About 10 years ago I went a through a brief, but intense phase of fiction writing. The manuscripts were left to gather dust over time – until I came up with the idea of publishing some of them online. Although the tedious, yawn-inducing topic of Northern Irish politics is generally something I avoid like the plague on this site, it forms the basis for the following short story in a comical fantasy context. Both sides of the sectarian divide have drawn on ancient myth and legend to justify their bankrupt causes and give themselves some kind of twisted historic mandate to lend legitimacy to their campaigns – a concept which inspired this story.
The Hero of Ulster
The freshly painted red, white and blue kerbstones glistened in the suffocating summer sun. Some kids were wheeling a barrow full of tyres – late additions to the mountain of rubble in the middle of a patch of wasteland. Perched on top was the crude effigy of a Polish priest wearing a Glasgow Celtic football shirt. Some of the older boys were practising familiar party tunes on their flutes. Yes, it was that time of year again in Northern Ireland. An elderly Polish priest resident in Italy, a dead Dutch king with a citrus plantation in the south of France and two Scottish football clubs…
Sammy was in high spirits. It was 1999. A new millenium was just around the corner, but more imminently, tonight would be his first “eleventh” night since his release from the Kesh. He’d just picked up his cheque from the dole and was looking forward to the night’s festivities. He’d invested his giros along with some money that he’d borrowed from a mate wisely in recent weeks. The shiny blue sheen of his brand new Rangers jersey (with the name “AMORUSO,” the Italian star emblazoned across the back) went perfectly with the newly acquired red hand tattoo on his arm set above the legend “For God and Ulster” – £80 well spent. He’d also made some money after having backed a winning horse at the bookies the previous day – a horse called Orange Lily. That would buy him a few games of snooker and get him plastered in time for the celebrations. He might even have enough left over to finance another trip to the bookie’s.
Three hours later he emerged from the pub. His vision was slightly blurred, but he was in control of his senses. He’d almost got into a fight over the how many points the pink ball was worth, but the barman wasn’t going to allow any trouble. Sammy was after all the undisputed snooker champion of his wing at the Maze, having won dozens of tournaments which had kept him in smokes for weeks. Three years in that place had however greatly reduced his capacity for alcohol consumption, but he’d certainly worked up an unquenchable thirst during that time. He would still have time to get a bite to eat, get cleaned up and ready for a proper night’s binge. As he turned the corner towards the chippy, a tall, muscular figure in strange attire seemed to have mysteriously appeared before him. They stared at each other for a few seconds before Sammy broke the ice in the usual Belfast fashion.
“What about ye, mate?”
The stranger seemed not to understand but reciprocated the greeting.
“Greetings, stranger” he replied in a deep booming voice. “I am Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, son of Lugh and Deirdre and nephew to Conchubar MacNessa of Emain Macha. I have trekked for many days across the waters of the Boyne, the ford of Bude, son of Bain, through the grove of the nine wise hazel trees, the Dyke of the Black Pig and the Shankill Road, through field and forest, mountain and moorland to avenge my people.”
“You must be knackered after all that travelling, mate. It’s these bloody border roads. Any bother crossing the border? ’Cause they’re really clamping down these days with all that smuggling going on – you know like booze, fags, diesel an’ all that. I’m Sammy, son of Maggie by the way. Dunno who my da was though. So what is it that you do?”
“I have just awoken from my eternal slumbers after having slept for aeons in the guarded citadel of the Black Pool. I have fought against the men of Connacht, against Norseman and Norman-”
“What, Norman Jeffries? That boy’s a psycho – I wouldn’t go near him. To tell you the truth, mate I owe him a bit of money, so I’m avoiding him like the plague at the moment.”
Sammy couldn’t quite place the lad’s accent, but he certainly wasn’t a local.
“So you’re not from round here then?”
“I am an Ulsterman, born and bred. The place has changed since my last battle, but still I must take arms against the enemies of Ulster…”
“So you’re one of us then?”
Despite his declaration of kindred spirit there was still something odd about him. Maybe he was a foreign sailor from the docks who’d had one drink too many and lost his way en route to a fancy dress party. Or could he be high on dope? If this was the case Sammy could do with some weed to lift his spirits even further.
“You seem like a decent lad – you like a bit of fisticuffs, eh? I could with your help if big Norm ever came knocking on my door. So who else have you had run-ins with?”
“I have slain the mighty hound of Culann with my bare hands, as it is written in the Tain.”
“Good on you, mate. We’re better off without dogs. Public health hazard if you ask me. Big Norm’s got a Rottweiller, mind. It nearly went for me once. I’d love to fill it full of lead, but I can’t afford to break the ceasefire if you know what I mean. So where are you from anyway? That’s definitely not a Belfast accent. Somewhere in the country? Tyrone is it?”
“I am of the Red Branch Knights…”
Sammy cut him off in mid flow. “Is that one of these new paramilitary groups who’s against the peace process mate? You’d better watch yourself – I went down for three years because of boys like that and between me and you, there’s a few people ’round here who like to bear grudges if you know what I mean, like.”
Suddenly Sammy felt a hand on his shoulder. He whirled around and was suddenly paralysed with fear.
“Nice to see you Sammy” said the smiling face.
It was Norman Jeffries and he was holding a baseball bat.
Cúchulainn was nowhere to be seen. Sammy made a run for it only to find his path blocked by Billy “Flick-knife” Mc Alistair, also clutching a baseball bat. The legendary warrior had mysteriously disappeared.
“Going somewhere, Sammy? What’s the hurry? Why not stick around and chill with your mates?”
It was now Norm’s turn.
“I don’t want to hassle you Sam”, he said calmly, “but didn’t we have a wee arrangement going? It was a simple matter of fifty quid plus two month’s interest. Now what about honouring your side of the bargain?”
Sammy had broken into a cold sweat and was quite visibly shaking. His voice had suddenly gone all high pitched and shaky. “I swear to you Norm, I’ll have it by next week. Just gimme a chance to get it all together.” He was trying to bluff his way out of it and suddenly came up with an idea.
“I’ve got this tip on a horse – it’s running on Wednesday. It’s a dead cert. All I have to do is get down to the bookies and I’ll have the money for you. Come on lads, you know me. Would I ever pull a fast one on yez?”
Norman and Billy were having none of it. It was now Billy’s turn.
“By the way, Sam, Wee Bobby doesn’t like being cheated at snooker and what’s this I hear about you and my Debbie?”
Sammy turned white. “I don’t know what you’re on about!”
“Well this might help jog your memory” said Norm as he landed a powerful blow to Sammy’s face, felling him instantly.
“Come on lads, Jesus!” Sammy protested, rubbing his swelling cheek.
Billy laughed as the baseball bats got to work. He continued his taunts. “By the way I like the tattoo, Sam. Must have set you back a few bob. Put it like this. The money’s not for us. It all goes into the organisation, so in a way you’re taking a beating for God and Ulster!”
Sammy called out in vain. “Cúchulainn! Come on, I need your help, mate! Please!”
But the ancient defender of Ulster had disappeared.
Sammy’s screams were drowned out by the beat of the Lambeg drum and the shouts of drunken revellers. A large crowd had assembled around the bonfire which was now blazing away. A cheer arose as Karol Woytyla, the former Bishop of Krakow went up in flames.
The crowd was oblivious to the radio news bulletin coming from a nearby house.
“You’re tuned to Radio Ulster and here is the news read by Wendy McNesbitt. The General Post Office in Dublin has tonight reported the theft of a valuable statue. The marble figure of Cúchulainn, mythological warrior hero of ancient Ulster went missing from the premises. There were no signs of forced entry and Garda forensic experts are baffled as to the statue’s mysterious disappearance. Both Loyalist and Republican sources have denied any involvement in the crime.” Meanwhile Sammy’s screams continued on into the night. Cúchulainn may well have returned home, but where was he when you needed him?