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Thin Skull — A Family History: El Dia de Los Muertos

A Murder in The Country

Michael, my father’s grandfather, was killed in a fight in October 1897.

The pathologist (there was a murder trial) described his extra-thin-skull at the inquest.

My great-grandfather died from a blow that would not have killed most men.

He was laid out on the table in a nearby house in the kitchen, still breathing, though unconscious; at 6'8" (I hardly dare to write this-it seems so far-fetched) none of the beds of the house were long enough for him.

His soon-to-be widow was called and he died the next morning at 11 am of a blow sustained to the back of the head. He was 37.

The newspaper recounts every single detail of his movements on the fateful day.

How he went into town at midday to apply for a position but was turned down. How he went to a bar and met a man with whom he’d had a disagreement.

About money? A woman?

In any case, the men decided to meet in a field outside town, at a place now a hostel. Several witnesses observed my great-grandfather trotting down the street on his horse on his way to the rendezvous.

They called the accused, “The Darling Man”.

I read all the newspaper articles several years ago from the archives.

His extraordinary height is one of the many surprising details from the story.

Then there were the descriptions of the grieving widow “presenting a pathetic spectacle” with her daughter (who would die within a year) and two young sons, one of whom was my grandfather.

I remember him as a military type, always dressed in a black suit, with a wooden cane and a grey moustache. He looked more like a Spanish general than an Irish farmer.

Some of the proceedings from the inquest are reproduced verbatim and include several other perspicacious comments from participants, where the judge calls counsel to order.

My great-grandmother would subsequently “adopt” a young girl, a distant relative of her late husband’s, who had been orphraned and who later inherited the farm and the house. The adopted mother must have wanted to signal both to “May” and the world at large that she was on at least equal, if not better, footing than her “brothers”. When the “adopted” daughter married in September 1924, a photographer recorded the event for posterity. The bride’s garb was plain; the guests were dressed opulently and my grandfather and his brother stand seperately at the back, having somehow agreed to sit in the same room despite fighting on different sides during the civil war. My grandfather’s brother moved away from the area and became a clothing and knitwear supplier to a major department store. My grandfather received our family farm from his aunts and May remainded at home, as did her family for three generations to come, possibly four.

My grandparents married later that year but my grandmother was not at this wedding suggesting that they were not yet bethrothed. When my aunt married just 25 years later, her gown was white and lacey — the traditions changed enormously in those years, due in no small way to the second world war and the influence of American fashion particularly Gone With The Wind.

My great-grandmother never remarried and went on to do very well financially.

My elderly cousin Tommy, remembered standing on the terrace beside his own grandfather as Eliza, my great-grandmother, shot past on the horse and trap, on her way to visit her two maiden sisters.

“Eliza’s on the warpath.”, he told Tommy, “They’ll be fur flying”.

The sisters ran a successful grocery and purchased the farm on which I grew up, for my grandfather in 1924. They snapped it up from the anglo-Irish who were fleeing political unrest. Two Anglo-Irish brothers owned adjacent farms.

It was like a dream to visit our neighbour’s house as a child; so many of the fixtures were identical and some were similar. It was like being in a dream where plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I sometimes speculate that if my great-grandfather had refused to meet his opponent or had turned left instead of right that night, my grandfather would have had a very different childhood. He might never have married my grandmother, my father might never have been born, I would never have been born.

Maybe somebody like me might have been, though, and might be writing an article like this in a parallel reality.


This is a repost of a story that was originally published on Medium on 11 August 2016.