This is a book about murder most foul. It’s about murder in wartime, when one more corpse should really pass unnoticed amidst all the other carnage.
This is a book about trying to do the right thing, when you have not the first clue about how you really should go about that. And it’s a book about war, about what war excuses, and about what war forces young people to do.
This is a book that has been born out of my unique perspective gained from growing up in South Armagh during the Troubles, and decades spent as a humanitarian and human rights worker dealing with the consequences of violence and injustice from Afghanistan to Angola.
I started writing this book because, in spite of the bloodshed that still disfigures so much of the world, too many people, particularly political leaders, still seem to have such a glib view of war as to be ready to blunder into it at the earliest convenience.
This book is an important one because it seeks to put a human face to the savage complexities of war and its consequences.
It is set during the Irish War of Independence in 1920 in a part of the West of Ireland from which all British administration, including the Constabulary, have been driven. Two members of the IRA on police duty find the body of a young boy, apparently drowned. But one of them, a veteran of the First World War, recognises violence when he sees it. So, in spite of a complete lack of detective experience, the two set out to see if they can find some measure of justice for the murdered child.
Neither of them realise just how dangerous their task will become.
It was a cold clear morning the next day when the village gathered to bury Liam Finnegan.
The church was full and spilling out into the surrounding graveyard. Eamon and I had got there a quarter of an hour before the start of the requiem Mass, but had still only managed to get standing room at the back of the church. Peter had gotten there earlier and had hence managed to get himself a seat in a pew in the middle of the church.
“Okay”, whispered Eamon to me, “so who do you know here?
“Dr Hennessy, fourth row back”. She was standing briefly in order to let some people past her into the pew in which she was seated.
“In the short time I have known you Mick I have come to admire and respect your capacity for prioritisation. Mind you, she does look good in black, it must be said. Grand arse.”
“Jesus Eamon, we’re at a funeral”.
“A man is most alive when closest to death. You’ll find that out in time Mick. So who else do you know”.
O’Riordain was in the aisle halfway up the church, trying to create more space amongst the mourners and directing newcomers into the pews.
“There’s a man born to lead. Can’t even help himself any more.”
“And there’s Dick Bruton.” Bruton was fat man with a purple nose in a plaid suit. He was bald, which Eamon had noted was a blessing for him seeing as he used to be ginger. I had felt a bit guilty at laughing at that as he had always been civil to me on the odd occasion I dropped into his shop.
“And there, as you should know,” said Eamon, “is our local neighbourhood cattle baron, Francie Quinn”. Eamon nodded in the direction of a dark haired man in a dark suit just entering the church with a pleasant looking, chubby woman. He ushered her onto a pew and then found himself standing space against the wall close to her. Quinn I did know slightly. He was one of the local worthies that Peter had convinced to join him in constituting the parish court. So I had seen him from a couple of times when the court was in session but I had barely ever spoken to him.
Our whispered conversation was halted as the appearance of Paddy Toner, walking backwards up the aisle so he could keep an eye on the pall-bearers and make sure nothing untoward happened to the coffin, announced the arrival of the funeral party.
Normally, in my experience, the deceased would have been carried to the church the night before the burial and lain in vigil before the altar. But the family couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Liam alone there. So his body had stayed with them at home until this morning when they would say their final goodbyes.
Liam’s father and three uncles followed Toner up the church carrying the tiny coffin. In their wake came the rest of the family. Liam’s mother and sister seemed barely able to stand, leaning against each other in an A-frame as they walked up the aisle. Tears were pouring down their faces, though they were considerably quieter now than they had been when we had broken the news to them about the death of their son. Immediately behind them another woman, I presumed an aunt of Liam’s though I suppose she might have been a neighbour, carried the baby, who was being remarkably quiet, helped I presumed by a bottle of milk stuck in his gob.
When they got to the front of the church Toner ushered the family into the front rows that had been reserved for them, and Fr Martin Crosby came onto the alter with four altar boys in white soutanes.
Crosby was suitably sombre in his conduct of the Mass and proceeded in this measured way until he came to his sermon which he opened with, what I felt were pretty boilerplate remarks about death and young lives cut short that he would have learned in his “how to conduct a funeral” classes in the seminary. And then his remarks changed and became rather more personal:
“I knew Liam a little from the times he served Mass for me. He was a great young man. A credit to his family. I know he wanted to be a doctor. He was a great reader and used to tell me about what he was reading. The last morning I saw him he was telling me about the adventures of David Balfour after Kidnapped. He never lived to find out how it ended with Catriona. He never lived to find his own Catriona or have his own adventures in his own or other lands.
“The world is a lesser place without Liam, without the person he was and without the person he would have become. That truth will never be felt more than by his own family.”
His mother let out the most mournful yelp I’ve ever heard at that, and her muffled keening started again.
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