Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 11
Next: Chapter 13

12

They make their way up Sackville Street—called O’Connell Street by Dubliners for many years—Just Albert worrying the multitude of coins in his pockets as he walks, O’Keefe taking in the shattered and burnt-out buildings that line what had once been one of the finer, more fashionable streets in the Empire.

This is not the first time O’Keefe has been on the street since the civil war started with the shelling of the Four Courts on the quays in late June and the fighting that spilled over onto O’Connell Street, but each time he walks it he experiences a sense of sadness and wonder. This is a street he’d walked since he was a boy, first with his hand tucked into his mother’s or father’s hand, strolling, window-shopping and watching Irish regiments of the British Army parade for the public on their return from foreign wars, eating fried bread with sugar, and Italian ices. Later, he had walked it on his way to school with his friends.

And now, along with the GPO, which is shrouded with scaffolding and only partially rebuilt, a number of hotels and grand stores on the street are charred shells—though Clerys, he notices, has reopened its ground floor. The street still functions in a makeshift, commercial way, but it is roughly patched and annexed, as if no owner wants to chance rebuilding until he is certain it won’t be destroyed again.

He is surprised to find himself thinking of how his own city has become like the villages he had seen in Turkey. His Dublin, a town bludgeoned, scorched by war. O’Keefe still can’t help but feeling that war is something that is supposed to happen elsewhere. He remembers again the returned Irish regiments parading when he was a boy in their splendid blue, red and green rigs. All of them back, he supposes now, from razing someone else’s city, village, home. Even having fought in the Tan War—or at least having policed it—here in Ireland, in Cork albeit, he has difficulty believing the devastation that has visited his native city. Cork itself had been almost burned to the ground by raging Black and Tans and Auxiliaries and, unforgivable though that had been, O’Keefe had understood it. Cork was just another distant place to the men who had burned it. Another Ypres, Mons or Marne. Most of the damage here, on the streets of Dublin, had been done by Irishmen to their own capital city. He shakes his head sadly.

As if reading his thoughts, Albert says, ‘Not even finished sweeping up the mess from the Rising and they go and try and blow the rest of it to smithereens.’

‘They made a fair job of it,’ O’Keefe says.

‘Or a shite one.’

‘How do you mean?’

Albert relights his cigar and hands a few coppers to a young girl in rags who has approached them from a side street. He smiles absently at her gratitude. ‘Shite job because they were only trying to clear a few of the anti-Treaty lads out of them buildings. Same as in 1916. Those men of genius we once answered to—the Crown-bleedin’-forces—floated a battleship down the Liffey to chuck shells on a few loonies holed up in a poxy post office. I did be thinking the whole time they’d land one of them big shells on Mrs Dolan’s gaff and we’d all be for it. ’Course, Mrs Dolan’s a cool one. She said at the time that there was no chance sailors would ever shell a knocking shop, not even by accident.’

‘True enough.’

Encouraged, Ginny Dolan’s man continues. ‘I mean, you’re a man of the world, Mr O’Keefe, you tell me. How hard can it be to run a few buckos out of a building without blowing the jaysus thing up?’

O’Keefe looks at Just Albert in an effort to see if he is being sarcastic, and realises that he can’t tell. He has a flashing memory of the village of Sedd El-Bahr, overlooking the beach on which he had landed in Gallipoli. There had been no artillery then, for the men who’d made it off the beach and through the Turkish guns and wire, up into the village. No. They had been forced to roust every sniper, from every house, with grenades, rifles and bayonets. He shudders at the memory and says, ‘Hard is what it can be. Bloody hard and just plain bloody.’

Albert jingles the apparently endless supply of coins in his pockets. ‘I don’t know, Mr O’Keefe. When I tell fellas to shift, they fuckin’ well shift.’

O’Keefe can smell the char from the destroyed buildings, and his wonder at the destruction of his city is overshadowed by the wonder he feels at having been landed with Mrs Dolan’s doorman. He decides not to argue with the man. Decides it just isn’t worth the breath. ‘Well, that’s just you, Just Albert. That’s you all over.’

The doorman puffs his cigar and nods, as if O’Keefe has agreed with his line of argument. ‘Right you are, Mr O’Keefe. Right you are.’

Turning right off O’Connell Street onto Parnell Street, they take a left onto North Great George’s Street and arrive in front of Francis Xavier College where Nicholas Dolan had studied until he had been dismissed. The redbrick school runs a quarter length of the street, and O’Keefe sees now that some of its lower windows are boarded up. O’Keefe had imagined that the school would have been far enough away from O’Connell Street and the fighting to avoid damage, but perhaps not. Or perhaps the boarded windows were just a precaution against any further combat in the area.

In a way, the facts of the boy’s expulsion, as relayed by Ginny Dolan, puzzle O’Keefe. He had attended this school, and he feels a wave of nostalgia wash over him just standing at its doors once again after so many years. He is surprised because he had thought that the Jesuits who run the school would be more understanding—more forgiving. Of course the Jesuits had always catered to the sons of the wealthy Catholics of the country—O’Keefe’s own father had stretched his Sergeant’s salary to pay the fees for himself and his brother—but they had always stressed to their charges a duty to the poor that the good fortune of their birth made obligatory. The men who had taught O’Keefe, not counting the odd lunatic, had been largely a forgiving and worldly cohort.

Nor were they snobs when it came to the backgrounds of the boys they taught. Scholarships were offered to bright boys from all walks of life. O’Keefe himself had never felt a lesser light than the barristers’ or bankers’ sons, or a brighter light than the scholarship boys, because he was the son of a policeman. But maybe things had changed.

He turns to Albert. ‘Look, I think it might be better …’

‘No, it wouldn’t,’ the doorman says, dropping his cigar butt to the footpath and grinding it out with a shiny leather brogue.

‘Wouldn’t what? You don’t even know what I was going to say.’

‘I do, and it wouldn’t. I’m to go with you, give you a hand when it’s called for, mind I don’t interfere, but stay with you all the same. You might think it’s better I don’t come in with you round all the holy fathers, but Mrs Dolan does think different.’

Anger again flares in O’Keefe. It has been a long time since he has been so freely contradicted by a sober or unarmed man. Since before he became a police constable, perhaps, and he realises that there is a great deal he will have to learn about life as a civilian. Still, Ginny Dolan’s man is pushing him hard.

‘Well, Mrs Dolan’s not here and I’m telling you you’re not helping me by running under my feet like some butcher’s dog.’

‘Well, I’m sorry to say, Mr O’Keefe, that I don’t give a fuck what you’re after telling me.’

O’Keefe takes a step forward now, jutting his chin, looming over Ginny Dolan’s man.

Just Albert stands his ground, cocks his head to the side and squints through one eye. He is smiling. ‘You’d want to mind yourself now. You’d be no good to Nicky or Mrs Dolan if I was to break you up here on the street, Mr O’Keefe.’

‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who in the name of fuck do you think …?’

‘Saying our prayers, are we?’

Albert steps back and touches the brim of his bowler. ‘Hello, Father.’

O’Keefe spins around, feeling for a sudden moment like a schoolboy again.

‘Father O’Dea? I …’ The priest has aged, certainly, but has the same shock of rough, white hair and kindly, ruddy, farmer’s face that O’Keefe remembers from his time in the school.

‘Seán O’Keefe.’ The priest smiles at O’Keefe’s amazement.

‘Yes, Father, how did you …?’

‘You haven’t changed really. I saw you from a short distance and remembered. Took me a wee second and then I had it.’ He reaches out a hand and O’Keefe takes it. ‘Hardly changed a bit but for the brush under your nose and the ding on your face there. I’d heard you’d gone off to fight. Heard about the brother as well, God rest him. I was sorry to hear it, Seán, so I was. He was a good lad, your brother.’

O’Keefe nods, his shock at having been recognised by the priest after more than twelve years turning to respect. Father O’Dea was a man who had kept tabs on the students he had taught for years after they had left his charge because he was a man who cared about what became of them. This had always been his way, and O’Keefe remembers again why he had liked the man so much when he had been a student.

‘You’re still teaching, Father?’

‘No such luck, young Seán. They’ve gone and made me headmaster for my sins. And your friend?’

O’Keefe snaps out of his reverie. ‘I’m sorry, Father. My …’ he hesitates to say it and then does, ‘… my colleague Albert. Albert, Father O’Dea. The Father taught me Latin and Composition when I went to school here. For all the good it did me.’ He smiles and the priest smiles back.

‘It did you a world of good if you understand anything of the world, Seán. Pleased to meet you, Albert.’ The Jesuit extends his hand and Albert takes it, though grudgingly it appears to O’Keefe. ‘Albert …?’ The priest attempts, as if a surname would place the man better. Father O’Dea had always possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of Dublin’s northside, O’Keefe remembers, and taken delight in making connections between people if he didn’t know them outright.

‘Just Albert’s grand, Father. No disrespect.’

‘None taken. And you’re from the area, Albert?’

‘From the Kips, Father, again, no disrespect.’

But O’Keefe hears something in Just Albert’s voice that runs against his words.

‘I’ve many friends there,’ the priest says, leaving Albert waiting for the judgement he had been expecting. ‘Perhaps in the future I can count you another?’

Anxious to avoid a confrontation, O’Keefe says, ‘Father, if it’s no trouble to you, could we speak with you inside? I’ve been employed by a Mrs Ginny Dolan …’ he waits for the priest to acknowledge that he knows of the woman ‘… to find her
son Nicholas. The boy has gone missing and Albert and myself have …’

‘… Albert and I,’ the priest says, smiling.

O’Keefe smiles despite himself. ‘We were hoping to ask you a few questions, Father. I don’t even know why, really, only that it seemed a good place to start. His school … former school.’

‘Certainly, please come in.’

 

Father O’Dea’s office is all oak panelling, a large mahogany desk under a crucifix braced by paintings of St Francis Xavier and
St Ignatius Loyola; the mingled scents of floor wax, pipe
tobacco and incense. O’Keefe and Albert take chairs in front of the headmaster’s desk, feeling like truants on the brink of chastisement.

‘Tea, gentlemen? Or a drop of something stronger?’

Something stronger. O’Keefe would gladly die for a sup of the priest’s whiskey. He decides to abstain, and is about to tell the priest that they would take tea if it was going when Just Albert intervenes. ‘Nothing for us, Father. We need get down to business so we can find Nicholas.’

The man is now answering for the two of us, O’Keefe thinks, holding on to his anger in front of Father O’Dea. He will have it out with his ‘colleague’ when they leave. Until then he will direct the questioning, if they are to get anything useful to go on.

‘Father,’ he says, before the doorman can begin, ‘if you don’t mind my asking, do you remember Nicholas Dolan? He was expelled some time before the summer.’

‘I do remember him, of course.’

‘And can you tell me why Nicholas was actually asked to leave the college? By all accounts—well, by his mother’s account—he was a bright boy and a fine student.’

‘Oh, he was,’ the priest says. ‘He was a kind and clever lad. Always sticking up for the younger boys or the victims of bullies. He was a good boy who fell in with … with certain men both inside the school and out. Idealists, Seán. The kind of ideas that appeal to boys of a passionate nature.’

Just Albert shifts in his chair, and O’Keefe senses he has taken offence; that perhaps he feels the priest is implying that the boy was not supervised properly and, by implication, that streets of Monto were no place for a lad to be reared.

‘So he was expelled before the summer holidays then,’ O’Keefe prompts before Albert can give voice to any objections.

The headmaster takes time packing his pipe and lighting it. ‘Late June, yes. I can check the date. But surely the lad hasn’t been missing since then?’

‘No, he’s only been missing for the past month or so. And his mother knows of his involvement with the men you describe. The anti-Treatyites, the Irregulars. What I’m trying to get at is whether his dismissal might have led to his joining them. I mean …’ O’Keefe wonders where to go next. He thinks it may have been a worthless venture coming here. What can the priest tell him, really, about the boy’s whereabouts?

‘It was quite the reverse, Seán.’

O’Keefe frowns. ‘Pardon me, Father?’

‘His dismissal. His dismissal was a result of his being a member of the anti-Treaty faction, a follower of Mellowes and O’Connor, that lot. A week, two weeks before the shooting started at the Four Courts, Nicholas was dismissed for bringing a pistol to school.’

‘A what?’ Just Albert says, leaning forward. ‘I thought he was given the boot for … for how Missus Dolan makes a crust.’

Father O’Dea smiles and shakes his head. ‘Is that what he told you?’

Just Albert nods, averting his eyes, as if embarrassed.

‘I’m disappointed in the boy, but I can understand it,’ the priest says. ‘And is this the impression you were given as well, Seán?’

O’Keefe nods.

‘Would you think such of us here, Seán?’

‘No, Father, but I had no way of knowing. Things have changed in the country, Father. Things, people, are different.’

Father O’Dea puffs on his pipe. ‘I don’t think people are any different. They’re not, in fact. Good people are good people and most people try to be good and oftentimes fail, but they’re no different now. We’ve not changed much, I shouldn’t think. Times, however, are different. What people think of as good has taken a strange road altogether. No doubt Nicholas thought that what he was doing was good, in its way. For the good of the country. For a free and independent Ireland. You hear that often, these days, to justify just about anything you care to mention.’

‘I’ve heard it and seen it, Father,’ O’Keefe says, vaguely ashamed that he had believed Mrs Dolan’s version of events without question.

The priest continues: ‘Nicholas was dismissed because he pointed a loaded weapon at a master and was leading a good number of other boys into actions that were disruptive to the functioning of this school, at best, and dangerous at worst. His mother’s trade is of no concern to me.’ His voice softens now. ‘I was heartbroken to have to dismiss the boy, but I would have been negligent in my duties if I hadn’t.’

‘A loaded gun?’ Just Albert says. ‘Why? What in the name of Christ—begging your pardon, Father—was the lad doing with a loaded gun?’

‘And why did he point it at one of the masters?’ O’Keefe asks.

‘You have to remember that the Irregulars were holding the Four Courts at the time. They were in need of weaponry and ammunition and had to get it into the Four Courts in some way. Nicholas told me that the gun was a sample from a shipment held by men on the docks. Men who had been smuggling arms for the IRA since the Tan War. These men had given him the gun to bring to one of our masters here, to see if the republicans would care to buy the whole shipment. It was a sample of merchandise, so to speak.’

‘And was this the master he pointed it at?’ O’Keefe says.

‘No. The man he had brought it in for was absent that day, indeed, he never returned to the college, and he brought more than a few Xavier boys with him when he left to join his comrades in the Four Courts. No, it was another master who had railed against the anti-Treatyites as traitors to the nation. As simple as that. Nicholas had the gun with him and could not help himself. Young boys are zealous creatures, gentlemen, as you both know.’

‘And young boys make mistakes, Father,’ O’Keefe says.

‘They do. And I considered keeping him in school. I did.’

‘Then why didn’t you?’ Just Albert asks.

‘Because there were more than just Nicholas involved. The boys in the school, many of them, have … involved themselves politically. Boys are like that. And Nicholas was very influential. He was a leader of sorts. Even some of the older boys followed him. In the end, I asked himself and four others to go. I felt I had no choice in the matter. There were fistfights at break, in the hallways, over the national question. Class boycotts of teachers who supported the Treaty. Masters afraid to teach their classes for fear of saying the wrong thing and being threatened. It’s not finished by any means, but the more radical actions have ceased. I’ll say it again: it pained me to have to ask him to leave, of all the boys. But I felt it was for the safety of the other pupils, and indeed teachers here, that I had to do it. He sat in that very chair, Seán, and begged me not to. And then told me that he would do what he had done all over again, for the future of Ireland. An independent republic. I had high hopes for the boy. I’ve no doubt he’ll go on to grand things, but this school cannot abide a boy who is a danger to it. If you want my opinion, Seán, the boy most likely joined O’Hanley and the other lads from the school.’

‘Felim O’Hanley?’

‘The very man. He was a fine master—one of our few lay teachers. An inspirational man when he wasn’t away fighting, and the boys loved him. Loved him and his ideas. If I had known the trouble he would bring to the school, I would never have hired him, but he’d been a great friend to Patrick Pearse, had taught with the man, and I thought he would be good for the school at the time. If only as a balance to the pro-Crown contingent on the staff.’

O’Keefe remembers that O’Dea had always been a republican of sorts—rare enough for a priest in an order that educated the sires of the establishment.

‘Jaysus,’ Just Albert says. ‘Sorry, Father, but jaysus, isn’t O’Hanley only the most wanted man in the whole of Dublin after trying to blow up all the bridges?’

‘He is.’

‘But how do we know then,’ O’Keefe says, ‘that Nicholas wasn’t lifted and interned after the attempt to blow the bridges into the city? Sure, weren’t half the lads involved caught and locked up?’

‘Or shot,’ Father O’Dea adds.

‘No, not that. He’s not been shot or we would have heard. Or locked up…’ There is worry in the doorman’s voice, the first notes of fear O’Keefe has heard from him.

O’Keefe gathers his thoughts. Albert stares at the painting of Loyola.

‘Is there any place you might suggest we look for the boy, Father?’ he says finally.

The priest is silent for a moment. ‘You might start with the man who gave him the gun.’

‘You know who gave it to him?’ Just Albert says.

‘I asked, and Nicholas told me. He was an open boy, naïve in some ways and worldly in others.’

‘He should have told me all this,’ the doorman says, ‘or Mrs Dolan. She would have forgiven him … anything, she would have. All of us would have. Will do … will forgive him.’

O’Keefe says, ‘The men who gave him the gun … they wouldn’t forgive him for telling you.’

‘No they wouldn’t, but they wouldn’t hear of it from me. And as far as I know, the men who needed it got the gun anyway.’

‘You mean he still had it when he left?’

‘I was hardly the one to take it from him. In the times that are in it, I wished no harm to come to the boy.’

‘You say some lad on the docks gave the gun to Nicky?’ Just Albert says. ‘Who was it then?’

‘A man by the name of Dominic Mahon.’

Just Albert sits back in his chair as if he’d been shoved. ‘Jaysus fuck,’ he says. ‘Domo Mahon.’ He does not ask the Father to forgive his language this time.

The priest turns to O’Keefe. ‘You’ve heard of him, Seán?’

O’Keefe nods. He has heard of the man and has heard of the family. Along with most of Dublin. ‘I can see how they might have had the guns, the Mahons. There’s not much of value that comes off a ship in this city that doesn’t pass through Mahon hands at some time or another.’

‘Sure, don’t they control the quays and every docker on them?’ Just Albert says. ‘What in God’s name was Nicky doing dealing with that mob, and me not knowing a thing about it?’ It is as if, O’Keefe thinks, he is blaming himself for the boy’s involvement with the Mahons.

The priest appears to sense this as well, and as if to humanise the Mahons says, ‘One of their boys attended here some years back. A bright boy.’

‘You’ll take anyone here, Father,’ Just Albert says.

Father O’Dea smiles and nods. ‘“Give us the boy at seven and we’ll give you back the man.” I wish Freddy Mahon had put his brains to better use, but there you are. You may tell him I said so if it doesn’t implicate the boy.’

‘So it’s a trip down the docks for us, then,’ O’Keefe says, rising from his chair. Albert stands with him.

‘Not exactly,’ Father O’Dea says.

‘How do you mean, Father?’

‘Dominic Mahon is interned in Gormanston Aerodrome, the last I heard. Himself and his many brothers and sons and one or two cousins I suspect.’

‘Why there and not Mountjoy or Kilmainham?’ O’Keefe says.

‘Because they have too much influence in the prisons in Dublin, I’d imagine, with the ordinary criminals and warders. And they are not up on any formal charges as such. Free State intelligence knows, however, that they have sold, will sell, what arms they can get their hands on to the highest bidder and have decided to remove them from the picture.’

‘Not unlike our former masters in the Crown would have done…’ O’Keefe says.

Father O’Dea smiles. ‘They’re fast learners in the art of government, the Free Staters.’

‘Where do you get all this … information, Father,’ Just Albert says, ‘if you don’t mind me asking?’

‘We’ve more than one old boy who served in the IRA who is now in the Free State Army. Some visit, from time to time.’

‘And old boys in the Irregulars as well, Father?’ O’Keefe asks.

‘Certainly. And then there are those like yourself and your friend Albert.’

‘How so?’

‘Serving the people themselves. People who have been harmed by the fighting of these past six years. People who have lost themselves and need to be found.’

Albert turns and opens the door. ‘I serve Mrs Dolan and her only. Mr O’Keefe can serve dinner for all I care, once we find the boy.’ He is ready to leave, a coiled tension in his muscled shoulders.

‘I don’t imagine a fella can just turn up at the gates of Gormanston and ask to visit whoever he likes,’ O’Keefe says.

Whomever,’ the priest says, rising and extending a hand to O’Keefe.

Again O’Keefe smiles. Memories of innocent times, when grammar mattered more than bullet calibre or proclamations of intent.

Just Albert is impatient, tapping his bowler hat against his thigh in the doorway.

‘No, I don’t imagine one can, but there’s a Xavier man, a commandant in the Free State Army—he was a senior warder in Mountjoy who helped the IRA from inside during the Tan War—who’s in charge out at the camp. Another old boy … of sorts. He’ll ensure entry for you there if I ask him.’

‘That’d be grand, Father. And thank you for your help today.’

‘I’ll give him a jingle, and if that fails, send a message, and tell him to expect the two of you, then?’ Father O’Dea says, guiding O’Keefe to the door.

Just Albert answers. ‘You do that, Father. The two of us. Until we find the boy, that’s how it goes.’

O’Keefe shoots Albert a dark look. ‘The sooner we find him the better.’

‘I’ll pray that you do, gentlemen. And I’ll pray for the boy. And yourselves.’

‘God helps the man who helps himself is how I see it, Father,’ Just Albert says, giving the priest’s hand a cursory grasp before turning and marching down the waxed parquet floor to the front door.

‘I’m sorry for that … for him, Father. I’ve been landed with him. The woman who’s employed me has insisted …’

‘Mrs Dolan is an astute woman, Seán. I dare say she knew what she was doing, lending you Albert’s services.’

O’Keefe is sceptical, but smiles all the same at his former teacher. ‘I’d manage better on my own, I think.’

‘Times have changed, Seán. You might find yourself more in need of the man than you’d imagine.’

‘Please God, I won’t.’ He returns his trilby to his head and shakes the old Jesuit’s hand.

 

On the footpath outside the school, the early evening sun has descended behind the buildings, casting the street in shade. O’Keefe stops and pats his jacket for a cigarette. Finding he has none, he thinks to ask Ginny Dolan’s man for one of his cigars and then decides against it.

‘Right,’ Just Albert says, ‘we’ll pay your man a visit, so.’

O’Keefe is tired suddenly, his legs hollow, weak as if the day has chased him. He tries to remember when he had last eaten, and realises it was breakfast at his parents’ house. Until this morning he had been an invalid. His own fault, he thinks, but he is paying for it now. The scar on his face begins to spasm, a sign that he needs to regather his strength, requires rest and food.

‘Father O’Dea said he’d tell the fella to expect us tomorrow,’ he says.

‘We can make a start of it now.’

‘We? Make a start of what, Albert? For fuck sake … We …’ Exasperation melds with the tiredness O’Keefe feels, making him irritable and angry. This doorman is worse than some of the officers he had worked under in the RIC and the Army. Obstinate to the point of stupidity.

Puffing one of his thin cigars, Just Albert says, ‘Yeah, we. If the Padre’s man is not able, we could grease one of the guards and see the Mahons tonight.’

‘Right, and end up walking around a camp full of angry fucking rebels and young Free State Army eejits armed to the teeth in the watchtowers, and all so we can meet one of the dodgiest mobs that ever walked the quays of Dublin. In the dark, mind.’

‘You’re not afraid of the dark, Mr O’Keefe, are you?’

O’Keefe remembers Father O’Dea’s advice, but can’t think of a single way this man’s help might be worth the sheer frustration he embodies. He turns and begins walking towards Parnell Street and the tram stop at the monument. He does it before there is violence between them. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Just Albert. Ten a.m., I’ll collect you at Mrs Dolan’s shop. I’m for me tea and me bed.’

‘You’ll not find Nicholas from your bed.’

‘And I won’t find him at all unless I’m fit to do it. Tomorrow!’ he calls out over his shoulder as he turns the corner, leaving Ginny Dolan’s man behind.

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