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Wars are widowmakers

My grand- mother Elizabeth McGuire,was a very special woman. I lived with her for many years after my birth and even when my father had built a family home on the Navan Road and our family had moved away from her house in the Oxmantown Road area ,near ‘Stoneybatter’. .My mother left me in her charge as, I suspect, ‘companionship’.

I journeyed from here to school, by bicycle every day. The nearby C.B.S.(Christian Brother Schools) both primary,and secondary ,were located in North Brunswick Street in the heart of Dublin. The Oxmantown Road,where I grew up,was an enclave of both terraced two story town houses, and cottages.They all had one large living-dining room on the ground floor.the cottages had one bedroom and the two story houses had two upstairs bedrooms.A tiny kitchen or "scullery" at the rear of each house contained a gas cooker and small sink.There was room for little else.

.Outside in the tiny rear yard was an enclosed outdoor toilet and a coal bunker.

This area was known as ‘The Artisans Dwellings’. The development was built in the twenties,and was owned,and rented, by a private limited company.

Perhaps the mortgage market was not well developed at this time,as none were sold outright until the late fifties when tenant occupiers were given an opportunity to buy them outright for around a thousand pounds.This was the era of strict rent controls so investors stood to make no money.Those who did not take up the purchase option missed the boat.They sell today for almost 400,000 Euros each.!

Elizabeth,my grandmother secured a tenancy of one of these houses, in the twenties, probably due to her widowed status, with small children and a regular British Army pension which guaranteed her ability to meet the weekly rent payments.

The streets in this part of Dublin are all named after Norsemen; Olaf road, Sitric road, Thor Place.. and so forth. It is reputed to be an old Viking Settlement area.It lies a little to the north of the river Liffey,(near where the Guinness Brewery is located ).

Many large families were reared somehow, in these little two bedroom houses..

The largest houses, located on the Oxmantown Road itself, also had a tiny seperate drawing room to the front. This seemed to me to be an unimaginable luxury when I visited one for the first time.Our entire family lived for many years in the one living room only version.Oddly those who had the extra room rarely seemed to use the space-except to receive the occasional important guest to tea, and the drawback was this wasted space took from their main living room.

Nevertheless it was a superior thing to be able to welcome visitors in this special state room, rather than into the midst of the family living area.

.The houses backed directly on to one another,and a boundary wall some six feet in height,seperated one from another.

The Oxmantown road fronting houses had narrow laneways running parallel at the rear. In theory all these houses were accessible from this rear laneway entrance,as there was a wooden door in each back yard opening onto the laneway itself. But the main laneway entrance was permanently locked, and thus the backyard doors were entirely disused. The laneway gradually became a no mans land-a dumping ground for old prams and bicycles and sundry junk.

Once or twice a week a large galvanized steel tub was carried in from the small back yard of our house, into the main living room, in a ritual no doubt repeated in many parts of Dublin .The tub had two large handles for lifting, and was placed with dutiful pride on the main livingroom table. Kettle after kettle of boiling water was added brought from the kitchen until there was sufficient for a small child to sit into,and splash and play.

Our young family waited their turn, to be immersed therein, one at a time.We were soaped,and washed and scrubbed, cleaned and pummeled, and finally hoisted out and towelled down by our loving and dutiful mother.

My memories of ‘Granny’,with whom I lived until my teenage years, are still vivid. I can only describe my grandmother Elizabeth’s great soul,.her tremendous heart,.her wonderful courage- by referring to her constant good humour.

It was an ever present feature of her personality throughout her difficult life.Her most obvious and notable characteristic was her very laughter, which-once begun, rolled on and on, in long sonorous waves, up and down the road,threatening to engulf all listeners in its happy assault. I do not know how she was able to immediately summon such gaiety from within,at the slightest provocation. So little was needed to initiate it

In the Wild West Cowboy stories of my youth,a cowboy who wanted an edge when partaking in a duel, would seemingly use a revolver with the firing mechanism adjusted so that it possessed a ‘ hair trigger’.

A very light-rather than firm- pressure of the forefinger on the trigger, discharged the bullet and ensured a quick "draw" in a duel . Elizabeth,s soul was similiarly primed by the Master Craftsman.Her only bullet however was Laughter. Having the slighest intercourse or contact with a neighbour, somehow created a spontaneous outburst of laughter and joy.

Nothing more lethal than a delicate gaity ,charged her bright spirit. So little stimulation was needed to release it’s pent up energy. Nothing she ever endured in a long life of duty,and hardship ever dampened that vivacity. Her laughter still reverberates happily in my heart and memory .

.I, and indeed the whole neighbourhood, always knew well in advance that she was coming up the street, after a shopping trip,which was often combined with a visit to the bookmakers to put a few coppers on a horse.(this modest vice I think she may have picked up from her husband Paddy, during their tragically short married life).

No lace curtain needed parting in the small windows which overlooked the nobody else ever laughed so distinctively and so heartily.

Long before her key turned in the door lock, those peals of happiness heralded her imminent arrival,as she exchanged comment or banter, further down the road, with some neighbor or other before finally passing into our field of view outside the window of our home in Finn Street,Dublin.

The six years following her husbands demobilization and long period of ill-health after the burning,blistering mustard gas exposure, much have been particularly difficult for her.

Amazingly in the midst of their suffering ,within this painful window of opportunity they were blessed with two,fine healthy children,James the first born,and within two years my mother Anne.They were never to know their father ,however.

His recurring illness eventually led to his return to a military hospital in England as his condition deteriorated. Here he spent his last months before the after effects of the poison gas finally did for him.His Calvary ended in that English hospital

His young wife was now alone in a hostile world with two small children to rear and feed.

I remember once rooting around the old cupboards in my childhood home in Finn Street..One of the two bedrooms bedrooms had a kind of storage cubbyhole built into the wall,and it was full of musty old things including an old trunk in the style of a sailor’s chest. As a curious child I discovered the few mementoes of a sad past. Some old photos, and undertakers papers,receipts etc,,relating to my grandfathers funeral.

She had kept these,and a few mementoes,which included a brass ‘ Royal Artillery ‘cap insignia from her long departed husbands army uniform.

I was most impressed by a photograph of the hugely decorated horse,complete with frightening black plume on the forehead- which drew the funeral carriage of a bygone pre- motorized age ,and brought the mortal remains of Patrick McLoughlin to his final resting place, near an army hospital ,somewhere in England.

The ornate horse,and hearse, impressed itself on my child's imagination as a wrathful image of apocalyptic doom.

My grandmother was in receipt of a very valuable commodity,which I have already touched on,a regular stipend,courtesy of the British Government.When adversity strikes in life,two things make for survival-family support, and money.!

As a war widow, in receipt of a very welcome pension from the British government,she continued to work in Dublin ,and provide for herself and her young. family.

Dublin was not a friendly environment at that time, for a struggling young widow removed from her own family;parents and sisters, to both work and rear a young family .

Elizabeth had a number of sisters ,some of whom had settled ,and /or married , in the town of Thurles in County Tipperary.This town was to become a home from home for her two young children.

Thurles was a small but active center of commerce. Its main claim to fame for many decades, was the local sugar factory ,where beet was until recent years still processed, into refined sugar. The railway steam engine locomotive sheds and shunting yards located here- and the very impressive cathedral- added to the towns prominence.

Two of her three sisters, Kitty ,and Biddy,and an unmarried brother Paddy, lived here side by side in two adjoining houses which werepart of a little terrace of ten two story houses ; directly opposite the railway station entrance. Her third sister Susie,was married and lived on the far side of the Railway bridge just a stone’s throw from the Bowes pub at the edge of the town.

.Biddy was an un- married spinster who shared one house with her bachelor brother Paddy. Kitty ,was a seamstress and had a workshop and thriving dressmaking business in the front room of Biddy's house-which had ample space to store the bales of cloth and bric-a- brac of a busy dressmaker.

The adjoining house, my Aunt Kitty returned to in the evening and shared with her husband ‘Uncle Willie’.

So it was that circumstances dictated that two young children-Jim and Ann ,my mother and her brother who had just lost their father, in a sense now lost their mother also.They were dispatched to the care of Elizabeth's country sisters,and brother; Biddy, Kitty , and Paddy,to remove them from the squalid and poverty ridden environment of Dublin city’s tenaments, many of which, were now home to increasing numbers of young war widows.

Whole families, were wiped out by scourges such as Tuberculosis and Polio during that black era. We cannot comprehend,those terrible times in this age of relative plenty in which the lust for more and more worldly wealth is an obsession with many.The Golden Calf has been rebuilt ,Greed and Corruption are its attendant suitors in every land.

Numberless , nameless,and countless ,-a generation of young women,in every city throughout the British Isles-.many with young fatherless children - would never -this side of the grave-meet again the husbands whom they had so recently joined in wedlock .Some would face alone the struggle and hardships of life and rear their young families without companionship and grow old alone,- taking what comfort was available to them from their growing family, and later on in life perhaps looking with pride on the offspring of their children who in turn bacame mammies and daddies, with their own young families.

.Intended fellow travellers on life’s hard highway, their ,earthly sojourn together had been shattered,and shortened still,by the horror and brutality of mankind’s eternal harbinger of disaster;organized conflict-war most terrible.

These young men and women, now seperated for an entire human lifespan, had once coupled and committed in their marriage vows to an act of Love, to fighting together the poverty and hardship associated with life in the early part of the last century.Their simple ambition was to endure,-to survive in a hard and hostile world; to rear children; to share their human love with their own family, and finally to die a peaceful death,surrounded by family and friends.It was the simplest aspiration possible.It was denied them.

They had set out armed with nothing, but the frail weaponry of Faith, Hope,and Love.

Only the Cup of Sorrow awaited . Faith and Hope lay dead in the trenches and charnel fields of Flanders and the Somme. A whole generation of young men were cut down like fields of ripened wheat. War’s grim harvest. Only the painfully cherished memory of Love remained, in the hearts of a million widows, a burden for each individual to bear. A cross for life,a hidden but abiding grief which they would bear always.

Who,that has not experienced such sorrow,can understand such suffering.

Elizabeth, for her own reasons, never re-married. Perhaps the pain she had suffered was too deeply embedded ..

‘Come away o human child,to the waters and the wild,

- with a fairy,hand in hand,-

For the world’s more full of weeping,

than you or I can understand’.

. Our short lived exile upon this unique and precarious planet Earth is a strange and wondrous thing but we only see glimpses of real meaning,in a world which is burdened with pain, darkness, and despair;

‘Now we see through a looking glass darkly,

Then,face to face’

This was not the way it was meant to be.

Sometimes some words from the New Testament intrigues the soul;-

‘Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ,let your thoughts be on heavenly things,where Christ is ,seated at God’s right hand.

Seek ye therefore the things of heaven not the things of the earth,for you have died and the life you have is hidden with Christ in God..but when he is revealed-and He is your life-then you too will be revealed in all your glory’

This is a beautiful passage,among many similar ones, from the Gospels of St Paul, writing to some of the followers of the new religion of the times, 2000 years ago. For me,they give a glimpse of a mystery which is hidden from us in this life-or death-as the case may be. These writings unravel a little of the irony of our frail ties to a physical universe and place of brief exile..

The incredible mystery that is each and every individual life, is that of an orphan which sees itself alone in a complete and separate mindworld, within an equally fathomless universe. A great cataract of new life, is continuously pouring over the unseen precipice of a mysterious high george which no man has ever seen. It flows unceasing ,and empties its waters into an equally deep and hidden pool .For many, there is suffering within those fast flowing waters.

Amid the turmoil and chaos of their mercifully brief immersion in that living cascade,there is a great mystery. The mystery of hope.

400 years before the birth of Christ ,Socrates gave voice to an intriguingly parallel idea when he declared,before the jurors who were to condemn him to death;

‘No one knows with reguard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man;but people dread it as though they were certain that it is the greatest evil…’

When Christ was asked by Nicodemus "how can a man be born again when he is old?" his answer was simple and asked for simple faith and trust.

"Marvel not" He replied.

For Elizabeth McLoughlin life now must have seemed a greater evil than what might lie beyond death. She was confronted with the terrible reality of having lost her young husband,and two young children to provide for.

She sent what money she was able, to Thurles, for the maintenance of her young family there.

They were well cared for,clothed, fed ,and schooled, during the subsequent years by her spinster sisters,Biddy; and particularly Kitty.

(Kitty had no family of her own ). I had reason myself to be thankful that "Aunt Kitty" did not have her own children to spoil and care for during the many happy summers I spent in Thurles during my childhood school holidays.

It was a much better life, in the countryside,for Elizabeth’s two young children, than the one they left behind in the Dublin of the early 1920’s. Nevertheless growing up so young without parents ,must have been painful and left some mental scars .I know that my mothers brother (Jim McLoughlin) was mercilessly bullied during his schooldays in Thurles, because his father had volunteered to fight with the British army in France during that turbulent period when Ireland was preparing for rebellion.My mother never mentioned this problem. Nevertheless Uncle Jim ,like his father before him, went off to fight under the british flag during World War Two, and fortunately survived the experience.

So, in a peaceful rural town called Thurles, my mother and her brother were nurtured ,educated, and grew into their teenage years. They were well enough provided for, by all accounts. The grinding poverty of the big city was never so much in evidence in the countryside. It was a modestly better life,at least food was readily accessible.

‘When people had nothing,they shared a little of what they had with their neighbour’, my father's brother Harry once told me. Nowadays that many people have everything they find they have nothing of themselves to share!

They live in countless ribbon roads cutting across the countryside, separated from their neighbour.The ‘one off rural housing’,lifestyle of Ireland today is a life apart from other people ,and no man knows his neighbour.

Sadly it has been Government policy to encourage this lifestyle,and facilitate it in recent years,through changes in planning policy,decentralization and so forth.

Schooled ,and reared here, they had a good childhood.By all accounts,they did miss the presence of their mother ,for which kindly aunts and uncles are no real substitute. Despite the good attentions of Elizabeth’s extended family it was a kind of orphan childhood for them.

When they finally finished their schooling in Thurles,my mother went to Dublin to seek work and join her Mother Elizabeth.Her brother Jim ,as I have indicated,did likewise and eventually decided to follow in the footsteps of the father he never knew by joining the British army.