‘Brendan Lynch’s novel, published at the age of 80, is an Irish classic in the making. The novel never misses a step. From beginning to end it reads flawlessly as an account of a darker side of Irish history hardly ever mentioned in the past; a darker side, not imposed on us by strangers, but one we imposed on ourselves.
‘This is a novel immersed in changing life: the old man (rather in the position of a grandfather) intent on his search to find his medals, the boy, his aide de camp, aiding him secretly, who grows in insight and maturity all the time.,.. The concepts of bravery, loyalty, honesty and kindness, and indeed love, are all deftly explored. At the end the Gunner emerges medals and all as something of a hero in a changing Ireland.’
There’s little to match the music of a positive review, particularly from the pen of such as Joyce biographer, Peter Costello. A welcome reward and dissipation of doubt after a two-year marathon on one’s first fiction, which followed eight other titles including Parsons Bookshop and the Prodigals and Geniuses record of 1950s Bohemian Dublin.
The Old Gunner and his Medals is the repayment of a debt to WW1 character Dan Doherty, who enlivened my childhood Tipperary village. Up to every trick and with a fund of wisdom and yarns, though illiterate, he would recite poetry at the drop of a hat. Dressed in a red cloak and hat and brandishing a long staff, he raced through the streets each St Stephen’s Day. He took more money than the other Wrenboys put together, before treating them all to lemonade, while he partook of something stronger until his money ran out.
Sadly, the shell-shocked veteran shouted through the same streets on many other nights, endeavouring to escape from his Great War nightmares. He had left Ireland to cheers and the blessings of the Church. He returned, wounded, to a new regime which cared nothing for what he had done and experienced. But he never complained. He considered himself lucky to have escaped with his life and all his limbs intact. And to have survived again on his return, unlike over one hundred of his comrades who were murdered.
Dan was beaten up and forced to bury his medals in the rath above his hillside house. His love of nature and his zest for life sustained him until normality returned and his ostracisation ended. Though he could not remember exactly where he had buried his decorations, he spent the next three decades trying to recover them.
The heady days of revolution long forgotten, he becomes a village celebrity when he finally unearths them with the help of a schoolboy who appreciated his stories and sacrifices. ‘Children who had mocked his limp and threadbare clothes now followed in the wake of his pipe smoke. He was interviewed by the local newspaper correspondent. A meitheal of villagers repainted his house and replaced his battered delph and saucepans.’
Unlike earlier factual histories which required painstaking research, I was looking forward to The Old Gunner as a doddle which would involve merely a modicum of head-scratching and nine leisurely months at the most. I was educated as I went along. In order to add depth to Dan’s life and character, I had to read many accounts of WW1. Not the great histories, but firsthand memories of the foot soldiers. Harrowing and educational.
I spent weeks retracing the Gunner’s footsteps in his native village and traversed his hill and its rath in all weathers at least twenty times. I was chased by restive cattle and once rolled down the wet grass on attempting a limbo dance under an electrified wire. One cannot write fiction without first completing the ground work, literally.
Like the Titanic iceberg, the visible result is but part of a monumental whole. To anyone contemplating a novel, I would say ‘Waste no time, there are no second chances. Don’t leave it to 80, put pen to paper now! Don’t underestimate the leg work. If a project’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Your work will reflect your research and commitment.
To return to the music, Peter Costello concluded: ‘The important thing here is not the history. The important thing is the story. For it would be foolish to argue over The Old Gunner and his Medals as if it were a book – it is ‘history’; but in the same way that To Kill a Mocking Bird (read in all our schools) is American history. This is, as all great novels, a moral fable.
‘One may not be a reader of many novels, but let this fine little book be one that you read between now and Christmas. It carries with it the gift of true insight. One would hope hat in decades to come it will still be read by young readers the same age as the Gunner’s aide as well as by many adults.’
Research and writing the book took over one year. Refining the writing, another six months. A younger sharper scribe would have done it in half the time. But, it was worth it all, to round off one’s efforts with some Christmas music!
(c) Brendan Lynch
The Old Gunner and his Medals is available at E11.95 from Hodges Figgis and Books Upstairs. ISBN 978-0-9513668-3-7. (Copies of a E30 signed limited edition of 25 from email@example.com)