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Secret Lives and the Children of Independence by Ian Wilkinson

Writing.ie | Magazine | Tell Your Own Story | Writing & Me
crossing the water

Ian Wilkinson

 I learned most of what I know about life working with children and families in the NHS for over twenty years, helping people to cope with trauma, illness and other dilemmas. In that career, I used metaphors, stories and poems to communicate with patients; I also wrote two editions of a standard text, represented my profession, and was known as a person with an ability to sum up the heart of the matter in complex situations. This was very useful with patients, but occasionally got me into a lot of trouble with colleagues and managers…

I also learned that most of us have secret lives…for example, my father in law, Frank ‘Paddy’ Ryan. He was brought up in County Cork in difficult circumstances; as a child he was passed between various relatives and friends. Like many of the children of independence, he was forced to emigrate to find work. He crossed the water as a young man and joined the Royal Warwickshire regiment in the 1930’s, married a Warwick girl, and became one of the ‘Fighting Irish’ throughout World War Two. His regiment went to France in 1940 and fought as part of the rear guard at the Battle of Dunkirk, delaying the Germans while other troops were evacuated.

Paddy was famous in a quiet way; the only Sergeant in the British army who never swore at the men under his command! This was because he’d been very badly treated by the Christian Brothers as a boy in Ireland, and he’d vowed never to bully others. Not that Paddy suffered his own bullying in silence; even as child he was a ‘little soldier’. He used to hide up a tree and throw stones at the Brothers as they walked past below, and on one occasion dragged the Brothers’ donkey up the spiral stairs into the church bell tower. When the bells rang the donkey panicked, brayed loudly for hours, and refused to descend. So Paddy was baptised four times in an effort to save him…

One of his secrets was that as a small boy he met Michael Collins at a secret meeting in his uncle’s pub. Collins was probably recruiting for the Easter rising; Paddy was hiding under a table at the time; as Paddy described it, “I only really met his boots. They called him ‘the big feller’, and he had big boots all right. That’s what I remember, his big boots.” Later as a boy of nine, he was caught in the middle of a cross-fire between the IRA and the British army. “I got shoved to the floor by a British soldier. And then the shooting started… and the feller who pushed me to the floor, he took a bullet and fell on top of me.” That soldier probably saved his life, and probably inspired Paddy to join the British army.

After his death my wife Sheila and I travelled to Ireland to visit the family who had eventually fostered him – they confirmed the truth of both stories. Throughout our conversation, they kept referring to him as ‘Fons’; so my wife asked if this was his nickname. “Oh no,” came the reply, “that was his name back then, Alfonsus Gilligan… he had to change it when he joined the British army the second time…”

IanWilkinsonSo that’s how my very respectable doctor wife discovered her own secret; she had been using a false name all her life… what had happened the first time Paddy joined the army? Why was a change of name necessary? We discovered a secret life in which he had become a fugitive from justice, in darkly comic circumstances. In typical Irish fashion he had escaped his troubles using his wits, living as an itinerant farm worker in rural England, and later re-joined the army using his mother’s maiden name…

My mother met another County Cork man known as Pat, a handsome merchant navy engineer on the Atlantic convoys, while serving beer in her father’s pub. The merchant navy men were the unsung heroes who literally fed everyone in the country and provided the weapons to fight on. Pat himself was sunk by U-boats twice and survived, each time; he was also an opera singer, who had sung at the New York Metropolitan opera house – and had the publicity photos to prove it. He wanted to marry my mother, but he had a secret life, too. With his talent, why hadn’t he settled in America? Why traverse the globe, fixing engines on tramp steamers? And why was he so desperate to go to New Zealand, at the end of the war?

All her life, my mother kept her face powder in a small wooden bowl with a mirror in the lid. After her death we discovered her best-kept secret; carved inside this bowl, under the powder, was the inscription “To the sweetest and dearest person I’ve ever known, love, Pat”. She had never forgotten him…

Meanwhile, my father was spending his war years in Peshawar, near the Afghan border, where he found a secret life bridging two worlds; the old-fashioned Raj and the new India-to-be. He became close friends with an Indian officer and his family. Such was the disapproval about inter-racial friendships that he found himself ‘sent to Coventry’ by the other British soldiers. I’m proud to say this did not deter their friendship; the army solved the problem by letting him work with Indian and Gurkha regiments, and he returned with some fascinating tales.

I based my novel Crossing the Water around these secret lives. It begins in Ireland, with that shoot out on the bridge… and then tells a tale typical of the Irish emigrant children of independence, forced to leave after a disastrous civil war and the world-wide depression. It gradually becomes an Anglo-Irish saga and romance… and since about ten per cent of the English have an Irish grandparent, that can’t be so unusual, can it?

(c) Ian Wilkinson

‘Crossing the Water’ can be ordered from Amazon or Waterstones in the UK, or downloaded as a kindle ebook.


About the author

Ian had a productive and well-respected career as a child psychologist in the UK, having finished his training in Scotland. He wrote two books about how to use assessments to measure progress in child psychology, for which the BPS awarded a fellowship. He also worked as the academic tutor and coordinated the child input for the Newcastle University doctoral clinical psychology training course. He was elected to represent his professional group at a national level and was invited to join FOCUS, the national group set up by the Department of Health to encourage good practice in child mental health. He always wanted to write novels and at the age of 50 decided the time had come to get on with it… however, there is nothing more useful for a professional writer than to study the secret lives of others; to listen to their internal worlds of thoughts and feelings, and see how these impact upon the person’s life and external world. So his first career was a pretty useful preparation…

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