Welcome to the Recruit, my St Patrick’s Day short story. As always, it’s free, so please share as much as you like. It’s the first time I’ve done a story for St Patrick’s Day, so I hope you enjoy it.
The Recruit is something of a departure from my usual haunts, on the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula or the decks of a man o’war. I first got the idea of writing about the 1798 rebellion in Ireland when I was asked for further information about one of my characters by someone who was writing an article about my books. He asked a lot of very interesting questions, which sent me back to my research, and I ended up with a very rough idea for a future book, set during the rebellion.
The Recruit makes no attempt to tell the full story of 1798, it’s just a snapshot of one part of the campaign, and the effect it had on one idealistic young Irishman. It can be enjoyed as a standalone story, but it also provides a brief glimpse of one or two characters from the Peninsular War Saga in their younger days. The recruiting poster I have used is very closely based on a real one from the period.
The character of Ciaran Donnelly is fictional, but his companions in arms are not. Matthew Furlong, Bagenal Harvey and Thomas Cloney all existed, and their actions as described in this story are as real as I could make them. I’ve every intention of turning this short story into a full book. Now that I’ve done so much reading about it, the story is too good not to tell, and I predict a visit to Ireland in the very near future.
There are numerous books about the rebellion, but for this short story I have relied heavily on the entertaining The Year of Liberty by Thomas Pakenham. I also found an excellent website covering Ireland’s military history which gave a lot of detail about the battle itself. The website is called Never Felt Better and has a series of posts called Ireland’s Wars. I really recommend it. Last but by no means least, I was able to read the account of the uprising written by Thomas Cloney himself, which was completely fascinating. Cloney makes an excellent partner-in-crime for my fictional character and I’m looking forward to getting to know them both better when I write the book.
Ten Guineas Bounty
And a Crown to drink His Majesty’s Health
Wanted, to complete the Companies of His Majesty’s
One Hundred- and Tenth-Line Infantry
Commanded by Colonel Charles Dixon
A few high-spirited, handsome Young Men who wish to enter into high pay, free quarters, good clothing and a number of other advantages to be found in serving His Majesty, should make themselves known to Lieutenant Longford or Lieutenant Wheeler at the Castle and Falcon on Watergate Row North, in Chester
Where they will meet with every attention and encouragement a soldier can require
N.B. The bringer of a good handsome recruit shall be liberally rewarded.
God Save the King
Ireland, June 1798
It was barely mid-morning, but the sun was already hot and a shimmering haze lay over the rebel camp at Carrigburn. The men took their ease, recovering from the fighting and marching of the past week. In many cases they were also nursing hangovers from wine, ale and cider either looted or freely given by enthusiastic supporters.
Ciaran Donnelly had not been drunk on the previous evening, although after a restless night under the stars he wished he had. He was finding sleep difficult, and not just because he was not accustomed to resting on the hard ground with nothing but his cloak to cover him. When it was dark and the camp settled to sleep around him, Ciaran found himself wakeful with the events of the day, and the week, and the month, running riot through his exhausted brain. During the day the need for action stilled his racing mind, but when he was quiet, the memories flooded back, robbing him of much needed rest. Around him, his fellow rebels slept peacefully. Ciaran envied them and wondered what was wrong with him.
He had no duties that morning. On the previous day, the new commander-in-chief of the rebel forces in Wexford had arrived in camp and was presumably taking time to get to know his officers and plan his next move. Ciaran did not know Bagenal Harvey personally, although he knew him by reputation. Harvey had been imprisoned in Wexford Gaol before the armed rebellion by the United Irishmen had even begun and had only been released when the rebels triumphantly took Wexford Town. Ciaran, listening to the men around him, heard that Harvey was a barrister, educated, like Ciaran, at Trinity College. He had a good reputation as an honest, compassionate man, but had no military experience. Ciaran wondered how far honesty and compassion could take a man in this bloody conflict.
“Donnelly, are you sleeping or dead over there?”
Ciaran sat up, looking around him, and located the speaker mounted on a bay mare. He was a stocky, square-featured man in his early twenties, his appearance unremarkable apart from his eyes which were long-lashed and luminous blue. He was grinning.
“Get your horse. There’s been an attack over at Old Ross, a troop of yeoman cavalry. One man dead, the other just rode into camp to bring the news. I’m away to speak to General Harvey about it. Come with me, you should meet him.”
Ciaran got up and made his way between the lounging men to where his horse was tied up along with several others. Denis was a black gelding, a gift from Ciaran’s parents when he had left home, eighteen months earlier, to study at Trinity in Dublin. Taking the horse with him had been a ridiculous thing to do, given the cost of stabling in the city and Ciaran often thought he had spent more on feeding the horse than on feeding himself, but he had never regretted it.
It had been the name of the horse which had brought him to the attention of Colonel Thomas Cloney. When Ciaran first joined the Wexford insurgents, Cloney had heard him speaking to his horse and hooted with laughter.
“Denis? Is that what you call him? Jesus, I was looking round for my old man there, it’s his name as well.” Cloney had come forward, running an experienced hand down the horse’s smooth coat. “Not that my father is as good-looking as this beauty. Is he yours? How old? Does he ride as well as he looks?”
Cloney’s shared passion for horses had proved a blessing for Ciaran, who knew nobody in camp. He had ridden from Dublin in the wake of a flurry of arrests, as the government at Dublin Castle decided it was time to deal with the rebellion in their midst. Informed of the names of the chief members of the United Irishmen in the capital, they had swept down in a series of raids, beginning with most of the leaders who were gathering for a meeting at the house of Oliver Bond. From there, they moved through the city, collecting lesser individuals who were significant enough to make it onto the lists compiled by government informers.
Ciaran knew he was going to be on one of those lists. Raised a good Catholic, the son of a respectable schoolmaster, he had set his faith to one side at the suggestion of his patron, a Protestant landowner who had offered him a scholarship to study at Trinity. Ciaran had been dazzled by the prospect and tried to ignore his parents’ sadness at his choice. He had reasoned that religion was something to be considered when he was older and that if he could obtain a degree and good connections in Dublin, he would be in a far better position to help his family and his people, than if he took some low-paid position in Sligo.
Ciaran had not realised how much the necessary compromise would rankle. It made him an ideal recruit for a political movement which sought to free Catholics from the necessity of leaving their religion behind in order to make their way in the world. It also sought to set aside the differences between the two religions, numbering both eminent Protestants and Catholics among its leaders. Ciaran was easily drawn in and quickly found himself much in demand as a courier to take messages beyond Dublin. He spent weekends in muddy fields outside the city, drilling and training with muskets and pikes under the tuition of disaffected militia officers, and found to his surprise that he was very good at it. Weapons were in short supply, and so were qualified officers. Ciaran was quickly promoted to lead a company of men and enjoyed both the responsibility and the distant dream of overthrowing the restrictions of English rule and living under an Irish republic, even if that must be achieved with the help of a French invasion.
The movement in Dublin came crashing down with the first arrests in March, and Ciaran knew his time was running out fast. Several of his fellow students, known for their sympathy with the movement, slipped away quietly and went back to their families, hoping they would be seen as too insignificant to pursue. Ciaran had no such hopes. There would be letters and documents with his name on and, at some point, the authorities would get round to him. He had no intention of waiting for the knock on the door and even less intention leading the authorities back to his family home in Sligo. His parents and his younger sister had no inkling of his involvement with the rebellion and Ciaran intended it to stay that way.
He left Dublin under cover of darkness, and rode through a land under martial law, where districts refusing to give up their arms were given over to the reprisals of the troops. Ciaran knew that the severity of these reprisals would depend very much on the temper of the officer in charge of the district. Men like Sir Charles Asgill in Queen’s County and Sir John Moore in the south, were able to restrain their troops from the worst excesses. Others would not try.
Ciaran found shelter with a rebel family in North Wexford and held his patience as best he could, hearing news of murder and torture and the burning of houses and farms on both sides. The arrests of Harvey and the other Wexford leaders and the massacre of captured rebels in the neighbouring county finally pushed the people of Wexford into open rebellion. Ciaran joined the swelling ranks of the rebel army as it swept through the north of the county, attacking military and loyalist targets to steal arms. They lost ground at Ballyminaun Hill but gained victories at Oulart Hill, Enniscorthy, and finally Wexford Town. Ciaran was slightly shocked at their success, and he had the sense that he was not the only one.
Mounting up, Ciaran walked his horse over to join Cloney. “What happened with the yeomanry?” he asked, falling in beside the older man.
“Murdering bastards. I’m not sure if they were trying to reconnoitre our camp or if they’re just on a looting spree, but they came across two unarmed locals on the road. They killed the man with the slower horse, the other rode straight here to warn us. Here, it’s up this way.”
“I didn’t see you yesterday.”
“No, I was away to see my father and my sisters. It’s not far, and I thought I should see them, in case…”
Cloney broke off and Ciaran felt rush of guilt and misery at the thought of his own family. “I wish I could do the same.”
“I’m sorry, Donnelly. Have you heard at all?”
“No, and I don’t want to. As far as I know, it’s peaceful there. They’ve a good relationship with their landlord, he’ll take care of them if he can. As long as I’m a long way off, they should be safe.”
Cloney did not answer, and they rode in silence for a few minutes. A farmhouse came into view, with two men apparently doing sentry duty outside. Cloney dismounted, motioning for Ciaran to join him. There was an iron ring set into the side of the house and they looped the reins around it then entered the house.
Bagenal Harvey was seated at the head of a long table in the farmhouse kitchen. The room was crowded with men, most of whom Ciaran recognised from his weeks with the rebel army. Several of them nodded to him. At a big fireplace on the outside wall, a woman, possibly the farmer’s wife, was stirring something savoury in a pot over the fire. The room was far too hot.
Harvey was a pleasantly spoken man in his thirties with a worried expression. Cloney had confided that he was not convinced that Harvey had really wanted this command, but he had accepted it when offered and seemed to be doing his best to bring the wilder elements under control and to extend at least some protection to local loyalist families who lived in terror of rebel reprisals. He listened to Cloney’s story without interruption, then looked around the room at his officers.
“I think we’re in agreement that we must take action, gentlemen.”
“Of course, sir. It’s shocking.”
There was a murmur of indignant assent. Ciaran, with only an observer’s part to play, thought there was also a sense of discomfort. As he thought it, Ciaran saw Cloney look over at him. To his surprise, Cloney gave an unmistakeable wink.
“Who will you send, sir?” Cloney asked.
“We will need a strong party of horse. They can intercept these scoundrels on their way back. Captain Keogh, will you take command? Or perhaps you, Mr Donoghue? You both have experience of…”
“I’d rather not, sir,” Donoghue said quickly. “We’ve no information as to the numbers of these yeomanry and our horsemen are not yet reliably trained. It’s one thing to command as part of an army, but to go out alone without proper intelligence…”
“Well, I’m not going,” Keogh said decidedly. “I’d not trust that rebel rabble not to take off and plunder the neighbourhood. Best keep them here, and busy with the drink while we finish reorganising, and decide…”
“It’s going to be difficult to reorganise any of them if they’re half-sprung all the time,” Cloney said, echoing Ciaran’s thought. “General Harvey, if you’ll trust me…”
“I was just going to suggest it,” Harvey said, apparently completely ignoring the outrageous disregard for military discipline displayed by two of his officers. “Select fifty of the best horsemen, Colonel Cloney. And perhaps another officer.”
“With your leave, General, I’d like to take my good friend Mr Donnelly. May I introduce him? He’s from Sligo but was a student in Dublin and had to make himself scarce when the arrests began. He fought beside me on the advance to Wexford and is an excellent horseman and a brave man in a fight.”
Harvey gave his sweet, slightly abstracted smile. “I am happy to meet you, Mr Donnelly, and thankful for your courage and dedication. I hope you will continue to act as Colonel Cloney’s lieutenant.”
“Have I been promoted?” Ciaran enquired of his friend, as they left the farmhouse.
“I’m thinking you might have, if you want the job. I’ve become used to a reliable man beside me, but it’s good to make it official. Come on, I want to catch these bastards before they get back to Ross.”
It proved an exhilarating, but ultimately pointless, expedition. They rode fast, intent on their prey, but the yeomanry, returning with whatever plunder they had acquired, could easily see the fifty horsemen descending from Carrigburn Hill. Cloney spotted them at the same time and stood up in his saddle with a triumphant yell, which Ciaran suspected did not feature in any army training manual. He touched his heels to Denis’ flanks and set him to a gallop, pulling up beside Cloney who was careering down the hill like a madman. Behind them, Ciaran could hear the thundering of fifty sets of hooves, the jangling of harness and the occasional whoop of excitement as the rebels began to pull closer to their quarry.
The yeomanry galloped ahead, racing over the crossroads of Old Ross towards the town of New Ross, and sanctuary. Ciaran found himself caught up in the thrill of the chase, but as the town walls came into view, common sense reasserted itself. He had never been to New Ross and did not know anything about the strength of its defences, but he could see several towers joined by an imposing wall. He glanced over towards Cloney, who had pulled a little ahead of him. Cloney’s eyes were fixed on the retreating cavalry and his expression told Ciaran that he had no intention of pulling back. Ciaran looked at the walls and found himself mentally placing musket men along the ramparts. There was room for a good few. He had no idea if they had artillery. He took a deep breath and yelled.
“Colonel Cloney, we need to pull back. We can’t get within musket range of the town.”
Cloney did not pull up or look around. Ciaran could not decide if the man had not heard him or was ignoring him. They were getting closer, and the yeomanry had almost reached one of the town gates. Ciaran glanced behind him. Not one of the horsemen appeared to have realised that they were charging into potential disaster and Ciaran felt suddenly cold with fear. He had only moments to make his decision.
Ciaran tightened his hands on the reins and Denis pulled up immediately, without rearing up. Two of the following horsemen had to veer sharply to one side to avoid crashing into him. Ciaran stood up in the saddle, snatched off his hat and waved it in huge circles in the air, yelling like a madman.
“Halt! Pull back. Cavalry halt and turn about!”
He thought for a long agonising minute that nobody was hearing him, then he realised that the men behind him were slowing and stopping, dragging back their sweating horses into a rough line. Those few who had passed him continued their headlong rush towards the town, and Ciaran said something vulgar, took a deep breath and yelled again.
“Thomas! For the love of Christ, get yourself back here!”
Cloney looked around, realising for the first time that most of his men had pulled up. He looked over his shoulder then bellowed an order, turned his horse in a wide arc, and began to gallop back towards Ciaran. The rest of his men followed, thundering out of range of the town walls. As they drew closer to Ciaran, a musket crashed from the defenders, the shot falling harmlessly short. Cloney pulled up in front of Ciaran, the blue eyes steady on his. Ciaran took a deep breath and waited.
“Mother of God, Donnelly, I’m glad I’d the wit to bring you with me. I got bit carried away there, don’t you think?”
Ciaran let out his breath. “I think so, sir,” he said.
Cloney studied him for a long moment. “We’re both fairly new at this,” he said in conversational tones. “Myself, I’m beginning to wonder if you’re going to be better at it than I am. Come on, let’s get them back. General Harvey is holding a meeting to discuss our next move and I’m hoping to be there.”
Ciaran had a hangover on the morning of the attack on New Ross. Given that Harvey planned a dawn start, it had probably been unwise to stay up so late eating and drinking, but the food was good, the wine plentiful and Ciaran was flattered to be included in the feasting as Cloney’s lieutenant. Eighteen months as a student in Dublin had given him a good head for drinking, but as he attempted to rouse his men in the pre-dawn darkness and get them into some kind of order, Ciaran had a thumping headache and a dry mouth. He had a useful water bottle on a strap which he had looted from the army stores at Enniscorthy, and he drank it dry and refilled it several times over before the army was ready to march.
Ciaran wondered if the garrison lined up to defend New Ross had been able to hear the laughter and the music, and to smell the roasted meat from the camp on Carrigburn Hill. If they had, would they have been intimidated by the sheer numbers they must face the following day? Or would they be contemptuous of an army so ill-disciplined that it spent the night before battle in an orgy of feasting, drinking and dancing? Ciaran had a suspicion it might be the latter.
He spent much of the evening with a young gentleman farmer by the name of Matthew Furlong, who acted as one of General Harvey’s aides. Ciaran had not met Furlong properly before and found the man very likeable. Furlong was from much the same background as Ciaran and they talked of crops and horses, alongside philosophy and the revolution in France. They also spoke, more candidly than Ciaran had managed with anybody else, about their experience so far of war.
“I’d never fought before this. I’d certainly never killed. Never really thought I would. All those meetings in Dublin, where they spoke of rising up and crushing the government troops, and I was thumping the table with the best of them. It’s different somehow when you’re at the safer end of a pike or a musket and the man you’ve just killed looks no older than you are.”
Furlong gave a little smile. “How old are you, Donnelly?”
“Nineteen. Almost twenty. You?”
“Twenty-three. It’s the same for most of us. We weren’t soldiers before this. Some had joined the militia or the yeomanry, but the rest are just farmers or farriers or over-educated students of classics…”
Ciaran aimed a mock punch at him, and Furlong ducked, laughing. “Sorry. I’m not laughing at what you feel, Donnelly. It’s good that you feel it. I do myself. It’s men like us – and like Cloney and Harvey – who can make something out of this mess if we win. The rest of them would just slaughter the Protestants – or the Catholics – and get drunk to celebrate.”
“That’s something else I’m struggling with,” Ciaran admitted. “The reprisals. Christ aid me, I know what they’ve done to our people over the years. But I watched them shoot twenty unarmed loyalist prisoners last month, with the bodies thrown into the river. It sickened me.”
“And the unarmed United Irishmen they slaughtered at Dunlavin Green and Carnew?”
“That sickened me too.”
“It sickens me as well,” Furlong said. “There are some of us that will have none of it, Donnelly.”
“Are there enough of us to stop these men going mad if they get into New Ross tomorrow morning? It’s well known what they did in Wexford.”
“I hope so, lad. Though from what I’ve been told, you’d be hard put to know if it’s Protestants or Catholics you’re more worried about.”
“I’m Catholic,” Ciaran said. He realised it was a long time since he had said the words. “And if they’re saying I’m a man who abandoned his religion for gain, and the chance of a scholarship to Trinity, they’d be right. Though it wasn’t just for that.”
There was a long silence, then Furlong said:
“What’s her name?”
Ciaran looked up sharply, but he could see only sympathy in the other man’s eyes. “Her name is Sinead, and it’s over. It should never have begun. Stupid to think I could turn myself into something I’m not. Her parents would never have agreed, no matter how well I did and what I made of myself.”
“That’s hard. Is she back in Sligo?”
“It’s where her home is, but the last I saw her she was in Dublin, staying with her uncle’s family while they look for a good Protestant gentleman for her to marry. I went to see her before I left. She hates me.”
“She probably doesn’t, Donnelly.”
“Oh, I think she does. Her father was my patron. He’d no son of his own, and he’s known me since childhood. He offered to pay for my education and help me find a position afterwards. He’s a generous man. A good man.”
“But your religion was the price?”
“He didn’t insist on it, but it made no sense to go unless I started attending Anglican services. They’ll let us study there now, but we can’t be elected Scholars or Fellows or be made a professor. More to the point, most of the positions I could apply for afterwards are open only to Anglicans. I was ambitious. And I thought if I did what he clearly wanted, if I pleased him enough, he might consider a marriage with Sinead in a few years. She wanted it too, we talked it through many times. She said she’d wait for me, refuse any other offers. She argued that one church was much the same as another and that God didn’t care. But it turned out that I cared. I hated myself for it. I disappointed my parents by turning away from the church in search of personal gain and now I’ve betrayed my patron in turning my coat again. I’m ashamed of it.”
“No wonder you were ripe for rebellion, boy. Here, have another drink. General Harvey is coming this way.”
Harvey appeared to be completely sober. “Furlong, Donnelly. I’m looking for a volunteer for the morning. I’ve written a note to General Johnson asking for an early surrender to avoid the town being sacked.”
“Do you think he’ll listen, sir?” Furlong asked, in surprise.
“I have no idea, Matthew. But I feel that I should try. I need a reliable man to ride in under a flag of truce tomorrow, before we attack.”
“I’ll do it,” Ciaran said quickly, then realised Furlong had spoken at the same time. He looked at the other man and Furlong laughed.
“It’ll only take one of us. Do you have a coin on you? I’ll toss you for it.”
As the first pale light of dawn showed over the waiting walls of New Ross, Ciaran heard a rustle of sound behind him, and then a hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Good morning to you, Donnelly. How’s your head?”
Ciaran grinned. “Sore. How’s yours, Furlong?”
“Hammering like the gods of thunder. No hard feelings, I hope?”
“None at all,” Ciaran said cheerfully. “Last night, with the drink in me, it felt like a good idea to be riding out under a flag of truce to ask General Johnson to surrender. This morning, I have to tell you, it feels an awful lot safer to be hiding here amongst my men.”
Matthew Furlong chuckled. “I can’t tell if you’re speaking the truth or just a gracious loser, Donnelly, but whichever it is, you’re a good lad. Keep an eye on Cloney in the battle today, will you? He told me about the charge on the town yesterday, and how well you kept your head. We need a few men of sense among us today.”
Ciaran watched him ride downhill towards the gates of New Ross. The flag was made from a white handkerchief tied to a sturdy stick, and it was reassuringly visible in the rapidly improving light. At the same time, Ciaran wished his new friend had not chosen to approach the town at a gallop. The past few weeks trying to train and lead inexperienced men had taught Ciaran the value of allowing them time to react, and he supposed it was true for regular units as well. In Furlong’s place, Ciaran would have walked his horse forward, giving the men of the garrison a chance to see him properly and plenty of time to wait for orders.
It was still only half light as Furlong approached the gate. Ciaran could see the white flag very clearly and there was no possibility that the guards on the gate could miss it. He found that he was holding his breath, waiting for the sound of a shouted challenge which would cause Furlong to slow down or stop, but none came, or if it did Ciaran did not hear it. What he heard, shockingly loud, was gunfire, not just one shot but the thundering of half a dozen muskets.
The horse reared up in terror and Furlong’s body hit the ground. Ciaran was surprised that the horse was not injured too, but if it was it was not serious, because the animal wheeled around and came galloping back up Corbet’s Hill to the rebel lines, where half a dozen men ran forward to catch it. Ciaran did not move. His eyes were on Furlong’s body, as two redcoats ran out from their post by the gate, bending over him. After a moment they straightened and walked away, back to their line. From here, Ciaran could not see the blood on Furlong’s dark coat, but he knew it must be there. It had been minutes only since Furlong had put his hand on Ciaran’s shoulder, and Ciaran could almost still feel it there, warm and steady with the promise of future friendship. He wanted very badly to be sick.
“The murdering bastards,” Cloney breathed beside him. “Under a flag of truce. Poor Matthew.”
“That could have been me,” Ciaran said. He could hear the tremor in his voice. “I volunteered. We threw a coin for it, and he won. On the toss of a coin, I could be lying there dead.”
Around him, he was suddenly aware of a rising sound, and he looked about him. The shocked silence which had followed Furlong’s brutal death was rapidly turning into a clamour of angry voices. Ciaran glanced at Cloney.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
“We fight, laddie. They’re not bloody surrendering, are they? But I’m not sure the General’s plan is going to count for much now. This lot are going in whether we like it or not. We can choose to go with them or stay behind.”
Ciaran knew he was right. Already the men were moving forward, the angry clamour rising to a roar of fury and no order was going to pull them back. Ciaran took a deep breath and tightened his grip on his looted musket, instinctively checking that the bayonet was properly fixed.
“Best lead from the front then, sir,” he said, hoping that his voice was steady. Cloney gave a small, tight smile and clapped him on the shoulder, very much as Furlong had recently done.
“Good lad. Let’s get moving.”
Superficially New Ross seemed well defended, with high walls, nine towers and several strong gates, but local intelligence pointed to weaknesses. Some of the fortifications had been taken apart during the previous century and the walls were old and not built to withstand modern artillery. The gates had been widened to improve the flow of traffic, and the town was overshadowed by the high ground of Corbet’s Hill. A modern, well-equipped army could probably have stormed New Ross relatively quickly, but Harvey did not command such an army.
What his army did have was reckless courage, fuelled by anger, and they swept down from the heights of Corbet’s Hill roaring like wild animals and firing muskets and ancient blunderbusses towards the line of redcoats guarding the Three Bullet Gate. Harvey’s original plan had been to attack the town from three sides at once. Eight hundred men under Captain John Kelly were ordered to concentrate on capturing Johnson’s scattered outposts rather than attack the town itself.
Either Kelly had forgotten his orders or he was unable to control his men, because Ciaran could see him at the front of the attack on the Three Bullet Gate. Harvey had attempted to send a herd of panicking cattle ahead of the main advance, a tactic which had worked brilliantly at Enniscorthy. Here, the cows swerved away long before they reached the gate and took off into the countryside leaving the rebels, headed by Kelly and his men, to make a desperate assault on the gate.
It was terrifying. The attackers were under fire on both sides from flanking companies placed there for the purpose. Ahead, artillery fire raked the disordered ranks, cutting down men in swathes. Ciaran, who was in the second rank along with Cloney and his men, had never experienced an assault like this. Around him, those men who had accompanied Kelly in the first rush were seriously depleted, and Ciaran found himself scrambling over dead and dying men to reach the redcoats in the defensive trenches.
Ciaran wanted to run, but it was impossible, and he would probably have been cut down as he fled. Most of his men had discharged their firearms, if they had them, and it was too close for the defenders to use either muskets or artillery without risking their own men. He fought with a bayonet, while around him most of his men used pikes. There was no organisation and no plan, only the desperate cut and thrust at each man ahead of him, dodging their bayonets, stabbing down ruthlessly, killing and maiming in order to avoid being killed or maimed. It was exhausting. Ciaran’s arms and shoulders ached, there was blood on his clothing and the sickly metallic smell of it in his nostrils. He could almost taste it.
Close to the gate the smoke of musket and artillery fire still lingered in the air, choking him and making his eyes water. Ciaran stood during a brief respite in the action, blinking and trying to catch his breath. Around him his men were pushing forward, driving on despite cruel losses. Unexpectedly, Ciaran was proud of them. They had everything to lose, these men, and he knew very well that it was blind rage over a lifetime of oppression that was driving them, but they were brave, and they endured, and their courage revived him.
The rebels did not break. They pressed on, foot by agonising foot. The two flanking companies fell back, shocked at their inability to hold this disorganised rabble. Cloney’s men captured the trenches and then drove forward right up to the gate. The fighting was bloody, and nearby some of the buildings were already on fire, the air thick with eye-watering smoke.
Kelly’s men were the first into the town. Kelly himself had been shot in the thigh and had to be carried to the rear while his men stormed the barracks near the gate. The building was poorly defended and, as Cloney and Ciaran led their men into the barrack yard, the last of the guards fled before them. Cloney made no attempt to give chase.
“We need arms. Muskets and ammunition. Spread out and start breaking down doors, there’ll be a storeroom somewhere. Donnelly, take that side.”
Ciaran obeyed. As he led his men along a row of doors, kicking or battering them down, he was aware that the yard was rapidly filling with smoke. Houses on both sides had been set alight, the thatched roofs burning fiercely. Ciaran shouted at the men to move faster. He had no wish to be caught anywhere near the barracks if the fire spread to a gunpowder store.
“Here. Over here,” Cloney yelled. The men raced to the open stores, and four men stripped the shelves, handing out muskets and ammunition. Once armed, the men were off, running back out into the streets. Ciaran turned to follow them.
“Donnelly, take this.”
Ciaran turned to see Cloney holding out a pistol. He took it and turned it over in his hands.
“Do you know what you’re doing with it?”
“Yes,” Ciaran said, taking the ammunition. He had learned to shoot as a boy on the estate, following Sir James Howarth through the coverts for long hours. They were some of the happiest times of his childhood, along with the time spent in Howarth’s excellent stables. Ciaran could remember wishing with a passion that he had been born the son of this kindly, intelligent man and then had immediately felt disloyal to his own parents.
He loaded the pistol quickly, putting the spare ammunition into his pocket, then shoved the weapon into his belt and took up his bayonet again. Outside, he and Cloney separated, searching through the smoky streets to find their men. Ciaran caught up with them on the approach to the town gaol. They were following Kelly’s leaderless men who were making an attack on the building. Ciaran ran to join them, then stopped, wondering if this might be a trap. There were several side streets where loyalist troops could be waiting. Leaving his men to continue their advance, Ciaran ran back cautiously, peering into each of the narrow streets to make sure they were not about to be hit from behind by a well-placed ambush.
There was an enormous crash from the gaol which made Ciaran jump violently. He spun around to find the building half-hidden in clouds of smoke. Somewhere a man was screaming, a high-pitched cry of agony, over and over. Those of Ciaran’s troops still visible were backing away from the gaol, then turning to run. Another crash brought several of them down and startled the rest into precipitate retreat. Ciaran made no attempt to stop their flight. He was under no illusion about how much control he had over these men today, and he was not prepared to stand firm against the enemy with nobody beside him. He reached the end of the street and turned to look back at further blasts. One of his men paused beside him.
“What happened, O’Leary?”
“Grapeshot, sir. We lost half a dozen men in the first blast, but Kelly’s men were ahead of us, they’ve been cut to pieces. What a bloody mess.”
Ciaran could see the survivors emerging from the smoke, some of them limping, being helped by their companions. They were pitifully few and as they reached the stragglers from his own men, they pushed through without stopping, desperate to reach the gate and the relative safety of Corbet’s Hill. Some of Ciaran’s men followed them, and Ciaran retraced his steps, yelling at them to halt, wondering if the attack was about to disintegrate into a full rout.
The abrupt retreat through the gate set off a panic in those still storming down from the hill. Looking back up to the remainder of the army who had waited for orders, Ciaran could see some of them beginning to flee. He felt a sense of despair. They had already lost so many men. He looked around him, wondering if it was time to cut their losses and call a general retreat, and wondering also if any one of the rebel leaders had enough control over their men to do so. He could not see Harvey, but Cloney was there, trying to direct a chaotic group of musket men into a firing line. Ciaran thought, with sudden anger, that if they had been given proper weapons and training, these men had enough courage to defeat a whole army of redcoats. Then, unexpectedly through the noise of battle, he heard horses, the clink of bridles and the clattering of hooves over the cobbled road out of town.
Ciaran spun around and stared in horror. He could not be sure of numbers but there looked to be between thirty and forty cavalrymen riding out through the Three Bullet Gate and forming up in the open space as if preparing for a charge. Around Ciaran was a confused melée as some men continued their flight back up the hill, while others tried to find their companies and their leaders amidst the chaos. He could no longer see Cloney anywhere and wondered in sudden panic if he had been hit.
Ciaran had trained on the fields outside Dublin with three former militia officers who had joined the United Irishmen. They drilled with broom handles and tree branches, and at times Ciaran had thought it a waste of time. Instead, he had talked to the men, asking questions about battles and tactics and weapons. They had spoken of cavalry, and the best way to stop them, and Ciaran knew that in this conflict so far, pikes had proved remarkably successful. If his men fled, they were going to be cut to pieces as the cavalry rode them down.
“To me!” he roared. “Pikemen, to me, they’ve cavalry. We can take them if we stand!”
To Ciaran’s immense surprise, the men around him turned. Ciaran looked around him, then dropped his bayonet and stooped, snatching up a pike from a fallen man. He whirled to face the approaching horsemen, and felt a solid wall of men around him, pikes pointing upwards ready to impale the cavalry.
“Come on, you bastards!” he yelled. “Let’s see how you do against Irish pikemen!”
The first horseman died with a high-pitched scream, and the sound echoed round and round in Ciaran’s head. The line of cavalry crashed into the pikemen and Ciaran thrust upwards and was astonished at how easy it was, with this weapon, to unseat a horseman. Some of the horses were wounded, though none fatally, and with no rider to urge them on, they turned and galloped back through the gate, or out into the countryside, causing further chaos among the rest of the charging cavalry. Ciaran’s men were yelling in triumph and several of them broke ranks, ran forward and finished off those dragoons still alive on the ground. One of them was the commanding officer, and his loss broke the nerve of the remaining troopers. They wheeled and galloped back through the gate, and with an inhuman roar, Ciaran’s men raced after them, all thought of retreat forgotten.
Ciaran paused to catch his breath. He looked around him at the fallen horsemen, and realised he was counting them in his head. There were twenty-eight. He was crying, tears pouring down his face. He tried to wipe them away with his sleeve and felt his eyes sting as black dirt from the smoke and powder mingled with salt tears.
“Donnelly. Ciaran. Jesus Christ, are you all right?”
Ciaran looked around to find Thomas Cloney staring at him in concern. He nodded, because he could not speak. Cloney put his hand on Ciaran’s filthy sleeve.
“I thought you were about to get yourself killed there, you stupid bastard,” he said. “That was unbelievable. I could never have rallied them like that.”
“I think you could, sir. They’re brave men.” The words steadied Ciaran. He took another deep breath. “They’ve gone back to the attack. We need to join them. Where’s General Harvey?”
“He’s over there, I’m not sure he’s made it into the town yet. It’s down to us, Donnelly. Can you do it?”
“Yes,” Ciaran said. Suddenly he felt very calm and very sure. “Yes, I can do this.”
Within the town walls it was chaos as, for the second time that day, the garrison were pushed back through the streets in a confused melée of cavalry, infantry and artillery. After them fled the townspeople, terrified of reprisals from the enraged rebels. They ran towards the quay and the bridge with Harvey’s musketeers and pikemen chasing them down. Ciaran pushed himself to run faster, overtaking his men, shouting to them to leave the civilians alone. He was not sure whether they heard, understood or even cared.
Many of the houses in the streets around had been set on fire, and it spread quickly, sending billows of black smoke through the narrow lanes. Ciaran prayed that the houses were empty. In most of the town, the garrison had fled leaving only a stubborn group of officers and men with artillery which protected the crossroads leading to the bridge.
Ciaran found himself abruptly with nobody to fight. He took the opportunity to rest for a moment, drinking from his water bottle. It was almost empty. Around him, the rebel soldiers seemed confused, as though they had no idea what to do next. The crash of guns suggested that General Johnson’s men were continuing to guard their retreat, but there seemed to be no fighting at all within the town. Ciaran found a water pump and drank gratefully, tipping cold water over his head, then refilling his bottle.
“Donnelly? Jesus, I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”
Ciaran turned in relief at the sound of Cloney’s voice. His friend was making his way across the small square. He was filthy and there was blood on his coat. Ciaran held out the water bottle and Cloney gulped it down.
“You too, sir. I’m not sure what’s happening though. Have they retreated?”
“Most of them are across the river, and our lads don’t seem so keen to charge those guns. I’m going back to find Harvey, we need orders. The men are exhausted, and a lot of them are breaking into the houses and looking for food and wine.”
“If they don’t get orders soon, they’ll get drunk and fall asleep,” Ciaran said.
“If I don’t get orders soon, I’ll be doing the same thing. Look, stay here. Find some food if you can and see if you can keep an eye on our men. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Ciaran waited. Eventually, he made his way to the stone steps leading up to what looked like a public building and sat down. Around him, small groups of men wandered aimlessly, some of them with bottles in their hands. One of them, a man Ciaran knew from his own company, approached him and held out a piece of bread. Ciaran took it and thanked him. It seemed ridiculous to be sitting alone on the steps in the middle of a battle eating rye bread, but he was very hungry.
Somewhere nearby, he could hear men singing. Ciaran wondered if they were drunk, and if it was really the right time to celebrate their victory, with no information about whether the garrison had wholly abandoned the town or if they were regrouping for another attack. He finished the bread, drank more water and was just getting to his feet with the intention of going to find Cloney, when he heard his name called, and the tone chilled him.
“Donnelly! Get moving, we need to get the men together. They’re attacking. They’re coming back over the bridge. We need to fight, man!”
Ciaran snatched up his bayonet and began to run in the direction of the singing. Around him, men were beginning to appear from houses and cottages, many of them unsteady on their feet though whether it was from exhaustion or drink Ciaran had no idea. He was chasing them, trying desperately to pull them together into a defensive line, yelling himself hoarse, but he could already hear the approaching troops, the hooves of the cavalry and the disciplined marching of infantry, as General Johnson mobilised his tired troops and drove them back into the town.
The rebels had nothing left to give. Cloney and Ciaran held those they could, and through the streets of New Ross other leaders did the same, but it was impossible. Some attempts were made to use the captured guns against Johnson’s men, but there were no trained artillerymen among the rebels, and attempts to force prisoners to operate the guns proved a failure. Ciaran’s pikemen fought on, making repeated charges back through the streets, but there were too few of them and they were exhausted. Ciaran continued to exhort them, to urge them to stand, and then realised that he must either call a retreat or watch them die in front of him. He called it and stood watching as they poured back through the Three Bullet Gate. Some of them could barely stand, but they staggered on, back up the slope towards the camp on Corbet’s Hill. Ciaran prayed that Johnson would not order an immediate attack, but he doubted the garrison had either the men or the ammunition to do so.
Well away from any stray musket ball fired from the walls, Ciaran retrieved his horse, thankful that the makeshift stable nearby had survived the fires, and watched the last of the rebels stagger away from New Ross. Beyond the last ditch, General Harvey, Thomas Cloney and a few other officers sat mounted, watching the flames which were beginning to die down now. Ciaran walked his horse to join them.
“General Harvey. I’m glad you’re safe, sir.”
“You too, Donnelly.” Harvey’s voice was muffled, and Ciaran suspected he had been crying. “A terrible day. A terrible loss.”
They rode in silence back towards the camp, the gentle light of early evening settling over the town and the hill. Part of the way, Cloney’s horse stumbled then stopped and began to graze. Ciaran reined in, momentarily worried that his friend had a concealed injury, then realised to his surprise that Cloney had fallen asleep in the saddle. As Harvey and the others plodded on, Ciaran reached for the bridle and gently shook Cloney awake.
“Come on, Thomas. Just a bit further and you can sleep.”
“Not for long,” Cloney said. “We’ll need to get out of here early, before they have time to regroup, or get reinforced.”
“Back to Carrigburn to start with. After that, I don’t know.”
Cloney sounded depressed as well as exhausted and Ciaran knew how he felt. “Is it over, Thomas?”
“The day or the struggle?”
“I think the day is over,” Ciaran said.
“Not for me, it isn’t,” Cloney said, and suddenly Ciaran realised that something was badly wrong, something more than the slaughter of the battle.
“I have to speak to General Harvey. To tell him what’s been done. I took the message, just before the final assault, and I couldn’t tell him then. There wasn’t the time, and I hadn’t the stomach for it.”
Ciaran felt an icy chill settling around his already bruised heart. “What’s happened?” he asked again.
Cloney picked up his reins and began to walk his horse towards the camp and Ciaran drew Denis alongside.
“There’s been murder done,” Cloney said flatly. “Murder of innocents and done in our name. In Harvey’s name. You know him, Ciaran. You’ve seen what he’s like. This news, on top of what he’s been through today…it’s going to break him.”
“Tell me.” Ciaran felt sick but he needed to know. “You need to speak of it, Thomas.”
Cloney said nothing for a moment. Ahead, there were flickering lights, which suggested that some of the exhausted men had managed to get fires lit around the camp. Ciaran waited, his heart beating fast.
“You’ll know that before the battle, there were prisoners taken. Loyalists from the surrounding countryside. Protestants mostly, people who might have taken information to the garrison. A few Catholics as well, those loyal to the government. Around two hundred people, mostly men but some women. And children. They were being held in a barn at Scullabogue. Harvey…General Harvey told me yesterday he’d hold them only until the day was won, then would send a message for their release.”
“At some point during the day, messengers arrived from the battle. I’ve no idea who they were, they might even have been deserters, for God knows we had enough of those today. They claimed that the garrison were butchering our wounded men and that the prisoners in the barn should be killed in retaliation. The captain in charge said no at first, but eventually they convinced him it was an order. They took out thirty-five men and shot them on a lawn. The rest of them – the families – were locked in and the barn was set alight. They’re all dead.”
Ciaran pulled up and slid from Denis’ back. He dropped the reins, not caring if the horse ran, and fell to his knees, vomiting by the side of the track. He was shivering violently, as if with cold, though the evening air was mild. There was little food in him, but he continued to retch distressingly for some time.
Eventually it stopped. Ciaran got to his feet, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He turned and realised that Cloney had dismounted and was standing looking at him. His face was streaked with tears.
Ciaran stepped forward and Cloney hugged him hard. They remained together for a long time, finding friendship a comfort, in the midst of death and injustice and misery. Eventually, Cloney stirred and stepped back. He looked around. Both horses were grazing peacefully beside the ditch.
“They’re too knackered to run away,” Ciaran said.
“Are you joking me? The idle bastards have done nothing but eat looted hay in a cosy barn all day. Jesus, I wish I’d had the wit to stay with them.”
“So do I, Thomas.”
Cloney managed a smile. “My friends call me Tom, Ciaran, and I’d think by now you qualify.”
They mounted up and continued up the path to the camp. “I’ll come with you,” Ciaran offered. “When you tell him.”
“Thank you, I’d be glad of it. I don’t think he’ll continue in command, Ciaran, he never wanted it in the first place.”
Cloney shot him a surprised glance. “I thought you liked him.”
“I do like him. But he shouldn’t be doing this. He hasn’t the stomach for it.”
“I think my stomach made its point very well just now, Tom. But I’m in it now. I’ll stick with it, until it’s over. Which might not be very long, unless Wolfe Tone really has managed to convince the French to lend a hand. King George has an awful lot more men than we do, and they’ve trained for this. So far, we’re fighting the militia and whatever troops they’ve got to hand, but a battalion of experienced soldiers is going to slaughter us where we stand. They’re good at this.”
“So are you.”
Ciaran gave a tired smile. “I was lucky today.”
Cloney shook his head. “That wasn’t luck, boy, I know the difference. When it comes to organising the resistance and writing political speeches, I reckon I’ve got you beat. But when you stood out there, pulling those men together today…didn’t you realise I was leaving it to you?”
Ciaran had not, and the idea shook him a little. “I’m not old enough,” he said. “And I think the responsibility would scare the shit out of me.”
“It might do thinking of it now, lad, but once you’re in a fight, it’s a different matter. I’m telling you, if you need to run and have nowhere to hide, you should join the army. You’d look all right in a red coat.”
“That’s not funny, Tom.”
“It’s the best I can manage today. Come on, let’s pick up the pace. I want to get up to headquarters and break the news, get it over with. And there might be food. My heart is broken into twenty pieces right now, but I’m still bloody hungry.”
Chester, September 1798
The magistrate was late to arrive in the private parlour at the back of the Castle and Falcon, but made an impressive entrance. Lieutenant Johnny Wheeler, who had rushed his breakfast, decided it was easy for a man of Sir Thomas Woodbridge’s girth to look impressive. Woodbridge was almost as wide as he was high, and Johnny managed not to laugh as he surveyed the chair which had been set out for him, which had wooden arms. Woodbridge said nothing, merely looked, and there was a further awkward delay as Sergeant Stewart sent a man out into the tap room to find a chair wide enough for the magistrate. That done, Woodbridge seated himself, looked over at Sergeant Stewart and nodded to indicate that he was ready to begin.
The swearing in of new recruits was not a lengthy process, but Johnny had seen it often enough during the past month to be heartily bored with it. The 110th infantry had been under orders to embark for India when it was discovered to be significantly under strength. Johnny had no idea why this had come as a surprise to Colonel Dixon, since most of the company officers had been grumbling about it for a year or more, but the matter was rapidly turning into a crisis as the date of departure approached.
Johnny had not wanted to join the recruiting party, and there was an enthusiastic volunteer in the person of Lieutenant Vincent Longford of the seventh company. Johnny thought that his enthusiasm had probably aroused the suspicions of his seniors. Longford was a lazy officer, notorious for finding ways to avoid hard work. Touring the local area staying in inns and public houses accompanied by a sergeant, a drummer and four enlisted men was far easier than the long hours of training and drilling in barracks which were being supervised by Major Johnstone, but Johnny was in no doubt which he would have preferred.
Captain Mason called Johnny into the mess room to inform him that he was to join Longford’s party. He grinned sympathetically at Johnny’s expression and placed a glass of wine in front of him.
“Cheer up, Mr Wheeler. It will only be for a few weeks.”
“Yes, sir. But may I ask why? It isn’t usual to send two officers. And even if they wanted to, can’t Longford take one of his ensigns? Two lieutenants seems excessive.”
“One of his ensigns can hardly be expected to keep an eye on him. Longford loves doing this, but some of his recruitment practices are a little unscrupulous and we’ve no wish to find half our new recruits released from their oaths because it can be proved that Longford tricked them into it.”
Johnny thought privately that the wording of the recruitment poster could be considered a piece of trickery in itself, given what he knew of the pay and conditions of the men under his command, but he decided not to mention it. He sipped the wine and asked gloomily:
“Major Johnstone asked for you specifically,” Mason said. “I was annoyed, to be honest, I could do with you on the training ground this week. But it’s a compliment, Wheeler. He trusts you to see it’s done right. If we leave it up to Longford, he’ll find himself a comfortable inn and stay there an extra week at the army’s expense.”
Johnny thought that Mason probably had a point. “Then why send Longford at all?”
“Longford can be unscrupulous. You, on the other hand, are at risk of being over-scrupulous, you’d never recruit anybody. Between the two of you, I think we’ll reach our quota before we have to sail.”
Johnny was not sure if he had just been complimented or reprimanded. “Thank you, sir. Where are we…?”
“You’re going to Chester.”
“Chester?” Johnny said in surprise. “Isn’t that rather out of the way for us? We could try Leicester and possibly Nottingham, with the towns and villages in between. I’m sure…”
“You’re going to Chester on the Colonel’s orders, Mr Wheeler, because he wants to speed up the process, and as it happens, he has a friend in Chester who is a magistrate,” Mason said grimly. Johnny’s heart sank.
“Do we know how many, sir?”
“About twenty, I believe.”
“Oh sir, that’s too many. Even if we split them between the companies, they’re going to cause trouble. It’s one thing to take one or two at a time from the courts, but that sounds as though they’re emptying out their gaol into our ranks.”
“I suspect they are. There is nothing we can do about it, however. I’m sorry, Wheeler, I know you’d rather be doing anything other than this. You have my sympathy, I loathe the process. Longford is rather good at it though. He enjoys the spectacle of parading through town with a drummer. Let him have his way and only intervene if he’s doing something obviously illegal, or if he’s spending the army’s money on himself. Oh, and don’t let him snaffle all the best men for the seventh company. They’re only about ten men short, we need at least fifteen or so. If you two are doing the work, you’ll get first pick. You know what we’re looking for in the light company. Fast, agile and with a modicum of intelligence. And try not to allow half the pickpockets and highwaymen of Cheshire into my company, will you?”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
The journey was not as bad as Johnny had feared. Despite his reservations, Johnny had to admit that Captain Mason was right about Vincent Longford. The man would do almost anything to avoid drill or training with his men, but given the opportunity to strut through a market town or a country fair to the sound of a beating drum, Longford was in his element. He could be surprisingly gracious to even the humblest of the potential recruits although once they joined, Johnny knew he was more likely to order a flogging than a offer a kind word. Longford was a harsh and unpredictable disciplinarian.
They had picked up eighteen men by the time they reached Chester, and Johnny only needed to intervene once, to remind Sergeant Stewart that while some magistrates would turn a blind eye to the common practice of making a man so drunk that he would swear to anything, others would call a halt to proceedings if the recruit appeared to be inebriated and wait for him to sober up before taking the oath. Longford did not attempt to intervene or contradict him, although Johnny was sure that if he had not been present, Longford would have happily signed up two men who could barely stand and taken a chance with the magistrate.
The weather remained fair into early October, with some days as hot as midsummer. Despite his reservations, Johnny realised he was quite enjoying the break from routine. Longford was happy to take on the job of advertising their presence in the towns and villages, leaving it to Johnny to organise the paperwork, arrange the necessary medical examination that each recruit must pass and approach the local magistrate to oversee the taking of the oath. They stayed at inns and taverns along the way and although Johnny did not particularly like Longford, they got on well enough to enjoy a meal and a drink together. They were the same age and having managed to raise or borrow the funds for promotion to lieutenant, both found themselves looking at the faintly depressing prospect of not being able to progress further without money or a great deal of luck.
Johnny understood Longford’s feelings, but after a week in his company was bored with his litany of complaints. Though he could not imagine how or when he would be able to obtain his captaincy, he preferred not to dwell on it. The army had been his life since he was seventeen and, at twenty-five, he had no desire to pursue any other profession. While Longford dreamed of finding a wealthy or influential patron to smooth his path, Johnny preferred to work hard and hope that at some point, somebody would recognise that intelligence and steady competence had as much value as noble connections.
Longford and Johnny called on Sir Thomas Woodbridge and accepted an invitation to dine. Woodbridge was clearly delighted with the prospect of a solution to the overcrowded city gaol and proudly informed his guests that he had no less than twenty-five men from Chester and the surrounding area, who had declared themselves willing to don a red coat rather than face prison or transportation. Longford was at his most obsequious and Johnny cringed inwardly and hoped that at least some of the men would be pronounced unfit to serve by Dr Howland when he examined them. The custom of encouraging convicted felons to join the army was considerably less popular with serving officers than with serving magistrates.
Johnny studied the men who assembled in the parlour the following day, as Longford administered the oath which bound them to serve at his Majesty’s pleasure. They ranged between a thin-faced cutpurse in his forties to a terrified boy who did not look older than fifteen, though he gave his age as seventeen. Only one of the prison recruits had been refused by the doctor on the grounds of a marked curvature of the spine. Most of these men looked skinny and underfed, but that was probably due to poor food in gaol and in many cases, the grinding poverty that had pushed them into criminality in the first place. Johnny had quizzed Dr Howland to ensure there were no signs of gaol fever. He had no wish to march back to barracks in Melton Mowbray with his new recruits dropping by the roadside.
With the swearing in completed, Johnny joined Longford and Dr Howland in the dining room, leaving Stewart and his men to get the new men settled in their temporary barracks. Over dinner, they discussed the time of their departure on the following day and the route to be taken on the way back. Longford suggested a slightly longer route, taking in the towns of Derby and Nottingham and Johnny agreed. It was unusual for a recruiting party to fill its intended quota but if they were as successful as they had been in Leicester on the way out, Johnny thought they might do very well.
Johnny was awake early the following morning and, since they were not marching until noon and breakfast would not be for an hour or more, he dressed quietly so as not to wake Longford or Howland and went out into a world painted rosy by the first light of dawn. Strolling through quiet streets, he made his way down to the River Dee and stood watching the sun come up over the water. It was chilly this early, but with the promise of another lovely day, and Johnny lingered for a while. He knew he would miss days like this in the heat and dust of campaigning in India.
The inn had come to life by the time he returned, with a bustle of early departures in the stable yard and the clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen at the back of the building. Johnny stood for a moment watching a family party climbing into an elegant travelling carriage, piled high with luggage.
Johnny turned to find the landlord calling him, framed in the open doorway of the kitchen.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir, it’s just there’s a man arrived asking about the recruiting officers. Mr Longford and the doctor aren’t down yet, so I was going to direct him to the barn where the men are, but as you’re here…”
“He didn’t say, sir, but what else?”
Johnny sighed. “I’ll speak to him. Where is he, Turner?”
“In the tap room, sir.”
Johnny walked into the wood-panelled tap room. The man was seated at the bar with a tankard before him. Seen in profile, it was a face of considerable distinction. He was young, probably not much above twenty, with dark curly hair tied back neatly with a black ribbon. His clothing was dusty and travel stained, as though he had spent some time on the road, but Johnny observed that it was of far better quality than any of the other recruits. As Johnny studied him, the young man seemed to sense his regard and turned his head, revealing deep-set dark eyes. After a moment, he got up and bowed politely as Johnny approached.
“Lieutenant Wheeler of the 110th light company. I understand you’re wishing to join the army.”
“Aye, sir, I am. I’m hoping I’m not too late. The landlord said you’re moving on today.”
The voice was pleasant, with a musical lilt which was wholly and unmistakeably Irish. Johnny did not reply immediately. He looked again at the stained clothing, the stubble on the man’s face and the dark, serious eyes and a warning bell clanged loudly in his head. Ireland was in turmoil, with the bloody uprising of the United Irishmen only just defeated. The army had its share of Irishmen, both officers and enlisted men, but Johnny was instinctively suspicious. This man was young, well-spoken and looked as though he had been sleeping rough on the road for days. Most of the Irish recruits in the 110th came either from the cities, where unemployment was high or from recruiting in Ireland itself, when a poor crop and a round of evictions made serving King George seem the only alternative to starvation. This man was cut from a different cloth.
“You’ve missed the swearing in, and we’re marching out later today.”
“I could go with you and be sworn in when it’s possible.”
Johnny studied him, troubled. It was his job to accept every willing recruit and he knew Longford would not hesitate. Johnny was already concerned about the collection of thieves, drunkards and vagrants they had signed up on the previous day and was trying to work out how best to divide them between the ten companies of the first battalion so that they could not easily influence each other. He had no particular desire to throw an Irish rebel fleeing for his life into such a dangerous mix.
“I’ll ask the landlord to bring you breakfast,” he said finally. “It’s the least we can do, given that you’ve travelled to find us.”
Unexpectedly the younger man smiled. “I didn’t travel to find you, sir. I was travelling to find work, and I stumbled across you on the way. It seemed a good solution.”
He reached into his pocket and drew out a crumpled sheet, which Johnny recognised as one of the posters or handbills they had distributed around taverns and ale houses in the district. It explained at least where the man had found out about the recruiting party.
“The army is a very hard life for a young man. Especially if you’re not accustomed to hardship. You should give it some thought before taking that oath.”
The Irishman laughed aloud and indicated the paper. “High pay, free quarters, good clothing and a number of other advantages. Are you telling me that’s not true?”
Despite himself, Johnny smiled. “It might be to a starving peasant, but I’m not convinced that’s you.”
The Irishman smoothed out the paper. “High-spirited, handsome young men. Don’t I qualify, Lieutenant?”
Johnny did not speak for a long moment. Eventually, he said:
“Get yourself over and speak to Sergeant Stewart, he’ll arrange breakfast for you. If you still want to, you can march with us until the next signing on. It may be a few days. You can change your mind at any time between now and then but if you’re staying, you’ll need to improve your attitude. If you speak to the other officers like this, you’re going to end up at the wrong end of a flogging before the end of the month.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll learn to do better.”
“Good.” Johnny studied him for a long moment. “Have you any experience of training or drilling? Or fighting?”
For the first time, the dark eyes did not meet his. The Irishman looked down at the paper which he still held. He crumpled it up again and put it back in his pocket, and Johnny was suddenly sure.
“Not really, sir. Apart from a few weeks when I thought I might join the militia. But I’m a quick learner.”
“I’ll just bet you are,” Johnny said softly. “What’s your name?”
The younger man looked up. There was just enough hesitation to convince Johnny that the name he was about to be given was not this man’s real name and was possibly one he had thought up at a moment’s notice.
“It’s O’Reilly, sir. Michael O’Reilly.”
“Is it now?” Johnny said, making no attempt to conceal his scepticism. “Welcome to the 110th, O’Reilly. I’m sure you’ll be an asset in no time at all.”
The Irishman said nothing for a moment. He withdrew the paper from his pocket and studied it in silence. Johnny wondered if his disbelief had put the man off. Eventually O’Reilly looked up again.
“If you’ll take me on, sir, I’ll do my best to see you don’t regret it.”
There was unexpected emotion behind the words and suddenly Johnny was very aware of the travel stained clothing, the unshaven face and the haunted expression in the dark eyes. He wondered what this boy had seen or done during this past year to make the army seem a refuge. He also wondered how long it would be before the independent spirit he was trying so hard to conceal got him into trouble. Johnny sighed.
“I’m already regretting it,” he said resignedly.
The door opened and Sergeant Stewart came in. He saluted, looking curiously at the Irishman.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but Captain Longford’s not down yet. The farrier is here to replace that shoe.”
“That’s all right, Sergeant. This is O’Reilly, he’ll be marching with us and if he still wants to, he’ll be sworn in at our next halt. Get him fed and take his details, will you?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll add him to Captain Longford’s company, they…”
“No.” Johnny was still studying the young Irishman who waited with wholly unconvincing meekness to learn his fate. “I don’t think Captain Longford is the right officer for O’Reilly. Put him in the light company, Stewart.”
Johnny watched them cross the yard to the barn, O’Reilly half a head taller than his companion. Briefly he wondered exactly how much trouble the young Irish rebel was likely to cause and if he had done the right thing. Then the smell of bacon wafting out of the kitchen reminded him of his growling stomach and he abandoned all thoughts of O’Reilly and went in search of breakfast.