The weapons of the Somme in the Valley of the Boyne
On a hillside in Meath sits one of Ireland's most remarkable hauls of war weaponry. Graham Clifford visits the new Irish Military War Museum
Published 09/08/2014 | 00:00
While London's Imperial War Museum may nestle neatly in the heart of leafy Lambeth, its Irish equivalent, which opened just two months ago in Co Meath, has a much more laid-back and rural feel.
Weaving through country roads along the Meath-Louth border, I spot the sign for Starinagh and the Irish Military War Museum.
I meander along the lane with clusters of orange mombrisha and pink foxgloves lining the approach to the converted farmland.
At a bend in the road, I spot a Russian ML-20 artillery gun pointing skywards - I know I must be in the right place.
Ten years in the making, the military museum was the brainchild and passion of long-time dairy farmer and amateur historian William Sullivan.
The Drogheda native has spent a lifetime collecting war-time memorabilia and, in recent years, purchased expensive military weapons and vehicles with a view to one day opening his own museum.
"I was eight when I found a coin awarded to my grandfather who'd served as a marksman in the Royal Irish Fusiliers," explains William, adding, "from the moment I held it in my hand, I was hooked on all things military, I just couldn't wait to start my own collection."
With Vera Lynn's 'The White Cliffs of Dover' gently playing the background, I enter William's treasure trove.
Over the decades, he's visited military shows in Belgium to buy everything from pin badges to anti-aircraft guns and spent days walking the site of the Somme battlefields, discovering pieces of military ware left behind in the most bloodiest of battles.
"I'm fascinated by military history, but this museum doesn't celebrate war - on the contrary, I hope it will teach people about the horrors of war and the tools and methods used by the armies involved."
The museum is separated into two main sections featuring military pieces from World War One and then Two.
Relations of long-lost soldiers who fought in the Great war visit replica trenches, hold weapons actually used on the killing fields of France and Belgium, and take the first, sometimes cautious, steps to understanding the horrific ordeal their ancestors endured.
"Since opening in June, I've met a lot of families who genuinely come knowing little or nothing about the conditions their relations faced conflict. I had a lady last week who whispered to me when she started the tour that she had a relative in the First World War.
"By the time she was half way through the museum, she was speaking loudly and proudly about him and telling me what information she had. The exhibits and the fact that people can hold the weapons and try on replica uniforms gives them a greater understanding of what these men went through" says William.
My eye is drawn to a cabinet containing German war-time devices. ollected over decades are different shaped grenades which changed in design as the war progressed from those in the shape of an egg to the stick grenade.
A primitive mace weapon, used to puncture or kill the enemy through a combination of spikes and blunt force and which was once owned by a German solider on the western front, is a clear example of the barbarism of WWI.
Another case contains gas masks used by the British during the war.
"Sometimes you wouldn't know the gas was coming until it was too late," says William.
"One way soldiers became aware of its presence was that it killed slugs on the earth quicker than it reached humans, so if you saw them curling up, you knew you were next. Also the gas killed birds quickly. Once a bird fell you knew you had to get the mask on or you were next."
These little nuggets of information delivered by William as we walk through the exhibit are as revealing as the artefacts themselves.
"You can learn more in a couple of hours here than you could in six months in history class. And I want to bring these stories to life, especially for younger visitors."
Local people who gave their lives on foreign soil are remembered here, including the poet Francis Ledwidge from Slane who perished in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele.
Another exhibit, another story. This time horse saddles used on the front are carefully arranged. I'm told that over a quarter of a million horses were shipped from Ireland to the front where they were mainly used to transport soldiers, weapons and vital supplies. Of the total that departed, only eight returned alive.
We turn the corner and leave World War One behind before stepping forward two decades to the World War Two.
Original Canadian armoured vehicles, Russian anti-aircraft shooters and German motor-bikes fill different sections. The amount of weaponry and military vehicles on display catches me off guard.
"How much did you pay for all this?" I ask William. He stops and thinks before coming back with: "Well, what you have in here today would have set me back about €300,000, but I have much more stuff in storage than just this."
He paid €35,000 alone for a German half-track military vehicle. To get the best you have to be prepared to spend, but such pieces increase in value with every passing year in a much sought after market.
Amongst the weapons here are rifles from both the Howth and Larne gun-running operations of 1914.
William hopes to extend the playground and pet farm at the site.
"We've great plans for the museum and the rest of the 22-acre site. But for now it's wonderful to finally be open and to share my passion for military history with so many others."
For more information on the war museum visit www.imwm.ie