It’s hard to know just how ‘rough’ Jack’s gang was. He suggests they were ‘as rough a crowd as there was in Ireland’. But his stories of the gang tend to concern the twenty of them, Jack’s five brothers included, meeting at Tuckmill Cross in the summer for a game of football or maybe pitch ’n’ toss or perhaps a crack at the skittles. They did frequently clamber over the wall into the orchard of the nearby Saunders Grove estate to steal a few apples, and there is much talk of gambling and cards, but he only tells of one occasion when they came before the law. He and a brother chanced upon some fellows from Mayo who were causing a rumpus outside Quinn’s Pub in Baltinglass. Jack swears his brother was simply counselling them to pipe down when one lad started rolling up his sleeves for a fight. ‘Oh be the holy!’ recalls Jack delightedly of the subsequent brawl, ‘you should have heard them squeal!’ However, the advantage ultimately went the way of Mayo when a garda with ‘a bone to pick’ arrived on the scene. ‘We were fined thirty bob each and bound to the peace for a year.’ Fifty years later, Jack still can’t help smarting that the Mayo lads got away scot-free.
Jack was the third and smallest of the O’Neill brothers – ‘but I wasn’t the softest, no way’. He was born at Tuckmill in a house his father rented from Saunders Grove for twenty-five pounds a year. The house was built as a pub for Travellers and farmers coming to and from the weekly Baltinglass Fair. It had been the scene of a violent murder some years earlier when a woman shot her husband as he came down the stairs. ‘We all used to hear him coming down the stairs again or pushing milk jugs over. You’d think someone was after leaving in the cat but then you’d look and by the curse of God there wouldn’t be a cat anywhere.’ Jack says all this very matter-of-factly. His sympathies clearly lie with the ghost. Perhaps, he suggests, the poor ghost might strike up a fancy with the unfortunate servant girl who ‘got in trouble’ with old Colonel Saunders and was duly bumped off by the gardener. ‘I often heard people saying her screams could be heard all along the river valley once a year.’
Tuckmill was a lively place for a young fellow. Twice a day the Sallins to Tullow train would rattle through the fields behind the house ‘by jayzus when the midday train went past, even the horses knew that meant dinner time!’ On Tuesday mornings, the brothers watched the mountain farmers coming down from the Glen of Imaal to drive their cattle and sheep to the fair in Baltinglass. At weekends, they would sometimes cycle up to Dublin to watch a match in Croke Park. ‘We’d go as far as Tallaght, then throw our old bikes down anywhere we liked and get the tram into the Pillar. The bikes would still be there when we come back. But now they’d have it gone before you leave it down.’
One of the more traumatic episodes in Jack’s life occurred when his baby brother toddled into a field of corn that their father was cutting at the time with a horse-drawn harvester. ‘The foot was cut straight across the ankle and how he didn’t cut the two of them, no one will ever know.’ Jack carried his brother’s severed foot home. By fortune, a neighbour in the Irish Guards, on leave from England, was passing in his car. He pulled off his shirt, wrapped it around the foot to stem the blood and sped off to hospital with Jack’s brother and father. Jack, left holding the severed foot, started for home. ‘I was only six year old and I didn’t know the differ.’ A herdsman from Cavan called Larry Smith found Jack at the bridge and took the foot. ‘That was the last I saw of it.’ As for his brother, ‘He lived to be a tough and contrary fellow – I often said they cut the wrong end of him!’ He had a leg made for him by a mechanic in Baltinglass and learned to ride a bike by using a cocoa tin for a pedal.
Jack’s school days in Baltinglass were not ideal. ‘The head teacher would slap us from morning to night. There were three other teachers in it but the only nice one was Mr Doyle and he died of TB.’ Moreover, everything was taught in Irish, a language Jack struggled to grasp. ‘And I’d say eighty per cent of the two hundred lads who were at that school went to England during the war where their Irish wasn’t worth a feck.’ Jack’s oldest brother was among those who emigrated.
When he was fourteen years old, Jack began work as an apprentice builder to his father. Together they built a sawmill and some sheds for Mr Neill’s fledgling timber business. Then they moved on to building cottages. His father was an excellent teacher and made sure all his sons worked hard. ‘We were workers all back along the line,’ says Jack proudly. ‘Work was no trouble to us.’
By 1945, Jack was in a position to set up his own building business. ‘I started with one old Major tractor after the war and I made a trailer. I paid for the tractor within a year but I tell you, there was feck all in the building at that time. The lad filling potholes on the road made as much as a builder in that time. And I had to rear eleven children on it.’
The house that Jack built for his wife, Sheila, and their eleven children is one of perhaps twenty houses in counties Wicklow and Carlow he constructed. It is located within full view of Tuckmill Cross where he and the boys used to gather on summer’s evenings. Most of the brothers are dead now but Jack is still to the good, shifting from philosophical ponderings on modern warfare to heartbreakingly funny reminiscences. Every Sunday, he rambles up to the village of Grangecon for a pint in Mrs Moore’s establishment. ‘It’s good to get out for an old chat. I’ll go while I’m able because I’m going to be dead long enough.’