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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Pvt. Patrick Walshe

'Frayed Old Letter'

By Veronica Breen Hogle

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 army.

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 whiskey.

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 Men.”

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 rebel songs.

“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:

Buckingham Palace

504 Pvt. Walshe, Patrick


“The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries and hardships, which you have endured with so much patience and courage.

During 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.

We are 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.”

George R.I.

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

Source  Our Echo  & Terry Curran c2007

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