Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly and the denizens of Ballybucklebo first appeared in 1995 in my monthly column in Stitches: The Journal of Medical Humour. It was suggested to me that these characters might form the foundation for a novel.
I had just finished Pray for Us Sinners, and hesitating to delve once more into the misery of the Ulster Troubles, I found the idea of something lighter to be appealing. An Irish Country Doctor began to take shape.
Like Only Wounded and Pray for Us Sinners, the book is set in the northeast corner of Ireland, but unlike its predecessors, which I strove to make historically accurate, this story has taken some liberties with geography and time.
The setting is a fictional village, the name of which came from my high-school French teacher who, enraged by my inability to conjugate irregular verbs, yelled, “Taylor, you’re stupid enough to come from Ballybucklebo.” Those of an etymological bent may wish to know what the name means. Bally (Irish, baile) is a townland—a mediaeval geographic term encompassing a small village and the surrounding farms, Buachaill means “boy,” and bó is a cow. In Bailebuchaillbó, or Ballybucklebo—the townland of the boy’s cow—time and place are as skewed as they are in Brigadoon.
Little Irish is spoken in the North, but I have been at pains to use the Ulster dialect. It is rich and colourful, but often incomprehensible to one not from that part of the world. For those who may have some difficulty, I have taken the liberty of appending a glossary (page 345).
My attention to the spoken idiom is as accurate as I can make it; however, the purist will note that in 1964, the Twelfth of July fell on a Sunday, not a Thursday, and Seamus Heaney’s first book of poetry was not published until 1966. No salmon river called the Bucklebo flows through north County Down. The nearest is the Shimna River in the Mourne Mountains. But everything else is as accurate as extensive reading and memory permit.
The rural Ulster that I have portrayed has vanished. The farms and villages still look much as they did, but the simplicity of rural life has been banished by the Troubles and the all-pervasive influence of television. The automatic respect for their learning shown to those at the top of the village hierarchy—doctor, teacher, minister, and priest—is a thing of the past, but men like O’Reilly were common when I was a very junior doctor. And on that subject, may I please lay to rest a question I am frequently asked by readers of my column in Stitches? Barry Laverty and Patrick Taylor are not one and the same. Doctor F. F. O’Reilly is a figment of my troubled mind, despite the efforts of some of my expatriate Ulster friends to see in him a respected—if unorthodox—medical practitioner of the time. Lady Macbeth does owe her being to our demoniacally possessed cat, Minnie, and Arthur Guinness owes his to a black Labrador, now long gone but who had an insatiable thirst for Foster’s lager. All the other characters are composites, drawn from my imagination and from my experiences as a rural GP.
You Can’t Get There
Barry Laverty—Doctor Barry Laverty—his houseman’s year just finished, ink barely dry on his degree, pulled his beat-up Volkswagen Beetle to the side of the road and peered at a map lying on the passenger seat. Six Road Ends was clearly marked. He stared through the car’s insect-splattered windscreen. Judging by the maze of narrow country roads that ran one into the other just up ahead, somewhere at the end of one of those blackthorn-hedged byways lay the village of Ballybucklebo. But which road should he take? And, he reminded himself, there was more to that question than simple geography.
Most of his graduating classmates from the medical school of the Queen’s University of Belfast had clear plans for their careers. But he hadn’t a clue. General practice? Specialize? And if so, which speciality? Barry shrugged. He was twenty-four, single, no responsibilities. He knew he had all the time in the world to think about his medical future, but his immediate prospects might not be bright if he were late for his five o’clock appointment, and though finding a direction for his life might be important, his most pressing need was to earn enough to pay off the loan on the car.
He scowled at the map and retraced the road he had travelled from Belfast, but the Six Road Ends lay near the margin of the paper. No Ballybucklebo in sight. What to do?
He looked up, and as he did he glimpsed himself in the rearview mirror. Blue eyes looked back at him from a clean-shaven oval face. His tie was askew. No matter how carefully he tied the thing, the knot always managed to wander off under one collar tip. He understood the importance of first impressions and did not want to look scruffy. He tugged the tie back into place, then tried to smooth down the cowlick on the crown of his fair hair, but up it popped. He shrugged. It would just have to stay that way. He wasn’t going to a beauty contest—it was his medical credentials that would be scrutinized. At least his hair was cut short, not like the style affected by that new musical group, the Beatles.
One last glance at the map confirmed that it would be of no help in finding his destination. Perhaps, he thought, there would be a signpost at the junction. He got out of the vehicle, and the springs creaked. Brunhilde, as he called his car, was protesting about the weight of his worldly goods: two suitcases, one with his meagre wardrobe, the other crammed with medical texts; a doctor’s medical bag tucked under the bonnet; and a fly rod, creel, and hip waders lying in the backseat. Not much to show for someone possessing a medical degree, he thought, but with any luck his finances would soon take a turn for the better—if he could just find Ballybucklebo.
He leant against the car door, conscious that his five-foot-eight, slightly built frame barely gave him enough height to peer over Brunhilde’s domed roof, and even standing on tiptoe he could see no evidence of a signpost. Perhaps it was hidden behind the hedges.
He walked to the junction and looked around to find a grave deficiency of signposts. Maybe Ballybucklebo’s like Brigadoon, he thought, and only appears every hundred years. I’d better start humming “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and hope to God one of the little people shows up to give me directions.
He walked back to the car in the warmth of the Ulster afternoon, breathing in the gorse’s perfume from the little fields at either side of the road. He heard the liquid notes of a blackbird hiding in the fuchsia that grew wild in the hedgerow, the flowers drooping purple and scarlet in the summer air. Somewhere a cow lowed in basso counterpoint to the blackbird’s treble.
Barry savoured the moment. He might be unclear about what his future held, but one thing was certain. Nothing could ever persuade him that there was anywhere, anywhere at all, he would choose to live other than here in Northern Ireland.
No map, no signpost, and no little people, he thought as he approached the car. I’ll just have to pick a road and . . . He was pleasantly surprised to see a figure mounted on a bicycle crest the low hill and pedal sedately along the road.
“Excuse me.” Barry stepped into the path of the oncoming cyclist. “Excuse me.” The cyclist wobbled, braked, and stood, one foot on the ground and the other on a pedal. For a moment Barry wondered if his hopes of meeting a leprechaun had been fulfilled. “Good afternoon,” he said.
He was addressing a gangly youth, innocent face half hidden under a Paddy hat, but not hidden well enough to disguise a set of buckteeth that Barry decided would be the envy of every hare in the Six Counties. He carried a pitchfork over one shoulder and wore a black worsted waistcoat over a collarless shirt. His tweed trousers were tied at the knees with leather thongs that the locals called “nicky tams.”
“Grand day,” he remarked.
“Och, aye. Grand. Hay’s coming along fine, so it is.” The youth picked his nose.
“I wonder if you could help me?”
“Aye?” The cyclist lifted his hat and scratched his ginger hair. “Maybe.”
“I’m looking for Ballybucklebo.”
“Ballybucklebo?” His brow knitted, and the head scratching increased.
“Can you tell me how to get there?”
“Ballybucklebo?” He pursed his lips. “Boys-a-boys, thon’s a grand wee place, so it is.”
Barry tried not to let his growing exasperation show. “I’m sure it is, but I have to get there by five.”
“Five? Today, like?”
“Mmm.” Barry bit back the words “No. In the year 2000.” He waited.
The youth fumbled in the fob pocket of his waistcoat, produced a pocketwatch, and consulted it, frowning and muttering to himself. He looked at Barry. “Five? You’ve no much time left.”
“I know that. If you could just—”
“Och, aye.” He pointed to the road that lay straight ahead. “Take that road.”
“Aye. Follow your nose ’til you come to Willy John McCoubrey’s red barn.”
“Red barn. Right.”
“Now you don’t turn there.”
“Not at all. Keep right on. You’ll see a black-and-white cow in a field—unless Willy John has her in the red barn for milking. Now go past her, and take the road to your right.” As he spoke, the youth pointed to the left side of the road.
Barry felt a mite confused. “First right past the black-and-white cow?”
“That’s her,” he said, continuing to point to the left. “From there on, it’s only a wee doddle. Mind you, sir . . .” He started to mount his rusty machine. Then he delivered the rest of the sentence with the solemnity of a priest giving the Benediction: “. . . if I’d been you, I wouldn’t have tried to get to Ballybucklebo from here in the first place.”
Barry looked sharply at his companion. The youth’s face showed not the least suggestion that he had been anything other than serious.
“Thank you,” said Barry, stifling his desire to laugh. “Thank you very much. Oh, and by the way, you wouldn’t happen to know the doctor there?”
The youth’s eyebrows shot upwards. His eyes widened, and he let go a long low whistle before he said, “Himself? Doctor O’Reilly? By God, I do, sir. In soul, I do.” With that, he mounted and pedalled furiously away.
Barry climbed into Brunhilde and wondered why his advisor had suddenly taken flight at the mere mention of Doctor O’Reilly. Well, he thought, if Willy John’s cow was in the right field, he’d soon find out. His appointment at five was with none other than Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly.
Copyright © 2004, 2007 by Patrick Taylor. All rights reserved