Secret Lives of the Children of Independence … the Irish won the war of independence against the might of the British Empire, but then lost the hard-won peace in the disastrous civil war that followed. From an Irish perspective, the result was that many of those children of independence had to face the pain of emigration during the harsh economic conditions of the twenties and thirties. And from a British and American perspective, many became part of the ‘fighting Irish’ who kept us free in world war two. Ian Wilkinson’s novel brings the past to life in an elegy to that lost generation, based upon stories of secret lives handed down in his Anglo-Irish family
UK paperback (shops and libraries) ISBN 978-0-9928485-0-7 £9.99
Amazon paperback ISBN 978-0-9928485-3-8 ($16.00 in US)
Kindle ebook ISBN 978-0-9928485-2-1 $2.99/£1.99/2.99 euros
SUMMARY OF REVIEWS
Professor Alan Carr, University College Dublin: “A coming of age novel with a difference… two boys are caught in an incident which will change their lives forever. They take different paths, but their lives remain linked in distinctive ways… what makes this an exceptionally memorable novel is his empathy for his characters and his thoughtful storytelling … a masterpiece.”
Anita Atkinson, Editor, The Weardale Gazette: “The advertising blurb cannot do it justice. The most gripping and memorable story I have read… I thoroughly recommend it to everyone…”
Chris Lloyd, Deputy editor, the Northern Echo: “Weaves a dramatic story about the strange secrets of life during the Irish troubles, with other exciting tales from the second world war era…”
John Foster, BBC Radio Tees: “An amazing book… a fascinating story.”
Elizabeth Taylor, Librarian: “A great read for book groups.”
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AMAZON.co.uk REVIEWS Note: the combined average score on both sites is 4.5 out of 5
A BRIEF SYNOPSIS In comparative terms: two Irish ‘Midnight’s Children’ meet ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, travel the globe as they come of age and find refuge in unlikely places…
Two young boys living in an institution are caught in crossfire at the outset of the Irish rebellion …one is protected by a British soldier, the other used as a human shield. Each must escape the institution, face the pain of emigration, and become a fugitive from justice while trying to build a new life. One will cross the Irish Sea to join the British army, twice; the other joins the Republicans, crosses the Atlantic and tries to settle in America. Throughout all this, they remain friends. Will they find the courage to follow their dreams despite one setback after another? And as a world war rages around them will they survive amidst the chaos of Dunkirk and the battle of the Atlantic? Both their lives entwine around a troubled family in a remote corner of England… how does an ordinary working man raise six daughters while taking care of his increasingly crazy wife? When the war ends, dreams of a better future meet with reality – and one of the daughters must choose between her close-knit family and the man she loves…
The struggles and the resilience of ordinary people in the era between and during the wars forms a backdrop for an action packed and very unusual story – much of which is based on truth.
Extract One: the opening scene, September 1919
The cool, damp ground along the leafy green corridor shivers, stirred by running footsteps, as a young black-haired boy bursts through a curtain of leaves. He turns his run into a flying leap, stamping on a flat stone with a satisfying slap as he passes, which in turn fires a cluster of birds into the patchwork blue and white sky. The boy glances up, slows, and inclines his head sideways, listening to a voice that peals like a church bell, “Fons, hang on now, Fons, hang on a while …” He dances from one foot to the other, his arms outstretched like wings, as if the sheer joy of running will help him fly. Reluctantly, he conjures the run into one final leap and skids to a halt, arms waving. A partly-chewed apple slips out of one hand and drops away; narrowing his eyes at the betrayal, he takes his revenge with a solid, satisfying kick, pitching it into the bushes by the side of the lane. He sighs, and turns. His pursuer – an older, lanky, fair-haired boy – lopes into view and slows to a walk, dropping the volume but raising the pitch of his voice. Fons listens not to the words but to the insistent tone; “Wouldn’t ye wait, one tiny little minute?”
Fons shrugs and grins, watching his companion lift his arm to fill his mouth with apple, munching hard as if satisfying his belly before they both come into public view on the main road. Smelling the skin and the juices, Fons sniffs loudly, shakes his head in impatience, and glances back at the hedgerow. “Aw, c’mon, Pat…”
The older boy chews on, more slowly if anything, as if considering the whining urgency in Fons’ plea carefully, yet fixing the younger boy still with his eyes to make him wait. Eventually, Pat spits out the core and nods. “No need to hurry, now – they’ll all still be at Mass. The both of us will be for it, anyhow.”
At the end of the narrow lane, Fons peers round the hedgerow and stares down the main road leading to the bridge, half dazzled by the bright dappled sunlight. A large open motorcar waits, facing up the slope. Fons sees an arm hanging out, fingers drumming, and a newspaper. He hesitates until Pat whispers, “C’mon, those fellas won’t be anyone we know.” They meander down the hill, trying to look casual but nudging one another in silent dares to ask for a ride. Fons has only ever ridden in a pony and trap; he longs to sit in those shiny leather seats, but also feels acutely aware of his ill-fitting old boots, the holes at the elbows of his shirt, and the dirt covering his shins and knees. In any event, the men occupying the front seats hold cigarettes in front of their faces, frowning through their fingers. They pull up the collars of their coats, draw on their cigarettes, and look away. One even jerks his thumb down the road towards the town, “Away with ye now.”
The boys saunter past, Fons rolling his eyes as soon as the men are behind him. Pat nods and murmurs, “The two of them look like they found a penny, then lost a five pound note”.
Down on the long, cobbled and hump-backed bridge, standing just out from the riverbank, Fons notices a gawky red-haired youth, a couple of years older than Pat. As they stroll down the hill, the youth leans back on his elbows against the side of the bridge. He glances in their direction twice, the lump in his throat bobbing up and down, before turning to glance across the Blackwater River towards the town. Then he stares at them again, as if he recognises them.
“Who’s that?” whispers Fons.
“That’s no one we know. He’s fishing with his Da, see?”
Fons sees that behind the youth, a dark, unshaven man holds a fishing rod, gazing across the water. Abruptly, the man nudges the coppertop and gestures at a kitbag, which the boy pulls closer to their feet. As they stroll past, Fons catches the coppertop’s eye and nods; the boy does look vaguely familiar. The youth drops his eyes, gives a slight shake of his head, and turns away. Fons looks at the fisherman’s rod. It doesn’t seem to have a line attached, so he stops, looks again, and scratches his head. But now they both have their backs to him, and Fons doesn’t know what to say to them. He stares at the empty rod for a while longer, then shrugs and walks on. They must be waiting for someone else, he thinks.
Meanwhile Pat has moved on, twenty yards ahead; Fons dawdles along, feeling the pleasure of the sun warming his face and limbs. He becomes aware of bells ringing from Christ Church, the steady repeated notes signalling the end of the service. He thinks, that means we have about half an hour before Mass ends at St Patrick’s. Hopefully, we can avoid Brother Daniel and his stick for the rest of the day, God willing. As Fons approaches the rise in the centre of the bridge, a British soldier hurrying away from Christ Church jogs past in the other direction, his pack and rifle slung across his back. Fons speeds up a little, thinking to tell Pat about the daft fisherman, the one without a line, who surely must be a Kerry man. As he tops the rise in the middle of the bridge, he sees more soldiers wandering down from the church onto the far end of the bridge, smiling and laughing now that they have the rest of the day to relax. Two others pass him, lost in thought, strolling in silent companionship.
Within his own reverie, Fons feels an urge to catch up with his friend; his impatience feels like music, suddenly growing louder, matched by a sudden sound of raised voices in the distance, shouting and imploring. Just as this penetrates his daydreaming, Fons feels a large hand grasp him between his shoulders, thrusting him forward and down. As his chest and face hit the cobblestones they seem to make a deafening noise, a crack like a gun. He feels pain inside his nose, his chin, and his chest, and something whizzes past. He tries to take a breath but the air has been knocked out of him; he hears a gasp, but has no sense that it belongs to him. Something heavy flops across him; slowly, it seems, like a blanket. A deep voice gasps a command, “Keep still, son. Don’t move.”
Fons can’t breathe but he manages to lift up his head up, to stare ahead. He watches with awful fascination, as if in a dream. Pat stands motionless on one side of the bridge, frozen. Near him, a British soldier fumbles frantically with his kit, swinging his pack and rifle off his back; he drops to one knee, preparing to adopt a firing position. Beyond this, two men sprinting this way both start to scream, “Put the bloody gun down, Tommy”, in unison. The first man brandishes a revolver as he runs; the second hesitates, moves to the side, and raises a shotgun to his shoulder. The soldier raises his rifle, fumbles with the bolt for a second, curses, and then abruptly ducks into a position behind Pat, using the boy as a shield. While the soldier works the rifle bolt, the two Volunteers scream at Pat, “Get out the fucking way…you…get down.”
Pat suddenly seems to wake up and tries to move aside, but in one movement the soldier wraps an arm around Pat’s neck and with the other swings his rifle around Pat’s side. He yells triumphantly, pointing the rifle at the two Volunteers. “Alright, boys, you two put your fucking guns down.”
While the two men hesitate, Irish voices shout encouragement from the far end of the bridge; Fons glimpses other soldiers holding their hands over their heads while men in a motley assortment of raincoats wrench rifles from their backs. Another voice behind him barks out, “Put your fucking gun down, Tommy, before the boy gets hurt.”
Fons watches a dark patch appear on Pat’s trousers, fluid running down the bare leg below, sparkling in the sun, while revolver and rifle point at each other with his friend in the middle. Fons suddenly feels his own fear and wants to scream out too, to tell the soldier to let Pat go, to leave him alone, and to tell the Volunteers not to shoot, but he has no voice, he’s trapped in silence. That silence explodes as the rifle crashes and a lump of stone splatters out of the bridge behind the man with the shotgun. The revolver cracks twice in response, but Fons has already shut his eyes to pray for Pat. He hears curses from every direction, then more footsteps approaching. He still can’t breathe, and feels dizzy. The voice on top of him speaks again; “Denny, behind you.”
Fons opens his eyes. His prayer seems to have worked. He sees the British soldier turn and look back over his shoulder. He seems to look through Fons, a hard, aggressive look boring past into the air behind him. The soldier releases his grip on Pat, grasps his rifle two-handed, and swings it round, working the bolt. Pat staggers; Fons feels pain as he bites his own lip. A deafening crash above his head seems to fling the soldier backwards, spraying blood into the air; a flailing arm and leg collide with Pat, who wobbles like a skittle before he also falls. Pat lies still while Fons hears a strange ringing in his ears. As this dies away, replaced by a wailing noise, Fons watches the two Volunteers walk forward. The first picks up the discarded rifle and slings it over his shoulder, half-grinning, half-grimacing. Fons realises that the wailing, the crying in terror, comes from Pat; relief floods through him. The second Volunteer helps a blood-splattered, sniffling Pat to his feet; the two of them both look down at the wounded man with horrified expressions. His legs kick like a swimmer as he lies prone, coughing and choking.
Fons hears a low moan; at last the weight above him is lifted away, so that air fills his own lungs. He too finds himself hauled to his feet. Now he sees, lying on his back, another British soldier – the man who pushed him to the ground, the man who took a bullet and then fell on top of him. He’s bleeding from his shoulder and grimacing in pain, but his eyes seek out Fons’ gaze, eager both to see and be seen; for a long second the man regards the boy, before he attempts a smile and winks. Fons manages a slight nod of his head. The man grunts and closes his eyes, satisfied.
He senses Pat behind him and turns as a broad hand descends onto each of their shoulders. Looking up, his mouth drops open as he sees the face of the fisherman. “Fuck off home now, boys. But just ye remember, ye don’t know anyone and ye didn’t see anything, did ye now?”
* * *
Extract two: Maggie meets Pat, 1942
She glances up to see a stranger standing patiently at the bar, waiting to be served. There’s something different about him, Maggie thinks; not a local man, for sure. Dressed in thick working trousers and a thick sweater, a plain cap tucked under his arm; definitely not military, the hair’s too long. But he stands plumb line straight, the same way Paddy does; more confidently, if anything. She works out the change, hands it over; turns towards him, “Well, what would you like?”
The blue eyes twinkle while they regard her, “Oh, all sorts of things; but a pint of your best beer will do for now.” The voice shocks her. She realises why after she turns away; he has the same accent as Paddy, the way that the ‘h’ in things is almost (but not quite) silent. She finds herself blushing, almost dropping the glass while she fumbles with the pump.
She takes a moment to compose herself; looks back at him, “Are you Irish?”
“I was, I was, once upon a time; but tell me, is this tiny little place Eastgate?”
“It was, once upon a time.” She smiles up at him. “They took the road signs down in 1940 and never put them back up. You’re not a German spy, are you?” She means it as a joke; to her horror, the whole bar falls silent and turns, staring at the newcomer. He grins, much to her relief.
“I wasn’t, not the last time I looked in the mirror. Why, do you think I look like one?” She shakes her head, blushing furiously; she can’t help glancing at his fair hair, his blue eyes, blushing again. Out of the corner of her eye she sees a short, chubby red-faced man struggle to his feet, detach himself from the table in the corner, waddling towards them. She groans, inwardly.
“Where’s tha uniform? Get tha self in th’army or get thee gone.”
She flinches at the tone, the slurred voice, “Now, Billy…”
“We don’t need to wear uniforms in the merchant navy; we just do our job.” The stranger’s voice is suddenly crystal clear, calm and resolute.
Billy scratches his head, muttering to himself. He starts to turn away and then turns back, “Bloody shirkers; get tha self a uniform.” The stranger doesn’t even blink.
“Tell you what; we could all do that, us seamen. You know something? We’d all get far better pay plus a spot of paid leave. The problem is, though, me and my mates are bringing in all the sugar to make your beer, the flour for your bread, the corned beef, the tinned milk, not to mention all the guns and ammunition to fight the war with, and all the fuel for your cars and tanks and planes. So you might just find yourself in a little spot of bother, without us.” He takes a sip of his drink while he watches Billy’s face. “Another thing, before you tell me all about these brave lads in uniform, I’ll tell you something about life in the convoys. In a tanker ship, now, one torpedo can blow the whole ship sky high. Even when it doesn’t, you’ll be jumping into a layer of burning fuel. Then there’s the ammunition ships; you surely do not want to be anywhere nearby when one of those gets hit. So if you’re really lucky, and you’re not carrying anything like that, you’ve nothing much to worry about. Just how to get up onto the deck in pitch darkness while the water comes in, how to get off the boat in three minutes flat, and then how to survive in ice-cold water; oh, and how to swim, or maybe row, a thousand miles.” He takes another sip. “And when you get home, say after three or four weeks in a lifeboat, you know what? They’ll dock your pay from the exact moment your ship went down. You bloody shirkers, they’ll say; sitting in a lifeboat all that time.”
He turns back towards Maggie and winks. “You were telling me about the village…”
“Was I?” She tries to ignore the sight of her father walking purposefully around the bar, a grim look on his face. “What would you like to know?” Behind the stranger, George Bonville rises to his feet, clutching his personal silver tankard.
“Well now; is there anywhere I could stay for a couple of days? I’ll pay the going rate.”
“Maybe – we can ask around.” She watches her father escorting Billy out of the door. “I’m sure we’ll find somewhere.” George appears next to the stranger, looking at her for his cue.
“That would be grand.” He nods at her and sips his drink, his face a picture of innocence.
Gilly returns to her side, rubs his hands and announces, “Good riddance; I’ve been wanting to turf him out for years.” He catches the stranger’s eye. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem, we get nonsense from idiots like that all the time; occupational hazard.”
“I’m the landlord here, Gilbert Hardy; call me Gilly.”
“I guessed as much, to be honest. My name’s Pat – Pat MacMahon; I’m a friend of Paddy Reilly’s. He’s told me a bit about this place.”
She squeals with delight before she can stop herself, “I knew it.”
“This is my daughter Maggie; and this is George Bonville. I imagine you enjoyed seeing Billy get his comeuppance too, George?”
“I…I did. He’s a p…p…pain in the neck; let me buy you a drink, P…P…Pat.”
“I wouldn’t refuse any man that request, George.”
As she reaches for the glasses, her father whispers in her ear. “I’ll manage here on my own, Maggie, when you’re finished serving these two. You go and look after the baby awhile, give Gracie a break. She’ll do the bar tonight, with me. You can get the others their suppers and put the little ones to bed.” Though she loves her baby sister Ellen, she feels a surge of disappointment; does her father think that scene was her fault? That she couldn’t have handled Billy herself?
No, she tells herself; he just prefers having Grace in the bar at night. She’s prettier and she uses it; that’s good for business. Maggie hopes she can talk to Pat McMahon again later; she wants to hear what Paddy was like as a boy. “All right, Dad. But don’t forget, he needs a place to stay.”
“Does he? Well, go and ask your uncle first. That’s decent, not far out of the village.” After organising that successfully, she spends the next few hours with her younger sisters, acting as their mother would if she were well. She feeds the baby with a bottle of goat’s milk; perhaps she should feel resentful about her role, but the bond that’s grown between herself and Ellen prevents her feeling that way. She had to sacrifice her independence for this child and leave the Post Office at Middleton-in-Teesdale; initially she hated the idea, but the reality of caring for baby Ellen made her feel good and strong in a different way. Somehow she accepted it and moved on; she wonders, has she put all her love into this child to make that sacrifice seem worthwhile? Was it the knowledge that her mother, unlike with her other sisters, made absolutely no effort to care for this infant? Deep down, Maggie knew that someone had to take charge and love her as a mother would. No-one else was going to do it.
Later, after putting the little ones to bed, she sits in the garden at the back, thinking. Unlike herself, Grace is resentful; she’s made that perfectly clear – for her, this baby is the last straw, just when she should be making her own life. Maggie does miss her life in Middleton, but she cannot feel resentment towards her baby sister; quite the converse, she feels a deep stirring of her own maternal feelings. Her mother remains aloof, silent, withdrawn; like a hollow husk of a person, going through the motions of life, as if devoid of inner experience. Maggie feels occasional urges to try to shake her out of it, but mostly she feels a terrible sorrow for her mother, coupled with an enormous relief that she can be different, that she’s not crazy like her mother. That, for Maggie, would be the real terror. She could cope with anything else, but not that idea. Her love for Ellen, for all her sisters, proves to herself that she’s not going to turn out the same way.
“Penny for your thoughts,” She looks up and sees those blue eyes watching her.
“Oh, nothing; just thinking about my baby sister,” She shakes her head and frowns. “The kind of ordinary stuff that must seem terribly trivial…”
“It is not, it is not; believe me. It’s grand; really, a great relief to see some normal life again. It’s been a long time since I slept in a decent bed. Thanks for organising that, by the way.” She shrugs. “Like you, we all look after each other on the boats; same as you and your sisters. We have to. Your shipmates will always look after you, no matter what.”
“That must be a comfort.”
“It is; it is. There’s a bond among sailors. We’ll pick up the enemy when we can, and we’ll treat them just the same as ours. Early in the war, I heard tales about U-boats sinking a ship and then surfacing to make sure the survivors had water in their boats. They won’t now; it’s too risky, with the convoys. They’d be blown out of the water.” He drops his voice. “I’ll tell you one of my tales. One time early in the war we were down off the coast of Africa. There was a German ship stuck in a port there, interned for the duration of the war. Down on their luck, you might say, so we passed them a bottle of rum. Our Captain was furious, tore strips off us, consorting with the enemy. Until we told him what those German lads had told us.”
“What was that?”
“They warned us where the U-boats would be, further down the coast. That helped us to sail round them; a small but very important diversion.”
“Worth a bottle of rum, then…”
“Worth treating them as ordinary men, the same as us.”
She nods. “I gather you can sing.”
“A little bit. There’s no piano here, by any chance?”
“In that case, I’ll get my squeeze-box out. You’d better ask your father if he minds.”
“He’ll love it. I don’t think we’ve had music in the pub since the war started. If word gets out, the place will fill up in no time.”
She watches Paddy’s friend sing and play for three consecutive nights before he leaves. She never does get the chance to ask him about Paddy as a boy, though the tunes and songs don’t leave her mind; she hums them all to Ellen again and again over the coming weeks and months.
* * *
About the author
Ian Wilkinson spent twenty years helping people to cope with extreme trauma, ill health and other dilemmas. In that career, he used metaphors, stories and poems to communicate truths to and from his patients, and also when teaching others. Hearing the secret lives of others, listening to their internal worlds, thoughts and feelings, and seeing the impact upon a person’s life and external world teaches you a lot about life. And learning how to put the heart of the matter into words is pretty useful for a writer, too.
He produced two editions of a standard text about measuring progress in child psychology, worked as a trainer for Newcastle University, and represented his professional group at a national level.
He was known as a person who had an ability to sum up the heart of the matter in complex situations. This was very useful with patients, but sometimes got him into a lot of trouble with colleagues and managers…
This novel has its roots in stories handed down within his own (Anglo-Irish) family.