Authors: Siobhan Dowd
For my three sisters,
Oona, Denise, Enda–
my love as ever.
In 1981, several members of the Provisional IRA and of the Irish National Liberation Army in prison in Long Kesh, also known as HMP Maze, went on a hunger strike in an effort to persuade the British authorities that they should be accorded Special Category status as political prisoners. Ten men actually starved themselves to death. By the summer of 1981, partly as a result of an intervention by Prison Chaplain Father Faul, some of the families gave permission for their sons to be removed while unconscious to hospital beds, where they could be drip-fed. Others decided not to intervene. The strike finally ended in October 1981. Some of the demands of the hunger strikers were subsequently met.
In my story, the hunger strikers Joe McCann and Lennie Sheehan are entirely fictional, as are all the other characters.
The bog lay in the bright, slanting morning light, the dew-drops sparkling like millions of diamonds. A large crowd of the local inhabitants had already gathered…They were tightly grouped in a ring around a dark-coloured human head, with a tuft of short-cropped hair, which stuck up clear of the dark brown peat. Part of the neck and shoulders was also exposed. We were clearly face to face once again with one of the bog people.
P. V. Glob,
The Bog People
Ireland, near the north-south border 1981
They’d stolen a march on the day. The sky was like dark glass, reluctant to let the light through. The only sound was the chudder of the van skirting the lough. The surface of the water was colourless. The hills slumped down on the far side like silhouettes of snoozing giants.
Fergus yawned. It was still before five as they turned off up the mountain road. Uncle Tally chewed on nothing as the tyres lumbered over the ruts. Fergus cradled the flask of sweet black tea. There’d been no milk in the fridge that morning.
‘Too early for you, huh?’ mocked Uncle Tally, changing gear.
‘Too right,’ said Fergus. ‘When I go running, it’s not dark like this.’ His throat was furred up. The words came out stretched by a yawn. ‘It’s unnatural being up before the birds.’
They approached the border checkpoint and the van slowed. The soldier by the hut stood with a rifle but did not move. He was young-looking and pale, with freckles. He waved them on, tipping the butt of the gun, and they drove past without having to stop. Uncle Tally laughed. ‘I could have a truckload of Semtex for all that wee squaddie cares,’ he said.
Fergus grunted. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Deus would be delighted.’
Deus, Latin for ‘God’, was the local nickname for a rumoured bomb-maker, said to be active thereabouts.
‘So he would.’
‘Only you’d be going in the wrong direction. We’re
the Troubles, Unk, not joining them.’
Uncle Tally thumped the wheel. ‘So we are. We’re in the free state now. Free as a bloody bog-frog.’ They both laughed like clowns. Going over the border always had that effect. Without your knowing it, your jaw-bone would stiffen and adrenalin pump through your veins as the checkpoint approached. Then, when you were through, hilarity would erupt at the relief.
The van turned up onto a steep road with grass growing up the middle. The gorse got yellower as they climbed, the sky brighter. ‘The border. Even a nun would be nervous crossing it,’ suggested Fergus.
‘And we’ll be crossing back over it at the top.’
‘If you look at the map. You can see.’
Fergus opened the map and saw the dotted grey line, almost invisible, meandering across Ireland’s north, but leaving a thin tract of land to the west that was Donegal. ‘
The most northern bit of Ireland’s in the South
,’ he quoted.
‘One day, one day…’ Uncle Tally muttered like a mantra.
‘One day what?’
‘One day the only border will be the sea and the only thing guarding it the dunes and the only people living in it Republicans. One day, Fergus.’
‘Where will the Unionists go, so?’
‘They’ll be beamed to outer space, warp factor five.’ Uncle Tally drove round a loop of road, heading back to where the light was growing on the horizon. ‘Lucky them. Now, here’s the spot to park, Fergus. Get cracking. The JCB crew will be down on us before you know.’ He pulled up and they got out the shovels and bags from the back and walked over a track for a hundred yards. On either side, brown grass sprouted out of black, wet earth, and bright green weeds spread like mildew over the soggier areas. The first skylark of the day darted from cover. Fergus approached the JCB, which was still, abandoned. Earth was churned up all around it, the leftover diggings from the day before. But ‘earth’ was the wrong word. It was turf, rich foaming peat, made from the things that had lived here in millennia gone by and pressed by time into a magic frieze of the past. You could dig up wood from primeval forests, find resin with insects of another age frozen in it. And what you dug up you could burn as fuel.
And, as his da said, there was nothing like the smell of the turf on a hearth to bring comfort in a dark world.
A pink tint grew on the horizon as they dug and filled the bags with uncut clumps. Dawn intensified. The sky was clear and close up here, the mind un-cluttered. Uncle Tally grunted as he shovelled, his taut, fit frame enjoying the work. Fergus held the bags open for him and then they swapped over. They’d sell the bags for ninety pence and Fergus was promised a cut of thirty per cent. But the JCB crew would be arriving soon and they’d have to be well gone by then.
A cry made Fergus swivel round. It was only a wild kid with a creamy coat, bleating at its mother fifty yards away or more.
‘Get the flask, Fergus,’ Uncle Tally said. ‘I’m parched. I’d a skinful last night.’
‘Yes. Your da and Pad McGuire. They came down to Finicule’s for one. And you know how it is.’
‘Were you singing, Unk?’
‘We were so far gone we were singing
Three Blind Mice
. I ask you. And your da couldn’t get beyond
See how they run
. And it was only ten o’clock.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘OK. Maybe not
Fergus went to the van and found the flask of tea. He brought it over and they strolled down to an outcrop of rock and shared a capful. The rim of the sun came over the mountain. A wind picked up.
‘Christ, it’s quiet up here,’ said Uncle Tally.
‘It’d be a strange place to live.’
‘You’d have to be a hermit.’
‘There’d be nothing to do but pray,’ said Fergus.
‘Aye. You’d have plenary indulgences made for every last sinner by the time you died yourself. And then you’d be whisked up straight to heaven.’
‘You should move up here.’
‘I would too. Only it’s a bit far.’
‘Far from where?’
‘The nearest bar.’
‘You could make your own distillery, Unk.’
‘But what would you distil?’
‘The prayers. What else?’
Uncle Tally clipped his ear. ‘You’re too sharp, Fergus McCann. Pass me the flask.’
After tea, they filled another ten bags. When there was no loosened turf left, Uncle Tally left the shovel prodded into the earth and they began to load the bags into the van.
‘Not a bad haul.’
Fergus wandered off to the other side of the JCB. He watched the skyline and listened to morning getting under way. There was a hum of insects now, small movements of birds and, far off from the floor of the valley, the sound of the odd truck. The sun was up, white and smooth behind a whisper of cloud. The track led back to the road, and the road truncated the bog-land and headed straight to the horizon. Up here was borderland too. He was looking back into the North, but behind him was the Republic.
‘Ferg, shake a leg,’ called Uncle Tally.
‘Will we do another few bags?’
‘What time is it?’
Fergus looked at the watch he was minding for his older brother, Joe. ‘Not seven yet.’
‘OK. But we’ve to make a fresh cut of it.’
A shovel apiece, they scrambled into the cut the JCB had made last thing the day before.
‘You work that end, I’ll work this. You’ve to ram the sharp side in straight and up in a line.’ Uncle Tally showed him how. ‘Then down along.’
‘Like a grid?’
‘That’s it. Once you’ve the first line out, it’s easier.’
It was slower going than working with the JCB’s leavings. But the smell of the fresh peat was clean and the springy consistency strangely satisfying to cut into.
Fergus finished a good-sized grid and worked down along the cut, away from his uncle.
‘Hiyack!’ he shouted as he brought the shovel hard down at a fresh angle. One inch from the wall of brown turf, he froze. A foreign colour stopped him, a dull, tawny glint. He let the shovel topple at his side and his eyes blinked. Then he stretched out a hand to touch the surface. Maybe it was a trick of the light. Or a stone. Or—
Whatever it was was hard.
He spat on his forefinger and wiped it. It gleamed a little, like a smile.
A coin’s edge. That was it.
Excited, he spat on his fingertips and rubbed it again.
No. It was bigger. A coil of metal, fashioned like a plait, chased itself round.
And as he stared, fingers, four of them, appeared below it. They were brown and lined and tiny. The skin on them was too big for the bones, drooping slightly. They reminded him of his mother’s, when she wore the extra-large Marigold rubber gloves.
They were beautiful, poised like a pianist’s getting ready to play, but only half the size of his own.
Uncle Tally, hard at work down his end of the cut, didn’t hear.
‘Unk. Jesus, Unk. Come here.’
‘There’s something here. In the earth. A hand.’
‘What d’you mean
‘A tiny hand. And a bangle on it. And some cloth stuff.’
Uncle Tally hee-hawed. ‘Hey, Ferg. It’s June. Not the first of bloody April.’
But he came and looked where Fergus pointed.
They stood in silence, staring at the wall of turf.
‘Shit,’ said Uncle Tally.
It was like a mural.
The legs were missing.
The side of a twisted torso covered in brown-stained cloth was visible above the hand. The shoulders, neck and head disappeared into the earth behind.
‘It’s a body,’ said Uncle Tally.
‘Dead right it’s a body,’ said Fergus.
‘You could say dead again.’
‘Is it the Provos, Unk?’
‘Is it somebody they killed?’
‘Why would they bother burying a child like that?’
Fergus realized. Of course. The tiny hand: the body of a child. ‘Maybe it was an execution. A child of a traitor. Somebody who’d done the Cause a bad turn.’
‘Nah. That’s not the Provos’ style.’ Uncle Tally put his shovel so it matched up against the torso’s length.
‘It’s a girl, Unk,’ Fergus gasped. ‘A poor wee girl. Look at the bangle and the dress on her.’
‘Mother of mercy. Let’s get out of here.’
‘Look, she’s dead, right?’
‘I know she’s dead, but—’
‘Yeah. And probably murdered, right?’
‘So if we report it, we’re done for the turf-cutting.’
‘But, Unk, if the JCB crew arrive, they’ll just cut her up. Into ribbons. It’s a miracle they stopped when they did. And that I saw her.’
‘Fergus, nobody’s going to bring that child back to life.’
A clod of earth fell from the cut as he said that and an elbow appeared, small and leathered.
‘Oh, Unk. Please.’
‘What d’you want me to do, Fergus?’
They stood still in the cut. The kid bleated from far away like it was lost. Fergus felt a tear forming. Furious, he bit his lip.
‘It’s a girl like our Theresa or Cath, Unk. We can’t just leave her to get mashed up by the JCB. It’s easy to miss her. She’s gone all brown with being in the bog.’
Uncle Tally sighed. ‘We’re in the Republic, I suppose. It’d be the Gardai I’d tell. Not the RUC.’ He picked up Fergus’s shovel. ‘I’m heading away back along the road and over to Inchquin. If the JCB comes, you were up here bird-watching.’
‘And you made a covert of the cut and just happened to spot this. Got it?’
‘I’m away to get the guards.’
They loaded the shovels and last two bags of peat into the back of the van. Uncle Tally got in and wound down the window.
‘And, Fergus?’ he said.
‘Don’t touch her. Don’t try to dig her out any more.’
‘Fingerprints. They’ll think you’re the murderer, stupid.’
‘And take this.’
Uncle Tally rooted in the glove compartment and handed Fergus some binoculars. ‘Bird-watching. Right?’
‘Stay away from that body.’
The van drove away. Fergus went back to the cut and waited above it, trying out the views through the binoculars. Half the time he stared at the magnified brown body in the bog. He could see lines on the finger-pads, as if the small girl had been alive yesterday. They looped and spooled like rivers. Some property of the bog had accentuated them. Then he noticed a grey-white bone, sticking out a fraction. It was where the JCB had cut through her lower leg. His stomach somersaulted. He whisked round and examined the view of the plain below, a great swath of County Fermanagh. But however hard he peered, he could have sworn the child behind him was staring into his back, her eyes needling his shoulder blades. He shrugged and pinched himself and looked through the binoculars to the far horizon. From up here, on the peaceful mountain, it was hard to believe that such unquiet existed amongst the people living on the plain below. Curls of smoke, swaying trees, cars flashing blue and red along the tarmac roads, all moved in silence. A sparrowhawk glided across his field of vision, swimming on a current of air, wavering. Then it swooped to earth and vanished from view. He crawled forward on the springy earth and lay flat on his stomach, spying down on the world. Behind him, the grass sighed with the sound of waiting.