Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Emmet Rule

 

 

The transaction seemed innocent enough at the time: a special Easter treat involving the barter of a cooked goose for a chunk of roast beef between two farm families. But it ended in a tragic-comedy with sinister roots reaching back 150 years.

It was Easter, 1951, but in rural Leinster, we were still living in 1803, with the ghost of Robert Emmet who’d died a martyr that year, his stirring speech from the dock a defiant milestone in the struggle for freedom from the British colonial yoke: “Let no man write my epitaph,” he’d admonished the court, “ until…my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.”

Emmet’s fate was emblematic of centuries of betrayals by informants, bailiffs, and sundry henchmen for the absentee British gentry, so that proverbial head-fakes in matters large and small had become a given in all walks of Irish life. Down the generations, we Irish became a nation of contortionists in the dark arts of secrecy and concealment, of mystery-making and throwing the bastards off the trail.

Irish Nobel poet laureate, Seamus Heaney, captured the spirit in a poem titled, “Whatever you say, say nothing.” He was articulating the unwritten rule of engagement governing our every interaction. Say nothing and hide everything, even when there was nothing to hide. Always evade the essence of what is planned or has actually happened; reveal the details only as a last resort, or not at all, like a wealthy miser who goes hungry or a cult whose members insist on playing hide-and-go-seek with reality.

 

 

As a people, we’d learned the Emmet Rule the hard way. Robert Emmet was not the first Irishman to be betrayed, nor would he be the last; but he would be the one best remembered, thanks to the identity of his informer.

 

 Emmet was a “well-born” Dubliner, part of the privileged Protestant class, and a leader of the United Irishmen at Trinity College. Protesting the coercive Act of Union of 1801—which denied the longed-for Catholic emancipation to the populace—Emmet organized a doomed uprising in a dilapidated part of the city near Dublin Castle, headquarters of the British occupational forces and site of the notorious torture chamber. This attack by a small, rowdy crowd called the “Liberty Rangers” was quickly squelched, and Emmet fled to his fiancee’s  house in Wicklow. There he was soon arrested and hauled back to Dublin Castle to await trial.

Unlike most accused rebels of the time, Emmet was permitted a defense -- an eloquent one, by his trusted friend, Leonard McNally, one of the finest barristers in the country. But the Irish found out soon enough the reason for this apparent magnanimity: McNally was an informant for the Crown. It was later revealed that McNally—who’d wept at Emmet’s sentencing and kissed him goodbye in the dock – had sold his friend out for 200 pounds and a government pension.

 

McNally was revealed to have been the chief government spy, paid to infiltrate the United Irishmen, Emmet’s nationalist organization. His loathsome betrayal of the charismatic Emmet has sounded a clarion call across the generations: Trust no one, especially your closest friends! As a tool of colonial control, this was masterful and has survived to this day as essential to the divide-and-conquer strategies of every colonial plunderer—from the fertile province of Northern Ireland to the Brazilian Rain Forest to the Ivory Coast of Africa.

Growing up in rural Ballinvalley, a remote farm in the foothills of Mt. Leinster—in the southwest region of the island—I had no knowledge or curiosity about the larger tapestry of Robert Emmet’s short life. Yet, I was aware of his betrayal as soon as I could talk. For example, if I were to suggest to Mother that I’d told one of my pals the most trivial bit of family lore—My sister is going to visit Aunt Lizzie in Dublin next month”—Mother was quick to reign me in: “Remember our history!” she’d say, sharply. “It’s none o’ their business. How d’ya know that cute wan is not gonna blab it all over the place?” To label someone “cute” was the standard red flag of character indictment.

I remember thinking these suspicions strange, at first. But eventually I learned to be just as cagey as all the rest, thanks to the martyr-makers who never let us forget our vicious colonial history.

Barely twenty-three, Emmet was hanged in Thomas Street, Dublin, on September 20, 1803. The British decapitated him the following day—in case hanging appeared too civilized, I suppose. No point in missing a golden opportunity to discourage aspiring insurrectionists.

Not that I thought anyone was going to hang and behead me for a bit of loose talk, but it did give me pause before I said much of anything.

 Whatever you say, say nothing.

 

It might sound absurd, and it was, but you didn’t need to be a cultural anthropologist to notice the Irish habit of being evasive, making jokes and small talk, anything to avoid disclosing “yer business.” The vehemence of the Emmet Rule varied depending on one’s politics and education, but it was in full force in all the notorious bastions of resistance and rebellion in South Leinster: Wexford, Kilkenny, Wicklow, and especially in my home county, Carlow.

 

So here we were, almost 150 years on— about to celebrate Easter on our own terms. Thanks to a hard-fought guerilla movement, we were a free, democratic people, no longer subject to colonial rule or custom. We’d shaken off the British yoke 30 years earlier, yet we still wrapped ourselves in layers of protective coloration and decoys, like butterflies and birds faking broken wings, alert to the predatory informer in our midst. As Mother used to advise: “If yer goin’ up the road, tell ‘em yer goin’ down the road.”

But, even as a child, I knew that tactic was way too obvious. The master strategy—the one I adopted early, especially with my own family, was to tell the gospel truth about my intentions, but only in pieces and at random intervals. No one knew what to make of such honesty.

One thing you could always count on: No one would believe a word you said, assuming the worst about your intentions. To even suggest that someone should be taken at their word was to invite instant ridicule as an “ feckin’ eejit” or a pretender to sainthood: “Who does he think he is? St. Francis?”

 

 

Back to the barter of Easter-dinner entrees, which was initially accidental and pragmatic: We raised geese; our neighbors, the Murphys, raised cattle, so we’d decided to share the best of both worlds; a perfectly sensible arrangement that would have little appeal to the squinting window (gossip mongers)—those who thrived on anything with a hint of salaciousness or hypocrisy.

There was, however, one serious logistical problem: Murphy’s kettle—in which they cooked everything over the open fire—was fine for a beef roast, but too small to cook a 25-pound goose. Our stove, on the other hand was a modern Aga Cooker given to us by Mother’s generous American friend, Mrs. Agnes Byrne—and was perfect for the job. But this required that the goose had to be cooked by Easter Saturday and exchanged in time to be reheated and served in Murphy’s household for Easter Sunday dinner.

Now, in spite of the fact that there was nothing noteworthy about this neighborly arrangement, we were still subject the Robert Emmet Rule, so, of course, the entire exchange had to be cloak and dagger.

It began with a flurry of whispered conversations from the kitchen, between Mother and my god-mother, Nanny Murphy— a neighbor with three brothers, living about two miles away. Coming down to Easter Week, the kitchen conversations grew more frequent and intense. Listening to the complex logistics of procurement and distribution, with multiple visits between household emissaries from both sides, one would have thought we were exchanging not a goose and a few pounds of roast beef, but a shipment of Thompson machine-guns for the Easter Rising.  What was ludicrous about all this was that the whole community already knew of the arrangement and thought nothing of it, except as a source of good-natured jokes (craic, as we called sheer fun). Goose for beef was a fair exchange; nothing to be ashamed of, or be interested in. But try telling that to Mother and Nanny.

 “Mammy, why all the big secrecy about the goose?” I asked, while Nanny was whispering with her in the kitchen. Mother grew red in the face, seized me by the arm and said, “Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone, or I’ll tan yer hide.” Nanny stepped in and said, “No, she’s not gonna tan anything. But Sonny, here’s a half crown, and be sure not ta tell a soul about this. It’s none o’ dere business whether we eat goose or gander.” They both had a good laugh at that.

 It made no sense to me, but I was grateful for the half-crown and gleefully took the bribe, my first and last hush money.

The logistics were designed to support an elaborate and painstaking scheme of exchange. Early on Easter Saturday, Mother cooked two geese, one for each family, complete with stuffing and gravy. She packed Murphy’s bird in a thick, brown paper sack and put the gravy and extra stuffing in separate containers. Then she put the whole thing in a wooden hamper, complete with written instructions, ready for pick-up.

 I watched the entire operation and thought it a marvel of efficiency and exactitude on Mother’s part.

 

That night, the plan would be executed smoothly, and everyone could count on a delectable Easter dinner, one we’d whisper about for weeks to come, as would the whole community.

 

Phase one would kick in when Jack Murphy, one of our regular ramblers (nightly visitors), dropped off the chunk of beef (raw) on a designated bench in our tool shed, then joined the house revelry in our kitchen .

While the ramblers were distracted—card-playing , dancing, and telling ghost stories—phase two would kick in when Mother slipped out the (back) parlor door and deposited the succulent goose in its travel sack on the bench, and retrieved the chunk of beef Jack had just deposited.

Hours later, phase three, the finale, would come into play. As the ramblers broke up for the night, going their separate ways, Jack Murphy would hang back, slip into the shed and retrieve his Easter bonanza. That was the design—all in a night’s work. No one outside the two families need be any the wiser.  

The first two phases of the plan went according to Hoyle. I loved being in on it—now that I was bribed and sworn to secrecy. I loved the intrigue of seeing Jack saunter in, wink at Mother, and join the group. Before this Easter holiday, the winks and nudges had been a complete mystery, well beyond my comprehension; but now I was an insider, one of the initiated, and I suddenly felt grown up. I knew the wink sent a secret message: “The beef has been delivered!” Since I’d never had beef before, this was very exciting, almost like Santa Claus at Christmas.

Then, as the house filled up, and Mick Murphy, Jack’s older brother, continued the comic running saga of his thankless job as a caregiver for demented “Old Joe Breen,” I saw Mother slip out the parlor door with her precious basket. Soon, I saw her step back in, a large sack in hand, a faint smile of deep satisfaction on her face.

 

Two hours later, as the party broke up early for Easter Sunday Mass, we were excited to find an inch of April snow on the ground as we ambled into the farmyard for our traditional goodnights and Happy Easter greetings.

But there was more than snow in the yard. As soon as I stepped out, I saw the cobbled ground was littered with moist bones and shredded brown-paper. Off by the spring well, 30 feet away, lay the carcass of the Easter goose. It had been picked clean.

 The ramblers were already animated about the snow, and they couldn’t miss the brown-paper spectacle. Just then our huge border collie, Captain, came waddling out of the shed, a golden drumstick in his mouth. Spotting the group, he dropped the drumstick like a hot potato and went slinking away, his stomach hanging low, his gait telegraphing guilt and denial in about equal measure. A smart dog, he knew he’d eaten forbidden food, but didn’t want to be caught holding the bag, or the drumstick, in this case.

For what seemed like eternity, we all just stood there with the large flakes drifting down, glancing uneasily at the bone-strewn snow. No one spoke. The goose gambit had clearly gone awry, the secret exchange now blatantly exposed and advertised on every grease-stained shred of brown paper and bone fragment on the cobblestones. Yet, no one dared name the secret or acknowledge what had just happened before their eyes.

Standing there in the moonlit yard, the ramblers didn’t want to embarrass either Mother or Jack Murphy, their good friends and neighbors. They tried to pretend they knew nothing of the arrangement; like us, they held the code of “say nothing” so obsessively as to deny what was literally laid out before them.

 

But as ramblers dedicated to the art of teasing and embellishment, this was the best material they could ever hope to stumble on, and they knew it. The wheels of mischief were already spinning, and this episode was well on its way to being emblazoned with fanciful inlay, careening toward Easter legend.

In the coming weeks, each eye-witness would put his own spin on the ludicrous farmyard scene:

Jim Flood had the opening line at Osbourne’s pub Easter Sunday night: “Be Jaysus, Murphy heard the Banshee, and she appeared at the bedroom window the night before.  He thought it was a bad omen whin he saw her combing her hair with a golden goose beak.”

 Mick Murphy, who traced every event back to the Great Hunger, was true to form: “Sure, the Big Woman” –that’s what everyone called Mother – “took down the whip and was about to skin that dog alive, whin he turned into an auld beggarman who died during the Hunger. We all saw dat happen, as sure as I’m sittin’ here. He looked like he was about 200 years o’ age, no teeth or anythin’. Said he’d died in Skibbereen after refusin’ da soup from da Brits. An’ dat’s the God’s honest truth.”

Pete Breen, a new rambler that Easter Saturday, never came back to Ballinvalley. He told Nanny Murphy why when they met some weeks later in the village: “Did ya know it didn’t snow anyplace else dat night except in Rices’ farmyard? Something’s not right about dat place. Gives me da willies, ‘tween you n’ me.”

On the night of the wreck of his Easter goose, it was Jack Murphy who finally broke the awkward silence, letting the others, including Mother, off the hook: “Well, at least Captain won’t need another Easter dinner.” The ramblers roared with laughter, amused—but more relieved to see that Jack still had a sense of humor.

Suddenly, as if they’d just been given permission, they all stopped pretending they didn’t know about the arrangement. Without even asking a question, everyone talked at once, offering remedies to prevent a similar tragedy from happening next year, covering all the angles.

“Ya gotta tie up the Border,” Mog Flood advised, as if he’d had an epiphany. “Sure, they can smell that gravy a mile away.”

“I’d put a latch on the shed,” Packie Byrne said in his halting voice. “Sure, he musta pushed da door open.”

“Hang it up where he can’t get at it,” Danny Murphy suggested, pointing to the roof of the shed.

“The rafters are perfect for that.”

During all the sage advice, Mother kept silent, glancing at Jack, worrying about the now one-sided bargain, about what the squinting window would do with this.

But not a single soul suggested that this whole, elaborate arrangement was absurd and should be abandoned. Jesus Christ might be about to rise from the tomb, but we were still living with the dead hand of Robert Emmet heavy on our shoulders, warning us not to roll away that stone, lest we delude ourselves into trusting our friends and neighbors.

The ghost of Leonard McNally still lurked, still doing his dirty work, waiting for us to drop our guard, to forget our history in a moment of hope and celebration.

Whatever you say, say nothing.

 

 

 

Thomas Rice was born in rural Ireland and lived there until he was 16. He dropped out of school at 13, emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and, later graduated from Cornell University. He went on to get a Ph.D. in Sociology and spent 20 years in academe. Along the way, he’s been a farmer, breeder of border collies, construction worker, tractor driver, bartender, licensed carpenter, social activist, founder of an institute for social justice, and story-teller. Rice has been a Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, a Research Associate at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an NEH Fellow at Berkeley. He is the co-author of four books and over 50 articles and essays in a wide array of refereed academic journals and editorial pages of such newspapers as The Boston Globe, In These Times, and The Chicago Tribune. He writes a regular blog for his website, ThomasJRice.com Since 2012, his writing has been edited by Professor Wayne Johnson, best-selling author and Iowa Writers’ Workshop Faculty .

 Beginning in 2009, he dedicated himself to writing full-time. Since then he has published three short stories, one novella and a memoir . His first novella, “Hard Truths,” was selected by Otto Penzler and Robert Crais for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2012.  In 2010, he published a memoir about growing up in post-WWII Ireland, called, Far from the Land: An Irish Memoir. He has recently completed a collection of novellas and short stories (10 stories; 250 pages), titled Rites of Passage & Other Irish Stories, and is currently working on a novel , Finding Nora, about a case of child abandonment and reunification.