Air of remembrance

Jul 11th, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

Irene’s farmhouse was at the end of a long lane; she and her old black Labrador whiled away the days in front of a fire stacked halfway up the chimney.  Visitors were greeted with cups of dark tea and slabs of fruit cake and inquiries as to the ways of the world.

Irene had been fit all her years.  On her 90th birthday, she could bend her tall frame double and place both hands flat on the floor without a hint of a bend in her knees.  Physical suppleness was matched by mental agility; she could recall in detail moments from seventy or eighty years before.

Born in 1903, her memories from the years of the First World War were clear and sharp.  After the war, there would be a ceremony in the village each year to mark Armistice Day.  Two boys from the village, younger than herself, would be amongst the crowd gathered and would break into tears as the band played Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night.  Their father had been amongst the Fallen of the Great War.

Irene stared into the fire on a grey November afternoon.  It had been Remembrance Sunday the previous day, and, having given up her car.  Irene had watched the ceremony from the Cenotaph in London the previous day.  As the bands had marched down Whitehall, the skirl of the pipes had come though the air; the haunting tones of Thomas Moore’s air had taken her back to the 1920s and memories of the tear stained faces of two boys whose father’s name was an inscription on the memorial.

Standing today at Islandbridge, on a damp July afternoon, in Edwin Lutyens’ War Memorial Park, Irene came to mind.  As the laying of wreaths at the annual British Legion ceremony of remembrance began, an Irish piper, in dark green jacket and saffron kilt, stood at a distance and began to play; Oft in the Stilly Night closed out the noise of the city.

A lump came to the throat; not just from watching line upon line of old soldiers deep in contemplation; the lines upon their faces telling stories of other times; the clink of medals as each group marched sharply forward and crisply saluted before returning to their private thoughts; but from remembering Irene’s story of the boys whose dad never came home; thinking about all the children whose dads became no more than names on a list.

Ambassador after ambassador stepped forward; the ambassador of Japan standing and pausing in deep reverence as he laid a poppy wreath beside those of one time enemies.

Could Irene have imagined that the same tune would still be played ninety years on from that first summer after the Great War?

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm’d and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain hath bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

When I remember all
The friends, so link’d together,
I’ve seen around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather;
I feel like one,
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain hath bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

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