The Devils Room – Irish Gothic Comedy – by Joe Fegan


  A few mornings later Smart went to Ballymorda to inquire about getting a contractor to remove the wall in the Devil’s room. He had only been joking about the skylight, but the idea of rejoining the blighted alcove to the rest of the house had seemed a good one, and he thought he’d solicit a bid or two and see how much it would cost.

His first stop was at The Drowning Man for a word with Seamus Gall. The ruddy barkeep — who looked, Smart thought, like a leprechaun on steroids — was at his post, washing glasses from the night before and setting things to right before the midday trade. He began to pour a Guinness as soon as he saw Smart walk in, although it was only 10 a.m.

“Ah Seamus, you’re a wonder,” Smart said as he pulled up a barstool. “A genuine psychic, you are. A man has only to think ‘refreshment’ — not say it — and you begin to pour.” “To tell you the truth, Mr. Smart,” Gall grinned, “it’s what 95% of me customers seem to want, no matter the time of day. So maybe I’m less the wonder and more the creature of habit.” They made small talk as they waited for the foam to turn to beer, and Gall mentioned that it was lucky he had the pub to fall back on, because his contracting business had been slack since Smart had finished his plumbing renovations at Mordalee. “You wouldn’t have any other projects up your sleeve now, would you, Mr. Smart?” Gall asked hopefully. “It just so happens — there’s your mind-reading again, Seamus — it just so happens I do have another job to let out, if you’d be interested. Or maybe you can recommend someone who can do things with a bit of finesse. This would involve renovating a room.”

“Well, plasterwork and such really isn’t my forte, Mr. Smart, but I’d be glad to stop out to Mordalee and look at it with you. If I felt it was over my head, I’d recommend someone good to you.” “I know you would, Seamus. It’s that walled-off room, the one Fergus called the Devil’s room, of all things. Are you familiar with that tale?” Smart had been addressing his stout rather than Gall, but when he looked at the bluff publican he was surprised at the change that seemed to have come over him. He’d blanched, and his smile had gone fixed and cold, more of a grimace. Mechanically drying glasses and wiping the counter, he didn’t answer immediately.

Finally he said: “Aye, I’ve heard that story. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be your man for that sort of job, so. All thumbs when it comes to framing and plastering, as I said.” “But what about a recommendation then, Seamus? You said you knew of someone. We’ve been very pleased with Shaughnessy’s work on the roof — do you think he’d be the one for this job?” Gall didn’t look directly at him, and suddenly seemed pressed for time. “No, I don’t think so, Mr. Smart. Not in his line at all. He’s your man for the big outside jobs, but not the fine work inside. You might have to go to Dergh for that, and I’m not so familiar with those people.”

Smart found this hard to believe; he knew for a fact that nearly everyone in Ballymorda was related, by blood or marriage or both, to someone in Dergh. Indeed, Doc Gilchrist had told him that the entire county was one extended family, if you weren’t too strict about your definitions. The idea that Gall, a publican and contractor, wouldn’t know of a plasterer in Dergh was almost ludicrous. But clearly Gall was preoccupied with something. He kept checking his watch as Smart, nonplussed, took another tug at his stout.

Soon Gall left the bar and went into the back room. Smart continued to drink, waiting for Gall to return, but he never did. This was very unlike him — usually he was the soul of sociability. Shaughnessy the roofer walked in just as Smart was finishing his pint, and gave him a loud greeting. “Mr. Smart, you’re a fine sight of a morning at The Drowning Man, so you are sir. What brings you out at cock’s crow, so to speak?”

Smart explained that he’d come for a word with Gall about a job, but that that worthy had disappeared without a trace after begging off. Very odd behavior, Smart felt compelled to note. “That it t’is, yes,” Shaughnessy agreed, leaning over the bar and craning his neck to see where Gall might be concealing himself. “Very unlike Seamus Gall,” said Shaughnessy. “I said, VERY UNLIKE SEAMUS GALL TO LEAVE A CUSTOMER HIGH AND DRY AT THE BAR!” Gall still failed to appear. “He seems to have gone out of the building,” Smart remarked.

“Impossible, Mr. Smart. He wouldn’t do that at this hour. He must be in the basement or taking a call or tapping a kidney. But if he’s being a boor, I’ll just help meself so, and leave him the tariff but no tip, seeing the lack of service today.” With that Shaughnessy stepped behind the bar and deftly poured himself a pint, returning to the customer side to wait for it to stop foaming. “Now then,” Shaughnessy said as he lit a cigarette, “what’s the job you have in mind? Gall may not care for honest work, but I do.” Smart laughed; they both knew Gall was as hard working a man as was to be found in Ballymorda, his gallivanting with local wenches notwithstanding. “Well,” said Smart, “we’re thinking of redoing that room off the top of the stairs — you know, to the right of the landing. You were working over it when you redid the roof. There was a nasty hole near there, if I remember correctly.”

Shaughnessy, startled, looked Smart in the eye. “Not the Devil’s room, now, is it?” “That’s the one. We’d like to take out that silly wall and open up that space. It’d make a nice big guest room, I’m thinking.” Shaughnessy — known for being talkative — was silent. He stared hard at his pint, as if trying to speed the transformation so he could drink it down and be done with it. But Guinness takes several minutes before it can be drunk, and the two sat in silence for most of that time as Shaughnessy fidgeted. Finally Smart spoke: “Well, what do you think? I know you’re a roofer, so if you don’t want to tackle it, could you suggest someone? What about that fellow from Kirklally who was out a few days for plastering while you were there — what was his name?” Shaughnessy didn’t answer; he was staring so intently at his glass that Smart thought he might not have heard him. He was about to speak again when the roofer said: “Horan? He does good work but not that kind of work, I don’t think.”

“That kind of work? What do you mean? I thought it would be exactly his kind of work.” Smart was beginning to feel irked. What was it with these people? They complained of being short of work, then spurned the work you offered.

“Horan is a good plasterer and a good Catholic, Mr. Smart. I very much doubt he’d have a hand in taking down that wall. Nor would I, sir, for all the money in the United States of America.” Smart was stunned; he was not only being turned down, but insulted as well. This was the first time he’d encountered the infamous Irish “begrudgery” he’d been warned of by Doc Gilchrist, who’d said there was a dark side to his countrymen. Smart felt a hot rejoinder welling up, but before he had a chance to reply, Shaughnessy stood, drained off his pint, and made quickly for the door. He turned before he got out, though, and seemed to repent a bit.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Smart, if I’ve been short with you. But you’d be well-advised to think long and hard before taking down that wall. It’s not sacred — the opposite, really — but it’s our history. And I don’t think you’ll find anyone in this town — or in this county — to do the job for you. Good day, sir.”

With that the roofer left the pub, and Smart found himself alone in The Drowning Man, a place where there usually weren’t enough seats for the patrons. He shook his head, dazed. What had he said? Were they all so foolish as to think that the story about the Devil had been anything but a myth? Or was this a subtle kind of rebuke, a putting in his place of the rich American who’d come in and usurped the Brimstons? He found it hard to believe the latter; there hadn’t been a trace of it in all his dealings with the locals up till now. In fact, people seemed to go out of their way to make his acquaintance and let him know that he and Libby were welcome among them. They’d even gone to the local church once or twice, but had stopped when they’d noticed that they were the only congregants who didn’t rise to take communion. He and Libby wanted to fit in, but they weren’t quite ready to join the Catholic Church to do so.

Smart shook his head again, not quite believing that Gall had actually left the building and wasn’t coming back. He took money from his wallet and laid it on the bar. And, like Shaughnessy, he didn’t leave a tip.