Like candles blown out by a celestial wind, the last stars vanished.
The beam of headlamps swung wildly as the Austin Healey skidded on a patch of black ice. Barry Halloran turned into the skid and kept his foot on the accelerator. The green car fishtailed, teetered on the brink of a ditch, recovered and raced on.
Barry’s anger was unstoppable.
He hardly saw the road. Other images clouded his vision like a double exposure. Unarmed civilians being shot down in the street. An injured man shot in the back at point-blank range as he lay writhing on the pavement. An old woman battered to the ground with the butt of a rifle. British soldiers sniggering while the still-bleeding bodies of their victims were tossed into trucks like sides of beef.
On the screen of Barry’s mind the cinematic horror ran over and over again.
His knuckles were white on the steering wheel.
He had taken advantage of the better roads in Northern Ireland by driving south from Derry through Tyrone and Fermanagh. Avoiding the manned border crossing west of Enniskillen, he had entered the Republic of Ireland by a neglected byway, then angled southward again across Leitrim and Roscommon. Even when he reached County Galway very few lights were visible from the road. Much of the region was all but deserted. In the west of Ireland unemployment was endemic. Thousands of young men and women had “taken the boat” to England in search of jobs.
Signposts were notoriously unreliable. With nothing better to do, the local youngsters who remained behind often turned road signs to point in the wrong direction. The unwary driver could go miles out of his way before discovering his mistake.
Finbar Lewis Halloran needed no signposts to County Clare. The map was imprinted on the marrow of his bones.
By the time he turned into the country lane leading off the Ennis Road dawn was breaking. A sullen crimson dawn for the last day of January 1972. “Red sky at night, farmers’ delight,” Barry muttered to himself. “Red sky at morning, farmers take warning.”
Take warning, his tired brain echoed
Ancient hedgerows of furze and whitethorn rose like walls on either side of the laneway. Deep ruts held automobile tyres to the track. Once committed, a driver had no choice but to follow the lane to the end.
After a few hundred yards it came to a substantial farmhouse flanked by barns and outbuildings. Within easy sight from the house a large paddock waited to receive the broodmares, heavy with foal, who would be turned out later in the morning.
Everything looks the same. Thank God, it always looks the same. Barry could feel knots loosening in the pit of his stomach.
Built of local stone in the eighteenth century, the original tiny cottage had been altered repeatedly by successive generations of Hallorans. The house now comprised two full storeys with a steeply pitched slate roof bracketed by brick chimneys. In a rare fit of domesticity, Ursula Halloran had built an extension off the kitchen to hold an array of modern appliances, such as a washing machine and a freezer chest. She never got around to buying them. The space had become a catchall for muddy boots and a haven for orphaned farm animals.
Ursula referred to it as “the nursery.”
Barry slammed on the brakes and hurled himself from the car like a giant spring uncoiling. He was very tall and the leg space beneath the dashboard was insufficient. The long drive had caused his damaged leg to stiffen. When he stood upright a spear of pain shot through the muscles.
A swift intake of breath. A momentary closing of eyes. Then it was over.
Two long strides carried him to the house.
A light was burning in the parlour to the left of the hall. As he ran past, Barry glimpsed the huddled figure of his mother in her favourite armchair, where she sometimes fell asleep listening to the late news on the radio. He took the stairs three at a time. Raced to his room, flung open the door. Threw himself on his knees beside the bed and fumbled beneath the mattress. Inhaled the dusty scent of feathers and ticking, and linen bleached in the sun.
Grasped the polished stock of Ned Halloran’s old rifle.
A woman said from the doorway, “Thank God you’re all right! When I rang your house in Dublin Barbara told me where you’d gone. What just happened in Derry is all over the news, RTE even interrupted its regular programming. I’ve been terrified.”
The haggard man stood up with a rifle in his hands. “You’ve never been terrified in your life, Ursula.” His deep baritone voice was hoarse with weariness.
“That’s all you know. What happened?”
“I don’t think I can talk about it, not yet.”
Reluctantly, he dragged out the words that made it all real again. “When the civil rights march formed up in the Creggan I was there with my cameras. A great opportunity for photojournalism, I thought. Images of hope in Northern Ireland after all these years. People came in the thousands, even from the Republic. Men and women, boys and girls; it was more like a huge picnic than a protest rally. They brought food, their children, even their dogs. There was a lot of laughter and optimism. By the time they moved out the marchers were singing.”
His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “When they reached the Rossville Flats area the British soldiers trapped them in those narrow streets and shot them down like dogs. At least thirteen were killed then and there. Scores of others were wounded. I saw it; I saw it all.” Barry closed his eyes for a moment; swayed where he stood.
Ursula put out a hand to steady him. He brushed it away. “I’m all right,” he insisted.
His mother sat down on the bed. Running up the stairs after him had left her short of breath. “They’re already calling it Bloody Sunday,” she panted. “Like the original Bloody Sunday in 1920, when British forces machine-gunned Irish civilians at a football match. That incident was pretty well hushed up, but what happened yesterday is a different story. Television around the world is carrying scenes from Derry.”
“Bless the telly,” rasped Barry. “For once the Brits can’t pretend one of their atrocities never happened.”
He leaned the rifle against the wall and slumped onto the bed beside his mother. Ursula waited. Slowly, inch by inch, his spine straightened. When he spoke again his tone was that of a professional observer. “When I went to Derry I didn’t expect a massacre, Ursula, though maybe I should have. Maybe we all should have. Surely by now we know the imperial mentality.
“Remember when Martin Luther King gathered a quarter of a million people at the U.S. Capitol in support of civil rights for his people? What a splendid day that was. The whole world seemed new, as if chains were finally being broken and anything was possible. The Catholics in Northern Ireland took King’s message to heart. They believed the same nonviolent protest could work for them.
“They were wrong.
“Yesterday they staged a peaceful march for their civil rights, and were shot in cold blood by the very army that was supposed to protect them. That’s justice in the United Kingdom. In 1960 the American people elected a Catholic president. In 1972 Catholics in Northern Ireland can’t even get a decent job.” Barry’s voice remained steady. Yet tremors of outrage ran through his body.
His mother longed to take him in her arms and comfort him. Theirs had never been that sort of relationship, however. His rumpled hair was the same red-gold it had been when he was a boy, but the sleeves of his coat were stained with someone else’s blood.
He drew a long, deep breath. Exhaled slowly. Drew another. Sought the quiet pool at the centre of himself, which alone could armour a man against the shocks of life.
When he got to his feet, Ursula tilted her head back to look up into his face. Jutting cheekbones and aquiline nose; a wide, mobile mouth. Sharply etched lines that made him appear older than his thirty-three years.
In his deep-set grey eyes she glimpsed the flash of swords.
Barry Halloran looked dangerous.
“What are you going to do now?” she wanted to know.
“Go up to Dublin.”
“Not now surely. You must be in shock, you need a hot meal and some sleep.”
“I don’t need either one, Ursula; I need to go to Dublin.”
Total surrender was not in her nature. “At least take a cup of strong tea first. Wash your face, have a shave . . . and leave your grandfather’s rifle with me. After yesterday, the Gardai* will be out in full strength. You could be stopped anywhere, and if they took Papa’s rifle from you we’d never get it back.”
“Don’t worry, they won’t stop me. I know every back road between here and Dublin, I’ll be there by teatime.”
So everything’s already decided, Ursula thought. I should have known it the moment I saw him holding the rifle.
The rifle was a short magazine Lee-Enfield .303 made during World War One, and fitted with a small brass plate proclaiming its place of manufacture: “Winchester Repeating Arms Co., New Haven, Connecticut.” Ursula Halloran, who knew things, had a bad feeling about that weapon.
For years she had expected her beloved papa would die with the Lee-Enfield in his hands. Much to everyone’s surprise, Ned Halloran had lived to die in his bed. Before age and his many wounds finally caught up with him he gave the rifle to his daughter and made her promise to pass it on to Barry when the boy reached his fifteenth birthday. When Barry later ran away to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and join the Irish Republican Army, he took the rifle with him.
“I really would feel better if you left Papa’s rifle here this time, Barry,” Ursula said. “For my protection.”
He looked down at the small thin woman with her cap of silver hair. And her fierce, blue-grey eyes. “I’d pity anyone who was fool enough to attack you, Ursula. You’re never unarmed. After I took up photography I gave your old Mauser back to you; I suspect it’s under your pillow this very minute. And there’s always the shotgun in the barn. But I’m taking the rifle. After yesterday every Volunteer* in the country will be digging up his weapons. I’m sure Séamus has already retrieved his.”
I should have known, thought Ursula. Séamus. That’s why he’s in such a hurry to get to Dublin. Who else would he turn to at a time like this?
Séamus McCoy had been Barry’s training officer in the IRA. Barry had never known his father, who was killed in 1941 when German bombs were dumped on Dublin’s North Strand. Séamus McCoy had never had a son. The experienced soldier had given the raw youngster an unspoken paternal affection. Their relationship answered a deep need in both men.
In his youth Barry had dreamed of being a warrior in the ancient Celtic mould. He was a natural athlete with more energy than he could use; the IRA had provided an outlet for both. But the first time he saw men killed in front of him the gap between romantic imagination and bloody reality had shaken him to the core.
Eventually Barry had disengaged himself from active service. He never discussed the reason for his decision with anyone, even Séamus McCoy. Yet he remained committed to Irish republicanism. While other Volunteers struggled to keep the resistance movement alive by fighting skirmishes and throwing bombs—sometimes blowing themselves up instead of RUC stations—Barry had turned to freelance photojournalism as a way of furthering the republican viewpoint.
“I like cameras,” was his offhand explanation for his career choice, “because I’m good at fiddley things like adjusting f-stops.” It went deeper than that. Photography suited his complex nature.
Barry Halloran had always been a puzzle to those who knew him. As a boy he was reckless and fun-loving, yet given to long silences. His nature combined a fiery temper with a sense of poetry. In a single day he might go from infectious gaiety to brooding melancholy and back again; even his mother was never sure what her child was thinking.
Maturity had taught him to keep a lid on his more extreme emotions. Photography provided a creative outlet for those feelings. An inspired moment behind the camera could give voice to the griefs hidden in Barry’s heart, or expose an injustice that enraged him.
Photojournalism was in its infancy in Ireland, however, so in order to augment an uncertain income, Barry had borrowed enough money to purchase a boardinghouse. At the time he bought the house, in an area of Dublin called Harold’s Cross, there were eight boarders; unmarried men with steady jobs who, for the most part, paid their rent on time.
“I never thought I’d become a landlord, when the Irish have hated landlords for centuries,” Barry commented wryly.
Then, when Séamus McCoy was diagnosed with cancer, Barry had taken him in. He saw his friend through painful surgery and a long convalescence, then persuaded him to stay on at the boardinghouse as manager. Harold’s Cross was a growing enterprise.
The other member of the staff was a vivacious young American, Barbara Kavanagh, a granddaughter of Ursula’s beloved Uncle Henry. Barbara had been in Italy studying to be an opera singer when her voice was damaged by an overzealous teacher. Instead of returning to America she had stayed in Europe and attempted to build a less demanding musical career. In her na¨iveté the girl was mercilessly exploited. At last, angry and disillusioned, she arrived in Dublin. Barry had offered her a safe haven until she got back on her feet.
Barbara was still in Harold’s Cross, where she was now the housekeeper to pay her way. There was no denying she was an asset. She handled a multiplicity of tasks with typical American efficiency.
Ursula was not fooled by the title of “housekeeper.” Plenty of priests have housekeepers who take care of more than the parochial house, she reminded herself. She had a dark suspicion that someday her son would marry Barbara Kavanagh, and a darker suspicion that it would be a mistake. A headstrong and egocentric young woman, Barbara was far from the traditional model of an Irish wife. And though he would never admit it, in his heart of hearts Barry was a traditional man.
His mother was the rebel.
When she followed Barry outside she noticed that he was limping. “It’s a long drive to Dublin,” she said.
He patted his car as she would pat the neck of a horse. “Apollo will take care of me.” He loved the car, which owed its nickname to the U.S. space programme. Space travel interested Barry. A lot of things interested Barry.
She watched him stow the rifle and two boxes of cartridges in the boot of the car and cover them with photographic equipment. The length of his folded tripods was sufficient to conceal a rifle barrel.
Barry slammed the lid of the boot and walked to the front of the car. “I’ll see you when I see you,” he said casually.
“What do you think will happen now?”
“Ursula, you know as well as I do the IRA won’t take this lying down. The Army’s not the force it once was, but the Brits can’t shoot innocent Irish people and walk away. Not anymore.” A muscle twitched in his jaw. “They’ll pay for what they’ve done.”
Ursula thought of all the things she wanted to say to him. She settled for, “Mind yourself.”
“You too,” he replied. He pressed the back of his hand against her cheek, just for a moment. Then he got into the car. A firm foot on the accelerator sent the Austin Healey roaring down the laneway.
Ursula stood watching until it was swallowed up by the hedgerows.
“I love you very much,” she whispered into the empty space where her son had been.
Copyright © 2008 by Morgan Llywelyn. All rights reserved.