Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 19
Next: Chapter 21

20

O’Keefe passes several lorry loads of Free State troops on the Belfast road, near Swords, and a foot patrol at Blake’s Cross in Lusk, but neither bothers to stop him. His anger at the checkpoint fades as he nears Gormanston.

Two miles after passing through Balbriggan—where he plans to stop later and visit his sister—he turns off the Belfast road at the mossy thatch of the Cock Tavern, a pub reputed to be the oldest existing in Ireland among a hundred others claiming the same. He makes his way down the long, crushed gravel track running between farmers’ fields before coming to the main gate of Gormanston Free State Army Camp. Formerly an aerodrome for training wartime pilots for the British Royal Flying Corps, it had served as an induction depot for Auxiliary and Black and Tan police constables during the Tan War. Lately, it had been re-commissioned as a transport depot for the Free State Army and internment camp for captured Irregulars.

He stops at the gates—reinforced steel topped with barbed wire, with sandbagged sentry posts on either side—and dismounts. The sentry posts are manned by two young soldiers in Free State Army olive green, and around the gates are gathered a number of women and children, the women holding baskets covered with dish towels, some of them laughing and chatting. Others, O’Keefe notes, are tearful, tense, pleading with the blank-faced sentries who look over their heads at nothing.

A few older men are also among the small crowd, smoking pipes and speaking solemnly out of the sides of their mouths. They are oblivious of the children who dart out from behind them in desultory games of chase. An older boy of ten or eleven silently approaches O’Keefe and stares at the Trusty. O’Keefe smiles, but the boy does not smile back. His father, O’Keefe imagines, is one of the men behind the barbed wire of the camp. Some of these families are coping while others are going hungry for a husband’s—a father’s—fidelity to the ideal of a great republic. O’Keefe wonders are there any ideas worth the bloated belly of one single child and decides he doesn’t know the answer.

He makes his way over to the sentry to the left of the gate, and tells him he has an appointment to see the camp commandant. The sentry asks him his name, nods and retreats behind the sandbags into the hut. O’Keefe can hear him cranking the telephone when he feels a presence at his shoulder, closer than is comfortable.

‘You took your sweet time about coming, Mr O’Keefe.’

O’Keefe relaxes his guard but curses inwardly. ‘Just Albert. Fancy meeting you here.’

‘We’d an appointment. I made my way here without you. Hope you didn’t mind.’

Turning now, O’Keefe sees that Albert is smiling. He reminds O’Keefe of a heavily muscled imp. ‘’Course I don’t. Only glad you found the place. Fair way out of the Big Smoke for a man like yerself, Albert. All the grass and cows and sea air not too hard on the constitution, wha?’

Just Albert tilts his head and squints, still smiling. ‘Not at all. Does a body good, a day in the country.’

The sentry comes out of the guard hut and motions for O’Keefe to follow.

‘He’s with me,’ O’Keefe tells the sentry, and the sentry nods.

‘I already rang in about him. The commandant is expecting both of you.’

‘Grand, so. After you then, Just Albert.’

‘Dirt before the brush, Mr O’Keefe,’ Albert says, squinting, smiling.

O’Keefe shakes his head and follows the sentry through the open gate, thinking that he’d had lice in the war that had been easier to shake off than Ginny Dolan’s man.

 

The commandant’s office and camp administration were housed in a Nissen hut some fifty yards inside the main gate. To its left and right, forming a U shape, were two further huts with signs designating them as ‘Visits’ and ‘Infirmary.’ O’Keefe wonders at the wisdom of locating the camp hospital so close to the commandant’s office in case of an outbreak of TB or dysentery, but imagines there is a reason for it. As he crosses the yard now, with Just Albert at his heels, he notes that the camp proper is set within a second, inner fence of heavy razor and barbed wire. Every hundred yards or so is a watchtower looming over the wire. In the one closest to the commandant’s hut, O’Keefe can see a guard in olive green, pacing the platform outside the tower with a rifle in the crook of his elbow.

The commandant meets them at the door to the hut.

‘Gentlemen, welcome, you’re very welcome! I’m Commandant Michael Quinn. Father O’Dea told me to be expecting you.’ He holds out his hand, and O’Keefe and Just Albert shake it in turn.

‘Thank you for seeing us, Commandant,’ O’Keefe says. ‘I’m Seán O’Keefe and this is … Albert. Father O’Dea said you might help us if you were able.’

The commandant shoots a roguish grin. ‘Sure, for the good Father I’ll do what I can for yis lads. Please, come in.’

He leads them inside the hut, and down to the end farthest from the infirmary and closest to the main gate. For a quick getaway, in case of a rising in the prison camp, O’Keefe thinks, and then chastises himself for his cynicism. It is a tired habit from his days in the constabulary: assuming a darker motive for every action.

The commandant’s office has been walled off from the rest of the hut with a plywood partition and thick curtains for a door, highlighting the makeshift, hurried establishment of the prison camp. Once inside, the commandant takes a seat behind his desk and indicates two chairs placed in front of it. O’Keefe notes a cast-iron stove in a corner with a tin chimney pipe rising to a rough cut hole in the Nissen hut’s roof. The stove gives off a low heat, but the inside of the office is damp and cool despite the mild weather outside. There is one window, behind the commandant’s desk, and files are stacked on an army cot and a camp table in the corner.

When they are settled, Commandant Quinn says, ‘Pardon the state of the place, lads. I’m to be moving into the old British Army officers’ quarters any day now, once they figure out what’s what out here. It’s fierce at the moment, but fuck it, they say it’s pure murder here in winter. The bollix do be froze off you of a cold night even now—when the wind’s from the east, off the sea. Jaysus, lads. Mind you,’ he says, smiling wickedly, ‘the job does have its pleasures. Watch this.’

Quinn bellows without warning, causing O’Keefe to start slightly in his chair. Just Albert, O’Keefe notices, hasn’t flinched.

‘Bring us a pot of tea, lads! And don’t forget the cream biscuits this time!’

From farther down the hut there is the sound of scraping chairs and boots on the rough floorboards.

Quinn turns and winks at his visitors. ‘I fuckin’ love doing that, I do. Those two lads, college fellas, both of them. One, his auldfella’s a doctor.’ The commandant laughs. ‘And any jaysus time I let out a roar, they jump and then jump higher and bring in the biscuits and tea. I’m tellin’ you, when I was in the ’Joy, I had a chief who done the same thing on me for years. Tea, Quinn! And move your arse! And where is he now, I ask you?’

O’Keefe, unsure of whether or not the commandant’s question is rhetorical, smiles neutrally.

Rhetorical it is. ‘Not fuckin’ here is where he’s not! Not commandant of his own fuckin’ camp, he’s not!’ Quinn’s face is flushed red with laughter, and again he roars, ‘What’s taking ye two jinnies with the tea?’

Half mad, this fella, O’Keefe decides, wondering about his connection to Xavier College, considering his disdain for ‘college fellas’ and doctors’ sons.

As if reading O’Keefe’s thoughts, Commandant Quinn says, ‘So, are yis auld Xavier boys yerselves or what, lads?’

‘I am,’ O’Keefe says. ‘What year did you finish there, Commandant?’

‘Finish?’ Quinn says. ‘You must be joking. Poor auld Father O’Dea done every-bleedin’-thing he could to keep me in the place, but finally even he knew I needed the boot. Thick as two planks, I was. Still am!’ He laughs again.

Quinn is a portly man in his mid-thirties, his face dusted with red stubble and his eyes flashing with mirth. A man more at home telling ribald yarns in a public house than commanding an internment camp maybe, but O’Keefe had seen less likely looking officers than this one during his time in the army, and looks are, he knows, often deceptive when it comes to good soldiering or leadership.

‘You mustn’t have been too thick to pass the entrance exams,’ O’Keefe says.

‘Exams? Not on yer life, Mr O’Keefe. Sure, me auld-one was a cleaner in the residence where the Jesuits lived, and wasn’t I always under her feet when she cleaned, her with no one to mind me. The priests took a shine to me, God only knows why, and they let me into Xavier free and gratis—exams be fucked. I couldn’t have spelt “exams”, let alone sat one. Father O’Dea, though, a grand fella and no mistake. Felt fierce awful about giving me the shove and looked out for me ever after. Got me the job as a warder in Mountjoy when I turned eighteen. Best job I ever had til I got this one!’

‘And how did yeh get this one?’ Just Albert asks, the sarcasm in his voice barely disguised. O’Keefe can guess what Ginny Dolan’s man feels about prison warders and their Free State equivalents. More than one filthy song is sung in Monto kips heralding the misdeeds of prison warders and ending in their almighty comeuppances.

But Quinn appears to have missed the jibe behind the words. As he is about to speak, the tea arrives. ‘You tell them,’ the commandant says, ‘tell them, Fiachna … Fiachra … whatever your name is. You tell them how I got this job of work.’ He is beaming, and as the young subaltern sets the tea tray on the table, Quinn again winks at O’Keefe. ‘Tell them, Fiach.’ The commandant makes the young man’s name sound vaguely obscene.

‘Fiachna,’ the young man says, contempt on his face.

‘Tell them.’

The subaltern sighs, and says, as if reciting it, ‘You got the job, Commandant, in honour of your loyal and dutiful service to the just cause of liberty during your time as a warder in Mountjoy. Michael Collins himself, God rest him, promoted you to the post.’

‘Right you are, sonny buck. The Big Fella himself, may he rest in eternal peace.’ Quinn turns back to O’Keefe and Albert. ‘I was the inside man when the Dillon boys dollied themselves up in Tommy uniforms and tried to break out Seán Mac Eoin. I was meant to go out with them in the armoured car, only some plank in the party decided to light up the governor’s office with his Enfield. Still and all, I done my service for the cause …’

‘Will there be anything else, Commandant?’

‘We’re grand now, Frank. Thank you.’

‘Fiachna.’

Fiachna. What kind of name is that at all? Your mother mustn’t have liked you much, giving you a name like that.’

The subaltern brushes through the curtains and is gone.

‘I love winding them two toffs up, I do,’ Quinn says.

O’Keefe smiles. ‘It’d make the day shorter, sure.’

‘That it does, Mr O’Keefe, that it does. Now, you’re here to see some fellas, Father O’Dea tells me, about a missing boy?’

‘Yes,’ O’Keefe says, looking over to see if Just Albert will let him take the lead. Albert is impassive, so O’Keefe continues. ‘The woman I’m … we’re … working for has hired us to find her son. He’s missing, and we believe the Mahon brothers might know something about it. Dominic Mahon, more specifically. We’re not sure what he can tell us, but we’ll give it a bash and see what we get.’

The commandant pours out the tea and then lights a cigarette, holding the box of Gold Flake out to his visitors. O’Keefe realises he has again forgotten to buy cigarettes and takes one, nodding his thanks. Just Albert lights one of his small cigars with a brass lighter.

‘The Mahons. Right. Take your tea there, men, before it goes cold,’ Quinn says, lifting his cup and slurping loudly.

They take the mugs from the tray, O’Keefe wondering what young Fiachna might have doctored it with, but deciding it would be rude not to chance it.

Quinn sets down his cup and picks up a manila file from his desk. ‘I had this pulled when Father O’Dea jingled and said who yis wanted to see. A terrible shower, the Mahons. Are you lads sure yis need speak with the likes of them? They’re not even proper republicans at all. A mob of dirty dockers who got us some guns in the Tan War and now sell to Dev’s Irregulars on the other side. They’d sell their own mother if you wanted to buy her, I’m telling you. They’ve a hut all to themselves because none of the other republican lads will bunk up with them. I’d have one of me guards take you out there if he’d agree to go, but none of them will. And I don’t imagine any would know where their hut was anyway.’

‘What?’ O’Keefe says. ‘Your guards don’t know which hut is the Mahons’?’

‘And what do you mean by ‘if’ they’d take us out?’ Just Albert says. ‘This is the mighty Free State army, isn’t it? Can’t you order them to take us?’

This time, O’Keefe does not mind Albert’s question. He had been wondering the same thing.

Quinn takes a long drag on his cigarette and a sup of tea. ‘Look, lads, I’m not proud to say this, but this camp is not run by me or by the Free State Army or any of my guards, and don’t let no one tell you any different. All prisons are the same to some degree. The warders only run a jail with the consent of the men in their charge, if you get me. Sure, every warder wants to go home at night in one piece, and every lag wants what he thinks he’s a right to, and the two come to a reasonable accommodation. But this place …’ Quinn shakes his head sadly. ‘It’s not at all easy being jailer to them that were your friends and comrades before this war started.’

The commandant slurps at his tea. ‘These lot’re hard men, soldiers, gunmen. Not a bit like your normal lag, I tell you. Your common and garden lags, most of the time, couldn’t be arsed trying to escape because they’re happy with three meals, a cot and a candle, which is more than most of them have on the outside.’ He inhales on his cigarette, then points with it at the small, grime-streaked window.

‘But these fellas? No. We control the outside here, but inside that wire, the republican boys say what’s what and who’s who, and that’s that. Some of my guards, sure, they won’t go in there for love or money, for fear of their lives. We’re outnumbered for one. We need more guards than they’ve given us, and they’ve stuck me with too many prisoners, by jaysus. Only a week ago, didn’t two of my lads venture in—and they can’t go in armed, not on your life, not unless we send in a company of them—and didn’t we find them two guards, two days later, mind, and they were stripped stark bollix naked and trussed up in an empty hut. And in the meantime two of the prisoners had kitted themselves up in the guards’ gear and strolled out them front gates, cool as you please. Can’t say it impressed the bossmen much. What the Big Fella—God rest him—would have said, for the love of Mary, if he was alive to see such a thing.’

Quinn stubs out his cigarette and continues. ‘But them two guards were treated fair. They weren’t beaten too bad, and they were given blankets at night and were fed and watered. But the rest of my men now, they won’t set foot inside the wire since. It’s a great big, poxy balls-up, lads, I’ll be the first to admit. They sent too many Irregulars here and now there’s no managing them. I can contain them, just about, but I can’t manage them. Not at the moment. All them fellas, see, inside the wire—most of them anyway—they spent these last years fighting the Tans and Peelers … no offence, Mr O’Keefe, the Father told me you’d been a copper, and fair dues, I knew many fine ones in my days in the Joy.’

‘None taken,’ O’Keefe says, and drags on his cigarette, relishing the bite of the smoke at the back of his throat.

‘Like I was saying, them lads, they all fought alongside the likes of me and some of my guards in the IRA, and we think they’re traitors now and they think we’re traitors and who knows who’s right? But this is no normal prison at all. There’s one lad, one of my guards, a youngfella just joined up—only last August mustered into the Free State Army, like most lads, for the wage, and who can blame him?—and wasn’t he, a few weeks back, on one of the watchtowers? And didn’t he look down, and who does he see?’

The commandant waits, as if his guests might venture a guess.

O’Keefe fills the silence. ‘Who was it?’

Quinn smiles with satisfaction. ‘Only his own shaggin’ brother, down there inside the wire. And the brother, of course, sees my man, his brother, on the tower! And doesn’t he start shouting up at him, “Mickey, you traitorous bastard, you soup-takin’ whore of the Crown, fuckin’ bastard, come down from that tower and I’ll sort your Turk cabbage out for good. Our mother never loved the sleeveen shite of you, she didn’t.”

Even Just Albert smiles at this.

‘And didn’t the brother wait down there every day for his brother to be on the tower so he could stand and abuse him, telling all his republican mates that that pig-shagger in the tower was once his brother, but is dead to him now as any scrap-rooting rat should be.’ Quinn smiles and shakes his head. ‘Lads, if this isn’t the most loony shop of a prison, I don’t know what is.’

‘And what happened to your man in the tower?’ Just Albert asks.

‘I had him transferred out to the Curragh Camp. Sure, he wasn’t himself, listening to that all day. Even his mother, who was happy with the wages he brought in, mind you, wouldn’t speak to him once she found out he was standing guard over his brother. There were favourites in that family and no joke!’

O’Keefe shakes his head. Like everyone else in the country, he has heard stories of families divided by the Treaty—brothers, fathers, sons fighting on opposite sides. There’s no war like civil war, so the saying goes.

‘So that’s just by way of letting you in on things, lads. I’ll give you the number of the hut the Mahon boys are supposed to be in, but that doesn’t mean they’re still in it. Sure, half the names in the camp are false ones, and when we get notice to release a fella, we’ve rarely any idea if it’s the actual fella being sent out under that name! The leaders inside there decide who gets released, and if we can’t stand up, hand on heart, and say, “You’re not the lad of this name”, then, fuck it, men, we just cut them loose.’

O’Keefe nods. ‘What else can you do?’

‘Not a lot, Mr O’Keefe. Not a bleedin’ lot, but it makes for bad jailing. I’m not proud of it, but then who knows if them fellas inside there aren’t in the right about the Treaty? And here am I, locking them up, the same lads I fought with only a year ago.’

‘We will be escorted then, inside the wire?’ Just Albert asks, as if he cannot be bothered either way.

Quinn laughs. ‘Will you fuck. Look, I can give you ten men or no men, but you’ll be better on your own. If you’ve a mob of armed guards ’round you inside there, they’ll only take you for Free Stater spooks and you’ll get nothing from no man. If yis go in on your own, they’ll know you’re something different. My advice, once inside, is find Séamus Brennan. A Cork lad. A ranking general, apparently. He was a bossman when he was on our side against the Tans. Anyway, he seems to be in charge of things behind the wire. If he likes what you have to say, then yis’re in. If not, we’ll see you in a few minutes. Or next week, please God. You’re not armed, are you?’

O’Keefe tells him they are not, thinking: Séamus Brennan. Where does he know that name from? There. He has it. If it is the same man. A stroke of luck? They’ll soon see.

They leave the office and cross to the set of internal gates that leads into the camp proper. Quinn orders the pair of sentries to open the gates.

‘Mind yourselves, lads. Take care you don’t cause offence. Hard enough not to, though. Fellas are fierce touchy, all the same, these days.’ He is smiling as he says this, but O’Keefe knows that he’s serious behind the smile. A prison governor afraid to enter his own prison.

O’Keefe hopes the Brennan that Commandant Quinn has spoken of is the same man he thinks him to be.

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Next: Chapter 21