Thousands come to show and tell at World War One Roadshow

The hugely successful event was a day of excitement, emotion and revelation

Victor Edmonds with a Christmas card sent home by his grandfather Samuel Edmonds during the World War I Roadshow in Dublin on Saturday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne.

Victor Edmonds with a Christmas card sent home by his grandfather Samuel Edmonds during the World War I Roadshow in Dublin on Saturday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne.

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 01:00

Charles Eastment from Somerset was 19 and a private in the 11th Hussars when he was posted to Dublin in 1907. There he met seamstress Rosanna Ward, and they were married in 1912.  

When the first World War broke out Charles was sent to Ypres where he soldiered for two years and, amazingly, survived – unlike his two brothers, John who died in Ypres in 1915, and William who was killed in Arras in 1917.

When he went to Ypres, Charles left behind in Dublin a son named Tommy, and not long after his departure, Rosanna bore him another son, Bob. From the trenches, Charles wrote often to Rosanna, fretting over her and the children, and telling her as much about life at war as military restrictions allowed.

One hundred years later Charles’ grandchildren Mary McDermott from Donabate, her sister Stella O’Neill from Finglas and their cousin Anne Carroll from Ashbourne were in the august surroundings of Trinity College’s Examination Hall on Saturday. A sample of the 170 postcards, plus four pieces of shrapnel, they brought along were examined by experts and photographed for the growing archive of family memorabilia from the Great War.

The 170 postcards were kept in a metal hat box by Anne’s mother Polly, one of Charles and Rosanna’s other children born after the war. To Polly, the cards were a treasure and source of pride – evidence of the love between her parents during an exceptionally difficult time in their lives.

‘You’ll never guess what’

Stella and Mary knew nothing of the cards but a few years ago, after Mary read Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’s novel set during the war, and spoke about it, Anne said to her: “Well, you’ll never guess what . . .”

“The cards are just amazing,” Mary said on Saturday as PhD students interviewed her, and archivists logged and copied the sample brought to Trinity. “He didn’t know it at the time but when he was away in Ypres, Bob the little baby died, and he kept asking after him and he wasn’t getting an answer. ‘How is Bob doing? Is he better?’ he writes, and you can tell he was upset.”

Some weeks after Bob died, Charles was told and wrote to Rosanna, desperately worried for her and seeking to reassure her that the baby’s death wasn’t her fault. “So he had to deal with that,” says Mary. “1915 his first brother died, 1916 his baby died, 1917 his second brother died. To think that he was up there in the firing line trying to keep his own life intact and grieving at the same time . . .”

Mary, Stella and Anne were among thousands who thronged into Trinity on Saturday for RTÉ’s World War 1 Roadshow, organised jointly by the broadcaster, the university and the National Library. Between 8,000 and 10,000 came, according to Yeti Redmond, producer of RTÉ Radio 1’s The History Show.

They came from all over Ireland, including Northern Ireland, and from varying social classes. The stories were not just those from Anglo Irish backgrounds but also from people whose grandparents hailed from inner city Dublin.

The event, described as “spectacularly successful” by Darryl Jones, dean of arts at the College, and as “beyond everyone’s expectations” by RTÉ director general Noel Curran, prompted such wide interest from the public that lectures had to be relocated around the college at short notice when advertised venues proved inadequate.

More than 20 talks focused on various aspects of Ireland and the war, and also on how to research family stories. A special episode of Sunday Miscellany was staged and recorded, as was Echoes From The Front, a reading of letters home, laced with excerpts from Fighting Cowardice, a radio play by Gary Mitchell.

Light relief was provided the Brook Singers who, wandering among the crowds in Front Square, occasionally burst into renditions of Pack up Your Troubles, It’s a Long Way To Tipperary, Goodbye, and Oh, What a Lovely War!

People’s stories

But it was inside the Exam Hall that the people’s stories unfolded. The hall was strewn with medals, many in their presentation boxes and carefully mounted on pads of velvet; photographs; a surgeon’s portmanteau (German apparently, and probably battlefield booty); bayonets; swords; binoculars; and papers detailing family histories; together with stalls set up by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association and the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in Armagh.

Stories came courtesy of such people as Victor Edmonds from Greystones, whose grandfather Samuel from Coles Lane off Moore Street served at the Somme and Ypres with the Royal Field Artillery but was later in the Free State Army and was with Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth.

He was also a member of the firing squad for the execution of Erskine Childers at Beggars Bush barracks. “He avoided Beggars Bush for the rest of his life,” said Victor.

Military Cross

Ida Law, a sparkling 91-year-old from Dalkey in Co Dublin, brought her father William’s Military Cross, awarded for his work with the wounded at Ypres in 1917. She also brought the CBE given to her grandmother Julia who ran a canteen on Carlisle Pier in Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) for soldiers boarding ships for England.

William survived the war but nearly didn’t survive back in Dublin. “A few years after Bloody Sunday [when undercover men commanded by Michael Collins shot dead 13 British Army soldiers and a policeman in 1920],” said Mrs Law, “a Mr Brendan, a cobbler in Glasthule, told my father he was one of the people to be shot on Bloody Sunday but no one would do it because he was liked so much.”  

For many, the day was emotional, revealing and exciting. Trinity’s Georgian chapel was crowded, the nave and gallery filled to capacity, at 5pm when Defence Force’s School of Music bandsmen Aran Johnson and Mark O’Connor sounded the Last Post and Reveille.    

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