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Home Journal Archives Journal 92 - March 2012 The Picture on the Mantelpiece

The Picture on the Mantelpiece

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My mother had never known her father. His faded photograph in British Army uniform sat on our mantelpiece beside a large bronze medallion inscribed ‘He died for honour and for valour’. Granny seldom spoke about her husband and his life which even with the fertile imagination of a grandson seeking a mark bravery or distinction at war, remained something of a mystery.

A few years ago staying with friends in Kew in London I visited the National Archives there. I knew his regiment and the date of his death, the 1st of November 1918, and I was soon holding the Service record of Captain Henry Burke Close of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. This comprised of three yellowed document folders.

The first folder, to my surprise, told the story of a nineteen year old man from Dun Laoghaire who had joined the Army in England in 1897 as a gunner and remained there until 1911. Henrys father was barrister living in Dublin, and we can only imagine what family upheaval caused him to leave home and enlist at such an early age. He emigrated briefly to Canada, returning to Dublin in 1914 when he met my grandmother. Three weeks after a marriage, unsupported by his family, he received a wartime commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and in early 1916 Henry was sent to the front at Arras in Flanders.

The second folder goes on to record Henry being invalided from the trenches to a Dublin hospital with gastroenteritis, a not uncommon and serious illness at the time. Documents in terse longhand, record over a period medical board assessments of Henry as unfit for service. As his health improved he was assigned to training duties at Mullingar Barracks where my mother was born in 1917. The following year, now deemed fit again for active service; he again left Dublin for the front. He suffered a heart attack while embarking on a troopship and was returned to Dublin where he died at Leopardstown Hospital, the story goes, while playing poker.

The third folder contained letters exchanged between my grandmother, seeking a pension and the War Office in London. There is a sharp contrast between her pleading in tiny handwriting on both sides of small sheets of writing paper, seeking funds for food, clothing and medicines for her two daughters and the dispassionate adjudication of War Office officials. They took the view that her husband had died as a result of illness and not on active service and that she was not as a result entitled to a war widow’s pension.

Yeat’s ‘terrible beauty’ had been born and the world was changing.  Henrys widow, now living with her two daughters in Dun Laoghaire without support from her husband’s family was now an orphan, both distanced by the British War Office and unrecognised by the Irish Free State.

By Grannies account it was only with the timely and effective intervention in late 1919 of Emmet Dalton, a friend of Henrys and a former officer in the British army was a modest pension secured. Three years later Dalton, on a summer’s day in Beal Na Blath in 1922 was to hold the dying Michael Collins in his Arms and later became a General in the Free State Army.

Henrys story, which came to life for me looking through the yellowed folders in Kew is one of thousands of Irishmen lost in the rapidly changing sands of that time. I now have some understanding as to  why, in her fifty four years as his widow, my grandmother left to our imagination the story of the man in the uniform on the mantelpiece. 

Home Journal Archives Journal 92 - March 2012 The Picture on the Mantelpiece

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