Daniel Wade, award-winning playwright, poet, essayist, and novelist, is making his second appearance in Trasna this week. Following his memorable tribute to poet Dermot Healy, last year, Dublin-born Wade has been actively pursuing his writing career and is now celebrating the release of his historical novel, A Land Without Wolves. Set in Wexford in the late eighteenth century, the novel begins with Joseph MacTire, who knows the “rough boggy lanes” of Wexford “better than any Englishman.”
MacTire is a singular and successful highwayman, whose sole intent is to avenge the evils imposed on his family by the ruling class–and anyone else who stands in his way.
Wade invites us into the heart and purpose of MacTire in the excerpt that he shares with Trasna, and offers an introduction to the tumultuous years leading up to the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.
Daniel Wade reads from ‘A Land Without Wolves”
IV: The Mark
For years afterward, he’d often wake at night, tears salting his eyes but never quite washing away the sight of his sister’s body, the sound of his brother’s mournful song ringing in his ears.
Now, lying on the damp stones, he heard his brother’s voice still. He wondered what Redmond would have thought of him, crouching on roadsides, waiting to plunder carriages. Redmond had been tall, serene, unshakeable. Born for hard work in rough weather. Even when wielding an axe he looked contended, like he knew his strength was not easily knocked. Whenever the highwayman heard the word ‘strength’ uttered, he thought not of the Olympian saints and archangels adorning the stained glass windows of Ramsgrange church, or the soldiers marching at parade in the distance. It was the sight of his brother, singing quietly to himself over the dead body of a horse, that monopolised his thoughts. In a way, he knew exactly what Redmond would make of him now. He preferred not to dwell on it. Every man has at least one loved one to whom he fears making his crimes known. Then he’d remember Fiadh’s corpse, bruised and and violated and splayed on the earthen floor of their former home, and his resolve replenished.
Redmond was long dead now, a demise unrecorded by any magistrate and unmarked by any headstone in the many churchyards dotted throughout the region, just as Fiadh’s was. He’d drowned while fishing for trout in the Bannow River, where the highwayman crouched now. His currach was dragged into the clashing swells of a maelstrom, and Redmond had been unable to come about. His currach capsized, and the current took him. An angler who couldn’t swim, his body washed away on the flint-coloured swells. Not unusual in these parts. A full year after the attack on their home. He was one of the many unmissed serfs buried in the soil they’d spent their lives tilling.
And because Joseph, then only in his teens, lacked his brother’s business sense and could not work to keep the cabin as his own, Lord Baron Loftus of Ely, licensee of the Fethard estate, apparently forgetful that he had lost two of his scullery staff and tenatry, had him evicted. The uniformed cronies made him watch while they burnt his home to the ground, flames growling in the breeze. After that, he was cursed to mosey the dirt roads of Wexford, fleecing and begging for food. A Cain booted out of Eden, mantled in leaves, the cold snaking damply into his bones like an elixir, to never again know hearth or home. The roads of Ireland became his new abode; in moments of crazed delirium brought on by starvation, he told himself they were his kingdom, not the holdings of merchantmen and absentee landlords. Nobody took him in. He begged, but the sight of a grimy, flint-accented boy was not enough to stir people to charity. Somehow, they forgot he was Redmond’s brother, and the last MacTíre. Poverty was what all people in that wind-torn region knew; charity a luxury few could ever afford. With no family or friends to speak of, the roadside became his bed, the hooting of owls and the wind’s dry roars his lullaby.
He quickly learned that the nights were never fully deserted. Oftentimes he might pass one of them by, trudging out of the lowland shadows like scarecrows given life, the hollow tap of their canes off the road snapping through the fog, their filthy rags a caveat of what he might soon become. He had swollen their ranks a little more, these roadside beggars who tramped the boggy lanes and byways of Ireland, always en route for elsewhere. Far from any kinship he might have felt for them, or they for him, he instead opted to avoid them, repulsed perhaps by the very rawness of want they presented in his eyes. A rawness that now hung off him too like an unclean odour, and which seemed to kill any instinct of kindness or charity.
They became easy enough to identify, not just from the tattered quality of their garb, but from the flat gloom that ghosted their eyes. Whatever menace or ferocity they might have once had was replaced only by paltriness. Joseph often saw them, packs of emaciated men with twig-like arms, bundled into rags that hung off their limbs like funeral shrouds, governed solely by starvation.
Some were barefoot, barely registering the bite of pebbles as they moved. They’d shuffle into town squares on market and fair days in the vague hope of work, importuning the locals for alms or else warming themselves by the heat spilling from the open door of a blacksmith’s forge, or else huddled from the cold at the roots of a beech tree. Others made their shelters in barns or under hedgerows, or in the roofless ruins of a monastery with the foxes and bird excrement. He saw many of them were blind from the pox, limping from injuries that had never fully healed. Even death itself seemed quite unwilling to take them, content instead to circle about them like an invisible vulture, drawing their suffering out a while longer without quite administering its grim mercy. The wilier ones scratched a living where they could, doing seasonal labour on the harvests or singing ballads and scraping out tunes on a fiddle at ceilidhs or else on fairdays, often to pockets as empty as their own. Joseph could barely fathom how they could bear to live this way.
On those frozen nights, he thought of a story Redmond often told him and Fiadh while they worked: farther north, in the counties of Leix and Offaly, there had been a lord, a crown-enforcer known as Cosby. “Not a man,” Redmond would intone, “but a devil cloaked in a man’s raiment.” A former soldier, the Queen had granted him holdings in the midlands, along with a regular force of mercenaries to keep Gaels under England’s yoke. The local people were doomed to feel his sweep of his malice, and without even suspecting it, for Cosby had pretended to be on cordial terms with them. But after he fell out with his main ally, a chieftain called O’ Mordha, he lured his foe, along with a hundred of his followers and kinsmen, to the shores of Mullaghmast under what he claimed was an invitation of truce. What none of the ‘guests’ knew was that Cosby had arranged to meet them in the encircled confines of a rath. For when they entered its doors, they were met only by darkness. Darkness, and the hidden blades of Cosby’s men, who set upon them with a ferocity only well-trained murderers have the will to unleash. There was to be no escape for any of them, nor even a hope of it; no report of what those in power do to those they have enslaved. Nobody was to know about how they cut off the heads of their victims and collected them as they would trophies, the walls washed in the blood of all who met death that day.
“But d’ye know what?” Redmond would ask, eyes glowing with their customary fervor as he spun the tale’s magic. “Only O’ Mordha survived. “He escaped, and hunted down his vengeance on Cosby. He lived for the redress of his people. He alone made sure their deaths did not go unanswered.”
The story lingered in Joseph’s mind until he vowed to himself, although he could not quite remember the day or the hour, that he would never be made to feel powerless again. Especially not by cowards who worked in numbers. The life he’d build for himself would be friendless and unaided. The freedom he would know was not the idyllic tenet lionised by the philosophers and poets in the few books he decided to steal, but a cruel state of self-reliance and brutality, where pistols and sabres were mere tools of the trade, and any man or woman ill-starred enough to fall in his sights was an opportunity. No longer did he feel the want of a roof. He would know what freedom was, and what it was not, and could never be. His name would be a byword for it.
He no longer hankered for riches nor even for a life more comfortable. Never would he sleep on a stuffed feather-bed, wakening at dawn to the scent of lilac and rosewater, waited on hand-and-foot by a retinue of servants, nor try his hand at the gambling tables in the gentry’s gilded, candlelit parlours, nor lead a sarabande in their ballrooms during Parliament season, nor hear the stately thunder of their operas. Never would he inherit a title and sizable estate on the death of his parents. For all the sweat he and his brother had broke for it, that was a world they would never and could never ever glimpse.
And yet, he did not care. For he alone would seek out his prey, and he alone would stake his claim on it. He became a day-sleeper, venturing out only after dark when the world is different and safety for the honest traveler is no longer assured. The backdrop to his excursions was the unlit solitude of Wexford roads, the rough boggy lanes which he knew better than any Englishman.
The shriek of powdered and wigged fops as he jabbed his gun in their faces. Never again would he be their slave or plaything. Never would he make Redmond’s mistake. You must honour the memory of departed loved ones, but Joseph had no loved ones left. Let the sheep and maggots wander in droves, he decided. Let the lion find his prey unaided.
He made his hideout in a little cave situated in the cliff-face that overlooked Baginbun Bay; it was high enough that the tide, even at its fullest, could not reach it and small enough that it could not be spotted. He managed to reach it by lashing a coil of manila-rope to a nearby tree and abseiling down to the cave-mouth. There, in the clammy darkness, he drew up his plans by the campfire’s dim flicker, ignoring the waves’ hungry roar on the rocks below. He drank in the silence that lay beneath that, shrouding the countryside.
Silence became a language he spoke with great fluency. At night, he stole out and ranged the boreen, like a newly-resurrected corpse climbing from his grave. He got to know every corner and turn, every preferred route, every stop-off point the peninsula had to offer him. He marked the times of deliveries, the shortcuts taken, the hidden paths that snaked through the underwood, taken by gypsies, journeymen and soldiers, the low troughs marked into the soil by wagon-wheels. He soon came to feel that he owned it all, more so than the lords to whom it was officially granted.
A successful stand-and-deliver rested on agility, not strength. To catch a victim off-guard was a skill in and of itself. Timing, swiftness, preparation, estimation and sobriety were all key. Marked prizes moved with the expectation of being robbed and so were often the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. He wasn’t always too concerned with claiming riches, though. Sometimes he just took what he needed, be it food, ammunition or clothing.
Try as he might, he never managed to hunt down the men who terrorized him and his brother and murdered their sister, and who introduced him to his powerlessness. That was a thought he tried pushing from his mind. They used masks, as he did. Their anonymity protected them, as it did him. But tonight wasn’t a night for melancholia; the mail carriage would be along soon, and the highwayman would have to be ready. The excitement, the perilous thrill of gaining some trinkets, never died for him. On the doors of alehouses, churches and gaols, on the wharves of New Ross, in the timber yards of Enniscorthy, at horse fairs and travelling carnivals all over Ireland, a wanted sign showing his charcoal face hung for all to see.
He ingested newspapers and pamphlets like alms, laughing in equally scornful measure at the patriotic zeal adorning the pages of the Hibernian Review and the Dublin Evening Post, and the parliamentary reports, so rich with the pear-shaped cadences of oratory and fulmination. The lessons he’d learned under O’ Doirnín’s garbled thumb were easily recalled. He read the speeches of a man named Grattan, cribbing for things like liberty and nationhood and rights for the land. Politics seemed like a rich man’s plaything, MacTíre decided, all vying for their chance to run their gobs under the domed roof of some fancy stone-built edifice up in Dublin. A bit of ongoing theatre to ensure people were kept good and starved and docile while a few got their bellies full, he eventually decided. Freedom, seemed to be your man Grattan’s favourite word. MacTíre knew freedom long before any of those powdered, limp-fingered prigs made the word into their football. Out here, he was free as the stars.
He kept track of those who claimed to keep track of him, grinning at their wilder descriptions of his deeds and appearance. The price for his capture was raised to 60 guineas in the last month, or so he saw. He grew accustomed to seeing his own face glare back at him from a stone-built wall. Small wonder they couldn’t Apprehend him – he barely resembled the image they had of him. He’d grin at the image’s crude lunacy whenever he saw it, the jaw-line’s charcoal edge, the crooked nose, the hint of swinish fangs, the forehead’s misshapen bulge. He was drawn with a sombre expression; anyone who knew him declared he never stopped smiling. And when he first read the call for his arrest, he laughed until his ribs ached. It was nothing short of a comic masterwork:
BRIGANDAGE & MURTHER
‘The Notorious Highwayman’
A Bounty of ſixty Guineas ſhall be pay’d to any Perſon
for the Arreſt and Conviction of ſame
DEAD or ALIVE
By Edict of
His Majeſty’s Kingdom of Ireland.
Beneath this flattering decree ran a description, identifying him as “aged two and twenty years, a man of Loathsome mien and slouching Gait, middle height, pallid Appearance, scars on cheekbone, Often unshaved, black Tricorne hat, likewise clad entirely in black garb, teeth Filed down to Fangs… his Figure is spare, though his Shoulders are Broad, and His hair is a red, Lank mass… his Grin is crooked and his Eyes are green and Gimlet. He rides a seal-brown horse… his Hideaway is Called, in the Gaelic Parlance, Poll MacTíre …”
He’d laughed harder. He had a title now, if an uninspired one: The Notorious Highwayman. It must have taken a rare imagination to come up with that one. Still, how many gentlemen of the road, how many Surveyor Generals of the highway and moorland, could boast such a moniker? If the price for his arrest had been raised to sixty guineas, he thought, then the authorities no longer considered him a nuisance, a thorn in their regal side. A decade ago, they may have deemed him as such. But having his name share the same poster as the King’s (an unsavoury honor, if there ever was one) meant one thing: he was making a fine impression. Now, he was an enemy of the peasantry and the peerage.
Nor did he have a single hideaway, a lone lurking place from which to launch his raids, but many; every cave and cranny dotted all over the county, from the forest of Tintern to the peninsula, that were known to him and to him alone; some for shelter, some for storage, some for both. Any who dared to seek him out was left forlorn. Caves on the sea cliffs, ditches dug in the undergrowth by the high road, caches where bullion and supplies and hunting fodder and firewood and amassed weapons and shot were stored, should he need them. It always paid to be prepared.
Yet there was one hideaway, one above all, in which he cached his most treasured takings. The hideaway he considered his main storehouse and stronghold, his territory, his own minor was sequestered far off in the dense undergrowth of Tintern, on the brow of a cliff facing toward the southerly coast. Though only a few miles fom the high road, no path unwound to it, it was far beyond the notice of travellers or the findings of redcoat scouts, being veiled by leaves and overgrown nettles and leaning hollows and alders speckled in white, scar-like lenticles. Its dark mouth he kept covered with a knotted sheaf woven crudely from underbrush and mangled ferns; he alone knew this tapestry of greenery indicated the cave’s location amidst the dell.
’Twas was not the lure of silver and gold and heavy, richly-coloured stones – these he could fence or easily sell off to anyone suitably enamoured of their brilliance. Into this cave he troved not treasures but tools. Leather cartouche boxes, still fully loaden with shot. A box of carpenter’s chisels and gouges. A water canteen. Tobacco. A bronze, pot-bellied cooking pot and iron cauldron seized from one of the encampments and tapers for lighting fires. His musket. Sailcloth. His books. A coil of rope, a ship’s rusted quadrant. Hewing axes and shovels and adzes. Pails and nets. A soldier’s haversack filled up with soap and powder and timber and pitch. A bottle of perfumes, stolen for Grainne.
Along with all this, he stockpiled his true trophies, the prizes he always hoped would fall into his hands – the spoils of sin – into this very grotto. The brick-thick books of hours. A weighty almanack. The tome by Defoe that detailed the life of a man, a merchant sailor, shipwrecked alone on a desert island far beyond the seas. The handwritten notes scribbled on their folio pages, the black solidity of their texts. These he kept piled together in bundles like a pyre, all around the grotto, reading them by the blaze’s dusky flicker as night closed in.
There was no need to return to Grainne. She was neither wife nor paramour, and he foresaw having no sons or daughters by her. Yet leaving her to fend for herself seemed to cruel an act for evern MacTíre to contemplate. Many times he had shared her bed in the alehouse’s farthest alcove and whispered about who was next whilst lying in her arms. MacTíre had known so little of love he feared he would not recognise it when it was finally offered to him.
Not once did they whisper words of tenderness or to each other; neither would have believed the other if they did. There was little about devotion she cared to hear, and he had naught but silence on that subject. Loneliness she understood, the struggle for survival in land bereft of second chances she knew with a fluency that matched his. He had made plenty of enemies; there was no need for them to be hers as well.
And so here, deeply sequestered away and spread-eagled on his bed of black earth and ash, cocooned by the grotto’s thick flint walls, images spun through his brain and left a spasmodic chill juddering his spine. The mellowness of blood. A snow-headed barn owl gliding through a forest. Its bleached wings thrashing in the dark. A forest in flames, the hollows and pines and oaks scalped to kindling in a congress of flame. The hellish light hovering, combing the shadows for fresh prey, its glaring luminance quaking as yet more leaves and saplings were roasted. MacTíre often saw the woman’s death – a bullet puncturing the soft flesh of her throat, a blade slicing through her belly – and wept at the notion.
On other nights as he lay there, sealed off in his loneliness, he envisioned massacres – for no massacre, he knew, ever occurred without good reason. Bloodshed was in the future, of that he was certain – how it manifested remained a question he harboured no desire to see answered.
Three minutes until the mail carriage reached him.
A cloud covered the moon, and the highwayman let out a thankful sigh. His breath slowed; if the weather was rainy or gusty, he needn’t have worried, with the chattering raindrops or howling breezes to stifle the noise. Great care was needed on calm nights. The silence could be either a friend or a foe to him. Even a sigh of relief would carry and betray him. His natural aroma carried a piquant whiff of gunsmoke, laced with rain water. He hoped his scent would not be detected by either the men or their chargers.
The redcoats would be vigilant for attack. His plan was to gun one of them down while crouched, and take on the other before he could rally himself. A carbineball through the throat or skull would do. But his finest weapon, he knew, was the element of surprise. His guns were useless if he was spotted. He’d wait until the coach was less a foot away before he even drew his flintlock.
Rarely did he target anyone in the same place twice. His vantage points always changed. His victims were as diverse as the curving roadway. A sailor on the dirt road from Slade village, made to stand and deliver the locket he wore. A ploughman and his lad driving a cart from the New Ross market, their horse shot in the eye from behind a sheaf of heather. A Redcoat scout left naked and trussed up under the trees, his uniform torched and a mesh of scars carved into his back, the high road before him.
Yet it was rare for the highwayman to fire his gun anymore, he met so little resistance. Murder featured rarely in his repertoire now, though it had once been an inevitability. Now, the threat of it was enough.
Such a strange manhood he led. His life would end proudly, he’d make sure of it. He was no gallows bird; he wouldn’t die as food for crows. If he did die, it would be in the heat of a skirmish, or cradled in his deathbed. This he promised himself. Though he knew the former was more likely.
Only through apocalypse would this place know absolution. He dreamt of blood with a vindicator’s fury, weight of a hundred more crimes holding little in his mind, until full command of the fens and townlands rested with him. He deemed himself a man old before his time, wizened by exile. His head bore such spectres well, away from the timeworn lore of campfires, his skull fizzing like a cauldron, the rioting coal: the power he’d relinquished. the Kilmore he never returned to, the sister he could not save. The lashings of yellow fever that might finally take him. The faces of women he never learned to love or keep. The blood, the shite, the horse-tails sheathed in bronze. The recurring dreams of leering skeletons, of thunder whispering to the horizon, of the rabid kraken enclosing its tentacles like anacondas in the branch of a fruit tree around the cannon, shark fins slitting with slow ease, saltwater filaments shimmering to a dead lee, the anchor’s arms thrown wide.
Such wolfish scenes, fit for a proscenium, to be carved from seashells and handsome scrimshaw, perhaps, focalised in a watercolour mural to be set above some steward’s fireplace in the Colonies, or else a marble, candlelit altar in a minor Balearic Basilica, ash-soiled, dead-eyed saints withering in gilded craquelure, tide-blue rosettes and a scarlet, oaken keel, all forfeited, even unto the sandy oceanfloor, where his brother rested. He was known to the sword edge where harquebuses are set and tactics are key. It was strategy favouring him, not gods; the workings of weather and muggy nightfall reminded him of what to expect.
Were he so able, he’d have ordered the waves to hit England, to swallow without trace her ruby salamander pendants and leonine crests, to drown out the haughty drone of her court composer’s harpsichord as the plump strings of a mandolin are strummed and cut like the anchor cables at Gravelines. He had all the quiet in the world to dream of this, to tiptoe around the reef’s spiked eggshell, eye the quartet of weathers slowly bleeding into one another over a year’s calendered extent. Lead and spark, muzzle flash. Small fires scalded the channel at Ross. Towering prison hulks anchored off Wexford arid shore and coccyx. Hired cut-throats lying in wait amid Wexford swells at sundown. Their bevelled and saw-like sabres bared for a reckoning. The screech of bar shot clear-cuts the bay, rapid as lightning. Footprints charred the sand like the kiss of a branding iron. And all for the recoiled surety of liberation, felled masts and sails blackened by the gun-ports’ agape stern rake. Toledo-alloy, a vanished star, genteel stones plucked from the earth and strung together on a thread: the perfumed hands resting on rosewood globes, the stainless sceptre, baroque cathedrals toppled by swells of wrath, smearing rust over their agate-strung pillars, a belaying pin’s shaft, the snapped rope, a plumed bowsprit, sunk to a sunless brine. Like the flood deployed by God’s fist, men, planking and sovereignty broke to detritus, lofty squadron rearguard and gargoyle snarls would break as if in ritual, cannon and crown-piece submerging to it.
He wasn’t a man who took dreams seriously, unless they could be realised. He trusted in plans, maps, bait and blood, keeping his notes carefully on file, his unpatriotic labour in calm order of signet, cartouche: a rebel, a dog, a man too caring by half. The sea was never far off, the horizon untouchable. The ships are awash in the hollow throb of a drum-major, rallied to his commission, to his imported duty, who dreams of the ancestry he’d no choosing in and sweated with pride over. The anchor’s wide arms. Lashings of yellow fever. The reef’s spiked eggshell. The faces of women.
And the women noticed him. Almost as much as he noticed them.
Lying in the shallows of the river where his brother had died, his head bubbled with such thoughts. He had killed, yes; deprived wives of husbands, children of fathers with a single blast of his pistol. Murder trickled over his record like a spillage of ink. He’d face God for this eventually.
The carriage may still double back, there was still time for it. Perhaps they’d decide to put up for the night, with a fire burning, and stay on their guard the entire night. Then he would have to come to tuhem, and who’d be the loser in that tussle? Or they might take a shortcut to the abbey, beg for shelter off the lord there.
The highwayman snarled an oath to himself, tried shaking off such cumbersome notions. His quarry was too close to be passed up now.
Daniel Wade is a poet and playwright from Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland. In January 2017, his play The Collector opened the 20th anniversary season of the New Theatre, Dublin. In January 2020 his radio drama Crossing the Red Line was broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Extra, and later won a silver award at the New York Festivals Radio Awards for Best Digital Drama. Wade was the Hennessy New Irish Writing winner for April 2015 in The Irish Times, and his poetry and short fiction have been featured in over two dozen publications since 2012. His debut collection Rapids was published by Finishing Line Press in 2021. ‘A Land Without Wolves’ was published by Temple Dark Publications October, 2021.