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At the vulnerable age of thirty, Robert Shannon lost his soul. Nothing is worse; no greater danger exists. Only sinners lose their souls, it’s said, through the evil that they do. Not Robert Shannon. Incapable of anything but good, he lost his soul through savagery that he witnessed, horrors that he saw. And then, as he was repairing himself and his beliefs, he was ravaged further in the pursuit of his own faith.
When you lose—or have ripped from you—the spirit that directs you, you have two options. Fight for your soul and win it back, and you’ll evermore be a noble human being. Fail, and you die from loss of truth.
And so, just before dawn one morning in 1922, Robert Shannon stood on the deck of a slow old freighter on the southwest coast of Ireland and looked inland. This was the point to which he had come in search of his lost best self. If he could have explained clearly what he was doing, he would have said that he wanted to find the man he had been. If he could have described lucidly the essence of his journey across the Atlantic, he would have expressed the wish that here, in the country of his forebears, some ancient magic of ancestry might restore him. Could it be that in the old land, of which he had so often dreamed, he might find, to begin with, hope? But what he desperately needed to rediscover was belief.
On the port side, the western hills slept low and dark; to starboard rose the tall and ragged box of a ruined castle. A lighthouse came gliding into view, its lantern’s beam fading against the opening skies. These were sights he had expected to see, and as they approached they comforted him—insofar as he could feel comfort. The dark rocks, though watching carefully, offered no threat, and the freighter steamed in, composed now in the estuary’s calm after weeks of coping with the burly sea.
Find your soul and you’ll live.
Ashore, colors began to wake up and stretch. A gray triangle became a lawn of green. In a whitewashed cottage wall, a dark oblong shape developed into a turquoise door. The large house on the hill strengthened from gray to yellow. In a sloping field, black-and- white cows drifted, heavy and swaying, toward their gate, expecting to be milked.
Forward of the ship, seabirds flapped up from the little waves. On a rock a cormorant waited, an etching in black angles. The spreading river shone like gray satin; later it would turn sapphire under the blue sky.
As the light brightened, the captain came and stood at the rail with his lone passenger, for whom he had to find a clear mooring in this uncertain place. Once having landed this man safely and well, he could take the freighter back into the channel.
Not for the first time, Captain Aaronson heard his passenger murmur something and sigh.
The square tower of the village church remained in shadow. Despite the half-light, the ship discovered the little old pier, made a wide curve, and chugged in. Disembarkation took no more than a few minutes. The seamen dropped a ladder over the side, and the passenger took the captain’s hand as though he wished to keep it.
“Thank you, Captain. For your”—he halted—“for your—such kindness.”
Without a further word he turned and, with his back to the waiting land, and made hunchbacked by his large rucksack, he descended the ladder. When his feet touched the jetty, he stood for a moment; indeed, he clung to the ladder. Then he took a step backward and turned away.
Looking down from the rail, the captain and some crewmen watched him lurch off, this man who had rarely spoken to them. As one said, “He spooked us all,” because he moved around so silently. He’d slipped and slid with the roll of the sea. He’d taken the rain in his face like a man trying to wake up. He’d inhaled deeply the harsh and icy air through which they had sometimes sailed.
The few seamen who had tried speaking to him had learned nothing. Often the changing watch met him as he ghosted around the decks in the smallest hours of the night. To their greeting he cast down his eyes and stepped aside to let them pass. Among themselves they talked about him without cease. Was he a criminal on the run? Was he a fugitive from the recent German war? Was he being put ashore for secret political reasons? Was he an Irish spy?
Only the captain, a tough little Dutchman, knew anything. He knew why the young traveler remained silent, his pale face closed. The tall distinguished man who had instructed Captain Aaronson in the port of Boston had indicated that his passenger would have little wish to speak.
“Ask him no questions,” he said. “He has seen too much.”
On a shouted order, two seamen hauled up the ladder. The ship’s engine growled on the air. Within minutes she was back in the stretch of the river they call Tarbert Roads, chugging her way up to Limerick.
“Do you know what he was saying to himself?” the mate asked the captain.
“No, I could not so well hear.”
But Captain Aaronson was lying. He’d heard perfectly well what the passenger had said—what he had murmured over and over.
Lose your soul and you’ll die.
The young American walked no more than a few yards, then stopped and looked back. His arms hung loose; his body sagged like a puppet’s; the haversack dragged his shoulders down. He gazed after the departing ship and gasped.
Come back! Don’t leave me!
For several minutes he remained in that one place. A harsh bird wentcraik-craik. Mottled hanks of weed, green as the hair of a witch, flopped against the old stone wedges of the jetty. The young man patted his cheeks as if disbelieving the gentleness of the morning air. Once upon a time this would have been a moment for a prayer, especially as the sky was now brightening fast.
On the evidence of his appearance, this man was neither a farmer nor a laborer; his face was too unweathered, too strained, too pale. Nor was he a clerk or a lawyer; his eyes showed no calm, no control. Could he have been a performer of some sort, an actor, a singer? No, he had no authority in his stance, neither in his body nor in his walk. A doctor? Not at all, no hint of concern. A teacher, perhaps? A leader of men?
Not anymore. This man had been shattered—by war. The systems he had learned since his birth, in his years of impressive education, in the outstanding conduct of his own life—-they had all seized and failed and he had become silent, incapable, trapped. Those ropes by which we all pull ourselves forward through the world were, in his life, as thin as cotton threads.
Find your soul and you’ll live. That’s why he had come here. Robert Shannon was a Catholic priest, born and raised in the white towns of New England. He had ministered as a beloved pastor; from there he had gone forth to become a war hero: Captain Robert Shannon, a chaplain with the U.S. Marines. With his deeds no more now than somebody else’s fable, some handwritten and classified reports in a regimental archive, some family letters full of pride, he walked along that anonymous Irish foreshore because, as is the case with so many heroes, nobody knew for certain what to do with him.
Those few who cared for FatherShannonhis parents, his mentor in the Church, his doctor—-wished devoutly to keep him alive. But they also knew that, given his infirm emotions, he stood in danger of taking his own life—-especially if he remained in New England. And, as if all this was not enough, there were those—unknown to hisguardianswho would soon get ready to help him die, because he had indeed seen too much.
Shannon was setting out with a simple aim. There had always been Irish pride in his family, a deep and good sense of belonging to a great and ancient race—and to a family that got its name from the Shannon River. The ancestors who came to America in the 1700s had reputedly lived on its banks; a painting of a Shannon River scene hung in the family’s hallway. And where young Robert Shannon’s friends and contemporaries had newspaper prints of sports stars or horses on their walls, this boy had filled his bedroom with Irish memorabilia, including the large map he now carried in his rucksack.
'Shell'-shock victims, it had been found, often used childhood memories to anchor themselves. Amid his newfound terrors and rages, Father Shannon had found again the great shining force of childhood tales. From deep inside him, he had managed to haul out the emotional force to believe, to trust, that this storied river could heal him. To possess such a mighty name—that must add up to something, mustn’t it?
Now, at last, he would embrace the river. Simply and determinedly, he would hike north on the east bank of the Shannon, visit the very source, the dark pool of its birth, and walk back south on the west bank. Somewhere along the way he would step into the early footprints of his people. And, his blood rekindled, he would return to the point opposite this morning’s landing at Tarbert and, on a day yet to be decided, join a ship to take him home again. In planning this journey he had found what he needed most at that point in his life—-focus.
Truth to tell, he had grasped little else for some years. Most days he had no more than a fractured knowledge of himself, nothing greater than a jagged sense of his confused mind. On better mornings he glimpsed a snapshot of the man he had once been. Like a battlefield flare, it lit the sky of his mind, but he hadn’t the mental power to prolong the brilliance, and it fell away. On such occasions he seemed almost normal for a time, but the effort fatigued him. And on the very worst days he merely succumbed to the remembered trauma of the battlefield and lay down. This morning, exhausted from the ship and unsure of his ability to make this journey, he looked as he had done so often in the past few years: three quarters broken and greatly lost.
But if all went well—if the green stillness of Ireland brought recovery, if the river healed him, if in his roots he found the way back to himself—he could resume his true life. This belief, based solely on hope, gave him such little energy as he felt.
He also had beneath him a curious safety net, a network set up by his mentor, an odd fish of an archbishop named Sevovicz. In order to manage the known factors—Father Shannon’s fragility, his exhausting struggle to recover himself, his sudden floutbursts—and to try to guard against possibilities yet unknown, Archbishop Sevovicz had written in some detail to the Irish bishops whose dioceses touched the Shannon. These men had then contacted the priests in their multiple parishes, and thus, all along the river, on the thick red line that the young man had drawn on his boyhood map of Ireland, local Irish people waited, talking to one another about him, watching out for him, willing to help him take his anxious steps. Father Shannon knew nothing of this.
From Tarbert Pier a broad lap of the river nudges in toward the rear of the village. With this inlet to his left, past the old stone jail to his right, and up the sloping road, the young priest reached the crossroads. Here he turned left. In these houses slept O’Connors, MacCormacks, O’Flahertys, Kennellys, as they do today and as they’ve done since before Christ was born. Nothing moved, no sign of life. Tarbert has a long main street; ahead stretched empty distance. He took a deep breath.
Clear of the houses, he stopped by a great beech tree. Below, to his left, the departing freighter had left a small foaming wake that gleamed in the last of the early shadows. To get a clearer view he stepped into the rough land at the side of the road, made his way down the slope a few paces, and stood for several minutes gazing out over the brambles and scrub.
Dawn came down the river from the east. The day would grow sunny and warm, a good start, and everything he saw offered the first signs of peacefulness. Yes, it might be all right here.
The estuary feathered a little under a slight breeze, but it looked calm and supple, reassuringly level after that bully, the Atlantic. He lingered, then climbed back up to the road and faced ahead.
And then he stopped—halted abruptly. Before him in the roadway stood three men, two of them seemingly much younger than himself. They carried rifles; they wore bandoliers. He glanced behind him to check whether they had companions—and the gunmen turned and saw him. No hiding now. Shannon stepped away from the great beech tree and into the roadway.
The Great War began in the golden fall of 1914, one of western Europe’s most beautiful Septembers ever. Within weeks the conflict took on a shape never seen before: massive artillery bombardments raining down upon men huddled in head-high trenches. Little more than a year later the medical journals of western Europe, with palpable consternation, began to discuss a new condition reported from the battlefield. The doctors had no name for it; they called it nerve strain or war strain or even hysteria or war shock. Eventually, by means of general usage, they settled on what they agreed was a popular but inadequate title: shell shock.
Over the four or so years of the war, doctors began internationally to define shell shock by the suddenly altered behavior of the soldiers and the lasting impact on victims’ minds. Reports emerged from France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and the United States. The afflicted troops numbered in thousands, maybe tens of thousands, and no two cases were identical.