The Kerry Set – A short story by Donal A. Buckley
Life & Style

The Kerry Set – A short story by Donal A. Buckley

STEVE FARLEY sat in the departure lounge at Gatwick Airport waiting to board a flight back to his native Kerry. He left his rural home in his early twenties to seek a job in England. But that was over forty years ago, at a time when emigration was rife in Ireland. Steve recalled the day he left on a bus destined for Cork City and then on a train to Rosslare Harbour to board the ferry to Fishguard.

When he disembarked the sky was dark and grey. Pouring rain sent water gushing down from the hills overlooking the harbour. A train was waiting on the platform to transport him and other passengers to Paddington Station in London. He had a friend’s address in Harlesden, tucked carefully in the inside pocket of his jacket.

After alighting from the train, he hailed a taxi to the address on the High Street. He rang the door-bell and knocked on the door but there was no reply. Just as he was about to walk away, a woman with red hair and a blue spotted apron opened the door.

‘Are you Steve?’ she asked.

The taxi driver brought his bag up to the front door and he paid the fare.

‘Come on in’, she said. They shook hands and he followed her up narrow stairs and into the living room. A man was stretched on the floor snoring.

‘There’s your friend Tommy. He’s full-up with drink. Close the door and I’ll make you a bite to eat after your journey all the way from Kerry. Tommy will wake up in a few hours and he’ll probably give you a start in the morning,’ she told him.

He suffered extreme loneliness and culture shock that never really subsided during his long, enforced working life in England

‘Getting the start’ was the main concern for Irish emigrants, but Steve was lucky that his friend Tommy Fitzgerald was a Ganger with one of the largest building construction firms in London. On his first morning, he watched in dismay as men were lined up to be selected for work. There was no shovel and pickaxe for him, he was given a time sheet and record book for over one hundred men, with strict instructions to instantly fire any man not performing or slacking back on the job.

He suffered extreme loneliness and culture shock that never really subsided during his long, enforced working life in England. He often had to endure hard physical labour and lived in rough accommodation until he got a job as a London bus driver.

But now he was on his first visit home to Ireland in over forty years. He wondered would his brother recognise him when he stepped off the plane. Steve never married, although he loved dancing at the Irish clubs in London. He lived a good social life with his friends. He was shocked and taken aback by the drunkenness and behaviour of the labouring workers.

As he queued at the departure gate, he also wondered should he be returning at all. He had not even returned home when his mother died!

Steve remembered the morning he left his home. His mother was crying; she knew she would never see him again. His father had died when a bull gored him in the yard of the family farm. The night before he left, he said goodbye to a neighbour’s daughter that he often danced with in the local hall. She was now married to a local butcher with a grown-up family. As he handed over his boarding card something inside him told him he’d never return to London again.

His pulse quickened as the east coast of Ireland came into view. This was the moment he had waited for since the day he first set foot on English soil

This day was worth waiting for, after a lifetime away from his roots in his native Kerry. As the plane took off, he watched the disappearing English countryside far below and looked forward to seeing the first glimpse of his island home. His pulse quickened as the east coast of Ireland came into view. This was the moment he had waited for since the day he first set foot on English soil.

When he walked out at the airport arrivals’ hall, his brother Jack and two sons were there to meet him. He threw his arms around his brother and shook hands with the nephews he had never met. When they arrived at the home place, he viewed the old stone-built farm buildings.

They looked just the same as the day he left. He often bagged grain into the loft after a threshing and turned the cows into their stalls for milking. The swallows still nested in the high walls of the old forge.

The dairy, where in his childhood he often turned the handle of the milk separator for his mother while he watched the cream slowly flowing into an enamelled jug for butter making, is now the nerve centre for the family’s robotic milking system.

His brother’s tractor and combine-harvester were parked in the old horse stable. The dwelling house, with its domed glass porch and tall chimney, didn’t appear to have changed much, but the concrete coated yard and new milking parlour transformed the farm into a modern holding.

‘Come on in, we have a little surprise for you,’ his brother said.

When he entered the house, the large living room was filled with his surviving friends and neighbours, waiting to welcome home the returned emigrant. Jack’s wife, Mary Anne, and local women served a welcome meal with drinks and stories of past years easing the return home for Steve. He chatted to his old school friend Johnny Meade, about his exploits delivering the post in the locality.

He looked up at the two bright eyes and broad smile of his former dancing partner, Madge Griffin. She quickly placed the teapot on the table and placed her two arms tight around his broad shoulders

‘Would you like another cup of tea?’ a woman asked from behind Steve’s shoulder? He turned quickly to the sound of a very familiar voice. He looked up at the two bright eyes and broad smile of his former dancing partner, Madge Griffin. She quickly placed the teapot on the table and placed her two arms tight around his broad shoulders.

‘I’ve waited for this day for a long time,’ she said.

He was speechless, as she sat down beside him at the table. Madge told him her life’s story. A few years after he left, she married Mick O’Dea, the local butcher. They had two sons now in Australia and a daughter married to a Guard in Longford.

‘How is Mick?’ Steve asked.

‘The marriage broke up a long time ago. He remarried and moved up the country with his new wife. I was left to rear and educate the children. I opened a hairdressing salon in the town and made a new life for myself,’ she told him.

‘Are you going to dance with me again?’ she asked with a roguish smile. ‘You were a great dancer!’ she exclaimed.

After the meal the large dining room table was pushed to one side and Mick Randles reached for his accordion and started playing.

‘Come on Steve, we’ll lead the floor,’ Madge suggested.

‘It’s a long time since I danced a Kerry Set,’ he said.

It wasn’t long before the floor was full with dancers and merriment filled the air, as Steve tried to remember the steps and moves to the amusement of his partner and neighbours. ‘You did very well,’ she told him, as he sat beside her on a large couch.

‘I’m going to take you out for a drive and a meal at one of our best hotels on Saturday evening. I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about old times,’ she told him. The celebrations continued until the early hours before she left for home.

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On the Saturday evening, Steve and Madge enjoyed a meal of fresh river salmon at a lake hotel. They reminisced about their dancing days in the local hall.

‘Do you remember the night you sat on the crossbar of my bicycle and we nearly drove straight into the path of the parish priest’s Morris Minor car on our way home from a football match?’ Steve asked.

Madge laughed, as they adjourned to the lounge for coffee and to view the lake and mountains in the evening sunset. Steve moved to the window to see two boats with fishermen casting their rods in search of brown trout.

‘Would you like to be out on the lake fishing?’ she asked.

‘I was never a good fisherman. I loved playing football with the home team, but all that finished when I went to England in search of work,’ he replied.

‘Tell me about your time in London,’ she asked.

Steve reached for the coffee pot and refilled his cup. ‘I love a good cup of strong coffee,’ he remarked. Madge was still sipping a glass of red wine, as she probed into Steve’s life across the water.

‘I was just twenty-three years of age when I received the call from Tommy Fitzgerald to come over and work on the buildings in London. I had no idea what life would be like and where I was going to live. When I arrived, Tommy’s wife Kate had a spare room in the house and I had a roof over my head for the first few months.

‘Then Tommy was moved to another part of London and I lost my abode and the bit of security. I made a few pounds to tide me over until I moved into a one-roomed flat. The hours were long, but the money was good. I was never a drinker or gambler and after a number of years, I applied for a job as a London bus driver.

‘I had to attend an intensive training course and driving test. I got the job and that day dramatically changed my life. After about ten years driving, I was promoted to Inspector and I retired a few weeks ago as Manager of a large bus depot in the city.

‘I made many friends from all over Ireland who danced in the Irish Clubs to the famous Irish showbands and Céilí bands. I played some football with the lads working in London.

‘Then, a telegram arrived to say my mother had died. For some untold reason I never crossed the Irish Sea to attend her funeral. To this day, my brother and sisters still complain that I let the family down.

'But time is a great healer. They were all present to welcome me home on Tuesday night. My sister, Josie, took me to visit her grave.

‘She was a wonderful woman to rear five children after my father died. A Hereford bull gored him in the yard on a sunny Sunday when I was just seven years of age.'

'The old school building is still standing but the local creamery is a thing of the past, I’ve noticed,’ he told her.

‘Was there no woman in your life after all your years in London and when do you plan to return?’ Madge enquired.

Steve put his hand into one of his jacket pockets and placed a small silver box on the table. ‘I have something very special for you,’ he said. ‘Some weeks before I got the call to travel to London all those years ago, I visited a jewellers shop in Tralee. I had planned to ask you to marry me and I kept the ring safe in the hope that some day we may meet again.’

Madge’s eyes were glued to the little box resting on the table. ‘Are you going open the box?’ she asked.

Steve smiled, as he released the clasp to raise the cover. She watched, as he held a gold engagement ring with a glistening diamond in his hand.

‘Is this for me?’ she gasped.

He slipped the ring on to her finger and the diamond sparkled in the evening sun. He walked to the bar and a waiter returned with two glasses of champagne. Their glasses touched, as she gazed at the ring on her finger and admired the silver-haired man sitting beside her on the leather couch.

Donal A. Buckley is from Silverspring, Cork City. This is the second time he has been published in the Ireland’s Own Anthology of Winning Irish Short Stories, for which this story was highly commended. The 2016 collection, edited by Phil Murphy, features 39 stories selected from over 500 entries. Published by Three Sisters Press at €14.99, it’s available through bookshops or online at