(This chapter introduces the back story of the book – an incident in Irish Civil War and one of the main characters – Charlie McKenna.)
Ireland – South Cork 8th. August 1922
Only one of the men paddling in the shallow waters of the River Lee recognized the buzzing sound in the distance.
“That sounds like an old Bristol fighter to me.” said Charlie McKenna, shading and screwing his eyes as he looked into the bright early morning sunlight.
“That’s a British aeroplane isn’t it? What would a British aeroplane be doing flying around Cork,” shouted his brother Pat from the shore.
The three men in the water started to move ashore, gazing to the east as the low flying plane approached Hop Island.
“Get back to the car and get the guns, Pat,” said Charlie.
The elder McKenna was a fairly large man in his mid twenties, broad shouldered with slim hips and with an open and pleasant face. A demeanour that tricked many into thinking that he was not only easy going, but easily fooled.
“Go on, get moving!” he shouted sharply.
They left the water and scrambled up the slight embankment. Pat quickly distributed the rifles with four rounds each.
“Think we should fire at it?” said Pat, putting the rifle to his shoulder.
“Lie down all of you,” ordered McKenna.
The aircraft tilted slightly on its axis as it turned with the estuary curve, obviously making its way up river to the city of Cork. Charlie lifted his head to see more clearly.
“Well, well I’ve seen it all now,” he said quietly.
“What’s up, Charlie?”
“Did you see the roundels on that plane any of you?”
“Yes the roundels – the round identifying marks on the wings of a plane.”
“Yes they were green and white weren’t they?” said Pat.
“The British Army planes have blue and red on their wings. Looks like the Free State have bought themselves an aeroplane. Never thought I’d see the day when an Irishman…” He stopped as the plane turned slightly, straightened up almost at right angle to their position.
“And look,” cried Pat excitedly “It has an Irish flag on its tail wing.”
“Should we fire at it on the way back?” said one of the Martin brothers, unsure about what Pat and Charlie were talking about.
“Doubt if it would come back this way,” said Charlie.
Charlie turned away, the chances of hitting a moving target were hard enough without amateurs like Pat and the two Martin boys firing away using their usual haphazard technique. At a funeral two weeks ago Declan, the younger of the Martins, took part in a four gun salute where he managed to hit a telephone junction box, knocking out local communications for days. But it wasn’t the chances of hitting a moving target that was concerning Charlie, it was the fact that the Provisional Government had a plane at all. The thought gave him mixed feelings, for in a way he was an unenthusiastic and unconvinced rebel against this newly formed government. It was a state of affairs that came about by a geographical accident, and more to do with personal loyalty than any hard held conviction. The sight had also, although he would have been reluctant to admit it, given him an uneasy sense of pride.
“Get your boots on,” he said “we’ve still got a few miles to Passage West to cover.”
They had stopped to give Kevin Martin a bit of a rest from driving. He had driven the Lancia car, accompanied by his younger brother, down from the town of Macroom during the night. The journey was long and arduous, and it was made doubly difficult by the bad state of the road and the feeble light from the headlamps. However he was given no respite and was immediately ordered to take Charlie and Pat on a recce to Passage West. There was a rumour that some Free State forces had landed there earlier that morning.
Charlie walked passed the Lancia, still looking at the gradually disappearing outline of the Bristol fighter. He was confident it wouldn’t come back by the same route, the pilot, whatever his nationality, would know the dangers of returning over the same ground. Anyone who had flown a plane in the last war knew that any hostile forces about would be ready for the plane’s return and would start firing almost regardless of their chances of a hit, a lesson not lost on pilots during that bloody and desperate encounter. He knew this simply because he had been there and had seen planes been brought down by the sheer barrage of lead that came up to meet them.
Although everyone knew Charlie was an ex-British Army sergeant and a veteran of the Great War, few ever asked, or dared to ask, about his time there or why he had joined the British army in the first place. Not that he could tell them much. Charlie had just turned eighteen when he left home to stay with a cousin and aunt in Glasgow. With the war now entering its second year there was plenty of work. Yet he had only been working in Glasgow for a few months before joining the British army, something that still baffled him to this day. He had recently convinced himself that he had somehow been tricked by his foreman in the Maryhill gas works to join up, but in reality it was the thought of going to France that excited him most, that and the fact that he could join up with the Dublin Fusiliers. The British Army had been recruiting heavily in Glasgow at this time, those men who were Irish or had an Irish background were free to join an Irish regiment, and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers “the Dubs” were popular among the Irish immigrant community in Glasgow.
He joined up and completed his basic training in a converted public park near Carlisle, and shipped over to France in time for the Battle of Hulluch, where he was lucky to survive a murderous artillery bombardment and even luckier to escape been gassed by the Germans – all on the same week as the Easter rising in Dublin. It was a baptism of fire. He learned the futility of the creeping barrage tactic and the crippling effect of the German machine guns in a month of sporadic attacks along a long line from Lens to Neuve Chapelle. During a respite in the reserve trenches, his company was assembled and asked if anyone had experience in the coal industry. Charlie stuck up his hand with about half a dozen others. They were marched along to the main depot and transported down the line by train to Amiens where he discovered he was to join a tunnelling company. His protest that he had merely worked with coal in a gas works and that he wasn’t a miner were dismissed by the sergeant major as ‘Neither here nor there, mate’. A young lieutenant joined in and said that if he didn’t want to mine then he could ‘Jolly well join up with engineers’ explosive platoon’. One was as potentially fatal as the other but he decided working with explosives was probably less hellish than a life down a mine shaft. Charlie managed to survive and he was a quick learner. He handled explosives with the same degree of confidence as he could load and fire a rifle, but his most impressive virtue was his patience. He stayed calm and showed leadership when others around him panicked. The men admired him, looked up to him and it was no surprise that he rose up the ranks to sergeant.
They toiled for weeks under the clay at Hawthorn Ridge, hauling ton after ton of ammonal to the forward position under the German lines. Its detonation marked the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The carnage of the next couple of weeks led to continual mayhem behind the lines. Charlie was ordered back to his battalion which itself was continually being moved around to back up other army divisions and battle groups. After a year in France it all ended in utter confusion when he finally took a bullet in the leg after carrying a wounded officer back to the medical centre from the second battle of the Scarpe. Charlie was taken to the casualty clearing station at Arras and then for some inexplicable reason loaded on to a French hospital train that was about to leave for Paris – where he found himself idly lounging around the Paris Plage hospital for the next two months. Charlie was awarded the Military Medal for reasons that were never made clear, and finally posted to a small army administration base near the Gare de Nord in the 10th District as a wages clerk, none of which made any sense to him. Charlie was not inclined to argue; he had somehow managed to acquire a position where the duties were easy and the hours short. He made use of his time by travelling around Paris trying to master the French language, and, more importantly, trying to find a way of getting out of the army. Paris, at that time, was far enough from the front line to still attract the usual crowd of rentier artists and writers of limited talent and seemingly limitless cash who regarded Charlie as working class hero. He acquired a taste for wine and even managed to acquire a passport during one boozy afternoon. Eventually he was surprised to be finally discharged on medical grounds even though he never felt fitter in his life. He simply showed his hospital record to a drunken medical officer who assumed that a two month stay in a hospital by someone with the Military Medal must indicate a serious injury. They posted him to Kent to await his final papers, when they came he was delighted to find that the Army Board had kindly issued him with a free rail pass to a destination of his choice anywhere in Britain, including Ireland.
He had thought of returning home to Donegal but he decided to return to Glasgow, mainly because he had a network of friends and relatives. In any event getting to the town of Letterkenny was comparatively easy as there was a daily boat from Glasgow to Derry. An added attraction was a stop off in London, a city he was desperate to see after spending so much time in Paris: it would be interesting to compare both of these great cities of the world. He still had a lot to learn and he’d learn on the way or, as he told his bewildered soldier colleagues, “il apprendrait sur la voie” He had surprised himself by discovering he had a good ear for languages. He was not a native Gaelic speaker and took lessons at school but speaking Gaelic was considered a bit uncouth in many ways and in the main town of Letterkenny almost all business was conducted in English. In some ways Letterkenny, he had reflected recently, had more in common with Maidstone in Kent than it had with Cork. The reason he spoke better French than Gaelic, a language he found difficult, he had rationalised, was that English seemed to him to translate easier into French than into Gaelic.
His stay in London was enjoyable, if somewhat short and frustrating. He only had two days there, as each journey was specified on the ticket – not the ‘open ticket’ he expected. However he still managed to rush through the major museums and galleries. Back in Glasgow he even managed to get his old job as a stoker in the Maryhill gas works back again, but within a month he had the stirrings of tedium. He became restless and bored. He spent the time reading the papers for news of the war and then throwing them into a corner in frustration. He took to generally roaming around the streets for, although he was far from teetotal, he was never a great one for sitting around the dismal war time pubs. He read constantly, preferring to use the local library or, even better, walking down through St. Georges Cross and on to the enormous and well stocked reading rooms of the Mitchell library near Glasgow town centre.
The invitation to America came right of the blue. Charlie had already thought briefly about going there, had made some inquires and knew that the easiest way to get there was by being sponsored by someone who was already well established there. Otherwise, because of the war, you had to have a trade or a special skill to even get past the first hurdle. He decided to bide his time and save up some money before thinking of what to do next. The McKennas were a large family and he was the third youngest of nine children, three girls and six boys. The oldest was Margaret who had left for America in 1896 on the promise of a job with her older cousin. She was fifteen and emigration to the US was a lot easier then. He was no more than two years old when she left; he had no recollection of her at all.
Now it seems Margaret was doing well and had written to her mother with the offer of guarantor for another family member to emigrate. His mother, as Charlie was later to find out, was a good judge of character and seldom let her heart rule her head. One of the other girls was already married with children of her own. Of the boys, three, including Charlie, had left home, the others she had come to regard as timid and unadventurous or simply not quick witted enough. Pat, the youngest boy, was smart, but still a child. She also had a fondness for Charlie; she had been good at school herself and recognised and knew that Charlie was clever and resourceful. She held him in high regard and realised that his talents would be probably wasted competing with others in the low grade work around Donegal and Derry. Charlie’s mother had no great desire to see him come home– well, not yet anyway, and she told no one, including her husband, about Margaret’s offer.
She wrote quickly to Charlie advising him write directly to Margaret in Philadelphia, explaining her thinking to him and telling him not to worry about the rest of the family’s reaction to her decision.
“I’ll deal with anyone that complains,” she wrote. Unfortunately, she hardly needed to add, he was on his own as far as money was concerned.
Charlie could hardly contain himself. He immediately wrote to Margaret regaling her with fond and entirely fictional memories of her. The paperwork came through a few weeks later, including a Paid-For Ticket as demanded by the regulations at the time. He would arrange to repay Margaret later. Although a passport wasn’t necessary for an immigrant, his possession of one seemed to impress the authorities. He thought himself fortunate to have applied for one in Paris, considering it was done on a drunken whim. Within two months he was on his way to Belfast to pick up the Trans Atlantic steamer Adriatic, which had left Southampton three days before.
He wrote to an old army colleague, Sam Gorman, to tell him he was coming to Belfast. Sam wrote back by return post insisting that Charlie had to stay with him at his mother’s house in East Belfast. It was Charlie’s first time in Belfast and it was an unusual experience. Sam was a Protestant who had joined ‘the Dubs’ as he put it ‘out of sheer badness’. He also had been wounded in the Arras campaign and was discharged, or ‘invalided out’ as some put it. Before joining up Sam, was a skilled riveter and plater at Harland and Wolff’s and, having a reserved occupation, had a bit of difficulty signing on for the army. He solved this by taking a short trip to Glasgow and telling a few lies.
Despite being quite obviously lame, his skills were in such demand that he was immediately taken back into the shipyard. He was a good, conscientious worker. Sam was also middle ranking trade union official with hard socialist views and who despaired of the wilder excesses of the rampant triumphalism of his Protestant neighbours. He had the typical city dwelling working class physique, having a thin and wiry shape combined with pale sombre features which belied a great sense of humour and natural charm. Charlie also knew him to be almost insanely brave. He was a strong character with firm views and used his wit to great effect in the arguing and bickering that passed for debate in the trenches.
The city centre of Belfast reminded him of Glasgow, in appearance and character and the people were oddly similar to Glaswegians in their use of communal words and language. He had noticed how Sam was often mistaken for a Glaswegian by their English, and more surprisingly, their southern Irish colleagues. While he was in Belfast, Sam introduced him to his great passion, football. He followed the fate of several football teams in Belfast, his favourite being the local team Glentoran and took Charlie to see them play one of their rivals, Cliftonville. Being wartime it was billed as a ‘friendly’ match. Charlie enjoyed the game and the general spectacle, but was it was hard not to notice the simmering, underlying sectarian hostility in the crowd. After the game they walked into the city centre looking for what Sam called a ‘neutral’ pub.
“Things are looking bad here, Charlie,” said Sam after buying a couple of pints. “We’ve had bad riots recently since some of them southern MPs have started to boycott the London Parliament. Carson is back ranting about Home Rule and Rome rule. It’s calm at the moment but things can get really ugly around here – and it doesn’t take that much to start it off.”
Charlie had very few political thoughts about Ireland before the war but the debates in the trenches, particularly Sam’s, had made a deep impression on him. Sam was often the lone voice against what he called ‘daft romantic nationalism’, not that he had any love of the empire or capitalism he would be quick to point out, but that the real battle was against big business and their exploitation of the working class.
“So what are you going to do, Sam?” asked Charlie.
“Not sure if there’s much I can do about it,” replied Sam. “There’s talk of partition as being the best answer, even among the boys in the union – not convinced that I agree, but most of the Protestants up here are all for it. As far as I’m concerned, sure it doesn’t make any difference to me if we’re exploited by some bowler hatted bigwig singing ‘The Sash’ or some bead rattler dancing around with a shillelagh, they’ll still demand sweat and blood off all us eventually. But we live in dark times and if anyone starts to argue with some of the more bitter Unionists or defend Catholics in any way, they’re just as likely to be murdered as well as anyone else, believe me…”
They continued their chat over another two or three beers, talked of the war, books, politics, roaming from one topic to another. Finally they left in good humour.
“Now don’t you be singing them silly rebel songs, or you’ll get us both killed!” said Sam laughing and putting a finger to his mouth with exaggerated caution as they both held on to each other and tottered up the road.
The next morning Sam walked Charlie through the thin black drizzle that seemed to be Belfast’s permanent weather feature, to the quay side of York Dock.
“Here, I didn’t realize your ship was going to be the Adriatic! Look, see that row of rivets along the top gunwale – I did them,” he announced proudly. “Ah yes, Belfast built! You can’t beat it!”
Two cranes were loading a large cargo of textiles into the hold as they walked to the solitary gangplank. One or two figures appeared on deck and, even though it was clear that very few passengers were embarking from Belfast, a few lonely streamers were beginning to be thrown from the rails.
“Goodbye, Sam. It was great to see you, I hope everything goes well. I’ll write to you first thing, and let you know how I’m getting on.”
Sam shook his hand warmly and slapped him on the back.
“Sure. You do that, old boy,” said Sam imitating the upper class accent of the officer rank. “Good luck, chin, chin and all that!”
Sam stood back on the quay side, holding a streamer and waving until the boat disappeared into the mist of Belfast Lough. Charlie never saw him alive again.