Thursday 23 November 2017

Small store that made huge contribution to war effort

Family-owned business and its workers found themselves at centre of conflict at home and abroad

Hugh and Anna Neesham in the Canaries
Hugh and Anna Neesham in the Canaries
Brochure before the start of WWI
Martha Lyons and young family
Shop trucks after the war
Henry Lyons

Danielle Stephens

A FAMILY business is honouring its brave employees, who fought and lost their lives during World War I.

Thirty-two employees of Lyons Department Store in Co Sligo served - but six of them never made it home from the battlefields of the Great War, which began 100 years ago.

A roll of honour, which previously hung in the shop's window, displaying the 32 names of its employees who served, was donated to a centenary exhibit in Sligo.

D Adams, R Burnside, C Scanlon, J Scanlon, B Scanlon and J Walsh have a special marking 'K' beside their names indicating that they died while serving.

In 1914, Lyons employed around 120 staff, over a quarter of whom decided it was their duty to fight on the front in Europe.

Originally, it was thought 300 of the 5,000 men and women from Sligo, who fought in the World War I had died. However, it is now known that over 500 soldiers lost their lives.

Four of the five sons of Henry and Martha Lyons also served in the war, with one of the brothers Arthur, dying in Gallipoli in Turkey. Arthur won the military cross for bravery twice.

Another son, Frank, survived the war, only to be killed in France during World War II. On his return from combat, a third brother, Alex, found it difficult to adapt to normal life, dying shortly after arriving back to Sligo.

Ten years ago, Hillary Lyons (27) decided to start research on her family, just after she finished her Leaving Certificate,.

She wanted to know more about her grandfather, John Lyons, "a wild and interesting man" who fought in the World War II, but who had died when Hillary's father was young.

What she discovered, however, was that her family's war history - and that of the family store - went back generations. John was married to Robina Neesham, a Sligo woman, whose parents also fought in the Great War.

Her father, Hugh Neesham, had dropped his life in England when he met his wife Anna just before the start of the war.

Anna, who was an ambulance driver during the war, came from a business family that owned a textile company in Collooney, Co Sligo.

Despite the awful scenes they witnessed, Hugh and Anna promised they would make it through the war and be together.

Hugh, a pilot and an artillery driver, would even schedule his leave to coincide with Anna's and would fly his fiancée down to Paris to visit the theatre.

However, it was not to be a happy ending, as Hugh was gassed at some point, severely damaging his lungs.

When the war ended, the couple got married and moved to Tenerife with their only daughter Robina because the climate was better suited for Hugh's condition.

The one-time Olympic archer's health deteriorated rapidly and the family moved back to Sligo, where he died in 1922.

However, before his death he helped to run the store. A controversial establishment in the town, the Protestant family were often mistaken for owning an English company.

However, as Hillary Lyons explained, the department store was always an Irish stalwart. "All of the Lyons hailed from Ireland. All but one are buried in Sligo," she said.

The store played a huge role throughout the war, eventually having to switch its allegiances when the War of Independence began.

Known for its clothes, the shop provided Irish soldiers, who were fighting for the Royal Army, with their uniforms.

Tweed, which was sent down from Donegal, and Scottish wool imported into Sligo harbour, were used to stitch together the soldiers' attire.

However, sometime during 1917, the Royal Army turned on the store for disobeying orders.

Every week, a young man was sent to Dublin to pick up the national newspaper that was then hung up in the front windows of the shop.

This let the locals know how their sons and daughters were surviving, as many families wouldn't hear news of their loved ones for weeks. When the number of fatalities kept rising, residents became angry and the Royal Army asked for the notices to be taken down, to prevent protests against their cause.

When the Lyons family refused, soldiers shot up the store front, resulting in damage as the store face was mostly made up of glass.

It was then that Henry and Martha Lyons - owners of the store at the time - ceased all production for the Royal Army and ordered the supply of uniforms to the soldiers of the Irish Citizen Army.

Due to the fact that both the Great War and the War of Independence overlapped, the Lyons family found themselves in the unusual situation of having men from both sides working in the shop.

In the mornings, staff would have to report to the manager, or matron's office, where they were ordered to leave their guns.

At the end of the day, employees would take up their arms and fight against their colleagues as soon as they walked out the door.

The links to war continued. Anna never married again, instead running the family business and raising her young daughter. That daughter grew up to follow in her parents' footsteps, fighting on the front in Dunkirk, during World War II.

After the war, Robina met John Lyons at a Sligo lieutenant's club social and the two got married sometime at the start of the 1950s. Just like his wife, John fought in the World War II, fighting Italian forces in Ethiopia and the Japanese in Burma.

He enjoyed life on his return from the war.

A smoker and a gambler, he was always seen as the entertainer for the apprentices that would work in the shop. Robina, like most of the Lyons women, took on the role as rule maker and it was noted that the women were, for the most part, in charge of running the store. John died at the age of 48, succumbing to lung cancer in 1962.

John was the son of Cecil, the only brother not to fight in World War I because he was too young at the time.

Cecil stayed in Sligo and helped his parents run the shop during the turbulent times.

Lyons Department Store continues to trade today and is run by Richard Lyons, son of John and Robina.

Richard explained that he and his siblings were the first generation in five in their family not to have fought on a battlefield.

They were raised in their grandmother Anna's house, where Richard said, "there was never any talk of the war".

Records say the department store first opened its doors in 1835, but members of the 
Lyons family say it could have opened earlier as a fire is thought to have destroyed older files.

Hillary Lyons is glad she spent as much time as she did on her family tree and she is looking forward to passing on her family's legacy when the time comes for her to have children.

"It's great to have such a history to our family that is so unique to others. My brother's wife is expecting and it will be the first child of the next generation, so we're all excited," she said.

The family donated many photographs and information to the 'News from the Past' project, which will be run by Sligo County Council until September.

The exhibition aims to mark the centenary commemoration of the Sligo men and women, who were caught up in the conflict of World War I, and their families.

Comment: Page 24

Irish Independent

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