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Visions of Joe


 The tale starts in 1876, Evie McBride is 18 and a rebel, the daughter of a deported convict and union man.
 Her life becomes wrapped up with that of the Kelly gang and principally Joe Byrne, she is a witness of events leading to their tragic conclusion.
It is fiction that uses facts, legends, stories and imagination to tell an emotional history, in an attempt perhaps to find a man called Joe in the middle of it all.

First published in 2005.
Many thanks to Lizzynet for editing and for producing it in book form. Precious gifts.

 I am grateful for the encouragement, endless often teary discussions with friends, the reviews and comments and for all the people that this story has lead me to.
This has taken me around the Earth both physically and metaphorically, sent me spinning off in directions I could only have dreamed of.
I have laughed loud, gasped, raved and cried buckets, just as I was bound to do. For all of that and everything else, I want to say
Thank You

Complete, 14 Chapters.
2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14

All chapter art by the brilliant Neldorwen

I had always known Maggie, well I HAVE always known her, since I can remember. Not that we came from the same town, but here everyone is a friend of a friend, that is at least if they are not actually related. When I was a young lass and full of worry about whether I was to marry this boy or that, the full, complicated web of connections developed into a huge net in my mind. Christ, if they were ever to try to write an “and the son of Murphy begat a so-and-so Connelly,” like I read in the Bible, well, round here they would soon lose their marbles with the intricacies of it all.

Anyhow, her mother knew my aunt whose daughter once sang in the choir with my neighbour’s boy, that sort of thing. Sometimes Maggie would be at our house for what seemed like an entire day while our mothers would be working and talking. As young women, on the rare occasions I got to town, I would see her and we would ask about each other’s families and promise to keep in touch, both of us knowing there was precious little chance of that happening even if we had the means to do so. But I always liked her. She had one of those faces—open and warm. Always happy to see you she were and, whilst with some people you might cross the street to avoid another “well how are you?” conversation, with Maggie the warmth of her smile always drew me in.

Thoughts of Maggie, however, rarely popped into my head except when I saw her, there being far more to occupy my mind at home. All of us children had to work on what was laughingly called “our land”—an acre or two of scrub would have been a better description. For the price of a lifelong struggle to earn the rent, we had a selection that, it seemed to me, had a grudge against us. We watched as year after year the land in the next valley grew lush and green with the rains, whilst ours seemed to slip down the hill with the greatest of ease, taking the crops and the weeds with it. Once or twice I had asked me Da why we had this plot as opposed to one where we could actually grow something worth having. His answer was almost always the same and involved those “adjectival squatters” who had apparently bought off the government and the police. Since his rantings inevitably caused him to swear, me Ma usually pulled him up and the rest of the explanation was lost.

The seasons passed, some better than others, but always with the threat of eviction or going hungry hanging over our heads. Me older brothers Michael and Jimmy growing strong and independent, me and my sister Mary seeming to do all that they did and more, but without the praise or the freedom, even looking after Sean an extra duty they appeared to take little interest in. Anyhow Michael was working now at the big house with the horses, and Jimmy...well I was never quite sure where Jimmy was nor where that bit of money came from but it seemed like I wasn’t supposed to ask.

Somehow I got to age 18 without a clue as to how the world looked outside of our little patch; a few villages left and right, the occasional letter from me Ma’s family in Ireland, and the one time we got a newspaper borrowed from someone we knew. I read it over and over as well as I could, me Da thought I should learn but it tested us all, details of a world I had no connection with. There was a long article about the invention of the telephone, a new way to communicate that I have to confess I could not understand, and about a place called India. The Queen, Victoria I mean, was to be “Empress of India.”

Me Da being a practical type, well that is one way to put it I suppose, leastways he was more inventive as to ways we might make the cash we needed, says out of the blue one day that there is a job going in the bar in town. Looks me in the eye and says, “Well, what do you think girl? I know the owner, do some favours for him. You fancy working for your keep?”

I was on the verge of answering with “what the hell do you think I do everyday out on that land?” for which, big as I was, I would probably still have got a clip for cheeking from me Da and for blaspheming by me Ma, but was cut short by me Ma’s wail, “If you think a daughter of mine is going to work in a bar, with the worst ruffians and larrikins that God has seen fit to cast us amoungst, you will have to think again!”

Which of course made up my mind, but it wasn’t so plain sailing. Days we had of it—shouting about the money we needed, the family reputation, the moral danger I would be put in, the ways in which we could scrimp some more, and in all the midst of this I heard Maggie’s name for the first time in months. “Well Brenda O’Shea has seen fit to let her daughter work there. Maggie, she works there, she can show our lass the ropes.”

Me Ma was still none too convinced, but this new argument seemed to hold some sway with her. “Well if you are absolutely sure that there will be no funny business of any kind….”

Within days I was walking into the bar for me first night of proper paid employment, so excited and scared I couldn’t think straight. Had put me hair up, taken it down, twisted it round and plaited it over again. As to clothes, well I only had the one tidy set anyhow so that was settled before I started.

“Will you keep your wits about you lassie? I know some of them boys that drink there, don’t tell your Ma,” he grinned conspiratorially at me, a look I had grown well used to, but it changed in an instant as his soft eyes fell on my face again. “Just don’t take any nonsense is all.”

He couldn’t say it, but he knew, whilst I only had the smallest grasp, that this was going to be the changing of me.

I had wanted to chat with Maggie but we had no time, set to work as soon as I walked in the door it seemed. Me legs were shaking as the owner ran through me duties for the night, which were mainly fetching and carrying. “Well not much of a change there then,” I thought to meself with a sort of smile.

Endless trips to the cellar for crates of beers to line the shelves, once the drinking started there wouldn’t be much chance for it later. Me and Maggie passing and panting on the stairs. Next we had to wipe the tables from the afternoon session, and then it started—big floods of men arriving in groups, some of the younger yellow fellas still with dust in their hair from the quarry, men still in their work boots, others in their best jackets, and down the other end of the bar at a table all their own a band of coppers, all beards and inquisitive, cruel eyes, that just watched everything in that bar and at the same time challenged each and everyone of us.

Tom O’Leary, the bar owner, standing at the bar, keeping an eye and serving. Maggie there too, but also taking trays of drinks to men seated at the worn tables and chairs that crowded the dance floor. My job, it seemed, was to collect the “empties” as I soon learned to call them and make sure that the taps kept flowing. Often Mr. O’Leary would give me a smile as I passed, me Da must have put in a good word and anyhow, I worked my socks off runnin’ up and down those stairs, a matter of pride that there were no empties cluttering up the tables, well except that one down the end. There I visited as rarely as I could. “We have no time for coppers nor those adjectival squatters,” I could hear me Da’s voice in me head every time I had the misfortune to go near.

Midnight came and went and there was no sign of the place closing, if anything it just got louder. Me feet were aching, and I asked Mr. O’Leary when it would be time for me to go home then, tried to make light of it, like I was just interested and all but his eyes narrowed. I think he said something about how if it was too much for me he’d find someone else, and of course I had to dig fast to cover me tracks and run even faster to make him see I was still up to the job. I remember the feeling though as me Da walked through the door, saying he’d just stop for one before taking me home—I was fair gasping with relief. I watched him talking with Mr. O’Leary, holding his hands out, the only thing I could catch something like, “Oh yes she can…Oh, aye later, next week…It’s just her mother, you know, Tom.”

Me Da walked beside me out of the place, let me be the “barmaid” I now was 'til we got outside, and big as I was, he picked me up…what did he say now? Ah yes, “I can see those legs of yours are as tired as the day you were five and we walked 10 miles to get grain.” A big smile on his face, “I carried you that last mile of it. Not sure I could do that now, my girl, but just to the cart eh? Let yer old Da help you.” I can still remember the sting of the tears in me eyes just for him wanting to, and I held on tightly to his neck. I think I was asleep before we got home, the rocking of the cart as good as any cradle.

The week passed so slowly I thought God kept forgetting to wind his fob watch. The dreariness of Tuesday slipped into Wednesday, and the dullness of me life felt like a weight on my shoulders more than all that washing and cleaning and cooking and work in the fields that filled me days. Once me feet had stopped aching and me arms, the only thing left was a sense of the enormity of it all, which sounds daft to say now, but I had never been anywhere like it.  Never met so many people, well men, nor seen how it was that they could spend all week working like wombats to make a spare penny or two only to drink it all away. But the main thing that I wanted more of was to be there, to be a grown woman who was there. In truth I didn’t feel like one, but I had an idea what she might look like.

At last the day dawned and I got up bright and early, a smile on my face that me Ma remarked upon, “And what has cheered you so much? Like a wet weekend you’ve been.” I daren’t tell her it was because I was going to work again, the notion that it was something to be looked forward to rather than tolerated for the sake of the wages would have set her alarm bells ringing good and proper. Instead, I just smiled and was unusually good company for Sean, making the most of the time we spent watering the vegetable patch to run some water through my hair and tie it up like Maggie had done the week before. The stew for supper I couldn’t get down fast enough and soon I was climbing in the cart next to me Da. His hand patted mine as we arrived at the bar, “See you later me girl,” his eyes barely soothing the butterflies in my gut. I walked in the door, the stale smell of smoke and old beer, as acrid as it was, excited me all the more.

Tom O’Leary was still out bringing supplies as I stepped through the door. Maggie was there, just reaching up to line the beer on the shelf, a broad grin on her face as she saw me. I felt glad, like it hadn’t all been a dream, that she remembered me too, and I smiled back. We were good together so that when Mr. O’Leary returned all of a sudden to us chatting and laughing we knew to jump to it and make like we had been working all along.

This week I think I even managed a smile, as soon as the abject horror of doing something wrong subsided, but it was more the case of forgetting. We were so busy it felt like all of the surrounding villages emptied into that one pub. There were fiddles and dancing and all under the disapproving eyes of the coppers who seemed to resent the fact that despite it all, despite everything they, the squatters, and maybe even the Queen herself did to keep us down, we could still enjoy ourselves.

My battle against the empties continued, but it was as hopeless as that story me Da told me of King Canute and those waves, though I did think that whilst I had not ever seen waves, I wasn’t sure I would want to stop them- they sounded like magic. Anyhow I was drowning in a sea of glasses and bottles when there was a shout from Mr. O’Leary that I was needed down the other end of the bar. The coppers wanted more beer and there was no sign of Maggie.

“Take these over will ye, lass? That table there.” He didn’t even need to point, cos I knew where he meant. I seem to remember managing an “aye” and with determination picked up the tray. It was heavier than I thought, and I had to brace me arms to keep it steady, weaving the way across to the table where they sat. The foolishness of neglecting me duties though became as clear as a winter’s sky—the table was full, and I cursed in me head as I couldn’t put the tray down and do what me legs were telling me to. Instead I had to balance the tray on the edge and trade empties for full glasses, gritting my teeth as if that might stop me hands from shaking.

At last it was done and I went to stand up straight, a shot of panic as I felt a hand around me waist and hot, beery breath in me ear. Before I had time to do anything, that’s if I had known what to do other than stamp on his foot, I was sitting in the lap of a bushy-bearded copper with lusty eyes and a mean mouth. “Now then what have I here? Another of those fresh-faced catholic girls, always a sure bet for a good time, eh boys? Have I felt this one before? Can’t say as I remember.”

A wave of indignation and revulsion passed through me as I struggled to get free. “I will thank you to leave me alone,” coming out of me mouth instead of the “Get your filthy hands off me!” that was competing with it in me mind.

One of them from the other side of the table says, “Ah you want to watch that one William. If I am not mistaken, she’s the sister of that Jimmy McBride, selector scum and common thieves if ever there was a family of them.”

They were all laughing as I walked steadfastly away, thankful they couldn’t see the colour of me cheeks. I managed to put the tray back on the bar when I felt a hand on me shoulder and turned to let fly the mixture of history and anger and embarrassment that was fuelling that colour when me mouth just fell open. This was no copper, and if me heart was pounding before, it just took up dancing a jig.

I had expected bearded and brutish, ugly and mean. What I saw, and I can still see his face exactly as it was to this day, left me spellbound. Dark curls framing a perfect angled face, long lashes shading dark eyes that just creased at the corners, a thin line of a beard just edging his jaw, and a mouth that…well I blush to say what occurred to me right there and then, and that was before you even dragged yer eyes downwards. I recall I was only as far as the waistcoat, “Jesus.”
Well I am not sure that I said it out loud but either way it immediately occurred to me that this man, who I could barely keep my eyes from, in front of me was about as far from any notion of Jesus that I could imagine, and the flush that went through me about the opposite of the sort of humble devotion I was supposed to feel anyway.

My tumbling thoughts were pulled up by his voice, and I swear I thought I would faint at it, well that and the grin that said he knew exactly what just went through my mind. “Anyone ever tell ye not to mix with them coppers? You’ll not be wanting that sort of reputation.”

I didn’t hear at first what it were he actually said, I think I was watching his lips and feeling that soft voice seep into me ears, and then it struck me, and he may as well have crucified me there and then. He thought I were messing around with coppers. Before I had even time to stutter he had turned away, back to his friend at the bar, and they walked away with their beer, not even a glance back.

“Lass, lass, will ye stop catching flies and move?” Mr. O’Leary’s voice finally penetrated me head, and I thought I heard him mutter the name Joseph Byrne and it being bad enough him distracting one of the barmaids already. Mortified and devastated both at the same time, and them both mixed up to a sickness in my stomach, I could only scamper around, head down, desperately trying to get everything in a sort of order—that comment, that name, and Christ, Lord forgive me for blaspheming so much, but those eyes.

If you could cram anymore into those few minutes then there must have been a gap that the universe decided needed filling, because with a tray full of empties, I watched him stand with a smile that would have melted the Virgin Mary and sneak up behind Maggie. I nearly shouted out, I can’t imagine to this day what I would have shouted, “Look Out!” not really the thing and I was looking hard enough for the both of us anyhow. But words were more than beyond me as I saw him slip his hands around her waist, lean against her back and kiss her neck. You would have sworn it was my skin that those lips just grazed for the sway I felt. Maggie’s face flushed in an instant while he smiled at her and kissed her some more.

I was wondering how she was still standing when a voice came beside me, “If I can tear you away from him for a just a moment, hate to see another of you lasses fall for him without a fight, I’m Aaron Sherritt. Pleased to meet ye.”

Reluctantly I pulled me eyes to the face in front of me, round and soft, blonde curls and a twinkle in his eye that was asking me something, me just remembering what I was supposed to be doing in this place. “Begging your pardon, mister. Will you be wanting beer?” and I went to step towards the bar.

Catching me arm he winked and nodded, “Well I will have one if you are gonna fetch it for me,” and I realised what the question was.

I felt like I needed someone to shake me out of this dream. My fingers fumbling with the glasses and a head on the beer that would have made a beard for him in heaven, grabbing hold of the bar I willed myself steady with a silent “Come on now.” Aaron Sherritt was next to me when I opened me eyes. “You alright, lass? Bowled over by me charms, I wouldn’t wonder. Now what will I call ye?”

“Her name is none of your concern, Aaron. Between you and Byrne there’s hardly a lass left to be married with her honour round here.”

“Ah sure now, Mr. O’Leary, that’s just a rumour. And anyhow I was only being friendly, making her feel at home yer know.”

“Aye, I know how welcome Michael McHaggerty’s daughter felt too. Now will you be wanting that beer or no?”

If this night could get any worse, it just did. I could hear the conversation between Tom O’Leary and me Da in me head and so could Aaron. In the course of minutes I had gone from the happiest soul alive to a copper’s strumpet to a girl needing protection. I had but a second to salvage anything, and I grabbed it. “It’s fine, Mr. O’Leary. We were just talking. My name is Aoife, but they call me Evie.”

A shake of the head from Mr. O’Leary and the sort of self-satisfied grin from Aaron that meant, I hoped, that he saw the drag of the line in the sand I had just drawn, a churn in my stomach in the seconds that it took to realise the step I had taken. In one sentence a mile from me Da and Mr. O’Leary and a mile into who knows where.

At the end of the evening me Da arrived as expected and sat down for a beer with Mr. O’Leary while me and Maggie cleared up the place. I could see them trading smiles and a few coins, but it wasn’t them I was interested in. I had to speak to Maggie. In a whisper as we wiped the tables, I asked, “So who was that kissing you?”

A flush in her cheeks that only made her prettier and a whisper back, “Joe, that’s Joe Byrne. We are courtin’.” Round to another table, and then, “Between you and me, he has me heart. He’s a handsome fella, wouldn’t you say?”

I prayed me blush didn’t give me away. “Aye, Maggie, he is that alright.” I could have stayed there all night. I wanted more, and to leave the bar now was to wave goodbye to everything it felt, but me Da was there with a “Time to go Lass,” and before I could catch me breath we were swaying over the tracks towards home.

Me heart still felt like it was being squeezed and wrung out, like I watched me Ma’s strong wrists do on a Monday washday, when me Da spoke unexpectedly. “Tom’s asked me to let you work more Lass, says you’re a good ‘un,” a smile as he squeezed my knee, “and I am sorry to say we need the money.”

A lurch of joy in me stomach then I looked into his face and it all went—me Da was asking me, 18 years old and in his eyes still the little girl he could bounce on his knee. I could see the rip in his heart that he had to ask, the years of struggle and still some hope in his eyes, and now here he was in need of those few coins I could bring in. “I’ll do whatever you say Da, you know best.” But there was a pang, a pang of “Judas,” of my denial of him, as I remembered how only a few hours before I had thrown all me eggs in basket that had no bottom that I knew of. He just smiled again, and I nearly blurted out, “I am sorry!” and threw myself on his knee, except that he would have no idea what I was on about.

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