Hanora Ryan, 1998

Short story: Donal Ryan’s story for our This Means War series marking the centenary of the start of the first World War

Illustration: Brendan Deacy

Illustration: Brendan Deacy

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

There’s going to be war, my father said one day in 1914. Inside in Nenagh. I spied all the bould Fenians pelting off down the hill from Barbaha this morning early. Off in to roar and bawl outside the door of the Guardian office. Up in arms over recruitment posters. Not a hand’s turn done between them, I’d say. Lord but they must have great wives. There’ll be war, says he, and he shaking his head. Mark that now, ye can. Let ye not go in gawking, now, let ye not. Stay well away from all that. There’ll be lads taken to the barracks, as sure as God.

The Nenagh Guardian was that time owned and always was all along the years before by loyal subjects of their fragrant majesties beyond and Daddy said the likes of them was always minded like heifers in calf. It wasn’t until a year or two later, 1916 I’m nearly sure, that the Guardian was bought by the Ryans who own it still to this day. (No relations of mine except like as not the way all Ryans are related if you go far enough back along the ages.)

I’ll blister ye, Daddy said, if I hear of ye inside near the place. But I saw no crossness on his face as he turned away from my brothers and my sister and me, back to his foddering. As if such a thing was possible, that he’d have ever left a mark on one of his children. My gentle father, and he all about the war, the war.

The posters were torn down anyway and stamped into the mud and more were put up and the RIC ringed a man called Waxer Walsh and roped him and dragged him down Barrack Street and a small band of Irish Volunteers went about springing him and a man was shot in the arm and that was the finish of the hoo-ha for a good long while. But any man who went about answering the call of king and country that was printed by the Nenagh Guardian on those posters and on the front page of their newspaper was told to expect no peace or place in the Tipperary they’d return to. They’d choke on the bread the king’s shilling bought, and their families with them.

Robert Wesson Coleman was five or six years older than me. He gave many a day palling with us, only half in secret. He played hurling with my brothers above in the long acre and he showed them a rugby ball one time and their eyes widened in wonder. The quare shape of it. My sister was in love with him. I suppose I was too, but though I was younger I was less inclined to be fanciful or to be overtaken fully by such things the way Mary was. My eldest brother said he hated Rob Coleman because he was a dirty English land-robbing bastard but when we heard he’d fallen in Flanders Fields my brother went out to the barn and cried.

I read a poem years upon years later written by William Butler Yeats. Lord God it knocked the breath from my body and the words from my mind. It was about another Robert, though his name was not mentioned in the lines of the poem but in the explanation beneath, written by some professor of such things. Major Robert Gregory, the poem was presumed to be about, the son of Lady Gregory, and he for all the world by the sounds of it the very self same as my Robert. A boy from a big house told he had a fealty and a duty to a foreign land by virtue of the blood in his body. The boy in the poem didn’t hate his enemy nor love his king; Kiltartan was his country, the poor of that place his people. That’s out there beyond Gort in County Galway. We went there for a spin one Sunday, and drove down into Coole Park to see the swans and the famous names carved into the trees. I got a terrible lonesome feeling. Your man Yeats couldn’t have known the thoughts that were in that boy’s head as he flew his fighter plane towards the heavens but my soul be damned if he was too far wrong.

There’s many a family of this place and here around lost a son or a brother or a father but never could they raise a stone or a cross in their honour. Their memories were buried in silence and shame. The Colemans, being free to fight for England, could commission plinths and plaques from the best of masons and fix them firm to the earth. And why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they do their damnedest to keep on to their dear Robert in some way, in cold stone and carved words?

One of the Donnells of Gortnabracken came back, shell-shocked and nearly deaf. He made no bones about where he’d been and would stand aside for no man, regardless of rank or station. He’d set his face to hell and hadn’t flinched. But still and all he’d be silent for weeks and months at a time, hunched and white, then all of a sudden he’d be shouting and roaring around the pubs and streets, standing and kneeling at the wrong times in Mass and saying his prayers too loud and laughing, thinking the rest of the world was gone the same way as him. His brothers did their damnedest to quieten him and his parents were warned by the Volunteers who by then had become the IRA to keep a rein on him; Fr Fitzwilliam even beseeched from the pulpit on his behalf. The sacrifice he made, what he gave of himself; fighting in a just war blessed by God, and his right mind left behind him in Passchendaele.

I heard that boy of the Donnells – what’s this his first name was? – say more than once how there was a good many men of his battalion shot for not wearing their hats opposite officers or not saluting them properly or for other such niggardly transgressions. The Irish lads were dirt to them, nothing, not even human. Men that left this parish and ones like it, imagine, decent poor men that took themselves away from these green fields and rolling hills, to fight against a kaiser for a king, were shot by little jumped up Johnny Englishmen for not having their uniforms on properly, or for falling asleep, or for not lepping quick enough over the tops of trenches into the teeth of death. He was sent off for a finish to live with an old uncle that was left a childless widower above in Templetuohy. I heard he began drilling young lads up there for the IRA and that he blew himself to smithereens trying to make a barrel bomb to roll out on to the road in front of a truckload of Black and Tans.

There wasn’t a coffin to be got here, you know, for a full year once that war ended. The Spanish flu was brought back by soldiers, and laid waste to all about. All the weak were taken: babies and old people and anyone already disposed to frailty or sickness. And many a strong man and woman that was never sick a day in their lives. No resistance, you see, it blew through them the very same as the wind through the girders of the bridge between Ballina and Killaloe. I clearly remember the day of my 17th birthday, going on the trap with my father to town, and seeing a line of coffins at the bottom of Queen Street, and another row started where that one ended, of poor souls shrouded in blankets and sheets, rosary beads draped across their breasts. And the Foleys in the sawmill yard working night and day to provide short planks for makeshift coffins, and the priests and the curates stepping along the ranks of dead, anointing them. The stench, I’ll never forget, of rotting things and incense. The hums and chants of prayers, the wailing cries.

I heard a man say years upon years later on a television programme that that was all needed by humankind, all that death. It was nature’s way of pruning back excess, of ensuring bounty. That was needed, says he. The world was short of orphans. The earth was short of human flesh and bones. Lord, but isn’t it a sight altogether the things people say, the things they think they know, the certainties they carry about for themselves. As full as ticks with satisfaction at their own smartness.

I’ll die soon, I suppose. I’ll hardly get a look at this new millennium that all the hullabaloo is about. Planes will fall from the sky by all accounts. I’m as well off out of it if that’s the case. Robert Coleman is 80 years dead, imagine. That beautiful boy from the big house who walked many’s a summer day along the far bank of the stream that served as a border between my father’s tiny freehold and his father’s estate of 2,000 or 3,000 acres. Who talked and laughed across the whispering water, and always waved back at me as he started up the hill towards home.

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