The Irish Colonel
The tavern had begun to attract its share of regular customers as the early evening approached. A group of vaqueros rode up just as Diego de la Vega and Patrick O'Leary tied up their horses in front of the tavern. The vaqueros dismounted and looked with some apprehension at the officer in the unfamiliar uniform. They hung back and allowed Diego and O'Leary to proceed them.
Once inside, the vaqueros found an empty table and sat down, chatting and laughing, but they still eyed the colonel warily. A few minutes later they looked up in surprise when the innkeeper approached with a few bottles of wine for them. He told them that the wine was the compliments of the Irish officer and he wished them all good health. The vaqueros smiled, rose to their feet and toasted the red-haired man who acknowledged their gesture and casually saluted them.
Diego was impressed by the man's flair for diplomacy. "Colonel, you really know how to make friends at the drop of a hat."
O'Leary smiled as he poured the wine out into the two mugs. "There's nothing that eases a tense situation better than a friendly mug of wine. It seems that the sight of a military uniform is not something very welcome in Los Angeles."
The young don nodded. "It's all a part of what I have been telling you. The military is seen as the iron fist of a dictator. And the dictator is Capitán Monastario."
The Irish colonel sighed. "How far we have come. And yet there was a time when we men in uniform were all heroes, even Enrique. Wherever we went, people bought us drinks, girls vied for our kisses, and even every stray dog seemed to be our friend. I think that is the kind of glory we savor, that we long for again, and yet the times have changed. The current political struggle in Spain plays itself out here in the colonies. Those in favor of the old system that brought them glory now struggle to maintain it by any means necessary. And those who want changes chaff under the oppressions of the upholders of the old order who maintain their rule with the iron fist. No sooner are we the heroes, then we become the oppressors."
Diego looked pensive. "I would like to think that we don’t have to become oppressors, Paddy."
O'Leary poured another drink for himself and lowered his voice considerably. "That is one reason I retired, Diego. You see, after all the battles against Bonaparte, people saw the merits of the French revolution. It was a good thing, that revolution - now they want to believe in 'Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.' They are so sick and tired of the corruption of the king and the nobility, that they want a republic. Now that the French military threat has been vanquished, French ideas triumph instead - and ideas applied in our own way, not imposed on us by a foreign invader. But those at the top refuse to change. They even want to set the clocks back one hundred years."
"We are the first in our loyalty to Spain, but we support good change as well," responded Diego earnestly. "Are not the ideas of more equality, justice and the fraternity among men a good goal to fight for anywhere? Can good change not happen in our land without the violence and rule of the iron fist?"
"It would be nice to think so. Even in Ireland we’ve tried to achieve justice and freedom. Every time we try to bring about change peacefully, the English drown our efforts in blood. Where does that leave us? No other choice but to take up arms against our oppressors."
The Irishman looked off into the distance as if lost in thought a moment. Then he refocused his eyes on the young Californian. "Do you know about the Rebellion of ’98? No? Well, the men of who led the rebellion in 1798 were the finest of Ireland, most of them Protestants or Presbyterians leading the Catholics in a united front against the English occupiers. They called themselves the United Irishmen. There were great men like Wolfe Tone, Thomas Paine, the Englishman – more an ally and mentor - Edward Despard, Lord Fitzgerald, Arthur O’Connor, Robert Emmett and many others. All these men were inspired by the ideas of the French revolution. And, with a certain irony, it was the French that let them down – again and again – with promises for aid and even military intervention to help them win it."
O'Leary paused and continued in a disgusted tone. " And then Bonaparte proclaims himself emperor, betraying all republicans and begins to build an empire on the backs of everyone." He poured a little more wine out for both of them. "Is it no wonder, then, that you cannot bring the ideas of liberty to others at the point of a bayonet? It is a lesson that many find hard to learn."
"Any man has forgotten what freedom really is when he claims that he must bring it with the help of bayonets," mused Diego. "At least Monastario doesn’t try to tell us that he’s giving us anything other than his own notion of ‘justice.’
"Ah, Monastario, Monastario," O’Leary shook his head. "A perfect product of the system that nourished him, molded him, and later betrayed him. And he doesn’t want to see it. He wants, instead, to keep proving to himself that he is the best promoter, enforcer and defender of that system."
Diego saw his chance to learn more about Monastario, now that the focus of the conversation had shifted. "You keep talking about what happened to him, yet I don’t think I really understand the whole story. Could you start at the beginning, Paddy?"
"It all began with the French invasion, Diego," the colonel recounted. "I’ve mentioned this before. When the northern provinces of Spain were invaded and overwhelmed, many lost their lands, their homes, their wealth and position in society as a result. No invader comes in to save anyone from themselves: they only come in to loot, to plunder, pillage and to rob the native population and the national wealth. As for Monastario, his case was well-known at the time and it was a typical case in the north."
"I have never heard anything about this," said Diego. "And yet you say it was a well-known case."
"How quickly people forget," O’Leary said, taking a sip of his wine. "But like I said, what happened was typical in the northern provinces. His family was noble and proud, landholders with many tenants under their control. His father had served Spain well and retired as a captain. The oldest son was rather dissolute. When the French came, they took everything. The family refused to collaborate, like many did, and lost what they had. But the eldest son saw the French as a way to get back what was due him through inheritance and he collaborated very closely with them. They gave him bodyguards and the job of collecting taxes, expropriating grain, and forcing conscription into their new forces. He became a hated man locally, but he had local allies as well who were there for what they could get. Spaniard betrayed Spaniard."
O’Leary paused and looked at his drink, then looked into Diego’s eyes. "But the youngest son was indignant, patriotic and energetic. He was a young ensign straight out of the military academy in Madrid, following in his father’s honorable footsteps. When the war broke out he first served in the Army and later in the various partisan bands that sprang up after the regular army was defeated. There were many rebel bands. The one I served in, with Espoz y Mina, was perhaps the best and most humane. But most were not. War turned men into savages. Men who never harmed others turned to torture, killing, and worse."
"Is that what made Monastario cruel?" asked Diego. "Serving with men who were more bandits than soldiers?"
"Not exactly, although it later contributed to it. You see, the French brought with them an incredible savagery - with new military tactics, with advanced weapons, and with a desire to crush anyone who opposed them. ‘Kill them all’ was their slogan. You either had to be on their side or you were an enemy. There was no middle road for anyone. They showed no mercy to men, women or children who were then bombarded - their homes, villages, schools, churches and businesses sacked, looted and destroyed. But the French were also efficient and effective. Often their tactics worked and they got quick results – pacification and collaboration. Once you have seen this, and the senseless cruelty of it – cruelty for the sake of cruelty – then you understood why so many Spaniards desired revenge."
The colonel paused and took a sip of wine. Then he continued. "The biblical ‘eye for an eye’ was foremost in the minds of the patriots and they exacted a revenge on the French and their collaborators in kind. Monastario not only saw what had happened to his own home and its community of servants and ordinary people, he saw what betrayal could do as well. People he had known as a child and trusted were the ones that betrayed his family the most. Worse, his own brother betrayed his family. Servants informed on their masters. Tradesmen and peasants alike turned each other in for French monetary rewards or for a scrap of food. Those better off or well educated did the same. But despite all this, his hopes were still high. For victory would bring its own rewards and salvation from past sins – and perhaps redemption and resurrection as well. Ah, to be so idealistic. We were all idealistic in those days."
"You speak of salvation, redemption and resurrection for a man. Do you …?" Diego was distracted by the approach of a soldier.
Colonel O’Leary’s eyes also followed the soldier’s steps to his own table. He looked up at the private.
"Your pardon, Señor Colonel," the soldier said, saluting. "Capitán Monastario sends his compliments and regrets. He had some unexpected business to attend to but would like to invite you to join him briefly at the cuartel before dinner."
"Tell the comandante that I will join him shortly," responded O’Leary. "I shall finish my drink with my guest first."
The soldier nodded, saluted and left. O’Leary took another sip of his wine. He noticed the mug was almost empty.
"You were saying, Diego?" he looked back at the young man at the table who seemed lost in thought.
Diego refocused his attention on the man in the green uniform. "Yes. Did you mean salvation and resurrection of a man after the war was over?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, when the war was over," O’Leary responded. "You may think it odd to speak in such ecclesiastical terms, but this was, in a sense, a crusade and a way to redeem the sins of war, and of the family." O’Leary drained the last of his mug. "And I’ll leave it at this for now."
"It gives me much to think about," mused Diego. "And yet for me, and many others, Monastario has crossed the line between what is right and wrong too many times."
"Just one thing, Diego," said O’Leary, standing and taking his leave. "The belief in the possibility for salvation and redemption has given many men hope. But take that hope away, and what do you have left?"
The Irishman gazed deeply into Diego’s brown eyes and Diego almost felt that the look was painful. He believed that, in some way, the Irishman was also speaking of himself, and not just of Monastario. He retreated from this thought for the present and stood up to shake the man’s hand. "Until later, Paddy." The Irishman smiled and departed.