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The game of cards and the call of duty

Saturday, 13 January, 2018

The Irish writer Frank O’Connor began his career with a book of stories called Guests of the Nation (1931) and the title story begins:

“At dusk the big Englishman, Belcher, would shift his long legs out of the ashes and say, ‘Well, chums, what about it?’ and Noble and myself would say ‘All right, chum’ (for we had picked up some of their curious expressions), and the little Englishman, Hawkins, would light the lamp and bring out the cards. Sometimes Jeremiah Donovan would come up and supervise the game, and get excited over Hawkins’ cards, which he always played badly, and shout at him, as if he was one of our own, ‘Ah, you divil, why didn’t you play the tray?'”

Belcher and Hawkins are two English prisoners taken during the Irish War of Independence, being guarded by three Republican militants, to use today’s PC term, and they have all become friends. Then, news comes that some Irish prisoners have been shot by the English and orders arrive for the Republicans to shoot Belcher and Hawkins in reprisal. No one can quite believe it. None of the Republicans seem to understand what they are doing and none of their victims can comprehend what is being done to them. Belcher asks for a handkerchief to tie around his eyes as his own is too small. His captors help him tie it.

“You understand that we’re only doing our duty?” said Donovan.
Belcher’s head was raised like a blind man’s, so that you could only see his chin and the top of his nose in the lantern-light.
“I never could make out what duty was myself,” he said. “I think you’re all good lads, if that’s what you mean, I’m not complaining.”

The card players of Galbally


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