Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Remembered, not Forgotten.............

In this, the centenary year of The Battle of the Somme in Northern France, I travelled with extended family to lay a plaque at the Thiepval Memorial in honour of our great-uncle Peter Whelan, who died in September 1916 halfway through that bloodiest of battles.

Billions of words have been written about The Somme and its name has become synonymous with pain and suffering. I’ve read a few thousand of those words, I’ve seen the pictures, watched the documentaries – but nothing prepared me for the emotion I felt as I walked the ground where my twenty two year old ancestor died an awful, unnecessary death.

The area where The Battle took place over 141 days is incredibly flat, of course it was pummeled into submission. Trees have been re-introduced since the Second World War and the land looks good, there are large fields of corn, kale and cabbage; other fields are fallow and lie neatly tilled. The earth is reddish brown and crumbly – good soil; perhaps fertilised by the blood and bones of the over one million men who gave their lives for us – or so they believed. Were they misled? Who can say they were wrong? The reasons for the first World War are complex, I have difficulty remembering them all, and I wonder how many of those under-educated boys could comprehend how they ended up in churned up fields in France, up to their oxters in mud, driven mad by lice and rats; all five senses being constantly battered by the horrific carnage all round them.

The ceremony at Thiepval was extraordinarily moving. I tried to do my best in reading aloud a Tom Kettle poem but my emotions nearly got the better of me. My cousins had a similar problem when they read out a short piece about Peter Whelan in both English and Irish and to wrap up another cousin read a Francis Ledwidge poem.  After a two minutes silence we all trooped up the steps of the monument to lay a ceramic plaque (made by an incredibly talented cousin) inscribed  as follows


After trying and failing to find someplace in very rural France to purchase a cup of coffee we decided instead to visit as many of the sites as we could in our limited time. We visited the South African Memorial in Delville Wood where over ten thousand men died. Only one tree remained intact at the end of the battle. The area has been re wooded and oak, sycamore, ash and birch provide a lofty peaceful canopy over the shallow trenches where men once crawled to get back to bigger trenches named after streets at home. I thought Delville Wood a very peaceful place - until an Englishman (old soldier by his garb) found a WWI hand grenade at the side of the road. He explained that there are still grenades, shrapnel and bits of human bone working their way up through the soil. As the farmer tills his field he places anything he finds on the side of the road and the police pick them up.

Last stop before gin o'clock was to see the Lochnagar Crater, the largest man-made mine crater in WWI on the Western Front. It looks like a small meteorite fell. Bits of bones that still surface from time to time are sent for DNA testing in an effort to identify what nationality the owner of said bone might have been. Then it is buried with its countrymen.

Aerial photograph of Lochnagar Crater taken in the 1980s.

We drove to our hotel in Amiens a tad subdued. We were emotionally drained and, given that the mean age of the party was about 55, various body parts were complaining (statistician cousin can correct me on this!). However - fortified by alcohol and showers we ventured out into the mildness of a French September evening to eat good food, drink GREAT wine, laugh, talk and reminisce. It was lovely. I felt like a child on Carne Beach in Wexford again, where the families would try to get together every August. Salad Days.

Sunday was given over to sight seeing around Amiens. The Gothic Cathedral is well worth a visit. Amiens suffered badly during both World Wars, being occupied several times by both sides but it has been rebuilt into a pleasant wide boulevarded city; it has a very relaxed atmosphere and we had a very pleasant day there, we all particularly enjoyed a boat ride on a man made canal in the city's central park. We ate outdoors in a little restaurant and it was delicious, particularly the cafe gourmand - although I was reliably informed the the creme brulee was to die for.

Then we flew home. I haven't seen much of my cousins in the last thirty years, but I think we felt comfortable around each other. I suppose the things that made you happy as a child can do so again as an adult; we always had great fun when we were together as kids and the time apart seemed to count for little, we just picked up where we left off.

I hope it won't be another thirty years before I see the Walshie cousins again.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Pretending to Fly......

I had a gorgeous day today; actually I had a great week, month, summer - but that's another blog.

Stepgranddaughter#1andonly is here for her weekly vist. I only arrived home yesterday from Inishboffin - where I spent a few days writing, so I didn't feel guilty about taking time off to spend with her. I know from experience how short is the timeframe of childhood - and the world isn't waiting with bated breath for my writing. I am determined to drag every bit of enjoyment from this little one's early years.

We went to the lovely where we fed the swans and ducks and laughed as the sea gulls tried to rob the bread. We chatted with a man and his son - the man was very knowledgeable about the wildlife in the area and I learned a few new things - every day is a schoolday. We had a cup of coffee, a juice and chokkie bikkies, made friends with a lovely woman and her three small children. It was fun.

Then we drove up to the playground in Skerries - it has to be one of the most beautifully located playgrounds in Ireland. It is right by the seashore and is really well equipped and totally safe. We fell to chatting with another grandmother, mother and little girl. The little one was a few months older than Carlicious and they were shy at first but soon made friends. The grandmother told me how her husband died a year ago, about how quiet and lonely the house can seem now, and how lucky she is to be near her daughters and their children. She sees everyone at least once a week and the grandkids often have sleepovers in Granny's; she said the company of the children has comforted her most. The woman was a total stranger, I only learned the child's name - but we hugged when we left and she thanked me.

I dropped Caralicious home to The Jemser and drove over to see my poor battered beautiful sister Lousy LuLu LongLegs. Louise had an accident last week, went over the handlebars of her bike, smashed up her jaw and face and broke a bone in her hand. She's on the mend - it'll be a long slow recovery - but she's alive. When you think of how quickly a life can be snuffed out! A simple wobble over a cat's eye and pulling the wrong brake. Where would we the Wobbly Walshies without our supportive compassionate empathetic Lou? Her husband thought he was going to lose her at the side of the road, he held her hand as she told him she loved him, she loved the girls and to mind each other. When the ambulance arrived she was giving the paramedics advice (she's a nurse - a damn fine nurse) despite the horrendous pain she was in. She had nothing but praise for the HSE - from the Killybegs ambulance that took her to Letterkenny General where the staff put her into an induced coma (although she was horrified as she slipped into merciful unconsciousness to see a scissors approaching to cut off the brand new outfit she was wearing!), to the ambulance men who drove her to Dublin the following day  and then the wonderful staff in the Mater Hospital who looked after her with such care and compassion. Praise where it's due - when the system works it works well.

 Louise bought the family home years ago and her bedroom now is the one I shared with my three sisters for years. As I lay on the bed beside her, chatting and trying not to make her laugh I couldn't help visualizing the room as it had been back then. The double bed shared by Aisling and Lousie lay under the Sacred Heart lamp. Judy and I slept in pale pink narrow iron bunk beds.The laughs we had in that room! Plenty of squabbling and meanness too of course! So, between remembering stuff from over forty years ago and feeling so for Lou and the pain she is in, I was in a state of heightened emotion on leaving the house.

When I got home I took Caralicious out onto the green where we played with a neighbour and her little girl - who is five months younger than Cara. This little girl -Maisie Belle - is like a little fairy, dark haired and sallow skinned with fabulous eyes. We played hittingtheballwithspades and pretendingtobebirds - flying around and around the tree before settling to make a nest with twigs and leaves and feathers. When everyone got tired we came home and Cara and I watched Elmo in GrouchLand. Christ I LOVE Elmo! Son#1 took Elmo as his confirmation name - much to the amusement of his classmates and the chagrin of his teacher; who knew he was doing it for subversive reasons, not because he had any devotion to St. Elmo.

It was watering the plants time then - and Cara, in only her knickies and crocs, jumped about with son#1'sgirlfriend (fully clothed!) in a puddle created by the hose. After all that we were exhausted, so we came up to bed and I read her the first three chapters of Winnie-The-Pooh; she loved Pooh, loved that I substituted Cara Teresa for Christopher Robin and Nanny for the adult narrator. I can't wait to continue the story tomorrow because then she'll get to hear about Tigger, I just know she's gonna love Tigger! There'll be a battle in this house when she gets to about six as to who is going to read the Haprry Potter series to her.

She is lying beside me now, fast asleep. And I think of the love that surrounds her, the love that surrounded me as a child from my parents, my siblings, the love of my own family and extended family today. Louise is fond of saying #lafamiliaestodo , and she's right. When families function coherently they are everything - Freud apparently said all we need in life is work and love, and although a lot of his stuff has been discredited I think this tenet holds true.

And  we need the breathing of course - don't forget d'aul breathing!