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Family Troubles

David Blake Knox

This Tumult, by Caroline Preston, Lilliput Press, €15.00, ISBN: 978-1843516590

Over many years, Caroline Preston, the author of this book, has established an enviable reputation as one of Ireland’s leading lawyers. She has specialised in boardroom and shareholder disputes, has served as solicitor to Ireland’s attorney general – becoming the first woman to hold that post – and has advised a number of tribunals of inquiry. Now, at a relatively late stage in her career – and following a course in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin – she has turned her hand to historical fiction. Perhaps that label is somewhat misleading: the history about which she has written took place within living memory, and her fiction is largely based upon actual events in which several members of her own family were involved.

She has said that her original intention was to write a non-fiction book about the role her mother’s relatives played in the Second World War. However, it seems that she could not find sufficient material in the family archives, and decided, instead, to tell the Tottenhams’ story through the medium of a novel. The opening of her book is set in well-trodden literary territory: focusing on a Protestant family from the minor gentry, stranded by the tide of Irish history and living in genteel poverty while struggling to keep up appearances. They are chronically short of cash, their Big House is falling apart, and – what appears most hurtful – their right to be considered as genuinely Irish is contested by some of the local community.

So far, so familiar. But then a world war intervenes, and the immediate reflex of (more or less) the entire Tottenham clan is to join some branch of the Allied armed forces. Those in the family who might be considered too old or too young to enlist still manage to find ways to circumvent military regulations. Before long, the Tottenhams are involved in various forms of action in Syria, Java, Germany and France – as well as on Britain’s Home Front.

The central characters in this novel are the author’s two real-life uncles, but her other relatives also play important roles. According to Preston, “Everything that happens to them is real, but the people they meet are all made up.” In a postscript to the book, she writes in her own persona about a recent trip she made to the location in northern France where one of her uncles died in 1944. The Lancaster bomber he was piloting had been shot down on its way to attack German V1 rocket-launching sites. Tony Tottenham was just twenty-one when he was killed. This postscript seems intended to authenticate the literal truth of the harrowing events described in the preceding pages. Such commitment to historical accuracy helps to provide Preston’s novel with a clear and coherent narrative, but it can also act as something of a creative constraint, and may explain why the “made-up” characters in her novel do not have the same complexity or credibility as the “real” ones.

There is little doubt, however, that the subject matter is close to the author’s heart. She has described her book as a tribute to a generation of Irish men and women whose sacrifices in the struggle against fascism have not been properly recognised and respected in their own country. The part played in this war by Irish men and women from the state then known as “Éire”, was not, of course, confined to Protestants, nor to any one social class. The numbers of southern Irish Protestants who enlisted in Allied forces seem to have corresponded roughly to their proportion in the wider population, and Irish soldiers from all sorts of background had provided the backbone of Britain’s infantry divisions since the time of the Peninsular War.

There are no precise figures available, but in 1944 the British recorded that more than 140,000 serving members of their armed forces had given Irish addresses for their next-of-kin. The Irish government’s own assessment, according to a confidential memorandum written by Joseph Walshe, the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, was that around 150,000 Irish men had gone “to British forces”. That seems like an overestimate, but the British reckoned that about one million Irish residents had relatives who were either in the Allied armed services or working in the UK. It is believed that at least nine thousand “citizens of Éire” were killed in action while serving with Allied forces.

The exact numbers of the Irish men and women who served and died in Allied uniforms – including the Australian ones worn by Preston’s uncles – will probably never be known for certain, and in a sense it is irrelevant. There were five European states that remained neutral throughout the war: apart from Ireland, these were Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland. What is clear is that none of the last four countries supplied volunteers to fight for any of the belligerent states on anything remotely approaching the same scale as Ireland. The Irish state may not have been part of the war, but the war was a reality for a very large number of Irish citizens.

Irish readers of this novel may be reasonably well aware of the history of the world war in Europe, and the sort of bombing missions on which Caroline Preston’s uncle died. They are less likely to be familiar with the dreadful ordeals that Irish soldiers experienced in the Asian theatre. Nick Tottenham was the elder of Preston’s two maternal uncles. He had emigrated to Australia while still a teenager, and volunteered for active service soon after war was declared. Nick had the misfortune of being taken prisoner twice and enduring cruel and inhumane treatment on both occasions. He was first captured by Vichy French forces in Syria, and suffered greatly at their hands. He was seriously ill when he was freed from captivity, but, soon afterwards, he became a prisoner again – this time, of the Japanese on Java.

While the Germans showed some degree of respect for the Geneva Conventions of War – at least as far as British and American prisoners of war were concerned – the same cannot be said of the barbaric and criminal treatment that Allied POWs received from the Imperial Japanese Army. While captive on Java, Nick Tottenham was under the command of an Australian doctor. Lieut-Col Edward Dunlop has become an iconic figure in Australian history, epitomising the qualities of physical and moral courage that prisoners of the Japanese often needed to survive. (He provided the Australian writer Richard Flanagan with a model for the central character in his recent novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.) According to Preston, Dunlop played a crucial role in keeping her uncle alive during that traumatic period.

When Dunlop and several hundred other Australian soldiers were transported to Burma – to work on the section of the Thai-Burmese railway line that became known as “Hellfire Pass” – Tottenham was too ill to travel with them. That may well have saved his life, since more than twelve thousand Allied prisoners died building the “Railway of Death”. By a remarkable co-incidence, Nick Tottenham was reunited with his father in Singapore, where both were held captive by the Japanese – once again, under conditions of considerable brutality.

Caroline Preston has said that she feels that the stories of Irish men and women who took part in the war should be told “before they are forgotten”. She has also expressed a belief that the “the political climate makes it much easier to do that now”. There was certainly a time – not so long ago – when it was harder to tell those stories, or even to talk about the part that the Irish had played in the war. After the collapse of Hitler’s Germany, most European states tended to exaggerate the role they had taken in the defeat of Nazism. Ireland was exceptional in that successive governments preferred to ignore or understate the involvement of many thousands of Irish citizens in the global conflict.

My father was one of many southern Irishmen who joined an Irish regiment of the British army. He fought in Burma, and like Preston’s uncle he was also taken prisoner by the Japanese. The Ireland to which he returned after the war was not inclined to celebrate the actions of the Irish men and women who had fought against fascism in Europe and in Asia. In November 1945, the Irish government banned an Armistice Day parade by Irish veterans. Instead, they had to make their way to Dublin’s war memorial at Islandbridge individually, wearing their medals underneath their coats as if they were a cause of shame.

The current “Volunteers Project”, based in University College Cork, has interviewed many Irish veterans of the Second World War. Most of them considered that they were fighting for the defence of Ireland as well as Britain, and that was certainly the view of my own father. According to the historian Brian Girvan, many veterans complained that their sacrifices were never recognised by the Irish state, and that they faced hostility from the public when they returned home. The reluctance to recognise the role that Irish men and women had played in the world war continued in the following decades.

As recently as 1983, Fianna Fáil criticised the presence of Irish Army representatives at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Dublin. At that time the party was in opposition and led by Charles J Haughey. As a student at University College Dublin, Haughey had marked VE Day, and the collapse of the Nazi regime, by burning a Union Jack in front of Trinity College. His action was allegedly in response to provocative behaviour by some Trinity students, but Haughey remained proud of this juvenile escapade for the rest of his life. Ireland’s first National Day of Commemoration was held in 1986, to mark the sacrifices both of those who fought for Irish independence and those who fought for other causes. It represented a small but significant shift in the political culture of the Irish Republic. Once again, Haughey declined to attend the ceremony.

As Caroline Preston has pointed out, attitudes have changed a good deal in recent years, and her book is itself evidence of that shift in understanding. The dialogue in her novel is, perhaps, a little stilted at times, but the descriptive passages are very well written, and she is to be commended for having produced a book that casts much-needed light on the experiences of some of the thousands of Irish men and women who were caught up in a world war.

Writing a novel inevitably involves some degree of self-exposure. Preston has described it as “a bit like undressing in public – not something you should do after the age of 30”. For someone with such a well-established and successful public persona to venture into this critical zone requires a fair amount of courage. However, from what we learn in this novel, that quality has never been lacking in her family.

1/7/2017
David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His latest book The Curious History of Irish Dogs was published this year by New Island Books.

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