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Lest we forget to remember

The request seemed simple enough on first reading. The text from a niece said her son, my great nephew, is having an assembly on Remembrance Day, and do we have anyone in the family who fought in World War 1, and if so do we have any photos or memorabilia?

My equivocal response ended with the explanation that my great nephew might find it difficult to describe the story of our family’s involvement with the Great War.

Sure enough my niece did not respond, but when I tried to put her request out of my mind, I could not erase the image of the tale told me by my long dead mother.

It is not a myth of derring-do, or patriotism, or a tear jerker in the mould of Saving Private Ryan. It is a casual observation about two men who returned to Ireland after the 1914-18 war. I think they were brothers; certainly my mother’s uncles. When she first told me the yarn, I imagined them wizened aged men, whereas in truth they were probably a mere decade or so, older than my great nephew.

My maternal grandmother hosted a Hooley in their honour, complete with fiddler, tin whistle player, a lilter, a large jug of poitin, plenty of spuds and a side of pork. Before proceeding, here is a brief explanation for the uninitiated: A Hooley is an Irish party. A lilter is a person who enunciates a form of traditional singing. (If you are curious look up Séamus Fay from Cavan). Poitin is made from cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet, molasses and potatoes.

This Hooley was probably unleashed onto an unsuspecting Irish community, in about 1920. My mother was born in 1918, and was told the anecdote by an elder sibling.

Any gathering of young, strong men in rural Ireland in the 1920s would likely attract the attention of the Dúchrónaigh. You probably know of them by the colour of their uniform; black and tan.

The Tans were ex-British Army counter-insurgents, deployed across the island to fight the Irish Republican Army.

World War 1 had changed the world order, and like Humpty Dumpty, ‘all the King’s horses, and all the King’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again’.

For the Black and Tans service in Ireland meant a suit of clothes, a few bob and a Webley revolver to shoot up the Paddy’s.

It seems the Carrigallen poitin set cheeks ablaze, as the fiddle player urged the young men and women to dance the night away. As my mother recounted it, both men refused to enter the cottage, preferring instead the stand beneath the stout lintel beam of the front door. And here they remained for the rest of the night, politely refusing all urgings to come inside and enjoy the craic.

Years later I asked my mother why the brothers refused to enter. She clicked her tongue and dismissed them as poor, befuddled, amadán’s (pronounced oma-thons) who could not look after themselves. Both relied on the kindness of local women to feed them and do their washing. The Hooley was my grandmother’s way of attempting to reintegrate them into society. Her kindness failed. The brothers had learnt in the battles of Flanders, or the Somme, or Ypres or Villers-Bretonneux, or wherever it was they endured war, the lintel beam of a door was the safest place to wait out a bombardment.

These men, and millions like them, suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock, or in rural nations like Ireland, and across Europe, they were simply known as ‘eejits,’ idiots.

How do you tell a six year old child that your only extant, family connection with World War 1 can be traced back, like a spidery filament, to two young blue eyed men, driven insane by the sights and sounds of the War to End All Wars? It is not the sort of parable one would expect anyone to recount on Remembrance Day 2018, but it is the only link I have with that century old calamity. And when the clock chimes the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2018, I will recall the sad fable of my great uncles, lest I forget to remember them.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.


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  1. New England Cocky


  2. lawrence winder

    Ditto that! Lest we forget Yasmin.

  3. wam

    Thanks, Harry,
    A sad, but oft heard, tale from those born in a troubled country torn apart by foreign rule.

    I consider myself lucky to have listened WW1 soldiers in the pub and around the dinner table.

    ps how petty boys, that was ANZAC, this is Remembrance Day.

  4. Pingback: Lest We Forget | Ærchies Archive - Digital Detritus

  5. Keitha Granville

    Lest we forget – and yet the world does forget,
    for wars continue to take young souls day after day after day . . . .

  6. Kronomex

    The real winners in war are the makers of the weapons used in wars.

  7. Phil Gorman

    Yes Kronomex; its the vast and hugely profitable armaments industry that lobbys hard to ensure war is perpetuated round the globe.

    Since 1990 the global arms race has again escalated to the point where major wars can be triggered by the flimsiest of excuses. Australia is now spending US$27.5 billion per annum and seeking to build up its arms industry to export weapons to such reliable allies as Saudi-Arabia, the country most active in spreading extremist Islamist activities to undermine our regional neighbours.

  8. Kaye Lee

    My great-uncle is buried at Crucifix Corner Cemetery just outside Villers-Bretonneux. I think he was killed by friendly fire when an artillery shell fell short. Such a waste.

  9. Phil Gorman

    Does anyone remember Vance Packard’s “The Wastemakers”? Waste is how we have chosen to run capitalism.

    From 1788 Australia was a depository for human waste unwanted by “the mother country”. From 1914 to the present humans and other resources have been deliberately wasted to promote the ambitions of rulers, capitalists, ideologues and religious extremists

  10. king1394

    Lest we remember the futility and waste of war, we dress up in ceremonial outfits and wear blood-red poppies and pretend that we are celebrating heroism. We seem less and less willing to remember the foulness and horror. Here is a poem from 1917:

    At the Somme: The Song of the Mud
    By Mary Borden
    This is the song of the mud,
    The pale yellow glistening mud that covers the hills like satin;
    The grey gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys;
    The frothing, squirting, spurting, liquid mud that gurgles along the road beds;
    The thick elastic mud that is kneaded and pounded and squeezed under the hoofs of the horses;
    The invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone.

    This is the song of the mud, the uniform of the poilu.
    His coat is of mud, his great dragging flapping coat, that is too big for him and too heavy;
    His coat that once was blue and now is grey and stiff with the mud that cakes to it.
    This is the mud that clothes him. His trousers and boots are of mud,
    And his skin is of mud;
    And there is mud in his beard.
    His head is crowned with a helmet of mud.
    He wears it well.
    He wears it as a king wears the ermine that bores him.
    He has set a new style in clothing;
    He has introduced the chic of mud.

    This is the song of the mud that wriggles its way into battle.
    The impertinent, the intrusive, the ubiquitous, the unwelcome,
    The slimy inveterate nuisance,
    That fills the trenches,
    That mixes in with the food of the soldiers,
    That spoils the working of motors and crawls into their secret parts,
    That spreads itself over the guns,
    That sucks the guns down and holds them fast in its slimy voluminous lips,
    That has no respect for destruction and muzzles the bursting shells;
    And slowly, softly, easily,
    Soaks up the fire, the noise; soaks up the energy and the courage;
    Soaks up the power of armies;
    Soaks up the battle.
    Just soaks it up and thus stops it.

    This is the hymn of mud-the obscene, the filthy, the putrid,
    The vast liquid grave of our armies. It has drowned our men.
    Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead.
    Our men have gone into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing.
    Our fine men, our brave, strong, young men;
    Our glowing red, shouting, brawny men.
    Slowly, inch by inch, they have gone down into it,
    Into its darkness, its thickness, its silence.
    Slowly, irresistibly, it drew them down, sucked them down,
    And they were drowned in thick, bitter, heaving mud.
    Now it hides them, Oh, so many of them!
    Under its smooth glistening surface it is hiding them blandly.
    There is not a trace of them.
    There is no mark where they went down.
    The mute enormous mouth of the mud has closed over them.

    This is the song of the mud,
    The beautiful glistening golden mud that covers the hills like satin;
    The mysterious gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys.
    Mud, the disguise of the war zone;
    Mud, the mantle of battles;
    Mud, the smooth fluid grave of our soldiers:
    This is the song of the mud.

    Source: Current Opinion (1917)

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