PICTURE THIS: Lovely weather for... swans: Grace O'Brien also snapped these two feathered-friends swanning around on a flooded path to Shannon Fields
PATRICK Ahern of Glensharrold in Carrickerry is undoubtedly Ireland’s greatest living matchmaker.
He has appeared in more than 20 television programmes and is scheduled to appear in many more. He has over one hundred marriages to his credit, but he still has a long way to before he breaks the record of four hundred established by the immortal Dan Paddy Andy O’Sullivan of Renagown, Lryeacrompane.
Next to Patrick Ahern comes Maurice Riordan of Clonakilty. Maurice has brought forty couples together, but alas not all of them have stayed together. Dan Paddy Andy had only one dissatisfied pair while Patrick Ahern had no failure at all.
Perhaps more than annoyed Patrick Ahern is conscious for the need of marriages in rural Ireland. He has seen around him the bleakness of life without companionship and this is what originally set him on the matchmaking road.
The big difference between Patrick Ahern and Dan Paddy Andy is that Patrick neither asks for nor expects a fee whereas Dan Paddy would not put one leg across another without assurance of payment provided he succeeded in his objectives.
Dan was often forced to neglect his farm in order to travel long journeys and the very least he was entitled to in return was his expenses. In the nineteen forties when he was in his heyday his charge was a pound per milch cow and corresponding sums for other stock.
There were separate charges for labourers and tradesmen and if an aspiring candidate lived near enough to Dan Paddy’s holding he could pay his fee by coring, that is to say he could work off his debts on Dan Paddy’s farm.
Dan kept ten cows and a horse and added to the income from his monthly creamery contribution by selling horse rails of turf in Tralee and Castleisland. He rarely came to Listowel or Abbeyfeale, not because of the distances were too far but because both towns had numerous bogs within the parish districts and it was difficult to compete with local suppliers who would have but a mere mile to travel against Dan Paddy Andy’s thirteen.
In those days Dan found it difficult to make ends meet. Everybody else was in the same boat and a part from professional people, traders and big farmers very few in the country had cash reserves of any consequence. Dan Paddy Andy had six children, five boys and one girl. Two of the boys succumbed to the plague of Scarlet Fever which swept the country in the early forties. It was widely believed at the time, although never verified that the murderous fever was caused by the decay of corpses in the battle fields and concentration camps of Hitler’s Europe.
In the town of Castleisland people still talk about the day Dan Paddy Andy’s children were buried. Dan was a great favourite in the town and the hearts of the townspeople went out to him in his grief.
For a while after the loss, of his sons he abandoned the trade of matchmaking and never left his farm except to go to Mass. His dancehall was closed too during this distressing period. Eventually Dan’s other sons Patsy, Jimmy and Johnny emigrated to America and were followed by his only daughter Kitty.
Dan’s wife, who hailed originally from Cearcar in Scartaglin followed her children to America after Dan’s death in nineteen sixty four. She died and was buried there a few short years ago.
The tragedy about Dan’s untimely death, he was only sixty eight, was that he was never as well off as he was before he died. He had money to spare and an ample pension. He had sold his farm to the Land Commission for a better than average price.
The more fertile of his fields were divided among local farmers while the boggier ones were used for forestry. Dan’s mother was a Geaney from Raemore, a wild but lovely countryside between Renagown Cross and the town of Listowel.
It was in Raemore that Maurice Moore was tragically murdered in nineteen sixty one in the most mysterious circumstances and it was upon this most terrible incident that I based my play “The Field” which was produced at Dublin’s Olympia Theater in nineteen sixty five.
I remember to have visited the scene of the murder with a friend, Michael Wale, who worked for the Daily Express. It was a Sunday afternoon in the Spring and there was a carnival atmosphere around a certain house which was under surveillance by the Garda Siochana.
Michael Wale and I succeeded in gaining access to the house during a diversion. I will never forgot the poor huddled figure by the fire. He was the only suspect in the case and although nothing could be proved against him, he was watched day and night. He remembered me from my youth in nearby Renagown and we spoke for a while.
Nothing, however could dispel the intolerable air of gloom which hung about the place. Although the suspect was never brought to trial his sentence was far more savage then any court of law might impose upon him. No matter where he went he was under constant surveillance by the authorities.
Worse still, when he ever went into any town or village up to the time of his death he would be pointed out surreptitiously as the man who stood accused. In addition, he was hounded by reporters and it is no wonder that he finally cracked. He died before his time from a succession of heart attacks.
But let me return to Dan Paddy Andy. After the death of his sons he mourned for a long period and might never have returned to the trade of matchmaking but for a challenge. A young curate in a parish in the west of Kerry paid a visit to Dan one night during the summer following the winter which saw the burial of his sons.
Dan Paddy explained to the cleric that he had given up matchmaking and he recommended another man in Abbeyfeale who used to dabble a little in the marriage business. The curate however pressed his case and brought in his man, who had been seated all the time in the back seat of the curates Baby Ford. The reason, he sate in the back and sideways at that, was that he was too big and too ungainly for the front seat. Dan looked at him and shook his head.
“You’ll never get a woman for him” Dan said.
“Ah” said the curate, “that’s a shame for with all his awkwardness he’s a gentle sort of a fellow and he can play the fiddle.”
“If he played the organ and the piano together,” said Dan, “he’ll never get a woman. He’s too thick and too weighty and too ugly. Sure he’s more a gorilla than a man.”
“I thought,” said the curate “that nothing was beyond Dan Paddy Andy, but I am afraid I was wrong, for the great Dan Paddy Andy is the same as ourselves.”
So say, he swept his man before him to the door. His ruse worked for the remark riled Dan.
“Toughen,” said he, “toughen a tamaill.”
The curate halted him man and returned to the fireplace where he had been standing. Dan excused himself and went up to the room. In a minute he was back with a fiddle and a bow.
“Now,” said Dan, “ here’s a fiddle. Let’s see what he’ll knock out of it.”.
He handed over the fiddle and the bow and straightaway the man from the west began to play. There was no tune to his music and no rhythm. Such a dreadful charivari had never been heard in Renagown. Outside in the night the cats began to answer. Dan snatched the instrument from the man’s hands.
“He can drive a fiddle alright, but he can’t play a fiddle.”
“Is there anything to be done for the poor fellow,” the curate asked.
“He’s in luck,” Dan confided. “Beyond in Smaddernanon, there is a lady who draws the blind pension, the same as I do. She’s not gone altogether in the sight but there isn’t enough vision for her to get a right gander at your man. In addition she is tone deaf and won’t know a hornpipe from a foxtrot. As I recall she is still single, and might if she was asked in the right way take him in front of the altar.”
The curate pumped Dan’s hand in thanks.
“Handshakes said Dan, “won’t buy butter.”
The curate got the message and a satisfactory agreement was reached. The couple were married the first Saturday of the following September and they lived happily ever after which is more then can be said for the millionaires of America who think so little of marriage that they throw it to one side whenever it suits them.
This article by the late and great John B Keane first appeared in the Limerick Leader in February 26, 1977