A blog inspired by the beautiful County of my birth, Leitrim on the Shannon. I sometimes go off on tangents so be tolerant of my waywardness, I always come back home, eventually. Typically you'll find here a little history, a few short stories, some of my favourite poems, musings, scribblings and travelogues. To summarise – a busy fool beneath an unruly sky. COME IN, WE'RE OPEN
The drive from Amiens north along the D929 is a pleasant one. Picardy is still predominantly rural with two thirds of the population living in what are described as rural areas or small communes.
The fields are large and expansive, creating beautiful horizons. The various pastel colours of cereal crops such as barley, rye, wheat are interspersed with the deep verdant hues of peas and sugar beet. The blood red of the iconic poppy can be seen along the roadsides and throughout the crop fields . Near the farmhouses you will see occasional apple orchards and plots of rhubarb and potatoes. This is also an area where you are as likely to be served a beer, a glass of cidre or apple brandy as a Pinot Noir. The landscape is also populated by small stands of forests with beautiful mature Oak. The mind can be forgiven for being confused by the sensual images laid before it; it knows that not far away over that horizon, stretched out across a thirty mile belt of this pristine countryside lies the scene of one of the Worlds greatest human abattoirs. The Somme, are there any words which more encapsulate the horror, folly and devastation of War? The Somme, are there any two words which even a century later can conjure up images of slaughter and futility, heroism and sacrifice?
The early months of the start of the Great War 1914-18 contained a phase known as ‘The Race for the Sea’. The title is a misnomer. Neither the German Army nor the Allies were actually racing for the Sea. They were simply trying to outflank each other through the Picardy countryside and consequently instead of moving forward the front kept moving west to north-west in a serious of bloody encounters. Eventually the Generals found that there was simply no more ground to outflank the enemy. The armies had run out of land, the front line had reached the North Sea. It became apparent that a decisive victory would not be forthcoming in the short term and so the German High Command settled on Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of exhaustion). The rest as they say is history and a miserable, grotesque one at that, yet it is this history that has me flying up the D929 savouring the vistas of Picardie.
As I drive across the rolling plain I soon catch sight of the golden top of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières. This signals my approach to the quiet town of Albert, located in the heart of the Ancre valley and about halfway between Amiens and Bapaume. As one gets closer you realise that the golden top of the Basilica is actually a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. It is known simply as The Golden Virgin. The original gilded statue so impressed the Pope of the time that he reputedly referred to the Basilica as the Lourdes of the North. It is here where the French and Britush line held and halted the German advance in November, 1914. Albert suffered terribly from the ensuing bombardment and from its proximity to the front line for the next four years. Early in 1915 the golden statue was hit by a German shell. It wasn’t a direct hit and the statue remained defiantly in place, albeit in a very lopsided position.
The shelling wasn’t entirely malicious by the German gunners. The tower would have provided an excellent observation point for French Artillery spotters. As the tedium of trench warfare developed the sight of the Virgin Mary hanging on to the top of the tower assumed mythical status. Both sets of troops saw the horizontal leaning shape as an omen for the outcome of the war. It was generally accepted by them that the survival of the Statue was no fluke, but proof of a divine intervention in their bloody proceedings. The Allies for some reason seemed to think that whoever finally knocked down the statue would lose the war. Some thought that when it eventually fell it would signal the end of the war. The British soldiers called the statue simply ‘the leaning virgin’ but the Australians who began arriving in the build-up for the Somme offensive in the summer of 1916 called it ‘Fanny Durack’. Miss Sarah Durack was a famous Olympic swimming Champion and world record holder. The Ozzies thought the statue looked like her preparing to dive into a swimming pool. The Duracks incidentally originated in Scarriff, Co. Clare and left for Australia shortly after the Famine.
The statue was by now a familiar sight to thousands of soldiers who passed through Albert on the way to the front. Many of them would not see the leaning it on the return journey, for tens of thousands there would be no return journey from the Somme battlefields and they lie unidentified in mass graves or beneath the chalky soils where they fell in the ground up mud and were consumed by the Earth. Throughout all that turbulent summer of 1916 the Virgin, now well below the horizontal, still held resolutely on to her child despite the madness all around her.
In the Spring Offensive of 1918 the Germans re-took Albert. The new line of fire of the British Artillery included the ruined but still standing basilica steeple. The resulting British shelling finally brought down the Leaning Virgin of Albert in April. The final demise of the statue did not have an immediate effect on the outcome of the war as predicted but hostilities did end by the end of the year.
The Basilica and its Tower have been fully restored to their former glory. Much of the town’s commerce is now based on Great War Tourism. The gilded statue of the Virgin holding her infant son mirrors how Albert holds on to its war legacy. In the summer you are likely to meet English, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. The restored Virgin mother and son once again dominates the skyline of the town and the Ancre valley. If only the millions of lives destroyed nearby could have been rebuilt so successfully.
Lying face down, spread-eagled, the bed, comfort, exhausted from the long day in the surgery. The bloody phone, my head, piercing, stabbing my brain. Dot will know how to field the call, divert it to another GP. ‘Hello’ . Wait, that’s not Dot’s voice, its Liam Og. ‘Yes he’s here ….. okay I’ll just get him for you’. Oh God, Can he not just say that I’m gone out or something? Bloody hell. Seconds later he’s at the door ‘Dad there is some man on the phone and he wants to talk to you, said it’s very important’. Important? ‘How important? Have the Martians landed in frigging Longford again? Rising gingerly, muttering, ‘bloody hell’ I march down the long hall towards the telephone, ‘Who is this?’ My curt request is met by a quietly spoken ‘Hello Doctor Gannon, it’s Michael Fanning here, I’m in the Dew Drop Inn. You better come quick as there has been an accident’ ‘What sort of an accident?’ ‘It’s Mary Kate Joyce, she sat on a pint glass and she’s all cut in her hinds. She’s in a bad way Doctor’. I sigh, it’s all I need now, an evening call to a bloody pub. ‘When did it happen?’ ‘bout five minutes ago, she’s in the Bar wailing in pain and she’s bleeding buckets’ . ‘Okay I’m on my way’. I look around but Liam is nowhere to be seen. He is so sensitive, just like me, better find him. ‘Liam Og? Liam where are you?’ No answer. Damn it.
I grab the old black satchel which I throw it in the back seat of the SAAB. ‘The Dew Drop Inn’ is in the heart of the rolling drumlin country, close to the border and at a remote crossroads. When I first came to the area over a decade ago it was described as being close to the borderline, just like its patrons. In those first few years it took time to settle. Part of me regretted leaving Singapore. The move was intended to be only a stop gap measure in my medical career, but as the years past and the children settled into the quiet hamlet, so did I. As I became more settled I also began to gain the trust of the locals. It didn’t happen overnight and deep down I have always felt that it didn’t really matter how long I lived here, I would always be an outsider, l’etranger as Camus would say, a pieds noir. I’ve never let my sometimes different perspective on life interfere with my duty. There were times when I’ve missed the excitement of my previous postings in Africa and Oman but this was balanced with the knowledge that I had found a safe and secure place to bring up the children, notwithstanding the troubles just ten miles up the road. Liam will understand.
‘The Dew Drop Inn’ was an imposing two story building with annexes at both ends and fuel pumps out front. It was set at a crossroads with neither road really leading anywhere of consequence. There was no town or village in the parish of Ballybrown and so as such ‘The Dew Drop’ was the focal point of the community. Births, deaths and every significant life event in between were celebrated here. The shop sold all the necessary provisions for rural life. The post office was also part of the shop and it and the telephone Box were the links to the rest of the world and the hundreds of parishioners who now lived far away in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Coventry, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The walls were adorned with pictures of past parish football teams who had enjoyed success. It was considered a social embarrassment for any menfolk not to be included in one of these line-ups. These were the thoughts that filled my head as I speed the five miles from home to the infamous ‘Dew Drop Inn’. If the place was the social hub of Ballybrown by night, by day it was inhabited by men for whom drink, and the companionship of those who drink, was their only solace in life. Most of these creatures would be there now awaiting my arrival, and there would be poor Mary Kate Joyce in the middle of them, her arse torn to shreds after sitting a pint glass.
‘Ah its Doctor Gannon, well this a turnaround, usually its us that travels to him but tonight he’s come to our principal POB’ It was Jack Burgess. Gannon knew him well and also his incredibly large ego. Burgess held court here daily in the public bar. He was not well-liked and considered an annoyance, but to the people of Ballybrown he was their annoyance and so occupied an important part of the parish ecosystem.
‘What’s a POB?’ asks Benny Maguire, the little hunched up man sat on the stool beside Burgess.
‘Benny my good friend, a POB is our principal place of business, the place where we transact ourselves, the place where eh, were we a body capable of registration that is, that such registered office would be located, the place where, were a stranger to seek us out and ask such directions of a person of the locality, that person would be directed to this very place, right here Benny, this is our POB’
‘Well seeing as it is such an augmentious occasion the Doctor might buy us a drink’ replied the hunchback.
‘Christ man, don’t be talking like that in front of the Doctor, have you no fucking manners at all ………….. the Doctor will buy us a drink in his own good time’
A group were huddled in the corner beneath the television. One woman, the only other female on the premises was holding the hand of Mary Kate Joyce and appeared to be just finishing the Rosary, ‘Hail holy Queen, mother of Mercy, send in most .. Dr Gannon, come in doctor, come in quick, thank God you’re here’. Mary Kate was moaning and when she saw me she started shrieking, ‘ah Doctor, Doctor, am I going to die, I’m near bled out, ah God’. Mary Kate was lying on several towels which were all now crimson. The place looked like a casualty clearing station. ‘You’re okay Mary Kate, you are going to be just fine, try not to worry, we’ll see to you now and get you cleaned up’
Tom Penrose, the proprietor came in from the side door. His complexion was the white of a ghost. No doubt despite the drama around him he would have taken time to check that his public liability insurance was up to date. Gannon grabbed his arm ‘Look I can’t operate on a woman in a public bar’. Penrose nodded, ‘I know Doctor, will we help you load her up and so you can bring her to Mullingar?’ Gannon frowned ‘No Tommy I mean bring her into the lounge!’
The wails of Mary Kate could be heard in several parishes, ‘I’m finished Doctor’. I gently rolled her over on her side. She was very much on the plump side. As I rolled up her blood sodden skirt it revealed her ripped nylon stockings and several lacerations to both buttocks. One was quite deep but there didn’t appear to be too much damage to any underlying blood vessels or nerves. Mary must for once be grateful for the bountiful and generous extent of her posterior. I was confident I could suture the main wound but first i’d give her a jab of local anaesthetic. The patient didn’t even feel the needle enter her buttock and I took this for a good sign. The amount of blood was making things look a lot worse than they were. The assembled audience were only exacerbating tension. ‘Can you stand up Mary Kate please?’ Oh Jesus no I can’t move Doctor, Oh I’m in an awful way’ ‘You will be if you don’t move now my dear’ knowing full well that neither himself nor the half dozen well inebriated men in the bar were equipped to lift Mary Kate’s twenty stone frame out of the bar and into the lounge. Gradually with gentle persuasion Mary Kate stood up and with some more coaxing was persuaded to put one foot in front of the other until they slowly made their way into the dimly lit lounge. ‘This won’t do’ I thought until I eyed the pool table which had a spotlight overhead.
‘Bring her over here and place her on the table, take it gently boys’. Penrose jumped in front , arms outstretched ‘Not the new pool table. ‘It’ll be destroyed, I only bought it two year ago’. ‘Well go and get some bed linen Tommy and be quick’. As Penrose ran behind the bar and into the house quarters I grabbed a glass and pushed up the optic and filled myself a brandy. I threw it on my head, got a refill before returning to where the newly commissioned medical orderlies Jack Dexter, Michael Fanning and Pipsey Rooney were having an impromptu cigarette break. Dexter was holding his cigarette to Mary Kate’s mouth and she was dragging on it as if it were her last gasp of nicotine. It could’ve been the Alamo or Khartoum so heroic the scene.
‘Ah Jaysus lads’ cried Tommy returning with a big cardboard box and a well-worn white sheet. ‘Ye can’t smoke in the lounge, ye know that well ye bloody fools. What an evening I’m putting in’.
Dexter went over to the emergency exit and pushing down the bars opened the door letting a whoosh of cool October air in. Sucking strongly on the last remnants of the cigarette he threw the butt on the path. Rooney followed suit and they closed the door. Penrose was tearing up the cardboard box by now and spreading it flat across the pool table. Suddenly the double doors from the hall opened and in came a visibly inebriated Pat Joyce, ‘How are you now darling, you are in good hands, God bless you Doctor Gannon’ Mary Kate was not impressed with these loving overtures ‘How am I he says, How do I look to you? Me arse shredded in bits and bared to half the men of the parish’ The wounded looking Pat slid up along the side of the pool table and held his wife’s hand ‘Ah darling don’t be like that in front of the men, the doctor will surely do his best to save you, isn’t that right Doctor?’
Dexter and Rooney lifted Mary Kate up on to the Pool Table and I rolled her gently over on her side. The men averted their gaze but there really was no way of letting modesty take any foothold in this situation. Penrose came back with a basin of warm water and a clean tea towel. The bright light over the pool table was turned on and began by debriding the wounds. As the blood was cleaned off I could see that many of the cuts were superficial and I picked out several small pieces of glass. ‘Do your best Doctor I’ve 9 kids at home and they wouldn’t survive without their mammy’ . Well they must be surviving alright tonight I thought. The blood still flowed from one of the deeper wounds and so I asked Pat Joyce to squeeze the two sides of the open cut together to stem the flow. It gave the chance to get the suture kit. Threading the nylon monofilament through the eye of the needle I remarked how a serene silence had descended. As I began to put Mary Kate Joyce’s bum back together stitch by stitch in a standard single interrupted closure of the wound. The smaller wounds were easily dealt with and bandaged. All in all the procedure took less than half an hour and at this stage Penrose was getting agitated and looking at his watch
After matters settled I began guiding the patient out to their car. ‘I’m just afraid Doctor you know. It won’t affect me if I was to have another baby?’. ‘Oh no, not at all Mary Kate. Are you pregnant?’ ‘Not that I know of Doctor’. Mary paused for a little break, ‘How many have you now?’ I asked. ‘Well we had ten but nine living’. ‘Nine!’ repeated Gannon, he had thought they had six or seven at most. ‘You know there are procedures available Mrs Joyce. You can get a procedure or Pat either and then you wouldn’t have to worry about getting pregnant’. Mary Kate thought for a few moments before walking again, ‘God I think I’ve had enough procedures for one night Doctor but thanks very much’. Her husband was now out opening the passenger side door and linking her in. ‘Maybe we can talk about it again when you get over this. You’ll come into me Tuesday or Wednesday so I can check how you are healing. I’ve given Pat something to help with pain and sleep’.
‘Thanks for everything Doctor …. and the other advice too but I think I will take what God gives me’. I smiled outwardly but inside I was sighing ‘Has God not given you enough?’
With the patient departed returned to the Lounge to gather up my satchel. Penrose had already cleared the make-shift operating table and was wiping the edges of the pool table with a damp cloth. ‘Fair play to you Doctor you timed that well Doctor. We’ve an ould pool competition tonight with the Courtmacsweeney lads.For awhile there I was afraid I might have to call it off. You are welcome to sponsor a spot prize if you like.’ I shook my head ‘I’ll have another Brandy though’. Penrose finished wiping and shuffled behind the counter to get the drink. ‘Oh and send a drink up to Professor Burgess and his able assistant there’.
I gathered up my instruments and put them in the satchel. The lounge was still empty but the Bar was filling up. I need sleep. I took the squat glass in my hand and savoured the aroma of the Cognac just under my nostrils. With eyes gazing on me I walked purposefully through the hallway and out to the fresh air. As I slipped the car into gear and turned it towards home I thought of what Mary Kate had said. I wondered had God given me too much too.