by Michael Patrick O'Leary


My father had no sense of smell.

On Sundays, he could not smell the incense at mass, the flowers on the altar or, wafting in from the presbytery, the fragrance of frying bacon and Clonakilty pudding. At the Irish club after mass, the burnt, hoppy tang of his black creamy stout was lost on him and he would not notice the stale tobacco fumes rising from the damp blue Sunday suits of his cronies crushed around the bar.

Back home, my belly rumbled as I listened to Two-Way Family Favourites on the radio and smelt lamb and roast potatoes cooking in the gas oven, my nose twitching at the sharp, sweet mint sauce waiting on the table. We ate with the Billy Cotton Band Show as background. By the time Round the Horne came on the radio, the aroma of lunch had faded to a cold animal fat odour.

My father was missing all these smells.

Anosmia is the name given to the medical condition where the sense of smell is lost. Medical evidence suggests that anosmia is usually caused by some neuropathic disorder following head injury. Ten per cent of major head injuries cause stretching or shearing of the olfactory nerves at the cribiform plate. Less serious head injuries, such as severe blows to the head or concussion, can cause damage to the olfactory nerve, which contains small receptors, or damage to the olfactory bulbs. Anosmia can be caused by surgery gone wrong. Some people suffer temporary anosmia after inhaling chemicals. Sometimes it originates with a virus and becomes chronic with severe allergies. Sometimes the cause is nasal polyps associated with allergic rhinitis.

Psychological or psychiatric conditions, for example, depression, can affect smell perception, but this would generally be a temporary loss.

In 2004, Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck won The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries on the subject of “odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system”. They discovered a family of 1,000 different genes (three per cent of our genes) that give rise to 1,000 receptor types. From micro domains in the olfactory bulb, information is sent to other parts of the brain where it forms a pattern. When we consciously catch a fragrance, it can trigger a memory of similar smells and the experiences associated with them.

As well as triggering memories, the sense of smell has served us well as a warning of danger, for example the smell of gas or smoke, suggesting that we need to take action to prevent harm by fire.

Anosmia is a disability.

Some thirty years after my father’s death, I turned on the television in my Irish cottage and pottered around in the kitchen preparing a meal. Garlic sizzled in olive oil. Chopped onions made my eyes water and fresh chillies drove little spikes into my nasal passages. Adding to the pan, I released fragrances of basil, mushrooms, olives and balsamic vinegar. A South African Pinotage had been warming and softening in front of the smoking peat fire. I pulled out the cork with the corkscrew my grandfather brought back from France after the First World War and smelt the rounded fumes of blackcurrant and tannin rising from the wine.

I noticed that the television was showing a re-run of the World at War. This episode was on the D-Day landings. Soldiers were wading through a mire of wrenched limbs and blood. Those grey ghosts on the Normandy shore brought my father back to life in his frail humanity.

He had never talked much about the war but he had told me that the last thing he remembered smelling was rotting corpses in Normandy.

He made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. The job of the Pioneers was to tidy up the war.

Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these “hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men” was spectacularly increased “when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.”  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.

Nevertheless, one must challenge the view that the Pioneer Corps was merely a dumping ground for mentally-challenged labourers. My father had little formal education but was witty, astute and well-read. Among the ranks of the Pioneer Corps were the artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, the dramatist Christopher Fry, the writer Alfred Perles, Professor Jack Cowan, founder of the Architectural Review, Hans Coper, the sculptor and potter and the Olympic athlete Sidney Wooderson.

The Corps handled all kinds and types of stores and ammunition, built camps, airfields and fortifications, cleared rubble and demolished roadblocks, built roads, railways and bridges, loaded and unloaded ships, trains and planes, constructed aircraft pens against enemy bombing and a host of other jobs.

On D-day, 6 June 1944, 13 Pioneer companies landed with the first allied wave and a further ten companies with the second, making about 6,700 men ashore by the end of the day. The first Pioneer party landed 20 minutes after Operation Overlord had started. The Pioneers who arrived with the assault troops landed ‘wetshod’, which meant a long wade ashore in full equipment. Some had to swim ashore from grounded craft. This would have been traumatic for my father. Although my father had been born and brought up by the sea, he never learnt to swim.

Some provided burial parties, for which they were given special clothing, equipment and transport. This was when my father’s sense of smell left him. The men bivouacked in fields, in unusually bad weather, working extremely long hours with little rest. Owing to the extensive minefields, conditions were dangerous and there were casualties. Over 2,000 British personnel, serving with the Corps, and nearly 6,000 of other nationalities lost their lives.

My father was a patriotic Irishman, born in Cobh (then called Queenstown in memory of Queen Victoria’s visit) County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising. He instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.

Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent man to leave school at age twelve and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. Johnny Rotten (Irishman John Lydon) called his autobiography No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish. The England my father found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to a young Irishman brought up as a devout Catholic. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.


Before the war, he mixed sand and cement and dug foundations. At the age of 28, he was laying into pits the rotting remains of other young men. Did breathing in the fetor of putrefaction cause his sense of smell to shut down?

After the war, he got another shovel, this time from the South Western Gas Board. Did the gas board employ a man who could not smell as some kind of perverse joke? When I was a very small child, he took me to the gasworks and I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell. Huge roaring furnaces dwarfed the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.

There were men of all nations – Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.

After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. The home the local council offered my parents was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In 1946, the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused the Nissen hut. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! We continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that my father had helped to build before the war.

In that house I was born.


The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. However, dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the Macmillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence.  We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the suffering of previous generations paid for the fruits we were enjoying.

My father could be combative and astringent. I recall cringing as I sat with him in a restaurant and he leaned over to another customer and whispered, “You don’t mind me eating while you’re smoking, do you?’”He never really accepted the cultural changes of the 60s. Together with my friend’s Italian father Attilio (interned as an undesirable alien during the war) he condemned Bob Dylan as a “gypsy” and the Rolling Stones as “Neanderthals”. His musical tastes stuck with the Clancy Brothers and Brendan O’Dowda. He was not lacking in culture. He read a lot and his workmates called him “The Professor” because he borrowed translations of foreign authors from the library and did not read westerns like them.

He contributed to my cultural development by taking me to see films like The Caine Mutiny and The Man from Laramie. My Auntie Evelyn’s contribution was to take me to musicals – Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, Brigadoon.

I also recall the smells of Gloucester City football ground. My father knew some of the players and took me into the dressing room, which reeked of embrocation. Watching the game there were smells of wet turf, Woodbine cigarettes, Smiths potato crisps and Niblets, American Cream Soda.

My father was wary of the traps of the affluent society and still remembered the poverty of the Ireland of his childhood. He never owned a car or his own house because that would mean borrowing money, which he felt was not quite respectable. We had a holiday in Ireland every other year but only if he had saved up enough cash to pay for it. We got a television much later than everyone else and never had a phone. He did get a gas fridge quite early on, cash purchase, but that was down to his loyalty to the gas industry, loyalty that verged on chauvinism. He once told me with a straight face that the boffins at the gas board had invented a gas-powered TV.

He died of cancer at the age of 56. He had no debts, but only six hundred pounds in the bank. There was insurance to pay for the funeral. He lived, I now realize, with an unrelenting tinnitus of anxiety until his death. He was never unemployed but feared the abyss beyond the fragile security for which he had struggled.

I was angry with God for taking him so young but were other forces to blame? It was not God but men who unleashed the evil of war; did that evil unleash the rogue cancer cells that destroyed him? Despite his humour he was ever a chronic worrier; did his anxiety start among those slain warriors on the Normandy beach? Was his sense of security taken away at the same time as his sense of smell?

In the hospital, I shaved his shrunken neck and blew the hairs from his withered back. The malignant cells had shrunk his sturdy body, subverted his will, snuffed out his flame. I could have asked him about his life and talked about last things but we talked instead about football – the England team had just feebly surrendered to  Germany. In a few days in 1944, Germany lost 60,000 men.

Did Caen teach my father the flimsiness of the flesh, how fine the mesh that binds muscle to bone, how temporary the breath? Maybe I was wrong to blame God for the evil of men, but the inexorable force of the evil visited then on little men who had no voice or power to halt it was more and less than human. He was not complicit in the malignant forces of ideologies and systems of terror that crushed common people and swept them away. The great tides of history, of isms and empires, buffet little people, hurt them, maim them, kill them, uproot them and inflict damage that lasts for years or generations.

All over the globe vicious wars, fragmenting nations and dying empires still today produce a flotsam of refugees. A Sri Lankan Tamil in Carshalton goes mad and stabs her babies to death. Kosovars tend the garden of my Sinhalese father-in-law in Thornton Heath.

Globalisation drowns a gang of Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay. People swindled by traffickers suffocate in lorries. There are Polish shops in Cobh now, and Polish homeless in Dublin, Polish suicides. There are Estonian lap-dancers in Cork City.

Host economies need migrant workers. Ireland enjoyed an economic boom but had a small population. Foreign investment was attracted because that population was well-educated and literate but that native population was too well-educated to do the dirty jobs. It needed migrants, a pioneer corps, if you will, to do the spadework of a booming economy while it enjoyed the benefits.

This did not stop the natives of Ireland feeling resentment at the influx of Africans and Eastern Europeans. Migrant workers, wanting to better themselves while benefiting the Irish economy, expected the Bailey’s Cream of human kindness but often met hostility instead. The land of saints and scholars and Bridie Gallagher, Hibernia, winterland of warm hearts and hearths, might have given rich tourists a commodified welcome within a controlled cordon sanitaire, protected by the full force-field of cead mile failte,  a pornography of Padditry and Blarneyfication. If you’re Irish, come into the parlour, there’s a welcome there for you. If your name is Timothy or Pat, as long as you’re not a migrant worker, there’s a welcome on the mat.

Many of the contemporary diaspora experienced the same kind of racial hostility in Ireland that members of the Irish diaspora, like my father, did in earlier times in England. A Brazilian farm worker was found dead in a bog in County Kerry. In Dublin a man was charged with murdering a Romanian beggar.

My father still comes to me in dreams, so vivid and intense that it seems he will be there to talk to me tomorrow. I went to live in the land of his birth. Walking back from the village to home I could find my way blind. There was a scent of watercress at the turning off into the boreen from the Fermoy road, stirred up by the Owenacurra River gushing clean over the rocks behind the yellow furze.

Blackberries’ fragrance guided me along to Mrs Fitz’s house where the odour of damp dog preceded the licks and barks of Suzy, Sam and Scottie. The haw had a hint of anise. I knew I had reached home when I smelt chives, lovage and coriander from my herb patch and the earthy exhalations of freshly turned loam.

I regret that my father could not enjoy my Irish home or get to know my wife and the life, for what it is worth, that I have achieved. His sister remarked how much like him I had become, growing into his looks, walking his walk, retelling his jokes.

Now I am older than my own father.