I’m not sure I wish I knew all the details of my paternal great-grandfather’s life in America. John P. Horrigan was not a nice man.
That’s not to say he was a bad man. I believe he was a man of his times — tough times for an uneducated Irishman making his way through a new and mysterious land.
I never met the man. But I heard stories. The first story I remember was my father’s, who told me how the old man was able to chew hard candy, even though he had no teeth to speak of.
His candy chewing abilities were the least of his strange accomplishments. The second story that filled my mind with wonder came from my two aunts, probably at a wake. One of them giddily told me great grandfather had been “kicked out of Ireland for fighting.”
I imagined the old man had been a brawler and a pretty nasty one to qualify for being kicked out of a country whose menfolk had a reputation for bare-knuckle and usually whiskey-soaked fisticuffs. But my imaginings were not even close.
More exactly, it’s likely John P. escaped his home in West Ireland by the skin of his teeth. At another wake and another time, a gentleman friend of the family talked briefly — before he was shushed up by the ladies — about how fond John P. was of dropping crockery on the heads of the notoriously murderous Black-and-Tans who had been recruited into the British constabulary during the Irish War of Independence n the early 1900s.
That was about as romantic great-granddad’s family legend ever got. It was, in fact, more of a scandal than anything else to a family — especially my own — that was intent on joining the American mainstream and wanted no truck with the past.
Great-granddad settled in and spent the rest of his life embedded in the densely Irish enclave of South of Buffalo, NY during those years. The subsequent stories I heard while growing up can’t be verified, though I believe every word of them.
He was no stranger to “the drink.” Whatever violent or self-destructive or racist tendencies he harbored were only amplified by the bottle, or, just as likely, the still.
He lived for a time in an apartment house. A boisterous “eye-talian” couple lived in the apartment directly above his. They argued. Shouted at each other.
Granddad didn’t like that. The couples’ arguments kept my great-grandfather awake at night and angry the rest of the day.
When he’d finally had enough, the old man took a shot gun to the problem. Without leaving his apartment, he listened to the sounds of mid-argument scuffling feet. Keeping an ear rather than an eye on the matter, he let loose a blast at the offending ceiling.
The shotgun proved an inadequate solution to his long-range problem. But it had its undeniable immediate effect.
He had been raised on a farm and saw no reason why he his animal husbandry skills needed to be abandoned in the squalid city environment he’d landed in. That meant his yard swarmed with chickens and swine and other barnyard escapees, fact his neighbors and the city’s health department knew all too well.
Great-grandfather addressed the situation by putting down the shotgun in favor of another barnyard item: grease. Specifically, when he saw the officials coming, he’d grease the swine up and let them loose. I wasn’t told how or even if he re-captured them or whether he was given a citation, but it’s not hard to imagine him laughing hard as the civil servants struggled to take the pigs down.
He had another nemesis in the backyard — a cat that had made chicken its favorite meal. Once again, great-grandfather opted for rough justice. He shotgunned the creature. But something happened. He had a change of heart. Great-grandfather took the cat, and, I was told, stitched it back up. The animal lived another several years.
Finally, the last story I remember concerned great-grandfather’s death. He was at death’s door when his sons decided it was time to call the priest, who would administer the Catholic Church’s last rites. One son was dispatched to fetch the priest. Instead, the son spent the money meant for the priest at the liquor shop. There was no question the old man had plenty to confess before going to his final reward, but alas. It took decades before the errant brother was forgiven his grievous mistake.
Those are the few chords I’ve heard over the past years from this immigrant’s song. There are many more floating through the minds and memories of a family whose individual stories are as unique as they are universal.