Series: Liberty Series, Book 1
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It was the kind of morning that made him wonder if God hated the Irish. Rain hoored down from the sky, helped on by a biting wind from the east, soaking those gathered in front of St. Catherine’s Church. The market traders would normally have been delighted to see such a crowd here on a Thursday morning, halfway down the long, wide stretch of Thomas Street. However, these people weren’t here to haggle or to barter but to howl and spit and rent the air with their screams.
They were here for a hanging.
Jimmy O’Flaherty stood apart from the throng, leaning against the exterior of McCann’s alehouse at the top of Dirty Lane, in full view of the spectacle that was about to unfold, gazing forlornly at the place where his stall should have been. The stage erected in its stead was bare, apart from the scaffold that loomed over an imposing wall of red-coated soldiers beneath. There must have been a hundred of them there, casting baleful glares at the assembled Dubliners from behind their guns and bayonets.
To Jimmy’s left, in the direction of his flat on the corner of Meath Street, a whole company of cavalrymen were ready to charge should there be a surge towards the scaffold when the prisoner arrived to meet his fate. Their faces were curiously blank. Jimmy decided they must be officers: men who relied on codes and regulations to trample common folk, rather than gauche personal animus. But the level of caution was no surprise; the Castle had much to contend with today.
The whole of Thomas Street had turned out and many more besides. Not just the United Irish crowd and their sympathizers either—Jimmy could see a vicar in amongst them, remonstrating with a mounted officer who had been liberally using a cudgel to beat clear a path for his charge. On the other side of the swarm was Paulie Grogan, a fellow trader who normally cursed the rebels to any who would listen, but he too was enraged by this very public execution.
It wasn’t that surprising, Jimmy supposed. In this part of Dublin, at least, Catholics and Protestants lived cheek-by-jowl. Dissenters too. It had been that way in The Liberties since the Huguenots arrived from France a hundred years before, fleeing persecution of their Calvinist ways. A few returned home after the Edict of Versailles, but most stayed. And those who did felt sympathy for their Catholic brothers as they suffered under the Penal Laws.
Wolf-whistles greeted a sergeant who climbed the stage, his lip curling slightly as he surveyed the scene, St. Catherine’s Church squatting behind him. He barked out an order, and his phalanx of men shifted left. A cabbage sailed through the air, landing just short of sergeant’s mud-spattered boots. Half a dozen soldiers pushed into the crowd, not caring who felt their bayonets, and hauled out a boy who couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. Jimmy wondered how they’d spotted the diminutive cabbage-thrower in all that tumult, until he realized they likely didn’t care whether they had the right person. It was about keeping order. By any means necessary.
Weeks of reprisals and riots had followed the failed Rising at the end of July. It was clear that the Castle was hoping to flush out the rest of the traitors, turn Thomas Street on its head and turn neighbors into informants, but that only served to galvanize support for the cause. It was a lesson the English never learned, Da used to say. Rebels were far more popular after they swung at the end of a rope. Sure, Robert Emmet couldn’t get three hundred to turn up to his rebellion, and there were easily three thousand here this morning. There would be ten times that again by the time they finally got around to hanging the rebel leader himself, Jimmy figured.
He’d been apoplectic when he heard that the executions would take place here on Thomas Street. Business had only just begun returning to normal. Usually, hangings took place at Gallows Hill, near Kilmainham Gaol, beyond St. James’ Gate at the western edge of the city. The odd execution still took place up by Misery Hill at the Liffey-mouth, especially if it was a pirate—the corpse displayed for all docking vessels to see, vermin crawling over one another in a race to pick the bones clean. But Robert Emmet’s base had been here in The Liberties, and his doomed rebellion was launched from this very street. It was a brutal show of strength by the Crown, a reminder to the people who really ruled this city. And they would keep hanging until the jails were emptied of rebels.
Jimmy’s thoughts were interrupted by someone tugging his arm. He turned, expecting to swat away a beggar boy, but his grimace turned to surprise when he saw a pretty girl panting in front of him. “Do you know who they’re hanging today?” she asked, her eyes flashing with anger as she spoke, as if her question hid an accusation.
“I do,” he replied. “A man called Edward Kearney.”
She blessed herself, still catching her breath. Her face was somewhat familiar, but Jimmy couldn’t place it.
“Lord have mercy on his soul,” she said, turning to face the gallows.
Jimmy examined her surreptitiously. He guessed she was around the same age as him—nineteen, or perhaps a little younger, he could never tell with women, something which had gotten him in trouble before. She had a snub nose and a roundish face. Her hair, almost as dark as his own, had been pulled back with a velvet band but that only served to highlight her eyes all the more, a striking shade of emerald green. Jimmy almost jumped when she turned to him again. He quickly switched his gaze back to the gallows, hoping she hadn’t noticed.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” When she turned his way, her bright green eyes seemed to be mocking him.
“I was wondering the same thing.”
“I’m from Smithfield,” she said, extending her hand. “And my name is Kitty Doyle.”
“Jimmy O’Flaherty,” he replied, awkwardly taking her hand, hoping she wouldn’t notice his clammy palms. He tried to think of something else to say, something clever, but his mind was blank. Then she looked down at her hand and Jimmy realized he was still clutching it tightly. Mortified, he stammered an apology, but as Kitty turned away, he noticed her slight, playful hint of a smile again. He felt his pulse quickening and hoped his face hadn’t reddened. His naturally smooth patter from years of dealing with customers always fell apart when he spoke to a pretty girl. Meeting one in the open, without his cart in front of him as a protective barrier, almost brought him out in hives. He desperately tried to think, but everything he conjured up sounded foolish. Jimmy watched her eyes scan the crowd, from one end to the other, until her gaze rested on the gallows once more and her pretty face darkened.
“Edward Kearney,” she repeated.
A hardness replaced that dancing light in her eyes. “Anyone else?”
“Don’t think so,” he said, happy she was taking the initiative. “Not today, at least. But this is only the start of it.”
“A terrible waste.” She curled a stray wisp of hair behind her ear.
He watched the soldiers fan out, clearing a path for the arriving prisoner. “That’s one word for it.”
“What’s the other?”
“The other what?” he asked, confused.
Her eyes narrowed. “The other word for it.”
Jimmy sighed. How could he even begin to answer that question? He simply shook his head at the foolishness of it all. The ’98 Rebellion should have taught the United Irish that no amount of passion or pride could best guns or cannon, and that farmers and cobblers were poor substitutes for trained soldiers. How could Ireland take on the might of the Crown? It was madness, one that had consumed his father, leading to his death five years ago on Vinegar Hill. Jimmy was only fourteen back then—deemed too young for battle, despite his unending protestations. Da had waivered briefly, but Ma was immovable. She was the only reason he was still alive. They said his father wasn’t killed in battle at all, but butchered by the Militia as he surrendered, along with thousands more. He felt his heart quicken as he thought of all that waste, so many lives thrown away for nothing.
“Kearney,” the girl said, bringing him back to the present. “Did you know him?”
“Not very well. He dealt in skins, and I have a stall here at The Glib, so I’d see him around, but that’s about the sum of it.”
She stared at him a moment. “You don’t sound like you have a lot of sympathy for the poor man.”
“Aye, well…” He stared at the scaffold, struggling to order his thoughts.
“No one deserves to die like this,” she said with some venom, and a little too loudly for Jimmy’s liking.
He grabbed her by the elbow and leaned in closer. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he hissed. “Don’t be getting me into trouble. There’s been enough of that these last few months. Militia kicking down doors, dragging innocent people out of their beds. Thomas Street shut down while they searched the whole place for arms. Now there’s talk of a whole fortnight of this shite.”
“Shite?” Kitty balled her fists on her hips. “Selfish bastard!” She turned and gestured at the scaffold. “Sorry you have been inconvenienced by all this. Perhaps you should write a letter to the Castle.”
Jimmy winced as Kitty emphasized the last words and several heads turned his way. He was relieved when she stormed off. Tempers were short around here these days. A stray word could earn a fella a box before he knew it was coming. He immediately regretted engaging that girl, despite her prettiness; she was clearly worked up about something. But his own fuse was short these days too. His family had held onto their spot at The Glib through thick and thin, but these last few weeks had almost finished them. The Corporation had offered all traders a temporary spot in the Ormond Market, but those jackals across the river would never let a fella from The Liberties trade in peace. Besides, if he couldn’t catch the farmers on their way into town, there was no point setting up anywhere at all. Without fresh skins to bring to the tanners, he would have to pay full price for the leather he sold to the craftsmen and bookbinders, which would eat up all his profit.
He took off his cap and ran his hands through his hair. It wasn’t often that someone knocked him off his stride, but this girl had gotten to him. While she had a point, he always minded his own business; why should he suffer for the actions of others? At the very least, he shouldn’t feel guilty for looking out for himself. It was the only thing keeping people alive these days.
In a foul mood now and figuring it wouldn’t be improved by watching some poor unfortunate choking to death, he pushed off the wall and turned down Dirty Lane towards Bridgefoot Street and the River Liffey, pulling his cap down over his eyes. Instinctively, he spun when the crowd fell silent, just in time to see a black-clad figure climb the ladder. Despite everything, he found himself creeping back up towards the spectacle. He couldn’t be sure from this distance, but it looked like the impossibly broad-shouldered figure of Tom Galvin—the City Executioner. There had been talk of bringing another in from Wales to spare Galvin any retribution, but that might have just been a rumor put about to protect him. He watched as the hangman checked the rope, and thought of his poor father—run down and hacked to bits like a rabid dog. But perhaps even that terrible fate was better than dying like this, where the last memory anyone had of you was your face turning blue and piss running down your leg.
Jimmy watched the herring sellers nibble at the edges of the crowd as the pickpockets dove into the center. Pamphleteers hawked broadsides while priests doled out blessings. A ballad singer shooed away a drunkard until he realized nobody else was willing to give him coin. Two prostitutes marked out their respective territory, glaring at each other. The crowd itself was focused on the stage. Most were angry—there could be little doubt on that front—but others seemed to take it as some kind of sport. Some had even brought their children, holding them aloft so they wouldn’t miss a single grim detail. He even saw two members of the gentry—too well dressed to be from here, with their high leather boots and fashionably tight buckskin breeches. He watched as those two heartless bastards laughed and shook hands, probably betting whether the poor sod would break down and cry, or scream for his mother.
Dublin was making a lunatic of him.
He had to leave before he did anything foolish. It was hard to recall now, but there had been a plan, back before all this madness erupted in July. Or a dream, to be more accurate. His cousin Donal had traveled to America a few years back and was set up now in New York, constantly imploring him to make the voyage across. It even seemed possible, for a time. Jimmy had been saving diligently before Ma took a turn for the worse over the summer. Now, he was stuck here, at least until he could turn things around. But there was no doing that while Thomas Street served as a gallows.
Cursing the bind he found himself in, Jimmy continued down towards the river. He was watching a pair of mudlarks pick their way through the filthy edges of the Liffey when the roar went up from Thomas Street. The ragged children looked up at him for a moment, eyes narrowing with suspicion, before they scuttled back under the overhanging privies. Jimmy bent his head and said a silent prayer for the departed soul of the executed man. Then he swore to get the hell out of Ireland.
* * *
The sun was setting when Jimmy arrived back at Thomas Street, the light blinding him as he looked west towards the gallows. He shooed a peddler away from the door of No. 44 and entered the building he and Ma shared with seven more families, all considerably larger than his. They had traded away their larger ground floor room for a smaller one, right up in the eaves of the front-gabled old Dutch Billy. It meant a significant reduction in rent, welcome now there was only him supporting the family, but it was a move Jimmy regretted once Ma’s health worsened.
Her coughing fits needed little provocation these days, and she rarely left the room, not with all those flights of stairs. Although, in truth, she rarely left her bed now either. Her spirit seemed to be slipping away in tandem with her health. The new room wasn’t as well ventilated either. The damp often grew so bad that the walls would sweat. The landlord kept promising to fix the place up, but he couldn’t be trusted to do anything that cost him coin, and the inclement weather usually meant Jimmy could leave the window open only a crack, if that, when leaving for work.
When he reached the top of the stairs, he noticed that Ma had left the door unlocked again. Sighing, he entered the room quietly, in case she was dozing. Her eyes were shut, so Jimmy pulled off his sodden cap and hung it over the fire, before giving the embers a poke. As the fire warmed him, he picked at some peeling paint under the mantelpiece and a lump of plaster tumbled off the wall. He shook his head and placed the chalky hunk on the mantelpiece where his father’s books had once proudly stood; they were long sold now, along with anything else of value.
“Is that you, son?” came Ma’s voice, from the bed.
Jimmy walked over and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Sure, who else would it be?” Taking a seat on the edge of the bed, he brushed the damp hair back from her face. “Unless you’ve a new fella you haven’t told me about.”
“Watch your mouth,” Ma said, but there was no malice in it. The fire had sprung up somewhat, so Jimmy spread his coat out to dry. From the corner of his eye, he saw his mother smile to herself—something he didn’t see enough these days. “You going out again?” she asked.
“In a bit.”
She had a curious expression, her lips pursed. “Hope it’s not to see that young one you were arguing with today.”
She waggled a finger. “Never you mind.”
Jimmy never failed to be surprised by Ma’s knack of knowing everyone’s business, even though she spent most of her time confined to bed. He grinned. “You could get a job up at the Castle with your spying abilities.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” she replied, and this time there was an edge to her voice.
She hoisted herself up a little in the bed. “Did you get me a drop?”
“I did. But do you not want dinner first?”
“Nora brought me something earlier.”
“Ah,” said Jimmy, knowing how his mother liked to gossip with her sister. “So she’s the one who saw me getting a tongue-lashing from that pretty girl.”
His Ma drew her lips into a thin line and regarded her son coolly. “Nora never said she was pretty.”
“They’re the ones you have to watch,” she said, tapping her nose. “They’ll feed you with strong drink and you’ll end up in Hell with the rest of them. And I want my son with me in Heaven.”
“I know, Ma.”
Remembering the meat pies he’d picked up on the way home, Jimmy fished them from his overcoat pocket and carefully unwrapped the hankie protecting them from the damp. He took a plate from the sideboard and left the food in the center of the table. “They’re here if you get hungry later.”
The table, like the bed, was built for a bigger room, but Ma insisted on keeping it. Da had all the furniture made for their wedding, and she always said she’d rather chop it all up for firewood than sell it for a quarter of what it was truly worth. He ran his hand along the surface, surprisingly true after all these years.
“Where are you off to?”
“I won’t be long. There’s a letter from Donal.” He glanced at his mother. “Hold on.” His eyes narrowed. “If Nora was here, she’d have told you already.”
A smile spread across Ma’s lips. “Just making sure you’re not hiding anything from your poor old mother.”
“Ah, don’t start.”
“You were always such a secretive child.” Her smile faded. “Never telling me anything. Me, your only mother.”
“Don’t get yourself worked up.” Jimmy knew he’d never get out of here if she started getting sentimental. “Now, do you want that drop before I go?” She nodded, and Jimmy set the glass down on her bedside table, noticing her eyes had become watery. “Ma…”
She gripped his arm with unexpected strength. “You’re a good son,” she said. “Now go before I start crying, and hurry back with all the news. I love Donal’s letters.”
* * *
On the way home from his aunt’s house on The Coombe, Jimmy stopped into The Talbot Inn and took a glass of porter and a candle into a quiet corner, away from the ballad singers. He chuckled as some fella cocked his head back to polish off his stout and fell right off the stool onto the floor behind him. As his companions’ laughter subsided, a fiddle drifted in from the front room, soon joined by a tin whistle. The players were good, too, not just following the standard notes but adding their own embellishments to the reel, and the crowd was lapping it up. Jimmy was almost tempted to join them.
Instead, he took the envelope out of his pocket. Donal’s letter from America had been full of the usual: breathless tales of impossibly tall buildings, strange fruits, and exotic foreigners from all corners of the earth, as well as ostentatious displays of wealth among the family he served, and their never-ending stream of important guests. Towards the end had come a message just for Jimmy, and he wanted to read it before he returned home to Ma.
Aside from his estranged cousin, Jimmy was the only member of the extended family who could read and write to any kind of standard—he had his father to thank for that extravagance—and he’d been communicating secretly with Donal for some time now, slipping his clandestine notes into the letters Nora had him write.
This particular message was much longer than usual. Normally, Donal dashed out a few lines in the margins of the letter itself, which Jimmy skipped when reading aloud to the rest, but this was an entire page. He’d only been able to hang on to the envelope by fooling Nora, telling her that Ma insisted on getting the whole thing read to her properly this time. Even then, he’d had to swear on the family bible that he’d bring it back first thing in the morning, so she could keep it safe with the rest.
The lie didn’t sit easily. But he had no choice, not without explaining things that were better kept unsaid. He sipped his pint, settling into position and wiping the creamy head from his upper lip as he sought the correct page. Moving the candle closer, he squinted to read.
“Jimmy,” it began, “make sure you’re reading this part alone.” He took another sup. Here it comes, he thought. “As you might have guessed, I’ve been laying it on a bit thick in the letters back home. You know how it is, Ma worries. America is a wonderful place—don’t get me wrong—and I’m delighted to hear that you want to come, I really am.”
He sighed with relief, and then continued reading.
“But I haven’t been fully truthful. I couldn’t be. What I was saying about New York being full of opportunity is all true. That no one really cares what church you belong to is also true. Well, almosttrue. There are Englishmen here after all.”
He chuckled until he read the next words. “But you should think twice about coming—at least on the free boat. It’s not what you think. Not at all. You’re better off finding the fare or not coming. Not with your mother. Let me explain.”
Donal talked a little about the journey over—not as arduous as he had feared, but not ideal for Ma in her current condition either. Jimmy flipped the page, and the next bit stopped him cold. “The captain told us all along that we were bound for New York, but it was Philadelphia we landed in—inland, up some big river. The paying passengers were let off as soon as we arrived, but the rest of us were kept onboard without a single word to let us know what was happening. Then a load of rich types came onboard to haggle with the captain.”
He’d drunk most of his stout already, without realizing. The call came from across the room. “Another?”
He approached the counter, and the barman’s eyes went to the letter he was still clutching in his left hand. “Bad news?”
Jimmy knocked back the end of his glass and handed it over the counter. “Sure, when is it ever good?” He returned to his spot in the corner.
“We were livestock at the Rathfarnham fair,” the letter continued. “They checked us over like we were beasts, enquired as to our habits, and then asked whether we had a wife back home. It could have been a lot worse. I was lucky to have my contract bought by a reasonable man in the end. But decent and all that he is, I still have to work seven poxy years to clear the debt.”
Some drunkard bumped into Jimmy’s table and almost knocked his pint over, spilling wax across the page. Jimmy shoved him in the direction of the bar and kept reading. “Believe me when I tell you that you’re better off paying the fare—no matter what you have to do to get the money. And that’s before you even consider your mother. These fellas have no heart at all. I saw them splitting up man and wife—whole families even—if there was coin to be made.
“Take my advice,” Donal concluded, “pay the fare or don’t come at all.”
He stared at the final lines for some time before the barman caught his eye. Jimmy waved him away and folded the letter back in his pocket, and then he went back home to Ma.