Two oul’ fellas well up into their seventies meet up in the park every week as part of a routine, I could usually find them on a Thursday or Friday around lunch time. They always meet at the same spot – the same bench that overlooks most of the walkways throughout the park. I know the spot well, it’s a grand spot, especially in the summer when the park gets a lot of footfall. From this spot you can see all the joggers, dog-walkers, truants, and those that like to go a’ sauntering and whatnot throughout the park. I had always seen these gentlemen here on my lunchtime strolls, pensioners no doubt, and they had always seemed to be in good humour when I passed by, often cackling away to each other over one thing or another.
Sometimes they would be bent double over the day’s paper, cynically scrutinizing the current goings-on from around the country in a sarcastic manner as is common in the elderly who still have some life in them. Other times they’d be in knots laughing amongst themselves on the bench accompanied by knee-slapping and shoulder jerking as they wiped jovial tears from their faces. They’d reminded me of a pair of escaped crazies with their frantic fits of whooping high-pitched laughter and I had always wondered to myself when passing by what it was that they found so funny and how they could keep it up week after week. I had always given a courteous nod or wave when passing by them and often times I found myself smiling, their laughter being somewhat contagious in its genuineness. It seemed like I had always arrived at that spot after a magnificent joke of epic proportion had landed among the two aged gentlemen, who, from a distance, you could easily mistake for two giddy schoolboys in their carry on.
From overhearing their conversations on my walks over the weeks I gathered that one of the men was named Jim and the other was Joe. They knew quite a lot about each other, although I didn’t get the impression they were blood related, more likely they were childhood friends or had worked together for an extended period of time. In appearance they were quite indistinguishable from one another as both were of similar complexion – weathered hands and faces tempered by many long years of honest manual labour work in fields and factories alike. Etched into the faces of each gentleman were expressions chiefly characterised by glee, sly smiles on rusted lips paired with quirky eyebrows quick to react to each passing joke or witty observation. Both Jim and Joe (or was it Joe and Jim?) had heads of venerable silvery hair kept tight and short, prim and proper by today’s standards, and they both donned the same style of attire, darkly-coloured patched paddy hat, striped-white collared shirt paired with a bluish-roan or similarly coloured long peacoat-style overcoat and matching suit pants, bottomed off with a pair of dark-brown loafers and occasionally, moccasins.
Both oul’ fellas had thick quick old-style Dublin accents full of wit and charm – it can be tricky to discern what is meant by what is said with this accent as it is often interwoven with sarcasm and a lot of slang, I will try to provide the reader with the adequate understanding and context of this throughout my recollection of events going forward.
On one of my walks during the summer I was passing by that very spot and sure enough the two men were seated there on the bench, thick as thieves in their giddiness. I gave my usual friendly nod toward the gentlemen when one of them boomed out, “Ah how ’ye kid, how’s things? All good yeah?”
“I’m grand, and yourself?” I replied smiling.
“Ah not too bad kid, can’t complain. Lovely oul’ weather we’re having isn’t it?” replied the tall man on the right, his aged voice crackled full of glee.
Shielding my eyes from the glaring sun, looking up at a deep blue cloudless sky I replied, “It is yeah, sure we’re well into the summer now.”
“Ah but ye never know, could still rain. Sure ye could get all bleedin’ fowor seasons a day in this country. One minute it would be raining, next it be snowing then the sun would come out, madness it is.” The fellow replied in a tone suggesting a great unknown secret had just been divulged.
“You’re right there. Name’s Giuseppe by the way, nice to meet you,” I said, reaching out for a handshake.
“Fancy version of Joseph yeah?” he smirked with the expression of a man that knows more than he lets on. Firmly shaking my hand he politely said, “I’m Jim and this here is Joe,” motioning to the other gentleman beside him.
“How’ ye,” was Joe’s response as I shook his hand in turn, “We’re all set now, we got Jim, Joe, and Joseph, or Giuseppe sorry!”
“Ah it’s grand, either one will do! What are you two up to in anyways?” I replied unoffended.
“We’re just out for a bit of a ramble,” Jim chimed in, scooching over and motioning for me to sit down, “An oul’ walkabout is good for the legs ye know.”
“So is getting away from the missus!” bellowed Joe, his voice rough like charcoal as a wheezing laugh belted through his stained teeth. Soon after Jim joined him, his laugh noticeably more lively and high-pitched than Joe’s, I couldn’t help but sit there with a sly smirk on my face, I found that the two elderly men and their giddiness was somewhat heart-warming.
After a brief spell the two gentlemen regained composure. A cool light breeze washed over us as we sat, bringing with it hints of that humid summer air mixed in with the fragrance of pollen and freshly cut grass.
“Grand oul’ day for it,” said Jim offhandedly before something caught his keen eye. He straightened up and squinted off in the distance before tapping Joe on the shoulder, quickly saying, “Sure would ye look at yer man over there picking at the grass,” he pointed out a rather slim-looking gentleman who was kneeling before the treeline some distance away, “look at the head on ‘um, looks like a bleedin’ goblin he does, look at him.” Sure enough the slim gentleman Jim pointed to had an odd look about him, at least from the side, and seemed to be grasping at various clumps of bush that lay there.
“Fella looks like he’s hobbling a few hobnobs down there.” Joe sat up in the bench, trying to get a better view of the stranger (I remember thinking to myself at this point that both men seemed to be rather nosy).
Jim, still looking in the direction of the stranger said, “Oh now, there be no hobbling of any hobnobs round here I tell ye.”
“He wouldn’t have had had to hobble his hobnobs had he of headed home.” said I, making my own contribution to this nonsense speak.
“Ha-ha! Probably out planting his few bits for the winter,” suggested Joe, nudging and casting a knowing look towards Jim.
“The oul’ beggars’ mile,” said Jim with a distant look in his eyes and a sly grin across his lips, “or beggars’ strip if ye like. Same thing.” He raised his eyebrows and threw his head slightly to the side.
“What’s that now?” I asked, inquisitive as to the slang’s origin, “I’ve never heard of that one before.”
“Ah, yun’ fellas like yerself wouldn’t know.” He chuckled, “Ye see, back in the oul’ days down the country, along all the backroads you’d have these narrow strips of turf each side. They wouldn’t have much width in them but they’d stretch on for ages,” he started with a certain air of grandeur about him. “So if ye were poor or didn’t own any land or were a vagrant as such, what ye would do is ye’d go down all along the strip planting all your potatoes, carrots, all your herbs and whatever while ye rambled here and there. Weren’t many people on the roads back then so it was a good way to make sure ye wouldn’t go hungry, was also a good way to make an extra few bob if ye were lucky and yer stuff grew properly.” He finished, chin up at retelling a piece of the past before giving me a slight nod.
“Really? I never would’ve guessed that. That’s actually quite crafty!” I said, slightly impressed.
“Ye better believe it,” started Jim, “if ye can’t be rich ye can be crafty. Sure meself, Joe, and another fella called Kavanagh used to plant all our cabbages and turnips along the border of Cork and Kerry!”
“By Jaysus that’s goin’ back a long while now!” Joe exclaimed in response. “Sure we used to sell some of the harvest on for drink in the boozer”
“We did indeed.” replied Jim nodding to himself. “Sure, ye couldn’t do that nowadays, the guards be all over ye with taxes and all that.”
“Ah no! Ye couldn’t do it nowadays by Jaysus!” said Joe in earnest. “It’s not like it was before, they got wise to it, they be watching out for it now.”
Shaking his head, Jim looked to me, “Heh, ye better believe it. They’d clamp down on anything these days if there’s a few bob at stake. Especially if it concerns people just trying to get by.”
“Oh you’re not wrong there Jim!” Joe said with an affirmative nod.
By this time the slim stranger who was picking at the grass was gone. I arose from the bench with the intent to leave (I had to get back to work), shaking the hands of Jim and Joe in turn, “I’ve got to get going lads, it was nice meeting you. We had a great bit of craic!”
“Are ye off kid? No worries, I’ll see ye after!” came Joe’s hoarse send off.
“Was good to meet ye kid, I’m sure we’ll see ye again in future.” boomed Jim’s golden voice.
“Ye will indeed! You two mind yerselves, I’ll see ye.” I concluded and started to make my way down the footpath.
A minute or two of walking and I had come by the spot where previously the slim stranger was kneeling down. Feeling a certain pang of curiosity I stopped to have a look around. At first glance all I could see were shrubs and bushes, but upon further inspection I had noticed a tiny clearing around the back of some sort of slender bush. Disembarking the footpath I made my way towards it.
A tiny square of earth had been carved out, making the site stand out against the wild growth of grass and bush surrounding it. Placed in the middle of the clearing, (most of the grass had been picked clean from the square), were a bundle of purple tulip flowers and what appeared to be slices of carrot in front of a miniature slab of rock. Being careful as not to disturb anything I knelt down to examine this mini shrine-like site. It had indeed been carrot that I saw, the reasoning behind it I couldn’t have guessed. Inscribed upon the stone was simply the name Snuffles. I picked my own few strands of intruding grass off from the grave then rose to leave, off in the distance I could hear Jim and Joe cackling away to each other once more.
A couple of weeks later I was walking that same route in the park when I came across Jim alone sitting in his usual spot. As soon as he spotted me he gave a wave and boomed, “Ah It’s yerself! How ‘ye kid?”
Returning his wave I replied, “I’m not too bad Jim! Is it just yourself today? Where’s the other fella?” I took a seat beside him on the park bench.
“The Joe fella? Bit the oul’ bullet he did. Ah it happens at this age kid, ye be grand for a while and then one day ye just keel over and that’s that. Nothing lasts forever kid, like the time I was living out in the Isle of Man before the new government came in and kicked us all home. He went pretty easy he did, he wasn’t in any pain or anything like that, had his funeral last Saturday up in Glasnevin.”
With a small amount of disbelief I exclaimed, “No way, I’m sorry to hear that. And it was only the other week that we were all here.”
“Ah well, not much that can be done about it, sure I won’t be long after him.” At this he trailed off into his iconic high-pitched laughter.
“Jaysus, that’s a terrible thing to say! Well I for one hope you don’t.” I said with a brief chuckle.
“Ah you’re very good but go ‘way outta that will ye, I’m not getting any younger ya know. Every oul’ fella knows in the back of his mind that the clock is running against ‘um. Some fellas do try and focus on a routine or the family to try and put it off, but once ye face it you realise there isn’t much ye can do, whatever happens, happens, no use stressing about it.” Jim took a somewhat carefree tone in voice while saying this.
“I suppose that’s a… reasonable way of looking at it.” I smiled, shaking my head.
With a sly smile Jim replied, “Yeah well, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has,’ ye know.”
“Hah! I didn’t know you speak Greek!” I was impressed at Jim’s recital of an old Phrygian’s fragments.
“Oh yeah, read a lot of that stuff back when I was around your age, good stuff too, gives ye a lot to think about. Anyways kid, I best be hitting the merry highway,” Jim rose from his seat and began patting away at his overcoat, “the kids are coming out for a visit and I’ve got to give the missus a hand in getting the place ready for them. I’ll see ya later kid, best of luck to ye!”
“Alright go on Jim, you mind yerself, good seeing ya.” I watched as the old man hobbled down the walkway, cheerful as ever waving to each and every passer-by. After a while I got up and made my way home, it was a cool and breezy summer afternoon.
The next week when I passed that usual spot in the park, oul’ Jim was nowhere to be seen.
1: oul’ – old – pronounced like ‘owl’ said quickly.
2: In Knots Laughing – Laughing quite visibly.
3: Carry On – The way someone acts, often used to describe an act deemed ridiculous or silly.
4: Paddy Hat – A Flat Cap to the non-Irish.
5: Kid – Older people in Dublin tend to refer to everyone younger than them as kid regardless of age.
6: Bleedin’ – In Dublin speech this doesn’t really have a meaning on its own, rather it is used with another word to add emphasis to it.
7: Fowor – The Number Four – Pronounced as fowor in the Dublin accent.
8: Fancy version of Joseph… – Giuseppe is the Italian equivalent of Joseph. Any language that deviates from the local dialect is often considered fancy or posh in Dublin.
9: The Missus – The Wife.
10: Grand oul’ day for it – A saying meaning it’s a good day in general, not specifically related to anything.
11: Look at the head on ‘um – His general look, not his literal head.
12: …hobbling a few hobnobs… – A Hobnob is a type of oat biscuit, to ‘hobble’ it means to eat it, usually in a few bites. Used in the context of this story it implies the man was either throwing something away or hiding something.
13: …few bits… – In Dublin it’s common to say ‘a few bits’ when speaking of a quantity of something e.g. I got a few bits from the shop.
14: Yun’ – Young
15: …down the country – The general countryside, not specifically southbound. People from Dublin commonly use this phrase to collectively refer to any other place in Ireland that is not Dublin.
16: Turf – Ground.
17: …go on for ages – Go on for a long time, distance, etc…
18: …few bob – Some money, I have no idea why it’s called bob, maybe it’s an English thing.
19: …never would’ve guessed… – Pronounced wud-uv in Dublin.
20: …Kavanagh – A man named Gerard “Ger” Kavanagh I met in Cork told me the story of the beggars’ mile, a slight homage if you will.
21: boozer – pub.
22: Guards – The police, called ‘An Garda Síochána’ in Irish (Keepers of Peace or Peacekeepers in English)
23: …great bit of craic – Craic (crack) – An enjoyable time.
24: …I’ll see ye after! – A Common phrase for goodbye.
25: Bit the oul’ bullet… – A common phrase meaning death.
26: …Isle of Man… kicked us all home… – A lot of immigrants who were working/living in the Isle of Man ~ the 80s were apparently forced to leave when a new government was elected.
27: …Glasnevin – Glasnevin Cemetery, the “Dead Center” of Dublin is a famous cemetery housing the graves of many historical figures of Ireland, as well as ordinary citizens. I believe some of my relatives are there.
28: Go ‘way outta that… – A saying meaning ‘stop it’ usually in a light-hearted sense. Commonly pronounced as ‘go way ouv eh.’
29: I didn’t know you speak Greek! – Alluding to I knew the quote was from ancient philosophy, not that he was literally speaking Greek.
30: …an old Phrygian’s fragments – Ref. to the Philosophy of Epictetus.
31: …hitting the merry highway – A saying used to express you are about to leave or go home.