The Warrior Carty: an Irish Christmas Story
I grew up in a small pub in the west of Ireland, where every market and fair day, a cadre of old IRA men held fort at the corner of the counter. Known as ‘The Boys’, they were our local heros, the men who fought the British at Rineen, Monreel, 81 Cross and other hotspots. I once saw a picture of them taken in 1919 and was struck by how young they seemed back then, they looked like boys who’d just left school.
After ‘The Boys’ had a few drinks, conversation turned to the ‘campaign’ and who did what and who didn’t do that. Sometimes it seemed there was unfinished business from the revolution being settled in the pub. One man, Murt Hynes, used thump the counter and my father would have to tell him to take it easy. In the late afternoon, Murt often challenged his mates to take up the cause again and ‘finish the job for once and for all.’ They stared at the floor in silence, finished their drinks and went home. Alone, Murt would sing a few rebel songs and then my mother made a plate of ham sandwiches to fortify him for the journey home.
The Warrior Carty is set on the day of a fair around Christmas time. The character is not directly based on any of ‘The Boys’, but I have always felt he was one of them.
The Warrior had enough of the Christmas fair and took cover in Looney’s bar. It was empty, dark and cold, still waiting to be strobed by the solstice sun.
“A harmless aul fair,” sniffled Bridgey, totting up his bill on a brown paper bag. “Four shillins for the Powers an’ three an’ sixpence for the bottle a porter…what’s that altogether?”
“Seven an’ six Bridgey,” said the Warrior, leaving three half crowns on the red formica counter. He settled them into a small pile. “Thanks Bridgey, and good luck to you.”
“The same to yourself…ahh, they have the country ruined…and everythin’ is so dear sure…”
“They have this poor country shagged, Bridgey. That’s about the size of it now.”
“‘Tis true for you…”
“And what’s more, the crowd that’s doin’ it never fired a shaggin’ shot in their life.”
“‘Tis true for you.”
“Anyways,” sighed the Warrior, flopping his arms in resignation, “give us another small whiskey.”
“Powers, wasn’t it? ”
“‘Twas…that’s the way now Bridgey. What kind of a Christmas are ye havin’ so far?”
“Yarrah…’tis quiet. Don’t you know yourself now. An’ sure today is the big day an’ can’t you see the way it is. Quiet, sure. You might rise a stir in it yourself above in the Square later on.”
“Not today, Bridgey.”
“Not today, Bridgey,” the Warrior repeated, shaking his head, “but anyways, this is the overcoat I was tellin’ you about, the last day I here.”
She admired the dark crombie coat and listened to how he came upon it. And he was wearing the good blue suit, clean shirt, collar and tie. These he bought from the Pakistani hawker who came to Ennis every Saturday. That was another story, better left for another day, he said.
“Is there anyone dead belongin’ to you?” she asked.
“No, not that I know of, Bridgey,” he answered. “And I didn’t hear anything up the town. But there was a funeral this morn beyond in Maheramore, I s’pose you heard that. That poor Mrs. Canney was buried. Her son is married to a daughter of Paraffin Hogan’s.”
“Is that the boy that drives Blake’s lorry.”
“Now you have it.”
“That’s where Doran’s hearse must have been. It passed up the road a while ago.”
“I got a lift to town with them. ‘Twas my first time in a hearse and it won’t be my last, Bridgey.”
“‘Tis true for you.”
She smoked one of his cigarettes and put the pieces together. The Warrior was wearing his good clothes because of the funeral. He had a few drinks after filling the grave with Doran. That’s why he wasn’t going up to the Square, he had drink taken. He never drinks before going to the Square.
“Are you alright now for a while? I have to put down the dinner.”
“Sound as a bell Bridgey — but give us another half wan an’ a packet of plain cigarettes so I wont be botherin’ you.”
Bridgey peeled potatoes into a bowl by the kitchen fire.”That bar out there is freezin’,” she sniffled. If it got any colder she would have to get an oil heater. She could hear him stamp his feet to keep the blood running to his toes.
“Are you alright, Warrior?” she called, tapping on the bar window.
“Sound as a bell, Bridgey. The circulation.”
“I hope he don’t throw a turn,” she mumbled. It would be the talk of the country — The Warrior Carty to die in the only pub he was served in. The six other publicans in the town would not let his toe inside their doors but Bridgey saw no harm in him. He was persecuted by his own after he fought for them in the War of Independence and the Civil War. Later he went abroad and the misfortunate wretch got shell-shocked in some foreign war. That’s where the strange behavior comes from, like the exhibition above in the Square. “God help us,” she sighed and added an extra potato to the pot.
The usual crowd gathered in the Square before midday and waited for the Warrior Carty. This was the highpoint of their fair — to see and cheer this robust man lift a cart-wheel, which was as big and as heavy as himself, and balance it on the hub of his chin while the Angelus bells rang out. It was an extraordinary feat and he performed it at every fair, hail, rain or snow. He did it to distract the fair from prayer and succeeded for the most part. The Warrior’s act could be the making or the breaking of the day.
When the church bells called for prayer in Looney’s bar the Warrior blew a smoke ring for every peal. It was as defiant as he wanted to be that midwinter’s day. He knew the followers in the Square would be disappointed, but that was life — nothing lasts for ever. He had retired. The decision had been made in his sleep and he was obeying. Orders from the management. Not God, just the Management.
The crowd felt like fools. Cheated of their entertainment and their prayers, they dispersed sullenly and griped about the Warrior. Where was he? Had he not walked the town earlier in the day, showering everyone with Christmas greetings? It was not his form to ignore the call of duty, especially today, The Small Fair of Christmas.
A long lean farmer said he must have lost his nerves. His neighbour disagreed. “The Warrior was born without nerves,” he claimed. It was his age. “He must be sixty-five or seventy years old if he’s a day,” he insisted, sliding into Peter Egan’s bar. Inside, they joined a couple of cattle jobbers who were already discussing the Warrior.
“Well sure, he started out first in Boland’s Mill in 1916…then he led the Faha column of the boys in 1920,” declared a barrel-shaped jobber in a once-white coat. “I know it. And he never surrendered after the Civil War. I know that, too. Carty never handed over the gun.”
“Tha’s right sure. ‘Don’t give up the fight.’ I often heard him say that,” drawled his companion. “An’ he went off to Spain with the Brigade too. Maybe that was to get another wallop at the Blueshirts
“Maybe, but I don’t think so.”
“An’ sure if they hadn’t locked him up in the Curragh Camp durin’ the last war he’d have been soldierin’ somewhere.”
Bridgey left a plate with a piece of haddock and a potato on the counter.
“Ate this,” she said. “It’ll do you good.”
“The Blessin’s a God on you Bridgey,” he said and picked at the meal. He felt like confiding in her. He wanted to explain why he didn’t go to the Square and what he was doing in Sunday clothes. But it was a delicate matter and she might pick it up wrong.
“Bridgey…” he asked, motioning for another whiskey and stout. “Do we soften with age?”
“‘Tis hard to say,” she said slowly and pondered at her reflection in the mirror behind the whiskey bottles. “The aul fair’ll be over early,” she muttered, putting his drinks on the cold red-topped counter. He would be her only customer today.
The money-box was getting heavier and he was getting drunker, but in a quiet sort of a way. For a short while, a beam of evening sun warmed the bar and they traced about things of long ago like rekindled lovers. He reminisced about the great fairs, when you could walk on the backs of beasts from one end of the town to the other without stepping on the ground. Bridgey reminded him of the great dances that used be held before the Christmas years ago.”All that’s gone now,” she sighed.
They recalled the big crowds arriving home from England and wondered where they all were now.”A sad day for Ireland, Bridgey,” Warrior sighed and a cloud of silence darkened the bar. Bridgey fumbled under the counter and a string of Christmas lights blazed a trail around whiskey bottles. Tiny beads of yellow, green, red and blue blinked at the Warrior.
“Jaysus, Bridgey,” he said slowly, “but I love Christmas, even though Christmas is not the same as it used to be.”
“Nothing stays the same sure,” she said, almost in a whisper.
Sipping a cup of tea, she peered at him from the dark kitchen. He was talking to himself and counting his money, cursing her blinking Christmas lights. The Warrior had enough drank for one day but she hated to ask him to leave. He tapped the counter with the heel of his glass and called her.
“The same again, Bridgey…is that clock right?”
“No…’tis slow…hurry up an’ finish this like a good boy. Tonight’s the night of the carol singin’ above at the church an’ I must get ready.”
“Sound Bridgey. An’ Bridgey, before I forget it…give us a naggon of whiskey and a packet of Players for the morn.”
“Here,” she said, wrapping the small bottle and cigarettes in a brown paper bag, “this is from me for Christmas.”
He pressed his chest against the counter and lowered his head as if to kiss her. But he clasped her cold hands instead and whispered, “You never forget the Warrior. The blessin’s of God on you. Bridgey, you’re the only wan in this town who has any breedin’.”
“You can’t bate breedin’ Warrior.” she said, “How’re you goin’ home?”
She came outside the counter with a broom and peered out the front door.
“There’s no wind out. Take it aisey an’ you’ll be sound.”
“I’ll be sound anyway…But Bridgey as the song goes — ‘Oh what matters when for Erin dear we fall.’ I don’t mind in the least fallin’ for Erin…many’s the good man an’ woman have done so in the past. But Bridgey, what I do mind, is fallin’ for some of the shaggers that live here.”
“Our Lord fell three times,” she said quietly, sweeping his crushed cigarette butts into a heap.
“And he rose again Bridgey. We’re martyrs for punishment.”
The Warrior drained his glass slowly and put Bridgey’s Christmas present into his overcoat pocket. He wondered if he should try for another half one, but decided not to, it would be bad form.
“Bridgey… I’ll hit away,” he said. “Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year to you astore.”
“The same to yourself and be as good as you can, Warrior. Happy Christmas to you now. Mind the step as you g’ out.”
She bolted the door behind him and unplugged the Christmas lights.
Main Street smelled like a farmyard in the wake of the fair. It was quiet apart from a few children who played in the light streaming from Callaghan’s sweet shop. The town was winding down for the carol service and the Warrior numbed when he discovered the pubs were blacked out. He tried them all — Tracy’s, Egan’s, Hogan’s, Vaughan’s, The Widow’s and Dinn Joe’s.
“Shag ’em,” he snorted. “An’ shag ’em again.”
He had hoped to breeze into the enemy camp in the quiet of the evening, just when the day’s takings were counted and the publicans were happy. He would extend the olive branch and ask to be served again. He would keep the peace. There would be no more trouble, no more defiance. No more would he lure the Christians away from the Angelus prayer by balancing the cart-wheel. He was retiring from all that.
But his plan was foiled because he had tarried too long with Bridgey. And the church didn’t help. The pubs would be closed until after the carol singing. Muttering about goodwill and room at the inn he plodded back down the street to wait in the shadows until God relented.
Passing Peter Egan’s he had a sudden urge to lash his boot through the glass paneled door but was distracted when the new curate, Father Hannon, suddenly appeared like a host. “Hardy weather,” the pale priest hailed, side-stepping him.
“Say wan for me Fader,” grunted the Warrior and wandered in the opposite direction.
He slipped into Hogan’s Alley to relieve himself in the darkness, but Gretta Greene saw him. The mad woman from Frohaul who had once done him a turn behind the town hall peered into the laneway and jeered, “The frost ‘ll kill et. The frost’ll kill et an’ make a small boy a you Warrior Carty you dirty scut you. I’ll say a prayer that you’ll go ta hell.”
With his back to the church he plodded on. Two women, pious as nuns, scurried past, arm in arm.
“Peggy, is that the Warrior Carty?”
“Tis. He’s an awful nuisance.”
“He’s in town since early today. I saw him when I was gettin’ the paper. Was there a girl in that family?”
“No. An only child that fella, an’ spoiled an’ young. He lives on his own. The mother died in the workhouse. Sure that fella couldn’t take care of himself.”
“No. And he let a great farm of land go to wrack and ruin. Drank it.”
The Warrior felt the cold in his bones. Frost glistened the black tar road that separated the lines of shops. Stars above and stars below. He stood at the Square and gazed at the sky. A great black dome dotted with peep holes to heaven. Shocked by the thought, his head reeled. “Jaysus…I’m half drunk,” he mumbled to the night. “I’d better sit down before I keel over.”
Outside Hogan’s pub he flopped on an empty porter barrel. Hogan would be his first port of call with the olive branch, the whiskey would keep him warm till then. He uncorked the naggon and listened to the Christmas carols escaping from the church. Some he knew from long ago and crooned along between sips of whiskey. Memories paraded before him and he felt the town growing strange. It reminded him of a desolate railway station he saw from a train, one winter evening in war-torn Spain. “I’m only just passing through,” he muttered.
After the carol singing, the faithful passed the Warrior slouched over the empty barrels outside Hogan’s.
“He’s in town all day,” a man from the Vincent de Paul whispered to his wife.
“Thank God you don’t drink,” she whispered back. “It’s a terrible curse.”
Father Hannon shook his head and crossed to the other side of the street. “An awful disgrace,” he muttered to Coyle the butcher.
Nobody bothered the Warrior and hard frost crept over his crombie coat in a white fur. At closing time Frank Hogan tried to move him on, not out of sympathy or concern — but out of fear that the old soldier might erupt during the night and cry him out. But the old soldier was dead. Twisted like a vine, white as ice. The Warrior was gone and only his burly body remained.
His remains were brought to the church in a plain coffin paid for by Bridgey Looney and Ned Duffy. Laid out in his good blue suit he looked like a saint in death. After Mass on Christmas morning only a few mourners followed the tricolor-draped coffin through the streets. The Christmas morning cap guns were silent, the children called a truce for the funeral.
It was bitter cold in the graveyard above the town and Father Hannon rushed through the prayers. Ned Duffy fired four shots from an old revolver and children in the town below replied with a thousand rounds or more.
“Home is the hero,” Bridgey whispered. “May God be good to you, Warrior Carty.”
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