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Dead Men Walking

The June 7, 2004 segment of "Meanwhile ... Back in Ireland",
A weekly view by Cormac MacConnell.

Cormac MacConnell's quirky take on Irish life.
Cormac MacConnell's quirky take on Irish life.

The week in which the world remembers D-Day and the wars of the last century and I remember, with a shock, having met so many old soldiers in my time who died in the great horrific wars, in a real way, but who came back home under their own steam. Dead men walking. I've met so many of them. I don't think their eyes really saw me.

The two brothers on the Lough Erne island were still in their sixties when I met them as a boy reporter in the Sixties. They came back from the trenches of the Great War. They had all their limbs and their bodies, on the outside, were hale and hearty. But they lived alone on an island and about the only ones who came there to the island were those who came to buy the clinker boats they built. The boats were beautiful, a little longer and a little slighter than the traditional boats of the time. But the Tierney brothers had taught themselves to build them, designed their own "form" or template, and the old soldiers' boats were keenly sought after. You paid well for them but you got a great boat. That's what the lough people told me.

I went out to their island with a purchaser. He knew them and they knew him and that was my passport. They were Protestants and so was he. I have a feeling I might not have been so welcome otherwise. They were low-sized men, the brothers, almost twins in appearance though they were not. Their eyes never looked at you but away past and through you and it was the first time - but not the last - I saw that look. There was the minimum of conversation between the boatbuilders and their customer, cash changed hands, and then we went away in the new boat, the beauty of it I remember both in the slim shape and the way it moved through the water under the oars. Later I was told that the brothers had suffered greatly in the trenches. Somebody said that they brought home their uniforms with them. And there was at least one British Army Lee Enfield rifle with a bayonet. I was told that under the full moon, often enough, one of the brothers would often don the old uniform and take the rifle and bayonet and go out to fight the old demons that menaced them both. And he would bayonet the trees fiercely and howl at the moon. I talked to men who heard that howl and one of them shivered as he remembered it. I think I almost heard it myself in their silences in the half-hour I was there.

A Sligo man who survived the Normandy beaches asked me to buy him a pint years later in a pub in the Ballymote area. He had the same eyes. He spoke constantly, this one, and he was alcoholic and he was missing a thumb on his right hand. Sligo is a great town for soldiery and this one told me he lost two brothers and all his friends in the war, three friends. One of them was never found either. And he had the habit of pointing an imaginary rifle at anyone coming in through the pub door. He got very drunk very quickly, this one, and a neighbour firmly brought him home to save trouble for the visiting pressman. Kind people around me told me that the veteran had been a lovely lad when he went away. He was the eldest son of the farm family, they said, and it was his father who asked him to go to keep an eye on his brothers, that was what was said.

But the brothers were killed very early in the war and he thought he had failed. He slept rough even though there was a very supportive family still in the area. There was no hope for him. It would have been better for him, said somebody, if he had gone too. He'd have suffered less. Nobody in those days talked about post traumatic stress, did they? Shellshocked was a word they knew, though.

I met more, just like that, dead men walking. I met a few who came through it well but not as many. I'll never forget the Korean War veteran I shared a house with briefly. It was in Waterford. He was alcoholic too, a Corkman, a great carpenter, and he had the eyes. One night I heard a strange noise from his room, in the wee small hours, and I knocked the door and went in. He was crouched like an animal atop the bed and, yes, outside was a full moon. Get down, he said, it's dangerous! I played ball. He said we were safe if we stayed down. He talked for an hour, sometimes rambling, sometimes lucidly. He had the blankets of the bed heaped up high around him. The best place to survive in Korea, he said, was in a Korean graveyard like we were in now. The Koreans buried their dead in a kneeling posture so the graves were high. They made great trenches, did Korean graveyards. I left him as soon as I could, chilled, left him in his graveyard. I left the flat altogether as soon as I could.

Yes, back and forth down the years I've met more than a few ex-soldiers who were dead men walking. O do not think we have any idea what they suffered, those young men of all wars, of all armies. Or what they are suffering still for that matter. A Mayor of Sligo, John Fallon, who did survive the war well, the Great War, talked to me once on Poppy Day, when people remember the dead by wearing paper poppies. He saw the first poppies, he said. They were the bullet wounds on the breasts of the young Sligo lads that enlisted with him and went out into No Man's Land with bayonets fixed and never came back. And as he said it I thought of the old soldier on the island howling at the moon and charging the sycamore trees and the demons of the dark.

A friend told me this week that American veterans of the Second World War are now dying at the rate of eleven hundred a day! God rest them all, those who died quickly on D-Day and elsewhere, on all sides.

And God especially maybe rest in peace the tortured brigades of the Dead Men Walking.

Peace.

Source: The Irish Emigrant, June 7, 2004.
"Meanwhile ... Back in Ireland" by Cormac MacConnell, a weekly feature of "The Irish Emigrant" at http://www.emigrant.ie, is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the publisher.

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