Tuesday 25 July 2017

Our unwelcome lodger who one day 'disappeared'

John McEntee remembers the slovenly teenager who came to stay 25 years ago, telling tales of rebellion in the badlands

THE Disappeared is a term usually used around the world to describe those who have been rounded up by repressive regimes and, often after torture, executed, and their bodies disposed of without trace.

In Ireland, the term refers to the unspecified number of Irish men and women executed during the Troubles by the IRA and their bodies secretly buried.

As part of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the IRA has been identifying the locations of these unmarked graves and giving the still grieving families a level of closure.

One of these unfortunate victims was a Co Tyrone teenager whom I had the misfortune to shelter in Dublin in the mid-Seventies. I say misfortune because the lad was nothing but trouble for myself and my flatmates.

I was a young journalist on the de Valera-owned Irish Press. Killings and bombings were an almost daily occurrence in the Northern counties but we in the south mostly didn't notice or care.

A recently married colleague who had moved from Tyrone to Dublin asked if I could put up his younger brother for a few weeks to keep him out of harm's way. Because of his shaven head, he was nicknamed Kojak after the popular TV detective played by Telly Savalas.

Kojak, his brother explained, had got himself involved with the IRA and had been picked up and interrogated by the RUC. He was subsequently released and his family wished to get him out of Northern Ireland for fear of further involvement with paramilitaries. Hence the request for a bolthole in Dublin.

I consulted my flatmates, a fellow journalist, a junior manager in Woolworth's and a car mechanic. The consensus was that Kojak could move into our apartment on Palmerston Road in Rathmines for a maximum period of one month.

A few days later, this pimply-faced, shaven-headed, 6ft 2" northerner turned up in jeans, Doc Marten boots, T-shirt and striped lumber shirt, clutching a sausage-shaped shoulder bag. "Where am I kipping?" he asked unsmilingly.

I showed him to a spare bed in the attic bedroom. "Is there anything to eat?" he inquired, after dropping his bag on the bed and shedding his boots.

I gestured towards the fridge where he promptly plundered some sausages earmarked by the car mechanic for his evening meal.

"Where's the pan?" he asked, as I politely tried to explain that the sausages were not his to fry.

He ignored me, deftly turning on the gas and throwing the entire string of sausages on to the frying pan.

When he brought his feast into the sitting room and plopped down on the sofa in front of the TV, I gingerly tried to explain the fairly primitive house rules. It was obvious he wasn't listening to guidelines about cleaning up afterward and respecting the food and drink of others.

That first evening was marked by his "f**k off" response to the car mechanic's demand for an explanation when he returned home and found his sausages were not in the fridge.

Kojak also took control of the TV and when not focused on the screen, hinted at his revolutionary life up North. "Oh, I could tell you stories," he said. "I could make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Oh yeah, I could tell you stories."

These mutterings were accompanied by frequent lifts of a bejeaned hip as he farted long and loud in the general direction of his listeners .

That first evening he eventually retired to bed, leaving his dirty dishes on the floor.

He started as he meant to go on. The weeks with us developed a depressing pattern. Lying in bed until lunchtime, he would rise and scour the fridge, cupboards and bread bin for provisions. He spilt milk everywhere. He discarded crumbs, cereal, bits of egg, sardines and cheese on his progress from kitchen to sofa.

His only trips out were to the newsagents and off-licence. He had also somehow managed to sign on and did collect his dole. He also borrowed money from all of us. Our evenings were now full of details of his derring-do fight for Irish freedom. He had, of course, shot at least two soldiers, driven a car bomb to a rural police station and was one of the most seasoned and experienced volunteers of the Irish Republican Army. He had only just celebrated his 16th birthday.

The nadir was an evening when we invited some girls back from the pub to the flat. Their arrival distracted Kojak from the TV and his six-pack of Smithwicks. He introduced himself proudly, making the connection with the TV policeman he was nicknamed after.

The girls were wide-eyed with his stories of nocturnal ambushes in the badlands of Co Tyrone. He, balaclava-clad, laying waste to Her Majesty's finest troops and the best recruits to the RUC. It was all fantasy and sounded like it. But in the climate of the time and the atmosphere of unbombed Dublin -- Southern Comfort, as it was called -- Kojak never had any shortage of avid listeners.

There was now open hostility between Kojak and his reluctant hosts. None of my friends bothered to put any food in the fridge or in the cupboards. His failure to maintain any semblance of tidiness meant that we had all degenerated into a kind of squalor. Hints about leaving had turned into open demands for his departure.

Kojak would simply throw back his shoulders, square up and say, "Make me go." None of us felt able to rise to the challenge.

About six weeks after his arrival, I returned one afternoon from an early shift on the paper. I found Kojak studying his newspaper, clad in a garish multi-coloured woollen jumper. I recognised it instantly. My mother had knitted it for me.

It had been worn only once. To my embarrassment, my dear mater had even sewn a tag bearing my name into the collar of her masterpiece. Kojak had obviously raided my wardrobe and commandeered the sweater without permission.

I feigned annoyance. It was my favourite jumper, I lied. Then conscious that he owed me more than £20 and that he had, only that morning,collected his dole, I had a brainwave.

"Tell you what," I said "I'll let you have it for a tenner." He eyed me up and then glanced briefly down at the jumper and said, "It's a deal." Miraculously, he handed over the ten pounds. I felt triumphant.

For the three further weeks Kojak imposed himself on us as a lodger, and the jumper only left his back when he went to bed.

Then like some insidious dentist's drilling that suddenly stops, Kojak was gone. No goodbyes. Nothing. He popped out to the newsagents and never came back. We couldn't believe our luck. We waited until the weekend to celebrate.

The following week his older brother called to inquire about his welfare. We told him he'd gone and assumed he'd returned North.

By the time I moved to London in 1976, Kojak was a distant, unpleasant memory.

It was not until after the Good Friday agreement and the IRA's permanent ceasefire that I learned the truth.

Kojak had been involved with the IRA in his native Tyrone. But when he was lifted and questioned, he apparently turned informer against his Republican colleagues. His life wasn't worth living in the north. That is why he sought refuge in the south.

But on the morning he strolled from our flat in Palmerston Road to the local newsagents, his past caught up with him. As he emerged from the shop, the IRA lay in wait. He was bundled into the back of a car and driven away, masked, eventually arriving at a remote bog. There, forced to kneel, Kojak was shot in the head and buried in the damp peat. He has lain there undiscovered for more than a quarter of a century, missed only by his family.

When his grave is eventually located as part of the peace process, the Garda Siochana or PSNI will dig him up. He will be wearing the same jumper that accompanied him to his destiny. It is mine, my sainted mother's pride and joy.

It is probable that the bog will have even preserved the name tag lovingly sewn into the collar. It is my name. I don't want the jumper back.

Rest in peace, Kojak.

Sunday Independent

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