Brief Encounter 12-The Day I Almost Never Existed

By Eamonn Keyes

For a change, this Brief Encounter doesn’t feature me, but eventually ensured I would be around to tell these stories.

My grandfather was a simple and unremarkable man who lived in remarkable times.

He lived much of his life in silence, particularly during the 15 years or so that I knew him, saying little but with the occasional utterance that externalised some of the horror that he had witnessed, and it is only with the passage of almost 50 years that I have come to realise how his experiences had shaped him, and how close I came to not existing.

Joseph McCartney, my maternal grandfather, was born in 1888 in Belfast. His grandparents had come to the city some 40 years previously as the Famine ravaged the countryside and the country folk sought shelter in the workhouses in urban areas, with the greater promise of work and accommodation because of the linen mills where he eventually worked and met my grandmother.

They both watched the Titanic being built from 1909 until 1911, when it was launched, as it dwarfed the city around it, along with its sister ships the Olympic and Britannic, all standing tall in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which was a place where my grandfather could never seek employment because of his religion. 

Less than three months after the Titanic had slipped beneath the waves my grandparents were married on July 12th 1912, which in Belfast was not ideal because of the Orange marches which take place everywhere on that day. In addition, the Home Rule Bill had been introduced in April and Unionist anti-Home Rule fervour was at a height under Carson and Craig. They boarded a train for their honeymoon in Whitehead, accompanied by a carriage full of drunken Orangemen returning home, and they were terrified in case their religion was discovered, especially as they were being plied with drinks as the orangemen became aware they had just married that day, and assumed they must be staunch Unionists to have chosen July 12th as their date. They escaped detection, and at the end of their honeymoon returned to their home in a little terraced house at 87 Chatham Street, Ardoyne, a typical North Belfast mill workers house with two bedrooms, no hot water, one open fire for heat and an outside toilet.

When war broke out in August 1914, my grandfather enlisted and joined the Royal Artillery, and spent the next four years fighting in France. He fought in the trenches also, and endured the horrors of life and death on a daily basis. He came through this period remarkably without physical injury, although not untouched as I will mention later. 

He returned to his home in Belfast from World War 1 in early 1919 after being demobbed, and went straight from one frying pan into another, as the Irish War of Independence had now begun and was raging everywhere following the 1918 elections, including in Belfast.

A year or so after his return the Black and Tans sealed off the tiny street where he lived and began to ransack the houses on the pretext of looking for arms. This included his home, and after smashing it up, including the pictures on the walls and crockery, he was taken out by two Tans and stood against the wall to be shot. Just before they fired they were asked to stop by a military Lieutenant accompanying them, and it turned out that he recognised my grandfather from having served with him in the trenches. 

The chances of this happening must be astronomical, and I owe my existence to this man. My grandfather was released and the two soldiers were told never to bother the family again.

The marriage had ten children, one of whom died in infancy and two of whom suffered serious disabilities, and he struggled to find work in those years. With World War 2 he was too old to fight, and with there being no conscription in Northern Ireland he became a volunteer fireman in time for the Belfast Blitz of April 1941 when much of the city was destroyed. Over 1,500 people were killed, 900 in one night, which was the greatest loss of life in one night anywhere in the UK outside of London.

To save time, the fire engines drove quickly round the local streets to pick up crew rather than wait for them all go by foot to assemble, slowing down just enough for men like my grandfather to jump aboard on the outside footplate and cling on. At the end of his street the fire engine whizzed through a right angled turn to go to the main Crumlin road, and as a result my grandfather, at the back and not yet secure, was thrown off and smashed into a brick wall. Unbelievably, he survived, although both arms and other bones were broken.

After that, fate decided it had toyed with him enough for a while, and left him to become the old, white-haired man I knew, sitting quietly in the corner smoking, and only interested in the nightly news, when he uttered his usual command of “wheesht, would yez?”

Perhaps once every year or two, we were granted a peek inside his tortured mind, when, unbidden, he would start a monologue from his nightmares of World War 1.

“ ‘McCartney’, says the sergeant to me, ’take another man and go down the line and get more ammunition’  So we’d go and come to a place where we had to creep across No Man’s Land, and as we walked on the corpses they’d say ‘aaaaahhhh’ as our boots pushed the gas out of their bellies. On our way back we’d try to walk on the same corpses so we wouldn’t have to listen to it again”

And that would be it, he’d sit back in silence for another year or two, left only with his thoughts. I hardly ever saw him speak to my grandmother, although they ended up married for over 60 years. `I’m sure there is a story there nobody will ever know.

He became ill with influenza in 1974, at the age of 86, slipped into a coma and died within a fortnight. 

In a chilling echo of the past, as he lay in his coffin two soldiers came in and insisted they would have to search the coffin for hidden arms, and the patrol Lieutenant came in and told them to stop, have some respect, and not to bother the family again. 

He is buried in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast.

Image credit Kenny Armet

Also by this author: Brief Encounter 11-The Night I Didn’t Want To Meet Meatloaf.

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4 replies »

    • Thanks Bernie. And please add Catherine, his wife and my grandmother who held the home together.

      • I will.
        I’ve read this again, and it’s the story of so many people at that time.

        Would you consider making your ‘Brief Encounters’ into a book? They are very good – and varied – a lot of life is there.

  1. I’ve had a number of people asking for an autobiography of sorts. No, not for me. However, a ‘collection’ of writings is a possibility when I retire in 4 months time. Maybe. Nice of you to ask!!

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