TRUTH AND POWER –THE FIRST LESSON

Diarmuid Breatnach

I remember my first lesson at school. First lesson from a teacher, that is, because you learn other lessons in school as well, from other kids. That particular lesson has remained with me for the rest of my life.

OK, it couldn’t have been the first lesson – it was my second year at school — but it is the first I remember which, in a way, does make it the first. And it wasn’t from any book or written on the blackboard.

Lesson One - Truth to Power

That was in senior infants then, I was five years old and our teacher was Iníon Ní Mhéalóid, Miss Mellet in English. It’s a rare Connemara family name, I know now and that is where she was from. She was handsome, maybe even more than that, I can’t remember now. I never had a crush on any teacher who taught me but if I had, it would not have been on her.

The day of this particular lesson, I must’ve been misbehaving in some way, I suppose. Not paying attention to her and talking or laughing with another kid, probably.

She called me out from my desk, admonished me, told me to stick my hand out and … whacked it with a ruler. Maybe my eyes gave her a message, I’m not sure. They say the eyes are the windows of the soul and right then, at that moment, I guess my soul must’ve been pretty dark.

What are you thinking?” she asked me in Irish.

Now, my Da had brought me and my brother up to tell the truth – always. Years later, my young sister at school would have teachers tell her that though I had often misbehaved, I had always told the truth. I did too, mostly.

When Iníon Ní Mhéalóid asked me that, my training came to the fore but it was more than that – I wanted to tell her what I was thinking.

I think you’re horrible,” I replied, in Irish too, of course.

I thought I heard my classmates suck in their collective breath.

Hold out your hand again!”

I did so, half disbelieving. She’d asked me, hadn’t she?

Whack!

What are you thinking now?”

That …. that …. you’re h-horrible,” I sobbed.

Hold out your hand again!”

Whack!

What are you thinking now?” She had a glint in her eye.

I paused, conflicted, then replied.

Nothing.”

An bhfuil tú cinnte (are you sure)?”

Tá (I am)”.

Go back to your seat then.”

So now you’re thinking things like “physical abuse, abuse of power, bully, traumatic experience” and feeling sorry for me. Right?

You have it wrong.

Iníon Ní Mhéalóid had taught me a very valuable lesson, relating to truth and power. It is this:

You can speak truth to power because you feel like it, through pride, to encourage others or for any other reason. But those in power are not like your equals down below. You don’t owe those in power any truth and it is perfectly acceptable to tell them lies, to protect yourself or others.

You can of course speak the truth out of choice but know that they do not respect it, will probably use it against you and ….. you must be prepared to pay the price.

End.

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THE GANG, THE BOSS AND THE MICE

Diarmuid Breatnach

Around 6am I awoke, still half in the script and trying to figure a way to win through. But not for long, as I was driven stumbling by the urea imperative – I had to go to the toilet. In the hallway I switched on the light, still thinking about the situation I had been in and, turning into what I thought was the open doorway, immediately stubbed my toe and nearly my nose on the door. After suitable curses, I stood in front of the enamel directing the hose while I thought about the damned situation.

I had debts. And there was a gang …. or gangs … and I was kind of in one of them and the big boss was putting the squeeze on me. Now, in my other life, the waking one, I’ve never really been in a gang, not even in my teens, although that’s not to say I didn’t have anything to do with them. I did – running from them, hiding from them, sometimes fighting and (of course) getting beaten up by them.

My social class set, the lower middle class, didn’t have gangs. The working class had them and curiously, the upper middle class had them too. The Geldoff types (he was from my home town). And since I didn’t usually have money to go to dances and discos, the dangerous times in my hometown were mostly daytime. The Geldoff types hung out in the Bamboo café across the road from Murray’s record shop, where us gangless lower middle class hung out. And the working class had no café or record shop, just their areas – the ‘Noggin, York Road ….

They weren’t anything like the legendary Ringsend or Dolphin’s Barn, but they were tough enough in my book. Ringsend lads came to the Top Hat Ballroom in my hometown once to settle a score and chased the locals all the way up to the ‘Noggin and the Farm, over a mile away. Local folklore had it that as they queued up in Ringsend earlier that evening to get into taxis for the foray, old dockers had handed each youth a docker’s hook.

There were times when walking down the main street in Dún Laoghaire had felt like something out of High Noon or some other western film, when the hero doesn’t want to go out in the street, he knows death is waiting there – but he has to. In his case, it was duty or some kind of fatalism sending him out there. In my case, it was fear of isolation. I didn’t want to end up cut off from my contemporaries – the boys and, yes, especially the girls. Where they hung out, I would have to go. Of course death wasn’t waiting for me, unless it were accidental …. only a beating.

Anyway, I deviate. Which doesn’t make me a deviant, by the way ….. Anyway, back to the script.

One of the things I was being pressured about had to do with promoting the gang leader’s mice. Yes, mice. Don’t ask me – I didn’t write the script.

For some reason the boss’ mice needed to be distributed, to take over everywhere. And one of the places Big Al wanted his mice installed was in a closed down fairground. It was in my area, so of course Big Al thought it was my responsibility to do it.

Big Al, photo taken during one of his philosophical debates
Big Al, photo taken during one of his philosophical debates

The thing is, that abandoned fairground already had mice, as I tried to tell Big Al. I’d hardly ever actually seen one but you could hear them, rustling, scratching and sometimes squeaking as they fought.

Big Al wasn’t interested. Were they HIS mice?

Well, no ….

Well, didn’t I see the problem?

I nodded. I could see I had a problem and I’d have a worse one if I didn’t do as he wanted.

Big Al’s mice arrived next day delivered by motorbike courier, in a plastic bag. Yeah, I know … but remember — I’m not the script writer.

I took some of the mice out. They were sleek, strong, well-fed, pinky-white mice. I carried the bag to the empty fair ground and let some of them out, to see how they got on. They scurried eagerly down lots of holes and there was suddenly a lot of squeaking underground. Then silence.

After a while, one came back, mauled and bloody. I waited but no others arrived. I put the rest of Al’s mice on the ground so they could avenge their mates. I had no choice, unless I wanted to tell Big Al I had disobeyed his instructions.

Those mice knew what was waiting for them and not a single one went down any hole. They milled around above ground. Then they found an unopened can of beer left by some inebriated street drinker, bit through into it …. and proceeded to get really, really drunk.

Some of Al's mice before they discovered the beer can
Some of Al’s mice before they discovered the beer can

They were still drunk when Big Al dropped by to see how his mouse colonising was progressing.

“What the fuck is going on?” Big Al and his bodyguard were looking in amazement at his carousing, stumbling mice.

I told him what had happened. He shook his head, muttered something, shook his head again, then went off grumbling to get some more mice – maybe Super-mice, or Ninja Mice, or something.

I knew the drunken mice would be history. If a cat or a kestrel didn’t get them …. well, Big Al had a low tolerance for failure. I should have felt sorry for them …. and I kind of did … but also a kind of contempt. The fairground mice had lived a hard life, braving flood and ice, finding what food they could, breeding, tunneling, avoiding alley cats, kestrels …

Big Al’s mice had been fed high-protein diets, reared in secure environments, built up muscle, each probably outweighed the biggest fairground mouse by a couple of ounces. But those scruffy, lean, dirty mice had finished off the advance guard of Al’s mice in minutes. And the rest? Didn’t even have the courage to make a fight of it but went and got drunk instead!

I left them to it. Al would be back and he’d probably want to supervise the operation against the Fairground Mice himself. That was fine with me. I didn’t like the job and I secretly wished the native mice well.

Anyway, I had other problems to deal with. I still had to organise my area for Big Al’s other operations – or else. I didn’t know exactly what the “else” might be and truth to tell, I didn’t even want to think about it.

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

In the end, I couldn’t do it. I could fool myself that I could manage the area for Al in a more decent way than somebody else working for him …. maybe. But I would still have to become too much like Al himself to do it. So, one alternative only – get out, go on the run and hope Big Al or his goons couldn’t find me. I didn’t even know where I was going to go – just out.

In my benighted life, I had one bit of success.

I ducked into a shop and got to use their phone. That’s right, no mobiles – maybe this script was set in the 1980s …. Not that I remember seeing big hair, shoulder pads or baggy trousers …

Anyway, I phoned up the electric phone company and got to speak to the Area Manager about my bill …. yes, the actual Area Manager! I told him I was going out of business and after a little haggling he agreed to accept 20% of the bill in payment and to wipe the slate clean.

Then I phoned my cousin, also my best friend and told him I was getting out. He was disappointed in me. Really, really disappointed. I could imagine him shaking his head.

“What about community organisation, man?” he asked.

“I can’t do it, Mort. Big Al is too much to go up against.”

“I can’t believe it – and you from a long line of trade union organisers.”

That got to me because, in the script, it was true. My Da had been a union organiser most of his life. My Ma too. And one of my Grandas as well. Strikes, union meetings, pickets, marches, police stations and courthouses had been a part of my childhood, almost as much as school throughout the year and the seaside in summer.

In real life, of course, my Da had been many things but never a trade union organiser. Active trade union member, yes – organiser, no. And my Ma – well, maybe if there had been a Housewife’s Union …. she would have probably been the General Secretary.

Anyway, in the script, Mort shamed me. And talked some more. And I argued. And he put forward a plan.

For some reason, this plan, which of course required community organising, needed a public appeal by television. Mort said I should do it. I told him I couldn’t – I’d freeze on camera and anyway I was too closely involved. I begged him to nominate someone else. He thought for a little while.

“Ok, but you have to go with whoever I choose – no backing out.”

“Sure! Thanks!” I gulped, relief flooding me.

His next words ejected that relief right out again.

“Ask your Ma.”

After I recovered from the shock and hung up, I went to see Ma. This was Ma in the script and nothing like the Ma I had in the real life, the one who was born in the Basque Country and spoke English with a German accent, because her Da had been a German.

And this script Ma was easy-going, unruffled …. Still, she took some persuading before she agreed. And while she was getting ready for her TV appearance – having her hair done, rehearsing her appeal, buying new shoes (who was going to see her shoes on TV?!!) — I was down on the street in my area, doing the rounds, talking to shopkeepers, community workers, youth, pensioners ….

Of course, Big Al was going to get to hear what I was doing. But the gamble was that my Ma’s appeal would be broadcast before he could make his move …. and after that, it would be much more difficult for Big Al to demonstrate the full meaning of that “else” with which he had threatened me. And hopefully the community would start to solidify and be able to resist. Doing nasty things to me wouldn’t be that productive any more. And whatever else Big Al was, he was a pragmatist.

Yes, of course, there’s always the unpredictable emotional element ….

I was pondering that when something pulled me half out of the script.

It was around 6am and I was still half in the script and trying to figure a way to win through. But not for long, as I was driven stumbling from my bed by the urea imperative – I had to go to the toilet.

In the hallway I switched on the light, still thinking about the script I had been in and, turning into what I thought was the open doorway, immediately stubbed my toe and nearly my nose on the door. After suitable curses, I did the business in the toilet and thought about the events in the script.

Then I wondered whether I could somehow get hold of the scriptwriter and how I could make him pay for what he put me through.

Had I met him? No, never. How did I know he was male? I don’t know, but for some reason I was sure he was. Which is strange, because nobody in my life had ever fucked with my head the way some women had. But yes, he is male – I’m sure of it. Now, where could he be hanging out ….?

End.

A CHRISTMAS STORY (with the participant’s own stories)

Diarmuid Breatnach (with initial contribution from another Breatnach)

(Extracts from interviews reprinted variously by kind permission of The Palestinian Prophet, Judean Eye, Jerusalem Sentinel and The Samaritan Times)

The Shepherd’s story:

“Hey, man, we’d just settled the sheep down and were settling down ourselves, chilling out with a bong before sleep, you know? Then there was this light in the sky, and a bloody heavenly choir of angels, I swear to God!

“No, man, we weren’t tripping; the bloody sheep all woke and wouldn’t go back to sleep. So in the end, we couldn’t get any sleep either, what with strange light in the sky, angels singing, and sheep baa-ing. So we went down into town, and that’s where we found the Travellers, with their newborn baby.

“We didn’t have anything to give them except a draw or two and we didn’t know whether they were into that, so we brought along a lamb for the grown-ups’ dinner.

“They said the baby was a King, and him in a stable! Well we didn’t like to contradict them or anything, so we played along with it. And while we were there, didn’t this caravan come by with these three old geezers, who said they were looking for the baby King! Yeah, that was kind of strange, all right.”

Mary’s story:

“It was before my first wuz born. That Gaybriel, he came to tell me I was going to be pregnant – didn’t he Joseph?”

“Yes, dear, so you told me”.

“Yeah, he minces in out of nowhere, appears in my Mum’s living room, and tells me I’m going to have a baby! And I hadn’t even been with a man, had I Joseph?”

“No dear. So you …. No dear.”

“So when I was near my time – I was huge by then, you know – we had to go off to Jerusalem. It was a long journey and I was knackered and so was poor Joseph. I said to him, I said ‘Joseph, you’ve got to sit your arse down somewhere warm, and so have I.’ So Joseph went and asked in a few bed and breakfast places, but they was all full. Wasn’t they, Joseph?

I said, Joseph, they was all full, wasn’t they?

“Yes, Mary, they was all full”.

“So after a while, someone let us stay in his stable! Well, it was warmer than outside, and it was great to sit down, but the straw was scratchy, you know what I mean? Well we wasn’t there more than half an hour when me waters broke. I started to cry, and I said to Joseph: ‘Our first child is going to be born in a stable; what kind of a start is that in life for a child?’ I was really upset you know. So that was where he was born. And they called him names is school years later, like ‘Donkey’, and ‘Stable Boy” – didn’t they, Joseph?”

“Yes, Mary, they did”.

The Wise Men’s from the East story:

Balthazar: “We had met up, the three of us, at the previous year’s Annual Conference of the AWM … Oh, you don’t know? That’s our association, the Association for Wise Men! You’ve heard of us, of course? No? How peculiar! Where did you say you were from?

“Anyway, we had met up, and we’d had such a great time together, that we arranged to meet up again. And when we did, we were discussing this interesting prophesy, about a sign in the heavens, and the birth of a King, etc., and then what should we see but this strange star in the night sky. So we decided that could be it and we should at least go and see. So we packed up our camels and horses, hired some help, and set off.

“It was weeks later when we came to this little town, Bethlehem the locals called it, and eventually tracked the couple and newborn baby down, and there they were. Well they looked quite grubby, you know, and in a stable, too!”

Melchior: “It wasn’t the most hygienic place to have a baby, and hardly appropriate for the birth of a King. But that was where the star brought us to, and there was already a crowd of shepherds in there paying him homage. So we discussed it in private, and decided that this must be the King whose birth would be predicted by a sign in the heavens, and we gave him our presents.”

“What presents? Oh, frankiscence and myhrr, that kind of stuff.”

Gaspar: “And gold, of course – so they could pay for some proper lodgings.”

Balthazar: “Herod? King Herod Antipas? Yes of course we’ve heard of him. Met him? No, never.”

Melchior: “No, not on the way to Bethlehem nor anywhere else.”

Gaspar: “Sorry, but are you crazy? We didn’t meet him or any other kings – we try to stay well away from them … and from Roman Consuls too!”

Joseph’s story:

“Well, I was getting on and I’d missed out on all the eligible women except for Mary and she was out of my class, if you know what I mean. I didn’t have a chance with her.

“But then she got pregnant and whoever it was didn’t stay around. So I jumped at the chance, of course I did. I even made up a story about being visited by an angel and all that, so as to match hers. Well, I didn’t want them saying she was a slut, you know? Or later, that Jesus was a bastard. Yes, Jesus, that’s my boy. Bad enough them calling him ‘Donkey Boy’ or ‘Barn Boy’ or ‘Hayborn’ … People can be very cruel – even children.

“Well we had to go to my home town Bethlehem to register for the census since Caesar Augustus decreed it. It was bloody cold and the town was full, except for the luxury suites and I’m just a carpenter. I mean, it’s a good trade but doesn’t pay for luxuries.

“Anyway, we got the stable for what they call a “cut rate” (‘cut-throat rate’ would be more like it) and then her waters broke and she had the baby right there. Well from that moment on, there wasn’t a moment’s peace, what with an angelic choir somewhere, smelly shepherds crowding in, wise men, curious passers-by …. We were glad to get our registration over with and be back on the road, I can tell you.

“The baby? Jesus, my foster-son. He’s a good boy but a bit dreamy. I can’t seem to get him interested in my trade. I do worry about him – I don’t know what will become of him when he grows up, honest. His mother says he has her crucified.”

 

Herod’s story:Herod engraving

“Oh please! Not that old ridiculous slander and libel again! Slaughtering the babies, indeed. Wasn’t it Jehovah himself who did that to Pharaoh’s people? No, no I never – why would I?

“Because of a prediction he’d be King of the Jews? Oh, puleeeeze! Nearly every fucking village in Judea has someone in it they’re predicting will be a King. If I went around slaughtering the children in every village we’d soon have no population in Judea – and, more to the point, no taxes. Not for me OR for Rome.

“Wise men? I never meet any, not in my court anyway. Wily, cunning, even clever, yes …. but wise? No. Well, maybe that’s a definition of wise men: men who make sure not to meet me. Heh, heh, heh!”

 

The Donkey’s story:

“It got to be a very crowded in that stable.”

Donkey

The Cow’s story:

“Mmmmmm! Yes, it did – but warmer too, except when the door kept being opened as more people arrived. Mmmmmm!”

The lamb’s story:

“I didn’t like leaving my maaaaammy. And I thought I heard one of the shepherds mention kish kebaaaaab.”

The dog’s story:

“I really objected to being turfed out of the manger”.

Ends

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?

Diarmuid Breatnach 

Lorna was nervous but tried not to show it – especially to Kevin. He drove competently and seemed unaware of her tension. Of course she had known for months it would come to this. There had to be an end to the hiding some day. And now she was going to have to present him to her parents. She shuddered …. or thought she had; thankfully, Kevin hadn’t noticed.

They passed a small wood in a hollow, the trees still wearing their autumn leaves but some already lying on the road, jewels of yellows, oranges and reds, mixed with green, glittering with the wet of a recent shower. In that wood one summer, in her teens, a picnic and a boy, hands trembling exploring, fast-beating heart, her virginity gladly given. at The memory sparked a little arousal; she looked out the passenger window in case it showed in her face. Kevin could be very perceptive …. often just when she didn’t want him to be.

As they drove through the Sligo village she remembered so well from her childhood and teens, she began surreptitiously to do her breathing exercises. Approaching the side road, she had a sudden impulse to say nothing, to just keep going. “Left ahead,” she said instead. And, a little further, “Turn right there, Kevin. Right … that’s the house.”

Slightly uphill from the parking space, the path ran up to and curved along the house to the front door. The house, traditionally whitewashed and, with the exception of the conservatory added to the end, pretty traditional in appearance too. The treetops, grown taller, visible behind the roof, the fuschia bushes growing along the path and the cotoneaster hugging the house wall. Bel, kept inside the house so as not to frighten the expected visitor, barking an intruder warning.

The engine switched off, Kevin looking at the house, then at her. “Looks lovely”, he said and sounded as though he meant it. She turned to him, smiling brightly: “Get the bags, will you? Do the traditional male thing. I’ll carry the wine and the flowers.”

He kissed her quickly, grinned and got out of the car, leaving her free to do her breathing exercises unobserved. In …. hold, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five …..

Walking up the path, Bel barking madly now, hearing the crunch of gravel. As Lorna got near the door, she called out to the dog. The barking stopped a second at voice recognition, then started again – welcoming this time. The outer door opened, her father there, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he smiled. A hug, careful with the flowers, and a “Fáilte abhaile, a stór.” Then the appraising look at Kevin, the hand stretched out: “And to you too, young man.”

Her father turned and opened the inner door. There was her mother, holding Bel back by his collar as he whined and wriggled, his tail whipping from side to side. Lorna put the flowers and wine on the table and went to the dog, giving him her hand and, while he lathered it with his saliva, hugged her mother cautiously. Then she took the dog to introduce him to Kevin. Of course Bel could smell her on the stranger and that made the introductions easier.

After the greetings, matters proceeded through stages – coffee and tea and biscuits, inquiries about the journey, traffic and road surfaces, comments on the weather, a little local news, as Bel gazed at Lorna and thumped his tail from time to time, her mother jumping up regularly to check on the cooking, the aroma growing around them.

And so to dinner, the table set with the best delf and cutlery, grace said by her mother; Kevin, her atheist lover bowing his head respectfully and agnostic Lorna chiming “Amen” at the end. The dinner delicious of course and greatly enjoyed by Kevin, her father appreciating the Rioja selected by Kevin and brought with them, the flowers they had brought now with some fern leaves picked by her mother, making a nice display in the vase in the window, the westering sun filling the dining area with gorgeous light. The conversation flowed around her job, Kevin’s, Lorna’s parents’ farm, the local area …. It was all going so well. Lorna wasn’t fooled for a moment.

A little after dessert, her father stood up. “Come now, Kevin …. I’ll show you around a little of our wee farm. We have to walk a little of that dinner off.”

Kevin got up eagerly, then hesitated, glancing towards Lorna. “You can do the washing up tomorrow, Kevin,” she smiled. “Go on, while there’s still light to see.”

The two most important men in her life walked out the back door, Bel eagerly escorting them, her father putting his cap on his balding head and picking up his ash stick on the way.

The men’s voices faded and the women turned to meet one another’s eyes, then quickly down to the table, going about their shared tasks with the ease of custom, of practice thousands of times through the years …. and the tension slowly building while desultory conversation centred around the tasks. Then, so soon, all the washing-up done and rinsed, their hands dried and the kettle on the ring for tea. Her mother turned to her and said: “He seems very nice.”  

“He is”, she replied, knowing it was an opening shot.  “I’m serious about him,” she added, as though this were not obvious, the first of her lovers down through the years that she had ever brought to meet her parents.  She was hoping to head off the barrage.

But Lorna, how could you! Of all the fine men you could have had!”

He is a fine man. I already told you he’s black but I didn’t think …”


“Lorna Patricia, you wash your mouth out this minute! You know very well that neither your father nor I are racist.”

But it’s different when your daughter wants to marry one, is that it? ‘We’re not racist but …’ ”

No, Lorna, it has nothing to do with that – we’re not bothered by the colour of his skin …. that’s not it all.”

Then what is it? Is it because he’s not a Catholic, then? Because, as I think you know, I’m not much of a one myself!”


“That’s not it at all, Lorna. That’s between you and God …. and between Kevin and God. That’s what He gave you free will for.”

Then what on earth is all this about? What’s wrong with him?”

 

“Oh Lorna, do you really not know? Can you not see?” Her mother’s voice rising in a wail.

No … no, I can’t. See what? What’s wrong?”

 

“He’s from Dublin, Lorna. Dublin! He’s a jackeen!”

End

METAL-DETECTING USING BAKED BEANS

IRISHMAN REVOLUTIONISES METAL DETECTION PROCESS

By our Science Reporter

Can Baked Beans
A new metal-detecting system has been developed which is revolutionising security detection, prospecting and archaeology.  Previous systems have depended on magnetism and have not responded well to non-ferrous metals.  The new system responds to all metals and, strange as it may seem, it functions through using baked beans in tomato sauce.

An Irishman developed the detection system after discovering the principle, like many great discoveries, through accident.  “I often prepare breakfast of baked beans on toast,” said Dublin man Diarmuid Breatnach.  “I noticed when I tipped a tin of baked beans into the pan for heating, that some of them remained stuck inside the can, even after vigorous shaking.  I began to wonder if there might not be an attraction of some sort between them and the metal.”

Metal Detector
The Garrett Ace 150 metal detector, at the lower price range of conventional detectors, sells at €199. The new bbp (baked bean principle) detector however is currently selling at around half the price.

The idea kept going around in Breatnach’s head until he decided to test it out.  “In a friend’s garage, we ran a series of tests and discovered that yes, indeed, baked beans in tomato sauce are attracted to metal.  And we discovered that they worked with many different kinds of metals – steel, obviously, but also aluminium, copper, zinc, tin, silver and alloys like brass and bronze.  We didn’t have any large enough surfaces of gold and platinum to test – they have to be several millimetres across to work – but we thought it would work for them too.”

The Dublin man then set about designing the machine that would employ this attraction for metal detection.  Using his skills learned in a former trade of fitter-welder, he constructed the first prototype and took out a patent on it.

“I went to a small metal-ware company on the outskirts of Dublin where I knew a guy and made a deal with the owner.  They produced a few models and then we went to security firms and some metal mining companies, the models worked great under test conditions and we got supply contracts.”

Now the factory, Schiessen Ltd, has expanded its workforce four hundred per cent and struggles to keep up with orders.  In addition, baked bean in tomato sauce production has soared, with attendant expansion in the cultivation of haricot beans and tomatoes abroad.

What impact have these developments had on Breatnach’s life?  “When I started, I was in default on my mortgage and the bank was about to seize my flat,” said the Dublin man.  “Those days are gone and I’m comfortable now.  But I never forget how it started and still eat beans on toast in the morning,” he says with a smile.

End item     

INTERVIEWING THE PSNI ABOUT STEPHEN MURNEY — a light-hearted look at a serious situation

“Please take a seat. He’ll be right down to you” says the man behind the desk in the Police Service of Northern Ireland uniform.

Before I have much time to read the public notices, a man comes comes through an inner door and approaches me. Average male height, he’s in blue-striped white shirt and dark trousers, dark blue tie askew. “Are you the sociologist?” he asks. His hair is blond-grey and his eyes are very blue.

“Hello, pleased to meet you,” he continues before I can reply that I’m studying sociology, “I’m Detective- Constable Proctor. Can I get you a cup of tea? Let’s go to the interview room.”

Why not? I think, following him – after all, I am interviewing him. Of course it’s usually the police doing the interviewing in that room.

A woman who seems to be a civilian employee brings each of us a cup of tea.  Thanking her, I sip mine, looking around the room. I’ve heard about police interviews but I don’t see any bloodstains. They probably clean them up afterwards. Or maybe they do those interviews somewhere else, like in the cells. Then they could leave the bloodstains there to terrify the next occupants … to soften them up before interrogation.

Proctor blows on his tea, sips …. “Well, Mr. …. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”

“O’Donnell… Owen.”

“Owen O’Donnell? The name seems familiar somehow ….”

“Maybe it’s my cousin – he has the same name. People call him ‘Red’. ‘Red Owen’.”

“Oh?  Like an alias?”

“Well, more like a nickname. Because he is, you see.”

“He’s a Red?”

“No, he’s red-haired. He had quite a successful career for awhile in pest control in Ulster …. with his partner Shane O’Neill.”

“Perhaps I have heard of the firm …..” He looks like he’s searching his memory.  After a moment, looking at his watch: ”Now, Mr. O’Donnell, if we could ….”

“Yes, of course. It’s very kind of you to give me your time.”

“I believe you’re studying Sociology?” looking at me over the rim of his mug.  Aha, so he does know.

I nod vigorously. Sometimes I believe it myself. The University might even believe it when they get to see my assignments.  That would be after I get around to completing them and handing them in, of course.

“And you want to ask me about policing?”

“Yes, for my studies. Policing in general, a bit about the history of the force here … and about a specific case.”

“Well of course, if I can help …. we like to help the public. That’s what we’re here for. But I’m afraid I only have a few minutes.”

“Okayyyyy ….” I say, consulting my notebook. “Originally the PSNI was the RIC –- the Royal Irish Constabulary, right?”

“Yes.”

“The RIC was the police force over the whole island.”

“Yes.”

“The whole of Ireland must have been united then.”

Proctor looks uncomfortable at this. “Aye – under British rule.”

“After the Treaty, in 1921, the RIC disappeared over the rest of Ireland …. but here it became the RUC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary?”

“Aye,” he says, a faraway look in his eyes.

“Have you any theory why it was called that?”

“What?” He looks startled, then puzzled.

“I mean, why ‘Ulster’?”

“Well, this is Ulster, isn’t it?” — looking at me as if I might be a bit simple.

“Well, only six counties of it – there are nine counties in the province of Ulster, aren’t there?”

He jerks a little at the mention of ‘six counties’, frowns. He seems to have heard those words before … perhaps they have unpleasant associations for him.

“Mr. O’Donnell,” he says …. pauses …. “perhaps we could move on to questions about the police force of today?”

“Of course! Of course!” I stammer. “I really am so grateful for your time.” I shuffle my notes. “So the RUC became the PSNI in…” I peer at my notes.

“2000,” says Proctor.

“Yes, that’s it!” I beam at him. “But why?”

“I beg your pardon? Why what?”

“Why the change of name?”

“It was thought more appropriate, I suppose. I really don’t know, Mr.O’Donnell.”

“Well, is the PSNI different from what the RUC was?”

“I suppose …. yes …. we’re more of a community police force now. The wider community.”

“Oh. The RUC didn’t serve the wider community?”

“Of course they did!”

“But how is the PSNI different then?”

“Well, we serve it more than we did before. Even more. Justice for all.”

“I see,” I say, but allowing the puzzled look to remain on my face.

I wonder whether I should ask him why his force has “Northern Ireland” in its name, when every eight-year old who has done basic Irish geography at school would know that Donegal has the northernmost part of Ireland and they don’t have PSNI there …. they have the Gardaí.

I decide not to ask and instead move on to another question. “Do you remember the RUC Reserve, the ‘B-Specials’?”

“Of course,” he replies, a faraway look in his eyes again. “They were …. part of the service.”

“Where did they go?”

“Well, they joined the Ulster Defence ….. I mean, they were disbanded.”

“I think you were going to mention the Ulster Defence Regiment?”

“Well,yes …. it’s just that many of them reputedly joined that Regiment.”

“From police straight into the Army?”

“Aye, it would seem so.”

“Doesn’t that strike you as strange? I mean, police and soldiers …. two very different jobs, wouldn’t you say?”

“Mr.O’Donnell, you are surely aware of the history of this province?”

‘Province’? There are nine counties in the province of Ulster but only six of those in the British colony. But I decide to let that go too as he continues.

“We have had a long battle against terrorist violence here. We … the police force here … had to carry guns. Many gave their lives.”

“Yes,” I say sympathetically. “It must have been so dangerous.”

“Yes, it was. It was a war! So it was a bit like soldiering for us. Then the Army came in when things really started to get out of hand. Mind you, they were doing a lot of police work too. So you might say that there was a fair bit of crossover in our roles.”

Looks at his watch again.

I rustle my notes again. “That’s great. Thanks for that background. Would it be OK to move on to the specific case now?”

“Of course.” He sits back.

“It’s about …..” I consult my notes “…. Stephen Murney.”

“Oh?” — sitting forward again, eyes narrowed.

“Do you know the case?”

“Well… the name does seem familiar ….” He waits for me to go on.

I read from my notes: “He was arrested in November 2012 and is currently in Maghaberry Jail. Can you tell me why he is in prison?” I ask, looking up.

“I understand he was refused bail, Mr.O’Donnell.”

“Ah, of course.” I refer to my notes again. “Yes, of course …that’s right. But why?”

“Why? I’m not a judge and jury, Mr. O’Donnell.”

“No of course not, Detective Constable.”

Aware of the no-jury Diplock courts that try charges under ‘anti-terrorist law’, I add: “He won’t be tried by a jury anyway.”

“No, of course you’re right,” he says, a smile on his lips.

“But why do you think he might have been refused bail?”

“I’d suppose because of the seriousness of the charges. And because of the fear he might abscond before his trial.”

“Yes…. the seriousness of the charges. They’re related to terrorism, aren’t they?”

“Yes, that’s right. We still have a bit of a terrorist problem in Northern Ireland …. though we are getting on top of it.”

“I understand the evidence against him is quite overwhelming.”

“It would seem so,” he says nodding but then stops. “Of course, we must assume he’s innocent until proven guilty.”

“Yes, of course,” I reply, giving him a bit of a crestfallen look.

I consult my notes again. “There was a lot of evidence collected at his home. Lots of photographs of PSNI in action …. even of the RUC going back for forty years.”

“Yes,” Proctor replies, looking grim. “Photographs that could be of use to terrorists.”

“In what way?” I ask, with a puzzled expression.

“Well, they could be used in identifying police officers for assassination. And he put them up on Facebook.”

“Oh dear!”

He sips his tea. I consult my notes.

“Hmmm. But apparently he’s been taking these photos for ages, in full view of your colleagues. And using them to accuse the police of harassment. Why didn’t they arrest him earlier? Before he built up such a collection … and going back forty years!”

“Well, Mr. O’Donnell, it’s not my case, but sometimes we let a suspect run loose for a while, see whether he’ll lead us to other terrorists. Also to lull him into a false sense of security.”

“Yes, I see. I see how that might work. Do you think he was? Lulled into a false sense of security?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps he was,” nodding his head judiciously.

“But according to his lawyers …. at the bail hearing … apparently his car was being stopped and he was being questioned, sometimes having his car searched, nearly every day. Sometimes twice a day. I mean, he wouldn’t be getting lulled into any sense of security under those circumstances, would he?”

Proctor gives me a blue-eyed stare, his face a bit flushed.  “I really can’t say, Mr. O’Donnell,” he says coldly.

I consult my notes again. “Oh yes, there was more evidence, apparently. He had a military-style uniform. And a BB gun.”

Proctor is nodding vigorously. He seems to be saying: “You see?

“BB guns are not illegal, are they? They’re not firearms?”

“No, but they can be used to intimidate people … who might think that they are a firearm. They can also do some damage if fired at close quarters into the face.”

“Oh dear, of course! It’s a wonder they don’t ban them, isn’t it?”

He looks at me searchingly. “Yes ….” Looks at his watch.

“I’m nearly finished, Detective-Constable. It’s so good of you to give my your time … your valuable time. About the military-style uniform ….”

“Yes?

“Apparently Murney claims …. that it was part of a band uniform. A marching fife and drum band. Could it be?”

“Well, it could … but it could also be for a paramilitary organisation. They do like to dress up in uniforms.”

“I see. The uniform was found in his wardrobe, I think?”

“I believe so.”

“Not hidden away …. like under floorboards or anything?”

“No… why do you ask?”

“Well, I mean …. it’s puzzling, isn’t it? A terrorist … sorry, of course we have to assume he’s innocent until found guilty … but anyway … a person keeping a uniform for terrorism in his wardrobe? Not hidden away somewhere?”

“I don’t know …. I really can’t read the minds of terrorists, Mr.O’Donnell. Nor of terrorist suspects. Now, I really need to ….”

“Yes, sorry. About the final piece of evidence …”

“Yes?”

“Stencils for slogans.”

“Yes. Apparently.”

“Could that be something to do with terrorism?”

“No, that’s related to damage to property … the charge is of malicious damage to property.  At a time and place unknown.”

“With stencils?”

“With paint, Mr. O’Donnell. The stencils are used … sorry, could be used …. to spray slogans. The paint is difficult to clean off and often leaves a permanent stain. Or the cleaning agent does when people try to clean the paint off.”

“Oh, of course. I’m sure you’re quite right, Detective-Constable. But that is a relatively minor charge, surely? Compared to charges relating to terrorism?”

“People have a right to have their property protected. And nobody wants to live in an area covered in slogans, do they?”

“No, of course not. But why charge a terrorist – sorry, a suspected terrorist – who is already facing very serious charges …. why charge him with relatively minor charges? Oh! Wait! Could it be like a fall-back? So if the other charges don’t get proven, you can get him on at least something?”

Proctor is giving me a steely look.  “Mr.O’Donnell, as I said, it’s not my case and I really must go now. I have so much paperwork to catch up on.”

Stands up, walks to the door and opens it, the other arm kind of gathering me, herding me towards the door, even though I am still seated. I get up, collect my notes and put them away in my satchel. Then I pick up my coat and start to move towards the door.

“Thank you again, Detective-Constable. You really have been so helpful. Thank you. And ….”

He looks at me, one eyebrow raised.

“You be careful out there,” I say, looking at him sincerely, then walk out the door.

End

NB: The characters in this piece are fictional, except for the arrested person referred to, Stephen Murney, a Newry Republican political activist (member of éirigí). The charges mentioned and the material produced as evidence for the charges are as detailed. The date of his arrest and incarceration is also as related.  He was kept in jail without offer of bail for six months then offered it on condition of not residing in Newry where his family is and other restrictive conditions, including wearing a tag.  Eventually, a few weeks ago, with some charges dropped, he was released on bail to his home, without a tag but under curfew.  Yesterday, 24th February, he was cleared of all charges.  He had been 14 months in prison.