I first saw him in a hardware store where I had gone to buy oil for my lantern. Business was slow, or rather stopped, and he was telling the owner a story about a dog he owned long ago, a dog of exceptional beauty. I pretended an interest in farm implements, emulsion paints, and balls of bailer twine. This animal had a wonderful coat which everyone admired, and he had a good attitude to all living things, with the one exception of other dogs: he seemed to think the world would be a better place without them. He died eventually, of course, and was missed by his human friends. The next day a neighbour made a good suggestion.

"Tadhg, why don't you get the dog's hide tanned?"

"What good would that do?"

"Well, you could still admire the coat then, and maybe the tailor could turn it into something useful for you, like a waistcoat."

It was done, and it was the finest waistcoat in Kilmallock. There was only one problem: whenever he passed Murphy's house and their dogs ran out barking, the hair on the waistcoat would stand up on end and become very uncomfortable.

When I laughed behind a barricade of paint-tins his face appeared in an opening between the tins and his smile filled the whole gap. "It's no word of a lie," he said. "It's God's truth," he repeated as he came around the shelving to shake my hand. Another customer arrived and I had the storyteller all to myself.

"Did that dog ever have pups?" I asked as we left the shop. I was planning a little joke about waistcoats for the boys.

"No, he had not. Not with his attitude. Couldn't stand sight nor sound of another dog, nor a bitch but as little." This man, I realised, takes his stories seriously; he does not classify them readily as fiction and put them aside.

"Talking about hides," he continues, "I had a horse twenty years ago," and he launches into another story as we walk together along the street. He comes to a sudden halt just in front of a busy grocery shop in order to concentrate on the story. As we stand among the shoppers I have a vague feeling that there are different time-levels here, and that I have no idea which of them, if any, is real. This mixing of time-dimensions is found continually in Ireland, and that German historian of the nineteenth century who thought to write "absolute history", describing the past "as it really was, wie es eigentlich gewesen," would be at a sore loss here. This horse I am to hear about, is it the grey horse of history? Who knows? It is a horse, I think, of every colour.

"He was the finest horse in the parish." I missed some of the early part of the story through inattention; few people belong more to the present than shoppers, and I am not sure if I am to situate myself among them in the present, or on some other level. It seems that Tadhg was delivering a cartload of porter to a publican when he stopped to talk to a neighbour. As they talked, the horse began to drink unnoticed from one of the barrels; he soon got a colic and appeared to be as dead as a stone. There was nothing for it but to take him to the knackers and try to get a fair price for the skin. He got twenty-five shillings. That night his wife woke him up with a jab of her elbow. "The horse is in the yard," she said. He could hardly be blamed for not believing this straight away, but when he was persuaded to look out he saw that the horse was really there, with no skin on him. He went out and stabled him for the night, and next morning he went straight to the knackers to get the skin back. It had just been sent off in the lorry with other skins, they told him. He asked if they had any skins of any sort left. They had nothing but three or four sheepskins, and he brought them home with him. He placed them around the horse and began to stitch them together with wire, but soon he ran out of wire and had to use some brambles that were growing nearby. "And as sure as I'm standing here, I got three good cuts of wool off that horse every year; and I would have got four if it wasn't for the youngsters pulling it off as they climbed up to pick the blackberries."

"These are wonderful stories," I tell him.

"And every one of them truer than the last," he assures me. That much could be true in some sense, I think.

"We used to swap many a story long ago before the television came in. At the end of a night you couldn't remember who told which story, so maybe some of my stories are Pa Doherty God rest him's."

That is how traditions are made in every part of the world: in ancient Greece, on the Great Blasket and in Kilmallock itself.

We are walking now along the main street, and he enquires about myself: where I come from and where I am going. He knows Beeing well, a fact that surprises me as usual. When he was a young man he once had to take a greyhound to someone who lived there – a distance of about forty miles. He missed his lift, so they set out running, he and the greyhound; the exercise would do them both good. They made it in two hours; and they would have made it in an hour-and-a-half if the greyhound hadn't got tired near Buttevant.         He has a story for every person, place and thing.  He asks what brings me to Kilmallock, and when I tell him (somewhat apologetically) what I am doing and why I needed three months' rest, he sums up my situation with great wisdom and kindness: it is no delay, he says, to stop and edge the tool.

He has to leave me now, for his wife is waiting for him: a great girl, he says, the best in Ireland. Once he was ploughing a few acres near the house when she came out and sat down to watch.  "Tadhg," she said after a while, "you're working far too hard; you're killing yourself. And look: there's a hole in your sock, and your heel will be getting sore.  Here, I'll do a bit of knitting, and you go and have a drink for yourself."

He had about a half-acre of ploughing left to do, and he spent no more than half-an-hour in the pub; but when he returned he found that she had finished the ploughing, and wasn't she turning the heel of the second sock!

"Where is she waiting?" I ask.  I see nothing ahead but the empty street.

Pain clouds his face.  He moves a step closer to me and lowers his head; it is like a confession:

"She's buried beyond in the graveyard these thirty years."

                     (Donagh O'Shea, Take Nothing for the Journey: Meditations on Time and Place,
Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1990, 2nd edition, 2013)


These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.