The Old Gunner and his Medals
by Brendan Lynch (Mountjoy Publishing, €12.00; ISBN 978-0-9513668-3-7)
Brendan Lynch’s novel, published at the age of 80, is (all going well) an Irish classic in the making.
The novel never misses a step. From beginning to end it reads flawlessly as an account of a darker side of Irish history hardly ever mentioned in the past; a darker side, not imposed on us by strangers, but one we imposed on ourselves.
I read it with growing enthusiasm, and hope that its qualities will be widely recognised.
Certainly every Tipperary person, perhaps brought up on Tipperary’s Fighting Story, but now perhaps seeing the past in a different light, will want to read this account of the ‘last of the fighting Fusiliers’, the story of a soldier who served through the Great War only to return to a changed Ireland, where he suffered at the hands of ‘the new men’ now to the fore in his native village.
The story is, as the reader learns in an afterword, drawn in part from life . But the important thing here is not the history.
He marched away to brass bands and the blessings of the Church”
The important thing is the story. For it would be foolish to argue over The Old Gunner and his Medals as if it were a book – it is ‘history’; but in the same way that To Kill a Mocking Bird (read in all our schools) is American history. This is, as all great novels, a moral fable.
Dan was proud of his service in the Army – in those days and for a long time afterwards most Irish people made a distinction between the Army and the Irish Army. He marched away to brass bands and the blessings of the Church. He returned to find a new regime in place, which cared nothing for what he had done and experienced.
More than that: some of ‘the boys’ turned up one night and threatened him into turning over the medals, which they hammered apart and took them away. But they were not real medals; the real medals were well wrapped and buried secretly in the fairy rath behind Dan’s house.
Time passed. but when he tried to find them again he failed. But in the course of time he retrieves them, aided brilliantly by a neighbours child and his burgeoning skills. As the poet Pope paraphrased Homer in The Iliad: “By mutual confidence and mutual aid,/great deeds are done, and great discoveries made.”
His richest learning is on his private expeditions to the fairy rath with Old Dan”
This is a novel immersed in changing life: the old man (rather in the position of a grandfather) intent on his search to find his medals, the boy, his aide de camp, aiding him secretly, who grows in insight and maturity all the time, the boy’s parents (his father is the local sergeant), his mother who had to leave her teaching job to get married, and is determined that her son will grab all the education he can.
And so he does, but his richest learning is on his private expeditions to the fairy rath with Old Dan, the old soldier whose life has been deranged by the Great War, as were the lives of many millions across Europe. The concepts of bravery, loyalty, honesty and kindness, and indeed love, are all deftly explored. At the end the Gunner emerges medals and all as something of a hero in a changing Ireland
One may not be a reader of many novels, but let this fine little book be one that you read between now and Christmas. It carries with it the gift of true insight. One would hope that in decades to come it will still be read by young readers the same age as the Gunner’s aide as well as by many adults.