A young boy finds truth, justice and inner-meaning during the Northern Ireland conflict.
By Marty K
I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.
It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.
Shane O’Rourke jumped up from his books and bolted down the stairs when he heard the front door crash open. Three men dressed in khaki jackets grabbed him on the last step and pinned him to the floor. Three women followed. The fat one in front, brandished scissors and screamed. “Where is she? We’ve come to teach you a lesson, Noreen O’Rourke. Come out, you Brit-loving slut. We’ll give you all the action you need around here. You’ll spread your legs for no squaddies in West Belfast.” They marched into the kitchen. “Grab her, girls!” the fat lady shouted.
His mother’s screams and pleas for mercy echoed through the small terraced house and spilled into the street where an angry mob gathered round the entrance.
“Hold her still," the fat woman ordered, "or I’ll end up cutting her ears off too. Jesus, wouldn’t that be the quare punishment? See no evil, hear no evil.”
Shane writhed and struggled, but the collective weight of his assailants made escape impossible.
“Shame to lose such a beautiful mane for the mainland,” a voice from the kitchen declared.
“Aye,” another replied. “Betray the trust of your own and that’s what happens.”
“A few more snips’ll do it,” the fat lady said. “Ach, stop your damn blubbering, O’Rourke. If you hadn’t been riding the enemy, this wouldn’t have happened. And there’s more to come – if we can’t control our own, we can control nothing.” His mother’s cries turned to whimpers.
“Jesus, Rosie, you missed your calling,” one of the women said. “You’d have made a great hairdresser.” They all laughed.
“That’ll do it. Mickey! Sheamie! She’s all yours,” the fat lady yelled. “Lord God, O’Rourke, you should be paying me for doing such a good job.”
Two of the men leapt off Shane allowing him to break free. Insults showered in from the street. “Get her out here, the fucking whore,” a man shouted. “British cock-sucker,” another bawled. “Hurry it up in there.”
The two men dragged Shane’s mother into the street to a resounding cheer from the hundred-odd mob. They tied her to a lamppost as angry demonstrators spat at her. A woman rushed into her home, urinated into a chamber pot, pushed to the front of the crowd and threw the steaming contents over Noreen’s face. “Good aul Irish piss,” she whooped. “Hot from an Irish fanny. No Brits ever visited this one!”
The crowd clapped and jeered. A woman moved in and covered the beleaguered victim’s face with a blindfold made of dishtowel. Shane fought his way to his mum and threw himself in front of her. As a man appeared from an alleyway with a cauldron of tar, four men stepped out and pulled Shane to the ground. The fat woman approached, ripped his mother’s blouse to the waist and cut her bra at the centre. Noreen’s breasts burst from their support, sagged and swung into view.
As the mob roared with laughter the man carrying the tar emptied it over Noreen’s head. Her head slumped forward as the tar coagulated and caked on her breasts. The fat woman cut open a pillow and let the feathers rain over the tar. A man wearing a balaclava stepped out and hung a placard around Noreen’s neck. The words scribed crudely in black paint, read: This is what happens to traitors. The man with the woolly face proceeded to read a statement.
“When a woman from our community falls for a British soldier, she can say goodbye to our people. Consorting with the enemy is a serious offence. We will take justice into our own hands. We cannot take the chance that our womenfolk become unwitting tools of the British war machine. We become weak if we do not show our strength. This is an official statement from the Provisional IRA. Let this be a lesson to anyone fraternising with the enemy.”
He saluted the crowd and scurried off amidst cheers. Shane broke free, pulled off his shirt and draped it over his mother’s bosom. He buried his head in the warm tar and yanked the blindfold from her face. “It’s okay, Ma, it’s okay,” he whispered, "we’ll . . . we’ll beat this. We’ll move.”
His mother’s tears glided down the thick tar soaking the shirt glued to her breasts. She nodded and looked beyond her son to the imposing figure behind him. When Shane turned, a man handed him a knife. “Cut her down, son,” he said, in an authoritative tone, before facing the crowd.
“Go home,” he ordered, without raising his voice. "Go home, before I lose my temper with the whole damn lot of you. Is this what we’ve come to? By Jesus, you’d better scatter – and pretty damn quick.”
The crowd began to disperse. A few lingered. “She had it coming, Jimmy,” the fat woman shouted. "We got the punishment sanctioned.”
Jimmy glared at the small group remaining. “Well, I didn’t sanction it. Nor did I struggle against the might of the British army to see young women publicly abused like this. That’s the last there’ll be of this carry-on around here. Anyone has a problem with that can come and see me. I live in number seven for those of you who don’t know.”
One of the younger men turned to his older friend. “Who’s he?”
The elder shook his head. “That’s Jimmy McCann. A commanding officer in OIRA – fought in the Border Campaign. You don’t mess with him. Could have the place swarming with Stickies in minutes. Come on, let’s get outta here.”
“Who’s OIRA?” his friend inquired.
“What are Stickies?”
His friend hushed him as they moved away. “Same thing. I’ll tell you why they’re called that another time. Come on. This is not the time to be hanging around. I’ll be surprised if somebody doesn’t pay us a visit tonight.”
Within minutes, only Shane, Noreen and Jimmy remained. Shane cut the coarse rope tying his mother to the lamppost and held her when she collapsed into his arms.
“Hold her there, son,” Jimmy said. “I’ll get the van.”
Jimmy drove his small Morris Minor painter’s van around and helped Shane ease his mother into the back. They rested her head on a few paint cans covered with sheets. Shane sat with her. “We’ll take her across to The Royal,” Jimmy said, closing the back doors. “Hang in there, pet, you’re going to be all right.”
Noreen shivered and clung to her son. “I’m cold, Shane, freezing. They’ve scarred me for life, haven’t they?” Shane rocked her back and forth as the van started to move.
“No way, Ma, no way, it’ll take more than that to destroy your beauty. That’s the problem with those aul hags – jealous of me ma’s good looks. Sure did you not see them? You couldn’t tell the difference between the women and the men.”
His mother smiled and closed her eyes – just in time. She didn’t feel his tears drip onto her face and trickle down her neck. He rocked her like a baby in a crib and kissed her stubbled head. When the van stopped, the doors opened and an ambulance crew placed her on a stretcher and whisked her off to Accident and Emergency.
her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring
the memories of love.
before they punished you
you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat . . .
Words in italics from the poem 'Punishment' by Seamus Heaney
Shane sat in a corridor of the Royal Victoria Hospital pondering his mother’s condition. He’d heard the Royal had become one of the busiest hospitals in Europe since the outbreak of the Troubles. This June evening, it seemed quiet, peaceful even; given the scene he’d just left.
He hunched in the hard plastic chair, dropped his head to his hands and prayed for his mum. The unbearable prevailed – what, if her face became scarred for life? A face brimming with confidence, beaming at the sight of him. Her stoical acceptance of circumstance. Her unconditional love epitomised in the soft welcoming smile which seemed to permanently grace her countenance. His life would never be the same if anything happened to his mother's face.
The haunting roars of the fanatical mob rang in his ears. Only the man came along, God knows what would have happened. That man – the authority. The power. Jesus, he hadn’t even thought to ask his name. Jimmy. Right. The fat one had called him Jimmy. Jimmy who? Why had the crowd dispersed when he appeared?
A hand touched his shoulder and startled him. He looked up to the silhouette of Jimmy’s strong frame. “Don’t worry, son,” he said, taking a seat, “I think we got her in time. It’s amazing what they can do nowadays. A few years ago they wouldn’t have known how to treat something like this. Now? Now, they’ve specialists for everything. And here? Here, in the Royal since the Troubles started, this . . . condition’s not new to them.” He eased back and continued. “You’ll be grand, now, so’ll your ma.”
Plunging his hand in his pocket, he pulled out a packet of Players, Navy Cut, unfiltered cigarettes. He removed one, tapped both ends on the box, packed the tobacco with his finger and lit up. He blew his exhaled smoke towards the ceiling, held the cigarette in his mouth, and reached out his hand. “I’m, Jimmy, by the way; Jimmy McCann.”
Shane clasped the outstretched hand feeling the tough leather palm grate against his fingers. “Shane, Shane O’Rourke.”
“I know who you are, young O’Rourke. Never knew you on a first-name basis, but I know your connection. Right and handy with those mitts, too. Shame you don’t get to use them in a crowd.”
“You’ve seen me fight?”
“Yeah. You’re a Holy Trinity cub. Saw you take the Ulster’s last year in the King’s Hall. That guy from Clones, thought he had you in the third – hadn’t a hope. Skill, class and determination, you can’t beat it.”
“That’s what you saw?”
“Jesus, it didn’t feel like that where I stood.”
Jimmy drew on his cigarette, then, snuffed it out between his finger and thumb. He blew on the butt and placed it back in the packet. “Aye, but that’s the thing, isn’t it. Things never look the same when you’re stuck in the middle.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like the crowd back there, judging your ma. What the hell is it to them who she dates and who she doesn’t. It’s the Troubles you see. They’ve thrown everything out of kilter. People mistrusting each other. Scared of their own. Everybody has to comply to someone else’s ideals.”
Shane leaned forward and shook his head. “Ma didn’t even date a soldier. She gave a couple of them a glass of squash one day during the riots. That aul fat bitch saw her. Had it in for her ever since. Fraternising with the enemy. Fraternising with the enemy, me fucking arse. A year ago, she’s the one brought tae out to the Brits. Hugging and kissing round them when they first came like they were Gods or something. Probably the only hug that aul hag ever got in her life. Jesus, no wonder the Brits turned on us – having to hug the likes of that.”
Jimmy chuckled. “Well that’s the thing, young fella, you’ve hit the nail on the head. People are fickle. One day running with the hare, the next, hunting with the hound. Loyalties fluctuate and circumstances change. That’s what has us where we are today. Our own don’t know who to trust anymore. Last year’s split in the movement didn’t help.”
Shane sat silent, pondering Jimmy’s response. The reference to the split. Jimmy’s power over the locals. They feared him. He needed an answer to what he now suspected. “Are you in the Provos, Jimmy?”
Jimmy leaned forward and placed his strong-smelling tobacco finger on Shane’s lips. He looked around as if about to divulge some great secret. “Jesus, junior, hold-up now, hold-up. Don’t go asking people questions like that in the times that’s in it. Next thing you know, a couple of those boys with the woolly faces will be wanting to blow your kneecaps off. Loose lips sink ships. Be careful now. Do you hear me?”
Shane nodded and Jimmy removed his finger. They sat silent for a few minutes. Jimmy broke the silence, whispering. “If you must know, I’m not.”
But Shane knew no one wielded the type of control Jimmy did without influence. The reference to the split. In the Lower Falls there could be only one alternative. “Officials?”
Jimmy nodded. “But everybody knows that.”
“Well you do now. So if I get arrested, I’ll know where it came from.”
“Bollocks. I’m no tout.”
Jimmy grinned. “Don’t suspect you are. Tell me, what school you at?”
“Not by comparison to some of the boys – I work hard. I’ve ‘O’ level Maths tomorrow. I was studying when they came for my mum.”
Jimmy shook his head. “Scared the hell out of you, I bet.”
Shane shrugged. “Afraid for mum, not for myself. Never scared of bullies.”
“A chip off the old block. You’ve Rinty O’Rourke written all over you?”
Shane gasped. “You knew my dad?”
Jimmy paused and looked up the long corridor. “Yeah, I knew your dad.”
“You know he’s never been found, don’t you?”
“I know. It’s the tragedy of conflict, son. War brings its own hardship to us all. I lost a son during the curfew last July – my only son. Smart lot, those Provos. Engaged the Brits then left us to do the fighting. My son took a bullet in the head down on Balkan Street when they raided the arms dump.”
“Mickey McCann! You’re Mickey McCann’s father?”
Jimmy nodded. “Was.”
“I remember. He’d done his ‘A’ levels in June. Got his results posthumous. Three ‘A’s. Found out he’d been accepted to study medicine at Queens. Brother John held a special assembly in his memory.”
Jimmy bent forward and stared at the floor. “So let that be a lesson to you. Don’t go getting yourself involved in any of this carry-on around here. Get educated and leave while you’re young enough to start a new life somewhere – and take your ma with you.”
Shane intended to ask another question when a doctor appeared. They stood to greet him. The doctor looked to the older man. “Father?”
Jimmy shook his head. “No. Friend of the family. This is her son.”
The doctor turned to Shane. “You’re mother’s a very lucky woman. They used a diluted bitumen roof solution – not road tar. We have a solvent that works effectively on that. There’ll be some first and second-degree burns, so we need to keep her here for a few days to keep the wounds dressed and free from infection. Bottom line, she’s going to be okay. Superficial scabs but no scarring.”
Shane grabbed the doctor’s hand. “Thank you, Doctor. Thank you so much. You’re a lifesaver . . . a miracle worker, thank you. Can I see her?”
“Sure, up top,” he said pointing. “Ward six. Away you go.”
“Did you hear that, Jimmy? She’s going to be all right. Did you hear what the doctor said? Ma’s going to make it?” Shane jumped, danced around, dipped, weaved and shadow boxed.
The doctor smiled and rested his hand on Shane's shoulder. “Take it easy now, champ. Settle down. Don’t go up there and unsettle her. It’s rest she needs. You’ve five minutes.”
“Sure, Doc. Five minutes. Look, I’m settled.” He dropped his hands. “Cool as a cucumber. Come on, Jimmy, let’s go.”
“No you go, son. It’s you she needs to see. Not me.”
“Ach, come on, Jimmy, she’ll be glad to see you, didn’t you save her life.”
Jimmy reached over and tousled Shane’s hair. “Go see your ma, champ. Tell her I said hello.”
“She knows you?”
“Everybody in Leeson Street knows me – and now, you know me. I’ll see you around, kid. Take care.”
Jimmy turned and accompanied the doctor down the corridor. Shane looked after them until they entered the lift, then walked in the opposite direction to visit his mum.
Author Notes tae - gaelic for tea
Whose war is it anyhow?
Shane tiptoed into the small ward, scanned the beds until he spotted his mum, then darted over. Her face lit up at the sight of him. He flung himself on the bed, buried his head in her bosom, and smothered his face in the soft white sheets. She patted his back, ran her fingers through his hair and locked him in a bear hug. “My hero,” she murmured. “My home-grown warrior – fighting to protect his mum. What would I do without you?”
He sat up and stared at her swollen face covered in ointment. Her hair, a mixture of blond and black stubble, cut in uneven clumps close to the scalp, looked strange – like a half plucked chicken. She smiled. The even white teeth, the glint in her eyes, the soft features and warm expression, melted him. He fought back tears and lifted her hand. “I knew it would take more than that to spoil your good looks, Ma. Jesus, look at you. You’re a picture.”
“A picture of what? Distress?”
“No way. Youth, beauty and . . . defiance. That big aul Rosie bitch. Half the Brits probably screwed the fat ass off of her and she’s jealous cause . . . cause, you’re dignified and reserved and they want to befriend you.”
“Shane! Such language. I’m your mother; that’s a terrible mouthful you just came out with.”
He squeezed her hand. “Sorry, Ma, but it’s true.”
“Well don’t you go judging others now, there’s enough of that happening without you starting.”
“I know. Anyway, the doctor said you’ll be fine and that’s the main thing. I’ll see if maybe I can get a job on top of the paper route and we’ll save enough money to get out of here. It’s time we moved.”
Noreen removed her hand. “What I want you to do is concentrate on your studies. We’re doing fine. Truth be told, I’m not that keen on you running around streets at six in the morning with newspapers, never mind taking on another job. I’m doing all right in the bakery. I’ve a bit of savings put by and when the time’s right, we’ll move to another part of the city, or out into the country. But one thing we’re not doing, Shane – we’re not running away.”
He smiled. “It’s not what dad would have wanted, is that the reason?”
“It’s certainly not what he’d have wanted, but there are other reasons. Firstly, I never dated a soldier; and secondly, had I, it’s no one’s business but my own.”
“I know that, Mum, you know that, but people in this area believe we’re fighting a war and that changes everything.”
Noreen pointed to the other beds in the ward. “Look around you, nothing but sick people in here. Nobody in hospital gives a damn about this so-called war. They care about their health, getting stronger, better, and out of here. We need to get on with our lives, Shane. If you do well at school, you can choose which direction you want to take. One of the greatest gifts of all is choice. You can choose. Your dad and I never had that privilege.”
Shane stood and walked to the window by his mother’s bed. He looked out at the Passion of Christ garden in the grounds of St. Paul’s Church on the Falls Road. As a child, he had often admired the scene from the street. Now, his panoramic view reinforced its celestial significance. The symbolism spoke to him in a way he had never experienced. God played a major role in all of this. Did the Protestants have a different God from the Catholics? Surely not. So why all the fuss? Pure sectarianism, with the British army caught in between. Its presence allowed every conceivable paramilitary organisation to make a play for legitimacy on the grounds of some obscure ideological ideal.
“We’re mired in sectarian strife, Ma. It’s the innocents like you and me that suffer. Right and wrong doesn’t matter anymore. Others now decide what way we should behave. All this talk about freedom’s nothing but a ruse to place power in someone else’s hands.”
His mother eased herself up. “Come over here.” Shane moved back and sat on the bed. She lifted his hand and stroked his arm. That’s exactly what I don’t want you thinking about – the who’s who, or the what’s what with the Northern Ireland conflict. It’s not your war. Remember that. I want you to stay well clear of it. Study, succeed, and educate yourself out of this mess. Do you hear me?”
He squeezed her hand. “I hear you, Mum. Believe me, it’s the last thing I want to get involved in. I think about it sometimes, that’s all. It’s hard not to. All the boys in school talk about it. The riots, the Prods, the Brits, the Official IRA, the Provisional IRA; some of the lads’ dads are actively recruiting. Everything’s so hush-hush you don’t know who you’re talking to anymore. I spoke to Jimmy McCann, before I came in.”
Noreen pulled her hand back and used it to prop herself up. “Jimmy came with you and didn’t come in?”
“He told me to tell you, he said hello.”
“He and your dad were close friends. Jimmy’s a good man, Shane. Learnt the hard way – from his mistakes. His poor son, God have mercy on his soul, and him so young. Jimmy wouldn’t want you following in his footsteps, that’s for sure.”
“I know. He told me that.”
“Listen to him then. He knows what he’s talking about.” Noreen sighed and lay back. “Now, more importantly, what exams do you have tomorrow?”
“Maths in the afternoon. Maths revision with Boney M. in the morning.”
His mother frowned. “You never did get along with that man, did you?”
“Nobody gets along with him, Mum. He’s not even a maths teacher. He’s only subbing until they get somebody. He hasn’t a clue.”
“Well, he’ll be out of your life after tomorrow – think of it that way.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
His mum reached over and patted his leg. “Maybe you should get going, you’ll want a good night’s sleep. There’s bacon and eggs in the cupboard beside the sink and porridge in the bin by the cooker. Make sure you cook yourself a good breakfast after the paper route in the morning. You’ll need all your energy for that exam in the afternoon. Oh, and if it’s money you’re after – the biscuit tin in the cubbyhole under the stairs.”
Shane looked at the clock. “God, I lost track of the time. I should go.” He leaned over and rested his head on his mum’s bosom. “I’m so happy you’re going to be all right. I love my pretty ma. You and me, we’re going to be fine.” He hugged her and stood to go. “Is there anything I can bring you tomorrow?”
“I’ll need a few toiletries and clean clothes, but don’t you worry about that. Some of the neighbouring women will be up. Go on, off with you now and stay out of trouble.”
He waved from the door, walked along the corridor and skipped down the stairs three at a time. Outside, he stretched, took a deep breath and limbered up to run home. He reckoned he could run the twenty-five minute walk, in ten to twelve minutes. That’s how he liked to train. Up Broadway, right on the Falls, cross over the Grosvenor – he’d be home in no time.
He’d run about three hundred yards when a British Army Saracen, armoured personnel carrier, roared up, pulled onto the footpath and blocked him. Six soldiers jumped out and took up positions. Two crossed the road and crouched on the corner of Iveagh Street. One leaned over the front of the vehicle to peer at surrounding rooftops through his rifle sights. One stood by the back of the carrier and two approached him. Shane recognised the Black Watch Regiment from the red hackle on their Tam O’Shanters.
“Face the wall, hands up and spread your legs,” a soldier shouted. “You’re keeping dangerous company, young Paddy. Next thing, you’ll be trying to shoot us, like your friend – and we all know what happens to people like that.”
Author Notes Tam O'Shanters - military beret worn by Scottish regiment.
A soldier placed the barrel of his rifle between Shane’s shoulder blades, as he stood spread-eagled against the wall. A comrade searched him. “Clean,” he said.
“Step over to the vehicle,” the tall one, with the scar on his face, ordered. “Call him in,” he added, before moving to the front of the Saracen.
Another soldier pulled a notebook from his fatigues. “Any ID?”
“What’s your name?”
As Shane spelt his name, the soldier wrote. “Address?”
“Twenty-one Leeson Street.”
“Okay. Hold up.” The soldier lifted a handset attached to a radio in the back of the carrier. It crackled and spluttered into action. He spoke in a thick Scottish accent using the phonetic alphabet. “Sierra, Hotel, Alfa, November, Echo.” Pause. “Oscar, Romeo, Oscar, Uniform, Romeo, Kilo, Echo.”
He waited a few moments for a static reply, then shouted. “All clear here.”
Scarface sauntered to the back door of the carrier and looked at his comrade. “What’s his name?”
The soldier showed him his notebook. Scarface slung his rifle over his shoulder, looked around, moved close to Shane and grabbed him by the testicles. “Listen, you wee bastard. We’ve been watching you. The one that brought you to the hospital tonight, what’s his connection?”
“Connection? Connection to what?”
He squeezed hard. “Connection to the IRA, what else?”
“How would I know? Don’t even know his name. Me ma got tarred and feathered for giving you lot a drink during the riots. He brought us to the hospital. Jesus, is this the thanks we get?” Shane began to bend from the pain stabbing his groin.
The young soldier who’d searched him rested the muzzle of his gun on his comrade’s arm. “That’s enough. Let him go.”
“Sometimes a little persuasion goes a long way, Sergeant. Could save our lives some day.”
“So could a little less harassment. Let him go.”
Scarface loosened his grip. Shane stared at him. “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit.”
“Jesus Christ, a fucking smart alec on our hands, now. Do you hear that, Sarge? Quoting our motto like that to incite us.”
The sergeant laughed. “You’re too easily riled, McClintock.” He turned to Shane. “Do you have any idea what that means, laddie?”
Shane straightened and pressed his back against the cold steel door of the vehicle. “No one provokes me with impunity.”
The sergeant frowned. “Okay. So what are you going to do about it?”
“I’ll tear the fucking head off the wee bastard, Sergeant,” McClintock growled, stepping close to Shane and looking down on him.
“Well, how about we do this fairly?” the sergeant said. “We’ve been watching you, O’Rourke. We know you’re in training. Fancy going three rounds up in the camp on Saturday night with big McClint here. Now, I must warn you, he’s the best in the regiment.”
“Well is that a yes or a no?”
“I’ll take him – no bother.”
“Like fuck, you’ll take me, you wee runt, I’ll kill you,” McClintock said.
“No, no, wait, we’ll settle this and bring a bit of community spirit to the bout while we’re at it. Are you game O’Rourke?”
“Good. Saturday night, Fort Monagh, seven-thirty. Bring your friends.”
“I’ll be there.”
The sergeant stood back, whistled and beckoned his comrades. They jumped up, rushed over and crammed into the back of the Saracen. As McClintock turned, he placed the muzzle of his gun under Shane’s testicles. “Bring these, Paddy, you’re going to need them.”
Shane grinned. “You’re the first gay Brit I’ve met, Scarface. I’ll see you Saturday.”
The Sergeant laughed as he pushed McClintock into the vehicle. “Come on, let’s get outta here, before somebody takes a potshot at us. We’re sitting ducks. We’ll see you Saturday, O’Rourke.” He saluted and jumped into the Saracen.
As the armoured vehicle roared up the street leaving a plume of thick black smoke in its wake, McClintock leaned out and ran his finger from ear to ear across his throat. Shane smiled, raised his middle finger and began to run home.
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, O’Rourke,” Mr. Morrison bellowed from the front of the class. “I don’t give a damn what you think. I gave homework to prepare you for this afternoon’s test and I expect it to be done. Everyone but you did it. You know better, of course. You with your boxing and whatever the hell else occupies that head of yours. Do you intend to spend the rest of your life dreaming, O’Rourke?”
Shane sat in the end seat, at the back of the classroom, in the row furthest from the door. He had been relegated to this position at the beginning of fourth year and still occupied the spot at the end of fifth year. At sixteen, he had earned the dubious distinction of sitting in the reject’s chair for almost two years.
Mr. Morrison rotated every pupil at the end of each month based on test performance, completed homework, and general attitude. He disliked most of the boys – some, he hated, a fact he made no attempt to disguise.
Shane stared at his desk and refused to look up. He tired of listening to Bony M. a long time ago.
“O’Rourke! Are you deaf?”
“Then answer the question.”
“Could you repeat the question, sir?”
“You heard what I said. Do you think I’m going to stand here and repeat myself for the likes of you? Is that what you think, O’Rourke?”
“Then answer the question and stop wasting my time. There are pupils in this class who want to learn.”
“No, sir, what?”
“No, sir, I don’t think you’re going to stand there and repeat yourself for the likes of me.”
“That wasn’t the question O’Rourke.”
“You’re confusing me, sir – too many questions.”
“Right, that’s it. Come up here, boy. I’m tired of your insolence. Let’s see if a couple of licks with the strap won’t teach you a bit of manners.”
Mr. Morrison reached into his briefcase and took out his blackjack. The boys looked on in awe. Shane hated Bony M., never did his homework and often referred to him as a lightweight. Most of the lads thought Mr. Morrison’s physique warranted the description. Underweight and an incessant smoker, he looked frail and emaciated. Buddy Scanlon once claimed, ‘snot had more sinew, and mucus more muscle’.
Others knew what Shane meant. Mr. Morrison taught woodwork in the school. When old Mr. Fox, the soft-spoken and friendly maths teacher retired, Mr. Morrison had to teach a few maths classes. According to Shane, and indeed most of the boys, Bony M. should have stayed teaching woodwork where he could complain about bad dovetail joints and mismatched mortices.
Shane strutted up to the front and held out his hand. “Just a minute, O’Rourke,” Mr. Morrison said. “Put your hand down. I’ll tell you when to raise it. It’s important the class understands why you’re being punished.” He ushered Shane towards the first row.
“Now class. This is what’s called a learning experience. What we have here is a good example of failure, and a total lack of respect for the mission statement of this school. We all know what the motto of St. Peter’s Grammar School for boys is, don’t we?” Mr. Morrison paused for a reply. A few of the pupils uttered a weak response. Mr. Morrison hit a desk with his strap and shouted. “I didn’t hear you.”
Jolted, the class responded in unison. “Usque conabor!”
“Indeed it is, but I couldn’t hear you. Again, please.”
“That’s better, much better.” He turned to Shane. “Now, Mr. O’Rourke, perhaps as the literary genius among us, you could translate our motto.”
Shane stared at the wall. “The English translation is: ‘I will try my utmost’.”
“Indeed you will. Come again, Mr. O’Rourke. Nice and loud so the whole class can hear.”
“I will try my utmost.”
“Do you hear that, class? We will try our utmost. Mr. O’Rourke here is familiar with our mission statement. Is he committed to our ethos though? Does he appreciate everything the Christian Brothers have done for him? Is he grateful for the opportunity to attend a good Catholic school and receive an education that will benefit him for life?” Mr. Morrison smacked the desk with his leather again. “Does he appreciate this, class?”
No one answered. None of the boys wanted to appear disloyal. Shane, ‘Speedy’ O’Rourke, their tough, self-disciplined classmate had protected many of them from school bullies.
“We’re very quiet today, class,” Mr. Morrison continued. “Perhaps, like myself, you’re keen to get on with your work.” He turned to Shane. “This boy is insolent and shows nothing but contempt for our founding principles. He is an ill-reared pup, and some day he will thank me for teaching him values. As you rightly said, Mr. O’Rourke, we will try our utmost. Now, hold out your hand.”
Shane straightened his back, inhaled, and expanded his chest. His strong biceps and powerful shoulders bulged through his blazer. His angular jaw, flat nose and crew cut, gave him the appearance of an army drill instructor. He kept his arms by his side.
“That’s not what I said,” he claimed.
“Don’t start with your gibberish, O’Rourke. The whole class heard you.”
“No, it didn’t. I spoke in the first person singular. I used the personal pronoun – ‘I’, not ‘we’. I used the possessive pronoun ‘my’ not ‘our’. I spoke for myself, no one else. Furthermore, I’m not an animal, and I’m certainly not an ill-reared pup.”
Mr. Morrison’s face reddened, he paced back and forth without speaking, then stopped. “You see, this is what happens when someone thinks he’s above school rules. On top of everything else, we now have a smart alec. Hold out your hand.”
Shane stood rigid and stared.
Shane didn’t move. Exasperated, Mr. Morrison lunged forward in an attempt to hit him on the shoulder with the belt. Shane stepped aside, grabbed the belt and pulled it. He walked to the window and tossed it out. At that moment, he noticed something on the roof below.
One of the boys started a slow handclap. Others followed. Pupils began to pound their desks and chant Shane’s name. Mr. Morrison roared at the top of his voice and threatened to have them all suspended. A few of the boys desisted and the rest followed. With order restored, Mr. Morrison turned to Shane. “Go down to the headmaster and tell him I sent you.”
Shane shrugged and left. On his way to the headmaster’s office, he stopped at the top of the stairwell to check what he had seen from the classroom window. A small, perforated sheet metal shed on the rooftop encased a number of extractor fans used in the ground floor science labs. He saw the shadow of someone crouched inside. He checked his watch, realising the bell would ring for morning break in twenty-minutes.
Every morning for the last month a British Army foot patrol passed the school gates during break. An additional teacher had been positioned at the gates to prevent any confrontation between the boys and the soldiers – the potential for a riot existed when they came in contact.
Shane rapped the principal’s door and a strong voice invited him in. The headmaster sat at his desk writing. At the sight of Shane, he threw down his pen, leaned back on his chair and greeted him. “Shane, how are you? Have a seat. Good to see you. What can I do for you?”
“Hello, Brother John.” He sat on the chair permanently positioned in front of the huge mahogany desk. “I’ve been sent by Mr. Morrison.”
Brother John rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell me. Homework?”
“That’s right, Brother. He called me an ill-reared pup, and when I refused to take slaps, he tried to hit me across the shoulder with the blackjack.”
“I took it from him and threw it out the window.”
Brother John thought for a moment. “You realize of course none of this would have happened had you done your homework in the first instance.”
“He would just find another reason to pick on me.”
“I don’t know, but ever since he made that remark about my dad . . .”
Brother John came from behind his desk. “What remark about your dad?”
“Shane you need to talk to me. What remark about your dad?”
“He said . . . he said, the Provos were like Hitler. A lot of people hated them, but they purged us of the evils of our society – especially undesirables.”
“I see,” the Brother said, nodding. “I knew your dad. He taught you the difference between right and wrong and taught you to fight for your beliefs. You must continue to do that. Now I’m not condoning Mr. Morrison’s words or actions, but maybe if you did some maths homework, and I had a chat with him, we could resolve this problem. How does that sound?”
“That sounds okay.”
“Fine. Go back to class and tell Mr. Morrison I’m taking care of this.” Shane rose to go. “By the way, how’s your mom?”
“She’s improved, Brother. Should be getting home in a day or so.”
“Good. Tell her I’ll be round to see her sometime. Money has been made available to help parents with special circumstances. I can think of no one more deserving.”
“Okay, I’ll tell her.” He looked at his watch, moved towards the huge oak door and bolted out.
Brother John shook his head, walked over to the large window overlooking the school yard and gazed down at the gates. The bell rang and boys began to file out as a British Army foot patrol made its way up the Falls Road.
On his way back to collect his school bag, Shane checked the roof again. He could see the muzzle of a gun through the slats in the shed pointing at the road. He thought for a moment, decided to leave the bag and rushed down to the playground.
None of the teachers had arrived for duty. A few of the boys loitered by the front gates. He ran down and stood on the low wall surrounding the school. As the first soldier passed, he shouted: “British bastard. Why don’t you go back to your own fucking country?”
The soldier stopped and approached. “I would, only I’ve to protect scum like you.”
“Who the fuck you calling scum?” Shane shouted, within earshot of the other boys. He jumped off the wall, grabbed the soldier and pulled him to the ground.
The pupils nearby began to shout. “Boys! Boys! The Brits have got Speedy. Come quick. Come on. The Brits are killing Speedy!” Within seconds, the word spread. Hundreds of boys ran screaming and yelling to the school gates armed with bottles and stones they gathered along the way.
As a hail of missiles rained onto the road, Shane held the soldier beneath him. “There’s a sniper on the roof,” he screeched. “Get your men out. There’s a sniper on the roof. Drag me across the road. Cover yourself.” He rolled off the soldier pretending to be hurt.
In an instant the young soldier leapt up and ordered his men to take cover on the opposite side of the street. He pulled Shane to his feet, grabbed him by the neck and crouched behind him as he dragged him backwards. When released, Shane ran back to the crowd and continued to shout obscenities.
Within minutes an army helicopter circled overhead. As the principal and teachers ran towards the gates, Brother John looked back. He saw a sole gunman abscond down the fire escape, weapon in hand, and disappear into the maze of small streets at the back of the school.
It took about ten minutes for the teachers to get the boys under control. Two army Saracens arrived to take the soldiers to safety. The young sergeant Shane had spoken to the previous evening stood at the back of the vehicles and covered his men while they piled in. As the Saracens roared off to loud cheers, rude gestures and the occasional undetected brick bouncing off their armoured plating, the young sergeant stared at Shane and nodded.
Shane saluted, and a deafening finale of jeers erupted as the boys vented their anger at the retreating soldiers.
The Principal's Office
Shane threw down his pen and checked the clock at the front of the exam hall. Five minutes left – enough time to skim over his work. He thumbed through the answer booklet managing to reach the final page as the invigilator called time. Satisfied, he turned to check on his friend, Brendan, ‘Buddy’ Scanlon. When Buddy gave him the thumbs-up, Shane smiled and reciprocated.
The chief invigilator stepped forward. “Everyone remain in your seats, please, until the scripts have been lifted.” No one paid attention. Some of the boys gathered in groups to discuss the paper, while others flocked to Mr Morrison for a post-test analysis.
“Let’s get out of here,” Buddy said, nudging Shane and pointing at the teacher, “Before that asshole tries to talk to us.”
Shane nodded. “Good idea. Look at him prancing around there, as if he knew the answers. He’d know more about a big piece of two by four unplanned timber.”
Buddy chuckled and pushed Shane so hard he fell backwards over a desk. Mr Morrison, startled by the commotion, rushed towards them. “Scanlon and O’Rourke, of course – the proverbial clowns. The principal needs to see you. Did you think you were going to get off with that carry-on this morning? Could have ruined an entire exam with your behaviour. Probably unsettled a lot of pupils here today. Wouldn’t surprise me if some of the boys failed their test over you.”
Buddy smirked and turned to Shane. “Yeah, like it’s nothing to do with his teaching.”
“What? What was that, Scanlon? Have you something smart to say? That’s your problem – big mouth. Always defending your sparring partner – that’s how it works, isn’t it? Scrappers from Holy Trinity and all that tough-boy nonsense. If you think you’re going to ruin this school, you’re far mistaken. I’m going to see that neither of you are allowed back here in September. You can go do your ‘A’ levels in St. Mary’s or some other institution. We don’t need the likes of you destroying the moral fibre of St. Peter’s.”
Buddy stood on the balls of his feet, squeezed his genitals and thrust his hips forward. “That’s what I think of you and your moral fibre, sir. You can stick your school. Who’d want to come back here anyway, when they’ve bad carpenters teaching maths?”
“Mr. Morrison’s face flushed. “Right, both of you, the principal’s office, now.”
Buddy stared at the teacher. “Bollocks, to you and the principal’s office. My ma and me are going to visit my da in Crumlin Road jail this evening. Tell Brother John, I’ll see him another time, and before you start – don’t say a word about my da, or I’ll drop you where you stand.”
Pupils stopped talking and gathered round. Invigilators looked up from where they packaged booklets. The teacher fell silent. “Okay, the principal will see you another time – but not you, O’Rourke. In fact, I’ll bring you up there right now. Scanlon, you can go.”
Buddy grinned. “I intended to do that anyway.” He winked at Shane. “I’ll catch you, tonight.”
As Buddy marched off, Mr. Morrison shook his head. “See, that’s the type of thing I’m talking about. No respect for authority anymore. No values. Where’s it all going to end? I dread to think what this place will be like in five years’ time. Thank God I’ll be out of teaching by then, O’Rourke, that’s all I can say.”
“Thank God, indeed, sir,” Shane said, as Mr Morrison led the way to the principal’s office.
* * *
“Shocked and disappointed is all I can say - reckless behaviour. The type of irresponsible conduct that could have lead to serious injury, not to mention a complete disruption to exam schedules this afternoon,” Brother John said, as he turned from his study window overlooking the school. “Do you have any more exams?”
“Physics tomorrow,” Shane replied. “That’s my last.”
“If we allow him back, Brother,” Mr Morrison added.
“Indeed, indeed. You’re telling me you behaved in this manner for no reason – pure hatred of the British army, is that what you’re saying?”
“I see.” Brother John placed his hip on the huge desk, folded his arms and leaned back. “I never knew you to harbour such ill-will, Shane.”
Mr Morrison stepped forward. “That’s the problem with them these days, Brother, they’re all caught up in confronting authority – any kind of authority. Priests, Brothers, police, army – it doesn’t matter we’re all fair game. And how do we respond? Spare the rod and save the child. Counsel the bad behaviour out of them. Indulge them. That’s where we’re failing. That’s why the ethos of the school is disintegrating.”
Brother John smiled. “Please . . . Mr Morrison, if you don’t mind . . . some other time.”
“Yes, yes of course, Brother, you’re right. The question is does this boy get back to school tomorrow to sit a test and do we risk jeopardising the safety of the rest of the boys by indulging his loutish behaviour?”
Brother John stared at the floor. “Worthy considerations, no doubt, but in this instance, I’m going to allow the pupil to sit his final exam in good faith.”
“But he certainly won’t be allowed to return in September. There’d be uproar; the staff wouldn’t stand for it.”
Brother John shook his head. “Well, it’s like this, Mr Morrison. I’ll make that determination, come September, and any member of staff who has a problem with my decision knows the drill. My door’s always open.”
He turned to Shane. “You need to learn how to control your aggression. Brother Angus has just completed a course at Queen’s on behaviour management strategies. I’ll see if he can do a couple of sessions with you. In the interim, stay out of trouble. Is that clear?”
Shane nodded. “Yes, Brother.”
Brother John sat and rested his arms on the desk. “Mr Morrison, I appreciate that you have brought this matter to my attention. Consider it taken care of. Thank you, that will be all for now.”
Mr. Morrison sighed. “Of course. Thank you, Brother.”
“Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a word with this young man in private.”
Mr Morrison nodded and left. Brother John approached the window, thrust his hands into the deep pockets of his soutane and swivelled round. “I find it hard to believe that you would jeopardise the safety of every boy in this school with your wanton acts of violence.”
Shane stared at the floor. “I know, Brother. I behaved in an inappropriate manner.”
“You’re sure there’s nothing you need to tell me?”
“Just that I’m sorry, Brother.”
“I see. Okay, you’re free to go. Finish your tests tomorrow and stay safe over the holidays.”
“I will. Thank you, Brother.” Shane turned to go.
“One more thing. Don’t let the side down on Saturday night. I bought eight tickets. All of the Brothers are coming with me. We’ll be expecting a good fight. Let’s show the British army there’s plenty of pluck in the lads from West Belfast.”
Shane smiled. “I will, Brother, I will. We’ll show them – you’ll see.”
“Good. Go home. Say hello to your mum for me.”
Shane nodded, rushed out and bolted down the corridor into the afternoon sunshine. Buddy sat on the wall by the school gates, waiting.