Sandstone Press

The Lost Diaries that Inspired an Odyssey

Three years ago, as Ireland began gearing up to commemorate 1916, I found myself thinking about my grandfather. Specifically, I was walking across Front Square in Trinity College when I was struck by the notion that he could well have been treading those very same cobbles on just such a bright morning a century earlier.

Born in 1893 in a small village in Co Monaghan, Walter Edwin Crozier was in Dublin studying to become a Presbyterian minister when the Rising broke out. During that tumultuous week, according to family lore, he slept with a revolver under his pillow – a detail that seemed impossibly glamorous to my seven-year-old heart. This fragment, though, is all that remains, because when he died, my grandmother, for reasons known only to herself, destroyed the diaries he had kept meticulously all his life.

Apart from what he might have seen and felt as mortars crashed around the walls of Trinity and rebels clashed with soldiers in the streets, other questions began to puzzle me: why, given his age and that other family members had fought in the first World War, was he not at the front, and why also had he abandoned his religious studies to become, instead, the headmaster of a quiet rural school in Co Fermanagh?

These are things I should really have asked him while he was alive but when I was a small child he was already pushing 80 and had largely retreated into a contemplative silence. The only surviving of his offspring, my mother, could shed little light, having been a late arrival (her parents were in their mid-forties when she was born) and having left home at the age of 17 for a life abroad.

As the trickle of Pathé News footage, photographs, articles and books accompanying the Decade of Centenaries became a torrent, I kept glimpsing the young Walter back in Dublin – a city I myself have lived in for nearly 20 years – strolling on Stephen’s Green or along the quays, gazing in a Grafton Street shop window or downing a pint in the yeasty gloom of the Bailey. Yet somehow I couldn’t quite place him at that moment when, as WB Yeats famously described it, “a terrible beauty” was born.

Nearly every Dubliner I know, it seems, has a family connection to Easter 1916 – a relative’s involvement, eyewitness accounts, mementoes. Tantalisingly close to having a personal story of my own, I came to feel a kind of grief for the lost diaries.

And so I took a liberty with the past. I began writing an alternative life for Walter, a fictional version that would take him away from both the Rising and the war, and put him – literally – outside history. Inspired by my own fascination with early twentieth-century adventure novels, I sent him to sea aboard a three-masted barquentine alongside a squeamish Dublin medical student, a minor Anglo-Irish aristocrat and a foul-mouthed Glaswegian sailor, on a bizarre quest to the remotest corner of the world: the Arctic.

I made him tall and angular, as he was in his youth, and gave him the personal characteristics I could just about remember: his pensive demeanour and sceptical outlook, but also his deceptively wry wit. On this adventure, unaware of the momentous events back in Ireland and believing, as many did, that the war must end sooner rather than later, the undergraduate Walter encounters near-death, hardship, wild storms, ravening polar bears and supernatural beings, and confronts both his doubts about his faith and his guilt at not going to fight.

He was intensely cold. It struck him that at home it was high summer and he tried to imagine what he might otherwise be doing: strolling on a beach in Donegal or Antrim, sunning himself on Stephen’s Green, eating ice cream in Portrush; and he thought of all the other young men – many of them younger than him – fighting for their lives at the front. He would have to go, he realised, if the war wasn’t over…

As the novel progressed I had the impression that I was getting to know Walter, spending time with a man who remained obscure and enigmatic in life. If my story was no substitute for the missing diaries, it was still a way of filling a gap and giving me some sense of how that era might have been for him.

When I finished the book, I found myself missing my grandfather more than when he died. I just hope he would have forgiven me for all the fictional trials I put him through, in a history that never was.

Kevin Smith for the Irish Times

29th March, 2016