An Irish tale: from rural Ireland to the Metropolitan opera house to a lifeboat in the North Atlantic – without pay…
the singer’ is a character in a new novel who, as a boy, skips mass
with his friend one Sunday morning in order to steal apples, only to be
caught in crossfire at the outset of the Irish War of Independence.
Worse still, Pat is used as a human shield by a British soldier;
initially traumatised, he later joins the Republicans during the civil
As a result, Pat has to flee Ireland and cross the Atlantic to settle in America just before the great depression.
Both boys are based on real-life Irish characters who led extraordinary lives. ‘Pat the singer’ sang tenor at the New York Metropolitan opera house and later served in the merchant marine during the battle of the Atlantic, when he was sunk twice by U-boats. The sailors of the merchant navy were the unsung heroes of World War Two; the convoys literally fed everyone in the British Isles, and provided the weapons to fight on and later invade Normandy.
Those convoys suffered terrible losses; it was a far more dangerous role than being in the armed forces. Yet the men got no medals and when they were sunk, even if they got to a lifeboat their pay was stopped from the moment the ship went down. At the end of the war, most of them lost their jobs.
He wanted to marry Betty at the end of the war, but parts of Pat’s life were shrouded in mystery. A child of independence, he was obviously educated, skilled, and talented. Why hadn’t he settled in America? Why traverse the globe, fixing engines on tramp steamers? And why was he so desperate to go to New Zealand, at the end of the war?
Betty felt that he was running from something in his past, connected with Ireland or America, or both.
“He was a very enigmatic character, but filling in the mystery, especially the American part of the story, was the section that I enjoyed writing the most,” reflects author Ian Wilkinson. “Pat’s story is very, very typical of young, idealistic Republican fighters who were driven out of Ireland after losing the civil war to the Irish Free State authorities. He’s really only a boy when he has to flee Ireland, but he has to grow up very fast. His friend’s mother, a single parent who works on the transatlantic liners, helps him escape. Initially he also works on the liners, but a few years later he gets off the boat in New York and attempts to settle in America during the boom and bust era of prohibition.”
“Pat as a young man steps off the boat and walks straight into the waterfront politics of prohibition New York. This was a fascinating era in American history when the longshoremen’s unions were becoming corrupted by involvement with bootleggers and the Mob, to the extent that eventually about ten percent of imports were disappearing into their collective pockets. This history comes to life in the person of ‘Red Cat’ (Catherine Daly) from Boston, who works for a radical international union known at the time as ‘the Wobblies’ (Industrial workers of the World). They probably got this nickname because they believed in extreme rank-and-file democracy, leading to frequent changes of mind! The marine branch of this union was influential in all the major American ports at the time, and many of the local leaders and members were Irish Americans. Red Cat campaigns against the corruption by trying to persuade workers to join her and leave the unions in league with the mob, only to be undermined later by the international politics of the time.
But thanks to her, Pat lands on his feet in New York; his operatic ability lands him a job on the waterfront with an Italian-American boat engineer who also runs an amateur operatic company. Pat acquires new skills as a marine engineer and fulfils a life ambition when their opera company wins a chance to sing at the Metropolitan opera house. But during this process he falls for a married woman, with disastrous results for all concerned. So Pat has to go back to sea, and when World War Two comes along, like most merchant seamen of the era he is caught up in the battle of the Atlantic.”
In real life, Betty kept her face powder in a small wooden bowl, complete with a mirror in the lid. After her death the family discovered her best-kept secret; carved inside this bowl, under the powder, was the inscription “To the sweetest and dearest person I’ve ever known, love, Pat”. She had never forgotten him…
His friend Fons is also based a true character, the author’s father-in-law. “When I first got to know him I got him talking about his childhood in Ireland, aided by a good Irish whiskey. I discovered he had not only met Michael Collins as a small boy in his uncle’s pub, but later he’d been unwittingly caught in the middle of one of the first cross-fires of the war of Independence. It was a somewhat jaw-dropping moment. And that was only a taster for what followed… all of that generation were modest, often reluctant to tell you what they’d been through in their childhood, through the great depression, and the Second World War. They would tell their story in a matter-of fact way, as if was nothing, and you’d be thinking, my God… so, the story is a heartfelt elegy to that lost generation.
From an Irish perspective, they won their War of Independence but then those children of independence often had to face the pain of emigration. So I like to think of the book as an Irish version of ‘Midnight’s children’. And from a British and North American perspective, many of them became the ‘fighting Irish’, part of a generation whose sacrifice kept us free in World War Two. Imagining the details of life for that generation was at times very moving and left me overwhelmed with respect for what they had endured.
“I used a lot of oral history to bring those times to life, drawing on eye-witness accounts from those who lived through those events and situations. For example, I used Ernie O’Malley’s memoirs about the Irish wars, and I used the plays of John Millington Synge and the diaries of John B Keane to get a sense of the dialogue and use of English in Ireland at that time. Even now, the Irish still use English as if they were still speaking Gaelic, so that you never hear the words ‘yes’ or ‘no’; and they use more simile and metaphor, more elaborated imagery and description, to make their use of English lyrical and poetic. They spend words like water, and make beautiful patterns. I hope that some of that has rubbed off into my writing.”
Ian’s book is titled ‘Crossing the Water’ and can be found on Amazon both as a paperback
and as a kindle ebook: