Published 05/06/2008 | 07:00
I remember it well, the day that the Parish Priest came to the school and asked us all what we hoped to be when we grew up. We were all about eight years of age. We had a wide array of ambitions. A few lads were going on to be priests, a few would be doctors. One lad was going to be a sailor -- and so on . . .
My turn came. "I'm going to be a bandit." The priest smiled. "Do you know what that word means?" "I do father." "Tell us." "A bandit is a good man. He robs banks and trains. He robs banks because they are bad. They put people out of their houses. And he robs trains because the railways put people out of their land." The good man shook his head: "Where did you hear all this?'' I read about it in books." He gave up.
By now you will have gathered that I was an avid reader of fiction about The Old West. This was during a golden era in Gaelic Football in Kerry -- but my heroes were such men as Jesse James and his brother Frank. They were born in California about 1840. Their father was a clergyman; their mother was a teacher. You couldn't say that they came from an impoverished background. And they got a good education.
The brothers however, were averse to regular employment -- or any kind of employment. The Civil War was in progress in The East; Jesse and Frank decided to get some of the action. They weren't very interested in rights or wrongs or devotion to North or South. They saw opportunity for work in areas where there was little law and less order.
The brothers met up with a few young men of like mind. They formed a co-operative. Most of the soldiers and the law officers were involved in the war. The firm headed by Jesse James did nicely. The Civil War ended as all wars must. The Government won.
The rebel South had spent enormous sums in the war and was left impoverished. The James Brothers moved North to that territory where The East hadn't quite ended and The West hadn't quite begun. Jesse was very clever: he never had a permanent gang -- he would have had to pay them when there was no work. And so he picked up freelancers whenever a job was in the offing. Another pair of brothers, Robert and Charlie Ford, were almost staff members. They did well. Jesse was an expert on train timetables and he had a shrewd notion of what banks were carrying money and when.
Alas, there was a freelancer who felt that he hadn't been given his due percentage after a raid. He tipped off the people of a small town that Jesse had in his sights. All but a few of the men were away driving cattle to the stockyards in Chicago. It would be a soft touch.
Jesse was a very punctual man: the people of the town knew not only the day but the hour planned for the raid. They laid their plans with military expertise. Women and girls and small boys were stationed at all vantage points. When the gang rode up to the bank, precisely at three o'clock, they literally didn't know what hit them.
It was a marvellous ambush -- stones, bricks, half bricks, balls of mud, balls of horse dung, bottles broken and unbroken, horseshoes -- you could go on.
Not surprisingly, the would-be robbers fled. There is a film called The Return Of Jesse James -- he didn't. It was his last raid. He retired disgracefully -- he wasn't short of money. He re-invented himself. He bought a nice house in Kansas City and changed his name to Howard. He pretended to be a cattle dealer.
Of course everybody knew him. He even rode on a splendid horse at the head of the Saint Patrick's Day Parade. The law didn't attempt to touch him. Not for nothing had he been born into a respectable family. Then one day his old comrade, Robert Ford, came on a visit -- and while Jesse was dusting a picture for his wife, he shot him very dead.
The ballad tells us:
"Jesse had a wife.
He loved her all his life.
His children they were brave
But that dirty little coward
Whose name was Robert Ford
Laid Jesse James in his grave."
Ned Kelly was, of course, another of my boyhood heroes. Like Jesse and Frank he had a distaste for what most people call work. One day when he and his men were robbing a coach, he uttered a famous two-liner. Some of the gang were handling the women rather roughly as they searched for their jewels. A gentleman protested at the lack of chivalry. Ned said: "Who's robbing this coach? Is it you or Ned Kelly?"
Ned was getting on nicely until his hatred of the police betrayed him. For no good reason he shot dead a constable at a place with a very Australian name: Stringybark Creek. It was a massive own goal: there is an unwritten rule all the world over -- when a policeman is killed, someone will pay. A time came when Ned decided to go for a big coup. He discovered that a train carrying a big load of cash from Sydney to Brisbane was due on a certain date. He assembled his men in a big pub near the railway line.
Ned, for the occasion, got a new suit made from ploughshares. It covered his head and his body down to his knees. The train arrived and with it came about 50 policemen. Ned ordered his men back to the pub and confronted them. Their bullets rebounded from his suit. Then a small man wearing a porkpie hat came from behind a tree and fired low.
Ned said: "The cowards are firing at my legs" and collapsed. His last words on the gallows are part of folklore -- "Such is life". God love him -- he was only twenty-nine.
Jesse James and Ned Kelly are still heroes, at least to small boys.
Fogra: Frank Greally of Irish Runner magazine and his daughter Laura celebrated their birthdays over the weekend and I send them my best wishes.
Fogra Eile: Congratulations to Monsignor Tom Stack of Milltown who celebrates the anniversary of his ordination at this time.