AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY

 

LET us reflect on two lawyers, both Irish Catholics fated to find completely different destinies. One of them, James Henry, died the other day, and he is a reminder of the complexity of the demands of identity and loyalty in this island of Ireland. For he was of a much reviled stock, the West British. His family were Dublin Catholics and unionist. That particular caste was, in fact, far more numerous than is commonly; recognised today - and the loyalty of the Catholic Henrys was such that James's father, Denis, was once elected Unionist MP and later appointed the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

When his father died in 1925 James inherited the baronetcy at the age of 14. He was sent off to school in England - first of all to Mount St Mary's and then to Downside. He later studied classics at University College, London, where he took a first. To the last days of his life he retained an interest in classical Greek, which he read for pleasure. After university, he was called to the bar, retaining a connection with his native country through his association with London Irish rugby club, with whom he played wingthreequarter - ferociously, I do not doubt.

When the second World War broke out in 1939, James, along with so many members of the club, joined the London Irish Rifles, and he ended up with the First London Rifles on active service in Tunisia and later in Sicily. It would be tempting to think that somewhere in North Africa he ran into our other lawyer, Joseph Gerald Fitzgerald, of Dublin, also of the London Irish, but they were with different battalions of the regiment and not even attached to the same divisions.

Decorated for Bravery

Joseph was a son of Michael and Agnes Fitzgerald and was a few years older than James. His wife, Kathleen, came from Brackenstown, Co Dublin. It is easy to understand James's path towards war loyally, caste, class all ordained that he did as he did. But I have no idea why Joseph Gerald Fitzgerald did as he did - he was a solicitor, married, and at 35 approaching middle age when war broke out. But enlist he did, and four years later he found himself in the same theatre as James - both men Irish Catholics, both lawyers, both officers in the London Irish, now both shortly to be awarded the Military Cross for bravery in action.

Joseph Fitzgerald was the first to be decorated for his part in leading his company to attack German held positions near the Simeto river. The London Irish had to advance upon a stone cottage on a hill under heavy enemy fire. Led by two of the Irish, a Sergeant S. Kelly and a Lieutenant K. Daly, the company got into the cottage and were driven off by a counter attack. Then Major Fitzgerald led his company back in assault and the building was blasted and stormed. For this, he was awarded the Military Cross.

Leading his men at the nearby Fosso Bottaceto was James Henry. German storage tanks had been set on fire and in their illumination the advancing Irishmen were easy targets and were shot down. Company commanders such as Henry were falling fast. Down went Captain Lieutenants Orr and Coughlin. Lieutenant Power was killed. Sergeant Madigan, though wounded, took command of Power's men. James Henry, unhit, pressed on until his unit of London Irish was so exposed that withdrawal became inevitable.

Daring Night Attack

A few days later, Joseph Fitzgerald's unit of London Irish was ordered into a night attack under their temporary commanding officer, Major Kevin O'Connor. The men were obliged to advance over an appalling terrain of high walls and rocky tracks densely packed with woodlands and steep terraces. Everything went wrong from the outset and in the dark the London Irish got hopelessly lost and delayed. An attack which should have taken place at night took place in brad daylight an hour after the protective artillery had ended.

In the confusion, Joseph Fitzgerald led his men not round the enemy held hill, but straight on to it, directly into heavy machinegun and mortar fire; and in that advance he was killed. He was 39. "A fearless officer his death was a great blow to, the battalion", recorded the regimental history. But the hill was taken and another little bit of Nazi territory was liberated it remains so to this day.

The many Irishmen killed in this episode are buried along with Joseph in the Catania war cemetery. His grieving family in Dublin, unable by censorship regulations to state the circumstances of his end, merely placed advertisements in The Irish Times announcing the death of the solicitor Joseph Fitzgerald, son of the late Michael and Agnes Fitzgerald, of 55 Lansdowne Road (now the home of a computer and law firm).

Liberation of Sicily

James Henry survived his part in the liberation of Sicily and for his bravery was awarded the Military Cross. He and the rest of the London Irish then took part in the assault on Italy, in the early stages of which Major Kevin O'Connor was killed. James Henry should have joined his many fellow countrymen in that state when he was hit by German fire. Indeed, the regimental piper who dragged him out of the line of fire thought he was so badly wounded that he administered twice the lethal dose of morphine to put the good major out of his pain.

The major survived nearly another 44 years, but with a great deal of German metal inside him - whenever he passed a metal detector in an airport it would start doing handstands and shrieking accusingly. No doubt the metal accompanied him to his grave, into which he was lowered accompanied by airs from the very piper who had saved his life in 1944.

Two lawyers, both Irish Catholics, made their contribution on the Catania plain of Italy to the freedom of Europe. One, Sir James Henry, went on to be a celebrated attorney in Britain. The other, Joseph Fitzgerald BA LLB, was killed in the fight for freedom and was then completely forgotten. Until now.