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Ginger McGovern

The January 4, 2002 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 old year ebbs its last hours, frozen under a huge full moon. I am not at home in Ireland but close to where Ginger McGovern died in World War Two, one of many in this Rhineland country where maybe the Allies went a bridge too far, this sky over me full of parachutes and young men like Ginger McGovern drifting down to fight and die. Before that, on the drive through Europe by the Allies, he wrote home to his family in Fermanagh in a citeog letter (left hand writing) and he wrote, this fierce young one - "I am well. I am killing all round me. I am safe". I have seen the letter, yellowed now in the front of a prayerbook with his photograph. A stubby young man with ginger hair. They were glad around home when he joined the army and went to war because he was always fighting anyway. He was trouble in a peaceful place.

Folklore is powerful. It garnishes the truth with extra images, heroic images, that turn men into giants. It is in the folklore that Ginger McGovern, who certainly made corporal, was a brief flaring legend on the battlefields around Arnheim. There is a man I have talked to who said, in the dialect of home:- "He killed a whole wheen of Germans, a haggard full of Germans, but they threw a big bomb into the hole he was in and there was not enough of him left to send home for burying".

It is in my head that this happened to Ginger McGovern close to the German town of Emmerich on the banks of the Rhine. Or maybe it was in a village close to here, a hilly village of tall spare timberlands over stubby houses called High Elten in the English. Probably near here because a Dutch friend tells me this now gentled and chilled place has forever been a battlefield of the past century. It was owned by the Germans until the Great War. When they lost it, with bitter fighting hereabouts, it went back to the Dutch, and a battlefield again in the war that killed Ginger McGovern and a million more. Like at Aughrim back home you can almost hear the guns, the bombs, the sounds of death.

The church atop High Elten is a thousand years old. It was bombed by the Canadians in World War Two but it has been rebuilt, and rebuilt well, around a sombre solemnity limned and lit by votive candles burning before a Crib where even the Baby Jesus has a sad face. And near the great wooden door there is a Mother Mary as at the foot of the cross with her Son on her lap. It is the most explicit dead Christ I have ever seen. The stone bleeds at the belly, at the hands, from the thorn-stabbed forehead. And the torso, naked to the hips, torn to pieces, is the torso, not of a slender man, but of a stubby peasant like men like Ginger McGovern. You would sigh for both of them, and all the torn bodies beyond that. I light a candle for them all. Even the bright flicker-flame burns sad and chilled and white in the shadow of the torn hands.

Outside the cemetery clings to the shadow of the church. The stones are not like our Celtic stones. Many are great crude chunks, as if torn from the earth, just one face polished a little for the family name. What is beautiful though, and moving in this place, is the fact that candles burn on almost every grave. They are in little glass cases, eternal candles, constantly renewed, and, aptly, they are all blood red. In the dusk of the evening, against the light snow, against the chill, they are like so many drops of bright new blood. The Germans know how to respect their dead, says one of my Dutch friends. She is right.

And now I am in Emmerich, on the banks of the Rhine, and it is dark. The Rhine is racing by in a dark torrent on the stretch between Dusseldorf and the port of Rotterdam. There is peace now in a Europe only hours away from a common bonding currency. There are plump people with smiling faces drinking beer in the beer houses all along the Prom, still on holidays, bringing in the bright promise of a New Year, a New Time, a New Promise. It is heartening, bright, exciting too for an islander like myself. With almost shocking speed a great barge thunders past down the river, long enough to play a game of football aboard, a great Behemoth shape in the night, a whale of a thing. For me it represents, in a way, the great Power and Powers that take us into tomorrow, in a new direction. Tomorrow I will buy my first Euros in a Dutch bank.

And I will go to a bar. I will spend the first of them on a shot of Irish whiskey. And I will drink a toast to Ginger McGovern, one of our own, who never came home when it was all over.

Source: The Irish Emigrant, January 4, 2002.
"Meanwhile ... Back in Ireland" by Cormac MacConnell, a weekly feature of "The Irish Emigrant" at http://www.emigrant.ie, is reproduced here with the author's kind permission.

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