".....somehow I got through the days with always the thought of sunny Singapore...."
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Youth in Dublin
Civilian life in Singapore
Prisoner of War
A New Life
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The SS Genoa carried J.B. Dunne and a host of other “fresh to the East” hopefuls on the first leg of their journey toward adventure.

Onboard friendships were quickly formed and the voyage passed in a happy blur of camaraderie forged by dinners, drinks, deck games, and a collective spirit of anticipation.

They berthed at Bombay, breathing in for the first time the heady air of the East.

After a training period at the Gestetner branch in India my grandfather continued on to Singapore.

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Pulsating with life, the Far Eastern port had an allure that few places could rival. It was rich in a history filled with potentates and pirates, opium, missionaries, secret societies, spirits, settlers – and, of course, trade. click to enlarge image

Sir Stamford Raffles, on behalf of the British East India Company, had established a free port in the tiny settlement in 1819. Traders flocked to the island, eager to by-pass the heavy taxes and restrictions imposed in the Dutch dominated waters of the Malay Archipelago. The population exploded as Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Malays and so many others from far and wide arrived in droves, attracted by the idea of amassing further wealth or, for the humble worker, the possibility to better their lot in life.

My grandfather arrived in Singapore in the early months of 1929 with his goal clear in his mind. He had three and a half years to prove himself, not only to his employers, but also to his fiancée.

Even though Eilish had agreed to wait for him, Joe knew that he must provide a solid base for both of them if they were to have a good start together.

The twenty-one year old stepped purposefully from the ship, ready to move into the next phase of his life.

The Gestetner office was located in Cecil Street, in the heart of the Central Business District. It was staffed by a cross-section of the ethnic groups in the City, introducing the fresh recruit to the various races who co-existed in this new, exciting world. The Singapore office oversaw the sale and distribution of the duplicator machines throughout the Far East, which meant regular trips for young J.B. Dunne to Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. They were exciting times for my grandfather and his energy and enthusiasm were rewarded with promotion to the position of overall Manager.

click to enlarge imageMembership at a few of the clubs that formed a central focus in the lives of the privileged population of the island guaranteed an instant social life.

At the Royal Singapore Yacht Club he participated in as many rowing events as he could, enjoying the company of people who shared his passion for the sport.

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The Swimming Club fast became a favorite place to meet friends while enjoying a brief respite from the heat in the refreshing water of the pool, or while sipping a drink under the shade of the cheerful poolside umbrellas. The exclusive Tanglin Club also became a favorite haunt.

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And then there was the Singapore Volunteer Corps. The civilian defense force was comprised of business men, planters, government people, members of the clergy, teachers, doctors, lawyers and men from all levels of Singapore society.

The military training at weekends and in the evenings allowed them to conduct their work without interruption, and the feeling of camaraderie that prevailed throughout the Volunteer forces was augmented by the fact that so many of the members knew each other well in private life.

With great pride my grandfather jauntily sported the kilt and sporran of the Scottish Company, and in later times the more sober khaki of the Signal Corps would also evoke that same special feeling of ‘belonging’.

Joe & Eilish wrote faithfully to each other during those years of separation. They exchanged photos – Eilish looking pensive and hazy, with ever a thought to her beau in the East, and J.B.D., as she referred to him, looking dashing in his pith helmet with varying exotic backdrops telling the tale of his adventures.
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In 1932, after nearly four years away from his native soil J.B. Dunne returned to Dublin to claim his prize.

He and Eilish were married on October 26th, at the Church of St. Agatha in N. William Street.

Close friends and relatives cheered the young couple as they emerged starry eyed from the church, and a reception at the Gresham Hotel, one of Dublin’s finest, seemed the perfect way to celebrate their hopes for a good life together.

Six weeks later they sailed for Singapore, ready to make real the dream they had shared for so long.

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A honeymoon tour of Singapore and “Upcountry” to Malaya gave Eilish a general impression of her new home.

She was enchanted by scenes of life in the kampongs and enjoyed the drama of the exotic surroundings.

The cool mountain atmosphere of the Cameron Highlands gave relief from the sticky heat that was part of life in the tropics and the thronging streets of Singapore offered countless sights to delight the eye.

Their first home, at 6 Margate Road, was an airy bungalow a stone’s throw from the Singapore Swimming Club in Katong. With a house full of servants and a group of people eager to welcome the new bride to the glamorous world of Singapore society, Eilish slipped with ease into the role of colonial wife.

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Before the year was out they were blessed with the arrival of a baby girl (my aunt Eithne) who became known to all as Unie.

This addition to the family broadened the circle of friends even further, and as the years went by birthday parties, children’s teas, dance lessons and amateur dramatics were added to the hectic merry-go-round of film premieres, dinner dances, regattas, theme parties and an endless string of occasions to see and be seen at.

The birth of my father Dermot in 1938 completed the family picture and as the end of the decade drew near J.B. Dunne was able to observe with satisfaction his family and the dazzling life he was providing for them. The dream had become reality.

But a darker reality threatened from afar. Europe was plunged into war at the end of 1939, and though it seemed very far away to many in Singapore the ripples were felt nonetheless.

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The War Fund became the focus of social activity. Fundraisers, dances, entertainments for the troops, knitting socks and scarves for the soldiers fighting in distant lands, “Buy a Bomber” parties, garden fetes and musical evenings were but a few of the activities dedicated to helping with the War Effort.

By now the Dunnes were living at C Holland Park – a splendid “black & white” which epitomized the height of colonial living. The spacious grounds were ideal for the large-scale charity events that were so fashionable and Eilish reveled in the role of hostess on these occasions.

Little Unie was a member of the Fay Hamilton School of Dancing. The girls were anywhere between 4 and 11 years old and the elaborate productions performed in aid of the War Fund were enthusiastically received by audiences throughout Singapore. During term time, when she was boarding at the Convent School in the Cameron Highlands, Unie kept up her dancing so she would be at her best for the shows she participated in when she was down for the holidays.

It seemed that life would continue on forever in an enchanted cocoon of security. The rumors of Japanese aggression were dismissed as alarmist and unrealistic. It was with shock and disbelief that Singapore was awakened in the wee hours of December 8, 1941 to the sounds of aircraft and bombing within the city.

It was the first of many such attacks and proved, to every one’s horror, that Fortress Singapore was not impregnable.

After two anxious weeks J.B. Dunne secured passage for Eilish and the children on a steamer bound for Sydney. As the ship pulled away from the dockside he waved to his beloved family, swallowing hard at the lump in his throat. The innocent cries of “Goodbye Daddy” and the glistening eyes of his wife would haunt him in the years to come.

He watched until the ship became a mere dot on the horizon, not knowing when, or if, they would ever meet again.


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