15, Number 87, October/November 2012 Martin Edward Burke by Christine MacKinnon
Martin Edward Burke was born on Angel Place, St. John’s, Newfoundland on July 22, 1876.
I’ve often felt that a good writer must be able to conjure, conjure up people and places and bring them to life in the mind of the reader. Today I am going to try be a conjurer.
Martin Burke, I would have to guess, grew up in great poverty. He would often say that his mother arrived from Ireland just in time to drop him in Newfoundland.
From the time he stowed away on a ship bound for Liverpool at the age of fifteen his love of the sea was legendary. He served king, queen and country until his retirement at the end of the second world war.
Because of his association with the sea he was known by one and all as “The Skipper” or “Skippy” to me. Skippy was the handsomest of men, not particularly tall by our standards, just 5’7” with blue eyes and blond hair, a strong jaw line, and a Grecian nose. I can only surmise that he must have looked like an Adonis in his Able Seaman’s uniform. My first memory of Skippy was in fact his eyes. They were bluer than the sky, bluer than the ocean, and according to my mother the bluest eyes that ever were. By the time he came into my life they were rheumy and often watery but there was always that glimmer of what was.
He traveled to Russia, to Melbourne, to Balboa, to Cape Town, to Chile, to Brisbane, to Glasgow and many other parts unknown. To his fellow seamen he was known as “The Mad Irishman”. I can only surmise that this was due to his daredevil ways and his antics with liquor, women and no doubt a girl in every port and any other manner of mischief that he could think of.
Being a man of honour he sent all of his pay cheques home to his mother. So with no money to spend, in the dark of night he and his cohorts would sneak into the best of the London hotels and steal the boots that had been left outside the doors of the rooms for polishing . They fetched a good price on the black market and “no harm done” he used to say. After all what’s a sailor to do when his only pay was one tottie of rum a day aboard ship!
He fought with great valour as a Horseman Scout during the Boer War for her Majesty Queen Victoria, in the trenches during the First World War as a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (one of the famous valorous Blue Putees #2838), a Merchant Marine during peacetime, and as Chief Harbour Pilot for St. John’s during the last years of the Second World War.
Following in the footsteps of his ancestors he was one of the greatest of Irish story tellers. With so much fodder he could make the most mundane story sound like a miraculous event. However his life at war and the years in between serving as a merchant marine were anything but mundane. The greatest skill he picked up from his years at sea was swimming. On many occasions that have been documented he saved innumerable lives. During a sea disaster it is reported that he swam 18 people to shore carrying them on his back . On another of his shipwrecks, the Barquentine Earshall sank in the Newfoundland Harbour of Quidi Vidi. It was Dec 23, 1914. The surviving men made their way in a blinding blizzard over the rocky icy coastline for many miles until they came to the town of The Goulds. Most were near death and had to be carried. Skippy however remained unscathed.
Sitting next to him in a big soft velvet chair many years later looking into his bluer than blue eyes I heard many more stories. He got shot by the Krauts as he insisted on calling them and often let me put my finger in the bullet hole in his shoulder. For this injury and the events that surrounded it he received a hand written letter and medal of valour from King George V. He sang funny songs like Inky Dinky Parley Vous and others from which I’m not ashamed to say I learned my
first “bad” words. He received three other medals of valour but they were never talked about. I can only imagine how horrific they must have been to keep such a great Irish storyteller mum.
On Armistice Day our home became a place of celebration. Until he could no longer walk he was up a 5 a.m. dressed in full regalia, medals polished to within an inch of their life and his cupboard full of rum. After the laying of the wreaths downtown all his comrades would come to our house and tell stories and laugh and make much of his little lassie with the big brown eyes and the black hair.
My father died when I was six. After that Skippy was my port in the storm. He carried me on his back when I was drowning. He used to say, “Lovey, as long as I’m around I’ll never let anything bad happen to you” and it never did. Not until he died on December 11, 1961.
My greatest wish is that I could have known him for all of his life and he mine. Martin Edward Burke was my Grandfather. LEST WE FORGET.