Samuel Beckett may be best remembered for his plays but he also wrote poetry, which is sometimes more autobiographical than his other work. One of his poems was written in memory of a young doctor from Dublin with whom he worked in northwest France after the second World War.
“Mort de A.D.” [Death of A.D.] is a 15-line poem that is an elegy for Arthur Darley. The two men soldiered together at the Irish Red Cross hospital that was set up in the town of Saint-Lô in Normandy after the Allied invasion.
Born in 1908, a couple of years after Beckett, Darley studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin. He was the eldest son of Arthur Warren Darley, a violinist who toured internationally and was a composer and collector of traditional Irish music. Darley junior was also a talented violin player in his own right, as well as a gifted guitarist.
The story of the hospital where they worked has been told before, but it merits a retelling in light of what was achieved by those involved. Much of the town of Saint-Lô was devastated by the Allied bombing campaign that was carried out on the night of the Normandy landings on D-Day and in the battles to take the town in the weeks afterwards.
In one raid alone on the night of June 6th/7th, 1944, 800 people are believed to have been killed and many more thousands wounded. In the final reckoning, Saint-Lô lost over 90 per cent of its buildings.
Darley was one of the small cadre that was sent over from Ireland in August 1945 to establish the hospital. What was once a mud field on the edge of the town, was turned into a fully equipped general hospital catering for the local population’s medical needs. Beckett’s role was to act as interpreter and keep track of the hospital’s inventory and supplies. Together with six ambulances, a lorry, a station wagon, and 174 tons of medical equipment, was sent over from Ireland. When it was inaugurated in April 1946, the 100-bed hospital contained operating theatres, an X-ray room, a pathology laboratory, as well as a maternity ward and a children’s ward. It had capacity to deal with 200 out-patients daily.
The hospital was staffed by a team of around 60 Irish doctors, nurses and support staff. Darley was there to care for patients with tuberculosis. Many of them had contracted the disease when they were held in concentration camps.
In the evenings, he liked to play the violin for the staff in Saint-Lô. In his spare time, one of Darley’s favourite books to read was The Lives of the Saints. Beckett confided in a letter to a friend that Darley was a Catholic convert from a “well known Irish protestant family and was deeply concerned with his religion”.
In his biography of Beckett, Anthony Cronin described Darley as “tall, good-looking, quiet and well-mannered”. Another of Beckett’s biographers described Darley as “tall, slim and handsome, with an aquiline nose”.
Between the time he graduated from Trinity in 1933 and when he went to France, Darley had gained valuable experience in a range of medical settings. After graduation, he studied mental diseases at Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum outside London. He subsequently worked at the asylum at Portrane in north Co Dublin. He also worked among Dublin’s poor for a couple of years as a GP and in the late 1930s, he spent a year as a ship’s doctor on a Canadian Pacific liner.
While working for the Irish Red Cross during the War, he was tasked with keeping a fleet of ambulances on the road.
He was centrally involved in the emergency services’ response to the Luftwaffe bombing of Dublin’s North Strand in June 1941.
Music and culture were important for Darley and his family. Much like his father, who was one of the founders of the Feis Ceoil and the first musical director of the Abbey Theatre, music was a vital part of Darley’s life. His guitar playing was good enough for him to be featured on several recordings made by the popular ballad singer Delia Murphy including “If I were a blackbird”, “The Spinning Wheel” and “Three Lovely Lasses in Bannion”.
At his mother’s at-homes on Sunday evening at their house on Northumberland Road in Ballsbridge, he was introduced to a range of poets and musicians. Patrick Kavanagh, who was only a few years older than Darley, was a frequent visitor and it was Darley who introduced Kavanagh to classical music.
Arthur Darley was only 40 when he died in Dublin at the end of December 1948. He died of tuberculosis and it is believed that he contracted it while working at the hospital in France. Beckett’s poem, written in 1949, mourned the loss of his friend with the “gleaming eye”.