Loyalist Mural, Belfast


So often, I passed you in the street,
turning from your drunkenness.

Later, I was ashamed of my shame,
listened as you spat in our ashes,
claiming you'd seen the angel at Mons,
tobacco-brown finger pulling a trigger

welded to your nerves after fifty years
like an amputated limb. You lived for rum,
pension book in pawn to a Canal Street pub,
corking Guinness bottles to earn worn coppers

that paid admission to a savage peepshow
on a cruel past, with an audience of one.
Later still I helped to carry you, so light in the coffin,
up the treacherous hill Dean Swift once climbed

to the high church with the low steeple.
You lie on a hill of the dead
by the little long-suffering woman
who was all of Ireland to me.


Click for the words and music of 'Johnny I hardly knew ye' (US visitors may recognise it as 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home ...')

My grandfather, Willie Mallaghan (born 1897 in Omeath, Co. Louth), joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1912, two years before the start of WW1, at which point he was shipped of to France, like thousands of young Irishmen of all religions. He was at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which made an indelible mark upon his life. His two brothers, Sam and Jack (of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers) died in the Dardenelles during the Gallipoli Landings. Willie survived the war and spent most of the rest of his life drinking Guinness and rum; when drunk he often started pulling an invisible trigger to kill imaginary Germans. He died in 1972. The nickname "Sooley" was apparently a corruption of Suvla.

Soldiers from the nine Counties of Ulster at the Somme - here

Notes on the poem:

angel at Mons (line 5) - many Allied soldiers claimed they saw a giant angel-figure in the sky during the Battle of Mons (World War 1), pointing a fiery sword at the German lines. My grandfather claimed he had seen it, usually after a liberal intake of rum. It is likely that press reports embroidered the story to such an extent that it has entered the realms of myth.

coppers (line 10) - the old (copper) pre-decimalisation pennies

high church with the low steeple line 15) - St. Patrick's Newry, the first Protestant church in Ireland. Jonathan Swift said of Newry 'High church, low steeple,/Mean streets and proud people'. Some wags claim that he wrote 'dirty people'!

little long-suffering woman' (line 17) - my grandmother, Susan Mallaghan

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