I recently visited Ann O’Reilly to sympathize on the death of her beloved husband Brian. I had taught their three daughters, Niamh, Siobhan and Grainne and coached them basketball in the ‘Pres’, three exemplary students. Brian was very proud of them.
I had missed the funeral because I had not known him as Brian O’Reilly but as the ‘Colonel’ and hadn’t initially registered the connection. When I went to study in Thomond College in 1979, many of my fellow students enquired, as they listened to stories of Portlaoise characters, ‘Is there anyone in Portlaoise who doesn’t have a nickname?’
There are many great stories about the Colonel, but my favourite one is of an after hour’s raid on Dinny Joe’s pub, where he was enjoying a late pint with Gaddafi Carroll and Eugene Lacumber.. Gaddafi got his nickname from being on UN duty in Lebanon.
I don’t know how the Colonel got his nickname but he had the walk and the aura of a Colonel. Eugene Lacumber was known locally as Eugene Lacumber.
The young Guard who raided was new in town. He would probably have just given a warning except for the fact that the three lads did a runner out the back to the Jacks, leaving the evidence of unfinished pints on the table. This annoyed the Guard and in his throes of indignation, he produced his notebook to take down details of the summons.
‘What’s your name?’
‘My name’s the Colonel.’
‘What’s your proper name?’
‘My name’s the Colonel!’
‘I’ll come back to you. What’s your name?’
‘My name’s Gaddafi.’
‘What’s your proper name?’
‘My name’s Gaddafi!’
‘Stay where ye are the two of ye! What’s your name?’
‘That’s better. How do you spell that?’
And so a young Guard got his baptism of fire in the back lounge of Dinny Joe’s.
I had a lovely chat with Anne over a cup of tea. She updated me on how the girls were getting on, memories of Brian, their move to Beechfield and the great times they had there.
We Irish have a great tradition for funeral rituals. The coming together of the community, the wake, the laughs, the cries, the stories.
It helps us get through the initial heart break and grief. Sometimes a visit after the funeral can be a nicer, more relaxed occasion, at a time when people have gone back to their normal lives and a visit to a quiet house is appreciated.
Oftentimes, we use humour to deflect our emotions from troublesome topics such as death. John Bohan was working outside the cemetery with the P & T fixing a line. Johnny Ireland was digging a grave. John hadn’t heard of a death and was curious as to the identity of the deceased. When Johnny crossed over to the hut for his tea break, he came within earshot.
‘Someone dead, Johnny?’
‘I hope he is John, we’re burying him here at 12 O’clock.’
And on he strolled for his tea with strains of John Hurt Bird’s voice in the air as he pleaded with the Bull McCabe in the film The Field.
‘I’m no informer, Bull, the Bird’s no informer!’
Tom Maloney was a famous undertaker in Mountrath. There was a time when funerals were so scarce that he said he would have buried the living to get one. He stopped his empty hearse to give a neighbour who was thumbing a lift to Portlaoise.
‘Thanks very much Tom, I was waiting over half an hour.’
‘No problem at all Jim, but I’d much prefer to have you in the back!’
My uncle Tom told the story of the Crow McDonald drinking a pint at the counter in Flemings of the Swan. The Crow’s uncle had died a couple of weeks earlier. A neighbour who had been away working in England and had missed the funeral, entered. When he saw the Crow, he went over to sympathize.
‘Ah Crow, I’m very sorry. I believe you buried your uncle.’
The Crow replied in a slow drool voice, ‘Ah but sure we had ta, sure he was three days dead.’
When the Crow went to the solicitor to hear the will, he wasn’t expecting the magnitude of the legal fees. As the bill from the list on the page began to mount up, stationery, postage, sundry, the Crow intervened with a shout.
‘Hould on! Hould on! Hould on! Was it your uncle or my uncle who died?’
There was one Easter Sunday night when I fought my way to the bar in the 23 Club. It was four deep at the counter and the bar staff were under severe pressure. ‘ 2 pints of Heineken, 2 large Bulmers, 3 John Waynes, 2 Jack Daniels and a toasted cheese special.’
‘Feck ya Zoom, what do you want?’
When I eventually got the proper order in, which was all of the above without the sandwich, I turned to find a young lad waiting beside me to get in a shout. He had jet black hair down to his shoulders, a moustache and a long black beard.
‘Fair play to you,’ I said, ‘You said you’d be back in three days, and you’re back!’
Some day they will all be back, all the great characters.
Until that day, rest in peace, Colonel.
SEE ALSO – Pat Critchley: Remembering Paddy Sinnott – the Michael O Hehir of Laois