The Spirit of the Blitz

An Irishman’s Diary about a war hero with a weakness

Thomas Hughes’s grave at Broomfield, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Carrickmacross Workhouse Cemetery

Thomas Hughes’s grave at Broomfield, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Carrickmacross Workhouse Cemetery

Fri, Mar 28, 2014, 18:44

In the old cemetery at Broomfield, Co Monaghan, near where I grew up, is the grave of a man named Thomas Hughes. He died in 1942, and what I know of his life is limited to two dramatic episodes, both of which made national headlines. One concerned his bravery in war. The other involved his use of poitín.

The military story is well-documented, because it won him the British army’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross. In September 1916, Hughes was part of an attack that liberated the French town of Guillemont, part of the epic Somme offensive.

Wounded in the first assault, he returned to duty the same day, capturing a machine gun post and killing at least one gunner while taking several prisoner. In the process, he was shot twice more himself. It was claimed in the later court case that he accumulated a total of 17 wounds during the war, which he somehow survived.

His VC was awarded at a mass conferring in London’s Hyde Park in 1917, the medals presented by King George V. Large crowds cheered, although the Irish Times account of the event was juxtaposed by a smaller report hinting at the changed Ireland to which Hughes would return.

“The Irish Rebel Prisoners” was the headline over an item detailing questions in the House of Commons on the previous day concerning the treatment of republican inmates in England.

It was May 1924 when Hughes next made the newspapers, by which time he was home in what had become the Free State. On this occasion, he was convicted at Castleblayney District Court for possession of home-distilled alcohol. And there was a warning of the political furore his case would cause in this newspaper’s choice of headline: “District Justice’s Strange Question”.

Members of the Civic Guard had given evidence of finding a jar with “nine pints of poteen”, at the defendant’s home. The court also heard that, when questioned, Hughes had appeared “dazed” and smelt of the spirit. Hughes claimed the drink had been “planted” and that he was a teetotaller who had never drunk alcohol, not even the regulation army “rum”. This is what provoked the judge’s question. Expressing incredulity, District Justice Goff asked: “Hadn’t [the soldiers] all to take it? Didn’t they brutalise them before they sent them into a charge?”

In the ensuing controversy, it was almost forgotten that Hughes had been convicted and sentenced to two months in prison, with a £20 fine and the possibility of another four months if he didn’t pay.

An Irish Times editorial condemned the judge’s comments about rum as a “cruel and unjust” slander on Irishmen who had fought in British regiments. It also suggested that, by using events of the past as an “instrument of hatreds”, Goff had breached the general amnesty recently agreed by the new State.

The writer worried that such utterances might give the Northern parliament an unjustified excuse to criticise the Southern administration. And he concluded that, in a country still “raw” from the Troubles, “every Irishman of good will ought to set a watch upon his tongue”: something Justice Goff had failed to do.

A week later, the judge’s comments were the subject of a Senate debate, in which Maj-Gen Sir Bryan Mahon moved a motion of censure against the “calumny”. He admitted that, by tradition, a “tot” of rum was indeed granted to attacking troops, but insisted this was a very small amount and that, in practice, it was often difficult to get supplies to the front line.

His experience, anyway, was that Irish soldiers needed no such “stimulant” before battle.

Even so, after an intervention by the minister for justice, Kevin O’Higgins, who argued that “political harangues” had long been a regrettable habit of judges, but that if it was forced to a vote the issue would just divide senators along party lines, Maj-Genl Mahon agreed to withdraw the motion.

At a subsequent appeal in Castleblayney, Hughes’s conviction was upheld. In deference to his war record, however, and to evidence that imprisonment would harm his health, the judge waived the custodial sentence and imposed only the fine.

By all accounts, Hughes did indeed drink alcohol, and too much of it, during the rest of his life, before dying aged 52. His circumstances were poor and his VC was sold at some point, by himself or by family members. Veterans of his old regiment, the Connaught Rangers, bought it back in 1959. It is now on display at a museum in London.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

@frankmcnallyIT