IN THE WOODS
"It's civil war," declared Marsh in the Peacock pub as the television news reader announced that gun battles had broken out in parts of Belfast. He had just come off the phone. It was August 1969 and his dystopian view of society was heightened. "That was the nitroglycerine man on the blower. He says he wants some stuff up there," he said to Nolan and O'Donnell who had just arrived in. "Youse will have to go down to Glenmalure and check on that dump."
The particular dump contained some automatic small arms which had recently been smuggled in from England with the aid of the Dublin criminal Christy Dunne.
"You're on," said O'Donnell. "Get us down in the morning and I'll take a tent."
"For a bit of a camping holiday, sure only a hypochondriac would hide from a spell of weather like this."
A few hours after O'Donnell and Nolan set up the tent in Glenmalure, Noel Crowley stood in the yard of his farm in Castlequarter on the Glen of Imaal side of Glenmalure. Crowley was from Gowerhass in West Clare and was O'Donnell's bailsman. In fact, generations of his family had been friendly with the West Corcabaskin O'Donnells. He was an accountant by profession and had been a famous footballer in the forties and fifties. He had played for Clare and was largely instrumental in their historic defeat of Kerry in the Munster Championship of 1949. Despite his many talents Crowley was an unassuming man and he played his last game of football around 1973 for Kiltegan against Hollywood in County Wicklow after the team's regular goalkeeper failed to turn up. Crowley had no football kit but after a brief conversation with a fat woman in a car he took his place between the posts clad in a black sweater and a pair of faded, blue ladies bloomers.
Crowley stood and stared as a line of gardai came running up the pathway to his farm.
"The bank in Baltinglass has been robbed," they shouted.
"My God! What is the country coming to?" said Crowley who had no interest in politics and consequently did not approve of bank robbing.
"They stripped the manager naked," a garda shouted.
"Stripped him naked! God almighty, were they queers?"
"Semi-naked," corrected a Superintendent. "He had the key of the safe on a chain attached to his trousers and this latchico just ripped it away, without any standing on ceremony, mind you, and half the man's pin striped pants with it."
"The poor man, Mister Waldron, to be standing there in his knickers," Crowley sympathized, "and to know he has a bed in Heaven that very same man, sure he'd give a loan to Cathy Barry if she showed up."
"Without interest," a guard piped up.
"There's no respect for anything anymore," declared Crowley
"Respect! Is it respect you're talking about," the Superintendent scoffed. "Didn't one of the bowsies begin mocking him when Mister Waldron tried to stop him rooting through drawers of legal documents as if he was looking for his uncle's secret Will."
"Isn't it mocking him I'm after saying. One smart gent, in particular, according to Mister Waldron, was shouting out loud in a fancy accent to this spooky fellow who was parading himself up on the counter with a shotgun as if he was some sort of male model if you understand me and him bawling they're not very friendly here are they Josh? Just staring at us as if we were a bunch of fucking rednecks, as if we were iffy, and we all dressed up to the nines in our black pantyhose chadors. Oh! there's no good morning chaps, we have it all here waiting for youse lads, ready to go lads, isn't is a lovely summer morning or are youse having a spot of bother with the pillow case or will I get the young cashier to carry it out to the car for youse'."
"A born comedian."
"We'll put the smirk on the other side of his face before the day is out," promised the Superintendent.
Crowley gazed up at the tall, bony chief policeman with the pale-blue, glassy eyes and the brittle voice. His upper body, slightly stooped with gaunt shoulders, rested on long, thin legs. This gave the Superintendent a spidery appearance.
It was quite hot now, and the gardai sat in groups on large stones in the farmyard, fanning themselves with their caps. A few, seated beneath a small tree, appeared to have their uniforms splattered with fractured sunlight.
"Can I get youse a cup of tea lads?"
"We're investigating a very serious crime: there's no time for picnics," the Superintendent replied curtly.
"Of course," Crowley apologized. "Was anyone caught?"
"Caught! Is it caught you're asking. If they were caught we wouldn't be running around here like blue arse flies with the rubber melting on our boots."
"Like Michael Dwyer and his merry men in '98," interjected a red-faced sergeant.
"Sure nobody saw them come and no more did see them go. There's a sleepy crowd of wankers in the town. It was only when Mister Waldron appeared almost bollock naked in the main street that anybody ."
"You could steal the Town Hall in there and nobody would miss the shagging thing for a wet week."
"How many of them were there?" inquired Crowley.
"At least three of them, according to Mister Waldron, but we'll get them: we have every road in the county slammed shut."
"They're in a fucking ring of steel," a garda hissed while triumphantly slapping his fist into a sweaty palm. "A sparrow's fart wouldn't sneak through."
Crowley spat on the ground and seemed to study it for some time, apparently deep in thought. It was as if he was thinking of the recent departure of the spitter Gilmartin who had spat into DeValera's face at the 1916 Easter Rising Commemoration some twenty years earlier at Arbour Hill. But he was not, because he had never heard of Gilmartin and he did not approve of women spitting in public, and most especially not into the faces of Heads of State.
"I saw three fellows about an hour ago," he announced suddenly.
The gardai immediately jumped to their feet and surrounded Crowley: they were all shouting excitedly. For a moment he felt like the rag and bone man he saw when he first came to Dublin, who was surrounded by ragged children screeching for him to throw them a grimy fistful of sweets.
"Shut fucking up," demanded one voice impatiently.
They continued to surround and stare at Crowley but now in hushed silence.
"About an hour ago I saw three hail fellows well met heading up towards the forestry over there."
"Let's go then."
"Hold on and I'll put on me rushers and show you exactly where they were heading."
The gardai were delighted with Crowley's help, especially since the public seemed to have a lackadaisical attitude as to whether the wrongdoers were captured or not.
While inside the cottage farmhouse, he heard one guard say to another "you wouldn't think it now, but in his younger day that man could jump so high to field a ball that he'd puncture a cloud."
"I saw him kick a placed ball over the bar from way out in the country in Kilrush once," another enthused.
After a quick cup of tea that seemed an eternity to the sweating posse, Crowley emerged from the long single-storey house in a pair of Wellington rubber boots and wearing a trilby hat which seemed too small for his large head. He was carrying an ashplant stick. The Superintendent was frantic and waving his arms about. He reminded Crowley, who was fumbling in his trouser pockets, of an agitated scarecrow.
"What are you foraging for?" he inquired impatiently.
"The key to lock up. I don't want to come back and find the beggars sitting in me kitchen counting the money, anyway I wouldn't go rushing in to that forest. I think that two of the bowsies I saw were carrying rifles." Crowley locked the front door and then placed the key under an empty flower pot beside the door.
A brief conference was held: if the robbers were in the nearby woods they could easily be surrounded; it was simply a matter of dispatching a garda to the nearest house with a telephone to call for reinforcements.
"Run down to Hoxey's you there," ordered the red-faced sergeant.
"Poxy, poxy what?" inquired the dumbfounded garda.
"Hoxey, for fuck sake. The nearest house with a telephone. D'yuh know what a telephone pole looks like?"
"Well follow the telephone wires down to the nearest house and let them know in the station where we are."
"Do you know where we are?"
"Castlequarter, yuh fucking eejit, have yuh got that?"
The garda took off on a slow jog down the path holding his cap in one hand. The stocky sergeant shook his head grimly and turned to Crowley.
"The stupid cunts they are sending us out of Templemore nowadays. Is it any wonder that this great little country of ours is overrun with criminals just waiting for the chance to plug us as we lie in our beds at night."
"Or in the day for shift workers," Crowley added, ending the otiose conversation.
After about an hour another group of gardai arrived: some were armed; two were detectives.
"Who saw what?"
"This man here."
"Who are you?"
The red haired detective stared at the peculiar looking figure with the beer belly who was aimlessly poking the ground with the ashplant stick.
"I was told that you were the Clare footballer," he admitted in a doubtful tone.
"Well I tried to con the paying "
"What are you doing here?"
"I live here. This is my farm; I breed asses on it." (But not in uniform, he thought).
"So you saw men armed with rifles."
"Could have been rifles, shovels, fishing rods, they were in the distance."
The detective grunted.
"Fishing rods in the fucking woods!" He held out his hand to Crowley. "Welcome to Wicklow, I watched you in Croke Park many's the time."
The group, comprising about forty men headed towards the woods which were about a mile away. They walked in silence. It was now about half past one, and over three hours had elapsed since the bank raid.
They soon reached the edge of the woods, and entered in complete silence, a silence which was abruptly broken when one of the gardai burst into a fit of coughing.
"I swallied a fucking midge or something," he gasped. The others stared angrily at him, and after a minute they moved off again.
The men were on their hunkers. A faint crackling sound could be heard in the distance, and they stared at each other in puzzlement.
"Someone's coming this way."
They lay down in the undergrowth, as the crackling sound ebbed and flowed. A wild laugh from not far away made them all jump, and soon they were able to make out snatches of echoed conversation, broken by the odd burst of laughter.
"They're up ahead. We fucking have them."
There was perspiration on their faces as they inched forward through the undergrowth towards the voices. It soon became clear that the crackling sound came from a fire. The raiders were obviously having a meal. Then the initiative-prone detective, who had taken charge of the operation, ordered everyone to remain where they were. He opted to crawl ahead on his own and investigate. Soon he was back, his short red hair dishevelled and his rainbow coloured neck tie pulled back over his shoulder as if someone had tried and failed to choke him. He was trembling with excitement.
"The fuckers are sitting around a fire drinking tea," he stammered and then he began smacking himself all over with both hands, "fucking pissmires."
The merry picnickers were soon encircled, and a whispering argument began about who should call on the revelers to surrender.
"I don't want me fucking head blown off," muttered a sergeant whose face resembled a clammy milk pudding. Another, whose uniform was so twisted by entangling briars that he looked like a contorted casualty from the First World War, stared in wild eyed silence as the fraught murmuring hissed around him like leaking water pipes in the leafy ground. The detective in charge brought the frantic, whispering row to an end when he volunteered.
"We have ye surrounded, come out with yeer hands up," he called out in a strong Munster accent.
There was silence. The revelers stood up and stared at each other: they had heard the shout but could see no one.
"Put yer hands in the air."
The revelers laughed.
"Fuck off outa dat, Charlie, stop acting da cunt, yah bollix."
One of the Baltinglass gardai jumped up.
"They're fucking forestry workers: I know two of 'em."
This epiphany was greeted with dismay by the prone gardai.
O'Donnell and Nolan emerged from their tent the following morning, and sat down near the aircraft memorial. For a time, they gazed admiringly at the irregular tableland of mossy green rock. Two hundred feet below, the Avonbeg River wound its way around the nape of wooded mountainside on its right. On its left, it seemed to feed swamps, which in ancient times must have been inhabited by wild boar and bear. The middle section of the river was black with the reflection of the mountain, while the more distant stretches were dazzling white, as if they were sparkling with leaping fish.
A sudden chop chop chop broke the silence: it seemed to be coming down the mountain. They looked at each other in puzzlement when suddenly over the brow of a hill, a helicopter appeared. It hovered over them for awhile and they could see a figure, which seemed to be in an army uniform, looking down through binoculars. Suddenly the helicopter wheeled around and disappeared over the mountain. The men looked at each other a second time and concluded that there was no need for panic measures.
A helicopter was just a helicopter. Perhaps it was part of a summer routine to check for forest fires. Nevertheless, the pair doubted the common sense of their over-paid, elected representatives and they decided not to become hostages to political naivety. They quickly folded up the tent and headed for the nearby woods. They climbed up to the steepest part of the greenery and found a good vantage point from which they could see a half mile stretch of the only road leading into the lonely Glenmalure valley.
There, they continued to watch and joke. An hour passed and then they heard the drone of engines on the road below. Soon, a possession of garda patrol cars and private cars came into view and pulled up at the bottom of the valley where the river was at its most shallow. The occupants of the cars got out: nearly everyone was a uniformed garda. Some had long sticks, some had slash hooks, and some shovels. Car doors and boots were opened and slammed shut with much ado as groups of gardai gathered in confidential circles.
"Maybe it's an inter-garda-station faction fight," said O'Donnell.
"Maybe they're looking for the salmon of knowledge."
"I doubt that. Isn't that the fucking Slug that's after getting out of that green Morris Minor?"
"Jesus Christ. He'll fucking fry in that big black overcoat," Nolan laughed.
The two men pulled deeper into the woods, and the gardai moved in their direction with an air of excited expectancy. To the two hunted men it sounded as if there was a carnival of some kind going on behind them. There were repeated bursts of walkietalkie radios: there was murderous slashing of undergrowth, and an undying murmur of voices, sometimes broken by a shout of "Over here" or "Up there."
The two men moved on silently in swift bursts, and the cacophony behind them melted into the distance. They stopped, taking note of their positions, and the susurration behind them swelled again, as the flailing, roaring mass gained ground. Curses rang out as faces became entangled in briars, and shouts of "Fuck it," could be heard ringing out through the teeming woods as sweating figures on ground alien to them stumbled into drains or fell headlong over tree roots onto nettles or thistles.
"They're certainly not trying to take anyone by surprise," Nolan laughed as the two put on another spurt. They flitted past a shadowy congregation of deformed trees which looked like a group of tense animals about to spring an ambush. The fury behind them was now like a distant mad memory, dying on its own frantic breath.
Suddenly, not fifty yards in front of them, a walkie-talkie shattered the silence. For the first time the pair realized that they were in a crisis as it dawned on them that the gardai were taking the woods from both sides. Soon, escape would be impossible: if the men went left they would find themselves in open mountain countryside: if they went right they faced fields of grazing sheep adjoining the Laragh road. They stared desperately at each other: there was only one possible way of avoiding capture.
Within an instant, O'Donnell, the lighter of the two, was on top of Nolan's shoulders and pulling himself onto the lower branches of a tall pine tree. Then, leaning down, he helped pull a grunting Nolan up and sniggered as Nolan's long legs flailed around in mid air like a broken helicopter propeller before he managed to gain a foothold.
"Yah won't be laughing if they look up and see us," he gasped.
Soon they were twenty feet above the forest floor, swaying slightly in a gentle breeze. These new arboreal inhabitants watched, with an air of detached curiosity, the sweating line thrash the ground beneath them as if it had offended them in some unforgivable way. They were also gleefully aware that, for those shuffling below, the air had to feel as heavy as water. It was now well into the afternoon.
The two lines of gardai met each other some distance from the tree perch and stared at one another in astonishment. Where had the birds flown? They were absolutely certain that nobody had emerged from the wood, for every side was covered. There was nothing for it but to begin again.
It was dark before the men risked leaving their nests. Some days later they met Marsh in the Peacock. He was vociferous in his denunciation of Catholicism, of Daniel O'Connell and anything associated with Rome, the Holy Ghost or Transubstantiation after reading in the Irish Times that Catholics in Belfast were distributing cups of tea and sandwiches to the newly arrived British soldiers.
"If I believed in Hell," he snarled, "I'd damn the lot of 'em and turn the tea into piss."