Wednesday 23 January 2019

Con Houlihan: Stirring tales of the Old West

Most of my generation began our serious reading when we entered the upper classes in primary school. We began with books about the Old West that we borrowed from the library and we swapped Western magazines. This was a great foundation: the plots may have been romantic and dramatic, but most of the writing was good.

A man who wrote under the name Max Brand was a Professor of Latin and Greek in the University of New Mexico. His English was a model for any student. As we followed the adventures of Hopalong Cassidy, we acquired new words such as hombre and flapjack and maverick and tortilla and derringer -- a derringer was a small revolver that editors of newspapers kept handy to deal with angry customers.

All this may sound romantic but much of it was not fiction. Davey Crockett, the King of the Wild Frontier, was a very real person. He joined the Texan force to fight against the Mexicans at the battle of the Alamo and became famous for his bravery but it cost him his life. The Texans in that battle was composed mainly of Irish men. Many of them lost their lives.

Bat Masterson was also a very real person. He lowered the crime rate and put manners on the inhabitants of Tombstone City. Perhaps the most substantial of all those figures was Pat Garrett, a sheriff in Texas, who set out to bring Billy The Kid to justice.

Billy's real name was McCarthy but we have no need to be proud of him. He was a ruthless killer who helped keep the odds in his own favour by using a double-barrelled shotgun. Pat found it very hard to track him down because people feared him or admired him. Eventually, after quite a long time Pat found out that he was hiding in a village on the Mexican border. He confronted him in a darkened bedroom. If Billy hadn't spoken, he might have escaped but he said "Who goes there?" And thus gave his position away. Pat shot him very dead.

There was romance and drama in the Old West but we tend to forget all the bravery and hardship that created it. The people who set out in the covered wagons were going to new territory.


They had to cross turbulent rivers and sometimes they had to face ground so steep that the horses got tired and the cattle had to be used for drawing the wagons. And there was always the danger of the Indians. Then when the newcomers came to their farms, they had to build their log cabins and cut down trees so their land could be arable.

This demanded great energy and a very large amount of knowledge. America was created by those pioneers. Surprisingly we never hear of the Wild East, always the Wild West but gangsters prevailed in the big cities on the east coast.

The greatest trouble facing the newcomers was loneliness. People lived several miles apart and, until the coming of the railways, a great many places were in isolation. A map of the early America would show that most of the big towns were in California. This was due to Spanish influence.

Loneliness cost more lives than did the Indians. You will seldom hear about battles with the Indians because there were so very few. The only famous battle in the Old West was the Gunfight at the OK Corral. That lasted about 10 minutes. It was fought between two American families. There was another battle -- Custer's Last Stand. It wasn't a real battle: the Indians lured Custer into a trap. Most of his army perished.

Many of the films about the West are romantic fiction. Stagecoach is the most famous. It is supposed to be a classic but it has no sense of reality. The big companies were happy to get a famous star such as John Wayne and build a story around him.

Nevertheless, many of those films are very entertaining. In almost all of them you will see horses crossing water. It is a standard picture. And in almost all of them you will see the bad men lying very dead in very dusty streets. And so young people are given lessons in morality, though, of course, there is more than an ounce of unreality.

No hero ever drew two six guns at the same time because a Colt.45 is like a small cannon but boys accept all this. In the old days in Cork there was a famous cinema called The Assembly Rooms. It showed a double feature every afternoon.

The first was always a Western and one day a voice shouted out from the audience: "There is half an hour gone and there isn't an Indian in sight." When the first motor car appeared in a Western film, it signalled the death of the genre but the good times had been great.

If you see your children reading books about the Old West, do not discourage them because they are acquiring a sense of prose that will stand to them in school.

There is a famous story that illustrates the loneliness of the Old West. William and Martha go to their new farm and build their log cabin and prepare their land. It is long and arduous work and they are both happy when it is more or less completed but after a while William notices that Martha is depressed and he asks her why. She says: "Because I have no woman to talk to."

Eventually, a new couple, Robert and Mary, arrive and build their log cabin and settle down. Now Martha is in great form and William is happy but after a while he notices that Martha is again depressed and again he asks her why. And she says: "Because we have no third woman to talk about."

Fogra: Best wishes for a happy birthday go to Dermot McDermott, a leading member of the staff of Irish Runner Magazine

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