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
"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, frowning.
"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 school-boy 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
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
"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
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
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.