An Irish Tale

By  Maurice Neill


GREAT aunt Jinny had all the time in the world and a lot of brass. Clocks crowded the tiny front room like parliamentarians at an important debate. Against the wall, at the foot of the stairs, stood a noble grandfather clock – like an old soldier on sentry duty in a mahogany pillbox. Upon its face were mysterious runes, suns, moons and stars. The numerals were Roman and the hands elegant and ornate. When it signalled a quarter-hour it spoke aloud with an authority that silenced all frivolous conversation.

There were sturdy wall clocks with heavy brass weights suspended on long chains and fat hands that crept around slowly with a mournful tick. When they registered the passing of 15 minutes they whirred for a few seconds beforehand, as if clearing their throats for a polite cough, like busy undertakers. There were delicate carriage clocks that sat on the mantelpiece and the sideboard and tick-ticked frantically – as if in a hurry to deliver important news before the last bus home. They spoke only once an hour – interrupting debate, proudly and with purpose. Then there were the cheerful little travelling clocks with bright faces and friendly Arabic numbers in luminous paint. They were almost silent – as if forbidden to speak in the presence of the grown-ups – but if you put one to your ear you could hear the happy chatter of children in the playground at break-time.

At the top of the hour the house came alive with sound as the rival clocks warned of the passing of another significant chunk of time. At midnight and noon this dragged out for an age, for despite the best efforts of their diligent timekeeper none of the clocks could agree to keep the same time. The travelling clocks were the most accurate, according to the soul-less electronic pips on the radio. Truth about time was delivered by the British Broadcasting Corporation through a transistor radio speaker from Greenwich. The hands of the little modern clocks were first to hit the hour markers but were mute – unless an alarm was triggered by accident during winding. The carriage clocks were first and swiftest to chime. They were urgent and shrill – as if time was running out in a hurry. They were followed by the measured and sombre tones of the wall clocks, deliberate, repetitive and insistent like schoolmasters. Last to speak was the grandfather clock. It delivered its message slowly and ominously in a sonorous bass note, confident it would have the last word and could not be interrupted by lesser timepieces.

The walls of the estate workers’ cottage at Cullycaple were an Aladdin’s Cave of shiny yellow metals which shimmered like gold in the eyes of a child. Pots and pans were polished so vigorously you could see your reflection in the dark. Scottish Presbyterian pride did not permit a speck of dust to settle. The brasses were everywhere. By the door was a knee-high shell casing which held a black gentleman’s umbrella and a vicious blackthorn walking stick. Metal made a dull clang when the stick’s steel tip hit the floor. On the window sill was an ashtray advertising the Belfast lemonade company Cantrell & Cochrane, though no one was allowed to smoke in the house, and a model of Burn’s Cottage in Ayrshire. On the sideboard were more brass trinkets, reminders of times past. The tobacco box was issued to troops in the trenches at Christmas in 1917. The head of the mortar shell was decorated with markings designed to ensure its accurate delivery. On the mantelpiece were two heavy candle sticks and a little kettle with three legs and a handle made of amber. Pride of place was reserved for a heavy brass picture frame. It held a faded picture of two young men in soldiers’ uniform. They smiled beneath magnificent Edwardian moustaches and held caps beneath their arms respectfully. One was her brother Bob and the other his older sibling James.

Jinny was a round and cheerful woman with a ruddy complexion. She was keeper of the family bible – printed in Glasgow in 1885. Its pages held as much of the family history that her generation could piece together – the births and deaths of her parents, brothers and sisters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It contained faded newspaper clippings and religious tracts, a lock of hair and little wild flowers which had been pressed between its heavy covers. Jinny was always polite but never afraid to speak her mind on the issues of the day. She loved to bounce children on her knee and sing nursery rhymes. The television was never switched on when company called and there was always a sticky treat for tea.

Cleaning her brasses and winding her clocks took up a good part of Jinny’s day. She lived alone since her sister Mary’s death, her only companion a little green budgie. She tried in vain to teach Joey to speak ill of de Valera but the canny wee bird was green by design and politics. The only regular visitor was the Presbyterian minister who was forced to drink gallons of milky tea from a fine china tea service and to consume a tray of cream cakes. His well-meaning conversation was good for a lonely soul but he did little for the worldly needs of those in his care.

Her home was warm and welcoming with a hand-worked water pump in the front garden and an orchard field to the rear with sweet apples and crunchy pears in abundance. Bob cut the grass with a scythe on summer days, sweat mopped from his brow with a cloth during pauses in the rhythmic swishing of the wickedly sharp blade. It was honed with a stone and swung to and fro like a magic wand in the hands of a master. He seemed to hover over the ground, leaving only neat stubble behind him as he walked in straight lines up and down the grassy acre. Sometimes a small creature would flee in panic before the reaper’s blade. The tall grass fell gracefully, was carefully raked up and tied in stooks to dry in the breeze.

He kept bees in the field. They drifted on the breeze like busy bi-planes, settling on the brightest flowers, before whirring back to little wooden hives below the fruit trees. The honey was sweet and golden in its waxy comb. But this was no rural paradise. There was no running water. The hand pump did not work. Rain collected in a barrel at the side of the house and had to be decanted in an enamel bucket each morning. The toilet was a wooden shed out the back. Into her 80s Jinny took a galvanised pail from below the bowl each day and dug a hole in the garden to bury the contents. It was cold in winter and fly-blown in summer.

The glory-hole was a cupboard beneath the stairs and forever in need of ‘reddin-up’ for it was ‘full of aul’ truck,’ according to Jinny. From this chamber of secrets she produced all manner of objects for the amusement of children. A Kodak Box Brownie camera was presented to me when I expressed an interest in photography and secured my first jobs as a reporter on the local paper – the Coleraine Chronicle.

But the greatest treasure conjured up from the glory-hole was a Greenheart fly rod – 13 feet of magic wand in a brown canvas case. It was custom-made for fishing on the river Bann at Movanagher where the trout grew big and salmon were forced to pause on their long journey from the arctic to the gravel beds of the Sperrins and the Antrim hills. The ferrules and reel fittings were brass. The eyes were lined-with agate to smooth the passage of the old silken likes. It came with a reel that balanced it perfectly and a little home-made book of coarse linen filled with catgut casts. They had to be soaked in water before they would become limp enough to use. In the back of the book were hand-tied flies – a Green Highlander and a Jock Scott for salmon, a Greenwell’s Glory and Sooty Olive for trout. They all showed signs of wear but had been cared for and carefully stored away. Hooks still sharp and rust-free though it had been decades since they were used. They belonged to my great uncle James, said Jinny. He placed them under the stairs before he set off for the Great War. Her decision to part-company with these items was a final act in coming to terms with his loss. I was the family’s youngest man and humbled by the trust placed in me as the inheritor of such sacred artefacts.

It was difficult rod to use – much different from the modern split-cane or glass fibre rods. It cast a line with a distinctive action – long and slow from butt to tip with a disconcerting wobble as the line shot forward at the top of the cast. It was heavy and tired the wrist but threw a line so far that fewer casts were needed. No false casts were possible with such a slow action. The line had to be carefully measured before each rise and fall of the great magic wand. It was useless on small streams and still waters where there was no clearance behind the angler and lines would become snagged in trees and bushes. But it came into its own when wading in the wide running waters of the big rivers. Here it built up a powerful rhythm and covered water like no other rod, presenting a fly with precision and landing the line delicately upon the water. An occasional mend of the long cast was required to keep in contact with the hook as it swam down among the blooming ranunculus in search of mighty fishes to deceive.

There is something special about fishing with a rod that has been cherished in the past. In great uncle James’ day it must have cost a fortune and it had clearly been used on many occasions. It seemed to impart skill and good fortune to the user – like the wand of a sorcerer’s apprentice. I caught many trout with it – nothing bigger than a pound or two – but it had the ability to produce fish where lesser rods, mass-produced in factories, simply were not up to the task. The Greenheart could reach the runs that other rods could not – unless you were prepared to get your feet wet and wade into dangerous waters. The Bann and its tributaries are full of large slippery stones that throw even the most nimble and youthful of feet. The currents are strong and the pools are deep. Strong swimmers have been swept to their deaths even in summer when the waters seem low and benign.

James, like thousands of his fellow countrymen, did not come back from the Great War. He joined the Army in Scotland. His regiment was almost wiped out. It was amalgamated with the Black Watch. In Palestine he was taken ill with dysentery and placed on a hospital ship for the journey home. He did not make it. His body is buried in La Pieta military cemetery in Valetta on the island of Malta. He shares a grave with two fallen comrades. A young girl at the Commonwealth War Graves commission helped me find it though she could not pronounce Aghadowey. A Maltese taxi driver over-charged and took me to the wrong graveyard but a local woman directed me to the right location and was interested in my story. My voice trembled as I read from the family bible over a tombstone baked in Mediterranean sun, the only member of the family to visit this resting place.

She was frail and confused in hospital when I last saw Jinny. A week later the telephone call came from my father. I knew the clocks had signalled her time was over and dust was already settling unchallenged on the brasses. After the funeral I took out the Greenheart and went fishing. On the first cast the delicate tip section snapped. The magic is gone. It cannot be restored.

By  Maurice Neill