An excerpt from ”Life with Mother” by the well known author Clarence Day 1937.


The character of O’Dowd was based on our great grandfather Denis O’Keefe who was Day’s coachman. He was born in Mallow, County Cork, Ireland in 1857. He lived in an apartment over the stables with his wife Julia Sheehan and their 6 children, Denis, Michael, Timothy, Thomas, Kathryn and Anna. In the book, the son Patrick represented our grandfather, Denis also known as Dan & Poppi. 



Julia Sheehan and Denis O'Keefe with their Grandchildren
Julia Sheehan and Denis O'Keefe with their Grandchildren




( from the chapter Father Invests in a Livery )……In choosing a new man Father and Mother tried to be guided by their experience.  They decided that there were two fixed requirements that they must now keep in mind, aside from honesty, industry,  steadiness and knowing how to take care of horses. One was that the man must be a total abstainer who hated strong drink, and the other  was that in order to wear that livery he must be the same size as Morgan. A series of men, all of wrong sizes came to our house, one by one, and put on Morgan's livery in the basement before  coming upstairs to be interviewed. T hey one and all insisted that it was a good fit.


Tall men whose bare wrists hung down, red and hairy, below Morgan's  coat-cuffs, came boldly upstairs like scarecrows, trying in vain to look natty.  Little men appeared with only the tips of their fingers showing and the coat flapping around them. All had their fists full of good references that smelled of horses and harness dressing, and if these references were to be believed,  not a man of them ever got drunk. They were  all sent away. Whether it was that the marks of drink showed on them, in spite of their references, or whether  they made too disreputable an appearance in poor Morgan's livery, none of them quite suited Father. They didn't look right, he said. The only one of them who seemed really eligible was a severe and respectable man who came up from the basement carrying Morgan's coat on his arm. It would fit him he said, but he would prefer not to wear it. He wanted a new one. He was sent packing instantly for having high and lofty ideas.


Another man with excellent references came the very next evening. He was a round jolly man with an honest eye. Father said after questioning him that he could see he saying that the bearer had a wonderful character and never touched liquor. The only objection to him was that he was fatter than Morgan. He had managed  to squeeze himself into Morgan's coat somehow, however, and although some of the buttons wouldn't button he said "it could be easy let out,"  and furthermore it would take him no time at all to train down. He chuckled  and said all he needed was plenty of work. As he seemed to have the right attitude about this, O'Dowd was engaged, on the distinct understanding however that his weight must come down at once.


 He immediately went into training. He drew in his stomach every time Mother looked at him, and he rubbed his hands with delight when Father bought a new pair of horses, which made five in all, a stanhope and a victoria to add to our dog-cart, and a new set of harness. O'Dowd busily trotted around the stable attending to these, and said that with all that to do surely any man  would peel like an onion. Mother kept declaring  that she couldn't see that he got any thinner. She complained that he "bulged." Sitting behind him every day in the victoria while he drove her about, she noticed this much more than Father, who used the stanhope and drove his horses himself. She also said that O'Dowd had the largest ears a man ever had. This was probably true. At any rate, as they stuck out straight, they looked it. They were red, thick and hairy,and on some afternoons they got redder, when Mother, sitting below looking up at them, couldn't get her mind off them, and  made some remark about their unfortunate size to a friend.


Another objection to O'Dowd was that he had too many children. He had three when he  came, and although he was warned to stop they kept coming until he had seven. There  were more little O'Dowds on the Day place than there were little Day boys. O'Dowd was instructed to keep them close to the  stable, and on no account to let them be seen near the garden or lawn. This left them practically  no place to play but the manure pit and  paddock.  One or another of them was always venturing  out to trespass on those forbidden acres when no one was watching, and scampering wildly back through the bushes when  his  crime was discovered. The eldest boy, Morris, was held to blame, by both O'Dowd and ourselves, for every bit of disgraceful behaviour on the part of his little' brothers. He was a thin, lanky boy, with sad eyes and a querulous voice. As O'Dowd had all he could do, grooming  the horses, cleaning the harness, and driving, the responsibilities of fatherhood  fell more and more up on Morris. "The melancholy Morris," as Mother sympathetically called him. When the district school opened in the fall, we would sometimes come upon  a procession of small O'Dowds on the road,  led by their pale eldest brother, walking to or from the dingy, wooden schoolhouse. By that time all  youngness had gone out of Morris, and he walked with a round-shouldered stoop.


The district school was not far from our place. It was rickety-looking and old. One summer evening a citizens' meeting was held in it, to vote on building a new little school-house with modern improvements. Father heard of this at the last moment, just in time to walk to the school after dinner and enter a protest. He had paid enough taxes as it was, he told Mother he didn't propose to pay any more. He found that the meeting was in full  swing as he went in the door. A man with a loud bellowing voice was haranguing  those present, urging them to vote for this splendid and much-needed improvement. He had seven fine children to send to it himself, he declaimed, and if God was good to him maybe he'd have seven more. The room was so thick with pipe and cigar smoke that it was hard to make faces out, and Father could scarcely believe at first that it was O'Dowd who was bellowing. None of us had ever heard his voice raised above a respectful low key. But it was he, no mistake. "O'Dowd!" Father called sharply. "What are you doing here? Stop that damned noise at once." It was the voice of authority, and this was the nineties. O'Dowd wilted, touched his forelock, said "Yes, sir," and looked for his hat. "Go outside and wait," Father said. "That man isn't a citizen of Harrison," Father said to the meeting. "He doesn't pay taxes. I do. What is all this nonsense about? The property owners of this neighborhood don't want a new school." "Mr. O'Dowd said he wanted it," somebody got up and said. Father stared at him, and motioned him with his cane to sit down. "O'Dowd is my coachman," he said. "He doesn't know what he wants. There's no one else in my part of the township who has any children to send. And if a new school is put up in my neighborhood and I move away, there will be no O'Dowds to go to it either. I move that this plan be quashed."A citizen who wanted a new school over on his side of the township, instead of on ours, quickly seconded the motion. There was no more  debate. It was carried. Father walked home angrily and in silence, with O'Dowd in the rear. At our gate Father halted. He had put up, in spite of Mother's objections, with O'Dowd staying fat, he had permitted this ungrateful man to bulge, year after year, on the box, he had striven to overlook his criminal carelessness in having too many children, and now if it hadn't been for Father's promptness, O'Dowd would have raised  Father's taxes.  "What have you to say for yourself?" Father asked him. O'Dowd had been thinking things over.


"I never thought of the taxes, sir," he explained. "It won't happen again." It didn't look at that time as though the O'Dowds would ever pay taxes themselves. The blackest part of their family outlook was the stupidity of poor Morris. O'Dowd shook his head over Morris. "He's not taking to the horses," he said. Neither Morris nor any  of the rest of us knew in those days that the era of coachmen was ending, and the era of automobiles was  about to begin. When it came, the melancholy Morris, who had never liked horses, woke up. He had apparently  been born with an instinctive love for gasoline engines. If they hadn’t been invented, he'd have gone through life as a second-rate coachman or maybe a failure.  As it was, he became one of the best of the very first crop  of chauffeurs. He not only made better wages than any old coachman, he was regularly taken to Europe, where he drove his employer through countries that no other O'Dowd of his line had seen. One of his brothers went along as a helper, on the third of these trips--Patrick Gorman O'Dowd, who had been the most impish  and wild  of the lot, as a boy, but who later became a two-hundred-pound plumber, with a big gold watch and chain. Patrick didn't care much for scenery, and he had a poor opinion of Europe. He inspected it thoroughly, but only from one point of view. "The plumbing in some of them castles there," he told  me, years afterwards, "would make any decent American ashamed to be using it." He looked around to make sure that no lady was near who might hear him, cupped his hand to my ear, and wheezed a shocked, portly whisper, "Just a hole in the wall."  a shocked, portly whisper, "Just a hole in the wall."