My grandfather died on June 22, 1977, a decade before the Enniskillen bombing. Had he been alive, he would have been wearing his suit, with medals and poppy attached to the lapels, not unlike those pensioners gathered respectfully at the Cenotaph where at 10:43am, with chilling choreography, an IRA bomb exploded, killing eleven and wounding 68.
Granda never forgot the wars. He made sure I remembered too. Because of Granda, I have always known that “the war to end all wars” ended in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. He told me so many times on our walks down the Moss Road. At just 25, he had been part of that “template of civic cooperation.” Private James McFadden, No. 15823, he enlisted as a volunteer soldier with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Following his training at Finner Camp in County Donegal, he was shipped off to France, where he fought, scared yet brave, in the Battle of the Somme and at Passchendaele. For untold miles, he crept through the muck, weary, thirsty, lost, and far from home. One of too few who survived the battle at Passchendaele, Granda carried to safety another soldier, Sammy Campbell, who hailed from The Upperlands, a village outside Maghera. Granda told my mother the story many times. Too, he told of the hunger that drove him to steal chickens from a French farm, of the thirst and weariness that almost broke him.
My grandfather did not belong in the muck. He belonged on the banks of the Moyola River, fishing, or cutting turf at The Moss. All these years later, it saddens me to picture him far away from the bluebells and foxgloves that once lined winding lanes to houses along the Broagh road. By the time I was doing O-level English, learning by heart much of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est,” I had already committed to memory my grandfather’s own story of the “war and the pity of war,” fought on faraway fields, in particular, of a dark evening that found him and his brothers in arms, afraid, parched with thirst, their billy cans empty. Crawling on their bellies through a field somewhere in France, I imagine they felt something close to euphoria when they came upon the stream, followed by a horror that would haunt Granda into old age. I shudder to think of him cupping the water in his hands, bringing it up to his face, then noticing it was tinged with red. Flowing in the foreign water was also the blood of a young German soldier who had died not too far away. Phlegmatic, my grandfather recounted those details in a voice I can still hear. I can see his beautiful eyes, twinkling the same blue as mine, his checked shirt, and the tweed cap he twirled in the fingers of his left hand.
I remember how Granda liked his tea, with only a drop of milk and two spoonfuls of sugar. Increasing the odds that it would be strong, his was always the last cup poured from the pot. Often with two Rich Tea biscuits impossibly balanced upon a saucer, the delicate china cup somehow belonged in his elegant hand. To cool his tea, and to my great amusement, Granda sometimes poured it into the saucer from which he subsequently drank with a little slurp. He wore cable-pattern vests my aunt had knit for him pulled over his signature checked shirts – his favorite was red and white. My mother is convinced those checked shirts were his way of remembering what he wore, how we was, as a young immigrant in America. The timing seems right, given the rise to popularity of Pendleton plaid shirts before World War II. My mother also tells me that the plain blue shirt he wore to my grandmother’s funeral seemed as out-of-place as he must have felt in a world without her.
Before his world changed, Granda and I spent part of so many Sundays on long walks. At the top of the lane, we always stopped and looked right, looked left, looked right again, before turning left towards the Moss Road, along which gypsies were occasionally encamped. Sometimes, as a treat for me, he carried barley sugar sweets deep in his pockets. He taught me to look out for nettles and the big broad docken leaves that were supposed to soothe their sting.
As a girl, my mother had been sent by my grandmother, down this same road, to deliver sandwiches and flasks of tea to her father and the other turf cutters. I often wonder what they would have made of the young Seamus Heaney who lived just down the road and often sped by on his bicycle, sandy hair blowing in the wind. Could they ever have imagined the smallness of their world enlarged for global audiences through “Digging” and other poems that pulled taut the stuff of life and those who lived it within and beyond the banks of the Moyola River:
“My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf.”
And so on this Remembrance Sunday, I am remembering Heaney and my grandfather and the rhythm of so many lives changed by war.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.