‘I owe my life to Paddy’: Mayo pub mystery unlocks the spirit of a small town

There is a country road about three miles from P Moore’s pub in Swinford, Co Mayo. It is 1996. I am behind the wheel of a rental car, an only child with my father next to me, driving out to visit an elderly cousin.

I am not alone.

We are on holiday in Ireland for a few weeks, as is our tradition, making the rounds. We pass a handball alley marking the spot where the road turns down to Killasser. “I used to play there when my mother brought me out here from Charlestown,” my father offhandedly remarks. “Keep going straight. We’re almost there.”

The handball alley
The handball alley

He’s in a remarkably upbeat mood, considering just minutes ago we needed a tractor to pull us out of a drainage ditch. I was a bit too enthusiastic making room for a passing car on the narrow road. We started laughing as soon as we stopped cursing.

We pull up to a low wall. “Your grandmother was born here, did you know?” I didn’t know. That’s all he says about it before hopping out and trotting up the path, rapping his knuckles on the door. No answer. “Ah well,” he says, getting back into the car. “He’s not there. I’ll leave a note and that’s that. I have one stop to make in Swinford and then we’ll be on our way.”

My father holding the same photo of us on the morning of my wedding
My father holding the same photo of us on the morning of my wedding
Fiona Murphy
Fiona Murphy

As soon as he mentions “one stop”, I know where to point the car. P Moore’s pub. There has never been a visit back without my father stopping here. My mind soon drifts off, unencumbered by the lack of awareness that this will be the last time my father and I make this trip together, the final opportunity to walk through his childhood alongside him. I will spend the next quarter of a century regretting every question I did not ask on this trip.

There is a country road about three miles from P Moore’s pub in Swinford, Co Mayo. It is 2001. I am with my future ex-husband and our young daughters, heading for the first time to a cottage we just purchased – sight almost unseen.

I am not alone.

I remain as hesitant as always to walk into spaces where his empty seat waits for me… reminds me. I can pretend I’m not alone if nothing reminds me that I am.

I say “almost” because I have been here once before, years ago. I saw it from that newly-unditched rental car in 1996 as my father ran up to the door. Our family has been looking for a place to purchase for a few years, ever since his death in 1998, with one requirement: a view of Nephin, where, thanks to the kindness of the people in Lahardane, strangers to me at the time, my father is at rest on the mountain that rises from the countryside where he grew up.

It’s a landmark he mentioned in his play, The Country Boy, as being his compass for navigating his way home during emigrations. “The sun shining on the face of Nephin… How many times have I closed my eyes and seen that in the past years,” he wrote back in a small boarding house in Belfast in the 1950s during a stint as a projectionist in a movie theatre.

A photo of my father at The Country Boy’s premiere in Charlestown in 1959, after its Abbey debut
A photo of my father at The Country Boy’s premiere in Charlestown in 1959, after its Abbey debut
My father on our last trip to Ireland in 1996
My father on our last trip to Ireland in 1996

Following a phone call from me in the weeks after his death in California, a town halfway around the world rallied to make sure that John Murphy could come home one last time to Nephin.

Nothing suitable with that view had made itself known in the last few years so news that his mother’s birthplace was on the market felt like a gift. I have forgotten many things in my life but never the sight waiting for me when I reach the top crest of the field behind the house after settling the little ones down for naps, nor the feeling in my legs as they suddenly struggle to support me. There, in full panorama to my left, is the sun shining on the face of Nephin. No one told me about this view. I can barely breathe as the tears stream down my face.

There is a country road about three miles from P Moore’s pub in Swinford, Co Mayo. It is one of the last days of December 2021. I am driving into town. It is the first Christmas since 1998 that I have spent without any of my three (now adult) children. I do not remember what it is like to be here without a child or a father.

I am alone.

I pull into a space on the main stretch of town, the melancholy of the impending flight back to Chicago firmly embedded in my chest. I glance up the street to P Moore’s pub at its familiar place on the corner, a sentinel standing guard at the crossroads of this small town with its lacerated wounds of emigration healing under the pride of those left behind. The pub tugs at my conscience. Again. Always. I have not crossed the threshold since 1996, when my father held the door open for me. I remain as hesitant as always to walk into spaces where his empty seat waits for me… reminds me. I can pretend I’m not alone if nothing reminds me that I am.

My father’s grandfather, standing outside the home where my father’s mother was born in Cloonfinish, circa 1900s
My father’s grandfather, standing outside the home where my father’s mother was born in Cloonfinish, circa 1900s
My father with his mother, Ellen Dunne Murphy, in Charlestown circa 1940s. Like me, he was an only child. He was fatherless at 4; I was fatherless at 27
My father with his mother, Ellen Dunne Murphy, in Charlestown circa 1940s. Like me, he was an only child. He was fatherless at 4; I was fatherless at 27
My father a few years before leaving school for England. He would return again to Ireland and later write his play in Belfast before emigrating to California
My father a few years before leaving school for England. He would return again to Ireland and later write his play in Belfast before emigrating to California

There is guilt alongside the fear – the shame of failing to be a better guardian of his memories. I have no idea why this is the one place he insisted upon visiting every time we returned to Ireland. I once knew but the paintbrush that sweeps through the mind after trauma to whitewash the memories that would destroy me is a bit wider than its mark. It has caught up many of the good things along the margins, too. “Why here?” is amongst them. His hometown was Charlestown. There were trips when we drove straight through his birthplace and came here – only here – before travelling onwards into quiet coastal sanctuaries, off the grid. So my habit has been to look away from Moore’s and run until the pain in my gut dissolves and the numbness returns.

It is all flooding back at once in my father’s voice. This is suddenly not a recollection as much as it is a reliving

I do not know why this time was different. I’ll guess that being without my children played a role. Left without anyone I needed to take care of, I faced the recognition of how long I have needed care, myself. I need my father. I cross the street and walk up towards the door of Moore’s to find myself suddenly standing in front of stools I sat on with my father, when my legs dangled as I dug into crisps and waited for grown-ups to finish chatting. Instantly, I know I won’t find answers here as the lad behind the counter isn’t any older than my own children. Yet I ask anyway, “Do you by chance know why John Murphy would have come here to see Mr Moore for many years?” and then leave.

I am propelled across the street to Campbell’s pub. The proprietor is standing by a table having a chat with a customer. I ask the question I have come to ask. This time, the result is different. Immediate. “They might have known each other from a building site in England…” was all he got out before my tears started.

My father holding me as a baby
My father holding me as a baby
Me in Mayo, circa 1972
Me in Mayo, circa 1972

One phrase was the key that unlocked a door in my mind after a quarter of a century. I needed nothing else from him. My father was here now, next to me, gently telling me, “I owe my life to Paddy Moore. When I had to leave home at 14 to find work in London, I was coughing up blood from the polio. I couldn’t dig the ditches so he would hide me when the higher-ups came around, protect me from losing the paycheck I sent home to my mother. He’d tell them he’d sent me off on an errand while I crouched behind a wall…”

It is all flooding back at once in my father’s voice. This is suddenly not a recollection as much as it is a reliving. I have been given my father back to me on an otherwise unremarkable December afternoon.

There is a small town in Ireland over 3,000 miles away from where I sit in Chicago, preparing to start work for the day. It is one of the first days of January, 2022.

I am alone.

In my hand, I hold a device that offers photos and histories of a hundred million other fathers. Why didn’t I take more photos of mine? Ask more questions? I never made a pot of tea, set out two mugs, and said, “Dad, I would love it if you would sit with me and tell me stories about your childhood.” Instead, I distractedly picked them up along the way, like a shiny penny on the path that I didn’t assign enough value to. It went into the pocket. At some point, the handfuls got tossed into a drawer in my mind and forgotten. Only when he was gone did I realise they add up to everything I want.

P Moore pub in Swinford, Co Mayo
P Moore pub in Swinford, Co Mayo

My thoughts move on to fear. What if my children do the same to me? I already recognise the polite smile in their expressions. “That’s a great story, Mom, how much longer is the drive?” Their eyes are on me in the telling but their minds have already skipped ahead to their plans at our next destination. As I did at their age – as it is normal to do at that age. As I did on a country road back in 1996, not knowing it would be the last time I travelled it with my father. What if I write down my own stories for my children but they never reach for the book on the shelf? Will I become just a photo on a table, given a passing explanation as visitors walk by. “Oh, lovely scene, there. Who’s that?” “Ah, that was my mother.” And then the group moves on.

The purity of intention of Paddy and those like him ... is the core character of the Irish small town and Ireland’s greatest asset

I stop as my scrolling of trip photos reaches an image I took of Moore’s pub just before entering last week. I am reminded that there are good people in small towns who hold the puzzle pieces that my father, with a wink, tossed into the air when he left. They are tucked in pockets for me to find – a grand adventure that will lead me forward into the past. Soothed, I post the photo to Twitter and put the kettle on.

What happens next is testament to the ever-enduring, exponentially increasing value of small towns in Ireland. My world explodes with connections. Children and grandchildren of surnames I knew as a child come forth holding more puzzle pieces. My inbox fills with photos I’ve never seen of my father, stories I’ve never been told. To my delight, I find my pocket full of puzzle pieces to give back to fill in others’ life stories. “I was just at your grandparents’ gravesite last week,” I tell one man. Stunned, he tells his mother and returns with, “This just in… Mam was making my aunt’s wedding dress just a few days before the wedding when the machine broke. Your dad fixed it. I was not expecting this.” I have been waiting my whole life for this.

My daughter, Moya, walking the family fields circa 2010
My daughter, Moya, walking the family fields circa 2010
My children Finnegan (named for Nephin) and Moya at my father’s grave, 2019
My children Finnegan (named for Nephin) and Moya at my father’s grave, 2019
My father’s grave
My father’s grave

The stories go round and round, with more people joining this gorgeously intricate carousel. We are piling all of our puzzle pieces together and sorting through them. Suddenly, my heart seizes – Paddy Moore’s son has posted that my story made him cry with pride for his father. I think of my own father’s good friend, the journalist John Healy, and his proclamation years ago that Charlestown – and towns like it – are dying. He was not wrong then but he is not right now. The purity of intention of Paddy and those like him – men and women who had no expectation that acts of decency would “go viral” or ever be known at all – is the core character of the Irish small town and Ireland’s greatest asset. Arms locked across an ocean and around our shared heritage, it is now time for us to honour them, build on their legacy, and raise our towns higher.

We are not alone.

Fiona Murphy is a community strategist and consultant living on the outskirts of Chicago