Old Biddy and the Rebels
by George A. Birmingham
The other servants—there were four of them—spoke of her as
"the ould cat" or in moments of extreme exasperation "that divil Biddy
O'Halloran." When they spoke to her they called her "Mrs. O'Halloran," or
even "Mrs. O'Halloran, ma'am." Even Lady Devereux, though nominal mistress
of the house, did not dare to call her "Biddy," She would as soon have
addressed an archbishop as "Dickie," if, indeed, there is an arch-bishop
whose Christian name is Richard. There is probably not a woman anywhere,
however brave, who would venture to speak to Mrs. O'Halloran face to face
and call her "Biddy." But a man, especially if he be young and
good-looking, is in a different case. Harry Devereux called her "Biddy."
He had earned the right to be familiar with his aunt's cook.
As a schoolboy Harry spent most of his holidays at his aunt's house in
Dublin, and in those days Mrs. O'Halloran used to box his ears and
occasionally spank him. When he grew to be a man and was called in due
course to the Irish Bar, he was often at his aunt's house and still
visited Mrs. O'Halloran in her kitchen. She gave up smacking him but she
still called him "Master Harry," After the outbreak of war Harry Devereux
became a Second Lieutenant in the Wessex Regiment. He displayed himself in
his uniform to his aunt, who admired his appearance in her placid way. He
also showed himself to Mrs. O'Halloran, who snubbed him sharply.
"So it's fighting you're for now, Master Harry," she said. "Well, it's
what'll suit you. It's my opinion that you're never out of mischief only
when you're in something worse. It is that way with you as long as I know
you and that's since you were born or pretty near. It's the Germans, is
it? Well, I'm sorry for them Germans if there's many like you going to be
Harry took this as a compliment It was his hope that the Germans would be
sorry for themselves when he got out to France with his platoon of Wessex
After dinner. Molly, the parlourmaid, her day's work ended, became
sentimental. She said it was a terrible thing to think of all the fine men
that would be killed, and maybe young Mr. Devereux among them. Mrs.
O'Halloran checked her flow of feeling.
"Is it Master Harry be killed? Talk sense, can't you? Sure you couldn't
kill the like of that one. Haven't I seen him, not once but a dozen times,
climbing out on the roof of the house and playing himself to and fro among
the chimneys. If that wasn't the death of him, and him not more than
twelve years old at the time, is it likely the Germans would be able to
kill him? The like of him is the same as fleas that you'd be squeezing
with your finger and thumb or maybe drowning in a basin of water. You know
well they'd be hopping over you after the same as before."
Molly sniffed. It was not wise to argue with "Ould Biddy," who had a
talent for forcible speech.
Mrs. O'Halloran had the best right in the world to the free use of her
tongue. She was a really good cook. She had satisfied Sir Joseph Devereux
while he lived. She satisfied Lady Devereux afterwards. And Lady Devereux
appreciated good cooking. Her husband dead, her three daughters safely
married, she had leisure to enjoy eating and had money enough to pay for
the best which the Dublin markets provided. Next to good food Lady
Devereux valued peace and the absence of worry. Mrs. O'Halloran enjoyed
strife and liked a strenuous life. She took all the annoyances of the
household on herself, and when they proved too few for her, created
unnecessary worry for herself by harassing the maids. Lady Devereux slept
untroubled at night, rose late in the morning, found all things very much
to her liking, and grew comfortably fat.
For eight months of the year, from October till the end of May, Lady
Devereux lived in one of the fine Georgian houses which are the glory of
the residential squares of Dublin. It was a corner house, rather larger
than the others in the square, with more light and more air, because its
position gave it a view up and down two streets as well as across the lawn
which formed the centre of the square.
Before the war Harry Devereux used to say that his aunt's house was the
best in Dublin for a dance. It pained him to see its possibilities wasted.
After receiving his commission he looked at the world with the eye of a
soldier and gave it as his opinion that the house occupied the finest
strategic position in Dublin. There was not much chance of persuade ing
plump old Lady Devereux to give a ball. There seemed even less chance of
her home ever being used as a fortress. But fate plays strange tricks with
us and our property, especially in Ireland. It happened that Lady
Devereux' house was occupied more or less by the soldiers of one army, and
shot at with some vigour by the soldiers of another on Easter Monday,
1916. Oddly enough it was neither the rebels nor the soldiers who earned
credit by their military operations, but old Biddy O'Halloran.
Mrs. O'Halloran always enjoyed Bank holidays greatly. She did not go out,
visit picture houses or parade the streets in her best clothes. She found
a deeper and more satisfying pleasure in telling the younger maids what
she thought of them when they asked and obtained leave to go out for the
afternoon, and in making scathing remarks about their frocks and hats as
they passed through the kitchen to reach the area door. On that particular
Easter Monday she was enjoying herself thoroughly. A kitchenmaid—she
was new to the household or she would not have done it—had asked
Lady Devereux' permission to go out for the afternoon and evening. She got
what she asked for. Everybody who asked Lady Devereux for anything got it
as a matter of course. The kitchenmaid ought to have made her application
through Mrs. O'Halloran. It is the rule in all services that remote
authorities must be approached only through the applicant's immediate
superiors. Mrs. O'Halloran took her own way of impressing this on the
"I suppose now," she said, "that you'll be trapsing the streets of Dublin
in the new pink blouse that you spent your last month's wages on?"
That was exactly what the kitchenmaid meant to do. Mrs. O'Halloran looked
the girl over critically.
"I don't know," she said, "that I ever seen a girl that would look worse
in a pink blouse than yourself. The face that's on you is the colour of a
dish of mashed turnips, and the pink blouse will make it worse, if worse
The kitchenmaid was a girl of some spirit She felt inclined to cry, but
she pulled herself together and snorted instead.
"I suppose," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "that you'll be looking out for a young
man to keep you company?"
The kitchenmaid did, in fact, hope to walk about with a young man; but she
"I'll be looking for no such thing," she said.
"It's well for you then," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "for I'm thinking you'd
look a long while before you found one. It's very little sense men has,
the best of them, but I never met one yet that hadn't more sense than to
go after a girl like you. If you were any good for any mortal thing a man
might be content to marry you in spite of your face; but the way you are,
not fit to darn your own stockings, let alone sew for a man, or cook the
way he could eat what you put before him, it would be a queer one that
would walk the same side of the street with you, pink blouse or no pink
The kitchenmaid, though a girl of spirit, was still young. She was washing
potatoes in the scullery while Mrs. O'Halloran spoke to her. Two large
tears dropped from her eyes into the sink. Mrs. O'Halloran smiled.
Then Molly, the parlourmaid, flung open the kitchen door and rushed to
Mrs. O'Halloran. Her face was flushed with excitement and terror. Her eyes
were staring. She was panting. Her nice frilly cap was over one ear. She
held her apron crumpled into a ball and clutched tightly in her hand.
"It's murdered we'll be, killed and murdered and worse! There's them in
the house with guns and all sorts that'll ruin and destroy everything
that's in it The mistress is dead this minute and it's me they're after
now. What'll we do at all, at all?"
The kitchenmaid, stirred from her private grief by the news, left her
potatoes and came to the kitchen. She and Molly clung to each other.
"It's the Sinn Feiners," she said, "and they're out for blood."
"Where's the police?" said Molly. "What good is the police that they
wouldn't be here and us being murdered?"
"It's blood they want," said the kitchenmaid, "and if s blood they'll
"Molly," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "is there men in the house or is there not?
Stop your bawling now, and tell me."
"There is, there is," said Molly, "with guns and cannons and knives. Glory
be to God, but I never thought to die this way. What'll we do at all, at
all? Would it be any good hiding?"
Mrs. O'Halloran, with cool deliberation, shifted the position of two pots
on the kitchen range. Then she wiped her hands on her apron.
"It's your place to attend the door and not mine, Molly," she said, "but
if you're afeard...."
She looked scornfully at the two girls and left the kitchen.
In the hall a young man stood just inside the door on the mat. He wore a
greenish-grey uniform and carried a rifle. Across his chest was a
bandolier. He looked uncomfortable, like a man who finds himself
unexpectedly in a public place when wearing a fancy dress. The door was
wide open. On the steps outside were two other young men. They also wore
uniforms and carried rifles.
"Now what may you be wanting?" said Mrs. O'Halloran.
The man on the mat—he was really little more than a boy—fumbled
in one pocket after another.
His uniform, like that of the British soldier, had a good many pockets.
Finally he drew out a sheet of paper.
"This is my authority," he said, "from the Provisional Government of the
He handed the paper to Mrs. O'Halloran.
"If it's a collection you're making for the Irish Language Fund," said
Mrs. O'Halloran, "her ladyship gave half a crown last week to one of yees,
and she'll give no more, so you can take yourselves off out of this as
quick as you like."
"We are not collectors," said the young man, with dignity.
"Whether you are not, it's what you look," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "dressed
up in them clothes, with your toy guns and all. You ought to be ashamed of
The suggestion that his rifle was not a real weapon roused the spirit of
the young man.
"In the name of the Irish Republic," he said, "I take possession of this
house for military purposes."
"Musha, but that's fine talk," said Mrs. O'Halloran. "Will nothing do you,
only military purposes?"
"We shall do no harm to the inmates or the contents of the house," said
the young man.
"You will not, for you won't be let."
"But I demand free entrance to the upper storeys for myself and my men."
He turned to the two boys on the steps outside the door.
"Enter," he said, "and follow me."
"Will you wipe your boots on the mat," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "and not be
carrying all the mud of the streets into the house with you. Do you think
the girls that does be here has nothing to do only to be sweeping carpets
and polishing floors after the likes of you?"
The army of the Irish Republic has had many crimes laid to its charge; but
it has not been said that its soldiers were guilty of any needless
discourtesy to the inhabitants of the houses of which they took
possession. The three young men wiped their boots on Lady Devereux'
doormat with elaborate cafe. Mrs. O'Halloran watched them critically.
"Is it the police you're out after with them guns?" she said. "It's a
pity, so it is, to see fine young fellows like you mixing yourselves up
with that foolishness. Sure they'll get you at the latter end, and you'll
be had up in Court."
The leader of the little party of Sinn Feiners was not inclined to discuss
the future prospects of the insurrection with Mrs. O'Halloran. He moved
across the hall towards the staircase, followed by his two young men. They
walked delicately, stepping carefully from one to another of the rugs
which lay on the floor and avoiding the polished boards. They were
courteous and considerate rebels.
"Will nothing but the front stairs suit you?" said Mrs. O'Halloran. "Cock
you up, indeed, the likes of you, that never was in a lady's house before.
The back stairs is good enough for me, so I'm thinking it's good enough
for you. Come along with you now."
She led them past the foot of the great staircase and through a swing door
covered with green baize. That door, such was the fancy of the designer of
Lady Devereux' house, concealed another, a very solid door, made after the
Georgian fashion, of thick mahogany. The baize-covered door had a spring
on it so that it swung shut of itself. Mrs. O'Halloran held it open with
one hand. With the other she turned the handle of the solid door beyond.
"Will you come along now," she said to the three young men, "and take care
you don't be scratching the polish off the door with them guns you're so
They were foolish rebels, those three. They were young and, though Irish,
this was the first time they had taken part in an insurrection. They had
marched forth to garrison Lady Devereux' house expecting much,
hand-to-hand fighting perhaps in the hall, the tears and hysterics of
terrified women, revolver shots from outraged loyalists. Anything of that
sort, anything heroic they were prepared for. Old Biddy O'Halloran, with
her humorous eyes and her ready tongue, took them aback. They walked
through the mahogany door meekly enough.
They found themselves in a small cloak room. There was a wash-hand basin
and a couple of towels in one corner. A pile of carriage rugs lay on a
shelf. Some waterproof coats hung from pegs. There were three umbrellas in
a stand. There was one small window which looked out on a back yard and
was heavily barred. There was not the smallest sign of a staircase leading
to the upper storey of the house or to anywhere else.
A nervous and excitable woman who had trapped three young men would have
made haste to lock them in. Mrs. O'Halloran was in no hurry at all. The
key of the mahogany door was on the inside of the lock. She took it out
"There you stay," she said, "the three of yous, till you've sense enough
to go back to your homes, and it's your mothers will be thankful to me
this day for keeping you out of mischief. Listen to me now before I lock
She fitted the key into the outside of the lock and half closed the door
while she spoke.
"If I hear a word out of your heads or if there's any shooting of them
guns, or if you start cracking and banging on that door, or kicking up any
sort of a noise that might disturb her ladyship, I'll give you neither
bite nor sup, not if I have to keep you here for a week, so be good now
and mind what I'm telling you."
She shut the door and turned the key in the lock.
At the head of the kitchen stairs stood Molly and the kitchenmaid.
"Will I run for the police?" said the kitchenmaid. "Sure I wouldn't be
afeard to do it if Molly would come with me."
"You'll run down to the scullery," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "and you'll go on
washing them potatoes, and Molly along with you. That's all the running
either the one or the other of you will do this day."
"Her ladyship's bell is ringing," said Molly. "Will I not go to her? It
could be she's not dead yet and might be wanting help."
"It's little help you'd give her if she was wanting it, you with your cap
on your ear, instead of the top of your head, and your apron like a wrung
dishclout I wonder you're not ashamed to be seen. Get along with you down
to the kitchen and stay there. Anything that's wanted for her ladyship
I'll do myself."
Lady Devereux was in her morning room, a pleasant sunny apartment which
looked out on the square. The day was warm, but Lady Devereux was an old
woman. She sat in front of a bright fire. She sat in a very deep soft
chair with her feet on a footstool. She had a pile of papers and magazines
on a little table beside her. She neither stirred nor looked up when Mrs.
O'Halloran entered the room.
"Molly," she said, "I heard some men talking in the hall. I wish they
wouldn't make so much noise."
Mrs. O'Halloran cleared her throat and coughed. Lady Devereux looked up.
"Oh," she said, "it's not Molly. It's you, Mrs. O'Halloran. Then I suppose
it must be plumbers."
The inference was a natural one. Mrs. O'Halloran always dealt with
plumbers when they came. She was the only person in the house who could
deal with plumbers.
"Or perhaps some men about the gas," said Lady Devereux. "I hope they
won't want to come in here."
The pleasant quiet life in Lady Devereux' house was occasionally broken by
visits from plumbers and gas men. No one, however wealthy or easygoing,
can altogether escape the evils which have grown up with our civilization.
"It's not plumbers, my lady," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "nor it isn't gas men.
It's Sinn Feiners."
"Dear me, I suppose they want a subscription. My purse is on my writing
table, Mrs. O'Halloran. Will five shillings be enough? I think I ought to
give them something. I'm always so sorry for people who have to go round
from house to house collecting."
"I have the three of them in the cloakroom downstairs and the key turned
on them," said Mrs. O'Halloran.
It is quite possible that Lady Devereux might have expressed some surprise
at this drastic way of treating men, presumably well-meaning men, who came
to ask for money. Before she spoke again she was startled by the sound of
several rifle shots fired in the street outside her house. She was not
much startled, not at all alarmed. A rifle fired in the open air at some
distance does not make a very terrifying sound.
"Dear me," she said, "I wonder what that is. It sounds very like somebody
Mrs. O'Halloran went over to the window and opened it. There was a narrow
iron balcony outside. She stepped on to it.
"It's soldiers, my lady," she said. "They're in the square."
"I suppose it must be on account of the war," said Lady Devereux.
She had learned—before Easter, 1916, everybody had learned—to
put down all irregularities to the war. Letters got lost in the post. The
price of sugar rose. Men married unexpectedly, "on account of the war."
"But I don't think they ought to be allowed to shoot in the square," she
added. "It might be dangerous."
It was dangerous. A bullet—it must have passed very close to Mrs.
O'Halloran—buried itself in the wall of the morning room. A moment
later another pierced a mirror which hung over Lady Devereux' writing
table. Mrs. O'Halloran came into the room again and shut the window.
"You'd think now," she said "that them fellows were shooting at the
"I wish you'd go down and tell them to stop," said Lady Devereux. "Of
course I know we ought to do all we can to help the soldiers, such gallant
fellows, suffering so much in this terrible war. Still I do think they
ought to be more careful where they shoot."
Mrs. O'Halloran went quietly down the two flights of stairs which led from
the morning-room to the ground floor of the house. She had no idea of
allowing herself to be hustled into any undignified haste either by rebels
or troops engaged in suppressing the rebellion. When she reached the
bottom of the stairs she stopped. Her attention was held by two different
noises. The Sinn Feiners were battering the door of their prison with the
butts of their rifles. Molly, the kitchenmaid and Lady Devereux' two other
servants were shrieking on the kitchen stairs. Mrs. O'Halloran dealt with
the rebels first. She opened the baize-covered door and put her mouth to
the keyhole of the other.
"Will yous keep quiet or will yous not?" she said. "There's soldiers
outside the house this minute waiting for the chance to shoot you, and
they'll do it, too, if you don't sit down and behave yourselves. Maybe
it's that you want. If it is you're going the right way about getting it.
But if you've any notion of going home to your mothers with your skins
whole you'll stay peaceable where you are. Can you not hear the guns?"
The three rebels stopped battering the door and listened. The rifle fire
began to slacken. No more than an occasional shot was to be heard. The
fighting had died down. It was too late for the prisoners to take any
active part in it. They began to consider the future. They made up their
minds to take the advice given them and stay quiet.
Mrs. O'Halloran went to the head of the kitchen stairs. The four maids
were huddled together. Mrs. O'Halloran descended on them. She took Molly,
who was nearest to her, by the shoulders and shook her violently. The
housemaid and Lady Devereux' maid fled at once to the coal cellar. The
kitchenmaid sat down and sobbed.
"If there's another sound out of any of yous," said Mrs. O'Halloran,
"it'll be the worse for you after. Isn't it enough for one day to have
three young fellows in the house trying to get shot, and soldiers outside
trying to shoot them, and every sort of divilment in the way of a row
going on, without having a pack of girls bellowing and bawling on the
kitchen stairs? It's mighty fond you are, the whole of you, of dressing
yourselves up, in pink blouses and the like" (she looked angrily at the
kitchenmaid) "and running round the streets to see if you can find a man
to take up with you. And now when there's men enough outside and in,
nothing will do but to be screeching. But sure girls is like that, and
where's the use of talking?"
Mrs. O'Halloran might have said more. She felt inclined to say a good deal
more but she was interrupted by a loud knocking at the hall door.
"I dursent go to it." said Molly. "I dursent You wouldn't know who might
be there nor what they might do to you."
"Nobody's asking you to go," said Mrs. O'Halloran.
She went to the door herself and opened it. A sergeant and eight men were
on the steps.
"And what may you be wanting?" said Mrs. O'Halloran. "What right have you
to come battering and banging at the door of her ladyship's house the same
as if it was a public-house and you trying to get in after closing time?
Be off out of this, now, the whole of you. I never seen such foolishness."
"My orders are to search the house," said the sergeant; "rebels have been
firing on us from the roof."
"There's no rebels been firing out of this house," said Mrs. O'Halloran,
"and what's more——"
"My orders," said the sergeant.
"There's no orders given in this house," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "only mine
and maybe her ladyship's at odd times."
She need scarcely have mentioned Lady Devereux. An order from her was a
very exceptional thing.
"Our officer——" said the sergeant "Private Beggs, go and
report to the officer that we are refused admission to this house."
Private Beggs turned to obey the order. The officer in charge of the party
came out of the door of a house half-way along the side of the square.
Mrs. O'Halloran recognised him. It was Second Lieutenant Harry Devereux.
"Master Harry," she called, "Master Harry, come here at once. Is it you
that's been raising ructions about the square? Shooting and destroying and
frightening decent people into fits? Faith, I might have known it was you.
If there's divilment going you'd be in it."
Harry Devereux, intensely conscious of his responsibility as commander of
men in a real fight, reached the bottom of the steps which led to his
"Enter the house, sergeant," he said, "and search it."
Mrs. O'Halloran stood right in the middle of the doorway. The sergeant
looked at her doubtfully and hesitated.
"Come up out of that, Master Harry," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "and don't be
trying to hide behind the sergeant. It's no wonder you're ashamed of
yourself, but I see you plain enough. Come here now till I talk to you."
The sergeant grinned. Private Beggs, who was behind his officer, laughed
"Was there nowhere else in the world for you to have a battle—if a
battle was what you wanted," said Mrs. O'Halloran, "only in front of your
aunt's house? Many and many's the time I've smacked you for less than what
you've done to-day. Isn't there bullets in her ladyship's morning-room?
Isn't there a grand looking-glass in a gold frame gone to smithers with
your shooting? Isn't Molly and the other girls screeching this minute down
in the coal cellar, for fear you'll kill them, and now nothing will do you
seemingly only to be tramping all over the house. Search it, moya, search
it! But you'll not be let, Master Harry; neither you nor the sergeant nor
any of the rest of you."
Second Lieutenant Harry Devereux pulled himself together and made an
effort to save what was left of his dignity. He had led his men across the
square under a shower of rebel bullets from the roofs of the houses. He
had taken cool advantage of all possible cover. He had directed his men's
fire till he drove the rebels from their shelters. No one could say of him
that he was other than a gallant officer. But his heart failed him when he
was face to face with his aunt's cook.
"I think we needn't search this house, sergeant," he said. "I know it."
"If you'd like to come back in an hour or two, Master Harry," said Mrs.
O'Halloran, "I'll have a bit of dinner ready for you, and I wouldn't say
but there might be something for the sergeant and his men. It's what her
ladyship is always saying that we ought to do the best we can for the lads
that's fighting for us against the Germans—so long as they behave
themselves. But mind this now, sergeant, if you do look in in the course
of the evening there must be no carrying on with the girls. The Lord knows
they're giddy enough without you upsetting them worse."
That night, after dark, three young Sinn Feiners climbed the wall at the
end of Lady Devereux' back yard and dropped into a narrow lane beyond it.
A fortnight later Mrs. O'Halloran received a large parcel containing three
suits of clothes, the property of Second Lieutenant Devereux, left by him
in his aunt's house when he first put on his uniform. They were carefully
brushed and folded, in no way the worse for having been worn by strangers
for one night.
In the bottom of Mrs. O'Halloran's trunk there are three rebel uniforms.
And on the top of the cupboard in her room are three rifles, made in