Category Archives: Irish at War

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

The Fisher Family Headstone

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.

From The Derry Journal of September 6, 1916

The citation for this award was as follows:

‘18679 Actg. L/Cpl J Fisher Mach. Gun Corps (LG 22 Sept. 1916)

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

DCM

 

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, 1916, 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.

Tyne Cot Memorial

The Tyne Cot Memorial stands around the eastern boundary of the Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ieper in Belgium, (Image Commonwealth Graves Commission).

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.

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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.

THE PITY OF WAR!

Sources

County Donegal Book of Honour, The Great War 1914-1918. 

Australian War Memorial at https:/www.awm.gov.au/collection/R1590453

http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1631955/fisher,-james/.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action _of _25- September_1917

https:/archive.org//stream/historymemoirof300unse#page/32/mode/2up/searfch/207th

Ancestry.com UK Army Registers of Effects 1901-1929

With thanks to Damian Shiels, Military Historian, for his help in sourcing information for this post. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Ireland, Irish at War, Irish History, Local History

Irish V.C. honoured in Western Australia

The Irish tricolour flutters in Perth Western Australia. (Image ©thesilvervoice)

Something very special happens when you turn a corner 15,000 kilometers from home to see the Irish tricolour fluttering in a stiff breeze! Such was my experience yesterday as I attended a wreath laying event at Western Australia’s State War Memorial in King’s Park in Perth.

Regular readers will be aware of my journey of discovery of tragic Co.Tipperary man Martin O’Meara, winner of a Victoria Cross while in the service of the Australian Imperial Force in World War 1. See earlier posts here and here.

The Western Australia State War Memorial is dramatically located on Mount Eliza which overlooks Perth Water and consists of a main obelisk and a Court of Contemplation that includes the Eternal Flame.

A series of plaques surround the Eternal Flame. These commemorate V.C and George Cross Recipients (Image. ©Thesilvervoice)

Irishman Martin O’Meara V.C is included on these plaques.

The plaque dedicated to Martin O’Meara V.C (Image ©thesilvervoice)

The Irish Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality, David Stanton was over from Ireland for St Patrick’s festivities and joined members of the RSLWA  (Returned & Services League of Western Australia) in honouring the State’s War Dead by laying a wreath at the eternal flame. This was followed by the laying of a wreath at the plaque in honour of Martin O’Meara V.C.  Minister Stanton,who was accompanied by Mr. Marty Kavanagh – Honorary Consul of Ireland, Western Australia, co-incidentally is the public representative for my constituency of East Cork, Ireland.

The beautifully simple ceremony was attended by people with an interest in matters Irish, and was facilitated by the former soldiers of the RSLWA, many of whom I believe had served in Vietnam. They looked resplendent in their medals and uniforms.

Minister Stanton paid tribute to the many Irish who served Australia and other nations across the globe.

Minister Stanton lays a wreath of laurel from the Government of Ireland on the plaque dedicated to Martin O’Meara. (Image Ⓒthesilvervoice)

 

The Last Post is sounded…always a poignant moment!

It is really heartwarming that so many emigrants from Ireland and their descendants remain very proud of their roots and celebrate, commemorate and honour  fellow countrymen whenever the occasion arises. The Irish Community in Western Australia is particularly active in this way!

References

http://www.bgpa.wa.gov.au

 

 

 

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish at War, Irish Convicts, Irish diaspora in Australia

The boy ‘full of frolicsome fun’ who went mad: Martin O’Meara V.C.

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Martin O’Meara

One hundred years ago, less than four months after Ireland’s Easter Rising, a 30 year-old Irishman from County Tipperary was caught up with tens of thousands of others in the bloody Battle of the Somme. This was Martin O’ Meara, whose tragic and sad story has captivated many. My personal story of discovery is here: Discovering Martin O’Meara V.C. & The Psychological Cost of World War One. Martin O’Meara had left the small rural farm in Co Tipperary where he was raised and eventually ended up in Western Australia. Not far from Perth, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was sent to France. The very first action the encountered by the 16th Battalion  was on the killing fields of the Somme, at Mouquet Farm near Pozières, France. On these days a century ago, between Wednesday the 9th and  Saturday 12th August 1916, Martin O’Meara astonished his Australian Expeditionary Force officers with acts of daring bravery and courage. His military records contain eye witness accounts of his actions during battle as follows:

“On the night of 8/9 August, I saw Private O’Meara go out into ‘No Man’s Land’ where it was being severely shelled and remove wounded to places of safety where he rendered first aid and subsequently assisted to carry them down to the Dressing Station. I personally saw him remove not less than 6 men, mostly of the 15th Battalion, A.I.F. and the Suffolk Battalion. One of the wounded whom I saw him remove in this is Lieut. Fogarty of the 15th Battalion . A.I F.”  – Captain Ross Harwood.

“Late in the afternoon of the 12th instant, after my Company had been relieved in the front firing line, I noticed Lieut. Carse of the No.4 Machine Gun Company, lying wounded in a sap which was at that time out off from the rear by a very heavy barrage. In order to go to the assistance of this officer No. 3970 Private O’Meara with great gallantry and utmost fearlessness went through the barrage and subsequently assisted to bring him down to the Regimental Aid Post”  – Captain A McLeod.

“On the morning  of the 11th August, O’Meara was on scouting duty in ‘No Man’s Land’. At this time some three machine guns were firing over the section of ground which he was examining, and it was also being very heavily shelled with H.E shells.  About ten minutes after I saw him going over the parapet into ‘No Man’s Land’. I saw him return carrying a wounded man whom he had found lying in a shell hole in ‘No Man’s Land’. Having dressed the wounds of this man he returned to ‘No Man’s Land’ in pursuance of his duty as a Scout. My notice was again drawn to this man on the morning of the 12th when the section of  trench occupied by my company was being heavily bombarded by H.E and Shrapnel. I withdrew the garrison to either flank from one portion that was in process of being completely obliterated which subsequently happened; one man failed to get out in time and was buried. O’Meara, despite the overwhelming fire, at once rushed to the spot, extricated the man concerned and thereby undoubtedly saved his life. During the advance of the Battalion, on the night of 9/10th a number of men were wounded and left lying on the ground over which the advance had been made and subsequently on the 11/12th runners and carriers who had occasion to cross this area were wounded there. I saw O’Meara on many occasions on the 10/11/12th August search the ground for wounded to whom he rendered first aid, and whom he subsequently brought in or assisted to bring in  “  – Major P Black.

“I saw O’Meara on a number of occasions attending to or bringing in wounded men from an area over which the Battalion had advanced and from ‘No Man’s Land’. I estimate that the number of men rescued by him is not less than 20. At times when he was carrying out this work of mercy, the shrapnel and machine gun fire was intense beyond description. I cannot state who these men were – they were mostly members of the 15th Battalion, A.I.F  and the Suffolk Battalion , but I am able to identify Lieut. FOGARTY of the 15th Battalion , A.I.F to whom he rendered first aid and whom he subsequently brought into trench.This officer had been wounded and had been lying in ‘No Man’s Land’ for about 4 hours: the enemy fire at this point was so dense that it had been impossible to make a search for wounded, but such conditions did not deter O’Meara “ – Lieutenant F. Wadge.

”I respectfully beg to draw your attention to the conduct of No. 3970 Private O’MEARA, M., during the recent operations of this Battalion. Private O’Meara is the most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen; besides doing the very arduous duties imposed on him, by reason of his being in the Scouting Section, efficiently and cheerfully, this man used to fill in his time bringing in wounded under all conditions. Private O’Meara is always cheerful and optimistic, will volunteer for any job, and can be trusted to carry any duty through with the utmost certainty. During Friday night’s operations I required more ammunition and bombs on the left Sector, most of the reserve stocks having been buried owing to there being no communication saps, and the perfect hail of shells that were blowing the parapets to pieces, I would not detail anyone for this job. O’Meara went on his own initiative to the Battalion Dump twice, returning with S.A.A. and Bombs; on his second return he managed to guide a fatigue party across and relieved us of our shortage. During these trips he located wounded men and carried 3 of them back to the Dressing Station. This man has been responsible for the evcuaton of at least 20 men under conditions that are indescribable.’‘ – Lieut. W. J. Lynas

”On the night of the 11/12th August, that section of the Front Line occupied by ‘D’ Company was intensely shelled. All communication trenches were blown in as well as  cosiderable portion of the Front system of trenches. It was discovered that the supply of S.A.A. was very short, and that all bombs and flares for signalling purposes had been buried: An Infantry assault was expected to succeed the barrage. O’Meara volunteered to go down to the Regimental Dump and procure ammunition, bombs and flares. He made this trip twice and on both occasions staggered back under a very heavy load of the munitions required” – Lt. R.S Somerville 

On the evening of the 12th instant, after my Battaion had been relieved I met O’Meara near CHALK PITS going in the direction of POZIERS. He has previously been sent down as a guide to ‘D’ Company. When I asked him where he was going he informed me that he had just heard of 2 wounded men from the Battalion who had no been brought in from ‘No man’s Land’. He was subsequently seen by Lieut. Cook in the front trenches. The following day the attached note was received from him by my Scout Officer. During the latter stages of the relief of the Battalion a very heavy German artillery barrage was put down over the Communication trenches south of POZIERS. In order to carry out his mission of mercy this man voluntary returned through the barrage referred to after having reached a position of comparative safety.” E Drake Brockman, Lieut-Colonel, Major-General, Comdg, 4th AUSTRALIAN DIVISION

The terrible fighting that took place at Pozières and Mouquet Farm over less than seven weeks resulted in 23,000 Australian casualties, with 6,800 dead. Charles Bean, an Australian war historian described some of the horror ..

The reader must take for granted many of the conditions – the flayed land, shell–hole bordering shell–hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell–holes; some – except for the dust settling on them – seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen and discoloured. 

Add to this the deafening noise, the exhaustion, the sights and sounds of screaming men, the rats, the trenches – this was a scene of horror that must have impacted all those who were there.

The image below was photographed on August 28 1916, at  The “Gibraltar” bunker, Pozières. A fatigue party laden with sandbags heads for the fighting at Mouquet Farm. and shows the total devastation caused by the barrage of shells that rained down on the area.

Heading for the fighting at Mouquet Farm (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Martin O’Meara was awarded a Victoria Cross, the citation for which was published in the Supplement to the London Gazette of Friday 9, September 1916:

No. 3970 Pte. Martin O’Meara, Aus. Infy. For most conspicuous bravery. During four days of very heavy fighting he repeatedly went out and brought in wounded officers and men from “No Man’s Land” under intense artillery and machine gun fire. He also volunteered and carried up ammunition and bombs through a heavy barrage to a portion of the trenches, which was being heavily shelled at the time. He showed throughout an utter contempt of danger, and undoubtedly saved many lives.

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to see first hand the actual Victoria Cross presented to Martin O’Meara by  King George V at Buckingham Palace on 21 July 1917.

Martin O'Meara's Victoria Cross

Martin O’Meara’s Victoria Cross

O’Meara was wounded and was returned to England for treatment. Meanwhile news of his Victoria Cross award had reached Tipperary and there was great jubilation in the area. The local newspaper, the Nenagh Guardian of Sept 30, 1916, described him as ‘a bright lively boy full of frolicsome fun and a keen lover of sport’. He was welcomed back to Tipperary in October and on the 24th of that month he attended a meeting at nearby Borrisokane and thanked the gathering for their congratulations and for agreeing to take up a collection in his honour.

He rejoined the ANZACS but returned again to Tipperary in October 1917, where his demeanor was described as ‘strange’. He had failed to attend an event in Lorrha where his sister accepted a gold watch purchased from proceeds of the collection and the balance of £150. As a serving soldier he was not permitted to accept the money but it was held in trust for him. Martin was wounded three times during the war. He was  returned to Australia in November 1918 before the end of the war and almost immediately was hospitalized suffering from a mental breakdown. At what stage did the breakdown happen? Was it after the Mouquet Farm actions for which he won the V.C.? Was it a slow process that began to overcome him while on active service?  Reading the accounts above given by the officers in the field, one would wonder what drove him to be so courageous and to put himself in such danger to carry out the deeds in the first place. Did the breakdown happen before he returned to Australia? Was that the real reason he was sent home early? There are many unanswered questions regarding Martin and his mental illness. Shellshock was a relatively new phenomenon and was often seen as ‘malingering’ when displayed in regular soldiers. Treatment was in its infancy and there is no doubt but that his condition was both misunderstood and treated in a very basic fashion, certainly in the early days.

The  bright lively boy full of frolicsome fun who ran and played  in the green fields of Tipperary, the efficient,cheerful and optimistic soldier who went into battle, had gone mad.  Martin O’Meara, the hero of Pozières was incarcerated in mental institutions for the rest of his days, often restrained  in a strait jacket, often violent, often hearing voices. He died after 17 years in torment on 20 December 1935  and lies in this lonely plot in a vast graveyard in Western Australia.

Martin O Meara, the once bright lively boy full of frolicsome fun, lies in this lonely grave in Western Australia.

Martin O Meara V.C.  lies in this lonely grave in Western Australia.

After his death, the Catholic parish priest in Lorrha Co Tipperary went to court to have Martin’s bequest for the restoration of the old Abbey  in the village set aside and instead used to provide a pair of confessionals in the Church with the balance to be used for the building of Redwood school. An ironic enough situation given that the local clergy did not attend the event held in Martin’s honour many years earlier. The £150 pounds had become £370. 9 shillings and 1 penny by 1939. £60 pounds was expended on the confessionals and after expenses of £8. 8 shillings the balance of £362.1s.1d was allocated to Redwood school. This was a substantial sum in 1939 – equivalent to about €18,400 in modern currency. It is to he hoped that the pupils of that school are familiar with the story of the local hero, Martin O’Meara who played sport in the area just as they do and who loved having fun, who so courageously looked after his comrades in terrible circumstances. It is to be hoped that he is more to them than a name  inscribed on a local memorial in Lorrha village and on a small brass plaque in the Catholic church.

In Western Australia Martin O’Meara is well and proudly remembered nowadays by the Irish community, in particular Fred Rea of ‘The Australian Irish Scene’ and Ian Loftus and he is commemorated in Collie where he enlisted, as well as at the State War Memorial in Perth’s Kings Park on an annual basis. My good friend Leith Landauer who is a  guide at Kings Park first introduced me to Martin’s story. She has done trojan work to highlight the sacrifice he made for fellow Australians. To mark the centenary of the actions that earned him the Victoria Cross, Ian has written a biography of Martin O’Meara dispelling some of the myths and exploring the real story of this Tipperary man, this Irishman who gave his life, body mind and soul to help others. The book is aptly titled The most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen and is available here.

Martin O’Meara V.C.

November 6 1885 – December 20 1935

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam

Oh, The Pity of War.

Wilfred Owen – Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them, 
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense 
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
– Thus their hands are plucking at each other; 
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

References

National Archives of Australia Records

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume III, p. 728

War image is from the Collection Database of the  Australian War Memorial ID Number: EZ0098

https://ianloftus.com/martin-omeara-vc/the-most-fearless-and-gallant-soldier-i-have-ever-seen/www.awm.gov.au

http://www.seamusjking.com

Army Museum of Western Australia

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Easter Monday in Dublin …A stroll in Stephen’s Green

There is a song that goes :

For Dublin can be heaven
With coffee at eleven
And a stroll in Stephen’s Green.

Such was the case for us on Easter Monday 2016, as we ambled about ‘The Green’ as it is known. We were in Dublin, Ireland’s Capital City, for events commemorating the Rising against British rule in Ireland, which took place on Easter Monday April 24 1916. St Stephen’s Green, a beautiful Victorian park in the centre of Dublin was one of the pivotal sites seized by the Irish Citizen’s Army on that fateful day. Under the command of Michael Mallin, the Green was seized, trenches were dug and barricades were erected.

Shelbourne Hotel as seen from inside Stephens Green

Shelbourne Hotel as seen from inside Stephens Green- Image Library of Congress.

On that evening the British Army moved troops into The Shelbourne Hotel and the nearby Hibernian Club, and on the next day from these vantage points, they fired down on the rebels in the Green. It is said that fire was temporarily halted to allow the Green’s groundsman feed the local ducks! The Irish Rebels eventually had to retreat to the nearby Royal College of Surgeons which had been occupied by Irish Citizen Army forces, led by Commandant Mallin and Countess Markievicz.  After surrendering on 29 April,both were tried and sentenced to death. Mallin was executed while Markievicz’s sentence was commuted.

The \fusiliers Arch at Stephens Green with bullet damage from British trioops who were firing on insurgents in the Green

The Fusiliers Arch at Stephens Green with bullet damage from British troops who were firing on insurgents at the Royal College of Surgeons.

All was quiet on Monday as we commemorated those events from almost a century ago.

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Events in the Green included concerts and a vintage circus, all of which took place in beautiful springtime sunshine, with families and individuals lapping up the atmosphere.

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Outside the buildings were draped for the occasion

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The Royal College of Surgeons, where insurgents were based in 1916

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The lovely Unitarian Church on Stephens Green

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Damian Shiels, historian,outside the Royal College of Surgeons where he was scheduled to deliver a talk in the Reflecting the Rising series to commemorate the events of 1916.

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Postboxes were painted red for the commemoration, reverting to the British mailbox colour. Irish post boxes are green nowadays.

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People wandered about having a good time. The Irish flag is green, white and orange, although we often see green, white and gold flags, which are incorrect. The green white and orange is an all inclusive flag that symbolises peace between the green, Catholic Irish and Protestant Irish, represented by the orange.

Back in The Green,these two memorial busts epitomize for me the discourse that is Ireland, the contentious issues that to this day divide. To me they are powerful in that these memorials stand as equals in one of Ireland’s most prestigious sites, one that was pivotal on that Easter Monday in 1916.

On the left is Tom Kettle, who having joined the Irish Volunteers went on to enlist in the British Army (Ireland was at that time part of Britian and tens of thousands went to war in British uniforms). He was killed at Ginchy, during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. On the right is the revolutionary nationalist Constance Markievicz a suffragette and a socialist, who was on active service at Stephens Green on Easter Monday 1916. I love that they are both of equal stature in this very special place. It was a good day to be strolling in Stephen’s Green.

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish at War, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Living in Ireland

One Poppy

Ceramic poppy from Blood Swept Lands and Seas of RedJust a year ago I visited the art installation at the Tower of London which commemorated the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was made of ceramic poppies, one for each of the 888,246 men who perished in the British Army at that time. Tens of thousands of those who died were Irishmen.

Contrary to popular belief, Armistice Day continued to be observed in Ireland in the years and decades after the 1916 Rising. In 1926 for example an estimated 40,000 people turned out in Dublin in remembrance of fallen relatives and friends.

An estimated 40,000 attend Armistice Day commemorations in Dublin 1926

An estimated 40,000 attend Armistice Day commemorations in Dublin 1926

I was among the lucky ones who got to buy one of the ceramic poppies from the Tower of  London installation. It is now beautifully framed  and  stands in sorrowful remembrance of the pity of war.

One framed Poppy

One framed Poppy

 

 

Further details and more photos of the installation at The Tower of London in 2014 can be seen in my post Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.

Irish Poppy Pin

Irish Poppy Pin

 

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Tait’s Clothing Factory: Flowers in the rubble.

In June last there was an ‘Open House’ event in Limerick City, showcasing the historically important Tait’s Clothing Factory, ahead of the redevelopment of the site, to provide much needed housing in this part of the city.

The site today

The site today

It was a great honour to stroll through this significant industrial heritage site of international importance. Opened in 1853, the clothing factory became the biggest clothing manufacturer in the world, supplying military uniforms to the British Army,the Canadian Volunteer Militia and to the Confederates in the American Civil War. Many hundreds of Limerick men and women were employed here, up to the time it closed in 1975.

Sir Peter Tait was born in Lerwick Scotland in the early 19th Century and arrived in Limerick to join his sister in 1838. He was an astute and successful business person who became Mayor of Limerick in  three successive years from 1866 to 1868. During his thirty years in the city Peter Tait provided employment to hundreds of people who serviced contracts for military uniforms.

On the day of my visit,at first sight, it appeared to be a desolate site, but on closer inspection I was pleased to see an abundance of wildflowers amid the rubble. I was struck by the similarities with the poppy fields of the world war battlefields, and could not help but think of these beautiful wildflowers as a testament to the men and women who sewed and stitched the uniforms that went to the Crimea and to the United States, many of which became shrouds for their unfortunate wearers.

These are a few of my snaps in memory of all of them. Tomorrow in Limerick, as part of Heritage Week, there will be a day long seminar on Tait’s Clothing Factory,past and future, entitled  ‘A Testament to Time’. These wildflowers are a testament to all those whose lives were affected by the work carried out here.

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Filed under American Civil War, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish at War, Irish Diaspora, Social History Ireland

Discovering Martin O’Meara V.C. & The Psychological Cost of World War One

The extent to which the Irish diaspora have left indelible marks in many corners of the world, yet are relatively unknown in their homeland never ceases to amaze me. One of the most memorable of these is County Tipperary man Martin O ‘Meara, a veteran of World War One, whose memory lives on in the parts of Western Australia where he lived and died.

A bright-eyed Martin O Meara, date unknown (Australian War Memorial, public domain

A bright-eyed Martin O’ Meara, date unknown (Australian War Memorial, Public Domain

Martin inscribed his name into the annals of history for his actions during the Great War, service which earned him the highest decoration for gallantry. But it was also a conflict that destroyed him, ultimately consigning him to long years of mental anguish and institutionalisation. This is his story.

Irish tricolour far from home

Irish tricolour far from home

On March 17th 2014, at the Western Australian State Memorial Park in Perth, an Irish tricolor fluttered in the breeze. A member of the Irish Government was coming to lay a wreath at one of the tablets surrounding the Flame of Remembrance. The entourage was led by Mr Alan Kelly T.D. (now Minister of Environment, Community & Local Government) then Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, and Mr Marty Kavanagh, Honorary Consul of Ireland in Western Australia. In a very simple and moving ceremony  Mr Kelly honoured his fellow Tipperary man at the plaque inscribed Pte Martin O’MEARA VC, 16th Australian Infantry Battalion AIF, 9 September 1916. 

So who was Martin O Meara? Since that ceremony I have made it my mission to find out, traveling to some of the sites associated with him and spending long hours exploring many of the historical documents associated with his life.

Martin O'Meara in 1916 Image Wikimedia Commons

Martin O Meara in 1916
Image WikimediaCommons

Martin O’Meara (Meara) was born in County Tipperary, Ireland in November 1885, one of 11 children of  Michael and Margaret. In the 1901 census we find 15-year-old Martin living with his father and mother, three older brothers and two older sisters in the townland of Lissernane. By the time of the 1911 census, his mother has been widowed and she is living in the same house with one son and one daughter. We cannot be sure where Martin was at this time, but a Martin O’Meara born in Tipperary and of the correct age is recorded working in the timber industry in Kilkenny as per this 1911 Census entry for Skeard. Could this be Martin, a wood worker and boarder in the house of a mill worker? We do know that he made his way to Liverpool about 1911, and onwards to Australia In 1914. He eventually settled in the vast timber forests around Bowlling Pool, Western Australia some 30 plus miles from the town of Collie. It was here that he found work as a sleeper-cutter, servicing the rapidly expanding railway system of Western Australia.

On August 19, 1915  Martin O’Meara enlisted  in the Army at Blackboy Hill in Western Australia. His Attestation Papers show that he was born at Rathcabbin, that he was 29 years and 9 months old, 5 feet 7 inches in height, weighed 140 pounds and had a dark complexion, brown eyes and brown hair. He nominated his sister Alice as his next of kin. As a member of the Australian Expeditionary Force, he arrived at  Marseilles, France, on  June 1, 1916. Just a matter of weeks later the Tipperary man was in the middle of the Somme offensive, possibly acting as a stretcher bearer in a fierce assault on the Germans at Mouquet Farm, near Pozières. The fighting here was bitter with the Anzac forces suffering heavy losses. It was here, between August 9 and 12 that Martin O’ Meara distinguished himself with acts of bravery that earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. The citation read: during 4 days of very heavy fighting, he repeatedly went out and brought in wounded officers and men from No Man’s Land under intense Artillery and Machine Gun fire. He also volunteered and carried up ammunition and bombs through a heavy barrage to a portion of the trenches which was being heavily shelled at the time. He showed throughout an utter contempt of danger and undoubtedly saved many lives.

Martin won high praise for his actions, with Lieutenant W.J. Lynas describing him as the “most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen”, while Lieutenant F. Wadge stated in dispatches that he rescued more than 20 soldiers during a barrage of high explosives and machine gun fire that was “intense beyond description.” On yet another occasion, he ventured into no-man’s land under heavy artillery and machine gun fire to retrieve six more of his comrades. The courageous Martin did not stop there, as Lieutenant Colonel E.A.D. Brockman, Commanding Officer of the 16th Battalion, said,  he “continued to venture out into no-man’s land after his company had been relieved, delivering first aid to the wounded, digging out soldiers who had been buried by high explosive shells, and carrying the wounded back to the dressing station.” Martin O’Meara was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V in July 1917

Private O’Meara suffered gun shot wounds to the abdomen during this action and was evacuated to England and admitted to Wandsworth Hospital on August 19. He rejoined the 16th Battalion on December 22.  He was wounded twice afterwards, but rejoined his unit each time.

Outdoor photograph of Martin O'Meara, date unknown. (Australian War Memorial, public domain)

Outdoor photograph of Martin O’Meara, date unknown. (Australian War Memorial, Public Domain)

On August 31, 1918 he was sent to the UK for return to Australia, arriving back in Fremantle on November 6 1918. Sadly that was not the end of the war for Martin. The quiet, courageous man from rural Tipperary who had survived the hell of battle did not live happily ever after. He had already embarked on another journey into hell, a journey that was to last for the rest of his life. Martin was discharged from the army on November 30, 1918. Within days it was reported that he was “delusional” and he was transferred to Stromness Mental facility directly from quarantine, and from there to Claremont Mental Hospital three months later. The sights, sounds and the horrors of war on the Western Front had driven the quiet Tipperary man mad.

We know a little about Martin O’Meara’s personality as newspapers responding to the award of his V.C. sought accounts from people in Australia who knew him before enlisting. One friend described him as a strong but gentle teetotaller, while another remembered him as reserved but with a very genial character. A former employer reported that he was “generous to a fault” and willing to perform any task asked of him. He was a member of the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society. A few of his letters back to Australia have been published and they are evidence that he was a caring, compassionate, humble man, who made reference to God and his deeply held beliefs.

By contrast, his military records contain many shocking details of his post war condition. In December 1918 he was described as “extremely homicidal and suicidal and requires to be kept in restraint” with no hope of his recovery. The Inspector General of the Insane furnished a report of Martin’s condition during the 17 years he was in the Asylum. He was initially obstinate and difficult, restless, sometimes violent, noisy during the night, suffered from hallucinations and attacked the attendants. By 1923 he “showed loss of control” and frequently needed sedation. In 1925 he was again described as obstinate, difficult to manage, sometimes taking 3 or 4 attendants to put him to bed and in 1927  he is recorded as pacing the floor and rushing wildly to and fro cursing imaginary persecutors. By 1934, it was reported that he was “disconnected in his conversation” and was shameless, sometimes exposing himself and using abusive language. In 1926 he had been transferred to Lemnos Hospital, but because of his ”violent propensities”, he was sent back to  Claremont Mental Hospital in November 1935. Six weeks later, on December 19, 1935, he collapsed following a period of continued excitement and died the following day from Pulmonary Oedema, chronic mania and exhaustion. His death was recorded as “due to war service.” Martin O’Meara V.C. received a military funeral at Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth, with representatives of  the military and the state in attendance as well as other V.C. winners. The funeral cost to the state was 16 Pounds and 13 Shillings.

Shell shock was a relatively new phenomenon,that affected thousands of soldiers. In the war’s early days it was not understood and sometimes dismissed as mere hysteria, especially in enlisted men. Nervous disorders were frequently viewed as disciplinary matters, with sufferers often accused of being cowards or malingering. It is not clear when Martin O’Meara was first affected by it as it is not referred to in any of the military records, but it is unlikely that it first manifested itself on his return to Australia. In any event, the psychological trauma he suffered caused his war to continue for 17 years after the last shots of war were fired. We do not know if he had any friends in the institutions for the insane or whether he had any visitors who cared about him. Was he forgotten for those long years of anguish? His sister Alice, who was in receipt of a fortnightly pension of 25 shillings based on Martin’s service, asked for and received accounts of him from time to time and there was also an enquiry made about him on behalf of one of his brothers.

Martin continued to make headlines following his death as a dispute arose about the validity of a new will he made when recovering from a wound in hospital in Bath, England, in 1917. After winning his V.C. in 1916, the people of Tipperary had a collection in his honour and he was presented with a gold watch. As a serving soldier he was unable to accept the remaining balance of the money collected, but in his will he bequeathed it for the restoration of an Old Abbey in Lorrha village, while his Australian Estate of over two thousand pounds was left for the education of his nephews in Ireland. His Victoria Cross was to be given to a friend (coincidentally from Kilkenny, some 2 miles from Skeard, as noted in the 1911 Census above ) provided she went to live in Western Australia for a period of 12 months, otherwise it was to be retained in Western Australia. However, the money in Ireland was insufficient to restore the ruined Lorrha Abbey and the local priest succeeded in having the court agree that the monies be used instead to repair confessionals in the Catholic Church with the balance being used for Redwood National School. Martin O’Meara’s contribution to the local parish is marked by a small brass plaque in the Parish Church in Lorrha, Co Tipperary, while further up the street there is a memorial to Martin, unveiled in recent years by proud parishioners, to commemorate the local boy who became a hero in Australia.

His Victoria Cross now resides in the Military Museum of Western Australia who would dearly love to have all of Martin’s medals in their collection. Martin’s British War Medal and Victory Medal were delivered to the family on June 24, 1924, with the receipt noting that Martin was then “an inmate of the Claremont Hospital.”

09-01-DSCF5449

Martin O’Meara memorial in the Army Museum of Western Australia

Martin O’Meara continues to attract headlines in Australia, almost 100 years after the end of  World War 1. In the little coal mining town of Collie, near where Martin worked in the Jarrah forests as a sleeper hewer, there is another plaque in his memory, and here Ireland’s Ambassador to Australia laid a wreath in his honour after a lovely Irish themed reception at the town hall. The ceremony was followed by a production in the local school hall of a play dedicated to Martin O’Meara, Under any Old Gum Tree, written and directed by Noel O’Neil.

Martin O’Meara’s life long torment epitomizes the Pity of War. His name and his story are centre stage within the Irish communities in Perth and in Collie, who remember his courage and valour with great pride, even though he had only lived in the area for a relatively short time prior to enlistment. The people of his homeland beyond his own Tipperary locality in Ireland deserve to know more about him and remember him too.

MOM VC

Martin O’Meara’s Victoria Cross. Author with Mr Graham McEwan, Chairman, Army Museum of Western Australia

*I am deeply grateful to Mr. Graham McEwan, Chairman, Army Museum of Western Australia for permitting me to see and photograph Martin O’Meara’s Victoria Cross, which is not on public display.

*I am indebted to Leith Landauer of Perth, Western Australia, a passionate stalwart of the cause of Martin O’Meara,V.C., my  tour guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge of WA heritage, and my friend.

*Following publication of this post, Mr Fred  Rea of  ”The Australian Irish Scene” shared the following information:

There is a website devoted to Martin O’Meara at http://www.martinomeara.weebly.com

Here is a link to the British Pathe newsreel footage that we believe shows O’Meara getting presented with the VC medal by King George V at Buckingham Palace in 1917. O’Meara starts at about the 22 second mark….

http://www.britishpathe.com/video/kings-investiture-at-buckingham-palace/query/kings+investiture+at+buckingham+palace

Thank you, Fred!

 

References:
National Archives of Australia Records as follows:
NAA: PP13/1, C5474
NAA: B2455, O’Meara M
NAA: PP645/1, Martin O’Meara V.C
TROVE Newspaper Archive at http://trove.nla.gov.au
O’Meara, P., & Devenish, S. (2010). Sir Neville Howse (VC), Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick and Private Martin O’Meara (VC) and
their contributions to Australian military medicine. Australasian Journal of Paramedicine, 8(1).
Shell Shock and Mental Trauma in World War 1, Dr Fiona Reid, Open University at FutureLearn.

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish at War, Irish Australian, Irish Diaspora, Irish diaspora in Australia