Positive Ageing Week 2017: Bernard’s story
“From the day I was born I wanted to fly,” says Bernard who is now 94 years old .
Bernard is both computer literate and a frequent user of the internet thanks to attending Age Action’s Getting Started Computer Training programme which delivers free training on computers, tablets and smartphones to people over the age of 55.
“I did that computer course and it was fantastic,” he says. “They brought the tea and biscuits out first which was good because it took the tension off. It was my first introduction to computing. I didn’t have any idea at first but it opened up a whole new world for all the elderly people.”
“It opened a whole new world for me on the internet”
Bernard’s laptop with a distinctive pink mouse attached (a gift from his granddaughter) sits on a nearby table as we chat.
“There’s been so much emigration in the last few years where you were writing a letter and you’d wait weeks for a reply but once you got in onto the internet that was fantastic for keeping in touch with the family. Then it opened a whole new world for me on the internet. You can do banking, shopping – you name it.”
But, what really fascinated Bernard, was using the internet to study history.
“The internet was fantastic for my research”
“Me, I went on to do a lot of research into Irish history. I did a BA in Irish History at Saor-Ollscoil Na hÉireann (the Free University of Ireland) and the internet was fantastic for my research.”
Bernard didn’t stop there but continued his studies. He hands me a heavy printed volume, a hardback containing over 360 pages of his dissertation.
“Then I went on to do a Masters on the 1913 Lockout covering the life of Jim Larkin. He was locked up in Sing-Sing for five years, which a lot of people don’t know, which is why he wasn’t around for the 1916 Rising.”
Larkin was jailed, in 1920, in the US and held in Sing-Sing prison after organising the miners in the copper mines of Montana during the First World War. In 1923, he was pardoned and later deported by the Governor of New York.
“He was entitled to his opinions,” says Bernard, “but not to carry them out.”
The Regular Air Force
However, as well as studying Irish history, Bernard also saw action in one of the biggest events of the 20th Century. And, despite his interest in republicanism, his love of flying led him into a stint in the Royal Air Force.
“I joined the Royal Air Force – we called it the Regular Air Force, if you know what I mean – at age 14, just before the Second World War and I went to the air force college in Cranwell in Lincolnshire. We were supposed to be there until we were 19 but the war was on and when we were just 17 a guy came in one day and he said ‘we’re looking for people with the qualities of leadership’. We were delighted to get out of college two years early. But after a short while we realised it wasn’t ‘leadership’ they were after they were simply short of bodies.”
“I was sent overseas to the jungles of Burma”
“I served in various places around England and then I was sent overseas to the jungles of Burma to Ramree Island. I left England at the end of 1942. We got the call in the middle of the night and there we were stumbling through the darkness to Morecombe railway station. We travelled up to Stranraer in Scotland and went out on tenders but not to a military vessel to an ordinary cargo ship. They just threw a net over the side of the ship for us to climb up onboard. I never got the name of the ship I was on for four weeks, it was always dark when I got on and off.”
“We went the long way around down to South Africa because of the German submarines. We stopped in Bombay then after a week we got onto a train with no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters. There was all this red sand that came blowing in through the windows into the carriages. It took five days because it was the old steam train and it had to stop for water. And as soon as the train stopped we’d rush out to stand underneath the water to get rid of the sand we were covered in.”
‘See the Taj Mahal by moonlight and die’
“I spent two years in Burma then I went to a place outside Bangalore called Yelahanka; from there I went to allied headquarters in New Dehli and met Mountbatten.
Lord Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, uncle to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asia Theatre of War and, during his command, the allies recaptured Burma from the Japanese.
His wife used to bring people out and they used to go and see the Taj Mahal in Agora. I don’t know if you ever heard that famous saying ‘see the Taj Mahal by moonlight and die’? It is a wonderful sight, no doubt, but we had the job of flying these people in a Dakota in the middle of the night from Dehli all the way to Agora and round the Taj Mahal and back.
“There was one night,” Bernard explains, “when this young lady was saying ‘isn’t it wonderful that we’re seeing the Taj Mahal and we don’t have to die’ referring to the saying and somebody said ‘I wish you would then we wouldn’t be flying you around in the middle of the night’.”
‘That crazy Irish boy’
“Well,” he continues, “this remark was reported to her Ladyship. Now, she was very nice, and she came the next time with a box of beer and cigarettes looking for that crazy Irish boy who made that statement.”
Prisoners of War
“We also had the job of flying British prisoners of war from Changi Prison in Singapore to Australia. You can imagine the state they were in – they were like skeletons. The Japanese used to make them sweep the streets of Singapore to belittle them. We used to fly them to Perth in Australia and they kept them there for a while feeding them and looking after them medically and then put them on the slow boat back to England and by the time they got there they were healthy again. But they did have a tough time.”
“Despite all that,” Bernard says, “they didn’t kill me. I got away with it. They gave me the Burma Star, the Pacific Star and a few other ones. I gave them to my granddaughter last year.”
Penpals for years
Bernard’s wife, Patricia, died two years ago after 58 years of marriage. “We had a good life together,” he says. “Her father built this house (the one we are sitting in in Cabra) and when we got married I bought it from him.”
I ask him how he first met his wife and he tells me about the fateful day he walked into a post office in India.
“There was this guy where we used to go to collect our mail and he’d written to the newspapers back home looking for penpals. He got so many letters he couldn’t cope. So he was giving them out to people coming to collect their mail particularly the Irish (there was a good few Irish over there, a few of them were ex-Irish army who had deserted and joined up the British forces).”
“I went in and he offered me some letters but I wasn’t interested in girls. Football, boxing, any sport you name it cricket, tennis, I was interested. He prevailed and I took three. I looked at them and I picked this particular one and that was the wife.”
The number 10 bus to Hanlon’s Corner
Patricia and Bernard wrote to each other for two years before they eventually met back in Dublin and because she had never put a photograph in her letters he never knew what she looked like until that day.
“I came home to Dublin in July 1947, I had three months’ leave and I had to make up my mind whether I was going to go back to the RAF and sign up again or take my discharge. I had written to Patricia to let her know I was coming back to Dublin so I had her phone number. She was working at a local chemist at that time. I got the number 10 bus and got off at Hanlon’s Corner in Cabra and there she was across the road. That was the first time we met. She brought me for a walk up the Phoenix Park. She sat at one end of a seat on the main road and I sat on the other. That was the start.”
Find out more
To find out about events happening from 25 September to 1 October, during Positive Ageing Week or to register an event, click here.
To find your nearest location for Age Action’s ‘Getting Started’ Computer Training programme, click here.