A Man of Insignificance

The Irish Peasant Boy

‘Finbarr Joseph Breathnach did not know exactly what day of the week it was. Hunger did that to a person. It affected every part of you including your memory and Finbarr had been hungry for as long as he could remember and by now he’d forgotten how long that was. As if in contradiction of his memory lapse about the day, he knew the exact date, it was September 30, 1848, and it was his birthday, he was fourteen years old today.
On this day of usual celebration he sat there amongst the wreckage of his cottiers hut at the edge of his conacre plot. He was in despair and humiliation. Dawn was breaking and he had been sitting there in the same unmoved position all night. He had stayed in that position beneath the three trees since the Wreckers had left the night before and he’d just remained inert in the darkness. Any feelings he had had been numbed by the recent events in his young life and he was completely immune to the cold autumnal air. As the brown blackness descended, the leafless trees had screamed in the wind through the night all around him, like three demented banshees, but yet he hadn’t stirred. He didn’t have the strength in a way that a man needs strength to do anything else.
He had known all that day, yesterday, that they were coming. They’d arrived as soon as the darkness had. They always came in the dark. They came on their horses, six of them, with Padraig de Hay, the middleman at their head.
Six of them Finbarr thought, it took six of them to take on one fourteen-year-old peasant boy starving with the hunger, dressed in rags and with what he could pick up off the ground as his only weapons. Finbarr hadn’t tried to stop them, he was too weak for that. He didn’t even make a token protest and if he had have done he would have received a broken head or worse for his efforts from one of the shillelaghs or the pistols that they all carried with them as a matter of routine. All that is except de Hay himself for he carried neither pistol nor shillelagh, why would he need one when he could get others to do his bidding for him?

Irish cottage

Post card collection of Maggie Land Blanck

To start with there wasn’t that much to destroy and it didn’t take them too long, maybe fifteen minutes at the most but in that time they made sure that they had broken, smashed and cut everything that was visible to the human eye. After that they ripped off the roof of the hut and demolished the walls, then as a final parting shot, one of them on horseback had trampled all over his beloved mother’s tiny wild flower garden. The only consolation for Finbarr was that his mother couldn’t see the deed. She’d loved that little garden, it had been her salvation through the hunger, but she’d been dead these last three months.
They said that she’d died of the fever but he knew that what had really killed her was Ireland’s twin disease of despair and hunger. The hunger that was endless and all prevailing and strangled the land with its un-openable vice-like hand and the despair that looked down upon everything, just the same as a vindictive, angered god.
It wasn’t just Finbarr’s mother who was dead for all his family were too. They’d all died of the same twin disease. First his father, then his four sisters, one by one, and finally his beloved mother.
He was the youngest and now he was the only one left.
Before the Wreckers left, de Hay had ridden over to the boy and looked down upon him, mighty on his big, black stallion whilst Finbarr grovelled on the ground. Finbarr didn’t look up at him, he daren’t, but he knew that if he had, that de Hay’s black eyes would not have shown a germ of pity, a grain of sympathy towards him. He spoke to Finbarr in that half speaking, half whispering, hissing, serpent’s voice of his and said,
‘You have shown yourself to be a man of insignificance but even a man of insignificance should have something to remember himself by.’
Then he let fall to the ground the tiny wooden crucifix that had belonged to Finbarr’s mother. It was a talisman that she had treasured and just before she died she had given it to Finbarr. After her death he’d hung it up in the hut. De Hay must have picked it up from amongst the rubble and seen even a simple, holy, wooden crucifix as an opportunity and an object to inflict even more cruelty on another human being.’

The Council Meeting

‘Just as the Reverend Bel was finishing off the delivery of the lesson that opened the council meeting and right about the time that she arrived at the Amen itself, Councillor Archibald Douglas Forsyth Hamilton, OBE, unbowed his head and looked up and around at the civic ensemble. Hamilton’s eyes scanned the hundred-and-twenty-year-old council chamber searching methodically along the long, oak-benched, leather-covered seating, his perusal came to rest upon one particular bench wherein a seat was vacant. By the expression on Councillor Archie Hamilton’s face this empty place was causing this veteran local politician some degree of anxiety.
Just then the mayor, Councillor Neville Penderyn, high up in his seat of office at the head of the chamber asked for apologies, absences and declarations of interest. Councillor Karen Spencer, the leader of the council, rose to her feet and as if by signal all the other councillors sat down as she began to speak, ‘Councillor Paul Dixon is currently recovering in hospital from his brief illness and will be in absentia from this meeting this evening. I’m sure that everybody in this chamber will join with me in wishing him a more than speedy and complete recovery.’
This statement caused some incoherent mumblings around the chamber.
‘If nothing else,’ she continued, ’we will miss his sense of humour, in fact we would terminally miss anybody and everybody’s sense of humour in this chamber if only there was somebody who had one.’
As explained to the new member in the chamber this was a typical council leader type joke, unfunny.
She continued, ‘during the course of proceedings this evening there will be a get-well card circulating for Councillor Dixon, I’d be most grateful if members would sign it when it gets to you,’ she exhaled.
‘Also Councillor Danny Senetti sends his apologies, he has received a very late and urgent demand upon his time and is unavoidably running late, but he will be in attendance when he arrives.’
‘How could he not be, it would be impossible to be in one without doing the other?’ said Mayor Penderyn.
There was some, but it has to be said not much, laughter around the benches. As explained once again to the new member in the chamber this was a typical, council mayor type joke, again – unfunny.
The announcement about Senetti seemed to ease the anxiety shown in Hamilton’s face and his composure took on a more relaxed state from then on. The meeting real then commenced. It progressed laboriously through the listed agenda items and approximately two thirds of the way through Executive Question Time, which was item four of a fifteen item agenda, Councillor Danny Senetti entered through the doorway of the council chamber. He waited patiently at that doorway for several minutes and until the last executive member answered the final question on the item. Senetti then crossed the floor purposely but quietly and took up his usual seat in the third row of the council backbenches next to Councillor Victoria Quilley.
Following the mayor’s direction the ensemble of elected members progressed through each item on the agenda, arriving finally at the last one which was a proposed and seconded motion whereupon the member who had seconded reserved the usual rights.
This motion seemed to manage quite easily to be all of specific, vague and pointless at the same time. It was also a motion that was not without precedent and it stretched the bounds of repetitive tedium beyond previously unsurpassed lengths.
Finally, the vote was taken and recorded after which elected members rose, the metaphorical guillotine came down and the mayor announced the colours and numbers of the winning raffle tickets and declared the meeting closed. The inevitable outcome of this Full Council Meeting was exactly the same as all the other full council meetings that had preceded it for the last one hundred and twenty years and it was declared triumphantly, that there would be – another full council meeting.’

An Unlikely Alliance

‘Senetti pondered: he failed to comprehend the attitude of some women on this issue of waiting alone in a pub. A man would wait for you alone, he would meet you at the bar but a woman’ he knew many of them that just would not do it. It seemed to him the more successful and confident the woman was then the stronger the likelihood that she would not agree to it. She would meet you in the railway station, miles away from anywhere, she would meet you in the middle of the park, she would meet you in the light or dark, inside a theatre, up a mountain or by a riverbank, there were in fact countless places that a woman would meet you in or at, the list was truly endless. Then, when you asked them to meet you in the pub in the middle of the day, a place that was full of people, often people that they knew and probably one of the safest places in the world that you could meet somebody, you could use all the explanation and argument that was in your head and they would just not agree to the liaison, they just would not wait for a man in the pub on their own. Take Maxine Wells, she was beautiful, intelligent, successful, full of confidence, she was a doctor. She took life saving decisions as a matter of routine and she’d probably travelled all over the world yet she wouldn’t wait inside her own village pub for a man on her own. It was a complete mystery to him and the only reason he could think of was that it was a hereditary stance and that regarding this particular issue these women were still in the mind set of their own grandmothers.’

Two Young Women

‘‘In France,’ Antoinette continued, ‘we have a society that is supposed to be based on liberty, egalite and fraternity, but who is free, who is equal and who is in the brotherhood, not the women, if you wish to stay at home and manage your house and have as many children as you wish, then you are free and equal to do this, if you wish to have an ambition to be admitted to the higher professions then you are not free and equal, if you are a woman you can be the nurse but you can’t be the doctor, you can be the nun but you can’t be the priest, you can be the clerk but you can’t be the lawyer, you can be the politician’s wife or the politician’s mistress but you can’t actually be the politician, any one that is important, any role that is significant, women are not allowed to be part of it.’

‘It’s the same in Ireland, Antoinette, it’s the same in England, it’s the same in many parts of the old world, we are not even allowed to vote. If you take our government, all the Members of Parliament every one of them with no exceptions are men, yet the women make up half the population. So where is the representation for women there in our system?’
‘It has been this way since men and women have been around Roisin and it will never change. If what we are saying is right and I believe that it is, then how are you going to realise your ambition to be a lawyer?’
‘In the new world Antoinette, things are different, in America there have been women doctors and women lawyers for fifty years. In New Zealand women have been able to vote since 1893. So it is simple Antoinette.’
‘Sorry, but I do not understand. How is it simple Roisin, surely it is the opposite of simple it is très difficile.’
‘What will have to happen is that the situation will have to change.’
‘Yes, but the situation has not changed much for women in the last five hundred years, why should it change in the next five hundred?’
‘It will change for women, slowly at first but it will change I am convinced. It is changing now and it would have already changed once and for all if it had not been for this war. God knows this war has taken over the whole human race, but the real oppressed people in this war have not been a tribe, nor nation, nor a race, they have been a gender, they are the women whether they have been Irish, English, French or German. They may not have been oppressed deliberately or even knowingly but as a direct consequence of men’s preoccupation with this conflict men have been able to abdicate their responsibilities to women. All these battles and ideals and this rescuing of freedom have given men a place to hide. Soon though, as with all episodes in history, it will come to an end and there will be no more hiding places. At the end of this war after the heat has cooled there will be no victors nor vanquished, all there will be is a lot of dead men who have been killed by their own fraternity and there will be women to take their places. The most important thing is that women must have the vote. Once that happens we can no longer be ignored by the men that run the country. They will have to listen to us after that and they will have to represent us. If they do not then we will not vote for them and they know this, they are not stupid. Only when it comes to war.’
‘Do you have a particular time when you think this will come about?
‘Yes, I think that the next five years will be absolutely crucial. Let’s get this awful war out of the way, this is a man’s war, it was never a woman’s war. It’s coming to an end now and you will see some big changes in England, Ireland and across the whole continent of Europe. In our lifetimes you will see many women take on the higher roles as you call them, doctors, lawyers, politicians, believe me.’
Antoinette seemed pensive, ‘I think that it will be a long time before women get the vote in France. It certainly won’t be in the next five years. It may even take another war before that happens. France will be behind everybody else in this respect. I agree about the important positions but I personally don’t think that the majority of women in France want the vote, it would give them responsibility that they don’t wish to have.’
‘Isn’t that what all women want Antoinette to be equal to men, isn’t that what you want?’
‘No, Roisin, I don’t want to be equal to men, Je veux infiniment superieur a et que je veux les faire tomber à mes pieds.’
‘Sorry Antoinette I missed that.’
Antoinette translated, I do not want to be equal to them which is what I would be if I had the vote. I want to be superior to them as I am now, I want them to fall at my feet.

Noel O’ Malley and the Holy Conception

From the front and the outside, the sturdy and apparently single storey house that situated itself right in the middle of the terraced row in Castle Street on the edge of Ballina Town, in County Mayo, Ireland, would originally have looked no different than any of the other houses that had stood either side of it for a hundred years or so. The reason that it now looked completely conspicuous from its neighbours was that Sean Christopher Higgins who was currently the co-owner of the house had decided on a whim four years ago to have the whole outside front of it painted – bright, pink. The neighbours didn’t really object in fact in the main most of them were quite amused in their own, quirky Irish way by his choice of tint and others thought that this colour splash brought a bit of light and spontaneous relief to what was otherwise a rather unpainted and sedate street frontage.

What they did find perplexing though was the reason why Sean Christopher Higgins would use his own time and money in pursuit of this dawn-tinted endeavour. This puzzle was made even more interesting to them as for the last fifty one years, Sean Christopher Higgins had resided permanently in Tallahassee, Florida and in those fifty one years he had rarely set foot on the island of Ireland itself let alone across the doorstep of the little pink house from one decade to the next. It therefore seemed to some that perhaps his choice of colour was a symbolic gesture to the local authority who had decreed five years ago that Castle Street be designated a “Conservation Area.” This designation prohibited such acts of wanton colour as Mr Higgins had perpetrated.  The neighbours considered that Mr Higgins was perhaps thumbing his nose at the Council from across the Atlantic Ocean or metaphorically poking his fingers into their eyes. Or possibly even worse and more disrespectful and irreverent than any of these – he was showing these Conservation Clots – as they are known, his big, pink – arse. Anyway, paint it pink he did and pink – it now was and as far as Sean Christopher Higgins was concerned – pink it was staying.

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Copyright © 2015 K. C. Dowling

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