The white haired boy

Part 1

Old tales of the ‘Troubles’ were grist to the mill for Moriya Phelan, who lived up the road from my house in Baurscoobe, near Dunamaggin. {I never saw her name written down – but it was pronounced Morr-eye-agh.} When I was seven or eight, she was an old woman, would have been born in the early 1880s. Was the granny of the departed much-loved Kipper. One story she would often relate was – and is to this day – a puzzler. I only ever got the bones of it, so I’ll have to use poetic licence while I make a little literary smorgasbord. Just bits of the tale, dribs and drabs, were released to me.

Moriya didn’t dish this one out with her usual bare-faced truth-less gusto: she seemed a strangely out-of-character and unusually reticent little old shawlie indeed, when she muttered away about ‘The White-Haired Boy’. [That title was given to any lad who was especially favoured by life, in those hard days.]

Her heart was never really in the telling of it. Yet, in the family tradition – she couldn’t resist acting the seanchaí – being the seanchaí. Unusual emotions I’d never seen before were there – it seemed ‘a bit too close to home.’

This reticence was odd in the extreme with Moriya, who would – if there was ever such a place as ‘Exaggeration City’ – be its elected, selected, and respected Pearly Queen!

Now, this much is fact; this I know. One of her sons – we’ll call him ‘Steve’ – had been {like myself much later on} a little wanderer of a child. Probably more resourceful than this writer. In his young days, there was a large military barracks in Callan, and the Black and Tans were always around the town, robbing and generally running amok, shooting the place up. As was their wont, their habit, their nature….

Steve, as was true of all labourer’s sons, was never even remotely flush with money – and decent food was a luxury. As a child, he would have been weaned from the breast onto ‘goody’ – which was a mixture of bread, sugar, and watered-down milk. Not much in the way of nourishment there. I know. I was among the many thousands who were reared on it. It was ‘danger time’ in a child’s life: get past the goody stage – and you had a 50/50 chance. {There was even a little song the Mammy would sing to us wee slurping nippers: “Well I know what babby wants – it’s goody on a saucer!”}

But soon after weaning, we learned, like fox cubs, to forage and pilfer. With a difference: around our area, we never robbed friends, or decent farmers. Oh, yes – there were a few of that sainted breed about – without them – it’s doubtful if this story would be written. And – contrary to the accepted stereotypes of the Protestants and Blueshirts {our “mortal enemies” according to Dev and his lackeys} those good people were among the very best. And still are. {Loughbrack C of I community: I owe you a thousand feeds! Thank your Mams and Dads for me, in your prayers.}

Yes, Moriya’s Steve was a little tearaway. Also an opportunist, with his eye and brain ever alert for the next chance. Only lads such as he made any progress in life in those days – especially if born into poverty. A life of labour and lousy grub awaited most poor little chisellers.. Who would, if they were lucky – or unlucky enough – to eventually wed – generate more, endlessly more, generations of subservient priest-whipped slaves. The bog, the boat, or the box; those were the choices. Charity was absent then; mostly.

Even had the Rome-obsessed middle and upper classes the power to help the poor by simply clicking a switch to raise them out of poverty and degradation – they would not have done so. Never. Wouldn’t have bothered their arses. Why? Because of their prevailing dogma: never let poor people ‘get above themselves.’ That was the way. I suppose they needed to feel superior to someone …

So, young Steve pulled in wherever the rations were the soundest, using whatever quick wit and foresight was needed to advance his little cause.

As I said, the Black and Tans were raging through the countryside: still at it when he was ten or eleven. The Tans were genuine hard men from the trenches and battles of Mons and Picardy; where, according to the sweet old song, ‘roses were blooming.’ On the graves of young men, their former comrades, mostly. Popular legend has it that these men were all bad. But people say that about their local political opposites too.

Prominent amongst the Tan semi-mercenaries were a large amount of criminals; released on condition they’d go and kill the Irish. “Kill” is the word, readers: that’s what soldiers do; it’s their job. It’s the reason they are given great big guns with which to make holes in you. Even the chaplains {padres} have their part in the killing: blessing the guns. Yep – I’ve seen ‘em at it. Why else are they in the Army – with Commissioned Officer rank? No lower ranks for the reps of the Big JC: ‘Bless you, my child – here’s a tin of spam – clear off and kill some bollix’ …

Little Steve had a fair interest in the ‘Tans, mainly to do with what he could scrounge or loot from them, when they were back at the barracks. Like the wild apple and plum trees, the hazel and ‘bread nuts,’ the mushrooms in autumn, the sweet briar and the skeoch haw – they were a source to be tapped. No more, no less. What B&Ts got up to in their ‘spare time’ as Steve termed it – {their gun-waving terrorising-time, that is} – bothered him not at all.

After a while they got used to the little blonde {only one in his family} tearaway hanging about, and would buy a few fresh {freshly robbed, that is!} eggs from him, or hazel nuts he picked in Heffernan’s Rath – and squirreled away to sell later at fifty to the penny.

So, the time came when he was allowed to ride on their troop-carriers – the infamous Crossley Tenders. He soon became a sort of mascot. Of course, they asked him for information. And of course – he gave it to them! But, being a true son of Moriya – he was absolutely incapable of telling anyone anything except huge lies and ‘good ones’! Which the Tans took as gospel!

Cute enough, he often led them to the houses of informers and ‘Dacent Boys’ – where the Tans robbed to their hearts content. And so did Steve! He knew the locals didn’t give a shite what happened to those lousers! {Remember, reader – I’m relying on the old cuairdioch with Moriya for most of these details – I never met Steve.}

What the Tans weren’t quite aware of was that while he was amusing and helping them – he was passing along, every night, details of what went on, to a pal of the local IRA Intelligence chief! Who, of course, would have suggestions passed back to Steve as to the next day’s ‘operations’ – plus a few handy pennies! He was never asked to send the ‘Tans into an ambush – and would not have done so. He knew most of them were real bad characters – but they were kind to him in their own rough savage way. Which, in the hard world back then, went a long ways …

But, eventually, the Tans got a bit leery of him, and the lifts mostly stopped. Which didn’t worry Steve, as there was plenty opportunity for a bright boy to get on. But they still liked the chirpy little gorsoon, and he had the run of their tents or barracks. Which he found most profitable. But as the stuff he filched was always HM’s – and not personal – they didn’t give a shite. He was even reputed to have snitched a Mills Bomb – {hand grenade} – for which he got ten bob from ‘The Boys’ – a fortune in those days.

Then one day, as he was hanging around the Callan barracks, two Crossley Tenders came tearing down from the Mullinahone direction. They roared into the yard……….

To Be Continued

Ned E.

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