By Mattie Lennon
It has been said that the first duty of a gentleman is to keep out of the hands of the police. Up to the time of writing I have carried out my gentlemanly duties, in that respect, every day of my life, with one exception. That was Tuesday 04th November 1969 when I was the victim of a wrongful arrest.
At 11:15 A.M. and I was feeding our one and only bonham. A car bearing the roof-sign of our National Guardians of the Peace stopped at the gate of our humble abode at Kylebeg. It was driven by a 38 year old farmer’s son, Paddy Browne, from Kenmare. He shared a surname with the one-time Earls of Kenmare but a Protestant farmer who had rented a house to him had once told me that there wasn’t much evidence of any nobility connection. The observer was a 44-year-old son-of-the-soil from Kilmorgan, Co. Sligo. His Name was Bill Tighe. (Up to that moment I had little dealings with either officer apart from meeting them during Census-taking. I knew that they referred to me as “the Poet”, which was understandable since I was in the habit of linking, even the most grim situation to a poetic allusion.) Despite their agricultural background they had no compunction about taking me away from my pig-feeding, when they asked me to accompany them to Blessington Station.
If my neighbours hadn’t known me as well as they did no doubt the would have been;” Wondering if the man had done a great or little thing”.
Didn’t the poet say;
To every Irishman on earth,
Arrest comes soon or late.
While Browne reversed the Squad-car down our narrow lane Tighe revealed to me that I had stolen an unspecified quantity of ham on Friday 24th October. Although I was no Phrenologist, looking at his profile from the back seat I recalled a comment made by one of my neighbours. Whatever about the grammatical correctness of the observation I was now tempted to accede to its accuracy; he had once described Tighe as being; “ as thick as the butt end of a horse’s bollocks that never saw anything only shite.” And, at that moment, I became a bit more tolerant of those who drew the cartoons of the Irish in the 19th century Punch magazine.
Once in the station another Garda had something to say. This 31 year old was Willie Nash, from Gurtnacrehy, Co. Limerick. (You may not have heard of Gurtnacrehy; the only time the word crops up is in the names of Greyhounds.) Nash was so well turned out that he was like a male mannequin compared to his more bucolic colleagues. When he first came to Blessington in January 1962 he was a useful man on the football field and sported a crew-cut. Now he was opting for a (slightly belated) Beatle look. He imparted the additional information that I had maliciously burned a rick of hay, the property of Dan Cullen, on Saturday 27th September. I didn’t share the view of the local farmer who, at the time, said, “There was only one mistake; that he wasn’t in it when they lit it.”
Nash’s body language (as he replaced a nail-file in his tunic pocket, having checked his reflection in the window ) proclaimed his lack of self-esteem and the fact that he was well aware of my innocence. His rhetorical question: “Would it surprise you to know that you were seen lighting it?” was slightly off the mark (not to mention off the wall).
I knew, through my own sources, that a quantity of ham had been reported stolen in Ballinastockan. (I wasn’t told if it was a quarter or a half pound) but I doubted the authenticity of the crime. As the interrogation progressed I became more convinced that the case of the purloined bacon should enter the annals along with The Easter Bunny, the Unicorn and a few pre-election promises. I knew that there wasn’t a great tradition of steling foodstuffs in the Lacken/Ballinastockan area; the last recorded theft of that nature was pertaining to an incident, during the Civil War, on 15th September 1922. Edward Grace, a Merchant, from Ballymore Eustace had some loaves stolen from two of his vans in Ballyknockan and Lacken on that day.
Despite being the victim of the dirtiest trick ever played on me, being spoken to like an imbecile, humiliated, embarrassed and treated like a criminal I refused to confess to two fictitious crimes. (It’s at times like this the words of Ethel Rosenberg spring to mind; “I am innocent……to forsake this truth is to pay too high a price”). The Sergeant, looking less than prepossessing and more than his thirty-seven years, gave the OK to have me locked in a cell. Maurice O ‘Sullivan, ex-Mental Nurse (known as a “keeper” at the time), from Slaheny, Co. Kerry, was very concise. Not living up to his family’s nickname of “The Long Maurices” he drew himself up to his full five-foot nine and a half inches, pretended to read from a manilla folder and told me : “I have enough evidence here to charge you”. Perhaps his past was the reason for the brevity;
For he to whom a watcher’s doom
Is given as his task
Must set a lock upon his lips
Did the experience in his previous life prompt him to believe that I was the sort, so much in awe of authority, who would confess to anything? Although it was fifteen years since he surrendered his badge in Saint Fenan’s Hospital, Killarney, the “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Syndrome” obtained; He still thought that he could do what he liked? (“…for in a madhouse there exists no law”).
I thought of William Blackstone who said; ” It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer”. I soon reminded myself that Mr. Blackstone didn’t spend four years working in a Kerry asylum.)
When I was told, “You’ll get out when you tell us the truth” I took on board my neighbour’s opinion of the speaker. And the farmer’s boots and sly smile I saw as further evidence that Tighe was not a member of Mensa, would not appreciate Tennyson, and so I thought it would be futile to quote;
This truth within thy mind rehearse,
That in a boundless universe
Is boundless better, boundless worse.
My father always said that I would “hear the grass growing” and now I became acutely aware of my better –than- average auricular ability. Sound- proofing had not been a consideration in the design of the cell-door and I could hear every word spoken in the day-room. Industrial-relations matters, within the Gardaí, were touched on lightly before a turn in the conversation that was very interesting and informative; but that is a story for another day. Suffice, for now, to say that there was paraphrasing of the words of Thomas Jefferson; “ We have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale and self-preservation on the other”
I knocked on the cell door. It immediately opened and framed Nash, who I felt was of the opinion that I needed taking down a peg. I studied his face. Why? Because Jim Blake who worked for Paddy Crotty had told me, “That Nash fella has square eyes.” He didn’t. While his optical hemispheres displayed the shiftiness of the insecure they were of regular shape.
He insisted on pretending that I was a suspect and closed the door.
When next I knocked on the cell-door it was opened by Tighe who told me, (why I don’t know) “The sergeant is gone out on another big job”. This was followed by, “Yer father says he doesn’t know what to tink. Will I go out for yer father?” When I once again protested my innocence this, ignorant, lazy, gobshite, who wouldn’t ever stand if he could sit, said, “We know certain tings Matt”. He didn’t specify what the “ things” with the silent “h” wre.) He closed the door slowly . . . like he did everything else.
When again I knocked with a hope of being released Browne uncovered the spyhole. His eye, viewed through the small rectangle of light, didn’t look friendly.
I was sitting on a wooden bench with some sort of a “tic” on it. Hey! . . . Didn’t I read on the Leinster Leader about a Ballinastockan man being fined ten pounds for pissing on a mattress in the cell of Blessington Garda station? (Of course it wasn’t worded so in the “Leader”.)
“Are you going to tell us about this fire?”. Guard Browne enquired. Now secure in the knowledge that they knew I wasn’t guilty of anything I didn’t protest my innocence. I simply asked; “Are you going to let me out?”
Browne didn’t reply. He opened the cell door and allowed me into the day room. As he lit a Goldflake butt with a paper spill from the open fire he again accused me of arson. As I looked at his well-worn shoes and archaic wristwatch I thought of his economy-consciousness which his former Sergeant, Frank Reynolds, had told me about. My comment about the coldness of the cell and my plea to be left in the Day-room fell on deaf, Kenmare, ears. As he dragged on the ignited butt I was sternly told to “get back in.”
I would compile a letter to the Minister for Justice. But that could wait. This was as good a time as any to make a start on a parody. The air of “ The Oul Alarm Clock” would do fine;
“I was told we’re going to charge you
With the burning of a rick,
By Nash and Tighe and Sullivan,
An’ Paddy Browne the prick.”
The cell door opened. Garda Willie Nash told me, “We’re lettin’ ye out but we’ll be takin’ ye in agin.” He wasn’t a man of his word; I haven’t seen the inside of that cell since.