By Gerry McCullough

I looked up doubtfully at the hazy sky and wondered what sort of day it was going to be.

I had only a few days’ holiday to spend at the little whitewashed cottage I’d inherited from my grandparents in the small Donegal village of Ardnakil, and I was hoping that the weather, which had been very pleasant up until now, wasn’t going to break.

It was late autumn, but the last few weeks had been more like summer.

Deciding to chance it, I strolled out as I was, and wandered through the fields and lanes. Presently I heard a melodious whistling and realised with pleasure that it must be my old friend Seamus O’Hare.

I’d known Seamus since my childhood when I came up to visit my grandparents, and Seamus had taught me country lore, how to tell a chaffinch from a wagtail and a larch tree from a beech.

I walked on and rounded a corner of the lane. There he was, strolling along, his disreputable old pipe in one hand and his old hat crammed down on his white curly hair.

‘Gerry!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’m glad to see you, boy! Are you going my way?’ ‘I can go whichever way you like, Seamus,’ I said obligingly, falling into step beside him. ‘I’m just out to enjoy a walk with no special object in view.’

‘Hasn’t the weather been perfect?’ Seamus asked, his engaging smile lighting up his wrinkled, weather beaten old face. ‘Especially for so late in the year, when summer’s well over. Sure, it would lift your heart up just to see the sun so bright every day.’

And sure enough, the sun had come beaming out from behind the hazy clouds just as we met up, to bring a heartful of happiness with it. We walked on in contentment and presently we came in sight of the river, flowing smoothly along, its waters gleaming with silver ripples in the light of the sunshine.

‘It’s the sort of day,’ Seamus said, puffing his pipe contentedly, ‘when you want to take your girl by the hand and stroll off into the distance, sit down on the grass beneath a tree and share a picnic while you chat.’

I gave him a quizzical look. ‘And is that what you used to do on days like these, Seamus?’ I asked him, smiling. ‘Ah, well, once in a while and a long time ago, Gerry,’ he answered me, smiling in his turn.

‘I’ve some happy memories of that sort of thing. But my friend Paddy Doyle, now, his experience was different.’

‘And are you going to tell me about it, Seamus?’ ‘Let’s sit down, ourselves, under this tree by the side of the river, Gerry, and I’ll do that.’

And when we were comfortably seated on the grassy bank beneath a flourishing ash tree which dropped the occasional leaf on our heads, Seamus began his story.

Paddy was a bit of a joker. He was a big, happy-go-lucky sort of a fella, and most people liked him – except some who had no sense of humour and weren’t very pleased with the tricks he played on them.

At the time I’m speaking of, Paddy was going out with a bright young red haired girl by the name of Maureen O’Flynn.

Maureen was a lovely lass and could have had her pick of all the local fellas, but it seemed as if her heart was set on Paddy. And as for Paddy himself, he wasn’t without his own admirers, being a fine upstanding young man with fair curly hair and a beaming smile. But there was no one but Maureen for him.

It was a warm, sunny, autumn day, much like today, when Paddy and Maureen went for a stroll and a picnic along the river banks, and at first all went, as the poet says, ‘as merrily as a wedding bell.’

In fact, as Maureen sat leaning her cheek against Paddy’s broad shoulder, she was thinking of wedding bells herself, and wondering if Paddy would choose this opportunity to ask her to name the day. But, alas, Paddy had other thoughts in his mind right then.

‘Isn’t this lovely, Paddy dear?’ sighed Maureen. ‘Indeed it is, Maureen,’ Paddy replied.

Then, seizing his chance as a leaf floated down from the huge chestnut tree above them and touched Maureen gently on her right cheek, he exclaimed, ‘Oh! For dear sakes, Maureen, look out! It’s a snake!’

And at the same moment he threw down a withered branch of a tree, which he’d picked up and hidden behind his back a few moments before they sat down, right at Maureen’s feet.

‘Ow!’ shouted Maureen, leaping up and shrieking loud enough to be heard in Millerstown. ‘Paddy, Paddy, save me!’

Then as she tried to escape from the ‘snake’ she tripped over Paddy’s feet, which I have to admit were on the outsize side, and went plunging and shouting over the edge of the river bank and straight into the water.

Well, Paddy’s joke had gone off even better than he had hoped, and he stood on the bank and roared with laughter as Maureen, dripping wet and furious, stood up in the water, which at that point was shallow enough to be no danger, and came only to her knees.

‘Maureen, Maureen, you’ll be the death of me!’ exclaimed Paddy. ‘Don’t you know that the holy Saint Patrick threw all the snakes out of our blessed Ireland over fifteen hundred years ago?’ And he brandished the piece of wood he’d used to trick Maureen.

But Maureen, whose best clothes and new sandals were, she thought, probably ruined, wasn’t in any mood to laugh. Ignoring Paddy’s outstretched hand, she scrambled out of the river by herself, and stalked off in the direction of home and dry clothes, saying only, as she left, ‘Don’t you ever dare to speak to me again, Paddy Doyle! You’re a disgrace to Irish manhood!’

Paddy’s jaw dropped. He stood, gazing after her, unable to believe his ears. Sure, it had been a very funny joke, hadn’t it? Ach, Maureen would get over it in a short while and be ready to laugh along with him. But the days went past, and Maureen showed no sign of getting over it. When she and Paddy accidently met in the village street she swept past him with her nose in the air, leaving poor Paddy gaping after her helplessly.

In the end, he did what so many of my young friends have done, he came to me for help. ‘What am I going to do, Seamus?’ he asked when he had told me the story. ‘I still love her, even if she has no sense of humour. What am I going to do?’ But for once I was at a loss.

‘Paddy, you’ve dug yourself a hole and fallen in,’ I told him. ‘As far as I can see, you can only wait for Time the Great Healer to soften Maureen’s heart towards you.’

But this was small consolation for Paddy, who like all youngsters had no desire to wait for anything. But as it happened, only the next night young Maureen O’Flynn also called at my cottage. ‘Seamus, please help me!’ she begged.

And then the same story came tumbling out, but from Maureen’s angle, and I heard all about how she’d been full of romantic thoughts and expecting Paddy to speak when he spoiled everything with his silly joke.

‘I can’t go through my life, Seamus, having everything spoilt by Paddy playing a silly trick at the most romantic moments,’ she said, with the tears starting up in her eyes. ‘Can’t you help me?’ I sat gazing into the turf fire and smelling the aroma of the smoking turf, and then I said, ‘You know what, Maureen, I think I might have an idea. Now, listen.’

And Maureen listened, and then she smiled, and then she laughed. A few days later Paddy Doyle was called to the door of his cottage by the rap of the postman. ‘Parcel for you, Paddy,’ wee Andy Devlin, the postman, said. ‘Sign here.’

Paddy, who wasn’t expecting anything, signed, and then stood turning the parcel round in his hands for a few moments before opening it.

His face brightened suddenly as he saw the sender’s name on the back in large bold printing. Maureen O’Flynn, 42 Millpond Lane, Ardnakil. Was Maureen wanting to make it up, then, that she was sending him a present? Had she realised that his joke had been both funny and harmless? He hadn’t expected her to fall into the river, after all! He tore the parcel open eagerly, peeling off the brown paper. Inside were more wrappings, newspaper this time.

Tearing them off, Paddy came to a box sealed with a large amount of cellotape. He ran for a knife and cut through the worst of it.

Finally he was able to open the box, and found that it was full of cotton wool. Eagerly Paddy pulled off the cotton wool. There, staring up at him, was an enormous spider, black and ominous looking, with a notice beside it – ‘Tarantula – beware! Dangerous!’

With a howl, Paddy hurled the box from him and raced out of his cottage. He had run about a hundred yards down the road when Maureen O’Flynn stepped out from the hedge into his way and said sweetly, ‘Why, Paddy, don’t you know there are no tarantulas in Ireland?’ Paddy skidded to a halt. His visual memory of the spider came flooding back. Suddenly he realised that the insect which had frightened him so much has been an imitation, made of rubber, and nothing else. I’ll say this for Paddy, he could take a joke as well as play one. It only took him a minute to recover.

‘Maureen, Maureen, you’ll be the death of me!’ he said, putting his arms round her. ‘I knew you had a great sense of humour all along!’

‘Yes, well, that’s all right, Paddy Doyle,’ said Maureen severely – not making any attempt to wriggle out of his arms, however. ‘But maybe now you understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of one of your funny jokes. Not too great, is it?’

And Paddy had to admit that it wasn’t. ‘Maureen, you had me scared out of my wits!’ he admitted generously. ‘I hadn’t time to think how unlikely it would be to find a tarantula in Ireland, any more than you had time to think about St. Patrick driving out the snakes. I’m sorry, love – I shouldn’t have done it. And I certainly never expected you to fall into the river!’

‘Yes, well, that’ll be enough about that, Paddy,’ said Maureen, whose dignity had suffered as much as her clothes from her unexpected bath.

‘We’ll not discuss that any more, if you don’t mind. All I want from you, Paddy Doyle, is a promise that you’ll never play a trick like that on me again. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in fear that you’ve got something up your sleeve for me every time I open a present.’

Paddy only heard one thing. ‘Spend the rest of your life!’ he exclaimed joyously. ‘Maureen, do you mean it? Will you?’ ‘Only if I have your promise, Paddy.’ ‘Ach, Maureen, of course you have it,’ Paddy murmured as he put him arms round her more tightly and kissed her.

And certainly the ring he bought her the next day was no joke, for it cost Paddy most of his savings, and it was as well he had his parents house, left to him some years ago, to take Maureen to. He only asked for one thing. ‘Maureen,’ he said anxiously, ‘Can I play tricks on other people as long as I don’t play any on you?’ ‘Sure you can, Paddy!’ Maureen said generously. ‘And I tell you what, I’ll make a promise, too. I won’t play any tricks on you, as long as I can play them on other people.

For, Paddy, just as you saw how awful it was to be on the receiving end, I saw for myself how much fun it was to be the one playing the tricks, and I don’t think I’m planning to stop now!’ And she was as good as her word. Neither Paddy nor Maureen played any tricks on each other, but they played plenty on other people, so that the name of Doyle became famous the length and breadth of the county for joking. Especially when Maureen’s name was Doyle as well as Paddy’s – which it became in a very short time afterwards. 

Original writing every week in Ireland’s Own