I was born in 1926 in Rerrin Village, just inside the red line, which ran north/south at the western extremity of the large area of playing fields, known locally as The Rec.
To be inside the red line meant that the British army could order civilian evacuation to take place within a specified period, generally accepted as in the region of 48 hours, in the event of military action. Thus, it was a strange place to grow up in.
Because of family members serving in the Royal Navy, there was a certain fascination with all things military, including the continued presence of a Royal Navy destroyer at anchor in the harbour. I didn’t know either of my grandfathers, both of whom had served full careers in the Royal Navy. There were a number of service pensioners who were patrons of the British Legion and resident in the area and, seeing them, I used to imagine what my grandparents would have looked like.
I went to school at the local National School, which was attended solely by children of non-military families. Thus, our lives were distinctly Irish, since the British children had their own military school, located at the top of Rerrin village.
Since my family owned a public house and grocery shop in Rerrin, I began to mix with the British children from an early age, partially because of being involved in deliveries to houses and to the NAAFI and mess-halls in the Garrison. Another regular job I had was to bring the milking cows down from the Garrison, to the cowshed at the rear of the garden behind the pub; a large garrison grazing area was leased to Cahill’s, since prior to the CPO (compulsory purchase order) that land was owned by Cahill’s; it extended eastwards past and around the Redoubt and also covered an area to the east of the powerhouse.
British army fortification had begun on Bere Island with the CPO in 1898, after which tenants were cleared from the East end of the island, with grazing rights leased back to the original owners. The reason for these fortifications was to protect British Dreadnoughts when they were in port, as they needed 48 hours of elaborate protection while routine maintenance had to be carried out’ and while they got up sufficient steam in their boilers.
Making friends from ‘foes’
Bringing the cows down was sometimes somewhat hazardous as one part of the roadway ran in front of the Coastguard Station front-gardens, which were often filled with children, playing after school. To them I was known as ‘The Kale Boy’. The chant of ‘here comes the kale boy’ would sometimes be accompanied by a pelting of stones and sods, such that at times, I was grateful to be able to take cover behind some large cows. Strangely, I began to make some friends among them, to the extent that I organized a soccer match, which took place on an open space to the east of what is now a theatre. Not being able to muster a full eleven, I had to borrow some players from them. We won the match and so began some good friendships.
The Drill Hall
All of the foregoing leads me to describe my association with the drill hall, which surely is well known to Bere Islanders and even to visitors. This hall was a general-purpose building, used for dances, cinema, and, as the name implies, some indoor army training. At Christmas the British held a Children’s Party in the drill hall, involving many party games and ending by ensuring that all attending went home with a Christmas present. So, my first involvement with the drill hall was an invitation to that very party. At this remove I can’t remember how many of my fellow locals were at the party. Who knows!
My other involvement with the drill hall came about because of being an altar boy, essentially at Ballinakilla parish church, but also at the drill hall when Mass was held there as well as at Ballinakilla. At that time the British held their services in their church, which is now a theatre. Roman Catholic services were held in the drill hall when the priest from Ballinakilla came over to the east end on Sunday morning.
As altar boys, we had the job on Sunday morning to go to the guardhouse to obtain the key of the hall. Once inside the hall we had to open shutters at the front of the stage and pull out the altar and prepare it for Mrs Lofty Murphy who lived in a bungalow behind the military school and came with her suitcase of altar cloths.
To go to the guardhouse in the redoubt we went past the sentry, down steps to the office itself, which always had an armed stand-to party. I was used to going past the sentry post to get to the wireless office where we used to get our radio batteries charged. We had two batteries and I often had the job of bringing one up and collecting the freshly charged version. Note that this was in the days before some Rerrin houses were connected to the military mains supply; the radio referred to would have been a fairly large house radio, using rechargeable wet batteries and a 120 volt dry battery.
A visit to the wireless office was for me an early introduction to radio communications. I used to stand in the doorway listening to the Morse code signals and watching the operators using their Morse keys to answer.
A major international incident averted
On one Sunday when I asked for the key of the drill hall, they found it wasn’t on the board and so began a check as to who closed the hall on the previous night and who should have handed in the key. Finally, I was told to go to the first barrack block and ask for Gunner X. As a very nervous ten or eleven year old I entered the block, which was filled with sleeping soldiers, asked the first one I saw awake where I might find Gunner X. He pointed out a bed about halfway along the line. When I reached this bed, I nervously tugged at him to awaken him. Visualise this soldier being awakened out of his sleep and being asked, “could I have the key of the guardhouse”. I should have asked of course for the key of the drill hall and not a key to the most heavily armed part of a sleeping garrison.
To this day, I have often considered the effects such a simple mistake might have had, bearing in mind what was taking place elsewhere on the island of Ireland!