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The Family Plot

Short story By: Derek Simon

Three Canadians visit the old family pub and burial ground in the "dead centre" of Ireland ... and come home with an interesting souvenir.

Submitted:Jan 4, 2009    Reads: 380    Comments: 0    Likes: 1   

"It'd be straight down the road here, just past the Gaelic field at the junction. Sure, you can't miss it!"
I'd been living in Ireland almost a year at this point, and having travelled a fair bit of the country, I'd received directions like this before. I should have known better. I knew that the Irish - generally a friendly, helpful people - would give you directions even if they weren't quite sure where to go themselves. By their lights, any answer is considered more polite than an honest but blunt: "I don't know."
But being so close to my goal, I'd momentarily forgotten that lesson, and naturally got lost.
For months, I'd been planning for this day with my cousin Brian. A few years earlier our parents, while on their first trip to the Old Country, visited the village where my grandmother's family had resided over one hundred years ago. The town's sole pub was once a general store owned by our great great-grandfather, Robert, and the current owner possessed a jug left over from those days that was stamped with our grandmother's family name.
Unfortunately, my father and my aunt, Brian's mother, couldn't persuade the publican to part with it. Not for any amount of money. "It's the only thing we have left from the old days," he explained.
Back home in Canada, a picture of my father with his arm wrapped around that large piece of pottery graced the mantelpiece at my parent's house, but the jug itself remained in this small village in County Offaly.
With the age-old desire of the young to best their elders, Brian and I were determined to recover this heirloom, and my cousin's visit to Ireland offered the perfect opportunity to give it a try. Joined by an accomplice, my good friend Colin, our plan was simple: one would distract the publican while the others made off with the coveted jug.
To get to the pub, however, looked as though it would require some effort. I concluded the village was too small to have bus service, and after checking the map, decided our best course was to take the bus to Athlone, a town just 15 kilometres away. From there we'd rent bicycles and peddle to our final destination. Once there, we'd snatch the jug and make an instant getaway, cycling back to Athlone - a 30-kilometer round trip. We were game.
But things didn't run as smoothly as planned. We were late in arriving in Athlone and barely managed to rent three bikes just before the shop closed. Once off, we soon learned how deceptively short distances on the map can appear. I'd failed to take into account all the twists and turns of a typical Irish country road. As a result, our trip took almost twice as long as expected, as we huffed and puffed our way through the rolling countryside.
Sweaty and winded, we got to the pub late, but were still determined to put our plan into effect. Like master thieves, we first took in the lay of the land. We nonchalantly reconnoitred the pub, coolly surveying the entrance, noting possible emergency exits if things went wrong, and taking measure of the roads out of town. Once convinced we were ready to go, we positioned our bikes for a quick escape, ready to jump into the saddle and race off, the local police in hot pursuit.
It turned out we needn't have bothered. When we walked into the pub and told Jim the publican who we were, he virtually gave us the jug on the spot. It seems he'd felt guilty ever since our parents' visit, and decided the jug ought to be returned to the family.
He went out back and promptly returned lugging the coveted jug. In its day, it would certainly have held a few gallons of beer. It was half the size of Brian and just as hard to hoist. We gazed in awe, at its rich two-tone brown and beige surface. Its broken handle had been lovingly glued back on. We couldn't wait to see the expression on our parents' faces when we returned to Canada, jug in hand. It was then we realized the gaping flaw in our brilliant plan: The jug was too large to fit in the tiny baskets on the front of our bikes, let alone too heavy to cart it 25 kilometres back to Athlone using pedal power.
Realizing that the jug wasn't going anywhere that day, I got Jim's phone number and made arrangements to pick up it up on a later date. Colin, my cousin and I then sat back to savour a couple of victory drinks.
The small pub's atmosphere made it the perfect place to enjoy a pint. The walls were covered with pictures of rugby, Gaelic and soccer teams. From the stove in the corner, a peat fire filled the pub with a pleasant aroma. The pub's only other patron, a middle aged fellow, sat in a barstool that looked well acquainted with his bottom, intently watching the horse races on a battered TV set,.
Maybe it was the personal sense of triumph, or the smell of peat-smoke that hung in the air, or the fact the publican knew how to pour a pint, but for me it was the best pint of Guinness I'd ever tasted. There was also something unique in knowing that I was walking the same floorboard my ancestors had trod over a hundred years earlier. Even Colin, who had no direct link to the family, later said he noticed something special about that pub.
Before we left, we had one other piece of business in the village. Although we had no living relatives in the area, our great-great-great-grandfather, John, was buried in a cemetery up the road, and before we left we wanted to visit and pay our respects. Unfortunately, while my Aunt had given us a detailed description of the grave, we didn't know how the get to the cemetery. In true Irish fashion, our parents had merely told us to ask at the pub. By then Jim had disappeared on some errand, so we turned to the lone patron and managed to tear him away from his races to get directions.
We cycled off through countryside that seemed strangely. Although the old man's directions took us to a cemetery, it quickly became apparent it wasn't the right one. Judging from my aunt's description, I noticed there were too few headstones, and the dates were all wrong. By now, it was getting late in the day. We still had a long cycle back to town ahead of us. Retracing our steps, we finally found the cemetery we were looking for, but couldn't find the entrance.
After a short search, we decided to jump the wall. Once on the other side, we found ourselves in a thickly wooded area with a second wall on the far side. Crashing through the underbrush, we bounded over the second wall and found ourselves in the middle of the cemetery.
Daylight was starting to fade and we looked desperately at the hundreds of headstones around us. It might take an hour or more to search through them all, time we simply did not have before losing daylight altogether.
It was then I noticed the tabletop headstone in front of us was identical to the one my Aunt had described. As we brushed away the dead leaves, the sun's lingering rays hit the faded lettering etched on the stone's weather beaten surface. It was the grave we were looking for!
We took a few minutes to pay our respects, and then departed. On the way out we happened upon the cemetery's main entrance in the far corner. I realized that if we had initially entered the graveyard via its entrance, we would have been nowhere near by ancestor's resting place. Our Irish directions had gotten us lost, but a stroke of luck had put us in the right place by taking the wrong path.
We soon lost daylight completely and cycled back to Athlone in the dark. We returned to Dublin the next day.
A month later, I called up Jim, the pub owner, to arrange to pick up the jug.
"Will you be taking the bus this time?" he asked.
"The bus?" I replied.
"Sure, comes every day straight from Dublin at half two. Goes back at half four. Much easier than riding your bike."
"I'll see you at half two," I said sheepishly.
A few weeks later, as I headed home to Canada for Christmas, the jug completed its epic journey back to my family. The arduous trip took the better part of two days, as I flew from Dublin to Atlanta, caught a connecting flight to Seattle, and took a bus for the final leg to Vancouver. All the way, I lugged along a massive box marked "fragile."
Once in Vancouver, to avoid my Dad coming to pick me up and seeing the box, I caught the local bus to our neighbourhood, getting off at the bottom of the steep hill leading to my parent's house. When I called my Mum for a ride, she replied: "Sorry, dear, your sisters have taken out both of the cars. You'll have to walk."
I couldn't believe it. The jug and I had made the journey from a tiny village in Ireland to the bottom of the hill in British Columbia, and no one in my family could travel the last few hundred yards to meet us. My luck seemed to have run out.
"Fine Mum, I'll take a cab," I told her, reflecting on the fact that as long as my journey had been, it was relatively easy compared to what my ancestors endured when they first embarked for the shores of Canada.
But it was all worthwhile just to see my father's face light up that Christmas morning as he opened that great big box and saw the jug inside. At long last, we had a physical reminder of our ancestral connection to that small village in Ireland.


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