COLLEEN by Tom O’Brien (extract)
They’re hanging me tomorrow at Gallows Green. Over the bridge at Ballsbridge and out to Singland where the unfriendly Clare trees await me, their nooses swinging in the breeze at every step I take. Oh that it were The Burren, where there are neither trees to hang a man, water to drown him, nor soil to bury him. But what is the use of such fanciful thinking; he that lives by the sword must surely die by it. Sir, it is my neglect of my religion that brings me to this place, for had I taken good advice I would not now be meeting this unhappy end.
‘Twas said of my master’s execution that the carriage horses bearing him there refused to cross Ballsbridge – this despite much cajoling and beating – and that he climbed from the carriage and walked the remainder of the way. A clear indication of his innocence, I heard it said many a time afterwards in Scartaglen.
‘Twas also reported that his parting words were, ‘may the gates of Paradise be ever shut against me if I had hand, act, or part in the crime for which I am now about to suffer. If Sullivan be found, my innocence will appear’.
Well sir, I am found, and I declare before Almighty God that I am guilty of the murder, but it was Mr Scanlon who put me up to it.
The man seated by the fire put down his pen and rubbed his eyes. Soon he would need to light the candles, an extravagance he indulged in as little as possible these days. Light was visible a long way in the dark; who knew what was lurking out there waiting to pounce in these troubled times. He had seen human scarecrows lying by the wayside, the green-grass spittle dribbling from near-lifeless lips, others wandering witless, gnawing at tree barks and shrubs in their desperate search for sustenance. A lighted window would be like a beacon to such scavengers.
Not that he didn’t feel sympathy. There but for the grace of God and all that…if a God could still be believed in that would allow such suffering. What was it O’Connell had said only last year? It is impossible to calculate the numbers of people who will perish in Ireland within the next twelve months of famine and pestilence, unless we vote for the repeal of the corn laws. How can we on the one hand complain of starvation and on the other vote against provisions being as cheap as they might otherwise be? Well. It was easy enough to calculate now; all one had to do was walk a stretch of road and count the poor wretches.
Of course there were many who traded on this human misery – indeed cashed in on it. The gombeen men and hucksters who made outrageous profits from the trade of foodstuffs, the landlords who evicted their tenants to ‘improve’ their land. Now the dead were being buried in nothing but a shroud; he had seen coffins with sliding bottoms to facilitate their continual use. Still, they were the lucky ones; many just lay where they fell. Oh, ‘twas an ill wind alright…
He re-read what he had written. Could one ever be sure of accuracy after such a long time? After all, the tale he was recording had happened in 1819, almost thirty years ago now. And all he had to rely on was his memory, which, with the onset of middle age, was about as reliable as the weather.
Still, did it matter a jot if it wasn’t the truth in its entirety? It was substantially correct, the way he remembered it, and if he embellished a phrase or two here and there, put the extra word in the occasional mouth, well what was it but poetic licence? All writers claimed such privilege.
No story was ever the complete story; the truth, like beauty, was in the mind of its beholder; the whole truth and nothing but the truth was seldom that. Besides, it altered nothing of the basic story; the shocking and brutal murder of Ellie Hanley, whose bound and mutilated body the Shannon finally yielded up, and the subsequent hanging of her husband and his manservant for the terrible deed.
‘Ah Ellie, beautiful Ellie. Now they have taken to calling you The Colleen Bawn. Your story has spread across the water, in articles and books. You are more famous dead than you ever were – or ever could be – alive. Yet what were you? Just a slip of a girl, not even sixteen. But able to turn the heads of all the young bucks in the county of Limerick. Indeed the city too, I venture, had your fair countenance graced its streets.
Young and innocent Ellie, lured from your home by a rake and a scoundrel, then spirited away never to be seen again ‘till your broken body was washed ashore on the bleak sands of Moneypoint. Oh what a Godsend you were for the papers. Oh what a joy to the storytellers. Such innocence, such beauty, such tragedy. And yet a beauty like yours can never truly be innocent. We both know that, don’t we? You saw from an early age what a weapon beauty could be. How it could be used to manipulate. How you could use it to twist men around your little finger. And you did. Your father, your uncle, John Scanlon,Stephen Sullivan,Edward Fitzgerald, Gerald Griffin and God knows who else. Maybe even O’Connell himself. There is one more I must add to the list; this poor scribbler now endeavouring to take his mind back to the event that was to cast a blight on the lives of all those associated with it.
The courthouse emptied rapidly. Wave upon wave of excited bodies surging streetwards, the air humming with a combination of pounding feet and excited chatter at the spectacle just witnessed. There would only be one topic of conversation in the taverns and ale-houses of Limerick tonight. O’Connell had triumphed again.
God, how the rabble loved him. But then, what was he but a rabble-rouser himself? Aye, and with the knack of exploiting the untapped power of the bawling, unlettered multitudes. When he growled they roared, when he said jump they asked how high.
He shook himself free of the onrushing crowd that had propelled him to the street outside the assize, struggling to anchor himself lest he be carried along Bridge Street, towards the numerous taverns and eating houses that beckoned, into that malevolent stew that was the heart of the city. He had no desire to re-live O’Connell’s triumph, exaggerated and embellished as it would undoubtably be behind veils of alcohol and smoke. Across the street, the Cathedral offered sanctuary. He contemplated a few moments solitude within before keeping his appointment with Ellen. Better not though. Within seconds he had turned down an alley, away from the jostle and excitement, heading towards the quayside and the comparative peace and quiet of the Shannon.
What a circus it had been back there. O’Connell the ringmaster, orchestrating the proceedings in his own inimitable way. He had everybody jumping through hoops – and most of them didn’t even realise it. O’Shaughnessy was as guilty as sin; everybody knew he had seized that ship and set up as a pirate. He had even been caught red-handed. Yet he had walked free because O’Connell had argued that any offence committed had taken place on the high seas, over which no assize court had jurisdiction. The judge himself had been taken in – that same old fool whom O’Connell had recently described as ‘resembling a goose trying to get under a garden gate’ – and had ruled there was no case to answer. No wonder the perpetrator had thumped O’Connell heartily on the back as he left court a free man, saying ‘may the Lord spare you, Counsellor, to me’
‘Have you got a moment, Mr O’Dea?’.
He turned from his contemplation of the river to face the man who addressed him. Fairly tall, he was in his mid-twenties, his ruddy complexion suggesting an outdoor way of life. As if to emphasise this, he carried with him a blackthorn stick.
It was Stephen Sullivan, Mauria’s brother.
‘How are you Stephen?’ It must be all of a year since they last met.
‘I saw you at the trial. Powerful stuff, wasn’t it? The Big Fella was in top form, I thought’.
He could barely keep the sneer from his voice. ‘If any man can make a fool of the law, then O’Connell’s your man’.
‘Ah sure, wasn’t he trained for it. And be the best brains in England and all. All the better that he can turn it to the advantage of dacent Irish people against the like of them that have taken everything we own’.
‘O’Shaughnessy decent? He’s nothing but a robber and a highwayman. And now he’s free again to roam the roads and waylay any misfortunate traveller unlucky enough to come within his sights. When his next victim is found lying penniless and half-dead in some lonesome ditch, let O’Connell share some of the blame. He is, after all, the reason that scoundrel is walking free this day. Oh, crime pays alright; handsomely in the case of Daniel O’Connell’.
‘I never thought, Mr O’Dea, to hear any Irishman speak against him. Especially you. Isn’t it enough that Englishmen tremble every time he opens his mouth?’.
‘I am not against him, not when he turns his venom on the Saxon foe. But the man’s a buffoon too often for my liking; too much bluster and not enough substance in my opinion. He blows with the wind. And what blows with the wind eventually disappears. And as for liking him, I can’t say I do. Not his manners and not his morals’.
Sullivan seemed about to say something, then changed his mind. He contented himself instead with scraping some caked mud off the heel of his boot with the blackthorn stick.
‘My master wishes to speak to you’.
Ah yes. Mr John Scanlon. Squire-about-town. Late of the Royal Marines, wasn’t he? Boozer, braggart and not at all shy when it came to the ladies. Still, you couldn’t hold that against a man.
‘What does he want?’.
‘I cannot say. Except that you may find it to your advantage’.
‘Cannot or will not, eh?’. He laughed. ‘Come on man, you two are thicker than curdled milk, tell me what he’s after. Something devious if I know Mr Scanlon’.
Sullivan shook his head. ‘I dare not, sir. He can tell you himself tonight. You will find him in Dooley’s after eight’.
He thought for a moment. He wouldn’t get off stage much before nine thirty; fifteen minutes to clean the muck off his face, another fifteen to placate Ellen.
‘I couldn’t possibly make it before ten. If your master wishes to wait until then we can discuss his business with me. If not…’ , he shrugged, ‘…then it will have to be some other time’.
He took out his fob and checked it. The time for his rendezvous with Ellen was almost upon him…
‘Now, if you will excuse me…’
He had taken but a few steps when Sullivan spoke again.
‘Shall I tell Mauria you will be down Glin way soon?’.
‘No’, he replied, squeezing his lips together, ‘tell her nothing’.
Young girls liked to act older than their years, especially when in the company of older men. This was something he had come to believe with the passing years. He didn’t dwell on it particularly. Nor did he place too much significance on the discovery, merely that it was true. And it was truer still of the acting profession, where, for various reasons, there were more opportunities ( and reasons ) for this generally harmless deception.
It was certainly true of Ellen, he thought now, as she waved him to her table. It was smack in the middle of the dining room, where the lunch-time traffic was at its busiest. Trust her to pick the most conspicuous spot in the hotel.
Her long hair, burnished -copper in colour, framed a face that had been carefully made-up to highlight her most alluring assets, her eyes. Dark pools in a blue lagoon, was how he had once described them. She certainly looked older than her eighteen years now, at least half a dozen years older.
‘Tell me all the news Jeremiah’, she gushed as he pushed his way to the table. ‘Leave nothing out, mind. You know how I like to hear the latest gossip. What’s been happening while I’ve been away?’.
‘Of gossip I know little, and care less’. He sat down opposite her, excited, not for the first time, by the gentle rise and fall of her breasts beneath the white material that held them.
‘Why Jeremiah! You old fraud. Who was it told me of Mr O’Connell’s little pecadillos?’. She smiled sweetly at this. ‘Or of that judge who likes to wear ladies garments in his chambers at night?’.
‘What gossip have I related to you about Mr O’Connell? I cannot remember’.
‘Why, his fondess for young women of course’.
‘Oh that’. He laughed. ‘That is not gossip. It is common knowledge. Anyone one the circuit will confirm it. O’Connell is a large man with large appetites; his sexual appetite is by no means the least of them’.
‘There! If that is not gossip I do not know what is’. She raised her hand to her mouth to hide her titters. ‘And slanderous too. Be careful he does not have you up before a judge for it’.
He could see from the flush on her face that she was enjoying this banter. ‘And who will tell him? You? Besides, any man with a family of seven can hardly de described as anything but industrious in that department’.
‘What a licentuous mind you have Jeremiah’. She placed her hand over his on the table, suggesting that the state of his mind didn’t bother her unduly.
‘How was your trip to Cork?’, he inquired.
‘Very tiring. And quite expensive too. Mr Bianconi has put his prices up to tuppence a mile. I hope you will remonstrate with him the next time you see him’.
An unlikely happening, he reflected. Charles Bianconi moved in different circles these days. Amazing what a little success could do. Five years ago, was it?, he was eking out a living hawking his prints around the patterns and fairs of Munster; now the Bianconi stagecoaches were carrying passengers and mail the length and breadth of the province. And to think he could have been part of it! But he never believed it could be successful; the Royal Mail coaches were too established, had too much of a monopoly. Instead, he had bought Bianconi’s remaining stock of prints and prospered briefly…
‘I shall certainly convey your displeasure, my dear…the next time I see Charles’. Perhaps he had overstated his association with the fellow to Ellen, which had never been more than a passing one. ‘What I really meant was how are your family in Cork?’.
‘As well as can be expected’. Ellen’s jolly manner suddenly evaporated. ‘My aunt wishes me to leave the stage. She says it is no profession for a young lady. In her eyes, the only suitable one is that of marriage, preferably to some lump of a farmer with a gaggle of children tugging at my apron strings’.
‘And your uncle?’.
‘Him!’. A disparaging wave of her hand. ‘I do not wish to speak about him. He is unfit for human consumption’.
What it was about her uncle that displeased her so she had never said, but he suspected it might have a sexual basis. She hadn’t said so in as many words, but she must have inferred it in some manner for the notion to have taken root in his mind. He visualised the uncle as an old letcher, perhaps spying on her as she undressed for bed in her tiny room in the farmhouse. Maybe even sneaking in there when the rest of the household was fast asleep and attempting a furtive coupling. How would Ellen react to that? Would she scream? He didn’t think so. She was too composed, too calculating for that. What then? His guess was she would try to use the situation to her advantage. A little harmless blackmail, perhaps. He wouldn’t put it past her. A tremor of exhilaration swept over him as he visualised her lying there, her flesh white in the candlelight, her bosom heaving as she gazed gazelle-like at the dark form above her.
‘I think you should consider not going there any more’, he remarked after the waitress had laid their table with a pot of tea and a plate of ham sandwiches.
‘Where should I go then? They are my family, my only flesh and blood’. What had happened to her parents was never made clear; all he knew was that she had spent most of her childhood at her uncle’s farm. She had, in fact, grown up there.
‘Maybe you should give serious consideration to your aunt’s suggestion’.
‘Get married? But I should have to leave the stage. Settle down and give up the only pleasure I have ever known? Never!’.
He helped himself to a sandwich. ‘There are ways Ellen dear. You could marry someone in the profession. Someone who would be your mentor, who would cherish you. An older man’.
Something in his voice caused the hand reaching out for a triangle of bread to freeze in mid-air.
‘Someone like you, I suppose?’.
‘Surely not, Jeremiah’. She must have seen the hurt look on his face for she hurriedly placed her hand over his. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. But we are friends, are we not? The very best of friends?’.
‘My aunt says best friends should never marry. Not each other, anyway’.
‘Not even when they are lovers?’.
A small smile crossed her face. ‘It is true we have made love. But that is not a reason’. The triangle of bread finally made it to her mouth, where she chewed it carefully for some moments. ‘Are you in love with me?’.
‘I want to take care of you’.
‘I can take care of myself. Besides, you hardly know me’. She held up a hand to forestall his objections. ‘You don’t, not really . We have known each others for a few months, courtesy of this travelling show. Fate has thrown us together for a brief spell, it could just as easily cast us apart tomorrow. In a week we head for Tralee, two weeks later I head for London while you head back here. We might never meet again’.
‘Marry me and all that will change’.
‘I cannot marry you Jeremiah. I will be your friend, your lover, whatever you want, but I cannot marry you’.
At first he couldn’t see Scanlon through the haze and cursed. He had rushed himself for nothing. A turf fire burned unevenly in the large open hearth at the rear of the room, occasional downdraughts causing clouds of smoke to billow outwards and envelope the largely unconcerned sprinkling of drinkers. In the dim light they looked for a moment like apparitions, their ghostly features indistinct behind the smoke-veil.
‘Over here man. In the corner’.
He remembered Scanlon as a big man, tall that is, but he was unprepared for the giant that rose to meet him. He couldn’t have been much under six foot. He himself was five eight – a fine cut of a man even if he said so himself – but he felt like a pygmy in this man’s presence. His complexion, too, was fair; much fairer than it had any right to be given the dark and runty appearance of most of his contemporaries. A Saxon then. He must be. His ancestors anyway.
‘You’ll have a drop? Scanlon signalled to the serving-man and an extra glass was brought to the table. He poured a generous measure from the earthenware jar by his side, then raised his own glass.
The whiskey tasted surprisingly smooth, much better than the watered-down potheen he usually made do with. But then, if the gentry couldn’t get hold of the good stuff who could? He made suitable complimentary noises, then noticed the man scrunched up in the corner by the fire. It was Stephen Sullivan and he was snoring contentedly.
Scanlon tapped the jar. ‘Too much of this. He’ll sleep it off and be as right as rain in a couple of hours. A good man to have on your side, is Stephen. Better than most, anyway’. He poured some more whiskey in his own glass and took a deep draught of it. ‘And how is your charming companion, Miss…Miss…?’.
‘You mean Miss Lavelle?’. ‘Yes, that’s the name. A stage name of course?’.
‘Of course’. ‘I caught her in a show in Dublin some time ago. I thought she was delightful’.
‘I shall pass on your compliments. I’m sure she will be pleased. Was it that you wished to see me about?’.
Scanlon looked at him through the haze and he could see that his eyes were bloodshot. ‘Good grief, no. Something much more in your line. You are a consumate actor I have been told. A man of many parts, they say’.
He couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pleasure. ‘Well, I do my best’.
‘You can play a part then? Any part?’.
‘You name it, sir, I can play it’.
‘A priest then. Can you do a priest?’.
He chuckled. ‘Child’s play Mr Scanlon. Child’s play. Give me something more demanding’.
His companion poured some more whiskey. ‘Oh, I don’t doubt you can act the part on stage. Any reasonably sane fool could. But could you do it in real life? Could you put on the vestments and fool a person into believing you were the genuine article?’.
Something in Scanlon’s voice chilled him. On the surface, it seemed am innocent enough question, but when its echoes died away, a sense of uneasiness, menace even, seemed to linger in its wake.
‘This is what you wished to see me about? You want me to impersonate a priest?’.
‘I have never impersonated anybody before’.
‘Acting, impersonating, it’s all the bloody same’. The bloodshot eyes stared insolently across the table at him. ‘I never yet met an actor who didn’t have something to hide. Or an actress for that matter. Your whole profession is one of shiftiness and impersonation’.
He stood up. ‘I didn’t come here to be insulted…’.
His companion placed a restraining hand on his arm. ‘Sit down man and have another drink’. He held up the jar. ‘You won’t find any better, I guarantee’. He poured again. ‘Don’t take it so personal. I am sure there are fine upstanding fellows like yourself throughout the profession but it doesn’t always come across that way. Does it?’.
He shook his head. It was true. ‘No. We have our fair share of charlatans, I admit’.
‘So, we agree on something. Now, what about this job?’.
‘You’re asking me to break the law?’.
‘Only a little’. A smile from his companion this time that somehow conveyed only marginal warmth. ‘And nobody will know except you and me’. He patted the sleeping form beside him. ‘And Stephen of course, but he won’t tell’. While he had been speaking he had been searching his jacket pocket. He now produced a purse. ‘Ten gold sovereigns for less than an hours work. You’ll not top that, eh?’. He counted five shining coins onto the table. ‘Five now to seal the bargain’.
He couldn’t resist picking one of the coins up. It was the first time he had held one for years.
‘What is it you require me to do?’.
‘In two days time I am getting wed to the most beautiful girl in all of Limerick. I want you to perform the ceremony’.