(The Impossible Game)

“The circumstances attending the death of Constable Sheehan [sic] were particularly pathetic”

Limerick Chronical 07/05/1905

“[Constable Patrick Sheahan] had no fear of [sic] himself”


Down the ambulatory of ash and conker and pine until it becomes two coextensive lines of abrupt stumps near where the wind blew one down on a lady’s neck last winter and opens up onto a slashed canvas of cloud which lets through ragged seams of Patrick’s Blue as though hewn by the brick brown saw of the buildings’ pointed pediments; hard left down Baggot St. past shops’ cultivated smells of cheese and meat and coffee and of monosodium glutamate and of bread, and smells of the exhaust smoke from tails of idling taxies and of cigarette smoke from the breath of exhausted taxi drivers laughing idly together below awnings, and too the smells of rain-wet earth and cloth; down over the soft hump of the bridge that spans the soundless water of the Grand Canal as it is stirred by perch and minnow and rats and the black webbed feet of swans; past statues and paintings of nuns in black and in blue which mark schools and hospitals; past the clutter of blue and red signs announcing space available for sale or lease and dull bronze plates marking corporate headquarters and points of historical interest; past the tinted black blocks of the Bank of Ireland; right on Fitzwilliam St., just before the red doored Coca-Cola offices, by the granite ledge which is furrowed and affixed with slabs to foil the skaters who would congregate summer long with boards or blades to jump and slide and cheer and break bone and shed new smelling blood on the hot pavement; skirting the circumference of Merrion Square where the artists come of a Sunday to mount wide canvases upon the railings and sit in folding chairs as people plod by crabwise; on past the Royal Irish Architectural Institution (whose left pillar’s abacus is still missing a rough chunk from the time I tried to climb to its iron balcony to sing to you, but instead fell back with the spall in my clutch, which glinting granite spall you kept and may still have stowed away in some sagging box marked with my name, or unmarked, instead of the tuneless song which might have fallen and died on your ears on that cold and urgent night); then, around the band of Trinity College’s black barred fence till Hawkins St. and on down it almost to the Liffey; just seven feet from the shamrock adorned, Celtic-cross topped, pink pillared, three stepped granite monument to Patrick Sheahan and to those unnamed civilians who died alongside him, just under one year before it was built one hundred and six years ago, stood Constable Patrick Sheahan, absentmindedly fingering the tapered points of his thickly waxed mustache.

The hole was four feet in diameter. It was twenty-four feet deep. The mid-afternoon sun illuminated only the first few descending feet. The four upmost rungs of a wooden ladder leant out of it. A dry foraminous tongue. The odor that rose from the hole was an at once distinctly chemical and profoundly human stink. The lid, a grid patterned disk, overlipped it slightly—a Venn-diagram of wrought iron and void. It had a particularly ominous aspect. At its bottom, invisible, lay a thick creep of sewer muck. Lumps and crumbs of human waste churned in a thin, slow moving ooze. Innumerable treasures, too: lost rings, bracelets, necklaces, every shape and style of imitation fetter. Also: coins, keys, precious stones, pocket-watches, hair pins, cigarette lighters &c. Also, here, near the hole: slivers and shards of broken lantern glass, and the large prone bodies of four men. The mulch darkened their overalls. It stained their skin. It crept into their boots while, above, Constable Sheahan removed his tunic. He did not see the face, only the immaculate Hessian boots (sans-tassle), of the man who stepped out of the crowd to take it from him.

Not twenty six minutes before, John Flemming had used his corporation issue ‘key’ (an iron bar shaped in the vector of a chess knight) to pry up the lid of the manhole. He had slid the wooden ladder down. He lit the pentagonal lantern, strapped it to his chest and opened its front shutter. His lantern’s eye illuminated each rung one by one until his boot’s tread sunk into the mulch of the tunnle’s floor. “An’ then you hear the glass shatterin’ an’ yer man the big baldy fella with less teeth than I’ve prayers answered by The Good Lord Hisself runs over an’ shouts, ‘Jim! Jim! an’ shouts ‘Jim! Jim!’ an’ shouts at me t’ stop me gob. I’m trying t’ shift these papers see.” Chris Nolan gestured generally with the sheaf of newspapers over his left arm. His right arm beckoned ceaselessly at Patrick Sheahan, whom he had just accosted at O’Connell Bridge with howls of “Help! Help! Quick!”

The two moved toward Hawkins St. at a hasty but dignified trot. The towering Sheahan split the mob of men and women waiting between the acts of acrobats and knockabout artists at the Tivoli Theater. Some jeered or tried to trip him as he shouted them out of the way, though most hastily removed themselves. “So an’ then there’s not a peep back up through the hole that’s lookin’ an’ soundin’ hard as a ha’penny worn black though yer man’s roarin’ us all deaf an’ so then he clatters down after the first fella an’ then you hear nothin’ for a while,” Patrick, wifeless at twenty nine, had accepted the shift of a younger colleague who wanted to take his new girl to a show. Even the most peripheral of his acquaintances could count on him (he was, “well liked”). Too, he was well built, quick witted and good humored. “An’ then yer man the next fella,” Chris carried on as they burrowed down the street, “there at the edge, big fella near as tall as you are an’ with the skin hangin’ off his face an’ half his lunch still layin’ in his beard, shouts down ‘Bill! Bill!’ an’ shouts down, ‘Bill! Bill!’ an’ shouts at me like as I weren’t on the job meself, on account of me stature I’d bet, or on account of yer man the first fella havin’ called me out already an’ held me from gatherin’ what honest ha’pennies I can in my line, of which shoutin’, lord save me throat by evenin’, is a ne-ces-sa-ry part, and plenty of loiterers too already gatherin’ round—shouts ‘go fetch someone’ an’ be quick!’” Like all true city-dwellers, Patrick’s heart at once reveled in and reviled The-Big-City. He liked the idea of himself as guardian of its grandiose architecture. A footman of the empire, rather than chauffer for flocks of sheep and cattle back in rural Limerick. Though in practice the two occupations were much the same. Often he was elated as he tracked about the bustling streets. Sometimes he just felt sick. “An’ then he clatters down after an’ as I’m goin’ the last thing I hears is some fella shoutin’ for a rope an my thoughts are he’d be as well to hang hisself with it as climb down that bloody hole, an’ anyway, I runs all the way up here from Hawkin’s Street an’ sees yer police cap stickin’ out from a mile away an’ shouts to you an’ yeah, it’s this way, it’s this way, it’s this way! I’ll be sellin’ your face on front page tomorrow, mark me words!”

Much later, as Patrick’s body lay muddy and blue in Mercer’s hospital, Constable Maurice Wolf “with tears in his eyes” related to the attendant hordes of press another spectacular instance in which Sheahan had shown himself a cut above the rest. “On the occasion of the Townsend Street fatality, I’m sure you remember it, young Sheahan showed astonishing pluck and bravery. We were sealing off the area. The building was on the brink of collapse and we didn’t want anybody coming to harm. A little girl is screaming and screaming that her grandparents are stuck in the building. She was such a shade of crimson as you’ve never seen. Well I’m trying to calm her down and get her out of the way. It wasn’t safe to be anywhere near the place. But wouldn’t you know it, Patrick hears her and before one of us can stop him he darts into the building. The roof is canting this way and that and the panes of glass are slipping from the windows and shattering on the street, like a house of leaves in the wind. But young Sheahan just nips right in! Well, two minutes later out he comes again with these two gasping bodies, the grandad slung over his right shoulder and the grandma slung over his left. He was a bull in strength: Dublin’s Minotaur. Won half a dozen medals for the force’s Tug-of-War team. He could have pulled Hell itself up out of the ground if you’d only tied a rope around it. But Jesus, the look of shock on those two elderly faces! They were such a shade of white as you’ve never seen. And young Sheahan is scarcely out the door when the whole house collapsed! Like a house of cards. That was Patrick’s way. No reasoning with a man like that. I was the same in my youth, mind.”

When Patrick and Chris arrived at the scene a fireman and several of the citizenry were tugging at a rope which was canting taut as a used noose out of the hole. He joined the tugging from the front, grunting, “Sheahan” at the fireman. “Lambert” came in reply. His hands knew the rope; callused pads already sat at every point of contact. Entering this stance was like entering a memory. Arms almost straight. Rope tucked beneath a bicep. One leg bent, the other braced against the earth. Leaning back against a body that was leaning back against the body behind it. In Tug-of-War, the rope had at once connected the men and kept them apart. It let them take ground and give ground, but never feel closer. A white chalk line in the center determines the winner of this game that looks nothing like a game. In front of you your teammates’ hair segments itself with sweat, separates into stalactites from which drips shiver and plunge. They darkly stain his light blue cotton slacks. Past him, when you were novice enough to look along the length of rope, another man is visible. Opposite you; your opposite; your own odd reflection. His image blurs and shakes through the sweat in your eyes. A man bent, stuck half way through falling back. His face is contorted, agonized. The rope is tugging you forward.

They had trained with a huge wrought iron weight, the rope slung over a wooden gantry. They lined up in the grassy courtyard, between the canines and incisors of Dublin Castle’s pediments, along a thick earthen scar of their own making. At first command they worked their toes beneath the rope. At second command their feet fed it into their hands. At third command they heaved backward and watched the weight levitate. It was like the work of dockmen at the pulleys and cranes, but more beautiful because it was done for its own sake only. The weight soared toward the bough of the gantry, spreading a shadow over them as they hoisted it up over the sun. As it rose higher it began to slow until it was crawling to its limit. A foot slipped on a loose crust of mud. The rope became hostile. The weight balked, reversed course. Down, down, down. Whichever young men could not, in that moment, convince themselves to let go (let go!) were flung down and sucked toward it. They thudded into the ground, yelped, rolled, groaned, staggered up, clutched their arms, backs, laughed, clutched their arses. They punched each other lightly, they swore, they laughed, they slapped each other’s arses. Their skin was red-raw and weeping. The hair on their legs flexed outward. The steam of their laughter mingled in the ether. The smells of sweat and wet earth rose sweetly from them.

As Patrick now tugged the rope on Hawkins street, a half unsheathed arse rose slowly from the hole. Below and beside it the bedraggled head of a hackney driver, Fitzpatrick, emerged. The looped rope tore at his armpits, bent his arms up. The other man’s thigh pressed into his neck, plumped the veins there with stopped blood. Several men departed the crowd and unburdened Fitzpatrick of the body. Grabbing any limb they could, they delivered both men from the hole. Many were now thickly slicked with sewage. The feted scent rolled about thunderously. Seeing him free, those at front let go the rope. The men blind at the back, suddenly without resistance, tumbled and tripped onto each other. The sudden tug tore Fitzpatrick forward, those men holding him up now too leaping eastward through the air. They fell into a dirty cursing pile of limbs. Fitzpatrick was hoisted and untied. He muttered thanks as he tottered blurilly about. He stumbled backwards and his heel found the hole again. His body tilted, his left leg moved to right him but found only deeper air. The late afternoon sun shone on his retreating form. The wet filth he was smeared with scintillated as he twisted downward. The sudden shadow of the hole seemed less to swallow than to amputate his frantic legs. Sheahan, who was curling the already curled ends of his waxed mustache (something he always did, without being really aware of it, before moments of decisive action), saw Fitzpatrick’s arms spin almost comically, just as a clown might imply disbalance. He saw the skin shrink back from the man’s teeth and from his eyes. He saw with relief Lambert reach forward and grab at a flailing arm. Saw with horror Lambert pivot toward the man’s weight, toward the relentless magnetic dark of the hole. Then a new flock of hands darted forward and tugged at every part of the fireman. The two men landed heavily a few feet from the hole. Lambert exchanged brief words with Fitzpatrick as he stood. He then addressed Sheahan, “Three more bodies at the bottom.” Lambert and Sheahan rapidly unbuttoned their official tunics, Patrick handing his to a man wearing old-fashioned Hessian boots (which, though immaculate, were missing their tassels) who stepped forward from the crowd to save it from the dirt. Both men were already sweating beneath the cold sun.

Their firmness. The tough fibrous texture of the ladder’s wooden rungs. The way they gave and tugged at his hands as his feet moved between and came down upon those below. Even their brownish yellow hue. They reminded Patrick of bull’s horns. He had taken many a bull by the horns back in Limerick; wrestled them from one field to another, or into pens, when they came old enough to hurt one another. The rungs split the street into frames as he descended. A world of tilted hips. Of coat hems. Of baggily housed groins and thighs, the slight suggestion of sexual organs. Then followed a world of shoes. Leather, rubber and wood. Buckled, strapped and laced. Blacks and browns. Stamping, shifting, pivoting, pacing and passing. And of bare feet, fresh mud squeezed between toes, crusted anklets of mud. Then a half frame that whipped away as the reel ended.

Much later, as Patrick’s body lay muddy and blue in Mercer’s hospital, Constable Maurice Wolf “with tears in his eyes” related to the attendant hordes of press another spectacular instance in which Sheahan had shown himself a cut above the rest. “It was another time. There was an award in it for him on this one. A pride of drunk Trinity students were running up and down Dawson Street with the nation’s flag that they’d stolen from the Lord Mayor’s house. Poor auld constable Ryan was running around after them trying to get it back but they were doing loops around him. They taunted him and spat at him and threw the flag to one another. The Lord Mayor himself was out on the steps loudly lamenting his bare flagpole and expressing his contempt for the students and their families. He was such a shade of crimson as you’ve never seen. When Sheahan showed up though, the fear went into them. They tried to dash off but young Patrick had them in only a couple of his great strides. He was an Olympian in strength. Dublin’s Hercules. Would have been a fit man to represent the British Empire on their tug-of-war team in the new Athenian Games next year. Well, the lot of the riotous students were knocked into the earth in seconds and the flag was recovered. You should have seen him, one boot resting on the arse of a whimpering student and the flag unfurled and waving about from one of those big hands. A proud son of Erin. The Lord Mayor was delighted.”

As he descended the ladder, Patrick noticed that the smell, which had been extremely caustic, seemed duller now. Twenty six feet. Five feet in diameter. He was half way down already. Along with the absence of smell came the absence of sight and sound. He was all that filled the hole. The Patrick Sheahan hole; the whole of Patrick Sheahan. “Patrick Sheahan,” Constable Patrick Sheahan said aloud as he descended. Only this in the labyrinth of his ear. And then once again his own footfall, and the movement of his hands upon the rungs as they clattered like the horns of warring bulls. He did not once look up at the bright disk of Patrick’s Blue that hovered in the center of the blackness above him; the inverse of his own eye whose sliver thin blue band enclosed a bulged and searching void. Two thirds down and the now thicker gas, undetected by his peaked nose, was already casting a dull shroud over his mind. Its dense mix of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and methane would allow even his great body a maximum of four minutes to live. Already it was corroding the soft membranes of his lungs. Soon they would begin to bleed.

The bottom of the ladder shocked him. His boots deep in mud. His body suddenly stopped. He reeled back. He forgot for a moment where he was. Were the bodies to the right or the left? And how far? He guessed left and had taken only two cautious steps when his foot found the chest of a sprawled workman. A few steps further, a second man lay half mounted upon a third. The bodies were heavy and wet but slid easily over the slicked tunnel floor. He dragged all three the short distance to the ladder’s bottom. His whole front was now a mess of slime. Two thick trails of it too on the backs of his thighs where he had tried to wipe his hands clean. One minute had elapsed already. A shining coin of pain pressed into his brow. He rubbed the back of his hand against it. Behind his eyes came a new blue sun which radiated blue heat. The spot where he stood, below the hole, became greyly visible. The colour of near distance in Limerick fog. He took the limp arm of one body and with his big thumb touched the inner wrist. Life! The clear kick of a heart! Not his normal boyish grin, but a big stupid one overtook his face. Alive! Though he himself had just over two minutes more of poisoning until his body too would slump, his Irish mind crumble. The second body was beating as well. The third, Flemming’s, was cold and still. He bent and tried to hoist the first upon his shoulder but the wet arm slipped out from his hands and the body splashed back, spattering Patrick’s face with freckles of filth. Patrick stumbled, reached for the sewer wall. He had to take three large, almost comical steps backwards until his body was under control again.

The coin of pain in his forehead was growing, driving into his scull. The blue sun now pulsing like the eye of a lighthouse through a storm. He got back to the body and this time took both an arm and a leg and bent his shoulders to receive them. The large muscular body slotted onto his. The slime of it matted his hair, crawled down his collar in chilled channels through the sweat that clung there. Just then his stomach withered and shook. His lunch, brown bread and beef, suddenly close to his throat. His whole inside began to moan and squirm. He clung to the big thick man upon his “brawny” shoulders. He was afraid to move like this, his whole body writhing about under his skin. His heart felt too big for him. It beat upon his chest as though trying to force an exit. He tried whether he could get the second man up with him too, but there was no way to manage the both of them together. He gripped the ladder with one hand, clamping the workman against his back with the other. A second wave of nausea. Thirty seconds more at this depth and his body would abandon him.

He clutched the ladder. He could smell nothing. Sweat hot and dense as candle wax ran from his face, his neck, his pits, his chest, his loins and the backs of his knees. The feculence saturated his crisp white shirt, his blue cotton trousers. It worked through the cloth. The grit in it scratched his skin, made raw, abhorrent sensation. He lifted himself and the other up onto the first rung. Then second. Then third. His limbs shook. He felt as though he hadn’t slept in twenty nine years. He might have lingered forever on that third rung, but that he was overtaken by a sudden certainty that the wood would snap. He was sure of it. He could feel it give way. Hear it creek, splinter and snap. He could feel his ringing scull shatter against the sewer wall, the muck creeping into it through cracked bone. Tugging himself up he moved slowly, slowly toward the dot of sky. Voices may have been falling now about him.

Much later, as Patrick’s body lay muddy and blue in Mercer’s hospital, Constable Maurice Wolf “with tears in his eyes” related to the attendant hordes of press another spectacular instance in which Sheahan had shown himself a cut above the rest. “It’s only a short time ago since he stopped a run away bull in Grafton Street by catching it by the horns. The beast was maddened by the crowed. People running and screaming. Some making matters worse by laughing and tossing stones at it. It had got hold of a lady’s shopping bag and was mauling it, scattering skirts and all sorts of unmentionables around the place. The lady was such a shade of crimson as you’ve never seen. But the expense was too much to just abandon her garments, you see. Well she was near enough to running in and trying to get the bag back off the bull when Sheahan turned up. He leapt in front of her and grabbed the beast by its horns. He wrestled it to its knees. It tried to shake him off but he caught its eyes and stared it down. It was a sight to see, the two beasts just gazing into each other’s eyes as their chests heaved and they panted and snorted at one another. He stayed that way, staring and kneeling like as he were at prayer until the farmer got a rope around the beast. When I asked him afterwards about it, he said the only thing he was afraid of was that the bull’s horns would give way. He had no fear of himself, and he was a giant in strength.”

Sheahan’s head came out into the light. For a minute he could see nothing, only feel the weight of the workman lifted off him. He stumbled out of the hole. He forgot for a moment where he was. He was in the center of a thick crowd. Faces all around him mouthed silent, meaningless things. Noses wrinkled and recoiled. Eyes shrieking at him. A fireman gripping him by the shoulders. Was there a fire? He looked around for the direction of the smoke. He felt incredibly light! His feet almost came out from under him. And Lambert, Lambert was holding him, stopping him from floating off into the sky. Lambert. A man was dying! Nearby a man was dying. The second workman’s pulse rang like a church bell from the hole. The hole! The ladder. Rig of bull’s horns. That foraminous tongue. “Sheahan!” Someone close by called his name. “Patrick Sheahan,” he called back. Patrick Sheahan. Yes. He gripped the ladder that for the next three hours dozens of Dublin men would climb down, each migrating from savior to victim in the blackness. He gripped the shuddering wooden horns, fixed his eyes below himself and climbed toward his own reflection as it bulged and wobbled in the saline sphere of the bull’s wide black eye.  

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