A County Kilkenny man has been celebrating the return of a long lost precious part of his family’s heritage.
Jimmy Walsh, of Callan Boxing Club and ballroom dancing fame, has just added a glittering new display item to the vast array of shining trophies on his sideboard.
When I called to his house in Mill Street, he showed me the central position accorded to a beautifully crafted circular plaque, amidst the cups and other prizes. But this was no recently minted presentation. It was, Jimmy explained, a medal posthumously awarded to his uncle, Richard Walsh, who was killed in the First World War.
From childhood Jimmy had known of his uncle’s bravery, but the whereabouts of the medal had been unknown to him and other members of the Walsh family in Callan. It had gone missing shortly after the Great War and Jimmy had almost given up hope of ever seeing it...until he opened the January 6th edition of the Kilkenny People.
A short letter caught his attention. It was from Ned Cantwell of Ballyfoyle who revealed that he had in his possession a plaque or medal dating to World War One with the name Richard Walsh inscribed on it. He wanted to restore the medal to the family of the County Kilkenny man who had received it for valour on the battlefield. The paper almost fell from Jimmy’s hands. He immediately contacted Mr. Cantwell and arranged a meeting.
Jimmy recounted: “I called to his house at Mothel, Ballyfoyle and Ned showed me the medal. He said it was in his house for many years, from when his father was alive. He thought that possibly it could have been exchanged as a form of currency at some point and found its way into the forge where his father, a blacksmith, plied his trade. We had a long chat. I told Ned the story of my uncle. When I had concluded, he expressed his joy that at last the medal could be restored to the family of Richard Walsh.”
The story behind the medal that Jimmy told the Ballyfoyle man is a moving and fascinating one. Jimmy reminded me that Callan lost a lot of men in the Great War. Their names are largely unknown to the present generation; though pictures in old photo albums or displayed proudly on sitting room walls commemorate these men who will be forever young.
Jimmy told me about the man whose name is etched on the medal. Richard Walsh enlisted in the Irish Guards at the outbreak of war in 1914.
He enlisted in the army in response to a promise that Ireland would be granted a form of Home Rule if Irishmen joined the great crusade “in defence of small nations”. He was working with Kilkenny County Council at the time and most of his workmates also answered the call.
Army bands played in Kilkenny on the big recruiting days. There were banners and bunting in the streets. Promises of good pay, comradeship, and the “best years of your life” drew hundreds of young Kilkenny men into the the ranks of the vast legions who volunteered for service on the Western Front.
And the recruiters promised that the “whole business” would be over by Christmas.
But Richard Walsh of Callan would never see that Christmas. He died on December 15th 1914 of wounds received on a French battlefield.
His sister, Nans, was grandmother of Sean Holden, the entrepreneurial Callan man credited with reviving Callan’s economic fortunes in the 1950s.
Upon hearing that Richard had been wounded in France, Nans travelled from Callan across to England with the intention of visiting her brother in hospital in Southampton. She had heard that he had been wounded on the Western Front and that he was among thousands of injured troops transported from the mud and blood of the battlefield to a well-deserved break and the prospect of full or partial recovery from their wounds.
But when she reached the hospital in Southampton she discovered that her brother had died on the ship before it reached England.
In the hospital where she had hoped to see him, she instead beheld a sight that made a profound and lasting impact on her. Thousands of live, shrieking, tangled, blood-spattered bodies, contorted by pain and anguish…Some had arms missing, others legs or eyes. Entire faces had been blown away.
Nans heard the cries of wounded men…but only just. Bands were playing loud martial music in the hospital day and night. The purpose of this, a doctor told her, was to drown out the sounds of weeping and screaming as this could affect the morale of visiting relatives.
“Richard Walsh gave his life for what he believed would be a better world”. Jimmy reflected. “He was a brave and decent man. We know now that it wasn’t the war to end all wars, but I believe the sacrifices of men like my uncle deserve to be remembered. We should spare a thought now and then for the many others who marched out from Kilkenny and elsewhere with bands playing and flags waving…never to return”.
Looking again at the medal, Jimmy read aloud the inscription: “Richard Walsh...he died for freedom and honour”.
Jimmy replaced the medal on the sideboard, his eyes filled with sadness.