The Funerals of Malachi Mooney

Edward Dyson

A NUMBER of Bugaree farmers, called from the fields, stood bareheaded about the sick-bed in attitudes of grievous constraint. Mrs. Mooney, seated on a low stool, wept sluice-heads, with wailing and querulous protestations. She had been replenishing the fountain of tears with whisky, and now cherished a great grievance against Malachi for dying, and the time chosen, and the manner thereof.

‘There’s hwhisky by the jar, min,’ said the dying man in a thin wheeze. ‘Be dhrinkin’.’

Hogan gravely assumed authority over the jar, and filled up for the company with judicial impartiality.

‘Good luck to ye, Mullocky!’ said Hogan, raising his cup.

Malachi waved his thin hand in expostulation. He was beyond all chances of fortune in this world, and knew it. Hogan temporized.

‘Good luck to ye, Mullocky, fwhere ye’re gin’.’

‘How dar’ ye doi, Mooney—how dar’ ye do id?’ wailed Mrs. Mooney, throwing her apron over her head, and rocking her body to and fro.

The company drank with one action, quite military in its precision, and then looked towards Malachi Mooney for further orders, and Malachi lay peacefully, happily dead with a smile on his lips, and the half-drained mug in his wasted fingers.

‘Oh, ye divil! T’ be dyin’ on me like dthis,’ moaned Mrs. Moony under her apron. ‘I‘m disaved in yeh, Mooney!—disaved!—disaved! Whurra whroo!’

Presently, perceiving that Malachi was beyond argument, she lifted up her voice and filled the house with dolorous cries,and wailed dutifully and monotonously far into the night, when the chant was taken up by eerie, wrinkled old crones, smoke-dried grandmothers, lent for the occasion by sympathetic families from the four quarters of the wilderness.

What a wake that was! It lasted all night, and right up to the time fixed for the funeral. There was no end to the willing drinkers, and no limit to the whisky. Indeed, the miraculous, manner in which tiny kegs, loaded to the bung, rolled from under the bed on demand, confirmed the local opinion that ‘Mullocky’ Mooney had more than a finger in the snug still, the smoke from which curled so artfully up from a charred trunk on Peter's Hill, and was thoughtfully given a supernatural origin by the neighbourly people of the district.

The funeral was advertised to move from the home of the deceased at 10 a.m. sharp. It was a long march to the Ballarat old cemetary, and an early start was deemed necessary in consideation of the fact that Hooley’s funeral, which happened a month earlier, had been fined for furious driving, by reason of the anxiety of the mourners to reach the graveyard before closing time.

The vehicles began to arrive at seven in the morning, the farmers and settlers driving, and their wives and ‘childer’ loaded in behind. A funeral was a ‘trate’ that didn’t happen every day, and it would have been considered a sin to deprive the ‘byes’ and ‘gurls’ of a bit of ‘enjyment’ that cost nothing. But many of the mourners had been at Mooney’s all night, ‘kapin’ the carpse company’, and daybreak disclosed a baker‘s dozen scattered about the farm, sleeping where they fell. One hung over the dog-leg fence ‘forninst’ the house, like an old shirt, with down-swinging arms. Canty, recumbent against the butt-end of a gum, rigid as a stump, slept so profoundly that the old gutteral Brahmapootra had perched on his bald and awful head, and was defying creation with senseless repetitions of a cracked clarion. Others reposed curled against the house, and several dotted the paddock like quaint hieroglyphics, objects of wonderment and noisy speculation to the familiar pigs.

Michael Morrisey was the first to drive up. Michael was to occupy an honorable and responsible position at the head of the procession. He had generously offered the use of his trap as a hearse, and it was appropriately draped for that solemn office. This vehicle was an American wagon, and it had been roofed over about two feet above the floor, and was ordinarily used for the conveyance of meat; Michael being a butcher. There was a door at the back, and just room for Mooney’s coffin. Quinn’s trotter, The Imp, was in the shafts. The Imp had been borrowed for the occasion because he was the only black horse in the district; but although his complexion was satisfactory his disposition quite unsuited him for so grave a duty. He was old and had a semi-bald tail; but there was a peculiar and aggressive jauntiness about the beast altogether out of harmony with his years and the situation in which he found himself. He held his head high, and pricked his ears, and his tail had a perky elevation that exhibited the bald butt to the worst advantage, and excited popular derision wherever he went.

When friends of the late Malachi Mooney arrived, they walked reverently into the room where Malachi lay still on the bed amidst his monumental candles, and gazed on him for a moment with pensive sadness, as in duty bound.

‘Pore mahn, he have the peaceful shmile on him!’

‘He have, he have!’

After repeating the sentiment several times, with nodding heads and much wise clicking of tongues, thus having paid their respects to the dead, they withdrew to the kitchen, and devoted themselves to the whisky.

The coffin had been delivered, and stood on two bush stools in the kitchen, decently covered with a black shawl. Mrs. Mooney sat at the foot, adjacent to a pannikin and continued to upbraid Mooney for his inconsiderate conduct in dying, and ‘lavin’ a lone lorn widdy’.

The funeral moved at eleven, when it was quite certain that only one baby keg remained. This keg Morissey took with him on the improvised hearse, as a wise provision for the first half of the journey, which lay through a barren land.

Many of the mourners had to be helped into their vehicles, and after the start many remained in only by a miracle. Morrissey led the way, The Imp stepping along with a frivolous kind of a four-footed jig that robbed the cortège at the outset of any pretence to dignity. O’Connor’s old wagonettet followed, O’Connor driving carefully strapped down; and Mrs. O’Connor and the ‘widdy’ occupying the back seat. Then came Clark in his spring-cart driving The Imp’s rival, Colleen. After him two or three miscellaneous vehicles, and then a long string of wood drays, each in charge of an unnaturally rigid and solemn Irishman perched on a candle-box, and each containing one or two women and three or four children, the former squatting composedly on the bottom of the dray with their substantial feet swinging out behind. A dozen sleepy, unshaven, unshorn agriculturists brought up the rest, riding two abreast on large, morbid horses that shuffled moodily through the dust with drooped heads and sagging under-lips.

The women in the drays maintained a shrill conversation along the line, but for the most part the men observed an owl-like decorum until the Travellers’ Rest was reached—that is, if the puffing of abbreviated black clays be not considered derogatory from true reverence. Meanwhile, the day being hot and the way dusty, a couple of short halts had served to drain the keg on the hearse. It was a gritty, drought-stricken funeral that descended upon the Travellers’ Rest, and when it moved again it left the wayside inn as dry as a powder-mill, having drunk up everything in the bar, and demolished the water-butt.

And now a great spirit of unrest took possession of any of the mourners and there was much whooping and many manifestations of a wild and unholy desire to convert the procession into something like a steeple-chase. The Imp was stepping out gaily with his deceitful double-shuffle, game as a pebble, despite his age and infirmities, but it was Clark with Colleen who led the breakaway.

Springing up with a whoop and whooroo, Clark whipped his mare alongside the hearse.

‘Morrissey,’ he cried, ‘I can bate that bumble-footed ould crock to the Pint beyant fer tin bob!’

‘Ye can’t,’ roared Morrissey, all the sportsman stirring within him.

‘Ye loi!’ Clark fairly shrieked, laying the whip on.

Michael lashed The Imp, and the veteran, scenting a contest, snorted defiance, and hit out with all four afflicted legs at once. Then, bounding over ruts, jumping the boulders, rocking and rearing, the vehicles went thundering through the dust, Colleen leading and The Imp following, flinging wide his legs with the action of a startled taramtula as he rushed down the hill, his body working with the antic spasms of two pigs in a bag.

The other drives flogged their stolid horses into unwanted activity, and in this way the mad funeral, strung out a mile long, tore through one affrighted township, scattering sows and sucklings, goats, dogs, poultry, and shrieking children, raising a dust that blotted out half the landscape, and filling men and women with a wonderment that lasted many days. Half a mile beyond, The Imp, with a triumphant tail and starting eyeballs, flung past Colleen with a rush and a neatly carrying away Clark’s near wheel, which went humming ahead down the well-worn track.

Morrissey obtained control over his blood horse and succeeded in pulling up about a mile further on and there he waited for the rest of the funeral in a humble and contrite to frame of mind. The procession arrived in section,s the heavy horses spent and reeking, and the mourners coated thickly with powdered clay that caked rapidly in the sun on their perspiring faces. The women, particularly the stout ones, tumbled and bumped out of all knowledge and restraint, were loud and fierce in their complainings; and the men agreed that it was ‘ondacent’ and ‘agin religion’ to conduct a funeral at a hard gallop. So Michael led away again, holding his trotter hard, and proceeded as reverently and demurely a possible with such a horse and so much whisky.

Matty Clark was reported unharmed, and busy fixing a skid in place of the lost wheel. It was expected that he would turn back, and be no more a disturbing element in his neighbour’s funeral.

The procession travelled into the outskirts of Ballarat without any further misadventure. In fact, most of the drivers and several of the ladies were asleep, and the weary plough-horses drowsed along at their own gait. The Imp, in spite of the apparent sprightliness of his action, was a very slow walker, for the reason that he generally dropped his hoofs in almost the spots from which he had just lifted them, and sometimes behind.

But at this point, cries of warning and of wonderment and disgust ran along the line, and looking back, Morrissey beheld Matty Clark in the distance, erect in his cart, gesticulating like a maniac, and rapidly overhauling the funeral. Matthew had fixed a sapling under his trap for a skid, and on this and one wheel he presently rattled up alongside the hearse again, oblivious oblivious to the threats and expostulations of the mourners.

‘Mike Morrissey, ye divil ye!’ yelled Mat, red, panting, and furious, ‘to the cemmethry fer a quid!’

‘Niver a won av me,’ replied Morrissey, hanging on to The Imp.

‘Yis, be the powers!’ roared Clark, shooting ahead, and slashing viciously at the hearse-horse as he passed.

Michael clung to the reins, and hauled with all his might, but The Imp was not to be denied. Squealing shrilly in reply to the challenge, he broke into his old, ungainly, link-motion combination of canter, amble, and trot, and spread himself all over the road in pursuit of Colleen.

A couple of horsemen put their nags to a gallop to head-off Matty Clark, and in this way the funeral broke in upon Ballarat, careering down Humphrey Street, and stirring the city to its depths.

Fortunately Colleen was headed just before reaching the main thoroughfare, and Daly and O’Mara seized upon Matty, who was a small, bristly Hibernian, and fought like a peccary. They got him down and tied him up. Then, after throwing their turbulent captive into the cart, O’Hara sat on his chest and led the horses, and Daly, driving Colleen, now blown and humbled, took up a subordinate position at the tail of the procession; while the funeral, which had paused collect itself once more, moved on, followed by a delighted crowd of children and many envious adults.

Many astonishing funerals had come up out of Bungaree into Ballarat East, but Malachi Mooney’s funeral was the most weird and wonderful that ever invaded any town on the Australian continent and news of it seemed to have electric passage through the place. The improvised hearse with the well-intentioned effort to rig a pair of plumes of cocks’ feathers upon it, the strange, jocund horse that hauled it and the great, red, clayed-up, hairy, wild eyed Galway man driving were alone sufficient to have brought the whole population into Bridge Street; but with the added attractions—the awful procession of drays, their dusty kiln-dried occupants, and the last vehicle riding jauntily on its skid—the funeral simply stopped business, took possession of the town, and drew the people after it in crowds.

Morrissey had the reins wound about his wrists, and with his heels dug in, his eyes protruding, and all his faculties intensely concentrated, hung to The Imp. The matrons still swung their stout feet, and here and there a worn-out mourner slept in his dray—Heffernan and Moore with their heads suspended over the tail and their mouths open. The police followed too, and eyed the procession dubiously, half inclined to arrest the whole funeral; but by exercising the severest self-restraint and the greatest caution the mourners contrived to pull through, and arrived at the cemetery at half-past four, with the coffin in good order and condition.

After the usual preliminaries the coffin was carried to the graveside by four of the late Mooney’s most intimate frlends, and, considering all things, their progress down the path was not as devious as might have been expected, but they landed the pine casket with a dump that produced the greatest sensation of the day. The coffin-lid had not been screwed down, and it slipped to one side, making a revelation. There were many cries and much commotion when it was seen that the coffin contained packages of sugar and tea and miscellaneous groceries, and nothing more. Malachi Mooney was not there! Consternation sat whitely on every face, and the women crossed themselves vigorously.

‘He’s bin shpirited away!’ wailed the ‘widdy’.

‘Did annywon see us dthrop him?’ asked the dazed Morrissey in a small, awed voice.

Flynn now remembered that he had packed the groceries in the coffin the day before. He it was who carted the casket out from Ballarat; and having goods to carry at the same time he packed them into the ‘piner’ for ‘convanience’, and by reason of the thirst that came upon him, and possessed him for two days, ‘disremimbered ivirything aftherwards’.

In truth the late Malachi Mooney still lay undisturbed upon the bed in his humble home in Bungaree, and the last of the yard-long candles guttered in the brass-sockets at his head. The corpse had been forgotten! And this is how Malachi Mooney came to have two funerals.

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