Some 15 years ago, my parents took a trip to the old familial sod in Ireland. They were traveling with my father’s cousin Barbara and her husband Joe. For as near as we can tell, it was the first time a Tallon from our clutch had returned across the pond since arriving in New York City sometime in the mid 1800s.
They were there for a holiday: to see with their own eyes the forty shades of green, to visit the Mother of all Pubs at the St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin and sample a pint of Guinness crafted from the dark waters of the Liffy. And if the opportunity arose, they were prepared to dance with leprechauns or lift a few bob from a pot-o-gold, should they find one.
Tied into the trip, however, were also the stirrings of a genealogical quest to find out who The Tallons were, and from whom we had descended. After emigrating to the United States, my father’s family made homes in various neighborhoods and tenement hells around New York City for generations — exactly how many generations we are still not sure. But when my Da was just an infant, his parents moved their family upstate to Binghamton, NY and away from the Brooklyn brood. My Da rarely visited his extended family back in the borough; and growing up, my brothers and I had only the faintest of contact with the Ebbets-Field-adjacent part of the clan. Yet, somewhere along the way, Da wanted a better understanding of our place in the scope of time.
That probably happened when he looked around at his three boys and realized that in the grandest scheme of things, once we have children, we’re all just middle men.
So after decades of short weekend vacations, often to Washington, DC or the Saratoga Race Track, my mother and father headed off to Ireland.
A year before that holiday the New York Times ran a story about The Wicklow Way, an old post road (and current hiking trail) that runs from Dublin City to Clonegal in County Carlow, a region — according to family lore — to which we’d been chased by a band of angry Frenchmen sometime in the late 13th Century.
According to the article in The Times, along the Wicklow Way there sits an establishment called Tallon’s Pub, better known locally by a different name altogether; that name intrigued the group and they decided it was worth a look.
My folks and Da’s cousins knocked around Wicklow for a day, asking questions about the pub and any Tallons that might still be in the area. There are many of us still there, and, as it happens, the pub has been firmly held in Talloned hands since it opened in the late 1780s.
Upon arrival at the establishment (a stone hovel, just large enough for four stools and a few tables in the corner) the publican, a short and scantily-toothed woman in her 50s, greeted them warmly. They were the only customers she’d had in a few days.
She herself was a Tallon, and they got to talking about the mutual family name. Over the course of a few pints, she was kind enough to pull the leather-bound record book from under the cash box in the till. It was replete with royal charters on parchment and 18th-century dispensations to sell booze under the authority of the Crown. That crown, of course, was foreign and it weighed sorely upon the proud Fenian heads of the Wicklow Mountain men. The governess noted that plans for The Rising of the Moon in 1798 were said to have been discussed in this very pub, likely with pro-generative Tallons on either side of the bar, ready to stir up a mess of trouble for the Brits.
Those Brits, as occupiers, knew that they had to allow for a certain amount of drinking amongst the indigenous population, but they also feared booze-and-romantic-gesture-fueled rebellion, and as such there were a number of blue laws established to regulate the publican’s affairs. One of those laws was the provision that on Sundays no Irishman could drink within three miles of his own home. This, effectively, shut down local pubs like Tallon’s one day of the week and the sheer mean-spiritedness of the decree might have drawn an earlier me to the field of battle, pint in one hand, pike in the other.
But on a Sunday, sometime when the great powers were fretting over the fate of Napoleon’s Army and Wellington’s fleet, a member of the Carlow constabulary wandered down the Wicklow Way and noted that the craic was overly good at Tallon’s Pub. He entered the doorway, saw it was jammed to the rafters with locals and was ready to shut the place down permanently, as they were in blatant violation of an order from the Crown.
Fortunately, the family has long been blessed with a silvery tongue and current publican Tallon was able to talk the officer down by explaining that, just hours before, his heifer was with calf, the calf was breech, and that without immediate intervention, both calf and cow would surely have died. Sweet Jesus, you should’a heard her wail! Sweet Jesus, the gathering storm! Sweet Jesus, the troubles it would’a caused come the winter!
He’d sent the boys running through the fields and over the stones to fetch help from near and far. God bless the neighbors. They were the finest neighbors in the entirety of the world and when they heard that it was the Tallons in need, they came on the fly and were able — through strong rope, joint action and the grace of a loving God — to save both heifer and calf, and now wouldn’t it a been both a shame and a sin to turn them away from the bottles after such excitement and decency? And did not the Lord Jesus Himself turn water to wine? Sure, He did. Sure, He did. And what day do ya’ tink that happened? ’Twas fer a wedding, it ’twas. The Wedding at Canna, it ’twas . . . and on a Sunday, fer sure, it ’twas!
That explanation and the proffer of free drink turned the officer’s mind, and a legendary session was held under the consent of the Crown. From that day forward, for several hundred years now, those along the Wicklow Way have called the bar The Dying Cow.
Most of the locals are still farmers, and many of them are my blood relations. To them I raise my glass.
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Yet, despite the warmth of the tale told by the pub’s owner, when my parents’ party walked out of the doors several hours later, smelling heavily of tobacco and vaguely of mold, cousin Barbara turned to my father and said, “Thank Christ some of us were smart enough to get on a damn boat.”
Yes, Cousin Barbara, yes, but . . .
For all the hungry farmhands, dentally-challenged bartenders and world-weary day laborers that make up the bushier, central sections of the family tree, there are also glorious rogues, rebels and reprobates that shoot heavenward in our memory, even as their souls might be touring some of the sandier stretches of Hades. Even though the Tallons have, as any family would, an abundance of serfs driven against the shores of familial time, in there somewhere are also the light-hearted rebels, the silver-tongued publicans and the deep-souled poets who could make women swoon and get men to walk through fire for a cause greater than themselves. And all we’ve got to do to find them is to look hard enough and hope somebody wrote it all down.
I, for one, would give a year of life to be seated around a bottle of whiskey learning the secret sign to let the lads know at which hour to rise up against a tyrant. Wouldn’t you? I’d trade all the hours I’ve spent grading papers or designing “exciting” new ways to teach about bimetalism and agrarian debt in the late 19th century to have been a half-drunk farmer on the day they saved that calf. Can you imagine a better tale to tell to your grandchildren, or to have told on your behalf five generations later?
Life should be lived for the stories.
And on that note, I’d like to take a moment and have a brief conversation with my yet-to-be-born progeny who, in stumbling through the archives of this early digital age, have happened across my words.
Here I sit, still happily a single man at 44 years of age, in an apartment very near an active volcano in the middle of the country known as Guatemala. I can hear the music playing and the women laughing in the café across the cobbled street from my writer’s carrel. A café towards which I’ll be making my way as soon as I’ve finished this story. I do so wish you could join me for a tipple; you’d be amazed how cheap booze is in my day!
My older brother, James Patrick, is the one who picked up the torch of our generation’s genealogical inquiries after the folks made their trip to Ireland all those years ago. And he’s discovered his own fair share of humor, intrigue and iniquity to which we now turn. Ah, you should know him, too.
The family owes brother J.P. a debt of gratitude for actually doing the long hours of archival research to unearth some of the stories the Tallons have recorded on this side of the pond. Or, maybe better said, stories that have been recorded for us by various courts, police officers and salacious newspaper men in the past century or so. And, as my brother would counsel, the story is by no means complete and we need to patiently stitch together details of property ownership, criminal complaint, parish membership and divorce proceedings before we can truly claim a Tallon for our own.
Which breaks my heart as I so very much want to assert absolute relation with one young sailor named John Tallon, who, according to the Brooklyn Eagle on January 14, 1892, was immediately arrested when he set foot on American soil. It was not a long mention in the paper, but an auspicious one. It read, in full: The German ship Herman from Dublin came into port this morning flying a flag of distress. On December 2, Charles Miller, aged 36, and John Tallon, age 24, two seamen, broke into the cargo of champagne and high wines and had been gloriously drunk ever since. They were arrested by the New York Police.
Call me a romantic, or call me a fool, but an ancestor that was “gloriously drunk” on “high wines and champagnes” for six full weeks at sea is a hero in my sloppily handwritten book. My fingers are crossed that we can find more evidence to piece him into the official register in the coming years. And given what we know about some of the characters in the direct lineage . . . let’s just say that John wouldn’t have felt a stranger.
We do know, absolutely, that Richard Tallon is my great-great-grandfather. The earliest record of “Dickie” we’ve found places him near the Five Points District of Lower Manhattan, on 72 New Chambers Street, in 1882. His line of work at the time was listed as “shoes.” The next time he appears in a city register is in 1889 when, rather prosaically, his line of work has changed to “milk.” But no ordinary milkman was Richard! By contemporary reports in the New York Times (which, truth be told, were reported under unsavory circumstances still to be revealed) Richard is credited with the invention of the milkshake, and for that, the lot of you can personally thank me with strong drink. As for McDonald’s: you have been duly warned. You may either cut us in for a share of the profits immediately, or you’ll be hearing from our solicitor soon.
But for all his business success, poor Richard had difficulties at home, mostly having to do with his youngest son, Jimmie, pictured below.
Maybe I should just go to the text as reported in the New York Times on June 29, 1897:
BOUND HIS SON IN CHAINS
Little James Tallon Left Shackled
Like a Felon In His
Had Called His Sister Names
Elder Brother Is Summoned and Takes
Him to the Station House — Father
Justifies the Act — Instigated
by the Boy’s Stepmother.
A thin, freckle-faced youngster, with a thatch of reddish hair and an expression of grief, sat among the stoical bluecoats in the dismal back room of the Oak Street Station yesterday afternoon, twisting a soiled handkerchief about his grimy hand, whimpering occasionally into his ragged cloth cap, and then glancing at a rusty iron chain, one end of which was padlocked to his ankle and the other fastened to a sixteen-pound steelyard weight. This rested on a chair nearby, where his big brother, who had brought the little fellow from home, sat, nervously swinging one leg over the other, now vainly striving to remove the obstacle and now resigning himself to wait for help.
The shackled boy was “Jimmie” Tallon, the ten-year-old son of Richard J. Tallon, a milk dealer, of 72 New Chambers Street, who had taken this means of keeping the boy out of mischief for the day. He was at work meanwhile in his accustomed stand at Dey Street and Broadway, selling milkshakes, of which he is said to be the proud originator, and quite ignorant of the trouble brewing for him. The immediate cause of “Jimmie’s” imprisonment was his addressing his sister by such titles as “Big Headed Stella,” (Stella is the young woman’s name,) and using other saucy language to her when she refused to pour out his coffee at breakfast.
According to the father, Jimmie has also been guilty of “running” with thieves and crooks, and needed this means to keep him home. At any rate, when he came to go out, about 10 A.M., the man took a heavy weight, which his eldest son, Joseph P. Tallon [author’s note: my great-grandfather] had formerly used in chimney cleaning, and shackled the boy’s left ankle, putting a bandage next it, as it was sore from a bad shoe. The boy took the chain off, by pulling out the bandage when his father went downstairs, and laughed at his young stepmother, who had instigated his imprisonment. She called her husband up again, and this time Jimmie was fastened securely without a bandage, and put in a dark room to stay for the day.
Some time after Tallon’s departure with his milkshake wagon, seventeen-year-old Stella notified a neighbor’s little girl who carried the news of the trouble to the boy’s brother, Joe, who lives at 87 James Street. He is also in the milkshake line, but was not at work yesterday. Joe started for the house in his shirt sleeves, found his small brother in the evil plight described, and loudly called for a cold chisel.
“You touch that chain and I’ll make your fader shoot you!” screamed his stepmother.
“You will, hey?” answered the brother, “well, then, I’ll take ’m round to the station house and let them take it off ’m there!” Thereupon he picked Jimmie up in his arms, slung the weight over his back and walked off with the little prisoner. The brothers waited at the police station until the advent of the Gerry Society [The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] Agents King and Murray, who unlocked the padlock, and after releasing James, went out with Detective Malarkey to arrest the original vendor of milkshakes.
While they were gone the stepmother, a rather comely German woman, about twenty-eight years old, brought in the key of the padlock a trifle too late. She yelled for Jimmie and was put out in tears by the police after considerately offering to crack Joseph’s skull if he came near her. Another altercation occurred between Joseph and his father, when the latter was brought in. The policeman broke it off, and the party was sent over to the Centre Street Court where the boy was put in charge of the Gerry Society for the night, after saying he deserved his punishment, and the father was released on a $500 bond, furnished by Dennis McAuliffe, a New Chambers Street blacksmith. The case will be heard tomorrow. E.E. Price is Tallon’s counsel. Joseph Tallon says his stepmother is to blame for the trouble.
And as you can see from the photograph on this page, the following day The Gerry Society was good enough to carry young Jimmie to a photographic studio, reattach the weight and chain, place him on a chaise lounge and get a style shot of his misery for their Annual Report of 1897. Ah, the good ole days.
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There are other times when the early Tallons of the Americas appeared in the police-beat sections of Gotham’s turn-of-the-century newspapers. This, in fact, was young Jimmie’s second mention. His first came in The Evening World in 1895, when he was only 8 years of age, under the headline, “Boy Confesses to His Mother.” What the little criminal confessed to was breaking and entering, and the theft of silver from a local shop. Now, where could he have learned such bad behavior?
Maybe he was a young up-and-comer in the Irish gangs of the day? Maybe he’d learned his larcenous ways from his Uncle Tommy, also known in the papers and to the police as a small-time criminal. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s thoroughly in the blood, as a few years later — in a final Manhattan act before taking the family across the still breathtakingly-new Brooklyn Bridge — Richard, Jimmie’s father, managed to screw all of his neighbors by offering to stand in as the rent collector a few days before the announcement that their “dismal old tenement” on New Chambers was set to be demolished. According to The Evening World on July 31, 1902, Dickie “was popular with the tenants, until he took their rent without telling them that their house was to be torn down.”
“He didn’t care for our necks or heads,” said Mrs. Gilchrist. “It was the commissions he was after. Oh, the spalpeen!”
In the end, 72 New Chambers Street was “shored up with huge timbers” and had “a crevice eight inches wide at the top.”
Just wide enough, it seems, for one of my more iniquitous ancestors to sneak through unscathed.
Now, clearly, I’ll not celebrate the abuse of the young ones, the larceny, the fleecing of neighbors or the threats of murder against your own children quite as heartily as I will sing the songs of rebellion and a roguish life back in the rolling hills of an ancient land. And I’ll admit that if the frequent visits to the Gerry Society and the local jail were of a more recent vintage, I might have another perspective, altogether. But I ask you, mindful of that Shakespearian dictum, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones,” when you look back into your own family’s history, what do you want to find? Simple, kindly townsfolk who never left a mark? Or do you at least want to find a couple of horse thieves who got strung up from the highest tree in the county? There’s something freeing about knowing that you come from less-than-perfect stock and that your kin have no claims to purity. We are what we are: beautiful in our brokenness — and this lifetime is nothing more than a series of choices about how long we’d like to play outside in the rain. So I ask you: should we always be safe, toe the line, follow the rules and live the quiet, prosperous life? Should we always wear the white hat? Because out there, just beyond The Pale, lies the opportunity to steal a bit of silver, plot a wee rebellion, drink an extra whiskey and then hope to Christ you can charm the coppers into joining the fun.
You know what the answer is, and you know you can do it. You wouldn’t even be the first, but rather just keeping alive a part of the family tradition. And if you get caught out, strung up or taken down in a scuffle that makes the front page of The Times, at least you’ll have blazed a brief but brilliant trail across the pages of history. And for that, your great-great-great-grandchildren will assuredly thank you, even if it pisses off the wife.
So now, to all my children’s children yet to be born, the time has come for my pint and maybe the company of a rosy-cheeked lassie. Whoever she is, I know I’m not going to meet her by staying in and tucking myself off to sleep while the music still plays at the café across the road. And if I find her, I hope she won’t mind spending part of her evening in the company of this writerly reprobate.
Check my journal entry tomorrow to see how I fared. If we’re both in the luck, then she might even be your great-great-great-grandmother. And I promise you, I’ll love her until it ends. And, my babies, I’ll always be here to remind you that it never really does.
We’re middle men, that’s all.