A light-hearted tale of old Ireland
Father Sean O’Reilly was on his way home to Clonakilty after visiting the Bishop of Cork. At seventy he was still working as a full-time parish priest albeit a little more slowly these days.
At the Hayrick and Hoe public house in the village of Innishannon, the priest broke his journey to rest his old horse and have some lunch and a pint of porter.
‘Tis a miracle you called father’ said the Landlord, Patrick O’Hanlon, ‘sure didn’t our poor Father Murphy pass away just last night and the widow Mrs Houlihan due to be buried this very afternoon and no one to take the service.’
The priest’s thin-lipped smile looked a little pained as he regarded his host with deep-set watery blue eyes. Conducting a funeral would put him out considerably for he was hoping to be home before dark.
‘Er… I see Mr O’Hanlon…’
‘Call me Patrick, please, Father’ the landlord interrupted ‘you see her family have come all the way over from Galway for the wake. It’s great a shame, and her being such a saintly woman as well. Looked after her workers well she did, always good to the poor she was and paid her bills on time, too. Never to my knowledge did that dear, gentle woman miss mass on Sunday, Father, hail, rain or snow.’
‘I see, Patrick, but is there no one more local who could stand in?’
‘I’m afraid not Father but I’m sure there’d be a generous donation for your church, for she was the widow of a well-to-do farmer and was not without funds.’
O’Reilly brightened on hearing this, after all, he needed money for his church roof and his whiskey supply was seriously depleted, too. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he considered the proposition. ‘And what size of donation would we be talking about, Patrick?’
‘The rumour I heard said it was five hundred pounds, Father.’
‘Her solicitor drinks here.’
‘Ah, I see.’ The priest was impressed, five hundred pounds would clear his church’s outstanding debts and carry him over comfortably, whiskey and all, until 1928. Why there could even be a bit left over for the parish poor.
O’Reilly took a long swig of his porter as if considering the matter, it didn’t do for a priest to make an unseemly grab at money ‘Well, Patrick’ he said at last, ‘it would be the decent Christian thing to do now’ his cracked, tortoise skinned face adopted his well-practised ‘sincere’ look ‘I’ll do it, so I will.’
The delighted Landlord called his son from the back room and sent him scuttling off to tell the family. Fr. O’Reilly finished his cheese and onion sandwich, then, as the O’Hanlon had said the lunch was on him, he ordered another pint of porter.
The post office was visited, and a telegram sent to his housekeeper informing her he wouldn’t be home that night. Funeral wakes were a serious business, celebrations had to be indulged properly out of respect for the deceased by Priest and parishioner alike.
At the farm, the family was gathered in the parlour to greet the priest. One of the widow’s late husband’s nephews was the village policeman, he seemed to be officiating.
As they gathered around the open coffin to say a last farewell, O’Reilly couldn’t help thinking the corpse looked familiar. ‘A local woman, was she?’ he asked the nephew.
‘Not, originally, Father, she came from Galway, the widow of another farmer over there.’
The penny dropped as recognition dawned. ‘Well, bless my soul if I didn’t marry them myself all those years ago. I was a raw young priest in Galway at the at the time. They were the very first couple I ever wed.’ His face then clouded as he recalled the marriage had not been a happy one.
‘You knew her then?’ said the surprised nephew.
‘That I did my son, and a tragic marriage it was, too.’ Sure, her husband used to drink then come home and beat her something cruel’ O’Reilly’s mouth turned down, his eyes looking distant. He emptied his glass. ‘As I recall the good Lord Himself intervened in his wisdom after but three months of the nuptials.’
‘How so Farther?’
O’Reilly ignored the question, a distant look in his rheumy eye as he pulled the cobwebs of time from his ancient memory ‘Robert Daly, I think he was called, yes, Robert Daly. He came home drunk one night and, according to our dearly departed here, demanded she makes him a cup of tea. There was no water in the house, so she sent him to the well. ’The priest paused, sensing he had the other man’s rapt attention.
‘What happened father?’
‘Well now, I’d be able to tell you were it not for me raging thirst.’
‘Oh, Lord, forgive me, Father’ said the nephew glancing down at the priests empty glass, ‘would a drop more of the best Irish whiskey help do you suppose?’
The drink was duly poured and quickly consumed and the glass refilled before the priest continued ‘the poor man fell down the well in his cups, so he did. He must have banged his head on the way down for when they recovered the body he’d a lump the size of an egg on it. He must have been unconscious for this poor woman here never heard any cry for help.’
The nephew’s eyebrows shot into his hairline, he looked aghast at the priest before tearing his gaze away to stare at the saintly looking corpse. ‘Jaysus, Mary and Joseph’ he declared ‘and didn’t the late Mr Houlihan beat her also, and himself passing away these twenty years ago just a month after the marriage in the very identical circumstances.’
The two men gawped open-mouthed at the peaceful corpse ‘Well, bless my soul’ said the priest, ‘what a remarkable coincidence. Sure the Lord works in mysterious ways, indeed.’