In the Carpenter’s shop
JOHN REILLY or 'Reilly' as he was affectionately known was one of those rare characters who belonged to an old world Order, fast disappearing in the early and mid-sixties. He was the village carpenter, a puny figure, so thin that when he cycled along the Stoney Road by the harbour, one almost expected a spray of surf, or a sudden sea breeze to topple him from his bike. But, Reilly defied the elements, remaining steadfast on his perch until he reached his workshop, on the Castle to Hill. His brown cap was a permanent fixture on his head, except when he mulled over a problem, and needed scratch a particular spot, for inspiration that might trigger a solution. Then the cap was nudged forward, or sideways, as required, revealing a thick crop of silver hair, a pencil lodged behind one ear, a cigarette behind the other.
Reilly was a genius: a magician who could transform a plain piece of wood into almost anything. His job was a busy one in those days, but amidst the measuring, sawing, hammering and splicing of timbers he managed to perform a host of other activities. He worked odd hours in and out of his workshop: some-; times his day began at dawn, sometimes at noon, and very often he worked late into the night.
His workshop, with its large multipaned window, strategically placed at the north end of the village, overlooked the harbour and the entrance to Carlingford Lough. There he had an unimpeded view of both quays, the Stoney Road, and the train station hosting trains between Dundalk, Greenore, Omeath and Newry.
Few people were better placed than Reilly with his binoculars, to monitor the comings and goings of village life; a task he took seriously and performed with gusto.
INDEED, the villagers came to rely on him for his wisdom and knowledge, and they were rarely disappointed, for he was a mine of information that would have been the envy of Old Moore's Almanac. Train and bus schedules, the highs and lows of tides, the comings and goings of fishing boats and the catch of the day, all came well within his remit.
When Reilly took the pipe from his mouth, cleared his throat and announced "We'll have rain tonight," you believed him, even if at that stage there wasn't a cloud in the sky, for weather forecasting was just another of his many specialities and talents.
'Reilly's Regulars', as my mother christened them or the 'Dáil', as they were more generally known throughout the village, met in his workshop most nights of the week. A group of seven locals, my father included, they gathered to debate the weighty issues of the times.
All were avid newspaper readers, so local, national and international affairs, including politics, the law and the economy were vigorously debated. Often the lively discussions lasted well into the night until finally, Reilly delivered his profound opinion, a consensus was reached, or the matter adjourned for another night.
Reilly was particularly busy at times of general elections. That meant there was an indefinite delay on all urgent carpentry jobs, and work on small routine jobs was suspended altogether until further notice. It was then that his workshop was open all hours, and others joined the 'Regulars' for political debates, speculation, the pros and cons of political parties and candidates, and as election fever rocketed 'Reilly's Regulars' took bets on the outcome.
My affinity with Reilly stretched back to when I was very small, and played amongst the sawdust and curled and crinkled wood shavings beneath his workbench, while my father and he chatted.
Somehow, there was something aesthetically pleasing in that wood-scented atmosphere: the musical whirr of his saw, and the rhythmic motion of his plane. I gathered oddments of wood at
I the end of his bench and built them into makeshift castles, or whatever took my fancy, and Reilly never objected when I carried them off to make my own imaginary contraptions. The texture and feel of that wood, with its naturally patterned lines, knots and holes, had a strange, mesmeric quality that I never forgot.
THERE WAS always something new and wonderful in the dusty old boxes that took root beneath his bench: fragments of carved triangles, squared and circular pieces, ends of church benches, door knobs and spinning-tops.
There were unexpected nooks and corners to that workshop, too. I hid in the alcoves and the narrow alleys between planks of wood. I watched my changing shape reflected in the panes of glass propped against the rough walls. Chisels and screwdrivers, levels, saws, drills and cutting tools were everywhere, and the air was heavy with a mix of linseed oil, tobacco and varnish. Above me, banners and festoons of cobwebs, hoary with age, hung from the rafters that were home to massive spiders.
The elusive and creative spirit of a master craftsman pervaded that place that I was, for a short time, so privileged to frequent, and the sound of his tools at work became a familiar, if unique, language to my young ears.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, at the time that Reilly featured largely in my world view, as was evident when on my first day at school Canon Quinn came to visit the infants' class.
Stopping by my desk he asked, "Now, can you tell me who made the world 7" Well, I didn't have to think very long or hard about that one, I knew. "Reilly," I replied without hesitation. To the Canon and my teacher it was the ultimate sacrilege, to me it made perfect sense -for Reilly was, indeed, the great creator in my childhood scheme of things.