LETTERS TO MOTHER AND OTHER DEAD RELATIVES (extract)

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Dear Mother,

We never had much to say to each other when you were alive. I suppose that had a lot to do with you being grounded in the tranquility of rural County Waterford, while I misspent my youth on the mean streets of that area of London often referred to as County Kilburn. Even when we did speak it was only in platitudes; nothing of importance was ever touched upon. Mainly, I assumed, because nothing of importance had ever happened in our family’s history. So the chances of you surprising me from beyond the grave were very remote indeed.

It began with enquiries about your favourite son, John. Telephone calls to friends and

neighbours, even to the Parish Priest in Newtown. Nosing around, you would call it. Eventually the caller phoned John himself, which is how I became involved.

Apparently we were the beneficiaries of a legacy. A substantial sum of money was laying in British Government coffers, the trail of which led back to our paternal grandfather, Tom, and we were the next in line. Nobody ever spoke about grandpa Tom; Why was that?  And now that I think of it, why is grandpa buried in one parish – Newtown – and grandma in another – Ballyduff? And why did father scrupulously care for grandma’s grave, and not grandpa’s?

But back to the legacy. There was a catch – there always is – the caller required us to sign a contract giving him 33% of the estate before revealing details to us. As I happened to consider that excessive for a ‘finders fee’ I began my own investigations on the internet.

As far as I could see, the only family member who it could possibly be was Aunt Margaret.

When I had last seen her ten years ago, she was already an old woman, living in poverty in Lewisham. (I know you always said she had loads of money, but if you had seen how she lived then you would have changed your mind)

Anyway, after several hours of queries to Ask Jeeves and co, I came across a British government website called www.bonavacantia.co.uk  I typed in a name and there it was in black and white! Margaret O’Brien…. Lewisham, died intestate 2005. Estate £XX,000 How well you knew her!

But of course you didn’t really. Nobody did. Not even my father – her own brother. He never spoke about her.  Why was that? She left Waterford in 1947 and was never seen by any member of the family again, apart from myself. Oh, I know you wrote her the occasional letter and she sent parcels of used clothes to you. ‘Her cast-offs’, you called them, before burning the lot.

What was it that caused her to go away and never come back?

She came to visit me in Kilburn shortly after Karen was born – was that your doing, giving her my address? – And we kept in contact until I moved away from the area. She liked the idea of having a niece, but I found her a strange, secretive woman.

When I last saw her she was housebound, living in a dingy council estate in Deptford. And given to calling me ‘Captain’ – because I don’t think she remembered who I was any more. After that I forgot about her.

To establish claim to the estate I have had to furnish various documents; birth, marriage, death etc. Which is how I learned that my father and Aunt Margaret weren’t the only children born to my paternal grandparents. There were three other children, John, James and Catherine. What

happened to those uncles and aunt? Father never spoke of them. They are not still alive as far as I can establish, but neither have I yet ascertained where and how they died and where they are buried.

But you, mother dear, served up the biggest surprise of all. On your marriage certificate, it says FATHER UNKNOWN. Why, in my childhood, did I never realize that your mother was unmarried? Or query the fact that your father had never been around. Oh, there was a man about the house – your mother’s brother Mikey – and maybe I subconsciously associated him with being  your father. Mikey, with his wooden leg -he had lost the real one fighting with the British Army in Flanders – lives on in my memory, and I can still recall trying to remove my leg as he did his, and wondering why I couldn’t. I almost wish now that he had been your father.

I have since learned that you did know your father. He was a friend of Mikey’s who had also joined the British Army, but had been killed in the same battle that had seen my granduncle lose his leg. Killed before he could make an honest woman of your mother.

Killed before he could respectably be put down on your wedding certificate as your father.

You never spoke about any of this. Not to me, anyhow. Was this what made you melancholy in your later years? The thought of your mother living all her life in her little thatched cottage in Grenan, the man she loved lying in an unmarked grave, lost forever in those green fields of France?

I think it’s sad that I find you more interesting dead than I ever did when you were alive.

Your loving son, Tom

 

***

 

 

Dear Grandma Butler

I can say this now. I always thought Grenan wasn’t a very nice place to live in. Maybe it was to do with the landscape: the fields were hilly and stony, the land not very fertile, populated with as many thistles and other weeds as grass, and the cattle and sheep that grazed it always looking bony and ill-fed.

Or maybe it was to do with the people themselves, who, I always thought, left a lot to be

desired as specimens of humankind. They always looked – you know – weasel-ish. Even mother was often heard to remark disparagingly about certain people who lived along that winding pot- holed goat track that masqueraded as a road; ‘oh, don’t talk to me about that lot! It’t out tramping the roads with the tinkers they should be’. This from somebody who was born there, and returned two or three times a week to see you long after she married and moved away the relative lush pastures that was Ballyhussa.

I suppose the hill had a lot to do with this impoverishment. Queallys Hill was undoubtedly a blot on the landscape; a rather large lump of limestone, eclipsing everything within its scraggy folds, good for neither man nor beast.

Apart from the rabbits that is. Rabbits loved that hill; loved its furze bushes, its blackthorns, its knobby exterior, that all combined to make our lives difficult when we hunted them. And rabbit stew was very welcome when couldn’t afford cuts of beef or lamb at the butchers

  • a frequent occurrence it seemed to me in those

You kept a few goats, who considered the hill part of their demesne. And when mother came calling we were often dispatched to find them and bring them back so as we all ‘could have a sup of fresh milk for the tea’.

Milking the goats could be quite an operation, particularly when the kid goats decided that they wanted their share of their mothers’ milk at the same time. And the ass also liked to get in on the act, so that there we often were, in the middle of your acre, attempting to milk a goat, surrounded by animals, and perhaps even turkeys and hens who had pecked their way to the periphery to see what was going on.

The hill has almost gone now, grandma. Thirty-odd years are all it took. It was sold and turned into a quarry, and ever since they have been blowing it up bit-by-bit and mixing it up to make concrete. Who would have thought that something that looked immovable could disappear without trace?

I wonder if Butlers ever owned any part of it? Because I now know that you weren’t as impoverished as I believed you to be. You owned twenty acres of land, attached to your cottage, which you disposed of during your lifetime, the proceeds of which I imagine went to keeping you solvent during a time when there was no pensions or social security.. Indeed, your brother, Tommy, owned a farm, as did your brother, Paddy, although it is said that Paddy drank his.

I wonder now if there was a larger farm, back in the mists of time, which might have been sub-divided, and which might have included some of the hill? Because the sale of the hill made a number of people wealthy, and I would hate to learn that some of it might have been the legacy that your brother Paddy squandered

Yes, the hill has gone but your little cottage still stands. The one you told me would be mine. Do you remember those Sunday afternoons as we knelt by your turf fire, toasting bread on long forks, when you told me’ ‘this place will be yours when I am gone, Tom, boy’. I can still see my mother, beside us, nodding her head in agreement. But it never happened. And mother, closeted in your bedroom with ‘someone of importance’, during your final hours, had as much to do with that as you.  Maybe even more. What was really said behind those closed doors? Did you even understand what it was all about?

Suffice to say that when the smoke from your turf fire turned to white, mother and the ‘person of importance’ emerged from your bedroom to announce you had left the house to my cousin M.

Your loving grandson Tom

 

***

 

Dear Mother,

M was your favorite niece, wasn’t she? She spent a lot of time at our house when we were growing up, looking after us, pushing the younger ones around in the purple and silver pram, and then, when she married herself, pushing the same pram up Ballyhussa boreen with her own children in it. She wasn’t that much older than me, probably no more than five years, but for some reason I always associated her with your generation. Why did she marry J?  Was it because she had to?

Because it seems to me looking back on it now that they were never a married couple in any real sense of the word. They were never together – or if they were it was only when staggering home together from the pub in Carroll’s Cross. If he wasn’t there she was there, and visa versa; they never seemed to spend any time at home together looking after the children.

You must have seen the writing on the wall for the marriage from a long way off. Was that

why you hatched the plan to get M grandma’s house? The one that had been promised to me, remember?  Then she could leave J and have a place of her own in which to rear her family. There was no fear of me; I was newly married and living in England now.

The first part of the plan worked fine. And my loss was M’s gain. Incidentally, you were right when you said I would never have lived there anyway. I would have sold it before the ink on the agreement was dry.

But the second part of the plan backfired badly didn’t it?  Because separating M from J didn’t stop her drinking; in fact nothing has ever stopped M from drinking.

It didn’t make her a better mother either, did it?

At some point it dawned on you that you weren’t going to change her for the better, because as time passed you distanced yourself from her, so that your expression ‘walking the road with the tinkers’, could just as easily have applied to her as to the many others you disapproved of.

Your loving son Tom

 

***

 

 

Dear  grand-uncle Mikey,

When you marched off to war in the spring of 1915 did you know what you were fighting for?  Or did you care?  Was it purely on economic grounds – at least the British Army would feed you and keep you and put a few shillings in your pocket at the end of each week – or did you have an overwhelming desire to kill Germans? But perhaps it never even entered your head that you might end up in the green fields of France, a part of the greatest military slaughtering exercise that ever took place?

You certainly never thought you would lose a leg in it, or that your friend, JN, would lose his life there. I still don’t know where you enlisted or with what regiment, but I imagine the place was either Waterford city or Clonmel and the regiment either the Royal Munster Fusiliers or the Royal Irish Regiment. Was it a spur of the moment decision?  Did one of you say to the other – ‘come on, let’s join up, there’s nothing to do around this place?’ Was that how it was?  And how did your sister feel about J going away?  Or did J not know her then? Maybe it was later – when

you were home on leave – that he met her?  You see how many questions there are? The only people who know the answers for sure are all dead now so I can only guess what they might be.

I wish you were still around in 1973, when an Australian singer called Eric Bogle was so moved by a visit to the WW1 memorials in France that he wrote a song called ‘The Green Fields of France’.  It begins:

Well, how do you do young Willie McBride?

Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside And rest for a while neath the warm summer sun I’ve been working all day and I’m nearly done

I see by your graveside you were only nineteen

When you joined the great fallen in nineteen sixteen…..

There is more in the same vein but I am sure you get my drift. I first heard it sung by a group called the Fury Brothers. You would have liked the Furies; saloon bar musicians with voices like a load of gravel sliding down a chute. The eldest brother, Finbarr I think his name is, played your favorite instrument, the melodeon. You told me many times you carried yours around with you during the war, strapped to your back. And showed me the dent in it which had prevented a lump of shrapnel from injuring or killing you. I wonder if it was true, or if you made stories up for goggle-eyed young boys like John and myself?

I still remember the one you told about the ‘Big Push’ of 1917 – November I believe it was

  • when one of your comrades took out a German machine-gun nest with a grenade using the road bowling technique he had perfected bowling the roads in his native Cork. You said he had saved many of you from being slaughtered that day, and that he had subsequently been awarded the Military

I wonder now if you knew John Condon from Waterford, who is widely acknowledged as the youngest soldier ever to enlist in the British Army? He must have stood out because he was only 12 years of age when he enlisted, and still only 14 years old when he died during a gas attack in 1915. His burial plot in France is now a shrine, and one of the most visited of all the graves. A shrine to what, I wonder…the folly of youth?

Your grand-nephew Tom

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