Irish News

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Family history quest helps reveal Ireland's WWI 'band of brothers'

Greg Harkin

Published 21/04/2014|02:30

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Sligo Cemetary Caretaker Brian Scanlon at the grave of former Mayor of Sligo Michael Conlon
Photo: James Connolly / PicSell8
09APR14
Sligo Cemetary Caretaker Brian Scanlon at the grave of former Mayor of Sligo Michael Conlon Photo: James Connolly / PicSell8

They were the band of eight Irish brothers who went to fight together, but only two survived the trauma of the Great War.

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The story of the lives and deaths of the Conlons can be told for the first time, a century after the start of the conflict that claimed 16 million lives.

Brian Scanlon from Sligo, has spent 20 years painstakingly piecing together a remarkable 'Who Do You Think You Are?' style family history.

And the history is made even more remarkable due to links to both the royal household at Buckingham Palace, as well as trade union leader James Larkin.

Mr Scanlon, the manager of Sligo Cemetery, was raised by his grandfather, and he said he has known many of the details of his family for years thanks to stories he heard growing up.

But the 53-year-old said it was time to go public with a tale that began with talk of rebellion against the Crown and ended with a life taken by it.

Brian's great-grandfather Michael Conlon was one of eight brothers from Sligo town.

In 1912, during the Sligo dockers' strike, they were excommunicated by the Bishop of Elphin John Clancy for their disruption.

James Larkin travelled from Dublin to give them his support and stayed with the Conlon family. Brian's grandfather Jack, who died in 1967, would tell the young boy of how their house was attacked whilst Larkin was there.

"When the other grandchildren were about the house, I knew how to get him wound up so I would ask him 'Who attacked our house when Larkin was here Granda?'

"He would let a roar out of him: 'The Knights of Columbanus, the bastards'," said Mr Scanlon.

But when war broke out two years after the strike, all eight Conlon brothers joined up. The new bishop Bernard Coyne issued a statement to his diocese, telling young men they should follow their example and go to war against Germany.

Thomas (27) was the first to die on May 13, 1915 at Ypres in Belgium. By this stage he had been to Gallipoli twice.

Next to die was Patrick (34), killed in action in Ypres, on August 29, 1915.

Their brother Michael was traced to the battlefront and sent home.

He was the eldest in his family, and it was tradition to do this after the loss of two brothers.

But it would not be the end of the loss for the Conlon family.

James (30) died of battle wounds on April 15, 1916 near Basra, Iraq.

Alex (31) died in action in Baghdad on October 28, 1917. He was also buried in a military cemetery there.

John finally arrived home after the war and died of trench fever in 1922. He was 32.

Another brother, Andrew, never recovered from his war experiences and died at the Sligo mental hospital in 1941.

Joseph returned from World War I, fought in the War of Independence and joined the Free State side during the Civil War. On July 13, 1922, he saw five colleagues die and was among four injured when they were ambushed at Rockwood, Sligo by anti-Treaty forces.

Although he survived and lived until he was 70, passing away in 1963, he had to use a walking stick to get around.

Only Michael thrived, going on to become a Labour Party Mayor of Sligo, throwing himself into community life and becoming chair of Sligo Rovers – where in 1939 he signed the legendary Dixie Dean to help in their bid for the FAI Cup that year.

His son was Jack – Brian Scanlon's granddad – who constantly found Irish history and British history colliding while growing up.

"It was unusual all right," Mr Scanlon said. "There were three pictures on the wall of the living room in the 1960s. One was of the Pope, one was of President Kennedy – and one was of Winston Churchill. Talk about confusing."

RECONCILIATION

He hopes his story from the past is a lesson for the modern age and he is involved in peace and reconciliation groups with others in the North.

"I'm someone who believes in a 32-county Irish republic but I'm also someone who believes England is our greatest ally in the world."

Next year, he and members of the Sligo Military Remembrance Association hope to get enough funds to put the names of all 440 Sligo men who died in the world wars onto stones at the town cenotaph.

The band of brothers will be upon it.

Irish Independent

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