Connie looked at her Gran in amazement.
‘I didn’t know you were part of the Easter Rising.’
‘Part of it? No. Like the rest of Ireland, Belfast was left sitting in anticipation while it all happened in Dublin. Missed orders, mismanagement, misunderstanding, misjudgement, pick any one of those and any one of them might be correct. We were left out, just like today, to get on with things and continue to feel that we are strangers in our own land.’
‘But the Rising worked?’ Connie urged.
‘It did, in a limited way. Dublin people initially rejected the Republican leaders for wrecking their ‘fair city’. They were happy that the Rising failed and the leaders were thrown in prison. It was only when the British started to execute the leaders in a systematic and cold blooded way that the mood of the Irish people began to change. It’s typical of the British, when they seem to be getting something right they inevitably shoot themselves in the foot and things take a turn for the worse. You couldn’t say things settled down here in Belfast. Sectarianism was rife and it was even more difficult for Catholics to get decent jobs. We should have realised though that something that was planned in a half baked way would inevitably lead to an even worse situation.’
‘Do you mean the civil war which developed between the Collins and De Valera factions?’
‘That was bad all right but the political vacuum that was left after the Rising caused untold hardship for the Irish people. I ended up with your Grandad in County Louth to try and help when things got a bit too hot in the city. Looking back on that time now the only good thing that came out of that period was meeting your grandfather. He was something pretty special I can tell you!’
Connie nodded, ‘I vaguely remember him. He always seemed to be smoking and he had a loud laugh which scared me when I was little.’
‘He was a scary man all right but not in the way you might think. He loved all of the children in the family and he adored you Connie. You were his first granddaughter and he would have given you the world. He was a great risk taker you know, aye and he nearly lost me and all. He got both of us embroiled in quite a few tight situations. But no matter how difficult things were though he never lost his sense of humour. Even when he ended up on the ‘wrong side’ during the Civil War and we lost the Six Counties. In the end, in typical fashion, he shrugged his shoulders and said ‘See them Southerners, they’re a different race from us anyway, they only look after their own and don’t give a damm about us folk in the North. Collins was the only one who cared what happened to us. We’ll just have to make the best of a bad lot.’ With that he never looked to the South for anything ever again. Later on, with a bit of help from a man called John Quinn he set up a small business selling fruit and vegetables. Even doing that was tough because his risk taking now switched to gambling and in time he lost everything and he ended up in debt. But that happened after his experience in Spain. He was a very different man after that.’
Connie was about to ask about the experience in Spain when Maura who didn’t want to hear any sad stories chipped in,
‘But Gran how did you meet Grandad? I never knew him.’
‘Of course not darling, the old cigarettes or something in his lungs got him in the end, long before you arrived on the scene. But If I can have another cup of tea I’ll tell you about meeting your Grandad.’
December 1916 began with a strong, icy north wind which seemed to promise that the weather for that winter was going to be severe – reflecting the mood of a bitter city in an embittered country. Maggie was walking briskly to keep warm and also because she was late for the concert in St. Malachy’s hall.
Fr. Cairns had asked for help from the pulpit.
‘We need to raise money for new railings to be constructed around the Church. Sectarian attacks on Catholic churches across the city are increasing.’
The priest had decided that metal railings might help as a partial deterrent but they cost money and St Malachy’s wasn’t exactly a rich parish. Maggie liked Fr. Cairns. He was a big warm hearted, practical priest and not a bit precious about his station in life. He was also a great supporter of the Republican movement and gave help whenever he could.
Maggie paid for her ticket at the door and slipped into the warmth of the parish hall. There was a good crowd for a Sunday night and standing room only at the back. On stage was quite a good looking young man in his early twenties who had the most wonderful tenor voice singing ‘On Raglan Road’. She slipped off her scarf and shook her hair free and as she did so she could have sworn the singer’s voice faltered for a brief second. However he completed his song to great applause from the crowd. The next act on stage was the Williams Family, a highly talented traditional music group that Maggie knew from the Markets. Immediately the crowd were stamping their feet and clapping their hands to the reels and jigs that were played with great enthusiasm. The evening finished with a short speech from Fr Cairns thanking everyone for their support and in particular the entertainers who had given their time free and who were now invited to the parochial house for a cup of tea and a ‘bite of supper’. Maggie had thought they’d never all fit in but she dutifully went along to give Mrs Collins, the Priest’s housekeeper, a helping hand with the catering and the washing up.
Maggie was drying yet another batch of cups when a voice behind her broke into song with a slight change to the lyrics from what she had heard earlier,
“On Raglan Road on an Autumn’s day,
I saw her first and new.
That her red hair would weave a spell,
That I would one day rue.”
Maggie turned round to find the young tenor standing in the doorway, looking at her with a broad smile on his handsome face.
She managed to blurt out,
‘And who gave you permission to be changing the lyrics of the poets?’
‘Sure I could change the world when I’m looking at you’, he replied.
Well pleased, but hiding that from him, Maggie was about to reply when Mrs Collins brushed past them both,
‘Sean Cunningham if you’re going to be no help at all get out of my kitchen and let us get on with our work. Typical man, when it comes to housework, you‘re like all the rest, would rather stand and do a lot of useless talking or in your case serenading’
She gave him a sly look.
To the surprise of the two ladies he stepped forward grabbed a tea cloth and began drying some of the plates.
‘Well, well, well Mr Cunningham and what has boiled your head to make you help with the washing up, as if I didn’t know?’
They all laughed but Mrs Collins added,
‘If Fr Cairns comes in and catches you here it’ll be a decade of the Rosary for you, every day for the rest of the month!’
‘I’ll leave once I know the name of your attractive assistant.’
Maggie looked at him smiling,
‘It seems to me a girl should not be giving her name to a fellow as forward as you and with such a big head about himself.’
‘Ohhh, so you think I’ve got a big head. Are you not the fancy one who won’t give a poor lad her name?’
At that point Fr Cairns did appear to ask if there were any clean cups for the stage crew who had just arrived.
‘Yes indeed Father – I’d just come in to get them.’
With that Sean Cunningham lifted the cup Maggie was drying, touching the back of her hand lightly with his fingers, picked up three more from the table and strolled past Fr Cairns.
The priest turned to Maggie, ‘Maggie you’re blushing. If it wasn’t for the fact that Mrs Collins is here I’d say you and that fellow Cunningham were up to something.’
Maggie blushed an even deeper colour but Fr Cairns laid his hand on her shoulder,
‘I’m only teasing girl. He’s a fine young man. I know him and his people. Though, don’t you be fooled by that off-hand cavalier personality. Sean is a very steady strong-minded young man, with an intelligence to back up his aspirations for our people. He believes in the right of our nation to determine its own destiny.’
As he left to return to the parlour he threw over his shoulder,
‘You and he would have a lot to talk about.’
Maggie turned to helping Mrs Collins with the dishes but didn’t have the same enthusiasm as before, hoping perhaps that Sean would appear again. Eventually Mrs Collins took the cloth from Maggie,
‘Go on, give me that here. Away and see where he is. Thanks for all your help. There can’t be many left now and I’m sure Fr Cairns will be chasing them home to their beds very soon as he has to be up early for seven o’clock Mass.’
Mrs Collins gave Maggie a playful flick with the drying cloth,
‘Now don’t you be doing anything silly and take a shine to that handsome devil Sean Cunningham.’
‘Thanks Mrs Collins.’
With that Maggie slipped into the parlour where one or two of the stage hands were finishing their tea and standing around talking about the state of the country. Maggie drifted over to where Fr Cairns was in animated discussion with the elder members of the Williams family. He had very firm views on hunger striking as a weapon but was conceding that sometimes prisoners are left with no alternative means of protest. She was turning to leave the room when Fr Cairns called,
‘Are you leaving Maggie?’
‘Yes Father, I’m on my way, good night.’
‘Goodnight, and thank you for all the help.’
Maggie turned to go and to her total embarrassment Fr Cairns followed up with,
‘Did you see where that fellow Cunningham got to?’
‘Well he hasn’t disappeared but I can tell you that someone came looking for him and he had to leave.’
‘OK Father thanks.’
With that she went back to the kitchen where Mrs Collins was able to tell her that there was trouble across the city in the Oldpark area. Since that was where Sean Cunningham lived it was possible that he had been called away because of it. Maggie headed home and, although it was cold, she felt a strange glow of warmth as she thought about the handsome tenor. Suddenly she stopped, she hadn’t told him her name ‘he doesn’t even know where I live’ she thought glumly.
Gunfire sounded from somewhere across the city. She shivered and said a silent prayer that it wasn’t coming from the Oldpark. She hurried home and went straight to bed with her mind in a whirl over concerns for ‘her Sean’ as she now thought of him.
She woke early the next morning, skipped breakfast and practically ran all the way to the coal yard where she had a job as a clerk in the office. As the coalmen arrived to collect their loads Maggie became more relaxed and was her cheery self again. One of the coalmen who regularly delivered to the Oldpark area arrived at the office to do his paperwork and was remarking on his hopes that things should have settled down and that he would be able to complete his delivery round. Maggie asked about the trouble that had taken place the previous night.
The coalman explained that it had started earlier in the day and he had moved his horse and cart over to the markets to a cousin’s yard just in case the area became closed off and he wouldn’t get to work the next day.
‘I don’t know if you know the Oldpark but like a lot of Catholic parts of the city it sits next door to a Protestant area. Added to that, the Catholic Church, the Sacred Heart, is right on the border of a rather nasty loyalist enclave. It seems there was a carol service and procession to the church about seven thirty. Word got round the Protestant areas that Papists were planning to walk through Loyalist streets. By the time the carollers left the church quite a mob had gathered outside. Initially it was simply sectarian taunts that were being hurled at the parishioners but then a couple of the hotheads decided to lob a few stones. People were left hurt and bleeding. Of course by the time this happened word was spreading round the Oldpark that it was under attack from Loyalists. Next thing a nationalist mob appeared and a running battle ensued with stones and bottles flying. That’s when I got out. Anyway I heard this morning that at about 10.30pm the loyalists brought guns on to the street and a couple of people were hit, although nothing serious. The firing went on for about forty minutes with no sign of the Peelers. It seems a lone gunman firing from the top of one of the houses started firing back at the Loyalists. Some of them were hit and the Mater Hospital did a good trade. The Peelers eventually arrived and took up the middle ground between the crowds but facing our people and things quietened down.’
‘But, but the lone gunman, what about him?’
‘Ah, he just slipped away the bonny lad, may God be good to him. Thanks Maggie. I’d better be off and hope my customers want plenty of coal. See ya tomorrow.’
Maggie stood there for a moment and played through the events of the previous evening and wondered if the lone gunman was ‘her Sean’. Once again, she had a feeling of warmth spread through her and she said a prayer for the lone volunteer who had saved the Nationalists of the Oldpark – even if it wasn’t Sean Cunningham.