Tuesday 20 March 2018

Band of brothers: Eight Conlon brothers left for war

We're only now opening up and telling our stories about World War One, writes Anita Guidera

Brian Scanlon at the grave of his great grandfather and former Mayor of Sligo Michael Conlon
Brian Scanlon at the grave of his great grandfather and former Mayor of Sligo Michael Conlon
Monument to the unknown soldier at South Mall, Cork. Clare Keogh

Anita Guidera

EIGHT Conlon brothers from one Sligo family left under the flag of the Connaught Rangers for World War One. Four were killed in action. Of the four who made it home, one died of trench fever and another lived out his years in the local psychiatric hospital.

Now Brian Scanlon, their great grand-nephew, wants to ensure they are not forgotten. In what will be a first for Ireland, negotiations are advanced to have the names of all 440 men from Sligo who perished in World War One displayed inside Sligo Cathedral.

Brian also wants to see a separate Remembrance Day in Ireland, in which poppies can be worn without any negative connotation.

"I never knew what any of them looked like but they were my great grand uncles. They were portrayed as traitors but they were proud to march under the Connaught Rangers flag. They were Irish and they were fighting for what they thought in the end would help Ireland get its freedom.

"We were not taught our history. It wasn't black and white. Men came back from the trenches and fought with the IRA. That was how it was," he explained.

Brian's great grandfather, Michael Conlon, the oldest of the eight, was sent home on compassionate leave and was elected mayor of Sligo on four occasions. He was also branch secretary of the local trade union and a committee member of Sligo Rovers.

Thomas was the first to die, in May 1915. Paddy, who had previously served in India, died in August that year. The following April, James, the youngest, was killed at just 19. Their brother, Alec, perished in August 1917.

But the tragedy didn't end there. Although he survived the war, John returned home in 1917 suffering from trench fever, a condition characterised by sore muscles, bones and joints and wasted away in bed until his death in 1922.

Brian's grandfather, Jack, told him how John left the house just twice during those five years.

Andrew, who was rarely spoken about, died in the local psychiatric hospital in 1941 at the age of 51.

Joseph, who survived a shooting during the Civil War lived until 1963.

Brian pointed out that most of the 300 homes in the Forthill area of Sligo at the time had sons in World War One. "If you haven't a shoe on your foot and someone is offering you the chance of going away to some far-off place and putting clothes on your back and telling you that your mother is going to get money every week, it's hard to resist.

Poverty, a sense of adventure and filial loyalty were among the most common factors motivating family members to enlist. But like the Conlons, many families suffered horrendous losses.

Four Higgins brothers from Skreen, Co Sligo, went to war. Just one returned home.

All four Lonergan brothers from Fethard, Co Tipperary, were killed in action. Jeremiah, Patrick and Edward were killed within four months of each other in 1915. In 1917 the fourth brother, Richard, was killed in the Battle of Messines Ridge.

Their story is told in Neil Richardson's recently published book

'A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall'.

Three Shine brothers from Dungarvan, Co Waterford – John, Hugh and James suffered a similar fate in Flanders between 1914 and 1917. They had followed their father, James, a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps to the front.

Richardson also recounts the story of four Cork brothers, Dick, Bill, Gerald and Frank Fowler, all former bank clerks, who fought together. The three older men had recently emigrated to Canada before they enlisted, two on the same day. Within a month, Bill was killed.

Gerald and Dick were both forced to leave the front as a result of chronic injury and sickness. When the youngest brother, Frank, signed up in 1916, his father John wrote: "May God preserve him in this awful war and may he trust in the living God who alone is able to keep him from harm."

Frank survived injury in an early attack but on October 25, 1916, his father John received that dreaded telegram informing him his son had been killed in action. He was just 19.

Eight Byrne brothers, including the father of broadcaster, Gay Byrne went to war. One was killed in action.


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.


Irish Independent Supplement

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