AFTER THE RISING. EPISODE SIX: I’m No Traitor
The story so far: Jo Devereux is back in Mucknamore, the Irish seaside village where she grew up, for her mother’s funeral. In her will, her mother’s has bequeathed a pile of family papers and asked Jo to write about her family’s part in the Irish liberation struggle. Jo is fascinated by what she finds in these papers. But what part did her family really play in that struggle? Why did Dan O’Donovan die? And what does it all mean for her relationship with Rory O’Donovan, Dan’s nephew, whom she swore she’d never let back into her life?
You can read previous chapters HERE.
They are unmaking the house. From the door of the shed, I stand and watch the diggers trundle their mechanical dance around the building: forwards and backwards, claws up, claws down, buckets full, buckets empty. Drills puncture the walls and bricks that have supported each other for more than a hundred years fall apart.
On and on it goes, day after day. Inside, steel struts brace the structure they want to retain, stop the whole from collapsing.
I watch the work from my cowshed. Here is where I live now, inside a strange
hiatus. The accommodation is primitive but the walls and corrugated iron roof are sound and I have an oil lamp for light, an oil stove for cooking.
Each morning, before the builders arrive, I draw water from an outside tap beside the house, lugging it across the garden in two enamel buckets. Calls of nature are answered between the dunes. Primitive, yes, but it’s what I want. I feel like I’m being purged.
Most days, I spend my time around the other side, facing the sea but every so often I come round here to view progress. Across the lawn from me, the new owners Hilde and Stefan watch too. Their gaze is fond. Arms entwined, they stand and stare, smiling at the work and each other. To them, these labourers are wonder-workers, making concrete the dream that sustained decades of desk-bound years in Düsseldorf.
One of the workmen in the distance sees me and waves across. He is a show-off who likes to go naked to the waist, to roar along to songs on the radio. His wave is really for the other men, not me. I don’t return it.
The builders agree with my sister, that I am unhinged. By grief, perhaps, or maybe just by nature. Most of the village agrees. Eyes lift skywards or slide away from me as I pass. Behind my back, index fingers are circled around temples. I don’t care. I can be mad if that is what they want me to be, if it means I can live in my shed and forgo explanations.
Fifteen black refuse sacks were filled with rubbish to clear this shed, then Rory helped me carry some furniture across from the house — the single bed from my old bedroom, a long table I use as a desk, a wooden chair. And a rug for the floor by my bed.
The kind weather makes it easy. Each morning, the sun comes up shining and as hot as California. I must leave the steel sliding door open during the day as I work; sometimes a small breeze lifts my papers so that letters or notes or newspaper cuttings have to be weighted down with stones. But mostly it is calm and clear.
And set to stay fair, according to Hilde: June, she tells me, is going to break all records.
Under Hilde’s hands, Mrs D’s front-room shop is to become a substantial business, serving food as well as alcohol. Upstairs, what were family bedrooms are to be renovated to provide guest accommodation: six rooms – ‘all en suite!’ cries Hilde with delight – from which tourists will rise each morning and come downstairs for ‘the Irish breakfast’ – fried eggs and sausages and rashers of bacon.
She has supplied me with breathless details of her plans. Stone floors, wooden tables and stools, walls decorated with replicas of old advertisement boards: ‘Guinness is Good For You’; ‘For a Smoother Smoke – Smoke Sweet Afton’; ‘Drink Lyons – the Quality Tea’. Tankards and bottles and musty old books scattered on high shelves, in calculated disarray.
‘A real Irish pub,’ she says, hugging herself. As the Zimmermans’ ideas about Irish pubs were acquired in Europe, truly traditional features like outside toilets, men-only access or sawdust on the floor will not feature.
Hilde is a large woman, lavishly warm, and my reaction to her plans is a great disappointment to her. ‘Your dear, dear mother,’ she says, bringing her face, a round melodrama of sadness, close to mine. ‘What you must know is that we, Stefan and I, love this place as much as Máirín did.’ Hilde gets everything wrong. She mispronounces my mother’s name: Mayreen she says every time, instead of Mawreen. And my reservations about their schemes have nothing to do with Mrs D.
I cannot explain myself to Hilde but I like her. Every day at one o’clock, she comes to my door with a dinner tray held out before her. ‘Hello, hello,’ she calls, the same words each day, the same cheery tone. ‘Are you there, Jo? I have brought for you a little food.’
Each day she comes with the tray, she eyes my accommodation with an exaggerated shudder. She has spoken to my sister, has heard the talk of the village, has been informed about my performance at the funeral. Her response is kindness.
I live in a shed while she and her husband overthrow my old home: she is shocked at that. Shocked at me, that anyone could choose to live like this but especially a woman in my condition. Shocked at herself: she still can scarcely believe she has allowed it. The house is legally theirs, I had no rights to it. Still, she acts like I have done them a favour.
So I eat her food, all of it, although it is not to my taste – pot roasts, frankfurters, gravy. I even drink the accompanying glass of milk. To Hilde, Irish milk is something wonderful, and for a pregnant woman, essential sustenance.
She knows I want to stay in Mucknamore until I finish what I am writing, though I haven’t explained why. What reason can I give for not returning to SF with the blue suitcase and doing the work over there? None, except that I know it would never be done.
At first I slept badly here, my sleep perforated by noises of the night. The door has a big bolt and is secure but still I would jerk awake at certain sounds, heart pounding. Or I would turn over, thinking myself in my double bed in San Francisco and wake against this mattress’s narrow edge, with a sensation of being about to pitch out, the threat of the rough, unsanitary floor beneath me. All this has passed now. I have learned to turn in a smaller space, got used to the grimy ground, and the snaps and rustles of the outdoors now bother me no more than the night-time creaks and rattles of a house.
And after nightfall, after the sun has disappeared in a flamboyance of oranges and reds that bodes well for the following day, Rory comes. He waits until then to visit knowing I won’t see him earlier. He brings drinks, wine or beer for himself, orange juice or Coca-Cola for me. I look forward to his visits, I admit it.
As the light seeps out of the day and I push my tired brain through another diary entry or document or letter, I listen for his footfall and when he arrives, I fold away the papers and we go and sit on the rug I have already set down behind the shed. It’s private there, high enough and far enough back from the edge to be cloistered from passers-by on the beach below.
We sit close for two or three hours each evening in velvet darkness and talk, our voices low, moths swooping in to knock themselves against the oil lantern set between us.
We talk: we do not touch, except when he is leaving to go home, when he bends and places a swift, soft peck on my cheek.
Each time, as I tilt forwards to receive this almost-kiss, I think about turning my head to allow his lips to meet mine. That would do it, I know: one gesture from me and the rest would follow. Yet he is glad that I don’t. He loves his wife, his children. He is afraid of what sex with me would do to his feelings for them.
As for me, I don’t have his belief in, his awe of, the sexual act. That he comes here every night is betrayal enough, surely? Yet I too hold back. Become Rory O’Donovan’s other woman?
So I accept the peck, keep my eyes ready front. And after he is gone, I wash and brush my teeth by lantern light, turning my thoughts away from him and back to the doings of young Granny Peg and Norah and Barney and Dan. It is them I take them to sleep with me.
I am content to be here, for now; I don’t want to go back, not yet. Sometimes, I think of my empty apartment in San Francisco, its curtains standing open to foggy summer days and street-lit nights. I think of the agony letters I left lying beside my computer, unanswered, dust settling over them. I think of Dee and Gary and Susan and Jake and all the others who continue to meet in Benton’s or Araby’s or Café Crème without me. I find it hard to believe it’s all still going on while I’m not there.
A replacement has been engaged to cover my column. ‘She won’t be the same,’ Lauren, my editor, said when I telephoned, ‘but she’ll do us fine until you get back.’ I was not to worry about work. I was to take all the time I needed. Lauren lost her mother two years ago; she thinks she understands. I trade on her sympathy to win myself this interlude.
It’s all very temporary. As soon as the construction work on the house is done, the builders will turn their attention to terraces and gardens and my shed will go. Hilde tries to reassure me with terrible promises about what will happen then. The guest bedrooms will be done, she says, and I can join her and Stefan in the house. I will be most welcome, I must stay as long as I like.
Her generosity terrifies me, so I work hard, harder than I have ever worked in my life. Up in the morning with the sun to write out the previous day’s findings. A break at nine for food, again at eleven for a run on the beach. Once, I was able to run for miles and I am taking this opportunity to do what I have been pledging to do for a long time: regain my lost fitness.
After the run, it’s back to my shed in time to wash and eat Hilde’s lunch. The afternoon I spend writing until I can write no more. I make myself a light meal and after that, read something from the cache in the suitcase. Read and unravel until Rory comes, when we talk and talk, piecing together what happened to him and to me and to the people who made us.
It isn’t always easy; often I worry that I’m getting it wrong, or over-interpreting. I don’t fully trust my own recollections any more than I believe everything I read in the papers. Memories are like dreams: putting them into words makes them too solid. Even as I’m doing it, a part of me is thinking I shouldn’t.
But I do. To my own mixed feelings, I stay on in Mucknamore, in a crumbling, run-down shack of a shed, and I write.
Jig music skittered out the open windows and doors of Fortune’s farmhouse, the tum-te-tum of Dandy Rowe’s accordion chased by a couple of fiddles. The sounds came jumping down Rathmeelin lane to meet Peg Parle, enticing her forward from the stillness she had stopped to savor. On either side of the lane, two hedges of shrubs and trees were coming into their spring flowering and evening air was cool on her face and hands. A balm. She could feel something in her rising to meet the its sweet solace.
For a moment she was confused by conflicting urges – to stop? to walk on? – then it came to her that she was in the middle of a perfect moment. She had the delights of presence here in the lane, with the ash and the sycamore and the yellow ribbons of primroses all along the hedge, their hearts yawning open. And ahead, the delights of anticipation.
For Dan had sent her a message by Molly Redmond, saying he hoped she’d be coming along to Johnny’s shindig tonight. This, surely, was the sign she’d been waiting for, that they could now go public.
In Mucknamore, all the young people kept their love affairs hidden for as long as possible. In Mucknamore, love was a joke, a fever of delusion requiring vigilance from those who were not ailing. Otherwise it would surely lose the run of itself. Jeering and mockery was what awaited any couple revealing a fancy for each other, so a relationship had to be firm established before you admitted to it.
Norah and Barney had told nobody yet either. Barney would shout it from the chapel steeple if he was let but Norah, like her brother, was more set on keeping it quiet. Maybe it was a family thing?
But now, it looked like Dan was ready to make a statement. Peg surely was, now more than ever, what with all the political talk going around, arguments springing up, everywhere, like weeds. If she and Dan were out as a couple, then Norah would surely follow and the four of them would be able to go where they wanted, at last. No more sneaking around or pretending. And politics kept in its place.
It was nearly a week since she’d seen him. Last Saturday night, he’d sent Barney up to her room to get her at two o’clock in the morning. She had snapped awake and dressed and gone, boots in hand, stockinged feet whispering across the creaky floorboards outside her parents’ room, excitement cutting through her fug of sleep. Months it had been since she’d done anything like that. Life just hadn’t been the same while he was away in that prison.
They’d walked out The Point to Lovers’ Hollow, the spot on the Coolanagh side where there was a dip, like a giant hand had taken a scoop out of the earth. There, she’d let him kiss her. Her face hotted up now at the thoughts of it, the sour tang of stout on his mouth and the things she let him do… And, worse, that thing she did herself, without him even asking, without her even knowing such a thing could be done.
‘Ohahh!’ she groaned aloud, into the quiet of the laneway, waggling her head to try and cast the memory out.
Tonight, she’d put everything right, so she would. She’d be full of possession, in charge of herself and so on, and he’d be impressed by her dignity. It was going to be a great night, so it was. The primroses were heralds to that. She could feel their own living essence, their nearness. ‘Glory be to God,’ she murmured, making the sign of the cross on herself and kissing her thumbnail. Then she skipped on to meet her evening.
The crowd was already spilling out of Fortune’s house into the yard, their parlour, one of the biggest in the neighbourhood though it was, too small to hold all who had come for Johnny’s American wake. Peg passed through the group, greeting as she went — ‘Hello Miley… Hello Cat… Lovely evening… Isn’t it splendid…? Hello Jack…’ — on through the kitchen, where Mrs Fortune sat weeping, surrounded by female relations and friends.
The big table was pushed to the side and all the chairs of the house were arranged in a circle around the edges of the room. On a high stool in the corner, Patsy Cogley played his squeezebox high on his chest, with Tipsy Delaney and Johnjo Gregg on two upside-down crates at his feet, bows bouncing across their fiddles.
Mrs Fortune and her girls were great cooks and they had gone all out for Johnny. A big ham in the centre of the kitchen table and around it, plates of white and brown soda bread spread stacked into towers. On a side table set up for the occasion batches of square scones dotted with sultanas and the warm seedy cake that was Johnny’s favourite, spicing the air so that everyone who passed commented on it. Dishes of butter and blackberry jam occupied the spaces between the plates. Also flowing was a plentiful supply of snuff and tobacco and, of course, drink. Stout and whiskey for most of the men and some of the women. For the others, the children and the Pioneers who’d taken the pledge of no drink, bottles of minerals and cups of tea.
The set was just finishing and the musicians were putting down their instruments for a few moments’ rest. When he saw she’d come in, Tipsy Delaney stood up on his beer-crate and asked for a bit of hush. When they’d quietened down, he said, ‘Thank you ladies and gentlemen and now I’d like you to put your hands together, please, for this composition from our very own Peg Parle.’
And what did they do only start up ‘The Boys Are Coming Home’, the ballad she had written when Dan and Barney were released from prison at Christmas? She couldn’t have been more surprised, especially to see some of the others in the room who were singing along, knowing the words. They must have cut it out of the paper when it was published at Christmastime.
Hear the rousing cheers around us/For the boys are coming home/Mothers, sisters, sweethearts greet them/The dear boys now coming home!/And Erin’s bitter story/Of her fight so long and gory/Ends in sunburst of bright glory/For the boys are coming home!
That homecoming night was the the last time the whole village of Mucknamore had turned out for each other. A very different night from this: black dark by this time of the evening and bitter cold, with frosted stars and a swollen moon dangling low over the railway station. She’d never forget that night, not if she lived to be a hundred. She could still smell the burning crackle and spit of the tar barrel, as if it were still lit, and see the tricolour flags of green, white and orange that were hung from windows and gables and lampposts all over the village, dancing in the orange light of the flames and making it feel like a different place, a busier and brighter and altogether better place than their old Mucknamore.
Nothing showed how matters had changed in Ireland more than the show of support that night. When the light of the train carrying the prisoners had appeared under the bridge… oh, the entire crowd had gone wild, jumping and cuffing the air, waving little flags and hats and handkerchiefs, banging kettles and tins with spoons.
Just a few short years ago, it was only the likes of Mammy who talked about irish freedom.
Sentiment began to change after the 1916 uprisings in Dublin and Enniscorthy and gathered steam, especially among the young, during the Conscription crisis of 1918. Still, even as late as this time last year, when Barney and Dan were convicted for their ‘crimes’ of drilling village boys in military manoeuvres and reading out that statement Mammy wrote about not recognising the authority of the court, even as recent as that, you had plenty in the village who turned their backs. Some stopped coming into the shop or the pub, so many that Daddy had worried for a time about the effect on business. Then all changed forever with the Truce.
‘None of them ever thought that boys the likes of Barney Parle or Dan O’Donovan could bring the Great British Empire to its knees,’ Mammy had said. Well, it was hard to blame people, when the Parles could hardly believe it themselves? A miracle if ever there was one, a band of ordinary Irish boys with a stash of rusty guns bringing the greatest power on earth to a treaty.
So the night they came home, even the elders turned out, Mossie Whelan holding up a large framed picture of the Easter Rising men of 1916 and Mrs Whelan beside him holding a framed copy of their Proclamation: Irishmen and Irishwomen, In the Name of God and of the dead generations from which she received her old traditions of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom . . . And Mammy’s friend Lil, her apron on over her coat, unfurling the banner she’d been working on for weeks: ‘welcome home to the mucknamore prisoners’ in green writing decorated with harps and shamrocks.
Oh what a night. The verses they were singing to her now in the room brought it all back. Dan and Barney up on the shoulders of the crowd, the band belting out ‘A Nation Once Again’ and everyone elbowing everyone else out of the way to stretch up and shake their hands. And herself going across to them and being welcomed like nobody else, Barney saying, ‘Here she is.’ And Dan giving her his grin, and calling her ‘the woman herself’, as she stepped between the two of them. She had taken that central place not as Barney’s sister, certainly not as Dan O’Donovan’s sweetheart, but as president of Mucknamore Cumann na mBan.
It was respect for the job that fine organisation of women had done, first under Mammmy, then under her, in keeping the boys of Mucknamore IRA Company supported that had made them listen to her that night.
‘Before we go in to the pub to celebrate,’ she’d said, ‘I’d just like to say a short ditty that I made up to honour this occasion tonight. It’s called “The Boys Are Coming Home” and it goes like this…’
And it was the same respect that had them singing those very words now, as Tipsy led them through it, all seven verses.
Then it was back to the dance music. As she made her way towards the food, she saw him up on the floor. Dan. Dan, who by his own admission had a pair of left feet, who never once could be coaxed up to dance with her, was there with a girl… with Miss Agnes Whitty, no less. Nothing untoward was passing between them. He was attempting to follow her directions for the dance and both were laughing as he exaggerated his blunders for her amusement. Oh, but Agnes Whitty, of all people. He surely knew that she was over the Wexford branch of the new women’s organisation, and that she had written a letter to the paper condemning what she called the wild and unwomanly ways of Cumann na mBan.
Where was Norah? She needed Norah. No sign of her but Molly was waving at her from the far side of the room. She skirted around the edge to her, bypassing the food table but as she approached, the zeal on her friend’s face made her want to turn back. It was too late, so she allowed her arm to be pulled, endured the wet hiss of Molly’s questions in her ear. Had she seen? What was he playing at? Agnes Whitty? And what about him and Peg? Had they had a fight? Peg waved her hand to dismiss it all, trying furiously to remember how much she had said to Molly before. ‘I don’t know what you mean. We’re nothing to each other this a long while now.’ She stretched her mouth wide into what she hoped was a smile.
‘Oh, really?’ said Molly.
‘Yes. We never went back the same way after he was inside.’
‘So what was he doing sending you messages, then?’
‘I don’t know. Pulling the wool over your eyes, maybe?’
Molly looked indignant at this attempt to turn the tables. ‘You looked fairly surprised when you saw him with Her Nibs.’
‘Surprised?’ said Peg. ‘Not at all. She might do for a bit of dancing but he’ll find she and her like are not much use when it comes to the fight.’
‘A crowd of milksops,’ laughed Molly. ‘All Cumann na Saoirse girls are the same.’
Peg had pulled her smile so wide she didn’t know what to do with it. ‘Is Norah about?’ she asked.
‘She’s not. I haven’t seen her anyhow. But tell me—’
‘Did you see Mrs Fortune on the way in? Isn’t she in an awful state?’
Molly set upon on that subject as Peg hoped she would. ‘Oh, Lord, the poor woman. I was in the kitchen earlier. She’s broken-hearted, broken-hearted. I don’t think she’ll ever get over it.’
Johnny was his mother’s favorite – everyone knew it – but even allowing for that, Mrs Fortune’s distress over his going was considered excessive. For weeks now, she had been cracking into tears in front of anyone and everyone. Nobody knew what to be saying to her, for tomorrow, Johnny would be gone. He would take the train to Cork, then to Cobh, where he would board a ship, leaving behind this farmhouse and a future as flat and firm as a future could be, to switch to a new life, unimaginably different. His mother would probably never see him again but he had to go, even she knew that. The farm was Jem’s, the eldest boy’s and there was no living for any of the other five sons. Pat, the second, was already at the seminary in St Peter’s but the priesthood held no attractions for Johnny.
Hard to imagine him in big, bad New York all the same. It was said the winters there would freeze your blood to ice. That the tenements were worse crowded than the worst of Dublin’s, with the Irish huddled together close as rats in a nest. That in the noise and rush, the poorest got trampled to death. Not that Johnny would be reduced to that level. Mary, his sister, who left four years ago, had sent across his passage money and had a job and a bed lined up for him. With that kind of assistance, Johnny could make something of himself over there.
Given the choice, here was where he’d stay, they all knew that. He wasn’t one of those who were driven to get out, get up, get on. A few acres and his own girl and he’d be happy for life. All of which made the letting go of him harder. And so, an emigration wake, to honour their sorrow and their good wishes for his future.
‘Miss Parle!’ A booming voice behind interrupted them and Peg felt her back being slapped. ‘A cure for sore eyes to see you. We knew our humble festivities were lacking but now our evening is complete.’
It was Jem Fortune, Johnny’s eldest brother, a boy so smooth he’d plamás the teeth off a saw. Enjoyable to play along with, you’d never take him serious.
‘He said the same to me earlier,’ said Molly.
‘Ladies, ladies. Didn’t be getting particular on me. What’s this I see? An empty fist, Miss Parle? Have those strawboy brothers of mine been neglecting you?’
This was Jem’s way of asking would she like a drink. ‘I’ve only just got here, Jem. Have you a lemon soda?’
‘Don’t budge from where you’re standing. It will be with you before you knew you wanted it.’
The music stopped again to allow the musicians to take refreshment. Agnes and Dan retreated to the side. Peg could see them out of the side of her eye. Dan never looked her way once but Agnes, flushed with exercise and triumph, kept throwing looks over and one or two reached their mark.
Jem came back with the drink as Johnjo stretched out the squeezebox on a new tune, a reel. ‘Would you do me the honour of stepping it out?’ Jem asked her. So she did, playing at smiling and laughing all through, as if she was having a great old time. When that set was over, Dandy took out his French fiddle and started up the plaintive old tune, ‘Mary Browne’s Favorite’, by Carolan, usually a favorite with Peg too but tonight, the melancholy pull of bow across string was like salt in a sore to her. Her eyes went on a furtive search for him and found Isla Moriarty, from the town, talking to Agnes Whitty and Dan gone, was nowhere to be seen. Gone out the kitchen door, probably, or else she’d have seen him go. And now that she thought of it, couldn’t she do with a snack? One of Mrs F’s nice seedy-buns?
She got up and edged her way towards the kitchen and as she came in one door, he was nudging his way through those gathered at the other. Meant to happen. Looking backwards, crossways, any way but right at him, she made her way across through the clumps of bodies over and only when he was almost flat up against her did she turn to face him. She tried to pack surprise, friendliness and nonchalance all into the one smile.
‘The woman herself,’ he said. That was a good start, anyway.
‘I need to talk to you,’ she heard herself say.
‘You talk too much, woman. Has anyone ever told you that?’ He said that bit loud, too loud, so others might hear. But he was smiling. ‘So out with it then, what sweet nothings have you for me?’
Sniggers seemed to rise behind the blank faces around them. Seeing her discomfort, Tipsy jumped in. ‘Don’t mind him, Peg. He’s had one too many.’
‘Mind him?’ She crowed a disdainful laugh. ‘I’d as soon mind one of the little boys in school.’
‘Well, you’re always saying how fond you are of those children.’ He leaned back on his heels, killed her with a slow grin. ‘Does this mean there’s hope for me yet?’
While the others were laughing at that, he slid her a look that nobody else saw, that seemed to pierce through her skin to the other sadness, the one she’d wound round her thoughts of him.
‘Are you not listening to Gregg?’ He inclined his head towards the parlor. ‘I thought you loved that auld banshee music.’
‘It’s too sad for the night that’s in it. With Johnny going so far away from us.’
‘Ah, yes. Johnny.’ His eyes closed in, as if to say she didn’t fool him, he could see right through her.
‘I’ve known Johnny all my life,’ she said, her tongue tripping over dry teeth. ‘No one would expect you to feel it the same.’
He ignored this jibe at his outsider status. ‘Is Barney not coming down tonight?’
‘He’s working. He’ll be along soon, I’d say.’
‘What about Norah?’ she asked. ‘I was expecting her to be here before me.’
‘Norah’s not coming.’
‘She told me she was.’
‘Well, she’s not.’
And that was it. He turned away from her then without so much as a goodbye and headed back into the parlor. Back into Agnes Whitty.
At two in the morning they were all still there. ‘The night’s young yet,’ Jem Fortune kept saying, every time anyone looked like they might be thinking about taking their leave. Some, like Barney, had come along late, after the pub closed, and were only now getting into their swing. Others were too drunk to know where their homes were. Young Johnny had passed out on the floor and some wag had put his mother’s hat, the one with the peacock feather, on his head. He’d be sick as a parrot tomorrow for his travels but maybe that was as well.
The sing-song was starting up and Peg was still dancing and making merry with the best of them, smiling, smiling. Lama kicked off the proceedings with ‘Kelly the Boy from Killane’, a favorite always with Forth and Bargy people as it mentioned their own area. Lama had a voice like an old jackdaw but to his own ears he sounded as good as any. Enniscorthy’s in flames, he crowed, and old Wexford is won, the veins standing out in his high, balding forehead as he reached higher and louder. By the time he’d finished, he’d moved himself close to tears.
‘Good man, Up Wexford.’
‘Let’s have another Wexford one. What about “The Boys of Wexford”? Come on, Denis.’
That song was known to be Denis Mernagh’s and he began it suddenly from where he stood, one elbow angled against the shelf.
We are the boys of Wexford/Who fought with heart and hand/To burst in twain, the galling chain/And free our native land . . .
Peg sang ‘The West’s Awake’ and when the turn was Dan’s, whose singing was no better than his dancing, he gave his recitation, ‘Dangerous Dan McGrew’. It was new to some here and even if you’d heard it before, as Peg had, you’d enjoy again the way he performed it, speaking loud and soft, sometimes going fast, sometimes slow, pulling them in like a fisherman with a reel. At the end of each verse all joined in the last line and the laughs and yelps increased as the silly story went on.
By the time he was finished, laughter was all over the room. Agnes Whitty’s face was creased with pride as she joined in the applause, nearly clapping the hands off herself, looking up into his face as if she were his mother. ‘B’God,’ said old Nick Cummins, wiping his eye, ‘that was better than a play.’
After the applause died, Peg called on Tipsy. ‘What about one of your Percy French’s, Tipsy? The one about the motor car?’
She smiled across at him and to her horror saw him glance from herself to Dan. He knew. Somehow Tipsy knew, though she had done everything right all night, talking, singing, dancing and smiling, smiling, smiling until the back of her throat was sore from it.
And if Tipsy – a semi-eejit who didn’t know what was what half the time – knew, that must mean everybody else did too. Behind her back, were she and Dan all the talk?
She should never have said anything about him to anyone. For so long, she had kept the thing quiet, then when he came back from prison, after all that waiting, he became too big for her to keep inside herself, so she told Norah more than she should and also some things, not as much, to Cat and even – God alive! What was she thinking? – a bit to Molly, knowing surely that if Molly Redmond had it, half the country would be in the know. All for the small pleasure of having his name in her mouth.
She was so tangled in thought that she barely heard what Tipsy had begun to sing, aware only that it wasn’t a Percy French. Slowly, the atmosphere of the room began to penetrate, drawing her out of the gnarls of her mind. Faces all round around the room were tightening at what Tipsy was singing in his fine tenor voice, with greater gusto that usual:
. . . ’Tis traitors vile who damn our Isle/Prolonging here the tyrant’s sway/They’ve taken up the Saxon game/And keep its dirty rules in play . . .
These were new words to an old tune, indicting those who supported the treaty. Such songs had been doing the rounds, whispered between those you could be sure were true republicans but not, until now, sung out in this way. Sung into the faces of those who were known to favor the treaty. For Mucknamore was determined not to get got up in the divisions that were emerging elsewhere in the country.
Dan and Agnes were by no means the only people with a leaning in favor but both had gone public: Dan in persuading the Mucknamore Brass Band to go into Wexford for the coming visit of Michael Collins to the town, Agnes in setting up this alternative women’s auxiliary. For attention, Peg reckoned, more than any real commitment to the cause. So it was to the two of them that everyone turned, the whites of their eyes showing.
Dan was sitting forward in his seat, thick black eyebrows pulled together into a V. Miss Whitty looked like a turkey, Peg thought, her neck red-swollen with indignation.
. . . For filthy English lucre/They’ve sold their race and sod . . .
At this Dan jumped up. ‘You’re going too far now, Tipsy,’ he shouted across the song. ‘You’d want to watch yourself there.’
But Tipsy kept on singing to the end of the verse:
. . . They play the role that Judas played/When he betrayed his God.
When he finished, nobody clapped and the tick of the clock on the parlour mantel-shelf could be heard, the room was gone that quiet.
Dead fury lined every letter of Dan’s words when he finally spoke. ‘Who are you calling a traitor?’
‘Ah, now, Dan old pal,’ Jem Fortune said. ‘Take it easy there,’
‘It’s only a song,’ someone else said.
A few other voices joined in the persuasion, telling him to calm himself, that no offense was intended but others, those who’d quite welcome a fight to finish off the evening’s entertainment, said nothing. Tipsy’s eyes were locked onto Dan’s and not a sign of apology on him. Peg couldn’t believe it of him. Usually Tipsy didn’t know what to think, never mind what to do, until someone told him.
Agnes Whitty leaned across and tried to whisper in his ear but he pulled away. ‘I’m not letting any fucker call me a traitor,’ he shouted and he jumped out of his seat at Tipsy and made a go at him. It was a drunken, half-hearted effort and easy for the other boys to hold him back.
‘Let him go, lads,’ cried Tipsy, putting up his fists. ‘Let him go and let’s have it out.’
Dan pulled himself free of the hands gripping his clothes. ‘Twenty to one, is it?’ he asked, looking into the faces gathered around him. He swiveled round to face Tipsy again. ‘When there was English soldiers to be fought, you weren’t so quick off the mark.’
Most of the room was already on Tipsy’s side and this remark of Dan’s put more over.
Barney said, ‘Steady on there, Dan.’
But he was beyond calming ‘That’s it, back-clap each other. That’s about all ye’re good for around here.’ He pulled out of their restraining hands and blundered across the room away from them. In his anger, his Cork accent was very strong. ‘If you’re all such great republicans, how come when HQ had a job to do in Wexford, it had to be given to outsiders to do?’
‘God, are you ever going to let go of that?’ Barney said. ‘Just because the job went to a Corkman. We’ve heard you tell that one twenty times over.’
‘And I’ve not heard you answer it once. It’s ye that are the traitors and ye haven’t even the wit to see it.’
Peg had to speak then, though her voice was shaking through the interjection. ‘‘Now look here, there are no Irish traitors in this room. You’re right Dan, more could have been done – we can always do better – but even if we were not as active as fellows further west, we’re every bit as keen… and is it not -’
‘Keen now. Now it’s too late. Now the fighting’s finished.’
‘Ah hold on. Wasn’t Wexford one of very few counties outside Dublin which turned out for the Easter Rising in 1916?’ she said.
That got a cheer from around the room. She could go on. She could ask him where the Cork boys were for that rebellion. Or go a bit further back and remind him of all the Boys of Wexford who died for Ireland in 1798. No county did better than Wexford in that revolt. Instead she said, in what she hope was a unifying way. ‘We’re all republicans, Dan. That’s what matters. Let’s not allow ourselves to be divided.’
She knew what others didn’t. That he was not as defiant as he sounded. That he had been delighted by the turn of events in the past year, the opportunity that finally saw him accepted around here. He didn’t want to be an outsider though you wouldn’t know it to look at him now, his face hopping out of his neck with belligerence.
He made a noise, something between a snarl and a sigh and then he turned and stalked off, leaving the door swinging open behind him. Every piece of her yearned to follow but instead it was Agnes Whitty who got up and click-clicked across the floor after him in her hard-nosed boots.
They left behind a second of pure silence, then Jem Fortune, with face and voice deadpan, said: ‘Who’s been eating his porridge?’
Tipsy guffawed. Guilty laughter spread around the room. So . . . there was still no love lost for Dan among these people, her people. It wasn’t only the politics. For some, it was probably no more than the fact that he was from County Cork, an outsider with a funny accent and a different way of looking at life, but not everybody was that closed-minded. Mainly it was that he didn’t bother with the few soft words that made all the difference to people. He was a big man and he made smaller people feel their size.
It was like looking at the same scene painted by two different artists. Yesterday she saw people looking up to Dan, as a fighting man, as a man who made things happen; today she could see how that regard is tinged with hostility for many. Nobody had it in for him exactly, but nobody, not one person, not even Barney, was sorry to see him challenged. In the unity of the room Peg felt something close in around her, and she gave way to it, let it enfold her like a prickly blanket on a cold night, comforting and irritating, both at once. Suddenly she felt deathly tired. She thought of her bedroom, her bed with its white coverlet, her pillow soft and warm.
She said, ‘I think it’s time we called it a night.’
‘I’ll go with you,’ Molly said.
But Jem Fortune wouldn’t let them. ‘No, no, no,’ he said. ‘The night’s young, only a pup. You can’t be going home yet, not until we get this bad taste out of our mouths. Tipsy, give us an encore there. Something a bit lighter this time. Something that won’t drive any more guests down the road.’
Tipsy started on ‘Are You Right There, Michael?’, Percy French’s song about the West Clare railway. So Peg sat put for a while longer, thinking. She would pretend they fell out over Ireland. Tipsy’s performance, by bringing that question out in the open, made it easier for her. Maybe he even did it on purpose? He’d love to play her Sir Galahad, she knew that. But he’d hardly have the wit to work it out, would he?
From across the room, he smiled at her through his song and she didn’t know whether she should smile back or not. She hoped he wouldn’t start mooning over her again, like he used to before Dan came on the scene. She was so tired now, fatigue pouring through her limbs, hot and sticky, that she didn’t know what was the right thing to do anymore. It was as much as she could manage to sit there and singalong with the silly chorus of Tipsy’s silly song – ‘Are you right there, Michael, are you right?’
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