The Game of Sean McTeague

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Sean McTeague was the sort of fellow who used righteous anger for everyday occasions. Had he lived in epic times, Sean McTeague certainly would have been an epic hero…or perhaps an epic villain. The trouble with epic times is that the difference between heroes and villains is sometimes rather vague. Take Achilles, for example–a more sorry excuse for a human being has never lived. One treasures the knowledge of his heel and waits with bated breath for the moment when someone will have the inspiration to tap the blighter’s hamstring.

Sean McTeague knew nothing of Achilles beyond Achilles Clark who owned The Blue Boar. No one knew why it was called The Blue Boar, and no one knew why its owner was named Achilles. But everyone knew that Sean McTeague had broken many chairs and shattered the big mirror behind the bar one Saturday night because Achilles Clark had laughed at the Protestant minister. The Protestant minister had not minded, and the Protestants of the parish had not minded, and Achilles Clark had not minded…at least, not until Sean McTeague had come into The Blue Boar with all the energy of the avenging angel to right the slight against Mr. Josiah Phiddlegree.

The indomitable McTeague was always busting and breaking things or people as his passionate rages inclined him. It was said that if Sean McTeague had ever married, his wife would have given up the ghost before the ceremony was over–provided, of course, that she would even have made it to the altar. Popular belief held that Sean McTeague would have conceived some insidiousness in his own bride at the church door and would not have rested until he had struck her up the side of the head with a hymnal or two. No one knows what Mr. Josiah Phiddlegree would have done in such an eventuality; though many suspected he would have cowered in among the pews, praying with all his heart and soul that the disciplinarian bridegroom would not extend the chastisement to innocent bystanders. Mr. Josiah Phiddlegree was not a cowardly man, but perhaps he did pray once or twice that Sean McTeague would go to the little church in the glen. And perhaps Mr. Josiah Phiddlegree prayed nightly that Sean McTeague would never take it into his head to marry one of his young Phiddlegree daughters. Mercy and Patience, those thin-faced, frightened little women with their mousy hair and dull gray eyes, turned pale at the very name of McTeague and were thought to hide in the closet when the mighty step was heard outside the front door.

Sean McTeague had never married, so gossip could do what it would with its visions of nuptial bliss in the house of McTeague.

Sean McTeague had a sister; she was a tall, broad, mannish type of woman, with a red face, red hands, hair that was gray from the moment of her birth, and a perpetually sour expression. The idea that stoutness is a sign of interior jollity had never been communicated to Sally McTeague. She was as dour as they come, and liked nothing more than to frighten the little children who came to peek in at the windows and see if Sean McTeague really did belabor his sister with a chair of a Sunday evening. Whether he did or not is beyond our ken–the thought of the spinster McTeague at the kitchen door with an old stone rolling pin with a nasty-looking chip in one end raised preparatory for projectile assault has hindered our search for knowledge in that quarter.

If Sally McTeague was formidable in her vast ugliness (and she was), her brother was fiercely unprepossessing. He was tall and broad and heavy-looking, with a scowling face ready to be full of violent displeasure at a moment’s notice, tiny black eyes, and rough, damp, fleshy skin. If Sean McTeague could be brought to do anything gently, his gentle touch would fright life back into a corpse, so clammy and deathlike would be his fingers.

But nothing was as striking as Sean McTeague’s hair–not even his fists, and those were rather prone to striking. Sean McTeague had a head of slovenly flaxen tufts that neither curled nor flowed. No, the hair of Sean McTeague seemed to know it was fated to be attached to the head of a violent man, and so stood on end as if anticipating the transference of that violence to itself. At the time of our story, Sean McTeague had never yet visited divine wrath upon his personal display of cranial filamentous outgrowth, but popular opinion was yet wistfully hopeful.

The hair of Sean McTeague was in particularly unruly form on the night when he murdered old Father Gregory, the Catholic priest from the parish of St. Brigid.

The night in question was well-suited to murder. The sky, which was full of intense, angry-looking stars, seemed abnormally black. There was a lusty breeze blowing with unruly energy through the trees and making the dancing branches contrast unpleasantly with the stolid and staid severity of the sky. Being proper Irishmen, the assembled company found many dark forebodings in the weather and nary a pleasant one.

Someone said a gale was sure to come. Another shook his head and said the strangeness of the night meant a death, surely. A third, with only partial sarcasm (for he was well in drink), spoke of ghosts and changelings (and was considered a local authority on the existence of the former, having a ghost in his family on his mother’s side), of the pooka and the banshee, and so frightened young Jessie Moore (who should have been home long ago, and whose parents would have been angered to learn how she had been flirting with Flory Gills for the last half hour) that she had to be coaxed home by many a promise of manly protection.

Now Sean McTeague was in The Blue Boar that night–drinking heavily and growling darkly and looking as if he were simply waiting for a fight. His hair stood out starkly from his head, all in different directions, like the uncombed mane of a particularly scruffy lion.

“What’sth’s?” he demanded, slurring, of the butcher Jamie O’Donnell. “What’sth’s?”

Since Jamie had no idea what “th’s” could be, and as Jamie was more than a little afraid of Sean McTeague, he simply tried to look attentive and avoided making an answer. Sean McTeague needed none.

“Th’bldy old bugg’r!” roared Sean McTeague to the world in general.

“He’s an old man,” began a quiet, well-dressed man at the other end of the bar (both his careful Oxford accents and his foolhardiness in interposing such a comment when the rage of Sean McTeague was waxing hot declaring the well-dressed man to be a stranger to the village).

“N’old man!” burst out Sean McTeague, his eyes blazing and bulging until they looked as if they might pop right out and bounce along the bar to smite the upstart stranger upon the nose, “S’old’s th’ de’il! And th’ JUST MAN (at these words, uttered in emphatic capitals if ever words were so spoken, Sean McTeague tapped himself powerfully on the chest) sh’ll CRUSH (more emphatic capitals, so that poor Jamie O’Donnell’s hearing would never be the same) th’wick’d!”

And so Sean McTeague drained his beer to the bottom, slammed the glass down so violently that glasses shattered all along the bar, and demanded another drink. Achilles Clark served it to him.

If you have ever been so fortunate as to journey to the United States of America (a very vast and wondrous land, as we understand), and if you have ever ventured into the city called Chicago (which is, we have been told, a wild and unlawful place full of gangsters and ruffians), you may have come across a public house of certain notoriety run by a bartender of an even more definitive notoriety. The man in question is of the name Michael Finn (known by some as “Mickey Finn”), and he is well-known for the distribution of certain drinks that have the power of leveling a man better than a well-aimed left hook.

We know nothing of Michael Finn from our personal experience, of course, but one hears talk.

Well, Michael Finn was not present in The Blue Boar that night, but many believe his spirit entered into the body of one man present, and so inspired that man to make a merry imposition between the drink of Sean McTeague and the throat of Sean McTeague.

Perhaps we saw the hand that passed over the glasses. Perhaps we saw what was dropped into one of them. Perhaps we watched Sean McTeague drink that certain glass. And perhaps we watched the merry eyes of Achilles Clark shining even more brightly than usual.

But then, to say so might be to spread wicked slander. So we shall smile knowingly about the drink drunk by Sean McTeague on that fateful day, and tell you nothing at all about it.

Sean McTeague left The Blue Boar with an uncertain step, but his tread became increasingly resolute as he made his way down the lane towards the church of St. Brigid.

St. Brigid’s Church nestles in the glen beside the old village. There is a long, shady lane that leads to the church, and sometimes the thick growth of vine upon the trees and the old stone wall (one of a legion on this island) opens to show the wild, overgrown glen in all of its unruly glory. It was in one such opening that Sean McTeague crouched, awaiting his victim. The raucous breeze that had so held the fancy of the patrons of The Blue Boar suddenly died down, as if the world itself waited with bated breath for the game of Sean McTeague to approach.

Down the lane came the old man–an old man with an awkward limp and wrinkled, kindly face in which two bright blue eyes often twinkled. The old priest walked slowly and cautiously, as if he considered each step, weighing it in the balance of all worldly and spiritual considerations, and passing judgment before lifting his foot to proceed further.

As he passed before the place where Sean McTeague was hidden, the murderer could hear the old man murmuring an ancient Latin prayer over and over, as if he were afraid of forgetting the words.

The undergrowth parted with sudden violence as the righteous anger of Sean McTeague burst forth.

Down came the right fist of Sean McTeague on the head of the old priest. Father Gregory fell to the ground without crying out, for the force of the blow had knocked speech right out of him.

Down came the left fist of Sean McTeague. There was a heavy stone clasped in it, and this came sharply against the old priest’s head. And then the blows rained down in rapid succession upon the priest’s shoulders, back, arms, head, and face.

The old priest clung to the attacker’s leg, and cried out, finally, piteously, upon the name of the Blessed Mother. Sean McTeague wrestled and clutched, clawed and grappled, raining blow upon blow down onto the head of old Father Gregory. Blood was pouring from his broken forehead, rushing down his face to obstruct his aged vision, but still the old priest held fast. In the midst of the violent uproar, his piteous voice gasped out a broken Ave.

Thrusting him away into the revelatory starkness of impious moonlight, Sean McTeague summoned all of the righteous anger of his soul against the priest, and struck Father Gregory down.

 

The moon pressed down upon the glen beside the lane that leads to the church of St. Brigid’s, illuminating the scene with an eerie intensity. Sean McTeague bent over the bloody corpse of old Father Gregory.

And as he bent over that fearful sight, the sound of an approaching multitude came upon him. He gazed up and saw a host of enchanted souls, venturing forth from Tir-na-n-Og, the land of youth, to look upon the bloody murderer and his silent victim. Trooping fairies in caps and jackets sewn of leaves and flower petals, changelings in clothes stolen from neglected washtubs, leprechauns with eyes shining with the lustre of hidden gold, the gamester Far Darrig in his red coat and his red hat and that animal spirit the Púca, his smile fey and his garments wondrously woven from darkness and cobwebs–all gathered there to commence unruly revels.

The little fairies trooped about Sean McTeague, gazing with callous curiosity upon the body of the dead man, indifferent to the murderer’s incongruous presence in the midst of their gathering. They could not be fully ignorant of his existence, for a little changeling boy stopped in his merry frolic to pull a vicious face at the interloper, extending a blue tongue and rapidly blinking wide blue eyes. Sean McTeague, mighty Sean McTeague, cringed from the ugly face of the little changeling as if it had been the giant and he himself the slight, elfin figure.

From among the throng of playful spirits, Far Darrig, the little prankster in his red coat and his red hat, appeared at Sean McTeague’s side, and with a vicious sneer, sang out:

“Cease, cease, with your drumming,
Here’s an end to our mumming;
By my smell
I can tell
A priest this way is coming!”

Then the glen erupted with the cruel mirth of the fairies. Some cheered, some danced, and all laughed in the face of Sean McTeague who stood, still and cold as stone, with the blood of Father Gregory still wet upon his hands. As the uproar grew wilder, the little changeling boy with the blue tongue and blue eyes called upon the taidhbhse, the dead who haunt the living, to join them in the frenzied rush of the dance. Sean McTeague, quaking with fear, buried his face in blood-stained hands.

A violent thunderclap stilled the clearing. The fairies, halted in their dance, gazed heavenward with so great a look of terror that no man could have brought Sean McTeague to look towards the sky. The red-gloved hand of the Far Darrig grasped the wild locks of the mane of Sean McTeague and forced his face upward.

The sky was ablaze with riotous flames. The fairy spirits vanished in a flash; fire was their only true fear, and they left the blood-stained Sean McTeague to gaze up upon the fiery spectacle. In the midst of the fire stood a lady, and she shone more brightly than the flames that surrounded her. Burning, yet not consumed.

The lady was tall and dark, a black-haired Irish beauty with flashing dark eyes and a blood-red, unsmiling mouth. In the unwavering severity of her gaze, a horrible, haunting sadness lurked–and yet it was not like a haunting, for ghosts vanish in the air, and the lady seemed to become more fully present with every moment, and every blinding flash of light. Indeed, so steadfast was that look that Sean McTeague thought, frightened, that the stern implacability of the stars had been absorbed into her eyes and now bent the full force of their relentless light even into the darkest corners of his secret soul.

“Go!” cried Sean McTeague. “Go fr’me!”

The lady did not respond. Perhaps she shook her head. Perhaps she sighed. Perhaps she seemed more angry and more beautiful than before.

“Mercy!” wept the cringing man, cowering upon the ground beside his victim, as if he would even crawl beneath the mutilated body to flee the penetrating radiance of the lady in her terrible beauty.

The light shone ever more brightly from these eyes, and in the blinding and overwhelming force of that radiance, Sean McTeague cried out in bewilderment and fear, covering his eyes with his hands and still weeping his passionate prayer that the terrible beauty might go from him.

The light dimmed as if some shadow had passed between Sean McTeague and the horrible light.

“My son… ?”

The voice came like a ghostly echo from a distant land. Who spoke? Who was being called from so far away?

“My son… ?”

The voice was closer. But who was being called?

“Are you all right, my son?”

And the voice was upon him.

Sean McTeague awoke to the broad daylight. He was in a field, lying amidst the grass upon a hard stone slab, and with a little beetle crawling with perverse determination up his arm.

A man was bending over him–an old man, with an awkward limp and a wrinkled, kindly face in which two bright blue eyes shone with concerned interest. Those eyes might smile, and did smile often, but they were sometimes anxious. They were anxious as they gazed upon the prostrate figure of Sean McTeague.

“Will you take some water?” asked the old priest. “Shall I carry you to my home where I can care for you?”

The idea of the frail old man laboring under the load of the mighty Sean McTeague was highly comical, but Sean McTeague did not laugh. The tears were streaming down his face, as if carried over from his frenzied dream. He struggled to answer old Father Gregory.

“Are… are y’not… dead?” asked Sean McTeague.

“No,” said the priest with great seriousness and a wrinkled brow. “I am not dead. Nor are you.”

“Not dead,” repeated Sean McTeague, marveling. Then a thought came to him. He looked about him, a little frightened. “Is this Tir-na-n-Og, then?” he asked in an awestruck voice.

“‘Tis not,” said old Father Gregory, “This is th’ graveyard of th’ old church of Saint Mary Virgin. You lie upon the grave of th’ wicked miller of the glen. Many years ago he murthered an old priest in th’ lane. People say that th’ old miller haunts this place and that th’ fairies come here of a moonlit night.” Then the priest smiled. “But this field is sacred to our Holy Mother and she protects it.”

The sight that then followed would have startled even those who believe in fairies and swear they have seen the leprechauns.

Sean McTeague knelt on the ground before the astonished little old man, and kissed his aged hand.

Sean McTeague is the sort of fellow who keeps his temper in the village and sings with lusty devotion any hymn that comes his way. When a self-important stranger comes into the pub (as happens sometimes) and scoffs at our tales of fairies and ghosts, Sean McTeague, with nearly unruffled calm, insists that the enchanted folk have not yet forsaken Ireland. He now attends St. Brigid’s, to the immense relief of Mr. Josiah Phiddlegree and his thin-faced daughters, Mercy and Patience.

Sean McTeague is often seen wandering in the fields with old Father Gregory at his side. He listens to the old priest and marvels at his wisdom, and is heard to quote the simple sayings of the little man with as much reverence as if he had been a great and learned bishop. Sally McTeague smiles upon the children now, and gives them fresh bread straight from the oven so that their hands are toasted at the very touch. Achilles Clark laughs riotously at the mention of Sean McTeague and tells stories of their early encounters with so many exaggerations that by this time the tale involves the destruction of no less than six buildings and the slaughter of a legion of livestock. And if the eyes of Achilles Clark twinkle mischievously when the mysterious alteration in the character of Sean McTeague is discussed . . . well, who are we to say anything about that?

Sean McTeague often goes to the field beside the house of old Father Gregory and kneels before the gravestone of the old miller of the glen. And sometimes, late in the evening, he goes out into the darkness of the field to look for a beautiful lady.

At least, that is what people say. And we are inclined to believe gossip in this instance.

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