There’s a cant used on one side of my family: “pig dead, soldier on”. When someone asks for a favour that cannot be granted, requiring the person seeking the favour to continue whatever he or she was doing, those four words are invoked. For example, Sheila, who has a forty minute walk home from work, phones her partner when it begins to rain along the route, asking for a lift. “Pig dead, soldier on,” he replies. “I’m on my way to Shannon for a business meeting.” Or Gavin, tired of bending down and pulling dandelions, asks his brother to take over weeding the lawn. “Pig dead, soldier on,” is the reply he receives. “I’ve got to go to football training.”
The story went that a few generations back one of our great uncles in the thick of World War One, fed up with life in the trenches, wrote a pleading letter home asking to be bought out of his post. “Sell the pig,” he wrote, “and use that money to buy me out.” The reply he got, in the form of a telegram, was terse to the point of cruelty: pig dead, soldier on. I had always believed that the expression was unique to our family until I typed it into Google, and numerous references to it appeared. It seems as if a meme or urban legend from George V’s time has become woven into our family’s folklore!
Regardless of its origins, the expression reveals a number of truths about life in early twentieth-century Ireland. The economic situation was so bleak during this period, with poverty and unemployment rampant, that a young man had only two options available to him — emigrate or join the British Army. It is a sad fact that the British Empire was built on the sweat and blood of impoverished young men who had little choice but to take the king’s shilling, coming as it did with free uniform and boots, promises of three square meals a day and a pension. From the Crimean to the Boer Wars, the British Army could barely meet the demand for manpower placed upon it by such conflicts, as well as the by the running of an empire upon which the sun never set.
In the midst of the crushing poverty present in Ireland during the reign of George V (the slums in Dublin, the worst in Europe at the time, were said to equal in squalor those of Calcutta, while millions of rural peasants were, just as in the 1840s, one poor harvest away from famine) the pig held a very high rank. Every family, town and country dwellers alike, kept at least one, and it was our porcine friend who very often saved its owners from destitution. The pig was the family’s savings account, insurance policy and emergency fund — a piggy bank, if you like. At end of spring, a piglet would be purchased at market, and over the months fattened, fed on kitchen waste and thinnings from the land. In those days not a cabbage leaf nor potato skin was wasted. If the rearing of the animal went well and Porky put on weight and prospered, it would be sold at market, and that windfall would oftentimes be the salvation of a large Irish Catholic family. The Irish family pig was regularly mocked by Ireland’s colonial masters; the image of the pig in the parlour was deployed in the British press to present the Irish as beggared, uncouth and not quite fully human.
Finally, those four words, reveal much about the relationship between the sender of the telegram and the fearful son on the front. One gets the impression that perhaps the pig might not be dead, but that the family is simply not willing to sacrifice Mucky for the pleading soldier. There’s something of the “you’ve made your bed now lie in it” in “pig dead, soldier on”. Perhaps the soldier in question had left to join one of the British Army’s Irish regiments (e.g. the Royal Munster Fusiliers or the Connaught Rangers) against his parents’ wishes. Perhaps the household was nationalist or Sinn Féin, and the contribution of one of its members to British imperialism was anathema to it. Or perhaps the soldier had never been quite the dutiful son and the refusal to buy him out was payback for a misspent youth. We shall never know. One hopes that if our trooper did soldier on that he eventually made it back to his family and that “pig dead, soldier on” became a family in-joke, a source of mirth to be dusted down at Christmas dinners and christenings — and that there were no hard feelings.