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The Boat, a short story by John Connell

This story set during the War of Independence was inspired by a true-life incident from the author’s home village

Black and Tans in Tipperary during the War of Independence, 1921. Photo graph: AE Bell Collection / Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

The oars cut through the dark mass of water again and again. A heron stirred at the shoreline and burst into a scurried flight.

‘Grand morning,’ said the first man.

‘It’s that,’ said the second.

They moved steadily towards the middle of the lake. Willie sat in the front of the boat facing the two men. He stared at the boat’s wooden ribs, at the water, at the birds on the shoreline, at anything other than the men.

Only a few hours before he had been sitting down to his supper: the butter, the tea, the potatoes never to be touched now.

The knock had come at the door that night. His mother had answered and screamed at the sight of the volunteers dressed in their long trench coats and Sam Browne belts standing in the doorway. Their faces stoic, strange and full of intent. His father James got up slowly from the kitchen table and made to speak.

‘Come with us aul fella,’ they said to him, and with a quick flick of a shiny revolver, the room moved and swayed to its will. His father touched Mammy’s face and followed the men out the door.

*

Willie clustered then with his family at the window, looking at the red glow of cigarette embers in the darkness. Tiny lanterns moved this way and that.

One of the two men who had knocked on the door prodded his father in the back with the barrel of his revolver, leading him through flits of moonshine to the light of the cigarettes in the distance. Willie knew and also did not know what was to come. Willie clustered then with his family at the window, looking at the red glow of cigarette embers in the darkness. Tiny lanterns moved this way and that.

His mother made to close the blinds but could not do it.

‘What do they want Daddy for?’

‘I . . . I don’t know,’ she stammered, trying to hold back tears.

‘Will they kill Daddy?’

‘Shut up,’ Willie said, and clipped his young brother across the ear.

The embers moved and a torchlight was shone and then Willie could see the path light up for a brief second as the figures became clear. There were seven or more of them. It was the IRA, the flying column, the guerrilla fighters. They looked powerful and dangerous and, yes, heroic too. The light began to bob and it grew closer as whoever was carrying it came back to the house.

‘Oh my Lord,’ his mother cried.

‘Oh my Lord.’

Their father and the two men from before marched stolidly to the front door.

‘Daddy could try and run away, go into the forest,’ Willie’s sister said.

‘No, your father never ran from any man.’

The kitchen door caught on the raised flagstone as it always did. He would remember that in the hours to come, when the film reel would play in his head: the door, the lantern, the shine of the revolver.

The children sat around the kitchen table looking into their untouched dinners.

‘A mistake, a mistake wasn’t it, James?’ she called out and ran towards her husband. ‘I knew right well.’

‘Yes,’ he said, but his face spoke no.

The two men came in behind him and stood under the squat glow of the bare kitchen bulb.

‘William James,’ said the first and turned to look at Willie.

His mother whimpered, but Willie slowly stood up, looking all the while at his father’s face.

‘Is this the lad?’ asked the second, looking now at his father.

‘Yes, but surely there is some mistake. He’s only a boy.’

‘We’re not here to debate that.’

‘Can’t you sit down for a moment?’ his father asked, and gestured his hand meekly across the kitchen table.

‘We can’t.’

‘But surely . . .’

‘We can’t, we have our orders. The prisoner is to come with us.’

‘The prisoner?’ his mother said, and a tear rolled down her cheek. ‘That’s my son.’

So often in conflict it is a problem of language.

‘Son or not, he’s to come with us.’

‘But he’s done nothing, he’s not involved.’

‘That’s for the court to decide,’ said the first.

‘But -‘ said the mother.

‘Can’t we talk about this?’ said his father.

‘You can talk if you like.’

‘But, Jesus, he’s only a lad; he’s not been involved. Isn’t that right, Willie?’

Willie nodded. He could no longer find the words - but what words would change this situation, and what had led to it?

‘Can’t you take a moment and see what you’re doing?’ pleaded his mother.

‘For Christ’s sake, Mrs Routledge, we know what we’re doing, and we have our orders. Move aside now.’

She stood between them. ‘No, no, you cannot take my boy,’

The first moved further into the room and displayed his revolver. ‘I don’t want to have to use this on you but I will.’

‘Willie, you’re to come with us, and if it’s all nothing as your mother and father says then you’ll be back before long,’ said the second, his tone softer. ‘Now, Mrs Routledge, get the boy a coat, it’s a cold night, and you can give him something to take with him if he hasn’t eaten his supper.’

She walked slowly to the pantry and cut half a loaf and placed some sliced ham into greaseproof paper. His father sat down by the edge of the table. His legs had given way as the world collapsed before him. Another world would continue on, the one that said grief was only personal, was only singular, like happiness, like love.

Willie took the bread and his coat from his mother and walked over to the men.

‘Now if we hear of any trouble, any calling of the police or the Tans, we will return, and the next visit will not be so polite,’ said the IRA man. ‘Do you follow my meaning, Mrs Routledge?’

She nodded then stretched out her hand to touch Willie’s, holding it for a moment before she released him.

*

The cold was on his face in an instant. He buttoned his coat, fumbled with the buttons. One, two, three and each now slipped through the hole. He grasped at them and at the fading reality of an evening that had once been peaceful. They walked up the long lane together, the cedars swaying in the breeze.

By the roadside, the rest of the rebels were waiting for him.

‘William James Routledge?’ asked a man, stepping forward.

‘Yes,’ he stammered.

‘Do you know why you are here?’

‘No,’ he said, and in that instant believed his words.

‘I’m putting you under arrest. You’re to come with us,’ said the man who then identified himself as Sergeant McGahern.

The party moved now, walking up the road to the village. The sounds of cattle in the darkness called out over ditches. Willie could see the lights of all the homesteads laid out before him, all those front doors he had never walked into. All those people he had known and never known. ‘I’d know him to see,’ as his father would have said.

The men said nothing. There was only the sound and suck of cigarettes and the occasional rattle of the guns against their holsters and clothes. The smoke filled his nose, a Sweet Afton, loveliest of the lot with its crisp Virginia roll. They walked through the village by the graveyard and the church. Reverend Jenkins’s lights were off - he would be in Mostrim tonight visiting his cousins. Wednesdays the parson was always away from the village.

The doors of McGrath’s pub were shut. A dog wandered the road looking for a mate.

‘Now,’ said Sergeant McGahern and the party stopped by a small cottage.

‘Comrades, keep an eye on the prisoner while I make sure we’re all assembled.’

The sergeant walked into the school hall.

They stood waiting in the dark. Willie’s feet ached.

Sergeant McGahern appeared then at the school doors and beckoned them to him.

Inside, men he did not know sat on fold-out chairs. Up on the stage was a desk with the new flag behind it. Willie was walked to the centre of the room and here his hands were cuffed. The metal felt strange, itched his wrists.

On stage, dressed in green khaki, the judge walked out from behind the crimson curtain.

‘All members please rise.’ The school-hall court took to its feet.

‘Will the prisoner please identify himself?’ said the judge

‘William Routledge,’ he said quietly.

‘Parties may be seated,’ the man said, and walked to his desk.

‘What is the charge?’ said Willie, looking at the judge.

‘I thought that would be clear.’

‘No,’ said Willie, looking at the ground. ‘No, I wasn’t told,’ he added.

‘You stand accused of sedition and conspiracy against the Irish Republic.’

‘But what conspiracy? I conspired against no one.’

‘You’ll be given a defence, William, and a time to be heard,’ said the judge. ‘Can we retrace the events of the night in question, November the fourteenth? One William James Routledge was noted to be in the presence of enemy forces of the Irish Republic at McGrath’s public house from 9 p.m. to approximately 11 p.m. Is that correct, Mr Reilly?’ he added.

A figure stood up from the crowd and walked up to the makeshift bench.

‘That is correct, sir. William Routledge was observed by three separate witnesses in intimate talks with crown forces on the night in question. His conversation was to lead to the arrest of one Corporal Murtagh, who was later taken to Dublin Castle and executed for his role in the fight for Irish freedom. It is our case that Mr Routledge gave vital information to the enemy forces about the whereabouts of Corporal Murtagh on the night in question and thereby leading to his arrest.’

‘November fourteenth? Murtagh? But I didn’t say anything to no one, to anyone,’ gasped Willie.

‘I’ll remind you, William, you will have an opportunity to speak,’ said the judge. ‘Now, Mr Reilly, can you give me evidence to prove that Mr Routledge’s meeting with the crown forces was in fact of a seditious nature?’

‘I can. Mr Routledge was heard by several witnesses to mention the name Murtagh or Dots as the now-fallen comrade was referred to . . .’

Reilly continued with his evidence of lists and names and times and locations. The night in question had been so long ago, thought Willie, and as the words rolled on against him, he rolled further back into himself; his wrists itched, his ankles ached.

*

‘Have a drink with us, mate,’ their captain had said. They had been in the pub all right, the Tans had been in the pub all night and not one man to talk to them. They had holed themselves up in the snug and Mrs McGrath had served them drink all night. A furious hospitality. Paper never refused ink. He had come in from foddering the cattle, the smell of hay and shit about him.

‘No, I’m grand.’

‘Have a drink. Stella, get this boy a drink, whatever he’s having,’ the captain had said, standing up from the table.

A bottle of stout was placed before him. He took a sip and raised the bottle in friendly salute.

The soldiers talked among themselves. Talked of Ireland, of home, of the girls waiting for them.

Willie had looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar, he would finish his drink and go home, but with the emptying of that bottle another was bought and no protest could dissuade the captain. Another and another until he was invited to their table.

‘You’re Henry’s son,’ said the captain and made room for him on the wooden bench.

‘I am.’

‘And why aren’t you at home, son?’

‘I finished my work for the day and had a bit of a taste on me,’ he said.

‘Ah well, join the club, chum.’

‘I’ll have to be heading off shortly.’

‘No, stay a while,’ said the captain softly. ‘Stay a while and have a drink.’ And he settled himself, elbows leaning across the round table. ‘I met your father the other day, he’s a decent man. What do you think about us being here?’ he added.

‘It’s necessary, I suppose.’

‘Is it?’ said the captain.

‘Well, you’re here to keep the peace.’

‘Are we? To keep the peace?’ said the captain, mulling over the words, rolling them on his lips. ‘I wonder about that.’ He was silent a moment and sipped his beer. ‘You’ve a brother in the army, don’t you, Willie?’

‘Yes, he was at the Somme but he’s –’

‘He’s in a hospital now,’ said the captain.

‘He is.’

‘And has he been home since the war?’

‘Once,’ said Willie.

‘But he wasn’t the same, was he?’

‘No, he was, he was different,’ said Willie.

‘These men have all been to the front, Willie, myself too. This is our sort of retirement, a bit of a break before we go back home.’ The captain laughed.

‘Quiet village life,’ said Willie with a smile.

‘Exactly, that’s what I thought,’ said the captain. ‘Would you join up?’

‘I’ve thought about it, but after Peter I’m not so sure anymore.’ He emptied the last of his drink to hide the gap in his words. ‘Will you have one, Captain?’ he asked.

‘I will,’ he said, ‘and you can call me John.’

‘All right, John.’

Two pints were poured and they sat and talked. The Tans were not so bad, not so bad as men had made them out to be. They had a different air about them, he thought. A defeated air, like rudderless men. The soldiers had got drunk and merry, and sang:

Keep the home fires burning
While your hearts are yearning
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.

There was a sadness to the men’s faces. Their eyes spoke of a life he could never understand; a life that had seen the end of other lives.

‘Have they been home?’ Willie asked the captain.

‘No. I think home is only in their minds now. But everything changes into something else. That home won’t be there for them.’

‘Was it there for you?’

‘It was. I had my leave, saw the wife and kiddies but I won’t deny it was different. It’s odd to walk down a street and not have to look out for who’s coming behind you.’

‘I see,’ said Willie.

‘And what does your father think about us being here?’

‘He thinks it’s a good thing,’ said Willie. ‘He’s worried about what might happen to the family if you weren’t here.’

‘And what would happen?’

‘I don’t know, we might be burned out of our house.’

‘But you’re Irish, same as everyone else here?’

‘We are, and we aren’t.’

‘Because you don’t support the volunteers?’

‘Yes and no. We don’t support them, but we can’t go against them either. Because, because, well you know because –’ and he pointed to the sacred heart in the corner. ‘That’s not mine. Do you know what I mean?’

‘I do.’

‘Well, hopefully it all quiets down.’

‘Hopefully . . . Tell me, Willie, do you know a Dots Murphy? I was talking with him the other day.’

‘Dots, the shop boy at Bennets?’

‘Yes.’

‘Ah, yeah, he’s a grand sort.’

‘Is he?’

‘He’s a Sinn Feiner, but I’ve never heard of him doing anything malicious.’

‘And what if I were to tell you he was being malicious. You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? We’re friends, after all.’

‘I would, of course, but I only know him to see.’

‘I see. What if I told you he was involved with the volunteers, what would you think of him then?’

‘I’d think he was smarter than he let on to be.’

And the captain smiled.

‘I suppose, if he was, you’d have to arrest him,’ said Willie after a time.

‘I suppose we would,’ agreed the captain.

And Willie nodded.

‘Will we have another drink, Willie?’

‘One for the road,’ he replied.

They talked for a time of England, and the war and of the captain’s farm. The soldiers who had been loud with the drink began to grow quiet and smoke their cigarettes in silence.

He’d have to go soon, he said. He’d have to go, his mother would begin to wonder. He raised himself from the table and the captain shook his hand.

‘I’ll see you around, Willie.’

‘You will, John.’

‘And we’ll say nothing about Murtagh.’

‘About Murphy?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Nothing to say,’ said Willie.

‘No, nothing,’ said the captain, and smiled. And the soldiers had launched into song again.

There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark clouds inside out
‘Til the boys come home.

*

Of the rest of the night, there was little he could remember, a stumble home past the Protestant graveyard, and up the long lane to the open kitchen door. The night had passed into memory. He’d not seen the captain again. It was three weeks later that he’d heard the news of the ambush. All those men now dead, killed by a volunteers’ mine dug into the road. The captain had seen home, he had told him; he alone, at least, had seen it. And perhaps for the others it was better to have died on some lonely bog road, as it seemed they would never - could never - settle back into a normal life. Their eyes had spoken only of the want to return - but were they not still in the trenches, still in the Somme every day, in a no man’s land of loss? Fighting for something that no longer existed: themselves. Maybe it was better this way, he had thought, and agreed with himself.

*

‘Mr Routledge, Mr Routledge,’ came the voice again, returning him to the hall. ‘We have heard the evidence against you. What have you to say in your defence?’

‘I, I met the Tans in the pub, yes, but I did not conspire or give information.’

‘And yet the evidence put forward here suggests otherwise.’

‘I was asked about Murphy, but I said nothing. I barely knew the man.’

‘And yet it was your information that led to his murder,’ said the judge indifferently.

‘I didn’t kill him.’

‘Please answer what you are asked, Mr Routledge.’

He paused then felt a frustration growing in him.

‘And what about the murder of those men, those soldiers in the ambush?’ said Willie. ‘Who’s to speak for them?

‘No murders are carried out by this army. Fatalities occur in a war, but we are not murderers.’

‘But you’d try me as one who led to murder?’ said Willie, braver now, finding a voice he had not known.

‘You’re to be tried for conspiracy against the Republic that led to a murder, yes.’

‘The only conspiracy here is the one that’s in our hearts. The two houses thinking they are right,’ said Willie. His mouth was dry now.

When the gavel banged off the wooden table no sound seemed to echo. The court rose to its feet. The men’s eyes were level with Willie’s now, but none would look at him. There was a dignified shame to all these people: butchers, shopkeepers and farm labourers, parading as men of honour, as judges, as sergeants, as soldiers of destiny. He was pushed this way and that. The court swore allegiance to the new flag, and was not one of its colours, the orange, for him?

*

It had been several hours now and the first rays of the early morning sun were beginning to appear as they walked outside the Catholic school hall. The two men who had entered the Routledge family home hours ago escorted him now; there was no great fight, no mad dash for freedom, they walked side by side with him, as men might do coming home from a football match or after a night of heavy drinking.

*

The boat waited in the shallows, tied by a piece of frayed rope to a fencing post, its oak cracks having seen season after season. It dipped and bobbed as they climbed on board. Back and forth, to the left and right, as their feet stepped awkwardly into place.

The water lapped as the wooden oars splayed out into the lake again and again. The boat slowly made its way across the glassy frame. The morning was coming, the sun rolling out over the village and the farms. In the distance a curlew called from the marshland at the bottom of Brady’s good pasture ground.

The men did not talk now except for the occasional grunt and groan as they strained their arms. Willie sat and stared at his surroundings, his hands, his feet. The dew would be on the grass, he told himself, and the cattle would have to come in from the top fields for the milking; he could just hear the sweet scutter sound of the white spray against the stainless buckets.

His father would do it today, he told himself, and Pat the Squint would be over later to see about getting his big sow covered by the boar. He’d have to pay up front. And Willie smiled to himself at these thoughts of such meaningless things, such things that make a normal day, and which seemed now so extra normal, so alien.

The middle of the lake grew nearer. Beads of sweat gathered on the men’s faces and arms, and they stopped by times to take off a hat, a coat, a jumper. It was hard work this, thought Willie, and he felt the countryman’s guilt at not digging in, not taking some of the weight.

‘Well, this is as good a spot as any,’ said the first man and took in his oar.

‘I suppose it is,’ said the second.

‘Are you happy with it, William?’

‘Water is water,’ he replied.

Stripped back now to their shirts he thought he recognised their faces, they were no older than him, might perhaps have been friends. He felt a shiver run down his spine and pulled his coat closer, placing his hands inside its pockets. A dark soft mass lay at his fingertips and he smiled to himself.

‘Have you eaten, lads?’ he said, and the words felt so odd in the situation.

‘Ah . . . no,’ said the first man and scratched the back of his head awkwardly.

Willie pulled out the loaf and brown-paper wrapped ham. ‘Do you want a cut?’ he said, and held out the parcel in both hands. ‘It’s hard work this,’ he added, and nodded to the oars.

‘Well, Jesus . . . thanks,’ said the second and took the bread and ham.

‘I’ve nothing to cut it with,’ he said, looking back at Willie.

Willie pulled out his hay knife, all battered and worn, and handed it to the man, who did not think it odd that he had been so armed, as they would have put it. Three slices of bread were cut and three slices of ham placed upon them. The men ate slowly, silently, the batch loaf crumbed and moistened in the mouth. They did not know what words to say to such an act of kindness, in the circumstances.

‘Did you ever play football for the parish?’ the second man asked Willie.

‘A few games, but I was never any good,’ he said as he chewed. ‘Did you?’ he returned.

‘For Dromard, yeah.’

‘I think maybe, maybe once we played alongside one another.’

‘Did we?’ said Willie.

‘I think so, you played corner back?’

‘I did, Jesus. Mind you, you got two points that day.’

‘I had my work cut out with you,’ laughed the man. ‘Couldn’t make a move but you were there.’

‘Jesus, and you mind Pajo the ref? He didn’t know a free from a penalty.’

‘Schoolboys he should be managing.’

‘Just,’ said Willie. ‘What’s this your name was again? Mullen, was it?’

‘Sean Mullen,’ he said, and leaned over to shake Willie’s hand.

‘Sean bloody Mullen,’ said Willie.

‘It was a good game,’ said Mullen. ‘It was a draw in the heel of the hunt.’

‘It was.’

‘Happy days,’ said Mullen.

‘Happy days,’ agreed Willie.

The bread now eaten, the men grew quiet. The other man who had been silent all the while fixed his face and unbuttoned the revolver from his holster.

‘You’ve been found guilty of conspiracy against the Irish Republic’ he began.

‘That’s enough of that, Peader,’ said Sean. ‘He knows, we all know.’

*

The wild ducks rose up across the lake and flew out towards the village where people were beginning to rise for the day. The shop keep would open his shutters and the morning papers would arrive from Dublin with news of more deaths. The headlines seemed to be the same now each morning. The cattle called out from the top fields, their tits sore and aching for the want of milking, and Reverend Jenkins would be back from his cousins’ by ten for Mass.
John Connell is an award-winning author and playwright. A former human rights investigative journalist, he now lives in rural Ireland. His next book, The Cow Book, to be published by Granta in June 2018, is a memoir of his life as a cattle farmer. He is working on a theatre play with actor Stephen Rea