Paudie Scanlon listened to the mawkish squawk of gulls as he sucked the last dregs of life from the butt he was holding and then flicked it away, exhaling his frustrations and the tobacco smoke all in one go. His neck felt raw from the rub of the thick serge uniform collar and his feet hurt from hours of plodding backwards and forwards along the base of Balbriggan’s viaduct.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Years of ambushes and night-time raids against the British, months of living in broken-down shacks on the side of some godforsaken mountain or other, and this is what it leads to . . . playing nursemaid to a fucking railway track.
His mood wasn’t improved by the downpour that was threatening to unleash itself from the mottled grey clouds above, although a zephyr of warm air gave a faint hope that the small town might be spared their onslaught. The day’s fate hung in the balance, but eventually, the sun took the bold step and burrowed its way through, directing a shaft of light onto the water, making it sparkle like a million jewels scattered from the heavens. As though in response, the gulls launched themselves into the warming air, their pitiless eyes scouring the surface for signs of sustenance.
Up ahead, Declan Finnegan was making slow progress moving towards Scanlon. To and fro they had moved all through the night . . . the pair of them like clockwork toys, wearing a path between each other. They met centre point beneath one of the towering archways.
Finnegan shifted the rifle strap that was digging into his shoulder. ‘Still here then.’
‘Aye. The anti-treaty boys haven’t sent the whole feckin’ thing crashin’ down around our ears.’ muttered his colleague. ‘Or maybe they had a mind to take it away with them.’
‘More’s the pity,’ said Finnegan, taking a tin of Players from his tunic pocket and lighting up. ‘How much longer ’til the relief comes?’
Scanlon tugged at his collar, trying to ease the torture on his neck. ‘Not for another three hours. God, me toes are talkin’ to me. What’s the world comin’ to when you have to pull guard duty on this yoke. We should be out scourin’ the safe houses for that shower of ungrateful hoors. Here, give us one of those, will ya? I’m out,’ he asked, nodding at the cigarettes. Finnegan doubted that but passed one over in any case. Together they stood there, puffing and chin-wagging beneath the high arches, the smell from Comisky’s coke yard hanging on the salt air like cheap incense.
A few feet from them lay the small stretch of sandy beach . . . although ‘beach’ was too generous a word. There was more sand to be found in a builders’ yard than alongside the little harbour. Trawlers bobbed by the quayside and, above, the gulls jinked as they spied for scraps, swooping low to take them in their cruel beaks before soaring skyward to land gently on the viaduct railing and watch Balbriggan’s goings-on; not that there was too much to see. Mass was being said, so the streets were empty bar for a dog or two sniffing the gutters. Once the church organ struck up and the doors opened to disgorge the congregation, life would flow again. Families would come to the beach, and little ones would dip their toes in the cool waters while anxious mothers hovered close by. The pubs would open and men would chat and puff . . . talk of the latest killings and maybe add some notes of concern over the drop in the catch the trawlers were bringing in. They’d drink their porter or whiskey, with one eye on their companions and the other on the clock, mindful of being home in time for the dinner that would be placed before them by wives or mothers.
But that would be later. Right now, it wasn’t just the gulls that were looking out on the town, others were watching, too. Martin Carberry nudged the shoulder of the man beside him and nodded towards the sentries. ‘Here Con, isn’t that yer man Finnegan down there . . . the beanpole on the left.’
Con Power scratched at the week’s stubble that filled his face. ‘That’s him. A good man with a knife, if memory serves. Helped me out in a scrap once with the Peelers. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d a had me head bashed in. Pity . . .’
Carberry gave a wry shake of the head. ‘Pity he couldn’t see sense and fight for the right side you mean.’
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They were on the top floor of a haberdashery about a hundred yards from the viaduct. The observation post was well chosen, giving a good view of the side streets as well as of the Free State sentries standing guard. It was to those on top of the viaduct that Carberry now turned his attention. Two soldiers patrolled along its path.
Carberry brought the butt of his rifle into firing position. ‘Alright, Con, I’ll have the one on the left; you take the other fella. Now, send the signal.’
His companion moved to a side window which overlooked a lane. He removed a red handkerchief from his pocket and waved it three times. ‘They’re movin’ boss.’
Carberry watched as two men on bicycles pedalled slowly towards the viaduct arches.
Finnegan saw them coming, their overcoats trailing as their bikes gained speed. Something about the two cyclists made him take pause, but he couldn’t place what it was that bothered him and so dismissed the warning. Scanlon was saying something about going out that night for a pint, but the words were drowned out by the sharp report of gunfire. Both soldiers whirled about seeking out the source.
‘Up there!’ Scanlon shouted as he saw another flash from the open top window of the haberdashery. The guns weren’t aimed at them, but at the men on the viaduct walkway. Finnegan levelled his weapon and prepared to fire, and that’s when he thought of the cyclists.
‘The overcoats . . .’
Scanlon looked at his comrade as if he had lost his senses. ‘What?’
Finnegan turned in time to see two shotguns being levelled at them by the men on bikes. He was quick to see that much, but not quick enough to do anything about it. The first blast hit Scanlon in the neck, the second Finnegan felt himself – a huge thump that knocked him onto his back. As he lay there numbly looking at the pool of blood obliterating the olive drab of his tunic, he chided his slow thinking. ‘You dope . . . overcoats in July.’
The words came out slurred and blood filled. They weren’t much as last words go, but they were all his.
Carberry fired another bullet into each of the sentries on the viaduct wall to make sure they weren’t feigning injury, then he peered down in time to see his men strip the dead soldiers of their weapons and ammo before pedalling away. It was time for him and Con to go, too. They’d all rendezvous a few streets away in a lock-up where a waiting furniture truck would take them the hell out of Balbriggan and back to the safe house.
‘Nicely done, boss,’ Con winked.
Carberry felt a twinge of remorse and then batted it aside. ‘That’ll teach those Staters to think twice before showing their faces. Stupid fuckers thought we’d just packed up and ran away.’
The words were harsh and he regretted them as soon as they’d left his mouth, just as he regretted a lot of things these days, but that was war for you, he mused, as he headed down the stairs to congratulate his men.
Liam Mannion looked up from the book in his lap towards his father. ‘Everything alright, Da?’
Dan gave a tetchy shake of the head before sucking the bubble of blood that was forming on his finger. ‘Caught meself on the hook. I’ll be grand,’ he said bending over the fishing rod that lay across his knees.
Liam left him to it and returned to his book . . . Great Expectations. He laughed inwardly at the title. He held few expectations these days, and those he had were far from great. The books were a comfort, though . . . a badly needed distraction from the thoughts that were ganging up in his mind, ready to torment him.
It was odd, Liam had barely lifted a cover in the past few years, but now in just a few months, he had consumed book after book. His reading was ill disciplined . . . everything from Greek and Roman philosophers to Shakespeare, the Brontes, Dickens, even the westerns of Zane Grey. If it took him away from this useless war, then that was good enough for him. He couldn’t face how his friends were tearing the country apart, so he tried to stay out of it.
The treaty signed with the British had ended one war but started another as the once-united Irish Republican Army split over what had been conceded during the negotiations. Those in favour of the treaty lined out behind Michael Collins, the leader who had done more than anyone in developing a strategy to bring the military might of the British Empire to a standstill and that Empire’s politicians to sue for peace. If the treaty was good enough for Collins, it was good enough for most people. But not all. There were those who thought too much had been given away – six Irish counties too much, in fact, which remained under British control. Leading the anti-treaty side was Eamon de Valera, president of the fledgling Irish Republic. He wouldn’t stand by the agreement his own comrades had made. He and his supporters couldn’t understand how a united, independent Ireland was not achieved and so, even as the British Army vacated barracks around the country to depart for home, the Irish pro- and anti-treaty factions squabbled and scrambled to take those barracks under their own jurisdictions. As each side grabbed various areas for themselves, the country came to a stalemate, each side waiting for the other to blink first. Two armies were developing, Collins’s admittedly much more organised than the other. Anti-treaty forces took hold of the Four Courts in Dublin, turning into a fortress as they demanded that the treaty be ripped up.
But Collins wouldn’t be provoked. Hoping to find a peaceful solution to the impasse, he waited. The British government wasn’t so patient. They threatened to use their remaining troops in Ireland to settle the matter and remove the rebels themselves. Collins’s hand was forced and the guns resumed their firing, except this time they were aimed at fellow Irishmen. Soon the country’s highways and byways trickled with blood, which flowed thicker with every passing day as comrades turned on each other. That was something Liam couldn’t countenance, which was why he now found himself living in this cabin with only his father, Dan, and the fish in the nearby stream for company.
It was Ben Hanrahan’s place: a kitchen, a bunk room and a veranda overlooking enough land to keep you occupied, but not so much as to be a burden. Ben – Kate’s father – gave it the grand title of ‘hunting lodge’ . . . his bolt hole from business and family concerns. Dan had accompanied Ben here many times, but now it was just the two Mannions, father and son, both using it as a refuge.
It worked, too, up to a point. But not even its quaint surroundings could keep the world at bay forever.
Liam worried about his dad. What had happened in London had affected him deeply. Dan wasn’t used to death – least not that kind. Liam, on the other hand, had been surrounded by it for years now, so much so that he wondered if he would ever be able to step out from its shadow. Fighting the Germans in France, fighting the British in Ireland . . . it had all left its mark. There had been so much killing, so much pain . . . too much. The thought of adding to all that by taking part in a civil war was too hard to bear, so Liam had retreated to this place. The nearest village, if you were presumptuous enough to call it that, was three or four miles down a winding road that seldom saw traffic, which suited Liam just fine. He watched as his dad put the rods aside and took out his pipe, tamping the Walnut Plug blend carefully into the bowl before lighting up and sending slow, considered puffs into the afternoon air.
The leaves of the sycamores and horse chestnuts rustled in the breeze. Liam paused to watch them sway as the muted sound of lowing cattle carried on the air. He liked it here, the trees acted as a curtain to the fields beyond. In front of the porch lay a stretch of grass dotted with moss-covered boulders. On a sunny day, it was the perfect spot to stretch out on a blanket and soak in the heat. Right now, the day was overcast, but even so, there was a serenity to the spot, whatever the weather. It was a refuge. All Liam needed now was Kate here to share it with.
He felt the stab of frustration as he thought of her for the tenth time that day. They were so far apart in every way. He wondered if the distance could ever be bridged again. His thoughts went to her father.
‘Any news in that letter Ben sent down?’
Dan paused mid-puff and patted his shirt pocket. ‘Here it is here. I forgot all about it.’
They’d picked it up from the village pub-cum-grocer-cum-undertaker the previous night. They’d gone for a chin-wag with the locals and a few pints of stout . . . and to get out of each other’s shadow, if truth be told.
‘Let’s see now what’s going on in the world,’ said Dan, slipping on his glasses and poring over the pages. There was silence for a few moments and then came a few tuts and a long sigh. ‘Jaysus . . . he’s only gone and made Tom Preston foreman while I’m away. A big mistake that . . . Preston doesn’t know his arse from his elbow when it comes to organisin’ rosters, he’s as thick as two short planks. I best get back up there soon or there’ll be no factory left at all.’
Liam smiled. ‘Sure we couldn’t have that, what would the big shots do for drawers?’
Ben Hanrahan’s hosiery factory, Hanco, had provided jobs far and wide for years and had made undergarments for half the royals of Europe. Business had fallen off, admittedly, due to the war and the fight with the British, but it continued to keep its head above water from what Liam could gather. His father and Ben had been joined at the hip ever since their boyhood when Dan, the farmer’s son, had rescued the scion of the wealthy textile manufacturer from the river. They’d been inseparable ever since – even trying to woo the same girl, Peggy Coogan. Dan had won that contest, marrying her a year later. Their union had produced two sons, Liam and Eoin. Now Peggy was dead from tuberculosis. Eoin had been hastened in his passing by an IRA bullet.
‘Any word on the fighting?’
Dan tutted and blessed himself for good measure. ‘Four Free-Staters were killed in an ambush at the viaduct . . . Declan Finnegan was one of them. Two fellas on bicycles blasted him with shotguns.’
Liam closed his eyes, He remembered Finnegan . . . a lanky fellow with a quick wit and an even quicker temper. Good fighter, though. He’d done his bit to push the Brits out, and look how he’d been repaid. ‘What a waste.’
‘Aye . . . you’re well out of it,’ said Dan, his head bent low over the letter. ‘Says they suspect Martin was behind it.’
Martin Carberry and his brother Kevin had been Liam’s closest confidantes in the flying column. Kevin had even taken command when Liam had gone to England on a mission for Michael Collins. Now the two brothers were on opposite sides in a deadly sibling rivalry that had already cost a dozen lives. Liam shook his head in despair before asking the one question he wanted answered most of all. ‘. . . And Kate – any news of her? What’s she been doing?’
Dan read a bit more before answering. ‘Ben says that she’s up to her neck in intelligence work, trying to ferret out Martin and any other anti-treaty man she can find.’
‘Is there a message for me?’
Dan shook his head. ‘Sorry son. Ben doesn’t know what’s gotten into her. Ever since we all got back from England she’s been a changed woman.’
The English mission had almost been the death of him, but Kate had a mission of her own. It turned out they had both been chasing the same thing: a bad apple in the republican barrel. The whole business almost put an end to the treaty Collins had been negotiating with the British in London. Sometimes Liam wondered if his intervention was worth it. If the treaty had failed maybe the country wouldn’t be in such a mess.
‘It’s the baby,’ said Liam, taking out the makings of a smoke from his tin and swiftly rolling himself a tab.
‘I know. It was a cruel loss . . . for both of you, but surely that can’t explain her actions now.’
‘It makes sense to me.’ Liam spread his fingers and ticked off the facts. ‘Kate uncovered a traitor, who attacked her, causing her to miscarry and lose the baby. She’s taking revenge by rooting out all those who disagree with the cause. She’s filled her life with that to block out the loss of our child.’
‘The way she’s goin’ about it isn’t right. She’s like the Grand Inquisitor . . . anyone who’s even slightly suspect of helping the other lot is in the firing line. Accordin’ to Ben, there’s no talkin’ to her . . . she won’t listen to reason. Herself and Kevin Carberry have a fierce fire in their bellies.’
‘Well she won’t listen to me, that’s for sure.’ Liam sucked on his tab, his brow furrowing as his frustrations bubbled to the surface.
‘Did you tell her you backed Collins?’
‘She knows. I’ve spent seven years killing people. That was bad enough, but at least they were the enemy. I draw the line at killing other Irishmen. Civil war is the last thing we should be engaged in. I’ll not be part of it. She can’t accept that, so she’s shut me out.’
Dan’s eyes moistened. ‘The English business was nasty. We all suffered over there.’ His voice grew brittle and there was a lost look in his eyes as he stared into himself.
Liam could see the conflict play out before him. ‘You did what you had to do, Da – you killed a traitor, a murderer. There’s no sin in that.’
‘That’s not for you to say, son. Only God can make that judgement.’
‘Well I’ve spoken with God on more than one occasion when bullets came too close and I think you’re safe enough from fiery damnation.’
‘It’s no laughin’ matter,’ Dan chided.
‘No, you’re right, Da. There’s very little worth laughing about at all these days,’ he said, the humour leaving his voice as he flicked his butt away and sought sanctuary in his book.