20 May 2022

A long lifetime of stories gives a unique view on changing times

A long lifetime of stories gives a unique view on changing times

The Holy Redeemer Church in Dundalk

One of the many things that has fascinated me about my grandfather is how he lost the top of his thumb on his left hand.

As a child I was constantly intrigued by this. I’d watch him intently whenever he was unwrapping a Christmas or birthday present. Or whenever he would warmly embrace your hand with both of his when you’d call to him at home.

It looks like a normal thumb in most ways, only slightly stockier and lacking a nail, of course.

Like many stories that go back a bit, there’s a few different possibilities as to how he lost it. But, as a carpenter, I think it’s now firmly agreed that a rogue incident involving him putting his thumb somewhere sharp and spinning is as close to the truth as anything else might be.

I cannot remember my grandfather not having this unique thumb configuration. To me he might as well have been born with it for all I knew.

My grandfather hit the ton last week, with a special mass held in the Holy Family Church in Muirhevnamor to mark the great occasion formally - a parish he was a devout mass-goer in for decades.

Born on June 21st 1918, he entered not just a different time back then, but a lost world too.

The sun was only just starting to set on the Victorian era in 1918.

The Spring Offensive of The Great War (1914-1918) was in full flow, with very real fears that the Germans might, just might, be capable of winning the war outright in a matter of months.

He would have been four months old when the SS Dundalk was torpedoed off the coast of the Isle of Man on October 14th, with the loss of 20 lives.

In many ways he was lucky to survive his first year at all actually.

According to the CSO statistics available, the infant mortality rate in Ireland then was, in or around, 100 deaths per 1000 live births. 1918 also brought with it perhaps the most cataclysmic pandemic the world has ever seen - The Spanish Flu, which claimed 40 million lives globally (23,000 in Ireland alone) and, my grandfather was born in Cavan, which was hit harder than most other counties by the virus - a local RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) report from the time states that “the disease carried off a great many and affected nearly every household”.

That he made it past ‘year one’ is commendable. That he has now hit the century is rather remarkable, all things considered.

By the time my grandfather would have entered his teens in the early 1930s he would not have been called a ‘teenager’ - the term would not be conjured up for another decade or so.

A man skilled with his hands, throughout his life my grandfather has produced many wonderful wooden artifacts - for both work and home. Upon his retirement, he continued this pursuit in the work shed at the back his home.

When my grandfather was the foreman on the Holy Redeemer Church construction project back in 1966, the architect needed to sketch a figure to use as the basic design template for the metal figure of Jesus on the Hill of Calvary, which would eventually adorn the top of the building (it’s still there to this day, just look up). They turned to my grandfather as the model.

A quiet, no-fuss man by nature, I still find it hard to mentally picture him standing there, arms outstretched, whilst the architect made his drawings.

Such an immense span of a single lifetime can, in some unique circumstances, help tie together entire eras and past times that seem, from our modern perspective, completely alien and well beyond our reach now.

A final story, of which there was some initial doubt over, but thanks to some family sleuthing turned out to be quite true, concerns a man by the name of Felix Shalvey.

When my grandfather was a young boy he used to look after this frail and elderly gentleman in Co. Cavan.
Shalvey would recount to my grandfather tales from his own youth. These were stories that Shalvey could never forget; for they were the stories of his experiences as a young boy during the Great Famine in the 1840s.

My own grandfather, in turn, relayed these stories to us many years later. This vast span of time is almost impossible to comprehend.

This man, my grandfather, very much alive now, sitting in front of us, had cared for and spent time with a survivor of The Great Famine.

Sometimes a lifetime of stories can be so much more than that.

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