them legends, call them fragments of mythology, call them, simply, “lore”; they had become my staple diet.
Some descended from family traditions—a handed-down account, say, of a row over an inheritance. (Such tales, a few generations old, customarily began with the droll comment “Where there’s a Will, there’s a lawsuit.”) Others, probably most of the stories I collected, came from the deep and ancient past, from prehistory.
Frequently they had fused, and I’d heard many contemporary versions of tales first scribed by holy men of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. These clerics had been taught to write so that they could copy psalms and church doctrine, but they hadn’t been able to resist preserving the ancient stories they’d heard around their childhood firesides. (And perhaps they’d even invented a few.) Those epics became the basis of our literature in Ireland.
Most of the storytellers I’d visited hadn’t known or fussed over the provenance of their tales; they cared only for the telling. My man, though, had spent a lifetime drinking from all the fountains. He had, naturally, pored over the monkish volumes, but he had also heard many of his stories in the old ancestral way, in his own home.
Furthermore, he truly did have tales from everywhere: material picked up during his travels in Burma, or Peru, from old men in Australia, or anecdotes of local history told to him here and there across the world.
Most exciting of all to me, I had always heard that he was from a mold cast in Ireland before the Romans had an empire. Meaning that John Jacob Farrell O’Neill was a fireside storyteller in the “old style”—he narrated in the ancient way: his voice orotund, his words full of ornament and color. He was a true, performing descendant of the bards who had entertained kings and chieftains long before Christ was born.
For that, and all the other reasons I’ve listed, he was, indeed, “the culmination.”
Children, you have asked for this final account of my life, and eagerly I give it to you. As you already know the terms of my Will—“I leave everything I possess to my beloved twins, Ben and Louise”—therefore we can, I suppose, call this a Last Testament. There’s no fear in me that I shan’t live long enough to finish it; I have more than enough energy.
In advance I ask your forgiveness for a somewhat jagged beginning to this, the final phase of my confessio. Yes, my tongue is in my cheek as I use that pompous old medieval term, but I think you’ll come to see why I chose it, and I think, I hope, you’ll also come to understand this early jaggedness you might feel; it is deliberate—because this is a sharp-edged and dark side of my life that I have to tell.
Already you know the essence of your father’s story, and that of Venetia, your dear mother, but there’s so much that you don’t know. For instance, John Jacob O’Neill: I placed him at the very beginning of this account. The reasons, as we go along, will become plain to you.
If you ask why I’ve never mentioned him in our conversations, I’ll confess the selfish truth. I feared that were I to share him—with anybody—I’d have dissipated his power over me. Even after my involvement with him had long ceased, I was afraid that I might lose the spirit of him in me, like those legends where the magic figure must disappear before dawn. And I was the mortal in that legend; in my middle years he put the final shape to my life.