I've never met a gunner who, I felt, inhabited the same time-space continuum as me.
Standing on my lawn with a soldier friend some years ago, he looked at a middle-distance hilltop and mused happily, "Ridgeline, 2,000 metres, forward slope no dead ground, ranging fire: ah, easy," or something preposterously gunnerish like that.
Gunners usually look like human beings, but there's no convincing evidence that they're anything of the kind. This is usually proven whenever gunners gather, as they gabble gunnerese and get weepy over fat drainpipes on overweight wheels. These are not the happy gurgling, tubular domestic devices that ferry water from gutters to the drains, but creatures of the night that will happily ensnare an arm within a maw of steel and bite it off, and if not properly minded, will explode in a murderous rage, reducing its hapless votaries to kit form: torsos everywhere, and fingers twitching on the ground, like live prawns on a barbecue.
Gunners, you see, are not so much soldiers as members of a sect of metal-worshipping druids. Moreover, the thing they invest with such godly qualities is, despite its phallic appearance, a she. Even the word, "gun", comes from the Scandinavian woman's name, Gunnhildr.
And gunners galore were gabbling their ballistical mumbo-jumbo the other day in the Glen of Imaal, as the Army bade farewell to its 25-pounder guns. Some of the men present had gone North to collect their guns from the British army's Girdwood Barracks over 60 years ago. Three score years later, here they were again, their eyes glittering with joy as they were re-acquainted with these iron goddesses that have never been fired in anger, and upon which generations of Irish gunners mastered their almost purposeless peacetime trade.
"Ah, but that is typical non-gunner talk," gunners would reply. "You who say such things do not understand soldiering. It was never purposeless. We did our duty to our country. We served our guns." And the ghosts of the gunner-soldiers who had gone before, and who had gathered palely in the hills around the Glen for this last farewell, all agreed: We served our guns.
So the Army's Twenty-Five Pounders became the mute witness to generations of quiet devotion. The British army beckoned during the hungry Fifties, and many went, but others stayed, to serve the Republic, sleeping in Nissen huts where water froze in its jugs, enduring bitter nights of chilblains before falling in on an ink-black, frozen dawn, in rough, shaggy uniforms, with poor food and poorer money; and all as the reward for serving these haughty guns.
And such service -- hour after hour of unspeakable monotony: hour upon hour of cleaning barrels, oiling mounts and polishing shell cases; hour upon hour of standing in the rain waiting for the order to come; hour after bitter winter hour guarding weaponry they knew that they would probably never fire in anger; hour after hour of mastering the mathematics of a counter-battery shoot, or creating a fire-plan that would only ever exist on paper. That was the meaning of duty, for soldiers who served their guns and who served their country. Old men forget, yet they'll remember with advantages what humble feats they did as gunners.
Hundreds of such former gunners were in the Glen for this final gathering, with Lieutenant Colonel Eamonn Fogarty of Curragh Command as their host. Rain fell for while, but then regretted its impudence, mumbled an apology and withdrew. That legendary gunner, and outgoing director of artillery, Colonel Ray Quinn, made the welcoming address, and the Chief of Staff, Lieut Gen Dermot Earley, replied. Both spoke easily and well. And those ghosts in the surrounding hills smiled knowingly: fit men to follow in the path that others had trod. Then for the first time ever, the Artillery Corps performed a heli-borne drop and shoot: both the new 105mm gun, plus crew, were delivered to the firing range by Air Corps helicopters, and then plastered a distant hill, slaying the enemy soldiery who have, with an obliging stupidity, teemed upon the slopes there for a century or more. And next came the last hurrah of the Twenty-Five Pounders, a six-gun battery firing at will, and doing yet more execution upon a happily cretinous foe who, it seems, will never learn.
There was much competition within the Artillery Corps to be in the gun crews for this final shoot, and so each Twenty-Five Pounder was served by enough soldiers to have launched a space shuttle. This is the true mark of a sect, and of the passion of its votaries. And did the guns even notice? What a question. The gun is a she.
The order for the very last round ever was delivered by Colonel Quinn himself. Almost 60 years to the very day after the first Twenty-Five Pounder shoot there, a single gun barked into the Glen, and a second later, the last such shell ever exploded upon a sorry and much-battered hillside: a farewell to arms, and a fine one too. As the many satisfied gunners trailed homeward from Imaal, like Sunday worshippers leaving church, the words that define their mysterious calling hung unspokenly in the air: "We served our guns."