In 1952, ten years before my birth, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara starred in one of John Ford's greatest films, "The Quiet Man". In it, Wayne plays Sean Thornton, and Irish born-American raised prize fighter who returns to the land of his birth after killing a man in the ring accidentally. Having a fortune from his winnings as a pugilist, Thornton wants nothing more than to buy his ancestral home and settle down quietly. This is an outstanding film, and a family favorite. Based on a short story published in 1933, I can say that much of the "Irishness" of the film was what I grew up with.
In my own family, my paternal grandfather was quick to say that he was, "an Irishman who was happy to be born in England". Leave it to an Irishman to say that much, when today he'd be either an Irish-American or simply European. And although he and my uncle Tom would refer to themselves as "Limeys" on occasion, he was Irish through and through. Now, my grandfather wasn't a boxer, and he didn't go back to the old country and buy his homestead, however he did have something in common with Thornton, the Quiet Man.
In the movie, Sean Thornton did not want to talk about, or have everyone to know about the fight that made him walk away from the sport and his adoptive country. In much the same way, my grandfather never spoke about his five years as a stretcher bearer in WWI for unit 1884, Northumbrian Field Ambulance of the 7th Division of the Royal Army Medical Corps of the United Kingdom. It was after he was gone that I was able to find his service record. He won medals for bravery, and was an eye witness to the horror that was trench warfare. Battles such as Ypres, Nueve Chapelle, Festubert, Albert, & Guillemont were just a few that he took part in. What his file doesn't say is how many men died before his eyes? How many were sent home, after he carried them from the front, severely injured, to the first station hospital; while he went back to the front to find more wounded? How did he deal with the ugly problems of trench warfare, like lice and foot rot? He never said. Not to my dad, his only son. Not to his only daughter nor to his wife. No, not to anyone else that we are aware of.
In 1942 my grandfather was already married, with two children, and living in the US. He was employed by the NYC Transit-IRT Division. We know this because his new country asked him to register with, what we know today as, the Old Man's Registration for WWII. To the best of our knowledge, he went to work one day, walked to the registration office, and filled out his papers. When he was done, he returned to work. I often wonder today, as I see our soldiers on the news, how many men in uniform took the train during those days of WWII? I wonder what he thought of the young guys, some laughing, others quiet, all of them heading out in uniform to something they knew nothing about. He did. He had been there and done that as we say today. Did he tell them? Did he wave to them, say a silent prayer? Did he have any time to give those soldiers advice? Did he offer his condolences to those who were returning wounded? What memories must have flooded back? He never said anything to us, not even in his later years. My grandfather was a pleasant, intelligent, hard working, gentleman. He had rough hands and a warm smile. In his eyes were nothing of the horrors they had beheld. He was a quiet man.