Thursday 29 September 2016

This man's life: A sea breeze stirs memories of family bonds and bullets

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

'My grandfather had bought the guns and bullets from a renegade IRA man who skipped the country. When the IRA found out, they made a call to Tudor Road looking for their missing ammunition back' Stock photo: Depositphotos
'My grandfather had bought the guns and bullets from a renegade IRA man who skipped the country. When the IRA found out, they made a call to Tudor Road looking for their missing ammunition back' Stock photo: Depositphotos

My grandfather had flaming red hair like mine. When he died, aged 53, his hair had gone pure white.

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Recently, I was in Skerries, with a cooling breeze moving inshore, when I remembered his story, told to me by my own father before he died.

February 1944. Christopher Egan had come home for his tea. He knew there was something up when there was no noise of his five sons fighting over food to greet him.

They were all locked under the stairs.

"The IRA are here," said my grandmother Cecelia, motioning first towards the stranger at the door and then towards the front room of their home in Tudor Road, Ranelagh, where another fellow was waiting to have a chat with him.

As well as being a senior insurance salesman and trade union representative for the Royal Liver, and part of the Labour party in Rathmines, Christopher was the assistant commanding officer to Herman Good of the Local Defence Force in Portobello Barracks. At a meeting the previous month, the officers had complained that they had neither guns nor bullets.

Through his years of selling insurance around Dublin, my grandfather had met some characters - one particular character, claiming to be in charge of the IRA's large, and illegal, armoury, said he would be willing to let the LDF have a few tonnes of guns and bullets if the price was right. Some days after that conversation, the guns and ammo were dropped off at dawn through the back gate of my grandfather's house in Tudor Road.

And before the sun had come up, the LDF had picked up the top-secret booty and unloaded it in the nearby Portobello Barracks.

My grandfather had bought the guns and bullets from a renegade IRA man who skipped the country. When the IRA found out, they made a call to Tudor Road looking for their missing ammunition back.

Christopher was confronted in the front room and a gun was produced. This wasn't panto. There was no ambiguity about what would happen if he didn't start talking about where the guns were.

Then - there was a loud bang and, with it, a scream came from under the stairs. The five young boys thought their father had been shot dead in cold blood.

But it was the sound of the IRA banging the door behind them as they left, none the wiser about their missing ammo.

A week later, a letter felt heavier than usual on the mat of the house in Tudor Road. It was addressed to Mr Christopher Egan. My father, Peter, brought it in to his dad as he had his breakfast.

A bullet fell out when he opened it. 'The next one won't be posted,' the letter read. Within the hour, the police were in the kitchen.

That night, it was on the front page of one of the evening national newspapers: 'LDF Chief Threatened with Bullet.' The morning papers were full of the same story.

The following day, someone shot at the front window in with a pellet gun. Overnight, a cabin box was erected to the side of the house - which had the railway line, now the Luas, running behind it - and a police officer was posted there. (A police commissioner also lived on Tudor Road. So the police officer was busy watching up and down the road.)

A police protection officer would also accompany my grandfather at a safe distance on his trips around Dublin. The culprits who posted the letter were soon apprehended. The letter was traced backed to a typewriter with certain broken keys. At a specially convened military court, one of them was sentenced to 14 years. The Irish government immediately put Christopher under 24-hour police protection. He was also advised to stop working for his own safety. It wouldn't have been in his own best interests to be calling randomly to houses in Dublin's inner city when there was an alleged IRA threat over his head.

Two months later when things began to heat up, the police suggested it would be in Christopher and his family's best interests if they moved away from Tudor Road for a time.

They moved for six months to Skerries. When they took the train from Dublin to Skerries there were two armed police officers in plain clothes in the seat behind them.

The family would take walks around the strand in Skerries with an armed, plain-clothes policeman behind them pretending to be out for his evening stroll.

And whenever the Egans took a boat out in the harbour on a nice day, an armed officer watched from the shoreline.

By the time they returned to their home in Ranelagh, time and circumstances had taken their toll on Christopher. His mind must have been an impermeable tangle of thoughts and fears.

His physical, and maybe psychological, decline was obvious. He had been aged by stress. His eyes lacked their old steadiness, his voice its assurance. He wasn't the same man. He was thin as a rake (ironically his wife's nickname to her sons was Fat Ma).

I was told a sketchy story that in late 1948 one of the men charged to mind Christopher and his family was shot dead on his motorbike on Holles Street. Christopher Egan never slept properly again after that. What didn't help his sleep was that in the mid-1940s, his second youngest son Paul, then only a baby, died of diphtheria; then seven months later, Paul's big brother Patrick, only two, managed to climb out of his pram despite being strapped in ("he was a tiny tot Houdini", I used to be told growing up) and hit his head on the hard kitchen floor. Patrick was taken to Clonskeagh Fever Hospital where he died in his daddy's arms. I remember my own father tell me that he had never seen his dad cry before.

On Sunday morning, August 17, 1952, after attending nine o'clock mass in the church in Beechwood Avenue, Christopher Egan died in his sleep in the upstairs bedroom. With his red hair by then the colour of a sheet, he was in his early 50s but looked closer to 70. He was finally out of the way of bullets, posted or otherwise.

Soon after, they took down the police box outside the house on Tudor Road. I pass by the house on the Luas sometimes and think of what went on behind those walls over 70 years ago.

Sunday Independent

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