‘in harm’s way’
For two days Sean and Maggie played the role of tourists, cycling everywhere, with Sean singing at the top of his voice and Maggie racing him when they got to the flat sections of the roads. The local people became familiar with the happy smiling couple with their Belfast accents. They had been stopped a couple of times at different road blocks by RIC patrols. They had stuck to their story of being refugees from Belfast and were just waiting on word to start work at the hotel in Dundalk. The sergeant from Jonesborough had been in command and had given them a thorough grilling. With Maggie’s beguiling beauty and charm and Sean’s affability the sergeant was soon left in no doubt that here was a young couple, very much in love, but wishing to stay as far away from any kind of trouble as possible. After the third encounter Sean and Maggie realised that their target didn’t seem to have a regular pattern for setting up road blocks. If they wanted to take him out at one of these it would be impossible to set it up. They would only expose themselves unnecessarily by turning up too regularly and the RIC might not accept these meetings as coincidence.
They started their jobs at the hotel and quickly won friends among the staff who were very easy to get along with. Initially they stuck to their hours and settled in well. Sean decided they should take their leave at different times to scope their target.
‘That way we might not draw the same attention to ourselves.’
Maggie insisted that she do most of the scouting, ‘A female, on her own, sailing around the countryside, picking wild flowers, is more believable than a townie like you pretending you have discovered the great outdoors.’
Sean reluctantly agreed.
‘Take extreme care. Keep your distance. He must do something that is regular, every creature in this world does. Getting him at the barracks is impossible. There’s no cover to attack from. To be effective we have to be two hundred, maybe three hundred yards away and we must have a safe getaway route.’
For a whole week Maggie got as close to the sergeant’s activities as she dared. Every day the RIC took a different route into the surrounding countryside and back to the barracks. There was no guessing where they would go the next day. Maggie was adamant that they needed to change tactics and see what they did in the evening. By the end of the second week Maggie observed the sergeant with two of his men closing the local pub on Friday and Saturday night. It was a short distance from the Police barracks. On the Friday night the sergeant and his men cleared everyone out of the bar and it was closed up, but on the Saturday, the sergeant posted two of his men at the front door. He then went inside himself and chased the remaining regular drinkers home. After they left he stood at the bar to sup a pint of stout. The light in the pub wasn’t great, but Maggie, standing in a field in the dark, could see the sergeant through the window. When Sean heard this, he thought ‘maybe that’s it?’
‘Did you see anywhere where we could set up?’
‘No I didn’t hang around. We need to do another recce.’
‘OK I’ll go with you next week and if the same thing happens, we’ll set it up for the Saturday after that.’
On the following Friday and Saturday the Sergeant followed the same routine.
The next day Sean and Maggie cycled up to Jonesborough for eleven o’clock mass and after the service they walked around the village. The pub was at the corner of the junction between the Jonesborough Road and the back road to Forkhill. The barracks was only about fifty yards from the pub. About four hundred yards down the road on the opposite side to the pub were a group of small thatched cottages. Along the side of the first cottage was a small vegetable garden with a shed at the back. As Sean looked at the shed and then back at the pub he drew an invisible line with his eye. ‘Doable?’ He thought. ‘Yes, a bit distant perhaps for total accuracy but it was by far the best possibility.’
They stopped at the cottage and a woman appeared with a young child in her arms.
‘How are you?’ she asked.
‘Grand. How’s yourself. We were admiring your vegetable patch,’ said Sean.
‘Aye, it’s good all-right. My John does all the hard work and I and the family reap the benefits. There’s even some left over for the neighbours. John’s a gardener at the Big House and this is his hobby.’
The child smiled at the two handsome strangers.
Maggie had said she was from the Markets in Belfast and she only ever saw the finished product which came in hessian bags or wooden crates. ‘We never saw vegetables in the ground. What’s your husband growing?’
As the lady explained to Maggie, Sean leisurely strolled up the garden pretending to take an interest in the proceedings and ended up leaning against the shed, enjoying the sunshine. As he stood there he slowly rotated his head to take in the views stopping when he lined his eyes up with the window at the pub.
The child became restless and Maggie used this as their excuse to leave. Cooing at the child she thanked the lady saying, ‘we’ed better get home for some lunch and let you get on with your family. Bye now’
Sean strolled back down the garden and gave her a wave, ‘Bye’.
Arm in arm they walked back to where they had parked their bikes at the church. As they cycled home Sean said that the height of the small shed might just be ideal for resting a weapon and taking a shot.
‘I’ll have to come back at night to take a sight in the dark but I reckon we’ll get our sergeant one way or another. This road is perfect, it’s straight for about a mile and a half and if anything follows us afterwards, we should see or hear it coming and we can jump for cover in the ditch.’
The following night they cycled back to the cottage. There were no lights on where they had met the woman and clearly this was a family that were early to bed and early to rise. As quietly as they could, they made their way to the back of the shed at the top of the garden. They both leaned on the roof simulating a firing position. Sean whispered,
‘I have a clear view of the window through to the bar.’
‘Good. I have a clear view of the doorway.’
‘Ok. Let’s go.’
They collected their bikes and raced up the road with no lights and only the starry night sky to light their way. This time neither spoke realising that this coming weekend they would be putting themselves in harm’s way, again.
When they got back to the cottage they talked through their plan whilst everything was still fresh.
‘The guns will be primed, ready for firing, before leaving, in case we run into anything. We leave the bikes at the end of the row of cottages. Once we’re set up, on a whispered call of ‘aim’, we fire. I’ll take out the sergeant, and the two at the door, you take out whichever one of the Peelers is the youngest.’
‘Why the youngest Peeler?’
‘Because Maggie he might run faster than we can pedal up that road, and, he might not be married, so he has less to lose. After firing we move immediately to the bikes, stow the weapons away, and pedal like the devil is after us up that road. Ok, and no speaking, except for ‘aim’, right?’
Both of them were a bit edgy for the rest of the week and a few jokes were made by some of the other hotel staff about the end of wedded bliss. They laughed it off and got on with the mundane work in the hotel. When Saturday came they had worked until six o’clock but had asked for the evening off. The manager had agreed but asked if they could be in on Sunday morning to help with a large party that was coming up from Dublin.
‘No problem. We’ll be here fresh and early.’
They had lifted the back of the wardrobe and taken out the weapons to be checked as they had done every day. This time Maggie had lifted the Bandoleer and placed it across her left shoulder, buckling it round her right hip. She slipped her long coat on top. Having checked the action of the weapons they slipped the bullets into place, ready for anything. Satisfied, they waited until the darkness was beginning to close in.
Silently they slipped their weapons into the concealed compartments of the bikes and headed off to pedal the five miles to Jonesborough. Darkness had fully descended and they peddled along in silence.
Arriving at the village they parked the bikes against the gable end of the last cottage. Lights were still on in all of the cottages. They stood close together holding hands and breathing deeply. As the time approached for closing time at the pub, Sean checked the cottages – only one had a light still showing. Sean squeezed Maggie’s hand. Now was the time to get the weapons out.
At the back of the shed they could see the arrival on cue of the sergeant and his men. The pub gradually began to empty with men calling their goodnights. Maggie and Sean sighted their weapons ready for action. A man staggered from the pub followed by the two RIC men to take up their positions on either side of the door. The drunk continued to stagger up the road towards the cottages and Sean had a brief thought about the one cottage which still had a light on. Maggie had a clear view of the two on either side of the door. Sean’s view of the window was blocked at intervals by the drunk weaving his way along the road. What seemed like an age passed and then Sean whispered, ‘Aim.’
They both fired.
Without waiting they ran round the cottages, stowed the weapons in the false compartments, jumped on the bikes and pedalled furiously away from the scene.
Behind them the drunk had dropped to the ground and they could hear him shouting,
‘I’m hit, I’m hit. For the love of God help me!’
The blood was pouring from a cut to his head sustained as he fell to the ground when the shooting started. The RIC man to the right of the door had been hit in the shoulder and Sean’s bullet had left the sergeant with his cheek bones totally shattered.
The sergeant would never know that a staggering drunk had saved his life.
He was never able to drink a glass of stout again and was invalided out of the RIC, never to bother the people of County Louth again.
When Sean and Maggie heard the report back they felt a certain relief. They were congratulated on a job well done and Frank asked them to remain as an active service unit with their special talent for dealing with very specific and difficult targets. When the debriefing with Peter and Dermot was over and they were on their own again, Maggie spoke to Sean, about her relief, that she hadn’t killed the young RIC man.
‘I know it’s difficult. They’re Irish as well. I suppose we could try and do that each time we have an operation. Maim to put out of action rather than kill. What do you think?’
Maggie hugged him and held him close for a long time.
As in all wars, it proved to be impossible for both Sean and Maggie to hold true to that particular objective.