orphans.jpg

Photograph taken in England, 1922, of most of the boys who were rescued from the Clifden Protestant orphanage, Connemara, torched by anti-Treaty forces in June of that year as Ireland's civil war raged. One of the women is their matron, Emily White. This group emigrated to Australia. It is not known what happened to the girls from the orphanage, and the fate of the rest of the boys is also unknown. 

Image supplied by the family of Albert Farrell. 

This true story inspired The Orphan's Name. 

 

PART  I

An Extra Pair of Hands

 

It is very nice if you are poor and not humble... to bring your enemies down to utter destruction, while you yourself rise up to grandeur.

DH Lawrence

 

Chapter I

 

In the shadow of the Twelve Bens Mountains on the Connemara coast lay the Clifden Orphanage. It was a large property; inside, the elaborate hearths and cornices clung like frozen tears for grander, happier days before the Famine. The old inhabitants had long fled, leaving dust to settle, undisturbed, until the house became a container for unwanted Protestant children. This story begins in 1922, when Thomas Regan had been a Clifden orphan for nine of his eleven years.          

        One shifty-skied May morning, Thomas raised his fist at the Study door. The frap-frap of knuckle on wood, then the quavery: “Come in!” of the Orphanage Master. Swallowing his dread, Thomas opened the door and stepped up to the desk. 

        “Sir, what happened to my parents?” 

        The Master’s fuzzled eyebrows moved closer together. “Your poor mother died young and your father couldn’t keep you. He was an honest man, but without a penny to his name.”

        Thomas folded his stocky arms and stared at the roll-top bureau, at the slats of wood that counted down to an iron-edged lock, then at the old man’s hand – which did not approach the pocket where his keys were kept. Just a day before, Albany had insisted there were papers in that bureau for every one of the thirty-three boys in the main house and every one of the twenty-five girls in the annex, and Albany was rarely wrong.

        “There is no shame in poverty, for blessed are the poor,” said the Master, then he bent over the columns of crooked numbers in his ledger and a small explosion seemed to erupt in his throat. “That’s over a week since the newspapers stopped – tis all down to the Anti-Treaty crowd, sure it is.”  

        “Sir, have you no letters about me, with an address?” Thomas stared at the carpet; its brown speckled triangles were familiar enough, yet he could not remember his first sight of them.  

        “Destitute men have no addresses, Regan. And even if they do, there’s no relying on Ireland’s postmen any more. You may go,” the Master said, in the weary tone that meant one of his rages was brewing.

        Neither the higgledy bookshelves nor the scuffed walls yielded any scraps of memory, so Thomas’s arrival here stayed hidden behind his thoughts. It wasn’t fair – but – nothing was. He pulled the study door not quite shut behind him and stole a glance back at the gloom. The Master did not stir his crippled legs.

        So. Truth was for the fortunate, for those able to look on themselves without shame or hurt, but the one certainty remained: Thomas had not been born within these cold walls. In some unknown county there was a neat cottage, warmed by its fire and by the smile of a pink-cheeked mother wearing a hat with flowers on it. There were the safe arms of a man with pale brown hair and hazel eyes just like Thomas’s own. “Where is our child, our handsome son?” the man and the woman would be asking now. At night, the stiff Orphanage blanket became the pat of a mother’s hand on Thomas’s back, melting tenderness through every fibre of his skin until he could forget the other beds in the dormitory, banish the chilblains and the jibes about his Papist name because truly, Mr and Mrs Regan would never have given him up.

        Each morning the Orphanage bell ripped away the precious phantoms and sent him to the bathroom queue, the prelude to another miserable day. That same hurt must have lived in every Clifden orphan’s mind, yet Thomas never heard any of them voice it.

        He began watching the Master closely, trying to get an idea of how those keys might be borrowed but the old man’s hands were never far from his pockets. Thomas even attempted a midnight raid on the old man’s bedroom, but the door was bolted and the window too high to climb through. The one time Thomas found the study open and deserted, he attacked the bureau lock with the Master’s paper knife for half an hour but it held fast, then Fidelma came in and shrieked that he was a thieving varmint with the fires of Hell heating for him. The worst caning of his life it meant, though unlike Higgins’ fist, the Master’s cane landed only on his arse.

        For now the truth would have to stay hidden – but some day Thomas would smash open that slatted wood and pull out every last paper bearing his name.          

Clifden orphanage.png

The Clifden Protestant Orphanage

 

“No more walks outside, it’s not safe,” the Master warned at the end of May, because the Four Courts invasion was raging on in Dublin, and hoards of raggledy strangers now occupied the Work House and the Barracks on Clifden Main Street. Yet down the road towards the village with the flattened distant sea beyond Thomas ran, with Higgins and Murray in pursuit baying: “Grandaddy Regan took the soup!”  His lungs bursting, he turned a bend and here was a ditch – a flying second then a faceful of mud.

        He lay flat, surely invisible. What would Higgins know of family – had he seen inside the Master’s bureau? There was no denying that the Regans would have been Papists before the Famine – bad enough – but fickle Papists who’d abandoned their diabolical faith just for a drop of pea soup were worst of all.

        “Peasouper! Peasouper!” Boots – slap, slap, slap – pelted past, then faded. All the air was gone from Thomas’s lungs and only small quiet breaths were safe. If he didn’t die in the next few hours, he’d go and find his old kidnappers, smash their faces into bloody, pleading messes. High over his head, the gulls screamed down scorn at the useless idea because God hadn’t answered the prayers, had given no clue where the kidnappers lived. Wandering all night would be no joke, not with the hunger attack on him. So why had he run out here? Next time he’d dash straight to Matron because being called a peach was no worse than the other names. His heart began to slow, then the footsteps rushed back. Then – CLACK-K-k-k – the sky trembled – a sigh, half-human, half-wind. Crunch, something falling on the road. Running feet, heavier than Higgins’ – the hedge above parted, now a flash of mustardy-yellow socks, now a boot-sole, vanishing. Thuds, into the field behind.

        Only the screaming gulls remained. Thomas stared at the raw ditch wall. The beatings would not stop until Higgins turned sixteen and left. October, that would be. June, July, August, September… Four long months to survive. The mud creeling into his shorts was suddenly watery and the scent of his own piss hit his nostrils. Shame, ugly shame. Slipping back to the Orphanage unnoticed would take a miracle; stinker piss-pants would be added to the list of names. A raindrop landed on his chin with the grey sky threatening more. Why was he targeted like this, and not Coyne and McGrath, whose names were just as Papist? Perhaps it was because they were a year younger than him, or perhaps just because. Simpler to understand was why the boys with proper Protestant names wore them so smugly, descendants of the fellows dishing out the soup rather than those drinking it.

        The quiet broke with a raspy cry like that trapped fox’s in the woods last year, yet this voice was human and very close. Thomas reached up to the grass, pulled himself into a crouching position, and waited as the low groans dragged on. The sound was pitiful, but could still mean danger. Inch by careful inch he rose, until his eyes were at the level of the road.

        Unknown eyes, immobile, stared back. The man lay on his back with his face towards Thomas and dark hair sticking damply on the forehead, while the mouth gaped as if to suck up dirt from the ground. A red patch was spreading over the man’s light brown shirt and onto the bare earth.

        There should be no place for dead strangers in dreams. A dead, dark-haired stranger, who shouldn’t have been shot there, less than a hundred yards from the Orphanage and who shouldn’t have made those horrible last groans for Thomas’s ears alone. There was no way of knowing what sort of fellow he’d been, or even his name, but someone would have come along later: cleaned him up, changed that bloody shirt and buried him neatly in the Papists’ graveyard. There’d be a mother and father to cry over the coffin, he didn’t need Thomas’s thoughts. Dead strangers were for other people to remember.

         The tale didn’t need repeating in the Orphanage because hadn’t it been bad enough, slinking back with Shinners behind the hedges and Higgins everywhere else, all the way to the dormitory with piss-mud plastered over his shorts and those freshly killed eyes following his every step?

#

 

Two weeks later, a battering hit the Orphanage front door and echoed along the corridor’s white walls to reach the refectory where, among the lines of boys and bowls, Thomas sat sucking at his back teeth to extract the last of the broth from the terrible hole that had grown there. The noise stopped, he rubbed his hands on his thighs. Now there were two damp patches on his shorts and Matron would finally have to believe how bad his tooth was, which would mean a visit from the dentist to end the pain, maybe a short spell in the sick-bay where the beds were more comfortable and the dreams of a dead man’s eyes should stop.

        A second burst of hammering from outside, gruff voices drowned Matron’s squawks then Cook hurried in, a rag in her hand and her face flushed with urgency. She went first to Murray, then to Higgins, Hart, Pargeter Senior, Surtees, and finally Grey, who was fourteen but startlingly well-grown. They rose, glowing at having been picked out, and she drew them into a corner. Hands in pockets, Higgins managed to swagger even when he stood still.

         The argument outside got louder. “We’ll have them!” Thomas thought he heard, and then he noticed Pargeter Senior slipping out of the window into the garden. Perhaps they were going to spring an ambush – with the punishing those fellows had given the door, they had to be Shinners. A far tougher fight for Higgins, and they might even put a bullet in his chest.

        No grown-ups were left in the refectory now. McGrath poked a bit of bread around his soup-plate and the younger Pargeter brother wept noiselessly into the napkin tied round his neck.

        The shouting stopped. A slam, the scuttling of a woman’s feet, then nothing. Albany whispered that the Master would come. The boys on the other side of the table got up and crept to the wall, where they pressed in a line beside the door. Thomas opened his mouth but his throat muscles had wound themselves into a tight twist – those Shinners ought to be murdering Higgins now. The silence wore on until Pargeter Junior’s sobs became loud gurgles and everyone hissed at him to stop. Not a single gunshot ripped the air.

        There on the wall hung the bare cross, giving no hint as to whether the ears of God were open today. In Thomas’s tooth the pain surged back, he ran his tongue over it. He hadn’t been shot like that man in the road...

#

 

Next morning, the six eldest boys were still missing and Cook was tight-lipped as to their fate.

        “It was Sinn Feiners, they were going to do them in,” went the whispers at breakfast.

        “D’you think they got away in time?” asked McGrath.

        “Sure they did,” answered several boys at once, glancing at Pargeter Junior who’d kept half the dormitory awake as he’d cried for his brother; no one wanted him to start off again.

        “It’s for those houses the Black and Tans burned last year,” said Albany.

        Thomas remembered. Fourteen houses in Clifden village, to be exact, Matron had scolded the maids for talking about it.

        “But that was for those two RIC officers getting shot,” said McGrath, “Fidelma said – ”

        Coyne cut in with a wave of his arm, “Ah, what does a stupid old Papist biddy know?”

        “Too much for her own good, so she says!” yelled Albany. “Seems there’s a flying column plotting to kill the Master and the English Royal family.”

        Cook rang her bell, her mouth even more doleful than usual, so the boys stood with their dirty crockery and filed along to the trolley. Thomas imagined Higgins and the others shot through their heads, glassy-eyed, with their fists suddenly useless and the ground pooling red beneath them.

        “The Shinners’ll want a proper revenge, see – just murdering a few of us lads and giving out to Matron won’t be enough for them,” Albany went on, as Pargeter Junior clutched his terrified face.

        “They won’t bother,” Thomas told him. “There’s nothing for them here, nothing for anyone here – and even if they do find the others, it’d only be kidnap, not murder,”

        “Who’d pay a ransom for us, Peasouper?” cried Simmons.         

        “It’s the Shinners’ turn, though, isn’t it,” said Albany, as little Pargeter sniffled.

        “Turns,” said Thomas quietly. “It’s not like playing draughts.”

        “Well, that’s how it works,” Albany raised his chin.

        “We should set up a trip wire.”

        “D’you think those Shinners were after the girls too?”

        The argument carried on as they went to the classroom. Thomas lagged behind so he could reach into the upturned hem of his shorts for the hidden crust of bread, then turned away to rub his gums with it – ah, the agony – he tasted the ooze of blood and dribbled some down his chin. The blood-stained crust went back into its hiding place and now he could ask to see Matron because if Higgins wasn’t dead, he’d return nastier than ever.         

#

 

A few days later Thomas was out in the field beside the Orphanage, pulling out weeds from the regiment of cabbages. Matron had huffed at his toothache-plus-bleeding-gums, simply telling him to use his toothbrush with more care, so the holiday in the sick-bay seemed unlikely. Everyone had been speculating about the missing boys who, so the Master said, were now in a safe place: “Thanks to the protection of merciful God and the kindness of friends.”

        “Too bad,” said Thomas, tearing at a dandelion. More than anyone else in the world, Higgins deserved a bit of murdering. What sort of a merciful God went protecting the likes of Higgins and Murray yet left him to suffer here, holes in his teeth and all? It mightn’t be true, anyway, wasn’t the Master a proven old liar? Thomas looked quickly around in the fading light, glared back down at the cabbages, then stamped on the nearest one. His boot heel cut a gash, the pale green roundness filthied and the white veins broken. Thomas raised his foot a second time, as a heavy voice boomed from down the hill: guh-neeneranjoul-draymara-duhknah...[1] Irish! Thomas turned to see five poor-looking fellows approaching the Orphanage.

        One was a stunted little man – or boy – who carried a rifle with a sharp point clipped to its barrel. Matron appeared in the open front doorway, a fist bunched each side of her broad hips. The men looked dirty next to her white apron, crowding round close enough to soil it – and how she hated stains on anything! Thomas crept further down the hill.

        “Bring’em out!”

        For a second he froze, glanced back at the sullied cabbage then down at Matron jerking her arms as the men prowled in front of her. One wore mustardy-yellow socks pulled up over his breeches – dead eyes flashed at Thomas – keeping his back bent he sped over to the hedge with another boy’s breaths hard behind him.

        “Shinners!” Albany had dropped salt in Thomas’s porridge that morning but it was forgotten, with Sinn Feiners a mere dozen feet away. Through the gorse bushes the boys peered, shoulders touching.

        Three of the men had vanished, the other two stayed sentry at the front door. The land-birds kept up their distant flutey sound as two boys stumbled out from the Orphanage, followed by the man in yellow socks. Out poured more boys, their heads lowered, then Pargeter Junior in pyjamas and last came the Master, his left leg dragging.

        “That’s it, go, go, ye little bastards!” Yellow Socks cried.

        “Make a nice parade, now!” sneered Boy-Man, jabbing them with his rifle butt and strutting about like the finest marksman that ever lived. Why had the others let him carry it, when not even boys in The Magnet got their own guns? Now Albany and Simmons were whispering and darting looks at the spinney on the hill.

        “And ye vermin out in the field!” shouted Yellow Socks. His mouth moved in between words, never still, nor were his eyes – in fact his whole face contorted as if he were trying to turn into something else. “Come here!”

        Thomas shrank back, the sweat pooling on his back as, a few yards along, the bushes parted for a pistol-holding hand.

        “Now! Or we’ll shoot ye!”

        And he would, wouldn’t he? All three boys rose to their feet with a unanimous movement, oddly like a choir responding to applause. Thomas didn’t expect his legs to carry him anywhere, but they moved normally and sudden cold ate through the dampness of his shirt. At the gap in the hedge Yellow Socks slapped their shoulders, counting them aloud and shoving each one towards the line-up. “March, little soldier men, march for your King George!”

        Three guns pointing now. Silently everyone turned towards the road.

        “Not that way! Do ye take us for eejits? Get to the field!” yelled the scrawniest Shinner, his features half-hidden in the folds of his scarf, as Yellow Socks rushed over at the Master, clouting him to the ground with one smack of a rifle butt. The old fellow curled up in the dirt and brought his hands to his face like a dog playing dead.

        Matron rushed to kneel beside him. “Can’t you see he’s crippled? And the boys, they’re only children, why should you want to harm them?”

        “You’d better clear out, missus,” Yellow Socks told her, his legs planted apart.

        “Just tell me, why has all this been done?”

        “These lads are being taught loyalty to England and this Protestant Orphanage has sent many of them to the war in France,” he explained with teacherly patience. “There’s no place for you in the new Republic.”

        Matron opened her mouth but the madness erupted back over his face: “Do it!” he screamed.

        Thomas’s belly wrenched: if – if he were to fall just at the moment they started shooting, they might take him for dead. Everything inside him plummeted and he shut his eyes so tight that it hurt; a foretaste of death. Why go on seeing, if he were to become an unmourned corpse?

        “Shaa!” Giddy, thirsty voices ripped the air – no gun cracks – the only pain was the one in his jaw.

        Thomas opened his eyes: the other boys were still standing. The two younger Sinn Feiners darted inside the Orphanage, then the scarf dropped a little from the taller one’s head, exposing the starved hollows of his face. He drew his pistol, black and heavy at the end of his skeletal arm and “Whisshht,” he cried, backing up the hill with pistol outstretched and the fingers of his other hand curling in summons. “Lively on your trotters now, ye little feckers!”

        Yellow Socks had his gun aimed behind them, so they followed Starved Face for thirty yards with all their eyes on his pistol hand. Then he stopped, “Sit down!” Everyone fell to their knees and huddled in the thick summer grass that had gone cold with the leaving of the sun. Starved Face stepped up to Pargeter Junior and aimed a kick at the little boy’s slippers. “Would you dance if I shot you in the knee, now?” he yelled, convulsing with malformed laughter.

        Thomas put his hands to his ears and stared at the cream Orphanage building: something about it had changed, though it was hard to say what or how. Could it be smaller, or was it because of Yellow Socks standing, rifle pointed, before it? Boy-Man and the other young one reappeared with a few sacks, which they flung down, clanking.

        “The silver,” moaned the Master, as though someone were gripping his throat. Those trays and basins and milk jugs that Thomas had spent countless hours polishing – well, someone else would have to clean them now.  

        A thin column of smoke rose from the side of the building; Boy-Man tore down the Union flag with a harp at its centre. Then the birdsong stopped as clouds billowed from an open window and swelled to a fog that crept across the Orphanage walls. An odd rumbling began, then – Paf! The side door sprang out, followed by flames lashing out and catching the nearby plane tree. The din thickened as the tiles catapulted themselves away from the roof and – Thwack! Likely a beam breaking. It was like watching a house of cards fold slowly in on itself. Eddies of smoke slipped up the hillside to Thomas’s nostrils, followed by little slivers of the fire creature – one landed on his shoulder and he watched to see if it would scorch right through, it left a brown stain the size of his fingernail. His bed-sheets would be all ablaze. The pages of his Magnets must be rippling as they burned, and worse, the truths hidden in the Master’s bureau would be destroyed forever.

        To his right Pargeter Junior crouched, clinging to the oversized slippers on his feet. At least Thomas had boots on – would he walk, or be buried in them? That pistol still pointed, but Starved Face had long stopped laughing.

        The walls were black now, melding with the dusky land. Soon the orange beast filled the Orphanage, crackle, roar, and with a smash it punched out the remains of the roof, spitting flashes into the startled sky. The windows had grown larger, they wept harsh orange tears until there were more flames than walls, the beast growing a comet’s tail to shoot off and eat the emerging stars. Thomas shivered, waited, and shivered. There was a whistle, Starved Face jerked his head downwards then back at the orphans. Fire-glow lit his gaunt cheeks, the eyes bulbous with terror. This man – who’d pointed his gun at them as their home burned, the man who might have ended any of their lives with a simple squeeze of his finger – was trembling! Villains were never scared, not even the sorts caught by Sexton Blake in the Penny Pictorials, yet the weapon dangled from this Shinner’s fingers as if he were desperate to be rid of it. He coughed, long and phlegmy-sounding, a last urgent stare, then he ran down the hill wheeling his spindly legs like a child’s. 

        Now there was no authority. The Shinners scurried through the open gate and vanished round the bend in the road. Matron was nowhere to be seen and Thomas couldn’t remember her climbing the hill with them earlier. She could be inside, her skirt layers flaring up one by one – but there hadn’t been any screams. No sign of the orphan girls, either. The flames began to fall as though some mighty breath were extinguishing them, down they dropped until they were just flickers. Everywhere the sour odour hung, Thomas couldn’t blow it out from his nose though his nostrils were dry with trying. The half-moon shed its grey light and he rose with the others, dashed to the top of the hill, where behind the trees they waited for gunshots or saviours with food. But nothing came.

        It was black night before they crept out to lie in the field, without blankets, barely speaking, though they all knew their imperfect lives in the Orphanage were over. All that remained were fuddled stars and the thin warmth from bodies at their sides.

#

 

It was the strangest of things to open his sleepless eyes out here and to be lying on the flattened grass. When Thomas sat up, there was no Orphanage left, just a low charred wreck. The red sun sat low and luminous over the Bens, casting long shadows behind a group of women coming along the road. They stopped at the gate to flick their hands around in front of them in that rapid way Papists did. A sudden wind rushed at the orphans.

        “My bones are all slow,” whispered McGrath. No-one suggested going to search for their belongings though they likely all hoped some treasure lay intact, meanly dotted among those ashes. A little way up the slope sat the Master, his face hidden, deprived of his own bed and likely just as terrified as the smallest boy. Cold, deathly cold now, Thomas drew up his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. Even if the Shinners didn’t come back and kill everyone, he couldn’t imagine how life would go on. Thomas remembered Billy Bunter, always hungry yet never receiving his postal order from home. If Greyfriars were to burn down, what would Billy do? Go back to Bunter Court? Thomas closed his eyes, trying to summon his pink-cheeked mother and his strong father, but the part of his brain where their faces normally sprang from had stopped working. What were the chances of his old kidnappers hearing about the fire? They ought to feel guilty and fetch him back to his parents, but they’d better be quick about it.

        On the road below was another woman that Thomas took to be from the village – then realised she was Matron, peculiar without her white apron. A little way ahead of her, two shawled women were opening the front gate: the maids, Fidelma and Mary. Pargeter Junior shrieked, being such a young child, then ran downhill barefoot and howling like a beaten dog. The other boys rose and went after him.

        “Come along, Regan,” said the Master, when Thomas was the only one left.

**

[1] Go ndeine an diabhal dréimire de cnámh do dhroma ag piocadh úll i ngairdín Ifrinn. Meaning: May the devil make a ladder of your backbone [and] pluck apples in the garden of hell.

 

Aran island men and boys, circa 1920 

**

 

Further information: 

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/images-of-orphans-burned-out-during-civil-war-uncovered-1.484255