The Irish countryside is full of characters. That is, people of eccentricity or of particular personality. I would like to tell you about two of them I knew who lived within no more than a mile so of each other.
I came to know Peter, a bachelor farmer, from times I stopped to talk at his gate when walking at Eadestown. Peter’s farming was harmless. He was much more interested in taking apart things that were broken, to find out how they worked, but didn’t always get around to fixing them. There was a Morris Minor motorcar inside his gate that had grown old gracefully, and then slowly over the years had descended into dilapidation without further disturbance. Nearby there was a heap of lime that had not been touched since the day it was delivered some years before. Nature had covered it with a coating of grass and weeds as though to hide from the world her embarrassment at such waste.
Peter’s great interest was astronomy. He would talk in unfinished sentences about the planets and the stars for as long as you had time to listen. He watched television, listened to radio, and scoured newspapers to enhance his knowledge of the universe, and he wanted to share the awe he felt at its immensity and its mystery. It seemed to me that his reason for not completing sentences was that so incredible did he find the universe if he stated fully the information he had gleaned he thought it might stretch your credulity to the point you would question his sanity. He would say only ‘yes’ to any comment you might interject for fear that anything further might deflect him from telling you more of his wonder at it all. He was for all the world like the man in Robert Frost’s poem ‘New Hampshire’ :
I knew a man who failing as a farmer
Burned down his farmhouse for the fire insurance,
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.
And how was that for other-worldliness?
Jerram was in his sixties, another bachelor; he survived beside the fire in his cottage on an acre or two of land. He was something of a poet and had had a poem on the Glen of Imaal published in the local newspaper. I used to meet Jerram, wearing wellington boots and carrying a Hessian bag on his way to the local shop and I always waved from the car, but Jerram would put his head down and walk on without a reck.
One Christmas at an old folk’s party in the Parish Hall I saw Jerram standing on his own and I went over to talk to him.
‘Hello,’ he replied and took a half step backwards.
‘Any more poems published?’
‘No.’ A silence.
‘Do you enjoy occasions like this?’ He looked at me with a barely perceptible grin as though I was mad and then said simply:
Since there was no chance Jerram would initiate a sentence, I asked him some more questions as the only way to keep contact. He answered them all in no more than a word or two. Then I asked him:
‘Is there anything that really annoys you?’ There was a long silence.
Slowly the hint of a smile crossed his lips.
‘There is,’ he said. I was making progress at last.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s people asking me questions.’
One winter during a severe spell of weather half the countryside was laid low with ‘flu. Not having seen Jerram for a couple of days a neighbour found him in bed and called the doctor who immediately dispatched him to the County Hospital.
As soon as Fr Paddy, the parish priest, heard that Jerram was in hospital he went to see him. Fr Paddy was a smiling relaxed man who loved people. He dressed casually except on formal occasions. Eventually he found Jerram in a large ward of elderly men, he was lying flat on his back covered to his chin in an unruffled bed and staring at the ceiling.
Fr Paddy sat on the chair beside the bed.
‘When did you land in here?’ A pause.
‘I don’t know.’
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Do you feel a bit better since you came in?’ A long pause,
After further attempts to have a conversation there was a silence that Fr Paddy was determined not to fill. Eventually Jerram cleared his throat and looking straight at the priest he said:
‘Do you mind if I ask you a question?’ Progress at last.
‘No, Jerram you can ask me anything you like.’ Another silence and then:
‘Who are you?’