01 June 2016

Two plaques serve as reminders
of anniversaries of killings in June

The plaque at Lichfield City Station remembering the murder of teenager Robert Davies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

As we continue to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, the Battle of Jutland, the Battle of the Somme, and other events in 1916, there is one anniversary that I am reminded of today, 1 June, and another that I am reminded falls next Tuesday, 7 June.

I find myself using Lichfield City Station countless times through the year. Regularly, as I go to catch a train or arrive at Lichfield, my eye is caught by a poppy wreath hanging on a monument at the bottom of the steps in memory of a teenage soldier who was shot dead in the station in 1990.

Private WR Davies was killed here 26 years ago on 1 June 1990. Robert Davies was 19 when he shot dead that day by the IRA, in a cowardly attack, at the station. He was waiting for a train to take him back home to see his parents in Pontarddulais, near Swansea, after completing his first 12 weeks of training.

Private Davies was shot at close range with a handgun when two masked men walked up to him and two other young recruits, Private Neil Evans (19) from Llanelli and Private Robert Parkin (20) from Cheltenham. They were in civilian clothes as they waited to catch a train home for their first weekend leave since starting basic training at nearby Whittington Barracks. The gunmen the ran off along the railway track and made their getaway in a waiting car.

The inscription reads:

This plaque has been presented
by the City of Lichfield
Royal British Legion,
and is dedicated to the memory of
Private WR Davies,
Royal Regiment of Wales,
who was fatally wounded at
this station on the
1st June 1990.
Lest we forget.
Donated by the West Midlands Co-operative Society

Robert Davies was off-duty and had never fired a shot. He was based at Whittington Barracks, outside Lichfield, and had been in the army for just 12 weeks. He was only 19 when he was shot dead by the IRA on Friday 1 June 1990, waiting for a train to take back home to a weekend with his parents in Wales.

Five years ago, a new walkway behind the station in Lichfield was named Robert Davies Walk. His parents Des and Helen Davies were present, and his father said: “There is now a little part of Wales in the heart of England.”

Robert Davies has no children or grandchildren – he is remembered by his sister and his parents, still grieving a young man murdered by terrorists who had the gall to take life, to murder, to create grief, all in the name of Ireland, and in the name of all who live on this island.

Although the IRA claimed responsibility, no-one has ever been arrested for the murder of Robert Davies. Police wanted to question two suspected IRA members, Pearse McAuley and Nessan Quinlivan. They were arrested in October 1990, but they shot their way out of Brixton Prison before their trial on other charges and escaped in 1991.

Des and Helen Davies have never been able to see their son’s killers brought to justice. Today, Robert Davies would be 45. But he was murdered on this day 26 years ago, 1 June 1990. Lest we forget.

The plaque at Adare Garda Station, Co Limerick, remembering Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, who was attacked and killed on 7 June 1996 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Another plaque that should come to mind for many this month is one I saw last Saturday during a short visit to Adare, Co Limerick. This plaque outside the Garda Station in Adare remembers Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, who was shot dead in Adare 20 years ago on 7 June 1996.

Jerry McCabe was shot dead by members of the Provisional IRA during an attempted robbery of a post office van. He was 52, and the father of five children.

Jerry McCabe and Detective Garda Ben O’Sullivan were attacked early in the morning by men wearing balaclavas who fired 15 rounds with an AK-47. Three rounds hit Jerry McCabe and killed him; Ben O'Sullivan was hit 11 times and was seriously injured. Bullet casings found at the scene were unique to the IRA at the time.

Up to 40,000 people lined the streets of Limerick for the funeral of Jerry McCabe.

Gerry Adams claimed later the robbery and the attack were “not authorised by the [IRA] Army Council,” but Sinn Féin later lobbied for the early release of Jerry McCabe’s killers under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Jerry McCabe’s widow Anne has never received a proper answer since she challenged Gerry Adams to explain why Sinn Fein had called for the release of the men convicted of killing her husband.

Pearse McAuley, who was convicted for the killing, had escaped from Brixton Prison in London on 7 July 1991 with Nessan Quinlivan. At the time, they were awaiting trial on charges relating to a suspected plot to assassinate Sir Charles Tidbury (1926-2003), chairman of the Whitbread brewery, and police wanted to question them about the attempted murder of Sir Peter Terry, the former governor of Gibraltar, who was shot at his home in Cannock Chase, near Lichfield, two months after the murder of Robert Davies.

McAuley and Quinlivan fled to Ireland, where they were granted bail while contesting their extradition to Britain. In 1999, McAuley was convicted with three others for the killing of Jerry McCabe, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

He was released in 2009, having spent 10½ years in prison. On Christmas Eve 2014, McAuley was arrested after stabbing his estranged wife Pauline Tully multiple times in front of their two children in Co Cavan. He was found guilty and on 2 December 2015 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The plaque at Adare Garda Station reads:

In memory of
Det Jerry McCabe
who gave his life in the service of his country
at Adare, Co Limerick
on June 7th 1996,
For the peace and love my fellowman
For the justice of my fellowman
For the peace and understanding of my fellowman
For the peace and love of my fellowman

Today, Jerry McCabe would be 72. But he was shot dead 20 years ago, on 7 June 1996. Lest we forget.

Three poems written by Philip Larkin
in Lichfield (3): ‘Ghosts’

Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield … members of the Larkin family are buried here and Philip Larkin’s parents are named on tablets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Over these few mornings, I am reading the three poems that Philip Larkin (1922-1985) wrote in Lichfield in 1940, while his family was living at No 33 Cherry Orchard after the Coventry Blitz in 1940..

Peter Young, the former Town Clerk of Lichfield who retired last August after 28 years in office, has spoken on a number of occasions – to Lichfield Discovered (2014), to Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Group (2012), and to Lichfield Civic Society (2008) – about Philip Larkin and his associations with Lichfield.

Peter Young has joked that Larkin once said of Lichfield: ‘God this place is dull.’ But the three poems he wrote in Lichfield are anything but dull, even though they were never published in his own lifetime. Today, these three poems are part of the corpus of a poet that Andrew Motion has described as ‘one of the two or three most important British poets of the last part of the 20th century.’

No 21 Tamworth Street, Lichfield … a former a home of the Larkin family once stood here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry, the only son and younger child of Sydney and Eva Larkin. Sydney Larkin (1884-1948) was from Lichfield and his family’s long-standing associations with Lichfield date back to 1757. Some Larkin families lived at both No 21 Tamworth Street, beside the Regal Cinema and now the site of the Whippet, and at No 49 Tamworth Street.

There are many Larkin family graves in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield. In 1977, the ashes of Philip Larkin’s mother, Eva, were buried in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, and although the poet is buried at Cottingham, near Hull, both Eva and Sydney are named on tablets among the raised stones in Saint Michael’s. Despite his well known line in ‘This Be The Verse’ about parents – They f**k you up, your mum and dad’ – the poet visited the graves regularly, he witnessed his mother’s ashes buried there in 1977, and he once asked for a plan of the churchyard.

Following the Coventry blitz, Eva and Sydney Larkin moved with their family to No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield, and while he was in Lichfield, Philip Larkin regularly walked into the centre of Lichfield to drink in the George. During that time in Lichfield, Larkin wrote three poems: ‘Christmas 1940,’ which I was reading yesterday, ‘Out in the lane I pause,’ which I read on Monday, and ‘Ghosts,’ which I am reading this morning.

Peter Young suggests that in this poem Larkin may be referring to the ghost story of the White Lady at the Swan on Bird Street. The Swan was once the oldest pub in Lichfield, dating back to 1362, but it closed in the 1980s. Since then, the premises have been converted into apartments, with Ask restaurant on the ground floor, although the sign of the Swan has been retained on the Bird Street façade.

The sign of the Swan can still be seen on Bird Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Larkin wrote this poem in Lichfield on 19 December 1940, and included it in a letter to his school friend from Coventry, James Ballard Sutton (1921-1997), the following day, in which he compares his style in his poem not to WH Auden, the poet to whom Larkin is most indebted, but to Rupert Brooke.

Writing for The Guardian in 2008, Andrew Motion said Larkin is ‘universally admired for the formal elegance of his constructions, the memorable beauty of his phrasing, and the candour of his gaze.’ When he sent this poem to Jim Sutton, Larkin wrote:

‘Have just written the above in about ½ hour – actually a great speed. Lousily technically done, but I wanted to send it to you to show you my real talent – not the truly strong man but the fin de siècle romantic, not the clinically austere but the Peg’s Paper sonneteer, not Auden but Rupert Brooke.’

This poem, like all three poems are reading this week, was never published in Larkin’s own lifetime. It was first published in 1992 in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite (p. 10). It was included in 2005 by AT Tolley in Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenalia (p 136), and more recently it is included by Archie Burnett in Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems (p 171).


They said this corner of the park was haunted,
At tea today, laughing through windows at
The frozen landscape. One of them recounted
The local tale: easy where he sat
With lifted cup, rocked in the servile flow
Of disbelief around, to understand
And bruise. But something touched a few
Like a slim wind with an accusing hand –
Cold as this tree I touch. They knew, as I,
Those living ghosts who cannot leave their dreams,
And in years after and before their death
Return as they can, and with ghost’s pleasure search
Those several happy acres, or those rooms
Where, like unwilling moth, they collided with
The enormous flame that blinded and hurt too much.