A Short Story by Gary J Byrnes, 2012
Dublin, December 1936
Dark at noon, midwinter. A statue over the entrance doorway, Holy Mary, Mother of God, a feeble garland of lights drooping around her shoulders.
The men glanced around as they neared the door. College deathly quiet. Their breaths hung like stains in the frigid air. The taller one put his hand on the handle, looked at his friend. A nod and the door was opened. No turning back now.
A blast of heat and a smell, a smell of something, something familiar yet hard to place, burning the air. The priest recognised it as the smell of death. The door closed behind them, that cold world of schoolboys and sinners and paupers and peasants shut away now. They walked up a dark hallway, musty curtains, marbled saints, fading photographs in dusty frames, and into a large room with a blazing fire at the distant wall. Three high-backed armchairs arranged there. The top of head visible, gleaming, oily hair.
‘Come,’ he commanded.
They sat either side of him, no pleasantries, the fire intensely hot.
Like the fires of hell.
He wore an immaculately-tailored pinstripe suit, grey on black and had a chain of rosary beads in his right hand, the crucifix dangling. The priest instinctively felt for his own beads in his coat pocket. The politician fought the urge to do the same.
‘Thank you,’ in unison.
They nodded yes and he picked a brass bell from a delicately carved table. Angels and fruit.
A boy, no more than twelve years old, came quietly to the man’s side. He glanced at the visitors, fear in his eyes. The priest touched the boy’s arm, vaguely smiled. There, there.
The boy nodded and scurried away quickly.
Bells chimed somewhere nearby. Idle crows squawked.
They sat and waited in silence until the tea came, on a silver tray. The boy’s hands trembling, the spoons rattling.
The boy left and the politician served.
They drank sweet tea and stared into the flames, imagining tormented faces there.
‘To business,’ said the man, his eyes fixed on the fire. ‘Priest. You are to take these people and crush their souls. I will grant your church half a century of complete control and you will be Lord of it all. Your kind will grow rich and fat off them. You may torture, abuse and degrade them. You will be above the law. For a time, you will be the law. I just want them to be, mmm, pliable. Understood?’
‘Yes. Sir,’ said the priest.
‘Politician. You are to assist the priest. This new constitution that you are drafting? Let the priest write it for you. Work together. You must make them believe that they live in freedom while you bond them into slavery. You and your kind will have seventy years in which to bleed them of their wealth and create a bureaucracy that is self-serving, an illusion of a republic. Ban contraception so they’ll breed like rats. I need more souls, boys! And censor free thought and every form of progressive expression. Keep them mired in poverty and stupidity, mouthing your dogmas and fallacies. Can you do this for me, Éamon?’
The politician pushed his spectacles up onto the bridge of his nose. ‘I can.’
‘Good. I was there at your shoulder when the Free State was born, when you rejected the Treaty that caused civil war. That bad blood will never be lost, a good day’s work. And I helped you start your Fianna Fáil, your breeding ground for the future demons who will do my bidding. When the peasants are broken, then this,’ he swept his hands wide, ‘all this will be swept away and my destiny will be fulfilled.’
He stood then. ‘It’s done. Go. Take my power, McQuaid. Take it, de Valera. And deliver me Ireland.’
Then come to me.
He strode from the room, taking the heat with him.
The fire quickly withered.
Again, bells tolled nearby. How much time had passed?
‘Are you coming, Father?’ asked de Valera.
‘Not yet. I’ll see you in my office in the morning. We have much work to do. For now, God bless.’
De Valera left the room quietly. And Father John Charles McQuaid reached for the brass bell.