The mystery of the disappearing man

“HE LEFT them there, standing under the sycamore tree, the two dray horses, the plough lying on its side nearby, the soil fresh on its blade. And of himself, not a sign ever of him anywhere. Gone. Like the wind. Just like that. Done a bunk, as they say...”

This is the emphatic departure of Taim Uillicc, as he walked away from his life and family in the 1890s, and was never heard of again, that intrigued the narrator’s father.

Often, as father and son on their small farm on Co Mayo spent time together turning hay in the meadow, or stirring the turf they were saving in the bog, the father would again bring up the puzzle of Taim, and shake his head at the wonder of it all. How could a man walk out on his family, and vanish like that?

But it is a common theme, found in many Irish communities. A man walks away. There is no explanation, and everyone is left bewildered and wounded. John B Keane touches on the phenomenon in his great 1963 play The Year Of the Hiker. The ‘Hiker’ walks away from his family and there isn’t a ‘murmur’ of him for 20 years, until he suddenly returns. His wife Kate can never forgive him for the hurt and humiliation his unexplained departure caused her to suffer.

The mystery of the disappearing man is the theme of Gregory Raftery’s first book His Soul Was A Long Journey - Upstate New York (published by the author, 2009, €12 ) which attempts to tell the story of Taim after he leaves home, but succeeds in doing very much more.

In this sensitively written book, the narrator brings the reader on a journey as he tries to trace the probable route of the runaway; but at the same time saying a great deal about the life of an exile, and how the tables were turned on the narrator as his partner of some years deserts him, and their two children, to live with a man in Zurich.

The theme of exile has engaged the imagination of many writers in the course of literary history, either because they experienced having to leave their native country for political reasons, or because they felt a disaffection with their society, and consciously chose to live elsewhere. In fiction, as in life, there are many kinds of exile, as individual as the people experiencing and writing about it.

The author Gregory Raftery is himself an exile. He grew up in Shrule, Co Mayo, and was educated at Coláiste Éinde in Galway where he taught for a number of years. He has lived in France and Germany, and spent long periods of time in Einsiedeln, reputed to be the very centre of Switzerland, and a place of pilgrimage.

It is here that the author, wearing the mask of a narrator, begins his quest to put humanity on Taim Uillicc. It begins as a story to his daughter Caitríona over a number of years. Later her questions and curiosity about Taim echo her own concerns as an adolescent, and a schoolgirl. This helps the narrator to allow Taim to have regrets that his children would be bullied and teased at school because they were different. And when her mother leaves their home, Caitríona is concerned that her father will abandon her too.

Taim’s wife, Siobhán, on the farm at home, sticks to her resolve to wait and see if her husband will come back. “She will not condemn him, although there are those who might have liked to persuade her to adopt a different attitude. She is highly regarded, for she never complains. She has the people’s unreserved sympathy. If anyone rails against fortune, she says, ‘Sure God is good’, or ‘Sure with the help of God’. Or indeed often, when someone asks how she is faring, she will just say: ‘Sure the neighbours are great’.”

Another interesting thread is the way the narrator draws on the patchwork of fragments from his own life in the west of Ireland. These help him illuminate instances as Taim makes his way through the country to Cobh. His grandmother had a ‘safe house’ for men on the run, first from the Black and Tans, and later from gunmen during the Civil War.

“They’d arrive in the dark and be gone again before daylight. I remember a man sitting in the scullery drinking a cup of tea. When I opened the door he looked at me but said nothing. I asked, who are you? He didn’t answer. I closed the door and asked my mother who he was and why he didn’t speak. ‘He’s on the run,’ she said. That was the explanation. Such men didn’t speak to anyone.”

Taim makes his way to America, and works on farms in the Hudson valley, upstate New York. He remains an enigma to many who meet him on his journey:

“He did things in his own rhythm. In one way he seemed very serene, and yet an immense tautness, and tension came across. It seemed such a contradiction. He was so likeable, and yet he would not talk. Something had bound him to his silence, this refusal or inability to communicate.”

He does talk, however, to an Indian girl called Kimee. A moving, and well written, scene is when they meet each other for the first time. She speaks in her tribal language; he replies in his native Irish. They do not understand each other’s words, but understand intimately the emotion behind the words. When a bystander hears Taim speak Irish, he assumes that he is ‘injun’.

“‘He can speak their lingo! Is he a half-breed? Hey, are you a half-breed?’

‘Didn’t you hear the brogue? He’s Irish.’

‘Ain’t much difference.’”

Already Taim Uillicc is fading into the ether of another world. As the narrator comments earlier: “Exile is sometimes a complex matter.”


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