Can you imagine an 80 year old ex English soldier sleeping next to an ex IRA soldier also in his 80s?
Well in the ward I worked on back in the late 1980s, this is exactly what happened.
Initially they arrived on the same day, two elderly gentlemen, coming in to have the same surgery.
I settled them into their beds, and introduced them to each other.
However I was young, and even though I was well aware of the Irish/English divisions that had marred our country for hundreds of years, I only applied it to Northern Ireland.
It was there where the “troubles” were. We lived in the South.
All friends here. Or so I thought.
Looking back I can see now all I missed back then.
One gentleman was Church of Ireland, one Roman Catholic. One had a very English name, the other used his full name in Irish. To people who do not come from Ireland these signs are possible red flags. They say without words that, one is an Irish man, more than likely with Republican views, and the other an English man and possibly a royalist.
That first evening was uneventful, and both went for surgery the next day.
It was on their return the fun began.
They saw each other as representatives of their respective nations.
So if Mr England rang the bell for help, Mr Ireland would mutter in his strong Irish accent, “Nurse you don’t have to do everything he asks”, or “That fella thinks he rules the world”.
Equally when Mr Ireland would ring his bell, Mr England would comment in a very proper English accent, “No manners!”, or “tut tut tut, disgraceful” or “How rude?” We had no spare beds, so our two “friends” could not be separated.
The following day I came to work, to be met by the sight of Mr England sitting up in bed,
looking very dapper wearing a cravat and a handkerchief beautifully folded in his top pocket. A war medal was pinned to his chest.
Holding back a smile, I told him he was looking great,
and asked him about his medal.
This was a mistake.
Now Mr Ireland thought I had declared for the other side. Seemingly, according to him, my Grandfather was now turning in his grave!
Later when visiting time was over, I called into my two “pals” again, only to be met with the sight of
Mr Ireland propped up in bed, also wearing a handkerchief in his pajama pocket, and his old IRA beret perched on his head. Of course I told him he too looked very smart. He informed me his son had brought it in, and declared loudly, that he was “proud to wear it”.
That next day a new war began. Up until then Mr England had had a radio, and Mr Ireland was making do with the hospital supplied one, which came with ear phones, so there was no volume.
However along with the beret his son had also brought in a radio. Both radios were now blasting on different channels. I was forced to intervene and as negotiations broke down, the radios were confiscated. That made me “typically anti British, Irish” in the eyes of Mr England, and a “traitor to my country, a West Brit,” in the eyes of Mr Ireland.
There was no winning this war!
The following day, for the sake of harmony in the ward, we decided to skip any peace and reconciliation talks. Both our gentlemen were moved to different rooms. By doing so we acknowledged that they had lived and fought on opposite sides all their lives, there was little likelihood they would change now.
Their final few days in hospital were peaceful. Us nurses were able to get to know them as they really were; husbands and grandfathers, very much loved by their families.
Two wonderful characters, who despite their differences had actually so much in common.
For my two pals however the war was still not over. They continued to wear their “uniform” for the remainder of their stay, just in case, for the sake of their country, they were called upon to do battle once more, along the corridors of the hospital.
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************* I first wrote this story on my blog two years ago but I think it was only read by approximately ten people at the time. I thought some of you might enjoy it. I hope I was right.
Once my gang go back to school and college I hope to put some time into story writing and use the many stories such as this one, I have tucked away in my memory, as inspiration.