My grandmother’s small flat was usually crowded on Sunday morning after mass. My father, uncles and aunt talked noisily as the room filled with cigarette smoke (almost everyone smoked in the 1950’s). Seated in the armchair between the fireplace and the radiogram, my grandmother was matriarch and umpire should voices become raised or jokes unfitting. There in South London, far from Cork, Limerick and Dublin of their early lives, their gentle brogue and easy laughter belied an older sadness, the clues to which were easily found by a schoolboy, squeezed onto the floor beside the bookshelf, which held volumes of orange and white Penguin paperbacks. On the top shelf a hard cover copy of the WW1 memorial book “The Pals at Suvla Bay” could be found and beside the fire grate two embossed brass shell cases “Ypres 1914-18”. Sometimes I could look at the rugby cap stored in the old sea chest in her bedroom.
My grandfather’s ghost didn’t intrude much on day to day matters though, but he was grieved in stoic fashion on anniversary days and by remembrance cards guarded in missals. If I should ask about him I wasn’t exactly silenced but soon learned that conversation soon moved on to other more pressing matters: The London Irish rugby team, forthcoming christenings, union unrest, something else. So silently I studied Henry Hanna’s golden-bound book from Dublin: Ponsonby 12s.6d (1917) and often turned to page 221 to look at the photo of William Joseph Nagle, a two inch square portrait of a handsome young man in a private soldier’s uniform, among almost three hundred similar heads and shoulders. It’s the memorial book to the Dublin Pals, who marched from the sporting fields of Dublin to the sun broiled beaches of Gallipoli to fight with the allies, in a hail of bullets and shrapnel. It’s well over fifty years since those Sunday mornings and a whole century since they “Answered the call”. Beside my computer The Pals lies open once again on page 221, William Joseph Nagle, rugger forward from St Mary’s College RFC, looks out from the top of the page, beside him William O’Grady the young solicitor. Below him, portraits of Edward Nolan the doctor’s son from Tullow, Eldon Oldham of Dalkey chemist’s, Norman Connolly an official at Guinness’s and Michael O’Loughlin, civil servant and rowing champ of the Commercial Rowing Club.
When, many years later, I visited the Gallipoli Peninsula and, one hot summer’s day, sat alone on a stone bench in one of the seldom visited Commonwealth cemeteries on the Suvla Plain, I felt a tremendous sadness among the graves of those Irishmen of the Tenth Division. All those young lives ended in seconds, minutes or days from each other, in the prime of life. My mental chatter halted, stunned and respectful, while time seemed to stand still. Just the rustling of trees and the sparkle on the Aegean Sea remained. A voice called me back, Mr. Ali Efe my Turkish battlefield guide and friend broke the silence “Don’t forget to say a prayer for our Turkish boys too”.
My grandfather survived Gallipoli, then Serbia, where he froze in the mountains, Macedonia where he got malaria, eventually as Lieutenant he fought at Paschendale in 1917 but was badly wounded and shipped to London to recover in hospital. When it was finally all over he married my grandma in 1921 - they had seven children before he died at just forty two from pneumonia at Cork in 1933. Her grief and struggle to raise the littlest babes while the older ones were boarded at the Dublin Orphanage of St Vincent de Paul was a marathon of struggle and grief.
In the noisy sitting-room surrounded by her family and grandchildren she seemed positively queenly, generous and wise. The silent man from Mallow and Dublin had eloquently whispered in the schoolboy’s ear “ Don’t forget us, we went to fight for Ireland you know”.