AN EASTER STORY

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

There are many different kinds of Easter stories – religious ones, or about Easter parades and processions, ones about family reunions, Easter egg hunts, even holidays …. this isn’t one of those.

The man, let’s call him Jeremiah or Jerry for short, stood outside the pub on a Sunday afternoon and struggled to quell the apprehension threatening to flood his mind and body. It had to be done. He turned to his companion, who seemed to view everything through laughing eyes and was no different now. Brian had three teenage kids with him, two of his own and a friend of one of them. Hardly ideal, but Brian had turned up with them a little while ago and there was no-one to leave them with. Well, they’d be all right – Jerry would be the target and, after him, Brian. They wouldn’t touch the kids.

Best give me the bag, Brian,” he said and, receiving it, checked inside. The stuff was there. Of course. Jerry folded the bag and stuck it under his jumper, under his coat.

He was focused on the tasks ahead but the trail that led them here had started days earlier. And, in some ways, years before that.

He squared his shoulders, turned and entered the pub. Brian and the kids followed.

**** **** ****

He had been at work on Friday afternoon when the call came from the Manager of the Irish Community Centre. Of course, he asked the staff to put it through to his office.

Do you know your event is in the newspapers?”

Something in the Manager’s voice alerts him that he is not being congratulated on the publicity.

The Easter Rising commemoration?”

Yes. It’s in the Evening Standard.”

Well, that answered the second question he had in mind.

No, I didn’t know. What are they saying?”

He knows what the British media are like and he’s got a sinking feeling.

It transpires that an Irish Republican organisation had put the event on their website, which had been noted by an Englishman who lost his son in the Omagh bombing of 1998. There are many questions to be answered about that bombing, both within the Republican and the State side, but for many years, not unnaturally, the father had been focused on the Republican group allegedly connected to the Real IRA, who had placed the bomb. In addition to his son, the bomb had killed 28 other people, the second-highest death toll for any day during the war in Ireland, the highest being the Dublin-Monaghan bombing of 1974, with a toll of 34. Jerry was aware that the 1974 bombings did not attract anything like the same media attention and understood the reason – they had been carried out by Loyalists under British Intelligence Service direction.

But what had all this to do with the Irish in Britain Representation Group in South London, and their Easter Rising Commemoration? Or with the Irish Community Centre? Well, the grieving father had noted the posting by the Irish organisation, noted the venue and rang, demanding that the event be cancelled.

I told him the commemoration is an annual event organised by an Irish community organisation and that there’s never been any trouble at it. I told him it has nothing to do with that Republican organisation …. it doesn’t, does it?”

No, it’s just us, the local Irish in Britain Representation Group branch. But surely any organisation is entitled to advertise the event?”

Jerry is noting doubt in the Centre Manager’s voice responding to him. He is on the receiving end of huge pressure, working in his office, alone.

He wanted me to cancel the booking and I said I couldn’t do that.”

The grieving father had got on to the local authority, who replied that the event was the business of the Irish Centre. The father then contacted the media, who rang the local authority again and this time, instead of sticking to their original line and weathering what would be a short-lived storm, and without phoning the Centre Manger, their spokesperson condemned the event and stated they would be asking hard questions of the Centre, which they part-funded.

Jerry reads all this again when he slips out to get a newspaper. He feels for the beleaguered Centre Manager but can do nothing. It’s too late to contact the newspapers because the story is published. The event is to be held that evening. It has been advertised in the local area and in the Irish Post, the main newspaper at the time for the Irish diaspora in Britain. And in any case, one cannot – should not – give in to intimidation, coercion. The community had mostly caved under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 and had not really rallied again until the Hunger Strikes of 1981. The event must go on.

Jerry heads home, thinking about additional security needed on the door for the event, composing replies to the local authority, a letter in the newspaper ….

The IBRG Ard-Choiste, its governing body, had withdrawn its support of the Time To Go coalition in Britain some years earlier because of undemocratic maneuvering by some left Labour politicians, along with the sidelining of specific Irish community concerns. They had not been alone: Stop the Strip Searches Campaign and the Troops Out Movement had pulled out also, leaving the tiny Labour Committee on Ireland, the Socialist Workers Party and Communist Party of Great Britain to be supported by only the Wolfe Tone Association (SF support group in London) and the Connolly Association (linked to the CPGB) among the Irish campaigners .

Later, in 1998, the IBRG had been divided on the Good Friday Agreement. It was not the issue of continuing or ceasing the armed actions of the IRA that had been the source of the division, rather the acceptance of colonial rule, albeit claimed to be for tactical reasons only. A majority within the IBRG came out against the Agreement and that was in accordance with Jerry’s position too.

Although he supports none of the Republican groups opposing Sinn Féin, he has heard whispers in the Irish community at various times associating him with this or that group. This might well be feeding doubts in the Centre Manager’s mind.

Jerry is in a more difficult position than might seem. He is not only Secretary of the local IBRG branch that has organised the event and is affiliated to the Community Centre, but also the Chairperson of the Irish Centre’s Management Committee itself. The Management Committee is the Centre Manager’s employer and has a duty of care to him. And after nearly a decade of campaigning for the provision of the Centre and the meagre funding it receives, no-one on the Committee would want to antagonise the local authority.

But it was the IBRG branch itself and in particular the Irish Pensioners’ Association which was then a part of it, which had won the provision for the community in the end. And Jerry had been part of the campaign, elected as Chairperson of the Steering Group in the years while renovations of the building and available funding were discussed, elected Chairperson for the first six months after the Centre opened and at the Annual General Meeting for every year afterwards. In fact, recently Jerry had been trying unsuccessfully to step down, to ease a replacement into his position.

On the train from London Bridge on the last leg of his journey home, Jerry reflects ruefully that this controversy might cause his stepping down, which was hardly the way he had anticipated his leaving. No stepping back slowly, supporting someone new in position and easing himself out. No – thrown out instead! That would of course imply he had done something wrong, which he hadn’t and that the IBRG had been wrong to commemorate the Rising, which they hadn’t either. Ironically, if moves were made now to replace him, he’d have to fight them.

**** **** ****

Before he arrives at the Irish Community Centre, Jerry looks carefully around the mostly residential street. Nothing seems threatening but can one be sure? He is carrying the IBRG’s branch’s banner, wrapped up in black bin liners, which makes him a visible target if someone’s searching. On the other hand, one of the poles of the banner is loose within the bundle, in case of need ….

He drops the Centre’s keys in his nervousness and enters, disabling the alarm and turning quickly to retrieve the keys and lock the door. Then, into the hall, to begin arranging some of the material ….

He is anxious for some of the IBRG members to arrive but jumps when the doorbell rings. Checking through the fish-eye spyhole, he is surprised to see one of the Irish Pensioners, who lives locally.

Opening the door and ushering her in, he locks the door behind her, saying apologetically “There’s only myself here so far.”

Are others coming?” she asks – she has read the newspaper and unerringly touches Jerry’s main fear at the moment.

I’m sure they are, Ellie. What are you doing here so early?’

I thought you might need some help.”

Jerry is touched straight through to his heart but has to refuse. He can’t have her here if there’s an attack with no-one else but himself to defend her.

Oh no, Ellie that’s very kind of you. But I kind of know what I have to do and explaining it to others will just take longer and make me flustered. You know how it is. Thanks a lot. Besides the others will be here soon. Come back when we’re open …..” he trails off guiltilly.

Still, she goes and he heaves a sigh of relief, at the same time feeling shame.

But there’s work to be done.

A scattering of volunteers arrives over the next half hour. The reception table is set up in the lobby, to sell tickets and distribute leaflets. Hidden behind, are the lengths of wood in case of attack by one of the British fascist groups. Up goes the green-white-&-orange bunting, portraits of the executed 1916 leaders, enlarged copies of the 1916 Proclamation. At the back of the stage, facing the hall, the large artwork Jerry made a few years ago of green, white and orange flames bursting from the date 1916. And the IBRG branch banner.

The stage is ready for the band, a group called The Mc ____ Brothers, who play Irish ballads, including Republican material. Water jug and glasses for the speakers. Tables and chairs rearranged on the hall floor (the part-time Caretaker had laid them out but Jerry always prefers a more “club” arrangement, of smaller tables spaced apart surrounded by some chairs).

By the time the opening hour arrives, Jerry is sweating but it is the sweat of work, not of fear or apprehension. The hall looks good. People are starting to arrive. Maybe he can relax now. Maybe. Brian is on the door with others close by.

The event is a bring-your-own-alcohol one and Jerry and others in the lobby spend some time directing people to the nearest off-licence, so that people are coming in, going out, coming in, sitting in the hall …. Jerry is scanning their faces, looking for possible sources of trouble.

An hour later and the band has not arrived. Pol phones them but gets no reply. Phones their manager but no reply either. Another hour later, the reality dawns on the organisers. The band will not be coming. They have seen the newspaper and decided to look after their safety. But they haven’t even bothered to tell them.

The organisers confer, after which Jerry mounts the stage, calls for attention and begins to speak.

A Chairde Gael agus a chairde ó thíortha eile, go raibh míle maith agaibh for coming here tonight to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising with us. This is a hugely important event in Irish history and indeed in the history of the world and the local branch of the IBRG has been not just commemorating but publicly celebrating this historic event every year for some time now.

But we are very sorry to say that we have some bad news for you now. Some of you will know that very recently pressure was put on us to cancel this event but that we refused to do so. Pressure was put on the Irish Centre to cancel the event which they also and rightly refused to do.

That the British media would attack us is no surprise, they have been doing that for years. But that the local authority’s spokesperson should bow down to them and, without consulting with us, imply that we are doing something wrong here, that the Centre should not have taken our booking, is something else.

And worst of all, that an Irish band, which makes a living playing Irish ballads, should allow themselves to be scared off and not even have the decency to ring us – well, I don’t really have the words to tell you what I think about that.

So, a chairde, we offer you your money back and no questions and our sincere apologies. However, those of you who wish to remain are welcome to do so and we’ll make our own entertainment with a few songs …. we have a guitar player here …. another man plays a whistle …. But please, you are entitled to your money back and those who wish to please go to the table in the lobby now.”

As though he had been primed to do so (but Jerry knew he had not), a middle-aged Irishman at a table nearer the stage jumps up and shouts: “NO! We will not ask for our money back! We’re not going to be chased out by no British newspapers!”

A round of applause from the audience and a few cheers greet his outburst. And just like that, the evening is saved.

The guitarist plays some numbers and sings. Jerry gives an abbreviated oration and sings a few ballads. The whistle player plays some tunes. People sing along to songs. They drink, chat and buy raffle tickets. One of the raffle prizes is auctioned by the winner, a local publican Jerry had been surprised to see in the audience. The money goes into the takings. At the end of the evening, as they finally cajole the last of the audience out of the Centre (still with a wary eye on the street) and finish cleaning and tidying up, they count the takings. Financially, it has been their most successful evening ever, especially since they didn’t have to pay a band.

But the band ….. their action and lack of notification have left a sour taste in the mouths of the organisers. And during the evening, they learned that the Mc___ Brothers are booked to play at an Irish pub, on Sunday afternoon, just two days away. And only a five minutes’ drive from the Irish Centre.

**** **** ****

A council of war decides that the bar will be visited, Jerry will mount the stage (“you’re our best speaker”) and present the band with white feathers, symbolising cowardice. Some can’t be there. One or two think it will be dangerous. Brian, Pol and Jerry think it’s a good plan — so then they just need some white feathers. How hard can that be?

Visits to duck pond parks yield none. The quaysides along the Thames show no seagull feathers. Brian drives to the coast and walks some beaches – and finds a couple of wispy ones. In desperation on Sunday morning, they burst open a pillow and drag out a handful of feathers. They are small, not at all like the large ones they had envisaged presenting to the band but they are white and they are feathers. Into the plastic bag they go and then Brian is driving Jerry and the kids to the pub. Brian has remarkable personal resources and has been through some very serious situations so this might be small potatoes to him …. but Jerry’s guts are churning.

Some faces in the pub turn to look at them as they enter. Jerry has been here before only once but a number of the clientele are known to him from other pubs and events. And he is probably known to more of them, as Chairperson of the Irish Centre. A few catch his eye and he nods at them, keeping his face impassive.

Do they know that the band playing here let down the audience two days ago? Of course they do …. or at least many would. This is the Irish community in SE London. Besides, the Manager of this bar, Kate, until recently worked for the publican who auctioned the raffle prize at the event on Friday night. Are they wondering what Jerry intends to do?

The band, which Brian has taken to calling the “McChicken Brothers”, is already playing on stage. Jerry had meant to get here before they got on but the feather search had been a delay. To get in front of them now might be resented by the audience and anyway, the band’s control of the microphones could drown out what needs to be said. Jerry goes to the bar, orders pints for himself and Brian and soft drinks for the kids, stitches a smile on his face and chats to Brian. And they wait.

Eventually the band takes a break and Jerry waits tensely for the indication that they are returning for the second half of their gig. When he sees them coming he nods to Brian, whose job is to fend off anyone attacking him before he has finished.

Just as the band reach the low stage but have yet to mount it, Jerry jumps up on it and begins to speak in a loud voice.

Ladies and gentlemen, your attention for a moment please!” EVERYBODY turns to look.

These musicians here were booked to play at an Easter Rising commemoration at the Irish Community Centre on Friday. They didn’t turn up. They left the audience (ok, bump up the figures a little!, he thinks) — 200 people – and the organisers stranded. And they didn’t even have the decency to tell us they weren’t coming. They ran scared, my friends, from lies in the British press.”

Jerry has the plastic bag in his hand and now dips into it, withdrawing a handfull of fluffy little white feathers.

Shame on you!” he says, facing the band members. “And this is what we think of you!”

So saying, he tries to throw the bunch of feathers at them but they erupt in a cloud between them, some clinging to Jerry’s hands. No matter, it is done. He steps off the stage and heads for the door, hoping to make it before anyone tries to stop him, before Brian has to get into physical stuff.

Surprisingly, someone shouted “Hear, hear!” and there had been a scattered round of applause.

Outside, they head for Brian’s car. A man comes running out and Brian steps forward to confront him, Jerry getting ready too, the kids behind him. Kate, the Manager, comes running out too and grabs the man. She says some things to him and he goes back in reluctantly, Jerry thinking the man doesn’t know how lucky he is that he didn’t tangle with Brian. Then Kate comes up to Jerry, shaking with anger, her face white.

You had NO right, NO right to do that in my pub!” she says.

We couldn’t let them get away with that, Kate,” Jerry replies.

Anywhere else. Not in my pub,” she says again.

The adrenaline is now seeping away and Jerry knows that his leg will start to shake soon. He feels a little sorry for Kate but needs to get away.

Sorry, Kate, that’s where they were,” Jerry replies and turns to go.

Don’t ever come in my pub again,” she calls out at his back.

**** **** ****

Many things were probably said in the local Irish community about the IBRG branch before and after that incident but probably that action contributed to an estimation that whatever you might think of them, they stood up for themselves and didn’t back down. That and their annual Children’s Irish Hallowe’en Party, their weekly Children’s Irish Art and History Group, their participation in the South London St. Patrick’s Day Parade and their occasional dramatic productions earned the small group a kind of respect in the local Irish community, a community often quite conservative in social outlook, often insular, often riven by jealousies and back-biting.

One night two weeks after the 1916 commemoration, there was a crude arson attempt on the Centre – a bottle with accelerant leaned against the front door and set alight. It burned a hole in the door and set off the fire alarms. Jerry, as a keyholder, got a call to attend from Ellie. The police were already there and Jerry dealt with them politely. Any enemies? they asked. Jerry wondered whether he should give them a list.

My guess is some British far-right group”, he replied, very glad that back in the Steering Group days, he had insisted on all the windows being covered with wire mesh panels, thinking of possible rock or even petrol bomb attack.

The police suggested they look through a list of recent attendance at the Centre. Jerry politely refused. Security provisions were made at the Centre.  Nothing came of whatever investigations the police carried out and Jerry was not surprised.

Media attention went away and the local authority didn’t take the matter further. Jerry wrote a letter to the Irish Post, denouncing the pressure applied against the IBRG and the Irish Centre and which might even have encouraged the arson attack. He did so under an assumed name because, as Chairperson, he wished not to implicate the Centre in his denunciation of the craven action of the local authority spokesperson. The beleaguered Centre Manager did not see it that way, assuming that Jerry was trying to have his say while avoiding responsibility.

When, a number of years later, in a heavy round of cuts in expenditure, the Centre’s main funding, the Manager’s and caretakers’ salaries were targeted in the local authority’s budget, Jerry led the Management Committee in a campaign of resistance. They picketed Council meetings and drew up lists of elected Councillors to lobby. Irish musicians and children in Irish dancing school costumes were brought to perform in front of the Council offices, leading to photographs in the local press. The Pensioners’ Association, amicably separated some years earlier from the IBRG branch, played a prominent part once more. Some local English people came forward to support the Centre’s case. Jerry prepared a submission for the IBRG branch and spoke to it at a Council meeting. Eventually, their meagre funding, the removal of which would have meant the closing of the Centre except for sporadic events, was saved.

Jerry didn’t go back to that bar where he had confronted the “McChicken Brothers” for about a year after that incident. When he did, he wondered whether he’d be served. He was — but it was another two years before Kate spoke to him again.

End.

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