As months passed, and the novelty of living in isolated splendor began to pale, I started
to wonder if I should ever meet any of my immediate neighbors. Much of the farmland
surrounding the house had been sold off by previous owners over the years. The once
mighty estate of two thousand acres was reduced to a little under thirty, and most of that
was woodland and impractical small meadows. None of the owners of the land lived
nearby and so only visited when there was something to do, like ploughing or
harvesting. One of those absent farmers was Davy Joe Gorman. Davy Joe was a small,
stout man with dark eyes that peered out from under a greasy, tattered tweed cap that
never left his head. His eyes were deeply set on either side of a large nose, the profile
of which ranged from 'classical Roman' at the top to 'abstract impressionism' at the
bottom. His hair was black, and his skin was dark in tone, not from years in the
open air but from an ancient heritage that runs among the Irish and suggests not the
pale skin and blue eyes of the Celts of central Europe, but the dark eyes and olive skin
of a much older race from the Iberian peninsula and North Africa as it's source.
For many years, he ran a little pub in the middle of the village until a previous
owner of Clifford sold him a large acreage. Some said, (unkindly,) the sale was in lieu of
a massive drinks bill, but I suspect it would take a liver of cast iron to drink eighty acres
of fine arable land! The combination of thick black eyebrows, small dark eyes and
curiously shaped nose gave him a Dickensian look that was perfect for peering out from
behind the mahogany bar of his ancient, and gloomy tavern, but left him looking like a
displaced subterranean dweller when stood out in a field on a bright sunny day.
Davy Joe sold his pub and settled down to a new life as a full time farmer but he didn't
fit the traditional farmer mold very well. He lacked that perpetual mixture of anxiety and
pessimism that is so beloved of the farming community in Ireland. There is never a
silver lining in Irish farming, things always work out for the worst. You will rarely hear a
farmer boast of a good harvest, but if you stand still long enough, you will inevitably hear
a litany of woe regarding the weather, the cost of seed and the scandalous prices paid
in the market.
I remember asking my grandfather when I was a boy, 'why do farmers grumble all
the time when they are together?' He laughed and his pale blue eyes twinkled as he
"Sure that's a fierce delicate question my little 'bouchal' (Irish for 'boy')
My grandfather was a farmer in County Kerry. His farm was located on the side of a
magnificent mountain range looking out over the wild and ever-changing Atlantic ocean,
and when I was small, he used to take me around with him, like a pet lamb. I can
still remember tedious hours spent standing around outside the church after midday
mass on Sunday. The soft rain drizzling down, the smell of turf smoke, damp tweed
jackets, mothballs and fresh shoe polish hanging over us in the soft Kerry air, as my
grandfather and his neighbors sought to outdo each other with their agricultural
misfortunes. He looked down at me sternly, his grey 'walrus' mustache bristling as he
answered my question,
"Tis not long ago, that all farmers of our 'persuasion' (Roman Catholic) paid rent to a
landlord, and any bit of good luck they had in the way of farming, or any kind of
improvement made to the land would only put up the rent for them the following year. It
made sense to do very little and complain a lot. Things have changed for the better
since then, thank God, but sure, I suppose old habits die hard, so they do."
The twinkle returned to his eyes. "Now, if I buy you an ice cream, will you let me go in to
O'Connell's for a drink? and remember, not a word to your Grandmother about where
we went." My Grandmother would be doing the shopping for the week and knew very
well where we were but always pretended to be shocked when I told her. She knew I
could never keep a straight face when she asked. Then she would berate poor Grandad
all the way back from town for taking me into 'that place' and Grandad would chuckle,
puff at his pipe and wink at me, knowing we would do the whole thing again next
.To the casual observer, Davy-Joe's optimism could be construed as a fundamental
character flaw for a career in Irish agriculture. On the contrary, that optimism,
combined with his years of experience listening to farmers talk from behind the bar,
gave him a unique outsider's perspective. It allowed him to offer advice and
observations that would be considered bad manners or downright rudeness from
anyone else in the farming community. His cheerful disposition never stopped him
taking part in the post mass discussions on Sundays either. He sympathized with the
other farmers, nodding sagely as their endless tales of hard luck, missed opportunities
and persecution unfolded. The somber Gothic Victorian cast iron gates of the church
were an appropriate backdrop for the weekly outpouring of pain and suffering. Only
when 'ould Timmy', the church warden shuffled out to close the gates, a duty that
blessed him with the nickname of 'Saint Peter' were the grumbling yeomen of the parish
inclined to move. They didn't move very far though, the hardcore grumblers would
adjourn to Davy-Joe's shed which stood by the side of the road that ran through Clifford
townland not far from the entrance to our driveway. The reason for this was that it was
not yet time for lunch, and no self respecting farmer hung around his own kitchen
waiting to be fed. It wasn't worth going home and getting out of the Sunday suit and tie
for the sake of an hour so it was convenient to carry on the discussion in Davy Joe's
shed. It was far enough from the prying eyes and ears of the women folk that the
serious gossip of the village could be discussed in safety, the unspoken code of
'omerta' binding all the sons of the soil equally. Unlike the Mafia, however, the penalty
for revealing the secrets of the shed was a fate far worse than death, it was banishment.
Indeed death would have been preferable, as the whole farming community lived for
gossip. Knowledge was power, and if you didn't have any gossip 'sure, you were hardly
worth the 'time o'day'.
It was a fine afternoon in August, when I accidentally stumbled into the secret
society of Davy Joe's shed. I had been wondering for some time about the collection of
carefully parked cars at the entrance to our drive every Sunday, but as I had no one to
ask about it, I just accepted it as another local mystery.
I used to drive into the village on Sunday mornings while everyone else was at mass, to
buy the newspapers, and two bags of assorted candies. I didn't go to mass on
Sundays, I went on Saturday night instead. I found it a much more agreeable
proposition as the whole thing was more relaxed. Sunday Mass was a formal occasion
with it's own rituals, dress code, and even an unspoken seating plan. It was far too
demanding for my tastes and so I tiptoed into the back of the church on Saturday nights
with all the other less-than-perfect Catholics and nobody bothered us. We sinners left
Sunday mornings to the 'Holy Joes'. We basked in the anonymity of the darkness
Around the baptismal font, and unsurprisingly, we were very happy with the
On my return from the village, I would spread the newspapers out on the large dining
room table like some vast campaign map of the Battle of Waterloo, place the two bags
of candy strategically at either end of the table and slowly consume both the sweets
and the news. Once I was fully acquainted with the world events for the week, I would
take Charlie the dog for a brisk walk to the end of the drive, and by the time we
returned, the sugary excesses of the morning would be nothing more than a memory,
and I would already be looking forward to Sunday lunch, one of my favorite events of
the week. However, one particular morning in August was different, I had read the
papers, slipped on my old tweed jacket, the universally recognized symbol of a country
dweller, and picked up my walking stick. I didn't actually need a stick as I was still in my
twenties, but we all want to look older and more mature when we are young, until of
course we get older, and then we want to look younger and more carefree. I hadn't lived
long enough to see both sides of this equation and so I tried much too hard to blend in.
Usually, I stopped in the little vestibule at the front door where an old dark oak coat
stand full of umbrellas and walking sticks that were never used, leaned tiredly against
the whitewashed wall. There was a small drawer in the front where I kept Charlie's lead,
but the day was so fine I thought it was a shame not to let him run free. So off we went,
me pondering the events I had just read in the paper, and Charlie, on high alert, running
backwards and forwards along the drive ahead of me, stopping and sniffing the ground
every few feet, like a hairy mine detector. We stopped, as we always did, halfway down
the drive. Davy Joe's land came right up to our driveway at that point and a large, rusty
red gate hung in the thick blackthorn hedge that divided our two properties, affording an
excellent view of the rear of our woodlands across Davy Joe's fields.
I liked to lean on the gate and watch for signs of life across the broad expanse of open
ground. I often saw pheasants, rabbits, hares and even weasels. On this occasion
however, nothing was stirring, only the sunlight shimmering on the fresh green grass
rising up between the coarse stubble in the hayfields. Every breeze sent ripples of gold
and green through a sea of dull bronze. My eyelids drooped and closed slowly as
my face tilted involuntarily towards the sun, the unexpected warmth releasing some
prehistoric instinct to smile and bask in it's glow. I breathed slowly and deeply, the
thick scent of the hedgerow flowers adding to my torpor and dragging me inexorably
towards a daydream. Sadly, it was not to be, and I returned to the present with a jolt as
a little brown and white terrier stuck it's head through the metal gate near my feet,
barked once, and then took off down our drive as fast as his four tiny legs would carry
him. Charlie had been rolling in the grass and was also caught off guard by the tiny
intruder. He recovered his wits quicker than I did, and before I could stop him, was off
down the drive in hot pursuit. I shook my head, and jumping off the gate did my best to
catch up to the high speed chase ahead.
The little terrier had a terrific turn of speed for such a small dog but Charlie's legs were
nearly twice as long, and it soon became obvious the brown streak of lightning was
losing his lead rapidly. I rushed after them, cursing the fact that I hadn't bothered to put
the stupid dog on a lead, and calling Charlie back with alternating pleas and threats,
neither of which he took any notice of. I saw them reach the gatehouse. Charlie was
almost upon his prey as they shot past the gate posts and out onto the road. My heart
was in my mouth as I reached the entrance and glanced up and down the road for any
sign of the two dogs, but there was nothing. I listened for the yelping and snarling of the
fight that seemed inevitable when Charlie finally caught the poor little dog, but again,
there was no sound. I grew even more worried, perhaps they had been hit by a car? I
hadn't heard anything but I couldn't be certain. I looked in the ditch on both sides of the
road- empty. Where could they be? I called Charlie again, louder this time.
"he's in here' came an unfamiliar deep voice from behind a tall black steel fence running
along the road behind the trees that lined the entrance to Clifford.
"hello..?" I called, unsure of the location of the voice.
"in here, come in through the red gate" came the reply.
I cautiously swung open the bright red gate, it squeaked loudly on dry hinges. I
walked in, and found myself standing on a large uneven concrete slab which was the
floor of an ancient hayshed. Six old blackened telephone poles rose from the slab. They
supported an untidy corrugated iron roof, several sections of which were full of rust
holes that allowed shafts of bright summer sunlight to pierce the gloom and spread out
in neat circles on the floor like anxious spotlights awaiting a performer. I could make out
an ancient yellow Combine Harvester half covered in hay bales at the far end of the
shed. It's windscreen was cracked and almost opaque, the tires rotten and airless. It
sat there unloved, like an old agricultural dinosaur who knew it's time had come and had
crawled in there to die. As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I breathed in the
musty aroma of dried grass, axle grease and cigarette smoke, it was the standard scent
of an Irish farm building and it's familiarity was comforting.
"That's a fine lookin' dog and no mistake, tisn't too often ye'll see a Kerry Blue in these
parts" said a man in a dark blue pinstripe suit. He was sitting on a hay bale holding
Charlie by his collar and gently rubbing the dog's head. I looked around and noticed
there were several other men in suits distributed around the shed. They were clearly
in their Sunday clothes as the suits in no way matched either their surroundings or their
weathered red faces, huge leathery hands and the tattered tweed flat cap that each man
wore. The man holding Charlie stood up and smiled,
"You must be Mr. O'Neill from Clifford, I'm Davy Joe Gorman, how're ya..?"
"I'm very well thank you, and please, call me Dan", I answered, still a little taken aback
at my surroundings,
"I'm sorry if the dog got in your way, I should have had him on a lead but he just took off
after the little terrier and I couldn't catch him.." I said.
"Arra.. not at all Dan," said Davy, "that little dog is more of a nuisance than a dozen
dogs twice his size.. He belongs to me brother Frank who lives about a mile away, but
he's always following me down here, and then spends his time looking for trouble. Take
no notice of him". He looked me up and down and then said,
"How are you liking Clifford?"
"I like it a lot " I replied. "Although I haven't been there long enough to know
the place that well yet."
My cautious answer appeared to meet with general approval, and Davy Joe motioned
for me to stand beside him.
"Would you like to meet your neighbours?" he asked.
"I would indeed I replied, I've been wondering if I actually had any neighbours at all as I
never see anyone around"
"Well, we see you around don't we lads?" chuckled a small round man wearing a bright
red shirt and a brown suit with the biggest check pattern I had ever seen outside of a
"This is Ned Fitzgerald" said Davy Joe. "He lives over there beyond your gate, where
the road bends to the left. The red and white house"
Ned shook my hand and said " that's it, the red and white house, call in anytime you're passing. Anytime at all"
I was introduced to about half a dozen more of my neighbours. They were mostly in
their 50's and related to one another through marriage. Farmers in Ireland were
reluctant to let land go out of the family or to see it reduced in size due to a marriage so,
they followed the the traditions of the aristocracy and tried wherever possible to get a
good 'match' made where land would be coming into the family and not leaving it. To
this end, every village in Ireland used to have a 'Matchmaker' a man who, for a fee,
would negotiate with both parties and strike a good bargain. Matchmakers had all but
died out when I was living in Clifford but it was not uncommon in my Father's time to
have parents making matches for their children. Indeed I suspected one or two of my
neighbours had availed of some sort of matchmaking, given the closeness of their
wive's family farms to their own.!
I took a seat on a convenient hay bale and the conversation slowly and reluctantly
resumed but in a much more guarded form.. I could see my presence was limiting the discussion, "Please don't let me interrupt" I said getting up to leave,
"no no.. not at all, stay where you are Dan , sure you're grand there so you are" said
Davy, and the others joined him in half hearted but vocal protests to stay. A true
outsider might have made the mistake of sitting back down at that point, but as I had
been brought up to know the odd inferences of Irish conversation, knowing when to
leave is almost as important as what you have to say, so I waved my hand at the
protests and taking a firm hold of Charlie's collar, I said, "I'd love to stay men, really I
would but I have to get back to the house, 'herself' will be wondering where I've got to
and It's nearly lunch time. I'm delighted to meet you, and please call up to the house
anytime, you are all very welcome".
"We'll do that won't we Davy' said Ned Fitzgerald and patted me on the back as I
walked to the door with Davy Joe.
"We will indeed so we will" said Davy as he held the door open for me. Charlie gave one
last lunge at the little terrier who had mockingly escorted him to the door and then I was
out in the bright sunlit road again.
"Why don't ye drop in again next week if you are out with 'his nibs' there, and he motioned to Charlie, who was doing his best to get back in under the fence.
"We're here every Sunday after twelve o'clock mass, tis nothing special, but sure it
passes the time till the spuds are on the table" and with that, he pulled the door closed.
As I walked away, I heard Ned Fitzgerald say, "well, he's a sight better than the last one,
but he's very young isn't he.?"
"You're right there Ned" came an anonymous reply, "but sure you of all people should
know, 'there's no fool like an old fool'" The roars of laughter faded as I made my way
back down the drive wondering what it meant. (I later found that years ago, Ned had
married a much younger woman and the word in the village was that he wasn't quite up
to the task.)
My initation to the secret society of Davy Joe's shed had begun. Almost every Sunday,
I would sit quietly in the background, listening intently as the weeks events on the world
stage were recounted, examined and then dismissed or inspected further depending on
whether or not they had any relevance, first to farming, and then to national security.
The week's local gossip would be liberally distributed among the participants, and each
brought a carefully crafted tidbit to the table for the feast. I said nothing, I couldn't
contribute to the gossip as I knew no one, and even if I did, it would be very bad form for
a 'blow in' to be criticizing a local. So, I just smiled and laughed when everyone else
did, and eventually I began to understand the workings of the strange little community I
had dropped into. I could sometimes even recognize people on the street in the village
simply from what had been mentioned in the shed. I was quite happy with the situation
and looked forward to the Sunday gathering almost as much as my Sunday lunch.
There had never been any pressure on me to contribute to the discussions, and for
many weeks I was allowed to sit quietly and enjoy the back and forth of argument and
the spontaneous wit and humor that it seems almost all Irish people possess in
abundance from birth. I knew it couldn't continue like that and eventually, my turn
came. The discussion moved as it always did, to who had died that week. An old farmer
who lived alone had been found dead just yards from his front door by the postman on
Monday morning. It was assumed he had fallen on his pathway the night before and had
lain there all night, possibly dying of exposure in the frosty Autumn air. Several theories
were proposed ranging from exposure to an overdose. The poor man had quite a few
medical problems and there were no shortage of doomsayers willing to believe there
had been 'foul play'
The conversation turned to me and I was asked what I thought, I said I hadn't a clue,
but the man was very old, if I was to guess, I would say he died from the cold.
"but sure your missus is a one of the specialist doctors above at the hospital" said said
Tom Sullivan slyly. "Wouldn't she have an idea how he died, her having to look at the
Xrays and all..?"
Tom was a very tall thin man. His arms and legs looked far too long for his body and
were always splayed out at awkward angles. His thin cadaverous face had a pair of
huge bulging blue eyes sat above wickedly angular cheekbones. He had an interesting
habit of taking his false teeth out and putting them in his pocket when he
wanted to make a particular point, as they got in the way when he wanted to speak
rapidly. All these things combined to give him the appearance of a particularly
unpleasant Praying Mantis.
"So what does she have to say"? He stretched his neck to it's fullest extent, blinked
and swallowed nervously, his chin almost touching his hooked nose, then sat down to
await my answer.
"I didn't hesitate, "I'm afraid my wife doesn't discuss her work with me. That information
is private and I have no business discussing it. Neither have you if it comes to that.'"
The silence was deafening, I waited a few seconds, and then bent down to pick up my
walking stick and got ready to leave. "where are you going Dan? Said Davey Joe, "sit
down there now like a good man and don't mind Tom, he gets a bit excited sometimes,
don't you Tom..?
"He wouldn't get too excited if he had a wife at home" said another voice,
"He can have mine" said yet another, "She'd knock the excitement out of any man"
"Tis's true for you Patrick" came from the rear of the shed.
"and how would you know that?"
"why wouldn't I know it, sure isn't she my own sister, and wasn't it me that put the pair
of them together.." mumbled Patrick.
"May God forgive you for that Patrick" came again from the darkness.
"He'd better, because the poor sister hasn't"
and so it went on, each man contributing until it the discussion became an
unsustainable tower of innuendo which finally crashed to the ground, blown down by
gales of laughter. I thought my awkward moment had been forgotten but I noticed Davy
Joe in conversation with Tom and looking over at me. They both smiled when they saw
me and it dawned on me that perhaps I had been set up with an awkward question to
see how far I could be trusted.
It appeared I had passed the test, and from that day on, my probation was over, my
opinions were sought as much as any other in the group and I joined the 'brotherhood of
the shed'. That membership that meant more to me than any fancy golf or country club
ever could, and even now, when I smell straw bales and diesel oil I smile and think of
how easily a dozen or so farmers in an old shed could set the world to rights if they were
only given the chance.