Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Tale of Two Brothers

Irish Land Woes

Years ago in Ireland there was a widower named Cushnahan who had two sons.  The elder was named Jeremiah and the younger, Joseph.  Once Cushnahan had been a strong farmer, but through drink and mismanagement he had lost everything but his homestead and a few rocky fields.

Then came the war.  The English were half starved and the local butcher was paying ready cash for game.  Joe was a diligent youth with a talent for traps.  Every morning he walked the narrow road into town with his arms full of dead rabbits and pigeons.

Cushnahan rejoiced in their new prosperity, thanking God for Joe and his craft—so much so that the elder son became consumed with jealousy.  Disguising his hand, Jer wrote a letter to the Guards denouncing the younger Cushnahan lad as a poacher.

The sergeant called.  No accusations were made but Cushnahan’s nerves went bad.  Drunk, he fretted out loud about his skillful son being sent to an industrial school.  The next morning, Joe was gone.  His father wept.  “They’ll find his body at the bottom of the quarry,” he groaned.  “Don’t talk ráiméis, Daddy,” his elder son scolded.  “He’s on the boat to England like the rest of them to work in a bomb factory.”

A decade later, with still no word from his younger brother, Jer was on that boat himself.  He could get nothing out of their land but the small farmer’s dole, and that his despairing father drank.  In England, the rationing was over and there were more jobs than ever.  Jer got one in London, sweeping the streets of the West End.

At dawn one day, sweeping Shafesbury Avenue, he looked up and read on the marquee of a theater the title A Barman’s Funeral.  Suddenly he was homesick.  Have you ever been to a barman’s funeral? was a great phrase of his father’s, and Jer had learned at a young age that the answer was no because barmen were cute with money.  The other side of the marquee revealed the author’s name to be James Madigan.  Obviously an Irishman like myself, Jer thought, reared by a father who asked the same question.

Though he had never been to a play in his life, Jer had a great yearning to attend this one.  Impossible, he decided—the price of the cheapest seat, he saw from the poster, was more than what he sent home in his fortnightly remittance.  And he knew that the quality wore suits to their evening entertainments. He had no suit.

Three more mornings he swept past the theater, telling himself it was impossible; he could not see James Madigan’s play: he couldn’t afford a ticket, and he had no suit.  But on the fourth morning he changed his mind.  His father had the dole; whether or not he drank it was his business.  Jer shared a room with an Egyptian lad studying to be a doctor—neither of them could find a place in a regular boardinghouse—and he would lend him decent clothes.  That evening, wearing an ill-fitting suit, he bought a ticket at the box office and took his seat in the gods.

The drama was a great disappointment.  Jer didn’t know much about plays, but he did expect there would be something of a story.  This was nothing but a crowd of gurriers waking the dead barman in the pub he used to serve.  The audience found everything they said hilarious, but Jer wouldn’t have given tuppence for all their blather.  He would have left at the intermission had an usher not handed him a note saying that the author would like to meet him after the performance in a place called the green room.

So he stayed, and suffered through the second half, which was worse than the first.  The gurriers had gone home, and here came the corpse out of the coffin.  He spent the rest of the play talking to the audience.  The English lapped it up.

At last it was over and he was escorted to the green room.  James Madigan turned out to be a young man with a chestnut-brown beard who wore a trim houndstooth jacket.  He had a firm handshake.

“Well,” he asked, “what did you think of the play?”

“To be honest, Mr. Madigan,” Jer replied, “I could make neither head nor tail of it.”

“Not worth the price of admission, then, for a working man like yourself?”

“I suppose … I suppose not, but how do you know who—”

“I know who you are, just as you know who I am.”

“ I know nothing about you, Mr. Madigan, apart from that queer play you wrote.”

Then the bearded man switched to the Irish language.  “O and indeed you do, brother, for I am Joseph, whom you sent to England.”

All resistance to recognition collapsed, Jeremiah wept and clasped his younger brother’s hands.

After that, there was forgiveness on one side, and redemption on the other (or as much as either gift as can be given this side of the grave).

To their father they sent royalties, and then themselves.
 — Robert Cremins


  1. I felt like the egyptian pre-doctor should have played a more devious role because of the relation to the wife of Anubis in "the tale of two brothers". Lending clothes.. the wife said she would make him fine clothing if he slept with her.

    I liked the story though, full of reference and intrigue.

  2. I really enjoyed the story. Brotherly conflicts have always exsisted in every culture. And who doesn't love a happy ending?