Slatterys Capel StreetJohn McGrath had 15 minutes to play with when he heard the church bells ring so he strolled his way through the narrow little streets that led to the Sunday morning ghost of the Dublin fruit market. He stopped there for a while as he always did to have a cigarette and watch the odd figures shuffling towards “Pub opening time”. It was a ritual for him now this Sunday morning.

You had to make the “session” on time of course. If most people who were to play here wrote the time down and date onto an erasable calendar then they wouldn't have missed the session. If you didn’t your place on stage could be taken by a visiting musician or a learner or worse still a spoon player. The indignity of losing your place to somebody banging a set of spoons was unimaginable.

John McGrath though was one of the company at last. He was the session whistle player, after pushing himself for a year. That some of them had known each other for 15 years made no difference to John McGrath, he felt part of their ritual now. The years hadn’t made them any older either he reflected, remembering his time watching them from the audience. Fashion had grown hair and shortened it and changed its colour with seemingly little effect on any of them.

Paddy Buckley had left his flat in the inner city at noon. He had been awoken by the wind whistling through the hole in the window and found himself still clothed and wrapped round a blanket and four pages of yesterday’s newspaper. His pillow was on the floor beside his Uileann Pipes case. He had arrived back at the time cats do, when the grey ends of the morning were beginning to expose the threadbare roofs of his street. He had fallen at the bed and just made it. Now he crept by the ‘Catholic Temperance’ members at the corner of the street with their drink-abuse signs. “Good morning” they said to him. His head throbbed and one side of his hair had stood up defiantly in spite of his best efforts.

It had been almost sunny when he left his door, but was windy and raining by the time he reached the Session. He cursed silently to himself, “another Irish Summer”. At least it might smooth down his stupid hair.

Slatterys Capel StreetIn the last 6 months he had managed to get things almost right on one occasion and that was Wednesday. He had looked up with his heavy eyes on the Wednesday through the empty glasses and the cigarette smoke and there she was, black hair, black dress. She didn’t belong there at all he had thought. He looked back down to his Uileann Pipes but it was no use, she was still there, green eyes. In the course of the night she told him she was only there with her sister and that she hated Irish traditional music. Then, for some strange reason he immediately asked her could he meet her sometime. But last night was “Tourist” Irish night in a hotel with the usual Irish Dancers, a bald comedian with a “kilt”, a singer who died three times a night for Ireland, a harpist named Maire who kept putting her hand on his knee and always smelt of garlic, along with himself and an old fiddler who only drank tea. Still it was €200 for keeping the yanks happy and the drink flowed. He couldn’t bring her to that of course but she had promised Sunday Morning.

“Jesus I’m sick as a dog” John Carmondy was saying as he painstakingly tuned his Bouzouki against the clattering of glasses and the scraping of stools and tables being positioned on the floor. “Give us an A off that whistle”, he said to John McGrath, who was folding up his anorak beside the stage.

Paddy Buckley dragged himself wearily onto the stage. “Jesus” he said. “Four seasons in one day”. “Aye” somebody replied. “Vivaldi goes microwave”. There had been one minor drama. A man whose shakes were a little worse than usual had gone out to the toilet to smoke illegally and while attempting to drop his cigarette end into the cubicle, had let it fall into the open fork of his trousers much to the hilarity of an American tourist who was even now explaining the story in graphic detail to his friends.

Slatterys Capel Street“You look like I feel” said Carmondy as Paddy strapped on his pipes. “Yes” he replied, “American Cabaret, Yanks. But you won’t believe this, at the end of the night you see, we dance with members of the audience. We’re told to go for the old yanks. Well o.k., I’m half drunk already so I get up and head towards this old lady with half moon glasses when a young one stands in front of me and says ‘can I dance with you please’. I’d no objections, so we’re into this mad dance and they usually turn the main lights down for the last dance and use spotlights. So, when it comes to the part where we swing each other round she starts fighting with me and trying to punch me. I couldn’t let her go or one of us would have gone through the window. I found out what was wrong though when the lights came up, her knickers were around her ankles. I nearly cracked up. She calmly says, ‘sorry, thank you’, pulls them up in front of everybody who’s collapsing around in laughter and goes back to her seat”.

The supposed business of the morning began, fumbling at first and slightly out of tune, finally settling down to its usual reassuring rhythm. The second round of drinks had come over and suddenly the bar was full. John Carmondy looked thoughtfully at his second large Guinness while at the same time regretting the fact that he had no breakfast in him. Joe Dowdall, a bodhran player whose age nobody dare ask and who only drank Lucozade was ready for the first song of the morning, humorous to those who didn’t know it but well known to those on stage. It was a welcome breather for the musicians.

“So they dined on the stuff
Said Darby ‘it’s tough’,
Said Paddy ‘you’re no judge of mutton’.
Then Brian McGurk on the end of his fork
Held up a big ivory button.
‘Be the powers what’s that sure I thought it was fat’,
Then Darby jumps to his feet and he screeches,
‘Be the Heavens above I was trying to shove
Me teeth through the flap of his breeches’.”

John McGrath was giving a run down of his week to John Carmondy. McGrath was good for the cigarettes and the bus-fare sometimes, Carmondy was thinking. But there was a way of telling stories that Buckley along with a few others had that made you laugh even if the stories were insignificant. McGrath’s stories all centred around his job and pubs that nobody went near and had no bearing whatsoever on the company, but he was good for the packet of cigarettes and the bus-fare sometimes.

“Here you are Carmondy, I owe you this” said Buckley interrupting his thoughts and handing him €20. “Cheers”, he said. “McGrath’s off again”.

“Yeah he’d bore the pants off you” said Buckley. “His girlfriend will be in later tonight as well. I discovered why she always blinks when she talks to you, her contact lenses don’t fit properly. She makes my eyes water when she talks to me and I find my head shifting from side to side”.

“She told me her father had been in the C.I.A.” said Carmondy, “and when she got old enough to understand she wouldn’t talk to him. She says she hates anything to do with fascism. Of course he sends her €1,000 a month so she can hate fascism in peace. Funny old world isn’t it? Oh damn, it’s your turn for a solo tune”.

Paddy tuned and Carmondy sat back and looked out on the audience. The audience was sitting on barstools that lacked the comfort of executive office chairs. His gaze turned to his coat in a crumpled heap beside the stage. Amazing how it had assumed his personality, that black coat. No longer hanging neatly opposite her green kitchen, now in a crumpled heap in his own life beside the stage. It was three months now, Friday was her birthday. But, you daren’t tell anybody here you missed somebody. McGrath and Miss C.I.A. seemed to have the perfect relationship. She sat there and read books and he talked about his job, and on Monday to Friday they went to pubs that nobody else ever went to.

Then, that lovely crunching sound of a falling glass that is not your own. It was the wife of the American who had drawn such pleasure from the cigarette episode. There was a cheer from the audience and Paddy played on oblivious.

McGrath immediately roared at Carmondy who almost choked on a whiskey but was not in the slightest bit interested. There was something else that intrigued John McGrath. Everyone knew that Carmondy was hitting four whiskeys now before he came on stage at all. Everyone knew he never left the pub at night without bringing home a “supply”, but nobody said anything. They did not comment, maybe they knew he would come through for it had happened most of them at some time or another. This frightened him, this callousness. Sometimes Carmondy had passed out well before closing time and had just been left there to come round by himself. Yet, if an outsider made any form of a joke about it, the ranks closed and that person was told exactly where to get off. Carmondy was Carmondy they said, full of mad twisted comments that had the magnificent ability to cut an adversary to pieces. “Speaking in quadrants and semi-circles” was how Paddy liked to put it but few liked to be on the receiving end.

Old Joe the bodhran player was battling along behind Paddy’s solo. The number of musicians had swollen to fourteen. Old Joe had three claims to fame. The first was that he rarely spoke, giving everybody the impression he was a thinking man but few realised that he was almost totally deaf which probably explained why he did not react when Carmondy told him he had Van Gogh’s ear for music. The second was that some years previously he had driven a tour bus for his brother in Leitrim. One day he was given a group of English tourists to drive around. Over the microphone his blunt historical comments did little for the comfort of his passengers. “That field is where the Irish beat the British in 1594, and that field is where we beat the British in 1620 and in that one there we did it in 1730”. One good humoured Englishman said “surely the English must have won at least one battle”. “Not on my bloody bus they didn’t” said Joe. His third claim to fame was that he was the one to discover a bird’s nest up the rear-end of the great Irish Patriot Wolfe Tone’s statue in South Dublin. This of course posed a few questions, the most notable being as to why he was looking up Wolfe Tone’s rear-end in the first place. Carmondy had referred to it as “rather slanted patriotism”. Paddy’s solo ended and Joe put down the bodhran and drank his Lucozade with the air of one who had done a great service to a Sunday morning.

By twenty past one, the bar was black. Children ran around after children they had discovered fathers had the few drinks before dinner, while mothers watched both father and child. The music got faster as fingers once more became reliable and sections of the audience began to clap along. A tourist was taking close up pictures of the pipes and the bodhran, Joe sat up straight and poked out his chin, Paddy just started blankly at the door and let his fingers take over. Drinks arrived and empty glasses were ferried away.

“Twenty past one” Paddy thought. “Well that’s it now, she won’t be here”. It had been all right in 1979 when he first came to Dublin and money went somewhere and women thought you had a future. Then it all went dry and everyone started scraping and instead of playing for money you played for drink. You played rubbish for Americans for your rent while your dole and the odd gig kept you above the water line. You could charm a woman out of a photograph but ultimately it turned out to be the same thing, she couldn’t afford you and you parted the best of friends. End of story.

Joe in the meantime had grabbed the microphone to sing “Kelly the boy from Killane” amid groans and sniggers from the others. “You know Paddy” said Carmondy, “if old Joe was hung for signing, he’d die innocent. What’s up mate?”

“Nothing, just wrecked tired”.

John McGrath was going to miss all this, even old Joe. America would be a strange place to live, he knew it. It would take him a while to get used to it. However, a ready made job with great prospects and rich in-laws was nothing to be sneezed at, and there was also a good Irish contingent there for sessions, he knew a lot of them. It would make coming back here for the odd Sunday morning during the holidays all the sweeter.

Meanwhile on the stage, there were already plans being made for the night so that those who went home for dinners could meet up with those who grabbed burgers. There was a large queue at the bar and the music was forgotten. Joe had already packed up his bodhran while his wife, without seeing him had already put on her brown coat. Barmen became heroic and pushed their way around looking for empty glasses.

“Thank you for coming along this morning. See you next week”. A very thin American girl with glasses pushed her way up shyly to Joe and asked him to sign a postcard. John McGrath shook his anorak and inquired where the night’s session was.

“Phone call for Paddy Buckley”, shouted a barman.

“If it’s a woman I’m here” said Paddy smoothing down his hair and pushing past Carmondy.

John McGrath was almost home now. He took his time, he had plenty. He was worried though about his money situation. They spent too much on Friday and Saturday nights, something he would have to watch. Still, they could stay in on Monday and Tuesday and now there was the prospect of a good Sunday night. The others he supposed would be holding on for a while in the bar before wandering slowly away. Carmondy would be buying a take-away.

It was hard to think he was going away form all this in just two months. He had told nobody in the job yet and definitely none of the musicians knew. There would be some surprises there – a going away party perhaps. Still, you had to strike out, it couldn’t last forever.

Tomorrow was Monday and the world would start again. Paddy would be sitting in his flat looking out on an old back yard. Carmondy would be in the “early morning pub ” drinking with a retired policeman on one side and a Boris Yelsin look-alike on the other. Joe who as a deep sea diver many years previously had gone deaf from the “bends” would be sitting in his little paper shop while his wife made tea.

But that Sunday John McGrath bought himself some cigarettes and promptly decided he was smoking too much. Music pubs were still pouring out their customers and others stood in small groups around the pavement with papers under their arms. It was amazing how the whole week seemed to run into 1 ½ hours on a Sunday morning, just to meet your friends. Maybe you were better off looking at it from the audience. Anyway he knew them now as well as he ever would. Time to move on.


Short Stories

The Fiddle Lesson by Michael Fitzgerald

The Fiddle Lesson by Michael FitzgeraldThe climb from the back of the house up to the main road was a steep one, made even more precarious by winter’s early darkness. T.J. Burke left the house promptly at six with the battered fiddle case beneath his arm and assorted music sheets tucked into the front of his trousers for safety. The cold of the evening hit him with a sudden fierceness. He held the collar of his coat round his neck with his free hand, which numbed immediately, and began to pick his way slowly up to the stile.

The forecast was snow, but so far it had been too cold and now there were tiny blobs of white clouds scattered around the moon. Everyone else was seated around the fire listening to the wireless. His grandfather was listening to the news of the places he had never been, hunched, staring into the flames, rolling the cigarette in his overgrown fingers – nodding at relevant times. Nobody spoke. There was only the sound of dishes being scattered in dishwater.

Father Byrne also stared into the fire. His hands were still shaking and his eyes felt like there were two fingers shoving them into the back of his head. He poured another brandy and sat back on the old writing desk that had been with him most of his life. There was nothing working today. All he would remember about Confession was the bad breath through the grill.

And now the fiddle lesson. Why in God’s name had he suggested it at all ? Oh there was promise. The boy had good fingers, but ambition ? Nobody seemed to have any ambition here. All they ever did was sit around indoors and talk low in the winter and in the summer they sat around outdoors and talked low as if they had some big secret. It was like one continuous big secret that nobody else would ever now. He saw a stranger today climb out of his car and go into a shop down there. Everyone stood aside and let him be served first. He could have been a murderer ! “Good morning Sir….safe journey now…can you manage?” No ambition !

Father Byrne was already becoming a great puzzle to T.J., with his snowy hair and piercing eyes. He had been going to lessons for four months now and still could not understand the man. The priest’s personality seemed to alter with no prior indication whatsoever. Sometimes he could be agreeable, sometimes bad-tempered. He could also be totally inaudible at times and once he even fell asleep and dropped his fiddle. This alarmed T.J. at first, but the old priest began to snore and T.J. felt he must have been tired after the Confessions. So he checked the sound-post on the fiddle and went home.

He thought about the impending snow. One day last year he had to go to school walking in a gully left by the tyre of a tractor., The snow was piled above him on either side. In his schoolbag along with his well-fingered copybooks, were the compulsory three sods of turf for the school fire. Everyone brought their own heat. Very few people went un-ambushed for those few days The postman who was walking, Mr. Grogan from the Credit Union and of course, the nuns were very easy targets as they went about their evening prayers.

There was the stroke of genius by the local ‘big fellas’. At times like these, the snow on the mountains attracts a lot of people in cars. They look down on an unusually white Dublin and frolic around having a family outing in the falling snow. Then, many of them realise their cars are stuck and they have to abandon them. So – the ‘big fellas’ walk the two miles to the Wicklow border and the owners come back after the thaw to find their cars stripped to empty shells. He wondered how many of these stories Fr. Byrne ever heard in Confessions.

Tomorrow was Sunday Mass too. First the nuns and then the village. Up at 5.30 fighting with the darkness, the cold. It was getting harder. A cigarette first maybe, lying on his elbow. Then he would hear the river. You always became conscious of the river. You always heard it last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Out on the creaking landing – down to the fire lit by a novice.

And hail, rain or snow, they would always be there, wearing the same Sunday clothes, sitting in the same place almost. They would look up at him with their expectant faces, the young at the back, the old at the front. All hung in inbuilt reverence. Until the sermon. The sermon seemed to throw the whole congregation into a fit of coughing. It was like a temporary release from something, as if they had rid themselves of a great burden.

It was no problem to write. He normally scribbled it in the sacristy having listened to the news or tied it to a forthcoming feast day or event. Sometimes he went up with just an idea and built it in his mind and let it flow. It was no problem – except for the coughing.

But now his eyes were throbbing, that wet pain left behind by a night’s brandy and the cure wasn’t helping. He was feeling drowsy and he knew he should have eaten. Thoughts and memories began to wander, as they always did when he was tired, and the shadow of the fire danced on the wall. He stood up from the desk with its cigarette burns and stains. Perhaps an early night after some simple revision with the boy. Pick on something that he was unsure of still, like “The Christmas Eve Reel”. Walk up and down the room for a while.

Two days after the Palm Sunday procession about four years earlier it had rained. Michael Burke had been lucky that day. All the lettuces and scallions were down and the hedge had been cut to a reasonable length. It had taken a while, but he stood and smoked a cigarette in the rain and watched the silver cobwebs on the hedge.

T.J. Burke was six and already knew bad language from the people next door. He wasn’t stopped when he used it – in fact nobody knew how to deal with it. To his grandfather he was a strange kid. He stood for hours on the stump of a tree and looked into the valley at buses and lorries.

Michael Burke was quiet, his house was quiet, Lily did all the talking – enough, he felt, for everyone. His house was also tidy and easy with whitewash all over the front and the fences. If a cow shat on the fence he just whitewashed over it and life went on,.

T.J.’s brother, Bill, who was four, was easier to understand. With his little turned in feet, he didn’t cry or shout and when he fell he said nothing. So it was a great surprise to Michael Burke when he heard T.J. singing “Ave Maria” and then he went to the window to see T.J. throwing the new lettuces under Bill’s little turned in feet. Palm Sunday did not enter into it. He just roared “Get that child out of here !” The next day, T.J. stood on the stump of a tree and spoke to nobody.

There was one fine Saturday morning when Laurence Byrne cycled alone to Sandycove from his home in Rathmines. His mother had packed some sandwiches and saw him off with her usual blessing. He had few friends and, in a way, he never really set out to make any. He was very quiet and preferred his own company or maybe music and books. In fact he brought five books with him that day, he remembered – a life of Chaucer and a first hand history of the Boer War among them.

He sat for hours on that tiny alcove of beach among the children and the old men with their trousers turned up, and drifted, underlining something from Chaucer or just looking out to sea. It was getting quite dark when he headed for home and as he cycled into Blackrock, he did a most unusual thing. He pulled up in front of a bar, parked the bicycle and went inside. “A bottle of stout and a small Paddy” – for even then he looked a lot older than he was. Why he did it he couldn’t tell afterwards but, after repeating the process four times, he felt quite unable to move although his head was thinking clearly.

He stood up unsteadily and just made for the door, realising he had left the books behind. He bumped into somebody and reeled back against the wall. That person must have helped him to the street for he remembered holding on to the bicycle with his head against the wall, spinning. He could feel people watching him just as he was about to become violently ill. He woke up at 3 a.m. the next morning on Blackrock strand with his bicycle beside him. It was freezing cold and his legs were cut and bruised where he must have fallen.

“There are dreams and dreams,” he said. “You can sit at home and play in the winter down there or you can play on Sundays outside during the summer while people sit on the grass. Or you can push it until it does what you want and get respected. Come to the window and look down. What do you see ?”


“Do you want to spend the rest of your life down there in houses ?”

T.J. said nothing. Just stared at the damp roofs at the end of the hill.

“They spend the whole day down there, staring at buses and strangers and clouds. I want to give you an opportunity.”

Once while he was practising “Blind Mary” he looked up and noticed the priest staring blankly through the window. He finished the piece and there was silence. “You know sometimes I feel like Camus at the end of “The Plague”.

“I’m sorry, Father ?”

“Nothing, nothing. Play that again !”

It was a cosy room though where nothing seemed to match at all. It had hard high chairs with red foam covering, a couch with a faded yellow eiderdown drooped over it and a carpet that was once green. There were books everywhere. In cases, in boxes and behind chairs. Hundreds of old newspapers were piled up high beside an old writing desk and the fire always blazed loudly with crackling timber.

He remembered those comments very well because Fr,. Byrne had caught him smoking at the end of the lane on the Thursday. He lived in terror for the whole of that Friday in case news should reach his grandfather. But it never did nor was it mentioned at the lesson.

He stopped for a moment at the stile and listened for traffic. The convent bell was ringing for the Angelus.

He sat back in the couch, eyes heavy. A trickle of sweat ran back from his temple to his left ear. The Angelus bell was five minutes late again. He would have to speak to McFadden. Either the man or his watch would have to go. For a curious moment Mrs. Cussins, a former housekeeper, came into his mind, with her overbearing wine hat and her equally overbearing habit of cleaning the toilet every time he came out of it. The room was growing quieter and hotter and he could barely keep his eyes open now. He looked for a moment at the writing desk – “Vox audita perit, litera scripta manet” it was inscribed.

Everything was drawing in on him now, slowly. Everything else moved away and became nothing but an echo. He saw a series of faces – the usual ones – the same Sunday clothes.

Then another bell, somewhere at the back of his mind, a bell…

“Genuflect, bow your head”.

“Good morning, sir, have a nice trip.”

“Can you manage ?”

No ambition !