First was the priest, and I only mention it for the sake of completeness. It was a fine and courteous eulogy but gave little insight into the meat of the man. We were told of his friendliness, his generosity towards his neighbours, all the base levels of decency by which we measure simple folk. Those with the fortune of complexity are weighed by their wallet or their works, Joe was weighed by his willingness to fix a neighbour’s fencing.
But still and all, the words settled over parishioners, familiar and comforting, each of them quietly aware that they would be satisfied with similar treatment when the time came. The time would never come, but still and all.
The second was told me over sandwiches and pints by his cousin Meadhb. The mushroom story, she called it. You never heard about the mushrooms? she asked, unsmiling. As if it were a serious and troubling omission. When he was twelve or thirteen himself and Tommy Creedon were acting the maggot in the woods at the end of the farm, and Tommy dared him to eat a fungus growing out the crack in a tree.
He did it? He did it, and walked home, not a bother on him. Spent the next three days and nights keening and kneading his sheets. His eyes turned white, and he wouldn’t give his mammy a single word, and her sitting on the edge of his bed shaking him by the shoulders. The doctor could do nothing for him, he said, except force a bit of water down his gullet with pipe and funnel. They called the priest out twice but it never happened and on the third night he walked into the kitchen and cut himself a slice of bread and buttered it. The rest of the family sitting there staring like he’d climbed up out of his grave.
He was a different boy after that. Very serious. People said whatever place he’d spent those three days away had altered something in him. Had rushed him into manhood. He’d skipped some middle part. I always thought it was his daddy dying the next autumn and him taking on the farm that was the cause of that. But people love a story.
The last tale I heard was from Tommy Creedon himself, a little bit drunk by the time we crossed paths. Found him up on the rise, said Tommy, slipping into a spiel he’d told fifty times today already. He was just sitting there looking out over the fields with his knees under his chin. I wouldn’t have suspected a thing but for the dog. He’d walked his dog up there with him, I suppose, and she was in a terrible state. Terrible. Howling and crying and rubbing her nose in the earth. I had to shoot her in the end. Nothing to be done for a dog like that. Pulls the heart right out of them.
Tommy seemed relaxed about the end of his lifelong friend. I commended the absent Joe on the fine age he reached and then realised what it meant for Tommy, but he didn’t blink. I’m not going anywhere, he said. There’s racing in town next week. Joe was never a man for the races.
Three stories to make a man I hardly knew. It felt like both everything and nothing at all. My own story I kept to myself that day. My strongest memory of Joe. I was driving him to Cloghan to look at an engine, early in winter. He told me how scared he was of the blacks, how he was sure they were going to come to his farm and slit his throat while he slept. This was just around the beginning of immigration. I tried to argue but there was no talking to him. I’m reasonably sure he’d never spoken to an African at that point. He probably never did, and the most part of me is relieved for him. Let it go, let it go.