Seamus Dempsey was cleaning a gutter at the front of his house when the Special Branch came for him. It was a job he’d been putting off for some time. But it was a bright summer’s day, a Saturday morning and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. He had the day off and Eileen, his wife, had woken him that morning, briskly yanking the bedroom curtains apart and letting the sun’s rays rouse him from his slumber.
‘Get up out of that,’ she’d said, ‘that’s the first fine day we’ve had in a month and it would be sinful to waste it. Will you tackle them gutters before they collapse from the weight of the leaves in them and the house gets flooded.’
Blinking and groaning, Seamus feigned exhaustion but he knew from her manner it was a wasted effort. He hauled himself from his bed, swinging his pyjama’d legs over the edge and scratched his head. Yawning and stretching, he felt the shadow of Eileen leave the room and dropped back onto the bed for one last bask in the bed’s cotton warmth.
‘I’ve left your overalls in the bathroom and clean underwear,’ her voice found him, ‘you can have the job done before lunch and we’ll make the one o’clock train and be at the church for two.’
Seamus cursed silently. He’d forgotten the church, a Christening and Eileen had accepted the invite. Their daughter, Maire, was standing for the child as Godmother and the family had invited them along. It would be a long day with a train journey, a meal and possibly a few drinks by way of wetting the child’s head.
He had planned another journey that afternoon and the Christening had completely slipped his mind. There was to be a march to protest the seizure of the remains of a hunger striker sent home from an English prison. He’d have to forget about that now, he thought, as he ran the hot water in the bathroom sink so he could have a shave and wash before he got dressed and tackled the gutter. DIY was not his strongest point and he was the first to admit that. He had been looking forward to a morning in his garden. He surveyed his pride and joy from the bathroom window as he was shaving.
Everything was in growth and there was plenty of weeding to be done. The early potatoes were showing blossoms and he’d be ready for the first crop in three or four weeks. By that time they’d have a good range of summer salads ready for harvest; lettuce, cucumber, radish and tomatoes. If the weather stayed good they’d have everything for the annual Dempsey family midsummer feast including a whole fresh salmon ordered from his old poaching contacts in Donegal.
‘Your breakfast is on the table and there’s fresh tea in the pot,’ Eileen’s voice broke his reverie, ‘I’m away to the shops. I’ve meat to pick up in the butchers and we need eggs. Oh, and I’ll get the ‘papers, too.’
He heard the front door slam shut behind her as he finished dressing and came down to start the day. He poured himself a cup of tea and absentmindedly buttered a slice of brown bread. His mind was distracted by the prospect of missing the march.
There was only so much a man could take before he had to stand and object, he thought. He was not a political man by nature. He kept himself to himself and his family and he kept his opinions to himself too. But there were limits, he told himself. He had marched on the British Embassy after Bloody Sunday. But then, he thought, so had half the city.
Hundreds of thousand of people had stepped out onto the streets of Dublin that day to march in protest to the embassy over in Merrion Square. There were so many people and the crowd was so dense his feet had left the ground in the surge somewhere around the Taj Mahal and only touched the ground again beside the Mont Clare hotel. He’d come the entire length of Clare St as part of a flowing tide of human anger to protest at the death of 13 Irish people, unarmed and protesting peacefully at the hands of the hated British Paratroop regiment in Derry the previous Sunday.
That experience had scared him. He had felt scared by the force of emotion and the terror it engendered. He had felt the anger himself and felt how it had ennervated him and spurred him on with all the others. And he had feared the anger of the mob that teetered on irrationality and threatened to unleash a terrible retaliation. He saw it in the eyes of everyone around him, smelt in from their collective breathing and the rage of fury that rippled through the marching crowd.
He had left the march then, struggling his way against it and towards the Dental hospital so he could slip down Westland Row and catch the five o’clock train home from Pearse Station.
Pearse, he thought as he stood and waited on the northbound platform, the furious roar of the massive crowd beyond in Merrion Square clearly to be heard, there was a name to conjure with along with McDonagh and Kent, Plunkett and Clarke, McDermott and Connolly. Irishmen like many hundreds of unsung martyrs before them and since who had fought and died for the cause of Irish freedom against the might of perfidious Albion and the forces of the British empire. That was the history he had been taught with pride, a history steeped in blood and sacrifice.
He and those who came after them had inherited their legacy of a free, independent and sovereign Democratic Republic. Seamus was born in the same week as the Treaty was signed, the treaty of 1922 that ended the so-called war of Independence, the fight for Irish freedom. That same treaty turned brother against brother and neighbour against neighbour and… A time check on the morning radio telling him it was ten o’clock snapped him back to the present.
Seamus soaked the remains of his fried egg with a forkload of black pudding and the heel of brown bread he loved to eat with his breakfast. He drained the last of his second cup of tea made from loose tea leaves and brewed strong. ‘Right, I better tackle those gutters,’ he thought, glancing at his watch to calculate Eileen’s estimated time of return. ‘I’ll never hear the last of it if I’m not up that ladder and upto my elbows in leaf mulch by the time she gets here,’ he told himself. He squinted at the sky before he went outdoors. The weather looked like it was holding. The sky was clear. He decided not to wear his jacket but he couldn’t resist putting on his old black beret, a boyhood affectation that had never left him.
Outside he pulled the ladder from under the tarp in the passage between the garage and the adjoining neighbour’s wall and levered it over the garden gate into the driveway. Then grabbing a galvanised bucket and a small hand trowel and fork he opened the gate and went outside. It was best to start above the adjoining wall of their semi-detached home, he thought and work his way along to the drain that ran from the gutter to the ground flue. That way, he thought, he could clear all the mess in the gutter, give the roof tiles a once over and some running repairs if needed and then clear the runaway drainpipe.
It wasn’t rocket science but it was necessary, a routine maintenance chore that he detested. He extended the ladder until it rested just half a foot below the gutter and then secured the foot of the ladder with a hefty breeze block he carried from the side of the house.
A mild refreshing gust whispered around the eaves as he carried his bucket and tools to the top of the ladder. It gasped a cherry blossom scented ‘good morning’ and brought a jaunty tune to his head.
…’when boyhood’s fire was in my blood, I dreamt of ancient freemen, of Greece and Rome who bravely stood, three hundred men and three men…’
The gutter was a mess, choked to overflow with leaves and ancient rain and silky black muck, the detritus of a winter of neglect.
Seamus set about his task with cheery determination, whistling tunelessly of Clare’s Dragoons and Katie Daly, hacking at the muck with the short garden fork and scooping it in messy dollops into the galvanised bucket hanging from a hook on the side of the ladder.
His mind wandered back to the day’s protest march as a dark cloud of anger and shame began to mist his day. He had never fought in any war nor carried a weapon in defence of a cause, he thought, but he had served his country as a loyal and patriotic public servant, proud in the belief that he had done his share for his country through loyal service. Now he felt betrayed, insulted, robbed and oddly confused.
‘Seamus…could I have a word with you?…Seamus?’
The voice of his neighbour, Mick McCarthy, disturbed him from his thoughts.
‘Ah, how’re ye? Mick, how’s it going? Grand day, thank God.’
‘It is, it is…I see Eileen has you at work…that’s the start of it now. I’ll be up a ladder myself once herself sees you hard at it…eh…’
Seamus knew Mick had more to talk about than the weather by the way he hesitated and lingered at the foot of the ladder. He looked down at his neighbour of ten years, shuffling distractedly in the front driveway, reluctant and hesitant.
‘Is there something on your mind, Mick?’ he asked, ceasing his digging for a moment as he squinted enquiringly at his neighbour, a detective sergeant in the Special Branch.
‘Could I have a word with you, Seamus?’ Mick asked, shooting a swift glance at Seamus on the ladder before looking away into the middle distance.
Seamus dropped the trowel into the bucket and began his descent, musing all the while at his neighbour’s discomfort.
‘What’s up, Mick? You look as though you’ve stepped in something.’
‘Seamus, …a file came across my desk the other day with your name on it. You’ve upset someone high up and they’ve asked us to look into you…now I know you this ten years and our children are all in the same schools and our wives do their Easter dues together and…’
‘Is this about the march today?’ Seamus asked.
‘Ah Jaysus, you’re not going on that, surely?’ Mick said, dismayed, ‘no, it’s not. It’s about you scaring the living daylights out of a couple of respectable middle class women who were out doing their political duties last week…’ Seamus chuckled. He remembered them well.
‘Grave robbers,’ he called them when the two middle class ladies canvassing for the local politician in the coming election had approached him at the hustings. They were canvassing the neighbourhood for the incumbent Minister only one week before and on the same day the police had seized the coffin and remains of the hunger striker sent home from a British prison. They took his body and denied him his right to a hero’s burial. It was an outrage, Seamus said. ‘Bloody grave robbers,’ he fumed at them. The ladies fled from the door in turmoil and shock.
‘For Heaven’s sake, Mick, have you nothing better to be doing than wasting your time with that…aren’t I entitled to express my opinion? Is this not a democratic state?’
Mick wasn’t laughing and his grim clouded face choked the laughter in Seamus.
‘It’s no joking matter, Seamus,’ he growled, ‘these are strange and dangerous times we’re living in and you may be entitled to your opinions but you should be more careful who you express them to…as far as I am concerned this matter ends here. We were all taught the same history, it’s just the people who teach it and the way we learn it that changes.’
They both stood in the driveway, silent and awkward.
‘How’s Mick?’ Eileen asked as she walked up the garden path laden with shopping bags, ‘are you holding him from his work? It’s taken me two months to get him up that ladder…’
‘Ah how’re you, Eileen?,’ Mick said, too grateful for the interruption, ‘I was just saying to Seamus ‘tis a grand day for it too but I wish he hadn’t started because herself will have me climbing the walls as soon as she sees him.’
‘Somebody has to take ye in hand or nothing would ever get done,’ she replied, laughing.
The two men exchanged one last glance before Seamus turned and climbed the ladder again.