In spite of being one of the town’s most prominent businessmen and coming from one of its oldest and most respected families — members of the boys’ entire extended family were widely and admiringly referred to as “old townies” by residents — the boys’ father lived at arm’s length from the community’s social life. He wasn’t a member of our town’s GAA or rugby clubs. He didn’t golf like the majority of the moneyed classes. His devoutness was of the personal and reserved kind and so he wasn’t active in any of the parish- or church-based committees or organisations. If he held political beliefs, he kept them well hidden; not only was he not a member of a political party, but nobody could rightly say which of the two main parties would receive his mark come election time. He gave pubs a wide berth. He never dined out. He was never seen walking the streets of our town, driving as he did everywhere in his Jetta. He had no friends and was rarely seen conversing with anybody beyond the handful of the usual hangers-on and odd-job men who the owners of businesses and farmers attract in a small town. The dual role of businessman and farmer occupied the majority of the man’s waking hours so that when his Jetta was seen making its way through the town people knew he was either going from his house to the garage, from the garage to the farm or from either of these back home again. He never took days off and he never took holidays. Sunday was observed as a day of rest, but only very rarely would the family be seen piling into the Jetta to be taken to the beach or a hurling match or even just for a Sunday drive.
Neither the boys’ father nor the entire extended family were popular in our town, the reason being the word “grabber” was associated with the family name. A grabber is an acquisitive, clawingly greedy individual who is only interested in the amassing of worldly goods, especially property, and who is often suspected of using sharp practice or underhanded methods to trick sellers into relinquishing their holdings for far less money than they are really worth. There were stories of the boys’ father calling to widows the day after their husband’s funeral offering to relieve them of the burden of a herd of cattle, a couple of unfruitful acres or even the family home. There were accusations of uncles of the boys buying houses out from under dothery old men. There was even talk of members of the family targeting properties they knew to be deedless and intimidating the occupants into settling for a pittance. Therefore, when the incident occurred for which the boys’ father would always be remembered in our town there was little sympathy for him or his family. The phrase “he couldn’t have had any luck for the way he treated people” was heard quite a lot.
That summer there had been a spate of break-ins in the town. Businesses had been the exclusive targets of the robbers, who had operated always at night. The owners of pubs and shops were on nervous high alert. It was not unusual during that period to see a baker or boutique owner crossing the town in the small hours of the morning either coming from or on their way to checking on their premises. There had been a meeting in the town on the subject. Extra patrols from the gardaí were called for. The chamber of commerce proposed the setting up of a neighbourhood watch scheme, the concept of which was new in Ireland at the time. Aloof and all as he was from the vicissitudes of our town, the boys’ father couldn’t avoid being assumed into the general skittishness and concern of the population. He attended the town meeting — although he sat at the back of parish hall, wordless and impassive. He even signed a petition and was among the group of townspeople to hand it across the counter at the garda station. His Jetta was seen with even more frequency on the streets and roads of our town and it was believed that he visited his farm and petrol station up to half a dozen times each night. There seemed to be no one more perturbed by the break-ins. I heard my grandfather joke that no one of the boys’ father’s “seed, breed or generation could sleep soundly at night with the worry that somebody might be stealing as much as a ha’penny sweet from them”.
Nobody in the town, then, was surprised that it was the boys’ father who stumbled across the robber. People were surprised, though — and shocked — at the outcome of that encounter: lives were lost.
It was sometime after four in the morning, with the boys’ father doing his now customary rounds, when he turned the key of the filling station’s door to find a shadowy form scurrying towards him and attempting to squeeze past him to freedom. The boys’ father blocked the intruder’s egress and the latter was forced to drop his booty and race towards the shop’s little bathroom, the window of which he had used to gain entry to the premises. The intruder in his haste and unfamiliarity with the shop’s layout clattered into a display and took a tumble, while his pursuer was able to skip along the aisles in the darkness and immobilize the prone form scrabbling among tins of baked beans.
Now, as news spread the next day about what had happened in the unlit shop at four in the morning one question never failed to surface: “How in the name of God,” people asked, “did he not realise he was struggling with a child?”
For the form that the man grappled with on the floor of his shop was that of a boy — a ten-year-old boy, a boy with a reputation for a viciousness and badness well beyond his years, but a boy nonetheless.
“He had to have known it was only a boy he was fighting. Sur’ wasn’t Mikey Heavey only a little sparrow of a thing.”
“Yeah, but he was a real little fighter. He’d fight like a weasel.”
And the boy must have put up a good fight because it was heard that the boys’ father’s face and arms were criss-crossed with gouges and scratches. But that hadn’t stopped the man. He overpowered the boy; overpowered him and squeezed the life out of him.