Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Scattering

I was listening to an interesting program on the radio last week about how an enterprising undertaker in Kerry was offering a novel service to Americans. Seems, anyone wishing to have their loved one’s ashes scattered in Ireland after their deaths, could contact him, and for a fee, he would carry out a suitably dignified, ashes-scattering service at the venue of their choice, Skellig Michael, Mount Brandon, The Lakes of Killarney, the Rock of Cashel etc.

I can only imagine if that became popular practice amongst the 40 million or so Irish-Americans, that pretty soon the whole island would be covered in a pile of ashes taller than the cliffs of Moher. A journey in the future to Ireland would more resemble a scene from Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road', than a walk through the beautiful verdant Irish country-side.

Anyway it reminded me of a story I had heard several years ago, from a friend of mine, let’s call him Brian, who worked in a 'public services' office in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. It took several rounds of Arthur Guinness to extract the whole story from Brian, but I thought it well worthwhile, and it went something like this.

One day Brian received in the post (mail) a 'package' that was postmarked from a small town in a mid-western US state.

It was simply addressed to 'The Manager', Galway Bay, Galway, Ireland. How it ended up on his desk is anyone's guess, probably the postman’s idea of a joke, but being of a curious nature he opened it up. Inside the package was what looked like a good sized ornamental tin 'cigar' box and an envelope containing 2 x $100 bills, with an accompanying note.

'Dear Manager.

Sorry to bother you with this but perhaps you can help me. My late husband 'Patrick Naughton’ used to say he was from Galway, though I always figured him for a Canadian, you know, like one of those bearded fishing folks from Newfoundland that talk funny, 'cause when I met him that time in Las Vegas, right after my first husband passed, I hardly understood a word he said. What a brogue he had! Reminded me of my grandmother Kathleen Murphy, from Cork. Melted my heart and swept me right off my feet, he did.

Anyway, he always used to say that when he died, he wanted to be buried in Ireland. He'd sing what he called rebel songs when he had drink on him, which was often enough, and at the end of each song he'd shout something about his ‘Boss Inerin’, or ‘Erin’, I think it was, as I said, he had a thick brogue.

Now that I think of it, isn't Erin a girl's name in Ireland? He must have loved working for her anyway, the number of times he’d call her name, not that I was jealous mind. Funny thing was I don't believe he ever told me that he had worked for any woman unless you count that sneaky supervisor he had when he was a working in the power plant in Springfield, but her name wasn't Erin, it was Delores, and she wasn't even nice, or Irish.

Anyway, that’s how I'm sending you this letter, as I would love to honor his last wishes. Problem is, I am retired now and living off social security and I cannot afford to ship his casket all the way to Ireland and then pay for a flight for me and my fiancĂ©e (we never did have any kids, Pat and I, oh, and did I mention I was getting hitched again, Larry is such a gentleman, a little old, but a gentleman and a lawyer to boot. I met him in ‘Vegas too, isn’t that a co-incidence).

Anyway, my Pat, well he never was a good traveller when he was alive, so rather than ship his casket home, I had him cremated and I'd really like it if you could arrange for his ashes (see enclosed urn) to be scattered on Galway Bay, 'cause he loved that song so much. I hope the small donation I have enclosed will cover any costs.

Thanks in advance for your kind help.

Kathy Naughton.

PS. And will you please let Erin know he passed away. I feel I owe her that much.

Well, after my friend Brian’s initial shock, needless to say, he wanted nought to do with Pat’s ashes, so he decided it might be a good job to delegate, as any good manager should, and present the problem elsewhere.

Now down in the City Clerk's office, worked a drinking buddy of Brian’s, Sean Galvin. He was in charge of ‘Public Works’, whatever that entailed, but he was known to be a man that ‘got things done’. Over a pint Brian explained his dilemma to Sean. He was not interested at first, but agreed to help out, as he felt it was the least he could do for a fellow Galwegian. (if that's indeed what the said Paddy Naughton was?).

They figured that he'd give the cigar box and $100 to his yard foreman and that he would look after the scattering. The other $100 they both agreed would go into the reserve kitty in O’Connell’s Select Bar, on Eyre Square for supplication for themselves, given the 'trauma' this dilemma had already caused they. They thought they deserved that much at least for their trouble. Little did they know!

About three weeks later, on the last Friday of the month, as was their wont, the two friends met for pints around five at O’Connell’s. Sean from the City Clerk’s office was in a black mood. 'What's the matter, Sean?' Brian asked, after the first quaff of liquid black had quenched his thirst. Silence, and a glare that would freeze blood from Sean.

Brian sidestepped Sean’s ignoring of the question and after a few more sips of his pint, he tackled Sean again.

'Tell me, did ya ever get that Yank's ashes scattered’? 'Don't ever feckin' mention ashes to me again' Sean muttered, burying himself again in his rapidly dwindling pint, while gesturing to the barman for another round. Eventually, over the course of a firkin or two of Arthur's best, his mood lightened and he told Brian this tale of woe.

'Like we agreed Brian, I gave the box with Naughton’s ashes and one of the two $100 bills to Mick, the foreman down in the City Corporation Maintenance yard. He and two of the yardmen decided it would be only proper and fitting to do the scattering of the ashes off of the end of Nimmo's pier, over in the Claddagh, since the City don't actually have a boat for our use and anyway, technically speaking, Nimmo's pier sticks out into Galway Bay albeit at the mouth of the Corrib, so it would fulfil the widows wishes if the ashes were scattered on Galway Bay from there.'

'Smart plan' Brian agreed. 'Yes', he replied, 'Smart plan indeed, unless you take Murphy's Law into account.' 'Murphy, what’s he got to do with this? I always thought he was an optimist’, Brian said.'So what went wrong?'

'Mick and the two lads waited 'till early Friday afternoon, to go down to the pier, judging rightly that they'd best wait on the tide to turn before committing Patrick Naughton’s ashes to the sea. Well on the way over to Nimmo's Pier, naturally they decided to stop for one quick pint at Kelly's pub, just over the bridge at the Claddagh, in order that they would get into the spirit of things first, y'know.

Well one thing led to another and before long, over the half of the men from the Claddagh were over in Kelly’s with them, reminiscing on this 'Paddy' that they never knew, but sorta remembered, if you catch my drift. Sure with a name like Naughton, he surely had to have been an O’Neachtain that got his name changed at Ellis Island to Naughton, and since Neachtain was common enough locally, he had to have come from the Claddagh they reasoned.

Stories were told, deeds recounted and songs were sung. The pints and half-ones were flying and pretty soon a proper Irish wake was well in progress.

Mick decided at around 6 o'clock, (about when they had finished drinking the $100), that the time had come for the scatterin' ceremony which they had decided would be all the more poignant with a backdrop of the now setting sun over the bay, just like in Pat’s favourite song.

Mick, flanked by one of the Claddaghmen playing a well-tarnished bugle that he had kept from when he used play in the St. Pats Brass band, looked rather like the pied piper, carrying the tiny casket tenderly in his huge hands, as he led a motley knot of men and women out onto the long Victorian-era pier, right to the end where the fish-laden Hookers and Gleoteogs, the boats the Claddagh fishermen liked to sail, used tie off in days gone by.

Many of the cortege were weeping, some of them were linking arms, most were swaying a little, probably from the combined effects of the Guinness and the evening wind that was gusting intermittently from the city side, perfect for casting the ashes off the pier and scattering it westwards over the bay and into the setting sun. Some had started singing a sea shanty, you know, the one with the chorus, ‘…just tell me old shipmates I’ve taken a trip mates, and I’ll see you some day on fiddlers green.’

Once they had reached the end of the pier, Mick quieted them down and gathered them in a tight group where he led them all in a decade of the rosary. ('Sorrowful Mysteries' of course). One of the older ladies present followed with a long litany of saints and ancestors ‘as gaeilge’ (in Irish) that would embarrass a bishop, before finally Mick called them to order and set the tin box down on top of one of the big stone tie-off bollards to open it up.

The lid of the tin box however had been mechanically cinched closed, and he could not open it with his hand, so he asked if any of the Claddaghmen had a knife he could borrow, in order to prise the box containing the ashes, open.

Well everyone knows that no self-respecting Claddagh fisherman would ever lend another his knife, for no good would ever come of it. One man had a knife, a lethal looking thing about 8’’ long, that had filleted many a fish in its day, but he was reluctant to share it. Mick persisted, asking him again to hand him the knife, and leaning into him in a manner that could be mistaken for a threat.

So the man with the knife, one of the Lydons, you know him, the big red-haired fellah with the glass eye, well he takes out this big knife out of his boot and goes to grab the box from Mick to do the opening himself. Well one thing led to another and while the bugler continued sounding a staccato version of 'The Queen of Connemara' the two big men grappled each other for the box and for the knife.

The outcome was as predictable as it was inevitable. Almost simultaneously, the knife was driven deep into Mick's arm, splashing blood on half a dozen onlookers. And the tin box, well having been squeezed so hard by both men in the melee, it suddenly burst open at the bottom seam and the ashes, a really fine turf-ash powder I'm told, exploded all over the two men and aided by a sudden strong gust of contrary westerly wind, the fine ash cloud completely engulfed the entire group on the pier.
A flailing pandemonium ensued, all beautifully back-lit by the deep orange glow from the now sinking sun further out the bay by the Aran Islands.Amid all the confusion, the shouting, the spitting and the coughing, Mick, blinded by the ashes and wounded by the knife, steps back with a roar and topples arse-first into Mairtin Flaherty's recently renovated Naomhog, another type of small fishing boat from the Claddagh, that was tethered to a bouy at the base of the pier.
Well Mick weighs in at 161/2 stone and the Naomhog's new ribs were no match for the sudden weight of the unexpected passenger's derriere. He went clean through the floor of the boat, jamming tight at his arm-pits and knees. (Just as well I suppose as had he landed in the water he would surely have drowned in the gloaming twilight).

Such was the impact when he landed that the mooring rope holding the boat to the pier snapped and the now bunged-up Naomhog floated swiftly out into the strong Corrib current and aided by the ebbing tide, Mick was already half way to Salthill by the time anyone noticed he was missing.

The Claddaghmen meantime, all fired up and covered in this white dust, were simultaneously disgusted and blinded. In Mick's absence, for no one saw him fall in the ash-cloud, they started first to lay into the one-eyed Lydon, before a general all-out row started, pitting family against family at the end of the pier. Mick’s two yardmen and several of the Claddagh women ended up in a hand-bag and hair-pulling row over whether the blood from Mick's wound could carry Aids or the ashes from America might give them all SARs or Asbestosis or worse!

To add to the fracas a flotilla of the famous Claddagh swans and ducks converged on the group thinking that feeding time had come in the shape of the falling ash, and as luck would have it, they were aggressively hungry and went about pecking at every crotch that came within range, as only a swan can. Not to be outdone two rival skirmishing flocks of seagulls and pigeons descended on the group from their roosting places on the Spanish Arch and pretty soon the melee on the pier looked rather like a scene from a remake of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’.

Well it took a dozen Gardai, the Galway Lifeboat, two Fire tenders, four Ambulances and a traffic warden nearly 3 hours to clear the crowd, rescue Mick and restore the peace. It made the papers in New York and the evening news in London.

Mick hasn't been to work since that evening and neither have the two yard men. Several of the Claddagh folk have lawyered-up and are threatening to sue for damages. The City Corporation have received complaints from the Department of Health and Safety, the Amalgamated Union of Corporation Employees, The Funeral Directors association, The Environmental Protection Agency, The Hooker Preservation Society, the Swan Rescue Society, Birdwatch Ireland, the Claddagh Community Council and An Taisce.

And just this week the Mayor of the City received a letter from a certain lawyer in Las Vegas representing the grieving widow of Patrick O'Neachtain, (yes, the spelling of the last name had been altered to the vernacular), filing suit for twenty million dollars in damages for 'careless loss of a loved ones remains and reckless disregard to the wishes of the bereaved widow, Caitlin ni Neachtain.’
So, next time someone suggests to you the idea that you might bring their ashes to somewhere 'meaningful' to be scattered, remember this tale, take a spade out to the garden, turn a sod and plant them right there where they can do no more damage and maybe even fertilise your cabbages.'

Oh, and before you ask, Brian and Sean don’t meet for pints anymore!

The Scattering. Mylesnag – May 31, 2009.
Do feel free to leave a comment and thanks for reading!