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‘The Great Day’ - Katharine Tynan & the Mother’s War
Katharine Tynan Photo: 'The Sketch', 13 Sept 1893

‘The Great Day’ - Katharine Tynan & the Mother’s War

By Ed Mulhall

Looking back she could find no trace of it.

Not in her diary or in her notes.

She who remembered everything, who wrote down all conversations of note, particularly ones which might tell of these times for future generations. She who was always writing or preparing to write.

The poet, the novelist, the memoirist, the correspondent. Nothing written.

In her daily diary, she wrote of letters received, of who came and who went, and then ‘Did some work on a serial and then the General arrived and no more work’. Nothing more. Yet she had waited for this day. Prayed for this day. Wondered what it would be like to have the burden lifted. A day that had seemed so far away. The day her boys would be saved. One son Pat was on the front line in France, another, Toby, in Palestine.

Yet there was not a word of the Armistice in Katharine Tynan’s diary that day, 11 November 1918. She recalled later walking along the country road near her house in Mayo and hearing a sudden shouting from the Army Camp nearby and then the firing of guns in salute. She knew the ‘Great Day’ had come. But she recalled later: ‘perhaps we had borne too much, our hearts were numb. Perhaps the night had come and sent its shadows before.’

The General from the camp had joined her for dinner as he often did and she remembered later that they all toasted the Great Day and the Memory of the Dead.

For Katharine Tynan Hinkson the war was a personal matter, something she engaged with every day, practically and emotionally.

For the duration of the conflict she wrote every day to soldiers and the families of soldiers. Her two sons were enlisted and in battle. She wrote four collections of poetry on the war and gathered stories and thoughts of soldiers for a publication to help support the effort. She kept a detailed diary of the war’s early years and, throughout, kept notes of important conversations and efforts for posterity to remember these times; notes which would inform her two books of autobiography called The Years of the Shadow and The Wandering Years.

She was, by the start of the war, an important figure in Irish literary circles.

A confidante of many figures of the literary revival, in particular W.B. Yeats (who had once proposed to her) and George Russell (Æ). She had published a number of collections of poetry, some novels (she would write over 100), two volumes of memoir and was a regular correspondent in the British and Irish papers. A portrait of her by John B. Yeats was proposed by the art collector Hugh Lane as an exhibit for the World’s Fair. She had known and supported Parnell and John Redmond as well as tackling important social issues in her articles (including the treatment of shop girls and unmarried mothers; issues such as infanticide; capital punishment and the education of the poor).

She was in favour of women’s suffrage, writing that if her gardener had a vote why couldn’t she. She had supported the war and saw no conflict between that and her Irish nationalism. She had lived for a time in England and wrote ‘I had come to believe that affection for England and love of Ireland go hand in hand’. She could be an Irish nationalist and enthusiastically pro-ally. She was devotedly Catholic and, under her influence, her husband Henry Hinkson converted to Catholicism.

It was Hinkson’s appointment as a Resident Magistrate that had brought her to Mayo in October 1914.

At the start of the war she began a detailed journal.

It was done, she said, self-consciously for posterity. She wondered whether it might be interesting ‘say if it were dug up in 2014’. She prepared it later unsuccessfully for publication and called it A Woman’s Notes of War time, observations from a quiet corner. Reading it back in 1918 she found it depressing ‘above all that it was written down in ignorance of how the war would still be dragging on, slaying and torturing after three and a half years’. She was more successful in getting her poetry published and in 1915 published Flower of Youth. In it she wrote of those boys joining the colours:

‘There they go marching all in step so gay,
Smooth-cheeked and golden,
food for shells and guns,
Blithely they go as to a wedding day,
The mothers' sons.’ (‘Joining the Colours’, August 1914)

The title poem ‘Flower of Youth’ was originally published in the Spectator in December 1914:

Oh if the sonless mothers weeping,
And widowed girls, could look inside,
The glory that hath them in keeping
Who went to the Great War and died,
They would rise and put their mourning off.
And say: “Thank God, he has enough!” (‘Flower of Youth’)

The reaction to the poem was immediate.

Katharine Tynan began receiving ‘hundreds’ of letters from bereaved families of soldiers and from soldiers themselves including those belonging to friends and families she knew. She kept up this correspondence throughout the war years offering comfort and support. For example she told how ‘one poor friend has lost his two elder sons and the third and last goes out with Kitchener’s army. He howls he says himself to me.’

Sometimes she offered poems in memory of the fallen sons of friends as with ‘Poem for Roger Bellington, a victim of war July 1915’, ‘The Brothers for Arnold and Donald Fletcher’ and ‘The Boys of the House for Valentine and Hubert Blake’. Her poems maintained a conviction that war was a just cause and a religious belief that through sacrifice came redemption. She spoke to the mothers wondering in one poem how she would react if it were her own young sons that were facing battle. Though distant from the war she wrote of the soldier wishing to see the ‘the door’s opening on the latch To show - his mother’s eyes’ (‘Starling’) and of the birds arriving in the night as:

‘The souls of the Irish dead
Flown from the fields of slaughter
Home to the mother’s arms
Over the grey water’ (‘Wings in the Night’)

Among her soldier correspondents was the poet Francis Ledwidge.

Katharine had been introduced to Ledwidge by Lord Dunsany at an exhibition of Æ paintings before the war. She had reviewed his first published book of poems, Songs of Peace, and was prompted to write to him at the end of 1916. Ledwidge was with his unit in France having survived the Gallipoli campaign and Salonika. In January 1917 their correspondence began: ‘you ask what I am doing, I am a unit in the Great War, doing and suffering, admiring great endeavour and condemning great dishonour. I may be dead before this reaches you but I will have done my part. Death is as interesting to me as life. I have seen so much of it from Suvla to Strumnitza and now in France. I am always home-sick. I hear the roads calling, and the hills and the rivers wondering where I am.’ With each letter he sent some poems, spoke of the war and his longing for home and enquired of her soldier sons. He appreciated her writing: ’your letter came yesterday evening like the woods of home, as welcome as rain to the shrivelled lips of June.’ She sent him sweets, which he ate while sheltering from fire:

’the line is most exciting as we are usually but about thirty yards from the enemy and you can scarcely understand how bright the nights are made by the rockets… it is only horrible when you remember than every colour is a signal to waiting enforcement artillery and God help us if we are caught in the open, for then up to a thousand reds, and hundreds of thousands of rifles and machine guns are emptied against us and all amongst us shells of every calibre are thrown, shouting destruction and death.’

He included the opening of a poem called ‘The Lanawn Shee’ that he was working on. It was May. When completed he dedicated it to her. It was his last published poem. His last letter to her was on 20 July. He asked of her boys and said he was hoping to get leave to complete his book of poems due in the Autumn. He had just returned from a long time in the front line where they had to contend with ‘gas, lachrymatory shells and other devices new and horrible. It will be worse soon.’ He wished for home: 

‘I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknaharna. You have no idea how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. It is midnight now and the glow-worms are out. It is quiet in camp, but the far night is loud with our own guns bombarding the positions we will soon fight for.’

It was the Third battle of Ypres. 11 days later he was dead, killed by a fragment of a shell while preparing a road for troops on the first day of the new offensive. The unit’s chaplain, Father Devas, wrote to his mother with news of her son’s death on 4 August.

The ‘Lanawn Shee’, published in the English Review in October, caught his last dream of coming home:

‘From hill to hill, from land to land,
Her lovely hand is beckoning for me,
I follow on through dangerous zones,
Cross dead men’s bones and oceans stormy’ (‘The Lanawn Shee’)

For Katharine, this was just one correspondence amongst many, often with the same sad ending.

Francis Ledwidge (Image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. USA)

As she wrote to Ledwidge her own anxiety had grown. She had never thought the war would last long enough for the boys to go. But Toby had got his commission with the Royal Irish Regiment on the very last day of 1915 and that September 1917 he was in Egypt with Allenby’s army marching through the desert and soon to capture Jerusalem. In May her youngest son, baptised Giles, known as Bunty but now Pat, got his commission in the Dublins (Royal Dublin Fusiliers). He had wished to join one of the Irish regiments ‘most cut up by the war’. She captured that anxiety in a poem which speaks of a mother not wanting her son to get his desired wish:

‘Praying against him loud and low,
“Pity me, so he may not go!”
Calling on Heaven that it conspire
Against him and his heart’s desire.
God pity mothers when their sons,
Grow cold, that were their little ones!’ (‘Alienation’)

While the prospect of active service still seemed distant for Pat (he was still a year too young), for Toby it was a reality and although she wrote poems in celebration of the capture of Jerusalem another poem called ‘Any Mother’ put her own fears together with all war mothers’:

‘Oh my boy it is that runs
Hurls his slender body
On the dead-dealing guns
Oh he’s down!
His head is bloody…
So not Allenby or Haig
But their darling goes to battle,
All the world’s mist and vague
Shattered by the scream and rattle.’ (‘Any Mother’)

Katharine Tynan had subtitled her proposed war book ‘from a quiet corner’ and the war with all its terrors and fears did at times seem distant in the Mayo countryside. But that changed in 1918 when a military camp was set up beside their home. It was a refuge for those on leave from the front line, a staging post before their return to action. She wrote to her friend Wilfred Meynell that having felt distant from the ‘great doings’ of the world the soldiers had now come to them allowing discussions of great intimacy with ‘people who have been in the thick of it since 1914’.

The Hinksons’ was the ‘only house of comfort’ as the tensions following the 1916 Rising and executions had made other neighbours wary of welcoming the soldiers into their homes. Katharine and her family had no such misgiving although they remained strong Nationalists and Katharine had researched and written of the events of Easter and its aftermath. But they welcomed the soldiers into their home. They were after all other mothers’ sons and she listened to their stories and conversations. One boy who stayed with them had been shot in both lungs as well as being gassed. He was the youngest of three boys; the others were killed and ‘on this child the father and mother entirely broken lean for everything’. (Letter, 15 September 1918)

She, now, and later with her sons, had mastered the capacity to abstract herself and listen to soldiers talk unselfconsciously together.

A story of one buried alive in a collapsed trench except for one ear with which he heard the rescue party leave him for dead and when eventually found how he could not rest except for a haunted sleep when exhausted. How even bravery was accompanied by an awful nausea and the fear of an officer that he would get sick before his men. Another officer returned from the line trying to frantically brush what he believed were the remains of his comrade’s shattered skull from his jacket. One said that the happenings of war were only bearable because they were ‘real happenings, in imagination, if they could have been imagined, they would have been intolerable’. She noticed how they always talked of Passchendaele as the ultimate pit, where all around was black desolation, ‘that was killing to the most eager spirit’. 

She wrote all this down hoping it would have some value for the future. ‘The lice, the worms, the dead men, the smells: the intolerable things came into their speech. Things we will never have to suffer happened to these children of ours.’

Her youngest son was 19 in February 1918 and so liable for front line action in France where he was sent, as a 2nd Lt. in April. Toby, 21, was in Jordan, burying the ‘dead, horses, camels, under fire’. She wrote to a friend, ‘poor child what mercy keeps them sane’.

The autumn of 1918 saw the rains come after a long hot summer. The army camp beside the Tynan-Hinkson house was flooded. Katharine thought the mud must have reminded some of the troops of Passchendaele. She wrote to a friend that her husband Henry wasn’t looking well as the damp climate did not suit him.

On 11 October one of her guests Captain Frank Butler told her ‘they have got the mail boat at last’. The RMS Leinster had been sunk. Tynan travelled to Dublin for a medical appointment and stayed at the Shelbourne hotel. The hotel corridors were full of unclaimed luggage from those who had left on the boat for the weekend, intending to return. ‘The whole atmosphere of the place seemed full of death.’ All day long she observed bereaved relatives in ‘new black’ arrive, fathers and mothers, widows and children. One mother had lost all; husband and children. The husband had been seen last, ‘a one armed soldier, swimming with his little boy on his shoulder.’ A young school mistress she knew from Claremorris was among those lost.

‘The sea was giving up its dead daily and hourly during the week.’

Katharine attended a memorial service for the dead in the University Chapel in Stephen’s Green. Lady Esmonde, whose husband’s body had been recovered, had also lost a son in Jutland. As Katharine Tynan looked around the congregation she was reminded of another occasion in that chapel in the aftermath of Suvla Bay:

‘where there were so many black veiled figures at the morning masses, the mothers and wives of the 10th Division, which had all but perished at Suvla. When they lifted their veils you saw burning eyes, and cheeks that had a feverish flush, as though the poor souls had passed through the fires of Suvla and known the thirst when the wells were impossible.’

It seemed a time of eternal suffering.

Returning to the hotel in the evening there was a letter waiting from her son Pat from France. It said he would be in the front line and going over the top within a couple of days. The mother’s fear had become a reality. She had just one night to think about it, ‘to imagine it’. She was unwell the following morning and left her husband and daughter, Pamela, downstairs in the hotel. When she eventually came down she was startled to see them rushing past her. There in his officer uniform was her son Pat. His letter had been delayed in arriving. He was safe. His front line ordeal survived. Katharine recalled: ‘I don’t know that life had a better hour for me than that.’

Her son’s story was told on a number of occasions during the next two weeks to friends in Dublin (including the writer Æ who had known Pat since he was a child) and to the officers from the camp in Mayo.

The mother wrote down all the details. They had ‘gone over’, at 5.35 am, with the October morning mist thickened by a barrage from ‘twenty miles of guns’, a ‘deafening, blinding, earth rocking, heaven shaking noise’. They had run with fixed bayonets over the railway line and down the village street at Ledgehem, with units and regiments becoming mixed up in the impenetrable smoke and mist. Pat had sought shelter under the gable end of a house but was quickly moved on by a voice saying it was a ‘death trap’. He moved forward, ‘reeled, blinded and smothered and deafened by the bursting shells’. Pat said ‘you learn humility out there, you are so horribly frightened’.

Suddenly, he was blown off his feet into a deep shell hole and struck over the ‘femoral artery’. ’Dazed, he thought himself dead and felt where he expected the wound to be, but there was no blood. He staggered on, gathering with him a couple of others. They came across a group of six Prussian guards, who raised their arms and threw down their weapons, one almost catching his revolver on his belt in his eagerness to surrender. ‘Guerre fini’ said one. Pat asked when and he held up three figures, ‘Guerre fini in three weeks.’

Pat eventually found his company commander at a roadside, organising an attack on a ‘Boche’ field gun on a ridge. He joined the attack. There were seven casualties in the 13 seconds of the rush forward. He met a fellow officer by one of the silenced guns who had heard that Pat had been blown to pieces by a shell and died on stretcher. They laughed at the story and shared a flask of whiskey. Their advance unknown to them was part of a last Great Push. As Katharine Tynan noted: ‘So they followed the tide of war, part of the Great Day, without knowing that day was great.’

Pat had been hit by a piece of jagged metal from a German high explosive shell.

His compass - in his pocket rather than around his neck - had stopped it, reducing it to a nugget of fused glass and metal. On his way back to France he found the piece of metal in the lining of his large trench coat, itself charred and torn from the battle, it had been mended at home. Katharine had not seen him off, asking her husband and daughter to do so instead. One of the officers found her upstairs washing her handkerchiefs ‘not that I had sopped with my tears’. Her fear had returned.

It was with this fear now lifted that she came back to her house, having heard the shouts from the camp on 11 November 1918. The war was at an end not long after the three weeks that the Prussian guard had predicted.

Though she was unable to write it then, over and over, she kept saying to herself ‘my boys are safe. No one is being killed. Isn’t it wonderful. Wonderful.’

But all the time Katharine recalled ‘my heart was numb’.

In France Pat said that though they were expecting the news they had still been preparing for a big attack.

Early on the morning of the 11th an official notice was send around labelled ‘Cessation of hostilities’ with the appointed hour of 11 o’clock. The thoughts of all at that time were for those unfortunate to die in its final hours. He wrote to her: ’You ask me how I feel about the great event. My feelings are mixed. We all know the blessings of Peace as opposed to the horrors of War, but what we do not realise is that the compensating qualities brought about by necessity will die and be buried with the War. When I came to France I discovered an extraordinary comradeship among men, in the face of a common danger who otherwise had no ideas or interests in common: that increased and decreased according to that danger...All this will be gone, and we shall merely be acquainted with our lives instead of living them.’ Pat had moved with his unit into Germany as the now army of occupation, passing as they marched through recent battlefields and those of history like the Waterloo site. They were welcomed by the local population as they marched by. He wrote: ‘it is almost impossible to conceive, can the names of Passchendaele and Ypres ever lose their sinister and death like significance?’

Pat had hoped to return for Christmas but got stuck in Torquay on the way home.

Toby was still in Palestine. On Christmas Eve a package arrived for Katharine from Pat from Cologne. In it were souvenirs of his march and with them the splinter from the German high-explosive shell ‘which so nearly did for me’ on the day when ‘the whole drama of the war seemed centred and concentrated’ on them alone.

She kept it by her on her desk as she wrote of those days.

It was a very lonely Christmas and their last at Claremorris.

They had come to the parting of the ways. Henry Hinkson took ill just as the new year began and died on 11 January 1919. Pat’s farewell in October had been the last time he had seen his father. Toby hadn’t seen him since September 1916.

There was now just Katharine and her daughter Pamela in Ireland and with the passing of the Resident Magistrate they could no longer stay in Mayo.

The frontispiece for Katharine Tynan's memoir The Years of Shadow, published in 1919. Click here to view the book on the Internet Archive.

Katharine and Pamela now began what she called her ‘Wandering Years’. Moving from Dublin to England to Scotland, even following Pat’s route through Germany. Everywhere she went, the shadow of the war still followed her. In Scotland she met one mother who had one son dead and another who was ‘worse than dead with a mind unstrung because of the War’. The mother had no time for useless lamentation but Katharine wrote ‘hers was the most intolerable tragedy of the War. A son who has been good and capable and fit to take his place among men and to fill an honourable place before the War. Afterwards a mental and moral wreck. Could anything ever justify the War that brought these things?’

Katharine Tynan wrote down these words so that these days would be remembered. She recalled others' pain and torment but seldom showed her own. Just as on 11 November, she could not write in detail of that lonely Christmas of 1918 or her husband’s death, only referring to the letters of support she received in its aftermath. Even in her letters to her closest friends all she could say was that she was happy he had been ‘received into the Church’ adding ‘I think if we met I could tell you more but I can’t write about it’. Maybe it was this premonition of pain to come that tempered her joy that her sons were safe on that Great Day in November and made her numb. Numb with a mother’s apprehension.

In all her memoir writing after that day only one sentence dealt with this directly. She wrote: ‘grief had come to me at the end of the war as though the immunity of the boys had been bought with their father’s life.’ In her poetry alone she addressed these feelings. A poem in her collection Evensong called ‘Last Year’ seems to speak to her departed husband as she began her life without him:

‘WAS it last Summer, just last year,
Or many and many a year ago,
Our hearts went shadowed by that fear?
Now Time and Space are darkened so
It might be fifty years since then,
And, Love, our boys are home again.

So long since we two bore that strain
And shook for what the day might bring!
And now our boys are home again,
‘Scaped from the bitter and dreadful thing.

You will not turn, Love, to rejoice,
Even for the boys, Love, the safe boys!
So long, Love, since you went away,
And yet the laggard year's not spent!

Our boys are here, Love, brave and gay;
It is so long, Love, since you went.
If but this year were gone, who knows
What flower of hope might bud, what rose?

Only last year! So wide, so deep
The river runs 'twixt now and then.
Here is the feast of joy to keep,
Since, Love, the boys are home again.
But, dim in darkness lies last year

And the New Year, Love, the New Year.’ (‘Last Year’)

For a mother it was a New Year, a new time, new fears, new griefs, not those of a Great War, but of the quiet mundanity of ordinary life, and death. With every new day came the night and in her poem ‘The Two Voices’ she speaks as one of ‘the weary, the bereaved, the dispossessed’:

‘Sleep now! Be still! The night with wings of splendor
Hides heavy eyes from light that they may sleep,
Soft and secure under her gaze so tender,
Lest they should wake to weep, should wake to weep.’ (‘The Two Voices’)

It was with these words that Katharine Tynan and Æ chose to conclude her Collected Poems, the work of a lifetime.

Ed Mulhall is a former Managing Director of RTÉ News and Current Affairs and an Editorial Advisor to Century Ireland

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