The crack of rifle fire splintered the frosty morning.
Barry gave a violent start. Where the hell did that come from?
He was in an overgrown hazel thicket near the top of a steep hill. In ages past, the many-stemmed little trees had been rigorously pruned by men from the village at the foot of the hill. The coppiced hazel provided a bountiful supply of flexible rods which the villagers wove into baskets and cradles and seats for stools, sheep pens and turf creels and nest boxes for hens.
Then the Great Famine stalked across Ireland.
A century later all that remained of the village were tumbled stones and a bit of gable wall. The neglected coppice was dying.
Peering out between brittle stems, Barry saw, that the only footprints on the frost-rimed slope were his own. In the ruins of the village below, three crows perched on the broken wall. There was no other sign of life.
The hairs prickled on the back of his neck.
WHEN his company broke camp at dawn Barry had been sent ahead to reconnoitre. S‚amus McCoy’s orders were, “Use your compass to take a line due north. Mark your trail the way I taught you. After an hour take up a position on high ground---someplace where you’d be hidden from a casual observer---and watch for us. Don’t move a muscle until we come up to you.”
“Are we expecting trouble?” Barry asked eagerly.
McCoy laughed. “Sorry, lad, this is just an exercise. There’ll be no fighting ‘til we cross the border.”
After an hour’s brisk walk, Barry had chosen this site as his lookout because of the abandoned village. Throughout his life there had been certain places which spoke to him in a way he could not explain.
The echoes of the gunshot died away among the hills. It might be someone out hunting, Barry told himself. But he knew better. He knew his arrival had been observed by the enemy.
Easing his finger into the trigger guard of his rifle, he waited.
BARRY Halloran had grown up leaning against the wind the way men do in the west of Ireland. He had been a chubby, cheerful toddler. Then a little boy who ran everywhere he went---and was usually up to mischief.
On the brink of manhood, Barry was tall and rangy and restless, a lightly freckled lad with red-gold hair and dark grey eyes. “Hair like summer, eyes like winter,” his grandfather had once said of him. Like many Irishmen, the late Ned Halloran had possessed a poetic turn of phrase.
When great winter storms came roaring out of the Atlantic, Barry hitched a ride to Lahinch to watch the ocean attack the west coast of Ireland. The drama of nature enthralled him. In the crests of the mammoth breakers he glimpsed the white-maned horses of the sea god, Manann n mac Lir. Indomitable and mythic and splendid.
On summer nights Barry liked to lie embedded in clover and gaze at the moon. He returned from the fields with his clothes drenched in dew. His great-aunt Eileen invariably warned, “You’ll catch your death for sure.” But what did that matter compared to seeing a goddess? Beautiful and remote, indifferent to man, pulling the tides of the earth this way and that. A step beyond earth and halfway to heaven.
Barry’s full name was Finbar Lewis Halloran. Eight Irish saints had been called Finbar, but the Church disapproved of Barry’s surname because it had come to him from his unmarried mother.
Barry’s mother disapproved of the way the Church held Ireland in a domineering fist and called it beneficence. Roman Catholicism no longer had any influence over Ursula Halloran.
When the second shot rang out Barry assured himself, I’m not afraid, I’m Ned Halloran’s grandson. He did not really expect anything awful to happen to him. It never had in all of his seventeen years.
Besides, he thought, the column must be near enough by now to hear the gunfire. They’ll realise some feckin’ Prod’s trying to kill me and come at the run.
If his mother heard him say feckin’ she would tear strips off him. Ursula strictly forbade him to use bad language---though she uttered the occasional profanity herself.
None of the rules applied to Ursula Halloran.
She owned a dairy farm in County Clare with a profitable sideline in horse breeding. Although she employed hired men, she boasted that she could do anything they did except for shearing sheep, which required more sheer physical strength than she possessed. But Ursula milked cows, mended fences, trained the young horses, and kept the farm accounts, yet still found time to be active in Banracht na Tuaithe*
Barry regarded his mother with awe.
During the Irish Civil War Ursula Halloran---known to her family as “Precious”---had been a courier for the republicans. A fifteen-year-old girl on a grey horse, galloping across Clare with messages for the IRA tucked inside her knickers.
After the Civil War, Ursula had gone to school in Switzerland. Two years in a finishing school were a gift from her father’s best friend, Henry Mooney, and his wife, Ella. The time spent in Europe would forever set Ursula apart from most Irish women of her era. When she returned to Ireland she went to work for Radio ireann in Dublin and took an active part in the first days of Irish radio. She remained a devotee of the wireless, arranging her farm work around news broadcasts and programmes of classical music.
The wireless---which the rest of the world knew as the radio---had been part of Barry’s life for as long as he could remember. Some of his earliest memories were of listening to Radio Luxembourg when his mother was not around. They played foreign music from exotic places like France and Germany and America.
Listening to music, a boy could close his eyes and escape into his imagination.
AT the outbreak of World War Two Ursula had been employed in the secretariat of the League of Nations in Geneva. Occasionally she told her son something of those nerve-racking months when the fate of the world hung in the balance. He was fascinated by her stories but resented their brevity. “You always leave out the best parts,” he accused his mother.
“You don’t need to know everything,” she retorted.
Ursula retained a number of friendships from those days and was still interested in international politics. National politics infuriated her. The Civil War had left Ursula with a permanent loathing for the government established in its aftermath. She never had a kind word to say about “the Free Staters” as she called them. Barry enjoyed her rants; he deliberately introduced topics into the conversation which he knew would set her off. A casual mention of the Emergency might elicit, “During World War Two the Free State government didn’t have the industrial resources to make gas masks. They couldn’t provide for their own citizens! Finally they had to bring the masks in from Britain as they bring everything in from Britain. They’re West Brits to a man, every one of the Free Staters.”
To call someone a West Brit was the ultimate insult.
As soon as Barry was old enough to ride a bicycle he was sent to the newsagency in the nearby village of Clarecastle every morning to collect the newspapers. Ursula bought all the major Irish papers and those from Northern Ireland as well.
Her conversation frequently involved events across the border. “There was another arson attack in Belfast yesterday. The police looked the other way, of course. Catholics in the north can’t get jobs, so they’re forced to live in slums that aren’t fit for human habitation. Then they’re burned out of them by Protestant mobs. Those are our people up there, and they’re being treated worse than dogs in the country that once was theirs. Where are The Boys when we need them?”
The question was rhetorical. Ursula knew full well what had happened to The Boys---otherwise known as the Volunteers. The soldiers of the Irish Republican Army.
Following the Irish Civil War in 1922, supporters of the Anglo-Irish Treaty had tried to eliminate every trace of physical-force republicanism. Throughout the twenties and thirties the government of the Irish Free State had conducted a relentless campaign against the IRA. When he became taoiseach,* Eamon de Valera, a former Volunteer himself and the last surviving commandant of the Easter Rising in 1916, had not hesitated to send former comrades to the firing squad. Some saw this as the ultimate act of betrayal. But as peace replaced decades of turmoil, public support for militant republicanism had faded.
By the early 1940s the IRA was---almost---moribund. Its leaders were either dead or in prison. While detectives searched for him in Dublin with an arrest order, the last free member of the headquarters staff was playing banjo with a dance band in Derry.1 Little remained of the IRA but a mixture of romantic myth and rusting weapons hidden in ditches and outhouses. Independence for twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties had long since been won...
By the now outlawed Irish Republican Army.
Six counties designated as Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland had its own parliament at Stormont, which had been opened with great fanfare by King George and Queen Mary in 1921. Stormont claimed to represent all the people, yet in actuality it was a Protestant parliament for Protestants. Catholics constituted a sizable minority of the population but they had almost no voice. The Unionist Party, which was exclusively Protestant and dedicated to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom at all costs, controlled Stormont. The tiny Nationalist Party, which was mainly Catholic and supported the dream of an independent Ireland, had minimal representation.
Periodically Ireland’s conscience was tormented by her amputated limb. Outbreaks of sectarian violence in the north caused waves of grief and guilt in the south.
The little boy who was Barry Halloran was aware that his mother was troubled from time to time. But he was busy with his own small adventures and soon forgot.
IN 1947 Irish Americans sent a petition signed by two hundred thousand people to President Truman, asking him to use his efforts to bring an end to Ireland’s quarter century of partition.2 Stating emphatically that it did not meddle in the affairs of other countries, the U.S. government declined.
ON Easter Monday, 1949, the Irish Free State---otherwise known as ire---was officially declared to be the Republic of Ireland and was so recognised by the United Kingdom.
Other countries were redefining themselves that year. When China became Red China, the Soviet Union triumphantly predicted a coming world revolution that would see communism cover the globe.
By September the Russians had the atomic bomb.
THE newly named Republic of Ireland was poor but peaceful. There was only one recorded murder in 1949. The police were armed with batons and the goodwill of the people. Across the border in Northern Ireland there were plenty of legally held guns, though none was allowed to Catholics.
Many believed that the partition of the island could be ended by political negotiation. But, although they engaged in anti-partition rhetoric at election time, politicians in the Republic showed no real inclination to confront Britain on the issue.
“We won our independence in the same way America did,” Ursula Halloran said angrily, “yet we’re still tiptoeing around Britain! When are we going to stop being afraid of the old enemy?”
A united Ireland became a dream denied, receding into the past with all the other might-have-beens of Irish history.
JOHN Charles McQuaid, the authoritarian archbishop of Dublin and close friend of Eamon de Valera, was a dominant figure in Irish life. His influence was felt everywhere in the Republic. Among the crusades Archbishop McQuaid undertook was a relentless battle to stamp out the mortal sin of sexuality among the Irish.
Under his rule the clergy also frowned on all secular forms of art. The theatre was considered an occasion of sin, and strict censorship laws enforced by the State ensured that all but the most inoffensive books were denied to the public. An average of 840 books a year were condemned as dangerous.
Through contacts abroad, Ursula Halloran acquired books that no one else read. Her ever-expanding library overflowed the bookshelves of the farmhouse and was stacked in tottering piles on the floor. Ursula and her father, Ned Halloran, had always encouraged Barry to read anything he wanted. By the time he was ten he was beginning to leaf through Shakespeare. At first the language was almost unintelligible to him, but when he discovered the sword fights he was hooked.
He organised the boys from neighbouring farms into Montagues and Capulets and staged ferocious battles, in which his side---though he was sometimes a Capulet and sometimes a Montague---always won. He could not bear to lose, and would simply try harder than anyone else.
In his blood, in his bones, was memory. Like music played beyond audible range. Yet when the light fell a certain way or he caught a whiff of some hauntingly familiar smell, Barry was struck dumb by its power.
The overlapping of his grandfather’s life with his own, and his boyhood on what remained essentially a nineteenth-century farm in spite of its twentieth-century improvements, gave him a sense of connection with the past. On more than one occasion he had wandered down some lonely boreen until there was neither house nor barn in sight, then stopped and stood quietly, waiting. Obeying an instinct. Reaching out with something beyond flesh. Touching a past so distant that telephone poles and automobiles were unimaginable, and houses were made of wattle and daub. Circular walls, conical thatched roofs, pens of woven hurdles to keep the livestock safe from raiders. The smell of venison roasting on a spit flooded his mouth with saliva. He knew with certainty that the fire was being fed with the bounteous timber of ancient Ireland, which the sasanach* had long since destroyed.
Against his hip he felt weight of the sword. Fight back! You were born to...
The fragile moment burst like a bubble and was gone.
IN August of 1950 Winston Churchill proposed to the Council of Europe at Strasbourg the creation of a European army. The Irish voted against the plan on the grounds that Britain maintained an occupying army in the north of Ireland.
IN the early 1950s Sinn Fein,* the political party of Irish republicans, began holding summer schools in Dublin. The subjects offered were as diverse as ancient Irish history and modern agricultural techniques. Party headquarters was on the top floor of 3 Lower Abbey Street---accommodations shared with the Legion of Mary. When the president of Sinn F‚in addressed a meeting, the statue of the Virgin was standing right behind him. Her serene face looming over his shoulder lent an ironically symbolic weight to his words.
NINETEEN fifty-four was designated as the Marian Year. Throughout the Republic of Ireland special events were held in honour of the Virgin Mary. Thousands of children bedecked her altars with thousands of flowers and sang hymns in praise of Christ’s gentle mother. Barry took part with skinned knees plainly visible below his short trousers, and afterwards he eagerly returned to playing soldiers with his friends.
He was always the general.
When he pointed his finger at someone and went “Bang,” they obediently fell on the ground and rolled around moaning and groaning. In the end everyone walked away.
IN March, Ursula was furious to read in the papers that Northern Ireland Catholics on their way south to take part in the Marian celebrations had been savagely assaulted by sectarian thugs in a village called Portadown.
Copyright © 2006 by Morgan Llywelyn