The Kerrymen's Wake - A personal travel essay

Twas the wake. We were three Kerrymen, a father, and his two sons, in the Kingdom known a Kerry, Ireland. After a full day’s trek through rolling landscapes, emphasized by the remote beauty of the Black Valley, we secured permission from a local farmer to make a shelter on his land and settled in for the night.

We were cold from the September rain which was relentless and sideways, our bodies sore and thoroughly knackered. In need of warmer spirits, the smooth caramel taste of the whiskey quickly soothed the knots loosened our tongues. Our toasts to Paddy Tangney, the late Kerryman, and my father's uncle, began with a silent nod and were accompanied by stories of my father’s childhood farm in Kerry during the 60's and 70’s.

The Tangney family farm, situated in a valley with panoramic views of Carrauntoohil mountain, the highest peak in all of Ireland. A mere 10 miles outside the burgeoning town of the Killarney, it bridges the gap between the traditional rural and modern urban way of life. To reach the farmhouse, one has to traverse an old mile long boreen, a rural country road that is maintained and flanked by a continuous row of thick thorny hedges about 5 feet in height. The occasional gaps in these thickets filled by cattle grates and rusty iron gates leading to the vast cattle pastures beyond. A small boy could slip in between the middle bars at the risk of dirtying his trousers with streaks of cow dung. A wise boy would choose the more traditional mode of entrance, but what’s the fun in that! One could pass the time on this seeming endless strip of adventure by attempting to catch the rabbits that dodge in and out of the thicket, taunting any passerby’s who dared play the game. Of course, seldom would you be alone on this journey as a pack of dogs, mostly Irish setters, and hunting breeds, would happily greet you half way and guide you the remainder of the way.

Near this very boreen, was where my mother and father first met. I first heard the story of their courtship while in a small crowed pub located in the Bronx, New York, which is otherwise known as the thirty-third county of Ireland. I recall, the squeezebox played in the background, as Paddy narrated the tale after a few pints to jog the memory. “ It was a particularly wet summer's day when your father rescued his fair maiden, your mother, from a treacherous bog which she had slipped into a few ways south of the farm,” Paddy said from a seated position on a stool facing outward from the chestnut colored bar countertop behind him. “As he reached down and pulled her to safety, the buzzards circled above with watchful eyes,” he continued. At this point, Paddy’s charm was in full effect, hopping off his stool and flapping his arms about while screeching like a gizzard, bouncing nimbly back and forth on the balls of his feet. “ As he did so, your father’s donkey, which he was naturally riding, shot off down the boreen towards the cover of the awaiting stables. Thus, they had to walk home together, and so began a good thing,” he emphasized with a slap of his knee. Paddy had the unique ability to mesmerize the audience before him, my father laughing in the background validating every detail that seemed to grow in stature as the years passed.

“It was a time that was altogether unforgiving, adventurous, hard and full of life,” began the eldest of the three Kerrymen. In his 60 years of existence, this was the first time he had opened up to his sons in a display of mixed emotions about the early days spent in rural Ireland, stories and saying reserved for more lighthearted fables about things such as his midnight blue cat.

Through his thick brogue, he would often find this statement, “ I Ioved that cat goddammit, twas the best cat there ever was, an elite catcher of mice and a good friend he was,” he would say. Fair enough, but this was not the time nor place for cat tales. It must have been the setting and the pain of nostalgia that pried opened the details of his past now remembered.

“ Hear me now,” continued my father. “ Did ya know now, that Paddy relinquished his claim to the farm to my father, Bill Tangney. He then boarded a steamer bound for New York in 1952. A pioneer in his own right, he gave me the courage to follow suit some many years later. I’m forever grateful for that, here’s to Paddy,” my father exclaimed while raising his tin mug slightly from a seated position on a cold, slippery stone. The three of us proudly raised our spirits and proclaimed, “Slainte ” as we slowly drained the elixir of life.

I often wondered if perhaps Paddy was inspired by Tom Crean, a Kerry hero who joined the Navy in 1983 at the mere age 15, eventually finding glory from his Arctic adventure on the Discovery Expedition in the early 1900’s. Crean would go on to feature in three of the four British expeditions to the Antarctic, though he was never as prominently recognized as the British pioneers Captain Scott or Sir Ernest Shackleton. Like Crean, Paddy’s wanderlust provided him the very fortunes that he was seeking, though it meant unintended consequences for his younger brother Bill, my late grandfather.

My father continued, “ He never wanted the farm, but fair to him; he gave it a go. Though nothing was ever good enough for his liking, including the father-son relationship that ensued.” His undertone told of Bill’s relentless rule of law on the farm. “ You see, back when Paddy declared his intention to sell the farm, it was at my mother’s behest that Bill purchased to keep the property in the family,” he concluded. A choice that my grandfather would come to regret given his proclivity for politics and the social scene in the local pubs.

The two brothers were like oil and vinegar. Paddy, with his athletic gate, quick wit, humor and mischievous grin, grabbed life by the balls and never looked back. His nature was in sharp contrast with my grandfather Bill’s character, which has seldom been spoken of or revered. My mother would say with a fierce look in her eyes, “ he was not a very nice man, to say the least.”

Undoubtedly, the mere mention of Bill’s name stirred memories of the past which had afflicted hard times on my father and her at his doings. Including their first introduction, when Bill had downed a dove on a local hunt and coldly asked my mother to go and fetch the bird. Mind you; the hunting dog sat idly by at Bill’s feet!

Regrettably, the only real memory I have of Bill is on his deathbed. I was ten, and my bother two years my senior. We calmly stood and said our goodbyes, daring not to look directly at the strange, stiff figure in front of us, often averting our eyes downward to the worn patterned rug or above to the ceiling which was bare minus the cross hanging over the bed. I remember the cold, damp house filled with smoke from the burning peat harvested from a nearby bog. It crackled along with the two available channels, RTE 1 and RTE 2, found on the single knob dialed television in the sitting room. For a young boy, it was a confusing and adventurous time. We would all gather around the wooden kitchen table and chat for hours awaiting the inevitable. Before us, a spread of white bread with butter, an assortment sweet cakes, and several bags of Taytos Crisps to accompany the endless cups of tea. Bill’s passing marked the official end of the contentious relationship between my father and grandfather. Though, I believe it died long before then, far away from the dreary rituals of rural Ireland and his childhood home.

These brief and sullen moments were quickly eclipsed by our Aunt Breda, who obtained the position of house caretaker and all around supplier of good craic. Her wild brown hair, though gray since her early years, always bounced with laughter. I recall a particularly fond memory of Breda shouting in a high pitched tone through a small kitchen window, “ For feck sake, Paddy, go on and twist the neck,” she said. I was still only a boy, watching on with fascinated horror through a dirty, streaked glass window pane as Paddy readied supper. After the deed, the bird hung upside down alongside the other three victims mimicking wind chimes, swaying in a light afternoon breeze. I remember my father’s laughter bellowing through the air at the sight of my mother’s grim expression. In the background, a coop of awaiting victims looked on through the mesh wiring with contemplative certainty, clucking and shitting uncontrollably. To cap off the spectacle, Paddy would then go on to offer a flapping bird to my mother and tell her to “give it go,” while gallery looked on consuming this dramatic comedy unfolding before us on a mild, damp afternoon on the farm. Referring to his kind offer, “ it was just to take the piss,” Paddy exclaimed with a shrug of his shoulder. We would go on to visit Kerry many times over the years and have great adventures on this very farm that my father longed to leave.

As the three Kerrymen wound down the night, it was clear to me that the wake, complete with the drink, laughter, and shared memories, had transpired into something more than just a celebration of Paddy's life. Out of death came closure, forgiveness and a strengthened bond between father and son, forged through a connection to a special place and its people at various distinct moments in time.