Thursday 23 May 2019

Letters of 1916: Irish man in British navy writes home about 1916 'madness'

Gerald O'Driscoll (d. 1946) was in the British Navy and this letter, to his father, was written from H.M.S.Temeraire. His reaction is typical of many Irish soldiers in the British army; he laments the destruction of Sackville Street (O'Connell Street) and refers to one of the rebels as a 'half-demented, crazy, misguided fool'.

In this letter he describes his shock at the 'rebellion in Dublin' and refers to the reaction of he and his fellow soldiers at the front to the Rising, noting that 'our fellow country-men at the front felt it all the more keenly'

The H.M.S. Temeraire was a Bellerophon class (dreadnought) battleship commissioned in 1909. It served at the battle of Jutland in 1916, crippling the German light cruiser SMS Wiesbaden.

'My dear Father,

In a letter from Maggie I was very pleased to learn of Finneen's arrival home and also to be assured of his general health & fitness. I have not replied to Maggie yet as for some time past I have been too busy altogether.

I was of course shocked by the Dublin rebellion and indeed not a little anxious for the safety of those near and dear to me. I was worried and restless. The possibility of Maggie & Barbara being in the danger zone, and this coupled with the temporary stoppage of mails & communication of every description increased my solicitude.

But I will not waste time in dogmatising on such madness; we and our fellow countrymen at the front felt it all the more keenly. It would seem as if the temple of glory built by our brave Irish regiments, had been pulled down by their own kindred.

In a paper that Maggie sent me I notice the name & address of Dot's brother as one of the rebels deported. I wonder what his own brother Jack will say when he hears the news at the front. That half-demented, crazy, misguided fool Willie Halpin is also one of them.

Patriotism! My God! and he knows as much about Irish History as a Fiji cannibal. The outcome of it was death and sorrow, and the destruction of the finest and statliest street in Europe; — a street that every Dublin man must have been justly proud.

Things up here are very much the same, as far as I am at liberty to disclose. In order to relieve the tenor of a rather multifarious routine, the annual boxing tournament took place recently; a sort of inter—ship for the championship of the squadron.

Our friend Bob Hanley took won the lightweight championship of our own particular squadron after four fights. It appeared to me to be an easy thing for him. He is a skilful and clean fighter, a hard hitter, and I have little doubt that he will win the championship of the Grand Fleet should that competition ever come off.

I had a field service post card this morning from Finneen in which I am assured that he is quite well.

I was not aware that he was is a full corporal but was certainly not surprised. I passed a preliminary exam recently with a fairly decent margin of marks. I am the more elated because I was totally unprepared for such. It in no way embraced the category of my present study. The latter is varied and complicated but I have every confidence for the ultimate result.

That is all. It is late and I am for duty. Adieu for the present with love to Mother and Babs.

Your affectionate Son, Gerald'

[Letter courtesy of Denis McGrath, private collection]

About the Project

The goal of the Letters of 1916 project is to create ‘a year in the life’, and no topic or correspondent is too uninteresting or insignificant to be part of this mosaic.

The letters cover a range of topics, not only major events of the period — the Easter Rising and the First World War — but letters about love and family; official letters from the General Secretary’s Office which provide an unrivalled glimpse into the workings of the British Government in Ireland and letters between friends and husbands and wives separated by war or work.

The project's new discovery database is available at where you can also contribute by transcribing letters or adding your family’s letters, and be part of the research process. 

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