The Shame of Ireland
Reflections of my Brother on his last Christmas - 1966
My sister was crying in the school yard. “Why is your sister crying”? a fellow pupil asked. “Our brother is in the Congo”. “Oh” the pupil replied and walked away. To mention the Congo was enough. This was Francis’s second time out there. Arriving home from school I would see my mother standing near the radio listening to the news. Several Irish soldiers had already been killed. Mam waited every morning for the postman. Tears falling from her eyes did not go unnoticed. A mother anxiously waiting for news from her beloved eldest son – praying every day that she would not get that “note” from the Army or the Priest standing at her door.
Thank God you did come home Francis from that war torn land. You did survive to all our joy and a mother’s prayers. You came home a full Irish soldier. You suffered many headaches when you came home from the Congo and when you became a dying young man the Irish Army had no choice but to discharge you on medical grounds. How heartbreaking that was for you – even today many decades later your army friends still recall how you, Francis, loved the Irish Army and how all of them loved you – Throbbing headaches. A Brain Tumour discovered. Three operations. A trip to Lourdes. It would seem that God wanted you for His Heavenly Home and we lost you from ours. I recall hearing that you had a dream whilst in hospital – that there were two or three doctors around you – telling you that there was a hospital in London who could do “the operation”. When you actually did wake up Francis, those doctors who had been in your dream were standing by your bedside – they told you that London would be a chance for you. The Irish hospital stated that you were too weak to travel. Yet some months later lying on a stretcher you were sent to Lourdes. There you are still Francis lying on that stretcher – so weak – in the crinkled photograph of the group photo in Lourdes.
“He was too good for this world. God only takes the best” Mam would say a billion times before she herself died. God now when I look back to that time I clearly see the strength in my mother and our family. Francis, you inspired confidence, trust and humility in all of us, especially Mam. When you died some of us struggled and searched for that inspiration again. It was a long lonely road for many of us, especially for our Mother who had not only lost her firstborn son but also her best friend.
As children, our world revolved around Francis and his world revolved around ours. On his many trips to our country home he would sometimes bring his tape recorder. The large spools of tape hold many memories of a beloved older brother recording his younger brothers and sisters, chatting, singing and laughing.
The twins were only toddlers. Francis would call one Butch Moore and the other Dickie Rock. Laughter, good humour and common decency reflected upon his face and shone out from his warm eyes through the glasses he wore. Francis included everyone and would ensure that no one was left out. When some Aunts and Uncles came down from Dublin sometimes they brought Mrs Crawford, a neighbour of my Aunt’s with them. Mrs Crawford would sing all of Dickie Rock’s songs. We all loved “Old Man Trouble” the best. Mam was so proud of her oldest boy. And you Francis, you adored her and how you respected our mother!
When you would arrive home in your grey Morris Minor (not sure if this was a car borrowed from one of Francis’s friends) we, your younger siblings, would swarm around you and that car like bees around a honeycomb. Mam would run out wiping her hands in her apron. Her eyes would sparkle and her face shone with love and pride. On one of your journeys home some of us children were eager to clean your car. You opened the boot to get me a shammie. I was staring up at you chatting away to Mam when I screamed. Whilst I was staring up at you I had been holding on to the edge of the car and now my little finger on my left hand was caught in the boot. You immediately opened the boot but the top of my finger was hanging off. I was rushed into the car with a towel wrapped around my whole hand. I was soon quietened by the shock. The doctor looked at my finger and said the next town’s Hospital is the best place to go. Off you sped the 26 miles. An innocent accident. Over the decades as I looked at my “healed” but odd little finger, I remember not the incident but me staring up at the smiling chatty faces of you Francis and Mam. A beautiful memory framed forever within my heart.
That last Christmas you spent at home Francis is embedded in my mind. The old green chaise longue was positioned in front of the warm range for you to lie on. The hospital in the town had allowed you home for a while that Christmas Day. You wore a shirt and tie and your pale blue/grey cardigan with brown leather buttons. Our father drunkenly sang his many songs behind you and then came Daddy’s usual outburst. You slowly eased your legs on to the floor and steadying yourself on your walking stick told our father to stop his language in front of “the children”…you fell back onto the sofa weakened by the lack of strength your own body had. The frail frame of a beloved oldest brother fading away before our very eyes on his last Christmas Day in 1966.
Our youngest brother was born in early summer 1967 – your only concern then was “how is the baby”. Little could be done for your headaches. At home we would kneel and recite the Rosary every night. At the end of the Rosary Mam would say “Please God, take Francis and ease his suffering”. I wondered at times why Mam would pray for God to take you but I knew deep down and more so now that she loved you so much, you had been sent down to the country hospital because the major hospitals in Dublin could do no more for you, Mam knew you were dying and she was calling out to God to ease your pain.
Francis, my oldest brother, sadly passed away to Heaven in July 1967 aged one month short of 23 years of age….Always Lovingly remembered and cherished in all of our hearts.
When I think back to those times so many years ago, I question God – but in my heart I want to believe that there is a reason for everything. God Bless the three of you, Mam, Dad and you Francis, as no doubt you are the better part of a family who is now fragmented forever across this world without you. As time goes on and each fragment “passes over” perhaps then Francis your healing words and loving hands will slowly but joyously bring our family together again. Sadly now there are more than “drunken words” to heal.
Teri…30th November 2008
Since I wrote this reflection of my beloved brother I have learnt that there were many Irish soldiers who came home from the Congo and suffered brain tumours. There were three, I am told, in one area alone from Co Louth and many others who struggled on with cancer for many years. There are stories going back decades that a gas was let off whilst Irish soldiers were there – I do not know what side are alleged to have let off gases on these young men. I do not know why there were no investigations on behalf of all of those young men who died when they came home from the Congo. I do not know why no one other than families cared for these young men. Yet there are veterans of the Congo today who keep the memories of Francis and all of those who died alive simply because they were not just soldiers, they were friends….Thank you to all of those veterans.
The Irish soldiers in the Belgian Congo were there under the UN Flag of Peace –
Teri - 2014
Add a Comment