I Can Count On You?

My apologies for the slight delay in transmission. I was at a conference on Irish Arts in Britain yesterday so ‘Friday Fiction' is being delivered on Saturday. In this episode, it's spring 1922 in Mucknamore and things are hotting up. So brew yourself a cuppa, sit back and allow yourself to be swept away to a very different time and place.


The story so far: Jo Devereux has holed herself away in an old shed in Mucknamore, the Irish seaside village where she grew up, in order to read the family papers bequeathed to her by her mother. Jo is fascinated by the letters and diaries describing the young lives of her grandmother and  “Aunt” Nora O'Donovan, especially the consequences of the split between her family and the O'Donovans around the Treaty Ireland signed with Britain in 1922 — consequences that reached all the way into her own life.  As Jo gets sucked into these stories of  the past, she also has to decide what it means for her relationship with Rory O’Donovan, the man she swore she'd never let back into her life — now visiting her daily.

‘Will the lads make a guard of honor? To lead Mr de Valera’s car from Enniscorthy to Wexford?’

The question stopped Peg in the act of laying the kitchen table. ‘No,’ she said, knives and forks pointing upwards in her hands. ‘No, Mammy. We won’t have time for them to walk all that way.’

Máire folded her lips, purposefully. Peg was stung but knew it was frustration at her own weakness that was making her mother critical. Three weeks ago, Máire handed over to Peg her part in organizing the great day because she just wasn’t able for it. She strained for patience. ‘The Enniscorthy meeting opens at three,’ she explained. ‘By the time Miss MacSwiney and the others say their bit, it will be nearly four before Mr de Valera gets to speak. They have to be in Wexford for five so there’s not time enough to walk it.’

‘But you’ll escort them into the town, surely?’

‘Ah, Mammy, of course we will. They’ll motor as far as Ferrycarraig where the troops will be waiting to lead them through.’

And after the public meeting in Wexford there would be a reception in the Talbot Hotel, and it was there that she, and two other girls, would make their presentations. Máire turned back to her frying pan, and was leaning into the press as she stood by the cooker, turning meat. Always now if she was standing, she had to rest against some surface to steady herself – a hand on the table, a hip against the chair. And she moved slowly about the place, as if weighing the wisdom of each step before putting her foot down. These changes had advanced so gradually that Peg hardly noticed them, until something reminded her of her old bustle, the way she used to come swinging through a door with five times more force than was needed.

A lot of her mother’s strength went into trying to hide her weakness, in ways that turned Peg’s heart over. She tried to catch Barney’s eye behind their mother’s back, but he had his face dug into the newspaper so she went back to setting the cutlery.

‘It’ll be a great occasion,’ Máire said, trying to make amends. ‘I might make it in myself.’

‘Are you serious, Mammy?’

‘What do you mean, am I serious?’

‘I never thought for a minute that you’d not come.’

Her mother frowned. ‘I’ll do my best.’

‘You have to come, Mammy. Every republican this side of Enniscorthy will be there.’

‘All right, all right,’ she said, short with her again. ‘I’ll do my best, I said. Don’t pick me up till I fall.’

Every time Peg thought of herself handing that statue to Mr de Valera, she felt dizzy. To think of him taking her hand in his, probably addressing a few words to her. Whatever would she say back? How would she answer him without blushing?

‘It will be so strange to see him in the flesh,’ she said.

‘He has a powerful presence all right,’ said Máire from the cooker. ‘And Miss MacSwiney too. They say she’s a great speaker.’

Barney lifted his head. ‘They say she’d talk the hind leg off a donkey. Two and a half hours she went on for during the last Dáil debate. Two and a half hours!’

‘I know, but worth listening to, wasn’t she?’ Peg said. ‘All that stuff about blades of grass and dragon’s teeth . . . ’

Máire picked up the quote, word perfect: ‘ “If they exterminate the men, women and children of this generation, then the blades of grass, dyed with their blood, will rise, like the dragon’s teeth of old, into armed men, and the fight will begin again in the next . . . ” ’

‘Strong stuff, Barney,’ Peg said. ‘You have to admit it.’

But of course he wouldn’t. None of the men liked Miss MacSwiney; she frightened the life out of them. And Barney, once again, was in a disagreeable mood. ‘Will the dinner be long, Mam?’ he asked, drumming his fingers on the table. ‘I’m in an awful hurry.’

Peg said, ‘Aren’t you always in a hurry these days?’

She wouldn’t mind if it was movement work he was going to but it was only an old game of hurling, not even a match, just a friendly. Her mother crossed the room and put his plate of food on the table, pinching his cheek as she passed, like he was still a child.

Peg laid the potatoes in front of him. ‘Surely they’ll not start the match without the great Barney Parle? If you gave us a hand, it would be quicker for us all.’

‘Don’t start, you two,’ said Máire. ‘Leave the chap alone, Peg, and run out and see can your daddy come in for his.’

‘Do you want me to take over the shop?’ It was Saturday, a day that had a different routine to weekdays. Peg had no school and Pats, the hired help, had a half day. It would get busy but not usually until later on.

‘See is it quiet enough to leave the door open.’ They did that sometimes; the customers tapped on the counter with a coin if they had a need. Máire liked to get everybody fed at the same time, so the food didn’t spoil, but she didn’t approve of them eating behind the counter like some publicans.

The dinner was fried pork chops, one of JJ’s favourites, and he came in rubbing his hands. ‘Looks good and smells better,’ he said, taking his seat at the top of the table. Barney was steadily advancing through his meal, his first chop shorn to the bone already. He and JJ had two, and the women one. Máire’s own plate held the smallest helping but Peg knew she wouldn’t finish even that.

‘So,’ said Peg to Barney, ‘are we expecting many on the sidelines today to cheer on the heroes of the hurling field?’

He ignored her, carried on working through his plate of food, barely stopping to swallow. His cup of water sat beside him untouched.

‘I think some girls are mad,’ said Peg, ‘to stand for an hour and a half on the side of a hurling pitch on a day like this.’

‘If you had an eye for one of them,’ said her father, ‘I’d say you’d be out there too, same as the rest.’

‘Not if Pádraic Pearse himself was playing.’

‘Where is the game?’ Máire wanted to know.

‘Creel,’ Barney said, his mouth full of meat.

‘You’ll be going on the bike, so. Did you get that brake fixed?’

‘It’s all right.’

She frowned. ‘Is it fixed, is what I asked.’

‘I’ll manage all right for now.’

‘You didn’t manage too well when you hit that hole on Rathmeelin hill last time, did you? Weren’t you lucky not to break a limb? Daddy, tell him.’

‘Your mother’s right, son. You need the brakes to be in order.’

‘I’ll fix it later. I’ve no time now.’

‘What has to happen to you before you get sense? What do you have to be inviting accidents into your life for?’

‘I’ll fix it later, Mammy. Honest I will.’ He gave her one of his smiles, humouring her. ‘Honest.’

Close under her chiding of them these days was an anxiety like gone-off milk under a film of cream. They all sensed it but none of them wanted to poke through to it.

Barney pushed back his chair.

‘Are you not waiting for a cup of tea?’ Máire said.

‘I haven’t the time.’ Already he was at the door.

‘What hour of the day or night will you be back?’

‘Around six. Bye.’ And he was gone, leaving a space behind him.

Peg stood to gather the side plates and pile the potato peelings and the dirty cutlery. She too needed to leave – her meeting started at two thirty – but she didn’t like to take off too quickly after Barney’s sweep-out. Time was when her mother used to be the one always off somewhere in a hurry.

‘Are you finished, Mammy?’

‘I am.’

JJ looked up. ‘Ah, Máire, eat another bit, for pity’s sake.’ But she shook her head.

Peg scraped her plate, stacked it with the rest, carried them over to the board. She put the kettle on the fire. It had boiled earlier and only needed a minute back on the heat. As she stood waiting for it, she felt herself wilt in the heat of the fire and realized she was tired. Between teaching in school, helping out at home and her Cumann na mBan work, she never seemed to have a minute these days. Steam and water came hissing through the spout of the kettle and she lifted it off, made the tea.

‘Good girl yourself,’ said her father, as she put down the pot.

‘I need to go as well, Mammy,’ she said, soft as she could.

‘You’ve no time for tea either?’

‘I’m sorry, I have to be in town by half-past two. But I’ll be back in time to give you a hand with the supper.’

She replaced the butter and salt in the pantry, put the dirty delph in the basin, poured boiling water into it.

‘Leave it, so,’ her mother said. ‘I’ll do them myself.’

‘Are you sure?’

Her mother made a face. ‘You have to go is what you said.’

That wasn’t fair. How was it allowed for Barney to trot off to a hurling match without a word said about it? You couldn’t but feel for Mammy, her weakness went hard on her, but how was it Peg was the always the one to get the lash of her tongue?

‘Go on, then, if you’re going,’ said Máire, standing up quickly, too quickly, which brought on one of her coughing attacks. This racking immediately transmuted Peg’s anger into fear. She stood, unsure whether to cross over to help or whether Mammy would rather it ignored. God, but this was a long one. Would it never stop?

Máire was scrabbling at the fabric of her dress trying to reach into her pocket – for the flask she kept there that was small enough to spit into without making a fuss, or for her handkerchief – but before she could, a spout of blood burst from her mouth. She put her hand up to try to hold it.

‘Mammy!’ Peg cried, rushing to catch her. She steered her towards the armchair, snatching a tea towel off the chair at the same time and pushing it into her mother’s trembling fingers.

Her father stood, helpless.

‘Get water, Daddy.’

He turned to do it while Peg held her mother’s shaking frame. The eruption had eased the cough and the worst of the shock was subsiding. The scarlet stain screamed out of the grey towel. Máire tried to fold the fabric so it couldn’t be seen.

As soon as her control returned, she pulled away from Peg. ‘I’m . . . all . . . right,’ she said. She tried to smile, unaware of the blood smearing her teeth and the ghastly look it gave her. Peg wanted to turn away from the sight of it. ‘Your . . . meeting . . . ’

‘Never mind the meeting.’ Peg took the glass of water from JJ, held it to Máire’s shuddering lips. ‘Can you stand at all? Can you get up the stairs, do you think?’

Using the arms of the chair to lift herself, Máire moved to put weight on her feet. From the shop came the sound of a sharp rap-rap-rap on wood, followed by a yell: ‘Anyone at home?’ In the agitation, they had forgotten all about the customers.

JJ stood transfixed, like he was the one stricken and Peg saw that it was going to be up to her to take charge. ‘Daddy, go out and serve whoever needs serving. Then see who you can send for the doctor.’

Máire tried to protest. ‘No . . . need for a doctor .’

‘We’re getting the doctor, Mammy, and that’s that.’ She turned back to her father. ‘As soon as they’re looked after, come back in here to me. I’ll need your help to carry her upstairs.’

Máire opened her mouth to object again. JJ dithered, to see what she’d say.

‘Quick, Daddy,’ said Peg. ‘Go on. What are you waiting for? Go.’

So there they were, catapulted into the next stage of Máire’s illness. It wasn’t that she hadn’t coughed up blood before, they all knew she had. Each morning broke with the sound of her raucous, distinctive cough. They knew she had been losing weight and that she’d been struggling for months with a continuous secrecy. Now even JJ was going to have to admit the truth of what was happening. After months of circling around it, of never saying certain words aloud (they might as well say them now, TB, tuberculosis, consumption, phthisis, the white plague . . . ), of making small advances and retreats from the edge of all that it might mean, the illness had reared up and insisted they face into it.

After getting the patient up to bed, and admitting Dr Lavin, and listening to his diagnosis and administering his prescription, and seeing Máire off to sleep, Peg and JJ – and later, after he came home from his match to be told the news, Barney too – did what everyone usually does in the face of death: they kept life going. Peg, her Cumann na mBan meeting now unfeasible, cleaned the kitchen and, while she was at it, gave the back pantry a good going over.

JJ tended to the customers and when Pats came in spent an hour with Barney in the bottling store, filling bottles of stout from the big vat, stocking up for the weekend rush. And Barney, as well as helping his father by putting the caps on the bottles and sticking on the labels, also, finally, fixed the brakes of his bicycle.

All the things Máire would have had to nag them to do if she was in the whole of her health were done without having to be asked and without complaint.


Máire’s eyes flickered open. Half awake, half caught in a dream about her Aunt Hannah. Her father’s sister who, years and years ago, lived in their house at home on the mountain. In the dream, she was a child, light as air, helping Auntie Hannah with the hanging of clothes in the back yard, picking pegs out of a bag and handing them up to her, as she used to do. For a moment, she lay prone and confused in a dusky room, unsure of where she was. Turning her head towards the light of a candle, she found her daughter sitting on a chair, sewing, a basket of mending beside her. Then it all came brimming back: she was at the end of her life, not the beginning.

When Peg saw her move, she stopped her work. ‘You’re awake, Mammy. How are you feeling?’

‘All right. Better for the sleep.’

‘Are you hungry? I’ve made some soup.’

Soup? The thought of it turned her stomach. It had been months since she knew what hunger was. It was the way with her always now, to be neither hungry nor full.

‘Maybe in a while.’

The blinds were pulled but she could see it was dark outside too. ‘What time is it?’

‘Nearly nine.’

‘I’ve slept for hours.’

Peg nodded. ‘Are you sure I can’t get you something? You really should eat.’

‘Is Barney home?’

‘He is. Do you want him?’

‘No. No, just wondering.’

The way you always wondered, even when they were great strapping lads of twenty-two. Soon, she wouldn’t be here to wonder. She knew it, was not fooled by the evasions of Dr Lavin this afternoon. The black knowledge that she was going to die reared up in her and she gagged on it. Sweet Jesus. Almighty and Everlasting God, preserver of souls… help me. She clutched the two sides of her bed like she was adrift on a raft. Help me. Mary, Queen of heaven, most blessed virgin, holy Mother of God, help me. In the blood of Jesus, in thy intercession, is my only hope. My life is over. Over though it feels like it hardly started. Over. Help me Holy Mary to deal with that.

She started to recite prayers inside her head to try to bring calm. An Our Father, a Hail Mary, a Glory Be. She fixed on the rote, familiar words, using them to drive other thoughts away. It worked, her panic subsiding enough for her to lie there without screaming.

In the clearing of her mind, something began to niggle at her. Then she remembered, and was glad of the distraction: ‘I’m sorry,’ she said to Peg. ‘For the way I was with you earlier.’

‘Oh Mammy, stop. No bother.’

‘No, I am sorry Peg. It’s foolish anger that gets me that way sometimes.’

Anger at my sickness, anger at God, anger at everyone who’s well, everyone who doesn’t yet know what it’s like to wake in the morning walloped by a black wave of nothing. To inhale the ash-grey, sour-water taste of death with the opening of your eyes.

‘No one could blame you, Mammy.’

She was a good girl, Peg, the one the other two would rely on now, while thinking themselves in charge, the way men do. It was wrong of her to get irritated with her the way she did, for no good reason. Maybe that was the way a mother always felt about a daughter: a bond too close for ease. Or was that just her, not able to get it right, not having known a mother herself. Her own died the day she was born, died in the having of her. Was that why her feelings for Barney had always been easier, even these days when he was acting as though her condition was a personal insult to himself?

Yet a daughter was someone you could talk to and she was gripped with the need to talk, while she still could. ‘I hated this place when I came here first, I never told you that, did I? When we came home here after our honeymoon in Killarney, every customer in the place was lined up along the counter to have a look at me. I was only eighteen and I found it awful hard. Only eighteen, younger than you are now. That’s why they were so curious, your father being so much older.’

It had always stayed with her, the way their male eyes had all harboured the same low thought, their curiosity like another body following her around all through those first weeks. ‘They could be as ignorant as they liked to us but I had to have a smile for all and never let on what I really thought about any of them. You know how it is, you’ve grown up with it, but I had never set foot in a pub in my life.’

‘It must have been hard, all right.’

‘I had to learn everything. But I did learn. I kept my side of the bargain.’


‘A marriage is a bargain, isn’t it?’

‘I suppose.’ Peg looked pained, wearing the face she used to make as a child when you’d give her her cod-liver oil. Oh, young ones and their notions. She hardly expected her mother and father to be a pair of turtle doves. What sort of a face would she make if Máire was to tell her that she had spent the first months of her marriage making lists in her head of all the things she hated about her new husband, this old man who up to then had been nothing to her but her own father’s oldest friend? A fine lengthy list it was too: the pink scalp that beamed through the combed-across streaks of his papery hair; the explosion of red veins across his nose and cheeks; the long, yellowing teeth, his breath blowing hot and stale between them; the fuzz of grey hair like moss across his chest; the bulge in his long-johns like a small animal curled up between his legs; his toenails, thick and tough as bone . . . What if she was to tell her daughter that for years she was haunted by the image of the two men shaking hands over their deal, as JJ had told her they’d done?

What if she told her that he knew himself that she had been wronged? That as she was passed to him at the altar, he wasn’t able to look her in the face, wasn’t able to raise his eyes any higher than her eighteen-year-old neck?

If she told her that a year into their marriage, she went to a priest in town about it?

‘Does your husband mistreat you?’ he’d asked.

‘No, Father.’

‘Is he perhaps too fond of the drink?’

‘No, Father.’

‘A gambler?’

‘No, Father.’

‘Have you any complaint against the man?’

I can’t bear him to touch me, Father. I can’t bear the touch of him.

But how could you say the like of that to a priest?

What if she were to tell that after she became pregnant with her, Peg, she had turned her back on him, only allowing him the run of her one more time, when she wanted a second child?

And what, oh what, if she was to tell her daughter of the flirtation she ran herself into with Billy Ffrench, one of the customers, a fascination that nearly ruined them all, only Lil Hayes pulled her back from the brink? Young Billy, wiry as a whippet. Nothing special to look at, with a face that looked like nothing as much as a skin-shrouded skull, but very tall, with a certain strange presence. And young. Young.

One day she found herself wondering what it would be like to have someone like him kissing you, putting his hands on you, and once the thought had been allowed, she couldn’t rid herself of it. After a while, she didn’t even bother to try; it gave her solace. After another while, she found that she was going over to him whenever he was in the shop, leaning into the counter to have a laugh and a joke. Harmless, she’d told herself. She was just being agreeable the way JJ explained you had to be with the customers but she knew it was a lie and that the truth was Billy coming into the shop more often, his eyes skimming the counter to see if she was there, an echo of her own eyes scanning the place whenever she came through from the house. Soon they were the butt of talk. Trouble so distressed her husband that she wasn’t able to look at him straight but on she went, making a fool of herself for the bold Billy.

Until word of the carry-on got back to his father. The night Mr Ffrench heard what was going on he beat Billy with the leg of a kitchen chair, beat him until every part of his body except his face and hands was bruised, beat him, then forbade him from going ‘next, nigh or near Parle’s’ until he had sorted things out. It was her friend Lil Hayes who told her what had happened, not Billy himself. Lil was kind about it, in her straightforward way, kinder than any other woman in the village would have been, but blunt. Told her straight out that she had been foolish, that every man in the pub, every woman in the grocery and others too who never came near the place were talking about her. Maybe the priest. Maybe even her own father, above on the little farm towards the mountain had heard. It was altogether possible that word had stretched that far.

Nothing had happened between them, she told Lil. ‘Even bigger fool you, then,’ was Lil’s reply, in a consoling voice that took the bite out of her strong words. And nothing had, nothing more than their hands touching for a second too long when she’d be giving him back his change. For that, she had thrown away her reputation because once there was talk, people always thought the worst.

It was as if that conversation with Lil tore a film from her eyes; everything afterwards looked different. Her admirer did what his daddy told him to do, got engaged then married and never came near her with a sincere word again. She saw that he had little real feeling for her, that the thrill for him had been in having a woman, a good-looking woman and a married woman at that, making it obvious that she had a fancy for him. He had loved not her but the winks and nudges of the other men.

It was the lowest point for her, lower even than her engagement, or the black hours of her wedding night. She took to her knees. Weeks and months she spent praying, asking God to show her how to live, how to make amends, how to do right. And, in time, her prayers were answered. She came to understand her flirtation for what it was, a foolishness born out of resentment for her situation. Weakness might have made her consent to this marriage her father forced on her but now she came to believe that the way to show strength was not by resistance but resignation.

She didn’t stop sleeping with her back to her husband but in every other way she struggled to accept her lot. Rearing two children, looking after the house and doing her share in the shop would be enough for most women to be going along with but she also started to take an active part in the movement that was shaking up the country, her generation’s response to the ancient problem of English rule in Ireland.

Now she looked across at Peg, whose head was bent over her mending. ‘He let me do what I needed to do,’ she told her. ‘That was the best thing about your father. He didn’t push his will on me. On you children either.’ As Máire waited, wondering whether she was listening to her at all, Peg lifted her head and nodded. Go on, her eyes said. Talk. Tell me. ‘He hated it when I joined Sinn Féin. He didn’t mind the work for the Gaelic League so much. Teaching Irish-language classes was one thing but canvassing for the new political party, that was quite another, he being Irish Party himself. As for encouraging Barney to go raiding the farmhouses for guns, or training you into Cumann na mBan work – well, you know yourself how he hated that. But he let me off. Only one time, when I took money out of the leather purse under the floorboards unknown to him, to buy Barney a Webley rifle, did he lose his temper with me. And he was justified in that. It was wrong of me but our boy had to have a good gun if the others were to look up to him as they should.’

It was JJ’s shame at what had been done to her at eighteen that made him acquiescent, that was another thing she didn’t say to Peg. Neither did she explain how the work she did for Ireland restored her self-respect after that misguided business with Billy Ffrench, gave her back some pride in herself. Those years as the impossible unfolded into reality and the English were put on the wrong foot were the best years of her life. On the day that Barney was sent to an English jail with Dan O’Donovan, she came back to Mucknamore from Wexford town and went on her knees to God. With the sound of the tin-drummers and the shouts of the rioters ringing in her ears, with a bruise on her chin from where she had caught a flying police baton, she had made straight for the chapel to kneel and give thanks to God that her struggle to accept had not been in vain. Through her son, something greater than herself was born of it.

What she never foresaw that day almost a year ago when Barney was dragged off in handcuffs was that he might need more than ever to be kept on the right track after he came out. Half of County Wexford might think him a hero but she was his mother and she knew the truth: he wasn’t nearly clear enough about how this treaty was a betrayal. Peg had a much better grasp of the principles.

‘I need you to speak to Barney,’ she said. ‘His thoughts are everywhere but where they should be.’

‘So you have noticed, Mammy. I didn’t like to say.’

‘I think he might be suffering for love.’

‘Love? Really?’ Peg looked at her over her darning, eyes popping.

‘Maybe I’m wrong but I believe he has a fancy for Norah O’Donovan.’

Had Peg really not noticed? Too caught up in her own fascination for the brother, maybe. Neither O’Donovan appealed much to Máire and she cursed the day they arrived in the village, setting hearts a-flutter. Oh, she could see why her children were impressed: all that family had the looks. The girl Norah was like something in a picture and as for her brother, with his jaunty walk and talk . . . what young girl wouldn’t be dazzled? But young O’Donovan was inclined to make little of those who hadn’t his brains or advantages: she had seen him have a go at poor Tipsy Delaney more than once, flattening him with a fancy phrase. He was the kind who’d use a rock to smash a fly when all that was needed was to swat it away.

‘Nora’s father is very strict,’ Peg was saying. ‘Then again, he can hardly expect her to stay single forever. She won’t say a word against him, though. She’s very private about things like that.’

Máire could see Peg had the idea of Norah and Barney well turned over in her mind. Time to put a stick in their spokes. ‘I don’t think she’s the right girl for your brother,’ she said.

‘Really? Why not?’

‘Those O’Donovans are too cocky altogether.’

‘Ah no. You couldn’t say that of Norah. Dan, maybe. But not Norah.’

The foolish girl blushed every time she said his name. ‘Peg, there’s a copybook and pencil above there on the shelf. Will you take it down for me?’ Peg laid down her mending, did as she was bid. ‘I’d like us to make a list of those who are likely to stay sound in the weeks ahead. Forget the flag-waggers and the would-be warriors, think on those who were with us in the hard times.’

‘Tipsy, Lama and those?’

‘Go through them,’ Máire said. ‘I’d say you’re right that the White boy is firm. And the Moran boys I’d nearly swear on. The three Fortunes. The Leacys. Jamsie Crean. Jack Kelly. The Connicks. And you think young Delaney?’

‘Tipsy? Definitely.’

‘It’s just he’s such an eejit sometimes. He could be talked into anything. Though I suppose,’ Máire arched an eyebrow, ‘he listens to some more than others.’

Peg resumed her sewing which allowed her to ignore that jibe.

‘The O’Donovans?’ Máire then said, lightly. This was the real question, the one she’d been building up to. ‘Dan and his sister?’

‘They’re staunch.’

‘You’re sure?’

‘I was only talking to Norah last night. As staunch as ourselves.’

‘And her brother?’

‘Of course, Mammy. You know he was the most fervent of all.’

‘I heard what happened at Fortune’s American wake last night. And John O’Donovan had been making ratification speeches all round the village since the day we heard the word treaty.’

‘Oh Mammy, the father was never with us, you know that. Norah isn’t even allowed to join Cumann na mBan and you know he all but disowned Dan for joining up. We’re not going to start judging men by their fathers, I hope.’ If they did, where would she and Barney be? Wasn’t JJ himself less than eager?

‘Let’s hope you’re right,’ said Máire. ‘O’Donovan is a sharp lad, if not quite as sharp as he thinks he is.’

‘He’s an asset all right.’ Peg couldn’t keep her face from rising red.

‘I just wish he’d be a bit more respectful,’ Máire said. Barney had been captain of Mucknamore Company when Dan arrived to live in the village from Cork but by the time they were sent to prison, Dan had almost usurped the role. In fairness to the chap, it was not a deliberate appropriation, more a consequence of their two natures. Though he was a stranger, they other boys instinctively gave him a grudging regard. A regard of a different sort to that given to Barney, which had more to do with the Parles’ social position in the village. ‘He’s the one to watch. He’d take more than a few with him if he went.’

‘Went where?’

‘Joined the Green and Tans.’ This was the name true republicans had put on the new Free State army that was in the making.

‘Dan? Never!’

‘I’d like to think not, a grå, but I fear anything might happen now our principles are being watered down.’

‘It seems to me there’s as many opinions on the treaty as there are people to have them. And even if we do differ on some of the details… well, we can agree to differ, can’t we? They are our friends. And we’re all republicans, that’s the important thing.’

‘That’s what I’m trying to tell you, girl. Anyone can call themselves a republican but if this treaty carries, the republic dies.’ Máire pulled herself up in the bed, holding her breathing steady against a paroxysm she could feel forming inside, crawling up her windpipe. ‘You can’t be for the treaty and for the republic as well.’

‘Ah Mammy, that’s not -’

‘It is that simple, Peg. You mark my words. Watch how it unfolds now in the weeks to come. Michael Collins is so bedazzled by London that he’s sold them the republic. And now he’ll use their might and their money to push their squalid little agreement through. Only Mr DeValera can be trusted now.’

The coughing came then, discharging her beyond talk, beyond thought even, or any thought other than getting back out of its malignant, panicking clench. It was taking longer and longer each time and after it was past, you were left fractured and scattered on your pillow, pulling yourself back together as best you could. Until the next time, when it would take longer again, and so on, and on, until the time would come when she’d reach in vain, grasp for the settling, returning breath that would not come.

‘I want to see this treaty defeated,’ she declared, as soon as she could trust her lungs again. She said it loud and clear into the darkening room so Peg could not misunderstand her and the way she said it stopped the girl in the act of biting a thread, made her look up with eyes full of what was not being said. But why keep it unspoken? It was too important. ‘I want to leave something worth leaving behind me.’

‘Ah, Mammy. Don’t.’

‘We’ll say no more. But I can count on you? To keep up the struggle and the work? To fight for the republic, no matter what?’

Peg leaned across to her, fervent. ‘You know you can, Mammy. Of course you can. Of course.’

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