Jackie Maher, he lived in a barrel, a tar barrel, a 50 gal drum that once held tar used by the County Council to tar the roads. On top of the tar, they poured crushed stone. That’s how roads were made, then. Still are, I think. So I asked my mother, I was about six, then, could I see Jackie Maher’s barrel. It’s only a barrel, she said, But I bothered her until she took me out to see it. I was taken by the whole idea of living in a barrel. Life couldn’t be any simpler than that, I thought.
He didn’t really live in it. He slept in it at night. But there it was, some straw and a couple of coats thrown in. He’d be off around the countryside in the daytime, begging. He didn’t really beg. People gave him things, bits and pieces of food and he’d do an odd job for them, cut some wood or watch cattle, a bit of digging, mending a fence. He had good hands on him, took his time and did good work. He had a nice way about him, too. Many a farmer offered him steady work but he was restless and after a while, moved on. He always returned to the barrel in the evening. You could see him, cooking a bit of grub or boiling a kettle for a cup of tea. In the winter, when the days were short and ’twas cold and damp, he’d sleep more, his head to the inside, curled up. Nobody bothered him. They tried to move him to better accomodation, the people who felt it was wrong for him to have to live in a tar barrel, but he said no. That was where he wanted to be and that’s where he stayed. He became a bit of an attraction. People would walk up quietly and take a look at him sleeping, warning the children to be quiet or they’d get a clip across the head. But they were just as curious and watched him, wide-eyed, and had to be dragged away.
To my mind, he had everything you’d ever want. He lacked for nothing, went his own way, wasn’t a burden on anybody that I could see. He wasn’t one to mix, or carry on a conversation but seemed happy in himself and people left him alone, other than a ” Hello, Jackie. Are ye allright?” or “Bad day, Jackie boy.” He’d nod his head or wave a hand and continue with what he was doing. He had a way with birds too, and they flocked around him. He fed them bits of stale bread and stuff that he found in his pockets.
He was there in the barrel for years, about a mile outside the village, a nice location, under a big oak tree. He had picked the location well. I suppose you get a good sense after years on the road. He hadn’t put the barrel there. The Council had, empty on it s side. Once in a while they kept a little gravel there, but mostly it was empty. I suppose Jackie spotted the possibilities and moved right in. The Council workers didn’t object. They were mostly country men who worked on the roads and had known all their lives men like Jackie who moved around. You’d wonder what started them off to that life of wandering and imagine a great tragedy or a lost love.
The world is a frightening place for a lot of people. Others could care less. But as someone said, there’s no two of us born the same. We fight our own little wars every day.
A funny thing about Jackie Maher, nobody knew when he left or if he died. People would say, “I haven’t seen Jackie lately, have you?” or “Any word of Jackie Maher, at all, at all?” It was like he disappeared from the face of the earth. The barrel was there for years after.