Henry McDonald: Touching novel raises the plight of Irish world war veterans

Among the many artistic casualties of the pandemic was a short but touching novel about an Irish soldier and the medals he won serving in the British Army in World War One.

By Henry McDonald
Monday, 1st November 2021, 9:14 pm
Updated Monday, 1st November 2021, 9:25 pm
Author Brendan Lynch’s ‘The Old Gunner and His Medals’ tells the story of Gunner Dan after he had survived the Great War and returned to a very different Ireland he had sailed away from. A tale of the erasure of the war dead memory from the narrative of the Irish Free State
Author Brendan Lynch’s ‘The Old Gunner and His Medals’ tells the story of Gunner Dan after he had survived the Great War and returned to a very different Ireland he had sailed away from. A tale of the erasure of the war dead memory from the narrative of the Irish Free State

Author Brendan Lynch was unfortunate that his book ‘The Old Gunner and His Medals’ came out during last year’s lockdown because it deserved far greater publicity and coverage.

Lynch tells the story of life for Gunner Dan long after he had survived the slaughter of the Western Front and returned to a very different Ireland that he had sailed away from when the Great War broke out.

Set in Toomevara village in Co Tipperary it begins with Dan suffering flashbacks to the trenches and then moves onto his morning ritual outside his home.

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As he did every day the shell-shocked, damaged old veteran “turned towards the furze-crowned hillock above his house, raised his right hand and saluted”.

His native Tipperary and his own country were “no longer the tranquil country of his dugout-dreams”. Dan lives in fear of the local IRA unit determined to stamp out any remnant of Britishness from the area.

For that reason, Dan has long secreted his medals inside the hill rath lest they attract the attention of republicans. The only trouble is he can’t remember exactly where he buried them.

When he gazes towards the hill after saluting his dead comrades each morning, Dan says, “Youse may get me but you’ll not lay hands on me decorations.”

Dan is branded mad in the village over his sometimes erratic behaviour with some locals also mocking him for apparently losing his war medals as well as his marbles.

He is a lonely, isolated figure who is eventually befriended by a boy whose mother wants him to learn French; Dan learnt the language in his own words at the “academies of the Somme and the Marne”.

The novel is in part a coming-of-age story for the boy and a secret being shared that could even cost the old soldier his own life three decades on from the First World War.

It is also an overarching tale of the suppression and erasure of the Irish War dead memory from the official narrative of the Irish Free State and later the Republic.

Lynch, a Dublin based writer and former journalist at The Observer and The Times, dedicates his book to the real character it was based on.

Gunner Dan Doherty enlivened his childhood in Toomevara, Lynch recalls in his acknowledgements at the end of the novel. He also points out that over one hundred veterans were murdered in the War of Independence and Irish Civil War. Nor does Lynch mince his words about what happened to the majority of the other WWI veterans. They may have escaped an assassin’s bullets but they were all “ostracised on their return”.

In this decade of commemorations on this island the fate of the returning, predominantly Catholic Irish soldiers to southern Ireland has been highlighted.

It is worth remembering that 210,000 Irishmen served in the British Army during the First World War. Their footprint on Irish society had been enormous at one time. Even as late 1924 the Dail was told that ex-servicemen and their dependents comprised half a million people out of a population of 3.3 million.

Yet that footprint was gradually wiped from official Irish life for decades and only during the 1970s and 80s did pioneering writers such as Kevin Myers continually point to this huge but officially forgotten swathe of Irishmen and their families denouncing their treatment as a national scandal.

The Old Gunner and His Medals’ is not a book that glorifies war in any jingoistic sense. The author was after all a former peace activist who once served a month in Brixton Prison during the 1960s for taking part in CND protests. But Lynch’s story brings to life one man among the 210,000 and how his own land maltreated him like them after he came home.

There are lightly touched but vividly effective descriptions of what we now call PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and its impact on Dan. In one scene towards the end of the novel the Gunner runs into the local Garda station crying that “the Huns, the Huns! They’ve finally got me. I saw the with me own two eyes. The gaz is coming down the hill”.

When a Garda Sergeant goes down to investigate near Dan’s home he sees the rath and the hill covered in morning mist, which the Gunner had mistaken for poison gas.

Beyond illuminating the legacy of PTSD this novel raises the plight of Irish veterans and the Irish war dead in what is now the Republic.

As we enter the month of Remembrance it is a book well worth picking up and by doing so will be small act of tribute to men like Dan Doherty, the real Old Gunner who was forced to keep his medals buried for far too long.

• ‘The Old Gunner and His Medals’ is published by Mountjoy Publishing can be obtained by www.brendanlynch.ie

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