The Boat’s Share by E. Somerville and Martin Ross

From “Further Experiences of an Irish R.M.”

The affair on the strand at Hare Island ripened, with complexity of summonses and cross-summonses, into an imposing Petty Sessions case. Two separate deputations presented themselves at Shreelane, equipped with black eyes and other conventional injuries, one of them armed with a creelful of live lobsters to underline the argument. To decline the bribe was of no avail: the deputation decanted them upon the floor of the hall and retired, and the lobsters spread themselves at large over the house, and to this hour remain the nightmare of the nursery.

The next Petty Sessions day was wet; the tall windows of the Court House were grey and streaming, and the reek of wet humanity ascended to the ceiling. As I took my seat on the bench I perceived with an inward groan that the services of the two most eloquent solicitors in Skebawn had been engaged. This meant that Justice would not have run its course till heaven knew that dim hour of the afternoon, and that that course would be devious and difficult.

All the pews and galleries (any Irish court-house might, with the addition of a harmonium, pass presentably as a dissenting chapel) were full, and a line of flat-capped policemen stood like church-wardens near the door. Under the galleries, behind what might have answered to choir-stalls, the witnesses and their friends hid in darkness, which could, however, but partially conceal  two resplendent young ladies, barmaids, who were to appear in a subsequent Sunday drinking case. I was a little late, and when I arrived Flurry Knox, supported by a couple of other magistrates, was in the chair, imperturbable of countenance as was his wont, his fair and delusive youthfulness of aspect unimpaired by his varied experiences during the war, his roving, subtle eye untamed by four years of matrimony.

A woman was being examined, a square and ugly country-woman, with wispy fair hair, a slow, dignified manner, and a slight and impressive stammer. I recognised her as one of the bodyguard of the lobsters. Mr. Mooney, solicitor for the Brickleys, widely known, and respected as “Roaring Jack,” was in possession of that much-enduring organ, the ear of the Court.

“Now, Kate Keohane!” he thundered, “tell me what time it was when all this was going on?”

“About duskish, sir. Con Brickley was slashing the f-fish at me mother the same time. He never said a word but to take the shtick and fire me dead with it on the sthrand. He gave me plenty of blood to dhrink, too,” said the witness, with acid decorum. She paused to permit this agreeable fact to sink in, and added, “his wife wanted to f-fashten on me the same time, an’ she havin’ the steer of the boat to sthrike me.”

These were not precisely the facts that Mr. Murphy, as solicitor for the defence, wished to elicit.

“Would you kindly explain what you mean by the steer of the boat?” he demanded, sparring for wind in as intimidating a manner as possible. The witness stared at him.

“Sure, ’tis the shtick, like, that they pulls here and there to go in their choice place.”

“We may presume that the lady is referring to the tiller,” said Mr. Mooney, with a facetious eye at the Bench. “Maybe now, ma’am, you can explain to us what sort of a boat is she?”

“She’s that owld that if it wasn’t for the weeds that’s holding her together she’d bursht up in the deep.”

“And who owns this valuable property?” pursued Mr. Mooney.

“She’s between Con Brickley and me brother, an the saine1 is between four, an’ whatever crew does be in it should get their share, and the boat has a man’s share.”

I made no attempt to comprehend this, relying with well-founded confidence on Flurry Knox’s grasp of such enigmas.

“Was Con Brickley fishing the same day?”

“He was not, sir. He was at Lisheen Fair; for as clever as he is, he couldn’t kill two birds under one slat!”

Kate Keohane’s voice moved unhurried from sentence to sentence, and her slow, pale eyes turned for an instant to the lair of the witnesses under the gallery.

“And you’re asking the Bench to believe that this decent man left his business in Lisheen in order to slash fish at your mother?” said Mr. Mooney, truculently.

“B’lieve me, sorra much business he laves afther him wherever he’ll go!” returned the witness. “Himself and his wife had business enough on the sthrand when the fish was dividing, and it is then themselves put every name on me.”

“Ah, what harm are names!” said Mr. Mooney, dallying elegantly with a massive watch-chain.

“Come, now, ma’am! will you swear you got any  ill-usage from Con Brickley or his wife?” He leaned over the front of his pew, and waited for the answer with his massive red head on one side.

“I was givin’ blood like a c-cow that ye’d shtab with a knife!” said Kate Keohane, with unshaken dignity. “If it was yourself that was in it ye’d feel the smart as well as me. My hand and word on it, ye would! The marks is on me head still, like the prints of dog-bites!”

She lifted a lock of hair from her forehead, and exhibited a sufficiently repellent injury. Flurry Knox leaned forward.

“Are you sure you haven’t that since the time there was that business between yourself and the post-mistress at Munig? I’m told you had the name of the post-office on your forehead where she struck you with the office stamp! Try, now, sergeant, can you read Munig on her forehead?”

The Court, not excepting its line of church-wardens, dissolved into laughter; Kate Keohane preserved an offended silence.

“I suppose you want us to believe,” resumed Mr. Mooney, sarcastically, “that a fine, hearty woman like you wasn’t defending yourself!” Then, with a turkey-cock burst of fury, “On your oath, now! What did you strike Honora Brickley with? Answer me that now! What had you in your hand?”

“I had nothing only the little rod I had after the ass,” answered Miss Keohane, with a child-like candour. “I done nothing to them; but as for Con Brickley, he put his back to the cliff and he took the flannel wrop that he had on him, and he threw it on the sthrand, and he said he would have blood, murdher, or f-fish!”

She folded her shawl across her breast, a picture of virtue assailed, yet unassailed.

“You may go down now,” said “Roaring Jack,” rather hastily, “I want to have a few words with your brother.”

Miss Keohane retired, without having moulted a feather of her dignity, and her brother Jer came heavily up the steps and on to the platform, his hot, wary, blue eyes gathering in the Bench and the attorneys in one bold, comprehensive glance. He was a tall, dark man of about five and forty, clean-shaved, save for two clerical inches of black whiskers, and in feature of the type of a London clergyman who would probably preach on Browning.

“Well, sir!” began Mr. Mooney, stimulatingly, “and are you the biggest blackguard from here to America?”

“I am not,” said Jer Keohane, tranquilly.

“We had you here before us not so very long ago about kicking a goat, wasn’t it? You got a little touch of a pound, I think?”

This delicate allusion to a fine that the Bench had thought fit to impose did not distress the witness.

“I did, sir.”

“And how’s our friend the goat?” went on Mr. Mooney, with the furious facetiousness reserved for hustling tough witnesses.

“Well, I suppose she’s something west of the Skelligs by now,” replied Jer Keohane with great composure.

An appreciative grin ran round the Court. The fact that the goat had died of the kick and been “given the cliff” being regarded as an excellent jest.

Mr. Mooney consulted his notes:

“Well, now, about this fight,” he said, pleasantly, “did you see your sister catch Mrs. Brickley and pull her hair down to the ground and drag her shawl off of her?”

“Well,” said the witness, airily, “they had a bit of a scratch on account o’ the fish. Con Brickley had the shteer o’ the boat in his hand, and says he, ‘is there any man here that’ll take the shteer from me?’ The man was dhrunk, of course,” added Jer charitably.

“Did you have any talk with his wife about the fish?”

“I couldn’t tell the words that she said to me!” replied the witness, with a reverential glance at the Bench, “and she over-right three crowds o’ men that was on the sthrand.”

Mr. Mooney put his hands in his pockets and surveyed the witness.

“You’re a very refined gentleman, upon my word! Were you ever in England?”

“I was, part of three years.”

“Oh, that accounts for it, I suppose!” said Mr. Mooney, accepting this lucid statement without a stagger, and passing lightly on. “You’re a widower, I understand, with no objection to consoling yourself?”

No answer.

“Now, sir! Can you deny that you made proposals of marriage to Con Brickley’s daughter last Shraft?”

The plot thickened. Con Brickley’s daughter was my kitchen maid.

Jer Keohane smiled tolerantly. “Ah! that was a thing o’ nothing.”

“Nothing!” said Mr. Mooney, with a roar of a tornado. “Do you call an impudent proposal of marriage  to a respectable man’s daughter nothing! That’s English manners, I suppose!”

“I was goin’ home one Sunday,” said Jer Keohane, conversationally, to the Bench, “and I met the gerr’l and her mother. I spoke to the gerr’l in a friendly way, and asked her why wasn’t she gettin’ marrid, and she commenced to peg stones at me and dhrew several blows of an umbrella on me. I had only three bottles of porther taken. There now was the whole of it.”

Mrs. Brickley, from the gallery, groaned heavily and ironically.

I found it difficult to connect these coquetries with my impressions of my late kitchenmaid, a furtive and touzled being, who, in conjunction with a pail and scrubbing brush, had been wont to melt round corners and into doorways at my approach.

“Are we trying a breach of promise?” interpolated Flurry; “if so, we ought to have the plaintiff in.”

“My purpose, sir,” said Mr. Mooney, in a manner discouraging to levity, “is to show that my clients have received annoyance and contempt from this man and his sister such as no parents would submit to.”

A hand came forth from under the gallery and plucked at Mr. Mooney’s coat. A red monkey face appeared out of the darkness, and there was a hoarse whisper, whose purport I could not gather. Con Brickley, the defendant, was giving instructions to his lawyer.

It was perhaps as a result of these that Jer Keohane’s evidence closed here. There was a brief interval enlivened by coughs, grinding of heavy boots on the floor, and some mumbling and groaning under the gallery.

“There’s great duck-shooting out on a lake on this  island,” commented Flurry to me, in a whisper. “My grand-uncle went there one time with an old duck-gun he had, that he fired with a fuse. He was three hours stalking the ducks before he got the gun laid. He lit the fuse then, and it set to work spluttering and hissing like a goods-engine till there wasn’t a duck within ten miles. The gun went off then.”

This useful side-light on the matter in hand was interrupted by the cumbrous ascent of the one-legged Con Brickley to the witness-table. He sat down heavily, with his slouch hat on his sound knee, and his wooden stump stuck out before him. His large monkey face was immovably serious; his eye was small, light grey, and very quick.

McCaffery, the opposition attorney, a thin, restless youth, with ears like the handles of an urn, took him in hand. To the pelting cross-examination that beset him Con Brickley replied with sombre deliberation, and with a manner of uninterested honesty, emphasising what he said with slight, very effective gestures of his big, supple hands. His voice was deep and pleasant; it betrayed no hint of so trivial a thing as satisfaction when, in the teeth of Mr. McCaffery’s leading questions, he established the fact that the “little rod” with which Miss Kate Keohane had beaten his wife was the handle of a pitch-fork.

“I was counting the fish the same time,” went on Con Brickley, in his rolling basso profundissimo, “and she said, ‘Let the divil clear me out of the sthrand, for there’s no one else will put me out!’ says she.”

“It was then she got the blow, I suppose!” said McCaffery, venomously; “you had a stick yourself, I daresay?”

“Yes. I had a stick. I must have a stick,” (deep and mellow pathos was hinted at in the voice), “I am sorry to say. What could I do to her? A man with a wooden leg on a sthrand could do nothing!”

Something like a laugh ran at the back of the court. Mr. McCaffery’s ears turned scarlet and became quite decorative. On or off a strand Con Brickley was not a person to be scored off easily.

His clumsy, yet impressive, descent from the witness stand followed almost immediately, and was not the least telling feature of his evidence. Mr. Mooney surveyed his exit with the admiration of one artist for another, and, rising, asked the Bench’s permission to call Mrs. Brickley.

Mrs. Brickley, as she mounted to the platform, in the dark and nun-like severity of her long cloak, the stately blue cloth cloak that is the privilege of the Munster peasant woman, was an example of the rarely-blended qualities of picturesqueness and respectability. As she took her seat in the chair, she flung the deep hood back on her shoulders, and met the gaze of the court with her grey head erect; she was a witness to be proud of.

“Now, Mrs. Brickley,” said “Roaring Jack,” urbanely, “will you describe this interview between your daughter and Keohane.”

“It was last Sunday in Shrove, your Worship, Mr. Flurry Knox, and gentlemen,” began Mrs. Brickley nimbly, “meself and me little gerr’l was comin’ from mass, and Mr. Jer Keohane came up to us and got on in a most unmannerable way. He asked me daughter would she marry him. Me daughter told him she would not, quite friendly like. I’ll tell you no lie,  gentlemen, she was teasing him with the umbrella the same time; an’ he raised his shtick and dhrew a sthroke on her in the back, an’ the little gerr’l took up a small pebble of a stone and fired it at him. She put the umbrella up to his mouth, but she called him no names. But as for him, the names he put on her was to call her ‘a nasty, long, slopeen of a proud thing, and a slopeen of a proud tinker.’”

“Very lover-like expressions!” commented Mr. Mooney, doubtless stimulated by the lady-like titters from the barmaids; “and had this romantic gentleman made any previous proposals for your daughter?”

“Himself had two friends over from across the water one night to make the match, a Sathurday it was, and they should land the lee side o’ the island, for the wind was a fright,” replied Mrs. Brickley, launching her tale with the power of easy narration that is bestowed with such amazing liberality on her class. “The three o’ them had dhrink taken, an’ I went to shlap out the door agin them. Me husband said then we should let them in, if it was a Turk itself, with the rain that was in it. They were talking in it then till near the dawning, and in the latther end all that was between them was the boat’s share.”

“What do you mean by ‘the boat’s share’?” said I.

“’Tis the same as a man’s share, me worshipful gintleman,” returned Mrs. Brickley, splendidly; “it goes with the boat always, afther the crew and the saine has their share got.”

I possibly looked as enlightened as I felt by this exposition.

“You mean that Jer wouldn’t have her unless he got the boat’s share with her?” suggested Flurry.

“He said it over-right all that was in the house, and he reddening his pipe at the fire,” replied Mrs. Brickley, in full-sailed response to the helm. “‘D’ye think,’ says I to him, ‘that me daughter would leave a lovely situation, with a kind and tendher masther, for a mean, hungry blagyard like yerself,’ says I, ‘that’s livin’ always in this backwards place!’ says I.”

This touching expression of preference for myself, as opposed to Mr. Keohane, was received with expressionless respect by the Court. Flurry, with an impassive countenance, kicked me heavily under cover of the desk. I said that we had better get on to the assault on the strand. Nothing could have been more to Mrs. Brickley’s taste. We were minutely instructed as to how Katie Keohane drew the shawleen forward on Mrs. Brickley’s head to stifle her; and how Norrie Keohane was fast in her hair. Of how Mrs. Brickley had then given a stroke upwards between herself and her face (whatever that might mean) and loosed Norrie from her hair. Of how she then sat down and commenced to cry from the use they had for her.

“’Twas all I done,” she concluded, looking like a sacred picture, “I gave her a stroke of a pollock on them.”

“As for language,” replied Mrs. Brickley, with clear eyes, a little uplifted in the direction of the ceiling, “there was no name from heaven or hell but she had it on me, and wishin’ the divil might burn the two heels off me, and the like of me wasn’t in sivin parishes! And that was the clane part of the discoorse, yer Worships!”

Mrs. Brickley here drew her cloak more closely about her, as though to enshroud herself in her own refinement, and presented to the Bench a silence as elaborate as a  drop scene. It implied, amongst other things, a generous confidence in the imaginative powers of her audience.

Whether or no this was misplaced, Mrs. Brickley was not invited further to enlighten the Court. After her departure the case droned on in inexhaustible rancour, and trackless complications as to the shares of the fish. Its ethics and its arithmetic would have defied the allied intellects of Solomon and Bishop Colenso. It was somewhere in that dead afternoon, when it was too late for lunch and too early for tea, that the Bench, wan with hunger, wound up the affair, by impartially binding both parties in sheaves “to the Peace.”

 A large net.