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The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Nell - Part I

Story ID:2981
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Writers Conference:$500 2007 Family Memories Writing Project
Location:Clough County Down Ireland
Year:1880
Person:My Grandfather and Dr. Nell
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To look at the Irish in America today, one would never say we were ever a race of people who took up for the underdog, supported the helpless and fought for the defenseless, but the fact is we were that type of breed for a very long time.

In the latter part of the 19th Century, my Grandfather, Johnny Ward, was a boy growing up within the remnants of a noble family which held the Earldom of Ulster. He was destined to lose the Earldom of Ulster, because the British would soon depose him and replace him with a fourteen year old protestant boy. As the Heir Apparent, his youth was fascinating and full despite the lack of television, computers, electronic games and such modern amusements. The family lived on a large estate and followed the tacit code of kindness which prevailed throughout Ireland. One clause of that code was: you never turn anyone away from your door. On one cold, wet, but magical Friday a tramp arrived and asked for a meal and lodging for the night. The servants, aware of the code, gave him a hot meal, some ale and a pile of straw to sleep upon in the kitchen near the fire.

The next day the family found out that this tramp referred to himself as Dr. Nell. He seemed quite educated and articulate, but was in terrible shape financially. He wore very old clothes with holes and rips, worse still, he was covered in fleas and lice. Mrs. Molly Ward, my Great Grandmother, told the servants to start a fire outside and to place a large cauldron on it. When the water was hot, Dr. Nell was told to get his clothes off, get into the cauldron and bathe. He did so with a great deal of reluctance and articulate complaining, but when he was clean there appeared a rather handsome man of about 22 wondering what he was going to wear. One of my Great Grandfather’s older suits was called for and with a shirt, socks, shoes and spats Dr. Nell was a new man. He would not speak of his origins and never admitted to having a first name so, thenceforth, he was known to all as “Dr. Nell.”

The problem arose as to what could be done with his old, flea and lice infested clothing. With a forked vermin stick Molly Ward pushed the clothes into a pile and then into some stout brown paper which was then wrapped carefully and re-wrapped in more stout brown paper and tied tightly with string. This parcel was left outside in the cold to lull the vermin into a sluggish state so they would not be jumping and crawling out. Great Grandmother Molly intended to burn the parcel, but Johnny had a better idea. Very carefully he took the package and wrapped it in some fancy onion-skin paper which had been stored in the Christmas closet and then in a piece of silk cloth, this time binding it with a pretty blue ribbon.

Next morning was a bright and unusually clear rain-free Sunday. The Ward family got up and began to make ready for Mass, the principal cause of confusion in Ireland. Although my Grandfather was just a boy, he and Dr. Nell had already started to experience the beginning of what was to be a life-long friendship and both were in high spirits. Before the family could get into the pony and trap, they headed off towards the church, carrying the parcel of the doctor’s old clothing.

About a hundred yards from the church entrance they stopped and placed the parcel on the path. It looked like it had just been dropped. With no-one in sight they retired to the surrounding woods to watch. In short order a family came by and walked on to the church, not even seeing the parcel. A few minutes later a rotund woman who was known to be a proud proselytizer and moralizer, came by. It was Maggie McGill, who always offered to help take up the collection during Mass, who always helped father Joseph with his vestments in the vestry and who was always ready to condemn any form of sexual impropriety without even a hint of the wicked sin of compassion. They watched as this pious lady spied the parcel. They watched as she walked a few steps beyond it and then stop. Dr. Nell muffled a laugh as she turned an awkward pirouette checking for observers, then stood dead still listening for the rustling leaves of an approaching family. Hearing only the birds singing and the creaking of the trees, Maggie McGill walked casually up to the parcel only glancing at it briefly and, while craning her neck to see past the last bend in the path, quickly squatted and rose in a single movement with the package firmly under her arm.

She made a handsome sight waddling off with her Sunday bonnet on her head, her rear-end tumbling like two bear cubs fighting in a burlap sack and her silk package under her arm. Johnny and the doctor followed at a safe distance and took their places two pews behind the pious Miss McGill. In about fifteen minutes the rest of the family arrived and with confusion on their faces, they took their place in the pews across the nave from where Johnny and Dr. Nell sat.

The sermon dragged on as only a Mass can when you anticipate some fun and as the warmth of the church stove and the congregation started to penetrate the parcel, the fleas and lice began to become active. In no time Miss McGill was scratching hither and then thither and then the church-goers either side of her started scratching and soon most of the congregation was scratching and quite violently. Miss McGill suddenly stood up and screamed: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Me nether regions!” For an instant everything went silent. The priest, who was just drinking the wine in remembrance of the spilled blood of our Lord, gasped - blowing the wine through his nose and over an alter boy. The boy fell backwards dropping the incense burner and setting the varnished balustrade ablaze. Suddenly the congregation was in a stampede and the whole church was emptied leaving the priest and the two alter boys flailing at the blaze with their holy smocks.

At home Johnny’s parents seemed both perplexed and suspicious. This was exacerbated by the fact that Johnny and the doctor could not stop laughing. Later, upon a visit to the local general practitioner my Great Grandfather found out that Miss McGill had suffered a severe attack of flea bites all around her “nether regions.” She seemed to think they came from a package she was holding on her lap. He had had to treat her and tell her to burn all her unmentionables. The poor woman was distraught and fairly traumatized by the events, but the doctor felt sure she would recover soon, because she had already managed to share a scandalous story about one of his nurses with him right after her examination.