There was a tree in our estate when we were growing up. A scrawny, ugly thing that you would not even notice anywhere else, but for us it was the most important thing in our lives. It marked the border between the council houses that we lived in and the houses built for the workers in the factory. There was little enough differences between the too types of house, and the people were all equally poor. But there was a difference, and it is always the way with people to separate according to these differences.
I remember well, the little ‘wars’ we used to have, at the field near the tree. Most of the time we used to gather together, each group, and shout insults at each other, stupid things like “you’re all slaves of mister Mooney” to be responded with “Go back to the liberties, ya urchins!” If there was enough of us, we’d go on the offensives, holding sticks and other weapons and chase the others out of the field. Other times they would chase us. It was harmless really, even if people were caught, all they got was a bit of a clatter and maybe they would be ‘held’ as a prisoner of war. Until our Ma’s called us in for tea or we decided to play a football match. It was just a game.
At least so we thought it was. A new family moved into the one of the new houses on our end around the end of the spring. There were only six children, very small to be getting a Corpo house. They had come from somewhere foreign and they had strange ideas.
The oldest was a boy called Jimmy, he must have been near fourteen but instead of going and getting work like all of our brothers and sisters at that age, His Ma insisted that he spend the next year in school, said that he was behind from all the years travelling. After a week in school we all figured that it was because he was thick. He got more of Brother Brendan’s cane than any of the rest of us for the remains of the year. Never seemed to learn much either, he stayed quiet even when home with the rest of us.
Still, he liked to play with us, even though we were years younger. He was taller than any of us, and stronger. Some of us started to get ideas. “He could be our champion, our Goliath!” said one as we assembled “Didn’t Goliath get his head broken in?” “Don’t be daft! That’s just a story, made by small people to feel better. Big lads don’t lose!”
For is part, Jimmy kept quiet, content to be the centre of attention as we marched to the field.
The factory boys were already there, milling around and shouting insults at us. “Here Jimmy!” they shouted “Why don’t you go and get a job, you lazy bollix!”
Someone handed Jimmy a stick and told him to go forward. “Don’t worry, you’ll just scare them, they won’t do a thing to ya.”
We half encouraged and half pushed him to the front and he slowly made his way to the other boys. They mostly backed off, scared of jimmy’s size and the stick he held. All accept one. He was Willy, the leader of the factory boys. He was always the one who lead the charge against us and he was trying to get his friends to stand their ground. “Jaysus lads! He’s not that big! We can take him!” and with that he single-handedly charged at Jimmy.
The next bit was burned into my memory. Willy ran at Jimmy waving his stick and screaming. We couldn’t see Jimmy’s face, but we was slowing so we knew he was a little scared. Willy raised his stick and swung it down to hit Jimmy’s legs. But Jimmy had a longer reach and his stick was able to get Willy on the head before he could finish.
From then on Jimmy seemed to not be in control, again and again he hit Willy with the stick. Willy screams turned to whimpers that chilled us more that the most savage beating from Brother Brendan and when his stick broke, Jimmy started to hit with his fists and kick with his feet. The rest of the factory boys backed off and started to run. We, scared of what our parents would do after they heard of this tried to stop Jimmy, but he only turned his fists on us and we ran to a safe distance, waiting for him to calm down and stop. But Jimmy wasn’t finished. He pulled up the now bloodied Willy and dragged him to the tree. Not able to stand, Jimmy pull him onto a stout branch and held him there with his Tie. He then gave Willy a few more slugs then walked back to his house, with a sick, satisfied grin on his face.
Willy started to move, it sounded like he was making gargling noises, and he started to twitch, his whole body shaking. Then he stopped. For the longest time, none of us said or did anything.
Then we heard a cry coming from the factory houses. It was Willy’s Ma running to the tree, trying to wake her boy. All our Ma’s came out and dragged us back home. “Willy was dead” they told us “Our Da’s were going to beat the tar out of us when they got home” That didn’t frighten us, we were already more scared than we had ever been.
We were locked inside for the rest of the day. We all could hear shouting, a Garda car, more crying. But nobody told us anything, except for a telling off, or a prelude to a beating.
We never saw jimmy again, his family left within a few weeks. By the Saturday, Willy’s Da and older brother came out with a saw and cut down the tree. Da said it was the only thing they could do.
After all that had happened, and with the tree now gone. Relations between ourselves and the factory boys became a lot more cordial. I stayed good friends with many of them to this very day. I even married the sister of one of them.
But I never forgot about the tree. And the lesson it told. About how quickly things can escalate and how quickly you can regret it.