*Jesus Christ! It must be the bloody Apocalypse!* What I assumed were petrol bombs (which Tadhg had taught me how to make when I was 10 – 1984) were blasting right left and centre. I could hear glass shattering, women screaming, children crying, men shouting and chanting as Gaeilge.
I cowered on the floor, under the kitchen table, my hands over my ears, tucked up in a neat little ball, rolling backwards and forwards gently between two young children, Fear and Cowardice.
The front door burst open. My stomach acid turned to lead – *this is it, Erin, this is the day you’re going to die. You’re dead. Nice bloody one.*
It was Mary. “Jesus Christ!”
“Mary, I’m in the kitchen, come here, quick!”
“Jesus, Erin, whaddye doin’ here, hie? Where’s Mammy? And Daddy?” She joined me under the table, holding onto one of the legs for dear life.
“Your ma’s at my house. I came over because there’s somethin’ you needie know. But I cannie tell ye yit fer I’m not meant to, but ye’ll know soon ‘nuff.”
“Awk, Erin, tell me now, fer I’ll naw be ibble tae wit.” She had the strongest Derry accent I’d ever heard.
“Naw, I rellie can’t.” My accent got more prominent by proxy.
“Ye gack. Ye can tell me suh-hin’ though; what in under Jesus is goin’ on out there?”
“I dunno what the craic is but a do know people’s dead.”
“God rest them.” She blessed herself as she spoke. Raised well, was our Mary. I just didn’t want to think what she’d be like when she found out her daddy was one of those dead. She was a real daddy’s girl, not unlike me.
“Ye wannie mick a run fer it an’ jist leg tae yer house?” she whispered.
“I dunno, hie; it’ll be dire out lere.”
We hesitated at the front door, holding hands before making a run for it, nearly getting hit by a police car speeding. Bastard hypocrites.
We had to stop for breath before trying to bust open my front door. Just before we managed it Tadhg let us in.
“Jesus, what’s wrong with—
As he spoke, he was interrupted by his own sight following a petrol bomb floating aimlessly across the field of our vision and landing gently with a soft clink on the road, rolling around twice. It was all in slow motion.
“Jesus Christ! Get in now!” He pulled and pushed us in before slamming the door in time with the explosion, his back to the wood, which seemed to shake. Shards of glass fell against the door like poisonous snowflakes. Mary and I, still short of breath with fear, looked at each other, then at Tadhg. He was pale as cold milk and his hands were shaking like a newborn lamb. The Irish Civil War may have had its ceasefire in 1924, but by Jesus, it never ended. He ran from the front door, pulling us behind him. Ma and Da appeared at the living room door, a ghostly Pauline behind them.
“Jesus, Tadhg, what in under God’s happnin’?” Da had his arm around Ma’s shoulder.
“Bloody petrol bomb just flew past us! There’s a bloody war goin’ on, Da!”
“Thank God those wee College boys are away home for the summer.” Mammy blessed herself. The ‘College boys’ were students at the boarding school in Bishop Street.
“And, Da, since, I’m in the Army, I have to fight!” Tadhg was on his way to the attic to get his rifle when Pauline stopped him.
“Don’t you dare go out there and get yourself killed!” she shouted. “Think about your poor ma, what she’d do if you died, and think about my Gerard.”
Jesus. It was out.
“What about Daddy, Ma?” Mary blinked at her mammy so innocently I could’ve cried. She was barely heard over her mammy’s shouts.
“And think about Mary and my other wains!” Pauline had tears running down her face.
“Mammy, what’s wrong with Daddy?!” Mary shouted; she had her mammy’s temper; they shared a screech in their raised voices.
“Awk, Mary.” Pauline stopped yelling at my brother, let her hands slide off his shoulders and turned to her páiste óige. She took her into the living room, the rest of us wisely deciding to stay in the hall. Pauline’s broken mumblings were followed by a pregnant silence, which in turn gave life to an agonised, howling scream from mo chara is fearr.
“That poor wee girl.” Ma finally succumbed to tears and buried her head on Da’s shoulder. His lips pressed together. I looked at my brother, his eyes filled with liquid guilt, and utter brokenness. I could almost read his thoughts on his face.
‘If I go, and get killed, my ma, da, Erin, Pauline, even Saoirse, they’d never forgive me.’
‘If I don’t go I’m a dead man anyway. Auld Caoimhan Gillespie is bloody ruthless with traitors.’
His eyes were pained as they looked at me for a solution which I simply could not provide.
Apparently he no longer had that kind of authority over himself. As the phone rang he stopped breathing, almost collapsing, judging by the paling of his already-snowy face. He composed himself, closing his eyes for a second or two before answering.
“Dia duit, a chara.”
“Ach mo mhaithair, tá sí...”
*sigh* “Ceart go leor. Slán go foill, a Chaoimhan.”
He looked at me like he was a young pup and I’d just taken his bone, before turning to our parents.
“Don’t even, Tadhg.” Ma always knew when he spoke of being ‘needed’.
“But, Ma; that was Caoimhan Gillespie. He’ll kill me himself if I don’t go. I have a better chance if I do go.”
Ma pressed her lips together, closed her eyes and shook her head, blonde strands of hair shaking in unison. When she opened her eyes, I saw how beautiful and youthful her face still looked after 39 years, how vividly blue her eyes were behind their liquid barracks, now being shed down her face.
“Go, Tadhg,” she sighed, “I know how dangerous it would be if you stayed.”
It was then Tadhg’s ‘big hard man’ exterior broke, and he began to sob like a child. “I’m so sorry, Ma. I’m so sorry.”
She didn’t speak after that. I didn’t blame her.
There was this feeling building up inside me. It started at the tips of my toes and spread like wildfire around my body until my very hair and nails were pulsing. I was breathing heavily and was almost panting with excitement. I knew I had to get out there, and fight with my men, against my men. I could feel the spirit of Countess Markiewicz writhing inside me, urging me to go out there and defend Éire as she did, alongside the greatest of the great. Sure, she might have been 3 times my age at the time of the rising, but that did not mean I was restricted in any way.
“I am an Irish woman,” I said to myself, “I can do anything.” I felt so liberated right then.
Tadhg was away for his rifle, and I followed him. I cornered him in the attic.
“What is it, Erin? I have to go.”
“I want to go with you.”
He just erupted. “No! No way in under God are you going out there to get yourself bloody shot!”
“I don’t care. ‘For freedom, I’ll live and die’.” I quoted my favourite poem.
“Think about this, then. Mary has just lost her father in a gruesome and humiliating way. Do you think she will want to see her best friend killed in the exact same way just because you’re feeling brave, eh?”
“Tadhg. Please. I want to help the Brotherhood.”
That struck a nerve. “Erin – get a milk bottle.”
“Yes!” I was elated, totally delighted. My first real experience of battle, and right on my doorstep. This was it.
This was my chance to prove I was a true Irish warrior, just like Tadhg.