Resting PlaceMarking My Grandmother’s Grave Helped Me Find My European Identity
Patrick Howse shares the story of three generations of his family – a tale of loss, discovery, conflict and plural identities
A brand-new stone stands at the head of my grandmother’s grave. It is 90 years since her death, but the plot was marked for the first time just a few weeks ago. Despite having a large family, she died alone in a strange country, and no member of that family ever visited her grave. It took the current generation to piece together her story, and to commemorate her life. It’s a story of war, imperialism, conflicting loyalties, emigration, and loss. And it’s a story in which Brexit played a belated but significant role.
I moved to Germany in 2016 with my Bavarian partner and daughter. My decision to leave Britain was spurred by Brexit. My father was always proud of his Irish heritage (my name is no accident), and I was always aware of my Irish blood. And that blood, passed down by my grandmother, qualified me for Irish citizenship – something I had often thought about, but never too seriously. After all, on the face of it, I’m as English as it’s possible to be. I was born, raised, and educated in England, and I worked there most of my adult life. But Brexit changed everything.
The Brexit debate in England was dishonest and xenophobic. If the world wars were mentioned at all, it was by middle-aged people who claimed ‘we won’ them, with little comprehension of the sacrifices their parents or grandparents had to make – and no understanding at all of what real war is. There was also a widespread and very unhealthy nostalgia for the Empire – something I found particularly distasteful.
Discussions about, or recognition of, our shared European history, values or culture were almost entirely absent. When any positives of EU membership were mentioned, they were the economic benefits.
I came to realise the sad truth that I no longer belonged in England, and so, in my fifties, I became an Irish citizen. Even as I applied for that citizenship – by virtue of my grandmother’s country of birth – it dawned on me, and on my sisters, that we knew very little about her, including where she had been buried.
That inspired the research that found me standing beside a shiny new marble headstone in an English graveyard on the 90th anniversary of her death.
Rita and Harry
Margaret – known as Rita – was born in County Cork in 1897. She had a twin brother, two other brothers, and a younger sister. Difficult days lay ahead for her and for Ireland.
In the Irish War of Independence, and the subsequent Civil War, those family members found themselves on different sides. In the war against the British, that meant a split along pro- and anti-independence lines; in the Civil War, brothers who’d been on the same side apparently took different views of the signing of the treaty that brought the war against the British to an end.
By the end of 1922, they had all fled the country. Rita married a British Army officer and moved to England; the rest all went to America, along with their mother.
Rita’s new husband, Harry, had been through the First World War. As a junior infantry officer, and later as a company commander, he spent 18 months on the frontline, fighting in the Battle of the Somme shortly before his 20th birthday. A second-lieutenant, he joined his regiment in September 1916 as a replacement after the carnage at the beginning of that battle. Three other junior officers joined at the same time – within two weeks they had all been killed or wounded.
Harry went on to lead a company at the Battle of Messines, and then at Passchendaele in 1917. He survived the war but, by the time it came to an end, he had lost all his close friends and had seen death on a huge scale – but also intimately, up close.
Reading between the lines of the regimental Commander’s War Diary, it’s probable that he killed during his service.
He certainly ‘went over the top’ with his men at Messines, and the engagement was a bloody one. A few weeks later, the conditions at Passchendaele – where Harry’s company fought in a swamp between Railway Wood and Sanctuary Wood – were appalling. Harry was wounded there and shipped back home for treatment. That meant he missed Ludendorff’s desperate final offensive of the following spring; an action in which the last of Harry’s contemporaries and friends were slaughtered.
It was with this baggage that Harry was sent to Ireland in 1918.
It’s not easy to trace exactly what he got up to in Ireland because the Commander’s War Diary is of little use. The battalion’s officers were named in the diary’s entries throughout the First World War, so it is possible to know exactly where Harry was on any given day during that conflict. In Ireland, the document becomes much more coy, with no names attached to individual actions (it was also kept secret for 50 years). While this was a regular army unit, and Harry was not a Black and Tan or Auxiliary (both of which played particularly shameful roles in Ireland), I think it’s likely he played a full part in the fight – and the fight got dirty. That’s not something I’m proud of.
I don’t know where or when Harry and Rita met, but they were married in Dublin in 1921. There’s no doubt in my mind that they were in love. Rita would not have had to look hard for reasons not to marry an Englishman. Harry had to agree to any children being brought up as Catholic in order to marry Rita. Marrying an Irish Catholic at that time would not have done his career any favours, and it also caused a rift with his parents. One of my aunts told me once that she remembered Harry’s mother as a harsh old harridan. She vividly recalled “a Victorian looking woman” who dismissed the small child with disdain and the words “there’s bad blood there”.
Harry and Rita defied this parental disapproval and got married anyway. They had five children in quick succession. But this isn’t a happy story.
Partings of the Way
My father Desmond was born in Bristol in 1922. Ireland’s Civil War was underway, and Rita’s Irish family had taken the decision to move to America (indeed some had already left).
Rita headed home to show them her son, and say farewell to them for what turned out to be the final time. Of course, there was no question of Harry going with her at that stage.
We only have family legend to go on at this point, but by my father’s account (he was too small to have any actual memories of the events that unfolded) the family got together somewhere in County Cork. A local IRA column broke in, and was about to murder my infant father, when his uncle – Rita’s older brother who was himself an IRA man – intervened and saved his life.
The family went their separate ways, and my father never visited Ireland again.
Harry remained in the Army and, after Ireland won its freedom, he had postings in Egypt and Sudan, and then in India. Rita went with him, at least initially. My father, the eldest boy, remembered his ayah – an Indian nursemaid – with great affection all his life and, as a small boy, was as comfortable speaking to her in her native language as he was in English. Though my grandfather remained in India, the rest of the family returned to England.
In 1932, Rita became ill with a brain tumour and died at the age of 34. My father was 10, and his youngest brother was just a baby. My grandfather – still a serving army officer – was away in India. He, and all the children, were unable to attend the funeral – in fact, none of them ever visited her grave.
The older children were packed off to schools and the youngest was cared for by acquaintances of Rita’s. They were never even told where she was buried.
Harry left the Army when Rita died. His commanding officer’s reference described him as “a brave, active and intelligent officer”. He returned to England and met the woman who was to be his second wife on the boat home.
Providing a mother for his five motherless children may well have been a motivation for this whirlwind courtship, and probably provided another reason for not dwelling too much on Rita’s fate – or the whereabouts of her mortal remains. But I believe we can only understand Harry’s actions by looking at them through the prism of his experiences in the trenches, in Ireland, and British imperial India.
From the time he first went into combat at the age of 19, he had been conditioned to make quick life-and-death decisions and see their bloody consequences play out before his eyes in real time. He was used to being the person who made those decisions, and he was used to being obeyed. There was no room in this process for emotion or sentiment – and certainly grieving played no role at all. All of this inflicted an emotional distancing and insecurity that has blighted my family’s interpersonal relationships for 90 years.
Only one of Rita’s five children is still alive and she is in poor health. She has spent most of her life in Canada. One of Rita’s sons moved to Australia; another lived and died in France. My father worked in the Middle East for a decade and never settled anywhere for very long. He had been a soldier in the Second World War, wounded and captured in North Africa. Those were experiences he never talked about.
Even my mother – who, of course, married into this family – was afflicted by Harry’s emotional legacy. She met my father at Christmas 1945 and they married in 1947.
My mother fell pregnant for the first time as my father entered his final year as a civil engineering student. She went to stay with her parents as the due date approached and my father prepared to sit his final exams. Very sadly, she had a miscarriage. Her parents contacted Harry with the news, but he did not pass it on to my father – because he took the decision that the exams were the priority and that my father should not be distracted.
Almost 60 years later, as she lay dying, my mother confided this story to me, and talked quietly about the devastating impact facing such a loss – alone, and with no emotional or psychological support – had on her life.
For me, Harry’s behaviour fits into the pattern established while watching friends and comrades die around him, and losing the woman he loved at a cruelly early age. It fits into the pattern of the carnage that the survivors of war are left to deal with as best they can – usually without very much help and little understanding. It also fits into a pattern of the damage imperialism inflicts, not just on the oppressed, but also on the oppressors.
A New Identity
The family tradition of emigration continued in my generation. My father’s five children now live in five different countries.
What I knew of my family history, and my career as a journalist covering conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, killed off any illusions I might have had about the consequences of war and Britain’s place in the world. It seemed obvious to me that the only sane and legitimate response to the lines of Portland headstones in military cemeteries in France and Belgium, and dozens of other countries around the world, was to vow to do everything necessary to stop those wars happening again.
This view was strengthened and deepened for me when my German partner and I had a daughter. I felt we could all have a home in an inclusive, stabilising European Union. The EU was founded to give us all a peaceful future; a mechanism that would ensure European nations talked to each other, cooperated with each other, and didn’t sink into war. That is what it has done successfully for more than 70 years.
Ireland has healed many of its wounds with the help of the EU and, for all its faults, the Republic is now recognisably and comfortably a European nation. My great-uncles had to make irrevocable choices about what sort of Irishmen they were. The Good Friday Agreement, and EU membership north and south of the border, enabled Ireland to move on. Of course Brexit has recklessly endangered that settlement, but the fact remains that the EU has done much to take the sting out of Ireland’s conflicting identities.
The EU, on a continental scale, was designed to make the dilemmas faced by my great-uncles and my grandmother a thing of the past. In that sense, I can belong there. My confused identity can be reconciled under the protection of the EU – I don’t have to choose between being English, or Irish, or even German – by being Irish I can be wholly European.
Which brings me back to my grandmother’s grave; a little piece of England forever in Ireland, so long forgotten.
It was the anniversary of her death, but that was pure coincidence – at least, it was no plan of mine. As I stood there on a fine spring day, thinking of my family, I realised that we now had something we had always lacked and had always been searching for: a focus, a place to feel at home. Perhaps Rita’s grave gives us that and we can start a new tradition of gathering from around the world to mark anniversaries (the next will be in June, on what would have been my father’s 100th birthday).
Even as I stood reading the inscription on the stone, I felt a strong conviction that I had returned home to Ireland – spiritually, if not physically. A country my grandmother, father and great uncles had to flee has offered me a political sanctuary and a safe European identity. It’s also given my generation the chance to lay some ghosts of the past to rest.
It’s our job to heal and that’s a work in progress. For me, standing at Rita’s gravestone was a step along that path.
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