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The Shan Van Vocht

Not a corpse was left hanging in the tree, whose branches a mere twelve months before had hung heavy and sagging with six of the hastily condemned, and they with their mouths gaping open and their eyes agog and their lifeless hands tied behind their backs: the guilty and innocent alike, some who had taken up arms in actuality and others with the misfortune to be on the spot on the day of retribution.

'The hanging tree, we call it,' said the boy. 'They never even built a proper gallows, but hung them right from the tree.'

'Did they not?' said Stephen Maturin. 'The --', but he caught himself before he said more, for even now there was no security in a free tongue. 'Though there's no wonder in it; with such a vast overabundance of numbers, they could scarcely be expected to proceed with the full formalities in all cases.' For this was by no means the only hanging tree in Ireland: on and on they had stretched, mile after ghastly mile, retracing the full procession of rebellion, from Killala in the west and Wexford in the south, through into the very streets of Dublin itself; yet now not a trace was left, as if the entire course of the rising had been wiped from the collective memory, a national obnubilation of the real, subsumed into either an obstinate denial of the whole sorry spectacle, or a foolish romanticization that conflated every farmboy and hotheaded drunkard who had lifted a scythe with Cuchalainn and Owen Roe and all the other unworldly figures of the songs and stories.

'Did you know any of them?' said the boy. 'The ones who were hung?'

'One of them,' said Stephen. 'But that was many years before.'

'Are you staying here?' said the boy.

'No,' said Stephen. 'I leave for Dublin tomorrow.' In truth, there was nothing left to stay for. Dublin itself had few attractions -- a dark pool of hypocrites and informers -- but it did at least have Mr. Browne and his purse: a very sorry motivation, to be sure, but if he were to continue living he needed the physical means thereto, and there were sure to be others, in prodigious numbers certainly, in need of a physician's skills.

'You'll see,' said the boy. 'The French will be back. Have you heard of their General Buonoparte?'

'I have,' said Stephen, who thought him little better than a Cornwallis or Robespierre. 'But these are evil times, my dear. I would advise you to speak less openly.' The boy was to all appearances one of the foolish romanticizers, with at least the excuse of youthful ignorance.

'Do you know the song about the Shan Van Vocht?' said the boy.

'I do,' said Stephen. 'The poor old woman. There was a time I knew it all the way through.'

'Oh, the French are on the seas,' sang the boy, 'said the Shan Van Vocht. The French are on the seas, said the Shan Van Vocht. Oh, the French are in the Bay. They'll be here without delay. And the Orange will decay, said the Shan Van Vocht. '

'Just so,' said Stephen privately. 'That's the song, though the time for singing it is past.'

© 2000 John Finneran