Johnny Igoe, Spellbinder Remembered by Tom Sheehan

My grandfather Johnny Igoe was a little Irish man. He stood a mere 5’ 6” but was a giant to me when his poetic voice rolled across the lamp-lit porch floor. He always wore a felt hat, a white beard, and often a pair of bicycle clips on his pant legs in the later years so he wouldn’t trip himself. His blue eyes were excavations, deep, and musical, caught up in other places you could tell, places where poems rang or memories, old names, old faces, the geography of mankind. They held places he had left and feared he’d never to get back to. Each of his canes knew the back of your knees, the rump, in a grab at attention. Older townsfolk, walking by, talked to him at the open kitchen window, the curl of pipe smoke rising between them, while grandma was at her oven, her room full of breads and sweets.

On our summer porch at night, the fireflies hustling about in the near fields, my grandfather read William B.Yeats to me when I was a youngster. He rocked in his chair, smoking his pipe, making music and rhythm in his life, and in mine. I was, at the first of Yeats, about six years old.

“Listen,” he’d say, pointing his finger up. “Hear the music. Know the sound. Feel the grab.”

Johnny Igoe, spellbinder remembered.

On that porch on Main Street, a mere mile out of Saugus Center, he and Yeats holding forth, his voice would roll into the field where fireflies lived and where Chuckie Shipulski’s house now sits. His words mixed with the fireflies waiting on my bottle capture or a sense of deeper darkness where they could further show off their electric prowess. The times were magnetic, electric. I knew what attention was.

Oh, I loved those compelling nights filled with Horseman, ride by; Prayer for My Daughter or old marble heads, captivating me with a sound so Irish I was proud. I will arise now and go to Innisfree/ oh, and the deep heart’s core. The lineage found me: I didn’t find it, and the echoes of those nights ring yet.

But other things come repeatedly for him: Johnny Igoe only ate oatmeal in the morning, a boiled potato and a shot of whiskey for lunch. By and on other things he lived.

On the handle of a cane he would rest his chin, his eyes on you making announcements you dared not lose. He made Yeats’s voice to be his own voice, that marvelous treble and clutter of breath buried in it, The Lake Isle of Innisfree popping free like electricity or the very linnets themselves. Maude was like some creature I’d surely come to know in my own time. Johnny Igoe wrote his own poems, and yielded me Mulrooney and Padraic Gibbons as well out of the long rope of his memory. The knots of that rope untied all those Saturday evening of his life and mine, on that porch. He launched many of my own poems here, by the dozens, and at the end, at 97, stained, shaking, beard gone to a lengthy hoarfrost, potato drivel not quite lost in it, he gave me his voice and eyes alive to this day, sounding out in his own way.

Later, time hustling me on, in a Caedmon Golden Treasury of Poetry record I heard Yeats read his own material, three short poems. I swore it was Spellbinder Johnny Igoe still at work.

But first things first and I quickly remember him as the dump master at the City Dump in Malden, Massachusetts where he ended up after his early travels and began his family. He had been the first Irish sailor of his family, sailing here alone, while his mother was on her death bed. All those long days and nights at the dump the destitute came to him for warmth, for food, for a place to put up their feet on a freezing night. They came to him, the drunks, the homeless vets still wandering loose from France and WW I, street people who then had no such name. They knew the welcome of his fire, the monger’s stove to wrap around, hot curbing to prop cold feet, quick difference from the frozen air, wind-swept railroad tracks, bare entry ways, darkness where howling ghosts abide. Or, as often was the case, their last resort, the slim cardboard wrap.

He burned clinkers in a little shack he made of scrap. The lost, lonely birds came to him to roost. They flew in at dusk. He stoked the fire to stir up flames, dried their feathers off. Just as often he left his lunch about like tasty suet hanging in the yard. On Saturdays I brought his lunch, dense laminates of meat and bread, thick and heavy and coarse as sin, brown banana we would not eat, molasses-brown coffee in whiskey bottles wound about with paper bags. I never saw even one pint bottle finished off within his grasp. I rarely saw his small hand feeling inside a paper bag. His birds did the picking, had suet choice, hens dining before the cock.

That was as much his legacy as anything else he might have done or said. He cared for the downtrodden, those short-circuited by life, those who had paid their dues and somehow, through their humanity itself, had fallen prey to loss and deprivation. Mercy was what he preached, and that memory should be noble, and comfort to the aggrieved and succor for the pained should be a career. He made me observe the human condition. He made me look at man from the floor up, from his lowest grovel to his pinnacle, to realize that we end in dust before we move on, the manner of a man being God-like.

When he died they came by the dozen to grieve the savior of their awful nights, the drunken, besotted, brothered band who so often drained his cup. The mottle-skinned came, so soured of life, the pale host of them, the warred upon and beaten, they came to cache the little man who offered what was left of God.

This kind and thoughtful man for years dreamed of his return to Ireland, but he never made that trip. That lost dream trip pained him. His eyes said so, his voice said it too, and his own poem:

The Dream of the Roscommon Emigrant

 

There is a land though far away that’s very dear to me, an island in the ocean most picturesque to see. As each day goes by I heave a sigh for those lovely native scenes:

Ah! Isle of Saints and Martyrs, I see you in my dreams. 

I’m at the gate of Clooniquin, I hear the pearling stream now wend its way to Ross and then to far Culleen. I hear the thrush and blackbird in the holly and laurel tree; my soul says I must loiter in this fair locality. 

I cross the bridge and up the walk and toward that lovely grove; with ecstasy my heart does bound as onward I do rove. From the countless pines a shadow runs to meet me on the hill where the pheasant and rabbit doth wander there at will. 

Ah, solitude, thy charms are dear, to me how sweet they seem as I set me down and look around on Nature’s lovely scene. The hills of Ross are beautiful, and so the lovely glen and meadows fair that stretch between those hills and dear old Elphin. 

From Castlerea to Carrick I see the places all, from Roscommon down to Lulsk and to the Plains of Boyle. As I travel o’er that scope, with Nature’s gifts so strewn, I stop halfway where I was raised now aided by the moon. I look around bewildered on all that I behold; the tree of ash, the hawthorn bush, now burnished in their gold. 

The cottage I was born in and raised by parents kind, I enter with impatience but there I could not find the one above all others whose love was dear to me. She has gone to her heaven for all eternity. 

Father, brothers, sisters, I join in fond embrace as tears of joy and sorrow roll swiftly down each face. I see the gold old nabors, each remembered a pleasant day, and shake each hand with affection as I did when going away. 

In harmony we all did join and traversed those weary years since that eventful morning when I left them steeped in tears. Now fond adieu to all my friends around the dear old isle, though adopted by Columbia I am Erin’s faithful child; For the Stars and Stripes with the flag of green will line in unity. Adieu again, old Ireland, farewell my dear country.

 

But others made the trip for him.

On our honeymoon in 1973 my wife Beth and I visited at Elphin and the cottage where John Igoe was born, where I saw the star peep through the thatch roof and call his name, and where lived my mother’s last two living first cousins, Peter and Joseph Cassidy, since gone. My mother, with four daughters, was able to get over and visit there in 1987.

And in September of 2003, our children sent us back for our 30th anniversary. The eyes are so pleased at times that the heart sees. I told them the following happened on our trip:

One Monday noon I stood in an Elphin, Roscommon pub, a Guinness pint in hand, and said aloud to the dozen men at the bar, “Gentlemen, do any of you remember Peter and Joseph Cassidy who 30 years ago, when we were here on our honeymoon, lived outside of town near the statue to The Rising. They were well into their 70s then and long gone now, but I’d like to know if anybody remembers them.”

All hell broke loose at the bar, eyes twinkled, smiles came galore, and one man leaped off his stool. “Eddie the Fiddler!” he yelled. “If Peter and Joseph were relatives of yours, Eddie the Fiddler is.” He yelled to the barkeep, “Dermot, get Eddie on the phone!” Twenty minutes later I thought my grandfather Johnny Igoe was walking through the door. It was a cousin of mine, Eddie Cassidy, in his sixties, I had never met and had not known about. We had a ball!

It was a great trip and Johnny Igoe was with us every step of the way.

The saga of Johnny Igoe is the epic of a nation; The root cell—Johnny Igoe at ten running ahead of the famine that took brothers and sisters, lay father down; sick in the hold of ghostly ship I later saw from high rock on Cork’s coast, in the hold heard the myths and music he would spell all his life, remembering hunger and being alone and brothers and sisters and father gone and mother praying for him as he knelt beside her bed that hard morning when Ireland went away to the stern. I know that terror of hers last touching his face.

As far back as I go he is there with great white beard and cane of holly that swung in circles at slim ankles, and the reaching hands of sisters and brothers. He read The Roscommon Emigrant to us in the quiet kitchen at night in winter. I am not sure, but he wound the isle about us, and he teased with his fairies and the names like “Ross, Culleen and Clooniquin…”  “Though adopted by Columbia I am Erin’s faithful child.”

He had bent his back in Pennsylvania’s mines and Illinois’ and swung a hammer north of Boston, poled his star-lit way down the Erie Canal, and died in bed. His years are still with me in the wind he breathed and storms he stood against and earth he pounded with his fist to fill the mouths of his children and my mother. When he was lonely he was hurt and sometimes feared the pain he could not feel because he knew it and knew how it came; and said man had to think hard and often to be wise and nothing was useless to man: not a sliver of wood because it makes a toothpick; not a piece of glass broken from a wine-red bottle because it catches sun and makes wonder; not a stray stone or brick because it is a wedge or wall-part or corner like one, the first or the last, put to the foundation of the old gray house that clings to the light and had wide windows and doors that were never locked.

On snow-bound mornings he laughed with us when daylight sought us eagerly and in cricket nights of softness that spoiled kneeling prayers. Sometimes his soft eyes were sad while we laughed, and didn’t know about the man down the street or the boy who died racing black-horse train against young odds. His prayers were not an interlude with God: they were as sacred as breathing, as vital as the word. And the politicians never got his vote because he knew the pain they intended and he hated hurt. Hated hurt. The floorboards creaked beneath him in the mornings and he brought warmth into chilled rooms and coffee slipped its aroma between secret walls to waken us.

The oats were heavy and creamed in large white bowls, and “Go easy on the sugar,” was the bugle call of dawn. His books had a message that he heard, alone, quiet, singing with the life he knew was near past and yet beginning. He pampered and petted them like he did Grandma, and spent secret hours with them and lived them with us rehearsing our life to come, and teaching us.

Then, a high-biting, cold spring day in 1955 I knew would be memorial, the sun but snippets, ice still hiding out in shadow, winter remnants piled up in a great gathering, me bound to a shovel for the tenth day in a row. That’s when I heard of Johnny Igoe’s death so late in life.

Grass and buds and shoots and sprigs of all kinds were aimless as April. All vast morning I’d hunted the sun, tried to place it square on my back. But the breeze taunted, left a taste in my mouth. Sullivan Marino, brother-in-law, boss who loved the shovel, sweat, doing the Earth over, walked at me open as a telegram. Sicilian eyes tell stories, omit nothing in the relation. “Your grandfather’s dead.”  He was vinegar and oil and reached for my shovel. It would not leave my hands.

I saw Johnny Igoe at ten at turf cutting, just before he came this way with the great multitude. I saw how he too moved the ponderous earth, the flame of it caught in iron, singing tea, singeing the thatch, young Irish scorching the ground he walked. He had come here and I came, and I went there, later, to where he’d come from; Roscommon’s sweet vale, slow rush of land, shouldering up, going into sky, clouds shifting selves like pieces at chess, earth ripening to fire. I saw it all, later, where he’d come from, but then, sun-searching, memorializing, Sullivan quickly at oil and odds, his hand out to take our tool away, could stand no dalliance the day Johnny Igoe died.

He poled his star-lit way down the Erie Canal. Swung a sledge in Illinois. A hammer north of Boston. Died in bed. But the tobacco smell still lives in this room. His books still live, his chair, his cane, the misery he knew, the pain, and somewhere he is.

He might be housed in this computer, for now he visits, or never leaves, Yeats on record but the voice is my grandfather’s voice, the perky treble, the deft reach inside me, the lifting out, the ever lifting out. In the dark asides before a faint light glimmers it is the perky pipe’s glow I see, weaker than a small and struck match but illuminating all the same. I smell his old Edgeworth tobacco faint as a blown cloud in the air, the way a hobo might know a windowed apple pie from afar. I hear the years of literate good cheer, storied good will, the pleasantries of expansive noun and excitable verb. I hear his ever-lingering poems, each one a repeated resonance, a victory of sound and meaning and the magic of words. I hear his rocking chair giving rhythm to my mind, saying over and over again the words he left with hard handles on them for my grasping.

 

Tom Sheehan

Image – Sarah777 at English Wikipedia [Public domain]

 

5 thoughts on “Johnny Igoe, Spellbinder Remembered by Tom Sheehan

  1. Poetically written, I get a real feel for the person and his times. Indeed, a spell is woven and I’m right absorbed into the essence of who this grandfather was, and the culture and ethos that he came from.

    Like

  2. Hi Tom,
    The love that this is written with comes shining through.
    A brilliant tribute about a character that we would all have loved to have known.
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

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