Beckett among the ruins

Healing Amid the Ruins: The Irish Hospital at St-Lo (1945-46). By Phyllis Gaffney. A. & A. Farmar, 176pp, £14.99

Healing Amid the Ruins: The Irish Hospital at St-Lo (1945-46). By Phyllis Gaffney. A. & A. Farmar, 176pp, £14.99

The assembling, equipping and staffing of a hospital in the devastated Normandy town of St-Lo by the Irish Red Cross, from 1945 to 1946, was one of the most notable Irish contributions to the relief of a suffering Europe in the aftermath of the second World War. The town was almost completely destroyed in the Allied bombings at the time of the D-Day landings on June 6th, 1944, losing almost 90 per cent of its buildings. One of the most urgent needs was for proper medical care, the town's hospital having been one of the buildings lost. It was this need that the Irish Red Cross, with considerable government and public support, decided to meet. The effort and the expense were very considerable and the difficulties very great; it is a tribute to the spirit and courage of the Irish contingent in St-Lo that almost all the photographs in this volume show an unimpaired cheerfulness and good humour in conditions that must often have been far from cheerful. Phyllis Gaffney, a lecturer in French in UCD, is the daughter of Dr Jim Gaffney, pathologist at the hospital, and her book provides a full account of the episode and its ramifications, accompanied by many interesting photographs and archival material. (A supplementary portion of the text is in French.)

The Irish presence in St-Lo has already received a certain amount of attention, because it so happened that the lanky lad who kept the store and acted as interpreter was one of the twentieth century's greatest writers, but it should be stressed that the story is well worth telling in its own right, quite apart from Samuel Beckett's involvement. Ireland's humanitarian record in the second World War is, sadly, very far from distinguished, and this is one of the few exceptions -- reason enough, alone, to commemorate it.

Beckett's part in the saga was fortuitous. He had returned to Ireland from France immediately after the liberation to visit his family and was experiencing considerable difficulty in getting back into France. So the opportunity to return with the Red Cross was very welcome. But though his involvement in the project was a chance one, its effects on him were very marked. This is evident in what the author rightly calls the "sharp, slightly alienated comments" he made about it in various letters, but even more in the piece he wrote about it, "The Capital of the Ruins", intended as a talk for Radio Eireann but in all likelihood never broadcast.

In this piece, Beckett first describes the hospital and gives full weight and credit to the achievement it embodied and in which he played no small part. But the talk's deeper preoccupations are in many ways quite continuous with those of the "frenzy of writing" on which he was shortly to embark. He is particularly concerned to undermine the opposition of giving and receiving, especially insofar as this involves a hierarchy: the handing down from someone who has to someone who has not. Beckett suggests that the process is two-way: that even the most deprived recipient (especially the most deprived recipient) has something to give to the donor. What that something is cannot be quantified like stocks of penicillin, but can best be described perhaps as an experience in destitution, a lesson in abjection. This is the condition that Beckett will go on to explore from the inside, as it were, in his novel, Molloy, written soon after, but it is quite clear that St-Lo gave him an initial foretaste of it. Nor is that all he got from the episode; also important to him was his friendship with Dr Arthur Darley, who died of TB at the age of 35 shortly after, and who is commemorated in Beckett's poem, Mort de A.D.The name also occurs in Beckett's very last text, Stirriings Still.

All this is richly documented in Phyllis Gaffney's book, along with much additional material: I was not aware, for instance, that Beckett's involvement in the project was sufficiently prominent at the time for his photograph to appear in the Irish Independent in that connection. But her purpose is, of course, the wider one of telling the whole story of the Irish Hospital in St-Lo, a purpose in which she fully succeeds. The book is also a tribute by the author to a father she never knew: Dr Jim Gaffney was killed in the first Aer Lingus air crash, in north Wales in 1952, before she was born. Perhaps the healing amid the ruins is still going on.

Terence Killeen is a critic and an Irish Times journalist