Thursday 22 August 2019

Great-grandson traces history of Great War brothers-in-arms

Sligo cemetery caretaker Brian Scanlon at the grave of former Mayor of Sligo Michael Conlon Photo: James Connolly / PicSell8
Sligo cemetery caretaker Brian Scanlon at the grave of former Mayor of Sligo Michael Conlon Photo: James Connolly / PicSell8

Anna Coogan

THE remarkable story of eight Sligo brothers who fought in the First World War has finally been recorded for posterity by one of the soldiers' great-grandsons.

Brian Scanlon, a caretaker at Sligo Cemetery, grew up hearing the stories of how his great-grandfather Michael Conlon, along with his seven brothers, had followed the urging of the Catholic Church to take up arms on behalf of "Catholic Belgium which had been invaded by Protestant Germany".

"I grew up with my grandfather Jack as my dad was away working in the Merchant Navy and my mum worked as an orderly in St John's Hospital, and all the time he would be telling me stories about what had happened to the Conlon brothers," Brian said.

Yet with no official record of his family's contribution to the war, Brian decided to do some research into the sacrifices made by the soldiers.

"My great-grandfather Michael Conlon was one of the two brothers who made it, and he went on to have 13 children and 97 grandchildren – one of whom was my mother," Brian said. "I was 10 and my grandfather Jack was in his 60s when he would tell me all these stories, but after he died I heard nothing more about the brothers. They were never spoken about again.

"I used to wonder if it was because, as a result of the trauma of the war, one of the brothers ended up in Sligo mental hospital, and it was thought better not to mention the war at all."

Brian became determined to reclaim his relatives, and has spent the past 20 years researching his family's story.

He's particularly pleased about the part he has played in the decision to add the names of the 546 Sligo men who died in the First World War to a wall in Sligo Cathedral, which will be unveiled in August.

"It has taken 100 years for the Catholic Church to commemorate the men, though it urged them to go to war," Brian said.

Thomas Conlon, 27, was the first to die on May 13, 1915 at Ypres in Belgium. He had fought in Gallipoli twice. Next to die was Patrick, 34, killed in action on August 29, 1915.

It was at this time that Brian's great-grandfather Michael was traced to the battlefront and returned home to his family – in keeping with military custom of the time, not unlike the story told by Steven Spielberg in the film Saving Private Ryan.

Yet the reprieve given to Michael, the eldest in his family, didn't put a halt to the losses. James, 30, died of battle wounds on April 15, 1916, near Basra in Iraq. Alex, 31, died in action in Baghdad on October 28, 1917, and was buried in the military cemetery there. John Conlon arrived home after the war and died of trench fever in 1922 aged 32. Andrew, never recovered from the torment of the trenches and died in Sligo mental hospital in 1941. The eighth brother, Joseph, returned and fought in the War of Independence and joined the Free State side during the Civil War.

Michael Conlon went on to become a Labour Party mayor of Sligo. He was the chair of Sligo Rovers and in 1939 signed the legendary Dixie Dean to help in their bid for the FAI Cup that year.

Sunday Independent

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