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Of Early Life in "the Purt"
"There's not a house or window, there's not a field or hill,
But east or west, in foreign lands, I'll recollect them still;"
As a young boy growing up in a small town, population 2,200, and living in a street where one could name the family occupying each house, from one end to the other, and sometimes each individual member of each family, that whole human canvas is etched in memory, as alive and vivid today, fifty years later, as it was then.

It was the older folk who made the deepest impressions on my childhood mind, men and women long since dead, may of them whose obituaries I had written for the family newspaper, whose funerals I attended, and whose panegyrics, delivered by clergy of all denominations, I had listened to, and sometimes taken down in shorthand and printed.

Leading citizens, store keepers, merchants, publicans, doctors, lawyers, pious widows, even more pious spinsters, seventy, eighty and ninety-year old bachelors, those who died "in the odour of sanctity" and those who did not, all had their deaths and funerals reported. And in life, so in death; the more prominent the deceased, the longer was the report. But all that came later.

To my young eyes and ears, "old man Connolly", who lived almost opposite our house, signalled the official start of each day. His first name I never knew, but his wife was Annie, and she kept a sweetie shop of sorts. The shop door must have been one of the last of its kind in town, the half-door of the thatched and white-washed cottage that decorates so many present- day picture postcards and calendars.

First the top half of the door would rattle open, and old man Connolly, white of head and with a seemingly yellowish moustache, would clear his throat with a rasping sound, hawk, spit, put thumb and forefinger over his nose, the rest of his hand extended upwards to his forehead, lean over the lower, still closed bottom part of the half-door, and blow his nose, the snotter flying out to the sidewalk or street. Then he retired into the dark recesses of the kitchen behind the shop, never to be seen again until the following morning when the ritual was repeated, rain or shine.

When he died, I can't remember, but his widow Annie lived on for years, and at an advanced age was still the clearest toned soprano voice singing in the choir at the 11 o'clock Mass on Sundays in St. Joseph's Church. It was, in later years, a tremendous drain on her strength, and I remember once after Mass father sending mother over with a little drop of whiskey to help restore her constitution.

Then there was Daniel Quinn, the barber, shrunken of figure, seventy if he was a day, who would make his daily appearance, aproned and behatted, shuffling along to his chosen pub for a little drop to steady his nerves and his hand.

Daniel looked fierce, with bushy, bushy eyebrows, remnants of a military moustache, and he didn't like small boys. Or at least that was what I felt, and always made a point to try to keep out of his sight. When I didn't, he would stop, glare across the street, shuffle on a few more steps, glare again, and so on until he reached his destination. Not once in our lifetimes did we exchange a word. It was a telling silence. I never had my hair cut by Daniel, and even today marvel at the courage shown by ordinary mortals who submitted their ears, cheeks, and necks to the steel, cutthroat razor wielded by his shaky hand. When he died, his shop and the house above it remained empty for years.

There was, in those days, another figure whose appearance on the street caused commotion and conflicting feelings among young and old. This was Bob Devitt, an itinerant, a tramp, not one of the tinker class but cut from a different cloth. Bob was a big hulk of a man, bearded, clear eyed, keenly observant, hobnail booted, fearsome in appearance to youngsters, but a gentle giant to their parents. In all weathers he wore a variety of shabby overcoats, and carried an enormous sack slung over his shoulders.

Bob was treated cruelly by the young boys of the town. For whatever reason, myth, rumour, gossip, it was widely believed that Bob never spent a shilling, a sixpence, or even a penny of the charity extended to him by the good people whose houses he entered on his twice a year pilgrimage through all the towns, villages, and farmlands scattered throughout Donegal and a couple of neighbouring counties. They believed he carried his booty in the great sack on his back, or cached it from time to time in tin cans hidden in hedges or stone fences by the roadside. And whenever Bob appeared, as if by magic there appeared too a crowd of boys, running in front of him and teasing, "Bob, spare a fiver? Bob, change a fiver?"

A "fiver" was a $5 note, a huge sum of money when the average weekly country wage was less than half of that.

It was enough to drive any sane man crazy and it always infuriated poor Bob, who would shout and roar back, and flail at the dancing circle of young devils who always slipped safely out of the reach of the ashplant that he carried as a walking stick and used for his own protection from man and animal.

Eventually parents would appear, themselves as angry as Bob with their children, and haul them back indoors, leaving Bob to proceed in peace on his travels.

Bob was welcome in many houses, and seemingly more so in the homes of those who were not particularly affluent themselves. Many people thought it was lucky to have Bob visit their homes and cross their threshholds. Sitting at the kitchen fire or kitchen table, the gentle giant could talk at any level on many subjects. If he spotted a guitar or violin in the house, his talk would be on music. If there were many books to be seen, then he would talk of reading and literature. If there was a new baby in the house, Bob, an ogre to the older brothers and sisters, could somehow coax a smile and a gurgle of joy from the infant.

Bob's was a hard life. His roof was the sky, summer or winter, his bed under a hawthorne tree in wet weather, or in an open roadside ditch when it was dry. At night his many coats kept him warm in spring, summer and autumn, and in winter he padded his chest, legs and arms with package after package of crumpled newspaper that he carried in his great big sack. There are many still alive who can tell of seeing Bob fast asleep on a winter's morning in a roadside ditch, swathed in newspapers, the unmelted snow lying on his beard, while he snored away blissfully, wrapped in the arms of Morpheus.

What his origins were, nobody could swear. He took his secret with him. Some thought he had been a candidate for the priesthood whose mind had snapped during the course of his studies. After his death a distant relative was discovered, as I remember somewhere in the Midlands, but even that was obscure. The tins of money were never found, and Bob had a pauper's burial. Only those who really cared were present.

Funerals, large or small, were a big thing during my childhood years. One of the businessmen further down our street was Frank "I'll walk beside you" Morgan, general provisioner, coal merchant, and undertaker.

Frank Morgan was a good example of a man who could see an opportunity and make a penny, or a pound, developing it. During the war years when coal importation became an impossibility, Frank turned to the natural fuel of the country, turf. Far and wide, from Killybegs at one end of Donegal Bay, to the bottom of Trusc Mor, the mountain overlooking the other end, from wherever a bog was to be found, Frank brought to town lorryload after lorryload of turf. Instead of buying coal by the hundredweight bag, townspeople now had to buy turf by the whole lorryload, or half load. At the same time in the tenements of Dublin City the poor could only afford turf fashioned into small briquettes, and grudgingly weighed at that.

Good, black, hard, well cut and well dried turf gave as much heat as coal, but had to be burned in greater quantity, and a lorryload of poor quality turf was a damned poor bargain for the unfortunate recipient. There was, unfortunately, no guarantee of quality, and Frank made money on the good and the bad. He also made money on funerals. His nickname was derived from his habit, rigidly adhered to, of walking beside the hearse transporting the mortal remains of the recently deceased.

Funerals, from the home, or from the hospital where the death occurred, were always conducted at a slow pace, attended by a cortege of mourners walking in quiet procession. There was a solemnity to them. If the funeral procession was from a hospital to a church, if possible a route was chosen to pass the home of the dead person, and there hearse and cortege halted, perhaps for the space of a minute, before proceeding onwards.

It was thought that Frank "I'll walk beside you" knew the state of health of every living soul, in town and out of town, and especially of those stricken with illness. He was on very good terms with clergymen and would, on occasion, know in advance which of the afflicted had summoned a priest to administer the last rites. And he knew illnesses too, their variety, their intensity, and in one case their inevitable outcome. This was cancer, never referred to by Frank other than as "the Buck". When "the Buck" struck, Frank knew death would follow, and it did. "The Buck got him" was his usual description of the cause of death, no matter what language might appear on a doctor's death certificate. To John Wayne, he-man movie star of later years, it was "the big C". To Frank it was simply "the Buck".

Frank Morgan died years after I emigrated to Canada. Who walked beside him when his own funeral took place, I'll never know.

The street and town of my childhood, like many contemporary other streets and towns in Ireland of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, contained a plethora, an over abundance, a surfeit, of bachelors and spinsters, some the sole surviving support of aged parent or parents, or themselves the sole survivors of a family whose line would reach its end when the time came for their own departure from what, with the passage of years, had become for many of them "this vale of tears".

Beside us, on our right, lived a brother and sister, Georgie and Josie McCarvill. Georgie was a draper's assistant, a wholly inoffensive, small in stature type of man, grey eyed, grey haired, going on for sixty, with little to enliven his days, and less his nights. He had a hobbling sort of gait, and his only diversion was to mount his pedal cycle in summer and bicycle on a Sunday four miles to the seaside resort of Bundoran, there to sit on a bridge over a stream flowing into the sea, and watch the tourists strolling by. He always wore a cap, and a peculiar sort of a cap it was, not lying flat on the head as did a normal cap, but puffed up, with its crown several inches above the peak, as if inflated like a balloon, or covering so thick and luxuriant a crop of hair that the tresses themselves pushed it heavenward.

Josie was of indeterminate age, a gaunt, angular figure of a female, iron grey hair, lying flat on either side of a long face. Unprepossessing in every aspect, Josie carried on a decaying trade as a publican in what was surely the most barren looking pub in the town. It had a flagstone floor, and a lengthwise running bar that had seen better days, altogether a cold place, more often deserted than not.

When our printing works next door turned to mechanical typesetting from hand composition, laying off more than twenty workers in the process--a frightening first example of automation--McCarvills' pub lost a lot of trade and never recovered its profitability. But a licence to sell beer and spirits was a very precious thing, and the thought of surrendering that licence was anathema to Josie and Georgie. Perhaps on a fair day they drew some of the shyer farmers and drovers who baulked at entering more modern premises, and a few regular customers were served in the parlour to the left.

At one time the McCarvills' house and ours shared the same public water main, and the right to draw water from the outdoor tap in our backyard was stoutly upheld by Josie. As a result, a doorway was always left open between out two backyards, and Josie trudged back and forth between the two premises, year in and year out, carrying precious pails of water. Only now do I realize McCarvills' is the only public house I know that never had its own running water, at least in town. It was all carried in by bucket, and Josie spent a lifetime carrying that bucket. No wonder her left arm looked longer than her right; the poor lady was permanently tilted, at least in memory's eye. It was, truly, "the pub with no water". Maybe that is why I firmly believe to this blessed day that anyone pouring cold water or, even worse, putting ice cubes, into a glass of Irish whiskey is committing heresy, if not worse. Chesterton said it better than most in his "Song of the Deluge", with its recurring line, "as long as they don't water the wine". Did he, by any chance, grow up beside an English Georgie and Josie? On the other side of our house lived the Croals and the Mulherns, both the same family, the Croals having married into the Mulherns, or the Mulherns into the Croals.

Terry and Mrs. Croal had a grocer's shop which sold all the staples of the day, the bread, the butter, the tea, the sugar, and slices of bacon cut any thickness you wanted by a marvellously whirring blade operated by a handle turned by hand. As a small boy I found it fascinating to watch, always expecting that severed thumbs or fingers might suddenly be mingled in with the strips of rashers.

It wasn't a wealthy establishment, and a lot of customers "operated an account", in other words, bought their provisions on credit and paid at the end of the week, or whenever, and sometimes whenever went on for a long, long time, when times were hard and money was scarce. The Croals were a charitable, quiet couple, the heart of corn, and have left fond memories.

Did I say quiet? Well, there was an exception, once a day. The Croals had a son, Bernard, then in his twenties, who had a job as projectionist in the local cinema. His was mainly night work, with Sunday matinees thrown in for good measure. As a result, Bernard went to bed late, and got up late, a normal course of events for one in his occupation. But how late was "late"? Did going to bed long after midnight warrant sleeping in to ten o'clock next day? Eleven o'clock? Fifteen minutes past eleven? Twenty minutes past? Half past?

As the minutes ticked away and the town clock chimed the quarter hours, anticipation would grow. A ritual was about to be observed, our daily version of a "Changing of the Guard", when Bernard's father, Terry, patience exhausted, would stride out into their backyard, throw his head back, look up to the third- storey window of Bernard's bedroom, and in a voice loud enough to carry through brick, wooden window frame, and glass, would shout: "Bernard! Bernard! Get up. It's ALL Hours!"

"What time is it?" "It's ALL Hours!"--the saying has passed into my family's folklore on two sides of the Atlantic.

With the Croals lived Kitty and Matty Mulhern, unmarried sister and brother of Mrs. Croal. Kitty worked in the cinema box office, selling tickets and keeping the accounts. Matty--well, Matty to my knowledge was an angler, a rod and reel man, who fished. And that was it. He owned an old greyhound, and come evening, Matty, rod, and dog, went up the river to fish.

There was no more relentless angler on the River Erne between Ballyshannon and Belleek than Matty Mulhern. Rare indeed, almost as rare as chicken's teeth, was the night Matty returned without a catch. The Erne in those days was a fisherman's paradise, famed for its salmon, renowned for its brown trout, and with more than a good share of eels and pike, obnoxious fish that only served to interfere with the pursuits of real anglers, of whom Matty Mulhern was nonpareil.

Matty, like so many bachelors of his times, was a quiet man. Housebound for most of the day, he would make his appearance just in time to be in place at his chosen stretch of river for the evening rise, the time of day when fish had their supper of flies, all manner and species of flies, and pernickety diners they were, and are.

Fish are the gourmet fly eaters of the universe. What will tempt their palate today will be completely ignored tomorrow. Read Izaak Walton. Read Roderick Haig Brown. Read the Mantuan. Matty didn't write, but in his cranium, sparse of hair under a flat-lying, ever present cap, he carried this universal knowledge, and used it successfully to satisfy the epicurean flightiness of his piscatorial prey. When his catch exceeded his wants, he divided his extra fish with less fortunate brethren.

Only one thing upset the even tenor of his days. For some forgotten reason, a tree at the bottom of the Croal/Mulhern garden had to be cut down. To Matty, the quiet fisherman, whose happiest times were spent with unspoiled nature along the banks of an unspoiled river, this was wanton barbarism. The word ecology meant nothing then, but Matty felt in his spirit all the conviction which drives conservationists of a later day in their crusade on behalf of a healthy world environment, safe for trees and humans alike.

However, the tree was cut down, despite Matty's solemn and public declamation that "Only God can make a tree". Somehow it was a wound from which he never recovered. Later, his dog died. Later still, Matty died. And later still the River Erne was dammed to provide electricity for a new Ireland. Where Matty Mulhern and his generation, and untold generations before him, fished, lies now many fathoms deep beneath a man-made lake.

Before closing the chapter on Matty, one more story must be told. The Mulhern family had the banshee.

Nowadays people tend to dismiss the banshee as myth, something easily attributable to natural occurrences, the barking of a dog, a cat yowling in heat. But at least one Irish scholar, and a lawyer at that, has received a PhD for her research on the banshee, the only known Banshee PhD in the known world, though who is to say how many there are in the hidden world of sidhe (fairies) and spirits?

Let me affirm that the banshee only wailed on the night a Mulhern died. The banshee cried when Matty died, cried again when his sister Kitty died, and when Mrs. Croal, who was a Mulhern before marrying, died.

When the last of the Mulherns died, that particular banshee was never heard from again. Banshees follow certain families, and when one of those families dies out, so apparently does the banshee.

There are documented cases of banshees following family members who emigrated to America, there to continue the practice of announcing an impending death. No doubt skeptics may just as easily ascribe their wailing to ambulance or police car sirens heard on city streets late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. But those who have heard the banshee know the difference. No mechanical or electronic siren yet invented can touch the senses in the same way as the banshee's cry signalling the departure of a chosen soul from this life to the next.

Another bachelor, two doors away from our house, was also a quiet, peaceful man, at least in the years that I knew him, though tradition had it that "he had been out" during the Troubles, that period following the 1916 Rising, and played his part, along with many another, in resisting the scum of the British Army recruited into the Black and Tans and sent to Ireland to browbeat its citizenry back into servile submission to their English masters.

Alby Mundy lived alone with his aged mother, a self-effacing lady who was known as a pious woman, "a living saint". There was another son, Jim, who served as manager in McGonigle's, the drapers. Funny, Georgie McCarvill worked as an assistant in Stephens' drapery store, and down at the end of the street lived Mr. McDonald, a married man, who also was a drapery store manager. Mr. McDonald was a crosswords fanatic and once won a big prize in the "Sunday Independent" or "Sunday Press" crossword competition. You might say ours was a street well clothed in drapers, but they all worked for someone else.

Jim Mundy moved away, and in the fullness of time Mrs. Mundy died, leaving Alby in sole occupancy of their house. Beyond hearing at second, fourth, or tenth hand that Alby had been "active in the cause", the only definite knowledge shared publicly was that he had a small pension for his services. And with that he was content, using it to mask the broken spirit that lies within many veterans of many wars, unable to make a worldly success of their lives in a material way.

The pension kept Alby in spirits of a sort, and the monthly passage of time was marked by a quiet, solitary binge, bothering no one, and generally in the privacy of his home. There he was found, sitting on a chair at the kitchen table, when neighbours became aware that Alby hadn't been seen for maybe a week. I had it from Frank Rogers, "I'll walk beside you's" general factotum, that rigor mortis was so advanced that placing him in a coffin presented difficulties. Broken in spirit, broken in limb, we all regretted the manner of his passing. Alby never said a harsh word to man, child, or dog. Old comrades of his active years gathered from far and wide to pay their respects at his funeral. In his own quiet way he had made an indelible impression on those who knew him, and who did not realize it until he had left them to join his saintly mother. The Albys of the world had, and still have, their place.

My uncle John, also a bachelor, of whom more anon, often made me accompany him when he went to visit Mary Coan. Mary was elderly, a crone-ish, elderly spinster, arthritic, dressed in black, black dress, black apron, black shawl, and with piercing black eyes, who lived alone in a house on the opposite side of the street, but almost at its end before it crossed a brook, skirted Neely's demesne, and ran off into the country in the general direction of the next town, Belleek, four miles distant, world renowned for its delicate china, pottery, and figurines.

You can buy Belleek ware almost anywhere in the world, I have seen it on sale in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, and in Ottawa, Canada's capital city, I had the devil of a time trying to convince Henry Birks and Sons store on Sparks Street that it really was spelled with two "l"s, not one, which was the way their front window used to advertise it. After three years I gave up trying.

Mary was, and remains, an enigma. For some reason or other my uncle had charge of her penny or sixpence a week insurance policy, which was to provide enough, but barely, to cover Frank Morgan's bill for her interment whenever the time came. She was, in all likelihood, the last of her line and needed the assurance that someone would see to her safe burial.

Mary always had the smokiest, skimpiest excuse of a fire going in her kitchen grate. Indeed, decades of smoke from burning wet turf seemed to have etched the lines on her face in permanent black which, to a child, gave her a rather scary look. From under her apron, and from a pocket hidden in the black dress, her hand--and it always seemed black--would emerge with a hardboiled sticky sweet, which I was expected to accept with thanks and relish only as children can when given candy. Black sooty grate, black garbed Mary, and the black, bony hand with the sticky confectionery were all reason to try to avoid such dreaded visits as often as possible.

There was something about Mary that was not publicly touted. She had, it was thought, at least by my uncle, "sean eolas", the old knowledge. In all our modernity we like to term the old beliefs superstitions, and the old cures the working of mind over matter. Yet, even now medical researchers are discovering the secrets of the old medicines, the chemical essences of flowers, plants, herbs, that do, scientifically, cure, that do chemically heal, and that for so long had been relegated to the fanciful field of mere folklore and mumbo jumbo.

Believe it, or believe it not, Mary had cures, cures she could conjure from common herbs, nettles and things, sometimes boiled in liquid in a black saucepan over her black, smokey, kitchen fire, or sometimes dried and crushed, to be eaten with everyday food. And she knew of other cures.

I have the distinct recollection of Mary and my uncle discussing a cure for cancer that someone had, and that Mary knew, a poultice that, if applied to the afflicted part, drew out the cancerous growth in a jellied mass, leaving a hole in the surrounding flesh to be cauterized, treated, and healed in its own special way. If I knew the list of ingredients, who knows what use could be made of it? The only things I do remember are black burnt leather, boiled in milk and butter, but the knowledge of what else made up the poultice was something Mary carried with her when "I'll walk beside you" accompanied her to the graveyard. The insurance policy paid him for the walk.

Just across the street, and two doors to the right, was the shop of Tommy O'Donnell. Tommy was, what else, a bachelor, who lived with two sisters in a house over in the West Port. We lived in the East Port, both streets making up "the Purt", the name which appears in Allingham's "Winding Banks of Erne".

Tommy was a man of varied temperament. Living with two sisters, the uncharitable might say, could have that effect. Over the years he had developed what used to be referred to as "a bit of a corporation". He was stoutish, and his waistcoat was stretched to the fabric's limits trying to cover his tummy.

He was clean shaven. Looking back, I never remember a man so clean shaven. This might have been due to the fact that Tommy did not sport sideburns. Not even the slightest wisp of hair appeared in front, above, beside, or behind his ears. And he always wore a cap. Never once was that cap removed in public, so whether Tommy was completely bald or not, I don't know to this very day.

Tommy was a great sports fan. To be precise, exact, and without embellishment, his sport was horse racing. Redcar, Doncaster, the Curragh, Aintree, Epsom, Leopardstown, name any racecourse and Tommy could talk knowledgeably about weather and track. Steeplechase or flat racing, it made no difference. Stuck away in a little town in Donegal, he never once in his life visited any of the courses that made up the corpus of his knowledge, but the wisest of betting men made it their habit to drop in and get Tommy's view of "what looked good" for the 3 o'clock at Cheltenham, or wherever else struck their fancy. Naturally, such visits to Tommy's shop were obligatory on big race days, the Grand National, the Derby, or the Punchestown Stakes.

By happenstance or good fortune, Bernard Sweeny, the bookie, had his betting shop across the street from Tommy's place, on our side of the street, in fact just three doors away. On a big race day, men, and sometimes women--there was no disgrace in it, though usually they preferred to have their brothers or husbands place their bets for them--checked first with Tommy before crossing the street to place their bets with Bernard.

If Tommy's radio was malfunctioning, he would come over to listen to the big race broadcasts in our house. In doing this he had one peculiarity. He wanted to hear the race, only the race, and nothing but the race. He hated the preliminaries, the hype, the pre-race patter of the commentators. If he had to sit through two minutes of preliminaries he would become visibly agitated. "Get on with it; get on with it, man!" he would rant at Michael O'Hehir, the then reigning ace of sports commentators. The race itself and the result, when he heard those he was gone, back to his shop, ready to discourse and analyse every minute of the race and stow away the knowledge thus gained, and compare it with the reports in the next day's newspapers.

Once he was confined to his shop for some forgotten reason on the occasion of a big race day. It happened to coincide with the annual boat race between Cambridge and Oxford. Not being too keenly interested in that day's horse races, I had chosen to listen to the BBC's Raymond Glendenning and his pontification thereon. Innocently, I was walking past Tommy's shop when he called out, "Who won the race?" Without thinking, I replied "Cambridge". "Cambridge? Cambridge? There's no bloody horse named Cambridge!" He thought I was taking a rise out of him.

The next part of the story is hard to tell, even at a span of forty years. As they grew older, many of the bachelors in little towns, and even more so those living in the country, became odd. Some self-proclaimed cognoscenti were apt to blame it on the Jansenism that permeated early schooling and sermonising. Others said it was the climate. But, for whatever reason, it was and remained a fact of life.

Tommy was seen to frequent more and more the pub next door to his own shop. Maybe he was ill. Maybe he had "the Buck". He would be in and out in less than a minute, having swallowed a quick one, a small whiskey, with a speed you couldn't credit barring you weren't looking at it, to use a favourite expression of the times. Anyway, early one morning, Tommy suffered a tragically sudden death, so sudden it shocked everybody, and devastated his sisters.

Throughout their lives the two sisters had been inseparable. You never saw one without the other. Mary was the elder of the two, a big buxom woman, one of the fair skinned, red headed O'Donnells, a throwback to the days of Red Hugh O'Donnell when the O'Donnell Clan were masters of all Donegal. Her sister was the exact opposite, a nondescript, colourless, little bit of a thing, trotting to keep up with Mary's strides. Her name was Annie, but was never known as anything but "Annie and the Echo".

Mary it was who opened conversations, and dispensed opinions. Few disputed her version of facts and conjectures, in all of which she was reinforced and buttressed by the steadfast support of Annie, echoing the last words of every sentence pronounced by Mary.

"Sure wasn't he one of the Mulvanys", Mary would say. "One of the Mulvanys", Annie would echo.

"As sure as I'm standing here", Mary would say. "Standing here", Annie would echo.

"And that's the God's only truth, Mr. Ward". And the echo would repeat, "Only truth, Mr. Ward".

May they all rest in peace, Tommy, Mary, and the Echo. There was no harm in any of them, "in any of them".

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