Historical (Irish) Flash Fiction - 1,000 Words
(To fully appreciate this story, it helps to be at least somewhat familiar with the Irish War for Independence and to know who Michael Collins (“The Big Fellow") and Éamon de Valera ("Dev") were.)
"The Altar Boy"
by Donald Schneider
“Please, Mr. McKee, do as I ask you,” Jimmy Moran said with a tone of growing frustration. “We’ve only a week before we have to be in Dublin. Pick up the pistol, aim it at the target and squeeze the trigger gently, just as I showed you.”
McKee looked at the blond-haired youth standing before him with a sense of foreboding bordering on horror. He had gone to the Big Fellow, his old schoolmate from Clonakilty, in desperation after his escape from prison. Arthur McKee had reluctantly agreed to serve the cause in exchange for money and refuge. But this? What in the Name of God had Collins been thinking? Turning an angelic looking child into one of his bushwhacking assassins, all in the name of a “republic” that only existed in the wild dreams of fanatics like him? And his own cousin’s boy?
Almost as if Jimmy could sense McKee’s misgivings, the youngster asked, “Are you thinking that I want to be here any more than you? I’m what I am for my country and my family, didn’t you know that? Wouldn’t you be thinking that I would love to be a normal lad like the others? Do you know what it’s like to be laying in bed at night and getting to wondering if you’ll even live to be thirteen? Sometimes I can feel the noose around my neck, and then the sweat comes. I’ve killed three men already and have dodged more bullets than years I’ve been alive because that’s what Cousin Mickey and Ireland expects from me.”
McKee felt a shiver creep up his spine listening to the boy’s precocious sense of fatalism engendered by the circumstances forced upon him. What sort of a world gone mad would take an altar boy and turn him into this at age twelve? Serving Mass at five in the morn; giving lessons on murdering Brits the same afternoon after school? He felt a mixture of sympathy for the child and loathing at what he had become.
No, things had never been easy for the orphaned cousin of Michael Collins, and the price the lad had paid for Collins’s help would have crushed many a grown man; all in the dear name of the cause. McKee had been a petty criminal to be sure, but he was no killer. And now to have to learn the “trade” from a boy. From this boy?
He could almost feel the penetrating gaze of Jimmy’s vividly blue eyes, as if the child could see right through him. In the name of all that’s natural and holy, he cursed Mickey and his benighted cause! Why had Collins done this to him? The guilt seemingly piercing his very soul, McKee grabbed the cursed weapon and aimed.
McKee nervously felt the revolver in his suit jacket pocket. As he walked down the Dublin street approaching the Ministry Building, he glanced over his shoulder and noted Jimmy trailing a quarter block back or so, serving as his backup on McKee's first “mission,” as I. R. A. parlance would have it. The boy had dressed the part of a typical Dublin street urchin, even smearing some dirt on his face for effect; to walk unnoticed amongst what the Brits contemptuously called the great unwashed. No one would ever casually connect the two.
Jimmy was to cover his escape if matters got sticky, and McKee pitied any bystander who tried to intervene. He knew the boy wouldn’t miss at twice the distance. He also knew that the lad wouldn’t panic or abandon him, a thought that he found more troubling than comforting.
When he had gotten close enough to the building, he halted and unfurled his newspaper as the boy had instructed. The target was a high police official. When the man left the building, McKee was to lunge forward and put at least three shots into his chest before running.
He waited a few anxious minutes before hearing the frantic, pounding sound of booted footsteps rounding the corner.
He instantly looked down the street. The boy’s reflexes had been lightning fast as he reached for his pistol wedged below his trousers’ belt. But thankfully the soldiers’ were faster. One of them jammed the butt of his Enfield rifle into the lad’s shoulder before the boy fell to the ground. As dazed as he must have been while the Brits were manacling the young assassin’s slender wrists behind him, Jimmy had the presence of mind to look up towards McKee.
In a tone so venomous that if such could kill McKee knew he would already be dead, the normally phlegmatic youngster shouted reproachfully, “You took the soup, didn’t you? Bloody traitor!”
McKee’s stomach sickened as he watched the Brits lead the boy towards the waiting lorry.
Yes, Jimmy boy. I took the soup. But I’ll be far from here and where your cousin and his lads won’t be finding me. Hate me as you no doubt will, but they won’t be hanging you. I saw to that. You’ll have some rough days coming up at Maidstone or some other Brit hellhole, sure ‘n’ enough; but you'll live. And I sense the tide is turning. The Brits are growing weary. Mickey and Dev will bargain for you and you’ll live to be thirteen and, the good Lord be willing, a good tad more.
You never knew your father, Jimmy. They told you he was dead, and in their way they were right. He never married your mum, which he always regretted. So beautiful and gentle a soul. You look so much like her. You both were deserving better. It’s not your fault. You could have been so much like her too, if only….
Yes, you never knew your dad, and that’s for the best; that I now see. But, Jimmy, me boy, now his son will live.
Author's Note: This story is loosely based upon an account told to me by my uncle (I’m half Irish) who had known Éamon de Valera ("Dev"), the late Irish patriot and president of the Irish Republic. The derisive term: "You took the soup!" that Jimmy chastises McKee with has an interesting historical derivation related to the so-called Irish Potato Famine in which millions of Irishmen starved to death, while millions more were forced to emigrate.
Protestant charities from England offered starving Irishmen soup in soup kitchens that they had established in Ireland on the condition that they would renounce Catholicism in favor of Protestantism. Any who did were viewed as pariahs by the faithful Irish. Later, the term became metaphorical, representing any act of betrayal
Please read "Pride's Prison," a free access short story, and understand how severely bullied kids feel: