An unlikely rebel
An Irishman’s Diary: Hiding the past up the chimney
‘At home in rebel Cork we thought my father was brave and ingenious but we also agreed that he was the most unlikely rebel one could imagine.’
What would you think if I told you my father put his life in danger by hiding a gun for a man who was on the run? Whatever about you, at home in rebel Cork we thought my father was brave and ingenious but we also agreed that he was the most unlikely rebel one could imagine. Yet he was down in smouldering Patrick Street with hundreds of others the morning after the Black and Tans burned Cork in December, 1920.
His parents died when he was just a teenager. So he had to put aside his dream of becoming an engineer and instead spend 50 uneventful years working as a clerk in the offices of Suttons coal and grain merchants in a beautiful redbrick building on the South Mall. From upstairs in that building I watched with my father the triumphant march past for the declaration of the Republic. The tramp of steel-tipped boots, the shouted commands, the music of military brass bands. Spine-tingling. It was 1949. I was nine years old.
My father, that daring hider of guns, was a true gentleman. He doffed his hat and made way on the pavement for approaching ladies. He doffed his hat passing the church and whenever he met a priest. They all wore the white Roman collar in those days.
Every Saturday afternoon he went to Confession in the Capuchin church and then he went on to the nearby city library to get his weekly “fix” of detective books. The first thing he did when he got home was to go to page 140 of each book and fill in the zero – that way he could never take out a book that he had already read.
And so on to Sunday Mass. Always 8am, always the same seat, three-quarters of the way up on the left-hand side. Sometimes I used go with him; we wouldn’t say much to each other but it was still kind of nice.
“Who said Mass?” was the first question we asked when he came home from Mass. There was the unexciting Canon Barrett and Fr Cahalane who returned to our Confirmation class for the sole purpose of examining me for the second time – the first time I had got stuck in the Act of Contrition. Then there was Fr McSweeney who was the only person I ever knew who had a Ford Mayflower car.
Fr Ormond was a truly holy person – accepting and encouraging for young fellows who were struggling with their hormones. He had his Confession box on one side of the church and on the opposite side Fr Coveney listened to our sins. I think now that we had and still have a bit of a nerve to be unloading our grubby sins on to the shoulders of priests who were human and frail like the rest of us.
I remember Fr Coveney for two things – one of our neighbours once rescued him from drowning in Garretstown and he was always outspoken in his frequent denunciations of mixed bathing in Crosshaven. He made the seaside village even more popular!
We knew all those priests but people had a special affection for Fr Crowley. In his book The Evergreen Road, Cork poet, Robert Welsh, immortalised “the famously-fast” Fr Crowley who “could do the Mass in 20 minutes”. Such exertion deserved, according to the poet: “ A quiet but elaborate breakfast: /
Sausages, bacon, eggs, Old Tyme/ Irish marmalade; soft toast/ With the crusts sliced off; country/ Butter; lots of Barry’s tea . . .”
All this talk is just to show the peaceful, uneventful rhythm my father’s life settled into after the gun incident. Here’s what he did. He wrapped his friend’s pistol in oily rags and placed the lot into a rectangular tin. Then he moulded plaster around the tin, rubbed soot from the chimney into the plaster and placed the camouflaged tin into the chimney. Just another brick.
And when the Black and Tans arrived to raid the house they used their bayonets to search the chimney. All they found was a small heap of loose insignificant bricks, no use to anybody. The Tans just kicked them out of the way.
Eventually the fighting ended. A while ago the red brick building was sold to developers. Far fewer people go to the eight o’clock Mass. All the people in my little story have long since passed on.
The pistol remained hidden and was never used again.