A blue duck and little brown shoes

It is a Tuesday afternoon, just after 3 o’clock.  For some reason not at school on that day, the 11 year-old girl is  in the kitchen with her mother who is  preparing dinner for brothers who are about to return home from school. Suddenly there are shrieks from children leaving another school across the road, and looking out the window they see  children covering their faces and running. Her mother runs out  to see what  is going on. Within seconds there is a chilling scream that causes her to run  to the front door too. There she meets her mother coming in, carrying her baby brother, blood pouring from the side of  his little blonde head. Her mother is screaming : ”The baby is dead; the baby is dead; the baby is dead , the baby is dead.” Frozen together in the hallway, she touches the limp body in her mothers arms; she tries to wipe the blood out of his hair and feels it warm and  mixed with gravel, flowing through her fingers. She wipes her hand on her red and white striped dress.

Back in April I read a very poignant post on the wonderful blog site  Seeking Susan ~ Meeting Marie ~ Finding Family.  It was a surprising and pain filled post about the loss of a son from measles.  Here  she wrote about  remembering her baby on his birthday, many years later.  It occurred to me then that perhaps babies are often not remembered in the same way as parents, grandparents etc., other than by bereaved parents.

I wondered about writing this post after that, but then changed my mind several times, thinking it would be too morose.

This morning at 6 am I had just woken up when my sister from Australia texted me: ‘Is Canice’s Anniversary today?’ Again I thought about the blog, and again decided against. Some hours later when I logged in to my PC there was a post from Jean Tubridy, wonderful writer of the  blog  Social Bridge, who wrote here about memory and remembering those we have lost. Quoting Melvyn Bragg remembering his late mother she wrote:My mother is secure, in the future, in my memory. And she’ll be secure in my children’s memories. And  although she might fade in their memories. I’ll be secure in their memories and I’ll carry that memory and it will pass on like that. So there  is that sort of future, which is interesting to think about.”

It was after reading this that I decided that I ought to go ahead with the post. Too many signs – and who would remember a baby that they never knew, who had not had his own children to remember him, who had never known his nieces and nephews, whose footprint in life was so miniscule that only his immediate family, the closest of  those to him, can possibly remember.

I was  the 11-year-old whose baby brother, Canice John Gallagher, the youngest of 6 in our family, died on June 30 1959 at the age of 15 months.   Born on 31st March 1958, he was  a happy little baby, but had been teething in the past few weeks,which made him grumble a little. He had a little blue rubber duck that he loved when in his bath. He had just had a new pair of trousers – beautiful little striped red and yellow and green shorts and had little brown leather shoes, with the toes well-worn from creeping along!  Not yet able to walk, Canice had  apparently crawled out onto the road and under a lorry that was parked in front of our house.  When it moved off he was killed instantly.


The house we lived in, in 1959. The front door has been replaced by a window – the second from the left on white part.

The next 24 hours are almost a  total blur, but  I crept into the sitting room when there was no one around to look at him in the little white coffin, resting on top of  the Singer sewing machine. The funeral took place the following day and every week afterwards, usually on a Thursday, my mother prepared bunches of flowers for his grave  and  I cycled to the graveyard with them.  I protested regularly, to no avail. Sometimes I would have to go looking for the flowers on my bike –  there were a few deserted  and abandoned old cottages that had beautiful roses, and I would pick these and she would tie them into a bunch and I would put them on his grave.  This pattern continued for over 2 years until I went  to boarding school.

Years later, after my mother died, we were replacing the headstone on the grave and I decided to look for death certificates. I was shocked to be told that there was no death certificate for Canice as his death had never been registered!


Our family plot is in this graveyard

So today, 54 years after the event, he is remembered with love, and with as much grief as on the day that we lost him.   His  little blue duck and his little brown leather shoes are in my drawer.


Photograph taken just days before Canice died. I am wearing the red striped dress that my mother had just made for me. Canice is just behind me, being held by my brother.

Fortunately, we had a very rare family photograph taken just days before he died, so we have his picture, his duck  his shoes, and  above all his memory,  to treasure.

Today too we remember the kind and gentle man who was the driver of the lorry –  he was totally blameless and unaware of what had happened, but his life, like ours, changed forever on  30 June 1959.


Filed under Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, My Oral History, Social History Ireland

42 responses to “A blue duck and little brown shoes

  1. Such tragedy at a young age is so different than losing and old person. It is a scar than may heal but will always be visible to those who know where to find it.
    Your memories of the blue duck and the shoes make a poignant portrait.
    My sister died suddenly 2 years ago in her sleep leaving behing 3 young daughters and a husband. Our family will always have that missing piece but we all talk of her often.
    She was my older sister but I realized after she died that one day I’ll be older than her. Makes you think that, strangely enough, your ‘baby brother’ is 54 doesn’t it?
    Someone once said something kind of funny but true to me…
    “it’s not that life is short, but that death is really long.”
    My thoughts are with you and your family.

    • Thank you Kerry. It is very tragic for your little nieces to have lost your sister, and of course you will always remember her. It is so good that you can and do talk about her. I love the quirky death is really too long…so it is!
      I wish you and all yoru family the very best and thank you for dropping by. Angela

  2. I was reminded reading this of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Mid-Term Break’. The death of a baby or child, whose life was just beginning, must be the most terrible tragedy for the parents and siblings. It’s good that you have remembered Canice in this way.

    • Hi Mairead. Such a sad poem from Seamus Heaney! I think it is surely the worst nightmare for a parent to lose a child in any circumstances, and awful for siblings too. I am glad that I have put his name in print! Thank you so much for visiting.

  3. A very poignant story and so lovingly told. I’m so sorry that you had to experience such grief at such a young age. You have ensured that Canice’s name will be remembered. It is lovely that you also remember the poor truck driver, how devastated he must have been as well. May your little brother rest in peace knowing he went well loved.
    His little blue duck and brown shoes are in good hands.

  4. What a huge sadness for your parents and for you all to bear. The photograph is wonderful, for it`s clarity, for the sense it gives of the time you grew up in but especially as a reminder of your poor brother. It is impossible to look at it, knowing the facts, and not be moved.

  5. Oh SV, I sit here at the other side of the country thinking about this most loving and poignant post. No, not ‘morose’ but one which highlights the power of memory and more than anything the private bonds that exist within families and between siblings.

    • Thank you! I think it is in A Grief Observed by C.S Lewis that he mentions the painful emptiness in the back of the throat. That’s the kind of effect that recalling this has, and it never has diminished in over 5 decades. Fortunately it is perhaps three or four times a year at most. But I am pleased that I was prompted to go ahead an post it. My mother lived in Kilkenny, hence the name. Thank you again for visiting

      • C.S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’ has to be one of the most amazing books there is ~ so slim yet so insightful.
        I always think the concept of ‘time healing’ isn’t quite as straightforward as many suggest.
        I did wonder about the name and possible associations with Kilkenny ~ the place where my parents met!

  6. Reblogged this on Social Bridge and commented:
    This post from A Silver Voice is arguably the most poignant and loving that I have ever read. There are lessons in it for us all.

  7. Angela thank you for sharing this. It is so true to honour your baby brother who spent but a short while on the same mortal coil we are on. Memory is for remembering; I remember my grandmother who died at the age of 33 and my uncle Oliver who died at the age of 19 and long before I was born all because my mother remembers them and shares stories of them. Especially at anniversaries.

    • Thank you so much Anne..I have had similar experiences with my father’s relations who died long before I was born and feel as though I knew them well. We never ever spoke about my brother – in those days there was no psychologist or counselling and I guess the wound was too raw to open. He was mentioned occasionally from about 20 years later – never mentioned but never far from thoughts Thank you so much for visiting ! Must take a good look at your fascinating blog!

  8. Oh just look at him… what a beautiful photo Angela. Just like my Jarren Vaughan Habel, your Canice John Gallagher is another “angel child” come to earth to bring us all a message if only we have the ears to hear.
    Some time ago I wrote a blog post about the deaths of my Great Grandmother’s first two children. My grandmother was her next baby who obviously passed the story of her two unknown little brothers onto my mum… who passed it onto me. Forever imprinted on my mind, my heart, my soul is the picture of my Great Grandmother, a young woman, running to the graveside to put his new baby blanket over William’s grave to protect him from the rain.
    Hopefully that “painful emptiness at the back of the throat” will ease now that you’ve introduced us to your precious baby brother Angela… along with the sadness of his passing. Sending much xxx and healing energy your way and thankyou.

    • Thank you so much – It was your post that put me thinking! The sadness stays near the surface doesn’t it ,and years do not lessen it one bit! But this is what makes us who we are !

  9. Wonderful and loving post SV, thanks so much.

  10. What a beautifully written and loving tribute to your brother. It is so hard when tragedy strikes one so young. I also appreciated the empathy that you showed for the lorry driver whose life was also changed.

  11. A beautifully written and moving memorial that was a privilege to read. My husband died recently after a short, savage illness. I wrote for his funeral that I was mad he only had 62 years and I was glad he had 62 years and I feel that even more now having read of your brother’s death. Thank you too for Melvyn Bragg’s words – my husband would have cherished them.

    • Bridget – Thank you so much for your kind comments. I am sorry that you have lost your husband – he was 6 years older than my husband who died at 66. Both my husband and brother had very sudden deaths -blessings to know there was no suffering. Although a shock for those left behind, it is a kinder exit than savage illness. I hope you are doing well I enjoy reading your posts !

  12. Whoaaaa … Powerful. Your story is powerful. This post leaves something swirling in my soul, after I read it. Thank you for deciding to write this post.
    I was working on my daughter’s treehouse, and for some reason I was curious about the Silver Voice from Ireland. I wanted to ask you what the weather was like in Ireland today … Take care, and keep writing … Keep living …

  13. Lois Farley Shuford

    What heartbreak. Thank you for sharing this difficult memory with us – it honors his short life. You have my prayers.

  14. Su Leslie

    A beautiful, poignant tribute and memorial to your brother. Thank you.

  15. My mother lost both of her brother’s in childhood. Mershell was 6 and Howard was 3. I only knew them through her memories until I found some writings of my grandmother’s about what the deaths meant to her. I have always felt like you said – that they left no children to remember them so it is up to us to hold them in our memory and pass it on.

    • Kristin. I am pleased that you found some writing about these boys – a parents worst nightmare to have to bury children! It must have been therapeutic for her to write it down – and what a treasure for you to have such intimate and raw feelings on paper. Thank you for sharing that poignant story and thank you for visiting.

  16. I have tears in my eyes as I also remember two small babies that never made it home from hospital and the disappointment and grief we all carried in our own way to survive and go on without them. My two little sisters would probably have completed our family and I’m sorry to say we have never fully honoured their memories……My heart goes out to you and I am inspired by your courage in sharing this story….maybe I can also reclaim my story a little…..

    • I think there are deep sorrows in almost every family. It was not part of our ‘culture’ to cherish lost babies – my brother at 15 months went straight to the graveyard as they did not ‘do’ church services for babies – the utter cruelty of it all! The memory of your two little sisters is ,I am sure absolutely safe in your heart. Thank you for your much appreciated heartfelt comment.

  17. Lyn Nunn

    Lovely tribute Angela and one that will make sure he is remembered. I have a poem written by my great great Grandmother on the loss of her baby brother c 1832. If she hadn’t written that poem I would never of known of his existence. Unfortunately I don’t know his name (yet) but she said this about him in the prologue “The following lines were composed on the death of an infant brother – he was a child remarkable for infantile (sic) intelligence and extreme beauty – the deep lustre of his clear blue eyes beautiful curls of his sunny hair waving over his lovely forehead always brought to my mind the forms of those bright thousands who sing the holy song before the eternal throne in the blest place where I hope once more to meet him. A few days after leaving Ireland his spirit took its flight and his body was committed to the deep waves of the Atlantic there to repose till the mighty voice that shakes Heaven and Earth shall say: Give up thy dead thou Sea.”

    • Lyn. I was truly moved by the beautiful description of the little boy with his head of curls and gorgeous eyes. I cannot imagine the horror of seeing such a beautiful child committed to the deep ( I have an upcoming post with this very scenario). One of my most disturbing memories is of having to make that weekly Thursday pilgrimage to Canice’s grave with fresh flowers. I watched as week after week the heavy slab of concrete atop the mound of earth got lower and lower and my poor 11 year old head tried to make sense of what was happening under the earth.
      I am struck by the great faith expressed by your great great grandmother – and I wonder what age was she when she wrote of the loss of her little brother. I would love to read the poem sometime if you feel it can be shared. Thanks for your comment – much appreciated. A

  18. Lyn Nunn

    Angela, My Great Great Grandmother would have been about 14 years old at the time. Here is her poem which, out of the many she wrote, I think is her best –

    He came in beauty like the breath
    Of perfume on a flower
    He came in beauty like the sound
    Of music through a bower

    He came among us like a beam
    Of radiance from above
    He came among us like a dream
    Of pure and holy love

    His life was like a drop of dew
    Upon the rose’s leaf
    His life was like the rainbow’s hue
    As lovely and as brief

    He faded as the brightness fades
    Upon the ice plants wreath
    He faded as a flower fades
    Beneath the chill wind’s breath

    He sleeps beneath the ocean’s wave
    Where the pearl lies deep and clear
    The wild sea pours its melody
    Upon his sleeping ear

    He sleeps in a lovely coral bower
    Where gems and gold are bright
    And where the weeping pale sea flower
    Gleams in the ruby’s light

    He’ll rise again in glory bright
    From his still and lonely bed
    He’ll rise in that awful morning’s light
    When the sea gives up its dead

    He’ll stand amid the holy throng
    In their home of peace and rest
    He’ll join the loud triumphant song
    With the spirits of the blest

    Emily Elizabeth Shaw

    • What a beautifully tender poem and a wonderful tribute to a little brother! Emily was a gifted poet. I love the contrast between the terrible tragedy and the images she creates. Thank you so very much for posting it here. Angela

  19. Pingback: Remembering our mother on the centenary of her birth | A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND

  20. RIP to a special young soul – I came to this post as I read your beautiful tribute to your mum on what would have been her 100th birthday. This must have been so hard for you to write but a wonderful acknowledgement of your little brother’s life.

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