By John Kelly
On the sideboard in our living room is a photograph of two fresh-faced young men in military uniform. The emotional celebration of Armistice Day this year has brought those two young men more to mind than ever. These are historic times indeed in Ireland. The visit by Prince Phillip and the meeting between the president of Ireland with the queen of England to honor all of the Irish who died for England has put an entirely new perspective on the relationship between North and South.
The young men standing at ease as they were photographed were my uncles Mike and Pat Kelly. They wear the uniforms of the U.S. Army. On the top of the photograph over their heads is the inscription written in a childish hand, "Father" and "Uncle."
On the left sleeve of the uniform worn by my uncle, Pat, are four stripes shaped like descending arrows. There is only one on Mike’s sleeve. The studio photograph was taken almost certainly at the end of World War I after both brothers, two of seven sons and five sisters in a family of 12, had returned from France.
The inscription was carefully penned by my cousin Edward Kelly, who is now in his 70s and lives in Mahopac, N.Y. He had no inkling then, naturally enough, but the war that was to end all wars later propelled him into World War II, where he was engaged on the extremely hazardous duty of escorting Atlantic conveys as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Pat Kelly’s son also went to sea just after World War II. He was stationed with the Pacific command and was on one of the ships that supervised experimental A-bomb blasts. The men were unprotected when explosions were carried out only 17 miles distant. He lost all of his teeth at the age of 19 and died as the result of cancer when he was only 52.
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So much for the heroism of war.
You can be quite sure that when Mike and Pat Kelly immigrated to the U.S., probably about 1915, they never imagined for one second that they would be shipped back to Europe to serve in the battlefields of France in U.S army uniforms.
They went to America because they were ambitious and adventurous enough to go. Then, like thousands of other Irish emigrants, they went on to serve their adopted country. Judging by their smiling countenances in the old photograph, they seemed to be happy enough. At least they had survived, although Pat was wounded as the result of mustard gas shells.
By a strange quirk of fate, I was to meet him many years later, just before he died, in fact. I will never, ever forget the setting or the atmosphere in which our only meeting took place. He was then a patient in an extremely large veteran’s hospital in New York City, reluctantly undergoing treatment for a blood clot in an artery in his leg.
It was a large ward and from almost every bed there was the tortured noise of continuous coughing. Although more than 50 years had passed since the first Veteran’s Day, or Armistic Day, as it is called in Europe, those old men were still suffering the effects of the heinous mustard gas that had blighted all of their lives. The collective noise was like one great gush of human suffering.
Incidentally, it was an emotional occasion for quite another poignant reason. Paddy used to bring my father, the youngest of the seven Kelly brothers, to school every morning in the rural hinterland of Roscommon. They had never met since then. The last time they had been together was on the day Paddy Kelly emigrated with his brother Mike.
Two days later for some inexplicable reason, Pat Kelly checked out of the veteran’s hospital prematurely. He dropped dead in some anonymous city street as the result of a massive heart attack. He never did get back to Ireland, not once. And he never was to see the family home again. So much for the real tragedy of emigration in those years.
The Kellys were republicans, of course. Their father, Edward Kelly, my grandfather, had been very active in the Land League, founded in Mayo only a few miles across the Roscommon border, a generation before the outbreak of the Great War. It was somewhat paradoxical that two of his sons should have fought alongside the British in the last, most horrific colonial war, which tore at the heart of Europe and led, ultimately through the fatally flawed Treaty of Versailles, to another world war.
It was even more ironic that thousands of other Irishmen from all parts of the island of Ireland, especially from Munster, where many of the great Irish regiments originated, should volunteer to fight alongside their historical oppressors.
People like my uncles fought for their adopted country, not for Britain. Still, genuine Irish republicans like the aged Willie Redmond chose to fight with the British in the seemingly perverse belief that it would secure the aim of nationalist Ireland, an independent island with its own parliament for the first time since the Act of Union in 1800.
It was seemingly perverse because the men who joined the 53-year-old Willie Redmond in the Irish Volunteers, the men who died along with him and hundreds of thousands of English, Welsh and Scots, swam against the militant republican tide, then sweeping through Ireland, the tide that reached its height with the 1916 rebellion.
Only a short time later, that same army for which they had fought in the muddy horrors of battles like Ypres, rewarded their loyalty with the horror of marauding Black and Tans, who inflicted atrocity after atrocity on their people.
It laid the foundation for the great split between the people of this island that continues to the present. As Prince Phillip said during his historic visit to Ireland, it is time that the artificial divisions on the island of Ireland were ended. It is time indeed that the all-Ireland dimension of the war to end all wars were recognized.