Buttons can be the undoing of us, as Pushkin found out to his cost

DISPLACED IN MULLINGAR: AMONG THE HIDDEN treasures of Mullingar are the flowers that grow on the banks of the Royal Canal; a…

DISPLACED IN MULLINGAR:AMONG THE HIDDEN treasures of Mullingar are the flowers that grow on the banks of the Royal Canal; a waterway whose summit is near Lough Owel. The lake feeds the entire artery; water descending in both directions, east towards Dublin, and west to the Shannon.

I discovered these facts on Easter Sunday morning, as I stretched on the sofa, with a local history book in hand, and a mug of tea on the floor at my feet. I would have lazed there all day, considering the blustery weather, but at 11am I was disturbed by a footfall at the front door and the fumbling of a clumsy hand on the broken doorbell. It was my friend, with his umbrella.

My friend is a small fellow with a moustache. He works as a clerk somewhere in the labyrinth of the local authorities, and displays a middle-aged bachelor's enthusiasm for unnecessary walks. Despite the bad weather, he was defiant about our prospects in the open air.

I agreed that Mullingar Equestrian Centre might be the bees' knees for a few hours of diversion. The centre hosts a showjumping league every Sunday, where the public can admire young ladies and grown men coaxing their respective nags over high fences, as well-heeled horse lovers strut in the paddocks and admire the costumed riders, and each other.


We walked through the blowing rain, along the canal until we reached a knot of trailers, jeeps and horseboxes clustered around the Equestrian Centre, on the Athlone road.

I was admiring a fine big chestnut mare, when the rider asked me to hold the reins while he purchased a coffee.

I agreed, and stood with reins in hand, eyeballing the mare, who eyeballed me. When the beast had sized me up as a gobdaw of no consequence, she snapped a big button off my overcoat, crunched it with her teeth and swallowed everything, but for a single shard that fell to the ground; a shard so sharp that I feared the mare would choke with the button in her gullet.

When the rider, who hailed from Ballymena, returned with his coffee, I inquired lightly how much the nag was worth. "Are ye buying?" "No!" I said, "Just curious." "A hundred grand," he said, "is what she cost me, in sterling." I returned him the reins and withdrew from the field.

On my stroll home with my friend, I was still shaken, though I remarked jokingly, that if something terrible happened, then I would not be the first writer to be destroyed by a button! "Pushkin," I explained, "also had bad luck with buttons."

My friend knew nothing of Pushkin's poetry, or that he was considered Russia's greatest writer. He thought Pushkin was Alina's cat.

Nor was my friend familiar with Pushkin's wife, his wife's lover, or the lover's button. I explained that buttons were very bad news for Pushkin. Pushkin died in the snows outside St Petersburg, where he duelled with a young Frenchman who had been less than a gentleman with the poet's wife.

As the seconds cleared a path for the contestants, Pushkin sat on a heap of snow, eager for the moment when he could shoot the scoundrel who seduced his wife; the death of his wife's lover could be the only honourable outcome for the poet.

The young Frenchman shot first, and Pushkin fell, with a bullet in his abdomen. But as his legs crumpled beneath him, he was still fit to discharge his weapon, pointing at the Frenchman, whom he hit in the chest.

A very good shot, and the victory ought to have been Pushkin's. But his opponent was lucky; because the bullet was deflected by a brass button on the Frenchman's coat, thus saving his life.

Not a good result for Pushkin, who roared in agony for two days on the sofa in his library, his intestines already gone gangrenous, as he edged his mind towards death. His friends and family came to bid farewell, including his wife, who declared her love, and to whom Pushkin said: "It was not your fault."

As we wended our way home along the canal, my friend was silent. The notion that Pushkin should have fought the duel for his wife's honour and then told her as he died that it was not her fault, perplexed my friend, who is not a literary man.

But despite the heavy showers, it was clear that my friend did indeed relish the open air.

Michael Harding

Michael Harding

Michael Harding is a playwright, novelist and contributor to The Irish Times