Tuesday 21 May 2019

Families of the Great War who paid a dreadful price

What do Joseph Pierce Murphy, of 2 Thorncastle place, Ringsend, Dublin, and Joseph Lynch, of Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, have in common? It is that on August 6, 1914, they were the first Irish servicemen to be killed in action in the Great War after their vessel, HMS 'Amphion', hit a mine in the opening naval battle in the North Sea.

At least two other sailors, Martin Murphy and Jeremiah Minahane, who were lost on the 'Amphion', were probably Irish, but are not listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission official lists. They are thus doubly forgotten.

One of the midshipmen saved from HMS 'Amphion' was young Stephen Fogarty Fegen, of Tipperary. Twenty-five years later, in 1940, while skippering HMS 'Jervis Bay', he ordered a suicidal assault on the German pocket battleship 'Admiral Scheer' in defence of the convoy he was escorting.

He and his vessel perished in the process. He won a posthumous Victoria Cross.

The taboo on the subject of Ireland in the Great War has been lifted: but the ignorance has not. We still do not know how many Irishmen and women died in the Great War. Though we know that some 35,000 Irish soldiers died, we do not know how many sailors or airmen also perished. But we get glimpses.

For example, of the 24 Royal Naval Donovans killed in action, 12 are known to have come from Cork, and there is the single, sad figure from the Queen Alexandra Imperial Medical Nursing Service, of Staff Nurse Bridget Donovan, who died on active service in 1916.

Some stories reach down the decades, with icy hands to freeze the heart. Col JMF Shine, of Tramore, Co Waterford, and his wife Kathleen, had three sons: John Denys, Hugh Patrick and James Owen. Capt John Shine (26), Royal Irish Regiment, was one of the first soldiers killed in the war, on August 25, 1914.

Eight months later, his brother, 2nd Lieut Hugh Patrick Shine, Royal Irish Fusiliers, was killed. And in August 1917, upon the evil, muddy slopes of Frezenberg Ridge, Capt James Owen (26), Royal Dublin Fusiliers, laid down his young life. To be followed shortly thereafter, by their mother, Kathleen, who soon died of whatever it is that mothers die of when all their sons are dead.

The Shines were well-born Catholics: the Lonergans of Fethard, Co Tipperary, were of humble stock. Jeremiah, 1st battalion Irish Guards, was killed in action on January 10, 1915. His brother, of the same battalion, was killed less than two months later. His third brother Patrick, also 1st Irish Guards, was killed just a fortnight afterwards.

A fourth and final brother, Richard, also enlisted, though not in the Irish Guards, but the City of London Rifles. The change of regiment did him no good.

He was killed in action on April 20, 1917. What can one say of such loss? How did John and Mary Lonergan spend the rest of their days? Gone from history: gone from the great tale of the Irish nation.

The Shines and the Lonergans share a melancholy commonwealth with the Hacketts.

In 1914, all must have seemed well with the Anglo-Irish Hackett family, in their stately Georgian pile, Castletown House, outside Ballycumber, Co Offaly.

They numbered eight; the parents, Edward and Emilie, and their six children. The youngest boy, Teddy, age 16, died of natural causes, in 1915.

Three other children -- two sons and a daughter -- were already in the colours. Eric, serving with the Royal Irish Regiment, was killed in action on the Somme, in 1916.

His brother, Learo, a holder of the Military Cross, was killed with the Royal Irish Rifles, near Ypres, in April 1918. Their sister Venice, a military nurse, took ill and died before war's end.

Two other daughters, Geraldine and Alma, remained. In 1930, the Land Commission requisitioned most of the Hackett land. In 1933, Emilie, the mother, died, leaving Edward with Alma and Geraldine.

One of the girls then perished in childbirth, as did the baby, and the other sister succumbed to illness soon afterwards. In 1938, the Land Commission took possession of the noble Castletown House and, for the princely sum of £30, sold it to Offaly County Council, which duly demolished it, and used its granite to make hardcore for the Ferbane-Ballycumber Road.

Poor Edward lived alone for another six years, with his family, his home, and his caste, all gone. Where he spent this solitary hell, we do not know. After he died, finally, in 1946, he was buried in the family plot. But whereas the headstone at Liss Church of Ireland cemetery in Ballycumber lists all his family's names, even of those who were lost abroad, it doesn't mention him, because by then, there was absolutely no-one left to ensure that his name would be added to the stone.

The Hacketts of Ballycumber are gone from local memory. Of their house, there is no trace. The parkland which was seized by the Land Commission has since largely reverted to scrub.

Only a broken line of trees reminds visitors where the drive once ran. And that is the essence of what we call history: a broken line of trees, to be cherished or ignored.

Lest we forget.

kmyers@independent.ie

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