It was Joe Dillon who introduced the Wild West to us. He had a little

library made up of old numbers of _The Union Jack_, _Pluck_ and _The

Halfpenny Marvel_. Every evening after school we met in his back garden

and arranged Indian battles. He and his fat young brother Leo, the

idler, held the loft of the stable while we tried to carry it by storm;

or we fought a pitched battle on the grass. But, however well we

fought, we never won siege or battle and all our bouts ended with Joe

Dillon’s war dance of victory. His parents went to eight-o’clock mass

every morning in Gardiner Street and the peaceful odour of Mrs Dillon

was prevalent in the hall of the house. But he played too fiercely for

us who were younger and more timid. He looked like some kind of an

Indian when he capered round the garden, an old tea-cosy on his head,

beating a tin with his fist and yelling:

“Ya! yaka, yaka, yaka!”

Everyone was incredulous when it was reported that he had a vocation

for the priesthood. Nevertheless it was true.

A spirit of unruliness diffused itself among us and, under its

influence, differences of culture and constitution were waived. We

banded ourselves together, some boldly, some in jest and some almost in

fear: and of the number of these latter, the reluctant Indians who were

afraid to seem studious or lacking in robustness, I was one. The

adventures related in the literature of the Wild West were remote from

my nature but, at least, they opened doors of escape. I liked better

some American detective stories which were traversed from time to time

by unkempt fierce and beautiful girls. Though there was nothing wrong

in these stories and though their intention was sometimes literary they

were circulated secretly at school. One day when Father Butler was

hearing the four pages of Roman History clumsy Leo Dillon was

discovered with a copy of _The Halfpenny Marvel_.

“This page or this page? This page? Now, Dillon, up! _‘Hardly had the

day’…._ Go on! What day? _‘Hardly had the day dawned’…._ Have you

studied it? What have you there in your pocket?”

Everyone’s heart palpitated as Leo Dillon handed up the paper and

everyone assumed an innocent face. Father Butler turned over the pages,


“What is this rubbish?” he said. “_The Apache Chief!_ Is this what you

read instead of studying your Roman History? Let me not find any more

of this wretched stuff in this college. The man who wrote it, I

suppose, was some wretched fellow who writes these things for a drink.

I’m surprised at boys like you, educated, reading such stuff. I could

understand it if you were … National School boys. Now, Dillon, I

advise you strongly, get at your work or….”

This rebuke during the sober hours of school paled much of the glory of

the Wild West for me and the confused puffy face of Leo Dillon awakened

one of my consciences. But when the restraining influence of the school

was at a distance I began to hunger again for wild sensations, for the

escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer me. The

mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the

routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to

happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to

people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.

The summer holidays were near at hand when I made up my mind to break

out of the weariness of school-life for one day at least. With Leo

Dillon and a boy named Mahony I planned a day’s miching. Each of us

saved up sixpence. We were to meet at ten in the morning on the Canal

Bridge. Mahony’s big sister was to write an excuse for him and Leo

Dillon was to tell his brother to say he was sick. We arranged to go

along the Wharf Road until we came to the ships, then to cross in the

ferryboat and walk out to see the Pigeon House. Leo Dillon was afraid

we might meet Father Butler or someone out of the college; but Mahony

asked, very sensibly, what would Father Butler be doing out at the

Pigeon House. We were reassured: and I brought the first stage of the

plot to an end by collecting sixpence from the other two, at the same

time showing them my own sixpence. When we were making the last

arrangements on the eve we were all vaguely excited. We shook hands,

laughing, and Mahony said:

“Till tomorrow, mates!”

That night I slept badly. In the morning I was first-comer to the

bridge as I lived nearest. I hid my books in the long grass near the

ashpit at the end of the garden where nobody ever came and hurried

along the canal bank. It was a mild sunny morning in the first week of

June. I sat up on the coping of the bridge admiring my frail canvas

shoes which I had diligently pipeclayed overnight and watching the

docile horses pulling a tramload of business people up the hill. All

the branches of the tall trees which lined the mall were gay with

little light green leaves and the sunlight slanted through them on to

the water. The granite stone of the bridge was beginning to be warm and

I began to pat it with my hands in time to an air in my head. I was

very happy.

When I had been sitting there for five or ten minutes I saw Mahony’s

grey suit approaching. He came up the hill, smiling, and clambered up

beside me on the bridge. While we were waiting he brought out the

catapult which bulged from his inner pocket and explained some

improvements which he had made in it. I asked him why he had brought it

and he told me he had brought it to have some gas with the birds.

Mahony used slang freely, and spoke of Father Butler as Old Bunser. We

waited on for a quarter of an hour more but still there was no sign of

Leo Dillon. Mahony, at last, jumped down and said:

“Come along. I knew Fatty’d funk it.”

“And his sixpence…?” I said.

“That’s forfeit,” said Mahony. “And so much the better for us—a bob and

a tanner instead of a bob.”

We walked along the North Strand Road till we came to the Vitriol Works

and then turned to the right along the Wharf Road. Mahony began to play

the Indian as soon as we were out of public sight. He chased a crowd of

ragged girls, brandishing his unloaded catapult and, when two ragged

boys began, out of chivalry, to fling stones at us, he proposed that we

should charge them. I objected that the boys were too small and so we

walked on, the ragged troop screaming after us: _“Swaddlers!

Swaddlers!”_ thinking that we were Protestants because Mahony, who was

dark-complexioned, wore the silver badge of a cricket club in his cap.

When we came to the Smoothing Iron we arranged a siege; but it was a

failure because you must have at least three. We revenged ourselves on

Leo Dillon by saying what a funk he was and guessing how many he would

get at three o’clock from Mr Ryan.

We came then near the river. We spent a long time walking about the

noisy streets flanked by high stone walls, watching the working of

cranes and engines and often being shouted at for our immobility by the

drivers of groaning carts. It was noon when we reached the quays and,

as all the labourers seemed to be eating their lunches, we bought two

big currant buns and sat down to eat them on some metal piping beside

the river. We pleased ourselves with the spectacle of Dublin’s

commerce—the barges signalled from far away by their curls of woolly

smoke, the brown fishing fleet beyond Ringsend, the big white

sailing-vessel which was being discharged on the opposite quay. Mahony

said it would be right skit to run away to sea on one of those big

ships and even I, looking at the high masts, saw, or imagined, the

geography which had been scantily dosed to me at school gradually

taking substance under my eyes. School and home seemed to recede from

us and their influences upon us seemed to wane.

We crossed the Liffey in the ferryboat, paying our toll to be

transported in the company of two labourers and a little Jew with a

bag. We were serious to the point of solemnity, but once during the

short voyage our eyes met and we laughed. When we landed we watched the

discharging of the graceful threemaster which we had observed from the

other quay. Some bystander said that she was a Norwegian vessel. I went

to the stern and tried to decipher the legend upon it but, failing to

do so, I came back and examined the foreign sailors to see had any of

them green eyes for I had some confused notion…. The sailors’ eyes

were blue and grey and even black. The only sailor whose eyes could

have been called green was a tall man who amused the crowd on the quay

by calling out cheerfully every time the planks fell:

“All right! All right!”

When we were tired of this sight we wandered slowly into Ringsend. The

day had grown sultry, and in the windows of the grocers’ shops musty

biscuits lay bleaching. We bought some biscuits and chocolate which we

ate sedulously as we wandered through the squalid streets where the

families of the fishermen live. We could find no dairy and so we went

into a huckster’s shop and bought a bottle of raspberry lemonade each.

Refreshed by this, Mahony chased a cat down a lane, but the cat escaped

into a wide field. We both felt rather tired and when we reached the

field we made at once for a sloping bank over the ridge of which we

could see the Dodder.

It was too late and we were too tired to carry out our project of

visiting the Pigeon House. We had to be home before four o’clock lest

our adventure should be discovered. Mahony looked regretfully at his

catapult and I had to suggest going home by train before he regained

any cheerfulness. The sun went in behind some clouds and left us to our

jaded thoughts and the crumbs of our provisions.

There was nobody but ourselves in the field. When we had lain on the

bank for some time without speaking I saw a man approaching from the

far end of the field. I watched him lazily as I chewed one of those

green stems on which girls tell fortunes. He came along by the bank

slowly. He walked with one hand upon his hip and in the other hand he

held a stick with which he tapped the turf lightly. He was shabbily

dressed in a suit of greenish-black and wore what we used to call a

jerry hat with a high crown. He seemed to be fairly old for his

moustache was ashen-grey. When he passed at our feet he glanced up at

us quickly and then continued his way. We followed him with our eyes

and saw that when he had gone on for perhaps fifty paces he turned

about and began to retrace his steps. He walked towards us very slowly,

always tapping the ground with his stick, so slowly that I thought he

was looking for something in the grass.

He stopped when he came level with us and bade us good-day. We answered

him and he sat down beside us on the slope slowly and with great care.

He began to talk of the weather, saying that it would be a very hot

summer and adding that the seasons had changed greatly since he was a

boy—a long time ago. He said that the happiest time of one’s life was

undoubtedly one’s schoolboy days and that he would give anything to be

young again. While he expressed these sentiments which bored us a

little we kept silent. Then he began to talk of school and of books. He

asked us whether we had read the poetry of Thomas Moore or the works of

Sir Walter Scott and Lord Lytton. I pretended that I had read every

book he mentioned so that in the end he said:

“Ah, I can see you are a bookworm like myself. Now,” he added, pointing

to Mahony who was regarding us with open eyes, “he is different; he

goes in for games.”

He said he had all Sir Walter Scott’s works and all Lord Lytton’s works

at home and never tired of reading them. “Of course,” he said, “there

were some of Lord Lytton’s works which boys couldn’t read.” Mahony

asked why couldn’t boys read them—a question which agitated and pained

me because I was afraid the man would think I was as stupid as Mahony.

The man, however, only smiled. I saw that he had great gaps in his

mouth between his yellow teeth. Then he asked us which of us had the

most sweethearts. Mahony mentioned lightly that he had three totties.

The man asked me how many had I. I answered that I had none. He did not

believe me and said he was sure I must have one. I was silent.

“Tell us,” said Mahony pertly to the man, “how many have you yourself?”

The man smiled as before and said that when he was our age he had lots

of sweethearts.

“Every boy,” he said, “has a little sweetheart.”

His attitude on this point struck me as strangely liberal in a man of

his age. In my heart I thought that what he said about boys and

sweethearts was reasonable. But I disliked the words in his mouth and I

wondered why he shivered once or twice as if he feared something or

felt a sudden chill. As he proceeded I noticed that his accent was

good. He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair

they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so

good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked,

he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white

hands and her beautiful soft hair. He gave me the impression that he

was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that,

magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly

circling round and round in the same orbit. At times he spoke as if he

were simply alluding to some fact that everybody knew, and at times he

lowered his voice and spoke mysteriously as if he were telling us

something secret which he did not wish others to overhear. He repeated

his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with

his monotonous voice. I continued to gaze towards the foot of the

slope, listening to him.

After a long while his monologue paused. He stood up slowly, saying

that he had to leave us for a minute or so, a few minutes, and, without

changing the direction of my gaze, I saw him walking slowly away from

us towards the near end of the field. We remained silent when he had

gone. After a silence of a few minutes I heard Mahony exclaim:

“I say! Look what he’s doing!”

As I neither answered nor raised my eyes Mahony exclaimed again:

“I say…. He’s a queer old josser!”

“In case he asks us for our names,” I said, “let you be Murphy and I’ll

be Smith.”

We said nothing further to each other. I was still considering whether

I would go away or not when the man came back and sat down beside us

again. Hardly had he sat down when Mahony, catching sight of the cat

which had escaped him, sprang up and pursued her across the field. The

man and I watched the chase. The cat escaped once more and Mahony began

to throw stones at the wall she had escaladed. Desisting from this, he

began to wander about the far end of the field, aimlessly.

After an interval the man spoke to me. He said that my friend was a

very rough boy and asked did he get whipped often at school. I was

going to reply indignantly that we were not National School boys to be

whipped, as he called it; but I remained silent. He began to speak on

the subject of chastising boys. His mind, as if magnetised again by his

speech, seemed to circle slowly round and round its new centre. He said

that when boys were that kind they ought to be whipped and well

whipped. When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him

any good but a good sound whipping. A slap on the hand or a box on the

ear was no good: what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping. I was

surprised at this sentiment and involuntarily glanced up at his face.

As I did so I met the gaze of a pair of bottle-green eyes peering at me

from under a twitching forehead. I turned my eyes away again.

The man continued his monologue. He seemed to have forgotten his recent

liberalism. He said that if ever he found a boy talking to girls or

having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that

would teach him not to be talking to girls. And if a boy had a girl for

a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a

whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was

nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me

how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate

mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this

world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery,

grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should

understand him.

I waited till his monologue paused again. Then I stood up abruptly.

Lest I should betray my agitation I delayed a few moments pretending to

fix my shoe properly and then, saying that I was obliged to go, I bade

him good-day. I went up the slope calmly but my heart was beating

quickly with fear that he would seize me by the ankles. When I reached

the top of the slope I turned round and, without looking at him, called

loudly across the field:


My voice had an accent of forced bravery in it and I was ashamed of my

paltry stratagem. I had to call the name again before Mahony saw me and

hallooed in answer. How my heart beat as he came running across the

field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in

my heart I had always despised him a little.

Shaws and Goolees

%d bloggers like this: