Life World War 1

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Gay Byrne on his father's service in World War 1

"My father said, 'Let me tell you about war' and spoke about the dirt, the filth and the rats, the cold, the lack of food, the misery, trying to sleep knowing the next morning you were going over the top, the shelling and all that. Then my mother's key was heard in the door and he said, 'enough about that'" Paul Melia talks to Gay Byrne about his father's involvement in WWI

Published 17/05/2014 | 02:30

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Billy Keane was once mistaken for Gay Byrne.
Edward Byrne
Edward Byrne with a horse.

IT was almost by accident that broadcaster Gay Byrne decided to investigate his father's role in World War I. "I happened to mention one day on my radio programme that my father was involved," he said.

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"I got a note from a John Goodman in Wicklow who said as a hobby he traced people involved. He said the records in the War Office in London were first class, provided you knew what you were looking for. He offered to do some background stuff on my father and to my amazement produced some work."

It transpired that his father, Private Edward Byrne, joined the 19th Royal Hussars, a cavalry regiment, before the war and served until 1919.

He fought at two of the five Battles of Ypres and the Battle of the Somme, and was nearly killed in a cavalry charge near the end of the conflict.

RTE has since broadcast a documentary on his life, called 'My Father's War', which explores Private Byrne's involvement, shedding light on a past his son knew very little about.

"My father joined in 1913 and didn't get out until 1919," Gay says. "My grandfather was a coachman for the Earl of Kilruddery (in Wicklow). The reason he joined was he decided to see a bit of the world, and also decided there was nothing for him in Kilruddery.

"He ended up in the 19th Huzzars because he had experience of horses and knew how to ride.

"To be in the regiment he was in, he had to be an excellent horseman and a crack shot. He had to be able to dismount, get down on one knee and shoot a bullseye at 300 yards.

"He also had to be an expert farrier because if your horse lost a shoe he had to be able to reshoe it. He had to be an outstanding swordsman and it must have been a terrifying sight to have thousands of shells exploding all around you."

Edward Byrne and his brothers were among hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who went to the front, but his experiences were never spoken of.

"My father died the year I did the Leaving Cert. He may well have spoken about his experiences with my older brothers. I would have been a kid, and I never had an adult relationship with him.

"I think there were seven (brothers) altogether. Six joined, and I don't know about the seventh.

"One was killed, one died of gas poisoning, and one who was poisoned died shortly afterwards. The (death) toll was about average. Whole streets joined together and they were all wiped out on the same day. When the telegrams came from the War Office, it was a knock almost on every door on the street."

Guinness was among the major Dublin employers of the time, and any employees who enlisted were promised a job for life on their return. In addition, they gave half the man's salary to his wife, and if a worker was killed in action, his family received half his pay.

"He was very close to his brother, my uncle Dick, who was working with Guinness when he joined up. Guinness had guaranteed a job to anyone who came back so he was taken on.

"He was a tough man. Very fit, very hard, because all they did was move barrels of stout around the day. He worked in all weathers, in steaming heat, the rain and freezing cold on the Liffey."

Gay recalls only discussing the war with his father once.

"In Inter Cert class, we were given a composition about war. It was a dull sort of day. He asked what I was doing, and I said a composition about war. He said, "let me tell you about war" and spoke about the dirt, the filth and the rats, the cold, the lack of food, the misery, trying to sleep knowing the next morning you were going over the top, the shelling and all that. Then my mother's key was heard in the door and he said "enough about that"."

Edward Byrne suffered from nightmares, but never remembered them the following day.

"He would lash all around him, kicking and screaming, and was trying to kick out and he was obviously trying to escape from something.

"It happened sporadically. When he woke, he was absolutely calm and wondering about what all the fuss was about.

"There was no such thing as post-traumatic stress. They hadn't heard of it, it was put down to cowardice and lack of moral fibre. There are records of guys coming back and not speaking for 10 years, people shivered all the time, but nobody thought of giving them treatment. They were just dismissed as broken down."

His father was one of the lucky ones, he says. "He went into Guinness and it was a good, secure job. Obviously a good few others came back and had difficulty finding jobs because of the official history.

"He adored my mother and she him, he loved his family, he had a very contented life because he really didn't want for anything.

"There are more related to people who fought in the First World War than were in the GPO, yet we know so little. If my father was not involved, I would not have known about it.

"There were two parallel histories and one became the official, signed-for history with the GPO and the other was consigned to the sidelines."

  • 'My Father's War' will be re-broadcast in September on RTE

See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

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