Death at Christy Burke's

Prologue

July 3, 1992

Kevin McDonough was early arriving at the pub. Eight-fifteen in the morning. The sooner he got the place scrubbed to a shine, the sooner he could get to rehearsal with his band. Tonight would be their third paid gig, and this time it was at the Tivoli. At this rate, they’d soon be opening for U2! These odd little jobs had been tiding him over till he could earn his living as a musician. He didn’t mind cleaning the floors, washing the windows, and polishing the bar at Christy Burke’s pub twice a week. It was no worse than his other jobs, and there were articles of interest to him inside the place.

Oh, would you look at that. Finn Burke was going to be wild. Finn had just repainted the front wall after the last incident of vandalism, and now some gobshite with a can of paint had hit the pub again. Kevin noticed a glass of whiskey on the ground, tipped against the wall. The fellow must have been lifting a jar while doing his handiwork. More than one maybe, by the looks of the paint job this time round. Or perhaps it was the heavy rain last night that threw him off. The message was “Come all ye to Christy’s, killers own loc . . .” Must have meant “local”; the words ended in a smear. If the message was meant to slag Finn Burke about his Republican activities, Kevin suspected Finn would be more vexed about the look of it than the meaning; no doubt he’d faced worse in his time. Well, Kevin wasn’t about to call Finn at this hour of the morning. Finn would be seeing it with his own eyes soon enough.

Kevin picked up the glass, singing to himself, “There’s whiskey in the jar-o.” It was the rock version by Thin Lizzy that Kevin liked, and he tried to draw the words out the way Phil Lynott did, “I first produced my pistol and then produced my rapier.” There was a bit of a mess in the garden beside the front door. “Garden” was too grand a word for it really. A few years back, the city had torn up the pavement to repair some water lines. And before they replaced the pavement, one of the patrons of Christy’s had talked Finn into letting him plant some flowers. The man didn’t keep it up, so now it was just a little square of patchy grass in the midst of all the city concrete. But still, Finn was none too pleased when the rubbish collectors drove their lorry right onto the grass and tore it up with the spinning of their tires. They’d obviously been at it again; a big clump of grass had been gouged out and overturned. Early, though, for refuse collection; they usually didn’t get to Christy’s till at least half-nine. Ah. Sure enough. Kevin checked the bins and they hadn’t been emptied.

He went to work inside. Washed the glasses, polished the bar, filled a bucket with water and suds for the old stone floor. But his mind was on music, not mopping up the pub. He decided to take “Highway to Hell” off the set list and replace it with “Whiskey in the Jar.” Maybe the band should dust off some other old standards. Could they work up a heavy-metal arrangement of “The Rose of Tralee,” he wondered. Ha, wouldn’t his old gran be turning in her grave over that! Just as he was heading to the loo for his last and least favourite chore, he heard a lorry roar up outside. He glanced out the window and saw the rubbish collectors, out in the roadway where they were supposed to be. No worries there.

When his work was done, Kevin grabbed an electric torch and treated himself to a trip downstairs. He loved the once secret tunnel that had been dug beneath Christy Burke’s back in the day when the pub was a hideout for the old IRA. Somebody said Christy had dug the tunnel in 1919, and Michael Collins himself had hidden in it, when Ireland was fighting its War of Independence against the Brits. Nobody was supposed to go in there, but Kevin did. And he knew some of the regulars had made excursions down there as well, when Finn Burke was away. The fellows who drank at Christy’s day after day knew everything there was to know about the pub, including where Finn kept the tunnel key, under one of the floorboards behind the bar. More than once Kevin had tried to prime Finn for information about the old days, hoping he would let his hair down and regale Kevin with some war stories from his time fighting for the Republican cause. Kevin’s da was a bookkeeper and stayed away from politics and controversy; a great father, no question about that, but Kevin thought of him as a man without a history. Not like Finn. But Finn kept his gob shut about his service to the cause. So what could Kevin do but poke around on his own? He inserted the key in the padlock, opened the heavy trap door, and eased himself down into the tunnel. You could only get into the first part of it, which was around twenty feet in length; the rest of it was blocked off, and Kevin didn’t know of any key that would get you in there.

But that was all right. There was lots to see right here. The place was a museum. There were old photos, hand-drawn maps, packets of faded letters, uniforms, caps, and, best of all, guns. Kevin had no desire to point a gun at anybody, let alone fire one, but he was fascinated by the weaponry stashed beneath the pub. A Thompson submachine gun, some rifles, and two big pistols. But there was one weapon Kevin particularly liked, a handgun, wrapped in rags and squirrelled away from everything else behind a couple of loose bricks. He had noticed the bricks out of alignment one morning, and took a peek. He’d handled it a few times since then. The gun was all black and had a star engraved on the butt of it — deadly! He thought it might create a sensation at a party some night. He knew it was loaded, but he’d take the bullets out first, if he ever got up the nerve to “borrow” it. Where was it? Not in its usual spot. Not anywhere. Kevin looked all over, but the gun was gone.

Maybe Finn took it himself. But Kevin doubted that. If Finn needed a weapon, he’d likely have one closer to home, and it would be something a little more up-to-date. Well, Kevin certainly wasn’t going to mention it. He wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place. He was supposed to do his job, cleaning up the pub. And, whatever had become of the gun, he knew this much: there were no dead bodies on the premises to clear away. So his job was done. He locked up and left the building. When he got outside, he kicked the overturned sod back into place. Didn’t look too bad.

Chapter 1

July 11, 1992

Michael

Nobody loved Ireland like Michael O’Flaherty. Well, no, that wasn’t quite the truth. How could he presume to make such a claim over the bodies of those who had been hanged or shot by firing squad in the struggle for Irish independence? Or those who had lived in the country all their lives, in good times and in bad, staving off the temptation to emigrate from their native soil? Nobody loved Ireland
more
than Michael did. He was on fairly safe ground there. He was a student of history, and his story led him straight back to Ireland. A four-cornered Irishman, he had four grandparents who emigrated from the old country to that most Irish of Canadian cities, Saint John, New Brunswick. His mother was fourteen when her parents brought her over on the boat in 1915, and Michael had inherited her soft lilting speech.

He was in the old country yet again. How many times had he been here? He had lost count. Monsignor Michael O’Flaherty cut quite a figure in the tourist industry. The Catholic tourist industry, to be more precise. Every year he shepherded a flock of Canadian pilgrims around the holy sites of Ireland: Knock, Croagh Patrick, Glendalough. And he showed them something of secular Ireland as well — all too secular it was now, in his view, but never mind. He conducted tours of Dublin, Cork, Galway; it varied from year to year. All this in addition to his duties as pastor of St. Bernadette’s Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He had moved to Halifax as a young priest, after spending several years in the parishes of Saint John. Why not pack his few belongings in a suitcase and cross the ocean once and for all, making Ireland his home? Well, the truth was, he was attached to Nova Scotia, to his church, and to the people there. He had made friends, especially in the last couple of years. And two of those friends were in Dublin right now. He was on his way to meet them, having seen his latest group of tourists off at the airport for their journey home to Canada.

He looked at his watch. It was half-noon. Brennan Burke had given him elaborate directions but there was no need. Michael knew the map of Dublin as well as he knew the Roman Missal, and he was only five minutes away from his destination at the corner of Mountjoy Street and St. Mary’s Place. His destination was Christy Burke’s pub.

Michael, decked out as always in his black clerical suit and Roman collar, kept up a brisk pace along Dominick Street Upper until he reached Mountjoy and turned right. A short walk up the street and there it was. This was an inner-city area of Dublin and it had fallen on hard times. But the pub had a fresh coat of cream-coloured paint. There was a narrow horizontal band of black around the building above the door and windows. Set off against the black was the name “Christy Burke” in gold letters. Lovely! He pushed the door open and stepped inside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the smoke and the darkness after the bright July sunshine.

“Michael!”

“Brennan, my lad! All settled in, I see. Good day to you, Monty!”

Michael joined his friends at their table, where a pint of Guinness sat waiting for him. Brennan Burke was a fellow priest, Michael’s curate technically. But it was hard to think of Burke, with his doctorate in theology and his musical brilliance, as anybody’s curate. He had lived here in Dublin as a child, then immigrated to New York before he joined Michael at St. Bernadette’s in Halifax. It was a long story. Christy Burke was Brennan’s grandfather, long deceased by now, of course. Brennan himself was fifty or a little over. Young enough to be Michael’s son, if Michael had been tomcatting around in his seminary days, which he most certainly had not! In any case, they looked nothing alike. Brennan was tall with greying black hair and black eyes. Michael was short and slight, with white hair and eyes of blue. Monty Collins, though, could be mistaken for Michael’s son. Same colour eyes and fair hair. A few years younger than Brennan and deceptively boyish in appearance, Monty was their lawyer and confidant.

Michael greatly enjoyed their company. So it was grand that they were able to arrange this time together in Dublin. Brennan had signed on to teach at the seminary in Maynooth for six weeks. Michael was on an extended vacation, with the blessings of his bishop. It was the first time he had been away for more than two weeks, ever. And why not? In any other job, he’d be retired by now! They had left the home parish in the capable hands of another priest they both knew. Monty, too, was on vacation. Told his office he was taking a month off. Made whatever arrangements he had to make for his law practice, and boarded the plane. So here they were.

Brennan

Brennan Burke was a man of firm opinions. He knew where he stood, and those who were acquainted with him were left in little doubt about who was standing and where. But that sense of certainty deserted him each and every time he came home to the land of his birth. He was glad to be in Ireland, to be sure, but he was afflicted with sorrow, anger, and frustration over the violence that was tearing apart the North of Ireland. Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Loyalists, Republicans and Unionists — however you labelled them — had been blasting one another to bits for the past two decades. This was the nation that had sent monks into continental Europe to evangelize and educate the barbarians after the fall of Rome, monks who had helped keep the light of European civilization glowing through the Dark Ages. St. Thomas Aquinas had been taught by an Irishman in thirteenth-century Naples, for the love of Christ. And look at us now.

Brennan’s own family had been steeped in the events of Irish history, certainly in the first half of the century. History had stalked his father, Declan Burke, all the way to New York City. Declan had fled Ireland at the point of a gun when Brennan was ten years old; he remembered as if it were yesterday his loneliness and terror as the ship slipped out of Cobh Harbour in the dark of night and began the long, heaving voyage across the Atlantic. Brennan’s father had not laid shoe leather on the soil of Ireland since that hasty departure in 1950. But that wasn’t the end of it. History caught up with Declan as recently as a year ago in the form of a bullet in the chest, at a family wedding in New York. The wound was not fatal, but nearly so.

Well, his son was a frequent visitor to the old country even if Declan was not. And here he was again. The Burkes of Dublin were spoken of as a “well-known Republican family.” Were they in the thick of things still?

But there was pleasure to be had today, so why not just bask in it for a while and banish dark thoughts to the outermost chambers of his mind? He picked up his glass of whiskey, inhaled the alcoholic fumes, and took a sip. Ah! Tingling on the lips, honey on the tongue. Cigarette? No, wait. As usual. Enjoy a pure hit of the Jameson first. The warmth spread through him as the whiskey went down. And there was more to come.

Michael

“When did you fellows arrive?”

“This morning,” Brennan replied.

“And how long have you been planted in here?”

“Not long at all, Michael. We’ve barely got our throats wet.”

Christy Burke’s was a typical Dublin pub with a dark wood interior, old flagstone floor, long counter with its pumps and glimmering bottles of spirits, brass foot rail and stools, and tables along the walls, some of them separated by wooden partitions. Tacked to the wall beside the bar was a tattered copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, one line of which had always resounded in Michael’s mind: “We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms.” The walls bore numerous old photographs, including one dated 1922, showing a group of men wearing trench coats or jackets and ties, tweed caps or fedoras — slouch hats, he guessed they were — all carrying rifles as they marched down Grafton Street on patrol. There was a faded sepia-toned picture of a man tending bar. Christy himself? A score of dedicated drinkers, most with cigarettes smouldering in ashtrays beside them, were scattered throughout the pub. To a man, they had turned slowly, pints in hand, when Michael came in.

Someone had left a newspaper draped over the arm of Michael’s chair. The
Irish Independent
. Michael picked it up and turned the pages. Ah, there it was. The missing preacher. Michael had been following the story. An American evangelist who ran a television ministry based in South Carolina had vanished in the early hours of the eighth of July while on a visit to Belfast. He and his wife had been touring England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland with a group of fellow evangelicals. On his third day in Belfast, he left the Europa Hotel at six o’clock in the morning and had not been seen since. The photo showed a man in his early sixties, smiling around a big set of bright white teeth, grey or blond hair blow-dried and puffing out from a side part. The Reverend Merle Odom.

“Still no word. What a shame,” Michael remarked. “Pray Mary he’ll turn up unharmed. What do you think of my idea, Brennan?” He had mentioned the plan to Brennan over the phone.

“What idea is that?” Monty asked.

“I’m thinking we could gather a bunch of Catholic clergy and issue a statement calling for the man’s release. Sort of an ecumenical show of support. The message would be: ‘This hurts all of us. Let’s put our differences aside and bring the man home.’”

“Do we even know he’s been captured?” That was Monty, a man for the facts, but perhaps a little naïve if he thought Odom had just embarked on a long, solitary walk along Great Victoria Street in Belfast three days ago!

“No, we don’t know that at all.” The voice came from the bar. Michael looked over to see a handsome, white-haired man around his own age. He looked remarkably like the publican in the old photo on the wall, except for the fact that his eyes were obscured by dark glasses.

“Finn!” Brennan called to the man. “Come introduce yourself to my pastor.”

The man left the bar and came over to the table. He held his hand out to Michael. “Finn Burke. I’ve heard nothing but good about you, Monsignor.”

“Call me Michael. Or Mike if you prefer. So you’re the new Christy Burke.”

“Ah, I’ll never be the man my father was. This place was a shambles when he bought it in 1919, and laboured night and day to get it restored. But when he started to get feeble near the end of his life, I came in to help and I’ve been here ever since. I’m still involved with the trucking business — Burke Transport — but behind this bar is where you’ll find me most days.”

“It’s lovely.”

“Where are you staying, Michael?”

“I’m in a bed and breakfast on Lower Gardiner Street. I’ve brought them so much business over the years, they’ve given me the room for free!”

“You’ve been lugging busloads of tourists all over the island, I understand, Michael. How long have you been at that now?”

“I’ve been at it such a long time, Finn, I’d have to puzzle out the answer for you. But I can tell you this: I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone so many times I feel I ought to do the right thing and marry it!”

“Well, nobody here has ever been intimate with the Blarney Stone, so you’ll find no competition from these quarters.”

“Don’t I know it, Finn? It’s only the tourists who want to see it, but they insist. So back I go every time. They always want to wear silly hats too, whether it’s something that looks like a pint of stout on their heads, or a Viking helmet here in Dublin. What can you do?”

“Leo Killeen will show you a slice of Irish life you’ve never seen before.”

“Oh, yes, I’m looking forward to it. When will we be seeing Leo?”

If there was anyone Michael was anxious to meet on this trip, it was Leo Killeen. Leo was a priest and friend of Brennan Burke’s father. Michael had read Irish history; Leo had lived it.

“Well now, he’s tied up today,” Finn said.

“Is he in the city?”

“In the city, no. I believe he’s in the North doing good works. But he’ll be back in the parish before too long.”

“What kind of good works is he performing in the North, Finn?” Brennan asked.

Finn turned his head in Michael’s direction, then in Monty’s, before returning his attention to Brennan. A slight nod from that quarter seemed to be the assurance he wanted that he could speak freely.

“You’ve heard about that, em, accident. In Dungannon.”

“The bombing, you mean?”

“It was a bombing, Brennan, yes. But you know it was never meant — from what I hear — never meant to harm a human soul. It was only after —”

“The owner of the business, and his sister visiting from England, were blown to bits, Finn.”

“It’s a tragedy, to be sure. But they wouldn’t have been scratched — they wouldn’t even have been on the premises — if the Royal Ulster Constabulary hadn’t decided, for reasons of their own, to ignore the warning. It’s well known that a warning was given. It’s all been in the papers. The warning wasn’t acted upon. And the lads — the organization — issued an apology, as you know. It was meant to be a routine commercial bombing, the kind of thing . . .” Finn’s voice faltered against his nephew’s unyielding expression.

Another bombing in Northern Ireland. This clearly wasn’t the time to probe further into that. And what, if anything, did it have to do with Leo Killeen? Well, Michael would find out soon enough. In the meantime he would keep his own counsel. Brennan had given Michael a friendly warning that his interest in this country’s past and politics might not be shared by everyone he would meet on the trip. Most people would be more interested in getting on with their lives than reliving and rehashing their history. Others would be all too interested, and Michael could bring trouble on himself if he said the wrong thing in the wrong company. He understood that.

But he couldn’t banish the poor American preacher from his thoughts. “Perhaps Finn could put his two cents in. What I have in mind, Finn, and you can tell me whether you think there’s any value in it, is a press conference held by Brennan and myself, and other priests, perhaps bishops and sisters, all of us calling on the Reverend Merle Odom’s captors to release him to his family, no questions asked. Maybe Father Killeen would have some advice for us.”

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