In the summer of 1912, 17-year-old Conor O’Brien must have been delighted with himself. School days were over, and the long holidays stretched out like the road before him as he travelled from Blackrock College to his family home on Inishmore on the Aran Islands.
As Conor and his classmate Liam O’Flaherty, both scholarship boys, headed home, Conor had no idea yet that he had won overall first place in all Ireland in Senior Grade Exams and was to become Blackrock College Student of the Year 1912, or that his friend would become a famous novelist.
Conor’s parents moved to Inishmore from Miltown Malbay in 1905 when he was just 10. His father Michael, a veteran of the 1867 Fenian rising, had in 1882-83 served six months in Limerick jail for supporting Parnell. His politics clashed with the Catholic hierarchy and he lost his post of 20 years as medical officer in charge of Ennistymon Workhouse and had been supported for the post of island doctor by Liam’s father Mick O’Flaherty, an outspoken but influential critic of the church. Conor and Liam met both Pearse and Casement in the O’Flaherty and O’Brien homes in Kilronan.
After a wet August, Conor returned to Dublin to take up another scholarship, to read Greek and Latin at University College Dublin. Liam returned too, but to enter the priesthood.
Conor did well in his first year and secured a scholarship for his second year. In late 1913, there was intense excitement among the students, many of them, Conor’s friends included, enrolled in the Irish Volunteers. Conor and his sister Susie, now also at UCD, went to the public meeting on November 25th, 1913, at which the movement was launched and recruits enrolled. She felt he might have enrolled too had the crowds not blocked him from getting into the meeting.
In his third year, Conor visited his brother William and sister Mary in Aughrim, Co Wicklow, where Willie was dispensary doctor. He took Conor out on his rounds in his new car, a De Dion Bouton tourer, and they had a chance meeting with MP Willie Redmond whose similar car had broken down on the way to John Redmond’s house at Aughavanagh.
On 20th September, 1914, John Redmond, at Woodenbridge near Aughrim, called on Irish men to join another volunteer force – this time to fight with Britain “in defence of small nations”. Dr William O’Brien joined the Royal Army Medical Corp (RAMC) and was to spend much of the first War on a hospital ship treating casualties from the Dardenelles.
Despite his promise to his parents not to sign up, Conor left UCD without his degree, and on April 15th, 1915, “enlisted at Kilworth Camp into the Leinster Regiment Regular Army for the duration of war”. He was to see action in France, Macedonia, Egypt and Palestine; all the time keeping a secret diary of his war in his Sunday missal.
If he were asked he might have said he had joined up to fight for Ireland and to help Catholic Belgium in her struggle against the Germans. But while he did respect the nationalist views and the hopes he had often heard his father express for Ireland’s future, Conor had little interest in nationalism. He wanted to be part of the great adventure, a lust for adventure shared by his friend Liam who also signed up.
At training camp in Fermoy, for the 7th Leinsters in the 16th (Irish) Division in the Great War, Conor was given the job of Lewis gunner. His company was transferred to Blackdown Camp at Aldershot in Surrey and then on December 17th, 1915, Conor crossed the channel and was transported by red double decker buses to “the front”.
He was in the trenches at Loos and Hullach during Easter 1916. News of the Rising filtered through and later news of the courts martial and executions. Conor was saddened that men like Willie Pearse and Thomas McDonagh had gone before the firing squad. He had listened to McDonagh lecturing on the English poets. Nor did Willie Pearse, the young man he had seen, only two years ago, walking with his brother Patrick under the beech trees at St Enda’s, seem like a dangerous insurgent.
His missal was to follow his wartime life: injured by a shell near Loos, he was evacuated to hospital in England on the eve of the battle of the Somme; his welcome home on recuperation leave in full British army uniform in Kilronan in July 1916; his Kilronan Christmas 1916, when he made a special note, in a mixture of French and Irish, in his diary: “Conhubhair Ua Bríain, Creg Móir. Cill Ronánin, Oileán Arainn, Co na Gaillime. Nodlag 1916. Pour huit jour – bontime.”
The missal notes: “Feb 3 1917. Left 4th Leinsters at Limerick for 6th at Struma, Macedonia. Within days of the Allies arriving in Struma, 7,000 came down with malaria and there were many deaths.” Conor too got malaria and recorded: “Weather very hot. Mosquitoes terrible.”
Then, undated, the opening lines, in Greek, of Homer's Odyssey: "Tell me, Muse, of the man of many twists and turns, who wandered far and wide after he had sacked Troy's sacred city, and saw the towns of many men and knew their minds."
Conor was to go on to fight in Egypt and Palestine before being demobbed on February 12th, 1919. His prayer book diary ends at the end of April 1918 recording the departure of the 5th Connaught Rangers from Palestine. Some entries give more information than others but all reveal a young man trying to capture a world where nothing would ever seem as certain again as it did on that summer day in 1912.
On November 15th Conor arrived at the Connaught Barracks in Dover. There, as his service records tells us, he “re-enlisted into the Connaught Rangers Regular Army” and “was posted to the 2nd Battalion”.
He was now nearly 25 years of age. He was once again a private soldier but now with three campaign medals, as well as an honorary BA in Classics. He was to remain in the army for the next 26 years, serving in many different fields and adding more medals on his tunic.
Never, in all that time, nor in his years of retirement, when once more he returned to the army as a Chelsea Pensioner, was he to give any sign that he regretted the decision he had made in 1919 to spend his life as a British soldier.
Cornelius Francis O’Brien – born January 23rd, 1895; died December 31st, 1964.
Adapted by Mary-Jane O'Brien from the book, My Uncle Frank , by Conor Reilly.