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 Halfpenny Marvel .
"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
"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 schoollife 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 firstcomer 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 sailingvessel 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
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 goodday. 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 gready since he was a boy--a long time ago. He said that
the happiest time of one's life was undoubtedly one's schoolboy
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 for games."
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 I had. 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
The man smiled as before and said that when he was our age he
had lots of sweethearts.
"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
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
"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
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 field:
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