1 The vision
Great change begins with small events, signs and omens of seemingly little significance. Later, when people recall the turning points, patterns appear in hindsight. Obscure words and trivial happenings acquire meaning and are elevated in memory. People who may have attracted little attention in their own time are revealed as authors of a new, uncharted future.
Kathleen Daly paused in the elevated stone entrance of a church. She pushed open the heavy oak door and stepped into the dark interior. A shaft of light swung into the deep silence. A hint of incense lingered, like disturbed spirits, in the air. An old man stood with his head bowed, praying in front of a statue of Saint Anthony, illuminated by candles flickering on a wax-encrusted stand. Two elderly women knelt with their heads bowed, clasping rosary beads, whispering sibilant prayers.
Kathleen wasn’t especially devout. She observed the sacramental calendar of church, penance and celebration, handed down by tradition and upbringing. She was sceptical of the priest’s influence but respectful of the sacred rituals.
Kathleen was startled by a brilliant beam of sunlight filtered through stained glass, as she walked up the aisle. She stepped on a loose tile and grasped the end of a pew to steady herself. She sensed she was being observed and looked around sharply. She could see no sign of anyone paying attention to her. She entered a pew three rows from the altar-rail and knelt on the hard wooden step. She clasped her hands fervently and bowed her head, in prayer.
She was startled when the entrance door swung open again, behind her. A wave of outdoor sounds rushed in, followed by deep resonant footsteps. Kathleen turned around and saw a man approaching up the aisle. His face was thin, smiling with a long slightly bent nose. He stopped into the shaft of flame-coloured light, from a stained-glass window, where Katie paused a few minutes earlier. His face glowed in the golden light. His arms, chest & abdomen were stained deep blood red. Flashes of orange shimmered on his torso, like fire, as he moved slightly in the light.
His features were lean, confident and strong, marked with lines of harsh experience. He had an air of inner peace and firm determination. Katie recognized some special quality in this man as if she knew him very well but she had no idea who he was. Kathleen wasn’t prone to dreaming but this image lingered in her mind long after she experienced it, on the edge of sleep.
Kathleen Daly and her extended family lived in a city at the edge of a fading Empire on the cusp of great change. Old certainties were crumbling. Deep reservoirs of sentiment, long hidden, were straining to overwhelm the forces that confined them. Institutions of state, society and commerce which stood immovable for generations were shaken so violently it seemed they were poised to collapse.
The Empire, founded on the virtues of loyalty and conformity, struggled to adapt to the force of irresistible change. A complacent ruling caste swallowed small, apparently safe, inoculations of democracy, hoping they might prolong their hold on power, but their cause was lost. The spirit of freedom raced around the world like a disease laying waste to empires. Obscure men and women would soon be thrust into the centre of momentous events. Their words and actions would be argued over, told and retold long after those who lived through them passed from the living world.
Kathleen, known to her family as Katie, lived with her widowed mother, her sisters and her extended family in Limerick in the 1890’s. The Daly family weren’t wealthy but they prospered through hard work and patient endeavour. Katie’s father, Edward, an elder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, died unexpectedly, leaving six daughters and a pregnant wife. Kate senior was delivered of a son, Ned, after her husband’s untimely death. She and her daughters worked relentlessly and, with support from relatives and republican supporters, they achieved a measure of independence. Their home was not very grand but it was much better than the numerous old and derelict buildings where the city’s poor huddled in pitiful subsistence.
The Daly household was immersed in commerce and politics. Katie and her mother were as strong and as wilful as each other, too similar in character to live peacefully together, too sentimental and passionate to be separated for long. Each knew her own mind and each saw much scope for improvement in the other. They argued constantly, striving to win some point or extract some concession. They complained bitterly about each other in private while presenting a serene and inscrutable pose to anyone who dared inquire into the causes of their innumerable disputes. Many well intentioned mediators were sent packing with a sharp rebuke for daring to pour balm on their fiery tempers.
Katie was of an age when it was expected she would go to work in the family bakery but she scorned the idea, when it was proposed by her mother, and she found a position as a trainee dressmaker. She succeeded in her new career and earned enough money to start a business of her own. The business prospered. She rented larger premises and took on staff. Her mother found her daughter’s stubborn defiance irritating but, privately, she would concede Katie’s success was a source of pride and clearly the result of good breeding. Mrs Daly had high hopes for her turbulent daughter, in spite of their many disagreements.
Katie often went to the milk market with her mother and her sister Agnes on Saturdays. She had outgrown the crude excitements of the market but it was an opportunity to spend some peaceful time with her mother, free of the stress of conversation. She would once have lingered to view each stall, the ruddy-faced farmers straining to sell their wares, the colourful fancy goods and the sellers of mysterious tools and implements of all shapes and sizes but her mind was elsewhere and her mother was determined to get home early. They bought eggs, some vegetables and a hen for the pot. They returned home in haste, Mrs Daly linking arms with her daughters, Katie on one side and Agnes on the other.
Frayed posters were pasted on the outer walls of the market, with a startling message;
Elect John Daly,
Katie’s uncle John Daly was no ordinary candidate for election. He was serving a life sentence, with hard labour, in an English prison, convicted of Treasonable Felony. The senior investigating police officer later confessed, as he lay dying, the prosecution evidence was false but this did not lead to the prisoners’ release. John Daly was one of a group of republicans, regarded by the authorities as dangerous agitators who must be locked away as long as possible. They were celebrated as heroic patriots in Ireland.
‘Can Uncle John really be elected?’ Agnes asked.
‘He’s up against it. We’ll see,’ Mrs Daly said. She ushered her daughters along at a brisk pace. ‘What’s the hurry Mam?’ Katie asked.
‘There will be no peace until this election is over’ Mrs Daly said.
Katie’s mother knew elections were a time of trouble. A small privileged caste, nurtured by empire, ruled Ireland by coercion, bribery and neglect. Lacking popular consent, the Empire was compelled, step by unwilling step, to loosen its grip. The right to vote could not be denied forever, although women and poorer men were still excluded. Newly enfranchised men elected candidates who represented the popular will. An undeniable majority of voters was strongly opposed to British rule. British loyalists were mainly concentrated in the north east corner of the country. They were a very small minority elsewhere.
The authorities knew elections were a smouldering fuse under the crumbling Imperial edifice but the tide of freedom could not be reversed. The constables were especially busy at election times when public resentment, never far from the surface, erupted in full voice and strength.
Mrs Daly and her daughters approached the corner at Clune’s tobacco factory where a man, wearing a sandwich board covered with election posters for John Daly, was giving handbills to passers-by. ‘Vote John Daly,’ he called, defiantly.
Two burly police constables, striding up Denmark Street, stopped to look at him. One constable snatched the handbills, glared at them and threw them away. Children rushed forward to catch the leaflets as they fluttered in the air.
‘Elect John Daly,’ the man called out, defiantly. The first constable turned away, gripped his baton in his fist and swung the handle back into the side of the man’s abdomen. He fell to his knees, clutching his side, groaning in pain. The policemen glanced at the fallen man, smiled at each other and strolled away.
‘Did you see that?’ Katie said indignantly. She ran to help the injured man, who was struggling to his feet, hindered by his display board. The children brought the scattered handbills to him. Mrs Daly glared contemptuously at the police. ‘Disgraceful, blackguards, you should be ashamed of yourselves’ she said, towards the constables, as they walked away with a slow, aggressive swagger.
‘Are you alright?’ she asked the man as he struggled to get up.
‘I’m alright ma’am. I’m used to it. The police will have to put up with us when John Daly is elected’ he said.
‘God bless you. Come on girls let’s get home,’ Mrs Daly said and she led her daughters away.
‘It’s so wrong the police can get away with that. They’re worse than criminals’ Katie said.
‘Let’s get home. It’s not safe out on the street these times’ Mrs Daly said.
Katie resisted the impulse to contradict her mother. On certain matters there was no room for argument. She and her mother were bound by ties of loyalty and kinship to a dispersed nation, sheltered and formed by it, tortured and pained by it, bound by links that could not be broken by neglect, oppression or misrule.
Katie learned the history and traditions of her people from her mother and her family as they in turn had learned. They were audience and participants in a narrative woven from tenuous filaments of events, stories and customs, snatches of conversation, everyday news and chance remarks. She listened to stories of great deeds, ancient struggles, hopes and dreams, absorbing the culture of her people in the minute curvature of experience. She grew in understanding that runs deeper than mere knowledge. She emerged into a conflux of her times, her people and her curious, wilful character, ready and eager to absorb new experience and challenge the received traditions of her age.
At her core was a calm determined spirit around which swirled a furious storm of people, ideas and events reaching far beyond her home and her country. She was determined, curious and capable, qualities she would need as she would soon be immersed in strange and momentous events.