By Marion Reynolds
WHEN I was growing up in Dublin, there was a photo in my grandmother’s house that intrigued me.
It was a large photo in an ornate frame of an elegant woman in a beautiful dress with her hair upswept in the Edwardian style and a dashing man in military uniform with a curled moustache. Between them was a baby in a lace dress and beside her another man in uniform.
Even as a child, I knew that the photo and frame were completely at variance with the rest of the living room in the small two up two down which was my grandparent’s house. I found it hard to believe that the old people I knew and loved were the same people in that photograph.
They seldom talked about the lives they had led before they settled in the house in Dublin. Occasionally Grandma mentioned growing up on Lord Lucan’s estate in Castlebar where her father was the lodge keeper.
Once I found a shred of luminous silk in a beautiful kingfisher colour at the back of the wardrobe which she said had been part of a ball gown when they lived in India. When I asked about the baby I was told that she died on the way to India. The other man in the photo was her cousin who had also been in the Connacht Rangers Regiment.
Grandad always wore a poppy on Remembrance Sunday but nobody else in the family or even the street did. The house was in a nationalist area of Dublin. I found a tin tobacco box with his military medals in it on a rainy day when I searched the wardrobe out of boredom. One was the Military Medal which he told me he had won for bravery during WW1. Before he could tell me more, Grandma said it was time for tea and put the medals away.
I grew up and spent less time in that house. Other things occupied my mind: education, career, boyfriends, marriage, and a family. Although both grandparents lived into their nineties, I was still young when they died. A cousin inherited the photo, another cousin the medals and the house was sold.
Like many people, it was not until I got older myself that I began to research my grandparents’ lives. The dramatic changes that my grandmother had seen in the course of her life particularly interested me. She had gone from a fairly privileged upbringing in Mayo to a glamorous life as the wife of a sergeant major in the India of the Raj, with servants to do the housework and ayahs to look after the children.
She returned to a very different, frugal life in Dublin. While her husband went off to fight in Flanders, she was left alone to bring up her four children in a nationalist area of the city. She and her family witnessed the Lockout, the Rising, the Civil War and the emergence of the Free State.
When he returned from the war, he could not find employment of any kind, in common with most of the Irishmen who were former British soldiers. His family had all become nationalists and were ashamed of his military service in the British army. Family lore said that our grandfather survived WW1 without being wounded. I discovered that he had been wounded not once but twice. Most of his regiment was wiped out at the Battle of the Somme but he survived.
I have a copy of the photo in my house now. After years of thinking about it, I decided two years ago to write about my grandparents and that tumultuous period of Irish history. I wish now that I had taken more interest in their history when they were still alive.
REVIEW: A SOLDIER’S WIFE, BY MARION REYNOLDS
By Shelley Marsden
SET during the years 1900 to 1922, Dublin author Marion Reynold’s latest novel A Soldier’s Wife is a compelling, dramatic tale of love, loss, resilience and divided loyalties.
Loosely based on the fascinating story of her grandparents, it explores the effects war and political unrest can have on a very ordinary family.
Ellen leaves a sheltered life as a privileged servant on the estate of Lord Lucan in Mayo, to travel to India with James, the British soldier that she fell in love with. Tragedy strikes on the journey, threatening their idyll, but they go on to lead an indolent, glamorous life in the India of the Raj.
Seven years later, it’s an entirely different story when they return with their children to a frugal life in Dublin, a city that is rife with political and civil unrest and representing a more grim existence altogether.
The Lockout increases the poverty and unemployment and Ellen witnesses at first hand the effects on Dubliners. WW1 breaks out and James goes to fight in Flanders, leaving Ellen to bring up their three children alone in a Dublin that is increasingly nationalist. Her sister and children witness some of the key events of 1916 and the aftermath, the divisions and tragedies of the ensuing civil war also affect the family.
The war ends and James comes home to find a city which is hostile to returning British soldiers, children who have become nationalists and a wife who is a strong, independent woman. During the tumultuous years between 1916 and 1922, Ellen finds herself caught between two loyalties – trying to keep her family together and finding a place for them within the new Free State.
Marion’s own grandfather was in the Connaught Rangers regiment of the British Army, and the family travelled to India and stayed there for seven years. They returned to a Dublin in 1912 full of civil and political unrest. He went to fight in France, leaving his wife to bring up their children in a city that was becoming increasingly nationalistic.
A Soldier’s Wife is not only worth the read from a historical point of view (it offers a vivid and often moving portrait of life at the time) but is a story that many Irish families will relate to – with particular resonance given the imminent anniversaries of both WW1 and Irish Independence.
Marion, who is based in West Cork, is currently working on a sequel which takes up the story of the family in the 1930s and one of its member’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.
A Soldier’s Wife by Marion Reynolds (Indigo Dreams, 8.99) is available from independent bookshops, on Amazon and from www.marionhreynolds.com.