Jack Larkin is a writer and educator currently based in San Diego. He’s lived in many parts of the world from Colombia to Ireland and all over the United States. Jack’s fiction has been published in the Literary Vine Review and has won the Agent’s Choice award for the San Diego State Writers Conference. His work as a screenwriter was also a finalist for the Richmond International Film Festival Screenplay Competition. Jack studied Geography at UC Santa Barbara, Irish History and Society at NUI Galway and is currently enrolled in the UC Riverside Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Program.
Jack Larkin’s Bridge – Personal Memoir
By Jack Larkin
No one knew why they called it Jack Larkin’s Bridge, but everyone had a story. The short cobblestone bridge was on the outskirts of Freshford, County Kilkenny as you crossed a tributary of the River Brea. Not much to look at, but plenty of folks were glad to tell me why it held a name plaque. I was nineteen, visiting from California in the summer of 2001, working construction for a man my family knew. After work each night I would venture to the local pub, Johnny Kavanaugh’s. There, I seemed to meet half the village over my month-long stay. I got in the habit of asking about my namesake wherever I went. The shopkeeper, Anna, was the first to tell me her version of the story.
“Your man fell to his death from that bridge,” she said. “He was dead drunk one night and got fucked over the ledge.”
“Did someone push him?” I asked.
“Maybe God gave him a nudge, might have done everyone a favor.”
“He went on to live in America. He had eight kids, one was my great grandfather.”
I paid for my groceries as Anna went back to reading an American crime novel behind the counter. I continued to prod wherever I went in town, discovering oral tradition at every turn.
Liam at the post office was quick to recite a tale as if the folklore was already common knowledge.
“Jack Larkin’s Bridge? Oh yes, he fished off of that bridge. That’s how it went, an avid fisherman that Jack Larkin.”
“That sounds nice,” I said, paying for stamps to send letters home. “Maybe I’ll fish there myself.”
“I wouldn’t,” Liam said. “If you want to do some real fishing you should visit the River Corrib in Galway. Best trout fishing in the world.”
I pictured a young man fishing the gentle stream as I walked out of the post. It was a nice enough story, but not necessarily the type of legend I would write home about. My new friend, Sean, gave me another explanation one night at Johnny Kavanaugh’s.
“Truth is, Jack, no one wants to tell you this. But there were two Jack Larkins.”
“Well they were twins, like. There was a John and a Jack Larkin.”
“No, that’s the same person. My name is John too, but I go by Jack. Like JFK.”
Sean took a healthy drag from his cigarette.
“Sean means Jack too. We’re in Ireland, everybody’s a feckin Jack. I’m serious, there were fucking two of them. One left for America. The other stayed here.”
“So which one did they name it after?”
Sean drank from his pint of lager, while seemingly coming up with his answer.
“John obviously named it after his twin brother, Jack. It’s not feckin John Larkin’s Bridge, now is it?”
“What did his brother do that was so special to name a bridge after him?”
“Why the hell not?” Sean said. “Give the poor bastard a break. It’s a horrible thing to be separated from your twin. He wanted something to remember him.”
I ordered the next round; two pints of Harp. I found myself spending my wages each night on drinks to hear yarns about a fabled bridge to nowhere. I would walk home reflecting on these stories. Piecing them together to see if there were bits of truth I could glean from each. Perhaps Jack did indeed fish that bridge before he left. Maybe John cured his loneliness with drink and fell to his death. Maybe he had been pushed off the bridge; a murder. Nothing was certain, other than I had to learn why my great, great grandfather’s name graced the bridge.
I ate breakfast every morning with my hosts, Don and Rosie and their young daughter, Cara. Don had given me the job with his small construction company. Lately we had been building some of the stone walls that graced the green countryside of Ireland.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” Don said, sitting at the kitchen table. “We were finishing the walls over at Dawson’s farm and a bus pulls up. There were loads of tourists streaming out to take pictures. At first we didn’t know what they were looking at. Then we realized they were all taking photographs of Jack stacking stones on the wall.”
“Oh, Christ,” Rosie said as I forced another bite of black pudding.
“They thought Jack was Irish?” Cara asked.
“He could pass with those eyes,” Rosie said. “Did they hear your California accent?”
“I kept my mouth shut and smiled.”
“Fergal set up a queue and tried to charge a fiver each before the bus driver ran him off.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Rosie said, laughing loudly before sipping her coffee.
“Maybe one day I’ll end up in somebody’s scrapbook,” I said.
“I don’t doubt it, Jack.” Rosie said. “You dressed for mass?”
“I have my good shirt hanging in the room.”
“Good on ya,” Rosie said as Cara played with her food. “Cara, finish your eggs.”
“What about the dogs?” Don asked.
“Will you shut up about the feckin dogs,” Rosie said. “You can run the stupid dogs by yourself. Jack has to go to mass.”
“Father Bill is a bloody fascist, Jack. Don’t listen to a word he says.”
I waited for Rosie to respond; the topic of church usually started one of their rows. But Rosie just sipped her coffee, eyes boring into her husband from across the table.
“How many feckin dogs do we have down there nowadays?” she said.
“What difference does it make?” Don answered.
“What difference does it make? We have to feed them.”
“Since when are you worried about my dogs?”
“How many races have you won this year?”
Don gave her a look, then stood to take his plate to the sink. I knew part of the reason Don’s dogs never won. Some of the other men gave their dogs steroids and methamphetamines. Don tried to report the abuse, but it fell on deaf ears. He told me he just enjoyed the sport and the time spent training his dogs; he didn’t care if he lost.
There were more important things in life than winning.
“We’re running a bloody retirement home for race dogs, so we are,” Rosie said to me, then turned to her husband eating bacon straight from the pan. “Will you stop eating it like that! Jaysus, and don’t give any to the dogs. They get gourmet food on top of it all.”
Rosie went to mass every Sunday while Don had given up the church and alcohol years before. Rosie took me in his place and I never found a way out. After mass that afternoon, the local priest and unofficial mayor of Freshford caught me as I was leaving. He’d heard I was searching for the history of Jack Larkin’s Bridge and said he’d love to speak with me. Father Bill invited me into his chambers to share the true story over a drop of whiskey.
“A century ago, the men from Ballyragget would cross that bridge into Freshford and steal livestock. Truth is,” Father Bill paused to light his cigarette. “No one from Ballyragget ever amounted to much. One night, your great, great grandfather caught the thieving bastards red handed and shot them dead on that bridge. The brave lad left for America before they could put him on trial and the town named the bridge in his honor, so they did.”
“That’s one heck of a story,” I said. “Is that why everyone in Freshford takes issue with the guys from Balleyragget?”
“One of the reasons. Can I can get you another whiskey, Jack?”
“Sure. Thank you.”
Father Bill reached for the whiskey decanter on the shelf behind his desk, smiling as he poured us both another drink. It was a healthy pour and I knew there would be more stories forthcoming. I was in no rush. I found wherever I asked about Jack Larkin’s Bridge it was just the starting point for further conversation. The more I inquired about my namesake the more I learned about the town itself. It wasn’t long that I began to wonder what my life might have been like if he’d never left.
After a month in the village I decided I needed do some formal research. I asked Don for a Friday off from work to check the local archives. I took a short bus ride into the city and found an old brick building that housed the Kilkenny Historical Society. I met the caretaker, Gerry, a kind man in his sixties, who gave me access to parish records, newspapers, and history books.
“I’ve crossed that bridge a thousand times,” Gerry said as he handed me a cup of tea and a blueberry scone. “Didn’t even know there was a name for it.”
“There’s a plaque. Well, there used to be. I was going to take a picture but somebody smashed it.”
“Maybe a lorry hit it.”
“I think it was a few guys that heard me asking about it in the pub.”
“Why would they do that?”
“They’re from Ballyragget and don’t like me. They’re tired of hearing my name.”
I thought I saw Gerry wince slightly when I mentioned Ballyragget.
“Whenever we get put up on a pedestal somebody wants to knock us down.”
“I know. I’ve shut up about the bridge. But the priest in Freshford told me a new story the other day. I’d like to know for once what’s the reason behind it. I go home in a week.”
Gerry led me to the library upstairs, where I spent hours combing dense volumes of records. He retrieved various documents and brought cups of tea and scones. By noon I had grown tired and rubbed my eyes as I rested my elbows on the weathered table. When I looked up I noticed a charming pub across the street with black and yellow flags draped along the roof. Gerry came back in the room and followed my eyes out the window.
“There’s a hurling match on today,” he said. “The Cats are playing Galway.”
I looked longingly again at the pub then down at the books and papers scattered about the table. Not a word about Jack Larkin or any god damned bridge. I dreaded the thought of Gerry putting everything back without even finding a hint of what I’d come for. He sipped his tea and admired all the books and papers, a true historian.
“Every summer I meet an American looking for their ancestors,” Gerry said. “The fact you’re itching to get to the pub and watch the hurling proves you’re Irish more than any bridge.”
I laughed a little and looked back down at the table.
“Go enjoy the match,” Gerry said.
“Well, can I help you put all this back?”
“I might take a look meself. You got me curious now. Come back next week before you leave and I’ll see if I’ve found anything.”
We shook hands and I hurried across the street into the small pub. I took my place at the bar next to men following the game intently on a small television in the corner. I ordered a pint of Guinness and admired the memorabilia on a shelf behind the bar. There was an old harp covered in dust next to photographs of the Pope and Patrick Pearce. I marveled at the memories. This country was full of history at every corner. The bartender brought my pint and I watched the brown cascade into black as it formed a thick head of pure white foam. I enjoyed a long sip as my co-worker, Fergal, came inside. He was the same age as me, wearing stained jeans, work boots, and an old green and white striped Celtic football jersey.
“How are ya, Jack?” he said, sliding onto a stool next to mine.
“Good, Fergal. You on your lunch?”
“Fuck it. I’m calling it a day. I thought youse was trying to find your da.”
“I know who my dad is. I was researching why they call it Jack Larkin’s Bridge.”
“Isn’t that fucked?” Fergal said to the bartender. “A Yank comes to Ireland and already has his own feckin bridge. Get me a pint of Smithwick’s, would ya?”
The bartender laughed as he pulled a beer from the tap.
“Somebody smashed the sign,” I said. “I think it was the guys from Ballyragget.”
“Course it was. Probably Conor and his lot. Conor’s a scummy bastard, he sells speed to dogs. Ask Don about him.”
The bartender handed Fergal his beer and he took a drink like it was the first thing he’d tasted after hiking through the desert.
“I picked up the broken pieces of the plaque,” I said. “Might take it home with me.”
“You should. Fuck Conor and all them bastards from Ballyragget.”
An older gentleman looked me over and I worried he was Ballyragget. The man nodded at the bartender and pointed to his empty glass before speaking.
“You say your name’s Jack Larkin?”
“Yes,” I said. “I was named after my great, great grandfather from Freshford.”
“And you were wondering about the bridge?”
“He already knows why it’s called that,” Fergal said. “Jack feckin Larkin robbed a bank and outran the Garda on that bridge. God bless him.”
“Jaysus,” the man said. “Nobody robbed any bank, you eejit. We just liked the name so that’s what we called it.”
Fergal dismissed him with his hand as the bartender poured a Guinness and let it settle.
“What’s that?” I asked. “You named the bridge?”
“I work on the tourism board. It had a nice ring to it; Jack Larkin. We had gotten some funding to put plaques on old bridges and roads. Give them names so they sounded more proper. Tourists like it. I think my colleague, Aoife, picked the name for that bridge.”
“Well maybe she knew of him. Maybe there was a story behind it.”
“You could ask her. But she moved to New York.”
My shoulders slumped as I stared at the relics behind the bar, searching for one that might hold a clue to the truth. I noticed a rosary and faded Boston Red Sox hat. My attention turned to the television as the pub came to life. A Kilkenny player broke through a line of Galway defenders and raced toward the goal.
“Give it a go!” Fergal yelled, as the bar leaned forward in anticipation.
The player bounced the sliotar on his hurl then took a fierce hack. I felt a collective gasp as we waited for the sliotar to crash into the back of the net. But the shot went wide of the goal and we collapsed in unison back onto our stools. The bartender handed a pint of Guinness to the man next to me. He turned and held his glass up to mine.
“Cheers, Jack Larkin. Welcome home.”