[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, 1954.]
Sittin’ be the Wall
Tickets, seven and a tanner; and the school was decorated
By the women of the parish with fal-dal-dums without end:
’Twas the Big Ball of the Season, so the priest on Sunday stated,
“And each and everyone,” said he, “is expected to attend.”
Faith, and everyone was present and Himself was looking pleasant,
And he hand-shook everybody moving round about the hall,
With a special word of greeting — and no wonder — at the meeting
Of old-timers in their Sunday clothes a-sittin’ be the wall.
Yes, it’s be the wall they’re sittin’, bent and old and very wrinkled,
Peering back across the shadows to a world they used to know;
Heth, you’d never think to see them now that fairy bells had tinkled
Haunting notes that blessed their dreaming — fifty, sixty years ago.
Yerra, thin, ’tis backward peerin’ with the last lone milepost nearin’,
And the schoolroom and electric lights fade out, and in their stead
Comes the dim oil-lamp revealing gum-boughs hanging from the ceiling
At the hop that lasted till the dawn in Gleeson’s shearing-shed.
There I noticed Johnsie Connor be the Ned McCarthys sittin’,
Just a crabbed little angashore* who once was hard as steel:
Man, ’twas him could swing the handy leg when through the lancers flittin’,
And I never met the bate of him at hornpipe, jig or reel.
There he sits a’ views the supple movement of each dancing couple —
Call it dancing? “Man, they’re walkin’ — walkin’ walkin’ round the hall,
With the misfortunate damsel backin’”; and in truth there’s nothing lacking
In the candour of the critics who are perched along the wall.
“Wisha, that big awkward gom of Shafer’s like a baboon rough and hairy
With the paws round Kitty Dooner, an’ her cheek agin his vest.”
“And that great slab Jerry Toohey with the wishiest little fairy,
And his long neck like a curlew pokin’ up above the rest.”
“There’s that lar-de-dah of Grogan’s with the flash young slip of Hogan’s
Doin’ smart things — twistin’, wrigglin’, genuflectin’; faith, ’tis said
That the divil’s in them tangos and them whirligig fandangos
Yerra, where’s the dacint leppin’ that we had in Gleeson’s shed?”
“Lookat! Hop-me-thumb McGeady with the lanky Bridgie Hardy,
And she stridin’ like an emu, and he bobbin’ like a cork
In a washtub. And Brady’s brat — haesh, the little noodie-nardie
Puts the run on Deegan’s daughter with them thin legs like a stork.”
“And the music! Och, such bangin’ of the drums and tin cans clangin’ —
And the boyoh with the trapsticks beltin’, cloutin’ — and the brawl
Of them crazy fiddlers playin’, and them quare big bugles brayin’ . . . .”
Faith, you’d get dry horrors listenin’ as you’re sittin’ be the wall.
Then the change: Man, can’t you listen! All the slambang superseding,
Like a loved voice from the days gone by a sweet old waltz-time comes.
Hark, the “quare big bugles” keening to the fiddles’ wistful pleading,
And the “boyoh with the trapsticks” tapping softly on the drums;
Man alive, ’tis spring returning. Can’t you feel the old fires burning
Can’t you see old friends assembling who are numbered with the dead?
Ah, bad cess to Time the Gleaner. ’Tis Mat Driscoll’s concertina;
And they’re dancing till the dawn again in Gleeson’s shearing-shed.
“’Tis the real thing. Let ’em try it and a turn or two will win ’em.”
“Man, that’s dancin’.” “Yerra, Grogan’s son is doin’ not too bad.”
“See young Dan and Kitty Dooner now, you’d never think ’twas in ’em.”
“Heth, and Toohey’s steppin’ kindly.” “Aye, they’re shapin’ well, bedad.”
“Sure, they’ll soon learn how to do it, if they be but stickin’ to it;
And I’m well pleased with McGeady, he’s —” “Arrah, not at all, but I tell
You Timsie Brady have the c’rect holt on the lady.
Pshaw McGeady! That man’s place is here a-sittin’ be the wall.”
“Lors, your Steve there, Ned McCarthy, he’s ’is father’s son — no other,
Yerra, thin, unless I’m dreamin’ ’tis yourself that’s dancin’ there —
And with pretty Mary Leary. Faith, you’d think it was her mother
With the amber tints a-glintin’ in the lamplight on her hair.”
“Wisha, thin, ’tis well I mind her — and no better and no kinder. . . .”
“Ayeh, many and many a year the grass is green above her bed,
But with spring’s fresh bloom upon her, an’ she danced with Johnsie Connor
No finer couple trod the floor of Paddy Gleeson’s shed.”
That’s him footering in the shadows broken, woebegone and weary —
Just a lonesome little angashore with ne’er a chick nor child —
For there’s some “meaw”* upon him since the day she married Leary,
And love has never called again nor fortune ever smiled.
But perhaps he do be dreaming as he sits there careless seeming
Of the shearing shed, the lamplight, and the amber tints and all;
Of the homing wings expanding — then the big misunderstanding —
With the old love stirring strangely, an’ he moping be the wall.
Hist! Them “quare big bugles” brayin’ like a donkey on the tether
Send the fancies slithering sideways as a smart quickstep begins,
While the boyoh with the trapsticks belting, clouting hell-for-leather
Makes amends for all the waste of time slambanging on the tins.
And the lads come searching shyly, and the critics eye them dryly,
As each selects the only one, and marches her ahead.
“Dancin’, man, it’s —” “Don’t be talkin’. Sure we did that class of walkin’
When a cork popped from a bottle at the back of Gleeson’s shed.
“There’s that big baboon of Shafer’s with the necktie all contrairy
Dartin’ straight for Kitty Dooner — faith, there’s something doin’ there.”
“And that long slab Jerry Toohey with the smallest little fairy
Tucked away beneath his oxter, an’ he marchin’ to the fair.”
“Wisha, Hop-me-thumb McGeady with the lanky lofty lady —”
“And the shiny bald head of him, and the bandy legs and all —”
“Yerra, Brady’s noodie-nardie!” “Piah, Grogan’s lar-de-dardie!”
“Pshaw, the only sane men in the world are sittin’ be the wall.”
[angashore]* A miserable little creature.
[meaw] * Ill luck.
John O’Brien. The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954
bedad = an Irish exclamatory oath, a euphemism for “By God”
gom = (Irish, shortened version of “gommul” or “gommel”) fool, idiot [possibly the word is of mixed Irish-English origin; see Edgar W. Schneider. Englishes around the World, Volume 1: General Studies, British Isles, North America: Studies in Honour of Manfred Görlach , John Benjamins Publishing, 1997, pages 145-146]
haesh = (unknown; presumably an exclamation) (re. “The Durkins” and “Sittin’ be the Wall” by John O’Brien)
wisha = an Irish exclamation; P. W. Joyce says that wisha is “a softening down of mossa” and defines “mossa” as “a sort of assertive particle used at the opening of a sentence, like the English well, indeed: carrying little or no meaning. ‘Do you like your new house?’ — ‘Mossa I don’t like it much.’ Another form of wisha, and both anglicised from the Irish má’seadh, used in Irish in much the same sense.”
yerra = yerra or arrah is an exclamation, a phonetic representation of the Irish airĕ, meaning take care, look out, look you — ‘Yerra Bill why are you in such a hurry?’
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