A Wild Irishman

A poem by James Whitcomb Riley

Not very many years ago the writer was for some months stationed at
South Bend, a thriving little city of northern Indiana, its main
population on the one side of the St. Joseph river, but quite a
respectable fraction thereof taking its industrial way to the opposite
shore, and there gaining an audience and a hearing in the rather
imposing growth and hurly-burly of its big manufactories, and the
consequent rapid appearance of multitudinous neat cottages, tenement
houses and business blocks. A stranger, entering South Bend proper on
any ordinary day, will be at some loss to account for its prosperous
appearance - its flagged and bowldered streets - its handsome mercantile
blocks, banks, and business houses generally. Reasoning from cause to
effect, and seeing but a meager sprinkling of people on the streets
throughout the day, and these seeming, for the most part, merely
idlers, and in no wise accessory to the evident thrift and opulence of
their surroundings, the observant stranger will be puzzled at the
situation. But when evening comes, and the outlying foundries,
sewing-machine, wagon, plow, and other "works," together with the
paper-mills and all the nameless industries - when the operations of
all these are suspended for the day, and the workmen and workwomen
loosed from labor - then, as this vast army suddenly invades and
overflows bridge, roadway, street and lane, the startled stranger will
fully comprehend the why and wherefore of the city's high prosperity.
And, once acquainted with the people there, the fortunate sojourner
will find no ordinary culture and intelligence, and, as certainly, he
will meet with a social spirit and a wholesouled heartiness that will
make the place a lasting memory. The town, too, is the home of many
world-known notables, and a host of local celebrities, the chief of
which latter class I found, during my stay there, in the person of
Tommy Stafford, or "The Wild Irishman" as everybody called him.

"Talk of odd fellows and eccentric characters," said Major Blowney, my
employer, one afternoon, "you must see our 'Wild Irishman' here before
you say you've yet found the queerest, brightest, cleverest chap in
all your travels. What d'ye say, Stockford?" And the Major paused in
his work of charging cartridges for his new breech-loading shotgun and
turned to await his partner's response.

Stockford, thus addressed, paused above the shield-sign he was
lettering, slowly smiling as he dipped and trailed his pencil through
the ivory black upon a bit of broken glass and said, in his
deliberate, half-absent-minded way, - "Is it Tommy you're telling him
about?" and then, with a gradual broadening of the smile, he went on,
"Well, I should say so. Tommy! What's come of the fellow, anyway? I
haven't seen him since his last bout with the mayor, on his trial for
shakin' up that fast-horse man."

"The fast-horse man got just exactly what he needed, too," said the
genial Major, laughing, and mopping his perspiring brow. "The fellow
was barkin' up the wrong stump when he tackled Tommy! Got beat in the
trade, at his own game, you know, and wound up by an insult that no
Irishman would take; and Tommy just naturally wore out the hall carpet
of the old hotel with him!"

"And then collared and led him to the mayor's office himself, they

"Oh, he did!" said the Major, with a dash of pride in the
confirmation; "that's Tommy all over!"

"Funny trial, wasn't it?" continued the ruminating Stockford.

"Wasn't it though?" laughed the Major.

"The porter's testimony: You see, he was for Tommy, of course, and on
examination testified that the horse-man struck Tommy first. And there
Tommy broke in with: 'He's a-meanin' well, yer Honor, but he's lyin'
to ye - he's lyin' to ye. No livin' man iver struck me first - nor last,
nayther, for the matter o' that!' And I
thought - the - court - would - die!" concluded the Major, in a like
imminent state of merriment.

"Yes, and he said if he struck him first," supplemented Stockford,
"he'd like to know why the horseman was 'wearin' all the black eyes,
and the blood, and the boomps on the head of um!' And it's that talk
of his that got him off with so light a fine!"

"As it always does," said the Major, coming to himself abruptly and
looking at his watch. "Stock', you say you're not going along with our
duck-shooting party this time? The old Kankakee is just lousy with 'em
this season!"

"Can't go possibly," said Stockford, "not on account of the work at
all, but the folks at home ain't just as well as I'd like to see them,
and I'll stay here till they're better. Next time I'll try and be
ready for you. Going to take Tommy, of course?"

"Of course! Got to have 'The Wild Irishman' with us! I'm going around
to find him now." Then turning to me the Major continued, "Suppose you
get on your coat and hat and come along? It's the best chance you'll
ever have to meet Tommy. It's late anyhow, and Stockford'll get along
without you. Come on."

"Certainly," said Stockford; "go ahead. And you can take him ducking,
too, if he wants to go."

"But he doesn't want to go - and won't go," replied the Major with a
commiserative glance at me. "Says he doesn't know a duck from a
poll-parrot - nor how to load a shotgun - and couldn't hit a house if he
were inside of it and the door shut. Admits that he nearly killed his
uncle once, on the other side of a tree, with a squirrel runnin' down
it. Don't want him along!"

Reaching the street with the genial Major, he gave me this advice:
"Now, when you meet Tommy, you mustn't take all he says for dead
earnest, and you mustn't believe, because he talks loud, and in
italics every other word, that he wants to do all the talking and
won't be interfered with. That's the way he's apt to strike folks at
first - but it's their mistake, not his. Talk back to him - controvert
him whenever he's aggressive in the utterance of his opinions, and if
you're only honest in the announcement of your own ideas and beliefs,
he'll like you all the better for standing by them. He's
quick-tempered, and perhaps a trifle sensitive, so share your greater
patience with him, and he'll pay you back by fighting for you at the
drop of the hat. In short, he's as nearly typical of his gallant
country's brave, impetuous, fun-loving individuality as such a
likeness can exist."

"But is he quarrelsome?" I asked.

"Not at all. There's the trouble. If he'd only quarrel there'd be no
harm done. Quarreling's cheap, and Tommy's extravagant. A big
blacksmith here, the other day, kicked some boy out of his shop, and
Tommy, on his cart, happened to be passing at the time; and he just
jumped off without a word, and went in and worked on that fellow for
about three minutes, with such disastrous results that they couldn't
tell his shop from a slaughter-house; paid an assault and battery
fine, and gave the boy a dollar beside, and the whole thing was a
positive luxury to him. But I guess we'd better drop the subject, for
here's his cart, and here's Tommy. Hi! there, you Far-down 'Irish
Mick!" called the Major, in affected antipathy, "been out raiding the
honest farmers' hen-roosts again, have you?"

We had halted at a corner grocery and produce store, as I took it, and
the smooth-faced, shave-headed man in woolen shirt, short vest, and
suspenderless trousers so boisterously addressed by the Major, was
just lifting from the back of his cart a coop of cackling chickens.

"Arrah! ye blasted Kerryonian!" replied the handsome fellow,
depositing the coop on the curb and straightening his tall, slender
figure; "I were jist thinking of yez and the ducks, and here ye come
quackin' into the prisence of r'yalty, wid yer canvas-back suit upon
ye and the shwim-skins bechuxt yer toes! How air yez, anyhow - and air
we startin' for the Kankakee by the nixt post?"

"We're to start just as soon as we get the boys together," said the
Major, shaking hands. "The crowd's to be at Andrews' by 4, and it's
fully that now; so come on at once. We'll go 'round by Munson's and
have Hi send a boy to look after your horse. Come; and I want to
introduce my friend here to you, and we'll all want to smoke and
jabber a little in appropriate seclusion. Come on." And the impatient
Major had linked arms with his hesitating ally and myself, and was
turning the corner of the street.

"It's an hour's work I have yet wid the squawkers," mildly protested
Tommy, still hanging back and stepping a trifle high; "but, as one
Irishman would say til another, 'Ye're wrong, but I'm wid ye!'"

And five minutes later the three of us had joined a very jolly party
in a snug back room, with

"The chamber walls depicted all around
With portraitures of huntsman, hawk, and hound,
And the hurt deer,"

and where, as well, drifted over the olfactory intelligence a certain
subtle, warm-breathed aroma, that genially combatted the chill and
darkness of the day without, and, resurrecting long-dead Christmases,
brimmed the grateful memory with all comfortable cheer.

A dozen hearty voices greeted the appearance of Tommy and the Major,
the latter adroitly pushing the jovial Irishman to the front, with a
mock-heroic introduction to the general company, at the conclusion of
which Tommy, with his hat tucked under the left elbow, stood bowing
with a grace of pose and presence Lord Chesterfield might have

"Gintlemen," said Tommy, settling back upon his heels and admiringly
contemplating the group; "Gintlemen, I congratu-late yez wid a pride
that shoves the thumbs o' me into the arrum-holes of me weshkit! At
the inshtigation of the bowld O'Blowney - axin' the gintleman's
pardon - I am here wid no silver tongue of illoquence to para-lyze yez,
but I am prisent, as has been ripresinted, to jine wid yez in a
stupendeous waste of gun-powder, and duck-shot, and 'high-wines,' and
ham sand-witches, upon the silvonian banks of the ragin' Kankakee,
where the 'di-dipper' tips ye good-bye wid his tail, and the wild loon
skoots like a sky-rocket for his exiled home in the alien dunes of the
wild morass - or, as Tommy Moore so illegantly describes the blashted
birrud, -

'Away to the dizhmal shwamp he shpeeds -
His path is rugged and sore,
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds,
And many a fen where the serpent feeds,
And birrud niver flew before -
And niver will fly any more

if iver he arrives back safe into civilization again - and I've been in
the poultry business long enough to know the private opinion and
personal integrity of ivery fowl that flies the air or roosts on
poles. But, changin' the subject of my few small remarks here, and
thankin yez wid an overflowin' heart but a dhry tongue, I have the
honor to propose, gintlemen, long life and health to ivery mother's o'
yez, and success to the 'Duck-hunters of Kankakee.'"

"The duck-hunters of the Kankakee!" chorussed the elated party in such
musical uproar that for a full minute the voice of the enthusiastic
Major - who was trying to say something - could not be heard. Then he

"I want to propose that theme - 'The Duck-hunters of the Kankakee', for
one of Tommy's improvizations. I move we have a song now from Tommy on
the 'Duck-hunters of the Kankakee.'"

"Hurra! Hurra! A song from Tommy," cried the crowd. "Make us up a
song, and put us all into it! A song from Tommy! A song! A song!"

There was a queer light in the eye of the Irishman. I observed him
narrowly - expectantly. Often I had read of this phenomenal art of
improvised ballad-singing, but had always remained a little skeptical
in regard to the possibility of such a feat. Even in the notable
instances of this gift as displayed by the very clever Theodore Hook,
I had always half suspected some prior preparation - some adroit
forecasting of the sequence that seemed the instant inspiration of his
witty verses.

Here was evidently to be a test example, and I was all alert to mark
its minutest detail.

The clamor had subsided, and Tommy had drawn a chair near to and
directly fronting the Major's. His right hand was extended, closely
grasping the right hand of his friend which he scarce perceptibly,
though measuredly, lifted and let fall throughout the length of all
the curious performance. The voice was not unmusical, nor was the
quaint old ballad-air adopted by the singer unlovely in the least;
simply a monotony was evident that accorded with the levity and
chance-finish of the improvisation - and that the song was improvised
on the instant I am certain - though in no wise remarkable, for other
reasons, in rhythmic worth or finish. And while his smiling auditors
all drew nearer, and leant, with parted lips to catch every syllable,
the words of the strange melody trailed unhesitatingly into the lines
literally as here subjoined:

"One gloomy day in the airly Fall,
Whin the sunshine had no chance at all -
No chance at all for to gleam and shine
And lighten up this heart of mine:

"'Twas in South Bend, that famous town,
Whilst I were a-strollin' round and round,
I met some friends and they says to me:
'It's a hunt we'll take on the Kankakee!'"

"Hurra for the Kankakee! Give it to us, Tommy!" cried an enthused
voice between verses. "Now give it to the Major!" And the song went
on: -

"There's Major Blowney leads the van,
As crack a shot as an Irishman, -
For its the duck is a tin decoy
That his owld shotgun can't destroy!"

And a half a dozen jubilant palms patted the Major's shoulders, and
his ruddy, good-natured face beamed with delight. "Now give it to the
rest of 'em, Tommy!" chuckled the Major. And the song continued: -

"And along wid 'Hank' is Mick Maharr,
And Barney Pince, at 'The Shamrock' bar -
There's Barney Pinch, wid his heart so true;
And the Andrews Brothers they'll go too."

"Hold on, Tommy!" chipped in one of the Andrews; "you must give 'the
Andrews Brothers' a better advertisement than that! Turn us on a full
verse, can't you?"

"Make 'em pay for it if you do!" said the Major, in an undertone. And
Tommy promptly amended: -

"O, the Andrews Brothers, they'll be there,
Wid good se-gyars and wine to shpare, -
They'll treat us here on fine champagne,
And whin we're there they 'll treat us again."

The applause here was vociferous, and only discontinued when a box of
Havanas stood open on the table. During the momentary lull thus
occasioned, I caught the Major's twinkling eyes glancing evasively
toward me, as he leant whispering some further instructions to Tommy,
who again took up his desultory ballad, while I turned and fled for
the street, catching, however, as I went, and high above the laughter
of the crowd, the satire of this quatrain to its latest line -

"But R-R-Riley he 'll not go, I guess,
Lest he'd get lost in the wil-der-ness,
And so in the city he will shtop
For to curl his hair in the barber shop."

It was after six when I reached the hotel, but I had my hair trimmed
before I went in to supper. The style of trimming adopted then I still
rigidly adhere to, and call it "the Tommy Stafford stubble-crop."

Ten days passed before I again saw the Major. Immediately upon his
return - it was late afternoon when I heard of it - I determined to take
my evening walk out the long street toward his pleasant home and call
upon him there. This I did, and found him in a wholesome state of
fatigue, slippers and easy chair, enjoying his pipe on the piazza. Of
course, he was overflowing with happy reminiscences of the hunt - the
wood-and-water-craft - boats - ambushes - decoys, and tramp, and camp,
and so on, without end; - but I wanted to hear him talk of "The Wild
Irishman" - Tommy; and I think, too, now, that the sagacious Major
secretly read my desires all the time. To be utterly frank with the
reader I will admit that I not only think the Major divined my
interest in Tommy, but I know he did; for at last, as though reading
my very thoughts, he abruptly said, after a long pause, in which he
knocked the ashes from his pipe and refilled and lighted it: - "Well,
all I know of 'The Wild Irishman' I can tell you in a very few
words - that is, if you care at all to listen?" And the crafty old
Major seemed to hesitate.

"Go on - go on!" I said, eagerly.

"About forty years ago," resumed the Major, placidly, "in the little,
old, unheard-of town Karnteel, County Tyrone, Province Ulster,
Ireland, Tommy Stafford - in spite of the contrary opinion of his
wretchedly poor parents - was fortunate enough to be born. And here,
again, as I advised you the other day, you must be prepared for
constant surprises in the study of Tommy's character."

"Go on," I said; "I'm prepared for anything."

The Major smiled profoundly and continued: -

"Fifteen years ago, when he came to America - and the Lord only knows
how he got the passage-money - he brought his widowed mother with him
here, and has supported, and is still supporting her. Besides," went
on the still secretly smiling Major, "the fellow has actually found
time, through all his adversities, to pick up quite a smattering of
education, here and there - "

"Poor fellow!" I broke in, sympathizingly, "what a pity it is that he
couldn't have had such advantages earlier in life," and as I recalled
the broad brogue of the fellow, together with his careless dress,
recognizing beneath it all the native talent and brilliancy of a mind
of most uncommon worth, I could not restrain a deep sigh of compassion
and regret.

The Major was leaning forward in the gathering dusk, and evidently
studying my own face, the expression of which, at that moment, was
very grave and solemn, I am sure. He suddenly threw himself backward
in his chair, in an uncontrollable burst of laughter. "Oh, I just
can't keep it up any longer," he exclaimed.

"Keep what up?" I queried, in a perfect maze of bewilderment and
surprise. "Keep what up?" I repeated.

"Why, all this twaddle, farce, travesty and by-play regarding Tommy!
You know I warned you, over and over, and you mustn't blame me for the
deception. I never thought you'd take it so in earnest!" and here the
jovial Major again went into convulsions of laughter.

"But I don't understand a word of it all," I cried, half frenzied with
the gnarl and tangle of the whole affair. "What 'twaddle, farce and
by-play,' is it anyhow?" And in my vexation, I found myself on my feet
and striding nervously up and down the paved walk that joined the
street with the piazza, pausing at last and confronting the Major
almost petulantly. "Please explain," I said, controlling my vexation
with an effort.

The Major arose. "Your striding up and down there reminds me that a
little stroll on the street might do us both good," he said. "Will you
wait until I get a coat and hat?"

He rejoined me a moment later, and we passed through the open gate;
and saying, "Let's go down this way," he took my arm and turned into a
street, where, cooling as the dusk was, the thick maples lining the
walk, seemed to throw a special shade of tranquility upon us.

"What I meant was" - began the Major, in low, serious voice, - "What I
meant was - simply this: Our friend Tommy, though the truest Irishman
in the world, is a man quite the opposite everyway of the character he
has appeared to you. All that rich brogue of his is assumed. Though
he's poor, as I told you, when he came here, his native quickness, and
his marvelous resources, tact, judgment, business qualities - all have
helped him to the equivalent of a liberal education. His love of the
humorous and the ridiculous is unbounded; but he has serious moments,
as well, and at such times is as dignified and refined in speech and
manner as any man you'd find in a thousand. He is a good speaker, can
stir a political convention to fomentation when he gets fired up; and
can write an article for the press that goes spang to the spot. He
gets into a great many personal encounters of a rather undignified
character; but they are almost invariably bred of his innate interest
in the 'under dog,' and the fire and tow of his impetuous nature."

My companion had paused here, and was looking through some printed
slips in his pocket-book. "I wanted you to see some of the fellow's
articles in print, but I have nothing of importance here - only some of
his 'doggerel,' as he calls it, and you've had a sample of that. But
here's a bit of the upper spirit of the man - and still another that
you should hear him recite. You can keep them both if you care to. The
boys all fell in love with that last one, particularly, hearing his
rendition of it. So we had a lot printed, and I have two or three
left. Put these two in your pocket and read at your leisure."

But I read them there and then, as eagerly, too, as I append them here
and now. The first is called -

Says He.

"Whatever the weather may be," says he -
"Whatever the weather may be,
It's plaze, if ye will, an' I'll say me say, -
Supposin' to-day was the winterest day,
Wud the weather be changing because ye cried,
Or the snow be grass were ye crucified?
The best is to make your own summer," says he,
"Whatever the weather may be," says he -
"Whatever the weather may be!

"Whatever the weather may be," says he -
"Whatever the weather may be,
It's the songs ye sing, an' the smiles ye wear,
That's a-makin' the sunshine everywhere,
An' the world of gloom is a world of glee,
Wid the bird in the bush, an' the bud in the tree,
An' the fruit on the stim of the bough," says he,
"Whatever the weather may be," says he -
"Whatever the weather may be!

"Whatever the weather may be," says he -
"Whatever the weather may be,
Ye can bring the Spring, wid its green an' gold,
An' the grass in the grove where the snow lies cold,
An' ye'll warm yer back, wid a smiling face,
As ye sit at yer heart like an owld fire-place,
An' toast the toes o' yer soul," says he,
"Whatever the weather may be," says he -
"Whatever the weather may be!"

"Now" said the Major, peering eagerly
above my shoulder, "go on with the next.
To my liking, it is even better than the first.
A type of character you'll recognize. - The
same 'broth of a boy,' only Americanized,
don't you know."

And I read the scrap entitled -


It's Chairley Burke's in town, b'ys! He's down til "Jamesy's Place,"
Wid a bran' new shave upon 'um, an' the fhwhuskers aff his face;
He's quit the Section Gang last night, and yez can chalk it down,
There's goin' to be the divil's toime, sence Chairley Burke's in

It's treatin' iv'ry b'y he is, an' poundin' on the bar
Till iv'ry man he 's drinkin' wid must shmoke a foine cigar;
An' Missus Murphy's little Kate, that's comin' there for beer,
Can't pay wan cint the bucketful, the whilst that Chairley's here!

He's joompin' oor the tops o' sthools, the both forninst an' back!
He'll lave yez pick the blessed flure, an' walk the straightest
He's liftin' barrels wid his teeth, and singin' "Garry Owen,"
Till all the house be strikin' hands, sence Chairley Burke's in

The Road-Yaird hands comes dhroppin' in, an' niver goin' back;
An' there 's two freights upon the switch - the wan on aither track -
An' Mr. Gearry, from The Shops, he's mad enough to swear,
An' durst n't spake a word but grin, the whilst that Chairley's

Oh! Chairley! Chairley! Chairley Burke! ye divil, wid yer ways
O' dhrivin' all the throubles aff, these dark an' gloomy days!
Ohone! that it's meself, wid all the griefs I have to drown,
Must lave me pick to resht a bit, sence Chairley Burke's in town!

"Before we turn back, now," said the smiling Major, as I stood
lingering over the indefinable humor of the last refrain, "before we
turn back I want to show you something eminently characteristic. Come
this way a half dozen steps."

As he spoke I looked up, to first observe that we had paused before a
handsome square brick residence, centering a beautiful smooth lawn,
its emerald only littered with the light gold of the earliest autumn
leaves. On either side of the trim walk that led up from the gate to
the carved stone ballusters of the broad piazza, with its empty easy
chairs, were graceful vases, frothing over with late blossoms, and
wreathed with laurel-looking vines; and, luxuriantly lacing the border
of the pave that turned the further corner of the house, blue, white
and crimson, pink and violet, went fading in perspective as my gaze
followed the gesture of the Major's.

"Here, come a little further. Now do you see that man there?"

Yes, I could make out a figure in the deepening dusk - the figure of a
man on the back stoop - a tired looking man, in his shirt-sleeves, who
sat upon a low chair - no, not a chair - an empty box. He was leaning
forward with his elbows on his knees, and the hands dropped limp. He
was smoking, too, I could barely see his pipe, and but for the odor of
very strong tobacco, would not have known he had a pipe. Why does the
master of the house permit his servants to so desecrate this beautiful
home? I thought.

"Well, shall we go now?" said the Major.

I turned silently and we retraced our steps. I think neither of us
spoke for the distance of a square.

"Guess you didn't know the man there on the back porch?" said the

"No; why?" I asked dubiously.

"I hardly thought you would, and besides the poor fellow's tired, and
it was best not to disturb him," said the Major.

"Why; who was it - some one I know?"

"It was Tommy."

"Oh," said I, inquiringly, "he's employed there in some capacity?"

"Yes, as master of the house."

"You don't mean it?"

"I certainly do. He owns it, and made every cent of the money that
paid for it!" said the Major proudly. "That's why I wanted you
particularly to note that 'eminent characteristic' I spoke of. Tommy
could just as well be sitting, with a fine cigar, on the front piazza
in an easy chair, as, with his dhudeen, on the back porch, on an empty
box, where every night you'll find him. Its the unconscious dropping
back into the old ways of his father, and his father's father, and his
father's father's father. In brief, he sits there the poor lorn symbol
of the long oppression of his race."

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