Jack Moyney - the Irish first World War hero who joined up “for the heck of it”

Michael Parsons on one of a select few Irishmen in the first World War to win the Victoria Cross

King George V, with Queen Mary: presented Jack Moyney with his Victoria Cross. Photograph: Getty Images

King George V, with Queen Mary: presented Jack Moyney with his Victoria Cross. Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Mar 25, 2014, 01:00

Never has an Irishman needed a drink so badly. Nor ever so thoroughly earned it.

The tin mug of black coffee, laced with rum, was later described by Jack Moyney, a 22-year-old from Co Laois, as “the best relief”. The time and place? Dawn, September 13th, 1917, at Broenbeek, Belgium.

Moyney, a lance-sergeant with the Irish Guards on the Western Front, had just endured 96 hellish hours in a frontline outpost without food, water or sleep – not to mention intense shelling and machine- gun fire from German troops. He somehow survived and was met by allied French troops, whose commander offered him the original “energy drink”.

A few weeks later, on Thursday, October 18th, 1917, The Irish Times reported: “His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross [VC] to, among others, L /Sergt J Moyney Ir Gds (Rathdowney, Queen’s Co).”

He was one of a select few Irishmen in the first World War to win the most coveted and prestigious honour – Britain’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. The citation praised his “most conspicuous bravery” and noted his heroic “endurance, skill and devotion to duty”, which ensured that “he was able to bring his entire force safely out of action”.

Born John Moyney – but known as Jack – in the village of Rathdowney, Co Laois, he was working as an agricultural labourer when the war started in August 1914. Like many young men, he saw the recruitment posters and, the following January, enlisted “for the heck of it” and “to see a little bit of life”.

But this is a war story with a happy ending. Jack Moyney – unlike many winners of the Victoria Cross – survived. In March 1918, he was given leave from the trenches to travel to London, where he was presented with his VC medal by King George V, and then back to Rathdowney for a few days, where a reception was held in his honour.

After the war, he returned to Ireland, got a job on the railways, married, settled in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and lived to the age of 85. He died in 1980. Like many men of his generation, Moyney was modest about his achievements but also, understandably, possibly wary – given the hostility, and subsequent indifference, accorded to first World War veterans in Ireland.

Despite his historical significance, he was interviewed just once by a national newspaper – in 1978 by Kevin Myers for the Sunday Independent – and gave only one radio interview – to Christy Maher for an RTÉ “local radio week” in Roscrea in 1977 – which has, mercifully, survived.

But Jack Moyney was not forgotten in Britain, where his name was revered in the very highest echelons. He was invited to London in 1927 for a famous dinner of all surviving first World War VC winners hosted by the prince of Wales and then on to Buckingham Palace on VE Day in 1945 to celebrate the end of the second World War with the king and queen and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

Throughout his life, he took a break from CIÉ every year to attend, as a guest of honour, the St Patrick’s Day ceremony in London, where the Irish Guards are presented with shamrock by a senior member of the royal family.

Back in Roscrea he was better known as a successful fundraiser for the St Joseph’s Young Priests Society, a lay organisation that assisted students for the priesthood. In a sense, he was the very personification of the sheer complexity of 20th century Anglo-Irish relations.

Three years ago, Bob Campion, a publican in Co Laois, began to research the grand-uncle he had never known and knew nothing about. What he found inspired him to establish a little museum dedicated to Jack Moyney at Bob’s Bar in a delightful riverside location beside the bridge in Durrow.

Housed improbably in a snug, there can hardly be a more informative, entertaining, surprising, and unexpectedly poignant starting point for discovering Ireland’s first World War story.

This is local history – of the people and by the people – at its most superlative and is well worth a visit. You may need a restorative drink afterwards – a mug of coffee laced with rum perhaps – to toast Jack Moyney, one of those who, as the poet put it, “for our tomorrows gave their todays”.

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