Today I read a comment by a recently retired and highly respected broadcaster and journalist. He referred to receiving a compliment for wearing a face covering, and this caused him to shed ‘the first tear of the day’.
The ‘first tear of the day’. This stopped me in my tracks, because I have developed a habit of noting when it comes – sometimes on waking, but more usually about noon or early evening. I wonder how many others can identify with it?
This pandemic has chipped away at our resilience and confidence. It is hard to avoid the emotion of it, the sorrow for the overwhelming loss it has brought to so many people in so many ways.
In spite of the easing back and lifting of restrictions, many have become more fragile. Feeling low, unable to sleep, being overcome by stories of personal loss or simply bursting into tears for no apparent reason- these are the milestones of the day.
But tears do bring comfort. Whether in a short overspill, a quiet eye-stinging cry, a heartbreaking weep or a convulsive sob, they do ease the emotional pain.They soothe our raw edges, so we can keep going for another while.
The Government has now launched the In this together initiative in recognition of the impact this pandemic is having on the mental health of the entire nation. As part of that wellbeing campaign, the RTE Concert Orchestra and Sibéal Ní Chasaide have come together virtually to record ‘Mise Éire’ which you can hear here.
We will grow out of this hard place.
Here in Ireland, everyone who is compromised by health issues and those aged over 70 must stay at home during the Covid-19 Pandemic with food and medication being delivered by family members or teams of volunteers. This is called ‘Cocooning’ and this is a series posts from inside the cocoon.
A few years ago I came across the headstone of a young local man who had been killed in the First World War. He had also been decorated twice for bravery. He was Sgt James Fisher who grew up in Umlagh, in our parish of Mevagh, Co Donegal.
My original post can be seen below. Just recently I was contacted by Alastair Wilson, whose father Alexander was a first cousin of James Fisher. I subsequently did some more research and came across a number of newspaper articles in which James is mentioned. The first of which announced that ”A Brave Carrigart Boy” had been awarded the extremely high-level award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry.
The Belfast Newletter also reported the brave actions that led to the prestigious award.
Without doubt James was very brave indeed and his parents would have been very proud of him. A pride that would, needless to say, have been tempered by fears for his safety.
And their worst fears did come to pass just months later, as news of his death reached them.
This newspaper article also refers to actions some months earlier in May 1917 for which James was decorated yet again, adding a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal. This double award is quite rare and is a measure of just how courageous James Fisher was.
Sadly, as can be seen from these cuttings, many families would have been impacted by these news reports of family members killed, missing, taken prisoner or wounded.
James Fisher was killed but his body was never recovered. TheTyne Cot war cemetery in Belgium has about 12,000 graves. Unfortunately, James is not among them. His name is one of 34,991 listed on the wall at the end of the cemetery. This wall commemorates those who died after August 1917 and who have no known grave. (The Menin Gate in Ypres commemorates those who died before August 17th 1917).
Alastair Wilson visited Tyne Cot and photographed the name of his cousin James Fisher on the memorial wall. I am very pleased to add this image to this post about James. Thank you Alastair!
British Newspaper Archives
This is the original post:
Discovering a Carrigart man on the centenary of his death
Just the other week, I came upon a grave in Trinity Churchyard in Carrigart, my hometown, on which was recorded a World War 1 death. Amazing to think that I grew up in a parish in north Donegal and never heard about a young local man who by the age of 23 had received two bravery awards and had given his life in the 1st World War
This family headstone in the Trinity Churchyard in Carrigart, records the deaths of three sons, two of whom predeceased their parents. One of these had two bravery awards and was killed in France in 1917.
So what is the story of James Fisher? Who was he?
James was born in Umlagh outside Carrigart on December 10, 1893, the eldest son and third child of James Fisher and his wife Helen McIlwane.
The 1901 census tells us that parents James and Helen were living in Umlagh with their 7 children, Rachel aged 10, Margaret 9, James 7, Kezie 5, Alexander 4, John 2 and David 6 months and James’ brother John. The census record can be seen here.
By 1911, David, born on October 9, 1900, had died in 1905, Rachel and Margaret were no longer living at home, but the family had 5 new members. The household at that time consisted of father James, mother Helen and John senior as well as young James, now 17, Kezie who was 16, Alexander who was 14, John who was 12, and new arrivals Annie aged 9, Margery 7, Catherine Susan aged 5, Aaron who was 3 and another David, then only 2 months old, born on January 21, 1911. The 1911 census record for the family can be seen here.
James enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and then transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, specializing in, as the name suggests, machine gun duties. In 1916 Lance Corporal James Fisher was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, (the DCM,) for gallantry and the news was carried in The Derry Journal in September of that year.
For conspicuous gallantry in action. When his seniors had become casualties he took command of the gun team and pushed forward. Later he took his gun into a shell hole, caught the enemy in the open , and drove back their counter attack.’
The Distinguished Conduct Medal
James was a very brave young man as he was again recognized for gallantry winning another Distinguished Conduct Medal or ‘Bar’. The 207th Machine Gun Company was attached to the 3rd Australian Division between October 1916 and October 1917 and it was during this time that he won the second award. The citation for his second or ‘bar’ award of the DCM is as follows:
‘A/Corpl James Fisher D.C.M. For conspicuous gallantry on the night of 17/18 May 1917, when in charge of a Machine Gun in very exposed position on ?? the enemy attempted a raid of ? Gap at the same time heavily bombarding ? . No 18679 Corporal J Fisher at once opened fire on his S.O.S target ‘D’ Gap(?) and continued to fire although shells were bursting all around his position, and in spite of the fact that he received blows on the head and in the small of the back from shrapnel. Owing to the protection of his steel helmet and belt respectively, the only injuries received were bruises. His sub-section(?) officer tried to persuade him to be relieved at the gun, but he stuck to his post till the situation became normal, although in a dazed and deafened state. After the raid was over he wanted to stay with his gun, but was ordered by his officer to go to Section Headquarters for the night. Besides materially helping to repel the raid, the example set to the N.C.O.s and men of this Company will have a far reaching effect‘
This recommendation is recorded is the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Australian Division on 22 May 1917.
However his luck ran out and Sergeant James Fisher, DCM bar Service No. 18679, was killed on September 25, 1917, probably at the Third Battle of Ypres. At this time it appears that the Machine Gun unit was no longer attached to the Australian forces. James probably died around Polderhoek Chateau Ridge on the morning of September 25, 1917, when the British were about to launch their own attack.
In a History and memoir of the 33rd Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps, the events of the fateful day are recorded;
‘By 12 midnight on the 24th-25th September …the 207th Machine Gun Company..was ordered to be in position by 1 a.m on the morning of the 25th, about 159 yards behind our front posts.. About 3.30 on the morning of the 25th, the enemy opened a bombardment of hitherto unparalleled intensity upon our front.
The 207th Company, which…was close behind our front line grouped in batteries, opened fire with sixteen guns at almost point blank range into the massed hordes of the enemy. The enemy was concentrated behind Polderhoek Chateau Ridge… Low flying enemy aeroplanes soon, however, detected (them) and both by machine gunning and directing artillery upon the 207th Machine Gun Company, the enemy inflicted very severe casualties amongst the gunners’
The body of James Fisher was never found, possibly blown to bits. He is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial for the missing, as his grave is not known. He is one of 34,992 young men whose remains were never recovered and whose names are inscribed on this wall.
At the time of his death, James was owed £45/10/5 plus a war gratuity of £16/10/0 which sum was paid to his father on November 15 1919. Not much consolation for the terrible loss of a beloved son.
When researching this post, I made a table of the men from our parish of Mevagh, either born there or who had lived there at one time, and was astonished to find so many who had died between 1914 and 1918. This data has been extracted from the County Donegal Book of Honour, The Great War 1914-1918. These records are confined to deaths in the years 1914 to 1918 only and do not include, for example, a Mevagh man who is buried in Clontallagh who died in 1919.
The statistics are quite startling. In 1914, 2 men from our parish died, 3 died in 1915, 1 in 1916. In 1917, 9 died – 4 of them in a 4 week period alone (and one on the same day as James Fisher) – and 7 died in 1918.
It would be interesting to cross reference the data in the book with the civil records and census records now online and to include those who died from wounds after the 1918 cut off date. and to find their military records.
Sergeant James Fisher D.C.M (Bar) of Umlagh is the most decorated of these Mevagh men and he lost his life 100 years ago. He deserves to be remembered as a son of our parish, as indeed, do all of these men who lost their lives in that conflict.
There is, I understand, a commemorative plaque in the Carrigart Presbyterian Church. I must try to get a photo, if that is allowed.
THE PITY OF WAR!
County Donegal Book of Honour, The Great War 1914-1918.
Australian War Memorial at https:/www.awm.gov.au/collection/R1590453
Another week. It was a hard week as day 54 was crossed off my calendar.
I normally sleep very well, but for a number of consecutive nights, sleep either eluded me completely or was fitful.
It is hard enough getting through ‘normal’ days punctuated by rest of 7 or 8 hours of respite. But a solid block of 24 hours, alone with your thoughts, is not a safe place, not a good place to be. It becomes overwhelming – full of grief for those who have been claimed by this virus, full of sorrow for the bereaved families and friends we were powerless to support, full of sadness that our traditional funerals have become little more than body disposal exercises. And full of an overwhelming sense of loss for roads not taken and the heartbreak of lost and damaged relationships.
Such dark feelings border on depression. Interestingly, many friends tell me that this week has been a challenging one for them too, many of them in totally different situations to mine, yet all dragged down by deep anxiety that can be difficult to analyse.
Yet, there is a crack in everything letting the light in, as Leonard Cohen says. An unexpected phonecall, a video of a quest for bluebells along a woodland path, the sound of laughing children, a photo sent by a friend. And not least, the news that short outdoor exercising will be permitted from May 5.
This too will pass, so we must ring the bell that still can ring.
I hope you enjoy this live performamce of Anthem , beautifully presented by Leonard Cohen and a host of musicians.
Anthem by Leonard Cohen
The birds they sang At the break of day Start again I heard them say Don’t dwell on what Has passed away Or what is yet to be Yeah the wars they will Be fought again The holy dove She will be caught again Bought and sold And bought again The dove is never free
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything) That’s how the light gets in
Here in Ireland, everyone who is compromised by health issues and those aged over 70 must stay at home, with food and medication being delivered by family members or teams of volunteers.This is called ‘Cocooning’ and this will be a series of short posts from inside the cocoon.