The Criminal Investigation Department offices in Oriel House, on Westland Row, may be spoken of in whispers by the people of Dublin, but they are offices like others in many respects, and Nora Flynn is officially employed by the CID as a ‘typist,’ as are the two other women on the staff. Her title is a cloak for her actual work, but she does, in fact, spend many of her days typing, filing and drafting intelligence reports. It is not unlike the work she had done in Dublin Castle as a typist and file girl for Crown intelligence, and later—from her position within the walls of the Castle—for the IRA.
As is common, Nora spends the afternoon at her desk, typing up intelligence reports and cross-referencing the files of anti-Treaty gunmen. She will resume her duties at the hotel desk the next day, in the morning, a rare day shift for which she is thankful.
‘There’s Nora,’ a detective officer named Finnerty says, passing her desk in shirt sleeves and no tie, a Smith and Wesson .38 Long Special revolver in a shoulder-holster that is a notch too small for his portly frame.
She looks up from her typing. ‘Here’s me.’
The detective stops some feet away and turns back. ‘You wouldn’t know where the O’Malley files are hidden, Nora, would you?’ He smiles and scratches the back of his neck, revealing a yellow bolt of dried sweat under his arm. Or perhaps it is staining from the leather of the shoulder holster, Nora thinks. Hopes.
‘Have you tried looking under “O”?’
His smile fades. ‘No, no, I suppose I didn’t,’ he says, shifting his weight from foot to foot, lingering. ‘I … umm, you wouldn’t mind if I dropped my surveillance diary down for you to knock out later …?’
Nora stares at him until his face flushes, as she had known would happen. Her colleagues in CID are hard men; men who had been gunmen in the Tan War. Killers and soldiers. But for all this, many of them had been no more than boys when they started fighting, some of them barely finishing school before joining the Volunteers, and their knowledge of women extends little beyond their mothers or sisters or some idealised sweetheart.
They are not all like this. Some are as bold and knowing as the English secret service or army intelligence officers who had propositioned her on an almost daily basis when she had worked in the Castle. But, to many, Nora’s presence in the CID offices, in meetings or on jobs, is unsettling, a woman’s place being rightfully at the cooker, the washboard, or waiting patiently for a late-arriving beau under Clerys’ clock. If any of them knew—she sometimes thinks with a perverse kind of pride she regrets as soon as she becomes aware of it—how many dead Crown spies were on her conscience or how many men in this very office were still above ground rather than below it because of the work she had done for Michael Collins’ boys, Broy and Nelligan, inside the Castle, they would soon stop asking her to type their reports. She returns to her typing without bothering to answer the man, slamming the carriage back as she reaches the end of a line.
‘Ah sure, look …’ Finnerty says, backing away from her desk, ‘… It’s grand. I’ll bang them out myself. No bother.’
Another typist—a former Cumann na mBan girl called Mary Whyte, who resents Nora’s involvement in the Burton’s Hotel surveillance—looks over at her and purses her lips, averting her eyes when Nora looks up. Nora knows what she is thinking: that Nora is some sort of Trucileer—a fair-weather patriot who, like many men and some women, joined the Free State cause only after the fighting with the English had ceased. Mary Whyte and the two other ‘typists’ had actively served in the women’s auxiliary of the IRA during the Tan War, smuggling weapons under their skirts, delivering messages or tending the wounded. But Nora in turn cannot get over her prejudice that while she was risking her freedom—her life—as a double agent in the Castle, the likes of Mary Whyte and the other Cumann na mBan girls were busy baking bread and ironing shirts for the gunmen. And Nora knows that the Cumann na mBan girl will go later and ask Finnerty if he needs his report typed, her female colleague balancing her resentment of Nora with an ingratiating helpfulness towards the men in the office.
Nora would like a friend, a comrade in the CID—the other woman ‘typist’ is friendly in a reserved way—but Mary Whyte will never be that friend. Despite her envy of Nora’s role in the Burton’s Hotel surveillance, Nora thinks the woman would be more than happy to type the detective officers’ reports all day, from the safety of the office.
Whipping the paper from the typewriter, Nora adds it to the file folder on the desk before shrouding the machine with its canvas cover and standing. ‘I’m off,’ she says to Mary Whyte, who does not look up or respond.
Nora shakes her head and pulls on her coat. Have a lovely evening! And you too, Nora! She descends the stairs to the building’s basement, praying there is no one being held, and is relieved to find the interrogation rooms dark and silent.
The basement cells of Oriel House are what the people of Dublin fear most, Nora knows, with their blood-spattered walls and bolted-down chairs. Not really like other offices at all, she thinks, passing these rooms quickly, making for the steel door at the end of the short basement hallway. Through this and into the adjoining basement of the neighbouring building, which houses a travel agency, commercial bank and solicitors’ offices. She will exit to the streets from this building, as if she were just another typist on her way home from just another job.
Home, though she does not think of it as such. A one-bedroom, kitchen and bathroom on the ground floor of a large house in Ballsbridge. A place to eat and sleep and bathe. A place no guest—not even her parents or siblings—has entered. No man, certainly. Are you joking?
Before turning the key, Nora runs her fingers along the edge of the door, finding the blade of grass she has wedged there when she’d left that morning. It is one of the tricks of her new trade, and has become habit.
Letting herself into the dark flat, she wonders, as she often does, on the turns her life has taken. From secretarial college to common typist girl, happily living at home, to this—fixing blades of grass between her door and jamb each day so that she will know if her flat has been entered, if an enemy is waiting there in the dark with a gun and a pillow. Instinctively, she feels in her handbag for the short-barrel Webley revolver she carries. She finds it a comforting weight.
Lights on, bag down, she realises that she is hungry and thinks of the cold ham in the ice chest. There is stale bread in the press. A hunk of mouldy cheddar. No. A bottle of lager beer? Her brother brings her a case of the German beer at her request every Monday, leaving it outside her door, and often it is gone by Friday—her brother who has never once seen the inside of this flat. Thinking this, Nora feels a sharp pang of guilt, but she finds a bottle opener, opens the beer and relishes its hoppy sourness. No whiskey tonight, she thinks, studiously avoiding the cupboard containing the bottle of Jameson. She pays a dosser who loiters outside the gates into Merrion Square to buy it for her in McSorley’s pub, and often it too is gone by Friday. Nora smiles wearily and takes another sup straight from the bottle of beer.
She had never considered herself to be a republican. She had become one eventually—or the Free State, pro-Treaty version of a republican, if such were even possible—but reluctantly, only after she had begun passing information to Ned Broy, DMP detective and one of the IRA’s men inside the Castle, who would in turn pass her information on to Michael Collins and the volunteers who would use it against her employers in Crown intelligence. Two years ago. It seems a lifetime. A reluctant rebel now working for the most feared unit in the entire country. A ‘typist’ spy.
A paper killer.
Nora had always been a good girl. Decent and kind and perhaps a bit spoiled. The daughter of an accountant father and piano teacher mother, she had finished her schooling in the Loreto convent on Stephen’s Green at sixteen and entered the typist pool in the Dublin Corporation offices after attending secretarial college. Her older sisters had found fine husbands and Nora, it was assumed, would do the same after some years of light work.
She could be opinionated, as the nuns had noted in their reports—Nora has come to think of them now as intelligence reports when she allows herself to think of her past—but had been generally obedient and well-liked by the nuns and her classmates. A bright, mild-mannered girl who reflected her social class and rearing.
From Dublin Corporation to Dublin Castle after reading an advertisement in The Irish Times for skilled typists and filers. The pay had been better, and there was something the slightest bit thrilling about the idea of working behind the great walls of the Castle among the men in uniform and government. Three happy years there, in the Lord Lieutenant’s offices, before the Tan War ignited in 1919 and she was transferred to the offices of the Chief of Combined Intelligence Services in Ireland as an epitomiser—a glorified reference librarian for the various networks of Crown spies in Ireland. Typing, filing and compiling like any other secretary in the country, except that it was intelligence reports and dossiers on IRA men she filed for the people whom many—including her own brothers—considered to be the enemy of the people of Ireland. She typed and filed and lunched in the Castle canteens or on benches on the parade ground with other girls from the typing pool. And in the evenings she went to dances with officers and intelligence men; even the odd RIC constable, up from the country on prison escorts or protection details. It had been a good life. The benighted contentment of a young, modern city girl.
She had enjoyed the work at first. From the cold, bureaucratic distance of the Castle ‘I Division’ offices, she did a thorough and efficient job of absorbing intelligence from disparate sources, surprising herself with her ability to remember aliases and names gleaned from various reports and documentation. She proved equally adept at scouring old photographs collected in raids of suspects’ houses and matching them to custody photographs to prove identity. This ability was noted by her superiors, and soon she was asked to work on specific cases, assigned by agents of the secret service, British Army intelligence and RIC Crimes Special Branch to consolidate, or epitomise as it was called in I-Division, information on men requiring ‘urgent attention’ from their services.
Nora slumps into the single, hard-backed chair at the table, the table’s surface bare but for a half-full ashtray bristling with dog-ends. She laughs through her nose and takes out a Murad Turkish from her handbag. The Crown had been masters of euphemism. How naïve she had been. ‘Urgent Attention’ when what they meant was murder.
And now, she thinks, lighting her cigarette, the Free State Army and Dáil are becoming as bad as their past masters. The anti-Treatyites, no longer to be called Republicans in the newspapers, by order of the Free State Director of Communications, but instead, ‘Irregulars’ or ‘rebels’. No longer will the Irregulars ‘attack’ or ‘commandeer’ or ‘arrest’ but now ‘fire at’ or ‘loot’ or ‘kidnap’ like common criminals. Her colleagues in the CID ‘attend’ to their targets. Nobody says ‘kill.’ ‘Shoot.’ ‘Dispatch.’ But this is what she had abetted in the Castle, and it is what she does now: picks targets and sources routes for the shooters. Puts names to faces. A pointer bitch, she thinks. A gundog in her second war now. A proper veteran spook. Like some of the Crown men she had worked for and then, later, fingered for Ned Broy and the IRA.
It had taken Nora some time to discover this, however. During most of her time working in the Castle she had agreed with the newspapers who branded the IRA as corner boys and common murderers, and viewed her work as helping to restore order to the country. It would be some time before she came to see her Crown masters as every bit as murderous as the men of the IRA.
Slowly, as the weeks and war rolled on, it dawned that there were real, flesh and blood men at the end of the information she had helped compile, and that these men—weeks, months or sometimes only days after she had delivered the files, tidy, chronological and clipped together just so—were ending up dead, their files returned to ‘I’ Division, ‘Deceased’ stamped in bright red letters on the covers. And she came to realise that somewhere in Ireland, outside the cold stone walls of the Castle, the dossiers she compiled had bullets attached to them.
Slow dawning, until one day came a request from an Auxiliary captain out of the Beggar’s Bush barracks for anything they had on a gunman by the name of Owen Hannigan.
When she allows herself now, she remembers how she had smiled at the officer, standing at her desk with his ridiculous Glengarry cap clutched in front of him, automatic pistols in holsters that hung down on his thighs, a handsome man in his thirties with eyes that made him look sad rather than savage, as the Auxies were usually portrayed in certain newspapers. She remembers how she told him that she recognised the name and would see what she could dig up on the man. A local, the Auxie had stressed. From the Ranelagh Road, word was, but they did not have much on him.
Nora could have told the agent the exact house without moving from her desk, but she smiled and told him she would have a gander at the files.
‘Good girl,’ the Auxie had said, smiling with his sad eyes.
Owen Hannigan. Not only a name and grainy photograph to Nora, but a face and a voice. She knew his mother and father well. She skipped lunch that day, and decided there was no way she could allow Owen Hannigan’s file to reach the Auxiliaries and be returned to her some future day stamped in bloody red letters.
Nora finishes her bottle of lager and thinks again of the Jameson. What harm a small drop? No. Not tonight.
When two years before she had told her brother’s friend, Denis Murphy of the Fourth Battalion, Dublin Brigade, IRA, to warn Owen Hannigan, she could hardly have imagined where her resolve would take her.
No mere typist and file girl now, in this new war, and in her loneliness she wonders whether she is able for her new role. Out of the ante-room and into the shadowed halls of the fray. Where men die in your arms and not only on paper. Where your part in a man’s death is questioned; where men like Dillon and O’Shea are still in the wind and only God knows what has happened to the messenger boys they had been following.
Nora has a dread feeling that things are unfinished. She decides she must be fresh for the days ahead. Uncertain days. She sets the beer bottle on the sink and, instead of the whiskey, chooses a bath, knowing she should eat but too tired to fix something.
She goes into the bathroom—an indoor toilet, hot-water tap and claw-footed tub being what had drawn her to the flat, along with its general anonymity—and runs the water. As she takes off her dress, hanging it on a hook on the back of the door, she thinks of her purse on the table and the gun inside it. In her underclothes, she dashes into the kitchen and retrieves her bag, bringing it with her into the bathroom and setting it on the floor beside the tub. Crime is rampant in the city and country, the civilian police unable to serve or protect the newly independent Irish amidst the anarchy of civil war. No sense leaving her bag on a table as an invitation to a housebreaker. Not with a Webley revolver in it. It would be a shame, she thinks, to have to shoot her first visitor.