Unburied debts

Oct 1st, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones’ declares Antony in William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’.  Perhaps in more contemporary times, ‘the evil that men do’ might be replaced by ‘the debts that men incur’ – debts definitely live after them.  Going through old stuff, the story of Joe again surfaced.

Joe died in January 1915.  A bachelor farmer, he was seventy when he died at the house where he was born and lived his life. His funeral would have been observed with proper respect; neighbouring farmers would have grasped his brothers’ hands and offered condolences in the time-honoured Ulster way, ‘Sorry for your trouble’.

Joe was unknown to me until I started going through a bag of old legal documents some five years ago. There was the application for a grant of probate for his will dated February 1916, thirteen months after his death. The application states Joe’s bachelor farmer status in blunt terms, “The deceased left no widow, no lawful children, no other more remote lawful issue, no lawful parent nor grandparent him surviving.” In a community reared on Old Testament values where the more children the greater the blessing, to be a childless bachelor was somehow to have failed.

Joe’s pain was far greater than loneliness. He simply could not make ends meet. Much of his estate disappeared in the settlement of debts. At the quarry Joe owned, a good wage was £1 per week, yet Joe owed one doctor £19, who must have refused Joe further treatment until his bill was settled, because another £4 of debt was run up with another doctor. Similarly, the bills at a druggist must have accumulated to the point where they would dispense no more medicines and a lesser debt was run up with a second druggist. Joe owed everyone money, even the maid who worked at the house was owed £6-5 shillings, probably three months wages if she was paid £25 per annum.  Everyone would have talked about the money Joe owed.

Almost a century on, it’s hard to know how the list of Joe’s debts, which run to three typewritten pages, grew so long. Maybe it’s a good thing that the details of his estate lay unread for decades, would any of us want everyone knowing our business while there were still people around who remembered us? On the other hand, maybe if things were known, maybe if painful stuff wasn’t hidden away, there would be more understanding and the world would be a more forgiving place; it could hardly be worse than being a lonely bachelor farmer whose credit has run out and whose name is badmouthed. There must have been good in his life, but it seems to have been interred with him.

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