Monday, October 12, 2015
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
(Twentieth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
The “craic” in Sligo had been excellent, but European time was running out.
(For the uninitiated, the Gaelic word “craic” means the quality of conviviality, discourse and entertainment on hand – often, though by no means exclusively, as applicable to pub culture.)
I’d covered a ridiculous amount of ground up to this point – Luxembourg through Italy and Greece to Istanbul, then back through Italy, Austria, Germany and France to Ireland. It’s what you do when you’re young, and you think it might be your only chance.
It’s what you do when the Eurailpass keeps paying for trains, and occasionally boats.
For the remaining three weeks I’d be pushing myself ever greater distances in order to touch a few scattered Scandinavian urban high points prior to the single most anticipated weekend of the trip: August 1 – 4 in Leningrad, USSR.
But first things first. There’d be a train ride back to Rosslare, a ferry boat to France, and a pilgrimage to the D-Day beaches in Normandy.
I wanted to pay my respects.
As noted throughout this narrative, World War II was a constant presence during my childhood, and it remained quite the active memory for people of my father’s age, whether they were living in Georgetown, Indiana or Gessopalena, Italy.
My dad, a Marine Corps veteran of the Pacific Theater, was only 60 years old in 1985 (he died in 2001). Newsman Tom Brokaw had yet to coin the phrase “Greatest Generation,” but during the 1980s, the ubiquity of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” certainly set the stage for later celebrations of American patriotism with regard to remembrances of the war, and the generation that fought it.
Even then, I knew this was overly simplistic, and yet it exercised a strong hold. My dad didn’t like talking about “his” war, and probably sublimated these experiences into a fascination with the Nazis, Soviets and "their" war. He never made it to Europe, and regretted it. I took seriously my responsibility to provide reports to the home front.
Ironically, after a week spent in Ireland, there seemed to have been very little in Dublin or Sligo to suggest a war had ever been fought at all, and in fact, that’s because it had not – at least insofar as “official” Irish history regarded it.
'Twas in the year of 'thirty-nine when the sky was full of lead, when Hitler was heading for Poland, and Paddy for Holyhead
Holyhead is the Welsh ferry port directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin. “Paddy” is longstanding slang for an Irishman, and the song refers to the curious fact that with nary an interruption, the Irish diaspora originally prompted by the 19th-century potato famine continued, according to its traditionally sad cadence, throughout the horrendous international conflict officially known within the fledgling Irish Republic not as a “war,” but as the “emergency.”
These semantics point to the anomaly that the Republic of Ireland, minus its Ulster flashpoint (then as now tied to the Brits), maintained a strict neutrality throughout World War II. The resulting situation was surreal at best, and for some, it symbolized a typically Irish response to calamity.
Now forgotten by Americans, the controversies engendered were extreme matters of life and death, especially for Britain during the Blitz. Irish independence was new, untested and in all respects a work in progress, and ties with the mother country still were painfully palpable.
I've worked till the sweat it has had me beat
With Russian, Czech, and Pole
On shuttering jams up in the hydro-dams
Or underneath the Thames in a hole
I've grafted hard and I've got my cards
And many a ganger's fist across my ears
If you pride your life don't join, by Christ!
With McAlpine's fusiliers
The song is called “McAlpine's Fusiliers,” written by Dominic Behan, multi-talented brother of the more boisterous and notorious writer Brendan. The lyrics, arguably Dominic’s most famous, considers the experience of migrant Irish laborers in Britain during the war.
The chief unintended consequence of neutrality’s chosen isolation was the near complete collapse of an already weak economy, as vast numbers of male citizens migrated to an active belligerent (Britain), either by choice or circumstance, and became de facto combatants through war-related work or military service.
Back in Ireland, diplomatic representatives of all warring nations were posted to Dublin in close proximity, Irish newspapers were censored to achieve fairness and balance for all warring nations, and life became even tougher for the long suffering rural poor, who were enlisted into make-work schemes like a bizarre program calling for escalating quotas of peat to be cut (it was customarily burned for fuel).
All the while, Ireland’s hotels and resorts remained packed, catering to a wealthy British clientele traveling to an otherwise impoverished country to eat and drink extravagantly, avoiding the inconvenience of dinnertime bombing at a time when rationing and austerity were norms back home.
Meanwhile, Catholic priests railed against the depravity of Europe, holding out a mystical vision of an autonomous, corporatist Ireland, one making good on the model of Salazar in neutral Portugal. The church feared the immoral contagion of condom-carrying American GI’s temporarily billeted in Northern Ireland prior to the climactic Normandy invasion.
Rigorous censorship was damaging to Ireland's writers and artists, who were cut off from previously fecund streams of continental inspiration.
Even stranger, Ireland even had its own hardscrabble fascist cadres, although comparisons with the Marx Brothers in "Duck Soup" are more appropriate than the actual dimensions of the threat posed to civil order by these confused and disorganized elements.
When the war was over, the questions arose: Had Ireland's leader, Eamon de Valera, heroically preserved its shaky independence by adhering to neutrality, or had his hedging retarded the country's standing in the post-war community of nations?
Were the Irish being traitorous to their acquired Anglo heritage by embracing neutrality, or were they as yet crafty Gaels, taking the only truly sane position in an utterly insane world?
The return path was familiar, from Sligo to Dublin by rail, a change of trains to Rosslare, and from the sleepy port overnight by boat to France.
Looking back, I’m continually fascinated by how very little I remember. There was a full Sunday in Sligo to recover from Saturday’s Live Aid concert-watching in the pubs. What did I do? What did I eat and drink? The memory is lost.
Much of Monday was taken up in transit. What was I thinking? It’s a blur, or more accurately, a blank, although Guinness may have been involved.
There is a faint recollection of boarding the ferry and putting my name on the waiting list for a room. Perhaps I’d grown fond of beds rather than floors. My name was called, and fortunately, the Irish Continental Line took plastic, though the debit card came another $25 closer to evaporating.
The return ferry debarked at Cherbourg instead of Le Havre, and I stepped onto French soil on Tuesday, July 16, 1985. From Cherbourg, it’s an hour by rail to the town of Bayeux, which is mildly famous for a tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066, and boasts a beautiful cathedral called Notre-Dame de Bayeux.
Bayeux lies a few miles south of the English Channel coast, and the beaches chosen by the Allies for the D-Day landing. The beaches face northward, toward England.
For the invasion, from west to east, they were given the names Utah and Omaha (American troops) and Gold, Juno and Sword (British, Canadian, Commonwealth and Free French). The nearby towns of Sainte-Mère-Église and Caen were heavily damaged during the fighting, but Bayeux largely spared.
During the short train ride, I talked with a sharply outfitted American backpacker from Los Angeles, who said he was 50-something years old and had only recently quit his job in the film industry (or perhaps it had quit him), cleaned out his savings account and booked a flight to Europe.
We both got off the train at Bayeux. He was planning on staying at a hotel most backpackers couldn’t afford, and I was looking for a much cheaper hostel called the Family Home.
The woman at the Family Home said there was no available space – unless maybe there was, so could I wait?
At least she spoke English. After earnest consultations with co-workers and negotiations with another tourist who’d entered the building at the same time as me, it became clear that a room formerly dubbed as a dorm for four persons was being filled with mattresses, and henceforth would house six. We were the lucky two.
Unfortunately, no one told the original quartet, who came back from their grocery foraging expedition just after the newcomers had claimed their mattresses. The most vocally annoyed was Fred, a garrulous Floridian. However, a Canadian named Bruce quietly calmed Fred, and an adult conversation ensued.
The following morning, we hopped a bus together to Omaha Beach, the six of us, and another round of temporary friendships began.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.