Thursday 17 October 2019

Unnamed soldier buried in bog makes final journey after 97 years

Never officially listed among the fallen, George Chalmers can finally rest in peace, writes Alan O'Keeffe

The stone which had been laid over the burial site by local people
The stone which had been laid over the burial site by local people
IN A TIME OF WAR: Above, last week’s prayer service at Ennistymon Church attended by relatives of George Chalmers
Commandant Seamus Hennessy, who presided over the execution and secret burial, photographed during the Civil War

Alan O'Keeffe

A windswept bog guarded the secret of the disappearance of George Chalmers for 97 years.

Early on Monday morning last, the mystery was brought to an official end when his remains were raised from beneath the sod.

He was 18 when his captors shot him. The teenager was wearing his British Army uniform as he walked alone along a country road in Co Clare in June 1921 to visit his 15-year-old Irish girlfriend, a version of the story goes.

It appeared to be foolhardly to hop from a military lorry in the Lavoureen area and set off alone to seek a local girl named Louisa.

After all, he was alone in his Royal Scots uniform in broad daylight while the whole country was in the bloody grip of the War of Independence.

Despite it being just a month before the Truce would come into effect, the level of violence in West Clare was high. Six weeks earlier, Chalmers had been wounded when 40 IRA volunteers carried out an ambush on four British military lorries. Chalmers was awarded £100 for his injuries.

As he walked to Louisa's home, he was captured by local IRA volunteers not much older than himself. He was interrogated, accused of gathering intelligence, court-martialed, and shot. He refused to the very end to give them his name.

He was nameless to those who buried him in a shallow grave on a boggy hillside at Drumbaun, near Moy.

He was never listed as dead by the British authorities and some officials assumed that Private Chalmers may have "absconded".

The locations of bodies were not revealed to avoid military reprisals locally.

Years and decades went by and some stopped believing in local lore that an unnamed soldier lay buried somewhere in the bog. A wooden cross was said to stand at the wilderness site. It was local historian Dr Padraig Og O'Ruairc, author of Blood On The Banner and Truce: Murder, Myth, and the Last Days of the War of Independence whose research in recent years proved his identity was George Duff Chalmers, an Edinburgh teenager orphaned at the age of eight.

Local people, aware of the location of the grave, used this new information to lay a stone slab to mark the spot with the words: George Chalmers, British Soldier, 11-6-1921.

As a result of Dr O'Ruairc's findings, relatives of the dead teenager finally learned of his fate and his last resting place.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was made aware of the existence of the grave in August 2016. A CWGC statement said: "A review of the case by the British Ministry of Defence saw Private Chalmers officially recognised and CWGC records were amended."

Clare historian Dr Tomas Mac Conmara said the shooting of Private Chalmers took place at a time when there was "incredible violence" by both sides during Ireland's War of Independence. There were summary 'executions' on both sides. Many prisoners held by the military were shot in custody and listed as "attempting to escape".

In response to lethal attacks, the military took part in bloody reprisals which resulted in the deaths of many people in the Clare region which caused very strong feelings locally against the military, including Scottish regiments, he said.

Guerrilla war, by its nature, is "nasty, violent and intimate", he added.

Last year, relatives contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and asked for his body to be exhumed.

At 7am last Monday, the exhumation process began. The remains of George Chalmers were placed in a wooden coffin. A hearse took the remains to Ennistymon where he had been stationed. There was a short prayer service outside the Church of Our Lady and Saint Michael.

The parish Facebook page referred to him as: 'Sadly a casualty of the unrest in our area of Clare in the early part of the 20th Century.'

The parish page contained a statement from a Peter Chalmers who said his family research showed George was a cousin of his grandfather.

Mr Chalmers stated: "When I first discovered what had happened to George, I spent many a sleepless night thinking about where he was buried. I thought of leaving his body where it was and I thought about what I would have done if he was my son or my father. Eventually... I decided to seek help to enable his body to be moved and to receive a Christian burial."

The family are "eternally grateful" to members of the local community "for having looked after his grave".

His remains were taken from Ennistymon to Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin, where that same evening he was re-interred near the graves of many other British soldiers killed in the War of Independence.

The family was "extremely grateful" to all involved in the exhumation, including Clare Co Council, the OPW, gardai and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Later this year, a new headstone will be dedicated in a military ceremony at the final resting place of Private George Chalmers.

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News