It was two weeks later when Connie got the opportunity to ask her Gran about how Grandad had nearly lost her and why the Spanish experience had caused such a change in his personality.
She had asked her mum but had been fobbed off with the excuse that,
‘I’m really not sure. It was such a long time ago.’
Her mum then became even more evasive when asked about the Bandoleer and how it might have disappeared.
Connie’s Gran had asked her to travel with her, the following Saturday, on a day trip to Ballycastle on the North Antrim Coast. Everyone else was either working, or too busy, and Maura was too young – the trip was for adults only. Connie said she would love to go on the outing as it would give her the opportunity to take in the sights of her favourite resort. She also thought there might be a chance to talk to her Gran about the questions that were beginning to plague her.
On the following Saturday a party made up mostly of women from the parish and a couple of older men in their best Sunday suits met at the bus. The men sat in the front talking to the driver. Once clear of the city the noisy chattering settled down and someone started humming a tune which was taken up by one of the parish choir members. The whole bus joined in with the chorus of ‘On the one road’. With that, and many more songs, they arrived in great heart to take the sea air at Ballycastle. After the obligatory tour of the shops the two men disappeared into the House of McDonnell to pass away the remainder of their day sipping Guinness and chatting with the locals. After visiting Donnelly’s art and craft shop Connie and her Gran had lunch at the Marine Hotel and then went for a walk along the beach. The tide was out, the sand firm.
They set out at a good pace with the grandeur of Fairhead in front of them. In the distance to their left they had a wonderful view of Scotland’s west coast, with the Mull of Kintyre, partly obscured by Rathlin Island. Seeing the view always reminded Maggie Cunningham of her blood ties to that country.
‘Gran, remember when I came home from America you said Grandad nearly lost you and that things had changed after the Spanish trip. What did you mean?’
Maggie stopped and looked at Connie.
‘I have never told your mother any of this because I thought, rightly or wrongly, that she wouldn’t understand. I may be wrong but I think you have a more open mind which means you will not be judgemental and will not draw the wrong conclusions. You’re mother’s a devout Catholic and I know she tolerates my ambivalence about the Church but she never accepted your grandfathers total hatred for it. Perhaps if I had told her, what I’m about to tell you, she might have understood. Back in 1919 your Grandad and I, were an active service unit for the IRA in County Louth. Our task was to take out specific targets that were notoriously hard to get at. We were meticulous in our planning taking particular care in making sure that both of us would be safe. I’m sorry to say that on a number of occasions our planning didn’t get the results we wanted and people were killed. All the targets represented the British Crown’s presence in Ireland and I am sorry to say many of these were also Irishmen. In all the missions we carried out I was the only one to get hurt. We had set up an ambush during daylight with an escape route over a small forested hill called Tievecrom outside Forkhill. We had taken our shots and were making our move to get away when the RIC returned fire. A ricochet bullet caught me in the back and I was bleeding quite badly. Lucky for me the bullet was partially spent so it didn’t penetrate too deeply. Your Grandad was able to patch me up as best he could and with him supporting me we made our way back to where we had our bikes. As always, our target was the most senior officer, so we were fairly sure we wouldn’t be followed and we did get away. We were successful at what we were doing and created a lot of fear amongst the authorities. When shootings happened the locals would ask ’was it the two shots?’ Anyway we got back to our cottage and when we got my clothes off I was a right mess I can tell you. I had bled a lot and after the exertions on the bike I was feeling pretty weak. I still carry the scar.’
‘For God’s sake Gran you could have been killed.’
‘Well with me guiding him your Grandad did a pretty good job of cleaning the wound and getting the bullet out. He stitched the wound and put a bandage on. I can tell you Connie, he never would have been any good as a doctor, not like you’re going to be. So we’re sitting there, having a cup of tea and he says ‘that’s it, you’re going home. That was too close for comfort.’ I sat there smiling at him and he looks at me and says ‘what have you got to smile about?’ I had another reason for going home. I was pregnant. Well your Grandad just about lost it then. He started calling me a crazy woman, putting myself at risk running down hills getting shot at. This just confirmed it and when he calmed down we started planning my return to Belfast, as it turned out to have your mother.
‘But that wouldn’t have made Grandad lose you, if anything he would have protected you even more.’
‘Of course love, you’re right. He brought me back to his parents’ house in Belfast and stayed with me until your mum was born. I knew that he was itching to get back to Louth to do his bit. After a couple of days of your mum crying I chased him back to Louth and he joined Aiken’s Flying Column. The real problem came when the war against the Tans ended. The partition of Ireland was manufactured to suit the Unionists. Collins got the best deal he could get at that time but De Valera cleverly stayed out of the negotiations in London and of course he never gave Collins the support he needed. Your Grandad chose Collins and I chose De Valera probably because the only woman I have ever admired, the Countess Markiewicz, chose De Valera. It’s easy in hindsight to see that Collins was right. It was the only deal we could have got at that time. Collins was shot as you know during the Civil War that followed. A lot of good men and women died then as well. De Valera got his way and was finally elected as Taioseach. To the day I die I will never forget the argument with your Grandad when he came to see me and your mum at his parents’ house. I don’t think we had said a cross word to each other before that day. It turned into a real shouting match. His mother stood in the scullery and cried, your mum was sitting on the floor bawling her eyes out frightened by the loud voices. His father sat in his seat and stared at the fire. When we had exhausted our political arguments on the rights and wrongs of both sides his father stood up and looked him in the face and told him,
‘Get out of this house, you’re no son of mine. You might as well be dead to me.’
God forgive me, I turned from your Grandad, lifted your off the floor and walked into the scullery where your great granny just put her arms around me. I sobbed my heart out. When I came back into the room Sean’s dad was just poking the fire and Sean had gone. I ran into the street with your mum in my arms. The neighbours were standing there staring at me, in silence. Mrs Quigley asked if we were all OK and apologised, ‘Sorry Maggie it was difficult not to have heard the row. Sean ran up the street, tears streaming from his face. Will I take the child for you, till things calm down?’
I shook my head and stood there with your mum clinging to me.
Gradually the street cleared.
I thought then I had lost him forever.
When Collins was shot, God forgive me all I could think was, that’s it, Sean will come home for sure. But he didn’t.’
Maggie stopped and took a long look at the sea remembering the intensity of the pain of that separation. If it hadn’t been for the support of Sean’s family, and her own, she never would have got through it.
‘Gran, that must have been awful but Grandad did come back?’
‘It was two years later and I hadn’t heard any word about him in all that time. His father died and he came home for the funeral. A neighbour had got in touch with him. He arrived in time for the service. I didn’t speak to him. As I was leaving the cemetery, our old friend Father Cairns, who had come to the graveside service to pay his respects, came over. He slipped his arm through mine and holding my hand, he chided me hard, in that warm strong way he had with him,
‘Maggie Cunningham, I know the hurt that has driven you and Sean apart but I always believed that the love you had for each other would overcome even the most difficult of circumstances. He’s in a bad way because he never got to make it up with his dad. Give him another chance.’
He gave me a hug, and as I looked over Father Cairns shoulder I could see your Grandad on his knees at the graveside. He was crying.
I left Father Cairns without a word, and approached the grave. I could hear your Grandad saying over, and over again, ’sorry da’. I stepped up beside him and touched him on the shoulder. He turned and looked at me and my heart nearly burst with the pain I could see in his eyes. I hugged him to his feet and we stood there crying into one another saying, ’sorry it was my fault, no, no it was mine.’ ‘We said nothing should have come between us and it had.’ I asked him why he hadn’t come home and his reply was that he felt he had let us all down and we’d be better off without him. I gave him a playful dig in his chest and called him stupid and stubborn. I told him his father had forgiven him a long time ago and had regretted what he had said. His mother had always loved him and I berated him for not keeping in touch with her and said it was time he went home and asked for her forgiveness. He turned to go and I shouted after him,
‘I knew you would come home sometime. You had my Bandoleer!’
He just turned, smiled and blew me a kiss.
‘Gran, that must have been an awful time for all of you? History books never tell the story of the lives of ordinary people and how events affected them. They only deal with the big questions and the major players.’
‘You’re right – they don’t darling. We were lucky. Your great grandfather’s death brought us back together again and if that hadn’t happened when it did, maybe we would have drifted further apart, until it was too late. I often wonder how many other families were pulled apart by the fall-out from the civil war. I suppose we will never know but, I do believe, there were no winners.’
‘Here, that’s enough, give me a hug and we’ll start back for the bus.’
They stood and hugged, with the sound of the shingle being washed by the waves. Then linking arms, they walked briskly back along the beach enjoying the sound of the gulls and the fresh breeze now blowing through their hair. Two red heads together, one slightly greyer with the ageing lines of a life that had been well lived and the other’s face, a reflection of the beauty that the older woman once had.
As they approached the wooden bridge over the Margy River Connie asked her Gran about her Grandad’s Spanish experience.
‘Tell you what my beautiful girl. I’ve told you one sad story for today, now, let me gather my thoughts and tomorrow after lunch with the family I’ll tell you at least what I know. Yea, maybe now your mum should hear that episode about your Grandad. You can tell her another time what I told you today. Now come on let’s get on the bus and maybe Sally Kane will be in good form to sing us all the way home.’