Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 17
Next: Chapter 19

18

Shifting down, O’Keefe slows the Trusty to a halt. A Talbot Tourer motorcar is parked diagonally across the tram tracks in the middle of the road, with just enough space on either side for cars to squeeze past, some one hundred yards north of the gates to St Patrick’s Teacher Training College. Four men work the checkpoint, all of them in mufti-suits and trenchcoats despite the Indian summer morning’s warmth; sharp trilbys and polished black shoes. All are armed, O’Keefe knows, though he sees only one man holding a stubby rifle with a drum magazine. One of the new Thompson hand-held machine-guns, he realises, having read reports of the gun being shipped into Ireland by the IRA when he had still been in the RIC. One of the men, holding a clipboard with a sheaf of papers attached to it, shouts a question over his shoulder and O’Keefe turns and follows the man’s gaze to the reason for the checkpoint.

To O’Keefe’s left on the footpath, underneath one of the large oak trees that loom over this stretch of road, is a body. A dead man in canvas work trousers and scuffed brown boots is entangled in a bicycle, his legs asprawl through the frame as if the push-bike were a trap, head thrown back, eyes staring lifelessly up at the yellowing leaves, a thickening pool of blood on the footpath under the body. A flat cap lies some feet away. Blood on the white, collarless shirt. A fifth man, also in civilian clothes much like the ones worn by the dead man—rough woollen jacket, heavy boots and flat cap—is squatting and rummaging through the dead man’s pockets. O’Keefe watches as he stands, finding nothing, and wipes the blood from his hands on his trousers. He lights a cigarette, and even from fifteen feet away O’Keefe can see that his hands are shaking.

O’Keefe wonders if the cycling man was killed having tried to run the checkpoint, or if the checkpoint was mounted as a result of the killing. However it happened, he thinks, they should at least afford the dead man the dignity of covering his face, closing his eyes. No crowd gathers around the body, terrified no doubt by the men in the trilbys and trenchcoats. Instead, O’Keefe sees that people are crossing the road to pass on the far side.

He turns back to the checkpoint, idling the Trusty behind an ass cart driven by an elderly man. The men holding up traffic and questioning drivers are Free State men, O’Keefe reckons—army intelligence or special detectives from the new and much-feared Criminal Investigation Department recently established in Oriel House. They are too open about the killing and the checkpoint to be anything else. The Irregulars also man their own roadblocks, but rarely in Free State controlled areas, and even then rarely in daylight. And generally, Irregular checkpoints are set up with the intent to commandeer transport.

O’Keefe feels some comfort in knowing who is asking the questions. It allows him to formulate the correct answers.

The man with the Thompson gun waves a car through on the opposite side of the road now and points at O’Keefe to approach. He raises the machine-gun and brings it across his chest, finger resting on the trigger guard. It is not an aggressive move, but one of readiness, and O’Keefe recognises it for what it is. He has manned checkpoints in the past himself.

Despite this awareness, O’Keefe’s mouth is dry and his heartbeat begins to jog against his ribs. And with this, a dull sense of anger swells in his throat at these gunmen on the streets of his city. Yes, he thinks, he has always wanted an Ireland free from British rule—as long as no one had to die for it. And yes, these men are likely members of an army under the mandate of the new, democratically elected Free State government of Ireland. But still he cannot help but wonder what these very men had been up to a year ago. He wonders how many of his friends in the RIC these heavily armed and strutting peacocks had assassinated in the name of liberty.

O’Keefe knows that these men are fighting a war against their former comrades in the IRA—rebels, Irregulars—who oppose the Treaty guaranteeing Free State status to Ireland in exchange for the six counties in the north. The whole thing a mire of accusations, recriminations, as former comrades hurl lethal insult and increasingly heavy weaponry over the widening ideological divide.

The dead man on the footpath is most likely one of these staunch, violent Irregulars, though his face has taken on the innocent mien that death lends to every man. He could well be a bloody-minded gunman of the worst sort, O’Keefe thinks. But still there is something sad about the scene. Perhaps it’s the gormless, everyday tangle of limbs and push-bike.

Of the two sides—Free State army or Republican Irregular—O’Keefe supposes he sides with the Free Staters, with the government and its army, of which these men are members. Best of a bad lot, he supposes. The people of Ireland want freedom from Crown rule, but more than that, they want peace. They want to work, to raise their families, to raise a glass without the constant menace of gunmen at the door; without having to shield their children’s eyes from the bodies and blood on the streets of their towns. The Irish people, O’Keefe believes along with many others, had not so much voted in favour of the Treaty, a flawed and flaccid compromise, as much as they had voted for an end to violence. And these men at this checkpoint are charged with achieving that peace, even if it means gunning down men on bicycles on a sunny autumn morning.

So they are Free State soldiers or detectives, but that does not make them any less dangerous. These trenchcoated men appear calm enough to O’Keefe, none of the jumpy, paranoid shouting and high-pitched laughter, the waving of guns and desperately smoked cigarettes that often follow an action in wartime, a killing. But O’Keefe’s palms are sweating in his leather gloves because he knows what can happen at checkpoints manned by men
with guns, democratic mandate or no. The man with the clipboard approaches him under the watchful gaze of the Thompson gunner.

O’Keefe lifts his goggles onto his forehead and removes his leather helmet, showing he has nothing to hide from them, that he presents no threat.

‘Step off the bike,’ says the man from the footpath, approaching now from across the road.

O’Keefe turns back to look at him and does what he says, shutting down the Trusty and lifting it onto its stand. He raises his arms.

‘What are you doing?’ the man with the clipboard says.

‘Making it easier for you to search me,’ O’Keefe says, knowing this is coming. He has been searched before on the streets of Dublin and had, as a policeman, searched many men himself. ‘I can put them down if you like.’

‘You’re the kind to cut it clever, are you?’

The man with the flat cap approaches from behind and slaps O’Keefe roughly under the armpits with open palms before he can reply. He then pats down his back, sides, arms and between his legs, tugging O’Keefe’s balls and then running his hands down his legs to his boots. He digs his fingers into the boots before standing and searching the saddle-bags on the Trusty. Throughout this, O’Keefe says nothing.

‘Clean,’ the flat capped man says, before walking back to the footpath.

‘Can I drop my arms now?’

The man with the clipboard does not respond, but O’Keefe lowers his arms, considers lighting a cigarette and then decides against it. Don’t provoke them or you won’t make Gormanston today. Or ever, he thinks, his eyes darting over to the dead man on the footpath.

The man ruffles through the pages on his clipboard, the tell-tale bulge of a revolver grip visible beneath his tan trenchcoat. After a long moment, he says, ‘Name?’

Jesus, O’Keefe thinks, what cost a few manners? The RIC had had its faults, O’Keefe is the first to admit, but lack of professional courtesy was not one of them. He says nothing until the man with the clipboard looks up and repeats his question.

O’Keefe does his best to keep the anger from his voice. ‘O’Keefe. Seán O’Keefe.’

The man with the clipboard holds his gaze on O’Keefe, who tries to keep his expression neutral.

‘Address?’ The man shuffles through the pages on his board.

O’Keefe tells him, wondering as he does if it is wise, and then decides there is no reason not to tell the truth. He has a flashing realisation that this must be exactly how innumerable men had felt when he’d questioned them during his time in the police. The instant, instinctive urge to lie, often for no reason, in the face of authority. Some latent guilt inside all men driving the lie. I’ve nothing to hide. But his memory sparks, ignites with images of Turks he had killed in the war, too many to remember all of them, but he recalls one he’d done with a bayonet and another—hardly older than Nicholas Dolan—with a trenching tool. Images of IRA men he had shot in Cork as a copper. Men like these men in front of him. He’d been the hunter and the hunted then. He swallows and regrets telling the man his correct address.

‘And what line of work are you in, O’Keefe, Seán?’

There is an edge to the question and O’Keefe’s disquiet tilts back to anger. He is suddenly pleased with himself for neglecting to vote in the May election. Shower of bullies, thugs, the lot of them.

‘I’m unemployed at the moment.’

The man smiles over at his colleague with the Thompson gun and then turns back to O’Keefe. ‘Fine motorbike for an unemployed man. How did you come about it?’

‘I bought it.’

‘You bought it, did you? With what?’

‘With money I’d saved.’

‘So you were employed before you were unemployed then?’

O’Keefe breathes through clenched teeth. ‘I was.’

‘At what?’

O’Keefe cannot help himself. He could have been anything—a house painter, a teacher; a shop clerk or hod carrier.

‘I was a Peeler.’

The man’s eyes—watery blue under the brim of his hat—narrow and his smile widens. ‘Lads,’ he calls back to his colleagues, ‘we’ve a rusty copper here. Says he’s unemployed.’

The Thompson gunner laughs. ‘’Course he is. Sure, you’ve his job now, Charlie.’

The third man at the checkpoint does not laugh, O’Keefe notices. He stares for a moment at O’Keefe and then looks away, something furtive, fearful in his eyes, and O’Keefe wonders if maybe it is remorse or shame he is seeing. Had he been the one who had shot down the cycling man? Or had he perhaps murdered RIC men in the past and now, confronted by one still living, feels the weight of guilt for it? O’Keefe doubts it. Shoot a man down over a card game or a woman and you’re a criminal, he thinks. Shoot a man down over an idea and they make you a detective in the new Free State. He looks back to the man with the clipboard.

‘Can I go now?’

‘Twenty-three Leinster Road, Rathmines is your current address?’

‘I told you it was. Can I go?’

‘You in a hurry, are you? Surely an out-of-work Peeler’s got no place to be going quickly?’

O’Keefe says nothing but holds the man’s gaze until the sound of a tram’s clanging bell breaks the impasse. The man with the clipboard turns and tells the Thompson gunner to let O’Keefe through.

Keeping his rage in check, O’Keefe replaces his helmet and goggles, kick-starts the bike and eases his way around the Talbot. As he passes it, the third man at the checkpoint—holding his hand out to halt traffic in the opposite direction—looks at O’Keefe quickly and then looks away. The man in the flat cap is standing over the cycling man’s body again, but this time the dead man’s face is covered with his cap.

O’Keefe wonders was it a friend, a former comrade whom these men have shot dead on this sunny autumn morning.

 

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Next: Chapter 19