Over one hundred years ago Britain still governed the entire island of Ireland. In many major county towns throughout the country the British Army had established barrack buildings and, through a variety of methods, continually made an effort to recruit young Irish men to the regimental colours. In fact, over the many centuries since the English Crown occupied Ireland, their military leaders had always looked upon the country as a fertile ground where they could recruit Irish blood into their ranks. The men and officers, who had been born and raised in Ireland fought gallantly on many of the battle fields that became an integral part of the British Empire’s glorious martial history. These men made up many world famous regiments, such as “The Dublin Fusiliers”, “The Connaught Rangers”, “The Munsters”, “The Inniskillings”, “The Leinsters”, and “The North Irish Horse”. Many other regiments, however, filled their ranks with brave Irish men from every strand of society, whose valour in battle could never be questioned. But bravery, heroism, fame and medals were never the main reason for such men to enter into the ranks of the British Army.
Ireland under British rule has always been a troublesome country. Over the many centuries there had been countless armed rebellions and protests that had cost many lives and divided loyalties. In general, in the two decades prior to the “Easter Rebellion” of 1916, anti-British feelings among the general population were actually confined to a small minority. It was, therefore, not uncommon to see the various British regiments organising military exercises, with marching columns of uniformed men and military bands, often accompanied by mounted cavalry in the rural towns and villages of Ireland.
It was not uniforms and pageantry that encouraged young Irishmen and For the majority of Irish men and boys to enter the army’s ranks. The major factor that persuaded most Irish recruits was that they was that they would receive a regular wage. Such was the poverty among working class Irish people, at this time, that the fact each soldier received three good meals each and every day was a great attraction on its own. In addition soldiers each had a clean bed of their own, an excellent pair of working boots, and a complete set of new clothes. In a time when there were often families of ten and more in a single room tenement, or cottage, sharing beds, sharing clothes, and being lucky if they had one small meal during the day, the attractions of the army were obvious.
There were, however, many men who preferred to avoid service under the crown’s colours, and these men did everything possible to evade the clever ploys of the nomadic recruiting sergeants. On many occasions young men and boys were very keen to sample the adventurous life promised by service in the army of the Empire. But, these young men and boys were, more often than not, prevented from acting on their impulses by their parents and other family members. One young man who could be numbered among this latter group was a certain Mick Farrell, whose mother had been raised in a family that had absolutely no love for ‘redcoats’, their triumphant trumpets, or their pipes and drums.
It began with rumours that the army was about to undertake a series of military exercises in the area, and the news spread like wildfire among all the young men of the district. Other rumours told that a detachment of locally based soldiers were about to leave their barracks and carry out several gruelling route marches along the country roads and tracks that surrounded the village of Killyconn like a geographical spider’s web. These exercises were an excellent opportunity for the local army commander to make an impression on the local male population with his fine men marching in unison, and dressed in colourful uniforms. This spectacle, however, was one that Mick decided didn’t need his attendance. He simply wanted to avoid further heartache and he decided that he would take a nice long walk and enjoy the fresh air. There was, to be honest, very few things in life that Mick enjoyed more than a good stretch of the legs through the fields and the peat bogs of the Killyconn district. Mick was certain that, because of the lack of roads in these places, there would be virtually no chance of encountering those ranks of marching soldiers.
Unlike many young men of his age, Mick preferred to avoid quite a lot of the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the soldiers when they were on exercise. This avoidance of the pageantry was not due to any dislike of the Army on his part, or the army’s presence in the district, but he had been totally humiliated when his mother had forbidden him to ever enlist in the British Army. The other villagers, however, would spend most of the day, standing or sitting, admiring the ranks of uniformed soldiers marching and parading with their rifles and bayonets resting on their shoulders. Many of the inhabitants of Killyconn, especially the young ladies, would seek out the very best vantage points from which they could see the soldiers, while also being seen by them. Naturally, being Ireland, there were some people who were opposed to, what they saw as, the occupation of the country by the British forces, and they protested the army’s presence in their area. This small group of opponents were all members of a recently formed republican organisation that had dedicated itself to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland, and replace it with the establishment of a totally independent nation for its people.
The commanders of various military regiments in Ireland were very much aware of just how valuable route marches, band parades and other ceremonial exercises were to the recruitment of men into the ranks. In rural Ireland, especially, these ceremonials often encouraged the young men to come forward and accept ‘The King’s Shilling’. But, the recruitment sergeants had not been able to enlist any big, healthy men from Killyconn area in many months. For this reason, the powers that be had decided that they should make some kind of effort to reverse this trend, and ordered the new exercises to be staged in that particular area. In response to orders from higher authorities all types of military formations were ordered into Killyconn district to undertake a variety of ceremonials and war-game exercises.
As the soldiers marched through the village and its environs they gathered large audiences of admiring followers that travelled from many miles away. Along all the various roads that criss-crossed this area there were large numbers of followers who had assembled to watch the spectacle, which was becoming a rare event and was always unforgettable to those who saw it. The army officers, of course, hoped that when all the exercises were completed, to the satisfaction of the audiences, many of the young men witnessing the great spectacle would be convinced that they were missing out on a new,special and exciting opportunity.
In the past large numbers of young men and boys had eagerly sought to put on the uniform and experience the life of adventure imagined lay ahead of them, but found themselves to be bitterly disappointed at the reality. Even the old men, the infirm and ladies felt a certain disappointment at their fate when the spectacle ended. They were, of course, aware of their inability to join the ranks of the army, but they were also aware of missed opportunities they had when young or in much better health. Thankfully, their disappointment never lasted too long because life in the countryside meant that there were always jobs to be done, and these would soon take their minds off any disappointment they might feel. Meanwhile, young and healthy boys and men would seek out the recruiting sergeant in the local pub. There they would sign their enlistment papers, and celebrate their decision with a few pints of beer, costing the shilling that they had just been paid. Those who could write their name and those who just made their mark, returned some time later that evening to their homes to face their parents, or spouses, without a penny left from the ‘King’s Shilling’ they had been given.
Mick Farrell was a broad-shouldered, healthy young man of less than twenty years, who had never been shy of doing a hard day’s work. The man was always in demand employment with local landowners and businesses in the district, and he had no pressing need to be enlisting in the army’s ranks. He knew very well that by enlisting his family would still be better off in some ways, but he would not go against his mother’s will. It was she who held who held sway over the family and she was very determined that none of her children would become ‘cannon fodder’ to enhance the glory of the Empire. Since the unexpected death of her husband, Mrs Farrell had worked her once pretty hands to the bone to raise her two daughters and two sons. To make ends meet she had taken in washing, and she had carried out other menial jobs at the houses of the more prosperous people in the district. Through hard back-breaking work she had managed to put sufficient food on the table and decent clothing on the backs of her children. Her eldest son, Barry, had gained a good position as a game-keeper for a rich English Lord, who had a great estate in the west of the country. The eldest daughter, Elsie, had done well to be married into a farming family and now wanted for nothing.
Mick, the younger of her two sons, was her favourite and she watched him work all the hours God sent, just to earn a wager. Being a casual labourer meant that there was no guarantee of work, of course, and regular wages often depended upon seasonal work, good weather, good harvest, and good prices for the crop. There were numerous occasions when Mick had gone, cap in hand, to seek jobs with local farmers and could find none. But, Mrs Farrell, was as stubborn as a rock and consistently barred Mick’s entry into the army with her obstinacy.
The colourful military exercises lasted the entire week-end, which ensured good crowds of people, who had been attracted to the various venues by the noise and clamour of the activities. On Sunday morning, just after Mass, Mick met his oldest and best friend, Paddy Brannigan. This was not an unusual meeting the two young men, but on this occasion, Paddy had come to an important decision and he wanted to discuss the entire matter with his best friend. Brannigan went on to tell Mick that he had decided to enlist, next day, at the regimental barracks, which did not really come as a surprise to Mick. But, although it wasn’t a surprise, Mick was filled with envy and a little angry that his friend’s had decided to enlist. To Mick, it was as if that almost all of his closest friends had now enlisted in the army, and he was worried that with Paddy’s departure he would be left all alone. Mick was angry because, although his mother had seen all of his friends go she still frustratingly and very stubbornly, refused every request by her son to join them.
With Mick encouraged by Paddy’s news and the fact that his friend would be at his side, Mick was re-invigorated. He confidently marched off, determined to persuade his stubborn mother to give in to his wishes. He was more confident than ever that on this occasion he could persuade his stubborn mother to finally change her mind and, with a certainty in his step, Mick and Paddy marched off. As expected they eventually came upon Mrs. Farrell standing at the kitchen sink and washing a few shirts. As the two young men entered the kitchen by the small cottage’s back door and Mick told her. “Get your hands out of the suds, Mother.”
Mrs Farrell stopped her work and turned from the sink to see her son and his best friend,Paddy, standing smartly in her kitchen. “Now, mother, salute the brave new soldier who has come this day to bid you farewell!” Mick announced with a snigger, and Paddy bowed politely, as if he was a gentleman. Mrs. Farrell, however, as she dried her hands appeared to be greatly confused by her son, Mick’s, announcement.
“Paddy is away tomorrow, Mother,” said Mick. “He’s going to enlist in the local battalion. This will mean that he will be stationed near at hand for a good while yet and we will still be able to see him regularly,” Mick said comfortingly.
“Sure, it’s congratulations I bid to you, Paddy Brannigan,” said Mrs Farrell. “I am sure your family will be proud of you, all dressed up in your uniform. The army is a good life for any young man, who has the inclination to be a soldier.”
“Thankyou, Mrs Farrell,” replied Paddy shyly.
As for Mick, he had seen his mother’s kind words as an opportunity for him to bring up his wish to enlist in the army, There should be no hesitation he decided, although he would not just approach the subject in a direct manner, but would first try to build up the life that a soldier could lead. “You know, mother, it’s a great healthy life for a young man like me, isn’t it Paddy?”
Paddy knew he had to be supportive of his friend and he nodded his head in agreement, confirming, “Oh it’s a wonderful life indeed, Mick!”
Armed with this positive response, Mick pressed home his argument, “There is no other life that even comes near to that of a soldier, mother.” Once again he looked to Paddy for affirmation.
The question caught Paddy a little off-guard. He coughed, stammered and stuttered for a few moments before he could manage a reasonably intelligible response. “Seven or eight shillings, at least,” he spluttered. You could tell from the tone of his voice that he was not boasting, even though this amount of disposable income was considerable for a young man of his age to earn. “Well, it could be a little more than that,” he added, hesitatingly. “All that money and I still get the best of grub and drink each and every day. Three good meals and a whole set of new clothes I get, and I don’t have to spend one penny unless I need something for myself.”
Brimming with confidence, Mick now turned to his mother and, with a large smile across his face,he said quietly,”Isn’t that great news Mother?”
But Mick had interrupted Paddy in mid-flow and, realising his error, he gave way to Paddy’s next positive point. “Wee Tommy Murphy was telling the other day that a few weeks ago he had business in the Post Office and found that the place was packed with soldiers. He said that these men, had just received their pay and they were at the Post Office to get some of those ‘money order’ things that they could send home. Murphy also told me that the Post Office was so full of them that he could hardly get old Sally, the postmistress, to sell him a stamp because her hands were so full.”
“Isn’t that great news to hear, Mother?” said Mick. “All these young men like us sending money home to help their families rather than spending it foolishly. And another bit of good news is that each of them only has to serve three years in the ranks before they are free to return home to their families. Now, three years is not a very long time, Mother.”
“Sure, that’s no time at all, Mrs. Farrell” Paddy reinforced Mick’s statement. “Sure it will all be gone in the blink of an eye.”
Mrs Farrell stayed silent and just continued to stare at the two young men. Mick , however, could discern a minute change in her expression, which began to cause him some concern. He was awaiting the expected verbal tirade from his mother, but still it did not come. Instead, Mick’s mother quietly explained that three years can actually be a considerable period of time for some people.
When there was no tell-tale sign of emotion crossing her face, Mick chose to take this as a positive omen. He began now to press his mother to abandon her objections to his enlistment. “Don’t forget,” he said, “that there is also a great amount of leave that a soldier gets. And he gets paid for it. Isn’t that right, Paddy?”
Once again Paddy had been taken by surprise with Mick’s question and did not answer at first. “Don’t forget the great amount of leave that you get in the army, Paddy!” Mick reminded him.
“Aye!That’s right, Mick” Paddy answered with a slight hesitation.
“Sure, isn’t it a fact that those soldiers appear to at home on leave more often than they are on active service. The army gives them all free travel and, sure you know yourself, that they are never off the trains and buses going to and from home.”
“Free travel passes, is that right?” She asked as she stared at Paddy.
“As true as I am standing here,” he replied, hoping to God that what he was saying was indeed true. “Every one of us is entitled to a free travel passes, Mrs. Farrell, when we need to go home on leave. Sure Mick would be able to nip home and see you whenever he has a mind to.” There was a new sense of excitement in Paddy’s voice, confident that Mick and himself were breaking down Mrs Farrell’s opposition. It was herself that had asked about the free travel passes, after all, and this was the first positive sign that she had, perhaps, given up her objections. But, typical of Paddy, he had jumped to the completely wrong conclusion, and he had used both feet without testing the water first.
“Mick?” demanded Mrs. Farrell with a deep scowl.
Her scowl made Paddy jump and he was taken aback so much that he had to gather himself by gathering a huge lungful of air. Now, Paddy realised that he had, perhaps, just one step too far. He now thought it would be better to back-track a little to try save the situation for his friend, Mick. “You know, Mrs Farrell,” he began. “I have been told that the Army will even arrange a special train for a man in case he needs to get home quickly. That’s the way the army treats its men.”
But, Paddy could not just leave well enough alone and went on to add, “What is even better, they will promote good, healthy fighting men from being just ordinary soldiers to corporals, sergeants and sometimes higher. Promotion would mean more money in your pocket and sure there is no limit to what a good man, like Mick, can achieve.”
He was on a roll now and Paddy decided to give his argument one final push. “Sure, it would be a special woman you would be Mrs. Farrell. In fact, I would say that any mother would be very proud to know that she stood firmly behind her son, and did nothing that would hinder his advancement in the world,” he told Mick’s mother. “And when it comes to the end of his army service, a man will receive a handsome pension that will give his family great comfort in the years that follow.”
“Aye, but, please God, that will not be for a very long time,” insisted Mick. “But, Mother, there is a very good living to be gained and great prospects for an ambitious man in the army.”
“And the food that they give out to their men is second to none,” added Paddy. “Those who have already joined the ranks have told me that the army only feeds them the best of everything, cooked and uncooked. There are joints of meat on the bone and off the bone, alongside plump chickens, juicy fresh fruit and vegetables, and all manner of fresh fish.”
Both young men now took turns to point out the good life that they could live when among the army’s ranks. Mrs. Farrell still made no reply, but listened intently as the two men before her tried their utmost to convince her to give her permission to Mick. But, while she listened, Mrs. Farrell continued her task of washing shirts, rinsing them in clean water, and then wringing out the excess water before putting them out to dry in the fresh breeze. In an almost robotic fashion she continued with her work, repeating each part of her task both silently and efficiently, until all the shirts were washed clean.
By her silence, Mrs. Farrell had led both young men to believe that she was prepared to agree that Mick could enlist in the army. There was no open show of celebration between the young men. Nevertheless, they did offer congratulations to each other with a series of winks, nods and smiles. Mick and Paddy, overjoyed with their apparent success, now left the house to stretch their legs in the afternoon air. It would be an excellent opportunity for both men to talk over what the future might just hold for them now that Mick’s mother seemed to be ready to permit her son to enlist. Sensible men, however, know that assumption is not the basis of fact.
Feeling extremely happy, and with a new spring in his step, Mick returned home that evening just as the sun began to set. Outside the cottage he saw his mother feeding the flock of excited chickens from a small pile of corn feed that she carried in her apron. The cottage in which they lived was the last of a small row of white-washed and thatched cottages that were sited just on the edge of town. Each of the small homes gave their occupiers a wonderful view of the valley that swept from one hill to another. Mick stopped for a moment to study the scene that was spread out before him, and the triumphant marching tune, that he had been whistling since he parted from Paddy, fell silent. As he looked at the chickens clucking around his mother’s feet it suddenly became apparent to Mick that at least one chicken was missing from the group. He doubled the speed of his march to the cottage and, when he came before his mother, he asked, “Where is the old speckled pullet? Has it gone off wandering the countryside again?”
When his mother did not reply to his questions he told her,”I will get myself ready as quickly as possible and go look for her after I get myself a drink of water. She’ll be hungry and will not be too far away.”
“There is no need,” his mother answered him at last.
“No need?” he asked in a puzzled tone. “Why would there be no need to look for our plumpest chicken?”
Mrs Farrell looked her son directly in his eye and revealed to him,”I’ve sold her!”
Mick was almost speechless, so shocked was he at his mother’s revelation and he wanted an immediate explanation as to why she had sold his favourite chicken. So, as she fed the remaining chickens she began to explain,”I have too many chickens to be looking after all by myself, Mick,” she said. Totally taken aback by this explanation, Mick chose to say nothing for the moment. “I sold that old hen this morning to Mrs Dunne, who lives below, and she gave me a good price for it!”
“But, you loved that old speckled hen, mother. It was almost like a pet to you,” Mick said.
“Well, Mrs Dunne will look after her now. She has been looking to buy that speckled hen this long and many a day, but I never had the heart to sell it until this very day.”
“But, why today?” he demanded to know.
She had now grown impatient at the manner in which Mick was questioning her decisions, and she curtly told him, ”The food required to feed those damned chickens gets dearer and dearer, and so I sold it.”
Shaking the remaining corn out of her apron, Mrs. Farrell turned to her son and told him, “Your supper is ready to put out. It has been ready for some time now and you had better eat it before it gets spoiled. Your sister isn’t home yet and there’s only the two of us, so come now and let’s eat.”
Mick now quietly followed his mother into the cottage and the familiar aromas of smoke from the turf fire mixed with the smell of fresh bread being baked on the griddle. Mrs Farrell now lifted the griddle from the range and brought it over to the kitchen table. While they were still hot she removed the farls of bread and, cutting one, she spread fresh butter thickly on the each slice of soda bread.
Any Irishman or woman will willingly tell you that there is nothing in this whole wide world that is as nice as rich, creamy butter spread thickly upon fresh-baked, still warm, soda farls, and the way that the butter melts into white, fluffy bread. Without hesitation, Mick reached out and took two thick slices of the soda farl, beginning to hungrily eat it and wash it down with a large mug of hot, strong, sweet tea. “Take some of that sliced cold meat with your bread and tea, son” Mrs Farrell suggested.
Mick, of course, did not require a second invitation and hungrily helped himself to several slices of cold brisket that his mother had laid out on a serving dish in and placed in the centre of the table. On many occasion you must have wondered at the way that fate intervenes in our lives, and causes changes in those ideas that we may have formed, or arrangements we have made. It feels almost like fate is making fun of our decisions and the plans we have made for the future. Even as Mick sat in the kitchen of that cottage he quickly came to realise that any hope he may have had for a future in the army was dead for him. When he was asked what he thought about his supper, Mick smiled at his mother and gave high praise to her culinary skills. Then, almost without thought, the young man began to describe various proposals he had for improving the small land holding that they owned.
“These are all good ideas,” Mrs Farrell said in praise of her son and they began to discuss each of his proposals while they ate their supper. She seemed to be very happy that the plate of cold meats and fresh-baked bread seemed to have helped remove all thoughts of joining the army from Mick’s mind. This, of course, was exactly what she wanted to achieve and with as little fuss as possible. Content in her own mind that her son would be staying, Mrs. Farrell sliced and buttered more bread, after which she refilled his mug with more fresh, hot tea. Her happiness began to show in her demeanour as she began chatting merrily with Mick about even the most frivolous of things. Mick, meanwhile, tried to reflect on how he would set about the problem of explaining to Paddy Brannigan why they would not be comrades-in-arms after all.
So, as soon as supper had ended, Mick got up from his chair, telling his mother that he had decided to go to hid friend’s house and tell him the bad news face-to-face. The sun had already set but there was still a bright and clear sky in which the stars had just begun to emerge, and a crescent moon was arising in the east. Outside the small terrace row of cottages children were still at play running, skipping, jumping, and laughing as they enjoyed their last moments of play before they would be sent to bed. On the outskirts of town, other children helped their parents in the fields to herd the goats, pigs, and sheep together before settling them down for the night ahead.
Mick continued on his path, down past the other cottages until, in front of the last one, he saw Fibber Morrissey sitting on a small stool and playing his violin. Now, Fibber had been blind from the moment he was born and he was a man of some fame in the area. His constant scraping and twanging on the violin strings, however, resulted in a wonderful variety of music being played every day by the blind man. Mick greeted Fibber as he walked past him and, as usual, the old man returned his cheery greeting without even skipping a beat. He had recognised Mick’s voice and raised his violin to him before resuming his playing. In the meantime, Mick continued on his way, following the path and humming to the tunes that old Fibber was. He began to notice, now that the sun was well down, the cool evening breeze had begun to blow a little stronger. There were scraps of straw and pieces of paper that were picked up by this breeze and blown down the road ahead of him and, without even realising he was doing it, Mick loosened a small stone from the edge of the road and kicked it with the toe of his boot.
He hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards from the blind fiddler when Mick came upon an old friend of the family. Peter McGann had been a close friend of Mick’s father and here he was, driving home a flock of ducks and ducklings from a nearby water hole. Every time that he saw Peter herding his flock of ducks Mick could not help but laugh to himself at the sight. Peter McGann was a large, burly man, with great broad shoulders and it was highly amusing seeing such a man herding ducks. Armed with a long, willow rod Peter was “shoo-shooing”, in an increasingly frustrated manner, his ducks and ducklings in an effort to ensure they did not straggle and wander all over the place.
“A good evening to you, young Mick Farrell,” Peter greeted Mick cheerfully as they approached each other.
Mick, for his part, was rather distracted and he didn’t quite hear Peter’s greeting. “What the hell is wrong with you, Mick Farrell?” asked Peter curtly. “Do you not return a greeting that has been given to you?”
Peter’s curtness brought Mick back to his senses quick enough to answer the rebuff he had just received. “I’m sorry Peter,” he apologised. “ My mind is so full of other things at the moment.”
Peter laughed and asked, ”A wee girl, I suppose? Sure what young man, like yourself, would not be distracted by some lovely wee girl?”
“It’s not a girl, Peter. I want to join the Army,” Mick began to tell him. “I want to make a life for myself but my mother is dead set against it and I cannot go. Now I have to tell my best friend that he will be enlisting on his own tomorrow.”
“Joining the Army?” asked Peter, almost as if he didn’t believe what his ears were hearing. “You want to join an Army that has tormented your people for centuries? You want to join an Army whose sole purpose is to ensure that the people of Ireland give up any hope of freedom and self-determination, and do what they are told to by their English masters?”
“Jesus Christ, Peter?” Mick exclaimed in shock at these words. “Be quiet before someone hears you! If somebody reports it you could be looking at being charged with high treason!”
“Treason my arse!” Peter sneered. “Sure it is you who are plotting the treason! You who is about to betray our people, your faith, your country and your ancestors! Just who do you think you are? Do you want to die for England or to live for Ireland?. You know Mick Farrell that it only on stout, hardy young men like yourself and Paddy Brannigan who are Ireland’s only hope for freedom. In fact, it is only the likes of you who maybe our last hope! So I plead with you to keep true to your own, Mick, and don’t join the ranks of the enemy!.”
“Ireland’s last hope?” Mick muttered to himself as he stared down at the ground to avoid Peter McGann’s eyes. A moment later he raised his head to thank Peter for his advice but found that Peter had vanished, the same way that any ideas of enlisting in the army had vanished.