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Jack Smith

An Irish tale in which, by a relative coincidence, we are either all cousined--or cozened

March 17, 1987|Jack Smith

This being St. Patrick's Day, I am going to tell you an Irish story which, like most Irish stories, may take some faith.

Not that I don't believe it myself.

I make no claim to being Irish. As far as I know, I am Welsh, and glad of it. Whereas the Irish are celebrated for their gift of blarney, the Welsh are celebrated for their taciturnity and truth.

I do not celebrate St. Patrick's Day, not even by wearing green, unless coincidentally.

Of course the Irish are inclined to embroider their stories, and one is especially wise not to place much trust in any Irish stories that originate in saloons.

The biggest Irish whopper of all is the one they tell about St. Patrick himself, the Irish patron saint: How he drove all the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea.

It is not a coincidence that Ireland is the site of the famous Blarney stone, set in the wall of Blarney Castle in County Cork. According to cherished legend, anyone who kisses the Blarney stone will acquire the gift of eloquence, which is more admired by the Irish than sexual potency.

As the Irish man of letters George Moore once said, "My one claim to originality among the Irish is that I have never made a speech."

However, this particular story was told to me by a friend, Jay Allen, a literary agent, who vouches for its authenticity.

It is, after all, only a story of coincidence, which has a long arm.

Allen says he got the story from a former client, Joseph Wambaugh, the ex-cop novelist. I have read every one of Wambaugh's books. He is a fine novelist, although he may be given to exaggeration, as some critics say, in his depiction of the sleazy underside of police life. It is more likely merely literary license. On the other hand, he can tell the unvarnished truth, as we know from his gaunt nonfiction story of the Onion Field killing.

The story Wambaugh told Allen begins in a new bistro in Rancho Mirage, down in the Coachella Valley below Palm Springs. The place is owned by Sidney Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin's son and a Broadway actor of some note. This is irrelevant, unless you want to know what Sidney Chaplin is doing now.

The bartender is Coley Newell, a 23-year-old man from Galway Bay in County Galway. Newell's entire family continues to live in Kilcolgan, Ireland, and he has naturally been a bit lonely for the old sod.

One night recently, according to the story Wambaugh told Allen, Newell was working the bar when a young lady dropped by for a drink.

Newell commented on her English accent, and she revealed that she was visiting Palm Springs from the London suburb of Southgate.

"Southgate!" exclaimed young Newell. "I lived in Southgate for two years--on Nursery Road!"

The young woman looked astonished. "Why, I live at No. 89 Nursery Road!" she exclaimed.

She went on to say that she lived with her grandmother. "A wonderful old character you might have heard about. Her name is Sarah Barrel."

"Sarah Barrel!" exclaimed Newell (there are a lot of exclamations in this story). "My God! That's my grandmother !"

The wheels began to turn in Newell's head: "And that makes you my cousin!"

Three weeks later, after Newell had spent a bundle on transatlantic telephone calls, telling this improbable story to his relatives, he was working tables in the bar and served a man and woman he'd never seen before.

"What part of Ireland are you from?" the man asked, not overlooking Newell's accent.

"Just south of Galway city," Newell replied.

"No kidding!" the man said. "My grandparents came from a spot in the road just north of Galway."

"And where might that be?" asked Newell.

"Ros Muc," said the stranger.

"Ros Muc!" Newell exclaimed. "My grandmother came from Ros Muc!" Sensing another miracle, he pushed on. "And what was your grandmother's name?"

"She was a Connelly," the stranger said.

"Good God! A Connelly! So was mine!"

The stranger, of course, was Joseph Wambaugh, cousin to the Connellys and Newells of Ros Muc.

I am pleased to have brought you through this little story without a "begorra" or a "saints presarve us!"

There is a postscript.

According to Allen, when another bartender at the bistro asked Newell how he felt about finding a rich and famous American cousin, he answered:

"When I told me ma about it on the transatlantic wire, I promised I wouldn't be demanding room in Cousin Joe's house, but I will be requiring the car every Friday night."

Blood is thicker than Irish whiskey.

Of course the postscript came from Wambaugh, too, and I'm not insisting that you believe it. Wambaugh would have had to be back at the bistro a few days later, and to have talked to the other bartender to have picked it up. He is, after all, a novelist, and likes to make things tidy.

Also, Allen tells me he heard the story from Wambaugh while visiting his former client on a recent weekend. I imagine spirits were served, Wambaugh being a hospitable man, and that it is not impossible that Allen himself may have added a little blarney to it.

Anyway, it isn't as big a fable as you are likely to hear any night in an Irish saloon, but at least it tends to prove my theory that we all are cousins.

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