My local was a small roadside pub, just beyond the Leitrim border, on an otherwise empty stretch of the regional road leading into Sligo. It is closed now. The license has been sold. Most people called it Vincie’s; the old ones called it Hargadan’s. A round sign protruded high over its outer door, set at ninety-degrees to the facade. I am tempted to say it was a Guinness ad. It could have been Smithwicks. In my early days – and I was a late arrival to the scene, well into my 40s – the pub was one small, cramped room with a row of knee-high tables, a bench against the window near the fireplace, and a bar where most of us stood. Down one end a low door led to what we called the jacks. Dozens of stools and small chairs were pulled up to the tables, when necessary, stacked out of the way when not. A tiny ante room at the entry provided a second door against cold winds, and the only way in or out often required a bit of intimacy passing through it.
Vincie would light a coal fire in the hearth at the gable wall about 8:30 in the evening, just after he opened. He’d occupy himself behind the bar, wiping, polishing, plying us with familiar riddles and political complaints. I was often among the early arrivals. Sometimes, on a weeknight, Martin would already be there, nursing an early pint and talking about his work with the Electricity Supply Board, travelling around northwest Ireland, assessing storm damages to the grid. Sometimes I had Vincie’s company to myself for an hour before the hinge on the vestibule door squeaked and we turned to see who’d come to join us. As the few coals started to glow, the grousing about the cold slowly subsided, the chat started, and a sense of community flickered into life.
Vincie’s wife was rarely on early duty. Catherine was a stout and sternly opinionated woman who hailed from Dublin. She often lit a fresh cigarette from the still-lit butt of a previous one, a heavy cough breaking up her laughter over some muttered gossip which amused her. I think she relied on my often missing her drift. I didn’t always catch what she’d said, muttered softly and so fast, covering my ignorance with a laugh, a failing that stood me well with some at Vincie’s, and rendered me tedious to others. If Catherine was gruff, she was kind to me, attentive to my observations and enthusiasms. She and I would conspire sometimes about our both being blow-ins. As the publican’s wife, she maintained that identity by choice, a useful buffer between herself and the regulars.
On Fridays nights – and some Sunday evenings – a communal game of 25 ran through the early evening hours. Players sat on short stools facing each with their knees against the laminated tables, their 50-pence coins tossed into the ante. My introduction to the game, after observing it unfold for months, was to be dealt in and then fined again and again for a series of infractions that had never been explained to me. I could see this amused everyone, though they weren’t about to show it. Hands were dealt, beer mats moved around to soak up the Guinness foam, and cards were claimed, sorted and tossed on to the table, face up, in a crescendo of competitive plays. Calls for another pint flowed up the table. The pint – after a slow draw – was passed back down, a fiver for it sent up, and the change passed down again. What with the game, the pints, the cash and the cigarettes in and out of every other person’s hand, a great deal of manual dexterity was required.
Later in the evening, after Gay Byrne wrapped The Late, Late Show, Vincie turned the telly off and a welcome quiet settled in. The conversational volume dropped, as we could now hear each other. Depending on the evening’s karma, or the quantity of pints and shorts consumed, someone might dare a song. Eugene might sing The Transit Van, a crowd-pleaser whose double entendres escaped me. Or I would urge Charlie to sing Only Our Rivers Run Free, which always introduced a bit of melancholy. My “party song” was The Water is Wide. The first time I sang it, feeling every bit the blow-in, everyone hushed, everyone listened. After that, when I was called on for it, I felt a part of the room, a part of Vincie’s.
On a good night, which the law dictated was to end at 12:30, last call was signaled a few minutes before closing time. Pints and shots amassed along the counter as Vincie and Catherine poured them, somehow keeping track of the order in which they were to be passed down, and to whom. Shades were pulled tight against windows. An even more intimate calm settled on the room, and with it an animating spirit that sometimes moved even the shyest patrons to volunteer their own party piece, one after the other. Another pint or two after that might be had, if ordered with discretion. The trick was not to acknowledge that such a thing was happening. Deniability was key. Catherine would determine the final curtain, sometimes telegraphed by a chorus of Good Night, Irene. We were eased out into the pitch-black and often rainy night to find our keys and our cars, smiles and fraternal affection on everyone’s face.
Sunday Mass was at the chapel in Newtownmanor, just down the hill from my house. I had been a regular Mass-goer throughout most of my life. I drifted away in my twenties, but by my early thirties Mass was part of my weekly rhythm – work the week, play the weekend, pray the Sabbath. I was no longer working the week, but I still had Saturday play and Sunday prayer. The chapel was rededicated in 1990 and renamed Church of Mary, The Mother of God, long after it had been replaced as the parish church by St. Patrick’s in Dromahair, where the priest lives. The priest said weekly mass for both, as well as for St. Brigid’s in Killargue, due to the “shortage of vocations.” I was never inside it before its renovation, before I moved to Leckaun, before it was given the plain blond-wood altar that now sits in the central nave, with blond-wood pews arrayed around it in a kind of theater-in-the-half-round. The floor is carpeted and one of its walls bears homemade frescoes of florid biblical scenes. Locals complain that there is no central aisle for brides to process up at weddings, or for caskets to be carried down after funerals. Behind the altar, above the celebrant’s chair, a stained-glass window is preserved from earlier days. Mary has fallen into a bundle of grief at the foot of a pale, crucified Jesus, whose alabaster-like flesh modulates the sunlight that swings from bright to cloudy.
In the days I still went there, I was coaxed by Marcella into singing with the choir. We met on Tuesday evenings for an hour’s practice under her tutelage. The sexton opened the church ahead of our arrival, which for half of the liturgical year would have been well after dark. If he turned on the heating system there was no sign of it. A large stone building standing unheated all week in the cold, wet climate of North Leitrim through the Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Lenten seasons gathers unto itself a profound chill. What I remember most about choir practice was the cold. Marcella had an adequate grasp of keyboard and conducting skills, but her aspirations for musical excellence were, in all fairness, a bit beyond our reach.
The vibe in the chapel on Sunday morning was a different vibe from Vincie’s on Saturday night. Worshippers were reluctant to chat, to even acknowledge each other as we arrived, parked our cars, climbed the path leading up to the door, and walked inside. Sometimes a nod and the mention of a neighbor’s name – “How’s Mary?” – would be returned with a silent nod, but most everyone maintained a silent, eyes-front vigilance. Mute as we filed in, and mute as we slid down the long pews to accommodate neighbors arriving after us. In the lull before Mass someone would lead the recitation of what I called a speed-rosary, set at such a clip that I simply couldn’t get out the “Holy Mary, Mother of God…” before the next “Hail Mary, full of grace…” rolled in. Here were life-long friends sitting stone faced, in awkward silence, staring at each other – or pretending to look over each other’s heads – across the semi-circular pew arrangement. I had trouble reconciling the wispy, unwilling hymn-singing emanating from these Sunday congregants with the night before, when many of them had heart-felt songs to offer, in solo performance, to the very neighbors sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with them now. But we worshipped together, and we shared communion, which is what we came for. Never the wine, only the wafer.
Our church-now-chapel was built in 1825 to replace the even older St. Patrick’s farther down the hill at Carrickatemple. The rise where that once stood, with its own view of the manor, bears only a trace of its walls, and is now overrun by its graveyard. Our dead are buried in the newer graveyard next to the chapel, but the hallowed ground of Carrickatemple still receives a few remains from families with roots deep enough to maintain burial rights there. In August, on the Feast of the Assumption, we processed through both burial grounds for the Blessing of the Graves. Cars lined the berms of the narrow road that runs from the chapel down to Carrickatemple, down through our verdant, rolling manor that sits above Lough Gill and below O’Rourke’s Table. At the chapel burial ground, the priest led us in a decade of the rosary through his bullhorn while we walked among the dead and he sprinkled the graves with Holy Water. Then we wended down the road, toward Moneyduff, through what are now the newly restored gates and car park of Carrickatemple, and we did the same for the souls interred there.
I still visit Carrickatemple from time to time. All the graves face east; it is the custom to bury the dead so they “face the rising sun.” I look down from the top gate, where a stone stile is set into the wall, and I can read the names of families who regenerated themselves through the many tribulations inherent in this timeless place. A few new headstones, recently commissioned to honor the long-departed, bear the sheen of fresh black marble, their litany of names etched in gold-leaf. One monument remembers Mary, aged 60 years (died 1908) and her daughter Maggie, aged 19 years (died 1895) and her husband James, aged 90 years (died 1919) and their son Michael (died 1933) and his wife Nora, (died 1940), also their daughter Bea (died 1968) and their son Thomas (died 1980) also Frank (died 1923) and his wife Sarah (died 1932) and their son Michael (died 1987) and his brother James (died 2004) and his wife Bridie (died 2004). Other markers – some new some weathered – honor other souls.
I exit from the lower gate, at the western end, and as I turn to close the hasp all I see are the uncarved, unmarked backs of those headstones. It is as if I were standing in the last row of bleachers, with my view toward some important moment – or long-gone church – blocked by the hunched-over, silent backs of all the dead. No longer in communion with one other.
Buy Waltzing a Two-Step
“Dan Juday’s Waltzing A Two-Step: Reckoning Family, Faith, and Self is a coming-of-age memoir that is a must-read. A compassionate journey of self-acceptance that follows Dan Juday from the rural communities of Indiana, across Europe, and among the East Coast searching for a life well-lived.”
—Chanticleer Book Reviews
More from Dan Juday's Blog
I talked my sister into travelling from Indianapolis to Chicago on a Greyhound bus. I was back in...
From Palermo eastward to Messina, then south along the straits across from mainland Italy, Sicily...
Years ago, I came across a bound set of dated motivational posters in a bookshop in New York. I...