- Patrick Walshe (left) at 16. The other man is unknown
- (Click to enlarge)
Every Remembrance Day in cold November, old soldiers still stand
shivering outside stores clinking canisters. They hope people will
drop in loose change and take an artificial red poppy to remember
symbolically the Poppy Fields of Flanders, and the soldiers who
fought in foreign wars. Soldiers like my Grand Uncle Patrick Walshe.
Before he was 20 summers, he had survived four years in a German
Labor Camp during World War l. Inadequate clothing and continued
exposure to the piercing cold left his hands and feet permanently
damaged from frostbite, and his young spirit, broken.
By the time Patrick Walshe was 58 years old, his entire body was
withered and in constant pain. With Gus Brown, his best friend and
war companion, holding his deformed hands, he died in the arms of a
nun in an infirmary for the poor in Carlow, Ireland. His little
bundle of clothes and a frayed old letter, which he had folded into
a small square and carried close to his heart for almost 40 years
was all that he left behind. This letter was the one thing he never
lost, sold or gave away.
He was the youngest of seven children and named after his father,
a police sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary. His mother was
Margaret Byrne, who became bed-ridden soon after young Patrick was
born. The family lived in a sprawling limestone house with a shop
front that is still called The Old Barracks in Kilree Street,
Bagenalstown, a small market town, at the heel of the Blackstairs
Mountains, on the River Barrow in County Carlow. The police barracks
was also a grocery and bar, and for British soldiers on maneuvers
outside the town, it was the place for them to socialized at night
and feel relatively safe in a country with centuries of resistance
to British Rule.
While war clouds were gathering over Europe, the Third Home Rule
Bill, giving Ireland the freedom to self-govern was passed.
Political tensions mounted as the northern province of Ulster
resisted and held Covenant Day, declaring the Act of Covenant of
Loyalty to Britain. When World War 1 began in 1914, the Home Rule
Bill was suspended. But there was talk that if Irish men signed up
to fight the Germans, Home Rule would be placed high on the agenda
when talks resumed.
Just two streets from his house, Patrick Walshe heard the
Waterford-to-Dublin trains whistle and steam into the Bagenalstown
station several times a day, packed with rowdy young men and boys
eager to go and fight the Germans.
He was always at loggerheads with his stern father. School was of
no interest either; he preferred to saw and sculpt hedgehogs out of
blackthorn wood while whistling in perfect unison with his father’s
yellow canaries. He kept a menagerie of stray animals in the yard,
and with his sharp wit, he could make up a verse or tell a yarn at
the drop of a hat.
Before his 16th birthday, young Patrick knew the call-up was a
chance to get away. He told no one and jumped on a crammed train
heading for the Curragh Camp in Kildare where he lied about his age
and joined the British Army. On hearing the news, his father
traveled to Kildare and paid money for his release. Within a week,
Patrick ran away again and rejoined the army. With minimal training,
he was shipped to Belgium, and was in combat in the fierce Battle of
Mons, where 8,000 soldiers died in one day. Young Patrick was
captured and spent the next four years as a prisoner of war in a
German labor camp, working on a farm growing food for the German
After his release at the end of the war in 1918, Patrick was
shipped back to Ireland, emaciated; his face hollow, his eyes blank
and staring. He had no knowledge of the massive political upheaval
happening in Ireland. As a result of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin
in 1916 and the executions which followed, nationalism was the order
of the day as Ireland continued its strong push for independence.
Many people, but not all, wanted an end to British Rule. Irish men
who had joined the British Army found they were outsiders in their
own country upon their return. Neither Patrick’s country nor his
family welcomed him home. He could now speak German, but there was
no value in anything to do with Germany and jobs were scarce.
Back home in Bagenalstown, Patrick’s job was delivering
provisions in the countryside by horse and wagon for the family’s
business. The work was hard on his damaged hands and feet, and his
heart wasn’t in it, as was evident from the records he did not keep.
He was often days late on his rounds because of getting into a game
of cards along the way, and he tipped a drink or two in many of the
places he made deliveries.
The years passed and a second world war eclipsed the horrors of
the first one. Life went on for Patrick Walshe, but he wasn’t able
to work. To most of the family, he remained the black sheep, because
he ran off and joined the British Army. Out of it, he did not amount
to anything. He even sold, bought back and resold the Mons Star he
was awarded for being a prisoner of war. His family just tolerated
him and referred to him as the ‘poor miserable old wretch.’
He was as regular as clockwork, showing up at our house near the
end of the month, when his pension ran out. His pain became worse,
and he was in agony when it rained or was cold, the usual year-round
climate condition in Ireland. His partner in numbing the pain was
From the upstairs window, I could spot him, limping along the
hedge. His frail body came into view at the black iron gate and he
swayed a little as he hobbled to the door, wincing. He propped his
deformed feet on the brass fender and held his withered hands up to
the fire. As he poked the coals, the blaze illuminated the few
nicotine-stained fingers he had left. He sat there nodding,
chain-smoking, his hair growing in all directions, warm, and feeling
no pain for the moment. Sometimes, he mumbled in German.
Other times, we knew he was on his way when we heard his
whistling or rich baritone: “Some died on da glenside, some died
near a stranger; an’ wise men have told us their cause was a
failure. They fought for auld Ireland an’ they never feared danger,
Glory O Glory O ta da Bold Fenian Men.”
He livened the house up by singing and slapping his knee for
timing, while teaching me the words of all the rebel songs. To me,
he was great entertainment and I looked forward to his regular
visits. He sent me for his Woodbine cigarettes, and let me keep the
change. The next morning I found a few more tanners or a bob or two
under the cushion of the armchair where he fell asleep at the fire.
I begged him over and over to tell me his story about Ruby, and most
of the time he would.
“Well, one day, I was waterin’ the horses in the stables at the
back of the house, and I heard the commotion caused by the hunt
ridin’ through the street and the blood hounds were bayin’, excited,
closin’ in for the kill. I heard the bolt rattle and saw a young
vixen squeezin’ under the gate. She was frothin’ at the mouth,
exhausted. We looked each other dead in the eyes. She took a chance
on me and ran under a stable door. I flung a tin of linseed oil over
the gate to kill her scent. In jig time, the master of the hunt, his
face as red as his jacket, was lookin’ down from his high horse
demandin’ the fox. “Fox? Fox?” says I. “What would a fox be doin’
here?” The dogs began chasin’ their tails and whimperin’ because
they lost her scent an’ they all turned around an’ took off. When it
was quiet, I eased a tin of water under the door an’ after a while,
I heard her lappin’ it. I pushed in a few food scraps. Well, she
stayed around the yard and became as tame as a dog. I named her
Ruby. But then -- she ran off an’ joined Duffy’s Circus,” and his
face grew sad. “Why would she do that?” I wanted to know. “I lost
Ruby in a game a cards -- with the elephant trainer.”
A few times, I watched him carefully transferring a grimy old
letter, with the writing side out, from breast pocket to breast
pocket, the odd times he changed his jackets. “What’s in that letter
Uncle Pat? Who’s it from?” I pestered him. “It’s from me secret pen
pal,” he answered and changed the subject.
My grandmother said he was never the same after the labor camp.
He didn’t talk about it, only to say, “Patrick Walshe the grocer
tilled the fields an’ prepared the grub. Gruel for breakfast, gruel
for lunch, an’ gruel for dinner.” She said, “That letter is his
highly-prized possession, the only thing he didn’t lose, sell or
give away, which is strange for a man always singing The Bold Fenian
Over time, the old prisoner-of-war became completely crippled as
gangrene set in. Because Ireland had no hospitals for war veterans,
he was warehoused with minimal care in various hospitals for years.
His last stop was the Sacred Heart Home in Carlow, run by the nuns.
I was now 16 years old and I visited him on Sundays.
Even when the beds were re-arranged in the long white-washed
ward, I spotted him easily in his narrow white iron bed, his hair
still growing in all directions. As he watched me coming toward him,
past the double rows of bald old men with vacant eyes and open
mouths, his faded sea-blue eyes danced a bit, like when we sang the
“Did ya bring me a little somethin?” his eyes questioning, and I
showed him the baby bottles of Powers Whiskey hidden in my bag. I
lit his Woodbines and held them to his trembling lips while he
labored to get enough smoke to inhale. He drank from the baby
bottles, his face flushed, grinning wide, like a happy toothless
baby. The infirmary’s industrial disinfectant helped hide the smell
of the whiskey from an old white-clad nun passing by giving her
usual warning, “Careful Mr. Walshe! Don’t burn the sheets!”
When Patrick Walshe died in 1956, his jacket with the letter
inside the breast pocket was returned to his brother, Ned, who had
inherited the family business. Four years later, he died and the
business was sold. My mother happened to be there as old shop papers
and receipts from the till were tossed into the grate. As the match
was struck, she saw a folded handwritten letter with the red Royal
Coat of Arms land in the fire. She grabbed it and began to read:
joins me in welcoming you on your release from the
miseries and hardships, which you have endured with so
much patience and courage.
these many months of trial, the early release of our
gallant officers and men from the cruelties of their
captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts.
thankful that this longed for day has arrived and that
back in the old Country you will be able once more to
enjoy the happiness of a home and to see good days among
those who anxiously look for your return.”
I remember my Grand Uncle Patrick Walshe when I see someone
stopping to take a red poppy in November, and when I see red
geraniums on soldiers’ graves on Memorial Day. I remember him
whistling and teaching me the rebel songs before nodding at the
fire. I remember him carefully switching his frayed old letter from
breast pocket to breast pocket. His personal letter from King George
V of England, the only person who took the time to acknowledge what
he had endured, is now framed and displayed over the mantelpiece in
my home in Buffalo, New York
I won’t lose, sell, or give it away either.
This story appeared in the November/December 2005 issue of Celtic
Heritage Magazine, NS, Canada.
Published here by kind
permission of Veronica Breen Hogle