When Judge Patrick Durcan launched the biography of his grandfather in Castlebar last night, it rolled back the years to when the iconic Durcan’s business premises dominated the Main Street landscape for almost a century.
The premises, founded by Thomas Durcan in 1893, was located on the block where the Leo Doherty Menswear now stands, and its yards and workshops and stores ran back almost to the town river, the area now a public car park. And it sold everything from a needle to an anchor.
But it was its role as an undertakers that provided this writer with his earliest memory of the business. It was the early 1950s, and I was one of the 50-plus pupils in the middle class of the boys’ school. Among our classmates was Mickey, who lived just outside the town, but whose dislike of school was such that he occasionally resorted to a day’s mitching.
Mickey’s search for a hiding place had led him to the workshops at the end of Durcan’s yard where, up in the loft, he was safe from discovery. He was rarely disturbed, but whenever a workman would come up the wooden stairs in search of timber or tools, the truant would resort to Plan B. The fearless Mickey would simply lift the lid of the nearest coffin and climb inside, there to wait for things to quieten down again. It was a ruse that evoked both horror and admiration, in equal measure, from the rest of us, who were highly impressed by the daring of our intrepid classmate.
All went well until the morning that Mickey, vaguely aware of the sound of the hearse’s engine being warmed up in the yard below, heard the sound of two pairs of footsteps climbing the wooden stairs toward his eyrie. As ever, Mickey calmly slipped into the nearest empty coffin, and lowered the lid.
This time, however, the footsteps came to a halt beside where he lay. Then came the muffled sound of a voice, “I think this is the one they picked.” And then Mickey realised that his place of shelter was being eased out of its shelf, and he was being transported along the wooden gangway. To his horror, he felt himself being tilted as the coffin was eased down the stairs and then levelled again for placement into the waiting hearse.
There was nothing for it but to come clean. Slowly, the lid was seen to lift up and a small, curly head rose from the inside. The ad hoc pallbearers, hardy men as they were, took fright; commotion and panic ensued. Shop staff, customers and passersby recoiled in terror. Mickey looked bewildered, until the hue and cry subsided and he was pulled inside to offer his explanation to a stern Mr Durcan.
In no time, word of the incident had spread rapidly through the town, and the story lost nothing in the retelling. There had been a miracle in Durcan’s yard, some said. A boy had risen from the dead. It was an angel that had appeared from heaven, our neighbour, Mrs Sheridan, earnestly told my mother.
By then, the ‘angel’ had been frogmarched back to school to face the wrath of Brother Leo. The rest of us, giddy with excitement, watched on with pious expression as the incident reached its inevitable end.
After some time, things settled back to normal. Mickey more or less gave up on the mitching after that. There was one legacy, though. When the teacher would call the roll, to amuse himself and us, he would call the name, Lazarus Mac Giolla Phadraic, and, whatever the sympathy of Mickey, when he answered ‘Anseo’, we would dutifully laugh in response.