The legend of my maternal grandfather has survived almost 90 years of retelling down to his great grandchildren and yet we actually know very little of the man himself. Pretty much everybody in Ireland, especially last year which was the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, lays claim to having an ancestor on the rebel side and are proud to acknowledge a familial connection to someone who took part in the subsequent civil war. In my case it’s true and I have the 90-year-old army uniform jacket to prove it.
It’s strange to find yourself in possession of something that is so obviously a part of history. It’s even more strange when that item is the last real link with a family member that most of your family never even met. My grandfather died in 1927 at the very young age of 33 from, of all things, pneumonia. He survived active duty during a rebellion and a civil war and then was killed by something I survived not just once but twice. He left behind a wife and four daughters under the age of 7; my mother was the second eldest.
In our imagination he was a big man and he loomed over the family like any legend would, but in reality, he was a long fellow, not a big fellow. Six foot four in his stocking feet but as skinny as a whippet. I know because like I said I have his jacket and frankly it’s really small (a medium at best!).
Maybe because she married again and had five more children – a boy and four more girls – my grandmother never spoke about her late husband, at least not to us grandchildren. That, of course, allowed him only two potential stories, one of legend or one that was totally forgotten. I’m glad the legend was the outcome, even if he wasn’t of the physical stature my young mind imagined.
And then there was the jacket. It was discovered wrapped in clear plastic, the kind you used to get your dry cleaning in years ago, and hidden in the back of my late mother’s wardrobe. I know I should look to see if there’s a museum that might want it as another relic of Ireland’s struggle for independence, but for some reason it would feel like giving away the last link with my mother’s history and saying goodbye to the legend.