John McCullagh November 2, 2005
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When Mickie Smyth left Dunhill’s pub he had three ‘Belfast Telegraphs’ left.

He’d done well today, considering that they were last night’s copies.  He turned right down Navigation Street but had to stop almost immediately.


The canal bridge had been swung back and two big flat barges were inching their way into the Albert Pool.  When they had passed, the crew heaved at the huge winding-wheel and the bridge slowly closed to its normal position.  One of the tow horses had dropped several balls of manure a few feet from Mickie.  An Austin 7 spat out a cloud of blue smoke and crossed the bridge and he followed it in the narrow pedestrian path separated from the main section by an iron railing.  Once over the bridge Mickie headed for the newsagents on the corner opposite the Town Hall.  All the Protestant shops he passed were closed for the Orange holiday.  He passed two B-Specials standing looking in the window of Johnson’s hardware shop.  They weren’t local men.  Each had a rifle slung over his right shoulder.  A 303, Mickie knew.  Lee-Enfield, nine pounds one ounce.  Fast bolt action.  Ten-cartridge magazine.  Above the dog-collars of their black tunics the men’s faces shone with sweat.  One of them turned and stared as Mickie passed, but he wasn’t stopped. The Specials had been called out for the Twelfth of July parades and these strangers must be the reinforcements put on the streets after yesterday’s explosion at the sub-station on the Newtownedwards Road. Mickie knew all about that.  He’d done it.  He might be only sixteen, but he could still do his bit for Ireland.

When Mickie entered the shop, the owner was serving a woman with ‘Reveille’ and ‘Weekend’ and ‘Ireland‘s Own’.  Mickie walked past the counter and into the room at the back, where he dropped his unsold papers on a table covered with odd newspapers and magazines.  There was a gas-ring on a smaller table by the back window.  Mickie picked a whistling kettle off the gas-ring and opened the back door.  He leaned out and filled the kettle from the brass tap fixed to the wall.  He clunked the kettle onto the ring and lit the gas with his lighter, a silver-plated Ronson which he’d picked up one evening from the counter in Dunphy’s bar while he was in there selling the ‘Belfast’s Saturday Night’.  The owner must have been in the lavatory.  Mickie had plonked the papers down on the table and picked up the lighter in one swift movement.  He’d left the packet of Sweet Afton in case the owner of the lighter returned before Mickie left, reckoning that he would be less likely to notice his loss immediately.  And he was right.  The man had came back and picked up his drink and started talking to the barman without spotting anything.  Mickie had even sold him a paper.

While the kettle was heating up, Mickie shook tea-leaves into the empty teapot sitting beside the gas-ring and moved the two mugs onto the edge of the big table. He lit a cigarette and studied the books on the shelves along the wall to the right of the door.  He didn’t know why Olly stocked most of them.  No-one ever bought the kind of stuff that ended up gathering dust in here.  Mickie wasn’t even sure how to pronounce some of the names. ‘The Oresteian Trilogy’.   ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’, ‘Orpheus Descending’, by Tennessee Williams.  Sounded like a Country and Western singer.  The customers were all after Micky Spillane and Leslie Charteris and Edgar Wallace.   Barbara Cartland for the women.   Mickie reckoned that salesmen supplying these books were dropping Olly free copies as a sweetener for more orders, probably books they couldn’t sell for love nor money to shops in a place like Portnamon.  But Mickie had a customer who took everything that could be nicked off these shelves.  A pupil at the Prod grammar school.   And why not, when Mickie was asking sixpence for a brand-new two-bob book?  As long as he didn’t take the stuff by the shelfful Olly would never notice.  And Georgie Smith was never going to drop him in it. 

The kettle’s whistle began as a half-hearted fluting which quickly rose in a shrill crescendo.  Mickie turned off the gas and, holding the kettle in his right hand, pressed back the little knob on the bell-shaped cover with his thumb and inclined the stubby spout over the teapot.  The steam scalded his wrist as it always did, but he let the cover snap back and put the kettle down on the gas-ring.  He pushed the two mugs against the papers and picked up a half-empty bottle of milk sitting on the floor under the table.  He poured some milk into each of the mugs.

‘D’ye wanna cuppa tay, Olly?’

Aye, ah’ll be there inna minute’.

Mickie picked up the teapot and swirled it around.  He waited for a minute and carefully poured the tea into the two mugs. A few tea-leaves floated to the top in each mug.

‘Where’ve ye put the shuggar?’

The packet’s on the windy sill’. 

As he spoke, Olly Morgan came into the room. He was thick-set with a full head of curly black hair. He was fat, maybe sixteen stone. He had a flabby double chin but he had a good-natured face.  He wasn’t a bad boss to have.  Mickie liked him. Two pound a week wasn’t a great wage, but Mickie managed quite a few extras.  When he was behind the counter, he sold newspapers to kids who had comics or magazines tucked inside them. They knew it and he knew it, and he collected his cut next time he saw them.  It was always a fifty-fifty split.  Mickie reckoned that Olly knew he was doing it but found it more acceptable than constant wrangling over wages.  Olly was doing all right and all Mickie had to do was to avoid becoming too greedy.

‘I’m done out, Mickie. The feet’s like baps. How’d ye do?

‘Brought three back. Can’t unnerstan why they buy’em’.

‘They get home too pissed at night to read the paper. They’re back in the pub in the mornin and get bored stiff. If any ofem had jobs they wouldn’t be there.  It’s people like you an me are buyin the friggin things for them.  Most of them haven’t worked in their lives. They keep bangin on about the English but they still hold their hands out for the money.  If they had ta live in the Free State they wudn’t know themselves.

You remember that the nix time yer talkin about gettin redd a the border.

Olly picked up his mug and sipped his tea.

‘It’s all very well talkin’ about 1916 and all that, but down in Dublin there’s still kids runnin’ about in their bare feet.  An ye can’t move in O’Connell Street with bloody beggars.  If I sack you the morra ye can go straight down to the broo an sign on.  Ye won’t do that across the border.  How could I afford ta buy all the books for my four girls at school?  

An at least I can go inty Ferguson‘s an buy the frenchies.  Four’s anuff for me.  Sure the wife doesn’t even know ah use them.  She’d go mad.  If the Pope walked in here now she’d get down an kiss his ***e.  Well, it’s all right for the Pope.  He’s not short of a bob or two.  An he doesn’t have ta be here at half five in the mornin ta sort the deliveries out’.

He sat down heavily.

By the way, Mrs Short was moanin the day about gettin the ‘Irish News’ yisterday instead of the ‘Newsletter’.  Jaysus, her man’s leadin a parade somewhere this mornin, so for Chrissake Mickie don’t drop her a paper again that wants redda the border’.

He leaned forward and loudly broke wind.

‘That’s them beans an toast. Here now, have ye seen they’ve already spiked the Drumcastle Road just past the customs hut?  Forenenst that fella McKeown’s gate.  That’s cos some a***hole blew up that electric station.

Now I can’t drive down there tomorra ta fill the tank up in the car an bring back the butter ah get for my ma cos the bloody road is blocked by f***gin big steel posts. These sons of freedom just cost ivrybody except themselves a lotta bloody money.

He looked at Mickie with a peculiar expression on his face. It was like a mixture of knowingness and puzzlement.

‘A wee bird tells me you hang around quite a bit with a certain fella from The Armoury.  Ye know the grippers are nivver outta there with court orders.  It’s  a wonder any ofem has a sticka forniture left’.

The Armoury was an area on the south side of Portnamon which had been the British army barracks before the Partition of Ireland in 1920, which left the town just north of the border with the Free State.  It was now a council housing estate and most of the town’s problem families had ended up being concentrated there.  It was regarded as being a hotbed of republicanism, a breeding-ground for theft and violence.

Ye wanna be careful who ye mix with, Mickie’

Olly took another swig of tea, stood up and went back into the shop as the bell on the door signalled the arrival of another customer.  Mickie had remained silent while Olly was dropping his hint.  Now he grinned and swung his feet up onto the table.  He leaned back and took a drink of tea and thought back to his last training session.

They had driven from Drumcastle into the mountains in an old Bedford van, four of them from Portnamon and the quartermaster from Dunmare, the big town about ten miles further south which provided a safe haven for anyone wanted for terrorism in the North.  In a quiet little valley carpeted with yellow whin bushes they had practised rifle-fire and then watched as the bomb for the Newtownedwards sub-station was pieced together.  Finally, the quartermaster had announced that Mickie and his mate Sean McArdle from The Armoury had been chosen to plant the explosives.  They were shown how to set the timing mechanism, a Westclox alarm clock, and the bomb was buckled into a rucksack.  They were told that on the eighth of July they would be shown exactly where to place the bag on the eleventh.  The last words of the Quartermaster had thrilled Mickie.

The two of yous remember that yous represent the last legal government of Ireland.  Us stannin here now is the direct representatives of the whole united Irish people.  We are carryin the torch handid te the politicians in the 1918 Dail Eireann Parliament.  Them s***es in the Dail now are just a buncha imperialist fella-travellers in the pockets of the English.’

He spat noisily on the ground.

‘Our cause is legitimit. We are the heirs of Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken and Pearse.  Robert Emmet, Roger Casement, Kevin Barry – the f***in list is endless.  Them as give the blood sacrifice for Ireland.  And always remember the two Patriots that Portnamon gave to The Cause.  One-a-thim’s buried in your town.  He’d be very prouda the two of yous’.

Mickie smiled happily.

So, good luck boys.  Ivry blow agin the Six County abomination is a blow for freedom an the souls of our forefathers’.

He stared hard at both of them.

‘One lass thing.  Keep off the f***in drink. We’ve had fellas as fulla holes as a strainer inna jartub.  If ye get yerself blootered yer gonna shout yer mouth off.  Ye’ve bin toul – nobody shudd know what yer at.  Not yer ma nor yer da nor yer Aunt Fanny.  Ye do the job, we know it.  Ye don’t needta blow aboutit. All them who aren’t with us are the enemy just as much as them black bastard RUC and the Saxon occupiers in Ballykinlar’.

He spat.

‘Always mind one thing.  Sinn Fein means ‘Ourselves Alone’.  That’s what it’s all about.  Ye’ve been chosen to be Fianna for God’s own country. An if the English s***es won’t p**s off of their own accord, we’ll sennem back in wooden boxes . An them Prods kin go withem . They don’t belong here neither.  An mind as well, the worse thing livin is an informer.  If yer lifted, ye keep yer trap shut.  Open it once and it’ll get closed for good.

Mickie finished his tea and stood up.  One thing had bothered him in that speech.  He had Protestant friends.  They’d been born here, and they were all as ordinary as he was.  None of them had any money.  They didn’t own shops like Olly, and some of their fathers were on the dole.  It wasn’t that long since he’d stopped a Catholic kid shoving young Jack McCulla around in the park.  Jack’s family were as poor as his own and had no truck with the Orangemen.  He certainly wasn’t what Mickey had been told was a ‘colonialist exploiter’.  The notion of sending Jack and his family to England by force bothered Mickie a lot.  They didn’t belong there, and the English wouldn’t want them.  In spite of what the quartermaster had said, they belonged in Portnamon.  It wasn’t their fault that they’d been born here.  In fact, Jack’s da had been born in a united Ireland of sorts, before Partition.  So maybe he could say that he was proper Irish.  Maybe Mickie himself wasn’t proper Irish.  He’d been born British in the North. It was all a bit complicated.

He walked through the shop.

‘Mickie, ah needye back here at five for the Saturday Night. Ye’ll be here?

‘Aye. Seeya later‘.

He walked back the way he had come and after crossing the bridge he turned into Gino’s ice-cream parlour three doors down from Dunhill’s.  He sat down at one of the three formica-topped tables and ordered four scoops of ice-cream, one each of vanilla, coffee, strawberry and mint.  Gino’s Italian father owned a fish-and-chip shop in Dunmare Street.  Mickie was waiting for Sean to arrive.  He pulled ‘The Wizard’ from his back pocket and leafed through it until he came to the latest episode of ‘The Amazing Wilson’.   As he spooned his ice-cream from the bowl, he drifted off to Ambleside Moor.

   A few minutes later, he looked up on hearing somebody come in, but it wasn’t Sean. It was a half-caste kid.  Mickie looked at him with interest.  He had seen the boy in Bagnall Street a couple of times.  He was staying with the Kelly family.  His mother was Theresa, the eldest of the Kelly girls.  She had gone to Bolton to work in a cotton mill and then moved to Birmingham where she’d found a job in the Lucas factory in Hockley.  Mickie’s cousin Conor had worked there.  Theresa came back to Portnamon a year later with what Mickie’s da called a piccaninny.  He was deaf and dumb.  Mickie’s mother had commented that God didn’t like white girls having babies with black men, so she wasn’t surprised that the chile was like that.  God was sayin stick to yer own kind or else. Theresa had stayed a few months and then disappeared back across the water with her son.  The boy had come over on his own this time.  He ordered a ‘Ninety-nine’ by pointing at a poster on the wall behind the counter.  He paid for it and left.  Mickie went back to the adventures of The Amazing Wilson.  The next customer was Sean.  He was carrying a brown corduroy jacket over his left arm.

‘All right?’

‘Aye, not bad.  Hangon aminnit an ah’ll geta poke‘.

Sean bought an ice-cream cone with a dollop of strawberry syrup which ran down from the ice-cream onto the wafer and his hand.  As he sat down he licked his fingers. His ginger hair was tightly curled and his face was heavily freckled.

‘You still readin comics at your age?  Time ye grew up.’

He leaned over and pulled a book from the inside pocket of the jacket.  He glanced over his shoulder and handed the book to Mickie. ‘Gaelic Prose Literature’ by Padraig Pearse.  Sean whispered, ‘It’s time ye stopped readin all that childish English stuff an learnt about yer own culture.’

He took the book and put it back in his jacket pocket.

Heard anythin?

‘Nah.  They said they’d get in touch durin the week. Don’t talk about it here‘.

‘OK.  Ah’ve only gotta minnit anyhow.  Ah’m gettin the CIE bus ta Drumcastle.  Ye wanna come?’

‘Can’t.  Gotta deliver the Saturday Night later.  Some of us hasta work for a livin‘.

‘OK.  See ye the morra.  An if anybody asks ye anythin, remember ye know nothin.  An we didn’t see each other yisterday.’

All right, ah’m not stupid.’

 As they left the shop, Sean said,

‘The peelers raided McCann’s early this morning.  Kicked the front door in at five.  Found nothin. They must think he was involved.

‘He knows nothin about us, does he?

‘Course not.  Don’t worry. He’s only a blow. They only wentta him cos he sits in pubs shootin his mouth off.  Sure he’s not in the movement, niver has bin.  He just wants ivrybody ta think he’s a hard man.  Sure he’d run a mile afore he got involved in the struggle.  Just don’t forget we’re mates.  Doesn’t matter what them bastards do ta me, they’ll niver get your name outta me.  You make sure you’re the same, eh?’

‘Aye. Ye needn’t worry.

They separated at the bridge, Sean turning right to walk along the canal towards the bus stands.  Mickie went back to Olly’s shop and made another cup of tea.

Two hours later, Mickie was pushing a Belfast Saturday Night into a letter-box in Brooke Street when the Black Maria pulled up behind him.  Two cops jumped out and grabbed him by the arms.  He was frog-marched to the back of the van.

‘Whatta yez doin? Whatta bout the papers?’

‘F**k the papers, ye wee Fenian sh**e.’

One of the cops pulled the strap of the bag over Mickie’s head and threw the bag onto the pavement.  The papers scattered across the concrete.

‘It’ll be a while afore ye have ta worry about them again.  You’re coming ta the barracks.’

The cop drew back his arm and slapped Mickie hard right in the mouth.  As his lower lip split, he could taste blood.

‘We’ve just been talkin to yer pal McArdle.  You’ll be for Crumlin road, boyo. An afore that, we get names or you’re gonna wish ye’d never been born.’

Mickie’s head reeled back from a punch on the ear and he was pushed into the van. The door was slammed and bolted behind him and the van took off down the hill, blowing ashes from the dead bonfire into the still air.

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