McGregor's Bull - One Less Robot
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McGregor’s Bull

McGregor’s Bull

To really understand, you just had to be there. To understand how it all came about, now that’s a different animal altogether. I don’t think anyone but Joe himself could tell you what the starting of the thing was, and Joe’s been in his grave these ten years and more come this July.

The ending of it I do know about, and I dare say half the village and surrounding countryside is fair clued in on it too, but I’m going to tell you the story that only I have the true knowledge of, along with some other bits of gossip and incidentals I’ve picked up over the many years between this and that..

The year was 1943, deep in the heart of the Emergency and the best Summer of my young life. The Irish Free State was no more than 20 years alive, and that had almost a decade on me still. The country of Eire was younger then even than America was at that time, and sure the States was only a young slip of a thing itself compared to Europe. Though the Indian Peoples might have something to say about that. It was a Summer, the guts of June were gone to the four winds, but the sun shone, and it was good to be young and out of the classroom. There was a rumour going around the village about the Master, and the chance that he might cross the water to stay with his sister in Liverpool. She had lost her man in the Battle of Britain, and there was news back from those over that she hadn’t taken it the best. The Master was a fair man, and a fair teacher, at least I learned a bit while he taught us, but the teacher leaving the school in those days was like hearing on the wireless that the school had been bombed, it was a sweet breath of freedom.

That summer, like no other I can remember or look forward to, was the most completely perfect time of my life, and I’ll be 61 in a month or so, not so old, but old enough to have a lot of memories to look back on. The colours were more vivid and richly painted than any I have seen since, and I know in my mind that it is these weary eyes that are changing, but still I feel for the little ones these times, and what they have to call their own. Are the colours fading? Old eyes or no, I think a lot of the life has gone out of this world, all the innocence that could see a butterfly and not wonder was it the last of its kind in all the world. Perhaps that’s the thinking that has brought the whole place to the brink of ruination; we never thought we could come to the end of anything.

I’m always telling the little ones – I have three grandchildren, a boy, and two of the sweetest wee lasses to come out of the county of Kerry, thank you very much for asking – about how the Summers now are only a pale imitation of the real thing, like what we had back when I was a child myself. I don’t know if I should be telling them these things, perhaps I’m depriving them of their own joy, but I think they sense too that the world was not always like this. I don’t know. Sometimes I get so angry, so upset at the waste of all that I know. I have walked this country for six decades, and set foot on one or two foreign shore on top of that, and where will all that living go? Into the grave and to the worms.

When a real stinker of a mood is on me, and even the sup of Whiskey and the company of the other old fogies cannot lift me up from out of it, I think on the way we live today, and wonder if it isn’t gone all totally to hell. The old way was best, and that is going back a time, even when I was a small fella we were seeing the tail end of it. The way of it used to be that the children would look after the parents when that age was upon them, or even all the time, if there was the room. Often there was not. That was natural and right, and as practiced and preached by damn near every bunch of human beings down through the history of, before and after he learned to walk on his two feet.

There was a cycle there, a carrying on, a circle of care, The parents looked after their young ones, and then given the passage of time and a touch of luck and good relations on both sides, the young ones would look after the parents in their dotage. The way that went, the three generations all cooped up in the one house, was the best of it. Cramped? It was. Was there a bit of privacy? Indeed there wasn’t. But wasn’t it all the better for it?

The way I see it is this: some people say that the sole purpose of life is to just make more of us, it’s the most basic urge of any animal, and I’d agree that the desire, the need to have young ones keeps the human race filling up the planet ever faster. I think there is something even more important than having children, and I think that thing is the nurturing of them, the bringing up of the child into the man or woman they deserve to be. And the old way -yes, I’m going to say it -the old way is better. What’s the point of living all those years and giving nothing of it to the next generation. I often think that all the reminiscing myself and all the other decrepit old farts do is like a kind of dry retching. We’re performing for an audience that isn’t there; children don’t sit on the old man’s knee and listen to the stories of the ‘how it was when I was a lad’, not anymore.

And what else are we good for? All this new liberation and freedom we were supposed to get when we were free of our children is an illusion, I want my little ones back, to feel the purpose again. I am the sum of all my experiences, and finally after an entire lifetime, I think I am beginning to see the reasons and the swing of things, good as any College taught boyo. Of course hindsight is all full of Should have dones you might say, and you’d be right, but then sixty years has to count for something. We learn so that we can evolve, and more importantly so that our children can learn. All of human knowledge is based on this; that we will benefit from the experiences and the mistakes of others.

But where is the connection between the young and the old, the bond that lets the lessons of a lifetime flow and shape the imaginings and the life of the next generation once remove. When your own children have grown, and in turn borne their own young fellas and young ones, it’s too late for you to teach them. Support, perhaps, but they are beyond listening to your wisdom, they are too busy living their lives. And there are the children, sponges for any drop of a story, and the story is life, my life, the lives and loves and sorrows, memories and experience of the old and the infirm are the strong while their bodies age and weaken.

Where was I? I ramble something terrible when I get on my hobby horse, Margaret teases me about it, but I just thank my lucky stars that I still have my wife with me, the cancer almost took her three years back. The doctors say she’s in remission, so every minute of her teasing is precious.

Ah yes, Joe and that incident, in that perfect summer of 1943. That year saw some of the worst fighting and atrocities of the war, but those were far distant events, and they had little meaning to a ten year old boy. I was more interested in the McGregor’s prize bull, and if the stray dog with the chewed-up ear was going to get itself mauled. It tormented the bull something fierce, barking and yipping and throwing itself at the beast though it was quick enough to throw itself back and out of the way should it see the need, but it would surely catch a terrible punishment one of those fine days.

We had a particular preoccupation the bull and the small dog, in that at the time of my story, there was a lot of interest in the McGregors. The woman of the house was a tall, strapping example, cascades of dirty blond locks tumbling down over shoulders, the look of a Viking about her. She was across the sea from Germany, and that was the cause of all the interest. The Widow Kelly from the Post Office hadn’t a word of any kind to say on the subject, and if Ms Kelly was silent on a subject, the whole village knew it was because there was nothing bad to say about it.

McGregor’s wife spoke with a faint trace of her mother-tongue, but the main of her accent was the pleasing thickness of a Scots burr. Her husband and herself had met in Scotland, more than ten years before, and married almost upon meeting.

That particular day was Sunday, and we had just met up after leaving our respective homes. We were full of energy and the sense of freedom that release from the Sunday best and the Priest’s droning voice brought. Nothing could have suited us better than having the run of the fields, and knowing that the usual sense of impending doom we felt as Sunday night sped towards Mondayt morning would be missing this day, and many more sunny days of Summer freedom yet.

Joey, our official Indian chief, led the way, though on many occasions himself and Rodney resorted to fisticuffs over the Chief being the scout at the same time. Joey always played the proprietary card, it was his game, and if you didn’t want to play then you could go and jump in the lake, you big crybaby. Normally Rodney was man enough to take that one without buckling, but he was a bit sensitive about his posh sounding moniker. His parents claimed they had chosen it to honour the memory of their late departed Uncle Rodney O’Toole, late of this Parish, as they used to say, because it was him who had sent over the Christening Cup, and his own name already inscribed on it.

The child’s father had said that after a gift like that they were obliged to pay the Uncle a bit of respect, and sure wasn’t the prices McCarthy charged in the Jewelers only unbelievable, and Rodney was writ already on the silver, so why not use it? Waste not, want not was a popular refrain of the unfortunate Rodney’s ould fella, known the length and breadth of the county, no mind the Parish, for his penny-pinching ways.

Rodney was not a good strong Irish name, at least not to Joey, and apparently not Rodney himself either, because he got fierce emotional about it, and so Joey was the Chief and the scout, no-one else complained. As to me, I considered myself a rear-echelon man to the core, and felt that the extra reaction time to danger I gained by the few feet behind the two lads I trailed was well worth any subsidiary imaginary title I might be forfeiting.

Anyway, there we were, making our casual way towards the McGregors holding. They were probably the wealthiest farmers for miles around, but the acre or so of poor grass belied their status. True enough they had no need of great tracts of land, the only business Matt McGregor was interested in was the fine and black art of raising prize-winning bulls. The man was famous for his ken for the beasts. It was said he could buy an animal and sell it on the same day to the first stranger on the road he might meet, and still get double what he had paid for it, such was his reputation for being a diviner of quality. The mere proximity of his great red-haired bulk was said to make the balls grow back on a bullock, but I never saw the proving of that one.

Joey wasn’t saying a word, and that wasn’t the usual way of things, for Joey was the Arch-Bishop of all talkers, me and Rodney couldn’t find the space break a crack in the flow of talk and lever a word in, not for want of trying – we weren’t shy with a bit of gabbing ourselves, as it is with most young lads, at least those I knew. We were having ideas all the time and we wanted to share them with everybody. Little did it matter to us that they were only new to ourselves, we were generous souls, and not unfond of repetition whatever the weather.

We arrived at the gate of McGregors, and wasn’t there the almighty of almighties of yelping and roaring from the paddock beyond and we knew that the big bull was wreaking a terrible revenge for all the tormenting and teasing that little dog had done. But knowing wasn’t enough, we wanted to see, and so we belted on through the yard, hot for the bloodsports.

And blood there was, but it wasn’t the dog who was in trouble – it was McGregor. He was sitting down against the pillar of the gate with red froth bubbling down his chin. We had all seen enough of dead animals to see that he hadn’t only a few minutes left to him, but none of us fancied getting close to see. There was something about  McGregor that was gone beyond the man we knew, he was almost to a place we couldn’t go, and in those days a place we never even thought about. It was obvious what had happened, but not how.

Somehow the bull had broken his chain and taken his horns to the farmer. The little dog was pushing itself against the dying man’s body, and the first thought that came to us was that the dog had been plaguing the bull, as was his wont, and the enraged animal had finally managed to do what had previously eluded him. At least that’s what myself and Rodney had thought, but when I looked at Joey, there was something different in his face.

There was horror there, but also an unexpected guilt, and I don’t know if there wasn’t a dark look of satisfaction. I looked away, that wasn’t an expression I was used to seeing, especially not in someone I though I knew like myself. It was much too calculating and knowing for a boy not yet even into his teens. Rodney took to his heels then, and ran for the nearest farm, which was the Byrnes. I didn’t know why at the time he didn’t go into McGregor’s own house, but it seems obvious to me now; he didn’t want to face the farmers wife with the news that her man was a breath away from leaving her.

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