“Your da is goan to be hung! Over in England, he’ll be hung!” So the boy in the school playground jeered at my friend Sean. He was so upset that he ran out of the playground 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 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 shooting 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 sent me thinking about him. His name was Joe. I won’t labour parallels or comparisons 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, Doctor McCarthy and Doctor Bugler. Nothing was done about it for decades. People were still living in one of the long streets of hovels, the Turnpike, well into the 1970s. Bad drinking water led to outbreaks of typhoid fever.
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 Their original thatch had been replaced by corrugated galvanised roofs, but that was the extent of “modernisation.”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.
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 film.
...Settled tinkers! Day labour at command
To anyone with money in his hand...
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 places like Ennis 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 (it was absorbed into the ITGWU in the 1940s), organised mass pickets, and even, in the mid 1930s, a two-day general strike. But the town’s workers were at an enormous disadvantage in a petit bourgeois town surrounded by owner-occupier farms. 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 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 insecurities and fears with a violence of language. Inevitably he was a bit of a butt to the others.
The cultural influences were narrow — 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, with their tough-guy, “sock him on the jaw” ethos ersatz heroes — “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 imagination, were the big influences...
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 town.
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 himself, in a sense of what he himself was, to reject as nonsense.
So he hung around with his peers, boasting foolishly and posturing unconvincingly — younger than his age. Joe...
He hired out — it was the early 60s — to go as a seasonal argriculuural worker in Scotland and found himself 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 terrified 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 tormentor — 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 masculine behaviour, thinking bad of himself for not being “The Boy” — all contributed to making a terrified kid into a murderer. The easily terrified, fantasy addled youngster. His head full of imagination and ignorant nonsense, thus 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 terror and the fact that he 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 fantasies? I don’t know: thereafter, I lost sight of him.