A salute as Kilkenny's WWI memorial is unveiled in October. Picture: Vicky Comerford
As if the story of Thomas Woodgate — the 14-year-old from Callan, Kilkenny who fooled recruiters to join the Irish World War I effort in 1918 — was not extraordinary enough, a century later, more twists in the tale are still being revealed.
When a memorial to Woodgate was unveiled in Kilkenny this year, those involved in making it a reality could hardly have envisaged what would follow. In the weeks since, it has lead to the solving of a family mystery, to the location of a lost grave, and resulted in two sides of a family — who until now didn’t know the other existed — establishing contact more than 80 years after three young siblings were split up.
Thomas Joseph Woodgate was born on December 31, 1903 in Mill Street, Callan, one of Edward Woodgate and Hanora Lannen’s children. In 1918, the 14-year-old became the youngest known Irish military casualty of WWI; he died when the RMS Leinster was torpedoed off the coast of Dun Laoghaire.
On October 11 this year, the new memorial was unveiled in Kilkenny City to honour him and all the young Irishmen and boys who perished in the conflict. Rte cameras and correspondent Conor Kane were on hand to cover the ceremony.
That same evening, around 100 miles away, living in Limerick, Brian Cronin had just sat down to catch up on the SixOne headlines as they flashed past on the television.
“What caught my attention was the name Thomas Joseph Woodgate. I knew my mother’s mother was a Woodgate from Kilkenny,” Brian told the Kilkenny People.
“I have five brothers, and of the six of us, my mother used to say to me growing up as a kid that I looked like the Woodgates.
“Then I saw Joan Bryan being interviewed, and the minute I saw her, I said ‘oh my god – that could be my mother’s sister.”
Joan, who lives in Callan, was present at the unveiling as she is the grandniece of Thomas Woodgate. Her grandfather was Martin Woodgate, Thomas’ older brother.
Family members of Thomas J Woodgate: Joan Bryan (grand niece of Thomas Woodgate), Gary Woodgate (nephew of Thomas Woodgate) and William Woodgate at the unveiling ceremony in October. They were spotted on the RTE News by the Cronin family, who turned out to be related
Brian rang his eldest brother, Ger, and told him to watch a repeat of the news on Rte Plus 1 at 7pm. It didn’t take long for Ger to ring him straight back, instantly making the same recognition and connecting the same dots as his brother.
"There is a good likeness, and he said to me we have to be related,” says Brian. “I said I had no doubt in my mind’.”
First thing next morning, Ger got in touch with the editor of the Kilkenny People, who pointed him in the direction of Donal Croghan, chair of the Kilkenny Great War Memorial Committee.
Donal was able to provide further information, and also link him up with Johnston Funeral Directors and Joan Bryan. As well as discovering they were grand-nephews of Thomas Woodgate, 48 hours later, they had a wealth of information, filling in gaps in the family tree they were never expecting.
There are six Cronin brothers. As well as Ger and Brian, there’s Tom, Leo, Anthony and Michael. Their mother, Mary Cronin (neé Meehan), only passed away in 2019 at the age of 93. They knew very little of Kilkenny and about their mother’s history, other than the fact that she was born and reared in Kilkenny City.
Eldest brother Ger has been working on the family tree for years on both sides, but got stuck on the Meehan side because their mother had very little memory of her family as a little girl.
“We were trying to work off the Census — the 1911 one is the only available to you,” says Brian.
“We kind of got stuck there, until the unveiling of this memorial. It was like the key to Pandora’s Box.”
Brian established contact with Joan Bryan, and was able to learn more about the Woodgate family and its history. Between the chat with their newfound relative and a reinvigorated passion to learn the whole story, the Cronins delved deeper. Armed with the new information, they contacted local authorities and trawled the National Archives. The gaps in the story began to fill. In many ways, it is a tragic one.
Their grandmother, whose name was Mary Woodgate, was a sister of the young war casualty, Thomas Woodgate. A few years after his death, Mary married Michael Meehan, from Kilkenny, in January 1923. The couple had a son, Edward, and two daughters, Mary and Breeda. In 1934, another baby was on the way.
Michael Meehan (standing), Mary Meehan (neé Woodgate) and their children, from left: Mary, Edward and Breeda. The picture is thought to have been taken around 1930-31 and later given to young Mary before she left Kilkenny
This is where the family’s next tragedy begins. The baby was born in June 1934. At the time, the tuberculosis epidemic was rampant.
Mary (senior), now a mother-of-four, died of TB on August 17, 1934. She was buried the next day on what would have been her 34th birthday. Her infant child died in Thomastown County Home two months later, only a few months old. TB was recorded as the cause of death. Brian has only confirmed this information in the past month through the National Archives.
For the three surviving children, it would not get easier. Mary was eight years old. Her sister Breeda was five years younger, while older brother, Edward was 10.
“Shortly after my grandmother died, the State intervened as they did – with their willing partner the Catholic Church. My mother, her sister and brother were removed from their father,” Brian says.
“My mother and her sister were placed in one of these homes, industrial school-type places in Templemore, where my mother remained until she was 16. Her sister was the same.”
The Cronins think that Edward may have ended up in an industrial school in Glynn, County Limerick.
“My mother never met him again,” says Brian.
Leaving Templemore, Mary came to Limerick where there was a job offer. She stayed in Limerick, and met John Cronin in the early 1940s. They married in 1950 and had the six boys.
Mary’s younger sister, Breeda, meanwhile, went to England after leaving Templemore. She trained as a nurse, and spent her career nursing in England. She had one son, and he moved to Calvary in Canada after he graduated from university.
When Breeda retired, she and her husband emigrated to Canada to be near him. Breeda passed away just over four years ago, and her dying wish was to be buried with her sister. Six months after Mary Cronin passed away, the brothers’ first cousin in Canada, Paul, brought his mother’s ashes to Ireland, and they were interred with her sister.
Until this month, the brothers had no idea where their grandmother was buried, nor that the gravesite was in Kilkenny.
“We didn’t know where my grandmother, Mary Woodgate, was buried,” says Brian.
“Two days after that [RTE news segment aired], my brother had got on to the editor of the Kilkenny People, and he put him on to an undertakers, Johnstons.
“And within 48 hours, we knew exactly where my grandmother was buried. The girl in the council office said she has been there on her own for the last 86 years and the grave is unmarked.”
Brian says that Sammy Johnston was very helpful in locating the site. It transpired Mary (snr) was buried in St Kieran’s Cemetery in Kilkenny, which actually only opened in 1934. She would have been one of the first to be buried there.
Their grandfather, Mary’s husband — Michael Meehan – had bought the gravesite. But between the death of his wife, his newborn baby dying three months afterward, and his three remaining children being taken from him, things were extraordinarily bleak. He emigrated to England.
“You can imagine in 1934, there wasn’t a load of pound notes to be thrown around. People had very little money,” says Brian.
“My mother lost contact with him for nearly the rest of his life. It was only at the very end that he actually made contact with my aunt (Mary's younger sister, Breeda).
“He was dying in a hospital in London in 1969. He made it known he had a daughter who was a nurse somewhere in London.
Of course, the hospital traced my aunt and she contacted my mother. But by the time my mother got there, he had just died.”
Mystery remains, however, over what became o of Mary and Breeda’s missing older sibling, Edward. Brian and the Cronin clan would dearly love to know what became of their uncle.
It still remains their hope to trace him. They have no exact birth date for him, but think it may be sometime in 1924. If he is alive he would be in his late 90s, and if not, it would be nice to find out where he is buried.
“It’s just to know what became of them — where did they finish up,” says Brian. “Did he die in England, did he come back to Ireland, what happened?”
The Cronins now plan to travel to Kilkenny and meet Joan Bryan and members of the Woodgate clan — their relatives — as soon as lockdown restrictions on travel are lifted.
One of their first orders of business will be to put some sort of temporary marker on their grandmother’s grave, until they can sit down, discuss and agree between them and their cousins in North America, some type of permanent headstone.
“Even just to straight away put a marker on it, the wooden markers just to mark her grave and let her know that she’s not forgotten,” says Brian.
“I have no doubt there’s nobody there since the day she was buried. Or there or thereabouts.
“I told Joan we would meet and she said we certainly would. I think we will all meet at the graveyard.”
Their cousin Paul Kelly, still lives in Calvary in Canada and has remained keenly interested in everything that has been happening with his relatives in Ireland.
“He is as much a part of the story as any of us,” says Brian.
“I have spoken to him about this and he’s delighted. He is hoping to come next summer and go to Kilkenny and see where his grandmother is buried and meet his relations.”
Chairman of the Kilkenny Great War Memorial Donal Croghan said it was very gratifying to see that 104 pieces of metal put together to honour someone who died over 100 years ago could be the unifying factor in bringing together two sides of a family after all those years.