The man from the Corporation was fixing the bin-cupboard by the front door; trying, I think, to rip out the hinges and put in new ones. He kept going on about Rangers and Celtic to a joiner working at the next house along. I could hear their voices from upstairs, where I sat by the fire chewing a corner of the old, purple candlewick that covered my mother’s bed. I stood up on bare feet, and walked to the boiler, a round thing wearing a furry jacket that hung in a built-in closet. They called it the immerser. I put my arms around it, and strained to make them go all the way, but even with my fingers at full stretch I couldn’t grab the wooden thing behind. There was something there; I knew there was; it had been there for ages. My right hand could just flick the edge of the thing, just about pinch a corner, but there was no grabbing it. In the end I squeezed my body halfway round, and pulled hard until the thing loosened and fell into the middle of the room with me underneath it.

I knew the face framed by that rickety wood. I’d seen it before, in that frame, and I knew who it was: my grandfather Michael. I knew that’s who it was though I’d never met him. The grandfather was covered in dust and damp patches dried in. But that was him: he had the darkest eyes I’d ever seen. His hair was slick, combed up to a glistening ridge; the lips were thin, the cheeks white. It looked as if someone had gone round his ears with a pencil. My Granda Michael looked like Glasgow: a place that felt far away by then, that sounded old and big and always in the dark. Just over twenty miles away from our coastal New Town of wall-heaters and bin-cupboards, it was the place where we were all born. Glasgow sounded like granda to me; I was sure they were one and the same.

I sometimes went back to the picture, and I got to know a little more as time went by. He was missing. I’d never seen him, and I was born 28 years after he disappeared at sea. I couldn’t get over these bits of information. He looked like Glasgow. He was missing at sea. In another time, when I’d come to look something like the man in the picture, I looked at it again, and noticed how my Grandfather Michael hadn’t changed a bit. He was missing, and was to be forever dark-eyed, with a forehead fit to launch ships with.

HMS Forfar was built by Fairfield, and launched, first as HMS Montrose, just before Christmas 1920. An Armed Merchant Cruiser of the Campbell class, she was fitted with eight six-inch guns and two three-inch anti-aircraft batteries. In 1940, the ship was guarding the sea around the Shetland Isles and, sometimes, it would lead a convoy through the dangerous waters off the west of Ireland. A fair number of Scots manned the ship during the closing months of 1940: Ian Affleck used to work in Kalac’s Cycle and Motor Store in Forfar, and felt he’d been born to help power a ship such as this, named after his own town. Angus McInnes’s father had been a fisherman on the Isle of Harris; Angus had sailed with Forfar since early in the war, working as a lamp-trimmer. He was good pals with an assistant cook called James Wilson McGinlay, who was a bit younger. McGinlay’s father was a coachman at Milton, in Glasgow, a fact which eventually brought James into nodding and tobacco-loaning relations with my grandfather, Michael O’Hagan, who came from Glasgow’s Calton district. They say James was shy, though, and when people would ask him how come he had two second-names he’d just blush, and mutter something about being quite lucky. Michael protected him, after his own style. My granda spent most time with Jim Reilly, who was in most respects like himself, from the Calton, with a small but persistent history of personal trouble left behind him.

Some time, say in November 1940, my grandmother Molly received an undated letter from Liverpool, where Forfar was docked. It was the last contact she would ever have with her troubled young husband.

22a Woodstock Gardens


Dear Molly

This is the first time I had the opportunity to write. I couldn’t send anything as I promised because I got into some trouble and got my pay stopped. I haven’t had the price of smokes since I got back and I won’t get any for a fortnight yet. Use the above address and I will get an answer quicker it is a fellow on the ships address. I am glad you and the kids are not here the bombing is terrible. I hope the same thing never comes to Glasgow. Tell Annie, Jeannie, May, Katie and them all I was asking for them. I hope you and the kids are keeping well I will be here for some time yet. I will draw to a close sending you and the kids my best love.


A thin strip of darkness, the U-boat U.99, commanded by the notorious Kretschmer, cut through the waters off Ireland soon after the last light had gone. It was joined by three other subs, part of the ‘wolf-pack’ strategy favoured by Admiral Dönitz, who also saw the advantage in having these boats travel towards the threatened convoy at night, and on the surface. The Royal Navy had been concentrating their efforts on the disabling of submerged boats, and hadn’t expected group attacks in the dark, from near-invisible silhouettes floating on top of the water. Thirty-seven British ships were lost in December, mostly the work of three U-boat aces: Kretschmer, Schcpke (in U.100) and Prien (in U.47).

A telegram stamped ‘priority’ arrived at 9 Sydney Street exactly a week later. ‘I deeply regret to inform you,’ it said, ‘that your husband Michael O’Hagan is reported missing on war service.’ Others had known of the ship’s sinking before then, and word had spread, but no one could face telling Molly or any of the women who had men on the boats. They left her pretty much alone with the telegram that day, but gathered round the day after, when a letter arrived from Wood Street School in Cardiff.

10 December 1940

Dear Madam

It is with very deep regret that I have to confirm my telegram telling you that your husband Michael Moran O’Hagan (Greaser) is reported to be missing and that he has probably lost his life on war service. Although it cannot yet be officially presumed that he is dead (in view of the faint possibility that he may have been picked up by another vessel), I can hold out very little hope that he is alive.

  Please allow me, therefore, on behalf of the officers and men of the Royal and Merchant Navies, the high tradition of which your husband has helped to maintain, to express sincere sympathy with you in this anxious time.

Edgar Irvine

Registrar General

After Forfar was gone, anxiety came and went, and then went a bit more. As the months passed, and the news grew old, various accounts of the sinking were still exchanged over backcourts in the Calton. It was said by some that Michael had been up on the deck near the end, part of a crowd near the lifeboats, and that he had gone back down below for his pal Jim Reilly. I see him for the last time beside the lifeboats, and can believe the second bit only with a smile, a smile that greets the families of the sailors from Harris and Milton who might believe this heroic deed also to have been the final work of their own missing grandfathers.

A handful of medals came to Sydney Street in a cardboard postal box heavily stamped. My granny lay them in a drawer, and spoke little of Michael again. Or maybe she saved up her not-speaking for her grandchildren. It was clear without much saying it that the O’Hagans were not of her sort. I only saw her really express what you would call emotion once, and that was near the end of her life, when the illness that would kill her first set in. She sat with my mother one day and wept into a scrunched-up handkerchief. I came back and forth from inspecting a very life-like statue of Mary, Our Lady, in the bedroom next door. My granny was speaking like I’d never heard her do, in a way I found quite frightening. She seemed to trust my mother as far as she was able to, in the way that women who’ve lived in a similar relation to men sometimes do. Each held out a hand in front of the fire. ‘I’m done,’ my granny said. ‘That’s me finished.’

My paternal grandfather’s people, gallivanting through the Calton of the Twenties, were as hard as pig-iron. There were loads of them, in the Catholic way, and they ran their lives (and other people’s) as if time were running out. Michael was drawn towards boxing, and he hung around the gyms on Sydney Street and Barrack, getting going as a manager. He was never taller than 5 feet 4 and a half, and was stocky, with a broad head, and arms a little stiff. The boxers themselves, if good enough, and with luck on their side, could make money out of their talent; and good managers made it out of talent-spotting and opportunism. My granda, who was perhaps not the best at it, was on 10 per cent of everything between five and ten pounds, and 25 per cent of all earnings over a tenner. It was the punters’ good judgment, of course, that made them money, but the size of their stakes would never have made them rich. Gambling was crooked but irresistible; and my granda was one of those done for practising it illegally. In later years, several of his brothers would seek to beat the licensed betting shops, by methods cannier than the services of good judgment could provide, and some of them were imprisoned in Barlinnie.

Michael’s mother was born in Glasgow, but her people came from Belfast. His father, Hugh O’Hagan, trained as an iron-worker and lived on the road where St Mary’s Chapel stood, Abercrombie Street, number 112. Hugh died of bronchitis at his work in 1932: he’d been working as a night watchman with the Statute Labour Department in Govan. All his sons went to Borstal, and graduated to Barlinnie prison, though none for ever. A few months in Michael’s case; a few years in his brother James’s. At one time, though, in the early Thirties, it is said there were four of the brothers in prison at the same time. They were convicted for theft or safe-blowing or agitation of one sort or another. Hugh’s father was called Hugh as well, and had been born in Glasgow in 1842, at a time when the Irish were flocking to the West Coast of Scotland in their tens of thousands. Hugh Sr’s parents – Hugh O’Hagan and Helen McQuade – may have seen the trouble coming, for they departed County Tyrone a few years before the Famine began, and set up a hide and skin-dealing concern in the High Street. All of the women worked, mostly as seamstresses, slipper-makers, steam-loom weavers or rollers of tobacco; few of them could write, signing their Catholic marriage certificates with an X.

In my own time, because of what’s happened, because of the death of the big industries, we’ve been given to singing a kind of hymn to Glasgow’s industrial might. And you’d need a heart like a swinging brick to sneer at the magnificence of those ships and those engines, or to deny the human effort they embodied. But the price was high; and the life, for many, was pretty desperate. Now that the shipyards are gone, we might rightly reflect on the proud launch-days and glories of a heavy construction era too sorely missed. Yet from time to time, I wonder if that eulogy includes enough recognition of the many working lives used up – not quite seen, not quite missed – under the wondrous bows of those ships. We might well be helpless before the romance of the Clyde shipyards, and we may be fairly entitled to that – but it is our romance, not that of those who worked there. Our worklessness can make all work look heaven-sent.

My mother’s father would have known what I mean. He spent the best part of a decade without work, waiting in line at the Docks, and outside other gates, for casual work that was tough, and tough to find in the years after 1920, before the next war. Charlie Docherty, nicknamed Beef, came from a family of Patricks and Gilroys – on his father’s side – and a bunch of Wilsons, Frasers and Grays on the other. Agnes Wilson, his mother, was a hair-factory worker (cleaning and treating horse-hair for mattress-stuffing) and a Protestant, and he took from her his elegant nose and wide, clear eyes. But all was not to keep well with the eyes. A fight broke out at his Calton corner one night, as Beef was up the stairs with a book. A crowd had gathered, and some of them shouted for him to come down, quickly come down, and break up the fight, which had grown thick and vicious, the way street-fights can do, surrounded by eggers-on. He got involved, trying to pull the terriers apart, when some breathless well-wisher threw in a ginger bottle, which bashed off the wall and lodged a slither of itself in Beef’s eye. When the glass came out, at the Royal Infirmary, the eye had to come out too. In time, it was replaced by a glans one, a polished globe, which shines out from old pictures, giving him the dandified, quizzical look of some cinema grandfather. At night (my granny told me) he’d place the thing in a blue tumbler.

I never saw my Granda Docherty either, though he lived on in holiday pictures and in my Granny Doc’s conversation in ways that made me feel fairly acquainted. Beef was a singer of Irish songs, a borrower of books, and a merchant seaman who made it home to Glasgow, where he got some work as an engineer’s labourer and later as a clerk. As well as this, he liked to sip beer, and he did that, without grief or care, at the Steps Bar in Glassford Street, until his heart failed him halfway through the Sixties. As he walked home from work that night, he cut down past St Mary’s – the chapel where his parents were married; Agnes having ‘taken the turn’ – and made his way down Stevenston Street, where he met his son-in-law, who saw that his breath was short and his tie all loose, and took him into the house. My mother never forgot the shortness of his breath that evening; years later, whenever we bumped into someone who rasped like that, my mum’s hand would go up to her throat, as if on its own, and she’d look at us, saying: ‘That’s what my daddy was like at the end of his days.’

Charlie was probably shadowed a little by Beef, his gamely young self: he was no stranger to the world he lived in. But family life seemed to have him in its grip; it reformed him; it placed him in a new relation to his surroundings – he was a father, and a husband who loved his wife – and the old temptations must have lost their shine. Michael, it seems, never really got to that point. There’s no telling just how much and just what kind of competition grew up between Michael and his brothers. The family ‘madness’ people spoke of – ‘the mad O’Hagans’ – was, whatever it was, the name given to the kind of behaviour displayed by Michael’s brothers and doubtless by Michael as well. They were all into it. They moved in fluid motion, all of them, between sport-as-gambling and gambling-as-extortion; between drinking for courage and drinking through remorse; between thieving for glory and stealing for need; between politicking through strength of religion and faith, and agitating through love of anarchy and strife. As the Thirties progressed, there would be spells for each of the O’Hagan boys – and some of the girls – when they would find themselves in the throes of a full-blown dependence. James had seven previous convictions on 19 March 1935, when he was arrested, aged 29, and given 21 months with hard labour for trying to rob premises at 335 St Vincent Street. He was armed with knives and explosives. A year and a half to the day, out of prison early, he was arrested again. The following article appeared in the Glasgow Herald under the headline ‘Reputed Thief Caught in Glasgow’:

The maximum sentence for the offence – three months’ imprisonment with hard labour – was imposed at Glasgow Central Police Court yesterday on James O’Hagan, who admitted a charge that, being a suspected person and reputed thief, he was found loitering in an enclosed yard at 22-24 Armour Street with intent to commit theft and housebreaking.

It was stated that on Saturday night the police got a telephone message that premises at 22 Armour Street were being broken into. When the police got there they saw the accused climbing an outside stairway leading to a doorway in a sausage factory. When charged he said: ‘I was looking for some ready cash.’

Not long before this, my Granda Michael (then working as a pool-table coverer) was involved in an event that would put him in Barlinnie for six months. There were hard men around the Gallowgate in the Twenties and Thirties – there still are today – who were distinguishable by their shortness, their awful neatness, and their ability to smoke with one side of their mouth while speaking through the other. Michael was one of these little Cagneys; he was all for his own people, they tell me, and he only did harm to himself. The thing that sent him to Barlinnie (he’d been before, but never for so long) was his spell marauding the streets in the company of a gun, which he fired, and which is said not to have belonged to him. Michael was doing some work for publicans in the Gallowgate; and whatever it was it was the sort of work made easier with the help of a revolver. Michael’s world was full of promise and disappointment; the gun may have eased him, or it may have cased his way in some shadowy deal or other.

I can’t tell. But as his world began to open up to me, I thought I began to see why it had always been shrouded in dusk. Simply: it wasn’t the sort of world that people discussed openly with the wider circle of the family. Not so simply: it was a world that had never entirely receded. If the accounts of it were missing – missing to the extent that even the participants didn’t know the background – it was for a reason. If it had been as dead as history, as finished as gone, then we would’ve come to know all about it. But that couldn’t happen. We had no history, I now think, because that stuff was never seen as gone.

In May 1921, something happened in the Calton, something involving the Chapel of St Mary’s, and guns, and Sinn Fein, and my grandfather, and his Uncle Francis. The story, in its way, tells us much of what the O’Hagan brothers had to live up to, in a time and a place where living up to the family name was everything. Michael was living with his parents at 112 Abercrombie Street. He was 18, and spending a lot of his time with James Burns, who lived at number 77. An Irish pal of theirs, Vincent Campbell, lived alone with his da, one stair up, in the tenement at number 74. It was right across the street from the house of Jamie Burns and his family. Hanging at the corner, Michael and Jamie would sometimes see the Campbells nip in and out of the different closes, looking people up. Michael’s uncle Francis was a pal of the older Campbell.

Ten minutes past noon on Wednesday 4 May 1921, a black waggon pulled out of the police headquarters at St Andrew’s Square. Inside, there were two prisoners, who were held in separate cabins. One of them called himself Frank Somers, though his real name was Frank J. Carty. He’d appeared in front of Stipendiary Neilson at the Central Police Court that morning, and was remanded in custody until the following Saturday. Carty had broken out of Sligo jail in June 1920, had stolen a revolver, and had later broken out of the jail at Derry. He was wanted in Belfast.

The van was cornered. With revolvers cracking, packs of men ran out from the southwest corner of Cathedral Square; others emerged from Rottenrow; more from alleys and closes situated near the top of the High Street. Bullets sank into the front of the van, some flew past, bouncing off the prison wall. Inspector Johnston dropped out of the cabin, and lay dead on the ground. The van skidded to a halt, and George Stirton – a plain-clothes officer – jumped off, letting fire at the assailants from his own revolver. Within seconds, he was hit on the wrist of his right hand, and dropped the gun. Three shots banged into the van’s radiator, as MacDonald, the Detective Inspector, blazed his way round the side, stooping low, staking out a position in the gunfight. The windscreen crashed inward at the same time as some of the ambushers fired into the keyholes of the locks on the van’s rear doors. But the thing held. Frank Carty lay flat inside the van; the second prisoner panicked, banging around inside, and shouting for help. Within three minutes, the attackers, seeing that the doors were jammed, scattered. It was a matter of seconds, that’s all it was, and they’d disappeared.

Late in the afternoon police came to St Mary’s, looking for the Rev. Father Patrick McRory. He was a young priest, well known and liked among the parish; he was often to be seen in and out of the houses in the Calton, especially those in Abercrombie Street. The officers went to number 74 and arrested Patrick Campbell and his son Vincent – there were a number of men in the house whom they arrested at the same time. They sent another company of officers up the road, to arrest Francis O’Hagan. At number 74, they’d found a revolver and six rounds of ammunition. Arrests were made elsewhere in the street, and in other streets bordering the Gallowgate. One of those arrested along with the Campbells was James Mitchell, a 29-year-old known Republican who had been seen early in the afternoon of the shooting, using the telephone at the Ivanhoe Hotel in Buchanan Street. The taxi company of Messrs Wylie & Lochead received a telephone call from Thomas Tracey, an undertaker and carriage hirer in Brigeton (later a prisoner), requesting that a taxi cab be sent to pick up James Mitchell – and unnamed others – at the Ivanhoe Hotel and deliver them to Abercrombie Street. A certain Mr McKechnie was sent to do the job. On returning to the Wylie & Lochead office he told his boss, Mr Cochrane, that he felt sure the people he was driving had something to do with the Sinn Fein outrage in the High Street, news of which had, by this time, spread all over the city.

This information led to the arrest of the Campbells, Mitchell, Tracey, some associates and partners, and my Great-Great Uncle Francis. McKechnie, the driver, was very nervous of passing the information on to the police. He was reluctant to become involved any further, and had almost to be dragged in to view an identification parade later that day, at the headquarters in St Andrew’s Square. Later that evening, his boss wrote a letter to the Chief Constable which spoke of a near-breakdown in McKechnie. ‘The experience,’ said the letter, ‘has occasioned a mental depression, which has led to a fear of his life.’ Many other witnesses had expressed similar fear, a pure horror at the thought of retaliation, and this was to prove very significant when it came to the trial. ‘It is regrettable,’ wrote the Chief Constable to the Secretary of State for Scotland, ‘to see the witnesses yielding to the threats of Sinn Fein.’

Sarah Kerr, of number 92 Abercrombie Street, was among those who spread the word that police had gone into St Mary’s Chapel armed with handguns and rifles. One outrage, they whispered, then shouted, was being met with another. Dozens of Catholic families went spare, and poured onto the street, as news of Father McRory’s arrest spread. At this time, around 9 p.m., 20 people had been arrested in the area, suspected of having been involved in the gun-battle and the murder of Inspector Johnston. Michael O’Hagan went from house to house, looking for news, wondering if an alibi could be established for Francis in the event that he might need one. A large crowd, over two thousand strong by then, had gathered outside the chapel-house, and were incandescent with fury, throwing stones and bottles, and cursing the police. The crowd was riotous, assaulting any police officer who came too near, and some had begun to run up the Gallowgate in mobs, smashing the windows of pubs and restaurants and banks. Leon Jaffe, who owned a cobblers at 588 Gallowgate, later complained to police that three pairs of boots had been stolen from his shop window. As the riot flared, the Chief Constable asked for assistance from the military; he was sent a sergeant and ten soldiers, who were to stay in the area until the ‘Sinn Fein prisoners’, as they were called, had been installed in Duke Street prison. Late in the evening, as a tramcar made its way down Abercrombie Street, it was ambushed by a crowd of young men, who smashed the windows, and kicked in the metal, bawling and spitting at the alarmed passengers cowering inside.

Robert Johnston’s murder, in the broad daylight of Rottenrow, brought a great deal of feeling against Irish Catholics and their Glaswegian offspring, some of which has never entirely gone. The riot in the East End seemed, to many, like the behaviour of a community quick to vindicate murder, a community neither Scottish nor British, but one rotten-in-exile, clannish, and pious only about the desecration of their own church. Violence, at first glance, seemed to be an acceptable part of their world, if not of their nature. The East End, for ever after, would carry a reputation for easy killing and a toleration of needless death. There were others who bore these truths like an illness. My Granny O’Hagan took me one day – fifty years on – down the stone steps of St Mary’s, both of us fresh from a Communion I barely understood. She held my hand, and her eyes blinked in the sun. She had glass rosary beads in her pocket, and a bone for the soup in her bag.

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