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General John Regan By George A. Birmingham Characters: 23270

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


At the very bottom of the main street of Ballymoy, close to the little harbour where the fishing boats nestled together in stormy weather, there is a disused mill. Corn was ground in it long ago. The farmers brought it from the country round about after the threshing was over, and the stream which now flows idly into the sea was then kept busy turning a large wheel. Since the Americans have taken to supplying Ireland with flour ready ground, bleached, and fit for immediate use, the Irish farmers have left off growing wheat. Being wise men they see no sense in toiling when other people are willing to toil instead of them. The Ballymoy mill, and many others like it, lie idle. They are slipping quietly through the gradual stages of decay and will one day become economically valuable to the country again as picturesque ruins. Few things are more attractive to tourists than ruins, and the country which possesses an abundance of them is in a fair way to grow rich easily. But it is necessary that the ruins should be properly matured. No man with an educated taste for food will eat Stilton cheese which is only half decayed. No educated tourist will take long journeys and pay hotel bills in order to look at an immature ruin. The decaying mills of Ireland have not yet reached the profitable stage of development. Their doors and windows are still boarded up. Their walls are adorned with posters instead of ivy. No aesthetic archaeologist has as yet written a book about their architecture.

The Ballymoy mill was the property of Doyle. He bought it very cheap when the previous owner, a son of the last miller, lapsed into bankruptcy. He saw no immediate prospect of making money out of it, but he was one of those men-they generally end in being moderately rich-who believe that all real property will in the end acquire a value, if only it is possessed with sufficient patience. In the meanwhile, since buildings do not eat, and so long as they remain empty are not liable for rates, the mill did not cost Doyle anything. He tried several times to organise schemes by means of which he might be able to secure a rent for the mill. When it became fashionable, eight or ten years ago, to start what are tailed "industries" in Irish provincial towns, Doyle suggested that his mill should be turned into a bacon factory. A public meeting was held with Father McCormack in the chair, and Thady Gallagher made an eloquent speech. Doyle himself offered to take shares in the new company to the amount of £5. Father McCormack, who was named as a director, also took five £1 shares. It was agreed that Doyle should be paid £30 a year for the mill. At that point the scheme broke down, mainly because no one else would take any shares at all.

A couple of years later Doyle tried again. This time he suggested a stocking manufactory. Stockings are supposed to require less capital than bacon curing, and, as worked out on paper, they promise large profits. Doyle offered the mill for £25 a year this time, and was greatly praised by Thady Gallagher in the columns of the Connacht Eagle for his patriotic self-sacrifice. Another large meeting was held, but once more the public, though enthusiastic about the scheme, failed to subscribe the capital. A great effort was made the next year to induce the Government to buy the building for a £1,000, with a view to turning it into a Technical School. A petition was signed by almost everyone in Ballymoy setting forth the hungry desire of the people for instruction in the arts of life. Several Members of Parliament asked the Chief Secretary searching questions on the subject of the Ballymoy Technical School. But the Chief Secretary declared himself quite unable to wring the money out of the Treasury. Thady Gallagher wrote articles and made speeches which ought to have caused acute discomfort to the Prime Minister. But Doyle found himself obliged to give up the idea of a Technical School. He waited hopefully. In the end, he felt sure, some way of utilising the old mill would be found. In the meanwhile the building, though unprofitable to Doyle was not entirely useless. Its walls, boarded doors and windows, formed the most excellent place for the display of advertisements. The circuses which visited the town in summer covered a great deal of space with their posters. When retiring members of the Urban District Council wanted to be re-elected they notified their desire by means of placards pasted on the walls of Doyle's mill. All public meetings were advertised there. Doyle himself made nothing out of these advertisements; but Thady Gallagher did. He printed the posters, and it was admitted by everyone that he did it very well.

Two days after his arrival in Ballymoy, Mr. Billing strolled down to the harbour. He was a man of restless and energetic disposition, but the visits which he received from Dr. O'Grady, and the speeches about Home Rule to which Gallagher subjected him, began to worry him. In order to soothe his nerves he used to spend an hour or two morning and evening looking at the fishermen who spent the day in contemplating their boats. There is nothing in the world more soothing than the study of a fisherman's life on shore. When he is at sea it is probably strenuous enough. But then he very seldom is at sea, and when he is he is out of sight. Having, so to speak, drunk deeply of the torpor of Ballymoy harbour, Mr. Billing turned his face towards the shore and looked at the wall of Doyle's mill. He was startled to find six new posters stuck on it in a row. They were all bright green. Mr. Billing read them with interest.

The announcement opened with a prayer, printed in large type:

"GOD SAVE IRELAND,"

GENERAL JOHN REGAN

This was repeated at the bottom of each poster in the Irish language, which Mr. Billing could not read. Next to the prayer, in very much larger type, came the words:

"A PUBLIC MEETING,"

Then, in quite small letters:

"WILL BE HELD ON TUESDAY NEXT AT 3 P. M.

IN THE MARKET SQUARE, OPPOSITE THE 'IMPERIAL HOTEL.'"

Mr. Billing read on and learned that Father McCormack would take the chair, that several distinguished Members of Parliament would address the meeting, that Mr. T. Gallagher, Chairman U. D. C., would also speak, and that-here the letters became immense-Mr. Horace P. Billing, of Bolivia, would give an account of the life of General John Regan, in whose honour it was proposed to erect a statue in Ballymoy.

Mr. Billing smiled. Then he turned and walked briskly to the hotel. He found Doyle and Thady Gallagher seated together on the bench outside the door. He addressed them cheerfully:

"Say, gentlemen," he said, "that doctor of yours seems to have got a move on this locality. The announcement of the meeting is a good thing, sure."

"The doctor," said Doyle, "is a fine man; but it would be better for him if he'd pay what he owes. I'm tired, so I am, of trying to get my money out of him."

"The doctor," said Gallagher, "has the good of the locality at heart, and whatever it might be that he takes in hand will be carried through. You may rely on the doctor."

Thady Gallagher had not yet been paid for printing the green posters. But he had every hope he would be when Mr. Billing handed over his subscription to the statue fund. He felt, it right to do all in his power to encourage Mr. Billing. Doyle, on the other hand, was becoming despondent. He did not like to see money which ought to be his frittered away on posters and the other necessary expenses of a public meeting. He was much less inclined to admire, the doctor's enterprise.

"I guess," said Mr. Billing, "that these Congressmen will draw some."

"If you mean the Members of Parliament," said Doyle, "the doctor told me this morning that they said they'd more to do than to be attending his meetings."

"It could be," said Gallagher hopefully, "that one of them might."

"They will not," said Doyle.

"We'll do without them," said Mr. Billing.

"That's what the doctor said to me," said Gallagher. "'We'll do without them, Thady,' said he, 'so long as we have Mr. Billing and Father McCormack and yourself,' meaning me, 'we'll have a good meeting if there never was a Member of Parliament near it.' And that's true too."

"If the doctor," said Doyle, "would pay what he owes instead of wasting his time over public meetings and statues and the like it would be better. Not that I'd say a word against the statue, or, for the matter of that, against the doctor, who's well liked in the town by all classes."

The Tuesday fixed for the meeting was a well chosen day. It was the occasion of one of the largest fairs held in Ballymoy during the year. The country people, small farmers and their wives, flock into the town whenever there is a fair. The streets are thronged with cattle lowing miserably. "Buyers," men whose business it is to carry the half-fed Connacht beasts to the fattening pastures of Meath and Kildare, assemble in large numbers and haggle over prices from early dawn till noon. No better occasion for the exploitation of a cause could possibly be chosen. And three o'clock was a very good hour. By that time the business of the fair is well over. The buying and selling is finished. But no one has gone home, and no one is more than partially drunk. It is safe to expect that everybody will welcome the entertainment that a meeting affords during the dull time which must intervene between the finishing of the day's business and the weary journey home.

The green posters were distributed far and wide. They adorned every gatepost and every wall sufficiently smooth to hold them within a circle of three miles radius around the town. There was some talk beforehand about the meeting. But on the whole the people displayed very little curiosity about General John Regan. It was taken for granted that he had been in some way associated with the cause of Irish Nationality, and one or two people professed to recollect that he had fought on the side of the Boers during the South African War. Whoever he was, the people were inclined to support the movement for erecting a statue to him by cheering anything which Thady Gallagher said. But they did not intend to support it in any other way. The Connacht farmer is like the rest of the human race in his dislike of being asked to subscribe to anything. He is superior to most other men in his capacity for resisting the pressure of the subscription list.

On the Saturday before the meeting Gallagher published a long article on the subject of the General in the Connacht Eagle. It was read, as all Gallagher's articles were, with respectful attention. Everybody expected to find out by reading it who the General was. Everyone felt, as he read it, or listened to it read aloud, that he was learning all he wanted to know, and did not discover until he came to talk the matter over afterwards with his friends that he knew no more when he had read the article than he did before.

It was not Thady Gallagher but Dr. O'Grady who wrote the article. Thady made several attempts and then gave up the matter in despair. Dr. O'Grady, though he was extremely busy at the time, had to do the writing. It was very well done, and calculated to heat to the boiling point the enthusiasm of all patriotic people. He began by praising Thomas Emmet. He passed from him to Daniel O'Connell. He recommended everyone to read John Mitchell's "Jail Journal." He described the great work done for Ireland by Charles Stewart Parnell. Then he said that General John Regan was, in his own way, at least the equal, poss

ibly the superior, of any of the patriots he had named. He wound up the composition with the statement that it was unnecessary to recapitulate the great deeds of the General, because every Irishman worthy of the name knew all about them already.

No one read the article with more eagerness and expectation than Gallagher himself. As the day of the meeting drew nearer he was becoming more and more uncomfortable about his speech. He had not been able to find out either from Doyle or from Father McCormack anything whatever about the General. He did not want much. He was a practised orator and could make a very small amount of information go a long way in a speech, but he did want something, if it was only a date to which he might attach the General's birth or death. Doyle and the priest steadily referred him to Dr. O'Grady. From Sergeant Colgan he got nothing except a guess that the General might have been one of the Fenians. Dr. O'Grady, before the appearance of the article, promised that it would contain all that anyone needed to know. After the article was published Gallagher was ashamed to ask for further information, because he did not want to confess himself an Irishman unworthy of the name.

Doyle also was dissatisfied and became actually restive after the appearance of Saturday's Connacht Eagle. He was not in the least troubled by the vagueness of the leading article. He was not one of the speakers at the meeting, and it did not matter to him whether he knew anything about General John Regan or not. What annoyed him was the publication, in the advertisement columns of the paper, of a preliminary list of subscribers. In the first place such an advertisement cost money and could only be paid for out of Mr. Billing's subscription, thus further diminishing the small balance on which he was calculating as some compensation for the irrecoverable debt owed to him by Dr. O'Grady. In the second place his name appeared on the list as a donor, not of £5, but of £10. He knew perfectly well that he would not be expected to pay any subscription, but he was vaguely annoyed at the threat of such a liability.

On Sunday afternoon he called on Dr. O'Grady.

"Wasn't it agreed," he said, "that I was to be the treasurer of the fund for putting up the statue?"

"It was," said Dr. O'Grady, "and you are the treasurer. Didn't you see your name printed in the Connacht Eagle, 'Secretary, Dr. Lucius O'Grady. Treasurer, J. Doyle'?"

"If I'm the treasurer it's no more than right that I should have some say in the way the money's being spent, for let me tell you, doctor-and I may as well speak plain when I'm at it-I'm not satisfied. I've had some correspondence with a nephew of mine who's in that line of business himself up in Dublin, and he tells me that £100 is little enough for a statue of any size. Now I'm not saying that I want to close the account with a balance in hand--"

"It's what you do want, Doyle, whether you say it or not."

"But," said Doyle ignoring this interruption, "it wouldn't suit me if there was any debt at the latter end. For it's myself would have to pay it if there was, and that's what I'd not be inclined to do. The way you're spending money on posters and advertisements there'll be very little of the American gentleman's £100 left when it comes to buying the statue."

"I see your point all right, Doyle, but--"

"If you see it," said Doyle, "I'm surprised at you going on the way you are; but, sure, I might have known that you wouldn't care how much you'd spend or how much you'd owe at the latter end. There's that £60--"

"Don't harp on about that miserable £60," said Dr. O'Grady, "for I won't stand it. Here I am doing the very best I can to make money for you, taking no end of trouble, and all you do is to come grumbling to me day after day about some beggarly account that I happen to owe you."

"It's what I don't see is how I'm going to make a penny out of it at all, the way you're going on."

"Listen to me now, Doyle. Supposing-I just say supposing-the Government was to build a pier, a new pier, in Ballymoy, who do you think would get the contract for the job?"

"I would, of course," said Doyle, "for there'd be no other man in the town fit to take it."

"And how much do you suppose you'd make out of it?"

"What's the use of talking that way?" said Doyle. "Hasn't the Government built us two piers already, and is it likely they'd build us another?"

"That's not the point. What I'm asking you is: Supposing they did build another and you got the contract for it, how much do you suppose you'd make?"

"Well," said Doyle, "if it was a good-sized pier and if the engineer they sent down to inspect the work wasn't too smart altogether I might clear £100."

"Now, suppose," said Dr. O'Grady, "that you were able to sell the stones of that old mill of yours--"

"They're good stones, so they are."

"Exactly, and you'd expect a good price for them. Now suppose you succeeded in selling them to the Government as raw material for the pier--"

"They'd be nice and handy for the work," said Doyle. "Whoever was to use those stones for building the pier would save a devil of a lot of expense in carting."

"That, of course, would be considered in fixing the price of the stones."

"It would," said Doyle. "It would have to be, for I wouldn't sell them without it was."

"Under those circumstances," said Dr. O'Grady, "what do you suppose you'd make?"

"I'd make a tidy penny," said Doyle.

"Very well. Add that tidy penny to the £100 profit on the pier contract and it seems to me that it would pay you to lose a couple of pounds-and I don't admit that you will lose a penny-over the statue business."

The mention of the statue brought Doyle back from a pleasant dream to the region of hard fact.

"What's the good of talking?" he said. "The Government will build no more piers here."

"I'm not so sure of that. If we were to get a hold of one of the real big men, say the Lord-Lieutenant, if we were to bring him down here and do him properly-flags, you know, Doyle, and the town band, and somebody with a bouquet of flowers for his wife, and somebody else-all respectable people, Doyle-with an illuminated address-and if we were all to stand round with our hats in our hands and cheer-in fact if we were to do all the things that those sort of fellows really like to see done--"

"We could have flags," said Doyle, "and we could have the town band, and we could have all the rest of what you say; but what good would they be? The Lord-Lieutenant wouldn't come to Ballymoy. It's a backward place, so it is."

"I'll get to that in a minute," said Dr. O'Grady. "But just suppose now that we had him and did all the things I say, do you think he'd refuse us a simple pier when we asked for it?"

"I don't know but he would. Hasn't the Government built two piers here already? Is it likely they'd build a third?"

"Those two piers were built years and years ago," said Dr. O'Grady. "One of them is more than ten years old this minute, and they were both built by the last Government The present Lord-Lieutenant has probably never so much as heard of them. We shouldn't go out of our way to remind him of their existence. Nobody else in Ireland will remember anything about them. We'll start talking about the new pier as if it were quite an original idea that nobody had ever heard of before. We'd get it to a certainty."

Doyle was swept away by the glorious possibilities before him.

"If so be the Lord-Lieutenant was to come, and the Lady-Lieutenant with him, and more of the lords and ladies that does be attending on them up in Dublin Castle--"

"Aides-de-camp, and people of that sort," said Dr. O'Grady. "They'd simply swarm down on us."

"There'd have to be a luncheon for them," said Doyle.

"And it would be in your hotel. I forgot about the luncheon. There'll be a pot of money to be made out of that."

"With drinks and all," said Doyle, with deep conviction. "There would. The like of them people wouldn't be contented with porter."

"Champagne," said Dr. O'Grady, "is the recognised tipple for anybody high up in the Government service. It wouldn't be respectful not to offer it."

"But he won't come," said Doyle. "What would bring him?"

"The statue will bring him."

"The statue! Talk sense, doctor. What would the like of him want to be looking at statues for? Won't he have as many as he wants in Dublin Castle, and better ones than we'd be able to show him?"

"You're missing the point, Doyle. I'm not proposing to bring him down here simply to look at a statue. I'm going to ask him to unveil it. Now as far as I know the history of Ireland-and I'm as well up in it as most men-that would be an absolutely unprecedented invitation for any Lord-Lieutenant to receive. The novelty of the thing will attract him at once. And what's more, the idea will appeal to his better nature. I needn't tell you, Doyle, that the earnest desire of every Lord-Lieutenant is to assist the material and intellectual advancement of Ireland. He's always getting opportunities of opening technical schools and industrial shows of one sort or another. They've quite ceased to attract him. But we're displaying an entirely new spirit. By erecting a public statue in a town like this we are showing that we've arrived at an advanced stage of culture. There isn't another potty little one-horse town in Ireland that has ever shown the slightest desire to set up a great and elevating work of art in its midst. You may not appreciate that aspect of the matter, Doyle, but--"

"If I was to give my opinion," said Doyle, "I'd say that statues was foolishness."

"Exactly. But the Lord-Lieutenant, when he gets our invitation will give you credit for much finer feeling. Besides he'll see that we've been studying up our past history. The name of General John Regan will mean a great deal to him although it conveys very little to you."

"It's what Thady Gallagher is always asking," said Doyle, "who was the General?"

"Gallagher ought to know," said Dr. O'Grady, "and I've told him so."

"He does not know then. Nor I don't believe Father McCormack does. Nor I don't know myself. Not that it would trouble me if there never was a General, only that you have Mary Ellen's head turned with the notion that she'll be coming into a big fortune one of these days--"

"Is she not doing her work?" said Dr. O'Grady.

"Devil the tap she's done these two days, but what she couldn't help. Not that that bothers me, for it's nothing strange. She never was one for doing much unless you stood over her and drove her into it. But what has annoyed me is the way Constable Moriarty is never out of the kitchen or the back yard. He was after her before, but he's fifty times worse since he heard the talk about her being the niece of the General. Besides the notion he has that young Kerrigan wants her, which has made him wild."

"Moriarty ought to have more sense," said Dr. O'Grady.

"He ought," said Doyle, "but he hasn't. The tunes he whistles round the house would drive you demented if so be that you listened to them; but I needn't tell you I don't do that."

"You'll have to put up with it," said Dr. O'Grady. "It won't be for very long, and you needn't mind what Mary Ellen neglects so long as she attends properly on Mr. Billing."

"She'll attend him right enough," said Doyle. "Since ever she got the notion that he was going to make a lady of her, attending on him is the one thing that she will do."

"Then you needn't bother your head about anything else."

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