29 Jun 2022

Fascinating new book featuring WWI documents written by three native Kilkenny men

Kilkenny Voices from the Western Front by Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan


Lt. Christopher Prior-Wandesforde of Castlecomer

In 2012 Kilkenny Families in the Great War was launched in Kilkenny. The book documented the careers of nearly 3,000 men and women of Kilkenny city and county who were involved in the ‘war to end all wars’.

It had taken the authors 17 years to do the research. No other Irish county has such an easily accessible record under one cover. Partly as a result two Great War memorials now exist in the city. One in the Peace Park lists all those who died in battle while the second at McDonagh Junction lists all the known participants. Every few years yet another name or two is added to both memorials.

On November 11 last during the commemoration service in the Peace Park, Kilkenny Voices from the Western Front, edited by the same authors, Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan was launched. Niall’s grandfather Lt Col Joseph Brannigan, a County Monaghan man served all his working life in the Irish army retiring in 1958 or 1959. His grandmother was Nellie Kirwan, my father’s oldest sister.

Here we have three primary documents written by three native born Kilkenny men, one of whom did not survive the war. Of the two survivors only one managed to live out his life in his native place. The book opens with an overview of the three mens’ lives. Private Anthony Brennan was from the High Street, area of the city. His widowed mother had a boarding house and newsagents business between what is now Walls Men’s shop and the Harp Bar.

Pte Anthony Brennan from the High Street, Kilkenny

Tony as he was known was just sixteen years of age when without his mother’s permission he enlisted. Mrs Brennan subsequently protested at the enlistment of her teenage son through her local MP. The matter was raised by the same MP in the House of Commons and assurances were given to Mrs Brennan by the War Office that her young son would not see active service at the Front until he had reached his 18th birthday.

Within a year of his enlistment Tony saw active service again the Germans in France. So much for the promises of the War Office. After the war he returned briefly to Kilkenny city where he participated for a time on a training course for veterans run at Talbot’s Inch by Ellen, Lady Desart.

Subsequently he emigrated to the London area where he got a job in the English civil service which he served for the rest of his working life, dying in the late 1960s. He wrote his ‘memoir’ many years after the fighting had ceased. A copy of the memoir was presented to the Imperial War Museum by his second wife who survived him.
His two brothers also saw active service at the Front. One died during the war whole the other brother died from wounds received in action.

Both brothers joined the Australian armed forces as they had emigrated there before the war. Neither son left family.
The second man of the Kilkenny trio was the Rev. Edward ‘Ned’ Dowling who after the war was always known as ‘the Colonel’ by his clerical colleagues in Ossory. Ned Dowling, whose diary is the second document, was the son of two Slieverue National School teachers.

At the time war broke out in August 1914 he was on the teaching staff at St Kieran’s College. Against the wishes of his superior, Bishop Abraham Brownrigg he volunteered to serve as a Roman Catholic chaplain in the British army. The British army at the time was desperately short of Catholic chaplains.

His diary was kept for the early part of his service. It was a document never meant to see the light of day as he left instructions at his death that all his papers were to be destroyed. By chance this diary was overlooked and was found many years after the ‘Colonel’s’ death by Archdeacon Sean O’ Doherty, who was then serving as curate in Ballycallan.

Rev  Edward Dowling from Slieverue and St  Kieran's College, Kilkenny

Archdeacon O’ Doherty has since returned the diary to the family of the former army chaplain who still live in Slieverue. The family also retain other relics of their kinsman notably his communion cup and paten.
Lt Christopher Prior-Wandesforde is the author of the third document presented in this book. This document is, in fact, a whole series of letters which he wrote to his parents and siblings at Castlecomer House, Castlecomer from 1915 until his death in June 1917, from the effects of poisonous gas, aged just 20.

After their son’s death his parents carefully annotated the letters and preserved them in the family archive. It includes the last letter written by Christopher to his mother which arrived a few days after the family received the dreaded telegram from the War Office notifying them of their son’s death.

His mother was in the act of writing to Christopher when the telegram arrived. This letter too survives in the collection. Geoffrey and Peter Prior-Wandesforde with the active encouragement of their first cousin Desmond Townshend, all nephews of Christopher, presented the collection to Kilkenny Archives Ltd, some years back. They have been fully catalogued and are open for inspection by appointment with Kilkenny Archives.

Incidentally this was not the first archival gift to the nation’s archival collections by the Prior-Wandesforde family. Earlier they had gifted the entire Castlecomer Estate Archive to the National Library of Ireland, a huge gift. The collection has been fully catalogued too.

Tony Brennan, Ned Dowling and Christopher Prior-Wandesforde’s writings are rare enough Irish Great War primary sources. The documents give us some hint of what the Irish men and women who served during the ‘Great War’ endured for over four years.

Brennan’s and Dowling’s documents also tell is something of their subsequent lives. Brennan became a successful English civil servant while Dowling returned to his priestly duties in Ossory. It is clear that Bishop Brownrigg was not a forgiving man, nor indeed the latter’s successor, Bishop Patrick Collier. Dowling it is clear from his account always felt they did him no favours. It is clear that he often felt lonely and cut off from mainstream Irish life in the new state.

Indeed, such was the lot of many a returned soldier.
Some who were actively involved in the fight for Irish freedom did manage to find an honoured place for themselves in the Free State and subsequent republic.

Only 300 copies of this book are available for circulation through the local bookshops.

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