As Ian Mulroney left his house on the corner of Abbey and Travers streets, he glanced over his shoulder. Vigilance had become a habit after the latest violence had hit the streets of Cork. Cork, Ireland, in late 1919 had become a hotbed of resistance to British rule. The scent of war was in the air as the Irish Republican Army stepped up its resistance to the British and their methods of violence. Complete independence from Great Britain was the goal of the IRA, and it was willing to use any method to obtain that outcome, including armed conflict. In Cork County alone, there were three brigades with an additional brigade within the city.
Ian was never a supporter of war or violence. He tended to see the beauty in all things living and war was the antithesis of that outlook. As he walked toward the town center to meet with friends, he heard shouts and screaming. When shots rang out, Ian ignored his natural instincts and ran toward the tumult, rather than away from it. He rounded the corner and saw the RIC, the Royal Irish Constabulary, pointing weapons at his friends and others he did not know. At their feet lay the body of a local member of the IRA.
Ian was noticed by one of the RIC and ordered to the ground. He dropped at once and put his hands over the back of his head as ordered. The air was thick with people crying and cursing the RIC for shooting Byron Cason for the crime of refusing to take his hands out of his pockets.
A woman’s scream cut through the bedlam and Ian looked up to see Byron’s mother rush toward the RIC line. To his horror, the grief-stricken woman was shot before his eyes. Ian’s heart seemed to stop, freezing time in a hanging moment of dread. Then the men began to curse loudly and more townspeople approached, becoming a mob. Feeling outnumbered in spite of their weapons, the RIC quickly withdrew to the relative safety of their police station.
As Ian rose and tried to console his friends, curses filled the air like lightning bugs at dusk and promises of revenge flowed freely. There was nowhere to turn to for justice as the justice available was British justice. As a few men carried away the bodies of the slain, Ian was so sickened that he reexamined what it meant to be an Irishman. He had only nineteen years on this earth, but was aging fast in an era where life held so little value.
When the men of the town gathered in the local pub to rage on about what had happened, Ian joined them. Local members of the IRA were present and discussing means of exacting revenge. Shane O’Dea, the leader of the Cork City IRA, urged all of the men present to get involved.
“What’s it gonna take for you lads to get into this thing? How long will you put up with the boot of British injustice on your throats before you yell enough?! All of you here need to join with us and fight for Ireland so we can rid ourselves of British rule once and for all!”
All those present agreed and a couple of men spoke up, pledging their support of the IRA. The brigade leader turned cold, furious eyes on Ian, an apprentice apothecary whose skills would be almost invaluable to the IRA. Shane’s hair was fiery red and his hazel eyes as penetrating as a wolf’s. He was a formidable man with a great deal of maturity for his thirty-two years and looked the part of a leader, taking the business of the IRA as seriously as it deserved. “Ian Mulroney, are you with us or are you content to watch your fellow Irishmen shot down in the street? You’re old enough to fight for Ireland’s future, and we need your skills with medicines and bone-setting. What do you say?”
The brutality of the shootings, especially of the grieving mother, truly revolted Ian. He would never be able to forget the savagery of that act as long as he lived. “Aye, I’ll join with you,” he said, in a voice he barely recognized, “but I warn you, I know nothing of fighting.”
“That’s all right, lad. We’ll teach you all you need to know. Now, all of you new men come upstairs and take the oath.”
As Ian climbed the stairs, he felt the sinking feeling that he was taking the first steps on a terrible path, but he knew he had to stand up and be counted along with his compatriots. In a large room over the bar, he found six other men already waiting for them to come up. Each was armed with a handgun. One of them was Devlin Walsh, just turned twenty, a lad that Ian had always found attractive, though he’d never done more than speak politely to him when they passed on the street. Now Ian’s heart had another reason to race.
“All right, men,” Shane said. “These are our new volunteers. It’s now time to take the oath of loyalty to the IRA. This oath is a sacred bond. If you break it, you will die, pure and simple. We have only one another to rely on in this war of independence and there can be no mercy for any man who would break his word to Ireland or the Brotherhood.”
After the oath was taken by all, beer was brought up from the pub to celebrate the new additions to the brigade and the somber mood lifted a bit. Mug in hand, Devlin approached Ian with congratulations.
“I’m glad to see you become part of us. Today is just one example out of many that proves the need for the brigades and the work we do. I’ve seen you about, you know. You’re Ian Mulroney, right? I’m Devlin Walsh.”
“Aye, you’re known to me as well, but it’s a pleasure to meet you properly,” Ian said as they shook hands. Ian half-expected to feel a bolt of lightning when they touched, so strong was his attraction to the strapping Walsh. The man stood 6′1″ and looked to weigh about 180 pounds, and all of it muscle. However, it was not the impressive frame but the bright blue eyes that made Ian go weak in the knees. Walsh’s deep blue gaze contrasted with his coal black hair made him a very handsome man that all the local girls chased after. “How long have you been with the brigade, Devlin?” Ian asked as casually as he could.
“Almost six months now. The training is hard and takes a lot of time, but there’s no other choice. We must be a free people, don’t you agree?”
“I have never been interested much in politics and government, but I value freedom greatly and after what I saw today…. I know now that we must fight for freedom and take it if it won’t be given to us. The Americans did it over a hundred years ago; now it’s our turn. I have been studying hard to make medicine my life’s work, but I will gladly interrupt it for Ireland’s sake. This new British demand that we all take a loyalty oath to the Crown has pushed many people over the edge and placed them firmly in the fight.”
Devlin’s smile held more than a trace of bitterness. “Your studies will continue, because your skills are greatly needed to treat wounded brigade members and the many injured that we come across in the countryside. I’m sure Shane will speak to you on this matter, but I can tell you that your career is not at an end; it is just beginning.”
“Ah, I see you two know each other, is that right?” Shane appeared at Walsh’s elbow.
“We’ve seen each other around town, but it’s good to meet him under these circumstances,” Devlin answered. “Ian was just telling me his fears that his apothecary work was at an end with his membership in the brigade.”
“Nay, Ian, not at all. I want you to keep up your apprenticeship and learn all you can about treatment on the field of battle. We’re gonna need your skills in the days to come and the more you know the more help you will be. In fact, it would be good if you were to start putting aside some medicines, bandages and the like.”
“Aye, I will. And shall I tell Donald McCann why I’ll be needing these things?”
“It would be better if you did not. McCann doesn’t see the need for the IRA. He’s happy to live under the Crown’s thumb as long as he profits. If he knew that you were gathering supplies for us, you would lose your position, perhaps your life. I don’t trust him to keep his mouth shut if he came under questioning by the IRC. You must be as careful as you can so as to not raise any suspicion. It’s much safer for everyone that way.”
“I’ll do the best I can then. How soon will you be wanting these supplies?”
“Better make it soonest, Ian. We’ll be striking back at the RIC for the murders of young Byron and his ma. The brigade is also putting together a flying column, and I want you and Devlin here to be part of it. This column of twelve will be a fast-moving, hard-hitting squad that will strike and move quickly by forced march to strike somewhere else far removed from the first action. This will keep the RIC and Brits guessing as to how many we really are and force them to keep more troops in the area. Our biggest problem now is a lack of arms and ammo. We’re working on that locally and we’re sending someone to America to see if She will help us with our war. After all, the Americans had to throw off the British to gain their independence so they might feel some brotherhood with us.”
“Why don’t I take Ian under my wing and teach him what I know?” Walsh offered.
“Excellent idea, Devlin. Good thinking. Ian will need a mentor and you’re a good man for the job.”
Ian’s heart skipped a beat upon hearing this. “I thank you both for taking such good care of me,” he managed to say.
“Not to worry. We’ll get you trained.” Devlin grinned, his piercing eyes fixed on Ian. “You just take care of us when we get hurt.”
Ian opened his mouth to reply, but Shane spoke up first. “All right, men. It’s time to break this up. We have to be even more careful about large gatherings from now on. Someone from the brigade’ll be in touch in the next couple of days to tell you when and where training will begin. We don’t have a lot of time and we need to get everyone trained as quickly as possible. In the days ahead, keep your regular schedules as much as possible so as to not draw attention from the RIC.”
The men began to drift out of the pub heading to their homes, ever watchful for the prying eyes of the authorities. The weeks and months ahead would be filled with violence and death and no one knew whom the Grim Reaper would call upon.