This article was last modified on February 7, 2007.


Breathing Together, Part 13

Part 13: (Bad) Luck of the Irish

I suppose you think that after one of the main characters — in this case, my brother — is killed, the story comes to a grinding and sudden halt. The credits roll and the curtain drops, people remove their gum-covered shoes from the theater floor and shuffle out into the cold night with their significant others. And most of the time, maybe you would be right. Bruce Willis isn’t going to come swinging in at the last moment to save us, that’s for sure.

But there’s something you need to understand, and that’s a little something called context. Remember when I was referencing that deSelby quotation on love and trust in that Rimshot Henderson anthology? The part about the shovel and all that? Well, let me present you with another deSelby original from a treatise he wrote about time. These are from unpublished notebooks, so the quality is less than perfect, but the idea comes across.

Entering During the Third Act. I believe Kierkegaard was the one who said we are entering life in the third act. An example runs as follows:

You are late for your movie, “A Walk to Remember”, because your girlfriend took too long in the bathroom again. As you enter the theater, you meet the Mandy Moore character and meet the Shane West character shortly thereafter. However, you missed the opening sequence explaining Shane’s past and his tendency towards delinquency. Regardless, you are able to determine what happened and pick up from where you started just the same with minimal adjustment.

Life works exactly the same way. We enter life during the Third Act. Humanity has been performing this comedy for a million years, and we only get to watch a few decades of it – if we’re lucky. We blend in perfectly without all the first-hand knowledge of what came before us. We don’t know Winston Churchill’s favorite breakfast cereal. We don’t know of Jesus’ girlfriends in his teenage years (we only know of his last three years on Earth, those twenty-five or so in between are a complete mystery). But we make the most of what we have, and everything works out. That is the power of inference.

Yes, that’s right. The internationally known philosopher was a fan of A Walk to Remember, so don’t knock the film. But that’s not at all my point. You walked in to this during the so-called “third act” after all the history had passed by and al that was left is the ashes of yesterday.

You see, my brother’s bad luck is by no means an isolated incident. Far from it. There is a legend in my family that the Galway bloodline has been cursed for nearly two hundred years. Galway, you see was my mother’s maiden name before meeting my father. So, we could say that “shit happens” or we could see this as just another piece of the puzzle, the curse trying to kill us off one by one. But the curse never kills us all, because unless there is a new generation the curse cannot continue. I suppose, in this way, we rely on each other (we being the family and the curse).

The legend starts in the 1840s in some part of County Cork, Ireland. County Cork is the region farthest south in Ireland, if you look for it on a map. The Galway family was a farming brood, much like all other families in those days. They were a large family, Catholic and church-going to the extreme. But the matron of the family, Sarah Galway, was less than perfect and made ends meet for her family in unsaintly ways, pilfering from the church’s collections when necessary and sleeping with local landowners for food and funding. This is either traitorous or altruistic, depending on how you see her — history is very easy to reinterpret.

In those days, the belief in angels and guardian angels was common. The Galway bloodline had a protector angel. I do not recall his name, but he was known as “the angel of Saturdays”. According to the legend, the patron of the family could communicate directly with this angel, and he was known to do so. The elder Galway’s name is also lost to history. But we know on one occasion he was confronted by the angel about Sarah’s infidelity. And Galway, being a man of the church but even more so a man of love, defending his wife’s honor and spat at the angel and wished damnation upon him from God.

Now, I’ll be completely straight with you. I’m more or less an atheist. I want to believe in something higher, something that gives this world some kind of meaning and purpose, but frankly I just don’t see it. So this story of an angel and any idea that you can wish damnation from God upon things is a bit foreign to me and to my ears sounds like bullshit. But I’m just telling you what I heard, you can make up your own mind.

So anyway, when you say “goddamn you” to an angel, this simply doesn’t work. God might listen to our prayers, but He hardly thinks that damning his own messengers is a brilliant strategy. So instead the angel damned Galway for his impiety. A curse was put in his blood that all those of Galway descent would know the curse and live or die by it until the day that the angel saw fit to lift it or when the last of the family died out. As of today, the family stills exists and if such an angel exists, he has not lifted the curse to my knowledge.

Within a few years, the legendary potato famine was sweeping through Ireland. This is something that often made me curious. Now, is it worse that an entire country only knows how to grow one crop… or is it worse that when your only responsibility is to make one thing work, you can’t even successfully do so? But either way, we know what happened: many people starved and the Irish, already known as the “niggers of Europe”, became even more outcast and impoverished. Historians estimate that as many as 800,000 were dead by 1851. An interesting side note is that while many would mark this one up to poor farming techniques and “the blight” (myself included), many of the Irish believe this famine to be an “Irish Holocaust” and a result of the poor policies of John Russell, a grandfather of philosopher and noted humanitarian Sir Bertrand Russell. So one man who worked hard to prevent mass genocide by protesting the atom bomb is the progeny of another man who actively hoped to wipe out another race of people. I suppose we all have some strange heritages.

The Galway family was hit especially hard during the Great Hunger. Of thirteen children, only one survived the next few years. And between Sarah and the elder Galway, only one lived — Galway. With the patriarch too old and heartbroken to start over and the younger man too poor to start something for himself, they boarded a ship destined for America called the Blarney Stone. The vessel was a small ship made by the villagers of County Cork and anyone who could fit was allowed safe passage. The boat departed from a port called Queenstown, which today is called Cobh. Coincidentally, this is also the last port that the Titanic was at before the world’s largest metaphor struck an iceberg, and all the passengers and their intoxicated captain went to the bottom of the sea. Miraculously, the Blarney Stone had no such similar final resting place.

Getting out during the potato famine was probably the smartest thing any Irishman could have done, as the following decades would see the rise of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a rebel group who committed terrorist acts against British rule. This is not to say that the Irish liked the British before then — County Cork has a rich history of trying to topple the throne — but what we see in the modern day with the Irish Republican Army and the Catholics versus Protestants is very much an extension of this nonsense. Any group that lives only to “foment violence” is not one that should be an influential part of the local community. But as the Galways left prior to this, the whole point is rather moot.

The elder Galway’s son’s name was Ryan Galway. My name is Ryan Zwilling, and I was named for this man — the first generation of Galways in America. He moved by train from the east coast to Wisconsin and reached a town called Fremont, several miles west of Appleton in Waupaca County. Land was plentiful and he was quick to claim some for himself before anyone had the common sense to raise the value of real estate. A good thing, too.

When you look hard enough and leave your mind open to the occult, you begin to find coincidences and bad omens everywhere. Superstition runs rampant in the minds of the naive. For example, when the census was taken in 2000, the population of Fremont was 666. I shit you not, you can look for yourself. Now, I can dismiss this as just an oddity (the population was just as likely to be 665 or 667). But to some, they could use the part of their brain that believes in aliens and conspiracies to put together 666 (“the number of the beast”) and 2000 (thought by some as symbolic of the end of the world) to come up with the conclusion that Fremont was a doomed town that not even Crazy Ralph would want to live in. But let’s return to the story.

For many generations, the Galway family continued to be cursed in America. Although Ryan married a fine woman of child-bearing age and had children, not all of them would live. The same with his children and the same with those children. Right now, in twenty-first century America there exist only five Galways with a detectable pulse: myself, my sister, my mother and my two uncles. More than likely my sister will be the next to go, as the curse seems to be particularly harsh on the women.

Snatching up the land in Fremont was the best move Ryan could have made, because although the family saw many famines and decades of poverty, no one could take their land from them. The farm is still in Fremont to this day, though with the recent passing of my grandfather, this could change. None of us farm, and the money we could make by selling to developers would be a godsend.

Some curious instances happened to the Galways over the years. While most of the deaths were standard things that happen — cholera, influenza and hemorrhaging during childbirth, some things were a little too strange. Two suicides, in particular, were awful strange.

Samuel Galway worked in the saw mill near Fremont. One day his manager heard screaming and ran into the room where Sam worked to find his face a mangled mess on the floor — completely removed from his head. Some men said he slipped and fell, another man said he stuck his head in on purpose after a morning of hopeless, bleak despair and mutterings about the absurdity of life. But the strangest and likely most accurate statement came from his work partner, Shea Callahan, a fellow Irishman. I retrieved the statement from the local historical society, who in turn had taken it from the Fremont police files. It reads:

“Sam was working at his post when I heard him grunting and snarling like a caged beast. One hand was clenched around the saw table while the other was pulling at his wrist, trying to let go of the table. He was fighting himself or fighting an unseen force. Some horrible hellspawn, like they had put the Sheeny Curse on him. I couldn’t move, I stood feet glued to my post and I was petrified in fright. Then the hand on the table was pried free, but this only made the situation worse. I saw his own fingers dig into the eye sockets and yank him forward towards the blades, cutting through his wrist diagonally across his hand and through two fingers. His face followed behind the hand and fell to the floor where you see it now. I have seen people cut over the years and people die from a variety of accidents. But this was no accident, this was something Old Nick himself had brought upon Sam. Mother Mary, bless his soul.”

An “unseen force”, which I take could only be the curse and the hand of the angel. Or more likely Shea was a man who took a few too many nips on the job, a bottle of Bailey’s in his lunch pail. But thanks to Shea and Sam, the legend only grew more prominent in the family lore.

Premature deaths continued over time, but the last notable one was in the early 1950s. One of my great-uncles, Peter Galway, drowned himself on April 16, 1952. From the April 18 issue of the Appleton Post-Crescent:

Peter paid bills at an Appleton garage and the power company between 10 and 11 in the morning. A caretaker spotted Peter’s car parked at St. Joseph’s Cemetery before 11:00. Peter’s body was discovered by Peter Diedrick, sexton at St. Joseph’s Cemetery. It was floating face down in three or four foot deep water, 30 feet off the shore in the Fox River along the cemetery. Diedrick immediately phoned the Appleton police department to inform them that he had found a body along with his hat and coat (which were on the shore). Peter’s body was recovered at approximately 1:40 in the afternoon. It was tentatively indentified by a telephone bill found in his clothing. His watch had stopped at 10:54, but ran again once it was removed from the water. Otto, Peter’s son, said his father had been ill and had not been working since November. The coroner, Bernard H. Kemps, ruled that the cause of death was “drowning while in a state of depression.” No inquest was held.

Now, let’s examine this story again. Maybe the wording was unclear, but this is what happened: Peter Galway makes his trips around town, paying the necessary bills. Bills that a dead guy would not have to be concerned about. He then walks to the river’s edge, removes his jacket and hat, folding the overcoat up and placing the hat on top in uniform fashion. Next, shoes and all, he casually walks into the river and drowns without a struggle. Maybe the coroner finds this a typical suicide in a “state of depression”, but to me it certainly smacks of unusual circumstances. Perhaps the hands of an angel guiding him into the water while his eyes are twitching in their sockets like gerbils trapped in Richard Gere’s ass?

All these things happened before my time, and I’m left to rely on legends, newspaper clippings and yellowed police reports. To say I’m a skeptic would be an understatement. If I can’t see, smell, taste, touch or hear something with my own five senses, it probably isn’t true. A tried and true empiricist to my core, you could say.

Which brings me to my grandfather, Harold Galway. You may have heard about him in the local papers. He was found dead in a car just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. My grandfather, who to the best of my knowledge never left Fremont a day in his life drove to Ohio on a whim in his wife’s car. The police said it was senility, but even I found the circumstances a little strange. Seriously, what the heck is in Cleveland? Perhaps he was there to visit the Irish Potato Famine memorial (marked by a 12-foor celtic cross), located on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River. But I highly doubt this.

And my grandmother was found back on the farm, dead from a shotgun blast to the head. Right at the base of her skull, execution style. It’s bad enough living a life of boredom on the family farm, raising kids and putting up with my grandfather, but to be obliterated by a shotgun really crosses an extreme line. Suspicions were placed on my grandfather, but without any conclusive evidence they couldn’t say for sure. And when your primary suspect turns up dead, the police aren’t exactly spending every waking minute trying to crack a case they already presume to be closed. Are they right? I don’t know. My grandfather was a nutty guy, but hardly a murderer. But then again, he wasn’t a traveler either. So we may never know.

We’re now full circle, back to my brother Grant. Was he just unlucky or stupid, or another piece of this tragic puzzle that flows in my veins?

The answer would come sooner than I thought. Because as I sat there pondering these family traditions that put Hank Williams to shame, a call came in from my uncle, Father William Galway. We were to go over Grant’s funeral plans, something Bill and I had just done less than a year before with my grandfather, his father. What used to be a special occasion of drinking and telling stories at the wake was turning into a melancholy routine.

But this meeting would be more than just a funeral… it would be something greatly metaphysical. And that, really, is when the adventure generations in the making was finally about to begin.

Also try another article under Poetry and Fiction
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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