“The song is ended (but the melody lingers on.)” – Irving Berlin
It was spring; although the season did not represent itself well, a hard chill dusted the evening air as I ascended the steps to a large Huguenot doorway. My appointment was for seven o’clock, but my watch read sixteen minutes past, I snorted under my breath frustrated at my late arrival. Holding the ornate door knocker in my grasp, I firmly struck the wooden door. I was greeted after a number of moments by an elderly gentleman in an old style tweed suit, forest green necktie and rosy red cheeks.
“Good evening, you must be Mr. Colbert!” the old man declared with a hint of a Principles tone.
“Yes, yes, Sean Colbert” I said while presenting my hand to him, which he took firmly and shook hard, “I spoke to you on the phone during the week?” I continued.
“Yes Mr. Colbert I remember. I might be getting old but I still have my senses, please come in and we can get you started.” He said.
I graciously thanked him with a nod; wink and a smile giving away my nervous demeanour, then followed him in through the fine hallway, the sweet aroma of fine Irish whiskey and pipe tobacco lingering in his wake.
“I sincerely apologise for my lateness Mr. Quirke, missing my train is all I can offer as an excuse.”
“No need for any of that Mr. Colbert, sure I only live up stairs above the museum” he said while stopping at an open door and gesturing around the small room inside.
Within a couple of steps from entering the building I found myself standing on the threshold of Mr. Quirke’s treasury. Cluttered may not be the right word, and spacious it wasn’t, in fact the small room I had just entered was the towns local museum, a glory box of local and national heritage. Army helmets and gas masks, ancient discoloured swords and old guns, pictures caught in time pressed behind glass frames.
“So, you said on the telephone that you had some questions regarding local history of a certain era?” asked Mr. Quirke.
“Yes” I replied, still scanning the pieces on display scattered around the room, “I’m doing a piece associated with the 1916 rising, but mainly focusing on the rural areas around the country and not Dublin specifically. I want to get a different angle on how other Irish men and women remember it. So I’ve been travelling to various curators, historians and collectors around the country gathering up as many nuggets of history as I can to compile some new perspectives and hopefully do some sort of thesis.”
“Well, that does seem very interesting indeed. As you can see, the collection compiled here is very small and this space doesn’t do the items justice” He said turning to me, “I’m sure you have seen other pieces of similar nature on your travels.”
“Oh yes! But I’m certain there’s always a diamond in the rough hidden amongst the clutter,” I paused in my tracks and turned my gaze toward the old gentleman, “I certainly don’t regard this collection as clutter Mr. Quirke. I take back my comment without hesitation if I’ve offended you?”
The old man looked over with long raised whiskery eyebrows and burst into laughter, loud and free, which ended in convulsive coughing, presumably from tobacco abuse or some other malady, his laughter revealed a more relaxed side to Mr. Quirke, since my first impression moments earlier.
“There are times I give the place a dust and wondered did it make a difference at all, indeed there are some days when I try to rearrange the displays and maybe bring in some other pieces from storage upstairs, but believe me you couldn’t swing a ball and chain up there.” The old man exclaimed.
“Yes, well it’s very impressive” I added as I ran my index finger along the barrel of a rifle close to where I stood, “and although similar to other collections there are some interesting pieces.” I said politely, although very familiar with what lay around me. I’d been in this room before, in Athlone, in Tullamore, in Carlow and in many other towns.
“To tell you the truth Mr. Quirke, I always find myself pressing for something with a story, something that can be made tangible, real, a personal treasure which may relate to The Rising in some shape or form. The Rising may even be the backdrop for something as enticing.” I said.
The well-dressed old man studied me quietly and intently, his posture motionless, like a man seeking a lie in the truth. His gaze turned to the shaded wall directly behind me. As I turned to follow his line of sight he spoke.
“It’s an amusing thing that you put it like that, because just recently I came across an old Jacobs biscuit tin in storage which I had overlooked previously and almost discarded. And although the dented tin box didn’t contain any mouldy biscuits, it did contain something that raised my eyebrows and slowly refreshed my aged mind about an old story which was sung about for many years around the diocese in local pubs and the like” He said still staring at the wall behind me.
He began to walk passed me and pointed up to the wall where plaques filled with ancient medals hung and I began to follow just behind. Reaching up he gathered the small frame that hung just below the plaques, inside the frame a black and white photo of three men in their late twenties sitting on a fallen tree trunk somewhere on a bog with peat cutters strewn around them smiling for the camera.
“May I?” I asked, gesturing to the picture.
“Here, allow me” replied the old man as he began to fiddle around at the back of the frame with his long yellowing fingers.
“The song, I am referring to, has its origins in an old folk tale,” the old man continued as he removed the picture from the wall and opened the back of the walnut frame, “called A Black Lily Rose. A well-known Seanchai from around the area known as The Pilot Ryan kept the story alive for a number of years; he may have been old enough at the time to remember the events more crisply and may have even been the source of the song. I don’t remember why he got the moniker “The Pilot”,” said the old man straying a bit, “although I do know his father before him was an undertaker and I suppose when you think about it, they both had a unique way of getting you to heaven and The Pilots voice certainly did. It became a popular folksong after a long night singing rebel songs in the pub until the early hours of the morning. I was lucky enough to hear it from the horse’s mouth; he was some man to tell a tale in his songs, I can vouch for that.” He said finishing as he finally removed the small latches from the back of the frame.
He handed me the photo, it certainly looked over a hundred years old and the date written in the lower right hand corner confirmed it. Still visible in black ink on the white rim was the penned “The 1916 Spring”.
“So how closely related to the rising is this photo, and where was it taken? Looks like a bog?” I asked.
“Well it was taken out in the Kildare bog, not five minutes as the crow flies, by car of course...”
I raised an eyebrow.
“How closely related to the rising it was, is as important to the people in it as it was to those who fought in the capital. Although Dublin got the brunt of the rebellion, places like Galway, Cork and Meath also held some degree of an armed uprising. In these places, their tools may have been guns to labour in freeing the cities and towns. They may have heard gunshots and explosions from bombs, but here around that same time, the tools used were peat cutters to carve apart the land, sod by sod and free the fuel to light their fires. The events sung about in the song happened at exactly the same time as the uprising, if you believe the myth.” He said.
“What makes this picture rather special is it may be some proof that the tale we have all become familiar with around this town may indeed be true and run in some way in tangent to the Easter incident. You see, these two chaps here” he said pointing to the men flanking the man in the middle “are “Crazy” Ivan lynch and his best friend Michael Fitzpatrick. I’m sure of this as there are other photos I’ve seen from family members that can testify to it. This lad in the middle however could possibly be Robert Rose, an Englishman from London who settled here after he was left some land when an uncle of his moved back to England. But no other photos can be found to verify this.” He continued.
“Okay and what occurred to make this unique to The Rising?” I asked.
“Well you see that old song I was referring to, A Black Lily Rose, may well have been about these gentlemen. You see the song was about the murder of a man, an Englishman, by a jealous lover, the black lily referring to the bog and the suspect, and the rose referring to an Englishman. As the song goes, all this happened on the morning of the Easter Rising. And if my suspicions are correct, the lady in question is Imelda Fitzpatrick, the person behind the camera, she was Michael Fitzpatrick’s sister you see.”
“Right, right, but besides the story in the song and this old photograph is there anything to tie them together?” I urged, my interest certainly engaged to some degree.
“I couldn’t swear to every detail, but I can swear it’s a story. Around this part of the country, it would be regarded as fact, just as much as when the Lord himself rose from the dead.” The old man replied.
Turning the old photo again to its back he pointed silently to the pencilled initials just visible in the right hand corner, IF in capitals.
“Kind of ironic I always thought how her initials came to IF. How things might have been different if love won through and lust diminished. A love for another person is akin to the love for the land. A false claim lay to and fought over viciously.” He said.
“Well this seems to hit on the different angle of history mark I was looking for. Can you go into more detail in regards to the story behind the song and is it possible to get to the place in the photo for some shots I would need for a timeline difference, if it still exists?” I asked eagerly.
“It may take the carving of some initials on the bark of a tree to locate it like a letter found in an attic or a picture in a frame or A Black Lily Rose.” Mr. Quirke said in riddling sort of way.
“The rest of the story is in the song.” He said with owl eyes transfixed on the picture. “Where this was taken cannot be argued.” He showed pointing in an area inside the picture. “You can see away in the background the outline of some old structure that my dear friend is Lea Castle, itself steeped in the fabric of Ireland’s roots and holds the ghosts of history, wars and peaceful times, long before the names of Clarke, Pearse or Connolly was ever heard. Once you find a small foot bridge called the Foot stick and you’re on the right track, just walk out over the clear water of the Barrow, not far away from here at all, sure we are surrounded by bog land, Offaly on one side, Kildare on the other. There was a time when there were no borders.” The old man added with a vacant stare.
“Mr. Quirke.” I said in a light raised tone and the old man engaged my eyes once more. “Is there any way you could give me the run down on the story behind the song?” I asked.
The old curator walked back across the room past me toward the open door, his head focused on the ground with every step, deep in thought. There he propped his figure against the door frame, his shadow cast long and sleek to my feet, his silhouette a caricature of himself.
“I was never much of a singer Mr. Colbert, so forgive if I don’t do any injustice to the song and not perform it for you. But I’ll give you the story to the best of my ability” he explained as he cleared his throat, I awaited some form of recitation.
“From what I can recall from stories handed to me from folks and what research I’ve gathered, this is what I can tell. There was a time when two young men who palled around with each other since childhood, Ivan Lynch and Michael Fitzpatrick, those two men in the photograph.” He said pointing to the photo in my hand.
“They were always seen hanging around together, them and Michael’s younger sister Imelda, a fine looking girl, so it’s understood. Over the years as they got older, Michaels younger sister Imelda became of age and Ivan Lynch began to look upon her differently and began to harbour feelings towards her it was said. Since they all grew up together, Imelda always looked upon Ivan as a brother, but as I’ve said, Ivan’s feelings were different. Both men were very protective of her and as they came to their twenties, Ivan began to share his feelings with Imelda, but she did not reciprocate. Other men were thought to have tried to court Imelda, but rumours gathered that Ivan would intimidate and often rough up any potential suitors, this was most likely how he got the nickname “Crazy Ivan”, never giving up on his dream of having Imelda for himself. So it’s said a few weeks before this photograph was taken, a young Englishman named Robert Rose moved into Shiphouse outside of town, a large house left to him by a departing uncle. As I said little was known of Mr. Rose, until he bought some land off the Fitzpatrick’s so he could utilise it to draw some turf for himself. This is how Imelda and Robert came to meet, while showing him how to bring the sod from the field to his hearth, and in this he did succeed, so folks say.
A twist of bad luck put all these young people on a path of destruction as one day Robert headed out onto the bog alone and stumbled across young Ivan Lynch dropping a stash of rifles wrapped in oilskin down a dry bog hole on Roberts land. It is thought that Ivan was a bit of a nationalist, and burying the arms he held for some acquaintances’ of his on an Englishman’s property would divert any unwanted attention away from young Lynch, until he was caught red handed, of course. After a heated discussion out there on the moors, Robert assured Ivan that all would be forgotten if he just took away the rifles and left town, tension had mulled and planted its seed deep below the turf, far away from the epicentre of what was to be remembered and what was to be forgotten. That night in the darkness, Ivan came through the back fields with an old canvas bag strapped over his shoulder, coming to bid farewell to his love Imelda and his lifelong friend Michael. As he entered the backyard of the Fitzpatrick’s farm he noticed a couple in deep embrace below an apple tree. As he stopped and crouched in the garden he realised it was Robert Rose and his sweet Imelda, a fire ignited inside his core out of pure rage and jealousy. He began to think there was more to Robert Roses intentions when handing him that ultimatum to leave town, so people say.”
I sat in the low lamp light of the museum, Mr. Quirke citing his take on the story, which I found fascinating, to say the least. Something scratched away in my head all the same, how true was this great yarn. I needed more substance to go on before I committed to it as a possible project. I continued to listen to old Mr. Quirke, but new I had to dig a little deeper beneath the surface of the story and investigate. One thing is certain, old men can tell a tale or two still to this very day. “Early Easter morning Michael and Imelda decided to head out onto the bog and assist Mr. Rose with some peat cutting before afternoon mass and Sunday dinner. Being the avid amateur photographer, the beautiful Imelda brought along her camera and when they arrived Ivan came over the hill from the castle side across the river. Before they all got any dirt and turf mull over their clothes Imelda had them sit on a fallen tree trunk for a picture of her handsome friends. The one you hold in your hands. Mr. Quirke inhaled deeply.
”Robert Rose never made it to dinner that lunchtime. He was found hanging from the Fitzpatrick’s orchard; dangling from the very tree he had shared a kiss with Imelda. “Crazy Ivan” Lynch was never seen again. It is thought he went to Dublin and disappeared in the aftermath of the uprising where he joined his brother Tomas. Some say men wearing scarves across their faces and caps were seen throwing Robert Rose into the back of a car bound with rope and speeding away out on to the Bog Road, some believe Ivan Lynch was one of them. That may have been a rumour, but then again people feared for their lives if they were found to be an informer at any level, so the eye witness accounts were never followed up. Just discussed in behind closed doors and whispered in pubs. It is understood, Robert Rose was targeted as an informer and a local militia were the ones responsible.
"Ivan Lynch was that black lily that rose out of the ground, out on that Kildare bog.”
“Did the authorities at the time investigate the crime, and Robert Roses family? Was there ever anything heard from them?” I asked.
“I presume there was some sort of investigation, any paper I’ve rooted up doesn’t show any sign of the story, which might seem to diminish it somewhat. The headline that ran in the papers the following morning was “The Kings Writ Doesn’t Run Here Anymore”. In a sad way, that may have undeservedly applied to Mr. Robert Rose also. His family may have come to collect his remains, but you can appreciate that the public’s heads were focused on something else that day. All those events seemed to align themselves and Robert and Imelda’s love was somehow drawn into the history of that date” He explained.
“And Imelda and Michael, was there any account of where their path led? What became of them after all of this?” I asked out of curiously.
“Well, Michael went off to the Big Apple to follow a dream of wealth and to leave behind the country of his birth. In his mind, I suppose there had been enough troubles to last him a lifetime. He settled out there and had a family so it’s said. Imelda never married, her destiny was shifted that night forever, and she passed away at a young age. It was thought that she may have had children, but no one is certain.” Mr. Quirke repositioned himself, standing now inside the room, his features more apparent.
“But what happened that Easter, off across the countryside up by the Liffey and away from here, was so much more than an act against Britain, but more an act for Ireland. We rarely hear of the love, the loss of love or the heartbreak. The old stories and songs have their merit, for there’s a reason people find time to compose them. News of the rising reached this community fully the next day, the community was still reeling, although that passed quickly, things like this were not uncommon back in those days.” He said my eyes focused on the picture between my fingers.
“Ireland’s true story was always handed down through the generations, much like the slipping of the fingers running along the chain with a decade of the rosary, from grandparents to grandchildren. People back then wondered what the rising was all about, back then people could tell you every king to rule England, but they couldn’t tell you anything about their own. It was excluded in schools; these are the seeds that refined with time until it was aged enough for folk to want to taste the free spirit fermenting in the soil, the orchards, the meadows, the rivers, the hills and the bogs. Ireland’s history was a tragic history, as is A Black Lily Rose.” He said with finality. After a brief quietness had subsided I rose from my chair and thanked him, he hoped he’d provided me with what I had hoped to find and I assured him that he had.
I left with the photo back inside its old frame and now tucked inside my satchel, promising Mr. Quirke I would return it once I had checked the out local area. It was dark now so it would have to wait until morning, the warmth in the red blood sky now turned to black. No stars shone, clouds camouflaged by the night hung somewhere aloof, a black moor carpeting the Heavens. The streets were so bare; emigration was the only culprit, not the late hour. I came across an old pub called The Tannery and took a detour. Inside I sat at the bar and ordered a pint of stout and a Jameson and water. A good crowd had gathered mostly older folks and friends. The clock behind the bar told me it was 12 bells. Mr. Quirkes words still held sway in my mind, reverberating off my cranium. Hanging by my shoulder a collection of black and white photos of Ireland’s fallen heroes Connolly, Clarke, Pearse, MacDonagh, Ceannt and the rest and taking centre stage was a picture of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, reimagined in colour with the words “Irelands Tragic Love Story” between the portraits of the two lovers. A tinge of ironic familiarity rose up from a chuckle within me. Across the bar a young woman with stereotypical red hair caught my eye, we exchanged brief flirting glances, she was very easy on the eye and her attention locked my concentration momentarily until somewhere in the background old voices conspired to start a sing song to no avail. I ordered another round for myself and looked back across the bar to where the young woman stood, but she had departed into the bodies beyond. As I began to finish up and leave, a song blossomed out from the hearth of the fireplace, I could not see the singer, but I did recognise the story as I listened closer.
“Beyond the broad pale hangs a fog
And here a love flourished
Like a fire would nourish
Until a black lily,
Rose from the bog
Young lovers they met
Out on those moors
A lily and a rose
The two intertwined
But grew a black flower
Jealousy, rotting its mind
Set to cut the roots of its kind
Beyond the broad pale hangs a fog
And here a love flourished
Like a fire would nourish
Until a black lily,
Rose from the bog
The lord may have risen from the dead
And men may have fallen up in Dublin
And the appetite for anger was fed
The black lily moved like serpent
The lover’s temptation had won
But beneath the apple tree
A young red rose had hung
Beyond the broad pale hangs a fog
And here a love flourished
Like a fire would nourish
Until a black lily.
Rose from the bog.
I dispersed on time with the shrill claps of the applause and as the door swung closed behind me, so did the door of my car as I decided to sleep it rough on the backseat. The few drinks adding to my fatigue, all I heard through my slumber was the melody of A Black Lily Rose and then the abyss of sleep.
As I drove the next morning with stiffness embed into my spine from the creeping hands of cold, the icy night before releasing its grip on my muscles, hot tea from the local petrol station slowly roasting my hands back from rigor. A heavy fog clung to the air with a hard grasp all around the car not unlike thick smoke. A woman’s voice was reporting on the preparations for the 1916 commemorations and the events organised for the week ahead leading right up to the centenary. I pulled to the side of the road to check my map, a GPS an extravagance not afforded to me. Looking up from the map I saw down the end of the road in the mist a sign post and drove toward it, slowly. As I drew closer the name of the road it pointed down read, Bog Road. This is where I began to sober as I realised I was retracing the footsteps of Robert Rose. Edging along the narrow road, tractor tracks leading the way, grass tufts in the middle breathing colour into the cracks and potholes, as the DJ played music composed by Dvorak somewhere in the ether.
I saw the branches of an apple tree hang precariously over the road, its red fruit dangling like bloody heads and its long reach, an ancient gallows. It seemed like a metaphor for the origins of life and temptation, and the cold hand that can pluck it away. This was the path taken; this is the path unheard of in the city sprawls, two stories running in tandem, scales of little consequence in an island torn on all emotions.
This is where I abandoned my fiesta and took the rest of the journey on foot as I threw my satchel over my shoulder; I climbed a red gate and dragged my feet through the mud and cow paddies until I heard the ripples of water. The river was narrow and shallow, but the current was strong, proof that small energies can amount great force. The bridge was tall and thin and connected with the far bank with a straight reach. Thunder began to rumble in the distance, I couldn’t tell whether it was coming or going sounding like gun fire bellowing over the hills. A crack in the clouds determined to split the fog bank cast light upon the water. As I crossed the bridge, the beam of light that managed to get through cast its yellow colour onto the surface of the icy water, gold flakes sparkled and bristled. I was brought back to something Mr. Quirke had said just before I left his doorstep.
“After that day, people wanted to shake the dust off their feet, they wanted to find the streets paved with gold, and they are still looking for it by the way.”
A report from a gunshot snapped the solitude in two as crows took to the skies all around me with their distinct cries. The smoke like fog, the gun fire from some hunter nearby, I could have stepped back in time, dead patriots awaiting me on the far side of the river, on the bog. On the horizon I glimpsed the lone ruined tower of a castle and its crumbling battlements and below in the field the green split into black as turf footed, stacked like world war one Czech hedgehogs, I wasn’t far away. I stopped, removed the picture from my satchel and held it up in line with the bank of trees across the field. I moved into the same line as the castle until I got a basic match with the treeline, although time had passed by over a hundred years a smaller building in front of the structure helped me get close match. I lowered the picture and began to hike through the marshes until the ground became firm. The surroundings had morphed with time, new hedgerows redefined barriers and barbed wire enforced them, but one thing that besides the castle that had stayed constant was beech tree, much larger now, but still predominant in the photograph. I was drawn to its huge bows and its grandeur; walking up to it I placed my hand upon the bark and traced my fingers inside its grooves. A memory now of something Mr. Quirke had said to me last night rose into my thoughts,
“It may take the carving of some initials on the bark of an old tree”
I walked around the tree staring madly at unique pattern, my fingers following my hands as I moved, until high up at about five feet I could just about make out the initials, one above the other, bulging on the bark now but still present,
A smile broadened across my cold face, warmth from beneath my primordial being radiated from my spine, I was filled with something, something intangible, now standing in front of something completely tangible. The love shared for these two people was branded into the surface of this old tree, it may be vague, but the result was unexplainable. I took out my camera and began to take some shots of the tree and the surrounding area, trying to find the place where the fallen tree trunk would have rested. But it seemed that through time a farmer may have moved it or it simply gave way to time and returned to the earth. When I was done I took a deep breath, tingling with joy at my discovery I began to make my way into the castle grounds. Once I had manoeuvred through the thick briers and over growth I climbed over some rusting barbed wire, as I regained my composure I walked out onto another field, now facing the once grand castle, the colours from the daffodils that grew in clusters all around sprinkled a bright yellow tinge to the land. Amongst the greens and yellows I saw a figure crouched over gathering daffodils in a shawl. As I walked over hoping not to frighten the small figure, the sky broke gradually and the figure rose and turned in my direction. As I came closer, the figure removed a shoal from her head, our eyes meeting, not for the first time. She smiled in recognition and then the girl I had seen by the bar the night before frowned quizzically.
“Hello, haven’t I seen you somewhere recently?”
“Yes” I replied with a smile.
“Hi, my name is Sean, Sean Colbert, sorry to creep up on you like that, I’m just doing a little digging out around here” I said.
“That’s okay Sean,” she replied, “My name is Rose, Rose Kavanagh.” And she smiled.