To Hell and Gone: Jim's Story

To Hell and Gone: Jim's Story

by Jim Nolan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781490772882
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
Publication date: 05/21/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,099,512
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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To Hell and Gone

Jim's Story

By James V. Nolan

Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2016 James V. Nolan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4907-7288-2



The town of Bally Gar in the east of county Galway, Ireland, was the place of my father's birth in 1892. The house he was born in would have been a thatched-roof one-story stone house with a half door and the single mandated one-by-two-foot window. More or bigger windows would be heavily taxed. It was said that with the unsleeping sod of a peat burning away the cold days of the winter months in all the Irish kitchen nooks, the English could reduce the Irish population greatly from all the lung diseases caused by those small, cramped, unventilated enclosures.

In any event, this typical Irish farmhouse was replaced in my father's youth by a larger building that later would be called the Hermitage. I read that Peter the Great, czar of Russia, had a palace built in Saint Petersburg with the same name. I have no real knowledge of why this humble building in the west of Ireland might have been so grandly named — but I did make up a story.

My grandfather Patrick was a foreman in the building trades in London and actually commuted from his farm in the west of Ireland to erect apartment houses there. My suspicion is that this giant of a man rebuilt the humble cottage of his parents not with the intention of making it the grandest house in the neighborhood but simply to gain enough room for his seven sons and four beautiful daughters. Now, the Irish have a way of using good-natured ribbing to express their concern for a brother who sticks his head above the crowd — but if that was the intent here, it evidently missed its target. When the talk reached my grandfather's ears that he had built a "castle," he set a large stone outside his gate with "The Hermitage" inscribed upon it in Celtic letters. That was the end of the whispers. He was a very big and proud man who lived to be a hundred.

The Nolan farm was located adjacent to the estate of Castle Kelly, which was owned by an English family. Of course, it was by law off-limits to the locals; later, it was also off-limits by the decree of the pastor of the town of Bally Gar.

While the English had every right to the castle won for them by the sword of Oliver Cromwell, it was not in good taste for its owners to oppress the peasantry or to mock their religion, but that didn't stop them. Many years after Cromwell, when the estate came under the ownership of a young newly married English couple, they set a table for local gentry like themselves and asked the parish priest to join them. The invitation was for Friday evening. In charity, the priest believed that the couple would know that Friday was then a fish day for Roman Catholics, as it had been for the English. So he went to the castle to welcome the couple to the town of Bally Gar.

He knew it was no mistake when he was served a large plate of roast beef. He saw the snickering of those around the table awaiting his reaction. The priest rose from the table and said, "As a man, I could forgive you; but as a representative of our Savior, we shall see if the Lord is agreeable that from this time on, no male heir or animal will be born to the lord of this house." Evidently, this was agreeable to the Lord. The line of that family and subsequent English families living in that castle had neither male progeny nor studs in their fields.

To hunt or fish or even collect broken branches on the grounds of Castle Kelly was to bring down the law on the trespasser. Yet every Friday, there appeared fresh trout on the dinner tables of Catholic families, although no one owned a rod or was seen fishing. I found out the secret of how to fish without being seen fishing when, one Sunday when I was eight years old, my father came with me to "learn" from me how to fish.

I had arisen early to dig up fresh worms, and I had my pole, line, and sinkers secured to be ready for a big catch. My fishing mentor, Mr. John O'Rourke, a friend of my dad and a neighbor, had started me into the sport of fishing off the banks of the nearby Harlem River. Prior to this rare day when Dad did not have to work, I'd had at least five days of casting practice, and I was not tangling my fishing line so much. I felt I was ready to show Dad what a real fisherman I had become.

My dad asked me what we would be fishing for. I immediately replied, "Eels!"

"Oh," he commented, "and why do you need a pole to catch eels?"

"Why?" I exclaimed. "So I can cast my line out into the river!"

"Eels are out in the middle of the river?"

"Of course they are!"

My dad said, "I don't I think so. Eels are usually swimming closer to the river banks."

"Oh no, Dad, they are way out there."

At this point in the conversation, we came upon a black family on the river bank. The father had his fishing line out in the current. My father said quietly to the fisherman, "What are you fishing for?"

"Eels," replied the man, who never took his eyes off the line he had cast.

With that, Dad went over to one of the concrete bases of the steel towers carrying the electric wires that stood along the tracks lining the perimeter of the river. He removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and carefully took off his Sunday shoes and socks, setting them aside — for this was in 1933, and things had be treated with care so as to last. (Dad's Sunday shoes lasted at least another thirty years before he had to resole them).

Dad then gingerly backed down the bank and into the water. His trousers were rolled up above his knees so as to be about three or four inches above the surface of the river. I noticed that Dad had pulled a few handfuls of the sparse grass from the side of the stone-faced embankment before he entered into the swirling green water. Twisting the grass loosely in and around his fingers, he bent at the waist and slowly moved his bare forearms down and forward, with the palms of his hands up as he slid them down into the water.

The Negro family and I soon heard a loud whoop coming from my father, who sent an eel flying twenty feet up onto the railroad tracks.

"Don't let him back!" he yelled to me. Then he called to the fisherman, "How many eels do you need?"

With several more whoops as my dad sidestepped down the shoreline, more flying eels were delivered to the tracks. The fisherman was soon beside my father, trying to learn the trick.

My father and his father and probably my great grandfathers and their fathers had learned the Celtic way of getting their families trout dinners. Not even when the stream was on their own property would they use baited hooks or nets to catch fish.

I have tried many times, but while I can get my grass-covered hands under the fish and get them interested in my wiggly middle finger, I can never close the deal and get them up out of the water. I wonder if I forgot to say a prayer.

In 1960, two of my father's six brothers arrived at our house from Ireland. At dinner, they brought my father up to date on things that had occurred since he left home. They talked of family and friends, the farm, and politics. One story they told upset my dad.

Dad had left Ireland in 1916, in the time of "the troubles." He had been involved to some extent in aiding the Irish Free State cause and was "listed," so he sailed away to America. His brother related that he and the lads from their village had set dynamite charges in Castle Kelly.

"At this time, we knew the Black and Tans would be billeted in the castle," he said to Dad. The Black and Tans were men released from British prisons to serve as "soldiers" in Ireland. They came out of those prisons with skin that explained the name the Irish gave them. They were a disgrace to the English people, for they looted and raped as they pleased in Ireland, saving the Crown money on their food and shelter.

"Jim," his brother boasted, "we blew up the castle and killed twenty-five Tans with that TNT!"

Dad pushed back his chair from the table, stood up, and said, "Larry, I hope that my son would have better judgment and that if a thousand Communist terrorists were sleeping in the Statue of Liberty, he would not blow it up! Castle Kelly was a part of Ireland's irreplaceable heritage. No enemy had destroyed it till now. Your poor judgment did the job." Poor Uncle Larry, and poor me. As soldiers, sometimes we never think past the moment.

To my father, Castle Kelly was like the Eiffel Tower is to Parisians. He told me a story one time while we were walking home together that made me wet my pillow with tears for many nights.

I had bent down to pat a stray dog that was very amenable to my attention, and Dad told me a story of a dog he had raised from a pup. Being of a large family where there was no room for toys or private ownership, his dog was more than a pal for him — it was his confidant and a protector.

One day, when Castle Kelly had no occupants, Dad decided to climb to the top of its round tower. He tied up his dog and entered the tower. Round and round he climbed the inner stairs until he came to a landing high above the grounds. He waved down to his dog from a narrow window and then proceeded to complete the climb to the very top of the tower.

Craig, his Irish terrier, took Dad's wave as an order to follow him, and so the dog tore loose of his leash and ran up into the tower. Tracking Dad's scent, he raced up the winding staircase to the window Dad had waved from. Tower windowsills are not flat but angled down so as to enable the pouring of hot tar and shooting of arrows at the enemy below. The excited dog, still following the scent of his master, went out into the air to his death. Now I knew why we never had a dog.



Dad attended the local school in town. His headmaster was the father of the famous English and American movie star George Brent, who was my father's classmate. I asked my father one time if he ever thought of thought of corresponding with George. "No," he said. "He was a 'townie.'" This meant he was not in Dad's social circle.

Dad was evidently a diligent third-grade scholar. He related this story to me when I asked how he had learned to play the violin.

It seems that my grandfather had kept him home from school to do some haying. This was on the day his teacher gave a geography lesson. On the next day in class, the teacher asked Dad to point out Australia on the world map. My father said, "Sir, I was absent yesterday, and I don't know where Australia is located."

"You don't know? I spent time and effort to teach you, and you don't know? Go out and cut a switch!"

Dad said this was a dilemma for him. He had never had to cut a switch, and he knew his classmates would be evaluating his choice in the matter. If he cut a small switch, it wouldn't hurt much, but it would mark him as a sissy. Cutting a heavy switch would get him class approval, but it would hurt. Well, he opted for the latter and held out his hand. The childish rules again came into play: be stoic and get more strokes, or cry and get less but get laughed at by your peers.

Dad didn't get laughed at, and he came away with a very swollen right hand. His problems were not over, because when he arrived home, his father tossed him the haying fork, which his swollen hand could not grasp.

"Da, you kept me home from school yesterday, and I didn't know where Australia was. I had to cut a switch," he explained, showing his swollen hand.

Well, Grandpa knew that the schoolteacher was a drinker and marched my dad back to school. Grandpa was a man used to handling men in the trades, and he planned to have it out with the man who deprived him of a farmhand and overdid an unnecessary punishment.

Upon arriving at the school, Grandpa blocked the sun as he filled the doorway. The schoolmaster jumped up and said,

"I know I did a cruel thing to James this morning, and I will atone by not only asking both of you for forgiveness but taking on your son as a private music student, something I have done in Dublin. I will teach him to properly sing and play the violin."

Dad became such a proficient violin player that he spent a few years as the town fiddler at the crossroad dances until, at age twelve, he graduated school.

Another incident my father related concerning his father had to do with an apprenticeship. My father, upon graduation from school, was apprenticed to a carpenter in a far-off village. He was to receive room and board during his education. The room was in an unheated shed, and the food was two meals of oatmeal mixed with water.

This was not the worst. The master carpenter seldom spoke or explained anything to his pupil. He would instead expect the student to concentrate on what he was doing and have the proper tool or nail on hand for him. (Think of a hospital operating room.) Present the wrong instrument, hammer, plane, or saw to the master's outstretched hand, and the offending item was immediately thrown back at the apprentice's head.

Grandfather rode out one day to see how his son's apprenticeship was coming along. He couldn't believe that the lad he saw before him was his son! Although he had paid for room and board, his son was near starved. He asked some questions about the training, and my father had to admit that this was one of the days when the master carpenter had thrown something at him.

Grandfather was an angry. The boy was learning little — the man was wasting his son's time. His father expected to him be earning a living at a trade and sending some money home to the family.

Dad's oldest brother Jack, the oldest of seven sons, had taken the Queens Shilling, meaning he had enlisted in the British Army. His regiment was posted to India at a time of great unrest. The marches and climate were only half of his discontent, for it was a real shooting war. He and his mates were also suffering from all sorts of disease due to rancid food and contaminated drinking water. Because of the monsoons and resulting floods, sanitation was almost unheard of in most areas of the land.

Jack wrote home about the situation and said he doubted that he would survive the remaining time of his six-year enlistment. His poor mother's heart was broken, and she began to sock away her egg-money pennies to buy him out of the army. It was not easy and took a long time, but it was finally done. Jack came home!

As his dad was in London for months constructing new buildings for its growing population, his visits home were primarily to make sure everything at the farm was as he had directed. One day before he would have to leave again, he was checking the sharecrop fields and equipment. When he returned to the house, he said to my grandmother, "You could have saved the money you spent on Jack. He is up in the field doing close-order drill with the rake on his shoulder. It won't be long till he will be back in uniform!"

He was right. Shortly thereafter, Jack joined the Irish Guards. They are the ones you see pacing or standing guard in front of Buckingham Palace. When he was done with his army time, Jack became a labor leader. At various times, he had half of England out on strike.


Coming to America

My uncle Patrick, called Pake (rhymes with cake) by the family, believed that when Jack went into the service and proved he had no desire to be a farmer that he, Patrick, would get the farm. For some reason, however, his father did not agree. Patrick left home to go into the Newcastle mines. When he had earned money for passage to America, he went up to Scotland to book passage for New York City.

It was the scheme of the Scot tailors at that time to measure the greenhorn Irish kids for a suit of clothes and then, on the sailing date, tell them the suit was not ready. Because most of the tailors' young clients had jobs or people awaiting their arrival in America to meet and to guide them in their new country, they would very reluctantly decide to sail without their paid-for purchase.

Pake did not fall for the scam. He waited for his suit and sailed on April 15, 1912, two days later than planned. The ship he was originally set to board was the brand new HMS Titanic.

The ship he did sail on was a week overdue in New York because it was involved in the rescue effort for the Titanic passengers and crew. When he arrived in New York, he and the other job-seekers on his ship were lined up in front of signs of different railroad companies looking for strong backs.


Excerpted from To Hell and Gone by James V. Nolan. Copyright © 2016 James V. Nolan. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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To Hell and Gone: Jim's Story 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 11 months ago
Great read .... Thanks Mr Nolan for sharing your experiences with us. I loved this book..