Where Old Ghosts Meet

Growing up in the poverty of 1940s Dublin 10 Year old Danny Flynn relates the roller coaster events of his childhood as his mother tries to hold her family of 6 children together in the face of overwhelming odds.

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5. A Brush with the Law

    Their first Christmas without a father and husband had passed and the Flynn’s settled down to an uncertain and threatening future. The role of Widow Flynn did not sit easily on Sarah’s shoulders. Her management of their meagre resources was chaotic, alternating between feast and famine. She seemed to be incapable of stretching what little they had, preferring instead to live for the moment.  The bills pilled up and with them Sarah’s depression. A few weeks after Christmas, a light fall of snow brought the children of Clover Road running outside to play on its crisp white blanket.  Makeshift sledges and improvised winter wear were hurriedly assembled before the virgin white snow could be defiled by tramping feet. Mrs Spittie Swords complained bitterly about the long slide being manufactured in front of her gate by the unruly Synnot children. In the wintry scene the early morning tradesmen lead their panting horses slowly along the road to stop them falling on its slippery surface.

Inside number 370  Mrs Flynn knelt puffing in front of the fireplace as she raked out yesterday’s ashes and wondered about the future. She was now in receipt of a Widow’s and Orphan’s pension of ten shillings a week. While it went some way to make up for her late husband’s wage, it did little to lift them out of the poverty that made each day a dreadful prospect. Every morning she opened her eyes to a feeling of worry and despair and to the knowledge that things were unlikely to get any better. The urgent banging on the front door did little to improve her mood, and she threw the small shovel from her hand before stamping down the hallway. Josephine was standing on the doorstep crying bitterly, her cheeks and nose glowing red with the cold. ‘What the divil’s wrong now?’ Sarah shouted as her worry exploded into a red rage. Before waiting for an answer she grabbed Josephine by the collar of her coat and dragged her unceremoniously inside. Josephine went staggering down the hall from the force of the yank, sending her crashing against the kitchen door. ‘What are you screeching about?’ Sarah roared, venting her frustration on the innocent Josephine.

 

Josephine couldn’t answer from the tears of her original upset and from the added horror of her mother’s uncharacteristic behaviour. ‘Come on - what is it?’ Sarah demanded, cooling down a bit and feeling sorry for treating her daughter so badly. Josephine was still unable to speak and stood snuffling the drops falling from the end of her glowing nose. Mrs Flynn looked at the pitiful girl and felt dreadful for loosing her temper. ‘Josephine, I’m sorry - come here and tell me what’s wrong.’ The two of them went into the kitchen and sat down at the table. It was some minutes before the words finally came blurting out. ‘ Mammy, Yvonne Hennessey told everyone in the street that we went to the nuns for charity on Christmas day!’ Her face relived the shame that Yvonne’s cruel words had brought down on her head. The Hennessy’s lived next door to the Flynn’s and there was no love lost between the two families.  A state of cold war had existed ever since they moved into Clover Road five years before. Mrs Hennessy was a widow and a mean vindictive woman who took every opportunity to put her knife into the Flynn’s. Nobody could quite remember what caused  the hostility,  but it had grown over the years and had now been inherited by their children. Mrs Hennessy’s eldest son, Tommy, was every bit as mean as his mother and just as nosey. He was forever snooping around the street gathering news to take home to her. ‘Did she now?’ replied Sarah.   The words were spoken in an unnaturally calm voice. ‘Well we’ll see all about that!’

She rose from her seat, and with reckless abandon, the small wiry Mrs Flynn stomped down the hall to seek out her long standing enemy. From behind the snowman they were building Bosco, Vincent and Anthony watched their mother march down the path, turn left and then through the iron gate of number 372. The determination in her unsmiling face and the deliberate manner of her walk was like a tribal drumbeat in Clover Road. Curtains twitched as unseen eyes peered out at the unfolding drama.

Still seething inside Mrs Flynn reached for the Hennessy’s brass door knocker with such ferocity it almost came away in her hand. She pounded the handle with three loud thumps and stood fuming on the snow covered doorstep. After a few moments Tommy Hennessy creaked open the front door and peered out white faced at the angry woman on his doorstep. His animal cunning told him that this was no social visit but he tried to brave his way with polite words. ‘Oh hello Mrs Flynn - can I help you?

’His voice quivered betraying the bold front and Tommy had to grip the door to stop his hand from shaking. ‘Send that sleeked mother of yours out here!’ Sarah roared into his pasty face. Vincent  crumbled under the onslaught and fled down the hallway to disappear into the safety of the kitchen. Sarah could hear urgent voices whispering but Mrs Hennessy was in no hurry to face her deranged neighbour. ‘If you don’t come out Hennessy then I’m coming in,’ Sarah kept up the attack and rattled her bony fingers on the open door. It was clear to Mrs Hennessy that Mrs Flynn was unlikely to leave, so gathering all her courage, she squared her shoulders and walked to the front door. ‘Your Yvonne is quare and smart isn’t she?’ Sarah challenged the quaking Mrs Hennessy even before she had time to speak. ‘I don’t know what the blazes you’re blithering about.’  Mrs Hennessy replied from a safe distance. ‘Oh don’t you sleeked boots? Well that’s very unusual for you .. you’re so bloody nosey you know every time someone shites in this street ... and that Tommy boy should be wearing knickers  ... he’s like an aul woman listening to everything that’s going on!’ It was clear from Mrs Hennessy’s face that she knew why her neighbour was at the door and to what she was alluding to. Her confidence had grown by now and she was smirking back at the enraged Mrs Flynn. ‘Look what is this all about?’ she taunted, pretending that Mrs Flynn’s words were those of an escaped lunatic. ‘I’ll tell you what it’s all about big arse .. your wormy daughter Yvonne had our Josephine crying in the street today .......something about us getting charity.’   The last phrase was spoken half as a denial and half as a charge to be answered. ‘ Charity?  I’m afraid I don’t follow you Mrs Flynn.’ ‘You must take me for an eegit  Hennessy ...I know you were talking about us...she couldn’t have heard it anywhere else....it would fit you better if you gave that dying looking daughter of yours  a good dose of Syrup of Figs to rid her out’ ‘I think you better go home and calm yourself down,’ Mrs Hennessy replied, feeling she had the advantage, ‘ you don’t seem to be in your right mind.’ Mrs Hennessy’s last remark was the spark that lit the gunpowder. Sarah saw a flash of red and reached for the frizzy black hair that had been silently provoking her throughout the heated exchange. She latched onto the front lock like a ferret and pulled the squealing Mrs Hennessy out onto the front path. Down the path she led her, wigging her all the way. At the gate she turned and dragged her back towards  the front door. Tommy, who had taken his courage in both hands, ran out to defend his helpless mother from the unhinged Mrs Flynn. As he ran forward with the intention of kicking his mother’s tormentor in the shins, Bosco and Vincent reacted as one. They cleared the low fence in a leap and intercepted the charging Tommy only feet from his target. Vincent felt his clenched fist sink into Tommy’s face with a satisfying crunch, while Bosco gripped the stricken head in a tight lock with his arm and pulled him into the snow filled garden. Tommy howled with the pain in his eye but couldn’t nurse it because of Bosco’s grip. From her crouched position Mrs Hennessy could see her son being beaten in the garden. She tried to call something to him but another tug of her hair turned her words into a yelp. Sarah pulled Mrs Hennessy upright and looked close into her pained face to deliver a final warning. ‘Keep your big nose out of my business in future and keep your dying looking children away from mine!’    Each word was accompanied by a twist of Mrs Hennessy’s head, the final one tearing a clump of hair from the poor woman’s aching scalp. ‘Come on you two,’ she called to Vincent and Bosco as she stomped her way down Hennessy’s path. Back inside her own house Sarah’s anger and bravado melted like snow. She sat down at the kitchen table feeling drained and immediately regretting the terrible scene she had created. A growing sense of unease replaced Sarah’s tiredness when she realised the enormity of what she had done. She had committed a criminal act and it was unlikely her neighbour would not take full advantage of her injuries. Sarah tried to convince herself that Mrs Hennessy was too much of a coward to go to the police and that the whole episode would blow over. The words sounding in her mind had a hollow ring however and reality fought to be heard. ‘You’ve gone too far this time,’ it accused her. It was Anthony who gave the first indication that reality had won out. He strolled into the hall to casually inform his mother that Mrs Hennessy was going up the road in her red Sunday coat. Sarah ran to the window just in time to confirm Anthony’s report. Mrs Hennessy’s bearing suggested trouble and Sarah felt sick as she watched her victim scurry out of view. By three o clock that afternoon nothing unusual had happened and Mrs Flynn relaxed into a mild state of anxiety. ‘It’ll pass over,’  she told herself for the tenth time.  The children were back outside playing in the snow and Sarah took advantage of the peace for a few quiet moments. School would be starting soon and the problem of shoes for Bosco replaced her worry over Mrs Hennessy.  She began to doze to escape from the quandary that defied any solution and was soon fast asleep over the table. A sudden and loud knocking on the front door cruelly dragged her from her slumber and she fought to make sense of what was happening. Sarah made her way to the front door still not fully alert. The terrifying sight of her visitor soon dispelled any remnants of sleep. A giant of a man stood framed in the doorway. His large thumb was hooked into the breast pocket of his dark blue Garda uniform and he looked at her with a stern official face. Sarah quailed at the awful vision before her and waited for him to speak. The Garda wasted no time getting down to business. ‘Are you Mrs Sarah Flynn?’  a Cork accent demanded to know. ‘Yes I am,’ Sarah replied trying to sound normal but feeling inwardly terrified. Satisfied that he had tracked down the correct person, the big policeman flicked the cover of his notebook and drew himself up to his full height to speak his official words. In her state of paralysis all that Mrs Flynn could concern herself with were the shiny silver buttons of the uniform filling her vision. The policeman’s words were happening to someone else. ‘We have received a complaint from a Mrs Norah Hennessy of 372 Clover Road stating that at or about ten am today, that is the 14th day of January 1950, you, Mrs Sarah Flynn, did, without provocation, physically assault her at the entrance to the aforementioned premises.’ The Garda looked up to say something not written in his notebook. ‘Do you understand the complaint so far?’  Sarah nodded not really hearing the words. The Garda looked at her with some concern before dropping his eyes to continue reading. ‘The complainant alleges that you dragged her down her pathway by her hair and with force  separated some of that hair from her head. She had produced the hair at Sun Drive Garda station where it is being held for evidence. I have to ask you now what you have to say in answer to the complaint made against you.’ Sarah looked at him and uttered the words that were to become a standing joke in the Flynn household for many years after. ‘What can I say?’ Her answer confused the policeman from Cork who could only think in straight lines. ‘Does that mean you are admitting to the allegation or not?’ ‘Yes’ replied Sarah, which confused him even more. ‘Yes you are admitting to the allegation or Yes you are not admitting to the allegation?’ ‘Yes - I did it,’ Sarah replied clearing up the growing confusion. ‘In that case Mrs Flynn the Garda Siochaina will be bringing a prosecution against you for assault and disorderly behaviour. You will be receiving a summons in due course.’ ‘Thank you,’ was all that Sarah could think of in reply and watched the guardian of the peace walk down her pathway and climb onto his old black Raleigh bicycle.

Due Course was not long in coming and a few days later the giant Garda reappeared to serve Mrs Flynn with her summons. It was bitter fate that Mrs Hennessy was just leaving her house for ten o clock Mass at the same time the policeman was coming up the Flynn’s path.  She smirked at her offending neighbour, who accepted the white envelope from the shovel of a hand holding it out to her.  Sarah realised how vulnerable she was now without he husband and with six young children to care for. In some ways she looked to Teresa and Bosco to redress the balance of the missing support.  She kept the two eldest from school and took them with her to the Court hearing in the city a week later.   The court found her guilty but because of her recent bereavement did not impose a custodial sentence. Sarah was bound over to keep the peace for two years and warned to stay away from Mrs Hennessy.  The severed hair was produced in court, lovingly preserved in a white envelope and marked exhibit A.

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