Parables for Socialists 14
“Your da is goan to be hung! Over in England,
he’ll be hung!”
So the boy in the school play-
ground jeered at my friend Sean. He was
so upset that he ran out of the play-
ground and the school down home to his mother to see
what she’d say. A garbled report had appeared in the
Clare Champion. Sean’s father, P, had indeed been
charged with murder.
A military policeman in the British army, he went for a
drink one night. When he and another policeman came
back to the barracks the worst for the drink, he went
into a barracks hut and smashed a sleeping man on the head
with his baton.Some festered grievance I suppose.
The soldier died, P’s friend gave him away and the
prospect of hanging did loom up before him. He wasn’t
hanged, but he spent a decade in jail. When he came out,
his wife and three children joined him in England. P, who
was a distant adult figure to me, a dark, seemingly
jovial man, was, you might say, my first murderer
- the first I encountered. But not the last.
I’ve encountered a surprising number of murderers,
alleged murderers, people who’ve stood trial for murder
— and victims of murder too. For instance, one of two
men who’ve been on the run for over a decade for shoot-
ing an Irish policeman, Guard McCabe; a man now
awaiting trial in the north of England.
And the one that concerns me here, a teenage knife
murderer I knew long ago. The terrible spate of murders
of youngsters in London set me thinking about him.
His name was Joe. I won’t labour parallels or compar-
isons with boys in London now, just tell a story.
Joe grew up in one of the houses down by the — long
out of use — quays on the river Fergus, in Ennis.
Over decades, again and again, the houses there and
most of the housing in which the proletarian minority in
the market town lived, had been officially described as
“hovels” in reports to the Clare County Council by more
than one Medical Officer of Health, by Doctor McCarthy
and his successor, Doctor Bugler. Nothing was done about
it, or would be done for decades. People were still
living in one of the long streets of hovels, the Turnpike
(where one of Mohammad Ali's ancestors, O'Grady, came from)
well into the 1970s.
Typically, the one-story houses in which the town
labourers lived would have two postage stamp rooms
and one larger room. Their original thatch had been
replaced by corrugated, galvanised roofs, but that was
the extent of “modernisation.” They had no running
water, no lavatories and no cooking facilities except the
one small open fire. These conditions and bad drinking
water led to outbreaks of typhoid fever.
The rent for a clutch of such houses, in Cloughleigh,
was collected by a local solicitor on behalf of a woman
with an address in Hamstead, London. The town had
been built on an island in the river. Every year, the River
Fergus would flood the houses down by the quays, and
sometimes well beyond the immediate vicinity of the
quays (Cloughleigh houses, whose tenants sent rent to
Hamstead, would flood).
Employment for most of the workers in the town was
scarce and irregular; serious poverty was widespread. In
a town of 5,000 people, upwards of 500 school kids every
year would be eligible for a Christmas party organised
by the Catholic charity society, St Vincent De Paul. They
would serve us cake and lemonade, give out little gifts
and show a Laurel and Hardy comedy, or some such
"...Settled tinkers! Day labour at command
To anyone with money in his hand;
Drovers and scollop-cutting brawlers who
Half starve — "'tis Ireland will be free, not you"!
We wear in this farmer's town the outcast's brand.
Unlettered gaums we are, to pluck and fleece
Or export on the hoof, alongside cattle,
To factory and battlefield — wild geese
Who fledge then flee to Salford and Seattle..."
That was the working class of Ennis and places like it then.
And yet there was amongst them a wonderful class
solidarity. Where you might expect the workers to fight
each other for the little there was, they stuck together,
backed each other, organised a one-town trade union, the
"Ennis United Labourers Association" (it was absorbed into
the ITGWU in the 1940s), organised mass pickets, and even,
in the mid 1930s, a two-day gen-
eral strike. But the town’s workers were at an enormous
disadvantage in a petit bourgeois town surrounded by mainly
The war and its aftermath took
large parts of the “town labourer” class to work in
England, from where they would send money home.
Working class kids like Joe left school with a minimal
education, at fourteen and no “prospects”. They lived
amid slights and contempt in a town of finely graded,
rigid class distinctions. At the National School he had
been beaten regularly with a long bamboo cane on hands
and the back of bare, short-trousered legs. He had had
his face frequently slapped: everyone did.
He was a jittery youngster, underfed, scrawny and
undersized, who would hang around on the outskirts of
a group of his peers — skittish, easily frightened, given
to boasting foolishly to those who knew him too well to
believe a word of it. He’d compensate for his insecuri-
ties and fears with a violence of language. Inevitably he
was a bit of a butt to his friends.
The cultural influences were narrow, and much of it
American — the chapel, the cinema and American comics.
Wholesome comics more
or less, then, spin-offs from formulaic western films with
tough, “two-fisted” heroes such as John Wayne, Tex
Ritter and Hopalong Cassidy, ersatz heroes, with a tough-guy,
“sock him on the jaw” ethos — “The Boy”,
in the local parlance (“Who’s The Boy in that one?” “Roy
Rodgers?” No, the Durango Kid.”). I don’t know if he
was ever religious beyond routinely going to Mass. as
almost everyone did.
The cinema and the comics, and rampaging imagina-
tion, were the big influences on Joe as on others.
The tough hero-protagonist, afraid of nothing and
bold and brave and invulnerable, and with the inner
resources, and a sympathetic script writer, to sustain him
in whatever he was trying to do. “Role models”. Role
models from outside everyday experience, from outside
the world in which Joe lived.
He felt obliged, by peer pressure too, to try to act like
“The Boy” up on the screen of the single cinema in the
Others did too in varying degrees without taking it too
seriously, or holding it against themselves that they
weren’t always the stuff of which cinema “Boys” were
made. Joe seemed to feel the contradictions between the
tough guy cinema models — models he did not know
enough to critically access, or feel secure enough in him-
self, in a sense of what he himself was, to reject as non-
So he hung around with his peers, boasting foolishly
and posturing unconvincingly — younger than his age.
He hired out — it was the early 60s — to go as a seasonal
argriculural worker in Scotland and found him-
self living in a large dormitory hut with a lot of
strangers. Rough, wild, youngsters, most of them away
from home for the first time — away from subordination
to “the aul fella”, and earning money that seemed good
and allowed them to drink.
One Saturday night a large number of them went to
the pub, or a dance, and came back drunk, boisterous
and quarrelsome. Soon a free-for-all fight broke out in
Joe’s hut. Joe? He hid under one of the beds.
But he wasn’t allowed to hide through the fight.
Someone pulled him out form under the bed. The terri-
fied eighteen or nineteen year old carried a knife — what
else would a “Boy” do, when he couldn’t get gun?
Little Joe drew the knife and lashed out at his tormen-
tor — sticking him with the knife. Where the knife
entered I don’t remember. But afterwards, a young man
lay dead on the floor of the hut.
Anxiety, terror, a model in his head of proper mascu-
line behaviour, thinking bad of himself for not being
“The Boy” — all contributed to making a terrified kid
into a man-killer. The easily frightened, fantasy addled
youngster, his head full of imagination and ignorant
nonsense, became a murderer. And, you don’t get
tougher than that, do you?
Did he mean to do what he did? Surely not. He was
driven by fear... he who had armed himself
with a knife.
Did it change his view of himself? Did he boast of it
later? He went to jail: did he learn to be a real “tough
guy” there, and come out better able to live up to his fan-
tasies? I don’t know: thereafter, I lost sight of him.