The Irishman’s Song: A Story of Love & Rebellion
Novel Excerpt by Paul Sullivan
Part One: The Rebel Spring, 1916
“Hurry, Father! Hurry!”
The old priest, carrying a small black case, was going as fast as his legs would move him.
“The place is near, Father! Very near!”
The sharp crack of a rifle, followed by another, echoed through the night. “How much more?” the priest asked anxiously.
“Only a little, Father,” the man called back.
It seemed to the priest there was shooting on every street in Dublin. The distant glow of fires danced in the night sky. The scent of smoke filled the air. The man before him was a shadow appearing and disappearing in the weak circles of the gas-lamps.
They rounded a corner. He expected a checkpoint, nervous British soldiers, and fixed bayonets. He looked for lanterns but saw none.
They hurried across to a doorway where a large figure stepped out of the darkness. “What took you so damn long, Larkin?” a rough voice demanded. “He’s almost gone!”
“Wasn’t me now, Seamus! It was Father Dunne!”
Coming up the priest hesitated. “Seamus Flanagan!”
“It’s himself,” said Seamus. He seemed to announce it with an arrogance that irritated the priest.
“If there’s trouble about, I’m sure it is,” said Father Dunne. “And who have I come for?”
“My brother, Father.”
There was quiet, then Larkin offered, “I’ll watch out here, Seamus, if you like?”
“That would be good of you, Larkin.”
A door opened and Father Dunne followed Seamus Flanagan into a dimly lit entry.
On the stairs a woman was waiting on the landing above. “Father! Hurry! Please!”
Father Dunne studied the woman as he climbed the stairs. “They didn’t tell me it was your man, Kate.”
“Please, now!” She turned and disappeared into a room.
The priest reached the landing, breathing heavily, pressing his hand against his chest and leaning on a wall for a few seconds of support. “Another street and I would have needed the rites myself,” he whispered, and followed her into the room.
The narrow flame of a gas-lamp on the wall cast its light on a man lying in bed in the middle of the room. The woman had gone to the far side now and stood close by holding his hand in hers. Strung between their fingers, as if binding the two, was a set of rosary beads. But what Father Dunne noticed first was the bloody bandage wrapped about the man’s head, though the priest would learn later the real problem was where the bullet from the British Lee-Enfield rifle had entered the chest.
Father Dunne glanced briefly at those in the room, first at Kate Flanagan, then the three children in a corner. Then to Seamus. “Was the doctor here?” he asked.
Seamus replied, first with a nod of the head, then directly, “He’s been, but saw no need to stay.”
“And so,” the priest said thoughtfully. “And so it’s God’s will.”
“A busy night for all,” said Seamus. “Even the Almighty.”
“So it is now,” said the priest. “For myself. For doctors. And the maker. For those that do the burying.”
Kate spoke then, “And those that do the killing!” and her eyes cut to Seamus. “And make the troubles,” she added.
The priest agreed. He approached the bed and looked down at the man. The man’s eyes were dry and wide. “What silly thing have you done, Michael Flanagan?”
The lips moved slightly, but no sound came.
Father Dunne nodded. He came a little closer. “God is forgiving, Michael.” He rested his hand on Michael’s shoulder, and looking down at him evenly he said, “You know you’re dying now, Michael?”
Michael’s eyes shifted toward Kate, then turned back to the priest with the slightest nod of his head.
Father Dunne looked across at Kate. “You should take the children out. Michael and I need a little time now.”
“We won’t be long.”
But Kate hesitated, clearly reluctant to let her hand slip away.
The priest waited quietly until she moved on her own, kissing her husband’s fingers, and resting the hand on the blanket with the rosary. Then she said softly, her words for her husband only, “I’ll go. But I’ll be back.”
Kate moved from the bed. She looked to Sean, the oldest of her three children, “Bring your sisters, Sean.” And she left the room.
The boy lingered. He slowly approached the bed and looked down at his father. He was tall for his fifteen years. He had rusty-brown hair, a narrow face, and keen brown eyes. The priest looked across at him waiting for some emotion in those eyes, but the boy was keeping his feelings very close. If he had words he didn’t speak them though he surely felt them. It seemed for an instant he was going to reach for his father’s hand, but the strength wasn’t there. He lingered a moment longer, then turned and motioned to his sisters to follow him out of the room, and they did, the older taking the hand of the younger.
When they were gone, Seamus said to Father Dunne, “The lad and his father are very close.”
Father Dunne nodded.
Seamus slowly approached the bed, his massive size eclipsing the gas-light on the wall. He stood quiet, then offered, “I’m sorry, Michael.” When he turned away, his eyes met the priest evenly. “I am sorry for it all, Father.”
“You’ve much in your life to be sorry for, Seamus. But why this?”
“It was me he followed, Father.” There was guilt in his voice, but also anger. Then he also went out.
The priest looked down again at the dying man. Michael’s lips moved, but now there were words, just barely audible. The priest leaned in close. The words came again. The priest leaned down still closer. They came like a dry whisper. “I ask forgiveness.”
The priest nodded understandingly.
Opening the small black case, Father Dunne took out the purple stole and draped it about his shoulders. His hands shook badly. But they shook from age, not nerves or lack of practice. He had sent many souls on their way this Easter Week. He asked in a weary voice, “Are you ready, Michael?”
There was quiet, then the dry voice said, “I fear death, Father.”
“We all do. But it’s a door closing, Michael. And with that, another opens.”
Father Dunne stepped away. His voice strengthened as he began the familiar words of the last rites.
* * *
Michael Flanagan died late on the night of Father’s Dunne’s visit. For Kate, holding her daughters close, wiping away their tears and her own, it seemed a night that would never end. It took all she had to face the morning. But with the dawn she found the courage to gather together a few of her most precious valuables, and told Sean, “Take these to Mr. Hanley. Tell him to make a casket. As fine a casket as these will purchase. But if it’s not enough, I’ll make up the balance later.” And she handed him a small cloth pouch.
Then Kate turned to the girls. “I want you to tidy up. We’ll be having visitors. Uncle Seamus is coming to help bring your father down and lay him out.” Then moments later, as Sean took his jacket from near the door, he heard her climbing the stairs to the room where his father’s body lay.
Sean knew there would be few visitors. He had overheard his Uncle Seamus telling his mother not to expect much of a wake. The British were watching the area so closely that few would chance showing up at a suspected rebel’s house.
Sean buttoned his coat, put on his cap, and went out.
In the cool April dawn, Dublin’s smoke and ash billowed across the rising sun like an angry storm. Fires were still burning at the General Post office, which was the rebel’s Command Center. And across the way, in Sackville Street, only the shells of buildings remained. It was the same at the Hoyte’s oil works, and a dozen other places. It was only on this day, near the end of it all, that fire brigades could safely reach any of the sites.
As Sean neared Abbey Street, he heard the ripping call of a machine-gun, and that quickly answered by the sharp reply of a rifle. But, when that fell quiet, nothing followed.
The rebels no longer held any of the bridges over the Liffey River. Days before the British had brought up a gunboat to pound away on targets at will. It appeared the Rising was over, except for clearing the rubble from the streets and collecting the dead. But for five days the rebels had held, declaring a free Ireland, an estimated sixteen-hundred of them in Dublin, badly out-gunned and out-numbered by over five-thousand British troops with that number increasing by the hour. Added to this was several hundred Royal Irish Constabulary, the Irish police force. Now the leaders of the Citizen Army and the Volunteers were reluctantly coming out under white flags.
Things were difficult before the Rising, but now a large portion of Dublin lay in total ruin. Widespread looting, food and water shortages. The British had imposed martial law with a shoot to kill curfew from dusk to dawn. Hundreds of people were being arrested, many who had nothing to do with the Rising. Many innocent civilians had been killed or wounded during the fighting. And now more Tommies were crossing the Irish Sea. Most Dubliners bitterly condemned the rebels.
A dead horse still harnessed to a burning wagon clogged the middle of Abbey Street amid glass from broken windows and the scattered refuse from looting. A man was slumped below a lamp-post, simply sitting with his legs stretched out across the walk, and his head lowered. Sean didn’t realize until he was stepping over the man’s legs that the man was dead. Sean hurried by, he had seen more than a few dead in recent days, but noticed this man’s shoes were missing and his pockets turned out. He quickened his pace, but had gone only a short distance when he heard a voice call after him, “He was a looter, Sean! And died for it, he did! One of our boys put a bullet clear through his head for it! Some old woman took his shoes, and another emptied his pockets! Served him right! Don’t you think?”
Sean had stopped and turned to see Molly coming across the street toward him. Her dress was ragged. She wore a heavy coat open down the front. Her fiery red hair was long and wild and fell free below her shoulders. Her face was dirty. She was half walking, half running to reach him, and each step filled with excitement. “I saw it happen, Sean!”
Sean started walking again. She followed, and soon was by his side matching him step for step.
“Where you going, Sean?”
“To see Mr. Hanley about a casket.”
She continued to walk with him, but unusual for Molly, she was quiet for a short distance. Then she offered, “I’ll go along with you. It’s a journey two should make.”
Sean started to protest, but knew it was useless.
“Sorry about your father.” Sean could hear her voice break “He treated me good, he did. Like his own. Better than my own ever did.”
Sean swallowed hard. He held back a tear. He had shed them in the night, he wasn’t going to shed more in the morning light, not in front of Molly. Finally, Sean offered, “He was brave.”
“All our boys were brave! They gave them Tommies a hell of a fight, they did!”
Sean walked on, Molly stayed close.
“They took the Custom House,” Molly said with pride.
“How do you know?”
“I was there.”
“Why were you there?”
“For Ireland. I was a spy.”
“I went from place to place to tell our boys what was happening. They had no other way of knowing. A lot of the old women did the same. Those that weren’t looting.”
“The English might have shot you.”
“The Tommies gave me no mind, Sean. I was a thirteen-year-old lass in a hurry. They even stopped me where they were building up a barricade to warn me of snipers on a roof. Sure to God now! So I promised to be careful. And around the corner I went, and there I called up to the snipers about the Tommies.” Then Molly asked, as if the last thought ran hurriedly into the next, “What’s in the little pouch?” Her voice was thick with curiosity.
“I don’t know, Molly.”
“Is it something special?” she asked.
“It’s for Mr. Hanley.”
“Maybe you should look inside,” Molly suggested.
“It’s for Mr. Hanley,” Sean said again.
“You’re going to give something to Mr. Hanley and you don’t know what it is?”
“Maybe I don’t need to know.” They walked on, but after a short time Sean stopped and stepped into a doorway. Molly’s curiosity had made him curious. “Or maybe I should know,” he said.
“You should,” said Molly.
Sean slowly untied the strings that closed the pouch, and pulled it open just far enough to peer inside. “Well?” Molly asked, impatiently.
“It’s jewelry. Rings, and a gold crucifix, and some other stuff. Things that belong to my mother.”
“Let me see,” Molly said. And before Sean could agree or disagree, the girl had the pouch in her hand. She took out each item and looked at each carefully.
“That’s how she’s paying for my father’s burial,” Sean realized. “All of those things have a special meaning. Her wedding ring is even there.”
“I never saw so much gold and silver,” Molly said.
“It’s not so much, Molly. And she even worried it wasn’t enough for Mr. Hanley.”
“It’s more than I’ve ever seen, except in a store window. My mother never had a wedding ring.” Molly tried on the ring, which was far too large for her bony fingers, and a thin silver bracelet, that slipped freely over her hand and ran down her wrist. She took out the crucifix. The cross was of silver on a silver chain, and the figure of Christ in gold. “That’s beautiful,” she whispered.
As Molly became more fascinated by each item Sean thought of the crowded tenements in Peddler’s Alley, the noise and squalor where Molly lived all her young life. Sean had always had it a little better. Michael Flanagan had managed to support his family by a slightly higher standard, even though it was only a little higher.
Molly held the crucifix up admiring it.
“That belonged to my grandmother, and her mother before,” Sean reflected. “Mother said it would belong to Netty or Mary one day.”
Molly was thoughtful. “I’ll keep it for them!” she offered.
“No! Put it back, Molly.”
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”
Sean reached for the pouch, pulling it open and holding it out, as Molly returned the items. “Mr. Hanley doesn’t deserve all that, Sean.”
Sean was walking again. Molly keeping pace.
Where Abbey Street crossed Swift’s Row, British soldiers were marching a dozen Republican prisoners and Sean and Molly were forced to wait for their passing.
The rebels were a sorry lot, tired, weak and hungry, with several wounded. Still the soldiers forced them on, pushing one forward with the butt of a rifle. Seeing this Molly cried out, “If you were meeting him man to man you wouldn’t do that!”
A soldier turned to Molly laughing.
“Wait till next time!” Molly called back. “We’ll see who parades who!”
“We’ve been hearing that for seven hundred years,” returned the soldier, still laughing.
Molly started for him just as Sean pulled her back. They moved on, but as they passed several of the prisoners offered Molly a slight nod of the head.
After the prisoners had moved a short distance down Swift’s Row, some locals who saw them coming cursed the rebels and pelted them with stones.
“They should hang all of you!” one woman shouted. And another called, “Hanging’s too good for the lot of you!” “I’ve no work!” a man said. “My place of work was burned out!” And a woman, searching for a stone, cried, “They arrested my son for nothing, they did!”
The soldiers ignored the commotion, marching the rebels on.
“They should be proud of them,” Molly said, in a heavy voice.
“The whole city has suffered,” Sean reminded.
“All of Ireland has suffered much longer than these five days!” Molly said.
Sean started walking again.
When they reached Hanley’s, the big delivery doors to the shop were open to the street. A wagon outside held three new caskets on the back and two men were carrying out another to be loaded on. Mr. Hanley was supervising. He paid little attention to Sean and Molly as they approached, giving orders and delivery addresses to the wagon driver. It wasn’t until Sean stood directly before him that he asked impatiently, “What is it, lad?”
“I’ve come for a casket.”
Hanley replied coldly, with one word, “Impossible!” Then he brushed past Sean and went into the shop. Sean followed.
The shop smelled of wood dust and varnish. It was poorly lighted, with most of the light coming through the open doorway. Hanley turned, realizing Sean had followed. “Impossible,” he said again. “I’ve made promises out for all of this week, and they will most likely go into next.”
“It’s for my father,” Sean said, his voice breaking as he held back his emotions.
Hanley hesitated. “He was one of them?”
“He was,” Sean managed. “He died last night.”
“And for what good reason?” Hanley asked coldly.
Molly had come in, and hearing this, she quickly stepped forward, “For Ireland!”
“For Ireland?” Hanley grumbled. “They all died this week for Ireland, did they? It was only our Savior was suppose to give His life this Easter Week. Did we truly need a hundred saviors, lass?”
“There was more than a hundred,” Molly corrected.
“Too many, than,” said Hanley. “Too, many.”
Molly would have gone on, but Sean offered the pouch.
“What’s this about?” Hanley asked, taking the pouch and opening it slowly.
“My mother sent it. For the coffin.”
Hanley shook his head and sighed. “Lad. It’s impossible. We are working dawn to dusk to fill the orders we’ve got here.”
“But we need a coffin,” Sean insisted.
Hanley was looking in the pouch. He took a few things out.
Sean went on, “My mother said if there wasn’t enough, she would. . . . ”
“You don’t understand, lad. It’s not the payment. I’ve no inventory left now, and the orders coming in are. . . . ”
“It’s only one casket,” Molly cut in.
“Yes. But. . . . ”
“It’s because Michael Flanagan was a rebel! That’s why you don’t won’t to make a casket!”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to make it.”
“You don’t sound like you do,” said Molly.
“I didn’t imply that either,” said Hanley, his voice irritated.
Molly shook her head, a frown on her dirty face. “I hope Michael Flanagan’s friends never hear about this.”
Mr. Hanley studied Molly closely.
Molly added easily, “They might think you like the English more than your own. . . . ”
“I’m not looking for trouble,” Mr. Hanley offered.
“I hope they don’t get angry about it.”
Hanley hesitated. “How do you mean, angry?”
“Maybe they won’t. Not like with Mr. Keenan’s place up in Enniskillen!”
“And what happened in Enniskillen?”
“I can’t tell you. I swore never to tell.”
Mr. Hanley’s chest swelled up. His face got flushed. “Child! You are. . . . ”
“I’m not a child! I’m thirteen.”
Hanley glared at Molly. He replied in a rough voice, “I have no time for arguments!” Then he opened the pouch again, and looked inside. He was quiet.
Molly said, “We’d better go, Sean. Mr. Hanley don’t love Ireland. He only loves those who keep Ireland under. . . . ”
“Tuesday,” Hanley offered, his voice a bit lower. He looked evenly at Sean. “Tell your mother, Tuesday.”
Sean, who was still trying to take in all that had passed, gave a humble, “Thank you, sir.”
“Tuesday is the best I can do.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hanley,” Sean said again. “And if the payment isn’t enough… ”
“It’s enough,” Hanley said. He closed the pouch, drawing the strings tight. Then he looked hard at both of them. “Now go! The two of you! Please.”
Sean and Molly started out. Hanley called after them, “You? Lass? who are you?”
Molly turned with a smile. “Molly O’Neill,” she said, in a soft, sweet voice.
Hanley held the name in his thoughts for a second, then shook his head.
Sean and Molly turned toward the door, moving faster.
When they were outside, walking back through the torn city, Sean asked, “What happened in Enniskillen?”
“I don’t now,” Molly said.
“Well, who is Mr. Keenan?”
“I don’t know,” said Molly. She hurried away and Sean followed.
* * *
The cemetery was encircled by a stone wall with an iron gate at each end of the two entrances. The stone ruins of a church, only the empty shell of the place with the roof long gone, was near the center. It was raining, not hard, just a sad, methodic funeral rain. But it was also cold, a usual spring morning in Ireland.
Kate was in black as were the girls at her side. Seamus was behind them, holding an umbrella to shelter them. Sean was across from them, on the opposite side of the open grave and the casket, dressed in his father’s only suit, the jacket just slightly large on him. Molly was by his side, dressed the same as days before, but with the coat buttoned up tight and a scarf bundling her hair inside. Sean held an umbrella for the two of them, though it leaned closer to Molly. Behind the family a few mourners had gathered, some old friends, but most had chosen not to attend.
A young cleric stood beside Father Dunne. He held up a rather large umbrella, protecting Father Dunne who read from the Bible, reading from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 9, his words loud and strong.
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.
“For man also knowth not his time, as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare. So are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them all.”
He hesitated, giving a few seconds for reflection, then continued.
“This wisdom have I also seen under the sun, and it seemed great unto me.
“There was a little city, and few men within it. And there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it.
“Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city: yet no man remembered that same poor man.”
The priest hesitated. He looked up briefly at those gathered, their heads lowered.
Molly slipped her arm into Sean’s and leaned close to him. Looking down Sean could see just a tuft of red hair escaping from her scarf. There were clearly tears on her cheeks. Molly seldom cried. She would deny tears. She got angry and left the crying to others.
Sean looked across at Seamus. Seamus was staring down at the grave as if he should be there, not his brother.
The rain fell with Father Dunne’s words upon the casket and he continued, “Then said I, wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.
“The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.”
“Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.”
Father Dunne finished, and closed the Bible gently. But he repeated, in a slightly stronger voice, “Wisdom is better than weapons of war.”
Then Father Dunne made the Sign of the Cross, and in Latin consigning his father’s soul to God, Sean knew.
Little Mary was shaking in the cold and leaned close to her sister. Over these past days she would break into tears suddenly, with no warning. It was Netty, the older, who always comforted Mary. Netty had the strength of her mother. But it was painful for Sean to see either of them suffering.
Kate didn’t seem to be listening to Father Dunne at all, or even feeling the rain. She was slowly moving her rosary through her fingers. But Sean could tell she wasn’t praying, she wasn’t working the beads that way. Her mind was in another place, perhaps running through the years. She did look across at him once, firmly, as if sending an unspoken message. He felt she was saying, “This won’t happen again. This Island took my father! It took my husband! It won’t take my son!” Then her thoughts drifted back. Sean could clearly see that his mother’s pain was greatest of all.
As Father Dunne was praying, his words lifted those around to do the same. But Sean began to notice a growing uneasiness among the mourners.
It was Seamus who first saw the soldiers coming but he didn’t show it. He simply stood as he was, the umbrella fixed in his hand, protecting Kate and the girls.
Sean saw the soldiers coming in perfect order, about a dozen, with rifles on their shoulders and fixed bayonets, a young lieutenant was leading them. Several stood at the cemetery gate, and Sean was sure, though it was at his back, there was the same at the other gate. He looked at Seamus. The big man shrugged his shoulders and offered half a grin. At that same instant Sean realized Molly’s arm was slipping from his. He tightened his own to hold it. She looked at him and he shook his head slightly. Seamus looked at Molly and offered the same.
The Tommies stopped a short distance from the grave. By then Father Dunne had seen them, and Kate and the girls were also aware. Some mourners in the back were drifting away, moving toward the gates, a few using umbrellas to shield their faces.
The young lieutenant started to approach. Father Dunne turned to him sternly. “You’ll be kind enough to wait until God’s work is finished, before you start that of the King!”
The lieutenant hesitated, stepped back, and waited.
“Damn them!” Molly said, then caught Father Dunne’s eyes. “Sorry, Father!” and she blessed herself quickly. “But damn them anyway,” she whispered, for only Sean to hear.
“But I think we are finished now,” Father Dunne said, passing the Bible to the young cleric. Going to Kate, Father Dunne took her hand in his. “He was a good man, Kate. I’m certain he and God had a long conversation about his ending, but it’s the total of a man’s life that speaks the most. I’m sure he’s with God.”
“Thank you, Father.”
He let her hand slip away. Then he offered in an understanding voice, “You come and see me if you need anything, Kate.”
“I will, Father.”
“You’re in my prayers.” Then he moved aside.
Four strong men came up to lower the casket, removing the supports, working the ropes, and when it was lowered to the bottom, pulling the ropes free.
Seamus passed his umbrella to Netty. Sean handed his umbrella to Molly. Seamus tossed in the first shovel full of dirt. Sean followed, and others came forward.
This finished, Seamus started in the direction of the soldiers, but stopped before Kate, rain wetting his hair, looking oddly humble for his size. “The only thing a man leaves this world with, of true value, is his word. I give you my word, Kate, I will make Michael’s death up to you before I follow him.”
Kate was quiet, then reached a gentle hand up to touch his face. “It wasn’t all your doing, Seamus.”
“But I feel it was. He was my younger brother. All the family I had, now. I should have done him better.” Then Seamus turned away.
No longer looking in the least humble, Seamus walked directly up to the young lieutenant, who asked, “Are you Seamus Flanagan?”
“Of course I am! Wouldn’t you know? Or are you fool enough to stand in the rain for nothing, lad?” Then Seamus brushed past him, walking boldly and straight so the soldiers had to make way for him to pass, and after he passed through, followed.
“He’ll walk them right up to the doors of Kilmainham Gaol,” Father Dunne said. “Then he’ll enter the jail cell and lock himself inside. He’s that arrogant a man, he is.”
“Or that brave,” Sean thought.
Born in Trenton, NJ, Paul Sullivan was raised in Tennessee and enjoyed a boyhood of camping, fishing and hunting with his father who encouraged in him a love for books and education. A published author of 10 novels and a collection of short stories, he has traveled around the world, gathering a wealth of stories to tell and now resides in Bristol, PA.