Friday, 7 October 2016

A Short Story from a man with a Listowel Connection

by Michael Mulcahy

I grew up in Listowel in the 40's whilst World Two raged in Europe. Ireland stayed neutral and that period was called The Emergency. It affected everything from travel to certain foods being rationed.

My father was the Garda Superintendent. He was a quiet, shy, very reserved man, a listener, who was beholden to no one because as a professional policeman he felt he should not be. My mother on the other hand was different from him in every way. She was gregarious, loved chats and company. They were both strong individuals. They both came from diametrically opposed political back grounds and yet they had married in the midst of a very bitter Civil War. Their marriage and family life was happy despite this paradox.

The only thing that caused a slight hiccup in their relationship was the fact my father never discussed Garda business with her. She gathered all her information from other wives at the market and the owner of the grocery shop who was loquacious to the nth degree.

Crime normally involved the stealing of sheep and turf, kidnapping of rams to increase sheep production, the odd burglary, riding bicycles without a red light and other crimes of that order. Being Kerry there were on-going agrarian problems some for decades that would occasionally end up in murder. Being different to the other crimes my mother would take a particular interest in them. After doing the shopping she would confidentially tell my father at lunch time:
'It was John Stack who killed the Poor Crature Murphy'.
My father would digest this new lead
'Is that a fact?'
'It is Tom, the grocer told me only this morning'

Later my mother would find out that my father had only just arrested Con Lehane for the murder and he had pleaded guilty. My mother would be raging he had not let her know. The shame, not to mention the loss of prestige in the grocery shop and market, would be unbearable.

Life and crime continued at this leisurely pace.
It was predictable. Then there came Paddy O'Sullivan.

Paddy O'Sullivan was a small man with dark hair and piercing ice blue eyes who lived in the far end of Listowel town, married with 6 children and a patient hard working wife. He was unemployed and drew the dole each week on a Wednesday. Life was hard but Paddy was happy and content with his lot. He did occasional work when he could get it and he had the reputation of being an honest, hard worker and was respected by local people.

Paddy did not have any trade skills that he could sell on the building sites in England like his contemporaries, who were busy building air fields and fortifications for the Allies.

Then again maybe he was not interested in leaving the town of Listowel where he was happy. However he had one natural skill that served him well. He was a superb fisherman and this was the main support of his family. One salmon a week helped to bring some level of comfort into their lives. It was never over-done except for holiday weekends, school books or other special occasions. It was not Paddy's style to overdo things. He liked life quiet and unobtrusive. It is a philosophy in Kerry 'we won't preten a word' as they say in the local vernacular.

His crime of course was that he was fishing without a licence that cost two shillings and six pence, 25 cents in today's money. Even that small sum was not within his reach. Neither did he feel he should pay for a licence either.

The fishing rights of the Feale River that ran through the town of Listowel were held by Lord Listowel, who was then Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in Westminster, London. There was some royal charter going back to ancient times when lands were being dispensed to the landlords. Since Independence the Lord had not really exercised his rights.

The Garda were aware of Paddy's activities but there was an undeclared 'gentleman's agreement' between them. He did not poison the river with chemicals that killed the fauna and young fish as other poachers selfishly did. This effected the number of fish running in the river the following year. As long as he took the odd salmon as family support, they ignored the fact he did not have a licence. What is more, many of the Garda themselves had fought in the War of Independence and felt that maybe what Paddy was doing was what they had fought for.

However life was to change.

Lord Listowel was informed by his agent of Paddy's heinous crime. He wrote to his counterpart in the Irish Government the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries in Dublin.

'His river was being disgracefully poached and the police are doing absolutely nothing about it, what was the country coming to, actually this was a complete break down of law and order that would definitely encourage miscreants and mischief making leading to more dire consequences; actually one can only stand appalled'!

In due course the file arrived on my father's desk requesting information for a reply to this charge. In civil administration there is nothing more time-consuming or irritating than the ongoing file. It becomes a letter writing competition as additional information and further clarifications are requested. The recipient's objective is to kill the file quickly and once and for all. So the reply had to be water tight, factually accurate, and concise. There should be no loop hole. Kill the file in one blow. This required careful thought and planning. The Garda applied all their professional police skills honed on apprehending sheep stealers, kidnappers of rams and riding bicycles without a red light to this task. And they came up with what they considered a brilliant solution.

Paddy's mid morning routine was to fish the pool at the rear of the Stand on the Listowel Race Course. The pool was ideal for fishing and he was near his market for his produce. The two latest arrivals that had just completed their training in the Garda Depot in the Phoenix Park, Dublin (then the Garda Training Centre) would be sent to the Stand in the Race Course to stake out the fishing pool there. When Paddy caught a salmon, as undoubtedly he would, he would be arrested with the rod and salmon. He would be charged with poaching in that he was fishing without a licence. My father would arrange with the District Justice to fine Paddy two and sixpence and upbraid him in public court about his criminal activities. The Garda would pay the fine (a penny or one cent each) and Paddy would have the salmon. Justice would be done. Lord Listowel would be assured that law and order had been restored in North Kerry and the file would be terminated. What more could anyone ask for in life?

The two young Garda were dispatched to the Race Course and hid in the Stand. As the criminologists at the Barracks had predicted Paddy arrived and by mid morning had caught a salmon. The Garda rushed out calling on Paddy to put down the rod and salmon, he was under arrest. Paddy taken unawares panicked and ran across the weir into a small wood. By the time the Garda had taken of their shoes, socks and rolled up their trousers Paddy had vanished. He now knew the Garda had developed a new and very disturbing change of policy. Disaster for the Garda as he knew the river well and could continue fishing any where in its 65 miles length with impunity. The two young Garda could see their careers going up in smoke; the Barrack Sergeant was faced with telling my father that he had failed to implement a simple plan.

The even tenure of Barrack life was seriously disrupted by this arch criminal Paddy O'Sullivan (he had come up a grade) and worse my father now faced a long and trying correspondence with the Department. An air of doom and gloom descended on the Barracks. The Barrack party assembled to contemplate plan B.

The case would be taken on circumstantial evidence. The two Garda would swear they saw Paddy catch a salmon and evade arrest. Paddy would be arrested immediately, told he was being unreasonable and encouraged to plead guilty. The District Justice would fine him. The Sergeant started collecting the fine immediately from the rest of the Garda. Paddy would have the salmon. The new plan was presented to my father. He was not very happy about it. It was not as water tight as he would have liked but under the circumstances it was the best alternative.

Lunch in our house always followed the same ritual. We would come in from school before my father, who would arrive at the stroke of one o'clock. My mother would fuss around serving food, encouraging us to eat more vegetables and remonstrating with us for wearing our good shoes on a dry day. They were only to be worn going to Mass on Sunday. On this day my father arrived in a grumpy humour. My mother enquired about the crime scene and most unusually for my father he replied there was serious trouble brewing in the Barracks. He would have to go back early. For my mother it was like a lighting conductor. This was the stuff of scintillating grocery shop conversations. To show she was there for her husband in times of trouble and also to press the advantage in case more detailed information was available.
My mother announced with a great flourish:

'Tom I have a great surprise for you for supper this evening, I bought a salmon for half nothing from Paddy O'Sullivan'.

There was what is called in literature a pregnant pause.

It was the first marital row we had ever seen in our house. My father went berserk; my mother was annoyed with him and told him he was being completely unreasonable. She was trying to make ends meet in these difficult times and trying her best to put wholesome food on our table. In addition it was only common charity to help unfortunates when they were in trouble. We scattered back to school early.

Paddy knew he was in deep trouble with law and order enforcement. He knew something unusual had occurred to have prompted the Garda to make such a serious policy change and revoke the 'gentleman's agreement'. Even if he fished elsewhere it meant walking long distances and worse coming home with the salmon. The Garda would not let this pass. He applied his criminal mind to come up with a plan. Apparently he had sold salmon to my mother before unknown to my father (although now he began to suspect it) for the going black market rate of a £1 - that was 50% off the fish monger's price. My mother was by no means a mean woman but she was careful. Any savings she could make in the household budget were triumphs for her. My longest memory as a small boy was wearing blue trousers made from my father's old uniforms.

Paddy had earlier come to our door straight from the crime scene. His price was 10 schillings - he needed medicine urgently for his young daughter. Under the circumstances my mother offered him his going rate of a £1 or would lend him the money. He replied that they came from good stock. They were never beggars. A man had his pride. Paddy knew of course my mother would not be able to resist the bargain and the deal was done for 10 schillings.

Every law enforcement officer in North Kerry was dispatched on a man hunt. Plan B worked. Paddy, after some encouragement, pleaded guilty. The file was closed. The Garda arranged a job for Paddy with the County Council repairing roads. Perhaps they saw it as hard labour that such a criminal deserved. But also the salmon season was coming to an end and he did have to support a family. He also had to agree not to sell any more salmon to the Superintendent's wife.

Success and relief all around but we had a silent poached salmon supper that night. Some years later the arch criminal Paddy O'Sullivan invited my father and mother to the graduation of his daughter at University College, Cork. They both attended, my father in full uniform as it was a formal occasion. In the criminal sub-culture of the 1940s Listowel there was both honour and respect.

Michael Mulcahy

This story was spotted by an eagle eyed blog follower. It is published on a site called Ireland Information which has lots of interesting stuff in it. Many older people will remember Superintendent Mulcahy, and Micheal, his son. Michael visited Listowel only last year and met up with some old friends.

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