Tell Your Own Story
Deserted by Paddy ReidSubmit Your Memories
As the Irish government considers pardoning the 4,983 soldiers branded deserters who left the Irish Army to fight with the British during the Second World War, Paddy Reid reveals his personal story and the true impact of DeValera’s actions. Ireland was neutral during the conflict, but around 10% of its armed forces felt compelled to fight fascism. Under the Emergency Powers (No 362) Order 194, on their return, many were placed on an official blacklist, banning them from jobs, benefits or pensions.
“Ask away, Pat.” She smiles.
“Why does daddy hate him so much?”
Her smile goes and she stops peeling.
“He doesn’t really hate him.” She slices a spud in half, sees it’s all rotten, and tosses it into the bin with other bad ones. “They don’t see eye to eye on a few things.”
“Why not?” I demand.
“Because that’s how it is,” she snaps. “It’s like askin’ why birds fly. They jus’ do, is all.”
I’ve picked the wrong time to ask. She’s still edgy after last night’s argument with daddy. She had threatened to take me and go to Waterford to her mother’s home in Dungarvan. That stopped him moaning on and on about the old man getting so drunk at Christmas. It’s what holidays are for, Ma had told him, people getting drunk to forget themselves for a while.
“Sorry I asked,” I tell her. “No need to bite my nose off.”
“I’m sorry, love.” She shakes her head and sighs, “Grandad is a worry lately. He downed a bottle of whiskey on Christmas Day.”
“Why does he drink so much?”
“I wish I knew,” she says softly. “He swears it eases the pain in his insides.”
“Will he ever get better, Ma?”
“God only knows,” she shrugs. “Now, let’s get the dinner on.”
I like Grandad Bollard a lot. I don’t see much of him, except sometimes at the Tin Chapel on Sundays. If I’m late for the Children’s Mass at ten I go at eleven. Grandad is usually there. He stands six foot four inches and walks with a bad limp. Father Quilligan, the parish priest, calls him ‘the long fellow.’ He keeps telling Grandad that he should be inside the door during the Consecration, the most important part of the Mass. The old man prefers to stand beside the holy water font. When his legs hurt, he’ll lean on the concrete lip of the font. Some people like to cluster in whispering knots at the back of the chapel, but at least they’re inside. He’s easy to spot, with his head tilted against the door frame, staring down at the ground, brushing away a lock of white hair that keeps falling down over his forehead. When the Consecration ends his head disappears. He slips away as the priest finishes the Our Father. That way he’s sure to be outside the Pier Inn when it opens at noon. Once inside, he’ll sit in silence with a bottle of Guinness stout, while others do the most of the talking. Sometimes he’ll give in to requests to sing. Everyone says he has a good tenor voice. He always sings the same song.
“I’ll take you home again Kathleen, to where your heart will feel no pain…“
My mother is named Kathleen, and her mother before. The old man was hurt bad in the First World War. Ever since he’s been having operations. Some metal bits are still stuck inside him. “I’m riddled with German steel,” he’ll say laughing. “No funeral when I die just sell me to Gunnary’s Scrapyard.” Each time he leaves hospital he looks worse. “No more bloody operations!” he swears, then changes his mind. “Pain makes liars of the best of us,” he says.
I answer the hall door. Grandad stands there, rain dripping from the peak of his woollen cap.
“Happy New Year, Pat.” He gives me a gap-toothed grin.
“You too, Granda.” It’s the second day of 1961.
“Tell us…?” He bends to whisper in my ear. “Is your daddy in?”
“No,” I whisper back. “He’s out lookin’ for a job on the docks.”
“He’ll never get a job,” Granddad snorted. “He’s a deserter.”
I sigh deeply. I know this story by heart. My dad had deserted the Irish Army to join the British Army in 1941 and fought in Burma for five years. On coming back to Dublin in 1946 he had been put on ‘The List’ and would not be allowed to take up any job for seven years. Except for him this had gone on for 16 years and still no work.
“Daddy won’t give up lookin’ for work,” I insist.
“It’s your mother I want.” He edges sideways past me. “Is she in?”
“Shut the door!” Ma yells, coming out of the kitchen. “It’s perishin’ cold.”
“We need to talk, Kay,” he tells her, darting a look at me. “Just us two, like.”
“Okay,” Ma sighs deeply. “Make us tea, Pat, like a good boy.”
While making tea I look through a crack in the kitchen door. Ma sits at the table, hands on her lap. Granddad pulls his chair close to hers and talks in a low, serious voice.
“… Jus’ for a while, Kay, until I find another flat.” He leans forward until his head almost touches hers. “This is all yours.”
He drops a blue book into her upturned hands his pension money from the British Army. “I’ll get by on my work pay.”
He’s a part-time night watchman for Dublin Corporation.
“No,” Ma says softly, “Don’t do this to me.”
“Ah, go on.” He smiles, patting her hands. “Take it, Kay. That husband of yours will never get a job. DeValera’s government made sure of that.
“I won’t take it.” Ma lets the book falls to the floor. “I can’t.”
“It’s himself, isn’t it?” Granddad growls, picking up his book.
Ma says nothing, just stares at her folded hands.
“Still too bloody proud to take help, eh?”
Ma just shakes her head.
“I’ll be gone so much he’ll hardly know I’m here, love. All I need is a bed.” His eyes look watery. “Please, Kay, just for a while. . .”
They fall silent as I bring in tea. I hurry back behind the kitchen door.
“Take it.” He pushes the book toward Ma. “Else I’ll only piss it away on booze.”
She looks at it, tears rolling down her face.
“No, love,” he whispers, “don’t, please … Kay!”
I come running from behind the door.“What’s wrong, Ma?”
She just shakes her head.
“Nothin’s wrong.” Grandad presses a coin into my hand. “Go and buy some sweets for yourself.”
Late that night I press fingers tight into my ears, but I can’t stop their voices coming through the bedroom wall.
“Give him a chance,” Ma is saying. “We’re all he has.“
“The fuckin’ pub is all he has!” Daddy yells back. “Let him sleep in the Pier Inn.”
“Christ, man, he’s your father!” she shouts. “You’re not bein’ a bit fair to him.”
“He’s not comin’ here. We don’t need his lousy money.”
“Listen, Mister,” Ma hisses, “Pride is no match for hunger, so get off your high horse!”
“Shut up woman!”
I hear a loud smack and wince from the hit. Footsteps move quickly to the front door.
“Runnin’ away won’t help,” Ma says. “We could use the money, for Chrissakes.”
The footsteps stop.
“Get out,” I whisper to the wall, wanting him gone. “Don’ stop now.”
“Please, Kay,” he says in a sorry way. “We’ve no room for him here.”
“We’ll manage,” Ma tells him. “S’only for a while.”
“Where will he sleep, like?”
“I’ll put a fold-up bed in the kitchen. He’ll be no bother.”
I can sleep easy now, knowing that she’s got her way for once.
Grandad moved in last week carrying everything he owned in a big white sack with ‘Boland’s Flour Mills’ printed on it. I watched him empty it onto the kitchen table. It held three brown paper bags, one black suit, a pair of shiny black shoes, two white shirts, a dark blue tie and a clump of socks and underwear.I’m thinking I’ll be seeing him a more now that he’s living here. But he’s always gone when I get up in the morning and doesn’t get home until late. Both men are rarely home at the same time. I can tell when they are, because the place is so quiet. Even the floorboards stop squeaking. Ma wants Granddad to come home for a hot meal, but he never does.
“I’m doin’ fine, Kay,” he tells her. “I get all I need at the Pier Inn.”
I’m lying in bed trying my best to keep quiet, but I really want to scream. It isn’t the pain of it. I just don’t like the thought of something moving around inside my ear. What if it finds its way into my brain? I don’t want to wake up daddy. I can just hear him. You’re eleven, Pat, act your age. I let out a moan as the thing goes in deeper. My bedroom door opens and someone comes in.
“What’s wrong?” Grandad asks. I hear creaky bones as he slowly kneels by my bed.
“Somethin’s in my ear,” I say, trying not to cry. “It’ll eat my brain, so it will.”
“It’ll be okay, son. It’s only a flea.” He’s been drinking, but his words are clear. “I’ll get some olive oil and we’ll sort it out quick as a wink.”
He uses a teaspoon to dribble oil into my ear. The moving stops.
“That will do it,” he whispers, patting my hands. “In the trenches I stuffed cotton wool in my ears to keep ’em out. But they always got in, the sly buggers. They ate me alive. Worse than all the Kaiser’s soldiers, they were.” He laughs softly. “Goodnight, lad.”
“Granda!” I don’t want him to leave just yet. “Was it the war that hurt your legs?”
“My legs and other things.” He slowly wipes oily fingers with old newspaper.
“When did you get wounded?”
“In 1917. A place called Passchendale.”
“That’s a funny name.”
“It’s foreign.” Granddad nods. “Can you spell Passchendale? I’ll give you sixpence if you can.”
“P-A-S-I-O-N…” I say quick, then I’m stuck.
“Close enough, lad.” He ruffles my short red hair. “Here’s your money.”
Granddad spends his working nights keeping watch in the city centre. Ma has sent me after him with sandwiches he’s forgotten. I’m whistling to make noise for myself as I hurry down the silent, empty roads leading to a place called George’s Pocket, at the rear of Temple Street hospital. I see piles of rubble and the shattered remains of redbrick houses. All the street lamps have their heads cut off. I’m nearly sorry I came because I hate this pitch darkness. I pass by the Black Church, trying to remember why it’s called that. Something about Protestants and devil worship. Even the name is scary. I cross myself and move on, giving it a wide berth.
A full moon appears from behind the church spire, casting a creamy light over jagged beams. Black rafters poke up into the frosty sky, like long bony arms reaching up to heaven. I push on quickly, feeling the crunch of grit and glass under my feet. Something white moves ahead of me and I stop dead in my tracks. I’m about to turn back when I see an orange glow flickering in the distance. His watch fire. I take a few steps to go wide of the whiteness and see that it’s only a torn net curtain hanging from a broken window frame.
Coming near the watch hut, I see a thin figure hunched over a brazier, head bent and hands clasped as if praying. The hut is shaped like a coffin and looks no bigger. A small mound of coke is piled against the hut, Grandad’s fuel for the fire. He leans forward, hands raised to the shimmering coals. A kerosene lamp hangs above his head. It gives off a yellowish glow that shows half of a deeply lined face.
“Granda, it’s only me,” I call, waving a paper bag. “You forgot your sandwiches.’
“Where’s all the people that lived here?” I’m looking at the smashed homes around me.
“They’re gone.” Grandad stops eating. “Been all cleared out.”
“Gone?” I hold my hands out to the brazier. “Where to?”
He shrugs, pulling his grey cap down over his eyes. “Out there.” He points behind me. “To new places like Finglas.”
I look over my shoulder and see only blackness. “Why?”
“To live in nice houses.” He says ‘nice’ like it’s a bad word.
“It’s all wrong, Pat, mark my words.” His eyes are bright in the fire glow. “It’s no way to treat people.” He spits at the brazier. “Move ‘em lock, stock and barrel to the back of beyond.”
I can’t imagine what Finglas is like. I’ve never been more than a mile from home. All I know is Portside, with its cranes, ships and tenements that are no different than these used to be. How did they get these people to move out, with no hope of ever returning? I edge closer to the fire.
“Alan Caffrey is movin’ to Finglas soon,” I tell him. “Maybe it’s not so bad?”
“He belongs here.”
“Here?” I look around me. All I see is bockety walls and twisted wood.
“Portside, I mean. These homes could have lasted forever, with a few repairs.”
“Then why smash them?”
“Because Dublin Corporation don’t give a damn, that’s the why. See this?” He plucks a yellow piss-in-the-bed growing beside the watchbox. “These dandelions thrive where nothin’ else will.” He holds it before my eyes. “But not in an empty desert. It’s the very same for people.”
He searches my eyes. “D’yeh follow me?”
“I don’t see.”
“It’s okay, lad.” He smiles. “I’m only talkin’ through my hat anyway.” He lights a cigarette from a gap in the brazier. “They’ll tear the heart and soul out of this town I hope to be kickin’ up daisies long before it’s over.”
“Why kick daisies?” I ask in a yawny voice.
“Never mind,” he laughs. “Go on home now. Don’t want your daddy to get upset at me.”
Grandad comes home drunk and falls down, cutting his head against the edge of the kitchen table. Ma is out, so I run to help him.
“Pat!” Daddy is charging out of his bedroom, eyes mad. “Leave him be!”
“S’okay, lad…” Grandad waves me away, as he gets up on one knee.
“It’s not okay!” Daddy shouts, slapping Grandad’s face, causing him to fall over again.
“No!” I yell, running to Grandad. “Let him alone!”
Daddy picks me up and tosses me on the sofa like I’m a rag doll. I watch Grandad poke at his nose with a finger. He looks lost, gawking at big red drops splattering onto the yellow lino. I jump off the sofa.
“Stay, Pat,” Daddy growls, not looking at me. “Let him clean up his own fuckin’ mess!” The old man nods, dabbing at the blood with his hankie. He’s very wobbly. All he’s managing to do is smear it around the floor. I can’t stand it any longer and run to help him mop up. Daddy doesn’t stop me, but if looks could kill I think we’d both be kicking up daisies.
Grandad is back in Leopardstown Hospital with bad chest pains. Ma took me to visit him a couple of times, then hurt her back when she slipped on ice getting off the bus. The doctor warned her she has to rest, especially now that she’s expecting a baby.
“You’ll have to visit Granda on your own,” she tells me. “Tell him I’ll be out when the weather gets on a bit better.”
“Please, son.” Her eyes are red from crying. “He needs to see one of us.”
I’ve never had to travel so far on my own. I’m waiting at Tara Street for the Leopardstown bus. A gale-force easterly wind sends waves crashing over the Liffey River wall. It feels like I’ve been standing here for hours as cold eats into my bones. There’s no bus shelter and the times listed in the book mean nothing.
“Icy roads,” a bus inspector says when I ask what’s keeping my bus. “Be patient, lad.”
“Easy to say!” I shout as he walks away. “Yer not the one freezin’ to death!”
I’ll go home and tell Ma that the bus never came. As I run through Townsend Street, I’m only half glad not to be going all the way out there alone. I know he’s waiting for me. It’s only a matter of time. He’ll surely still be there tomorrow.
I walk quickly up a long gravel path, hearing rustling noises as I pass under a huge canopy of trees. I’ve never seen so many trees in one place. It’s scary. Just like the jungle in Daktari on television. In the shadowy light I keep looking around, wondering if some wild animal will jump out and tear me to bits. I hear voices ahead and run towards a group of people going to the hospital. Old men wait in silence for us in the lobby, sucking hard on cigarettes, eager for their visitors. A pair of yellow birds in a wooden cage are singing their tiny hearts out. Ma says that this place is one of a kind in Ireland. A military hospital for men who served with the British Army.
I’m getting to know some of the men to see. They say hello like I’m someone they’ve known for years. I like them. Some have been here a long time, Grandad says, and will never leave again. Mick Boylan’s bed is next to Grandad’s. Mick is from Lismore and knows my mothers family well. He’s younger than the others, a blacklisted deserter like my dad, except Mick got captured by the Japanese. He never has any visitors as his family disowned him for joining the British Army. I make sure to say hello to him. Mick often pretends to sleep during visiting hours. He also talks to himself. He’s nodding his head now, as if listening to some ghostly voice. No one else seems bothered by this.
“Why’s he talkin’ to himself, Granda?” I whisper.
“He’s probably yappin’ to his mother-says she’s always here. It beats talkin’ to himself, I suppose.” He laughs, tapping his head. “Man has a few screws loose. Can’t blame him after three years in a Japanese death camp.”
“He calls me Eddie.”
“I know, lad.” Granddad says softly. “He means no harm.”
“Who is Eddie?”
“Why don’t he visit him?” I demand.
“Eddie died of TB in Waterford very long ago,” he whispers, looking at Mick. “He was the same age as you.”
Grandad’s face is yellow, like old newspaper. I’ve been bringing him extra sandwiches, which he prefers to hospital food. Even so, he’s still losing weight. I kind of like all the attention the men give me, but something bothers me. It’s when visitors leave.
The ward goes too quiet. All their eyes look so sad, as if they were never going to see us again.
I’ve skipped school to visit Grandad on his sixty-fifth birthday. I’m the only passenger on the bus today as most people visit on Sundays. The trip is slow and bumpy as the old CIE single-decker rattles its way up the twisty hospital road. I’m used to going alone now. I’m really getting to like walking under the archway of trees.
A young man is talking to Grandad as I walk in. He has a huge tape recorder.
“He’s a–what’s the word?” Grandad asks.
“Historian.” The man smiles at me.
“Historyman.” Granddad nods. “He’s talkin’ to men who fought with the Dublin Fusiliers in the Great War. It’s a tea… somethin’?”
He tilts his chin to the stranger.
“A thesis,” the man adds.
“Good!” Granddad says happily. “People can never know too much history.” The man has a bottle of Paddy whiskey and pours drinks as he asks questions.
Booze is not usually allowed here. With a drink in his hand Grandad talks easily. I sit on the edge of his bed, sipping red lemonade and listening. Mick is awake and all ears too.
“Granda, tell him about pasion,” I say.
“Pasion?” He raises a bushy eyebrow. “Ah, Passchendale!” They all laugh. I laugh too although I don’t see what’s so funny.
“It’s the last day of October and we advance with bayonets fixed. The officer beside me is shoutin’ orders. His mouth moves but I can’t hardly hear a word. I’m pissin’ sweat in spite of the cold. The noise from falling shells is awful. We run through thick smoke until we reach a pile of bodies. Our fellas. One is still alive, his body burns with a blue fire.”
“Jesus!” Mick cuts in. “You’ll give the kid nightmares.”
“Right,” Grandad nods. “Better skip that bit. Now, where am I?”
“The blue fire,” I say quick, glaring at Mick.
“Aye. The Germans have a new gas weapon, but this is the first I’ve seen of it …”
Mick just shakes his head. The historyman is writing fast.
“… I want to run away, but I go on.” Granda stops to sip whiskey.
“Go on,” I tell him.
“I look around me. We’re like ghosts in a foggy graveyard.” His eyes narrow. “Next thing I know I wake up flat on me back, dead fellas are lyin’ all around.” He pauses, staring off into the distance. “I can count the survivors on one hand and still have fingers leftover.” He reaches for the bottle. “Christ, I’m not afraid of hell. I’ve already seen it.”
Grandad and Mick sit in front of a fuzzy old television in the lobby. Almost every man in hospital is here too. Some of their faces look sad, most are just blank. They’re watching a parade of old soldiers march down O’Connell Street. Granddad tells me it’s the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising by the IRA. I can see few are enjoying this programme.
“Can I switch to the other channel?” I reach for the TV knob.
“No!” Everyone howls at my back, nearly making me jump out of my skin. I can’t figure them out. Why watch this if it upsets them so?
“Granda was very quiet today,” I tell Ma. “He hardly even talked to me.”
“It’s all this fuss over nineteen sixteen,” she says. “He’s bound to be upset by it.”
“He’s an outcast, is the why,” she says. “He fought in the wrong army.”
Just like daddy, I’m thinking but don’t say it.
“Why did he join up then?’ I ask
“He had to. Him and loads of other Portside men went on strike in nineteen thirteen and were locked out of their jobs on the docks for months. It was the army or starve. The IRA fellas never forgave those who joined the British Army and served abroad instead of fightin’ here against the same English.”
The walkway is full of autumn flowers. Millions of blue, red and pinky ones. I’m really loving the colors of this place. The only thing Portside has plenty of is yellow piss-in-the-beds. I run into Granddad’s ward and skid to a stop. Someone else is in Mick’s bed.
“Mick’s gone,” Grandad tells me.
“Oh? Where’s he gone?”
“It’s his time, love,” Grandad whispers. “They say old soldiers never die.’
He’s sitting in bed with his arms folded, just staring out the window, so I go and watch TV. As visiting time ends, he calls me and puts a folded piece of paper into my hand.
“Make sure your ma gets it,” he says. “Don’ let your father see it, hear?”
“Are yeh goin’ to die too?” The words run out before I can catch them.
“We all die, lad.” He pats my head, smiling. “Don’ worry your head over it. You’re as young as the flowers in May.”
On the bus home I read the big, scrawly writing.
Please let me come home. I don’t want to die here.
I know I’ve let you down bad in the past. No more drink.
I swear to God them days are gone.
I remember you always in my prayers.
“How is he?’’ Ma asks as usual. I hand her the note. “What’s this?”
As she reads, tears roll down her cheeks. She buries her face in hands muddied from peeling potatoes, slowly rocking back and forth. Brownish drops seep through her fingers and down onto theWaterford News and Star laid out on the table.
Shite. I should have torn up the letter.
“Christ, what can I do?” She looks at me. “Does he think I like it this way?”
“Why torment me?” she asks. “He knows it’s not my fault.” She digs into her handbag and tosses more letters onto the table. “I can’t take this anymore.’’
“I know, ma.” But I don’t know at all.
She rubs her eyes, then picks up the letters. ‘Jesus, it’s him he should ask, not me.” She tosses the letters into the blazing fire.
“I’ll make us tea, Ma.” I run into the kitchen. I don’t want her to see me crying.
“Did she read the letter?” Granddad shouts as I come into the ward.
“Yeah,” I mumble. “She read it.”
“Good boy.” He smiles, rubbing his hands. “I think it’ll be okay.”
“What’s the matter?” He pats the bed and I perch myself on the edge. “Tell us?”
“Why does daddy hate you?”
“Ah,” he nods slowly. “All my fault, so it is. His mother and me argued a lot when he was a boy. He got caught in the middle of it all. She died soon after I left her.’’
He turns and stares out the window. I follow his eyes to the trees. Grandad has taught me the different tree names. Most of the leaves are gone, except for the oak ones. Although these are brown, dead and dry, they hang on, rattling against each other in the wind.
“Your daddy blames me and rightly so.” His eyes narrow. “I’m as wrong as wrong can be. I’ve told him so over and over, but. . . .” he rubs his jaw, “family can be awful hard on each other.”
It’s ten in the morning and someone is hammering on the front door. I see a tall uniformed man through the glass panel.
“Who is it?” I ask, opening the door.
“Telegram,” he says, “from Leopardstown Hospital.” Ma is beside me now. She’s so big and round and looks like she could burst open any minute. The man doesn’t even look at me as he hands her a clipboard to sign, then moves quickly away.
“Thanks,” she says softly, but he’s already gone. She sits on the edge of a kitchen chair and opens the telegram. As she reads she grips my wrist so tight that it hurts.
“What’s wrong, Ma?”
“Granda won’t be comin’ home.” She says, brushing stringy hair from my eyes. “We have to go and tell your daddy.” We walk down to the Custom House steps, to where he’s playing cards with other jobless men. While Ma tells him the news, I wait on the bottom step.
“He’s better off,” I hear daddy say as he gets up and walks toward the quays.
Ma just stands there a long time, even after he’s disappeared down the dry-docks. She takes my hand and we walk home without a word.
Ma isn’t at the funeral like she wanted to be. She went into the Rotunda hospital last night with labour pains. Just as well, I suppose. It’s so wet and chilly here in Glasnevin. Daddy is standing at the edge of the hole, staring up into the gray droopy clouds, as if wishing he was miles away. His face is all wet. It’s just the rain. Only rain. I’ve never seen him cry. He’s not going to start now. I bend down to touch a huge wreath, “From all at The Pier Inn.” The black-bordered card reads, “We will never forget you, Paddy. Rest in Peace.” The words are running away to inky blotches even as I put the card back. The crowd are huddled together for warmth. I’m trying to count them all, but some keep moving and I lose track. I’d say about a hundred. A lot of our neighbours were at the funeral mass in the Tin Chapel this morning, then went on home. Here it’s mostly relatives, old friends and workmates. Father Quilligan is saying some Hail Mary’s. I listen as two of my old aunts talk of funerals past, of people they knew who caught their end of pneumonia from standing too long in this very same cemetery. How it always seems to rain at funerals and how they’ll soon be in the Gravediggers Pub for sandwiches and a hot glass of Paddy whiskey. That sounds perfect. Grandad would love it. I pull on both their sleeves.
“Can I come to the pub with youse?” I ask, letting my teeth chatter a bit.Submit Your Memories
(c) Paddy Reid February 2012
Paddy Reid teaches reading and writing skills on a voluntary basis in the inner city, and a memoir class in Balbriggan Library (also voluntary). He lived in the USA for over a decade and published memoir and short story in University literary journals such as Connecticut Review, Sou'wester and Primavera and about 20 other university journals. Paddy received the Anton Chekhov Award for Short Story from the Crescent Review (USA) in 1996. Paddy writes principally about 'Portside' a dockside community in Dublin.