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Excerpt from ‘Running with Crows – The Life and Death of a Black and Tan’

May 21, 2013

‘The Joy’, Dublin, 1st June 1921: 


The sorry ruins of Dublin’s elegant Custom House smouldered still on the quayside, yet the black waters of the Liffey lapped by unconcernedly. The sun was rising and wary citizens began to appear and go about their business as best they could on an otherwise pleasant June morning.

As the military vehicle sped along the quay on its way out to Phibsboro, the handcuffed prisoner in the back strained to take a last glimpse at his native city. He noted they were taking a roundabout route along the north bank of the Liffey, presumably to avoid being delayed by the city’s many roadblocks. All too soon the vehicle reached the North Circular Road and the entrance to Mountjoy Gaol. Shortly the reception process was under way…


… The first thing he noticed about Mountjoy was the smell. It was the unmistakable stench of urine, not dissimilar to the stink of the foul tanneries of his adolescence. Arbour Hill Prison, by comparison, had not smelled bad. Arbour Hill was a military prison and therefore had been organised like any army camp, with well-scrubbed floors and well-scrubbed prisoners. Military prisons in the field were a different matter again, of course, as well he knew. Even the army abandoned its normal standards of cleanliness and hygiene during war. Perhaps the same was true here in Mountjoy, or The Joy, as the ever ironic Dubliners called it. Dublin was at war these days, after all. Perhaps The Joy wasn’t always this pungent – perhaps.

All around him, the early morning routine of the prison bustled along. Staff came to the reception area and went away again. Prisoner-orderlies shuffled to and fro. Their whistling, the clink of keys and the slamming of iron doors were magnified in this echo chamber which was the heart of The Joy. All were oblivious to the plight of the lone standing man – a tall man, ex-soldier, ex-policeman, a condemned man whose trepidation grew as he waited. He knew The Joy had seen so many executions of late that such an event must now be almost commonplace. That Prisoner Mitchell was to die here was a prospect remarkable only to himself…


‘So this is what a condemned cell looks like?’ he said, ‘I’ve always wondered.’




 The Western Front, France, 1916:

Tension along the line was palpable as the men stood ready.  Some swayed in fearful anticipation: some pressed their foreheads against the cold, damp clay to steady themselves.  Mitch could hear someone else close by muttering a prayer. Further down the trench, someone was taking a piss. The tension affected each man differently. The months of training – training which Mitch had not needed in any case, and which had mostly involved horseback charges, plunging lances into sandbags – had not prepared them for this moment.  The horses and lances were now far behind the lines.  Only the sandbags had come with them to the trenches.  


As a groom, Mitch had until recently been assigned to stay back behind the lines and care for the horses whilst others in the regiment went up to the front. The men of the 16th had taken a hammering though. The lancers were effectively infantry now and it was a case of all troops to the front line.


Unlike others of his new comrades therefore, Mitch had little idea of what would confront him when they scrambled over the parapet. However,  he guessed the chances of coming back alive and in one piece were not great. Someone in the company had described these last minute nerves, in the moment before an attack began, as being just like the stage fright he had experienced in his acting career – wishing he had relieved himself before the curtain went up, wishing he had chosen any other occupation but this. For some however, quiet resignation and making peace with God was their natural response to the fear.


The waiting was the worst part; worse perhaps than the eventual charge out into the darkness. It would not be too long before that darkness would be illuminated by the angry glare of the enemy’s artillery fire. Mitch was already familiar with the rattle of machine gun fire and the thunder of artillery, as it was plainly audible even from well behind the lines.  Soon though, he would see what it looked like close up.  This would be his first experience of engaging the enemy.  




‘The Wicklow Warriors’ – Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, January 1921:


The drive from the camp at Gormanstown down to Dublin gave the dozen temporary constables in the back of the personnel carrier a chance to get acquainted. Although they had all undergone the same two weeks of induction at the Royal Irish Constabulary’s training camp, the instruction had been so intensive that most of the RIC’s new recruits had not had a chance to socialise.


Mitch knew only one of them slightly. George White, Blanco to his mates, had arrived at the Gormanstown camp on the same day as Mitch. Blanco had  been a professional soldier before the war and had been made up to corporal whilst in France. Despite Mitch’s extreme distrust of NCOs, he thought Blanco seemed decent enough. The twelve men had been advised that six of them would be posted to the Dame Street barracks in Dublin but the other half dozen, Mitch and Blanco included, would be posted to a place named Dunlavin, in County Wicklow.


As the wintery countryside of County Meath gave way to the smokey outskirts  of Dublin, Mitch speculated on what might be expected of them once there, for no-one had spelled out the precise nature of their duties as yet. As part of their training, the new temporary constables had been read the text of a newspaper cutting from Freeman’s Journal.  The trainers explained it was a part of a speech made by RIC Divisional Commissioner for Munster, Lieutenant Colonel Smythe. It was the nearest thing to clarification of their role which the recruits had so far received. Mitch could recall a particular line of that speech:


‘The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you, no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man …’



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