This is a scene reimagining the execution of John MacBride, Maud Gonne's husband, for his part in the 1916 Rising. His death was to change life for Maud and Iseult forever.
Last Friday, I wondered whether to open the novel with one of Maud's fiery political speeches. My thanks to those of you who wrote in or answered on Twitter. In the end, I have opened the novel much later in time, and that speeech and other things that happen in the years between 1900 and 1916 will be treated as memories and flashbacks.
Now Read on:
Tap, tap, tap. Someone's knocking on the prison cell door and the sound prods John MacBride into waking with a jump in his prison cell bed. What? He's slept! How had he slept? But it’s true, he has.
He pulls the candle close to the clock, to see how many of his precious last hours he's wasted. The door groans open. No privacy, not even now. “Enter,” he says, sarcastically. “Welcome to my boudoir.”
But then he sees who it is. Father Clancy, the prison chaplain, dressed in his friar robes. Carrying a prayerbook and rosary beads.
“Oh, begging your pardon Father.” He scrambles out of the bed, aware of his half-dressed state. He'd had a new suit brought in for the occasion but had got only as far as the trousers. “You’ll have to excuse the state of me, Father,” he says, pulling on the crisp new shirt. “I’ve not cleaned up yet. When I asked your man out there for water, he brought me a cupful, a drink. So I drank it.”
“Let me put that to rights first for you, John.
“It hardly matters now.”
“These things always matter, John. And never more than as we face our Lord and Maker.”
MacBride bows his head, like he’s praying. “I’d prefer to be clean for it, all right.”
The priest puts the prayerbook, rosary beads on the table. “Kneel now and begin to recall your sins. I won’t be long.”
MacBride slips to his knees, glad to be told what to do. Last night, after he’d written to his mother and the last of his comrades, he’d near gone mad trying not to think about this morning. And now here it was. His last morning on this earth. Outside the prison bars he sees only black night, a square smatter of weak stars. One of those misted-over kind of nights, and warm with it. He never knew he liked such nights till now.
The door creaks open and the priest comes back in with a white enamel jug, steam rising out of it. MacBride rises from his knees, goes into the corner at the end of the bed to strip to the waist. Fr Clancy turns his back, and kneels himself to pray, while the prisoner washes and dresses in silence.
As he puts his foot up on the chair to shine an already shiny shoe, he says: “All I can think of is how much I’d rather have gone down out there. Is that wrong of me, Father?”
“We must surrender to God’s will, John.”
“It’s surrendering to the Brits that bothers me.”
MacBride takes what silver and copper he has in his pocket and lays it on the table. “For the poor. And would you arrange the suit to go to Anthony?”
“I wouldn't want any of that lot out there getting their paws on it.” He presses his rosary beads into the priest’s hand. “Give that to my mother. Tell her I should have listened to her more.”
“I’ll tell her.”
Silence then. Like many Irishmen, the word mother is a moving one for them. Her suffering from this will be intense.
“Anyone else?” the priest asks.
MacBride shakes his head.
“My wife? That woman was She was only the weak imitation of a weak man. She was incapable of rising above the level of a second-rate French mistress. I owe her nothing.”
“Today's a day for forgiveness John.”
“I’m afraid the day I married that woman was the worst day’s work I ever did. She has shown me that she is dead to any sense of justice . . . I'll go out as I lived, thinking only of Ireland and of my boy.”
“I’ll tell him you thought of him at the last.”
“And you can tell her I said she’s not to make a field day out of this. Not that you’ll only be wasting your breath. I can see it already. Madame Maud Gonne MacBride, the 1916 war widow. She has a part now she can play for the rest of her days”
“Kneel with me now, John. Kneel and think of God.”
MacBride gets slowly to his knees, takes a rosary from his pocket. “Would it surprise you, Father, to learn that we knelt to the Rosary, the whole garrison, the nights we were holed up? Our rifles used to catch the glint from the candlelight as we prayed. ”
“It would not, John. God is always with us.”
“It’s not a bad memory to go out on. What do you think, father?
“Close your eyes now, John. Remember now, there’s nothing you can’t tell God. We’ll take your confession and you must tell him everything so you can have your absolution and Holy Communion and be welcomed into His Kingdom.
An hour later, outside, twelve soldiers have gathered, in the quiet of dawn. One has freshened the chalk marked X on the stone slab by the stone wall. The others are waiting, some smoking, some leaning on their rifles, as the prisoner is marched out.
The guard marches him over to where X marks the spot. MacBride stands soldierly, puff-chested, as he is roughly blindfolded. “You can leave off the blindfold”, he says. “Haven't I been looking down the barrels of English guns all m'life”?
The soldier ignores him and tightens it, holds him by the arms and turns him to face the firing squad. Father Clancy is reciting the Lord's Prayer, aloud, almost shouting: “…. “… Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who … “ The soldier backs away, keeping his gaze on MacBride as if making eye contact through the blindfold.
“…….but deliver us from evil. Amen”.
A second soldier calls, “Ready!”
Five 30 caliber Winchester rifles rise, each brand new. Brought over from the war in Germany for these executions in Ireland.
MacBride shouts: “Forgive me. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned”.
From across the yard, Father Clancy shouts back, “We're all sinners, John. Keep asking God's forgiveness, John, keep asking”.
The soldier shouts, “Fire!” and the bullet-riddled MacBride crumples, his head cracking against the stone in the falls.
The first book in the Yeats-Gonne Trilogy, Her Secret Rose is available here.