THE BURIAL OF OSCAR WILDE

THE BURIAL OF OSCAR WILDE

Nobody moved.  The undertaker brushed the sleeve of his shabby frock coat.  He then looked down at his brightly polished shoes.  The mass had been over for several minutes and the coffin was still waiting at the foot of the altar to be carried out of the church.  He gave a faint cough into his gloved hand, but still no one stirred.

In the front row Siobhan Egan turned round to look at the congregation.  The village church was full to over flowing with people standing in the side aisles as well as a good number outside.

Siobhan had sat on the front row to comfort the deceased’s mother, his only living relative.  She had not been able to arrange in advance the pall bearers.  There’ would be enough people at the mass to help, she reasoned with herself.  But now the mass had ended and the priest was still waiting for pall bearers to take the coffin out of the church and up the mountain road to the cemetery. No one had come forward.  Everyone was waiting, the priest, the undertaker, the congregation.

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It was Siobhan that had found the body of the deceased just over a week ago, early on Easter Sunday morning.  She had been out walking her dog by the river when something on the opposite bank caught her eye.  At first she could not make out what it was, but as she drew nearer she saw it was the body of a man caught in the trees on the cliffs above the river.  The body dangling, arms outstretched, was almost naked and covered in blood and bruises.

‘Mother of God,’ she crossed herself and turning back towards the village hurried towards Guard Egan’s house.

The garda was adjusting his uniform in front of the mirror when he heard the knock on the door.

‘Sean, come quick.  There’s a man caught in the trees just below the Rock House.  I think he’s dead, he’s not moving.’

The garda picked up the phone and asked for an ambulance and the fire brigade.

‘Come and show me where he is.  I’ll see if I can reach him from above.  Did you recognise him?’

‘No I didn’t.  I couldn’t really see his face from that distance.’

They were soon on the edge of the rocks overlooking the river.  Siobhan pointed below.  ‘There he is, just there below that big tree covered with ivy.’

The garda carefully climbed down the first few feet of the steep slope and called up.  ‘You’re right, he doesn’t look as if he’s survived the fall.  We’ll have to wait for the others to get him, it’s a long way down and too risky without ropes and gear.  I can’t see his face, but he’s a youngish man. The clothes must have ripped of him as he fell.’

‘He must have fallen during the night.  He wasn’t here yesterday evening when I passed by.’

It took the fire brigade half an hour to arrive and a further hour for someone to reach the man.  First the fireman had to be winched down the slope and then he had to climb several branches of the tall tree in which the body was trapped.

Siobhan knew it was Patrick MacCarthy the moment she saw the body being brought up the slope and into the garden of the Rock House.  Badly bruised and bloodied, she could recognise his thin, angular features, his delicate, almost translucent skin, the thick, raven black hair.  She walked over to the ambulance as they covered his body and face with a sheet.

‘Siobhan.’  Guard Egan was now at her side.

‘Yes, Sean.’

‘Shall I tell Mrs MacCarthy, or will you?’

Siobhan turned and walked back to the car.  ‘I’ll tell her, though God alone knows how she’ll cope.  He’s all she’s got.’

‘I know, but it’s best coming from you.’

‘You’re right.  Will you drop me off, please?’

‘Course, I will.’

They drove into the village and along the road on the other side leading up into the mountain.

There’ll be a post-mortem and an inquest as well, given the circumstances.’

‘Yes, I suppose there will.’

‘And I’ll have to conduct some enquiries.’

The next day, Sean Egan visited Siobhan at her home.  He had rang her before to say he was coming and so Siobhan had prepared tea with scones and jam and cake.

‘Sean, sit there, over there besides the fire.  How do you take your tea?’

‘Strong, thanks Siobhan.’

After general conversation, Sean got pulled out his note book.  ‘Well, if you don’t mind Siobhan, I suppose we’d better get it over with.’

‘Right you are Sean.’

‘I’ve not been in the village very long so I don’t know how long the MacCarthy’s have been your neighbours’

‘Twenty six years, this March’   Siobhan stared into her cup, gently swilling the contents round.

‘I’ll never forget that day.  They came in a big van,  Mrs MacCarthy was in the passenger seat holding Patrick who was sitting on her knee.  He must have been around five and was small for his age.  He’d a large round head, at the time too big for his body.  His skin was so white and he’d big staring brown eyes with dark lashes and lips that looked as if they were painted on.  He looked so fragile, like a porcelain doll.  I took to him immediately.’

‘What happened to his father?’

‘He died in a car accident where they were living in Dublin, some months before.  So Mrs MacCarthy and Patrick moved down here.  She’d an aunt nearby and thought she could get work, washing and cleaning while she left the boy with her.  As it was, Patrick was nearly always in our house.  My mother loved having him around.  We all did.’

‘So you were quite close.’

‘Yes, we were.  I was like his older sister, always nagging him, always protecting him.  He was different from the other boys, you could see that early on.  It’s funny how men when they’re boys hate to be with girls and when they’re older can’t get enough of them.  Patrick was always with us, the girls.  He preferred our company.  The other boys would tease him about it and there’d be fights, in particular there were two who would pick on him and bully him whenever they could,  The teachers knew about it but would do nothing.  Some times Patrick would fight his own way out.  Other times his big sister, as he called me, would intervene.’

‘I suppose he didn’t like that.’

‘No, he didn’t.  He wouldn’t talk to me for days after.  He said I’d shown him up in front of the others and he preferred to fight his own battles.’

‘Why did they call him Oscar Wilde?’

Siobhan shrugged.  ‘Oh that.  Lots of people round here get nicknames, some funny some cruel.  Patrick was very good at English at school.  He entered a poem for a national competition and won first prize.  At assembly the head read out his poem and congratulated Patrick on his prize calling him, ‘Our own Oscar Wilde’.  Of course the bullies loved it and from then on he was called Oscar.  He got used to it.  He had to, he’d even turn around if someone shouted ‘Oscar’.  I suppose they were jealous that Patrick was gifted and was likely to go to university.’

‘How come he became a plasterer then?’

‘Patrick didn’t manage to get to university.  He left before his leaving cert.  There was a scandal at school.  Most of the Christian Brothers who ran the school hated Patrick, especially the sports teacher.  He would deliberately make fun of Patrick or put him in the most dangerous positions in hurley or football.  One day, some of the boys found Patrick in the changing rooms with his trousers round his ankles and one of the Brothers behind him.  There was an investigation by the school but it was all hushed up. It seems the Brother claimed that Patrick had seduced him.  He was sent away to another school and Patrick was more or less expelled.’

‘What really happened?  Did Patrick ever tell you?’

‘No, he never discussed it.  But I can’t believe that Patrick would have done it willingly.  It’s not the first time allegations like that have been made against the Brothers.’

‘You’re right, there’s more coming out about it these days.

‘So he became a plasterer.’

Siobhan got up from the table and put the kettle back on to make more tea.  ‘It was the only job he could get at first.  Later, I suppose to start a new life he moved to Dublin and eventually got into interior design.  He must have been good at it because he seemed to earn quite a lot from it.’

‘Why did he come back?’

‘His mother had a serious fall and broke her leg and so couldn’t get around.  She took a long time to heal, in fact never really has.  She can manage to get around the house with a stick but can’t really manage walking out of doors.  Patrick used to do all her shopping for her.’

‘What about relationships?’

Siobhan leant back in her chair and paused for a while.  ‘If you’re asking what I think you’re asking, I don’t honestly know.   That was his business.  He didn’t say and I didn’t ask.’

Sean looked up from his notebook and stared out of the window.  ‘Is there any reason you know why he might have taken his own life?’

‘Everyone has some time or other in their lives thought about suicide.  I don’t think Patrick was any different from anyone else.  Besides there was his mother to look after I don’t thing consciously he would have done anything to harm her.’

 

The inquest was a sombre affair.  There were few people present.  As witnesses to the discovery of the body, both the garda and Siobhan were required to give evidence.  Siobhan gave her account and answered a question to confirm that she had not seen the body there the evening before.

The questioning of the garda was more intense and took a turn the garda had not foreseen.

‘Guard Egan, the post-mortem revealed serious bruising to the body which in the opinion of the scientist had occurred several days before the man’s death.  How do you account for that?’

‘There was an incident in the village a couple of weeks ago.  Mr MacCarthy was beaten up by some of the local men outside the pub.

‘And had this incident anything to do with the death of this man?’

‘I don’t believe so, Sir.  I had examined the area above where the body was found.  The ground was soft and there was only one set of footprints which clearly belonged to the deceased.  So I can categorically rule out foul play.’

‘So he wasn’t pushed.  Did he jump or did he fall?’

‘Difficult to say, Sir.  I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and say he fell.’

After he had finished his questions, the coroner consulted his notes and summed up the case.  ‘It seems clear to me that the death of this young man was a tragic accident.  He appears to have slipped while walking late at night and fell to his death, though why he should have been out walking in that place at that late hour, heaven only knows.  Well, for the record, I’m entering, ‘Death by misadventure’.  Thank you all for coming.’

It was raining as they walked outside.  Sean asked.  ‘Can I give you a lift home, Siobhan?’

‘Thanks, Sean.  You can.  I’ve got get back to see how Mrs MacCarthy is doing.  She’ll want to know what went on.  Do you mind if we stop at the shop on the way home.  She’ll be needing a few things.’

They drove in silence for the first mile.

‘Do you really think he might have fallen?’ asked Siobhan.

‘No.  It’s very unlikely.  He would have rolled down the bank rather than have been caught up in the trees.  No, he probably jumped, but since there’s an element of doubt, I said so.  I didn’t want the coroner to record a verdict of suicide.  Mrs MacCarthy has had enough to cope with over these last few days.’

‘Thanks.  That was good of you.’

‘Who’s making all the funeral arrangements?’

‘I am.  She’s not up for it.’

After a while they arrived at Siobhan’s cottage.  ‘You’ll have some tea?’

‘Thanks, I will.’

They went inside.  Siobhan took off her coat.  I’ll just pop next door to let Mrs MacCarthy know I’m back and let her know what happened.  Will you put the kettle on and make yourself at home.  I might be ten minutes or so.’

‘Right you are.’

It was almost half and hour before Siobhan returned, meanwhile the garda had been debating whether or not he should go.

‘Sorry about that’  Siobhan said as she put the kettle back on and bustled to make the tea.  She had bought ham and was cutting sandwiches for them both.

‘How is she?’

‘I think she’s relieved with the verdict and that we can get on with the funeral arrangements.  It’ll be a very simple affair.  Patrick wasn’t a man for a fuss.’

‘Has he got any relatives elsewhere?’

‘No.  And that’s a problem as I haven’t a clue who will carry the coffin.  I’m sure someone will step forward from the congregation if needs be.’

‘Do you think many will be there?’

I expect there’ll be a crowd enough, though some will be there more out of guilt than respect.  There are those who can’t speak highly enough of him now that he’s dead and yet did little to help him when he was being beaten up.’

Sean put his cup down deliberately on the table.  “You know we wanted to investigate the incident but Patrick would give any information nor identify his attackers. When we went round the village no body would admit to seeing anything.’

‘I suspect it was those two, Tom O’Driscoll and Liam MacSweeney, though I was away in Limerick myself that weekend.”

‘I’d have said the same, but without proof or witnesses and with the victim refusing to press charges…’

‘I know, I know.  It’s not easy living in a small community and being the first to point the finger.  Besides I suppose people might fear being targeted if they inform to the police.’

‘Do you think they meant to harm him?’

‘Curiously enough, I don’t.  They were always teasing Patrick.  He’d come into the pub and they’d stand with their backs to the wall and lift their shirts.’

‘Shirtlifter!’

‘Yes.’  said Siobhan.  ‘Patrick would ignore them and walk straight past.  Sometimes there’d be a little shoving but nothing more than that.’

‘So why did Patrick get beaten?’

‘I suppose the shoving got out of hand, especially if O’Driscoll had been drinking heavily.’

The door opened and Mrs Egan, Siobhan’s mother, walked in laden with shopping.  A woman in her late seventies, although she had recently started to walk with a slight stoop, you could still see in her the once tall, slim, erect woman.

‘Good Morning, Mrs Egan.’

‘Afternoon more like, Sean.  How’s it going?’

‘Grand, thanks.’

‘And, how did the inquest go?’

‘As well as can be expected, for these things.  The verdict was; Death by misadventure.’

‘Thanks be, though I suppose the coroner stretched a point.  Have you been to see Mrs MacCarthy?’  She enquired of her daughter.

‘She’s as well as you could expect.  She’s asked me to make all the arrangements.  She doesn’t want a removal.  She wants him taken straight from the undertaker’s to the church for the mass and burial.’

‘Bad business.’  said Mrs Egan to Sean.  ‘It was those young thugs that killed him, just as sure as if they’d thrown him off the cliffs themselves.  Well, I hope they’re satisfied with what they’ve done.  They nearly killed him when they beat him up.  Is anything going to happen to them?’

Sean sighed.  ‘I’ve been explaining to Siobhan that Patrick refused to identify his attackers or press charges.  I told him it was his duty to tell, otherwise they might do it to somebody else.  He said that it was only him they were interested in.’  Sean took one last gulp of tea and stood up and straightened his uniform.  ‘Well, I’m off.  I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it to the funeral, I’m on duty.’

‘That’s alright.’ said Siobhan showing him to the door.  ‘I’m sure we’ll manage.

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The priest moved to the coffin and looked around at his congregation. Still no one stirred.

Slowly Siobhan rose from her seat.  She walked to the front of the church and stood alongside one of the handles of the coffin.  After a pause, Mary Dennehey, went to the front and stood on the opposite side.  Then one by one Moira Flaherty, Niamh O’Carroll, Susan Bates and Lizzie Kelleher came out to stand beside the coffin.  Under the instruction of the undertaker the six women of the village, lifted up the coffin and carried it up the hill to its final resting place beneath the dark mountain.