Saturday 23 February 2019

They answered Ireland's call, but we forgot our sporting dead

Harold Sloan played for Bohemians and Ireland. He died in WWI
Harold Sloan played for Bohemians and Ireland. He died in WWI
Vincent McNamara and Harry Jack (right) played for Munster and Ireland
CUT DOWN IN THEIR PRIME: Michael Moran, the first Irish golfer to win prize money at The Open
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

A former brigadier general of the Irish Army has spoken of the "shameful amnesia" that many Irish sporting organisations have over members who died in the First World War.

"Shamefully, I think, like a lot of other clubs around Ireland, we share amnesia that we have any connection with those who wore the blue and gold and practised on those field out there," said Gerry Hegarty, a retired high-ranking Army officer and former president of Monkstown Rugby Club.

He was speaking at the launch of Ireland's Call - Irish Sporting Heroes Who Fell in the Great War, by Stephen Walker, which was launched in Monkstown, a rugby club which it is believed lost 88 officers and men in the conflict.

Among those at the launch were the ex-Irish Army chief of staff Jim Shreenan; former High Court judge Hugh O'Flaherty; Adhmahnan O'Sullivan, a former Sports Editor of the Sunday Independent; Pat Fitzgerald, last year's president of the IRFU; and commentator George Hook, who launched the book.

Ireland's Call details the lives and deaths of Irish sportsmen, mostly on the green fields of France and amid the carnage of Gallipoli in Turkey.

They were not only rugby players, but cricketers, hockey, soccer and Gaelic players, as well as champion golfer Private Michael Moran.

Described as 'the Rory McElroy of his day', Private Moran was killed in action in 1918.

Among the lives detailed in the book is Ernest Cotton Deane, a Limerick-born surgeon, who played rugby for Monkstown and Ireland. He was killed in France and was described by a fellow officer as "the most gallant fellow I ever met".

Another rugby player, Jasper Brett, who played against Wales in what became known as 'The Battle of Balmoral' in Belfast - "a game remembered not for its rugby, but for the violence of the players" - fought in Gallipoli and retired shell-shocked, only to die by suicide in a railway tunnel in his native Dublin.

"He didn't die in the conflict, but the conflict killed him," concludes the author, Stephen Walker.

The author notes that at just 21 years old Brett had witnessed many deaths at first hand. He had gone into battle against Turkish and Bulgarian forces and seen many of his friends die.

Brett began to suffer shell shock and in June he was taken to hospital in Malta.

However, his condition was so severe that the medical authorities decided that the young soldier would be better getting treatment back in England.

His war was over but he never overcame his personal demons caused by the war and took his own life in February 1917.

Another player on that Irish team who played against Wales in that notorious match was Vincent McNamara of Blackrock, Co Cork. He was killed in action at Gallipoli.

The dreaded War Office telegram arrived at the family home in December 1915.

It stated: "Deeply regret to inform you that Lieutenant Vincent McNamara R E (Royal Engineers) died 29th November, gassed from his own explosive. Lord Kitchener expresses sympathy."

One of McNamara's former lecturers in Cork wrote an obituary. He said: "The name of Vincent McNamara will remain the standard of all that is lovely, honourable and good."

Launching the book, George Hook said that when he was growing up, sportsmen and women were frequently insulted with descriptions of being "West Brits" or playing "garrison games".

"What this book demonstrates is that World War I mowed down Protestants and Catholics in equal measure but many of those men who came back to Ireland found a very different Ireland and found it difficult to get employment in the new Free State, where there was a preference for the heroes of 1916. Many of them were very hard done by," said Hook.

Ireland's Call by Stephen Walker is published by Merrion Press.

Sunday Independent

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