“Two Irishmen walk into a bar…”
I wrote about Bynum Shaw’s short story class several years ago. ("The Writer Must Write"). It was one of the happiest experiences in my college career, prompting me to change my major to English and become a writer, or at least try to become one. It also inspired a love of Irish literature, when Shaw read aloud a short story that reduced everyone in class, including himself, to tears of laughter.
I have recalled that moment many times since, yet I could never for the life of me recall the story’s title or the name of its author. But the Internet is a wonderful place to find things—books, music, people, all manner of information both useful and useless (some actually true)—and I finally found the story that was so hilarious it nearly caused an entire classroom to wet its collective pants. Reading it again, I was surprised at how serious the subject matter is. There is certainly nothing humorous about alcoholism or child neglect.
And yet, I laughed again.
And that is why I love Irish literature: it can either evoke tears or laughter, but at its best, it rewards us with both.
Here's the story, and if you would like to read more by Frank O'Connor, I recommend this anthology, available in paperback or for Kindle.
The Drunkard, by Frank O’Connor
It was a terrible blow to Father when Mr. Dooley on the terrace died. Mr. Dooley was a commercial traveller with two sons in the Dominicans and a car of his own, so socially he was miles ahead of us, but he had no false pride. Mr. Dooley was an intellectual, and, like all intellectuals the thing he loved best was conversation, and in his own limited way Father was a well-read man and could appreciate an intelligent talker. Mr. Dooley was remarkably intelligent. Between business acquaintances and clerical contacts, there was very little he didn’t know about what went on in town, and evening after evening he crossed the road to our gate to explain to Father the news behind the news. He had a low, palavering voice and a knowing smile, and Father would listen in astonishment, giving him a conversational lead now and again, and then stump triumphantly in to Mother with his face aglow and ask: “Do you know what Mr. Dooley is after telling me?” Ever since, when somebody has given me some bit of information off the record I have found myself on the point of asking: “Was it Mr. Dooley told you that?”
Till I actually saw him laid out in his brown shroud with the rosary beads entwined between his waxy fingers I did not take the report of his death seriously. Even then I felt there must be a catch and that some summer evening Mr. Dooley must reappear at our gate to give us a lowdown on the next world. But Father was very upset, partly because Mr. Dooley was about one age with himself, a thing that always gives a distinctly personal turn to another man’s demise; partly because now he would have no one to tell him what dirty work was behind the latest scene at the Corporation. You could count on your fingers the number of men in Blarney Lane who read the papers as Mr. Dooley did, and none of these would have overlooked the fact that Father was only a labouring man. Even Sullivan, the carpenter, a mere nobody, thought he was a cut above Father. It was certainly a solemn event.
“Half past two to the Curragh,” Father said meditatively, putting down the paper.
“But you’re not thinking of going to the funeral?” Mother asked in alarm.
“’Twould be expected,” Father said, scenting opposition. “I wouldn’t give it to say to them.”
“I think,” said Mother with suppressed emotion, “it will be as much as anyone will expect if you go to the chapel with him.”
(“Going to the chapel,” of course, was one thing, because the body was removed after work, but going to the funeral meant the loss of a half-day’s pay.)
“The people hardly know us,” she added.
“God between us and all harm,” Father replied with dignity, “we’d be glad if it was our own turn.”
To give Father his due, he was always ready to lose a half day for the sake of an old neighbour. It wasn’t so much that he liked funerals as that he was a conscientious man who did as he would be done by; and nothing could have consoled him so much for the prospect of his own death as the assurance of a worthy funeral. And, to give Mother her due, it wasn’t the half day’s pay she begrudged, badly as we could afford it.
Drink, you see, was Father’s great weakness. He could keep steady for months, even for years, at a stretch, and while he did he was as good as gold. He was first up in the morning and brought the mother a cup of tea in bed, stayed at home in the evenings and read the paper; saved money and bought himself a new blue serge suit and bowler hat. He laughed at the folly of men who, week in week out, left their hard-earned money with the publicans; and sometimes, to pass an idle hour, he took pencil and paper and calculated precisely how much he saved each week through being a teetotaller. Being a natural optimist he sometimes continued this calculation through the whole span of his prospective existence and the total was breathtaking. He would die worth hundreds.
If I had only known it, this was a bad sign; a sign he was becoming stuffed up with spiritual pride and imagining himself better than his neighbours. Sooner or later, the spiritual pride grew till it called for some form of celebration. Then he took a drink—not whisky, of course; nothing like that—just a glass of some harmless drink like lager beer. That was the end of Father. By the time he had taken the first he already realized he had made a fool of himself, took a second to forget it and a third to forget that he couldn’t forget, and at last came home reeling drunk. From this on it was “The Drunkard’s Progress,” as in the moral prints. Next day he stayed in from work with a sick head while Mother went off to make his excuses at the works, and inside a fortnight he was poor and savage and despondent again. Once he began he drank steadily through everything down to the kitchen clock. Mother and I knew all the phases and dreaded all the dangers. Funerals were one.
“I have to go to Dunphy’s to do a half-day’s work,” said Mother in distress. “Who’s to look after Larry?”
“I’ll look after Larry,” Father said graciously. “The little walk will do him good.”
There was no more to said, though we all knew I didn’t need anyone to look after me, and that I could quite well have stayed at home and looked after Sonny, but I was being attached to the party to act as a brake on Father. As a brake I had never achieved anything, but Mother still had great faith in me.
Next day, when I got home from school, Father was there before me and made a cup of tea for both of us. He was very good at tea, but too heavy in the hand for anything else; the way he cut bread was shocking. Afterwards, we went down the hill to the church, Father wearing his best blue serge and a bowler cocked to one side of his head with the least suggestion of the masher. To his great joy he discovered Peter Crowley among the mourners. Peter was another danger signal, as I knew well from certain experiences after mass on Sunday morning: a mean man, as Mother said, who only went to funerals for the free drinks he could get at them. It turned out that he hadn’t even known Mr. Dooley! But Father had a sort of contemptuous regard for him as one of the foolish people who wasted their good money in public-houses when they could be saving it. Very little of his own money Peter Crowley wasted!
It was an excellent funeral from Father’s point of view. He had it all well studied before we set off after the hearse in the afternoon sunlight.
“Five carriages!” he exclaimed. “Five carriages and sixteen covered cars! There’s one alderman, two councillors and ‘tis known how many priests. I didn’t see a funeral like this from the road since Willie Mack, the publican, died.”
“Ah, he was well liked,” said Crowley in his dusky voice.
“My goodness, don’t I know that?” snapped Father. “Wasn’t the man my best friend? Two nights before he died—only two nights—he was over telling me the goings-on about the housing contract. Them fellow in the Corporation are night and day robbers. But even I never imagined he was as well connected as that.”
Father was stepping out like a boy, pleased with everything: the other mourners, and the fine houses along Sunday’s Well. I knew the danger signals were there in full force: a sunny day, a fine funeral, and a distinguished company of clerics and public men were bringing out all the natural vanity and flightiness of Father’s character. It was with something like genuine pleasure that he saw his old friend lowered into the grave; with the sense of having performed a duty and a pleasant awareness that however much he would miss poor Mr. Dooley in the long summer evenings, it was he and not poor Mr. Dooley who would do the missing.
“We’ll be making tracks before they break up,” he whispered to Crowley as the gravediggers tossed in the first shovelfuls of clay, and away he went, hopping like a goat from grassy hump to hump. The drivers, who were probably in the same state as himself, though without months of abstinence to put an edge to it, looked up hopefully.
“Are they nearly finished, Mick,” bawled one.
“All over now bar the last prayers,” trumpeted Father in the tone of one who brings news of great rejoicing.
The carriages passed us in a lather of dust several hundred yards from the public-house, and Father, whose feet gave him trouble in hot weather, quickened his pace, looking nervously over his shoulder for any sign of the main body of mourners crossing the hill. In a crowd like that a man might be kept waiting.
When we did reach the pub the carriages were drawn up outside, and solemn men in black ties were cautiously bringing out consolation to mysterious females whose hands reached out modestly from behind the drawn blinds of the coaches. Inside the pub there were only the drivers and a couple of shawly women. I felt if I was to act as a brake at all, this was the time, so I pulled Father by the coattails.
“Dadda, can’t we go home now?” I asked.
“Two minutes now,” he said, beaming affectionately. “Just a bottle of lemonade and we’ll go home.”
This was a bribe, and I knew it, but I was always a child of weak character. Father ordered lemonade and two pints. I was thirsty and swallowed my drink at once. But that wasn’t Father’s way. He had long months of abstinence behind him and an eternity of pleasure before. He took out his pipe, blew through it, filled it, and then lit it with loud pops, his eyes bulging above it. After that he deliberately turned his back on the pint, leaned one elbow on the counter in the attitude of a man who did not know there was a pint behind him, and deliberately brushed the tobacco from his palms. He had settled down for the evening. He was steadily working through all the important funerals he had ever attended. The carriages departed and the minor mourners drifted in till the pub was half full.
“Dadda,” I said, pulling his coat again, “can’t we go home now?”
“Ah, your mother won’t be in for a long time yet,” he said benevolently enough. “Run out in the road and play, can’t you?”
It struck me as very cool, the way grown-ups assumed that you could play all by yourself on a strange road. I began to get bored as I had so often been bored before. I knew Father was quite capable of lingering there till nightfall. I knew I might have to bring him home, blind drunk, down Blarney Lane, with all the old women at their doors, saying: “Mick Delaney is on it again.” I knew that my mother would be half crazy with anxiety; that next day Father wouldn’t go out to work; and before the end of the week she would be running down to the pawn with the clock under her shawl. I could never get over the lonesomeness of the kitchen without a clock.
I was still thirsty. I found if I stood on tiptoe I could just reach Father’s glass, and the idea occurred to me that it would be interesting to know what the contents were like. He had his back to it and wouldn’t notice. I took down the glass and sipped cautiously. It was a terrible disappointment. I was astonished that he could even drink such stuff. It looked as if he had never tried lemonade.
I should have advised him about lemonade but he was holding forth himself in great style. I heard him say that bands were a great addition to a funeral. He put his arms in the position of someone holding a rifle in reverse and hummed a few bars of Chopin’s Funeral March. Crowley nodded reverently. I took a longer drink and began to see that porter might have its advantages. I felt pleasantly elevated and philosophic. Father hummed a few bars of the Dead March in Saul. It was a nice pub and a very fine funeral, and I felt sure that poor Mr. Dooley in Heaven must be highly gratified. At the same time I thought they might have given him a band. As Father said, bands were a great addition.
But the wonderful thing about porter was the way it made you stand aside, or rather float aloft like a cherub rolling on a cloud, and watch yourself with your legs crossed, leaning against a bar counter, not worrying about trifles but thinking deep, serious, grown-up thoughts about life and death. Looking at yourself like that, you couldn’t help thinking after a while how funny you looked, and suddenly you got embarrassed and wanted to giggle. But by the time I had finished the pint, that phase too had passed; I found it hard to put back the glass, the counter seemed to have grown so high. Melancholia was supervening again.
“Well,” Father said reverently, reaching behind him for his drink, “God rest the poor man’s soul, wherever he is!” He stopped, looked first at the glass, and then at the people round him. “Hello,” he said in a fairly good-humoured tone, as if he were just prepared to consider it a joke, even if it was in bad taste, “who was at this?”
There was silence for a moment while the publican and the old women looked first at Father and then at his glass.
“There was no one at it, my good man,” one of the women said with a offended air. “Is it robbers you think we are?”
“Ah, there’s no one here would do a thing like that, Mick,” said the publican in a shocked tone.
“Well, someone did it,” said Father, his smile beginning to wear off.
“If they did, they were them that were nearer it,” said the woman darkly, giving me a dirty look; and at the same moment the truth began to dawn on Father. I supposed I might have looked a bit starry-eyed. He bent and shook me.
“Are you all right, Larry?” he asked in alarm.
Peter Crowley looked down at me and grinned.
“Could you beat that?” he exclaimed in a husky voice.
I could, and without difficulty. I started to get sick. Father jumped back in holy terror that I might spoil his good suit, and hastily opened the back door.
“Run! run! run!” he shouted.
I saw the sunlit wall outside with the ivy overhanging it, and ran. The intention was good but the performance was exaggerated, because I lurched right into the wall, hurting it badly, as it seemed to me. Being always very polite, I said “Pardon” before the second bout came on me. Father, still concerned for his suit, came up behind and cautiously held me while I got sick.
“That’s a good boy!” he said encouragingly. “You’ll be grand when you get that up.”
Begor, I was not grand! Grand was the last thing I was. I gave one unmerciful wail out of me as he steered me back to the pub and put me sitting on the bench near the shawlies. They drew themselves up with an offended air, still sore at the suggestion that they had drunk his pint.
“God help us!” moaned one, looking pityingly at me, “isn’t it the likes of them would be fathers?”
“Mick,” said the publican in alarm, spraying sawdust on my tracks, “that child isn’t supposed to be in here at all. You’d better take him home quick in case a bobby would see him.”
“Merciful God!” whimpered Father, raising his eyes to heaven and clapping his hands silently as he only did when distraught, “What misfortune was on me? Or what will his mother say? … If women might stop at home and look after their children themselves!” he added in a snarl for the benefit of the shawlies. “Are them carriages all gone, Bill?”
“The carriages are finished long ago, Mick,” replied the publican.
“I’ll take him home,” Father said despairingly…. “I’ll never bring you out again,” he threatened me. “Here,” he added, giving me the clean handkerchief from his breast pocket, “put that over your eye.”
The blood on the handkerchief was the first indication I got that I was cut, and instantly my temple began to throb and I set up another howl.
“Whisht, whisht, whisht!” Father said testily, steering me out the door. “One’d think you were killed. That’s nothing. We’ll wash it when we get home.”
“Steady now, old scout!” Crowley said, taking the other side of me. “You’ll be all right in a minute.”
I never met two men who knew less about the effects of drink. The first breath of fresh air and the warmth of the sun made me groggier than ever and I pitched and rolled between wind and tide till Father started to whimper again.
“God Almighty, and the whole road out! What misfortune was on me didn’t stop at my work! Can’t you walk straight?”
I couldn’t. I saw plain enough that, coaxed by the sunlight, every woman old and young in Blarney Lane was leaning over her half-door or sitting on her doorstep. They all stopped gabbling to gape at the strange spectacle of two sober, middle-aged men bringing home a drunken small boy with a cut over his eye. Father, torn between the shamefast desire to get me home as quick as he could, and the neighbourly need to explain that it wasn’t his fault, finally halted outside Mrs. Roche’s. There was a gang of old women outside a door at the opposite side of the road. I didn’t like the look of them from the first. They seemed altogether too interested in me. I leaned against the wall of Mrs. Roche’s cottage with my hands in my trousers pockets, thinking mournfully of poor Mr. Dooley in his cold grave on the Curragh, who would never walk down the road again, and, with great feeling, I began to sing a favourite song of Father’s.
Though lost to Mononia and cold in the grave
He returns to Kincora no more.
“Wisha, the poor child!” Mrs. Roche said. “Haven’t he a lovely voice, God bless him!”
That was what I thought myself, so I was the more surprised when Father said “Whisht!” and raised a threatening finger at me. He didn’t seem to realize the appropriateness of the song, so I sang louder than ever.
“Whisht, I tell you!” he snapped, and then tried to work up a smile for Mrs. Roche’s benefit. “We’re nearly home now. I’ll carry you the rest of the way.”
But, drunk and all as I was, I knew better than to be carried home ignominiously like that.
“Now,” I said severely, “can’t you leave me alone? I can walk all right. “Tis only my head. All I want is a rest.”
“But you can rest at home in bed,” he said viciously, trying to pick me up, and I knew by the flush on his face that he was very vexed.
“Ah, Jasus,” I said crossly, “what do I want to go home for? Why the hell can’t you leave me alone?”
For some reason the gang of old women at the other side of the road thought this very funny. They nearly split their sides over it. A gassy fury began to expand in me at the thought that a fellow couldn’t have a drop taken without the whole neighbourhood coming out to make game of him.
“Who are ye laughing at?” I shouted, clenching my fists at them. “I’ll make ye laugh at the other side of yeer faces if ye don’t let me pass.”
They seemed to think this funnier still; I had never seen such ill-mannered people.
“Go away, ye bloody bitches!” I said.
“Whisht, whisht, whisht, I tell you!” snarled Father, abandoning all pretence of amusement and dragging me along behind him by the hand. I was maddened by the women’s shrieks of laughter. I was maddened by Father’s bullying. I tried to dig in my heels but he was too powerful for me, and I could only see the women by looking back over my shoulder.
“Take care or I’ll come back and show ye!” I shouted. “I’ll teach ye to let decent people pass. Fitter for ye to stop at home and wash yeer dirty faces.”
“Twill be all over the road,” whimpered Father. “Never again, never again, not if I lived to be a thousand!”
To this day I don’t know whether he was forswearing me or the drink. By way of a song suitable to my heroic mood I bawled “The Boys of Wexford,” as he dragged me in home. Crowley, knowing he was not safe, made off and Father undressed me and put me to bed. I couldn’t sleep because of the whirling in my head. It was very unpleasant, and I got sick again. Father came in with a wet cloth and mopped up after me. I lay in a fever, listening to him chopping sticks to start a fire. After that I heard him lay the table.
Suddenly the front door banged open and Mother stormed in with Sonny in her arms, not her usual gentle, timid self, but a wild, raging woman. It was clear that she had heard it all from the neighbours.
“Mick Delaney,” she cried hysterically, “what did you do to my son?”
“Whisht, woman, whisht, whisht!” he hissed, dancing from one foot to the other. “Do you want the whole road to hear?”
“Ah,” she said with a horrifying laugh, “the road knows all about it by this time. The road knows the way you filled your unfortunate innocent child with drink to make sport for you and that other rotten, filthy brute.”
“But I gave him no drink,” he shouted, aghast at the horrifying interpretation the neighbours had chosen to give his misfortune. “He took it while my back was turned. What the hell do you think I am?”
“Ah,” she replied bitterly, “everyone knows what you are now. God forgive you, wasting our hard-earned few ha’pence on drink, and bringing up your child to be a drunken corner-boy like yourself.”
Then she swept into the bedroom and threw herself on her knees by the bed. She moaned when she saw the gash over my eye. In the kitchen Sonny set up a loud bawl on his own, and a moment later Father appeared in the bedroom door with his cap over his eyes, wearing an expression of the most intense self-pity.
“That’s a nice way to talk to me after all I went through,” he whined. “That’s a nice accusation, that I was drinking. Not one drop of drink crossed my lips the whole day. How could it when he drank it all? I’m the one that ought to be pitied, with my day ruined on me, and I after being made a show for the whole road.”
But the next morning, when he got up and went out quietly to work with his dinner-basket, Mother threw herself at me in the bed and kissed me. It seemed it was all my doing, and I was being given a holiday till my eye got better.
“My brave little man!” she said with her eyes shining. “It was God did it you were there. You were his guardian angel.”