Donna told us the tale during our extended lunch break, extended because the boss was away playing golf. Donna McNamara was the cleaning lady in the offices of the building firm where we worked. Congregating in the rest room, away from telephones and other interruptions, my fellow secretaries and a couple of clerks would settle down with our sandwiches and a drink, prepared to hear for the latest of her Irish tales.
Donna was a great one for reminiscing. Considering her age she had a perfect memory. After she’d finished her cleaning duties she would put away her dusters and hang around until she felt the coast was clear. Then she would saunter to the middle of the office and announce that she had another story to tell about her in-laws. She could tell an amusing story when she chose and the ones about Jeff’s family were certainly that. The mere mention of her in-laws had us scurrying to the rest room to sort out the chairs.
But to start at the beginning….
Donna and Jeff went to Ballycastle, in
, to attend the
wedding of Jeff’s sister Maureen and Patrick O’Leary. It looked like being a
solemn affair but after a sombre religious ceremony things really hotted
up. For a start, Patrick and his
brothers drank whiskey as if their lives depended on it. Illicit stuff, or so
we were told. Patrick claimed it was brewed in Bushmills but if that was the
case Donna couldn’t imagine his very strict and upright father allowing it through
his front door. Of course that was a very long time ago. Northern Ireland
Maureen looked splendid in white. The billowing skirt successfully hid the reason for a rushed wedding and a sizeable bouquet provided the finishing touch. It was a huge collection of seasonal pink and white flowers with lots of draping ivy that threatened to hide the dress altogether. Maureen needn’t have worried that her pregnancy showed. She looked like a princess as she walked up the aisle of the ancient church on the arm of her proud father, Paddy McNamara, himself wearing a huge smile. Sitting in the family pew Donna wondered if he actually knew he was about to become a granddaddy.
Patrick the bridegroom wore a stiff collar and a stiff back. Earlier his father said he looked as if he’d been strapped to a railway girder but Mrs O’Leary argued that he was simply a proud man. Mr O’Leary snorted and begged to differ. He claimed that his son was over-acting; adding insult to injury with the remark that no man in his right mind looked happy on his wedding day. Patrick seemed to take it all in good part and certainly there was no malice written on his face as he waited for Maureen to reach the altar.
It was an attractive couple of newly-weds that posed for photographs in the church grounds. With family cheering them on they kissed for the regulation picture, only breaking apart when the photographer gave the say-so. Donna said her tears welled up as she recalled her own wonderful wedding to the bride’s brother two years before.
The marquee which had been installed in a neighbouring farmer’s field was filled to capacity. The tables were placed in an E shape so that the guests could easily see the happy couple. They could also see the bridesmaids and were able to witness the amount of drink that passed the best man lips. Alex was his name, better known as Bluey on account of his fingers. Donna explained that farmers in those days had to crop spray by hand and Alex took it literally, managing to get blue spray on his fingers as well as the crops.
The amount Alex had to drink was the reason he came close to giving the game away. He was at the end of a slurred but humorous speech about the bridegroom’s possible inadequacies as a husband when he suddenly called for a toast, lifting his own glass and begging them to give three cheers to the happy threesome.’ Fortunately by this time, relieved that the speech was over, the well-oiled guests burst into tumultuous applause and cheering so the blunder was lost.
After the reception family and friends headed to the McNamara cottage situated alongside the narrow-gauge railway. The bride’s parents squeezed in Jeff’s little car, Dad in front and Mam and Donna squashed in the back with the leather holdall full of wedding gifts. Donna wasn’t on really friendly terms with her mother-in-law and she had to force herself not to complain about the wafts of alcohol that drifted from the front passenger seat. Mother wasn’t too bad although she’d had more than enough of the hard stuff. Donna guessed she’d started earlier than the wedding itself.
Now, according to Donna, Mam-in-law wasn’t a drinker but she did need her nerves soothing at the thought of her daughter marrying an O’Leary. The accident by the railway tracks hadn’t helped. Dad-in-law had gone out very early in the morning to get a load of peat for the fire but the overloaded wheelbarrow hit a stone, overturned, and sent clods of peat all over the rails. He’d had to trek back to the cottage to get help clearing it away before the next train came along. The trains didn’t run very frequently which was as well because it took him and two neighbours to sort it out. And then he had to get back home, change into his wedding outfit and hope to God his daughter wouldn’t throw a tantrum.
That wasn’t the only catastrophe. Finishing his shave by the kitchen sink Paddy dropped shaving cream all down the white shirt. Another task for his poor wife who was slowly losing patience.
But the worst was yet to come. Paddy was in such a rush to get changed that he shoved his leg in his wedding trousers so hard it tore a hole where a hole shouldn’t be. Of course, Mam-in-law had to set to and get it mended, hoping against hope that the hire shop wouldn’t notice when the suit was returned.
Nothing untoward happened at the party except, as already stated, Patrick and his brothers got very merry with the drink while poor Maureen tried her best not to nag. She commented to Donna she thought it was a little early in the marriage to start asserting herself. That wasn’t Donna’s opinion … she told us girls that she’d have had Patrick’s head on a block before he could say I’ll have another. Actually we always wondered why old Jeff was such a quiet soul.
It wasn’t until the do wound down and the happy couple had left for their unknown destination that Mam-in-law decided to fill the Kelly lamps in the kitchen. She didn’t want late evening to descend and find they were unprepared. There were three lamps altogether. They hung from the ceiling, one near the window wall and two either side of the big black range. That’s where Donna sat, on a well-worn horsehair couch long enough to accommodate three people.
Mam-in-law sang as she worked. Humming a few bars of Danny Boy, she leapt onto the couch, beside Donna, then leapt down to fill the lamp over by the sink. Jeff cautioned her to be careful but didn’t pursue it when she gave him a scornful look. Job complete, she returned to secure it on an enormous hook in one of the black beams. When all three were done, she settled on her chair by the range and went back to her whiskey.
The four of them had a bit of a sing-song and Dad-in-law told stories about Maureen’s growing up days, occasionally shedding a few sentimental tears. Donna helped Mam-in-law get supper ready, setting the table, silently wishing she could go to bed instead. She was tired after the hectic day and anyway the wedding had put her in the mood for a bit of canoodling with Jeff. She knew by the look in his eyes that he felt the same. But it didn’t do to be rude to his family so she ate beetroot sandwiches and tried to concentrate on more reminiscences about Maureen and Jeff.
Jeff thought differently. After another hour of football talk he nudged her and suggested they retire for the night. She hastily agreed and was just about to rise from the couch when she felt an awful pain in the head. She screeched, Jeff shouted, his Mam cried ‘Sure and Begorrah, I’ve done it now,’ while Dad rushed over to grab the Kelly lamp that had fallen from its hook.
A great fuss was made of Donna with Mam-in-law repeatedly saying how sorry she was, trying to make amends for what she called her lackadaisical approach to filling lamps. Even after they had the gas installed she never ceased trying to put things right. In a strange way the accident cemented the relationship between Mam and daughter-in-law. You could say it had broken the ice the hard way and, as one of the clerks said, it was mother-in-law trouble of the first order.