One of the most negative faults that mankind possesses, in my opinion, is his ability to use another unfortunate to bear the blame for something that he in fact did not do. It is a base failing in the makeup of the human and may actually be the reason for the belief that man is born with the stain of ‘original sin’ on his soul.
There must always be a scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb to assuage the guilt of others. This role will either be accepted willingly or it will be thrust upon the chosen one. “It wasn’t me” is a commonly used phrase as the scapegoat is chosen. It surfaces early in the childhood years with a sibling shirking blame or trying to avoid responsibility. “He did it” is another favorite accusation leveled at the unfortunate, usually innocent victim. Sadly, this practice is not only confined to the formative years, it is an inherent part of the human psyche; in other words, it’s in our genes. The practice of having someone else bear the blame, accept the guilt and by inference, suffer the punishment, goes back to ancient times and may even have been used by the first humans to inhabit the earth.
The earliest recorded mention of scapegoating comes from Syria in the 24th century BC. An act of purification performed at a king’s wedding involved a she-goat having a silver necklace hung around her neck and then driven out of the village, symbolically atoning for the sins of all of the inhabitants. The Hebrews used a more elaborate form of scapegoating. Their ritual is believed to have started during the time of the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites believed that the blood of their animal sacrifices during the year transferred all of their sins to the Tabernacle on the Day of Atonement. On that day the High Priest would confess these sins to a goat which was then cast out into the wilderness by stoning, absolving the children of Israel.
We all, at one time or another, will find ourselves in the position of the scapegoat. It matters little whether we are in fact guilty or not. Someone must always bear the blame. There are many ulterior, dark motives for choosing a scapegoat; spite, jealousy, hatred, envy, revenge, the list goes on. The first experience I had of this practice happened soon after we moved into the town from the Creamery road when I was 10 years old. One Saturday morning I had managed to elude my father and with Lassie, my black and tan colored terrier at my heels, headed off for a ramble. My father would have a project lined up for the morning as usual but as I had earlier observed him from my upstairs bedroom window, digging in the front garden, I thought if I was fast and silent enough, I could escape. I usually looked forward to the times with my father, but sometimes it felt good to savor the freedom that rambling brings. So, grasping the leash from the doorknob, I slipped silently down the stairs and out the back door. At the gate I rattled the leash and Lassie came tearing around the corner, her tongue lolling deliriously. I slipped it around her neck and putting my finger to my lips said ‘shhhhhh!’
Which direction should I take? I had to think fast, time was of the essence, for at any moment my father might appear. He had an uncanny way of appearing suddenly, like a ghost, as if he could read my mind. So, as often happens when making an instant decision, I invariably chose the nearest escape route and without further thought did just that. If only I had known what lay ahead. I headed out the back lane of the Park, crossed the road, and entered the schoolyard. Making my way toward the area at the back of the school I heard loud banging noises and shouting coming from the classroom at the rear of the building. Intrigued I crept closer to one of the windows and peered inside. I was shocked to see that two boys, both neighbors and around my age, were inside and had up-ended the bookcases and were throwing the books, chairs, and desks around. I noticed they were covered in chalk dust and had ink stains on their faces and hands. One of the boys looked toward the window and the look on his face told me he recognized me. “Time for me to get out of here,” I thought and left the schoolyard in a hurry and continued on my way. With Lassie leading the way I crossed the back wall at the bottom of the schoolyard and went down past Kelly’s forge and through the gate onto the Carran road. The plan was to enter the fields across from St. Patrick’s school at the pump house and cross O’Connor’s hill and then head for our old house on the Creamery Road which I still missed even though it was almost two years since we left there. I was drawn to it because I had great memories and it kept calling me back. I had spent an idyllic childhood there and experienced a sense of freedom that I lost when we moved into the town. Along the way, we would hopefully chase a few rabbits, look for birds nests, climb trees maybe and have a great adventure. I spent several hours enjoying the freedom of the open-air but as it was getting late and near tea time I called for Lassie, who was off chasing a rabbit and made my way home.
Later that evening there was a knock at our front door. It was officer Holden, one of the police constables who lived in Rathview Park. My father called me and I went to the front door where Holden asked me what was I doing in the schoolyard earlier that day. I told him I was taking a shortcut to the Carran road. He asked me if I saw or heard anything when I was there and I said no. Then he mentioned the two boys' names who I had seen and asked me if I knew them. I told him that yes, I did know them and that they were neighbors. He asked me If I had seen them earlier that day and I said no. One thing you learn at an early age in Crossmaglen is to keep your trap shut, especially when the police are involved. I remember him asking me to show him my hands which seemed odd to me at the time. I still to this day wonder who gave constable Holden my name and how he knew I had been in the schoolyard. I don’t remember seeing anyone on my way. Who pointed the finger at me? I never did find out, although I had and still have my suspicions. Looking back on it I remember having the suspicion that Holden may have used my name to extract a confession from the two boys, but I could not be sure. He was a sneaky individual and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he did indeed use my name.
My father was mad as hell with me for bringing the, as he put it ‘police to his door’ and for being involved with what was seen as an act of vandalism. I tried to explain my side of the story but he wouldn’t listen and so at 10 years of age I became aware of the ‘scapegoat’ phenomenon. It wouldn’t be the last time. I do know that one of the boy's older brothers blamed me and accused me of telling Holden that I saw what happened and once accosted me in the street. How it all turned out I never did find out and soon it faded from memory but still left a mark on my otherwise happy childhood.
I remember another incident involving constable Holden, who seemed to always be after me for some strange reason. I was a fairly quiet sort and avoided strife always as I knew it was a negative and I took great care to stay out of trouble. My father had often warned me about being on my best behavior at all times. Kevin White, an older boy, and I had arranged to go fishing one Saturday. I was to meet him at the billiard room corner with my fishing rod and a can of freshly dug worms. I arrived early and waited for Kevin to show up. As I looked down North street I noticed Holden standing in the gateway of McArdle’s yard. Just then Kevin showed up with his bike. Our plan was for me to sit on the handlebars and with Kevin pedaling we were going to go down the Blaney road and head for a favorite fishing place called ‘the gut.’ I told Kevin about Holden and he decided to take a detour to avoid getting pulled by Holden for riding on the handlebars of a bicycle.
Looking forward to a day's fishing we rode down past the post office, turned left into Newry street, and then a right turn at Packie Kernan’s, on down the Carran road laughing at the fact that we had outwitted Holden. As we neared Lily McEnaney’s yard Holden stepped out of the gateway and put his hand up and shouted ‘Stop.’ I jumped off the handlebars and stood nervously as Holden berated us and Kevin in particular as he owned the bike. Needless to say, there was no fishing that day. Holden must have spotted us at the billiard room corner and put his detective brain in action by figuring out our alternative route. He took the shortcut through the schoolyard, over the wall, and lurked in the gateway on the Carran road waiting to spring his trap and catch two desperados in action. He gave Kevin a summons to appear at the assizes, which were held in the market-house on the square, two weeks later. Kevin appeared before the magistrate and was fined ten shillings, a hefty sum back then, I got off with a caution.
The next time that I became the unwitting scapegoat was when I was 13 years old. Again, I had given my father the slip and with Lassie, I raced across the green towards the row of garages on the opposite side of the park, the nearest point where I knew that once there, I would be hidden from view. At the rear of the garages lay the fields and that other magical world of nature. “Don’t tell him you saw me,” I gasped at Mrs. Clarke as I raced past her. She looked up from washing her doorstep and smiled as she said, “don’t worry, I won’t.” Mrs. Clarke was a nice lady and had covered for me before. I was sweating now but almost there, just a few more yards. With a last glance over my shoulder, I saw my father standing in the gateway. His hat was pushed back on his head and although I couldn’t hear clearly I knew he was calling me back to the house. I ignored him and kept running. Behind the garages was a secret space in the thick hedge and in a flash, with head bent, I tumbled through into the field. There on the lush, thick grass, I lay panting, needing a few minutes to recover from the mad dash. Lassie looked up at me as if to say, "we did it again!”
Rested, I walked across the field with Lassie trotting ahead of me alert and watchful for rabbits. She had a passion for chasing anything that moved and at times I had to run to keep up with her. Suddenly, a blackbird disturbed by the snooping terrier flew noisily out of a small whitethorn tree. I knew her nest was probably hidden carefully somewhere in the branches and ever curious climbed up and parted the leaves. Peering closely, there it was! I could see it but I would have to climb up a little higher to look inside. I stretched my arm and gripped a fat branch above my head, then hooked my foot on a lower limb and carefully avoiding the thorns, hoisted myself up. I was now at eye level and could see clearly, three little blackbirds with their mouths wide open. They had no feathers and their eyes were closed. I noticed several small pieces of eggshells spread around the bottom of the nest and so knew that they had hatched recently. I resisted the temptation to touch them as my father had explained that if I disturbed a nest the mother might abandon it. I stayed for a few more minutes marveling at the perfectly built nest and the ever-hungry chicks inside; then, swung from the branch taking in the view from that different angle, hung there for a few moments, and dropped to the ground.
I saw Lassie off in the distance scampering up some gorse-covered rocks. She knew there was a possibility of rousing a rabbit there as she had before. She had a long memory and always knew where to look. Sure enough, a startled bunny bolted out from the bushes, eyes wide and ears fully erect. Immediately, a black and tan rocket burst forth and with excited yelps and barks, gave chase. The rabbit made a sharp left turn and took off over the hill with Lassie in hot pursuit. I scrambled up to the top of the rocks and watched the race from my vantage point, high above the grassy field. I could see the rabbits’ white tail bob and weave first to the left and then to the right, then disappear in an instant through a hole in the hedge on the far side of the field. The black and tan terror flew through the same hole soon after. With both quarry and chaser now out of my sight, I flopped down on the rock and prepared to wait for the hunters’ return.
It was then that I smelled the smoke.
It came ghost-like, wafting across the field from somewhere off to my right. I shaded my eyes with my hand to get a clearer view. In the next field were several large stacks of dried hay and one was in flames. A group of boys was running around the stacks, hollering, playing cowboys and Indians. They were from the upper end of the town and I remember thinking, ‘I’d better get out of here’ and was up and moving when I heard someone call my name and motion for me to join them. It was one of the boys at the haystack. I shouted back and said I had to go look for my dog, and turned and walked off in the opposite direction toward the Cullaville road.
I whistled loudly knowing that Lassie would come and after a couple more sharp whistles, saw her running towards me, her tongue flopping wildly. I was worried now and knew that I had to get away from there. As we approached the gate at the roadside a truck pulled into the field. It was the owner of the hayfield and his two sons. Without uttering a word they bundled me into the back of the truck and took off. Lassie ran barking after the moving truck which drove through the town and stopped outside our house. Now I was really scared. My father was in the garden tending to his plants and looked surprised as the truck drew up at our house.
“Your son set fire to one of our haystacks,” said the owner’s younger son as he pointed off in the direction of the field. Everyone looked in that direction and sure enough, thick black, smoke could be seen billowing above the rooftops, and with it came a dreadful sense of impending doom. “I didn’t do it I swear,” I blurted out as a cold, clammy sweat crept over my entire body. “It wasn’t me, I didn’t do it,” I repeated, quaking with fear. “If it wasn’t you, then who was it?’ demanded the owner angrily.
Therein lay the moral dilemma. I did know who they were but also knew that I could never name them. So, in that instant, I became the sacrificial lamb and would once again have to bear the blame alone. My father had to pay for the loss and I worked off the cost over the next year by doing odd jobs after school and a paper round for Peggy Martin in the mornings. What upset me most of all was the fact that my father did not believe me. From then on the relationship with him became noticeably strained and we became distant. Many years later the perpetrator admitted to one of my sisters that it was him and not me who had lit the fire, but the damage had been done.
Looking back now, I believe that was the day I grew up.
© John A. Brennan 2021. All Rights Reserved.