My Great Uncle - Joe Starr
Introduction to a Starr
I was 10 years old when I first met my Great Uncle Joe Starr. He was my grandmother's youngest brother and he was her favourite. Joe like my grandmother was from Portroe in County Limerick. Joe had lied about his age when he joined the Irish Free State Army as a boy of fifteen. He had two older brothers, one was in the Irish Guards and killed in France during WWI, the other was killed in Canada where he was working as a logger. His father had deserted his family when Joe was very young and he was brought up by his mother.
Drink & Horses
Joe grew to love horses in the army and after many years in the cavalry ended his army career as a cook. He was a big man physically and he was larger than life. He was a soft spoken man with a heart of gold but that first night when he fell into the hallway drunk as a skunk I was wary.
The Joe Starr smile
Joe had never planned for his retirement and had never saved a penny in his life. He spent everything he earned on beer, cigarettes and the horses. When the time came for him to leave the army he had nowhere to go so after his farewell party his friends dropped him off at my grandmother's house in the middle of the night, leaving him propped up against the front door they rang the doorbell. When my grandmother opened the door Joe fell flat on his face and the vibrations could be felt throughout the house. He gave is “Uncle Joe” smile and fell asleep there in the middle of the floor in his army uniform.
I watched as my mother and grandmother pulled him into our bedroom and somehow they managed to get his boots off and him into the bed.
Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil.
I loved that big man and we would end up becoming very close. He was kind and I never heard him criticise anyone or have a bad word to say. His favourite saying was “Don't ever let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” and that summed up how private he was.
Joe smoked Sweet Afton, an untipped brand, one after another and when we would sit in the garden to take a break from our digging he would give me a sugar barley sweet that tasted of tobacco.
He loved teasing me because he could see how serious I was and he was the opposite of my grandfather who never joked around. My grandfather seemed to dislike Joe because I think his wife doted on her younger brother and even served him before her own husband at meal times. He also hated the idea that Joe would spend all day Sunday and every evening in the pub.
When I asked my Uncle Joe once how he felt about being put down by my Grandfather he just answered, “Paddy is a gentleman”. Insults and criticism would not affect Joe and he said they ran off him “like water off a duck's back”.
The Big Fella
As I got older I wondered about smoking so I stole one of his cigarettes and got sick when I lit up. He told me that I had to work up to the strong ones and recommended that I start with a lighter tipped brand. I took this as sound advice and eventually did work up to the manly strength ones. In those days if you didn't smoke people thought that there must be something wrong with you. I knew friends who felt embarrassed to say that they did not smoke. Some of them tried and tried but could just never take to it. They were the lucky ones and I know Joe meant well.
As far as I could make out the arrangement was that Joe would make some of our meals and he would help dig the garden in return for his board and lodging. But I don't think it would have mattered what he did because he was my grandmother's little brother and he was staying!
He was so big that he made a dip in the mattress. When we were younger my brother and I had to share beds with my grandfather and Uncle Joe and when you slept with Joe you ended up in that crater he made and it was never a comfortable sleep and that didn't include the snoring after his feed of beer every night.
Joe had a tremor in his hands and he would say it was shell shock when we would ask him about it. It was more like a case of too much Arthur Guinness! I would come home from school every lunchtime and I would write out the horses he wanted to back because he was too embarrassed to ask anyone else to do this for him. I was also quite a thrifty young boy and did lots of work for neighbours which earned me a little pocket money. Joe would sometimes ask me for a loan and I would take out my piggy bank and give him what I had. When he got his army pension he would always return the money and ask for it again the following week. I didn't mind, in fact I was just happy to be able to give whatever I had.
Before going to school I would always bring Joe in a mug of tea, you could trot a mouse across, as he would describe it. His instructions were to put two heaped spoonfuls of tea leaves in a large mug and fill with boiling water which I then left to draw for a few minutes. Once drawn I added, two heaped spoonfuls of sugar some full fat milk and I then stirred well before bring it in to my uncle who lay sitting upright in his bed waiting for his morning cuppa. I did this every morning for him and to see his beaming face when I brought that mug of tea to him every morning was my reward.
One morning, I was late for school and I forgot to make his tea. When I returned at lunchtime to write out horses something just wasn't right. My mother was home and she answered the door. I ran into my bedroom to change my books and noticed that Joe was till sitting upright in the bed as if waiting for his tea. He had that “Joe” smile on his face the one I had grown to love but Joe was no longer there in that body.
I ran out into the hallway and past my mother out into the street. I walked and walked with tears streaming down my face. I eventually went into a church and I sat there at the back of the church and I said sorry to my Great Uncle Joe for not bringing him his tea that morning. I had lost a more that an uncle. He was a very special person and his influence in my life was to prove to be very important in later life.
Good bye Joe - I will never forget you.
My Uncle had diabetes and he was on medication. My mother later discovered that after my grandmother had died Joe had stopped taking his medication. My mother found a load of his unopened medication in the back of his drawer.
I missed my Great Uncle Joe for a very long time after that and to this day I regret not having made him his tea on his last morning on earth.