When I attended school in the 50s and 60s, there was little mention of the Great War. Our school history books suddenly halted at about 1914, having given a vague explanation of the background to the war. This was followed by a brief paragraph about the Irish 1916 Rising against British rule. No detail was given of the War Of Independence or the Civil War. History teachers were not trusted to have the required level of impartiality in order to deal with these subjects
At first, there was no mention that Irishmen had fought in World War One. Later on, one became aware that some Irishmen had enlisted but there was the vague impression that these were most likely to have been members of Protestant Ascendancy families or the sons of members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. It also seemed reasonable to assume that the soldiers came from the cities and the more prosperous towns where the loyalist leanings of some of the business class were later evidenced by the existence of rugby, cricket and tennis clubs. While researching my family history book Not From The Wind, I discovered that I had three great uncles who saw service during the Great War. Two from Galway who had fishing backgrounds, served in the Naval service and another emigrant enlisted in the Australian Army. However, it seemed very unlikely to me that Claremorris, my hometown, made much of a contribution towards the war effort.
One of the outcomes of the Northern Ireland peace process was a belated acknowledgement of the participation and sacrifice of Irishman of all creeds and political allegiances in the Great War. Of course, these man had always been honoured by the unionist population in Northern Ireland where one will see commemorative monuments in many towns and villages. But the soldiers who were lucky enough to return home to their families in the south of Ireland found themselves on the wrong side of history. At first there were efforts to commemorate the fallen as exemplified by the attendance of an estimated fifty thousand people at an Armistice Day commemoration on College Green, Dublin in 1924. But such remembrance and the wearing of the poppy made many people uncomfortable in the new Ireland. The returning ex-servicemen were regarded with a mixture of unease, hostility and contempt in a country which was now disengaging from British rule. Medals and uniforms were hidden away and the sacrifice of the men and their fallen comrades was erased from the folk memory of the people.
In more recent years, the belated acknowledgement of the Irish involvement in World War One has resulted in the release of much information about the estimated 350,000 Irishmen who participated in the conflict and, more poignantly, the almost 50,000 men who died. A searchable list of the dead was recently made available online. As I did not know anybody who died in the Great War, I entered the name of my hometown, Claremorris, in the search engine.
Claremorris resembles hundreds of small towns in the west of Ireland. The population is now close to 4000 but the town has grown significantly in more recent times. In 1945, the population of the parish of Kilcoleman, which incorporates the town, was 1170. When I entered “Claremorris” in the search engine, I expected to find five or six names but I was taken aback to discover a list of twenty men and boys from Claremorris who died in the War. I began to investigate further since then and have now amassed a staggering total of forty-five names of fallen soldiers who, when they enlisted or were conscripted, gave a Claremorris address. The list is probably incomplete.
Many of these men or boys would have taken the train from Claremorris and travelled to enlist. Others may have already emigrated to England where they enlisted or were conscripted. All identified Claremorris as their permanent address.
Forty-five men. Forty-five forgotten stories. Forty-five deaths of sons, brothers, husbands, fathers and boyfriends with names which will be familiar to any of us natives of Claremorris. Names such as Cunnane, Finn, Griffin, Keane, Morley, Walsh, Reilly, Roughneen, Burke, Healy, Kelly, Connaughton. Forty-five stories which could be fleshed out by accessing their War Records and cross-referencing with Census returns, Civil Records and other databases. What an potentially interesting and educational project for a group of transition year students in Claremorris!
I compared the names of the dead to a list of wills of Irish World War One soldiers which can be viewed on the National Archive website. As if from the shadows, stories about the fallen begin to emerge….
About John McKale who died on 14th September 1914 after willing the money in his Post Office savings account to Bridget Varley of Ballymagibbon, Cong….his girlfriend or fiance?…..
Or Patrick Roughneen who left all his possessions to his wife Mary, who was living in Bradford in England…..
Or Michael Griffin, whose beneficiary was his wife Kate back home in Claremorris….
Or John Weldon who named his father, Patrick in Hollymount, as his beneficiary.
There are a few names which do not resonate to me as Mayo surnames but these have their Claremorris connections too and their own stories……
Names such as that of John Escott, who was raised by his grandparents, the Dunnes, owners of a grocery shop and boarding house at Mount Street, Claremorris. John was just eighteen when he died in 1918……
And what of the exotically named Alexis Denis Bonax St. Ruth? Hardly the kind of name you associate with Claremorris. Probably a member of the Protestant Ascendancy, I thought, or from British Army or RIC stock. But a more complex picture emerges from documents which were attached to his will. His real name was Dennis Mullaney of Claremorris. He joined the British Army and was posted to India with the Royal Irish Fusileers. While in Bombay, he deserted his post and “acquired” the identity of a comrade. After trying unsuccessfully to get home, Dennis seems to have rejoined his regiment by travelling in Derry and he found himself in France in February 1915 from where he wrote a poignant letter to his sister Annie Mullaney who lived in London. His letter describes the shell fire and “fine old places almost levelled to the ground”. He asks his sister to try to locate his girlfriend, “Birdie” d’Arcy whom he hasn’t heard from for three years. He made his sister his beneficiary and asked her to watch the papers for the name St. Ruth among the dead. Two months later, in April 1915, the name appeared. His sister made contact with the military and enclosed Dennis’s last letter to her as evidence. Appended to the letter is a confirmation from his superior officer in Bonbay about the desertion and name change.
There are forty other Claremorris stories, hidden in the mist of our nation’s collective amnesia as a result of our former unwillingness to engage with our complex, disfunctional relationship with Britain. On my bookshelf are two slim booklets about Claremorris. One is a parish history and the other a more general history of Claremorris during the twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention in either work of the loss of forty-five men. Yet there can hardly have been a person in the townland who did not personally know one of the dead or at least was acquainted with a bereaved family. Nevertheless, in a generation, all folk memory of their sacrifice was lost.
But this judgement too is unfair. In more recent times, efforts have been made to redress the injustice. At a national level, a war memorial to all the Irishmen who perished in WW1 was erected at Messines in Belgium and was officially inaugurated in 1998 by President McAleese, Queen Elizabeth and King Albert of Belgium. In Mayo also, there were developments. Michael Feeney, who lost his grandfather in the war, urged that the creation of a monument to the Great War dead should be adopted as a millennium project. The proposal was rejected but Michael persisted with his efforts and mobilised local support for the project. The result was the official opening in 2008 of the Mayo Memorial Peace Park at Castlebar. The central monument features the names of 1,100 Mayo men who perished during the Great War and further monuments have been added to commemorate the Mayo men and women who died while serving in other wars and conflicts around the world and at home. Since 2008, a ceremony has been held in the Peace Park each Armistice Day and poppy wreaths have been laid at the Great War memorial. As a nation, we are coming to terms with our former neglect. What a shame that the comrades of the fallen, did not live to see this.
Claremorris does not yet have a memorial or plaque to commemorate the local Great War dead. The names which I have identified to date are
Michael Burke – John J. Burns – Thomas Carey – Patrick Connaughton – Patrick J. Connors – John Cunnane – Martin Davin – Michael Dooley – Thomas Doyle – T.A. Duggan – John Escott – Martin Finn – Thomas Finn – Martin Garvey – Willian Glynn – John Griffin – James Griffin – Michael Griffin – Martin Healey – J. Henderson – Patrick Hogan – A. J. Jennings – Patrick Jennings – Daniel Johnson – Eugene Judge – John Keane – Peter Kelly – John Lavin – Hugh Maguire – John Malone – James Mannion – Patrick Mannix – Patrick McHugh – John McKale – Michael Mitchell – James Mooney – Martin Mooney – Thomas Morley – John Muldoon – Denis Mullaney (alias Alexis Denis Bonax St. Ruth) – Patrick Mullaney – P. Nally – M. O’Brien – Michael Needham – A. Redfern – Thomas Reilly – Patrick Roche – Patrick Roughneen – James Salmon – Patrick Stephens – W. H. Ventriss – James Walsh – James Walsh – Michael Walsh – Michael Walsh – John Weldon
“It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
Is greater than a poet’s art.
And greater than a poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name.”
Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917).
Addendum – January 2015.
Some of the more numerate readers may have noticed that there are fifty-six names listed above. This is due to the fact that, since compiling the original list and writing the blog, I have been contacted by some kind people who have given me additional information about other names of Claremorris casualties in the Great War. This has resulted in further research by me in order to verify the names from official sources. As further research is carried out on Irish men who had emigrated and joined armies in their adopted countries, I’m sure that more Claremorris names will emerge.
I have added the new names to the above roll of honour.