Tricksters, undemonstrative fathers, and other stories...

As John saw it: Life through the eyes of the celebrated columnist John Cunningham.

As John saw it: Life through the eyes of the celebrated columnist John Cunningham.

I wonder would the following story still happen in Galway today. It happened in more innocent times, in the early 1960s. A very upper class gentleman, Major Woodfall Murphy, rented Bermingham House, the great 18th century pile once owned by the barons of Athenry, on the outskirts of Tuam. The genuinely snobby Lady Molly Cusack Smith, who owned the pile, was only too glad with the promised extra lolly. To the outsider it all felt hunky-dory: One snob helping another.

But it had to be the rip off of the century. The man, who called himself Sir Patrick Murphy, the former governor of the Bahamas, was a complete impostor, con man, and fraudster. Yet he was so skilled at his skulduggery that no one here saw through him, least of all poor Molly.

He spoke with the kind of cut-glass accent, that immediately prompts Irishmen to doff their caps, and ladies to curtsey. He drove around in a bronze/gold Rolls Royce, with off-white upholstery, and an aristocratic boxer dog sitting in the back seat like a royal child. He ran up bills, borrowed money from practically everyone , lorded over dinners, smoked the unimaginably expensive ‘green’ cigars (which were ordered from Dublin by taxi ), sponsored a cup at the Tuam show, hunted and fished, had improvements carried out on Bermingham House; but when pressure to pay his bills became too much, he suddenly disappeared.

People were aghast! The Lord only knows quite how much money he borrowed because very few admitted that they had lent him anything. No one likes to appear to have been a fool. But privately I believe he didn’t just borrow a sum of money to help him out of a jam; he borrowed large sums!

I am reminded of the major (referred to as the Galloping Major in the British press ), in an entertaining collection of short stories by the late and respected journalist, and former editor of the City Tribune, John Cunningham.*

In fact the major made a reappearance, but this time in the British press. Rather sadly he had cut his wrists and died awaiting trial at Norfolk Assizes on a charge of tricking a Mrs Effie Ora out of £4,000. Clearly the Brits were better at spotting a cad than we were. But as a boy I remember it was the only topic of conversation in Galway for years. As I said it was in more innocent times; and if we have lost that innocence, then it’s no bad thing.

A game of 25

Yet part of the charm of John Cunningham’s collection of stories is that many of them reflect more gentle times, when people made their own entertainment at home. Apart from the usual festivities, the Cunningham house at Christmas was one of the venues for the fiercely contested ‘25 card game’. There were serious prizes to be won; such as a turkey and a ham, all very useful at that time of year.‘ Lynx-eyed countrymen’ had grown up in a world of ‘tables of nine’, where players started out as three partnerships of three, but it was every man for himself when it came down to the cross-play between the final three to decide the ultimate winner.

John’s father had a reputation as a good host to a card school. He had not much money, but he could still produce a bottle of whiskey, bottles of stout, a mound of sandwiches and a cake, and had a fine round mahogany table in the sitting room, with a roaring fire, which was perfect for ‘Nine’.

The local priest had a ‘fearsome reputation’ for cards and was a passionate player. The only thing was that he was so busy that time of year, there were times when he had not finished his Divine Office, a long series of prayers recited from a black book which he was obliged to read every day. Card games had to be interrupted as they approached midnight, to allow the priest to walk up and down the tiled hallway of the house so he could fulfil his obligation. The men waited smoking and talking in low voices; while the children listened to all the coming and going from bed upstairs.

Vampires at night

I suppose most people my age are still coming to terms with our fathers, who hardly ever expressed their love yet we knew they were doing their best. When John was about seven an elder brother scared the life out of him by telling him about a vampire who scratched at windows to be let in. The Cunninghams had cats, and when they called pathetically outside the bedroom window to be let in, John would check carefully that it was a cat, and let the creature in to sleep on his bed. It was a comfort to hear it purring.

But later, his father would come in to say goodnight. ‘He was never the most demonstrative of men, and it was only in very much later years that we were even vaguely close.

‘As was the way at the time, you knew he was there for you, couldn’t do enough for you, and was a worrier. But we weren’t into hugging...I often thought he almost shrank from overt displays, though he could laugh until he cried.

‘First he would remove the cat from the bed, with a remark which was always the same... “What’s that strap doing here?” Then it would be “Did you say your prayers?”

“Yes Dad.’

Goodnight and God bless then.”

“Goodnight, Dad.”

There was a Holy Water font hanging on the wall over the mantle of a fireplace in the bedroom, and he would dip his fingers into the water and shake it in the direction of the bed. The water splashed cold on your warm cheek.

And we all knew that Holy Water was one thing vampires feared.’

NOTES:* Some of John’s best stories chosen by his son Enda, appeared in his popular column As I saw It in the City Tribune. The book costs €14.95, with all proceeds going to Galway Hospice.

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