The setting for this quick-paced story is the Irish village of Praiseach, which means “confusion.” It is an appropriate title, because from the very moment the three strangers (two women and one man, all dressed in the height of fashion) arrive in this isolated village, confusion reigns. The action takes place in the post office of Praiseach, a dingy little stone building ruled over by the local postmaster, Martin Conlon. Described by Liam O’Flaherty as “a middle-aged man of great size, a good part of which lay in the region of his stomach,” Martin has a fear of being dismissed from his job that is exceeded only by his fear of sending telegrams.
It is pension day in Praiseach, so there are dozens of old people waiting for Martin to cash their government pension checks. One of the three strangers, the young man who is dressed like a “foreigner” but who speaks Irish like a native, adds even greater turmoil to this already confused situation by requesting to send a telegram to the United States. On hearing the word “telegram,” “Martin started violently and gripped the edge of the counter with both hands. His face looked horrified.”
Thus begins a long series of comic exchanges, with the young man trying to get hold of a telegraph form, on one hand, and Martin doing his best to dissuade him, on the other. Martin tries everything to get the young man to send his message from Galway, even pointing to the American woman’s shiny red Cadillac (which is quite a contrast to this shabby village) and saying, “With a car like that one outside, she wouldn’t be half an hour going into the town.”
The young man, however, does not wish to be put off. He insists, to the great amusement of the locals who know of Martin’s fear, that the telegram must be sent from Praiseach. He explains that the Spanish woman, the darker of the two women, has a friend in Los Angeles whose ancestors hailed from Praiseach. The woman has promised, at all costs, to send a telegram to her friend from his ancestral village. What makes it worse, however, from Martin’s point of view, is that the message is a poem in Spanish.
Father Tom, the parish priest, briefly enters the scene. He is out looking for his dog, and, in his search, stumbles into the post office. He finds Martin’s predicament as amusing as do the local villagers. After a few words of false sympathy, the priest leaves the post office, laughing loudly.
Eventually, under continued pressure from the young man, Martin agrees to send the telegram. He then has a series of confrontations with the telephone, both brief and amusing, in which he speaks to seemingly everyone but the one person he is trying to reach. Three times he rings for the Galway operator, and three times he is connected to conversations that are already in progress. There is one in which “the angry voice of a single man made itself violently manifest to the drum of Martin’s ear.” In no uncertain terms, the voice accuses Martin of trying to cheat him out of some fish. When Martin tells him that he has no fish for sale, the man calls him a liar. They are then disconnected.
The Galway operator finally rings him, with the message that a local man is dead. This is duly passed on to the locals surrounding Martin, but then the operator hangs up. Martin goes through the same process again, ringing for the operator but getting the wrong connections. Eventually, he reaches a man who is also trying to reach another place. Martin tells him that he is in Praiseach (confusion), and the man laughs and says, “We are all in it, as far as I can see.”
This confusion continues long into the story, with Martin becoming progressively more befuddled and frustrated. In the end, he can only hold his head in his hands and allow the American woman to make the phone call. This she does promptly, reading each letter of the poem (which is by Federico García Lorca) into the phone.
The story ends as it began, with utter chaos. While the American woman is on the phone, the locals begin to crowd around Martin and demand their pensions. He, in turn, shouts at them to behave. The soldier, an old man who entered with a letter he wanted someone to read to him, advises the young man for the fifth time to “have a go” at the American woman. In the meantime, the Spanish woman is marching around the room, “with her arms stretched out and head thrown back,” reciting passionately:
Era madrugada. Nadiepudo asomarse a sus ojosabiertos al duro aire.(It was dawn. Nobodycould fathom her eyesopen to the hard air.)
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