United Ireland by George A. Birmingham

"I'll say this for old MacManaway, an honester man never lived nor what he was; and I'm sorry he's gone, so I am."

The speaker was Dan Gallaher. The occasion was the morning of the auction of old MacManaway's property. The place was the yard behind the farmhouse in which MacManaway had lived, a solitary man, without wife or child, for fifty years. Dan Gallaher held the hames of a set of harness in his hand as he spoke and critically examined the leather of the traces. It was good leather, sound and well preserved. Old MacManaway while alive liked sound things and took good care of his property.

"An honester man never lived," Dan repeated "And I'm not saying that because the old man and me agreed together, for we didn't."

"How could you agree?" said James McNiece. "It wasn't to be expected that you would agree. There wasn't a stronger Protestant nor a greater Orangeman in the whole country nor old MacManaway."

James McNiece turned from the examination of a cart as he spoke and gave his attention to the hames. His description of the dead man's religious and political convictions was just. No one in all the Ulster border land ever held the principle of the Orange Society more firmly or opposed any form of Home Rule more bitterly than old MacManaway.

And Dan Gallaher was a Roman Catholic and a Nationalist of the extremest kind.

"They tell me," said Dan Gallaher, in a pleasant conversational tone, "that it's to be yourself, James McNiece, that's to be the head of the Orangemen in the parish now that MacManaway is gone."

James looked at him sideways out of the corners of his eyes. Dan spoke in a friendly tone, but it is never wise to give any information to "Papishes and rebels."

"The Colonel," he said, "is the Grand Master of the Orangemen in these parts."

Colonel Eden, a J.P., and the principal landlord in the parish, drove into the yard in his motor. A police sergeant slipped his pipe into his pocket, stepped forward and took the number of the Colonel's car. It has never been decided in Ireland whether motor cars may or may not be used, under the provisions of D.O.R.A., for attending auctions.

We know that the safety of the empire is compromised by driving to a race meeting. We know that the King and his Army are in no way injured by our driving to market. Attendance at an auction stands midway between pleasure and business; and the use of motors in such matters is debatable.

"It's the D.I's orders, sir," said the sergeant apologetically.

"All right," said the Colonel, "but if the D.I. expects me to fine myself at the next Petty Sessions hell be disappointed."

James McNiece and Dan Gallaher touched their hats to the Colonel.

"Morning, James," said the Colonel. "Morning, Dan. Fine day for the sale, and a good gathering of people. I don't know that I ever saw a bigger crowd at an auction."

He looked round as he spoke. The whole parish and many people from outside the parish had assembled. The yard was full of men, handling and appraising the outdoor effects. Women passed in and out of the house, poked mattresses with their fingers, felt the fabrics of sheets and curtains, examined china and kitchen utensils warily.

"There's the doctor over there," said the Colonel, "looking at the stable buckets, and who's that young fellow in the yellow leggings, James?"

"I'm not rightly sure," said James McNiece, "but I'm thinking he'll be the new D.I. from Curraghfin."

"It is him," said Dan Gallaher. "I was asking the sergeant this minute and he told me. What's more he said he was a terrible sharp young fellow."

"That won't suit you, Dan," said the Colonel. "You and your friends will have to be a bit careful before you get up another rebellion."

"It may not suit me," said Dan, "but there's others it won't suit either. Didn't I see the sergeant taking the number of your motor, Colonel, and would he be doing the like of that if the new D.I. hadn't told him?"

The Colonel laughed. As commander of a battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force, he was fully prepared to meet Dan Gallaher on the field of battle—Dan leading the National Volunteers. He looked forward with something like pleasure to the final settlement of the Home Rule question by the ordeal of battle. In the meanwhile he and Dan Gallaher by no means hated each other, and were occasionally in full sympathy when the police or some ridiculous Government department made trouble by fussy activity.

Mr. Robinson, the auctioneer, drove up in his dogcart. He touched his hat to Colonel Eden, gave an order to his clerk and crossed the yard briskly. He twisted the cigarette he smoked into the corner of his mouth with deft movements of his lips, waved his hand to various acquaintances and looked round him with quick, cheerful glances. No man in the country was quicker to appreciate the financial worth of a crowd. He knew before a single bid was made whether people were in a mood to spend lavishly. He found himself very well satisfied with the prospect of this particular auction. The stuff he had to sell, indoors and out, was good. The farmers were enjoying a prosperous season. They had money in their pockets which they would certainly want to spend. Mr. Robinson had visions of a percentage, his share of the proceeds, running into three figures.

He began work in a corner of the yard with a cross-cut saw. The bidding rose merrily to a point slightly higher than the cost of a similar saw new in a shop. At 23/6 Mr. Robinson knocked it down to a purchaser who seemed well satisfied. A number of small articles, scythes, barrows, spades, were sold rapidly, Mr. Robinson moving round the yard from outhouse to outhouse, surrounded by an eager crowd which pressed on him. His progress was not unlike that of a queen bee at swarming time. He made—as she makes—short flights, and always at the end of them found himself in the centre of a cluster of followers.

At about half-past twelve Mr. Robinson reached his most important lot. He lit a fresh cigarette—his eighth—before putting up for sale a rick of hay.

"About four tons," said Mr. Robinson, "new meadow hay, well saved, saved with not a drop of rain. Gentlemen, I needn't tell you that this is a rare, under existing conditions, a unique opportunity. Hay—you know this better than I do—is at present unobtainable in the ordinary market Now, don't disappoint me, gentlemen. Let me have a reasonable offer. Thirty pounds. Did I hear some one say fifteen pounds? Less than four pounds a ton! Now, gentlemen, really——"

But the crowd in front of Mr. Robinson knew just as well as he did that four pounds a ton is not a reasonable offer. The bids succeeded each other rapidly. The original fifteen pounds changed to twenty pounds, then to twenty-five, rose a little more slowly to thirty pounds. At thirty-two pounds the bidding hesitated. Mr. Robinson, dropping his cigarette from his mouth, urged his clients on with gusts of eloquence. There was a short spurt The bids rose by five shillings at a time and finally stopped dead at thirty-four pounds. The hay was sold at a little over eight pounds a ton. Public interest, roused to boiling point by the sale of a whole rick of hay, cooled down a little when Mr. Robinson went on to the next lot on his list.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I am now offering the hay stored in the loft above the stable. A small lot, gentlemen, but prime hay. I offer no guarantee as to the quantity in the loft; but I should guess it at anything between ten and fifteen hundred-weight."

Several of the more important farmers drew out of the crowd which surrounded Mr. Robinson. It was not worth while bidding for so small a quantity of hay. Other members of the crowd, feeling that a breathing space had been granted them, took packets of sandwiches from their pockets and sat down in one of the outhouses to refresh themselves. Mr. Robinson viewed the diminishing group of bidders with some disappointment. He was gratified to see that the new police officer from Curraghfin, a gentleman who had not so far made a single bid, crossed the yard and took a place on the steps leading to the loft. Colonel Eden, too, appeared interested in the new lot of hay. If the inspector of police and Colonel Eden began to bid against each other the hay might realize a good price.

"Now, gentlemen," said Mr. Robinson, "shall we make a start with three pounds?"

He glanced at Colonel Eden, then at the police officer. Neither gentleman made any sign of wishing to bid. It was James McNiece who made the first offer.

"Two pounds," he said.

There was a pause.

"Two pounds," said Mr. Robinson, "two pounds. Going at two pounds. You're not going to let this hay,—more than half a ton of it—go at two pounds."

He looked appealingly at Colonel Eden and at the police officer. They were entirely unresponsive.

"And at two pounds, going——" said Mr. Robinson.

"Two-ten," said Dan Gallaher, in a quiet voice.

"Two-fifteen," said James McNiece.

Dan Gallaher, still apparently bored by the proceedings, raised the price another five shillings. James McNiece went half a crown further. Dan Gallaher, becoming slightly interested, made a jump to three pounds ten. McNiece, with an air of finality, bid four pounds. The contest began to attract attention. When the price rose to five pounds interest became lively, and those who had drawn out of the group round Mr. Robinson began to dribble back. It seemed likely that the contest was one of those, not uncommon at Irish auctions, into which personal feelings enter largely and the actual value of the article sold is little considered. There was a certain piquancy about a struggle of this kind between a prominent Orangeman like James McNiece, and Dan Gallaher, whom everyone knew to be the leader of the Sinn Fein party.

Interest developed into actual excitement when the price rose to ten pounds. A half ton of hay never is and never has been worth ten pounds. But ten pounds was by no means the final bid.

"Mr. McNiece," said Mr. Robinson, "the bid is against you."

"Guineas," said McNiece.

"Eleven," said Dan Gallaher.

"Guineas," said McNiece.

The duet went on, McNiece capping Gallaher's pounds with a monotonous repetition of the word guineas until the price rose to twenty pounds. At that point McNiece faltered for a moment. The auctioneer, watching keenly, saw him turn half round and look at Colonel Eden. The Colonel nodded slightly, so slightly that no one except Mr. Robinson and McNiece himself saw the gesture.

"At twenty pounds," said Mr. Robinson, "going, and at twenty pounds——"

"Thirty," said McNiece.

The crowd of watchers gasped audibly. This was something outside of all experience. A man might willingly pay a few shillings, even a pound, too much for the sake of getting the better of an opponent; but to give thirty pounds for half a ton of hay—not even the natural enmity of an Orangeman for a Sinn Feiner would account for such recklessness.

"Guineas," said Dan Gallaher.

It was his turn to say guineas now, and he repeated the word without faltering until the price rose to fifty pounds. Mr. Robinson took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Never in all his experience of auctions had he heard bidding like this. He lit a fresh cigarette, holding the match in fingers which trembled visibly.

"You will understand, gentlemen, that I am only selling the hay, not the barn or the stable."

"Guineas," said Dan Gallaher.

It was the last bid. As he made it Colonel Eden turned and walked out of the group round the auctioneer. James McNiece took his pipe from his pocket and filled it slowly.

"The hay is yours, Mr. Gallaher," said the auctioneer.

Dan Gallaher, having secured the hay, left the yard. He found his horse, which he had tethered to a tree, and mounted. He rode slowly down the rough lane which led from the farm. At the gate leading to the high road the police sergeant stopped him.

"If you wouldn't mind waiting a minute, Mr. Gallaher," said the sergeant, "the D.I. would like to speak to you."

"What about?" said Gallaher.

The sergeant winked ponderously.

"It might be," he said, "about the hay you're just after buying."

"If he wants it," said Gallaher, "he can have it, and I'll deliver it to him at his own home at half the price I paid for it."

The District Inspector, smiling and tapping his gaiters with a riding switch, explained in a few words that he did not want the hay and did not intend to pay for it.

"I'm taking over the contents of that loft," he said, "in the name of the Government under the provisions of D.O.R.A."

"I don't know," said Gallaher, "that you've any right to be taking over what I've bought in that kind of way, and what's more you'll not be able to do it without you show me a proper order in writing, signed by a magistrate."

"If I were you," said the D.I., "I wouldn't insist on any kind of legal trial about that hay. At present there's no evidence against you, Mr. Gallaher, except that you paid a perfectly absurd price for some hay that you didn't want, and I'm not inclined to press the matter now I've got what I wanted; but if you insist on dragging the matter into Court——"

"I do not," said Gallaher.

At ten o'clock that evening Dan Gallaher and James McNiece sat together in the private room behind the bar of Sam Twining's public-house. The house was neutral ground used by Orangemen and Nationalists alike, a convenient arrangement, indeed a necessary arrangement, for there was no other public-house nearer than Curraghfin.

"Dan," said James McNiece, "I'm an Orangeman and a Protestant and a loyalist, and what I've always said about Home Rule and always will say is this:—We'll not have it and to Hell with the rebels. But I'm telling you now I'd rather you had them, papist and rebel and all as you are, than see them swept off that way by the police. And what's more, I'm not the only one says that. The Colonel was talking to me after he heard what happened, and what he said was this—'The Government of this country,' said he, meaning the police, 'is a disgrace to civilization.'"

"Give me your hand, James McNiece," said Gallaher. "Let me shake your hand to show there's no ill feeling about the way I bid against you at the sale to-day."

McNiece laid down the glass of whisky which he was raising to his lips and stretched out his hand. Gallaher grasped it and held it.

"Tell me this now, James McNiece," he said, "for it's what I was never sure of—How many was there behind that hay?"

McNiece looked round him carefully and made sure that no third person could hear him. Neglecting no precaution he sank his voice to a whisper.

"Twenty rifles," he said, "of the latest pattern, the same as the soldiers use, and four hundred rounds of ball cartridge."

"Gosh," said Gallaher, "but we'd have done great work with them. Either your lads or mine, James McNiece, would have done great work with them. But, sure, what's the use of talking? The police has them now."

"Damn the police," said James McNiece.