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The Man Who Was Hanged by Katharine Tynan

 

It was outside the town of Ballinscreen, on the country side of the bridge over the Maeve, that Mr. Ramsay-Stewart was shot at in the League days, and that the shot struck a decent boy, Larry Byrne, a widow's only son, and killed him stone dead. The man that fired the shot would rather have cut off his right hand than hurt an innocent creature like Larry,—but there, when you go meddling with sin and wickedness, as often as not you plunge deeper into it than you could ever have foreseen. Anyhow the old women, who turn out everything to show the Lord's goodness, said it was plain to see that Larry was fitter to go than his master, and that was why the shot glanced by Mr. Stewart's ear to lodge in the poor coachman's brain as he leant forward, whipping up his horse with all his might, to get out of reach of that murderous shower of shot.

Now a few months later all you comfortable people that sit reading your newspapers by an English fire, and thinking what a terrible place Ireland must be to live in, were comforted by the news that the man who shot Larry Byrne was swinging for it in the county jail at Ballinscreen. But you never made such a mistake in your born lives. That man was out on the mountains in the bleak, bitter winter weather, was in hiding all day in the caves up there in the clouds on top of Croghan, and by night was coming down to the lonely mountain farmhouses to beg what would keep the life in his big hungry body. The man that swung for the murder was as innocent as yourself, and more betoken, though he was great on war and revolutions, would no more fire on a man out of the dark night than you would yourself. He had little feeling for sin and crime, always barring the secret societies, by some considered a sin.

It was beautiful to hear Murty Meehan,—that was his name, God rest his soul!—having it out with old Father Phil on that same question. Why, he told the priest that he himself belonged to a secret society, for the matter of that, and the most powerful secret society of them all. Father Phil used to end it up with a laugh, for he was fond of Murty. He nearly broke his heart over the man when he was in jail, waiting to go to the gallows, and wouldn't open his lips to clear himself. Murty had been in every 'movement' from the '48 onwards. But like all the other old Fenians, he thought worse of the League than Mr. Ramsay-Stewart himself. His ideas were high-flown ones, and he could put them in beautiful language, about freeing his country, and setting her in her rightful place among the nations. But not by the League methods. There was a bit of poetry of Davis he was fond of quoting:

    For Freedom comes from God's right hand,
        And needs a godly train,
    And righteous men must make our land
        A Nation once again.

Many a time he hurled it at the Leaguers' heads, but they bore him no malice; the worst they did was to call him a crank. I often think that when Murty died on the gallows for a crime he hated, it was a sacrifice of more than his life. Well, God be good to him!

Murty hadn't a soul in the world belonging to him. His father and mother died in the black '47, and the little girl he had set his heart on sailed in a coffin-ship for New York with her father and mother in the same bitter year, and went down somewhere out on the unkindly ocean. She had hung round Murty's neck imploring him to go with her, but Murty was drilling for the rising of the following year, and could see no duty closer than his duty to his country. He promised to follow her and bring her back if there were happier days in Ireland, but the boat and its freight were never heard of after they left Queenstown quay in that September of blight and storm. And so Murty grew with the years into a pleasant, kindly old bachelor, very full of whimsies and dreams, and a prophet to the young fellows.

Now Mr. Ramsay-Stewart, though he kept himself and his tenants in hot water for a couple of years, wasn't a bad kind of gentleman, and now that things have settled down is well-esteemed and liked in the country. But when he came first he didn't understand the people nor they him, and there's no doubt he did some hard things as much out of pure ignorance, they say, as for any malice. He'd put his bit of money in the estate and meant to have it out of it, and he didn't like at all the easy-going ways he found there. The old Misses Conyers who preceded him were of a very ancient stock, and would rather turn out themselves than turn out a soul of their people. They had enough money to keep them while they lived; and 'pay when you can,' or 'when you like,' was the rule on the estate. Every man, woman and child was Paddy and Biddy and Judy to them. Oh, sure it was a bad day for the tenants when they went; and more betoken, they had laid up trouble for the man that was to succeed them.

The people never gave Mr. Ramsay-Stewart a chance when he came. They disliked him, and he was an upstart and a gombeen man and a usurper, and such foolishness, in the mouths of every one of them. As if it was his fault, poor gentleman, that the Misses Conyers never married, and so let Coolacreva fall to strangers.

Now there was a widow and her daughter, Mrs. Murphy and little Fanny, that had a big patch of land on the estate, and the memory of man couldn't tell when they'd paid a penny of rent for it. It was so overgrown with weeds and thistles, and so strewn with big boulders, that it was more like a boreen than decent fields. Well, it vexed Mr. Ramsay-Stewart, who was accustomed to the tidy Scotch fields, amazingly, and he got on his high horse that the widow should pay or go.

She couldn't or wouldn't pay, and she wouldn't go. She never thought the crow-bar brigade would be set on her cabin; but, sure, the new landlord wasn't a man to stop short of his word, and one bleak, bitter November day he was out with the police and bailiffs. Before the League could put one foot before another the roof was off Mrs. Murphy's cabin, the bits of furniture out in the road, and the pair of women standing over them shaking their fists at the Scotchman, and whimpering out the revenge they'd have, till Lanty Corcoran, a strong farmer, took them home, and set them up snug and easy in one of his outhouses.

Fanny was a pretty little girl, a golden-ringleted, blue-eyed slip of a colleen, with a sturdy and independent will of her own, that belied the soft shy glances she could cast at a man. She was promised to a boy over the seas, who was making a home for her and her mother in America, and there was another boy in the parish, John Sullivan, or Shawn Dhuv, as they usually called him because of his dark complexion, was fairly mad about her. Shawn was well off. He was the cleverest farmer that side of the country, just the kind of man Mr. Ramsay-Stewart wanted and was prepared to encourage when he got him. His land was clean and well-tilled, and he had a fine stock of cattle as well as horses, and hay, and straw, and machines that had cost a handful of money, for he was quick to take up new-fangled notions. People used to say Shawn would be a rich man one day, for he was prudent, drank little, and was a silent man, keeping himself to himself a good deal.

Well, little Fanny had a hard time with the mother over her steady refusals to have anything to say to Black Shawn. She was an aggravating old woman, one of the whimpering sort; and sorely she must have tried poor Fanny often with her coaxing and crying, but the little girl was as stout as a rock where her absent boy was concerned.

Shawn Dhuv heard in time of the eviction, and in a bad moment for himself thought he'd press his suit once more; he knew he had the old woman on his side, and he thought he might find the young one in such a humour that she'd be glad to accept his hand and heart, and the cover of his little farmhouse. He had an idea too that he'd only to ask Mr. Ramsay-Stewart for the Murphys' farm and he'd get it, and he thought this would be a fine lever to work with.

But he never made such a mistake, for little Fanny turned on him like the veriest spitfire.

'You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Black Shawn,' she cried, with her eyes flashing, 'to keep persecuting a girl that's as good as wife to another man. Why, if he was never in the world, do you think I'd take one like you, that's plotting and planning to take our bit of land before the ashes of our roof-tree are gone gray? If he was here he'd know how to avenge us, and not till he had done it would he look the girl he loved in the face.'

She was holding forth like this, her words tripping each other up in her anger; but sure, the poor little girl didn't mean what she was saying about revenge; it was likely some hot words she'd picked up out of the newspapers that came into her head in her passion, and tripped off her tongue without her knowing a word of what they meant.

But Black Shawn heard her, turning first the deep red with which one of his complexion blushes, and then falling off as gray as the dead. Before she'd half said her say he took up his caubeen, put it on his head, and walked out of the place with an air as if he were dreaming.

Now he had an old carbine to frighten the crows, a crazy old thing that was as likely to hurt the man who fired it as the thing that was fired at. Black Shawn sat up all night cleaning it, and the grim mouth of the man never relaxed, nor did the colour come back to his ashy cheeks.

The next night he lay in wait for Mr. Ramsay-Stewart as he came home from the county club-house in Ballinscreen, and shot at him, killing poor Larry Byrne. It was only the length of the bridge from the police barracks, and as it was but nine o'clock at night, Ballinscreen people were up and about. So there wasn't much time for Black Shawn to see what mischief the blunderbuss had done. He saw at the first glance that one man was down in the dogcart, and another man swinging on by his arms to the mouth of the terrified horse. But already people were running across the bridge and shouting, and the dark quay seemed alive with lights.

Luckily for Shawn the road away from the town was black as a tunnel. It runs between the two stone walls that shut out Lord Cahirmore's deer and black cattle from the public gaze. Down this black tunnel raced Shawn, sobbing like a child, for the black fit was gone over and the full horror of his crime was upon him. He was a quick runner, and he got the advantage, for the police in their flurry stopped for a minute or two debating whether to take the river banks or the road. But in Shawn's head the pursuing footsteps beat, beat, while he was yet far beyond them, and the trumpets of the Day of Judgment rang in his miserable ears. He had the smoking gun in his hands, for he hadn't the wit to get rid of it. And yet the man was safe, if he had had his wits about him, for he was the last man for Mr. Ramsay-Stewart to suspect or allow suspicion to fall upon.

Well, he raced on blindly, and all of a sudden, as he turned a corner, a man flung up his arms in front of him, and then caught him by both wrists. It was Murty Meehan, and more betoken, he was on his way to a drilling of the Fenian boys in a quiet spot in Alloa Valley. Murty was wiry, despite his years, and his grip seemed to Black Shawn like the handcuffs already upon him. There was little struggle left in Shawn, and he just stood sobbing, while his gun smoked up between him and Murty.

'What black work is this, my fine fellow?' said Murty quietly.

Black Shawn came to himself, seeing he was stopped by a man and no ghost.

'Let me go, for God's sake,' he sobbed out. 'I've shot Ramsay-Stewart below at the bridge, and the police are after me.' Just then the moon rolled from behind a cloud, and Murty Meehan saw his prisoner, saw that he was young, and would be handsome if his face were not so distorted by emotion. Now there came a sudden sound of footsteps pelting along the road, and Shawn was taken with a tremor, though, mind you, he was a brave man, and it was horror of his sin was on him more than a fear of the rope. Murty Meehan made up his mind.

'Give me the gun,' he said. 'I'm old and worn-out, and I might have had a son of your age.'

Shawn, hardly understanding, fled on the moment he was released. A bit further the lord's wall gave way to iron palings, and not far beyond was the open country and the road to the hills. Once in the hills Black Shawn was safe.

But they found Murty Meehan with the smoking gun in his hand, and what more evidence could be wanted? He was tried for the murder, and pleaded 'Not guilty'; and the number of witnesses called to testify to his character was enough to fill the court-house, but then, he couldn't or wouldn't explain the gun, and the judge declared it was the clearest case that had ever come before him. He was very eloquent in his charge over such a crime being committed by an old man, and expressed his abhorrence of poor Murty in a way that might have seared the face of a guilty man, though it didn't seem to come home very closely to the prisoner.

A month later Murty was hanged in Ballinscreen jail. He was many a day in his quicklime grave before Black Shawn heard how another man had suffered for his crime. After long wandering he had escaped to the coast, and coming to a seaport town had been engaged by the captain of a sailing vessel, short of hands, who was only too glad to give him his grub and his passage in exchange for his work, and ask no questions. But it was a time of storms, and the ship was blown half-way to the North Pole, and as far south again, and arrived at New York long after all hope of her safety had been given up. If Black Shawn had known he would never have let an innocent man die in his place. So said the neighbours, who had known him from his boyhood.

They will tell you this story in Munster, as they told it to me, sitting round the open hearth in the big farmhouse kitchens of winter nights. Down there there is not a man that won't lift his hat reverently when they name Murty.

For long enough no one knew what became of Black Shawn, and when the League was over and its power broken, and a better spirit was coming back to men's hearts, many a poor boy was laid by the heels through the use of that same name. Many in Munster will tell you of the stranger that used to come to the farmhouses begging a rest by the fire and a meal in the name of Black Shawn, and sitting there quietly would listen to the rash and trustful talk of the young fellows about fighting for their dear Dark Rosaleen, the country that holds men's hearts more than any prosperous mother-land of them all. His name is a name never mentioned in Ireland without a black, bitter curse, for he was a famous informer and spy, own brother to such evil spawn as Corydon, Massey, and Nagle. But 'tis too long a story to tell how the spy masqueraded as Black Shawn, and I think I'll keep it for another time.

 
 
 

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