My song today is ‘Home Boys Home’. This was a record of ‘The Dubliners’ in 1964 and is often sung in the Irish pubs and music venues.
I must confess that despite being born in Ireland because I spent a couple of years living in Canada when this record was first released, I never really heard it until last year, 2019.
They do say that sailor boys have a woman in every port, and this is what makes life at sea so attractive to them.
I recall telling my mother once about a man in Huddersfield who never could hold down an ordinary 9:00 am to 5:00 pm job. Shortly into his relationship with a young woman, a friend of his who worked the fairgrounds suggested that he try it out. His friend said that it was a job in the open air, that once engaged in, no worker would ever want to leave. So, he decided to work on the fairgrounds travelling around the country eight months of every year and returning home to his partner for November to February. I told my mother that the man and his common-law-wife parented thirteen children. He would send home monies from his weekly wage throughout his long periods of absence, and each time he returned home, his wife would have given birth to another child and be breastfeeding the new infant to the household.
As usual, my mother could barely hear one of the stories I told her without going one better and always topping it. I never knew whether her Irish-spun tales were fact or fabrications of her vivid imagination, but would have to admit that be they true or false, they were invariably better than mine. She then proceeded to tell me about a man called Jacky Custer. The names of the chief character in my mother’s stories were so outlandish (you could not make them up if you tried), that it gave the tale a ring of truth.
Jacky Custer came from Clonmel in County Tipperary and he reportedly lived in the same village where my mother was born. Naturally, Jacky’s wife. Maria had given birth to 18 children (five more than the man from Huddersfield whom I had told her about). Two of Jacky’s children were girl twins.
Jacky and Maria were born within the same week of each other, but until their teenage years, they hardly knew the other existed. The couple hadn’t had any contact during their development and despite not being even boyfriend and girlfriend, one summer afternoon, six months before their 16th birthday, young Maria and Jacky Custer took a harmless stroll down the fields together.
After walking in the heat for half an hour, Maria came over all hot and bothered and incurred a bout of sunstroke which rendered her unconscious for ten minutes or thereabouts. Jacky Custer witnessed her swoon and fall towards the ground, and he held her tight in his arms to provide her with a safe and soft landing in the long grass.
Initially worried about his walking companion, Jacky guessed that the heat of the mid-day sun had led Maria to faint. He looked at her lying there like a virgin maiden of the meadows. She looked lovely. Never having been a young man to miss a golden opportunity, and never yet having spilled his seed outside the palm of his hand, Jacky Custer took advantage of the young woman’s absence of consciousness and ‘had his wicked way with her’ as she very slowly came around. However, with Jacky being young and inexperienced in such matters before Maria knew what was happening to her, the brief episode was done and dusted within minutes of having started.
When Maria regained full consciousness, Jacky Custer was nowhere to be seen. Jacky Custer had fled the scene. Not knowing what had happened while unconscious naturally worried Maria, but she could not legitimately complain without knowing what had happened, or the extent of Jacky Custer’s actions, or why he had abandoned her or where he was?
Finding herself alone after regaining consciousness, she presumed that Jacky Custer had simply gone for help after she had passed out. Half an hour later, and when Jacky Custer had not returned, Maria started to wonder if Jacky had taken advantage of her unconscious state. Her undergarments felt moist and clammy but that could be accounted for by her prolonged sweating in the sun. Fearing the wrath of her strict Roman Catholic parents who would have scolded her had they known she had walked down the fields with a 15-year-old teenage boy, Maria kept quiet and hoped that nothing untoward had happened that summer’s day.
For a few months after their summer saunter, Jacky Custer avoided Maria, but as soon as he heard on the grapevine that she had fallen pregnant, he took fright at what lay in store once people started putting one and one together and coming up with an additional baby!
Once Maria discovered she was pregnant some two months later, and realising that she had never knowingly had sexual intercourse with any male, her worse suspicions about the actions of Jacky Custer that day led her to confront him at the first available opportunity. While naturally shocked, Jacky Custer knew that custom demanded that having done the wrong thing to make the young woman pregnant, the onus was now on him to do the right thing and marry her as soon as Maria was 16 years of age; a few months before the infant was due to be born.
At the time, this would have been the natural response for a young man in Jacky Custer’s position, but instead, Jacky Custer took instant fright of assuming parental responsibility at his young age. He had no desire to wed anyone. He even tried to convince himself that he wasn’t the father of Maria’s expected child, but he knew deep down that such a conclusion was ‘almost impossible’. The strange thing about Irish men who find themselves in a hole of their own making is that ‘almost impossible’ can enable them to dredge up all manner of ‘possible mental get-out-clauses’ to the depths they have sunk.
After much thought, however, Jacky Custer was obliged to accept that unless Maria was to become the mother of an immaculate birth of the second coming of Jesus Christ, or that another male passer-by had noticed the unconscious maiden vulnerably lying in the grass, and had also ‘had his wicked way’ with her after Jacky had fled the scene, that he was in deep shit!
Yet, marriage was too high a price that he was prepared to pay. Jacky Custer felt that to marry so young would be to effectively throw his life away. So, Jacky Custer lied about his age and joined the Merchant Navy one month later. When the young Maria gave birth to their child, Jacky Custer had been at sea for six months.
Having a child at that young age out of wedlock brought instant shame to the family name, and before Maria’s parents could carry out their threat and arrange to have the child taken away by the nuns for adoption or placement in a Children’s Home, Maria also ran away from home and sought shelter for herself and baby in County Wicklow. During the day, Maria worked in a laundry and her baby was looked after by a kindly neighbour (a sympathetic widow woman who had also become pregnant at the age of 16 years, but one who had married the baby’s father before he was tragically killed in a farming accident at work).
After almost one year away at sea, the young Jacky Custer became wracked with guilt, and the more he thought about his wickedness, the less he could reconcile himself with having abandoned the young woman he’d fathered a child to. He had deserted her, leaving her to face the world alone, and this knowledge nagged at his conscience so much that it made him feel less of a man. He became so guiltridden for the wrong he’d done that he returned to his village, fully prepared to face the music, and to make amends. He found that the pregnant Maria had run away from her parent’s home after they had threatened to put her child up for adoption against her will. After making extensive inquiries, he eventually tracked Maria and their child to her accommodation in County Wicklow.
Maria was not the most streetwise of young women, but she was a dreamer who fervently believed that Jacky Custer would one day return to be with her and his child and that the couple would marry and have a happy and settled family existence.
Jacky Custer might not have played a positive part in her life when her child was born, but she could not deny that he was the only man who had laid with her and was the father of her son.
Maria held the premonition that Jacky Custer would one day return to claim his rightful place in their family, so she assumed the surname of ‘Custer’ upon arriving in County Wicklow and had their son baptised ‘Jack Custer Junior’. While her close neighbour knew of her unmarried circumstances, Maria told everyone else that her husband worked in the Merchant Navy and only came home for two months a year. She also said that he would stay at his parent’s home in Clonmel during his home leave as his mother was of ill-health, and she would join him there each year before he returned to the sea.
Naturally, Maria was overjoyed to see her child’s father return to them and assume his family responsibilities. Her dream had come true. After being reunited, the three of them continued to live in County Wicklow over the following year, during which a second child was born to them. Jacky Custer had enjoyed his months at sea travelling everywhere, and with there being no work to be had in Wicklow for love or money, it was agreed that he would return to the Merchant Navy and sign on for another lengthy trip abroad. They reckoned that if Jacky saved his wages while at sea and didn’t gamble them away or piss them up before the mast with cheap rum and whiskey, they’d be able to get a deposit on their own cottage in no time at all. Before Jacky returned to the Merchant Navy for another ten-month voyage, he and Maria had a quiet wedding in an adjacent county. While Maria’s good friend and neighbour looked after their son, Mr. and Mrs. Jacky Custer had a honeymoon period of three days in Limerick.
For the next 18 years, Jacky Custer stayed in the Merchant Navy and would only return to his wife and children for the months of November to January annually. Three years after their reconciliation, Maria had been able to find a larger property to live in close by to accommodate their increasing family. Each time he returned home, Jacky Custer would be greeted by the latest little Custer being bounced or breastfed on Maria’s knee. The couple had 17 children in all, and despite their many months apart annually, their relationship seemed to provide happiness and satisfaction for the couple. Unknown to Jacky Custer, however, Maria would often get very lonely for the company of a man when her husband was away from home at nine months at a time.
After they had been married 17 years, one of the twin girls got very poorly and needed an operation. It was a rare blood disorder that the twin had developed. It was two weeks before Christmas and Jacky had just returned and had been expecting to have a bumper Christmas with his wife and children before his child’s illness put a damper on the planned festivities.
During the twin’s stay in the hospital, the parents took it in turn to visit the child. One parent would visit the hospital while the other parent babysat their large family. One evening when Jacky was vising his twin daughter in the hospital, he was approached by a doctor to ask if he was able to provide the details of ‘the father of the twins’, so that the blood father might submit a sample to check his suitability for a bone marrow transplant. The doctor's records showed that Jacky was not the girl’s father but that Maria was her mother.
My mother said that once Jacky Custer realised that his wife had been unfaithful to their marriage vows, he left the hospital that night and completely dropped off the radar. He never set foot in his Wicklow home again.
That night, his franticly worried wife phoned the police (more commonly referred to as the Gardaí or ‘the Guards’) and reported him missing. The upshot was that she never saw or heard of Jacky Custer again, and when she later learned from her discussion with the hospital doctor that her husband had been approached about the ‘natural father of the twins’ so that a bone marrow transplant could be explored, she knew the cause of Jacky’s disappearance.
She never learned a thing about her husband’s whereabouts, and not knowing how badly he had taken the shock news, Maria didn’t know if he was dead in a ditch or whatever? She was left to rear her large family alone, never being sure if she was a widow or a deserted wife.
My mother always believed that after Jacky Custer learned about his wife’s infidelity over the twin girls, he changed his name and ran away to sea again. My mother said, that for all poor Jacky Custer knew, without a blood test being carried out on all of Maria’s 17 children, who could say how many were his if any (except the firstborn). My mum also added that after Jacky Custer had vanished without a trace, his son, Jacky Custer Junior, joined the Merchant Navy. Sometimes Jacky Custer Junior did not revisit his mum in County Wicklow for a year or two in between his sea voyages. His mother always suspected that he believed his father to still be alive and kicking in some foreign port; perhaps having started another family.
While the above is the essence of my mother’s story told to me, I have used my author’s artistic licence and have told it in my own words. I cannot verify it to be true but I can assert without a doubt that it topped my tale of the Huddersfield father of thirteen children!
Love and peace Bill xxx