‘Paddy Joe’ (1895-1960): a tribute to a 1916 fighter

‘The Wicket’: a short story by P.J.Stephenson

Noel Tynan sat down panting in an armchair which had been placed with its back to the shattered window. Around him the room was a shambles, splintered glass lay on the floor carpet, the white edged fragments of a large blue flower pot grinned at him from the empty fireplace. The curtains ripped from the rods lay in a heap between the windows. As he wiped the stinging sweat out of his eyes and from the corners of his mouth he looked out on to the riverside and laughed the full hearty laugh of a child. Just outside the railings of the Mendicity Institution, in the upper floor of which he sat, a blue uniformed policeman stood in the grip of the gapes of astonishment. The stolid uniformed peasant's bewilderment was so funny to behold that the tension of his nerves was at once relieved and the tempest of laughter shook him, his rifle fell out of his hands and the tears ran from his eyes. Suddenly from the window of the next room a head was stuck out and a voice hailed the peeler, "Eh! will you take yourself off to hell out of that. Do you want your bloody head blown off." At the sound of the voice the quiet calm bovine eyes of the policeman turned in the direction of the sound. His lips opened and in clear Kerry brogue he informed the speaker that "All you fellows will get yourselves into trouble over this and if you take my advice ye'll all go home quietly. It’s all very fine to play at soldiers, but be God you fellows are going too far breaking into people's houses. Do yez know ye can be arrested for that?". "Oh for Jesus sake be off" came the answer. "Don't you know there's a revolution on? The Irish Republic has been proclaimed from the G.P.O. and your day is done. Tell Johnny Barton to look out for himself if you see him. And take yourself off before I blow you to hell out of it." The clap of a pistol shot punctuated the sentence. Convinced at last the Kerry peasant took to his heels so quickly that he left his helmet behind.

The sight of the policeman's clumsy flight caused another gale of laughter to sweep over Charley and it ceased only when Commandant Heuston, a black browed, stern faced youth with full lips tightly pressed together came striding into the room as if he was on parade. "Now Noel" he said, "pull yourself together, this is a serious job we're on. There's no time for laughing. It has come at last and there is no knowing what the end will be for us. Our backs to the wall and a firing squad in front, if we get that far.” At once Noel picked up his rifle and began again to jam furniture of all kinds against the sofa which was being used as a substitute for sand bags in the other window. Heuston, after a glance around the room, turned and went out with his right foot striking hard down as if he was still marching at the head of D Company of the 1st Battalion of the Dublin Regiment of the Irish Volunteers instead of being in occupation of the house of Pamela and Lord Edward until such time as Ned Daly had occupied the Four Courts across the river.

As Noel worked he thought of all he had read about revolutions and barricades and the like. Before his mind came visions of the Commune of Paris, the Risorgimento, Myles Byrne, the Fenians and he began to compare the ideal with the actual. How funny that not one of all the writers he had read ever mentioned the cold chilly fear that gripped his heart and made it seem as if it were not there while his brain was a hot violent turmoil. He went back over the past few days to find an explanation of what he was doing and a justification, but as he did so he realised that what he was doing was the inevitable result of his joining D Company a year ago and the logical. He had not asked himself why he had gone down that night a year ago and enrolled. It had seemed then the absolutely right thing to do. When he demanded a rifle and paid his first instalment on it the astonishment of the Company Officers had seemed to him ridiculous. Did not a soldier require a rifle and why should a new recruit buying a rifle on the first night he attended the Company's parade be the occasion for astonishment? All the cigarettes and books he might have bought, all the plays (at the Abbey) he might have seen flashed into his mind and he sought for a trace of regret for the pleasures denied that he might have a rifle and bayonet and full marching kit, but found none. Instead he experienced a sense of something well done and a quiet jubilation now that at last the crisis had come and he prayed he would be equal to the test. Death seemed a strangely remote and impersonal thing, yet as he looked along the brown barrel of his mud stained Lee Enfield he knew that it meant a dissolution of his being perhaps in terrible agony. He remembered the Saturday before the day he bought this Lee Enfield from a Tommy home on leave. The grey haired kindly old woman who blessed him when he took the gun away leaving three pounds in her work mangled fingers. The fresh face of the khaki clothed boy who sat to one side of the fireplace in the dingy room in the lane behind Ganly's with the mud of the trenches on his clothes had seemed a pitiable wretched piece of cannon fodder and now he too would be, God knows how soon, a mangled limpness. He wondered what an exploding bomb did to a body, scattered it he supposed, or would it splatter the walls with a yellow-red mess like the mincemeat he had seen in the butcher's windows in Glasgow. After all a bullet meant a quick death and he shrugged his shoulders to relieve his feelings. He would hate to die a long slow painful death. Would he be able to keep silent and not allow the Tommies to think he was a coward? Would the pain be so great that the sweat would pour down his face and he could only find relief in yelling. People were supposed to be able to keep back a cry of pain by biting their lips. He remembered that day when Hoban had kicked him full on the shin bone when they were playing footer in Hutton's field. He had yelled out before he had time to think and he remembered how the blood thudded and thumped in his head and how his breast seemed about to burst. That cry had been beyond his power to suppress and it seemed that one cried out quite involuntarily when hurt. He had tried to bite his lips, but somehow his teeth refused to grip. The pain of his shin was enough. He was violently jolted out of his reflections by a shake and the sound of Sean Heuston's voice telling him to take over. He slipped to the floor and crawled on his hands and knees to the wall between the two windows trailing his rifle with one hand. A heavy quiet lay on everything. A glance out the window on to the North Quay revealed a deserted tram and a few curious sightseers jammed tight in hall doors. Suddenly his heart stopped beating the blood rushed to his head, he could see his hand and fingers gripping the rifle and felt the butt pressed hard into his shoulder where he had thrown it at the sight of the column of soldiers approaching Watling Street Bridge, Bloody Bridge he recalled it was also named, but his body seemed to be gone, his knees were pressed into the floor, but did not seem to record any contact. He knew he saw his hold on the barrel of the rifle, but could not feel. Heuston's voice came from some seemingly remote place saying "Let nobody fire a shot until I blow my whistle". His eyes strayed back to the quickly advancing brown column and he experienced a sense of suffocation only to realise with the sound of the intake of air that he had been holding his breath for fear the soldiers would hear. The silliness of his action brought a smile to his face and caused his companion to splutter, "I don't see what there is to laugh at. The grin will be on the other side of your gob when those fellows get in here. Be God if you think that paint cans full of nails and dynamite are going to keep those bloody bastards out then you're making a hell of a mistake. Why its downright bloody murder, that's what it is, to send eight bloody men in here with a hundred rounds against the whole damn British Army. They'll blow us to smithereens before you can look round." The Section Commander, a low sized, broad shouldered bandy legged Dubliner hearing the voice from the other room crawled in on his face and hissed through his discoloured and irregular teeth "Shut up and save your breath, you'll want it all in about ten minutes when you'll have to run like hell out of this. Where do you think you are, on a bloody picnic? Jasus, won't it be awful to be found shot in your bed and not know who did it. Holy Ireland! she's rearin' them yet."

The whiner subsided and a silence ensued. It seemed as if there was no living thing anywhere, that everything had died and ceased to move. Then the sound of regularly falling feet pulled his mind and eyes back to the column and it seemed they must hear the creaking of his leather equipment so near had they come. The head of the column had just reached Blackhall Place when someone in the lower storey losing control of his nerves fired a shot and the quietness was split into a thousand fragments tumbling down on the consciousness like the fall of the Pyramids.

Then, as a flash of lightning illuminates a dark countryside, consciousness came back to Tynan with a feeling of disgust for himself he realised that since the first shot had released them from their tension, had been just blazing away round after round aimlessly and with sightless eyes. He took safer cover, thrust his rifle well forward and laid his eyes along the sights, picking out carefully the moving brown speck he intended shooting at and calmly and deliberately began firing at each mark. That the brown specks on the far side of the Liffey were sentient soft fleshed beings like himself he never thought. Merely he knew that if he did not cause to lie still as many of them as he could he would cease to exist himself. His faculties were sharpened to a degree he had never before anticipated or experienced. His eyes caught the slightest movement. He concentrated on a speck which he sighted below the Fry's Cocoa Advertisement on the top of a deserted tramcar almost opposite him. Now and again this speck would creep forward barely an inch at a time it seemed and with each motion a shot bored another hole in the white enamel sign. Finally it ceased to move at all. With the first shot the brown column had scattered and some fragments of it took refuge under the stone river wall, while others sought refuge in the houses and now lay inert with dark shiny trickles running away from them across the footpath. The column seemed completely disorganised and at first hardly sent a shot back against the steady firing of the eight rifles from the refuge of beggars. After some time however, the steel whips which lashed the wall behind which Charley sheltered increased in number and the lashes now came so quickly as to merge into one another and form one continued whacking. Under cover of this intense fire the soldiers were withdrawn and soon the quays were deserted, but for the brown specks which looked like suits of clothing from which by some magic the human form had been withdrawn leaving all its semblance behind in the cloth. With the firing ceased and the need for vigilance gone Charley had time to light a cigarette and after passing one to his comrade he sat again in the armchair, the back of which presented a quaint appearance with its speckling of holes. How curious to be so close to home and yet to know he might be as well ten thousand miles away. He saw the fire blazing and the table spread for tea. His father sitting in his usual place next to the fire with the light of the window coming over his shoulder. The patient mother, her hands folded on her lap listening with pity in her eyes to the father and son wrangling over Redmond, the Germans and Sinn Fein. The grey headed man applying the test of his experience to his son's enthusiastic advocacy of the New Volunteer movement. Asking his son now as he did when he first joined the Gaelic league "What are you going to make out of it my boy." The son's reply "I don't make anything out of it and don't want to. We of the Irish Volunteers do not want any payment for our services to Ireland". The old man's pitying shake of the head and his last and to him conclusive retort. "There was only one man in Ireland ever, Robert Emmet and the damn people let the English hang him". The son's incoherent anger dissolves in his affection for to him a good but blind parent. He will never see that we are determined to win where Emmet failed and that Emmet "got nothing out of it". What does he think of me now I wonder, Noel thought to himself looking across the river to the houses opposite where his home was. Tynan, Builder and Contractor. The words caught his eye and he began to speculate on the punning paradox to build and contract, that is to increase and cause to decrease. He imagined his father's rage when the boys took away ladders and planks and barrels to make barricades and he felt that he had lost his home forever. If he came out of this alive he must look for a job and a home. Father will never forgive me for offending his ‘Gods of Success and Respectability’, thought Noel. He could almost hear his sorrowing parent explaining away to his solid friends, such as Sir Horan Mortell his son's unaccountable lapse. A great wave of sadness engulfed him and all his pride in his year's self denial and hard training seemed empty and vain. His sorrow was made greater by the knowledge that behind his father's antagonism to what he termed the "little upstart politicians on the make" lay a genuine affection for his son and the sorrow of the parent for his offspring dictated his attitude and sharpened his tongue.

The sound of a commotion downstairs startled him out of his reverie, he jumped up and ran to the top of the staircase. Below he could hear a voice shouting "Halt, or I'll fire". Outside one or two revolver shots split the air and with the sound of a door banging the noise subsided to the murmur of voices. A scout sent out earlier in the day had come in with the news that he could see the Tommies getting into the houses opposite by the back. Then Commandant Heuston's voice called him down and with two others he was sent out to occupy a post nearer the barracks and covering the back entrances into the houses opposite, among which was his own. Under a scattered fire from the North Quay they got safely into their position and having disappeared from sight the shooting ceased. A long wait ensued and nothing stirred; from the roof on which he was posted he could see the big back gate into his father's yard. The wicket gate stared at him like an accusing eye, never blinking even once, but fixed and stern it looked its warning and accusation. He shifted his body to ease his cramped limbs and took up another position on the farther side of the chimney stack. When his eyes focussed again on the gate he found the wicket still watching. Curiously enough, it seemed to him, he felt no fear for the safety of his parents and were it not for the fact of outpost reports he would say that life was normal at home. If anything he had a sense of being in danger himself. He tried to think of other things, the crowd at Fairyhouse and how it would behave, how would the people get home? the tickets he had in his waistcoat pockets for the Gondoliers at the Gaiety, but all in vain. The sense of danger became intensified and made the sweat stand out in little beads on his forehead. He looked behind, but found himself well covered from a sniper's shot by the roof of a higher house, on either sides the houses were a story higher so that both flanks and (his) rear were covered. Yet he did not feel happy in his mind. Even when he was not looking at it the wicket still persisted before his eyes, fixed, inscrutable, threatening, until he almost shook his fist at it.

The relief came in due course and he went back to the Mendicity for a wash and a feed and some rest. When he returned to his post evening was approaching. The man he relieved reported no movement in the open, but that the sounds as if Tommies were holing through from house to house had been heard. A sympathiser in the area had confirmed the information and added the rumour that an attack was being planned for the night. He had been back in his position barely ten minutes when his attention was drawn to the big gate by the sound of a bolt being drawn back with a slam. It seemed to give a little in the middle as if about to open and the information about a night attack flashing into his mind made him throw his rifle forward on to the sniper's rest he had made. He waited with his finger on the trigger, meantime giving the signal cord to his right hand man, Peeny Byrne, the three agreed upon jerks. In a few minutes he heard Peeny creeping along the gutter of the next house and he called to him to get back to Sean Heuston with word that the back gate of Spain's was being got ready for opening and that he expected a rush at any minute. Barely had Peeny gone when the gate stiffened at the middle and the bolt slammed home. The sound of rifles being grounded sailed across the quiet flowing river and the wicket gate blinked and became a wide dark eye. A form showed greyly against the back gaping oblong and obedient to the instantaneous pressure of his finger his rifle spoke. While the echoes of the shot were still being slammed back from the surrounding walls the wicket blinked again and was shut. Again the inscrutable, menacing eye was fixed upon him and in the fast falling dusk it seemed to gape wider, with horror this time not with menace.


Charley Spain, no longer the dapper well groomed figure so well known to his friends, sat on a wooden stool in a ground floor cell in Knutsford Jail. He raised his head from the support of his hands and turned to the dark red line of paint which served as a dado to separate the whitewashed top from the cream painted lower section of his cell wall. He counted the upright scratches made in the dark red line with the metal tag off his bootlace, seven they totalled again. Today must be Sunday he reckoned. This day fortnight he reflected, he was up through Glendhu and across the Feather Bed. It had been a glorious sun-shining morning, but had become dull and heavy towards evening. How long until he would expand his lungs again in the Dublin mountains God alone knew. A week since he had been locked up and no sign of being brought to trial. Would they be all tried together or separately. Of course a drum head court martial and if not execution perhaps transportation to France. A surge of anger swept through him at the thought that he might, with the rest of those who surrendered from the G.P.O., be forced to dig trenches for the Allies in Flanders. Well, he'd be damned before he'd do it. They could do to him what they liked, shoot or starve or scourge, he would not use a spade except to dig his own grave. What did it matter, death, he sniffed. How easy it would be to die. Better far to die swiftly by shooting than die a living death in this hellish silence and idleness. A faint moisture came out all over his body, a desperate impatience jerked him up from the stool and up to the window high in the wall four and a half paces he took and the same back to the door. Across his breast shot a dull ache, his fingers closed and opened and he flung his head up as if trying to bring his throat out of reach of some unseen clutch. Back again towards the window he strode trying to get away from the intolerable pain in his body. Swinging his legs well out he struck the wall with his toe and stopped with his two hands pressed against the cool brickwork. The cold contact calmed him and he stood with his head back and his eyes fixed on the loaf shaped piece of blue sky he could see through the window. An immense regret swept over him because he had been away at H.Q. on Wednesday when the Mendicity was taken. He thought of the solitary sentry he had been pacing up and down on the path in front of the entrance and again he wondered what would have happened if he had gone in the back way on Wednesday instead of reconnoitring the building as he had. He would see himself lying in the graveyard a crumpled bullet riddled heap. Where were Sean Heuston and the boys? prisoners or dead. Barney Mellows, at the Four Courts, said they had been bombed. Precious little chance of remaining alive if a bomb burst in any of those rooms, he thought. God in heaven, what would he not give for a newspaper. But what use would a newspaper be. The rotten "Independent" would not tell the truth about the Rebellion. Like the 1913 strike it would be full of lies and denunciations. Anyway the Censor would not allow any reports to be published. The mighty British Empire could not afford to admit that a handful of poor armed Irishmen had defied her for a week. The Government will keep us out of Ireland until the war is over. He felt the incipient beard on his chin and had a vision of a grey bearded old man stepping off the boat at Kingstown or the North Wall, unknown, unwelcome. Well he would not go down the back streets, slinking and hiding. If the rotten people were ashamed he was not. His father's face came before his eyes. He could see the white linen collar and the little piece of his neck which was always caught between the top corners, the black and white spotted stock with the cameo of Garibaldi. He laughed at the paradox of his father's fervent Catholicism and his hero worship of the man who "fought the Pope". A good sort all the same in spite of his philosophy of life, but too anxious to get on in the world. What hellish belief he had in himself too. Funny enough he was nearly always right. An infinite pity for his father seized his heart and he determined to write to him the first chance he got. Wasn't it lucky the small pocket in the waist of his trousers had escaped the searching soldiers hands. The few quid hidden there would come in handy. These Tommies would sell their own father for a few shillings. Perhaps he could induce one of them to get him writing materials and post a letter on the quiet. Wouldn't it be worth a quid? The rattle of keys and the thudding of drawn back bolts drew him from the window. Rubbing his neck to relieve the cramp, he went over and put his ear close to the jamb of the door. The cells were being opened. That was strange. It was too early for tea, or was it? He looked round to the wall at his right. Yes, the light had not yet reached the level of the bottom of the window slope. Tea-time was yet some time away. Funny, too all the cells were not being opened. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, steps he counted before the jingle of the keys and the thudding of the lock signified the opening of a cell door. It only takes three steps at exercise time from cell to cell. They must be picking out men for trial. Men they have something against, most likely. Maybe they were taking the dangerous men away before attempting anything with the rank and file. The jingle became fainter and almost died out. His heart began to beat with a kind of pleasant terror at the prospect of being taken out of his cell for good. He strained to hear and could faintly trace the sound of the keys. As the sound grew louder the beating of his heart became so loud in his ears that he did not know the Sergeant was near until his own cell door was slammed back almost striking his nose off. "Fall in outside your cell, face inwards and no talking between prisoners" bade the gruff hoarse voice of the Sergeant. "Come on, you won't want your coat. Jump to it without further delay". Charley was outside his cell and looking anxiously, down the corridor to see who was out along with him.

Back in his cell he looked around it and began to feel almost affectionately towards it. A sense of comfort seemed to have suddenly engulfed it and having made a seat with one blanket he wrapped the other round his legs and opened the letter to read.

My darling son Noel,
I have very sad news for you. You must be brave and bear it like a man. Pray to God to give you strength to bear this cross he has sent you. Your poor father was killed on Easter Monday evening. A stray bullet struck him in the head and he died immediately. It was in the yard he died. He was feeding the horses. He lay in the loft all that week. It was terrible. The soldiers who occupied the house would not let me near him and when he was brought out to be buried they had put him in the coffin so I did not have my last look at him. Don't worry for me Noel, your aunt and uncle are stopping with me and are very kind and thoughtful. I don't know what I would have done without them. I enclose a cutting from the Independent about your poor father's death Write to me soon and let me know how you are being treated. Be brave, my son, you are all I have now.
God help us both.
With love, from your sorrowing mother.

With a bubbling murmuring sound coming from his throat he looked in the envelope for the newspaper cutting. It was not there. With a violent sweep of his hand the blanket came off from around his legs and fell in a heap in the corner furthest from him. Down on his hands and knees he fell and began searching on the floor, the queer half strangled bubbling cry in his throat rising perceptibly to a higher pitch. His eyes were open and turned from side to side in their sockets, but did not seem to examine the floor. His hands patted the boards as if smoothing down the inequalities of wear and the bubbling murmur from his throat rose to a higher pitch with jerks and stops as if he were being strangled. At last his fingers closed on the cutting which had fallen out of his letter unnoticed in his anxiety for news, on to the blanket. It had been thrown into a corner when the blanket had been so forcibly flung off his legs. With a curious sensation that his body and his faculties had come out of their flesh and blood shell and could observe its actions from without he felt that he could see his eyes reading.

‘On Easter Monday evening some hours after the outbreak of the firing near the Royal Barracks, an old respected resident, Mr Charles Spain, Builder and Contractor, was shot dead in the yard attached to his premises by a stray bullet. It seems Mr Spain was attending to his horses and when passing across the yard the bullet came through the wicket gate which one of the soldiers who had taken over the premises had opened. Another report has it that he was killed.’