‘Bodkin Conquers Mr Phelim O’Grady’ (17 August, 1861)

The following is one of the many epistles of Tammas Bodkin, the character used by editor William D. Latto to speak frankly (and amusingly) on current affairs. Latto became editor of the people’s journal in December 1860 and used the platform to launch Tammas, bringing himself a fair amount of fame in Victorian Scotland.

Maister Editor,—I’m onything but pleased wi’ this hoose o’ mine. In the first place, I dinna think it’s a’thegither respectable to live up three stairs in the garret department o’ a biggin’, hooever aristocratic the neeborhood may be, but especially when it happens, as it oonfortunately does in this instance, that the land is the chosen abode o’ twa itinerant rag merchants, wha carry on their business on the flat next below, an’ o’ anither twa ragamuffin-lookin’ Irishers in the grund flat, wha earn a livelihood by perambulatin’ the streets wi’ barrows, sellin’ dulse an’ tangle, partans, an’ fresh herrin’. Had I been duly adverteesed o’ thae cattle afore takin’ the hoose, it’s mair than probable that I wad either hae tane langer time to wale aboot, or I wad hae made freends wi’ the bugs, an’ stayed in ther society at least till the next term. In the next place, we are sae near the tiles that the heat is like to roast Tibie an’ me alive. It’s an oonspeakable merciment that neither o’ us is very fat, else I sanna attempt to predict what the upshot micht hae been. Probably we wad hae been rindit doon to the condition o’ kitchen-fee lang ere the dog-days were weel begun. Frae mornn’ to nicht I’m in a perfect muck o’ sweat, especially when I’m hangin’ ower the het guse. Then the moisture hails doon my nose like dew upon the tender herb. Tibbie is no ae whit better than I am—rather waur; for what atween heating the guse an’ makin’ the kale, she behooves aye to keep on a roarin’ fire i’ the kitchen that wad roast an ox.

Noo, dinna let onybody rin awa’ wi’ the notion that, because I hae named Irishers an’ rag merchants amang my neebors, I despise them either for their occupation or their nationality. Naething o’ the kind. A decent, guid-livin’ Irishman, or a douce, God-fearin’ vendor o’ worn-out dish-clouts an’ auld breeks may be as guid a neebor as a Scotsman, or as a manufacturer o’ spleet new breeks, such as I am. But what scunners me at the clamjamphrie in the flats below is the fact that their e’e-holes are nae sooner open i’ the mornin’ than they are quarrelin’ and fechtin’ like tykes an’ swine; an’ they are nae sooner hame at nicht wi’ the fruits o’ their day’s hagglin’ ower auld stockin’ feet an’ bawbees’ worths o’ dulse an’ tangle, than there is a send oot for whisky, an’ a repetition o’ the mornin’s snarlin’, cursin’, an’ maulin’ ane anither.

Juist to gie ye a swatch o’ their behaviour:—Ae nicht last week there gets up an awfu’ stramash doon stairs. I could distinguish the hoarse brogue o’ Mr Phelim O’Grady, dealer in auld rags an’ black teapots, risin’ aboon the shrill tempest o’ Mrs O’Grady’s volubility o’ tongue. Mr Phelim had been oot a’ day on business, an’ had come hame weel whiskyfied. Noo, that was what Mrs O’Grady dislikit aboove an’ beyond every offence that her husban could be guilty o’. If Phelim had been generous eneuch to have brocht the drink hame, an’ gi’en Mrs O’Grady a share o’t, a’ wad hae been quite accordin’ to Mrs O’Grady’s ideas o’ propriety, but to gang an’ fill himsel’ fon withoot lettin’ her pree wi’ ‘im was what she wadna thole upon ony consideration. An’ sae the wars began. Mrs O’Grady applied sundry epithets to her lord an’ maister, that were far frae bein’ o’ a complimentary nature; an’ of coorse Mr O’Grady was in duty bound to repay his spouse in kind, principal an’ interest. Mrs O’Grady informed Mr O’Grady that he was a thief, an’ a leear, an’ a murderer, an’ a drunkard, an’ a violator o’ the seventh precept o’ the Decalogue, he an’ his forbears, to the nineteenth generation; in fack, as far back as they could be traced on the page o’ history. Wasn’t it his great-grandfather—the blhoody villain, that shot honest Mr Dennis O’Gorman—rest his sowl!—when dhrivin’ home in his own car from the fair at Tipperary, n the throubles ov ‘98; an’ wasn’t he taken an’ hanged for the murther? an’ sarved him right too, the ould hoary-headed scamp that he was. An’ didn’t the curse ov the Holy Father rest an’ abide upon the whole race ov the O’Grady’s to this present day yet; an’ wouldn’t that curse continue to haunt the steps ov him (Phelim O’Grady) until he swung in a hempen cravat as high as iver did his great-grandfather ov impious memory—bad luck to him. Such was the burthen o’ Mrs O’Grady’s curtain lecture that nicht, every word whereof was distinctly audible to Tibbie’s ears an’ mine. But Mr O’Grady’s tongue wasna in his pouch meanwhile, ye may be sure. He tane care to inform Mrs O’Grady that baith she an’ a’ her “poshterity” (meanin’ her ancestry, of coorse, but the puir body didna’ ken ony better), were well known to be the greatest bhlack-guards in all Tipperary, an’ that if noen of them had the honour of being promoted to the gallows as his great grandfather had been—rest his pious sowl—it was, on the other hand, an’ established fact that her grandmother, on the father’s side, had been carried off by the devil to the highest point of the Galtees, where she was turned into a pillar of salt, an’ there her wicked carcase is to be seen to this blessed day yet, as he had been credibly informed by those who had been to the top of those mountains, and who ought to know. As for Mrs O’Grady herself, he (Mr O’G.) was well aware that she was far from being a pattern of chastity, while it was notorious to all the world that she was a thief, an’ a slattern, an’ a liar, an’ a wine-bibber, an’ a freend o’ publicans an’ sinners when she could get the money; but he would take very good care that she would get divil a farthin’i from him to bliss herself withal. Hereupon Mrs O’Grady became very violent, tane up a’ that they had for a poker, and let a reishel at Phelim’s basket o’ pigs, committin’ a fearfu’ massacre amang the innocent bits o’ bowlies, an’ bashins, an’ juggies. Tibie’s heart lap to her mooth, thinkin’ they were aboot to commit some fearfu’ deed o’ bluid; an’ I maun needs say I wasna that ooneerie mysel’, when I heard the wark o’ destruction gaen on. The demolition o’ Phelim’s goods drave him to desperation; an’ when Phelim got desperate, he was aye for puttin’ awa’ wi’ himsel’. That was the only means he had o’ bringin’ Mrs O’Grady to her sober senses. He had on previous occasions proposed various modes o’ makin’ his exit frae this mortal stage; but, on the nicht in question, he signified his intention o’ jumpin’ ower the window. So the window was flung up wi’ an awfu’ vengeance, an’, quoth he, “Now, Biddy, darlin’, farewell wid ye, and may ye make yer next husband happier than ye’ve made me, bad luck to yer. Jist let me kiss ye afore I goes, for the sakes o’ the dear innocent that’s wid the saints in glory.” Mr O’Grady lookit terribly in earnest, nae doubt; an’ Mrs O’Grady began to think that he wad really keep his word, an’ tak’ to the street through the window; so she began to greet, an’ to beseech her beloeved Phelim no to lay violent hands on his ain precious life, an’ she wad never, never mair say a crookit word to him at all, at all. But Mrs O’Grady’s pathetic entreaties only increased Mr O’Grady’s determination to shuffle aff the mortal coil withoot mair parley. “Hould me, Biddy, darlin!” quoth he, “hould me, by Jasus, or I’m over the window in a twinklin’. If ye don’t hould me, I’m away, as sure as St Pathrick was a gintleman.” Mrs O’Grady, findin hersel’ like to be mastered in her endeavour to prevent her guidman frae committin’ self-destruction, skirled oot—“Murther, murther! For the sake ov the blessed Vargin, help! help!” Tibbie an’ me could sit still nae langer; so we ran doon the stair, an’ into the room, an’ there we beheld Mr O’Grady strugglin’ wi’ his wife, an’ attemptin’ to cast his coat, preparatory to takin’ the fatal leap. Mrs O’Grady was hangin’ on by ony bits o’ tails it had, while Mr O’Grady kept bawlin’ oot at the height o’ his voice. “Hould me, Biddy, if ye love me! Hould me, I say, or, as sure as death, I’m over the window in a jiffey! and ye’ll be hanged for murthberin’ yer husband, that ye will; it’s as thrue as death what I’m tellin’ ye!” “Let go your grips, my gude woman,” quoth I to Mrs O’Grady, “I’ll soon cure him o’ loupin’ ower windocks.” So I seized him by the cuff o’ the neck an’ the boddom o’ the breeks (he was a wee wearifu’ warroch o’ a body), rammed his head ower the sole o’ the windock, an’, quoth I, “Noo, freend, ye’ve juist five minutes on this side o’ eternity to repent o’ your sins, sae ye had better be diligent; an’ as soon as thae five minutes are expired, ower ye gang, head foremost, into the street, withoot speerin’ your leave on the subject. Aye, an’ ye wad haud the haill land in mortal terror wi’ your cantrips! What hae ye to say for yoursel’, why sentence o’ death sidna be executit against ye speedily?” My lad was fairly cowed for ance, an’ began to shake a’ ower frae head to heel like windlestrae in a windy day. He was clearly o’ opinion that the joke had been carried far eneuch, an’ sae, in order to bring matters to a crisis wi’ ‘im, I gae him twa or three vile shakes, an’ edged him a bit farther ower the windock. He swore a gude hantle at first, but he cooled doon belyve, an’ at last beggit me, as a personal favour, to fling him in to the floor-head rather than oot to the street. “Will ye promise to drap thae suicidal pranks o’ yours, then?” quoth I. “By the blessed Vargin, I will,” quoth Phelim, “it was all to make Biddy thrue, so be aisy wid me, Mr Bodkin, if ye love me father’s son.” “Ise be as easy wi’ ye as yer behaviour wil warrant, Mr O’Grady,” quoth I; “but I’m sorry for a’ the love I hae for ony ane o’ yer kind; an’ juist let me hear sic anither racket for the next sax weeks, an’ I’ll claw yer haffets to ye, as sure as yer name is O’Grady, an’ mine is Tammas Bodkin.” So Tibbie an’ me gaed awa up the stair, an’ there was nae mair din i’ the hoose for that nicht, nor has there been ony wi’ Mr O’Grady synsine.

A nicht or twa after that, I had occasion to be oot sboot [sic] ten o’clock wi’ a pair o’ slacks for a customer, an’ durin’ my absence, a quarrel had arisen atween Mr Laurence O’Toole an’ Mr Dan M’Costigan, baith in the dulse an’ tangle line o’ business, an’ baith inhabitin’ the grund flat, as I’ve already observed. What the quarrel was aboot I neither kenn’d nor cared; but, juist as I was comin’ in at the fit o’ the stair, where it was unco dark, an’ it’s never very licht doon thae lang narrow closes, I was baith foundere an’ dumfoundered by an ill-faured yark i’ the side o’ the head, wi’ something that seemed to my bewildered imagination at the moment to hae the feel o’ a broom-besom. Onyway, the concussion remindit me o’ the accidental blenter that Jeames Witherspoon gae me ower the pallet when we were in pursuit o’ the rottan, oot-bye at Crummiehillocks. But whatever the instrument may hae been, the effeck o’ the chap was to set me back ower on my beam ends. “Be the phowers,” cried Mrs O’Toole, as she rushed into her ain room, “if I haven’t kilt that black thief M’Costigan entirely.” “Sarved him right, too, the bloody scoundrel that he is,” quoth Mr O’Toole. A’ this I heard, but said naething, for I was dubious that the blude-thirsty pagans micht put oot my spunk withoot mercy if I daured to open my mooth. Sae after I had lain awhile an’ come to mysel’ a wee thocht, I reiks my fins quietly, an’ crawls awa’ upstairs. I was hardly able to lay aff my complaint to Tibbie, my head was sae bumbazed like wi’ the chap it got; but, after she had learned hoo the matter stood, her corruption waukened, an’ doon she gaed to Mrs O’Toole to inquire hoo she could ha’e the assurance to lay violent hands on ony honest man when pasin’ her door on lawfu’ business, the mair sae on Mr Tammas Bodkin—a man highly respeckit everywhere, oot o’ Brechin. It was what she (Mrs B.) wad na submit to, an’ she wad ca’ in the police withoot mair ado, an’ let them see justice dune i’ the matter. Mrs O’Toole faund herself i’ the wrang box; she had aimed to blow at Danny M’Costigan, but it had fa’en on Tammas Bodkin by mistak’; so she appeased Tibbie’s righteous indignation sae far by makin’ an explanation, an’ offerin’ a humble apology. Tibbie cam’ up an’ reported progress, an’ we agreed to let the matter pass, without applyin’ to the police, though it was ill-doin’ to let the vaigs escape sae easily for their impudence. They got aff far easier than I’ve dune, for my left e’e bears the marks o’ the lethal weapon aimed at it to this hour an’ day. So ye see thae are the kind o’ randies that Tibbie an’ me maun thole to bide aside, a’ in consequence o’ the vermin that drave us awa frae ‘oor new house to this heathenish locality. But I’ve still anither misfortune to complain o’—I’ve been lookin’ through the new Dundee Post Office Directory, an’ though I find every body’s name therein, wha carries on ony respectable kind o’ business, my name is no mentioned within the twa brods o’ the beuk. Noo that’s a very serious omission, but I dinna blame the authors o’ the Directory for’t, because they wad never dream o’ lookin’ for ane o’ the principal inhabitants amang a wheen swarin’ tarin’ paddies. Hoosomdever, when they publish a second edition o’ their beuk, I wad thank them no to overlook the name o’

Tammas Bodkin.

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