Kilkenny Families in the Great War (1914-18) : Kavanaghs & Kirwans.

This week I would like to dip into the lives of two individuals from the forthcoming book Kilkenny Families in the Great War: Nicholas ‘Shells’ Kavanagh (Conahy & Freshford) & my own great-uncle, Paddy Kirwan (Lower Grange & Australia). Other individuals with these surnames, notably Sgt-Pilot Patrick Joseph Kirwan of Lemonstown, Kilmoganny, are given at the end of the article.

This week I would like to dip into the lives of two individuals from the forthcoming book Kilkenny Families in the Great War: Nicholas ‘Shells’ Kavanagh (Conahy & Freshford) & my own great-uncle, Paddy Kirwan (Lower Grange & Australia). Other individuals with these surnames, notably Sgt-Pilot Patrick Joseph Kirwan of Lemonstown, Kilmoganny, are given at the end of the article.

Nicholas ‘Shells’ Kavanagh of Freshford and Conahy

I first heard about ‘Shells’ Kavanagh from Pat Dermody, Ballyragget and even though he had a fund of stories about the man, initially he had no idea what his Christian name might have been, with the result that our original entry for this ex-soldier read; ‘a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War, whose place of residence was in or about Conahy. Gradually over time with additional help from Pat Dermody and from a new source, Tom Downey, a local veterinary surgeon, a story emerged. Once we had his full name we were then able to access the surviving military records, chiefly the medal rolls, at the National Archives, Kew, London.

From a Conahy source it was learned that ‘Shells was in fact Nicholas Kavanagh who was fifteen years of age at the time of the 1901 censes who was then living at Boherglass with his father Martin, brother John and sister Margaret. By the time the 1911 census was taken, Margaret Kavanagh and her husband John Mulhall were living at Kilkenny St., Freshford, with their four children: James (6); Mary (5), Patrick (3) and Margaret (1). Subsequently, a fifth child, John (Jack) was born, who worked at Ballyragget Creamery (Avonmore/Glanbia) and stayed at Clifford’s pub in Ballyragget, one of his uncle’s (Shells) drinking spots. John Clifford the proprietor, was a Freshford man like his customer which is probably one of the reasons why Shells choose to drink there. On occasion he got a little drunk and did what many a man would do in a similar situation, sing out loudly, and generally carry-on in a merry way, much to the embarrassment of his nephew Jack Mulhall. Many of us have had similar experiences and no doubt, Jack Mulhall, did what we would do, instantly deny all responsibility, even kinship itself was up for grabs, which is a serious matter in Ireland.

Nicholas ‘Shells’ Kavanagh joined the RGA probably late in 1914 or certainly early in 1915, as we know from the medal rolls that this soldier was given the 1915 (Mons) Star, the British Medal and the Victory Medal. One had to be serving by the time the Battle of Mons occurred in 1915, in order to be eligible. The medal roll even tells us that Shells’ three medals were returned to the War Office in June 1921 in order to have the stamped name of ‘Cavanagh’ changed to the correct form of his surname, Kavanagh. This was during the ‘Troubles’ by which time Shells was involved in the fight for Irish freedom. After independence Shells went into the Irish Free State Army and later still he appears to have worked for a number of farming families around the Freshford/Cohany area including Nicholas Downey, father of source Tom Downey. Fr Michael Downey, a brother of Tom, who now resides in Sacramento, California remembers Shells well, who he says was well liked by Nicholas Downey because he was a ‘tasty’ workman. One of his stories impinges on Shell’s religious practices. While he attended mass regularly, the sacrament of confession was less favoured, with the result that when the ‘Missons’ came to Conahy, Shells came under pressure to see that he did his duty. On one such occasion it was arranged that a Fr. O’ Shea – probably Rev. Philip O’ Shea, born Kilkenny city, who was CC in Conahy during the years 1937 to 1957 and who became PP in 1967 until his retirement in 1972 , or failing that the Rev. Richard O’ Shea from Templeorum who was CC 1928 to 1930 – would come and hear his confession which was duly done by a hay-stack in Downey’s haggard. The sources report that Shells had a spring in his step for many a day thereafter.

Shells is credited with a number of sayings, the key one being that he did’nt believe in hell as he could’nt accept the notion that man who was created in God’s own image, would because of sin roast for ever in Hell’s fire, though the existence of that places’ Master, was a concept that he did accept, for he thought eating between meals was ‘the divil’s own habit’. Shells was popular with the people of his area, chiefly for his tug-o-war and story-telling abilities. Small boys must have been tremendously fascinated by this individual who had a soldierly bearing to the end of his life in the early 1960s. He now lies buried in the old graveyard at St. Lachtain’s, Freshford, where his name is recorded alongside that of his brother-in-law, Michael Mulhall. Unfortuantely we don’t have a photograph of Nicholas ‘Shells’ Kavanagh for our book though it is believed that one survives. His family of Kavanaghs survived in Freshford until relatively recently but it is now thought that his nearest agnatic relatives are in the States.

Patrick Joseph Kirwan, Lower Grange, Goresbridge & Australia.

There were characters like Nicholas ‘Shells’ Kavanagh all around Kilkenny, indeed all over Ireland. Some led hard lives and were perceived as ‘cracked’ or ‘touched in the head’ do doubt a direct result of their war-time experiences. My grandfather’s only brother, Paddy Kirwan, who emigrated to Australia c. 1905-8, enlisted in Australia as a medical orderly, perhaps because his maternal uncle, Dr. Denny Walsh, was the Graiguenamanagh Dispensary doctor until his death in 1929. Paddy according to family lore was loath to settle down, had an eye for the ladies (often a fatal combination) and after his war services, in which he was injured, he ended up an alcoholic for a time, being jailed on one occasion for drunkenness.

Paddy’s surviving army record shows him to have been an atrocious soldier, one who had a severe problem with army discipline, yet despite his many mis-adventures, generally absences without leave (AWOL) he was awarded his full compliment of Australian WW1 campaign service medals and was in receipt of an army invalidity pension. Yet in his last known letter home - which survives - to his niece Anastatia (Statia) Kirwan, later Mrs. James McMonagle, a Donegal man, who was a career soldier with the Irish army - he has only good to say of how he was treated. There is no complaint in his letter about his lot in life, but one has to wonder how his wife, Margaret (Maggie) and son Leo, fared as a result of Paddy’s periods of intemperance. One elderly family connection, Miss Fanny Hegarty of Lowergrange, later of Barrowmount and finally of Main St.,Goresbridge, remembered Paddy’s departure for Australia, as he called on his ‘Aunt Mary’, Mrs. Michael Donohoe (née Walsh) of Lowergrange (Fanny’s step-grandmother) and her family to say his goodbyes. Fanny & her brother Michael Hegarty had recently moved from Dublin, where their father worked in the Guinness Brewery, to live with the Donohoes as a result of their mother’s (a Donohoe) early death.

On his departure from the old Walsh/Donohoe house (which was replaced shortly after by a new house which by father said cost near £1,000) at Lower Grange, Paddy stooped to greet Fanny, then a small child, and placed in her hand a sixpenny bit. Over seventy-five years later she recalled the kindness of Paddy who was no blood relation and spoke of him with affection. Fanny too remembered the kindness and interest of her step-grandmother, Mary Donohoe and the latter’s sister, Ellen Kirwan, Paddy’s mother. Fanny subsequently lived most of her live at Barrowmount with her step-uncle, Jack Donohoe, an auctioneer (Michael Donohoe & Sons) and his wife Lulu (née Corbet), who became well-known racing figures in the 1960s when their mare Height O’ Fashion, once trained by Paddy Mullins (and many others) won over eighteen races. Incidentially she was beaten into second place by the Duchess of Westminister’s Arkle in a1960s running of the Irish Grand National: true she gave Arkle a lot of weight but then she was a very small mare. The photo-finish shot of the race was a proud possession which graced the Donohoe sideboard for many years and it was believed that Anne, Duchess of Westminster ensured that no other copies of that photo-finish survived.

But back to Paddy Kirwan. His last letter home survives:

Ward B Liverpool Hospital,



New South Wales,


30 September 1933.

Dear Statia

I am sending you some more papers and don’t forget when convenient to send the sport and that illustrated home paper. My leg is just about the same and I think an amputation will eventually be the result[,] although I don’t like the idea of having it cut off after all those years but I have been in hospital now off and on ever since I got wounded at the war and with all the treatment I have had it doesn’t seem to be improving[;] when I do any little walking or put my weight on it[,] it always gets swollen up which means back to bed again.

They will cut it off just below the knee and fit an artificial leg and the Doctor says it will be only a matter of a very short time until I will be able to get about and as I may be transferred back to the C----field Military Hospital at Melbourne when you are writing address C/O Mrs. M.T. Kirwan[,] 251 Victoria St[.,] Ballarat[,] Victoria, to make certain of no mistake in delivery. My health otherwise couldn’t be better and I can assure you that it gets pretty monotonous to be stuck in bed like this all the time. I always get a military pension which comes in very handy[,] we get concerts and a band here regularly and I get the best of treatment in all ways. So I suppose I could be worse off. Your Aunt Maggie and Leo (wife and son) are keeping very well and wish to be remembered to you. If you are writing to my sister (Maggie van Newland in New York city) be sure to remember me to her. I suppose your Father (John Kirwan, then known as the ‘Gowran Park’ trainer) and all the boys ( only two nephews, Dan & Paul Kirwan; former had just won the Irish Grand National & Galway Plate on Lady Helen McCalmont’s Red Park, a Kilkenny bred horse) are kept busy with the horses. How is old Lowergrange looking those times [,] don’t forget to give my kindest regards to all my old friends there and also remember me to the Healey’s (Paddy and his sister Miss Healey at Paulstown Castle) and all my cousins[.] Whatever comes or goes you and I [will] keep writing to each other. I like reading and I get plenty of good books[,] the daily and sporting papers and the best of attention in all ways so as I said before I could be a lot worse off . The only drawback is I cannot walk or put any weight on this leg and I think the sooner they chop it off the better.

I will now say a fond goodbye my dearest Statia hoping you have been keeping well[,] with sincere and best wishes to your Father and all at home and please Statia don’t forget to write regularly because I will be always so pleased to hear from you and whatever comes or goes[,] you and I [will] never forget to write to each other.

Always Your affectionate Uncle

Paddy Kirwan. *

*It is not known if Paddy had the amputation before his death on 13 November following.

Paddy and his wife, Margaret, who was of English descent had one son Leo, who served in the Australian army during the 2nd World War. He survived, returned to Australia where he married and had three daughters. In 1985 after he had retired Leo fulfilled a life-long wish and visited Ireland and the birth-place of his father at Lower Grange, between Gowran and Goresbridge. The old thatched two storey farmhouse in which his father had been born had gone having been accidentially burned in May 1940. This had been replaced by a then exotic, Anglo-Indian- bungalow, which had largely been built with pine timber and slates bought by Paddy’s brother, John, at a salvage sale at Castlemorres House.

Other Kavanaghs from the book:

Charles Francis Kavanagh (4/R Ir Regt, 3314) of Kilkenny city and Aldershot, Hants.

Daniel Kavanagh (6/R Ir Regt, 11103), Green’s Hill, Kilkenny.

Edward Kavanagh (2/R Ir Regt, 3128), St. John’s, Kilkenny city. Killed 9/5/1915.

James Kavanagh (4/R Ir Regt, 4295), St John’s Kilkenny city. Died 13/1/1918.

John Kavanagh (1, Leinsters, 9265), Callan, Co. Kilkenny. Killed 14/2/1915.

Joseph Kavanagh (SWB, 15086), Kilkenny city.

John Kavanagh (Royal Navy, J71768), Kilkenny city.

Michael Kavanagh (R Ir Regt), Kilkenny city.

Martin Kavanagh (4/R Ir Regt, 3948), St. John’s Kilkenny city.

Matthew Kavanagh of Kilkenny city (harness maker of whom almost no detail).

Michael Kavanagh from West St., Callan of whom little information.

Patrick Kavanagh also of West St., Callan.

Philip Kavanagh (1st Gnr Bn/R Ir Regt, 4662) from Kilmoganny and Callan.

Thomas Kavanagh (2/R Ir Regt, 4/3489) from John St., Kilkenny city. Killed 19/10/1014.

Other Kirwans.

George Isadore Kirwan (31st Bn/Canadian Exp. Force, 79334) Kilkenny city.

Patrick John Kirwan (2/King Edward Horse & later Flying Corps), Lemonstown near Kilmoganny.

Pierce (Percy) Kirwan (r Ir Regt, 4672) Portlaw, Co. Waterford and Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny.

Patrick John Kirwan (no relation) of Lemonstown who after a period with King Edward’s Horse transferred to the fledgling British air force which in time became the Royal Air Force. On 31 January 1918, he graduated as a 1st Class Pilot (Bristol Fighter) at the Central Flying School, Upavon. He was subsequently assigned to No 9 (Observer) Squadron, School of Aeronautics at Cheltenham as a sgt-pilot. He was demobbed in March 1919. His war-time career is the exact opposite to Paddy Kirwan’s of Goresbridge and Australia. By the time Patrick J. returned to his home at Lemonstown, his brother Jack Kirwan was involved in the fight for Irish freedom and so it is believed that Patrick’s death by drowning in February 1920, was accidental. He was then on his way home to Lemonstown from the Callan Fair ‘a bit the worse for wear’ when his death occurred by drowning in the Kings River. Patrick and his brother Jack are believed to have been born in the USA but at the time of his death Patrick had like my great-uncle Paddy, become an Australian citizen, as amongst his effects was a passport from that country.