Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 21
Next: Chapter 23

22

The town of Balbriggan, where O’Keefe’s sister Sally had been a teacher until she’d had her first baby, is a fishing and mill town on the Irish Sea, some two miles south of Gormanston camp. As O’Keefe enters the town—Albert riding pillion—he takes note of the rebuilding on both sides of the road and of the new whitewashed cottages down one of the lanes. By the harbour, he has heard, are the scorched shells of the hosiery mills torched two years previously when Auxiliaries and Black and Tans had run amok after the shooting of an RIC man and his brother in a local pub. O’Keefe had heard that the incident had more to do with too much drink and too many guns in one small room than any kind of political assassination of the sort suffered by so many of his former RIC colleagues but the result had been the same. A town sacked, two local men tortured and bayoneted to death by Crown forces and left in the ashes of the town square while Balbriggan’s inhabitants had fled to the countryside in terror. Hundreds jobless. Hundreds homeless. O’Keefe knows that similar things are still happening throughout the country, but it is Irishmen doing it this time.

His sister lives in a small cottage off Chapel Street, and she cries joyfully and hugs O’Keefe when she sees him. She has filled out some in her face and bust—the baby, he imagines—but with this appears younger to O’Keefe. Her hair is the same shade of brown as his own and she is tall like he is, but she resembles Peter more than him, the lines around her eyes, like Peter’s, the etchings of a natural disposition to laughter.

He thinks back to when he had last seen her. Five years ago? Six? He had been laid up in the Army hospital at Victoria Barracks in Cork and she had taken the train down to visit him. At the time he’d hardly been able to speak, so ill had he been with blood poisoning; so numb with grief and guilt over their brother’s death. And then, after returning to his duties in the RIC, he had received a regretful letter from Sally telling him that since he was a policeman he could not attend her wedding. Her husband hailed from a large, republican family and, as a member of the ‘Crown forces’, he would not have been welcome. The letter had angered O’Keefe. But Sally is a mother now—eager to show off her baby—and he is no longer a Peeler. Bygones be bygones, he thinks, feeling at ease for the first time in days, taking tender comfort in the warmth of his sister’s embrace. How long has it been since he’d been held in another’s arms? It’s like food, he is suddenly certain, food or drink. Any kind of affection at all. And he is starved of it.

‘Come in, come in,’ Sally says, taking her brother by the arm. ‘You don’t know how happy you’ve made me calling like this. There’s not a day goes by I don’t pray for you and wish you well. And your friend, please …’ She takes Albert’s arm in her other hand. ‘Please come in. You’re very welcome, Mr …?’

‘Albert. Just Albert’s grand, Missus.’

‘Mister Albert then,’ Sally says, leading the two men into the cottage. ‘You’re very welcome to our home, Mr Albert.’

 

Just Albert sits with Sally’s baby, Matilda, in his arms by the low turf fire. The cottage is neat, clean and modern—there is fresh, piped water and a large Belfast sink; a modern cooking range where Sally labours over boiling spuds, vegetables and a silverside of corned beef. She chats to O’Keefe as she works, turning now and again to smile at him, as if she cannot believe he is there. He is aware that she does not speak of their father in front of a stranger, and also neatly dodges any talk about his time as an RIC man, but he does not mind this. She talks mainly of herself, the baby and her husband, calling her husband ‘himself’ as if not yet ready to name him to O’Keefe, until he has met him; until they have shaken hands and seen that each are men loved by Sally and must, therefore, accommodate one another. O’Keefe, seated at the oilclothed table, steaming tea mug in front of him, is willing.

His own conversation is as loose and easy as it has been for months as he chats about the Cunningham family, and the Daly family in Cork, whom she has met, and how they now number six children and that Sally would want to be getting on with things if she hoped to catch them up. He tells her how Jim Daly, his oldest friend from the RIC, has taken a job with the Civic Guard down in Cork, and could they not see what trouble they were letting themselves in for, the Free Staters, admitting a known labour agitator and malingerer like Daly into the ranks of their newly formed national police force? Even Just Albert laughs at this, a wry chuckle, as he jogs the baby on his knee.

In the brief silence that follows their laughter, O’Keefe notices how contented the baby appears in Albert’s care, smiling up into the doorman’s mug—the red jag of beard under his bottom lip, the flattened nose that ends in a point, the knife-sharp cheek-bones, like those of a prizefighter. The baby gurgles and grips the doorman’s scarred knuckles, trying to raise herself up on bowed legs.

‘You’re a natural there, Albert. I’d never have thought,’ O’Keefe says.

Just Albert smiles, but at the baby. ‘Sure, she’s not the first babby I’ve bounced on me knee, Mr O’Keefe.’

‘Minding brothers and sisters?’ Sally asks.

O’Keefe waits for Albert’s response, interested to hear the answer. He knows nothing of the man, thinking that he was as likely to have been hewn from the rubble of old Montgomery Street as anything else. And in a way, he learns that he is not entirely wrong in this thinking.

‘No, I’ve no brothers or sisters, not that I know of. Though loads over the years that were like brothers and sisters to me. No, more’s the time I’ve sat up with the babbies while their mothers worked. Once it was quiet enough in me own work I was happy to do it.’

‘And what work is it you do, Mr Albert?’ Sally asks, straining the water from the boiled potatoes and leaving them under a towel to steam, a kindly lilt in the question that masks an Irish woman’s intrusion into another’s affairs.

O’Keefe cringes inwardly, embarrassed suddenly for Albert, though the man himself appears unconcerned.

‘I work for Mrs Dolan,’ he says, and O’Keefe realises that Albert assumes that his employer is known to all and any.

‘A fine house, it’s said,’ Sally tells Albert, and it surprises O’Keefe that his sister has heard of the woman.

‘It is. I mind the shop for Mrs Dolan, keep things ticking over. I could be doing anything. Minding the nippers can be one of them jobs comes along with it, given the number of girls in Mrs Dolan’s employ. You might’ve heard tell of Monto Babies …’

Just Albert stops and waits for Sally’s response. Monto Babies, the children born to prostitutes in the district and raised communally by the madams and working girls alike. Some—many, O’Keefe imagines—end up in the trade themselves, or on the fringes of it, acting as cleaners, doormen or cooks in the brothels. Other move in the criminal half-light of the city as pocket-gougers, housebreakers or strong-arm robbers. The fortunate among these, however, leave the morning-quiet Monto lanes for school each day or are bought apprenticeships with the pooled earnings of their many ‘mothers’ and ‘aunties’, becoming skilled workers in the various trades, and even professions, Dublin offers.

Dubliners are oddly compassionate towards the Monto children, seeing them as native sons and daughters of their city, little different in many ways from their own except for their parentage. They are poorer, certainly, the strange Dublin logic goes, and it is sad that they are bastards, but they are loved by somebody, most of the time, and by Holy God and Our Lady all the time and, sure, isn’t that enough? Others, of course, view them as the scum tide of the night-time streets, criminal, illegitimate and barely human. But these people, O’Keefe imagines, are in the minority.

Sally says, ‘I have heard of them, Mr Albert, and I’ve always heard they’re well-loved and minded.’

‘Not all of them,’ the doorman says, ‘but most. I was one meself, sure. Mrs Dolan took me in when I was three years of age, though I hardly remember it. She tells the story herself, now and again, of how I was running wild in all the weathers with only a strip of a shirt on me back and riddled with nits. Fighting dogs in the lanes for scraps of grub. Me own mother, God knows what became of her. Maybe she left Monto, got out of it, or maybe she died, but the best thing ever happened me was Mrs Dolan coming along. She was working herself then …’

He looks up to gauge Sally’s reaction, and Sally smiles kindly at him. ‘… But she took me into the house where she worked: Mrs McDowell’s house. And she and the other girls fed and reared me. When she set herself up, she brought me with her and there I’ve been ever since.’

Sally nods. ‘She sounds a fine woman, Mr Albert.’

‘She is.’

‘And Nicholas, Albert. Is he a Monto baby as well?’ O’Keefe asks, thinking it might matter somehow.

‘No, he’s her own.’ Just Albert looks over at O’Keefe now, his face serious again, the hardness emerging like something solid and malign floating to the surface of a calm sea. ‘Her only natural child. And that’s why we must find him.’

O’Keefe nods, showing Albert he understands. Nicholas is Mrs Dolan’s son. So, in his own way, is Just Albert. For Albert, O’Keefe realises, the search for Nicholas is no mere job for the madam. It is the search for a brother.

 

At the door of the cottage, Sally hugs O’Keefe and takes the baby from Just Albert, shaking his hand warmly.

‘If you’re ever passing through Balbriggan, Mr Albert, don’t be a stranger. Matilda and I would love to see you again. And John, my husband. Wouldn’t we Tildy?’ The baby curls a loose strand of Sally’s hair in her fist.

‘And you, Seáneen,’ she says, ‘you must come out and stay. And meet John. There’s more than one fine public house in this town. You’d like him … despite past things. And he’d like you, I know he would.’

O’Keefe looks away, for the first time since he had arrived. ‘He’s not … involved any more, then?’

Sally puts her hand on his forearm. ‘No, thank God. He works every hour the Lord sends him. Carpenters are in demand, putting the town back together, so there’s no shortage of work for the moment. His brother Danny is in the Free State Army now, down in Limerick we think. There’s other brothers of his who lean strongly to the anti-Treaty side. John’s hardly sure what he believes these days, but that Irishmen killing Irishmen is not the way to go about things.’

‘Wise man,’ O’Keefe says.

‘And a good man. You must come, really. You can swim down at the baths on the beach. You’d like him, Seán, you would.’

There is a small desperation in his sister’s voice, and O’Keefe knows that whether he comes to like the man or not, for Sally’s sake he will act as if he does.

‘Promise you’ll come and stay when you finish your work with Mr Albert,’ she says.

O’Keefe kisses her on the cheek and then kisses his niece.

‘I promise,’ he says, neither brother nor sister once making any mention of their father or his illness.

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Next: Chapter 23