This is an extract from On Another Man’s Wound by Ernie O’Malley, which I have mentioned elsewhere.
We visited the Aran Islands and around the fire at night we talked, sitting on very low stools, on the floor, or with backs to the wall. And when it was my turn to tell a story, Peadar and some of the boys who spoke English helped me out in translation. Some of their stories seemed to have had no beginning or end. They seemed mostly to like smartness in the hero, a kind of cleverness bordering on trickery – their tales of Fionn were such; accounts of people on the mainland with a stress on meanness, or some fantastic tale so elaborate that one could sense improvised embroidery. Stories that were direct or that had much concrete description, I thought, they would like. I told them of Till Eulenspiegel, some of Hakluyt’s sea tales, Bricriú’s feast and Burnt Njal. Till Eulenspiegel and Bricriú were favourites; they rocked with delight, and I had to repeat them often and eventually hear their own versions; but their greatest joy was in the story of Mac Dathó’s Boar.
Everyday conversation and small events were dwelt on; states of the tide, weather, puffins, sea birds, clouds, fish and the behaviour of animals all received weighty attention. They had a medieval quality of wonder that came when a world was unexplored; beyond the small known horizon there lay Cathay, the Seven Cities of Cibola, or the Land of Promise. Some of the men and girls had been in America. Their stories were strange enough. Boston and Philadelphia took colour; American families and their ways were made as humorous as the stories of Americans about Irish maids, but often it would seem that they believed their fantastic additions more than the actual happenings. I wondered what it would be like to live always on the island, would stories become threadbare and comment boring, and would their jealousy of each other and their secretiveness affect us?
Peadar went north to get particulars about police huts which we intended to attack later. Near Ennis was a police hut; an armed patrol guarded stretches of the road at night. With two Volunteers I waited for the patrol. They passed us, rifles on their shoulders, as we were crossing a road in the dark; my men had blackened faces but the police did not halt us. After a time we heard the police returning. They were talking. My companions put the barrels of their shotguns across the ditch, waiting. Then I felt that if the police would not put up their hands at my shout, or if they tried to use their rifles, my men would shoot.
When the police came nearer I could hear their words which seemed to be important and out of all proportion to their sentence. But I did not call on them to put up their hands. I knew my men would shoot to kill.
When the police passed one said, ‘That was a good chance, why didn’t you shout?’ But I had no reply. I could not give the order; shooting like that did not seem fair. There was no moral element in my thoughts. We waited until the patrol passed and again I let them go, cursing myself for the second irresolution. ‘We’ll leave them be,’ I said, in gloomy silence. The men went as far as the house I was to sleep in. I did not explain to them, but I knew they were disgusted.