Brendan Lynch’s first novel at age of 80!
‘Down, Dan! Down! This one’s for us,’ Liverpool Pat pushed.
Gunner Dan slid to the bottom of the trench. He pulled the helmet tighter over his head and held his breath. The shell tore into the ramp above them. The ground shook, a fellow-soldier screamed. Stones, shrapnel and clay rained down. Another near-miss. How much longer could he stand this? ‘The war will be over be Christmas, me arse,’ he spat out the earth.
The Gunner woke, sweating and shaking. Another bloody nightmare. Wouldn’t you think that after three decades they’d have exhausted themselves? But how much better in the morning than during the night. And how much safer than the real thing. The sun rippled on the wall opposite his bed. A blackbird led the dawn chorus. Was there any more joyous sound on earth? How good to be back in his own little village after the mayhem of Mons and Ypres. How lucky to be in one piece, while so many mates had perished.
Pulling up his patched tweed trousers, he buttoned his once-red shirt and limped outside to check the weather. Half seven, the sparrows were foraging already, the sun was creeping over Carroll’s hurling field. Low-lying mists surrendered to its warmth, it lit up the green fields all the way to the heights of Keeper Hill. The panorama was his morning tonic. Heaven after hell, he reflected, as he gulped in the clean air.
But the Ireland the Gunner had returned to in 1918 was no heaven. No longer the tranquil country of his dug-out dreams. Nationalists had risen against the British government. After all they’d already endured, many of his comrades were killed.Fearful of extremists, he’d buried his war medals inside the hill rath. His secret for so long, no one in Toomevara knew. ‘Youse may get me, but you’ll never lay hands on me decorations,’ he’d determined.
The medals were all he had to show for his years at the Front. He missed them almost every day. Unsure after so many years of the exact hiding place, he’d looked for them many times without success. Were they still there, could they really have survived thirty winters underground? But, he wouldn’t give up hope. This week, he’d start his final search. The thought cheered him.
The Old Gunner and His Medals is the repayment of a long-outstanding debt to a character who returned to my Tipperary village from WW1, shellshocked and wounded. Many nights, he ran shouting through the village, endeavouring to escape his war nightmares.
Gunner Dan’s experiences placed him apart from other villagers. One of the few who had travelled, he spoke a little French. And, like Goldsmith’s battered warrior, he entertained many a fireside group with stories of his escapades and near-misses at places such as Mons and Ypres. That was the debt I owed Dan, that and a wish to right a wrong.
The Gunner’s zest for life and love of nature enabled him to endure ostracisation until saner times returned. He never lost hope of retrieving his decorations and finally shared his 30-year old secret with a local schoolboy who organised a more professional search.
He became a village celebrity when they found his decorations; ‘Children who had mocked his limp and threadbare clothes now followed in the wake of his pipe smoke. He was interviewed by the local newspaper correspondent. A meitheal of locals repainted his house and replaced his battered delph and saucepans.’
Researching and writing The Gunner took one and a half years. As well as studying contemporary media and war accounts, it involved many visits to Toomevara and speaking to the few people who still remembered him. Defying sodden grass and suspicious cattle, I climbed repeatedly to the hill above his house and walked and mapped every inch of the rath which overlooks the village. I never found any of the reputed buried treasure – the happy conclusion to the Gunner’s quest was more than enough reward!
Brendan Lynch’s nine books feature three on literary and Bohemian Dublin, including Parsons Bookshop. (www.brendanlynch.ie)