A LEGACY of silence that hung over those Irish men and women that fought with the British Armey in various conflicts has been shattered by a new book, chronicling the lives of Kilkenny families in the Great War. The launch of John Kirwan’s outstanding book turned into an evening of soul searching as speaker after speaker spoke of their own personal links with the British armed services.
MC at the launch in the Castle’s Parade Tower, Michael Street of the Heritage Council explained how both his parents had served with British military and how proud they had been. He explained that the book was fundamental to what we are as a people.
Declan rice of LEADER which also helped to fund the publication said it was a magnificent book and that it would help to reconcile with ourselves as nation. He too had a relation in the British Army who fought of the Battle of the Somme and he spoke of his grandmother’s pride in the part he played in World War I.
However it was the passionate contribution of Mayor Sean O’hArgain that was the highlight of a wonderful evening. He said, Kilkenny Families In The Great War was one of the most important publications ever produced on Kilkenny and that it should be on every bookshelf. “It is clear that John Kirwan, Niall Brannigan and adviser William Murphy along with countless others have been involved in a labour of love for many years. The result of a huge amount of research, networking, interviewing and digging is evident in a book which will certainly take pride of place in my library and indeed would be a proud addition to any house in which the past is valued.
“The people and families commemorated in this book are all people with their unique family stories to tell. Many of those listed here lived on to healthy old age, some perhaps with little remaining trauma from their experiences. Others were dreadfully wounded, either physically or mentally with wounds which frequently affected themselves and their families for years and even generations. Most poignantly of all of course were the 450 or so Kilkenny souls who lost their lives in this momentous conflict.”
“Perhaps most damaging of all however from our point of view was the legacy of silence which surrounded those who returned. The embarrassment and often harassment which surrounded those who returned from World War One was a tragedy which can perhaps be explained in a historical context but may never be explained to those families who saw their loved ones suffer so deeply, denied employment, politically or socially shunned, mocked and frequently simply withdrawing into their own privacy, remaining stoic about their experiences and denying their legacy to even the closest family members and friends.
He recalled 1998 when as a teacher in Kerry he took part in a historic graveyard in Dromid, a staunchly republican part of the country. “The project began before Easter of that historic year and we returned with the school children to complete the survey of the graveyard the week after the Easter break. Lo and behold, a new gravestone had appeared, that of a young local man lost in World War One. It was almost as if a family had taken the passing of the Good Friday Agreement as community permission to now properly commemorate their family member who had rested in an unmarked grave for over eighty years. The significance of this simple action has remained with me since, challenging many of my own prejudices in the process.
“The second story was an incredible coincidence which happened to me today, one of those things you could not make up if you tried. I called to a Maudlin Street resident called Bill Hanlon on a matter totally unrelated to tonight’s events. As I spoke with Bill I glanced at his mantelpiece to see a framed set of medals which I immediately recognised as World War One and World War Two medals. When I asked Bill the story he told me that they were his father’s medals. John Hanlon of Wolfe Tone Street has a story which typifies the ordinary working class story I spoke of earlier. He enlisted with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as a Private on the 30th of November 1912 and served until July of 1922. During that time he was imprisoned in Germany for most of the war, becoming a fluent German speaker in the process. He was also listed as Regimental Army Boxer or army champion from 1919 to 1922.
Having returned to Ireland in the early days of the Free State, he put his linguistic skills to good use, being employed by Siemens-Schuckert who were involved in the construction of the groundbreaking Ardnacrusha Power station in County Clare. He later rejoined the army in 1942, this time with the Royal Pioneer Corps and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Among the personal effects which I have with me here tonight are John’s Regular Army Certificate of Service, his Soldier’s Service and Pay Book and even his Tenant’s Rent Book from 161 Norwich Road, Ipswich, where his son Bill remembers visiting his father in ‘digs’. Also included is John’s Terminal Leave Pass Pending Discharge in April 1952, when John had earned his full army pension and was transferred to the Army Reserve.
“These documents have been stored since then in what I described as the Shoebox history of families from this period. The many shoeboxes containing such treasures in attics and libraries and presses should be preserved and perhaps could find their home in the military museum in James Stephens barracks or in time in the City and County museum which is so long overdue.
“These stories are in many ways the real history behind the wonderful books which we celebrate here tonight and which show that this production may well be only the beginning of the story. Many of the entries in this book may lead to the shoeboxes being opened and the stories being rediscovered by our and the next generations,” he said.
“Now, as a community, we have the chance to recognise the realities and often the heroism of these people who served and some of whom gave their lives a century ago, all of them in my view for the right reasons. Whether those reasons were political, joining with Redmond to fight for small nations in the hope of securing home rule, loyalty to King and Crown from those sections of our community who were staunchly loyal, to those who sought adventure or simply those who enlisted out of economic necessity to feed their families, their reasons were their reasons and should be judged and condemned at our peril.
“In commemorating of course, we must draw a very fine line when it comes to celebrating. Very few of us, as human citizens, will celebrate the horrors of war. All of us should, as I asked on Sunday, commit ourselves to find better ways to resolve conflicts at home or abroad which avoid the bloodshed of the fields of France, Belgium or Germany and indeed that blood shed in our own country over the past century and commit ourselves to making peace with even more vigour than our predecessors did to making war.
“This book is one of the finest documents I have ever begun to read-and I have only begun and will be reading it for a long time to come. From the eloquent introduction to the priceless photographic collection at its heart, through to individual entries which populate its pages, this volume will forever remain a seminal part of the collection of wonderful historic research which this city and county are lucky to have,” he said before officially launching the weighty tome.
The co-author of the book and the man at the heart of the17 year long project, John Kirwan picked out Willie Murphy for special praise and thanked him for the hours of dedication on the project. He regretted that the his co-author and cousin, Niall Brannigan was in Virginia, USA and unable to make the event. He thanked Willie Murphy’s wife Helena and his cousin’s wife, Zeljka for their patience and in the case of Niall, the book had been going on as long as his marriage. He also praised graphic designer, David Hayes and his wife, Ann Henderson for her patience. He finished by thanking his late mother, Eileen Kirwan, who died only a few weeks ago. He said she would be very proud of the achievement and was wirth ehr great fiend, the late Margaret (Daisy) Phlean, toasting the success of yhr book.
The event was attended by chairman of the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee, John McGuiness TD and British Consul Harry Carbury, representing the British Government.