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.”
“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.”