My father worked in C.I.E. (now, Irish Rail) and this gave us a number of free train journeys each year. These were used for days out to Cork; shopping for my mother and, the highlight for me, a visit to Woolworth’s on Patrick Street where I was always allowed to have some toys to bring home – I recall a greatly treasured packet of plastic soldiers which lead to hours and hours of imaginative play and there was a similar packet of small boats and many hours sailing them in the bath.
These outings to Cork were annual events, to the best of my recollection. It was a long time ago, late 1950s or early 1960s, and I was a very young boy yet one journey and the man we met on that journey still remain in my memory. His skin was dark, something very rare in Ireland at that time, and he was wearing sunglasses on the train, again certainly uncommon at that time and he was a priest, commonplace but, dark-skinned and wearing sunglasses – not your usual Irish priest, obviously.
The ticket collector came round shortly after we left the station in Dungarvan and, if this man had not already attracted my childish attention, his actions at this point most definitely did. He searched, fumbled, for his ticket and eventually took it from his breast pocket but then reached to his inside pocket and took out a magnifying glass and proceeded to read the details on the ticket. He asked the ticket collector when he should alight from the train and, from this conversation, we heard that he was on his way to Mount Melleray, a monastery in the north-west of the county.
There were some exchanges between him and my mother and he explained his sunglasses and magnifying glass: he had been interned in a Nazi concentration camp and had lost his sight because of starvation and illness.
It was another few years before I began my splurge of reading books on the Second World War and on the concentration camps, inspired by this meeting, and the horror of those accounts had a great affect on my young mind and it remains with me to this day along with the memory of the priest on the train.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.