Public takes WWI treasure trove of medals, letters to Glasnevin

Relatives of Irish veterans bring hidden memorabilia to light revealing horrors of conflict

Members of the public bring their First World War heirlooms, letters, photos, medals and other artefacts to Glasnevin Cemetery Museum for assessment by experts.Video: Bryan O'Brien

Fri, May 16, 2014, 19:35

For generations Irish First World War memorabilia was confined to attics and drawers not to be shown in public.

The hostility extended to Irish veterans following the transformation in the public climate of Ireland after 1916 made it expedient and prudent to keep such memorabilia hidden away.

A century later, Irish relatives of those who fought are now bringing to light items that provide a fascinating and often raw account of that terrible conflict.

A steady stream of people came to Glasnevin cemetery since this morning with their medals, photographs, letters, diaries, regimental books, keep sakes and even a German shell casing that was used as an umbrella stand for many years.

Glasnevin cemetery has put out a public call today and tomorrow for people to bring their First World War memorabilia to be evaluated with a view to putting them on display in the cemetery museum.

Kevin Devlin from Navan Road brought a journal kept by young people from 1911 to 1920 . It includes an impressive drawing of a couple on a horse and carriage and is signed by a W. MacBride. Was it the original Willie McBride immortalised in the song The Green Fields of France? Nobody knows for certain.

Some of the letters and diary entries show the extreme privations suffered by the men in the trenches.

Writing to his Irish first cousin from the Somme, Australian soldier Arthur McGregor expressed wonderment that he was still alive. “I consider myself more or less jolly lucky to be allowed live this length of time in such a man killing expedition as this. God only knows how long more my luck is going to continue.

“We are again on the Somme and its something to remember even to the end of one’s days. Fighting here is far and away beyond all human nature. The continuous rain of shell fire is awful not to say anything of the continuous rain, cold winds and liquid mud.”

Murial Douglas brought her husband’s grandfather’s diaries. Capt Charles Weld was with the Leinster Regiment and he survived some of the worst battles of the war.

He gave a terrifying account of the gas attack at Hulluch in northern France which killed 500 Irish soldiers during Easter Week in 1916.

“It was a ghastly sight. Hundreds of men who were gassed lay three deep on the fire step. They had died in terrible agony with faces like purple from the gas. Many others not yet dead gasped out green foam and dead rats likewise gassed. This is about the most fearful sight I have ever seen.”

The following day he wrote, “Weather turned very hot and as a result the dead, some of which were not buried, began to stink. I thought I was accustomed to war and all its frightfulness, yet this fairly staggers me.”

Liam O’Carroll’s great uncle Captain Gerald Fitzgibbon was killed in November 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai while serving with the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

He died while attacking the German lines. Mr O’Carroll brought an army correspondence book, photographs, trench maps where he died and other memorabilia which also give an account of how the assault on a German pillbox.

Glasnevin cemetery museum historian Conor Dodd described today’s event as a “huge success” and expected several hundred people through the doors by tomorrow evening.

“We’re getting letters, diaries, photographs and wonderful stories. This is a treasure store that has never been opened up about things that used not be talked about,” he said.

“One of the most emotive was a collection of medals and documents from an Irish soldier who was killed on the Western Front in 1916 and these things had literally been put away for the guts of 100 years and there were letters from officers informing his wife what had happened and they also sent back his dog tag. His body was never found. It was like a timewarp.”

The public are invited along to bring their memorabilia between 1pm and 5pm tomorrow.