A Nightingale Sang

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A story of love in a time of war

John Healy

IT’S not often that a personalised love story can integrate itself with the great events of history without losing its thread. And it’s not often a narrator can speak so deeply from the heart, and yet manage to be so dispassionately objective about the background to her story.
Gerardine Cusack’s fascinating ‘A Nightingale Sang’ is subtitled ‘A Love Story from World War Two’, and what a story that is, and how well written. The author, now in her nineties, has a way with words and a poetic flourish which makes her book compelling reading on several different levels.

Gerardine Cusack left home in Rosbeg, Westport, to arrive in London on the day war was declared in 1939. For the next six years, she was to witness and endure the harsh reality of a world at war, where devastation and fear and hunger and deprivation were the lot of millions of innocent civilians who wanted nothing more than to go about their lives in peace. This was a London of blackouts and air raids, rationing and shortages, indiscriminate destruction of homes and property, and yet a London of indomitable courage and resilience.
“We got accustomed to sleepless nights and sleep walking days,” she says of a city where loss of life was so commonplace as to often go unreported.
But Gerardine Cusack’s book is, as it set out to be, a love story, of meeting her husband to be, the ‘Jack Conway’ of the book, the courageous Westport man who had joined the Royal Navy on his sixteenth birthday and who for five years lived in the shadow of imminent death.
John Cusack literally sailed the seven seas, from the south Atlantic to the Med, from daring rescues of civilians in the Spanish Civil War, to hazardous mine sweeping duties across the icy waters of the North Sea, They met and fell in love and were married in Liverpool when he managed a few days shore leave from the conflict. And then, like thousands of other service newlyweds, it was separation and back to sea with the ominous danger that every mission might be the last, and the certainty that for every man who came home, another would perish in the north Atlantic.
‘A Nightingale Sang’ is also a testament to the optimism of youth and to the expectation of the author and her friends that this too would end, that war would be over, and that the world would be right again.
In between the horrors, there are idyllic visits home to Rosbeg, a haven of tranquillity, so far removed from the mayhem of everyday London life. And there are delightful insights into the local social life into which the author quickly immersed herself on her visits home.
The dance at Westport House to mark the permanent return home from London of the Marquis of Sligo, the bachelor earl who wished for closer engagement between the Big House and the town; welcoming visits to the pub at Westport Quay, recently inherited by John McBride and ‘brazen’ visits with her oldest friend to her local, now The Sheebeen, at a time when female patronage of a pub was severely frowned on.
‘A Nightingale Sang’ is what it declares itself to be, a great and enduring love story which lasted a lifetime and which surely sooner or later is worthy of a retelling on the silver screen.
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