Wednesday 21 February 2018

Remembering the veterans of WWII

The Irish who fought in World War II occupy a ­shadowy place in our ­history. Caroline ­Preston, whose father stormed the Normandy ­beaches on D-Day, tells our repoter about her ­fictional ­tribute to unsung veterans

Untold stories: Author Caroline Preston. Photo: Tony Gavin
Untold stories: Author Caroline Preston. Photo: Tony Gavin
Nick Tottenham, Caroline Preston's uncle who was held as a POW by the Japanese in Singapore
Pilot Officer ABL Tottenham - Caroline Preston's Uncle Tony
On the march: The 2/2 Pioneer Regiment (the Diggers), Caroline Preston's uncle, Nick, is the second soldier from the front in the left column
S for Sugar, celebrating her hundredth mission. Caroline Preston's uncle, Tony, is on the balcony, extreme right, holding a glass high.
Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch

When Caroline Preston was a child, she often heard her father screaming in his sleep. The World War II veteran had never fully recovered from his army experiences, which included storming the beaches at Normandy on D-day in 1944.

"Clearly he was suffering some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder," his daughter believes, "but in those days nobody talked about such things."

A few years later, however, Preston's father taught her a valuable lesson. She was a history and political science student at Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s when he ordered her to put on a poppy and accompany him to a war remembrance service at St Patrick's Cathedral.

"I was terrified because we had to walk through the Liberties and I thought the reception would be hostile," she recalls. "But I could not have been more wrong. Lots of doors opened and working-class Dubliners came out to salute my father, telling us that relatives of theirs had served in the war as well. I realised then that Irish history was not as black and white as some people liked to pretend."

Nick Tottenham, Caroline Preston's uncle who was held as a POW by the Japanese in Singapore
Nick Tottenham, Caroline Preston's uncle who was held as a POW by the Japanese in Singapore

Now in her early 60s, Preston is embarking on another act of remembrance. She has just published her first novel This Tumult, the story of a Protestant family in Co Westmeath who choose to join the fight against Hitler. Openly inspired by the author's maternal relatives, she describes it as her tribute to a generation whose sacrifice and suffering were often airbrushed from official Irish history.

Preston is elegant, self-controlled and impeccably well-spoken, rather like a warmer version of Theresa May. Having spent four decades as a high-flying lawyer, she freely admits that writing fiction has taken her a long way out of her comfort zone. "It's a bit like undressing in public - not something you should do after the age of 30."

This Tumult (the title comes from WB Yeats's poem 'An Irish Airman Foresees his Death') has been a work in progress for about 20 years. The seed was sown when Preston visited the Royal Air Force Museum in north London and saw some misty-eyed old men gazing up at a huge bomber aircraft. "The plaque told me that this was the famous S for Sugar which bucked all the statistics and flew over 100 operations. To my amazement, one of the names on its engine casings was Pilot Officer ABL Tottenham - my uncle Tony."

During a delayed stopover flight in Singapore shortly afterwards, Preston dropped into another museum beside Changi Jail which commemorates the POWs held by Japan.

"It's a distressing place with hundreds of photographs of starving wretches wearing little but loin cloths. One of them caught my eye and I realised it was Uncle Nick - not like the older man I later came to know because he was perilously thin and missing some teeth, but recognisable all the same."

In her own words, Preston began to feel that the Tottenhams had left "a trail of breadcrumbs for me to pick up".

Pilot Officer ABL Tottenham - Caroline Preston's Uncle Tony
Pilot Officer ABL Tottenham - Caroline Preston's Uncle Tony

At first she set out to write a factual book about this clan of "military misfits" who had lived in Malaya and South Africa before settling in the Irish midlands. When the details from her trawl through letters and logbooks proved too scant for that, she tried her hand at a novel instead. "Everything that happens to my uncles in the story is real, but the people they meet are all made up."

Preston returned to Trinity for an M Phil in creative writing and was greatly inspired by the war novels of Jennifer Johnston, Sebastian Barry and Sebastian Faulks. "At the beginning I made every mistake that's possible to make. After working in the law for so long, using the right side of my brain again was very difficult. But I also really enjoyed trying to imagine what it would be like to face that kind of danger."

Early on in This Tumult, Nick Tottenham explains the family's basic dilemma to his sister (who later became Caroline's mother). "They think we're bloody English or as near as damn it… We're never going to belong here so we should get on with a real life somewhere else, and the sooner the better."

Preston understands this frustration all too well. "Families in that position - people who speak like I do, dammit - have often been regarded as only quasi-Irish. Sometimes they were called Anglo-Irish, which is a term I don't like. My mother's people were not English, they were fully attached to the land here and joined a global war because they thought the Nazis had to be stopped."

Preston's own Irishness has never been in any doubt. She comes from a Church of Ireland background in Co Tyrone, with a mixed ancestry that included plenty of nationalists and Home Rulers. She has fond childhood memories of Brownies, ponies and tennis matches "played with the sound of Lambeg drums in the distance".

Preston's parents sent her to an English boarding school, which she hated with a passion. "I couldn't stand the snobbery and was just dying to get back to Ireland."

S for Sugar, celebrating her hundredth mission. Caroline Preston's uncle, Tony, is on the balcony, extreme right, holding a glass high.
S for Sugar, celebrating her hundredth mission. Caroline Preston's uncle, Tony, is on the balcony, extreme right, holding a glass high.

After Trinity, she trained as a solicitor, joining the prestigious Dublin firm A&L Goodbody and rising to become a partner in 1986.

"At the time, that was quite unusual and one or two clients did ask me, 'Where's your boss?' As Mary Robinson said, the business of Ireland back then was done in the jacks of Ireland. But ever since I was a child, it was ingrained in me that there should never be any bars just because you're a woman."

Preston enjoyed a high profile as head of Goodbody's litigation department, although these days she thinks it is "a crazy way to resolve disputes" and works in the field of independent mediation instead. She represented meat baron Larry Goodman at the Beef Tribunal and was the first ever woman to be appointed as solicitor to the Attorney General during John Bruton's Rainbow government.

These experiences were rewarding but also time-consuming, and by 1997 she needed a complete change of scenery.

"So my husband and I shipped a Land Rover to Cape Town with our two young children and drove all the way to Ethiopia. We set up camp every night, cooking food and singing songs just like the Von Trapp family [from The Sound of Music]. I love Africa because it is so unspoiled - it shows you what the world must have been like everywhere once."

As her official retirement date approaches, Preston's life seems to be speeding up instead. When not breeding horses on her husband's family farm in Co Meath, she chairs the charitable hospital St Patrick's Mental Health Services. She also works as a schools inspector for the Street Child charity in Sierra Leone, helping kids whose education was disrupted by the Ebola crisis. "It can be upsetting at times," she admits, "but I strongly believe that small pebbles can create big ripples."

Clearly Caroline Preston is not a woman to be easily daunted, even if seeing her name on the cover of a novel comes perilously close.

This Tumult will be launched next Thursday by the former U2 manager Paul McGuinness, an old friend from her Trinity days whose father also flew with the RAF during WWII. After that, she may consider writing a prequel based on her grandfather's WWI experiences in the trenches at Flanders.

"I feel very strongly that these stories must be told before they are forgotten," she says. "And the political climate makes it much easier to do that now. I'd like this book to be a small part of the new understanding."

This Tumult is published by The Lilliput Press

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