Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 8
Next: Chapter 10


The door to forty-seven Foley Street is answered by a young girl in a pale blue dress and white apron. She is no more than twelve years old, O’Keefe reckons. He feels a hard bolt of anger in his gut, which fades only when he realises—taking in the apron and the damp rag in the girl’s hand—that she is merely a serving maid or cleaner in the brothel. He cannot imagine his father owing anything to a woman who would employ so young a girl in such a place, though God knows there are enough girls of this age working in other knocking shops and in the lanes or on the quays.

‘I’m here to see Mrs Dolan, if you please,’ he says, smiling at the girl. ‘My name is Seán O’Keefe. Dan O’Keefe’s son, you can tell her.’

The girl nods, saying nothing, and holds the door open wider for him to enter. The house is quiet, like the street outside, and smells of stale smoke, perfume and whiskey. The scents invoke memory, and O’Keefe wonders has he been in this house before. He follows the girl through the short front hallway, down a flight of stairs and into a bright kitchen, then outside again, crossing a garden past an outdoor privy, a henhouse, a pigeon loft and small kitchen crop of vegetables. At the bottom of the garden they come to a steel door cut into the back wall of the yard. He follows the girl through the door and into another garden, across flagstones set into the grass, arriving at a second redbrick house, identical to the one they have just left.

The girl enters the house, gesturing for O’Keefe to wait outside.

A moment later, another girl, older than the first, comes to the door. ‘You’re welcome, sir. Sorry about Maggie. She’s deaf and dumb as a pillar but a great little worker all the same. Does a grand job reading lips, though with that stoat of a moustache on you, I wonder how she managed.’ The girl smiles and O’Keefe smiles back. ‘Mrs Dolan is in the parlour.’

He follows this girl upstairs and is met at the parlour door by an attractive woman clothed in a silk dress in a shade of dark yellow that complements her brown hair and eyes and her pale skin. She appears to O’Keefe to be in her forties, but could be older or younger. Older, he imagines, because his father had retired from the police almost ten years previously. Her hair is worn in an elaborate topknot, and O’Keefe wonders how much of it is a hairpiece and how much her own. She looks more like the wife of a judge or bank manager than a procuress, even if the dress appears to O’Keefe too elaborate for daytime wear.

‘Thank you, Dolores,’ the woman says, smiling brightly. ‘Make us some tea, would you, dear? Or would the gentleman prefer something stronger?’

‘Tea, please,’ O’Keefe says with an urgency that makes his face redden.

The brothel madam laughs, and as she does, O’Keefe observes that she is missing most of her back teeth and that her laughter has a smoky rasp to it that is at once warm and vaguely menacing. The laughter of hard living, he thinks, much like his own rare laughter these days.

‘Forgive me,’ the woman says, extending her hand, her knuckles studded with emerald and ruby rings that O’Keefe guesses are not paste but real. ‘My name is Ginny Dolan. I’m an old friend of your father’s.’

‘Seán O’Keefe, ma’m, pleased to meet you,’ he says, taking her hand, but is wary of her suddenly, wondering again what hold a woman such as this could have over his father.

She studies O’Keefe, and under her gaze—dark eyes intent, intelligent and wholly separate from her smile—he feels the pull of fear again in his gut. ‘I am given to understand that you were once a detective, like your father.’

‘We didn’t have a detective branch in the Peelers per se,’ he says, thinking she must surely know this, in her line of work. ‘Other than Crimes Special Branch, which looked after political crimes and such. But I worked my share of investigations, some plainclothes, others in uniform.’

The Dolan woman smiles warmly at him and rests a hand on his forearm. ‘Thank God for that then. You’re just what I need, no offence to your father.’

‘None taken,’ O’Keefe says.

‘Please, come through. How rude of me.’

Holding out her hand for him to enter, O’Keefe defers and allows the madam to enter the parlour first. As she passes in front of him, he notices that she walks with a pronounced limp and that her left leg appears to flay outwards, her spine canted in the opposing direction. A hobble more than a limp. Rickets, he thinks: the disease of the poor. He wonders how she had made her living as a whore with the disease, and decides that her ailment might have led to her rising from the shop floor to the director’s office in some way.

O’Keefe knows, from his days in the police, that brothel madams can be callous creatures, every bit as brutal as their male counterparts. Most, if not all, are former whores themselves—women so bludgeoned by life in the trade that nothing matters to them but the money they make off the backs of the girls they employ. But to O’Keefe, Ginny Dolan presents herself as a far more complex woman.

Perhaps it’s her apparent wealth, O’Keefe thinks, realising that the house in which they stand is the madam’s dwelling and not open for business. On the wall are photographs of a baby and young boy, along with a family photograph from some time in the last century. The hall tables are topped with vases holding fresh flowers. There is nothing of the stew house about this place. It is a home.

He waits until Ginny Dolan has lowered herself, painfully, onto her upholstered chair, and then takes a seat on a settee facing her across a low, cherrywood table. Smiling, he plumbs his imagination for what his father might have done to lead his son to this house—taking tea in a parlour room as if calling on an aunt or widowed family friend—and finds only the warp of shadow. Nothing good could have indebted his father to this woman, warm as she seems. As a G-man—a political detective in the DMP— Daniel O’Keefe would have been as familiar with whores and their pimps as with solicitors, priests or republicans. Good G-men had contacts and touts on every rung of society’s ladder. But it was an axiom of the detectives’ trade that these souls remained indebted to the detective, and not the other way round. Still, every copper makes mistakes and some mistakes could lead a man places where he wouldn’t normally go. In thinking this, O’Keefe decides that he doesn’t want to know what debt his father owes. He will repay it and that will be the end of it.

‘I hope business is good for you,’ he says, by way of saying something. He notes the sacred heart picture on the wall over the mantelpiece; the tended fire grate laid with turf and coal for the evening’s fire; the stuffed chair in which the woman sits; the flowered wallpaper. And on the wall behind her, another posed photograph in an expensive frame—Ginny Dolan and a young boy of eight or nine years old. The same boy in the pictures in the hallway. He idly wonders who it is, assumes it is her son and wonders is she married.

‘Ah well, you know yourself, Mr O’Keefe. Nothing’s the same since all the trouble’s started up again. Even when the boyos were fighting the Tommies and Tans, business was business and no politics was spoken in my house. Tommies and Tans and Shinners … Sure, gunmen of every stripe and hue …’—she gives O’Keefe a bold smile that makes her, for the first time since he has met her, appear the pimp she is—‘… all of them need a taste now and again and, sure, what harm? Live and let live and let there be no ideologies under the counterpane.’ She laughs and O’Keefe smiles politely.

‘But now people are afraid to go out as much as they used to. No one’s sure who’s on whose side any more and who’s carrying a gun and who’s not. Times are hard, Mr O’Keefe, and only in Ireland, I think, can men let politics come between them and a screw.’

Despite himself, O’Keefe laughs at the truth of the woman’s words.

‘Now …’, she continues, taking a cigarette from a silver case and waiting while O’Keefe leans across and lights it with an ornamental lighter from the table. Exhaling: ‘… now there’s some who’d say auld upstairs girls like myself have no place in the new Free State, or whatever it is they’re calling it. Can you imagine? A free and independent Ireland without her upstairs girls? And let me tell you, when the Dáil is sitting, Ginny Dolan’s shop is still as busy as fleas on a fat man. Politicians are politicians no matter what colours they paint their posters. And the young gunmen do be just as bad for riding, for all their talk of God and independence. They’ll happily take their cut of protection money from the likes of poor Ginny, a gratis poke at one of her girls and then turn round and curse her for a Free State spy or Republican whore or just plain bad for the morals of the country. Truth be told, since they shelled the Four Courts and started this blight of a civil war, I don’t know who’s the worst.’

It is not the first time O’Keefe has heard this said. Independence is a fine thing, if you can put bread on your table without being shot at for your troubles. And O’Keefe knows at first-hand how much the average gunman cares about the troubles of the common people of Ireland. About as much as the average politician, he thinks. ‘It’s hard to tell all right,’ he says. ‘Strange times.’

‘Strange times indeed.’

The pair of them say nothing for the time it takes the girl to enter and pour tea.

They sip in silence for a moment, and O’Keefe sets down his teacup. ‘Mrs Dolan, my father is in your debt.’

The woman’s gaze is assessing but warm, and O’Keefe is confused by her scrutiny. Flattered but wary.

‘You look like him, you do. So much like him when he was younger. He’s not well, I hear.’

‘No, but I’m prepared to fulfil any obligation he has to you.’

‘I expect you are. Your father told me that you were a Peeler down in Cork. A fine one. A fine investigator.’ She speaks as of a time long past, a different life, a different person. ‘He was proud of you, as well he should be. A fine, strapping man like yourself. And doing right by his Da.’

O’Keefe’s face reddens. ‘I don’t know how good I was, Mrs Dolan. I worked my share of investigations, as I said: any number of robberies and more than a handful of murders.’

‘No, no … nothing like that,’ Ginny Dolan says abruptly, and O’Keefe notices the woman’s face change, her smile frozen. ‘No … please God,’ and in the common phrase—please God—O’Keefe hears a real prayer. ‘Nothing so serious as that …’

‘I didn’t mean to imply anything, Mrs Dolan, sure. I’m not certain what you even want from me.’

‘A job of work. You’ll be well paid.’

‘That’s not necessary, Mrs Dolan. I’m here to repay what my father owes, whatever it is you need me for.’ And as he says this, he regrets it. There are favours, he thinks, the madam of a brothel could ask for, that would test a man’s morality at best. ‘I’ll try.’

‘You’ll take the job, Mr O’Keefe.’ It is not a question.

‘What is the job, Mrs Dolan?’

She takes another cigarette from her case and pauses while O’Keefe leans across and lights it.

‘My son,’ she says. ‘I want you to find my son.’

‘Your son?’

O’Keefe wishes he had a cigarette. He pats his pockets and realises he has not bought a packet since his binge.

Ginny Dolan holds out her open silver case and O’Keefe gratefully accepts one. He lights it and takes the smoke deep into his lungs, feeling light-headed and stronger for it.

‘But why,’ he asks, exhaling, ‘do you not go to the police, Mrs Dolan, if your son is missing?’

The madam sets down her tea cup with a clatter. ‘No police. Is that clear, Mr O’Keefe? I’ll not have my son lagged by that shower, and they’d not be interested in finding him anyway. Your father,’ she softens her tone, ‘… was a good man, Mr O’Keefe. We were great pals in our day … I only wish him well, but I will have my Nicky found and no police.’

O’Keefe nods, unwilling to anger her further, finding himself slipping back into a role he thought he would never play again—that of investigator.

‘No police then.’ He pulls on his cigarette and begins. ‘All right so, when was the last time you saw your son, Mrs Dolan?’

‘Last month, more than a month really. Nicky slept here, like always, and then was off the next morning before I woke.’ Her smile is gone now, fear etched into the pinched lines around her eyes, a filigree of worried years around her lips as she pulls on her cigarette.

‘His name is Nicholas?’ O’Keefe instinctively pats his pockets again, this time for the patrol diary that is no longer there. He feels unprepared and amateurish without one of the hardback notebooks he had carried all those years as a Peeler, resolving to commit what the woman says to memory and copy it down as soon as he is able.

She nods. ‘Nicholas Dolan. And I should tell you, before we go any further, that he has been running with the anti-Treatyites. The Irregulars as they’re called now in the papers, so you see now why we cannot have the police looking for him. They’d hand him over to the Free Staters and he’d be banged up with the rest of them, or worse, shot.’ She blesses herself as she says this, before continuing. ‘Much though it breaks my heart, always having tried to rear the boy with a proper hatred for all politics—not politicians, mind, who are grand custom for a woman of my trade, but politics, ideas. This country is full of madmen and their mad ideas, and mad ideas never did anyone a lick of good, did they? But my Nicky up and joined them. Boys … men …’ Her words ring with weary disgust. ‘If there’s a fight to be had somewhere, they’ll seek it out. Peace and profit are just not good enough for them.’

O’Keefe groans inwardly. He wants to do right by this woman, for his father’s sake. And in the past few minutes he has felt a spark of interest that he has not felt since he left the Constabulary—the instinct of the hunt, the search, that is every policeman’s curse and blessing. But the boy could be anywhere in the country by now if he was fighting. And God knows, O’Keefe thinks, it will be hard enough scaring up a friendly contact among the Irregulars; someone who might be able to point to where the lad might be. It has been less than a year, after all, since a good number of them had been trying to kill him and his colleagues in the RIC.

‘How do you know he joined the Irregulars, Mrs Dolan?’

‘He told me. Fourteen years old, the cheek of him. And I forbade it, of course, but he’s a headstrong boy, Mr O’Keefe. He was proud as punch. Said that he was running messages and other things he couldn’t tell me. As if I’d spent years doting on him and educating him so that he could go out and join up with that army of eejits.’ Ginny Dolan’s voice cracks and she pulls a handkerchief from her dress sleeve and wipes her eyes. O’Keefe notes how the woman’s speech shifts: from the delicate and refined one moment to the courser register of the streets where she runs her business the next.

She continues. ‘And I blame his school mostly. It was there he learned all that independence nonsense that’s about these days and even then they saw fit to throw him out. The masters there, and all their talk of the rights of man and republican heroes and independence. All well and good to a boy of fourteen until they cast him out for what his mother does for to put food in his mouth. To pay his school fees.’

Confused, O’Keefe holds up his hand. ‘What school was it, Mrs Dolan? And why was he expelled?’

‘Francis Xavier’s, off North Great George’s Street. Do you know it?’

‘I do,’ he says, sitting up, a slight dart of optimism piercing him, something he can use in this information. ‘I went there myself. Me and my brother.’

‘Of course you did. Sons of a respectable policeman.’ There is bitterness in her voice now, a hardness that alerts O’Keefe to the danger a woman such as this could be. A woman of wealth like Ginny Dolan, in the trade that she plies, would not have got to where she is now in the world through kindness alone.

‘But my Nicky? Turfed out when someone went to the Fathers with what kind of business I run. Some little turncoat. As if my money wasn’t good enough for the mighty Jesuits and their fine school.’ She roughly stubs her cigarette in the brass ashtray, exhaling a last blast of smoke. ‘Fine and fucking dandy, Mr O’Keefe, for them Fathers teaching the sons of lawyers and bankers and … and politicians, all of them as bent as the bishop’s crozier. But the son of a straight and true upstairs girl like myself isn’t half good enough for them. As if it was Nicky’s fault what his mammy does for a shilling. I run a good and honest business, Mr O’Keefe, and don’t let any manjack tell you different. I’m good to my girls and I provide a service much needed in this city. And let me tell you, I know things about some of them holy Fathers that would curl your hair.’

O’Keefe nods, thinking just how much one’s profession colours one’s view of the world. In this way, coppers are the same as whores and their madams. Having seen so many times the worst the world can offer, they end up expecting it. First order of faith: everyone lies, trust no one. Second order: corruption is the rule, not the exception. Everyone, in their own way, is compromised. And yet how limiting a world view, O’Keefe thinks, feeling suddenly sorry for this woman. Feeling sorry for his father. For himself.

‘When did he finish in the school?’ he asks.

‘Just before summer break—they asked him to leave. Very Christian of them too, it was. Jesus in heaven, I’d give an eye to know who played the Turk and told the Fathers. I’d have my Albert on him in a sweet minute, Mr O’Keefe, you can be sure of that.’

Again the anger, and with it, the recourse to Monto justice. He wonders who Albert is and remembers, vaguely, the name but not where or when he has heard it. He imagines the man to be Ginny Dolan’s muscle. Every brothel-keeper has one or two, usually a husband or brother but just as often a disgraced policeman or demobbed soldier.

‘And Nicholas gave you no indication of where he might have been going when he left to join the Irregulars?’

‘No, none at all. Dolores saw him leave. I asked her and she was none the wiser.’

‘And friends? Who are his friends, Mrs Dolan?’

‘You can get all of that kind of thing from Albert. He knows all this as well as I do.’

O’Keefe nods, assuming he will meet this Albert sooner or later. He thinks of a final question. One that may be painful for the woman to consider.

‘And what should I do, Mrs Dolan, if the boy refuses to come with me if I find him?’

When you find him.’

‘I’ll try my best, Mrs Dolan, but the war … will make it difficult. The Free State Army is having trouble enough hunting down the Irregulars as it is. And even if …’ he seeks to appease the woman but knows his odds are poor, ‘…when I find him, he might want to stay with his comrades. All the ideas, the uniforms, the guns … everything. It can be intoxicating to young lads. Fighting, scouting. Even running messages or splashing slogans onto walls.’

‘You speak from experience, Mr O’Keefe?’

‘I do,’ he says, and does not tell her how quickly the camaraderie, the excitement, the sense of purpose could pall when you saw the life gouting out of men you knew and loved. All the pretty ideas, the craic and stories and barrack-room laughs—none of it worth a half-pint of a friend’s—a brother’s—blood. But still, men stayed and fought and died, even long after they had come to know better. He had himself. Because the flipside of bravery and camaraderie, every soldier knows, is cowardice and shame. Feared worse than death by most boys, most men.

‘I just wonder,’ O’Keefe continues, ‘if you’re prepared for the possibility that he might not want to come home.’

Ginny Dolan stares at him again for a long moment and O’Keefe fears he has angered her.

‘I’m not as simple a woman as you might think, Mr O’Keefe. He may not come home for you, or even Albert …’

Again, O’Keefe wonders what role Albert plays in the household. The boy’s father? Ginny’s husband? There is no man in any of the photographs in the hallway or parlour.

‘…but I need him found, and when you do find him, I’ll decide what will be done.’

O’Keefe stands to leave, to start his search. Ginny Dolan rises with him in a rustle of silk and O’Keefe smells a faint scent of perfume—sickly sweet, corrupting—and unexpected fear judders through his senses.

‘You might start by asking around Talbot Street,’ she says, leading him to the front door. ‘I know he was selling the anti-Treaty papers there some months back, before they shelled the Four Courts. The Nationalist. Some of the vendors there might know where he is. Of course, I had my Albert ask round, and didn’t they tell him where to go with his questions? Not one bit afraid, they weren’t, not even of my Albert. But you’ve more experience of asking questions. Albert, you see, he’s not accustomed to asking for things. Not more than once, anyway.’

‘Why would they be afraid of your Albert, Mrs Dolan?’

At this, the woman smiles. ‘You’ve never met him, have you?’

‘No, ma’m, I haven’t.’

‘Probably for the better, that, if you’re to get along with him.’

‘Get along with him?’

‘Of course. You’ll be working with him.’

O’Keefe frowns. ‘I prefer to work on my own, Mrs Dolan.’

‘I’m afraid,’ she says, ‘that you do not have a choice in this. You will be paid handsomely for your work, but my Albert will accompany you.’ There is a steely menace in her voice, and behind her words O’Keefe senses the heavy price of the debt owed to this woman. Again he resists the urge to ask her what his father had done to incur it.

‘I’ll need to see Nicholas’ room, Mrs Dolan, if I could.’

‘Of course, upstairs, on the left.’

It takes O’Keefe less than ten minutes to search the room. He finds no diary or letters, though he sifts through the pages of countless adventure novels, war novels, cowboy books. There is a film poster for one of Valentino’s recent flicks, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which O’Keefe has seen several times. Next to this is a yellowing poster copy of the 1916 Proclamation, and beside this a lithograph of the martyrs of 1916. It reminds O’Keefe of a soccer team’s photo, a brief biography of each player—martyr—below each oval portrait. A scuffed, deflated football lies in a corner of the room. A desk piled high with school texts. Childhood toys and a stuffed bear on shelves in the closet, nothing in the pockets of any of the clothes hanging within. Nothing, all told, to give him any indication where the boy might be. He returns downstairs to where Ginny Dolan is waiting at the front door.

‘Take this,’ she says, the threat gone from her voice. She hands him a roll of pound notes and a recent photograph of her son—strikingly handsome, in his school jacket and tie, early teens with brown hair combed off his forehead, an open face, a boy on the edge of becoming a young man. O’Keefe senses something familiar about the lad, but decides it is the Xavier school jacket and tie. He and Peter had worn the same ones in their own school days.

‘A handsome boy,’ he says, attempting to hand her back the banknotes. ‘I’ve no need for money, Mrs Dolan. I can manage.’

‘Take it.’ She closes his outstretched hand around the money. ‘God only knows who you’ll need to grease to find him.’

O’Keefe reluctantly puts the roll into his pocket, resolving to return it unspent, whatever the outcome of his investigations.

‘You’ll find Albert at the John of God’s Boxing Club on Gardiner Street. He’s expecting you,’ Ginny Dolan says, holding her front door open for him to leave. ‘And Mr O’Keefe … You won’t disappoint me, will you not?’


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Next: Chapter 10