By Martin Malone
Some stories run beyond the reach of legend, are fact, but their detail has been lost and become hazy in the wheel of time. History was marked by a simple iron cross that had been set into the ground next to a low drystone wall; an iron cross with a circle behind it, a symbol of the mergence between Druidic culture and Christianity, the circle representative of the sun.
Like many things in life its absence more so than its presence was noticed. A small rusted cross not unlike those which you see dotting the margins of roads to mark the death place of a loved one. For decades this simple cross spoke to the world in a rusted whisper. To cyclists, runners, motorists, to hikers – it lay by a farmyard wall on the winding Kildare to Brownstown road, in sight of the massacre of 1798 that happened near to the great rath of the Curragh plains, where the highwayman Colgan was hanged. The dirt and grassy trail to this day is hoof-marked by horse and sheep; its vein runs between dense islands of furze and it is the route which the outlaws used to make their escape after robbing the Dublin-Limerick mailcoach. Not surprisingly it is known as Colgan’s Cut.
But this other man’s name remained a mystery. The cross employed to remind people of the incident and perhaps prompt his name into a prayer onto the lips of a passerby was nowhere to be found. Road works had been ongoing in the area for the last number of years – alterations to the route and the Kildare bypass – but none of these affected this low wall which the cross had come to rest a shoulder against, so there was no reason for it to be removed. I seem to remember a scratching of R.I.P. done roughly in white paint, showing above the rust, but no name, no year of death.
Delving into the mystery I was told by an elderly local man, who was quick to admit that he had forgotten more than he remembered, that the cross had been erected in honour of a young man who had been shot dead by a Black and Tan. According to him the atrocity had happened at night and the young man, a shepherd, had not heard the call to ‘Halt’, and continued to approach the checkpoint. A bullet tore at the night air and spiralled through flesh and bone, wrenching the breath of life from a soul.
The victim was well know to the Tans and to locals and he seemed to have been popular with both; the old man added that the community and the Tans were horrified and greatly saddened at the occurrence – the man was a deaf mute and was described as being a peaceful individual.
The old man, who told me the story, was passing on a hand-me-down tale and again made it clear that his memory of it was sketchy. Because the victim’s name was a mystery, because of the absence of the roadside marker, my curiosity wouldn’t rest – I wanted to discover his identity and what had exactly happened to him, but my other research into the period had sobered my expectations – how do you begin to make truth out of rumours, lies, half-truths, and whatever else goes in the mix? I suppose you work towards the probabilities, the most likely scenarios, and the danger therein is obvious – you run the risk of adding to the mix.
I hadn’t to spend much time searching for the victim’s name – it’s chronicled in James Durney’s fine book about political unrest in Kildare, ‘On the One Road’. The victim was Patrick Gavin from Maddenstown, the Curragh, and he is listed as having been shot dead by a British soldier on the 13 February, 1919.
So then, for more than 80 years this relic signifying a tragic death remained in situ, rusting away, tortured and caressed by the elements. I’m sure there’s a reason for its removal, good or bad – but I don’t expect the mystery to be resolved…it’s merely an old iron cross, a snatch of a tragedy in a time of many of them, but perhaps it had simply run out of seasons.