The little girl climbed out of her bed covers into the nippy air. She crossed the hardwood floor of her bedroom. Her feet were cold but she didn’t bother to stop and put on her slippers before opening the door and running down the hall of the apartment to the kitchen where her mother was preparing breakfast.
“Mommy, I need to get to Mr. O’Hara’s early today,” she said.
“Not too early. You need to wait until they have a chance to wake up. Besides, you need to eat before you go,” said her mother.
The little girl obediently gulped down the bowl of oatmeal set in front of her before darting back to her room to get dressed. She reappeared in the kitchen to get her mother’s approval before heading out. Her mother smiled as she reviewed the little girl’s outfit. It certainly had all the components of an ensemble – a shirt, pants and shoes – but her mother would have hardly selected that word to describe the little girl’s clothes. She was wearing a pink and purple floral shirt, brown and orange striped pants, red polka dot socks and, most surprising of all, one blue and one pink shoe. The little girl smiled back at her mother, taking her reaction as a compliment.
“I’ll be home by five. See you then,” said her mother, as she held open the door and watched the little girl walk down the hallway to the O’Haras’ apartment.
The little girl knocked and the door opened. Mrs. O’Hara peeked her head out and waved at the mother while the little girl slid past her into the dining room.
“Sure I’ve been waiting donkey years for you,” said Mr. O’Hara, seated at the dining room table “We’ll never finish if half the crew sleeps in all day.”
The little girl looked down and started to tear up until she heard Mr. O’Hara’s familiar chuckle.
“I’m glad ya decided to stop ‘arsing around, lazy bones,” he said, ”Pull yer socks up and let’s get going.”
She climbed up onto one of the dining chairs, pulled up her socks and waited for further instruction.
Mr. O’Hara looked down at the little girl’s shoes and let out a hearty laugh. “That’s a grand pair of shoes you’re wearin’, pup. I can see the wee folk have been visitin’ you.”
“Who are the wee folk?” asked the little girl.
“I am in me wick! Who are the wee folk? Why, they’re the leprechauns, they are. They’re the feary shoemakers. They must be makin’ yer shoes for you,” said Mr. O’Hara.
“I thought my mother bought them for me,” said the little girl.
“Not those shoes,” said Mr. O’Hara. “Only the wee folk can make shoes like those. Now, let me tell you, if you catch one in your room, don’t let him go ‘til he gives you three wishes. They’re very rich and they’re magical too. But be careful, they can be tricky,” said Mr. O’Hara.
The little girl began to think about what she would wish for if she caught a leprechaun in her room when Mr. O’Hara cleared his throat loudly, drawing her attention back to the task before them.
There, covering the entire dining room table, were pieces of wood, straw and glass that would become a replica of the thatch cottage the O’Haras had lived in in County Sligo, Ireland before coming to America many years ago.
“We’re after goin’ back to our own wee house,” Mr. O’Hara would say often, “As soon as Ma is well enough.”
“Ma” is what he called Mrs. O’Hara even though, much to their great sorrow, they were unable to have children. Mrs. O’Hara bore an uncanny resemblance to Mrs. Santa Claus. Her head looked as though it had been spun through a cotton candy machine, topped with a large crown of white wispy hair. She always wore a flowery cotton dress and a full apron with ruffles around it. Mrs. O’Hara sat in her rocker in the living room most of the day working on her needlework. And despite her failing health, she had a most cheerful temperament. The little girl noticed that Mrs. O’Hara’s ankles were very large but she tried not to stare at them. Occasionally Mrs. O’Hara would look up and watch the two of them work as the living room and dining room were divided by the smallest vestige of walls on three sides. The only time she got up from her rocker was when she made them all sandwiches for lunch. The little girl would watch through the kitchen door as Mrs. O’Hara took the bologna and mustard from the refrigerator and place it on the table. Then she would sit down for a time before getting up to take the bread from the breadbox and place it on the table. She constructed the sandwiches while she sat. The little girl wondered why her mother always stood at the kitchen counter while making their meals.
“Today we’ll build the frame,” announced Mr. O’Hara.
The little girl was very excited, as yesterday they had spent the entire day removing the parts from the shipping box and organizing them on the table. The dollhouse kit had come all the way from Ireland. Mr. O’Hara had been talking about its arrival for weeks now.
Mr. O’Hara was a tall, robust man with a full head of wavy black hair which belied his age. A few grey hairs at his temples attempted to give it away. He always wore a plaid flannel shirt and corduroy pants in shades of brown. Sometimes the little girl had trouble understanding him because he spoke with a thick Irish brogue despite his over forty years in the United States. He had travelled to America in search of a job. He came by ship and entered through Ellis Island in New York. He stayed in New York and found work as a fine carpenter, a skill his father had taught him in Ireland. When he was able to find an apprenticeship and afford a small apartment, he sent for his wife, Claire. Mrs. O’Hara joined him in New York and found work as a cook for wealthy families. They both worked until Mrs. O’Hara’s heart began to fail. Now he stayed home to care for her.
“We lived in a wee house, almost as small as this kit,” Mr. O’Hara began, “I suppose that’s why we don’t mind living in this New York apartment.” And he began to laugh. The little girl laughed too because she liked it when he laughed.
“This kit we’re buildin’ is just like that wee house. The first floor was really just one room with a fireplace at one end. T’was the living room, dining room and kitchen combined. The jacks was outside. The second floor had two bedrooms, one for the chisellers, if we were lucky enough to have any, and one for us. The roof was made of thatch,” he said.
“What’s thatch?” asked the little girl.
“Thatch is straw,” said Mr. O’Hara.
“How can you make a roof out of straw?” asked the little girl. “Won’t the rain get in?”
“It won’t. Not if you build it right,” said Mr. O’Hara. “We’ll build it right. You’re a wise little snapper.”
The little girl sat up very straight and smiled, not quite sure if being a snapper was a good thing.
So Mr. O’Hara and the little girl began to assemble the frame of the thatch cottage. The base was a rectangle which covered almost half of the table. Mr. O’Hara pointed out openings for the front door and windows. The back of the house would be open. They glued together the tiny beams from the kit.
When they finished the lower floor framing, Mrs. O’Hara called them in for their bologna sandwich and a glass of milk.
After lunch, they started on the framing for the roof. The roof was to be steeply pitched.
“This has to be very steep,” said Mr. O’Hara, “That way it will withstand the fierce weather.”
The little girl thought this was going to be a wonderful house.
When they finished the roof, Mr. O’Hara declared, “Sure that’s enough for today. We’ll be after lettin’ the glue dry on the frame before we start addin’ on the walls and thatch.”
Then he watched as the little girl returned down the hallway to her apartment.
That night the little girl lay awake looking for the wee folk who would make her shoes. She was ready to jump out of bed and catch one as soon as he entered her room. She knew what one of her wishes would be: that Mrs. O’Hara would get well so that Mr. and Mrs. O’Hara could return to their home in Ireland even though she would miss them.
The next day, the little girl awoke even earlier than the day before. When she realized she had fallen asleep on her wee folk watch, she was very disappointed. But she had work to do so she raced into the kitchen for breakfast.
“Why are you up at this hour?” asked her mother, “You should be sleeping.”
“If I wouldn’t have fallen asleep, I might have caught a lepercan,” said the little girl.
“If you say so,” said her mother.
“Besides. I can’t be ‘arsing around. I need to get to work,” said the little girl, “We’ll never finish if half the crew sleeps in all day.”
“We don’t use those words in this house, young lady,” said her mother.
“What’s a snapper?” the little girl asked.
“I suppose a snapper is a turtle,” said her mother.
“If someone calls someone a snapper, what do they mean?” asked the little girl.
“Well, turtles move very slowly. Maybe they mean that person is moving too slowly,” said her mother.
Her mother set a bowl of oatmeal on the table before her. The little girl gobbled it up as quickly as she could and raced to her bedroom to change. She reappeared in a few minutes wearing the red and green shoes the leprechauns had left out for her. Her mother watched her run down the hall to the O’Haras’.
“C’mere,” said Mr. O’Hara in a serious tone, “I see you’re a bit more serious about your work today. Let’s get started.”
The little girl pulled her chair up to the table, sat up straight and pulled up her socks. She was determined not to be called a snapper today.
“Today, we’ll build the outer walls. We’ll use wood and paint it white. In a real thatch cottage, this part would be made of stucco,” said Mr. O’Hara.
“What’s stucco?” asked the little girl.
“C’mere, don’t you know anything about building?” said Mr. O’Hara. “What’s thatch? What’s stucco? Do you even know what wood is?”
“I know what wood is,” said the little girl, a bit hurt.
“Stucco is like plaster, sorta’ like the walls in this apartment. But, in Oireland, they put in on the outside of the house,” said Mr. O’Hara.
The little girl was afraid to ask him if it would crack like the walls of the apartment do. She thought she had better not ask too many more questions right away.
So they built the outer walls from some thin panels of wood that Mr. O’Hara had to cut to the right size. He used a small knife to cut the pieces. The little girl asked if she could cut some.
“Now that would be a bit dodgy,” said Mr. O’Hara.
She assumed this meant no since he didn’t hand her the knife.
When the cutting was done, they glued the pieces over the entire lower level except where the doors and windows would go.
Mrs. O’Hara called from the kitchen, “Are you two after havin’ something to eat?”
“Woman, I thought you’d never ask me if I had a mouth,” said Mr. O’Hara.
The little girl was sure Mrs. O’Hara knew she had a mouth so she followed him into the kitchen and they had their bologna sandwiches.
After lunch, Mr. O’Hara said they could paint the walls white. The little girl was excited about this because she liked to paint. Mr. O’Hara was whistling as they painted so the little girl dared to venture another question.
“Where you lived in Ireland,” she asked. “Was it a big city like New York?”
“Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, no,” said Mr. O’Hara, “We lived in a wee village. Me father was a carpenter and I was his apprentice. Before Claire and I got married, I took out a loan and built us our wee cottage, the one I told you about. It was down the street from my family home on a pretty lot with two crab apple trees. I bought the lot from Jimmy Costello for a quare good price. Claire planted flowers in the front yard. It was a sight to see. We lived there for six years. Sure we were never happier than when we were sittin’ together in front of the fireplace every evenin’. ”
“Why did you come to New York?” asked the little girl, deciding to push her luck a little further.
Maybe she had asked too many questions because now Mr. O’Hara looked angry.
“Mother of all Saints, you ask so many questions!” he said, “I couldn’t work no more. I lost our pretty house to the bank. Claire moved in with me parents. I had to cross the pond to look for work.”
Although the little girl wanted to know why Mr. O’Hara couldn’t work, she decided that was enough questions for today. She had made Mr. O’Hara sad and now she was sad as well.
When they finished painting, they admired their work and Mr. O’Hara watched the little girl walk back to her apartment.
The next day, the little girl decided to dress before going to the kitchen for breakfast, thinking it might save some time.
Her mother asked her if she would like some oatmeal.
“Woman, I thought you’d never ask me if I had a mouth,” said the little girl.
“Don’t be sassy,” said her mother.
“Jaysus, Mary and Joseph” said the little girl.
“We don’t take the Lord’s name in vain either,” said her mother.
The confused little girl ate her oatmeal, kissed her mother good bye and was off for the O’Hara’s, wearing one brown and one black shoe.
“Today, we’ll thatch the roof,” said Mr. O’Hara.
The little girl beamed. She could hardly wait to see how the tiny bundles of straw could be made into a roof that would protect the house from fierce weather, as Mr. O’Hara called it.
“If this were a real thatched roof, we’d attach the straw bundles with spars, which are staples,” said Mr. O’Hara, “But for this wee house, we’ll be after usin’ glue.”
So they began to glue the yelms, or straw bundles, to the roof until it was completely covered. When the little girl saw the roof, she was very excited.
“It looks like a fairy house!” she said.
“Jaysus, now you sound like an eejit! What do you know about feary houses?” Mr. O’Hara said. “This looks nothing like a feary house. Fearies live in forts, not houses. And you better stay clear of them if you know what’s good for you.”
“But aren’t fairies good?” asked the little girl.
“Not if you mess with their houses, they’re not. You mess with a feary house and you won’t soon forgit it,” said Mr. O’Hara.
That night the little girl had trouble falling asleep. She wondered if there were fairies in New York. There must be. Why else would their shoemakers be here? She would have to be very careful to stay clear of their houses.
The next day, when the little girl arrived at the O’Haras’, Mr. O’Hara announced, “Today we will put in the windows and the front door.”
So they glued in the panes of glass and tiny wooden mullions. Before they attached the front door with its tiny hinges, Mr. O’Hara asked the little girl if she would like to paint it. She would. She painted it brown.
While they worked, Mr. O’Hara told the little girl about his life in Ireland.
“We weren’t rich. But we were happy. Me Pa taught me a good bit about carpentry so I could take over the business when he got too old. I got pretty good at it and it gave me a livin’. People in nearby villages would ask for me by name. I would travel there by foot and build their cabinets or tables or benches. I could build most anything. It was too far to walk back each night so I would sleep in their barn, if they had one, or in their field. Sometimes, the priest would let me sleep on the pew in the church.”
The little girl liked to listen to Mr. O’Hara’s stories. She was always disappointed when he told her it time to go back home at the end of the day.
The next day Mr. O’Hara began again with his stories while they worked on building the fireplace by gluing on each tiny brick.
He told the little girl how Ireland was most beautiful place on earth, green and hilly, surrounded by the blue sea. He told her how wild horses roamed about free in the country and the city.
“You could catch a horse, bring in up in the lift, and keep it in your apartment like any cat or dog in New York,” said Mr. O’Hara.
The little girl said she wished she could keep a horse for a pet but she didn’t know if her mother would let her. Her mother did not want to keep a dog because she didn’t want to have to walk it every day.
“Do you have to walk a horse every day?” asked the little girl.
“Only if you don’t want your apartment covered in a pile o’ shite!” said Mr. O’Hara.
“Watch you gob,” Mrs. O’Hara reminded him from her rocker.
The little girl smiled. Mrs. O’Hara was funny.
The next day, when the little girl took her place at the table, Mr. O’Hara looked at the house and declared, “It’s brilliant. Now all we need is some furniture.”
The little girl could hardly wait to start building the furniture.
The two carpenters continued their work, building tables and chairs, beds and couches, and even a stove and refrigerator.
“Remember how I told you one day I couldn’t work no more?” said Mr. O’Hara.
The little girl sat up straight to listen.
“I didn’t understand why for donkey years. I went on the dole. I took up the drink. When I found out the truth, I knew I had to leave Oireland,” said Mr. O’Hara.
“What happened?” the little girl’s eyes were large.
“One year, I decided to plant some praties. There was some room in the corner of the lot. But the minute my shovel hit the dirt, I felt a sharp pain in my arm. I tried for another shovelful and the same thing happened. Pretty soon I couldn’t move me arm at all. After that, I couldn’t work.”
“Then one day when I was sitting in me yard, having a pint, that dirty little maggot Jimmy Costello comes walkin’ down the lane. I tell him how I can’t move me arm since that day I was planting me spuds in the yard.” And he says, “Well, Japers, I coulda told you that!”
“What are you talkin’ about, I ask him,” said Mr. O’Hara. “Then Jimmy told me the raison he said he sold me the lot quare cheap. There was a feary fort on it. They’re hard to see. They can look like a little mound of dirt, a wee bump. It was in the corner of me lot, right where I was trying to dig me spud garden!”
“Why did your arm hurt?” asked the little girl.
“Because the fearies were hittin’ me with their darts. They was paralyzin’ me is what they were after doin.’ Without me arm, I couldn’t do me work,” said Mr. O’Hara, ‘And that’s why I had to leave Oireland. Once you’re under their curse, there’s no escapin’ it in their land”
“But you didn’t mean to do it,” said the little girl.
“The fearies don’t care,” said Mr. O’Hara. “They’re not like you and me. That’s why folks are so feared of ‘em. You never know what will make ‘em mad.”
The little girl felt sad that fairies could be so mean. But soon Mrs. O’Hara cheered her up by showing them what she had made for the house.
She made a small piece of crochet work into a rug for the hearth. She sewed by hand tiny cushions for the couch and chairs, stuffing them with pieces of cotton balls. She made blankets and pillows for the beds. And finally, she made a tiny sign on cardboard that read:
Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin.
Mr. O’Hara carefully glued the sign over the fireplace.
“What does it say?” asked the little girl.
“It says, ‘There’s no hearth like your own hearth,’” said Mr. O’Hara.
“What does it mean?” asked the little girl.
“It means, ‘There’s no place like home.’ “
“What do you think of the house now?” asked Mr. O’Hara.
“I think it’s brilliant,” said the little girl.
“Sure, we know one thing for certain, it’s not cursed,” said Mr. O’Hara.
“That we do,” said Mrs. O’Hara. And they both smiled.
“Why don’t you bring your mother over to see it tomorrow,” said Mrs. O’Hara, she must be wonderin’ what you’ve been doin’ all this time. I think she’ll be very proud of you.”
“Oh, thank you, I will” said the little girl.
The next day the little girl held her mother’s hand as they walked down the hall to the O’Haras’ apartment.
They knocked at the door. There was no answer so they knocked again a little harder. Again, no answer.
“I hope nothing’s wrong,” said the little girl’s mother.
She knocked again, this time very loudly, but still got no answer.
“I think I’ll get the super,” she said, “I’m a little worried.”
So the little girl and her mother walked down to the superintendent’s office and asked him to come up and open the O’Hara’s door. He did as he was asked after trying once again to knock loudly and getting no response.
They entered the front room. There was no one there. The doll house was on the dining table with the front facing them.
“It is beautiful,” whispered the little girl’s mother.
“It’s brilliant,” said the little girl.
They walked into the dining room and then into the kitchen. No one there. They checked the bedroom. No one.
“I feel foolish,” said the little girls’ mother, “They must have gone out.”
“Mommy, since we are here, come and see the inside of house,” begged the little girl.
The super nodded and the mother said, “OK, sure.”
So they peered into the tiny house and there on two chairs, in front of the fireplace, perfectly still, sat two figures: a man in a plaid shirt with corduroy trousers and a woman in a flowery dress with a full ruffled apron.