Ulster Providence, Northern Ireland, 1981
Spring had come upon the land like a vengeful mistress, now it was only the beginning of July and already summer seemed bound to upstage her. Liam O’Neill rubbed at his neck and the back of his head, attempting to ease an ache that no drug alleviated. With the May fifth death of Bobby Sands on hunger strike followed by three others before the end of the month, the problems that hounded O’Neill’s country were escalating again. It was likely more young men would forfeit their lives in this protest and it irritated the solicitor that he couldn’t prevent them.
This let’s get-tough ploy by Thatcher’s Conservatives, in an attempt to criminalize Irish political prisoners, had only accomplished more death. What did it matter if they wore prison garb? Why couldn’t they give in or the damn Government give in. With the indiscriminate arrests taking place, he hadn’t put together five straight hours of sleep in months. Now this…A plane had been blown from the sky. Who in hell provided these idiots with ground to air missiles and the expertise to deliver one?
He joined the queue at the boarder checkpoint that divided the Northern section of Ulster Providence from the Nation of Erie on the small island they shared. He listened to the latest news broadcast. Aaron Martin, Holy Mother Mary, they didn’t make finer men than Aaron. Martin’s name was on the plane’s passenger list. When the plane blew up O’Neill was furious. Now, with the death of a friend, Liam felt the personal pain of sadness.
Recognized by the border guards, the attorney was waved on by while others still waited in line.
As he moved along on the hour drive to Dublin, his brooding destroyed his usual pleasure in the beauty of the countryside. Some time during that hour it occurred to him, his granddaughter could have been on that plane. And he thanked a God he’d long ago given up on, that she had missed her flight. It frustrated Liam O’Neill that he could not control Deirdre’s life. He desired to protect her and allow nothing to harm this special child. She loved him, trusted him, and this scared him.
When his youngest son, Emanon, brought the infant home, he’d been angry. His wife Delia was already ill with a cancer, and the realization that he would soon be alone after thirty years of marriage was frightening. Then Liam watched Delia’s smile as she held their first grandchild. Watched the pain in her eyes ease a bit. How could he refuse to let her keep the babe?
They hadn’t heard from their eldest son, Michael, since he stopped requesting funds. Delia had kept Michael’s final letter to torment him with. “Over three years,” his wife would say, “Sure, my boy hasn’t needed your money in over three years.”
They thought Michael was still in America; never guessed he’d been living in England for almost a year. Certainly never expected what Emanon was telling them. Michael had married and his wife died during childbirth. Of course he knew now that had been one of Emanon’s half-truths. Michael never married any of the women he caroused with. But even illegitimate, this child was Michael’s. Michael was returning to the States and wanted his parents to keep the infant until he could arrange to send for her. A few months had stretched into several years, then months of off and on extended visits.
Delia was gone; Emanon was gone. Early death hovered too close to the special people in Liam O’Neill’s life. As he stood outside the terminal this July morning, his eyes sought to pierce the cloud cover. He heard the plane’s engines. His girl was coming home. He held his breath as he watched the 727 jet level out for landing.
O'Neill studied his granddaughter's approach. Past fourteen, she moved with a jump in her walk. No, he decided, more like a march. Her long hair bounced as if in tune with a military band. Growing too tall for a lass, he thought, but was content she remained boyishly lean.
She spotted him. "Papa!" Deirdre yelled as she ran. Then she was in his arms and he hugged her possessively as he bent for her kiss. Holding her a bit back, he said, "Lass, your outfit's outrageous."
The lavender eyes sparkled in the sunlight. "Papa." she giggled. "All the kids are into jeans. We wear dumb uniforms to class so when we're free."
"Not right, that a lass should dress like a lad. If I didn't know better I'd think you were a boy."
Her eyes glinted with mischief and her giggle swelled as she reminded him. "Papa, we went through that a few years back. You convinced me I couldn't change my sex."
"Dede." He attempted to keep a stern tone. "That will be an end to that." But his laughter came—abrupt and short. Many things Liam O'Neill had forgotten in his sixty plus years but never the day when his eight-year-old granddaughter wanted to grow a penis. She had shocked him when she plainly said it. She nearly drove him insane trying to explain why she could not. Now, as he always did, he asked, "You hungry?"
“They fed and watered us regularly on the flight. I just wanna get out of Dublin and home. Did Centura drop her foal?"
"She's been waiting on you, girl." He waved over the young man toting her baggage. "See you put her toys in the rear seat."
"Papa." She blushed at the porter's sly grin. "I brought no toys. I'm a big girl now."
The idea distressed him.
Less then an hour later Deirdre complained, "That's sick," as their car was detained at the border. A minibus held up the queue. It was being dissected while the driver and two young male passengers faced army rifles and argued.
"The British army has no choice. So long as they remain in Ulster they must protect themselves."
"Why don't they just get out!"
"Dede, you're to pay no heed to what happens in this country. You're well shed of it."
"I'll be good." She promised but he saw, though she ducked her head, she glared at the British soldiers.
The young Irishmen were being shoved towards an armoured car; the business ends of rifles were hurrying their steps. And the man approaching the familiar auto was met with O'Neill's unpleasant demand. "What did you find?"
Not the Inspector’s virgin encounter with the barrister, his tone was held coolly steady as he answered. "Mr. O'Neill that bus’s a moving bomb. You'd like to be checking it over?"
"I'll trust your opinion. I have the lass with me."
And Deirdre screamed, "He hit him! He hit him!" As a prisoner, attempting to wrench an offending rifle from its owner was smashed in the temple by the butt end of another soldier's weapon. While the prisoner crumbled to the pavement, O'Neill grabbed and held tightly to his granddaughter who appeared bent on exiting the car.
"Stop it!" He shook her as the English Inspector looked on in surprise. "The soldier had no choice." O'Neill tried to explain.
Only Deirdre was hopping mad. The expletives pouring from her immature mouth were embarrassing. "Dede!" he hollered while her voice hung on a "Fuckin' bastard!" and O'Neill's palm clamped across her mouth. He glared at the Inspector, who wisely chose to step away from the vehicle.
“Lass, where do you get such language?” He held her face against his chest to cut off the sight as the soldiers loaded their prisoners into the army lorry. He patted her head trying again to explain. "Dede, he attacked the soldier. If someone attacked you, you'd fight back."
"Sorry, papa," she said but as she lifted her head he could still see the smoldering anger in lavender irises darkened to purple.
She’s a girl, he consoled himself, a Yank and the disease won’t affect her. Nothing would happen to her.