Editorial note: what follows concludes the story of James, and his life following his departure from Ireland in 1923.

While Dragging Our Hearts Behind Us


By Boni Thompson


James reaches New York City, by way of the secret branch of the Irish organization Clan na Gael, off-shoot of the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, formed decades before to give aid to the many Irish immigrants arriving in America and Canada. He finds the older brother of his friend Sean, Peter MacSwiney, and though he is an illegal alien he works for a time with him. James’ adventures in America are a whole other story, filled with unlikely escapades, and wild characters. These stories will begin with James working for King Solomon, the Jewish gangster gunned down by the psychopath Lucky Luciano in a Boston restaurant, and end in upscale Manhattan, working for George Putnam and his wife, Amelia Earhart, at the exclusive Heigh Ho Club and later. He will make friends with Rudy Vallee, the famous crooner and a whole coterie of movers and shakers that frequented that swinging place in the carefree days before the Great Depression.  

Before any of this gets rolling, one Sunday morning in 1924, sitting with a cup of tea, he reads a three-week-old copy of the Cork Examiner, his usual Sunday routine in those early years in America. He is surprised to find a ‘Most Wanted’ notice by the authorities (not the RIC or the Black and Tans, but the new National Guards) of Cork. The men listed? Most all of his former crew from C company, Mick Murphy, Sandow, Donovan, the Grey brothers, and on. Old friends and comrades. They are wanted for a drive by shooting at the still very British docks, in Cobh. (The main harbours of the country still belong to the British as part of the treaty.) It was here a young innocent 18-year-old British soldier was killed and more than 20 people wounded in a drive-by shooting. The paper describes this act as random and wanton. But James knows better. Whoever they were after, it was someone who was getting his comeuppance for whatever nasty deeds he was responsible for in the days of the War. James decides they must have missed their target. James’ friends, those who fought with him, those who believed that freedom could be taken, those who took the risks, did the necessary deeds to ensure that freedom, are described by the new president of Ireland, Cosgrave, as ‘dastardly.’ A L10,000 reward is put on their heads. It is barely a year since the end of the civil war, but already the anti-treaty men of Cork are excluded from any recognition of their courage or indeed devastating sacrifices that brought victory. His friends are on the run once again. Within weeks, every one of them will land in New York City, work the speakeasies and pine for home, where they will all return in a matter of months.  

In 2006, the famous Rolls Royce Silver Ghost that they used for this deed, ‘The Moon Car’ so named for its bright yellow hue, will be found partially burned in an excavated dump on a lonely country property. All of Cork will get a taste of what those men must have felt like in that car, when the owner has the car restored to its original magnificence and goes on the road to show it off. Can they imagine the crew of men that ran full speed past the British with Lewis machine guns blazing? Highly unlikely. In 2020, the car will be donated to the National Museum of Ireland  

When Frank Busteed shows up in New York City, James finds a kindred spirit. Frank is haunted, though he tries not to show it, enjoying life with a new wife and a new baby, and weekends with all of the Irish at Rockaway Beach, ‘The Irish Riviera’ according to New Yorkers. Pictures of the men together with their families and friends, Irish all, will show up on the internet, almost a hundred years later. James himself is sure not to be caught on camera. Frank, with welts under his eyes, sits on the sand holding the children. He wears a sad, troubled, expression. It is an expression that will reach out from most every photograph to be found of him as years go by. 


By 1936, James has spent over 12 years in New York city. He is married to a lovely Irish woman and has three young children. He has spent the last few years working for George Putnam, husband of Amelia Earhart. At first, he worked as doorman at the posh Heigh Ho Club in downtown Manhattan. The club co-owned by Putnam, lasted for a few years as the go-to club of the prohibition era for the upper echelons of Manhattan society. James knows just who to let through the doors and pay the exorbitant 15$ per head entrance fee. He develops a reputation as the no nonsense guardian of the establishment – not someone to be toyed with. 35 East 53rd street with its exotic paintings and art nouveau décor is the happening place for flapper girls, and movers and shakers alike. When the club shuts its doors during the depression, James continues to work for Putnam. As Amelia prepares for her around the world flight and the couple moves to California, James is offered a position. But the depression is over, the gangster’s day is done, America favors law abiding citizens. James must acquire legal status in order to become an American.  

His wife is excited about a move to California. Though he has a young family in tow, he will travel home to get his papers. Papers that will allow him to emigrate legally as his wife had. He needn’t have bothered. No papers will be given. Indeed, it will take him eight years to overcome some unknown, latent enemy, undoubtedly a pro-treaty foe, in the great bureaucracy that oversees pensions for the warriors of the War of Independence. He will have to fight for the category of Officer of Cork No 1 Brigade, writing letter after letter, filling out form after form. Letters will be written on his behalf by Tom Crofts, by Florrie O’Donoghue, by Members of the Dail. Florrie himself, now a well-known historian and supporter of all things IRA, will claim, on his behalf, that the work undertaken by the few men of the Intelligence Squad, was the most dangerous work of all, and without those men, things could have turned out much differently.  

James looks for work but will never find it in Cork. A return to New York, a move to California becomes an impossible dream. With Amelia’s disappearance in the midst of what is to be her daring flight around the world, in July of 1937, James knows his job prospects with Putnam have been lost with her. His young family, his beautiful wife, now pregnant, is distraught at living in his parent’s tiny home, without an income, their savings running dry. She makes a decision, dresses her children in their best New York attire and takes the train to the far-off countryside of her large family, full of brothers, farmers all. In Cork city, news of James’ return has spread. Old stories are resurrected in the pubs. He is known as a Republican, one of the crew that fought to the bitter end. There are no job offers. There are no jobs. Ireland has been in a slump since the initial blush of Free State government took over. Times are tough. Now he is looking for a job to support himself and his family, and any thought of a return to America has been buried under the harsh reality that is the new Ireland. He makes contact with O`Hegarty, who is grateful to have his job still at the Cork Workhouse. The name of this establishment, last resort of the poor, has changed with the departure of the British, but O`Hegarty is still the scrupulously honest manager who doles out supplies.  

The two men observe each other. Well, says O`Hegarty, at least you`re not behind bars. Aye, says James. At least you are on the outside of the poor house looking in. O’Hegarty long ago used up the last of his favors. He is an aging man now, his contribution to the War of Independence forgotten by most. In fact, most want to forget the whole sordid mess. He will bury the love of his life, Magdalen, in 1940, live for twenty years without her and finally in 1963 be buried in a small graveyard beside her in Cork City. School children learn only about Tomas MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, both gone from the earth before the fighting really began. The Free State is happy to provide Irish language lessons to the new generations and quietly let the story of the bitter, cruel, often desperate fight that was the Irish War of Independence, slide into oblivion.  

Sean is smoking a cigarette, leaning on the old stone wall near his family home as James approaches. His round wire spectacles sit atop his nose as ever they did. He wears a regular laborer’s clothing. His sleeves are rolled up, his thin suspenders hold up worn trousers, he wears thick leather boots, something like the Tans used to wear as they tore around the city. A beautiful young girl is standing beside him, chatting. She is lovely. For a moment James thinks it is Muriel, the most beautiful woman in the world. But of course, she is only about 18 years old, and Muriel was at least his age. Sean watches James approach and he smiles at his old friend. I told you to make a new life Jimmy. What the hell are you doing here? I don`t know Sean. It was good while it lasted, things are bad in the States now. Not as bad as they are here Jimmy. They will never be this bad. James grunts. He has realized this lately. You never came out. You said you would. I have my sisters here Jimmy. I couldn’t just desert them. And this is Mhaire, Terence’s daughter. She has been with us since Muriel decided to stay put in Paris. James nods at the beautiful girl. The resemblance to Muriel is uncanny.  

Indeed, Mhaire escaped her depressed mother’s grasp with the help of Mary MacSwiney and the clause in Terrence’s will leaving joint custody to both wife and sister. Mary rescued her from a boarding school in Germany when she discovered her mother rarely visited the child. Mary brought her home to Ireland to the delight of the whole family. However, Muriel herself, the most beautiful woman in the world, will never forgive her own daughter’s complicity in the subterfuge and will refuse to speak to her for the rest of her days. She will live in Paris and London, a well-known member of the Communists and avant-garde artists of both cities. Terrence’s daughter, Mhaire will one day marry Ruairi, the son of the last person he wrote to, Cathal Brugha, and she will live a happy life. Her granddaughter will help her write her memoirs just before she dies at age 90. But at the minute, in Cork City in 1937, James and friend of his youth, Sean, stare at each other intently. So much has changed. And yet, everything is the same. Sean stoops to cough and hack violently. Smoker’s cough. He looks at James and memories of sitting in the Union Quay Barracks, the sweet taste of victory fresh on their breath, saturate James’ mind. Candles in the dark, dreaming of glory soon to descend on them. But James gives his head a shake. Of all people, Sean knows it was hell descended on them instead. To tell you the truth Jimmy, I just ran out of money. I wanted to come. My sisters have the school. They are getting by. But I couldn’t beg, borrow or steal the ship’s passage. It has been rough here since you left. Aye, Sean, I see that. ‘Twasn’t what we thought it would be. No indeed, Jimmy, the locals are apt to say we were better off under the British. 


James is desperate for work. His young family has remained at his wife’s family’s country home, there to live by way of the goodness of her brothers and sisters. It seems there is not a single job of any sort for a known Irregular of Cork. James goes to England and looks up his old IRA connections. At the age of 40 he gets a job as a bicycle courier in a small city in the centre of the country. For two horrible years, he lives in a rooming house and sends home what money he can. 


War ravages Europe. James hears the Americans are building bases in Ireland. He is first in line for a job and his quartermaster skills of long ago serve him well. He will work there for the length of the war, living at the base, coming home on the odd weekend to his growing family. They hardly know him.  


James is 50 years old. The Americans have packed up and left town. He is left to pound the pavement looking for a job. His wife works long hours by the fire, in the evenings, embroidering clothes and housewares for cash. Her former life, dancing in midtown Manhattan, having drinks with Amelia Earhart, that life has receded so far away, she wonders if it was all just a dream. James travels to Dublin where the men who once stoked the people into rebellion, now rule the world. He is politely turned down for any and all government jobs. As he is walking down the street wondering what on earth is to become of him and his family, he runs into a long-forgotten comrade from Cork. A man of much lesser rank in those far off days, but one who prospered under the Free State from the start. He recognizes James, once an Officer, an insider, a man with a hand in every shake down and take down and every episode of subterfuge against the British that he could think of. This man wonders aloud how the fearless, the risk takers, the leaders, the shining rays of hope to the young, how one such as this could have fallen so low. What is wrong with this country? he says to James. James shrugs. We are long forgotten is all. Long forgotten. Quietly now Sir, please follow me. And without a word to his contemporaries, he hires James to work in his department, in a pleasant office, pushing paper. For the next 25 years, James will work for the administration, grateful for the kindness shown him by one he could barely recall. At age 75 he will quietly retire.  


‘The Troubles’ ravage Ireland. The North is in upheaval, Catholic vs Protestant, Nationalists vs Ulster Unionists. British soldiers tear about Belfast and Londonderry and the major towns looking out for IRA. IRA tear about Belfast and Londonderry and the major towns looking out for British soldiers. The Ulster Defence Force, a civilian organization dedicated to obliterating the IRA joins the fray. James sits in his modest Dublin home and watches the carnage, the fires, the arrests, the kidnappings, the graffiti, the protests, on the evening news, day after day, year after year. He is 77 years old. His grown children come by to visit, grandchildren in tow. James sits in his comfortable three-piece suit, fancy socks emerging from his hiked-up trousers, and sips his evening shot of whiskey. His hair is long and white, carefully combed to cover the bullet wound in the back of his head. The bullet wound that none of his children, if they know about it, discuss, and none of his grandchildren know exists. They find their grandfather always welcoming, always polite, but stoic, and sometimes sad. They listen in surprise to his occasional outbursts while watching the news. ‘They should have let us just finish it. The eejits. Sure, Collins was on his way to fix it. It could have been done.’ But his grandchildren just shrug and go off to the kitchen, there to sip tea with their grandmother and dip their chocolate biscuits. After all, the North is far away, a different country altogether.  


James lies back and as the pain killers kick in, he does a mental survey. His children are fine. They have had a good run. Yes, his own family is safe. Unlike so many families he has been thinking of on and off lately. Families from before New York, from his childhood, his youth in Cork City. It is a miracle that I have survived my own life, he thinks to himself. All those years of madness. All those years living on the edge of disaster before New York and after. He looks at Ashe, but sure, there were a few good times, despite it all and a few adventures Ashe, that be the truth. Yes, we did it alright. We routed the enemy, though a heavy price we paid. All the boys who danced at the end of their ropes, all the boys who suffered. Like you Ashe. Like you. A heavy price indeed. 

A nurse walks into the hospital room and checks his IV drip. James looks at her and thinks to himself, I know her. I know this girl. Her eyes are wide and luminous and intelligent, her smile sad. And then it comes to him, the most beautiful woman in the world – Terry’s wife.  

Terry, how I worshipped him. And Tomas. One cannot think of one without the other. Two rebels, smart and fearless and bold, both with hearts of gold. And Sean. We knew each other’s secrets, so we did. He has been thinking of Sean this last while. Sean, who like him, was boycotted for years despite being the young brother of the famous Mayor. James didn’t even know until after he passed, dead of emphysema at 46 years old, and was quietly buried, his niece, Terry’s daughter, traumatized, but everyone else in the world happy to forget another anti-treaty IRA and let them and their story fade away into oblivion.  

How old am I now, he thinks to himself? 92? No. 91. I will be 92 in a couple of weeks. I will not be here to celebrate! James chuckles to himself. He is looking forward to meeting up with his beautiful wife. He thinks of her in her shimmering flapper dress and matching cloche hat, dancing up a storm at the Heigh Ho. Wait for me, he calls out. I will be with you soon.  

The old tinker woman was wrong. I will not make 92. He lays back and his mind wanders. Then suddenly he begins to laugh. I am in my 92nd year so I am. Why the old girl was right after all. I am in my 92nd year. James closes his eyes and sees the old woman, the drizzles of grey hair slipping from her bright red headscarf. She is holding his mother’s tea cup in the air. The shamrocks sparkle and dance in the streams of light coming through the window. He turns to Ashe, his old friend, who sits on the edge of the bed, in his straight jacket still. The slop and blood no longer gurgle from his mouth. Instead, his eyes twinkle and he sports a wide smile under his heavy moustache. James notices his hair is sparkling clean, the shiny curls framed around his handsome face. If it wasn`t for the straight jacket he would hardly know him. 

I will tell you the truth Ashe, there have been days I wondered what it was all for, he whispers to his old friend. Ashe nods his head. Days during the fight and days long after it. Thinking on those times, I wonder why it had to be the way it all turned out. I can hardly make sense of it at all. Sometimes a terrible feeling of sadness comes over me and I remember so clearly walking the streets of Cork, dragging my heart behind me for the things I had to do. Wondering if the good Lord would ever forgive me. That was us Ashe, many a day, dragging our hearts behind us. Sure, we fought for freedom, but didn’t we carry our sins with us, our hearts too heavy for our own chests. But sure, somebody had to do it. ‘Twas just as Terry said, they would go when they couldn’t bear us any longer. And O’Hegarty, what a man he was, he knew just what to do. Give them back everything they ever gave us, and do it with bells on. ‘Twas the only way. Indeed Seamus, indeed. Ashe nods again. And then with a smile on his face, he points out, but you Seamus, despite it all, have been given a great gift. You have lived to tell the tale so you have! 

James nods. Aye, tis true. A great gift indeed. The old tinker woman knew it, Ashe. Perhaps she really did see my future. There were times I reminded myself of her words and they gave me a tiny glimmer of hope, just enough to see me through to the light. But do you know what else she told me, Ashe? James struggles to sit up and look his old friend in the eye. She told me, ‘Life is a mystery. Don’t try to understand it. Sure, it doesn’t make any sense at all,’ she said. Wasn’t she just right, Ashe? Wasn’t she just right? 

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