An Emergency wedding: war, rations and a 70-year love

Seven decades of marriage have not dampened the spark between Eileen Geoghegan and retired Army officer Ned Cusack, who got married just after the D-Day landings in 1944


She wore a shell-pink suit, bought in Moon’s of Galway, and he wore his Army uniform – but almost slept it out and had to run all the way to the church. When Eileen Geoghegan and Ned Cusack took the train from the west coast to Wicklow for their honeymoon, they found the bridal suite was gone and they had to spend their first night together in single beds.

What’s more, the groom’s commanding officer advised him to “stay close” to the only telephone. The D-Day landings had just taken place, and there was a belief that if they failed, Germany could invade Britain and Ireland, and so Ned would have to get back to work.

Some six months before the wedding – 70 years ago tomorrow – the young Army officer from Mitchelstown, Co Cork, had been dispatched from Galway’s Renmore barracks up to Belmullet, Co Mayo, where a US and Canadian aircraft had made an emergency landing after running out of fuel. His job was to guard the aircraft until the British and US air forces could dismantle them and bring them over the border.

“Belmullet was an agreed corridor for aircraft crossing the Atlantic and flying into the North,” says Ned, now 95. “One early morning I saw fleets of them coming in from the sea at first light. We were neutral, you see – but on behalf of the Allies, of course.”

He is getting into a flow, chatting in the living room of their home near Lough Corrib, when his wife intercedes.

“Have you a few days?” says Eileen, who is 92. “He’ll talk to you forever about this. You went off to the war, Ned Cusack, and then you went off fishing. Why, he even took his angling rod on our honeymoon.”

Seven decades of marriage has not dampened the spark between a couple who almost didn’t meet. Ned recalls that he was “quite happy”, sitting back in the barracks one evening in 1940, listening to classical music, when a friend, Eoin Curtin, persuaded him to go to The Hangar ballroom in Salthill.

“Eileen saw me and asked to be introduced – that was the way it was done then,” says Ned. “But she was directed to Eoin by mistake, and I remember her saying, ‘No, the other guy’.”

“But I thought Eoin Curtin was gorgeous,” Eileen protests, as she shows me some of the other Army talent in their wedding photographs – all three of them.

Niamh Parkinson's short documentary about Ned and Eileen

“If I was to tell you what life was like back then, well, it was a different planet,” she says, and recalls how her mother, a primary-school teacher, had died when she was 11. Her father had been a master tailor and they lived next to what is now the Skeffington Arms hotel on Eyre Square.

“There were six of us, and her youngest child, my brother Tom, was just six months old when she died, and so he was reared by relatives in Dublin. We all had to grow up, and somehow I drifted into housekeeping,” she says, with no hint of regret.


Money to buy records

The young Army officer she set eyes on that night had led a very different life, as the second-youngest in a family of 10 reared on a large estate in Mitchelstown, where his father was manager of the dairy herd. Ned didn’t drink or smoke, and had money to buy records.

Still, for all his relative security, he says, they grew up in very insecure times, in the aftermath of the first World War and the long shadow of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War at home.

The globe was “similarly chaotic” when they met, with the second World War in full swing, and rationing and travel bans in place. Still, the first kiss took three weeks, he recalls.

“Three to four months, more like,” says Eileen, explaining how a man “would not normally see past your ankle back then”. They began walking out, and he took her on the bar of a bicycle to the Galway Races. When he went to watch her playing hockey, he was suspended from the GAA for three months for attending a “foreign game”.


Politics and the magnificent seven

In politics, they agreed to differ. “I was a Redmondite and Ned was a Sinn Féiner, though why I will never know,” she says. Their engagement took place in Limerick, with Ned spending a month’s salary on a diamond ring bought in Hartmann’s jewellers in Galway.

After the wedding breakfast, the entire party accompanied the couple to the train station in Galway, where they found themselves squeezed in between cattle jobbers playing poker on the way to Dublin. They were met by a pony and trap on their arrival at the hotel in Laragh, Co Wicklow, and “made up for lost time” on their second night, they laugh. Their first home was lodgings with Mrs Brown in Salthill’s Lenaboy Gardens. Jim, the first of their seven children, was born in March 1945.

Five more of the “magnificent seven”, as Eileen calls them, were born in Galway: Eleanor, Anne, Eamon, Maura and Rosemary. Maeve, the youngest, was born in Dublin after Ned had been transferred on promotion to Portobello barracks. They settled on the southside, near the river Dodder, where he loved to fish and was Army angling champion, while Eileen was champion at home.

As their daughter Rosemary notes, they survived “beatniks, bell-bottoms, miniskirts, elephant flares, teen dances, broken hearts, school holidays, pick-ups and drop-offs, exams, parent-teacher conferences, false eyelashes, eyeliner, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Bay City Rollers and, of course, Abba”.

After 22 years in the capital, Ned retired from the Defence Forces and they moved back west, where he took up a post managing Galway’s salmon weir.

So what is the secret of their success? “We don’t listen to each other,” quips Eileen, as Ned leans back in his chair, smiling, and observes that “a sense of humour probably helps”.

“That saying ‘love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe’ works when you are single, but when you are married you have to get into a double kayak,” he says. “And we kept our own friends, and our own hobbies,” he adds, while Eileen, for once, nods in agreement.

“You know, I met a man who didn’t smoke and didn’t drink – until he was 66 – and that was wonderful,” she says, almost in a whisper, as her husband hands me a copy of a poem called The Lesson of the Water-Mill. Its author, Sarah Doudney, records that “The mill cannot grind / With the water that has passed”.

“You can’t unlive your life,” he says. And he walks to the window, and hands me two cut roses from a vase, wrapped and ready to go. “Ned Cusack grew them himself here in the garden,” says Eileen. And you know from her look that, for all her quips and digs, she is back on those church steps on June 14th, 1944, in her shell-pink suit and her hat “made by a Mrs Fahy from Bohermore”.

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