Father Jerome would never forget that wretched day in August 1920. He had been summoned urgently by Colonel Aylmer, and on hearing of the unrest, had run nearly all the way across the parade grounds and into the wet canteen that served as the impromptu headquarters of the mutiny, only to be confronted by that hothead Sergeant Tom Nolan.
Still panting with the exertion, Father Jerome had begun with a straightforward appeal to good sense. ‘Tom, if you and the men feel so strongly about the goings on back home with the Black and Tans, there are plenty of other ways of making your feelings known. What you’ve done is nothing short of mutiny – you know the punishment for that.’
The priest sat down on the chair that had been pushed forward for him and caught his breath before starting again.
‘Look here, I know Colonel Aylmer’s willing to be reasonable. If you men will all return to barracks straight away, this matter of the laying down of arms and all of last night’s carry-on in the Guard Room will be handled with greater leniency than is warranted. I have the Colonel’s word on that. And as I speak, Adjutant Milne is relaying the same message to the men in B and C Company in the barracks. The Colonel’s promised that he’ll put your grievances and outrage at the situation at home in writing and submit it to the authorities at the very highest level. Surely that is better than mutiny: you all know the punishment for that.’
Tom Nolan stood up slowly. ‘Father, the Colonel will promise anything to get us back into the barracks. We are well aware that the officers are worried about this action of ours spreading to the other Irish regiments in the plains below, maybe even beyond the Madras Presidency – to all of India even – and that, Father Jerome, is exactly what we plan to do. This is our chance to rid Ireland of the English! What say you, men? Are you true to the Cause of Erin?’
The response was deafening and Tom Nolan looked at the priest briefly before punching the air and bawling, ‘Godspeed Michael and Tadhgh! They must be on the train by now, halfway down to the regiments in the plains.’
The priest’s groan was drowned out in a roar of approval from the hundred or so men gathered there, while some broke into song.
Father Jerome stood up and lifted both his arms in order to get the men’s attention. A hush returned eventually and they waited to hear what he had to say.
‘Godspeed? This isn’t God’s work they’re doing. You’ve sent young Michael Flaherty and the already unfortunate Tadhgh Foley to their deaths. Spreading mutiny isn’t God’s work. You men seem to forget you’ve taken a solemn oath before the very same God to be true to the Crown.’
Sergeant Tom Nolan was quick to counter. ‘Country comes first and oaths to a foreign king next.’
‘You face ruin, Tom, and you’ll bring the same ruin and misfortune upon these men and their families.’ The priest entreated those present. ‘Go back to your barracks, lads. Think of your fathers, mothers and sisters, your wives and children who wait for you to send home money. Times are tough in Ireland – you know yourselves they depend on you.’
‘Erin depends on us!’ shouted Nolan.
A loud cheer followed this declaration.
‘That’s futile talk, Tom, and the men know it. And you, for God’s sake, you should know it better.’
‘There’s nobody here being forced, Father. These men, these brave men, are patriots of their own volition. Ask them! Lads, listen up. Are you present here in this wet canteen of your own free will?’
Father Jerome shouted over the roar of assent, ‘You’ll be shot, don’t you know? This is the Army and mutineers will be shot. That is the penalty for mutiny.’
A deathly silence fell in the room. Father Jerome was shaking uncontrollably. He looked at the men one by one, trying to make eye contact with as many as he could. ‘Sergeant Nolan here, Tom, he’s a good man but this is no way to fight for Ireland. Think of your families, lads, think of the honour and glorious name of this Regiment you serve. Think above all of the solemn pledge of allegiance, the sacred oath you made before God Himself.’
Tom Nolan jumped up onto the table before him. ‘Father Jerome has asked for you to think hard, so do that, lads. Leave if you wish, and you have my word that no ill will will be directed towards you.’
A few men shuffled to the door and the crowd parted to give them way.
Tom Nolan called out to them as they left. ‘It’s all right, lads, every man must do what he thinks best. You were with us all along and we know you’ll be with us in spirit.’
The priest began to walk amongst the men. He knew each of their personal circumstances and he reminded them of their obligations, clasping them by the shoulders and holding their hands in his. Some were unwavering but fell on their knees and asked to be blessed, some turned away guiltily as he approached them, and a few men took heed and quietly left the room. Finally, he confronted Tom Nolan once again. ‘Why in God’s name did you have to get Michael Flaherty involved in this madness?’
‘He was with us from the start, Father, and fair is fair, he drew the shortest straw, and Tadhgh the next, to take the train to Salem to inform the Fusiliers down in the plains of our plans. The Fusiliers will come on board for sure, as will the rest. No Irishman could refuse.’
‘Michael had much to live for, Tom, and you’ve put all that in jeopardy.’
‘Michael will live on for Ireland.’
‘You’re talking nonsense, man – you’ll have the blood of many innocents on your hands. This talk of freedom for Ireland has no place in India. For God’s sake, Tom, it’s not too late. I beg you again to give up this foolishness! Revolting in India isn’t going to get Ireland anything – it’s just going to get good Irishmen killed and all for nothing.’
But even as he said it, Father Jerome knew he could plead no more. He hurried back to Colonel Aylmer’s office, aware that he would have to inform the Colonel of the two men – the emissaries, Michael and Tadhgh – who had slipped out of camp and taken the train down to Salem where the Fusiliers were now in imminent danger of being encouraged to revolt. But of greater urgency was the need to make a case to the Colonel and his officers for a calm and considered reaction.
Father Jerome was aware that at the top of the list of Colonel Aylmer’s immediate concerns was the potential danger to all Europeans if the Indians in the cantonment got wind of a mutiny. The massacre at Amritsar in the Punjab was still a raw wound, and if events turned ugly at the barracks in Nandagiri Cantonment, the news would be eagerly seized upon by the leaders of the Indian insurgents; there were plenty of that ilk who didn’t care for the half-naked Gandhi’s insistence on peaceful protest. God forbid the Indians should find out that the Colonel was not in complete control of his men: the consequences were unthinkable.
As Father Jerome hurried up the steps to the Colonel’s office, he touched the rosary beads in his pocket. He needed a miracle if he was to be successful in pleading restraint with Colonel Aylmer.
Father Jerome was still waiting for that miracle four months later, as he walked into a bitterly cold cell before a misty winter dawn, to hear Michael Flaherty’s last confession.
‘There isn’t word of a pardon then, Father?’
The priest shook his head. ‘I’m truly sorry, Michael my boy.’
‘The word is that Tom didn’t allow himself to be blindfolded, is that right, Father?’ Michael was looking out of the tiny barred window towards the central courtyard of the prison, where arrangements had been made overnight for his execution at dawn.
Father Jerome nodded. What did it matter whether the man had been blindfolded or not as he faced the firing squad? Death was what was ordered and death was what was delivered.
This excerpt has been published by Ice Floe Press with the kind permission of the publisher, HopeRoad, UK. https://www.hoperoadpublishing.com/. The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan (2020) is now available for sale internationally.
Cauvery Madhavan was born in India and moved to Ireland thirty three years ago. She is the author of three books of fiction: Paddy Indian, The Uncoupling and her latest, The Tainted (HopeRoad, UK). She has written for the the Irish Times, The Irish Independent, Evening Herald, Sunday Tribune and The Phoenix. She lives with her husband and three children in County Kildare and is working on her fourth novel. She Tweets at: @CauveryMadhavan
Banner: Digital Collage of The Tainted cover by Robert Frede Kenter Tweets @frede_kenter