Soldier, poet.

It’s only about a mile from my home to the beach, but it would take a good half hour to walk there, on narrow lanes with no pavement, with two dogs straining at the leash, desperate for the freedom of the sands. So instead I drive, and usually it’s a few peaceful minutes thinking about what I’ve just read, or just enjoying the routine, the car, the views.  Maybe I was still in the shadow of a dream today, or maybe something I saw on the way triggered a subconscious memory, but today I remembered my dad. Couldn’t get him out of my mind.

My father was a Lancashire lad, but when he was 7 his father died and he was sent to Aberystwyth, to a boarding seminary, where only Welsh was spoken. He didn’t have a word of the language but no allowances were made for this small boy, torn away from his large Irish family, bereaved of his father and robbed of his mother. He was left to get on with it. He was caned when he spoke English, caned when he didn’t understand Welsh, caned when he cried for his family. For ten years he was trained and disciplined for the Catholic priesthood but at 17 he broke free and returned to Lancashire, where he had become a stranger to his family and a disappointment to his very devout mother. He was an intelligent lad, but schooled only in church Latin, church doctrine and History. What would he do with all this knowledge, the beliefs that he had turned his back on, and a great dearth of practical skill? What else? He joined the Army.  What a strange recruit this young man must have been (it reminds me of when I joined the army, also at 17, and was for the first few weeks both  convent schoolgirl and soldier). I have only two mementos of my Dad – ‘A Treasury of English Verse’ and this….


and on the fly leaf is this inscription

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On Christmas Eve, in 1933, this Irish Fusilier was in Khartoum (Sudan) and when he opened a parcel from home, there was a book of poetry.  Paddy Gannon was in his twenties and I look at that poetry book now, trying to find some insight about who my dad really was, as a young man, where his heart lay, trying to find an image of a black haired man (so black it was nearly blue, dark, dark)  in army uniform, in the heat and dust, reading lines like ‘Wings of the whirlwind of the world from here to Ispahan, spurning the flying forests Are light as Our Lady’s fan: for all things violent here and vain Lie open and all at ease Where God has girded heaven to guard Her holy vanities.’

What did this soldier/priest/poet/heretic make of these lines? Was he a Maryan? Was there always some part of his soul yearning for the certainty of Rome and the priesthood he had rejected? Did he go to confession to recite his sins to the regimental padre, or did he by then know too much to entrust his sins to any other human being? Did he attend mass, or risk tumbling to hell in mortal sin? Did he care?

He was a complicated geezer, my dad. And who had sent him the book? His girlfriend or one of his siblings? Who knew him well enough to know that he would want a book of poetry, and that he’d find comfort and maybe a sort of retreat in it?

My memories of Paddy Gannon start in 1958, and they’re of a powerful man, a clever, slightly arrogant, erudite man. By this time he was a Warrant Officer in the regiment, about as high as you could get without going for a commission. In my teenage years I thought that no one would ever match up to his intellect. His ability with language and his knowledge of Latin, church ritual, History, his grasp of Mathematics – they all dazzled me. When I went to live with him, this stranger, and he realised that I was struggling with simple arithmetic, he was incredulous. Mortally offended! This couldn’t be true! His daughter, an idiot? How could that be? I remember that for the 11plus exam it was deemed essential that every child should be a bleedin’ whizz with long division. I couldn’t even grasp what short division was (is there such a thing?). So, sadly, Dad decided to teach me. Every evening we would sit at  the dining room table, when their tea had been cleared away, for a ‘lesson’ and I think just about every evening ended with him yelling ‘Bloody hell, Norah! Is she a bloody eedjit?’ and storming out, back to the sitting room, to simmer with rage and indignation that his child could be so flawed. Sometimes right in the middle of an impossible line of dancing figures, his arm would shoot out and I’d be sent reeling, battering against the sideboard (no one has sideboards any more – have you noticed?), shaking the best china stored within. ‘I’ll knock some bloody sense into her’ but he didn’t ever think that maybe he was knocking some tiny bit of sense out of me. My memories of arithmetic are of disorientation-  the percussive shock, the room spinning, and then bewilderment. And the realisation that I just didn’t know what was required of me. Couldn’t grasp it. Then my step mother would come in and pull him away and take him to a calmer place. And I’d get up, rubbing my elbow, or my head, or whatever part of me had hit the hardest surface first. Bloody sums.

As I went into my teenage years she would tell me that I was the cause of his high blood pressure and that one day I would be the death of him. (he lived to 93)

I remember him now with pity. The 7 year old dumped in strange cold country, the poetry loving soldier hiding from church and family in the Middle East, the disappointed father, the devoted husband. Because he was devoted, was my old dad. He loved his second wife with a passion that was all-apparent, all-consuming. His commitment to her ruled out every other consideration. She was his world. And he was her world. Their love for each other was exclusive, almost parasitic. His love feeding hers, her devotion drawing yet more love from him. An unholy, unhealthy mutual dependance.  No room in there for memories of my dead mother, or to engage with his two sons, or to understand me. Norah was a convert to Catholicism (if you’ve ever heard the saying ‘converts are the worst’, believe it) and because of her he began to attend Mass again, but never Confession, never took Communion, and he would correct (loudly) the Latin of any priest who dared to get the pronunciation wrong in his sermon. Ah, Dad. When I remember you, what a mix of pity and love.

Can I resent him for not loving me? No. We don’t choose where our passions will lie.  What did he know about being loved by a caring father? Nothing. So how could he show me a love he had never known? And he was deeply, deeply ashamed of me. I had been through some hard years with relatives and he saw me as tainted, ruined, unacceptable.  My stupidity just proved the point. (It’s OK, folks, I know I’m not stupid)

I know that he was aware of his failings, and that he felt guilty for neither loving nor protecting his own children. His poetry must have shown him what love was, and I think that his liking for poetry was a sort of seeking for, and a deep curiosity about, something he knew he had missed. I believe he had the insight to regret that his  love was only ever of a sexual and selfish nature. I think it gave him a life that was unfulfilled, and at its core empty.

For 15 years before he died I was able to pay for private nursing for him, to keep him and his wife together, rather than have him in a residential home. He couldn’t have borne being parted from her. He was amazed that I could earn enough to do that. Everything I did puzzled and amazed him.  When I was ‘successful’ and busy,  making my own way in the world  he remembered only the slow witted damaged child of those arithmetic lessons,  and my clumsy helplessness. That’s what he saw. Not me. He never knew me. But what’s worse and what fills me now with regret is that he never knew Christ.

Ah, Dad, I wish I could sit down with you now, and talk to you about love. Talk to you about Jesus. Tell you how the years have treated me, the love that I know now.

How I wish that I could sit with him, today, and say ‘It’s OK, Dad. All those years are done. I love you. And I am loved. All is well in my world.’

How I wish I could tell him about the One who loves me.

How I wish I could tell you about the One who loves you. Whoever you are, whatever you have done, however life has treated you, whatever the years have made of you. I wish we could sit together at my table, with all the time in the world, to talk about Love.




5 thoughts on “Soldier, poet.

    1. She’s been dead nearly a century so I can’t ask her, but I imagine that it was the nearest seminary taking in 7 year olds. 120 miles. Nearer than London or Glasgow or Dublin.


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