by Emer Mahoney
Tales from my mother-in-law of early 20th-century Ireland.
It was not yet dawn when the little girl came to the door. Ellen let her in with a smile; “Mary, you’ll have some breakfast.”
“Breakfast! The crows will have me corn torn apart so she can have breakfast? Don’t you know this is the time they attack?” Her husband growled, annoyed at being out of his warm bed so early.
“Mary, sit by the fire. It is a cold morning.”
“I’ve had breakfast, Mrs. Fahy. Thank you.”
“Let’s get off. I’ll be looking for a proper breakfast when I come back. Bread and tea, what kind of a start is that?”
Off he went grumbling. The pony and trap were ready. The trap went lopsided on his side and little Mary Conneely held on to dear life on her side. Ellen sighed at the picture, the fat man and the child. Catherine, Mary’s mother and Ellen’s friend, had confided in her that Mary was terrified that fat greedy Mr. Fahy would roll over and crush her.
Ellen went to cooking up some bacon. He would be back stuffing his face while the girl ran about the big field throwing stones at crows. The field where the old fever hospital stood. A place where the veil between the living and the dead seemed torn, rent by despair. It was sixty odd years since cholera and typhus swept the area. Even now, in the new 20th century, people were afraid of that old house, which was sliding into ruin, taken over by crows. A mass grave lay behind it. Maybe the hungry crows were the souls who had passed on during the Gorta Mór, the great hunger.
Old Fever Hospital
Little Mary out there at dawn with her bag of stones gathered from the shore. All for a few pennies. Life was not fair.
Catherine agreed so long as Mary was back in time for school. Fahy laughed at that; “Schooling for them without property is only mischief-making.” But he always brought Mary to school.
Catherine Conneely was not to be trifled with. Ellen thought back to the day Catherine had sailed into Kinvara on her own boat, her nephews as crew, a tall proud O’Flaherty from west Connemara, and the laughter and the music that filled the quay.
When Galway was a walled town, the northern gate had an inscription over it: “From the fury of the O’Flahertys may heaven preserve us.”
The north face of the clock tower of St. Nicholas was blank. Galway would not give the O’Flahertys the time of day.
Catherine O’Flaherty Conneely was not trifled with.
Ellen envied that strength. She had long since given into Fahy. It wasn’t much of a marriage, more a property merger. And when there were no children, Fahy took to the fork again.
Now Ellen was dying. She knew it. Everyone knew it. And it was coming fast. Too fast. Fahy would quote some ould biddy saying: “It’s as well to die in June as in July.”
It was easy to him. Now autumn was upon us, and Mrs. Fahy hadn’t had a chance to carry out her plan. Today would be a start; her sister Nora was coming to stay. She would take Ellen’s side.
By October, the battle lines in the household were understood by all. Fahy was not going to have his wife going to any solicitor or any solicitor coming to her. All visitors were viewed with deep suspicion. Catherine Conneely came often with carrageen moss for the chest, or camomile for a soothing tea. It was rare she got past the door.
As Ellen got sicker, Fahy grew cocky. This woman that had brought him no child would leave him wealthy on her death. He made his own plans. Today would be a start.
* * *
D’Arcy the JP was not convinced of his plan. “I don’t know, John. You’d need an army to pull that off.”
“Sergeant Reilly and a couple of constables are plenty. Tomasin will be at sea, and it will be over and done with when he comes back.”
“You have to give notice.”
“Notice? Are you mad?”
“Legally you have to give notice.”
“Alright, but you sign the papers. Are you afraid?”
“That Conneely woman near gave me a black eye throwing a loaf of bread at me. Saying I should give it back to the rats I took it from. What sort of thing is that to say about a business?” D’Arcy rubbed his face apprehensively. “Besides you can’t do it until your wife dies and you own it.”
“That won’t be long.”
“How is it going with the young one?” D’Arcy had married in twice so to speak. His first wife was sickly, her niece came to nurse her, and D’Arcy married the niece when the wife died. That kept the land in the bloodline and avoided bad feeling.
“Ah! Let’s stick to the matter at hand—”
“There’s great convenience when you’ve a young woman already under your roof. You’ll hardly be going to the rambling houses and dances now,” D’Arcy twittered.
“Sign the piece of paper and mind your own business.”
“I suppose there is always the matchmaker—”
“Do I have to put the pen into your hand, D’Arcy?” Fahy was getting annoyed.
“Mrs. Conneely need not know that I signed it.”
“I won’t tell her.”
* * *
Ellen saw him leave from her window.
ELLEN: What is that rogue up to? He has a look about him today I don’t like.
NORA: What do you mean?
ELLEN: Full of self-importance. He’s up to some mischief. That man wakes at night thinking to advance himself at other’s expense and while I have breath in me—
NORA: Don’t be upsetting yourself, Ellen.
ELLEN: I see Mary Conneely out there. Tell her to have her mother come up.
Mrs Conneely soon came.
CATHERINE: Mrs. Fahy, you’re sitting up, now that’s a sight to warm the heart.
ELLEN: Mrs. Conneely, a body can get awful tired of being poorly, and God knows I’ve had my share.
CATHERINE: You’ve had more than your share. It doesn’t seem right when the good suffer so much.
ELLEN: Catherine, you’ve been more to me than a tenant; you’ve been a good neighbour and a great friend. My husband is up to no good. It’s high time I did something to thwart him.
NORA: Mind yourself, Ellen, sit easy.
ELLEN: Nora, you are my sister and closest relation; I have in mind to do something for Catherine before God takes me. I won’t get to the solicitor, so you must witness this. Catherine Conneely, my dear friend, I would like you to have as your own the house on the quay that you have lived in since you came to Kinvara.
CATHERINE: You are far too good. Ellen, if he hears, he’ll surely make trouble for you.
ELLEN: Where I’m going, he can make no trouble.
CATHERINE: God forbid anything would happen to you, Ellen.
ELLEN: Oh, Catherine, my days are numbered, but I can have peace now.
NORA: I’ll make sure your wish is carried out! Oh, Ellen, you deserved better than him.
ELLEN: I had no choice in the arrangement. Ah, he can’t help the way he is. Greed has him eaten up.
CATHERINE: He never bested you, Ellen.
ELLEN: Catherine, you’ve been a dear friend. I had not many kindnesses in my home, so your kindness, freely given, meant all the more to me. I’m easy in my mind now. He can’t evict you now!
NORA: I’ll will go to the solicitor myself and swear to what I’ve witnessed.
ELLEN: He could brazen it out — that worries me — that he would barge ahead and enlist his friends in the police.
CATHERINE: Don’t worry now. You own the house, he doesn’t.
ELLEN: No, Catherine. You own the house. That is my wish.
CATHERINE: I don’t know what to say. How can I thank you?
ELLEN: Just make sure you are not swindled out of it.
* * *
Fahy came back as the women were finishing tea.
FAHY: I’ll come by the house to collect the rent when it is due, Mrs. Conneely. There’s no need for you to be skulking around here.
MRS FAHY: John, it’s often Catherine Conneely would be the only friendly face I’d see from one day to the next, until my sister came to stay.
FAHY: A man has no comfort in his own home!
CATHERINE: Ellen, I’ll talk to you again.
Nora walked Catherine to the door. Fahy stood at the window watching.
FAHY: What is that woman up to? Hah? Skulking about a dying woman,
Conneely house photographed in 1950s
ELLEN: John, I’m shocked! Even for you! This is a new low. Catherine has always been a good friend to me!
FAHY: She can afford to be nice and the pittance they pay.
ELLEN: The Conneelys have lived there as long as I can remember, since my father’s time.
FAHY: Ellen, don’t be foolish. English gentlemen pay a lot, I’m told, for fishing cottages; that is the way of the future.
ELLEN: Call me what you please, John Fahy, I own the house.
* * *
That night, Ellen passed away, her sister beside her. Nora went to the quay to tell Catherine.
CATHERINE (blessing herself): Ar deis Dé go raibh a anam. Mo fior chara. (May her soul be on the right side of God. My true friend.) Poor Ellen, she seemed so strong last night.
NORA: I was there at the end. She went peacefully. I sat holding her hand until he came barging in. Then even he seemed to soften, thanking God that she had found peace, saying it was straight up to heaven she had gone.
CATHERINE: Maybe the illness was hard on him, too.
* * *
Ellen was only a night in the ground when Fahy showed how soft he had gotten. Nora followed him out, saw him go the barracks and emerge with the Sergeant and two constables, and the lot tramp down to the quay to Conneely’s house.
FAHY: Conneely, open the door. I have the law with me.
CATHERINE (opens door): Fahy, how dare you shout at us like that.
REILLY: Where’s your husband, Mrs. Conneely?
CATHERINE: At sea.
FAHY: Get on with it. Sergeant, do your duty.
REILLY: I have here a bill of eviction which I will now read out.
CATHERINE: Eviction is it? Mr. Fahy you are a true scoundrel. A jumped-up land-grabber that wasn’t fit to even work your wife’s land, and now you put claim on it. Now you show that your laziness is only exceeded by your greed.
Fahy was expecting fireworks. This calm denouncement chilled him to the bone.
CATHERINE: You have no right to do this. Your wife would never let you evict us, and with no good reason; the rent has been paid in full.
REILLY: Ma’am, this bill is signed by a justice of the peace.
CATHERINE: Hah, D’Arcy didn’t even sign his name in his usual way. (calmly rips the eviction notice in pieces.) Sergeant, he’s making a fool of you. This is my property, he has no right here.
FAHY: This was my wife’s property. She’s dead; now it’s mine.
NORA (entering): No, it is not.
FAHY: You keep out of this. Mind your own business.
NORA: This is my business. I promised my sister that I would ensure that her gift is recognized.
FAHY: Gift? What gift?
NORA: This house was freely given to Catherine Conneely by my sister on her last day on this earth.
FAHY: Sergeant, don’t listen to her. They have it made up between them. (Turning to Nora) You have nothing written.
REILLY: Miss Joyce, you are saying Mrs Conneely was given this house by the lawful owner. Are you a witness to that gift?
NORA: Yes, Sergeant, I was there when my sister gave Mrs Conneely this house in recognition of the many kindnesses she received from her.
REILLY: Are you willing to swear an affidavit to that effect in a court of law?
NORA: I am most assuredly willing.
FAHY: Traitor! And to think I was going to offer you—
NORA: You have nothing that I need.
FAHY: You can move your stuff out of my house.
REILLY: Fahy, you are wasting police time.
FAHY: I have connections. Sergeant, you’ll be serving that eviction notice yet! And, Miss Joyce, consider your notice served. I’m into Galway to see my friends. This is not finished. The word of a spinster will hold no weight against me. Just you see. I’m not finished. I’m not finished.
The pony and trap were seen at the side of the road in front of the old fever hospital. Fahy seemed to be sitting slumped over. His eyes staring forward, one hand pointing. The doctor said it was a massive heart attack. Catherine Conneely said it was the Touch, that Ellen had come back from the grave to stop him.
There are still Conneelys in the house, the fifth and sixth generations to live there.
Copyright © 2021 by Emer Mahoney