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Good night, sweet Prince.

July 4, 2012

TODAY came the exciting news from CERN – new particles of life, new ways of exploring who we are and what we may be. Tonight came news of a death: a life begun early in one century ending early in another.

Last autumn I wrote a collection of poems as a song cycle. Each poem was accompanied by a short biography. The subject of one poem, set during the Great War, was my great-grandmother Lucy May (Louie) Fitzell. I also referenced her four daughters. Billy, the last-born, was mentioned in the biography.

I used to call them the last of the Edwardians, although Billy and Joan were technically born in the reign of George V. I loved them all dearly. They had idiosyncrasies and strengths that our generations know nothing about. All of them died in their 90th year or later. I put it down to porridge and sea-bathing. My grandmother, also Louie, about whom I will write at a later date, marvelled at the things she had seen in the 20th century. She also reminded me that her growing up was so much easier – just writing, reading, and later, radio. Less daily stress, she said.

And now, her baby brother Billy is dead. Mummy and I visited him about 18 months ago. His mind was a bit uncertain but he chatted away. Talk turned to travel somehow – I was telling my cousin that I had been to Oman and found the humidity difficult to handle.

‘Ah, but did you acclimatise?’ – Billy’s queston came left of field.

‘I didn’t have time for that, Uncle Billy – I was only there for ten days.’

”We acclimatised in India.’

So began a tale of his time in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. I was studying colonial history. I mentioned Uncle Billy to my lecturer. His eyes widened. ‘You need to interview him.’

You know how it is. I bought the recorder. Mum and I planned a trip up soon. I thought of Uncle Billy this morning. Once this week’s visitors have gone, I said to myself, we’ll head up to see him.

Too late. The last link to a generation is gone. Already, I miss the comfort of his representative presence. I hope he gets time to acclimatise, wherever he is. I hope the Fitzell particles are dancing around the beautiful moon.

Below is the poem and accompanying biography.

Limerick. Spring. 1918.

Seated quietly by the April fireside,

Lucy May Fitzell reads Rupert Brooke’s poems.

Joshua, whose first gift to her was a pair of gloves,

offers titbits of news: Ottoman gains in the East;

butter prices; rumours of a general strike.

He rises and riddles the failing embers.

 

In the Methodist Sunday morning

Lucy May’s hymnal is bookmarked

with a photograph of her brother Bill –

away with the Seaforths inPalestine.

Her gloved hand touches his sepia face.

She remembers picnics in Kilkee and sings

‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’.

 

Lucy May watches Royal Welch Fusiliers

playing with her children in the garden.

Mr. Sassoon has returned to the front; Mr. Graves

remains. Her affection lies with the parade of boys

who sprawl on the lawn, on scratchy rugs, firing bullets

of Manchester vowels and Welsh consonants.

 

She calls Eileen from the piano in the drawing room

and Amy from the flowerbed where worms are.

Private Davies lifts Louie high on his shoulder.

Captain Swales walks with bent knees as he

holds Joan’s hand.  Lucy May shepherds them

in to the dining room where there is

honey still for tea.

 

 Lucy May Fitzell

Lucy May (Louie) Collier was born in Lancashire in 1879. Her father William moved to Limerick to work for Newtons, an English export firm. Her sister Amy married and settled in Limerick. The youngest, Bill, joined the Seaforth Highlanders during the First World War. Lucy May worked in her father’s office. A butter buyer fromCo.Kerry named Joshua Fitzell visited the office and promptly fell in love with her. They married in 1900 and had five children: Eileen, Amy, Louie, Joan, and Billy.

Limerick was a garrison city; the Royal Welch Fusiliers 3rd Battalion were stationed there until the British military withdrawal after the War of Independence. During the First World War 3rd Battalion functioned as a training, and holding, unit. Many soldiers passed through its ranks including the writers Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, both of whom were garrisoned in Limerick Barracks during the war.

The Fitzells were Methodists and met the soldiers at church. Lucy May invited many of them to tea. During and after the war years the Fitzells received letters and cards from Royal Welch soldiers. Her daughter Louie often spoke of the tea parties and said that one of the men, Beatty, had corresponded with her mother right up to the 1950s. Joshua died in 1945. Lucy May died on October 7th, 1957. At the time of writing her son Billy was still alive. She was my great-grandmother.

Photo: Joshua and Lucy May with their children. Back, from left: Amy, Louie, Eileen. Seated, left: Billy. Seated, right: Joan. (c. Karen McDonnell 2011)

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