Stories that should have been told

Margaret Rossiter

Margaret Rossiter

At last, we have done the decent thing! Our Taoiseach attended the Armistice Day ceremonies in Enniskillen and our Tanaiste did likewise in Belfast. Though President Mary Robinson had long set a precedent by her attendance at the religious ceremonies to mark the day, it has taken the Republic almost a century since the outbreak of World War I, to acknowledge the thousands of Irish men and women who served and died in that cataclysmic event in world history.

The survivors, returning to a changed Ireland, were written out of Irish history. They were silenced, isolated, and never allowed to tell their stories. Their successors, Irish men and women involved in World War II, returned to the same isolation, though, gradually, as Ireland was again changing, some chose to tell their personal stories, I heard a few.

A close friend, aged 23, was fascinated by flying, and left Ireland in 1942 to join the RAF. He was attached to an Australian squadron, and flew on many dangerous missions over Europe. He survived, against all the odds, and returned to his home in 1946. He rarely spoke about his experiences, and then only to make a brief mention of his comrades, the comaraderie, and the individual fear which all would confess to, as they journeyed towards conflict. His, was a fear of anti-aircraft fire, the flak-flak, as they crossed the English Channel.

He only once mentioned the most seminal event of his war experience. Following a two-weeks leave at home, he returned to his billet which normally accommodated 30 men, only to find that he was the sole occupant. All the others had been killed or were reported missing during his absence. He never talked about it again.

On the other side of that conflict there was Albert, the German Opa (grandfather) of four of my grandchildren. At 18, he was inducted into the army and trained as a wireless operator.

He never spoke about his experiences, until the last decade of the last war-torn century, when, as an old man, he was spending a holiday with some of his adult children and his grandchildren in a house in an Alpine Valley in northern Italy. Following a sunny day, the valley was engulfed in a raging storm of heavy rain, thunder and lightning. The children were frightened. The electricity was cut off. Nobody went to bed. The adults cradled and comforted the children, who eventually fell asleep in their arms.

Perhaps it was the din of the thunder echoing amidst the high mountain peaks that awakened a memory of the tumult of war, but Opa suddenly told the story of the Russian offensive and the Battle of the Don. He had been setting up his heavy radio equipment when a shell exploded close by, killing his two companions, and seriously injuring him. He remembered no more, until some days later he awoke in a hospital. He returned to his home many months later. He was, he said, the fortunate one, the very very lucky one. Of four brothers, two disappeared at Stalingrad. There were no known graves. The other was killed in the desert of North Africa, but there was a grave which had a name and a number.

And there was Eileen, an Englishwoman who lived for many years in Ireland. We, her friends, knew that she had been a nurse, but we did not know that she had served in the army, and that four days following the D-D invasion of Normandy, she had been a member of a team which had set up a field hospital immediately behind the battle lines.

On hearing this, we tried to get her to talk about her experiences, but she was reluctant. What did she do? There was a minimalist reply. She had seen terrible things. Her work involved preparing seriously injured soldiers for evacuation and a journey to a hospital back in Britain. Those who could not withstand that journey, could only be comforted and supported until they died. “We did what we had to do,” she said, “we only did our duty.” She could not be encouraged to expand on that duty. It was too painful a memory.

I only met my American cousin, Billy, on two occasions. He visited Ireland in 1945 when he was discharged, at the end of the war, from the US army and he came to see his father’s birthplace. He had served in a medical unit as a stretcher-bearer, and at that time he quietly said that he was happy that he never had to kill another man, even the enemy.

I met him again in New York when he was an old man, and just before his death. He spoke, as if it was yesterday, about his wartime service in Europe. His greatest fear, he said, had been crossing unknown territory at night, during the Rhine offensive. There were many casualties in night-patrols, and his job involved bringing the wounded back to the field hospital. If they still had a breath of life in them, they could be located in the darkness by their cries. They called for their buddies, he said, but most of all, in that demented place, they called for their mothers. And those calls still echoed in his head.

Personal stories about significant events, and even about the mundane, are the threads of history. Official reports, days and dates, statistics, objective analysis, are all vital ingredients in historical studies. But it is the persoanl stories, the vignettes, the anecdotes, that tell of how ordinary people felt and reacted to momentous occurrences.

It is sad that during one period of Ireland’s recent history, many of these stories could not be told, because the story-tellers were out-of-tune with the politics of the time.


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