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Authors: Gerard Whelan

War Children

BOOK: War Children
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In memory of my sorely missed aunt, Kathleen Doyle – dancer, chainsmoker, fabulist, teetotaller, black humorist, practical joker, and dedicated stewer of strong, strong tea.

Various people have read and made helpful comments on this material at various times, among whom I should (as ever!) single out Liz Morris and Frank Murphy in particular. My special thanks are due to Mark O’Sullivan, for practical assistance with the linguistic plumbing at the end of ‘Mulligan’s Drop’.

We in Ireland tend to describe the events that happened here in the years before 1921 as a ‘war of independence’, but this is not what it was called at the time. It was especially hard for the British to call it that, since
politically
– like other colonial powers later on in the twentieth century – they had to deny there was a war going on at all. While Ireland was legally part of the United Kingdom, and had British troops in it just as other parts of the UK did, the Government solution to the problem was to call the guerrilla fighters criminals and to militarise the police force. To strengthen the backbone of the old
Royal Irish Constabulary
, two new ‘police’ units were recruited, mainly from soldiers left over from the recently-ended First World War. One of these forces was known as the
Auxiliaries
(called ‘
Auxies
’ for short by the Irish) and was made up of former officers. The other force, whose members acquired a fearsome reputation that has remained to this day, were universally known by the nickname they were given by the Irish. The new force was mustered in such a hurry that there weren’t enough proper police uniforms for them, and in their early days they were dressed in mixture of the dark green RIC uniform and army khaki; because of this they were nicknamed, after a famous pack of hunting dogs, the
Black and Tans
.

I was standing in the kitchen when there was a knock at the back door, and when I opened it Mattie Foley stuck a pistol in my face.

‘Hands up, Nancy!’ she growled in a let-on tough man’s voice.

I suppose I let a squeal out of me. My Ma, who was kneading dough at the kitchen table, looked up and gasped at what she saw.

‘Matilda Foley!’ she said, in a tough voice that wasn’t a bit let-on. ‘You put that thing down
now
!’

Mattie giggled and, holding the gun high, wafted past me into the kitchen. I stood looking after her, with my hand still on the handle of the door. Ma held her flour-covered hand out to Mattie.

‘Give me that,’ she said. ‘Is it real? Where did you get it?’

Mattie hesitated. For a second she looked like she was going to refuse, then she handed Ma the gun.

‘I found it in the yard by the back wall,’ she said. ‘It’s real enough. I bet some gunman got caught in the street
search this morning, and thrun it in over the wall so it wouldn’t be found on him.’

The soldiers and Auxies had blocked both entrances to the court and searched everyone and everywhere. They hadn’t bothered saying who or what they were looking for, but then they never did. At any rate they’d arrested nobody, just terrified everyone and made the usual
nuisance
of themselves. Still, no-one had been hurt, and not much broken. That was something.

Ma handled the gun like she might catch something off of it. She put it down very carefully on the table and stood with her hands on her hips looking down at it. Mattie stood beside her, wriggling her whole body the way she did whenever she was excited. She rubbed each bare, dirty foot in turn along the ankle of the other, like she always did too. It made people laugh the way she could never stand still. Her nickname was ‘Dancer’ because of it – and to rhyme with her Da’s nickname, which was ‘Chancer’, because that’s what he was, a complete chancer.

I shut the back door and went over beside Ma and Mattie. We all stood and looked at the gun. It looked evil, and it looked twice as evil there on the floury table beside the big ordinary lump of everyday dough.

‘That’s a Mauser,’ Mattie said. She liked to know the names of things.

The gun really was an ugly-looking thing. It was a big black metal rectangle with a rounded butt sticking out of
it and a long, thin, nearly delicate-looking barrel.

‘How do you know it’s a Mauser?’ Ma said. ‘It could be a Maxim gun for all you know.’

But Mattie pointed to some words stamped proud on the metal just above the wooden grips.

‘See here,’ she said, and read slowly: ‘
Waffen … fabrik Mauser … Oberndorf … A. Neckar
. That’s German, that is.’

I’d never seen German writing before, any more than Mattie had. But I took her word for it. The word Mauser was plain to see, and everybody knew that they were German guns. The German rifles the rebels had used in the Rising had been Mausers. There was an old fellow in the court who’d been out in ’16, and he called the rifles ‘Lousers’ because he said they were rotten guns and nearly took the arm off you every time you fired one.

Mattie was very proud of being able to read. She was the first in her family to have learned. But it seemed little use when the words were in a foreign language. At least German seemed to be written with real letters – not like Irish, that was supposed to be our own language but was written in a mad alphabet that only a few odd-bods could make out.

Ma’s eyes weren’t the best. She leaned down and squinted at the printing on the gun.

‘It says Mauser, all right,’ she said. ‘But the rest is gibberish to me.
Waffenfabrik
– what class of a fabric might that be, I wonder?
Oberndorf
sounds like a place. But
A. Neckar
– that’s like someone’s name.’

‘I bet you it’s the fella that made it!’ Mattie said. ‘Oh, I wonder what he’s like! What could the “
A
” stand for? Not Archie, surely. Alfred, maybe. No – it’d be a foreign name.’

‘Anthony,’ I suggested.

Mattie wrinkled up her face.

‘Sure that’s not foreign, Nancy. I know – Antonio! Antonio Neckar! And he puts his name on every gun he makes, because he’s proud of it.’

And she started to sing, which she’d do at the slightest excuse:

‘Oh, Oh, Antonio,

He’s gone away.

Left me alone-io,

All on my own-io.’

But Ma became very serious.

‘Shut up, Mattie,’ she said. ‘This is bad.’

She slapped the gun with the flat of her hand. ‘Don’t you know what this is?’ she said.

Mattie looked puzzled. ‘A Mauser pistol,’ she said. ‘Made in Oberndorf out of Waffenfabrik by Herr Antonio Neckar, the master gunsmith.’

It was as if Ma didn’t hear her. Ma’s face was suddenly tight and hard.

‘It’s a death-sentence for any man in the house that it’s found in,’ she snapped. Now the gun looked even more ugly, and I got a cold feeling in my stomach thinking of my
Da and of my brothers Jim and Ray. They were at work now, but they were all old enough to be suspicious
characters
to the Tans. There were boys my own age throwing bombs at the Tans in their tenders – fourteen-year-old boys, trying to kill soldiers! Succeeding, sometimes, too. I looked again at the gun. It seemed to have got bigger as well as uglier.

‘We have to get it out of here,’ Ma said.

‘There’s no need to say “we”, Mrs Ryan,’ Mattie said. ‘It’s not your problem: I found it, remember.’

Her voice sounded mild, which meant Ma was trying her temper.

If Mattie had one fault it was that she couldn’t share things. Her Da was a complete waster, and drank what little money he got. Any money her Ma made skivvying went on the rent. They never had enough to eat, never any proper clothes – their good clothes, as my Da said, were the ones that had patches on the holes in them. That kind of poverty made you greedy, Da used to say; it made you greedy whether you were that way by nature or not. The Foleys had so little that they didn’t feel able to share even their troubles – and with Chancer Foley for a Da, troubles was the one thing they’d more than enough of. He’d been picked out of more gutters, my Da used to say, than a fag-butt.

Mattie picked the Mauser up off our table. It looked even bigger in her little hands. We were almost exactly the
same age, but Mattie was tiny. She looked at the gun and she smiled.

‘Maybe I’ll just leave it back where I got it,’ she said.

‘No,’ said Ma. ‘It’s too late for that now. If it’s found there then all the men and the older lads will be arrested – at the very least.’

‘Sure, who’ll find it?’ Mattie said. ‘They raided only this morning, and they never even looked in the yard. They won’t be back this way for a while.’

It hadn’t struck me that the pistol had been in the yard while the Auxies were around. Thinking of that now I was suddenly frightened.

‘You can’t leave it there,’ Ma said. ‘For all we know they could raid again tomorrow – and this time they might look there. And what will we do if they don’t – leave it for your little brothers and sisters to play with?’

‘I’ll keep it somewhere safe, so,’ Mattie said. ‘I’ve a secret place where I keeps things.’

I wondered what place could be secret in that house teeming with children. Mattie was the eldest of ten
brothers
and sisters. And her Da, Chancer, had a nose for
anything
that might be turned into drink-money.

‘It’s worse in the house,’ Ma said. ‘Don’t you
understand
that? They’ll be sure it’s your Da’s if they find it.’

Mattie thought, but then she giggled – that was Mattie’s problem, I suppose: she saw the funny side of everything. But it was what made you like her as well.

‘A raid would sober Da up,’ Mattie said. ‘That would be a sight to see. I wouldn’t know him if I saw him sober.’

‘That thing has to be got out of here altogether,’ Ma said.

‘And what if it’s gone,’ Mattie said, ‘and its owners come looking for it? What do we tell them?’

Ma’s hand went up to her mouth. You could see she hadn’t thought of that. She was as frightened of crossing the gunmen as of crossing the British. All you wanted to do in them days was keep your head down, and hope no-one hit it. Even that didn’t always work.

Mattie looked at the gun. ‘I’ll get rid of it some way,’ she said in the reasonable, sincere voice that told me she was lying. ‘I’ll stuff it down a shorehole or something. If the gunmen do come then I’ll say I never saw it. They’ll blame one of the childer. Anyway,’ she said, ‘I suppose we can all guess whose it is.’

Ma said nothing to that, but I knew we were all thinking of the mystery man who was staying in Nolans’. He’d been there for a week now, a dark young man who came and went. Mrs Nolan gave it out that he was a cousin of theirs from Fairview that was looking for lodgings, but his whole manner suggested something else. No-one in the whole court doubted that he was some class of gunman, probably on the run. Naturally no-one would say anything, because we weren’t like that. Certainly no-one would tell anyone official. It’s not that we were mad rebels or anything, but
‘informer’ was about the dirtiest word you could call anyone. Our sort were natural enemies of the police, because they were natural enemies of ours. My Da had explained all that to me: the police were on the side of them that had things; they were there to protect them from them that had nothing – the likes of us. If the rebels won, and
Ireland
got its own police, we’d be their enemies too. It was just the way things were.

Mattie said no more, but turned towards the door.

‘Oh God, don’t walk around outside with that, Mattie, love,’ Ma said.

But Mattie smiled at her. She’d a lovely smile.

‘Sure, who’s to see me in the yard?’ she said. She posed in the doorway with a hand on her hip, the pistol held up by her ear.

‘Look, Nancy,’ she said. ‘I’m Countess Markievicz during the Rising.’

Her face assumed what she supposed was a Countess’s look. It made her look a bit like a codfish. I was going to laugh, but Mattie couldn’t keep it up: she herself laughed first. Then she went out into the yard, still holding the gun.

‘She’s a terrible young one, that Mattie,’ Ma said, but she said it fondly. Mattie had a hard life at home, and Ma pitied her. Mattie’s Ma was her best friend. Our houses backed on to one another, sharing a yard that was enclosed on two sides by a high stone wall. There’d been a tanyard years ago where our houses stood, and the wall
was all that was left of it. That and a tanyard smell, Mattie used to say, though I never smelled it myself. I think she just meant it smelled bad. I suppose it did, but there were worse places.

Maybe Mattie really did smell the tanyard in her mind. They talk about ‘the mind’s eye’ so I suppose you could have a mind’s nose too. If so, then Mattie Foley was the sort of person who’d have one. She was a funny girl. She had a great imagination, and was always making up very
complicated
stories that would go on forever. She’d tell you these stories, and she was so convincing that you’d half-believe her even though you knew they weren’t true. I think she half-believed them herself. My Ma used to say that Mattie lived in her imagination; I suppose it was better than living with Chancer Foley.

Our houses were the only two left standing from an old row of back-to-back cottages in a cramped court in the centre of the city. The other houses had fallen or been pulled down, and they’d been replaced by a new row of hovels even more densely packed together. The newer houses were in even worse condition than our older ones. That was what came of cheap building, my Da said – cheap building and cheating gangers.

Both our house and Mattie’s were owned by the same landlord. He was something in the city corporation. We never saw him, only his agent that came for the rent money. The cottages were very old, and we lived there only because
we couldn’t live anywhere else. Nobody in their right mind would live in such a place, given a choice.

My brother Jim had started working as a messenger boy that spring. Now that there were three wages coming into the house Da wanted to move. He wanted us to live
somewhere
better. Mattie was always asking me whether we’d found a place yet. She hoped it wasn’t far away, she said; she didn’t want to lose her only friend.

‘But, Mattie,’ I’d say, ‘sure, you’re the most popular girl in the street. Even old Mrs Curran the monster likes you, and she don’t like anyone.’

‘Ah, Nancy,’ Mattie would say, ‘they likes me, but they don’t understand me. You and me, Nan, we’re two of a kind.’

And we
were
best friends, although calling us two of a kind was plain daft. I could never be like her: I was too timid. Mattie was mad as a hatter – ‘harum-scarum’ myMa called it. Not that Ma didn’t like Mattie – everybody liked her, that was true; but Ma was certainly glad that she didn’t have to live with her. Ma would have murdered me if I’d got into quarter as much trouble as Mattie did. But
Mattie
’s Ma was always working, and her Da was always drunk; my Ma never blamed her for the trouble that she got in, only pitied her. People found excuses for Mattie, however she managed it.

‘She’s the most unfortunate class of an orphan,’ Ma would say. ‘The kind whose Ma and Da are still alive.’

I didn’t see much of Mattie the rest of that day or the next, which was odd. She had to mind the rest of the Foley brood, of course, but otherwise she was usually as much a fixture in the street as a lamp-post – well, there were no lamp-posts in the court, but you know what I mean. We kids lived in the streets then, and the adults too. The streets were healthier, anyway, than the houses we lived in.

I wondered about Mattie and I wondered about the pistol. I kept an eye out for the young man from Nolans’ but I didn’t see him either. Then the next evening I was playing chasing with some kids at our corner when I saw Mattie walking along. I ran straight over to her.

‘Where were you?’ I asked her. ‘I didn’t see you since yesterday.’

BOOK: War Children
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