Bringing their memory back to life

Two Roscommon towns typify the sacrifice made by Irish Catholics in the first World War, writes Patsy McGarry

Two Roscommon towns typify the sacrifice made by Irish Catholics in the first World War, writes Patsy McGarry

Hugh MacDermot had not yet reached his 19th birthday when he was killed at Gallipoli on August 9th 1915. His company commander, Capt Wigley, in a note to Hugh's parents, recalled the young man's death:

We were ordered to take part in repelling a strong Turkish attack. Our own artillery was apparently engaged in supporting the main attack and could give us no assistance. I came up with my company and we went straight into the firing line. Your gallant son was lying down next me in the line (there were no trenches).

Presently he had to move up to make room for another man. Among the hundreds of bullets that were flying around, I felt one whiz past my neck and instinctively looked in his direction and saw he had been struck in the back of the neck. Death was relatively instantaneous. A few minutes later I was seriously wounded in the head so cannot say what happened afterwards.

A Pte Dillon, who served in the same company, took up the story. He didn't think Hugh MacDermot was buried, as "the Turks advanced hastily afterwards and then the scrub caught fire". On October 14th that year a Pte P McKinney wrote a lengthy 13-page letter to MacDermot's parents in Ireland on behalf of Platoon 12 of the 6th Royal Irish Fusiliers, of which he was a member and of which Second Lt Hugh MacDermot had been the officer in command for the 12 months before he was killed.

"The chaps were only eager to do something great for him as it would be impossible to find another gentleman like him as he was one in every sense of the word and we simply adored him . . ." he wrote.

Pte McKinney was in a detachment of the platoon which was following another led by Lt MacDermot into action at Gallipoli. This is how he reacted when he heard Hugh MacDermot had been killed:

I was thunderstruck. I could have nearly cried, and I may say after him being killed there was no mercy in our platoon for the Turks under any circumstances and his life was well avenged I can assure you . . . It is impossible to express the unbounding love and respect me and my companions held for him, in fact it is inexpressible the grief his death has caused us . . ."

Hugh Maurice MacDermot, heir to the title The MacDermot, Prince of Coolavin, was one of 39 young men from the parish of Ballaghaderreen Co Roscommon, killed in the first World War. All are recorded in Fr Liam Sword's book, A Dominant Church: The Diocese of Achonry 1818-1960 (Columba 2004).

Most people in Ballaghaderreen today have never heard before of 19-year-old Pte Willie Crosbie, a neighbour of Hugh MacDermot's at Clogher, near Ballaghaderreen, who was killed in France on April 20th 1916, the week before the Easter Rising. Or of another neighbour, Pte John Cryan, killed in France in June 1917. Or of the Egans, John Finn, Patrick Gara, Martin Higgins, Patrick Kelly, Patrick Kilgarriff, Thomas Moffat, Thomas Mulrenan, Thomas O'Gara, John Regan, John Snee or any of the five Toweys on that list of the dead - to name some - though everyone knows people of those names in the parish.

None of those young men were buried at home. Most were not buried at all. Some belong among the 20,763 of those with "no known grave" remembered at the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli, where Hugh MacDermot's name is inscribed. Some are among the 35,000 "missing" at Arras in France, or the 54,896 "lost without trace" at Ypres in Belgium, or the 74,000 "missing" at Thiepval on the Somme.

But the memory of those young men from Ballaghaderreen suffered a worse fate. They were erased from the life and history of the parish as though they had never existed at all, grieved for only by their very nearest and dearest, and then in deepest silence.

In Ballaghaderreen parish, just one of those 39 young men was acknowledged publicly in death and that was Hugh MacDermot. A plaque commemorating him was erected in the Catholic Church at Monasteraden, Co Sligo, near their home by his parents, Charles, The MacDermot, Prince of Coolavin, and his wife, Caroline.

THEY COULD DO so because the MacDermots stood apart from the maelstrom of mythologies which overwhelmed the area in the decades after Hugh's death. They were also, and remain, one of the oldest surviving Gaelic Catholic families. They can trace their lineage back 32 generations, even as far back as AD 157 through the O'Conors. They are descended from a branch of that family, beginning in the 10th century.

The MacDermots survived famine, war, confiscations and the narrow myths of both major traditions on this island in the 20th century which would disown and wilfully forget fellow Catholic Irishmen trapped in a cusp of history.

"We did not run away," Madam Felicity MacDermot said at the family's ancestral home, Coolavin (pronounced Cool-a-ven), this week, reflecting on the Flight of the Earls and the collapse of the old Gaelic order after defeat at Kinsale in 1601.

Madam Felicity, herself a descendant of another branch of the MacDermot family which found itself in the south of England while retaining a strong connection with Co Sligo, is sister-in-law of Hugh MacDermot. Her husband Charles, now deceased, was the dead officer's younger brother. Born in 1923, she has lived at Coolavin for 52 years.

A marvellous and feisty lady, she recalls how it was possible back then to travel from Coolavin to just about anywhere in Ireland on a public transport system "which was cheap and punctual". Nowadays there is just the car.

In 1963 Todd Andrews, then chairman of CIÉ, closed down the railway line from Ballaghaderreen to Sligo, which passed through Island Road Station, near Coolavin. It was from that station that a committee - which included Dudley Costello of another, now defunct, ancient Catholic family in the area - gathered to say farewell to young Lt Hugh MacDermot as he headed off to war.

Their address to him on that occasion is equivocal and already pregnant with the reserve which in later, fully developed form would lead to the suppression of the memory of young MacDermot's 38 fellow fallen co-religionists and compatriots:

We are moved at this critical moment in your life and in that of our country, to assemble here today to bid you au revoir, wish you luck and express in a feeble way how much your dauntless spirit and noble example has thrilled and moved even the oldest of us 'to go and do likewise'. Circumstances prevent many of us, however, but the spirit that animates us today, fostered by the hands of an alien but friendly government, will no doubt be enlivened to a greater extent under our native parliament.

Then, please God, when next a scion of the Princely House of MacDermot goes forth to battle, he shall be surrounded, as of old, by hundreds of daring followers . . . We earnestly hope it will not be long till we have the pleasure of assembling once more, to welcome you home from a victorious war, in health and strength, the pride of your noble parents, a credit to the Princely House of MacDermot, and a noble and courageous example to the young men of Coolavin and Edmonstown.

That address was signed by local blacksmith Martin Brennan, local farmer Pat Casey, Dudley Costello, and local schoolteacher "MT Reid". All were avid Home Rulers, and so too was Lt MacDermot's grandfather, Hugh. Attorney general for Ireland in the 1890s, he was passed over when it came to appointments to the judiciary because of his political sympathies. Lt Hugh's father, Charles, was inspector of prisons.

The Island Road signatories may also have been influenced by the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, an event inspired by the founding of the Ulster Volunteers (to resist Home Rule) in 1912.

However, in the pre-war and early years of the first World War, the dominant influence in the Ballaghaderreen area would have been local MP John Dillon, former leader of the Irish parliamentary party at Westminster, aimportant figure in the Land League and a passionate Home Ruler.

He, along with then Irish parliamentary party leader John Redmond and the Catholic primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Michael Logue, had been encouraging young Catholic Irishmen to enlist and fight for the freedom of small nations.

It was a major reason why so many young Catholic Irishmen joined British regiments to fight in the first World War. That, plus economic necessity, as well as the inevitable attraction of adventure for the young, and a military tradition in some families.

DANNY TIERNAN, OF the Connaught Rangers Association, says that for most Irishmen loyalty was to the regiment rather than the crown. The Connaught Rangers was established in 1793 and Tiernan's grandfather, William Tiernan, enlisted in 1893. He served with it in the Boer War, in India, and in Arras and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in the first World War.

This week, at his home in Boyle, Co Roscommon, Tiernan recollected a story William used to tell of how, while fighting on the front line in France alongside his officer, a German soldier "was nearly on top of them". William stuck his bayonet through the German's chest.

"That's a big fella, William," said his officer, to which William replied: "It was him or me."

William survived into his 90s and Danny Tiernan recalls, as a child, selling poppies with him on the streets of Boyle. "The poppy is a soldiers' symbol; it is not a British symbol," he says. "It was the only flower that grew on the bombed fields of France. Bunches of poppies were thrown on the guys' graves."

Maintaining the family tradition, William Tiernan's son, also William, served with the Irish Army and Danny is a captain with the Reserve Defence Forces. Service in the military was common for Irishmen down the centuries, as the accompanying panel illustrates. Figures also reveal that more Irish Catholics than Irish Protestants joined British army regiments during the first World War. This is hardly surprising as the Catholic population of the island, then as now, was more than three times greater than the Protestant. The figures do, however, challenge dominant myths, within both traditions on the island, where Catholic numbers are concerned.

In Ballaghaderreen, all 39 dead from the first World War were Catholic. Far and away the majority of the 317 young men from Co Roscommon killed were also Catholic.

Meanwhile, 118 miles away to the north-east, all 24 of the young men from Drumcree parish, near Portadown in Co Armagh, killed in the war and remembered on a roll of honour in the Church of the Ascension there, were Protestant. Similarly with those 300 sons of Ulster from rural parishes in counties Armagh and Monaghan - including Drumcree - who were killed 90 years ago today, on July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Every year since, those young Ulstermen have been remembered at Drumcree, contentiously since 1995. The Bensons, Albert Boyle, Richard Curry, Samuel Fleming, William Hanvey, William Henry, Henry May, 15-year-old William Sloan, Robert Taylor, the Woodhouses, Frederick Woods, Samuel Wylie and others, all will be remembered again at the annual Drumcree parade and service there. Three of them are buried in Drumcree churchyard.

In August last year a special Mass took place at Monasteraden Church to remember Lt Hugh MacDermot on the 90th anniversary of his death, along with the other 38 young men from the parish of Ballaghaderreen who died in the first World War. It was organised by Madam Felicity MacDermot and local man Peter Sherlock, and attended by a colour party from the Connaught Rangers Association. A wreath was laid by Hugh MacDermot's grand-niece, Siobhan MacDermot-Ryan.

It was the only commemoration in the parish of those 39 young men since they were killed. There are no plans for another.