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First published in Stitches magazine, March 1996

O’Reilly expounds on the Great Wall of Ulster

Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly was rarely lost for an opinion, and not only on matters medical. Now it’s just possible that you’ve noticed during the last 25 years that there has been a touch of internecine unpleasantness going on in the North of Ireland. Although at this time of writing peace seems to have broken out over there, when I was working for O’Reilly there were nights when I began to wonder when they were going to issue the civil war with a number, like WW1 or WW2. Many great minds had done their collective best to try to come up with a solution. Alas, in vain.

After another huge bomb had remodelled another chunk of Belfast, I foolishly asked O’Reilly, over supper one evening, what he thought could be done about the Troubles.
He paused from disarticulating the roast fowl, stared at me over his half-moon spectacles and waved vaguely in my general direction with a slice of breast that was impaled on the carving fork. “Which troubles?

I toyed with my napkin, feeling a great urge to have bitten my tongue out — before I’d asked the question. It had been a busy day and Mrs. Kincaid’s roast chicken would have gone a long way to easing the hunger pangs. By the way O’Reilly had asked his question in reply, I could tell that he was ready to expound at some length, and I had a horrible suspicion that he might forget that he was meant to be carving.
“Come on, man.” He laid the fork and its toothsome burden back on the plate. “Which troubles?”
I sighed. Dinner, it seemed, was going to be late. “The Troubles. The civil war.”
He picked up the fork and expertly dislodged the slice of meat with the carving knife — dislodged it onto his own, already heaped plate. “Oh. Those troubles.”
No, Fingal. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease on Paddy Murnaghan’s farm, the civil war in Biafra, or the fact that you seem to have forgotten that locums, like gun dogs, need to be fed at least once a day. I kept my thoughts to myself. Captain Bligh and his few loyal crew members had rowed a long-boat about 2,000 miles to East Timor existing on one ship’s biscuit. Perhaps if I let O’Reilly expound for a while he might eventually see fit to toss me the odd crumb of nourishment.
A spoon disappeared into the nether end of the bird and re-appeared full of steaming sage and onion stuffing.
“Those troubles.” O’Reilly hesitated, trying to find room on his plate between the slices of breast and the roast potatoes before deciding to dump the stuffing at random on top of the pile. He replaced the spoon in the bird with the finesse of a proctologist. “Those troubles. I reckon there’s a pretty simple solution. Pass the gravy.”
I did so. “Fingal …” I tried, hoping at least to encourage him to start serving me as he held forth. Try interrupting the incoming tide in the Bay of Fundy.
“Simple. Now. You tell me: what are the three most pressing problems in Northern Ireland?” He ingested a forkful and masticated happily while waiting for my reply.
How about pellagra, scurvy, and beri-beri in underpaid, underfed junior doctors?
“Come om, come om …” His words were a little garbled. He swallowed. “Right, I’ll tell you. Unemployment, falling tourism, and the brave lads who like to make things go bang.”
I was drowning in my own saliva, watching him tuck in. He pointed at me with his fork. “The solution is a Great Wall of Ulster.”
“A what?”
“Great Wall of Ulster.” He pulled the half-carved chicken towards himself, stood, expertly dissected the remaining drumstick and laid three roast potatoes between the severed limb and the rest of the carcass. “Now look. The thigh there’s Ulster and the tatties are my wall.”
Brilliantly pictorial, I had to admit, but I really would have forgone this lesson in Political Science if a bit of his improvised Ulster or the rest of Ireland, if that was what the breast was meant to represent, could somehow have been transported to my still-empty plate.
“Now. Tourism. The tourists would come for miles to see the Great Wall.” He used the carving knife to line the tubers up more straightly. “The unemployed would have had to build it in the first place, of course.”
My unemployed stomach let go with a gurgle like the boiling mud pits of New Zealand.
“You’re excused,” said O’Reilly. “Finally,” — he squashed one of the potatoes with the spoon he’d used to help himself to stuffing — “the brave banging lads could blow it up to their hearts’ content and” — he paused and replaced the mashed spud with a fresh one —“the unemployed could be kept occupied rebuilding.” He sat beaming at me. “Told you it was simple.”
I hastened to agree, hoping that now he’d finished I might finally get something to eat.
The door opened and Mrs. Kincaid stuck her head into the dining room. “Can you come at once, Doctor Taylor? There’s been an accident.”

May 16, 2016

Troubles at the Table

First published in Stitches magazine, March 1996

O’Reilly expounds on the Great Wall of Ulster

Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly was rarely lost for an opinion, and not only on matters medical. Now it’s just possible that you’ve noticed during the last 25 years that there has been a touch of internecine unpleasantness going on in the North of Ireland. Although at this time of writing peace seems to have broken out over there, when I was working for O’Reilly there were nights when I began to wonder when they were going to issue the civil war with a number, like WW1 or WW2. Many great minds had done their collective best to try to come up with a solution. Alas, in vain.

After another huge bomb had remodelled another chunk of Belfast, I foolishly asked O’Reilly, over supper one evening, what he thought could be done about the Troubles.
He paused from disarticulating the roast fowl, stared at me over his half-moon spectacles and waved vaguely in my general direction with a slice of breast that was impaled on the carving fork. “Which troubles?

I toyed with my napkin, feeling a great urge to have bitten my tongue out — before I’d asked the question. It had been a busy day and Mrs. Kincaid’s roast chicken would have gone a long way to easing the hunger pangs. By the way O’Reilly had asked his question in reply, I could tell that he was ready to expound at some length, and I had a horrible suspicion that he might forget that he was meant to be carving.
“Come on, man.” He laid the fork and its toothsome burden back on the plate. “Which troubles?”
I sighed. Dinner, it seemed, was going to be late. “The Troubles. The civil war.”
He picked up the fork and expertly dislodged the slice of meat with the carving knife — dislodged it onto his own, already heaped plate. “Oh. Those troubles.”
No, Fingal. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease on Paddy Murnaghan’s farm, the civil war in Biafra, or the fact that you seem to have forgotten that locums, like gun dogs, need to be fed at least once a day. I kept my thoughts to myself. Captain Bligh and his few loyal crew members had rowed a long-boat about 2,000 miles to East Timor existing on one ship’s biscuit. Perhaps if I let O’Reilly expound for a while he might eventually see fit to toss me the odd crumb of nourishment.
A spoon disappeared into the nether end of the bird and re-appeared full of steaming sage and onion stuffing.
“Those troubles.” O’Reilly hesitated, trying to find room on his plate between the slices of breast and the roast potatoes before deciding to dump the stuffing at random on top of the pile. He replaced the spoon in the bird with the finesse of a proctologist. “Those troubles. I reckon there’s a pretty simple solution. Pass the gravy.”
I did so. “Fingal …” I tried, hoping at least to encourage him to start serving me as he held forth. Try interrupting the incoming tide in the Bay of Fundy.
“Simple. Now. You tell me: what are the three most pressing problems in Northern Ireland?” He ingested a forkful and masticated happily while waiting for my reply.
How about pellagra, scurvy, and beri-beri in underpaid, underfed junior doctors?
“Come om, come om …” His words were a little garbled. He swallowed. “Right, I’ll tell you. Unemployment, falling tourism, and the brave lads who like to make things go bang.”
I was drowning in my own saliva, watching him tuck in. He pointed at me with his fork. “The solution is a Great Wall of Ulster.”
“A what?”
“Great Wall of Ulster.” He pulled the half-carved chicken towards himself, stood, expertly dissected the remaining drumstick and laid three roast potatoes between the severed limb and the rest of the carcass. “Now look. The thigh there’s Ulster and the tatties are my wall.”
Brilliantly pictorial, I had to admit, but I really would have forgone this lesson in Political Science if a bit of his improvised Ulster or the rest of Ireland, if that was what the breast was meant to represent, could somehow have been transported to my still-empty plate.
“Now. Tourism. The tourists would come for miles to see the Great Wall.” He used the carving knife to line the tubers up more straightly. “The unemployed would have had to build it in the first place, of course.”
My unemployed stomach let go with a gurgle like the boiling mud pits of New Zealand.
“You’re excused,” said O’Reilly. “Finally,” — he squashed one of the potatoes with the spoon he’d used to help himself to stuffing — “the brave banging lads could blow it …

May 16, 2016

Anatomy Lesson

Doctor O’Reilly was a keen sportsman. I think I’ve remarked previously that he was an ex-boxing champion. He’d also played a fair bit of rugby football in his youth. I found out about his interest in rugby one weekend in January. Ireland was to play Scotland at Landsdowne Road in Dublin. To my great pleasure, O’Reilly invited me to accompany him to the match. He would provide the transportation and tickets, and would pay for my hotel room on the night before the match.
The drive to Dublin was uneventful and we checked into the Gresham Hotel. I’d barely begun to unpack my bag when there was a knocking at my door. I opened it. There stood O’Reilly, grinning from ear to ear. “Do you fancy a jar?”
It is, I’m told, possible, just possible, for an entertainer to decline the Royal Command to appear at the London Palladium. It was not possible, not remotely possible, for anyone to turn down O’Reilly’s invitation for a drink.
“Right,” I said, with all the enthusiasm that must be evinced by the prisoner on death row when the chaplain sticks his head round the cell door. I’ll say one thing for convicted American murderers: the electric chair is reputed to be very fast. Their suffering is over quickly. I’d been with Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly in full cry on his home turf and had lived, barely, to regret it. What he might be like when he was truly off the leash didn’t bear thinking about. Oh well. My life insurance was paid up. “I’d love one. Where to?”
He winked, a great conspiratorial wink. “Usually the rugby crowd goes to Davy Byrne’s, but I thought we might take a wee wander to The Stag’s Head at the back of Grafton St.
“Do you know how to get there?” I asked, knowing that when O’Reilly was ready for his tot, depriving him of it for long could produce the same effects as poking an alligator in the eye with a blunt stick.
“Of course. Didn’t I go to medical school here, at Trinity College?”
That was something I hadn’t known. Those of us who were graduates of Queen’s University Belfast referred disdainfully to Trinity as “that veterinary college in Dublin.” It was unfair to a fine school, but there was a rivalry between Queen’s and the other place. The picture of the enraged alligator popped into my mind and I decided not to mention my lack of respect for his old Alma Mater. “Silly of me.” I said. “Lead on, Fingal.”
And away we went, just like the caissons, over hill over dale.
Now Dublin isn’t that big a city, it just seemed big after about two hours of walking. O’Reilly was becoming just a tad irritable if the pallor of his nose tip was anything to go by.
“Jasus,” he remarked, as we found ourselves at the end of yet another publess cul-de-sac, “I’d have sworn it was down here.”
I coughed. “Should we maybe ask directions?”
I imagine Capt. Oates would have received the same kind of look from Robert Scott that O’Reilly hurled at me if the gallant gentleman had asked the same question on the way back from the South Pole. Frosty — very frosty.
“Not at all,” O’Reilly countered, making an about-turn on the march and heading back towards the main thoroughfare. “I know this place like the back of my hand.”
I took little comfort from that statement. He had both hands in his trouser pockets.
Dusk was falling as we trudged along Grafton St. for the umpteenth time. O’Reilly was never one to admit defeat gracefully, but his internal drought, which by then was probably on a par with the drier reaches of the Sahara, finally got the better of him.
A grubby youth was washing a shop-front window or, to be more accurate, redistributing the streaks of city grime. O’Reilly tapped him on the shoulder. The youth turned.“My good man,” O’Reilly asked in the tones that he reserved for lesser mortals, “do you know where The Stag’s Head is?”
The Dubliner wasn’t one bit overawed, neither by O’Reilly’s size nor his overweening manner. He gave O’Reilly a pitying look and said with an absolutely straight face, “Do I know where The Stag’s Head is? Of course I do — it’s about six feet from its arse.”
I thought O’Reilly was going to explode, but instead he collapsed in peals of helpless laughter.
We did eventually find the pub in question. The irony was that just kitty-corner from it was another pub, The Vincent Van Gogh which, believe it or not, is known to the locals as The Stag’s Arse. The Dublin lad hadn’t even been trying to be funny.…