Growing up in Ireland, I heard many stories of the hardships, difficulties, and life-threatening situations my grandmother and her family experienced during WW1. One story in particular made a big impact on me when as a young child I came to know every nook and cranny of grandmother’s farm. Because the farm nestled along the bottom of a hill, I could see from the top of the hill the neighboring farms, the lakes that dotted the countryside, and I could see toward the horizon a long straight road that ran around the bottom of another hill. So as I heard this story, I could easily see, visualize everything that occurred, so much that I felt in the middle of it.
England was at war on the continent of Europe. Ireland was still occupied by the English and because the English Government could not afford to deploy regular soldiers to Ireland to quell any rebellion that might occur, it opened its jails and sent those inmates clad in “black and tan clothing” to “monitor” the Irish. The “Black and Tans” as they were called by the Irish roamed the country arresting young men and taking them away to God knows where. Remember, the Black and Tans were convicts. They became famous for their cruelty.
So the youth of Ireland had to be on the alert for this enemy and devised ways and means to hide from them. Since the young men worked in the fields, they were particularly vulnerable to being caught and rounded up. Grandmother and her family devised a unique alert system to warn the young men in the neighboring farms when the Black and Tans were close by. Because the Black and Tans traveled in “lorries” or trucks, the latter could be seen and heard from the top of the hill behind grandmother’s house as they drove along on the road around the hill directly across from her house.
When the lorries made their usual noise driving on the road, Aunt Betty, the oldest of grandmother’s nine surviving children (her husband and two babies having died from the great flu which refugees to Ireland from World War I brought with them) would be dispatched with a great white sheet to the top of the hill at the back of the house. She would then wave it repeatedly to warn the young men in the local farm fields to go into hiding. Since the men were aware of the various signals used by their fellow countrymen, on seeing the white sheet waving in the wind, they would immediately go into their hiding places. Only when the lorry could not be heard or seen, would it be deemed safe to come out of hiding, and Aunt Betty could come down the hill to her house.
By the time I was born, Ireland was a free country. I came to know Aunt Betty decades after she and her boyfriend secretly eloped to the United States, married, and had a family. She was like my grandmother, her mother: strong minded, practical, and determined. She had no intention of living her life hiding from the Black and Tans, so like many of the Irish young people of that time, she left for America.
Ireland’s history has been one of wars with the British who were determined to conquer the country and make it theirs. Finally, Ireland broke free and became a republic minus six counties in the north of the country which the English held on to.
Today, the countries of England and Ireland live in harmony. Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland a few years ago and formally apologized to the Government and the Irish people for England’s past “misbehavior”!!! That misbehavior gave birth to so many stories, to ballads celebrating small victories and/or brave deeds of so many young Irishmen and laments over the many lost battles and lost lives.
Those stories and ballads will always be cherished as they are really the oral history of my native country.