Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 27
Next: Chapter 29

28

The house below his attic bolthole is quiet—the Dempsey women gone visiting, he assumes, his young soldiers in bed or yet to return from their duties with Gilhooley—and O’Hanley scratches in his journal by candlelight. The silence here at the top of the Haddington Road house is unnerving. It is as if he is alone in the city of Dublin—like Christ might have felt, midway through his forty days in the desert, he thinks—and he would welcome the company of one of the young men. Just to sit beside him on the bed while he writes here at his desk, exuding the musky smell of tennis sweat and stolen cigarettes. He has banned the boys from smoking as well as swearing, but he knows they do it anyway.

His mind conjures a memory of his favourite soldier; a time when the lad had ascended to the attic to report some trivial matter and O’Hanley had asked him to stay. The memory is rich and vivid, with the soft sussing of the boy’s breath, strong on it the scent of tobacco; the boy’s arms thrown back and hands clasped behind the head in repose, pale skin under his arms .…

O’Hanley closes his eyes and forces the image away, shame welling in his belly.

He envies men who smoke, he thinks, as he gnaws at the skin around his thumb nail, a ruby pearl of blood rising up from the cuticle. Many of the priests in Maynooth had smoked when he was there, so surely it is a venal sin at most. There must be comfort in the searing balm of tobacco. A comfort he needs now. And he should let the boys smoke. They are doing the work of men for the country. He has often envied men who drink as well; envies them the easy laughter, the warm brotherhood and loosening of cares, though he knows an eight by ten foot attic room is no place for spirits or beer. Certainly he will court-martial any boy he finds drinking. Drink is the bane of revolution. Ireland locked in fetters for centuries, soaked in whiskey and the cause betrayed, time and time again, by men in their cups. No, he is blessed that he does not know even the taste of it. He inks his pen and returns to his journal.

… that our Lord works in ways we cannot fathom. Even in writing this I recall the verse from my days in the seminary though it gives me little comfort. “What man can know the intentions of God? And who can comprehend the will of the Lord? For the reasoning of mortals is inadequate, our attitudes of mind unstable, for a perishable body presses down on the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the mind with its many cares.”

And don’t I have many cares? Thus, while I never waver, while my faith in Christ’s workings on behalf of a true and sovereign Irish republic can never be in doubt, it is in times such as this that I succumb to the temptation to question His means. This is not doubt. I have utter faith that He sees the rightness of our cause and that He has blessed me with the will and mettle of His holy spirit so that I, like my martyred brother Pádraig Pearse, may he rest in the arms of our Lord, might wage a war of purification and liberation for my country. But to my shame, I do doubt the ways in which He works. How am I supposed to wage this war from the confines of this safe house attic room where I have been ordered to stay? How am I to battle Mulcahy and O’Higgins and their Free State treachery when men of my own army are unwilling to fight for the cause because they are loathe to raise a hand in anger against their former comrades as was, apparently, the case in Limerick? I should be in Limerick now, presiding over a holy and liberated city, the first city of the new, blessed Republic of Ireland when instead Limerick is in filthy Free State hands and I am sentenced to what seems an eternity of waiting in this room. Unable to contact but a handful of my comrades, most having fled this city in shameful capitulation, I await news from Newbridge like the planner of any common robbery. His means are a mystery to me and I can only beg forgiveness for the means I am forced to employ.

Could I ever have imagined, seven years ago, teaching each day alongside Master Pearse, may he rest in God’s mercy, that I would be party to such deeds? That the young men I have chosen might shed precious blood robbing payrolls so that the sword of liberation might be purchased from the very hands of the oppressor? I …

Again, the knock on the closet door that disguises the room. O’Hanley takes up the revolver from beside his journal. But the knock is correct, and he holds the pistol by his leg as he unbolts the two doors leading into his room.

Smiling, Stephen Gilhooley enters and drops a leather travel bag at O’Hanley’s feet before slumping down onto the bed.

O’Hanley crouches and loosens the leather straps binding the bag. ‘You came by foot I take it? The butcher’s lorry is hardly parked in front of the house at this hour?’ His voice is flat and dry.

‘I’m no fool, for fuck sake.’

‘Your language, Stephen …’

Gilhooley ignores him. He is still riding the heist’s adrenaline and is giddy with his survival and success. ‘I hopped a tram and then hoofed it. I was even stopped by a clatter of Free State troops and blagged my way out of bother. Staying with me
auntie, I told them. Kicked out the gaff by the auldfella, says I. They never even searched me or the bag, the shower of bogtrotting bastards. They’d be leaking out on the Baggot Street footpath if they had.’

O’Hanley silently forgives the young man his uncouth ways and opens the bag. Inside, bound in butcher’s string and packed under a selection of shirts and smalls are twenty odd wedges of sterling banknotes. The smell of it hits O’Hanley and he blesses himself. He feels a momentary flash of shame at his earlier doubts. This, he thinks, is how the Lord works. A surge of confidence rises in his chest.

‘How much is it?’

‘More than enough for Murphy’s gear. Fourteen thousand and a bit.’

Gilhooley does not tell O’Hanley of the four thousand he has given his father from the take to pay off loans to suppliers to his shop and for a new refrigeration unit. His father has done his bit for the cause, and can use the few quid for the times that are in it. His brothers, too, have taken a taste but not so much as you’d know. Sure, Dinnie has a baby to feed and Ray needs his cut to pay the mothers of his now dead Free State army mates who tipped them to the job in the first place. Robbery costs, though no hope of Commandant O’Hanley understanding the notion.

‘And the boys?’

Gilhooley leans forward on the bed now, his smile fading. ‘Dinnie and Rayo, the brothers, they’re grand. They made it back grand. The two lads I took from here …’

‘Yes?’ O’Hanley’s eyes cloud with concern.

‘One’s all right. He’s staying with the McKinneys in Inchicore for tonight. He’ll be fed and bedded down and make his own way back to the rendezvous point late tomorrow where I’ll collect him.’ The boys are taken to and from the Dempsey house in the back of the butcher’s van, so that if they are captured they cannot locate the house for Free State intelligence.

‘Who didn’t make it?’ O’Hanley asks. All his boys are precious to him, but he has lost two already this week. Robert and Nicholas and now another. He does not want to hear it but as ranking officer he must.

‘Little Alan Fenlon. He ate a bullet keeping sketch in front of the bank. We’d some bother on the job.’

‘Free Staters?’

And here, Gilhooley laughs, little Alan Fenlon forgotten for the moment. ‘You’d not believe it if I told yeh.’

O’Hanley closes the bag and sits back in his chair at the desk. He inks his pen again and scratches the date onto the top left corner of a separate journal entitled Operations. ‘Tell me,’ he says.

‘Seems like we weren’t the only fellas looking to knock off that bank. Bunch of English boys with rifles and shotguns were at it first.’

‘And?’

‘And we plugged the lot of ’em, but Alan caught one in all the shooting. We got their Winchesters and two Colt automatics, you’ll be happy to know. One of them might have made it out but I hit him, sure as God. He won’t make it far.’

O’Hanley says a silent prayer for the repose of the soul of little Alan Fenlon. Sixteen years old, the boy was. No matter, O’Hanley thinks, blessing himself again. The young soldier died in the service of his country and will take his place at the right hand of the holy Father in heaven.

‘I am happy, Stephen. Tomorrow, then, you’ll take the money to Murphy. Once we can arm them, our army will rise from their torpor and stagnation and …’

Stephen Gilhooley listens for a minute to O’Hanley’s speech. He has heard it any number of times before. It is the one about the corruption that takes its seat in the hearts of Irishmen. Of demon drink and cowardly merchants dipping fingers in the smooth rubbed tills of petty shops but never finding a ha’pence for the cause of Irish independence.

O’Hanley is a quare one, no mistake. Gilhooley has thought this since he watched the older man fight in the GPO and spotted targets for him during his days in the Tan War. O’Hanley is a killer, a patriot, a leader of men. But he is a strange bird. All the same, he keeps things lively, Gilhooley thinks, and he’s no man for half-measures; for surrendering half the country under the terms of a Treaty that any proper republican wouldn’t bother wiping his arse on. Gilhooley is no man for half-measures himself, and this is what he likes about O’Hanley, strange bird and all that he is.

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