Checkmate Charlie? – Frank McNally on another breakthrough in one of the first World War’s enduring mysteries

A frame from the documentary film ‘The Battle of the Somme’. The soldier carrying a wounded comrade may have been Charlie Brennan, a Dubliner.

A frame from the documentary film ‘The Battle of the Somme’. The soldier carrying a wounded comrade may have been Charlie Brennan, a Dubliner.

 

Readers may remember the story of Charlie Brennan, a Dubliner who fought in the first World War and who, his descendants are certain, was the hero of a famous trench rescue scene in the 1916 documentary of the Battle of the Somme.

Reflecting the complexities of his era, he was from a republican family in Finglas, and returned there soon afterwards to help found Erin’s Isle GAA club. A picture of him playing football has been used in facial analysis comparison with the documentary footage, and while this couldn’t prove they were the same person, it suggested nothing to the contrary.

In general, his credentials have seen him whittled from a long-list of some 100 contenders, over the past century, to the last two or three.

The main problem remains a lack of official service record placing him at the scene on July 1st, 1916.

Meanwhile, the other thing the Imperial War Museum has been seeking was some contemporary reference, perhaps in newspapers, to the local celebrity the film must have conferred upon him.

Well, on the latter question at least, a smoking gun has now been found, by the Imperial War Museum itself. It’s a cutting from the Sligo Champion on December 16th, 1916, reviewing the film, which had been screened in “Gilhooly Hall”.  

And it’s doubly interesting because the main thrust of the piece was to criticise the film’s lack of reference to Irish soldiers (a point I unwittingly echoed here recently about Peter Jackson’s colorised-and-soundtracked recreation of war footage, They Shall Not Grow Old).

But after making that point, the Champion’s writer added this footnote: “Did any of you notice the brawny specimen of manhood who came into the limelight, and walked, breathing heavily, ‘across the sheet?’. He was carrying on his shoulder the prostrate body of wounded comrade, the last of twenty he had brought to safety under heavy shell fire. I’m sure you did. He was a striking figure in the Somme film, and he was Irish. He is Gunner Charles Brennan, a Dublin man, and one of the heavy trench mortar battery.”

How did the Champion know this? Because, as the writer added in brackets, Brennan was a “brother-in-law of Mr James Kilfeather, town rate collector”.

Local celebrity at its finest.

This may not quite clinch the argument for the Finglas man to have been one of the best-known faces of the war, but it gets us nearer to closing the case. And it’s intriguing that the breakthrough came from Sligo. 

When I think of that town and period, I think of Bertie Smyllie, the Sligo-reared newspaper man who spent the war in a German internment camp, before becoming the most eccentric editor in the history of The Irish Times. As a regular contributor to this column, he often wrote about the war. But the existence of Charlie Brennan seems to have escaped him, and the paper in general.

Smyllie’s Sligo origins explain his alleged role in one of the most celebrated political crises of the Free State years. On August 16th, 1927, he is said to have conspired in a long liquid lunch that caused the Sligo Dáil deputy John Jinks to miss a vote of confidence, thereby saving the government. In his absence, Cosgrave survived on the chair’s casting vote.

Jinks himself always insisted his abstention was deliberate. In any case, it was a short-lived reprieve. When an election came soon afterwards, he lost his seat and disappeared from public life, although as historian FSL Lyons wrote, his name was carried for several years afterwards by “a very successful racehorse”.

Speaking of horses, I have searched for the rate collector James Kilfeather in our own archive, in case it might yield something on Brennan. No such luck. But amusingly, I did find a Sligo bookmaker called James Kilfeather, featuring as plaintiff in a 1926 court case. 

He was among a number of bookies who had noticed a surprising level of success from punters in Longford, all with postal accounts and always placing bets just before a race, by telegram. Suspicion fell on a postmistress, who it was alleged was backdating the telegrams by crucial minutes: a striking parallel with the plot of a 1973 movie The Sting.

Anyway, getting back to the Somme film, there may still be clinching evidence out there waiting to be found. John Peter Brennan, a London-based descendant, would love to hear from anyone who has it and can help “Uncle Charlie”, having outlasted a field of 100 runners, to be declared, in racing parlance, winner all right.  

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