Book: Irregulars

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7

… that this movement, that this moment in history follows from its birth in the fire-scorched womb of the GPO should not be smothered by the weakness and apostasy of its so-called leaders. To this end I have returned to Dublin from that green haven of Blessington—a refuge of idleness, corruption and cowardice in the face of the traitorous Free State scoundrels—in the foothills of the mountains that roll like a rebuke over this still fettered city of ours, in an effort to raise an army of men who will continue the struggle to cleanse this nation of the taint of occupation. To this end I have gathered around me young men of all classes and of the purest intent. It is the young of this nation, if guided correctly, who will tear from the blood-soaked soil the weeds of collaboration, wielding the scythes of our new, holy and Catholic Republic of Eire. To this end, our army will employ means that may seem cruel and lawless to a simple people who have grown so weary of war and stunted in their vision by centuries of subjugation. But it is my hope, and my prayer, that our Lord will guide me to enlighten these simple people, that the spilled blood of the corrupt will wash away the heretical apathy of the Irishman and raise him up as a proud, virtuous citizen of our holy republic. This virtue is displayed in the young men I have chosen for….

Commandant Felim O’Hanley rests his pen in the spine of his journal and rises from the small desk that fills a third of the space in his cramped attic quarters. Two steps take him across the room, where he climbs a wooden ladder to the skylight, lifting open the wood-framed light on its hinges, taking a mouthful of fresh air, the scent of autumn decay already in the windy essence of the autumn leaves on the trees surrounding the house where he has made his billet. The October sun is unseasonably warm, and O’Hanley turns his face to it, only his head visible against the sloped slate roof.

In his imagination, the republic he dreams of is one bathed in sun and light. It should not be like this as yet because this republic is still a long way from coming into being, and the way the Indian summer sun appears unashamed in the heavens over an Ireland still so mired in corruption makes him uneasy. As if God has let his guard down and the sun has defied Him. The soft thwok of tennis balls draw his attention to the fenced-in grass court in the garden below, and he looks down upon the fledgling soldiers of his army, wielding racquets instead of the weapons they so desperately need.

O’Hanley watches them fondly. He has every urge to be down there with them. He can’t drill them as he would like to—the Haddington Road neighbours on either side of the grand house where they are billeted may believe the boys to be nephews and family friends from country towns availing of room and board at the moment, but certainly would not if he were to convert the suburban tennis court into a parade ground—but sport is good for the boys. O’Hanley smiles, the sunlight warm on his head as he watches his boys from his perch three stories above. Lithe and carefree movement, laughter and a curse as a tennis ball is pfoffed out of the fenced court and into the garden proper. He will remind them about the cursing. It is not proper and right for soldiers of an army such as theirs to employ profanity.

A knock sounds below and beyond the walls of the room, and O’Hanley freezes on the ladder, waiting. He thinks of the Webley and the Mills bomb in his suit jacket hanging on the back of his chair. He will take his jacket and his journals from the desk and nothing else. There is nothing else for him to take if he must run. He has made it thus.

Silence. Then the knock in its full and recognisable sequence, and O’Hanley allows himself to relax.

Leaving the skylight propped open, he descends the ladder and goes to the heavy oak door, drawing back the deadlock and bar set into steel brackets on either side of the frame. He opens the door and steps into a small space between this door and another and pulls on a rope handle that opens the second door inwards. On the back of this door is shelving piled with folded jumpers and children’s toys and riding boots and photographic albums—the detritus of family life. And standing in the closet that serves as entry to the house beyond, holding aside hangers full of old furs and overcoats, is Stephen Gilhooley.

‘Stephen,’ O’Hanley says, and allows the young man to pass by him and into his room.

‘Jesus, Commandant, you’d never know there’s a room through here, never.’

‘Your language, Stephen. I will not tolerate swearing or the use of our Lord’s name in vain. There is a discipline to language that regulates thought and a discipline to thought that guides language, and you’d do well to remember that.’

Stephen Gilhooley takes off his cap and looks sheepishly upwards at the skylight. He is dressed in a bloody white coat and heavy boots, a white, stiff cotton cap with a thumb smudge of blood on its brim. On the road outside the house is a Gilhooley Butchers delivery lorry. Stephen Gilhooley has, in fact, delivered several pounds of lamb chops and a rump roast to the matron of the house, Mrs Dempsey. Two stories below them in the kitchen, Mrs Dempsey and her spinster daughters unwrap and inspect the meat as if they had paid for it out of their own pockets.

‘Sorry, Commandant. Only some of us aren’t as used to talking like you are. Sure, I spend all day with my father and brothers and they do nothing but curse, even in front of the customers. I can’t hardly help it.’

O’Hanley forces himself to smile. Without Stephen, he would be lost. Unlike some of the other volunteers, Stephen is not a former student. He is a boy of the lower orders, to be certain, but as with the finest legionaries in the armies of Rome, he is made of the noblest stuff. A young man of faith and courage, plying his father’s trade with bonesaw and cleaver, amidst the blood and entrails of beasts, while waging war with a pistol or Thompson gun for O’Hanley and the scattered remnants of the First Dublin Brigade IRA. Such boys as Gilhooley, the butchers and blacksmiths, are forging a free, independent and holy nation of Ireland, subject, of course, to the guidance of a few remaining men like Felim O’Hanley and, at a stretch, de Valera. His smile darkens at the thought of Dev. Silent Dev, who has left him stranded and practically unarmed in this vast bog of traitors.

‘Never mind. Sit down. We can’t have the van outside longer than is necessary.’

‘Sure I could be talking to one of the daughters, couldn’t I? As far as the neighbours are to know.’

‘Mrs Dempsey’s daughters would hardly talk to the likes of you, Stephen,’ O’Hanley says. He sits down on the single chair and indicates the bed with its tucked blankets and creased sheets. Like a monk’s bed or a prisoner’s.

‘I only meant …’ Stephen stammers.

‘… Never mind. What is the word from Murphy? The two lads I sent have yet to return. Have you seen Nicholas or Robert?’

‘I waited at the meeting place but neither of them came.’

O’Hanley is silent for a long moment. ‘No matter,’ he says. ‘They don’t know where this house is, even if they’ve been lifted. We’ve been careful about that, haven’t we?’

The Haddington Road house containing the hidden garret belongs to the Dempsey widow, and is shared by her daughters and, now, O’Hanley and his young charges in the anti-Treaty IRA. Mrs Dempsey is as radically anti-Treaty as any of them, motivated by the death of her son, an unfortunate Dublin Brigade Volunteer who’d been tortured and shot dead by Crown forces in the days following Bloody Sunday.

The manner of his death had ensured a closed-casket funeral for the lad and that Mrs Dempsey will never accept that her beautiful son had died for the flaccid capitulation that is the Treaty. Hers is now a safe house, the room purpose-built to hide her son in the Tan War and never used, now occupied by O’Hanley.

‘Were you able to see Murphy yourself?’

Gilhooley frowns. ‘Of course not. What if I was followed back here? When I learned Nicky and Robbo hadn’t reported in, I telephoned his room and said only, “how much”? He asked could he not deal with you in person, and I told him “no” and that was that. He didn’t like to do it by telephone at all.’

O’Hanley says, ‘Which is why I sent the boys to arrange a meeting, but it can’t be helped now. And how much does he want?’

‘Thirteen thousand.’

‘Robbery.’

‘I know, but … he said the lot of it—guns, ammo, gelignite and detonators—is on a ship in Southampton waiting for us, but it’s going to cost. He said he’s people to pay.’

‘Murphy said all of this on the telephone from his rooms? Surely he’s aware that the switchboards are crawling with spies …?’

‘He called them units. Like they were … I don’t know. Chairs or sweeping brushes or something.’

O’Hanley thinks in silence for some time. ‘And the other operation. We’re certain about the train leaving tonight?’

‘As certain as we can be. Mullen and Patterson are part of the guard, and I spoke with them only yesterday. That train’s carrying more than thirteen grand by far. Borrowed off the English to pay the Northern lads. There must be five hundred of them, training out in the Curragh camp, and they have to be paid so’s they don’t jump ship and join us like half the fellas in the Free State army … Sure, it’s several months’ wages, so it won’t be divvied out all at once. It was one of Collins’ stunts before he was killed. He rigged it so them Ulster lads are kept on a long rope, paid over time for doing nothing rather than joining us in the real fight. They’re the only lads in the whole of Ireland guaranteed to get their wages on time, just for staying out of the fight.’

Collins had brought a division of the IRA from the partitioned North down to the Curragh Camp to train under the Free State army when Ulster had become too hot for them. The northern volunteers would not agree to wage war as part of the Free State army against their former comrades in the anti-Treaty Irregulars, but had agreed to accept Free State army wages for promising to remain on the sidelines of the conflict until the IRA could once again unify and launch itself against the loyalist north as a whole. When Collins was shot dead in August, any such hopes of reunification seemed to die with him.

O’Hanley says, ‘Your contacts, Mulally and Patterson, are they the only ones guarding the shipment who are sympathetic to our cause?’

‘They wouldn’t ask any others. But they’ll sneak away and join us on the raid.’

‘And you can trust these moonlighters? Serving in the Free State army and willing to help rob a Free State bank of Free State army wages?’

‘Sure, neither of them has been paid in three weeks, and yet Mulcahy has come up quick enough with the scratch to pay them Ulster men to sit on their arses. Mully and Patto only joined the Free Staters for the wage, and since they’ve only got it now and again, they’re more than willing to help. I’ll have to throw them a few bob off the take, but they’re game lads.’

‘And tell me again why they are holding the money in a bank in Newbridge and not at the camp itself? It seems odd that they would risk holding it in a civilian bank when they could guard it more closely in a barracks safe?’

Stephen smiles. ‘It’s because they can’t trust the Northern lads not to decide to advance themselves their wages and head back home to fight. Too many rifles around a camp like the Curragh, and the Free Staters don’t trust the Ulster men, or even their own troops, not to up arms and rob the money themselves. So they keep it close enough that it’s no bother getting it, but far enough away so’s to be out of temptation to the lads in camp with guns and notions.’

O’Hanley’s lips curl in a moue of distaste.

‘All of them mired in corruption, dragged into it by the traitors of the Free State,’ he says, though he knows in his heart that his own Irregular troops are often no better. There are more than a few hardened republicans among the ranks of the Free State Army, and just as many in the Irregulars, who don’t mind or understand the Treaty, and many of them willing enough to change sides when it suits. O’Hanley has heard of men fighting one day for the Free State and the very next for the Irregulars at the battle for Kilmallock in County Limerick, switching teams and swapping tunics at the first rumour of better—or any—wages or hot food on the other side. Corruption and chaos, the twin ghosts haunting this war. And here am I, O’Hanley thinks, consorting with them freely.

‘If you must have the moonlighters, have them, but I’d rather you used our own men.’

‘Sure, we’ll need more than myself and just those boys down there,’ Gilhooley nods in the direction of the sound of swatted tennis balls through the open skylight. ‘… to take that bank.’

Those boys are only a few years younger than you, dear Stephen. And yet, Gilhooley is right. They are not experienced enough or large enough in numbers to hit even an unguarded bank on their own. A sick feeling wells in O’Hanley’s gut. It has come to this. Using his boys for the kind of robbery that is as common as calving cows in the country. Like everyday brigands instead of the soldiers of destiny they aspire to be. He thinks back to what he has written in his journal. ‘… means and methods that may seem cruel and lawless …’

‘Take whomever you need. Will your brothers go, do you think?’

Gilhooley shrugs. ‘Dinnie has a babby now. Sure, he’d come along for some peace and quiet, if nothing else. And Ray will do it for the craic, never mind a few hours away from the auldfella and the shop.’

Stephen’s father is staunchly sympathetic to the republican cause. He had fought in Bolands Mill with de Valera in 1916, and had escaped internment when the fighting ended, his knowledge of the back lanes of Dublin far better than any of his pursuers. He’d returned to his butcher shop and drifted away from the movement, but he supported the cause with food, funds and sons when he could spare them.

‘You’ve guns enough, and your brothers at least have had some practice. And Mulally and Patterson?’

‘They’re grand lads. They can be trusted to do the job right if I tell ’em how.’

Gilhooley is little more than a boy himself, O’Hanley reflects. Eighteen, and yet so capable, loyal and brave. Rough, certainly, but a born leader.

‘Hit the bank then, Stephen, and may God guide and protect you.’

Stephen Gilhooley blesses himself and replaces his white butcher’s cap. ‘And you, Commandant O’Hanley.’ He holds out his hand and O’Hanley hesitates, inspecting the proffered hand for dried blood before he reluctantly takes it.

 

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