The Gaels of Moondharrig

This is an extract from “The Gaels of Moondharrig; or, the Modern Fianna”, a collection of short stories by Rev. James B. Dollard published in 1907. This particular chapter depicts a wrestling match that takes place between a local hurling captain and an English soldier. Although the wrestling framework portrayed here is not Collar and Elbow (rather, it is a “catch-hold” bout in which participants are free to take any grip they like), the story nonetheless serves as a vivid testament to wrestling’s deeply ingrained presence in Irish culture at the time.

The broad, well-kept public road running from Waterford City to Clonmel, through the counties of Killkenny and Tipperary, traverses as fine a pastoral country as can be seen anywhere in the world. Like a great white ribbon the road winds across the rich, green fields of the Suir Valley and the Golden Vale, keeping the river a companion the whole length of its course. Clusters of villages, and the large, stone-built, slate-roofed houses of “strong-farmers” stand along its border.

On the day of which we speak, the dust of this fine highway was stirred by the passing of a British Cavalry Regiment from Waterford to the Military Barracks at Clonmel. The Tenth Lincolnshire Hussars, for such was the name of the regiment, though English in title, had, as is almost always the case, very many Irish and Scotsmen in its make-up. The Hussars made a fine and spirited spectacle with their showy uniform and well-caparisoned horses, though, the day, being warm, they were dusty and perspiring from the march.

The Tenth was a veteran regiment, having seen much service in Egypt and Northern Hindustan; in fact, it had but lately landed from these foreign shores.

Two officers at the head of the regiment were conversing earnestly. One was the commander, Colonel Dinsmore, an Englishman born. He was of short, stocky build, and his hair and moustache were grizzled with long service. His companion was an Irishman, a Lieutenant by the name of Burke. This officer was still quite a young man, tall and lithe of body, and of the type that fights for the sake of fighting in no matter what cause.

“That is really a fine country, Lieutenant,” the Colonel was saying, “a veritable paradise after the red sands of the Sudan. Many a hot day, on the trail of the Mahdi, I longed for these things: the green fields, trees bending with leaves, cool, clear streams and rivers.”

“It is indeed a fine country,” answered Burke, with some show of pride, “they raise the right kind of men around here, too; too bad we can’t get them for the army,” he added.

“We don’t recruit many men here then?” queried the Colonel.

“Hardly a baker’s dozen,” rejoined his companion. “We get a few of the day labourer’s sons, but never one of the young farmers – the strong, active fellows who make up the hurling teams. Those latter have a hatred for the army, and if they cannot live at home, contrive to get to America somehow. After all, Colonel, we get but the riff-raff of Ireland in the army, and yet how splendidly these fellows fight. By thunder, if we could get together a regiment of the hurlers, they’d go through the enemy like fire through dry gorse! We had a few hurlers in the Royal Rifles, and when we came to close quarters, I noticed them club muskets, left hand underneath in hurling fashion, and they bored through the tribesmen as cheerfully as ducks through the rain.”

“You don’t say so,” said the Colonel, smiling at his companion’s impetuosity. “I have heard it spoken of as a game that makes men and fighters, and I believe you’re right. We’ll never have the proper training in the army until we adopt some many game like that, and keep our men from becoming the pipeclay duds they so often turn out to be. By the way,” added the Colonel, “do those hurlers of yours practice wrestling?”

“They have no superiors at it,” asserted Burke with earnestness. “When a game is over the crowds form a ring, and the champion wrestlers of the home team, ready stripped, stand inside and challenge their opponents. They usually don’t have long to wait, and I’ve seen four pairs struggling in the ring at once.”

“Are they really skilful at it, though? You know we have Akenside, a sergeant here in the regiment, who was the best professional wrestler in England a few years ago, and I believe he’s just as good today.”

“I warrant you, Colonel,” replied the Lieutenant, “that the pick of these Gaelic athletes is a match for any professional – fair and square rules being observed.”

“You surprise me, and I can hardly believe it. By the way, we should be near that spring of water we were informed of. I believe this is it, and a glorious spring well it is too. Order a halt, we shall feel and water the horses here.”

The regiment halted with a great clash of hoofs and sword-sheaths, and the men, dismounting, proceeded to attend to the wants of their horses.

While the latter were feeding, the hussars gathered in groups, and proceed to have some fun on their own account. A red-headed, jolly-faced “Corkonian” named Billy Hannigan seemed to be the centre of attraction, and around him the largest crowd gathered; Englishmen for the most part.

“Come, Billy, old boy, give us a Come-all-ye – we ‘aven’t heard your voice for an age.”

But Billy modestly declined on account of an alleged hoarseness. “Besides, boys, the day is so dry and hot, me poor throat is like a lime-burner’s hut.”

“I bet you a pint o’ Guinness you cawn’t sing that song you composed down at Waly ‘Alfa – that blimed song you called ‘I don’t care for the English.’”

You’ll lose your bet, Cockney Joe,” retorted the Corkman. “I’ll be glad to sing the song any time before an English audience, so here goes: –

“Oh! The first I saw o’ the Army
They came with the Death Brigade;
They flung my parents upon the road,
With ne’er a roof to shade.
My mother died in the workhouse,
My father died in jail:
For he stole through the door that was his before,
And they wouldn’t give him bail.

So I don’t care for the English,
An’ they don’t care for me:
Brannigan, Flannigan, Heffernan, Hannigan,
What great big fools we are!
Thiggin Thu,
What great big fools we are!"

All the troopers joined in the chorus, and indeed, to give them credit, the “Sassenach” seemed to enjoy the joke on themselves even better than the rest. The tone of disaffection in Bill’s production seemed only to add zest to the fun. There was a great clapping of hands, and cries of “Bravo, Billy”, “Rise it, man.”

“‘Ere’s the Colonel ‘imself a-comin’ to ‘ear you, me lad.” Thus encouraged, Hannigans’s mellow brogue rang out again with a great swing: –

“I went to the Fair o’ Limerick.
An’ took a drop too much:
I broke the word to me mother.
An’ punishment comes for such.
I met with a gay recruiter,
He shoved me the shilling there;
An’ next thing I knew the worst was true,
I was stuck in the British square.”

But I don’t love the English,
An’ they don’t care for me:
Brannigan, Flannigan, Heffernan, Hannigan,
Big Amaddawns are we!

I’m through with the fun of the army,
My six-year term is out;
They’ll pay me away with a tenner a day,
An’ give me the ‘right about’

My brothers an’ sisters hate me
We shook the swamps o’ Burham,
We baked where Nile goes red;
A big brown Fuzzy let fly his spear,
An’ shaved the hair from my head.
The bullets rip-zipped around us,
An’ I had to club the gun,
For the swarmin’ blacks climbed in at our backs,
An’ I was never built to run!

Though I don’t care for the English,
An’ they don’t care for me:
Brannigan, Flannigan, Heffernan, Hannigan,
Great Amaddawns are we!
For I’m their worst disgrace
An’ I’ll starve a’ die, with no friend nigh,
Away from my native place!

The love I bear for the English
Is sick as their love for me;
Brannigan, Flannigan, Heffernan, Hannigan,
Nice Amadawns are we!"

Wild applause broke forth at the end of Billy’s song. He was evidently, in spite of his rebellious spirit, a great favourite with the troopers, and had doubtless helped to brighten many a tedious hour ‘ere this.

“Let us have the bloomin’ ditty over again, Billy,” cried Cockney Joe enthusiastically.

Nae bog atha she agath! (isn’t it soft you have it) you sprissaun o’ the world, an’ it such a dry day, too,” retorted the singer, dropping for a moment into his native Gaelic.

The Colonel and Lieutenant Burke were standing a short distance away, enjoying the whole proceedings.

“I can’t understand the Irish troops,” remarked the Colonel, “they fight so well in battle, and out of battle talk utter treason, like our friend Billy here. Wasn’t this man mentioned for bravery on some occasion?”

“He got a medal for saving his officer at Tel-el-Kebir, and received two spear wounds at Tinaan-i-beh. He is one of the bravest fellows I ever knew. We can’t blame our Irish soldiers for their poor sense of loyalty. Many of them have seen their parents turned out of their homes by the same British army during eviction raids.”

“That’s a poor state of affairs, I must admit,” said the Colonel, “with the army so badly in need of such men just now. For my own part, I have always favoured a Home Rule Scheme, and I still believe old Gladstone should have been given a free hand. He knew more than all of puny statesmen together. By the way, I have set my mind on putting Akenside against some of your hurlers here. I see a tall fellow ploughing in that field close by – suppose you inquire if there are any good wrestlers around.”

It happened that the regiment had halted at Gurtharda, and Dermot Roche pulled up his horses as he saw the young officer approaching.

“God bless the work,” said the Lieutenant, saluting in the Irish manner, and the young farmer answered courteously, “God save you, sir.”

The Lieutenant came to the point at once. “We have a professional English wrestler in the troop, and I wish you could get some of the hurlers to try him. Is the Captain of them anywhere around?”

“Yes, sir, he is,” said Dermot Roche, a little proudly. “He is right here before you.”

“This is a great pleasure, I am sure,” said the soldier. “You’re just the man I want. You weren’t made Captain without deserving it – what do you say to trying the Englishman yourself?”

“I haven’t any objection in the world,” answered the Captain readily; “it will be a welcome change after the ploughin’.”

Lieutenant Burke looked at the bronzed face of the young farmer, then noted his broad, herculean span of shoulders, and his powerful symmetrical limbs. As he went back to the road he muttered – “This is about the luckiest thing in the world. I expect I’ll surprise the old man a little.” Climbing over the fence he saluted and announced – “The young lad in the field, sir, said he would like to try Akenside himself.”

“What!” exclaimed the Colonel; “he did, did he? Have you told him that our man is a famous professional?”

“He didn’t seem to be at all bothered by that fact, sir.”

“Well, well, well,” ejaculated the old soldier, “this is a surprising country indeed – a most surprising country!”

The young ploughman in the meantime and brought his horses to the headland and turned them loose to graze.

Akenside was called, and the officers and soldiers entered Gurtharda. Roche had divested himself of his flannel waistcoat, and in his white shirt made a splendid and spirited figure as he stood awaiting them – a typical representative of “the finest peasantry in the world,” thought Lieutenant Burke. Akenside now stripped for the bout. He was not so tall as the young peasant by about three inches, but seemed stockier and of heavier build – in fact, he seemed to the Lieutenant to be too fleshy for the work in hand. His skin-tight riding suit showed off his well-developed limbs to great advantage, and made him look a most formidable adversary.

The halting of the military had been observed from afar, and from all sides the people hastened to view the proceedings. They watched the preparations for the contest with breathless interest.

Dermot Roche knew without looking in their faces that their hearts and souls were with him, and if he failed it would be looked at almost in the light of a national calamity. It was the old story over again of the Saxon and the Gael, and this time there was a fair field and no favour.

The two wrestlers shook hands and took hold.

“God strengthen your arm, Dermot.” said one of the crowd fervently.

“Akenside, me lad, ‘eave into the bloomin’ Irishman,” said Cockney Joe.

From the first the professional wrestler seemed to think he had an easy proposition on hand. He rushed things at once, but gradually and with amazement had to acknowledge that his opponent was practised and skilful. His rapid succession of feints and tricks were met and frustrated with apparent ease, though at the same time he got no measure of the real strength and force of the Captain of the hurlers.

As the time went by, and the wrestlers wheeled round and round in their struggle, it was evident to the onlookers that the Englishman was becoming puffed and played out, while Roche, so well used to hard work and swift running, seemed almost as fresh as when he started. It had been declared beforehand that whoever took the first two falls out of three bouts would be the winner, and the people began to have hopes that their champion would be able to take the first.

“Keep at him boy! The Sassenach is weaking.” cried Malachy Gilmartin, one of the Glen boys, who happened to be passing. “Did you try the Kilmockler trascairt on him yet?”

This term must be explained. There was a district a half-dozen miles to the north of Moondharrig called Kilmockler, noted for its famous wrestlers. The Captain had spent many a day there getting initiated into the mysteries of the manly exercise.

The trascairt, or “overthrow”, was a trick, quick and irresistable, of putting down an adversary, the secret of which they revealed only to their most brilliant pupils.

The Captain had been altogether passive and on the defensive up to this, but now he changed his tactics. In a moment the solder found himself violently whirled, and shaken up; the great, long arms of the hurler gradually contacting and drawing him close. A tremendous pressure was employed to force him a certain direction, then, in a flash, he was endangered from the other side. At least the knee of the young ploughman was locked into that of Akenside like a steel bar. It was a case of dislocated bones, or of falling, and the Englishman fell very unwillingly. It was the first fall for the Captain, and while the people shouted, the soldiers looked at one another in wonder.

“I’ll look out for that the next time,” said Akenside with an ugly smile, as they took hold a second time.

This bout was not long in progress when there occurred a great commotion among the horses on the roadway, and the crowd turned from the contest to see what the matter was.

Young Roche also, very foolishly, suffered himself to be distracted from his work, and relaxed his guard. The trained professional profited by this on the instant. Going low, he rushed in and overthrew his opponent, falling heavily on him.

It was rather comical to notice the consternation on the faces of the crowd when, as they turned about, they saw their champion on the ground.

The English soldiers cheered lustily, and things looked rather dark for the Captain. Many an anxious prayer went up from the people that he ought not fail in the deciding trial, and his cheerful and confident face, as he stood up again, went far as to reassure their dropping hearts. He shook hands manfully with the soldier. “You did that nicely, sir.” he said, “and I deserved all I got.”

Then the men settled down to the deciding tussle. The stillness that fell on the spectators was now intense – so acute was their interest in the struggle. A jaunting car drove up, unobserved, and a very tall- elderly man entered the field and began to look on with the others. This deciding contest was longer than the previous ones. Each of the men endeavoured to exhaust his opponent before attempting a decisive venture. It was evident, however, that the Englishman would once more become played out before young Roche showed any signs of fatigue. The face of the former was flushed and perspiring, and his breathing became laboured as time went by, while the Captain’s face kept its cool, determined look, his teeth being shut like a vice, and his breathing scarcely audible. Among his most ardent backers were the Irish soldiers, headed by Trooper Hannigan.

“It’s all up with Akenside,” whispered the latter to his comrades. “In a minute he’ll try one of his foul turns – the trick he nearly always plays – see if he don’t.”

Then Trooper Hannigan’s voice broke the utter silence. He spoke in low, mellow, rapid Gaelic, and the Captain started perceptibly as he heard. When the gyration of the struggle brought them in line, his eyes caught Hannigan’s for a fraction of a second.

“Ar m’anam go bhfuil an cearth agath a mhic” (on my soul, you’re right, my son), he answered.

The words were scarcely spoken when the professional’s hand was seen moving in the direction of the Captain’s throat.

An angry flash came into the eyes of the latter. The hand was struck down in an instant. Then the Captain shifted the grip of both his hands, the force of half a dozen men seemed to come into his arms, and the body of the Englishman crumpled up in that terrible hug. With a superb exhibition of strength the young Gael drew his opponent in and up over his shoulder. Here he appeared to hold him for a breathless moment; then he leaped from his feet and down they came with a sickening thud, the soldier underneath. It was the winning fall!

The thing looked easy and simple – as a matter of fact, it was a complex enough feat, and irresistible to the uninitiated. It was, in truth, the famous Kilmockler trascairt that Dermot had employed to the complete discomfiture of Akenside.

The joy of the people knew no bounds at seeing the triumph of their hero. Tears of pride stood on the cheeks of several. The men rushed in and caught his hands, almost hugging him in their delight and affection, and foremost among them was trooper Hannigan. “My dear boy,” said the trooper, “you did us the best turn you ever did, to stop that fellow’s boasting. He was forever shouting what he could do to an Irishman at the wrestling.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re pleased,” answered the Captain. “You gave me a good warning in the ring. You’re too much of a fine fellow to be wearing the red jacket, an’ I’m sorry to see it on you – Now be aisy, boys,” he said, addressing the crowd, “sure it’s not such a great thing I did. I mightn’t do so well if he had me over in England. Every dog is bold in his own doorway, an’ I’m afraid the poor fellow is hurt.”

The Colonel and the Lieutenant were examining Akenside’s arm and shoulder as the Captain went towards him. “I’m sorry, sir,” he declared simply, “that you got hurt. I’d never ask to meet a better man. Come here, Denis Maher, it’s lucky you’re around. He won’t do you the least harm, sir, an’ he’ll set your arm in a jiffy.”

Denis Maher was the Moondharrig “bone-setter”. The Gaels declared him “better than the best o’ doctors,” and have him frequent opportunity to keep his hand in practice.

He felt the injured shoulder an instant with his deft fingers, then with a dextrous jerk snapped the dislocated bone into position.  With a couple of handkerchiefs he improvised an arm sling. “You’re as right as a fiddle now, sir,” said he, “we’re used to these little things among the hurlers.”

The grizzled shook hands warmly with Captain Dermot Roche. “I only wish I commanded a regiment of your stamp,” he said. Then he gave a sharp order, and the soldiers left the field. Dermot Roche put on his flannel waistcoat, and leaving the people walked quietly towards his horses, but the tall man who had come on his jaunting-car rushed to him and caught his hand. With a start of surprise, the Captain recognised O’Dwyer, the farmer, who lived in his white-gabled house on the hillside, and who had driven him away so ignominiously on a former occasion.

“I saw it all, my boy,” cried the old man, his eyes flashing. “I saw you put down the Sassenach, and I’ll never again say you didn’t do anything for Old Ireland’s glory. Come up to the house and see us tomorrow, boy. I know someone that’ll be delighted to see you.”

Dermot Roche’s face was radiant. “Glory be to God,” he said, “but this is the great day.”

The uncovering his head, and looking to the far away hills, he prayed as fervently as if he were before the Holy Altar:

“Graan Dhe chughainn a’us bas in Eirinn.”
“The grace of God to us, and death in Ireland!”