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Separated by the Border, and by different ideals

As the Civil War parties unite, four men from different sides of the Border are recalled by Tom McCaughren

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Adrian Carton de Wiart

Adrian Carton de Wiart

Dan Breen

Dan Breen

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Adrian Carton de Wiart

As a boy and later as a journalist, I came face to face with two men who fought for the British Army and two who fought against it. They lived little more than 100 miles from one another, separated by the Border and by very different ideals. They never met - which was just as well, as they would have been mortal enemies.

The man with the eye patch

As a boy I sometimes joined others at the crossroads where we had nothing to do but watch the world go by. One day we saw a man and his wife walk past, then turn towards the nearby town of Ballymena. The man had an eye patch and an empty sleeve, and we knew he had been wounded in the war.

However, it wasn't until recently that I learned that he was the most wounded general in the British Army. He had been shot in the arm, hand, face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear.

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Hugh Stewart and his wife Jane

Hugh Stewart and his wife Jane

Hugh Stewart and his wife Jane

My good friend Gertie Goodhue, who also lived in Ballymena, told me she had often seen him walking past her house and that his name was Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart.

Among other medals, he had been awarded the Victoria Cross - the British Army's highest decoration - and he got it for leading his troops in an attack on a German position in the village of La Boiselle in France during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.During a long military career, he survived two aeroplane crashes and as a prisoner in Italy during World War II, was among the generals who tunnelled their way out of the medieval Vincigliata Castle.

So what was he doing walking past my house in County Antrim?

During the war he commanded the 61st Division for a period in Northern Ireland and had his HQ in Ballymena. Gertie still has her mother's copy of his memoirs, called, strangely enough, Happy Odyssey. When he retired, he lived in Aghinagh House, not far from Macroom in Co Cork, where he died in 1963 at the age of 83.

The man in the wheelchair

As a journalist working in Dublin, I came face to face with a man who might have considered de Wiart a prime target as he had tried to assassinate another senior British officer. I was covering proceedings in the Dail when, for a tight vote, the Fianna Fail government brought in a deputy in a wheelchair. He couldn't go down into the chamber, so he was allowed to vote from the corridor that encircles it. As I looked across at him, I learned that he was none other than the legendary Dan Breen.

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Daithi O Conaill

Daithi O Conaill

Daithi O Conaill

With Armistice Day, de Wiart's first war with Germany was over - but Breen's war with Britain was only beginning. In 1919 at Soloheadbeg in Co Tipperary, he and some others ambushed an RIC patrol escorting a load of gelignite, shooting two of the constables dead. It was the start of the War of Independence. As his actions and notoriety grew, a £1,000 reward was offered for information leading to his arrest.

He was wounded in the right side, lung, arm, hand, and thigh. He was also shot in the left leg in an assassination attempt on the Lord Lieutenant, Sir John French, near the Phoenix Park. In his memoirs, My Fight for Irish Freedom, he recalled that a group of volunteers captured another senior officer, General Lucas, near Fermoy and held him hostage but he escaped.

Following the Civil War, Breen became a TD for Tipperary but after losing his seat in the 1927 general election, went to America. He returned in 1932 and represented his Tipperary constituency until his retirement in 1965. As a lifelong enemy of Britain, he was pro-German and even sent birthday wishes to Hitler. He died in 1969 aged 75.

The quiet man

When General de Wiart was walking back into Ballymena, he would have been unaware that he was passing the house of another man who had been honoured for bravery at the Somme. Like de Wiart, he was the nemesis of Dan Breen, having fought against Germany in both world wars. His name was Hugh Stewart.

As a boy, I would see this tall, quiet man walking straight as a ramrod on his way into the town. Men like him worked long and hard in the fields and on Saturday went into the town for a well-earned drink, a drop of the 'hard stuff' being the custom of the day.

There were at that time some people who were known as hard men and it was rumoured they would engage in the occasional bare-knuckle fight in some secluded back yard out of sight of the public and police. Perhaps it was some of those Hugh had in mind, but it was said that when he had a few drinks, he would return home by way of a certain street, turning his coat inside out to indicate that he could beat any man who lived there.

I don't know if anyone took up the challenge. If not, they probably knew he had fought in both world wars and was not a man to be trifled with.

A member of the 8th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles in World War I, he was decorated for the stand he took against the Germans at the Somme.

As the battle raged, his battalion managed to push deep into enemy lines but then discovered that the forces on either side had been unable to make the same progress. When the order came to withdraw, he was manning a machine-gun on top of a hill. He stayed at his post and kept on firing until the rest of his crew made it to safety.

For his bravery he was awarded the Military Medal. A notice in the local paper read: "His heroism in holding an outpost in the face of violent attack until its relief won him his distinction."

He died aged 81.

The pimpernel

As a journalist, I met another man who, like Dan Breen, was bitterly opposed to everything de Wiart and Big Hughie stood for. Only later would I learn that he was a lifelong member of the IRA and was secretly involved in reorganising the Provisional IRA for a new campaign against the British Army, a campaign that would last for 30 years. His name was Daithi O Conaill.

He would appear as if from nowhere at Sinn Finn demonstrations outside the GPO in Dublin. He always made a point of having a quiet word with me but never said anything of any importance. It was the same when I found him by my side during the battle of the Bogside in Derry in the early 1970s.

I had reported on the arrival of British troops in the Bogside, the initial welcome, then the running battles as men and women hurled stones and abuse at the troops who fired CS gas and rubber bullets.

When the opportunity allowed, locals would pick up the rubber bullets and metal casings and turn them to their advantage. The bullets were big, about six inches long, and in the gasworks, I was told, a man called Barney McFadden would reinsert them in the casings, inscribe them with the words Battle of the Bogside and mount them on a Perspex stand. They were then sold as a memento of the battle for a nominal sum to support those who manned the barricades 24 hours a day.

It was in a quiet street beside the gasworks that O Conaill appeared by my side. Again, it wasn't what he said to me that was of any importance, but who he was with - a young man called Martin McGuinness. McGuinness invited us into his mother's house for a cup of tea and a chat. Then they were gone, McGuinness to resume the battle of the Bogside, O Conaill to slip back across the border into Donegal.

But how did O Conaill manage to come and go with impunity? I was told that when British troops were checking vehicles at the border, they would wave on, with hardly a glance, a man who was walking two greyhounds, unaware that he was Daithi O Conaill one of the most senior members of the IRA, perhaps even its chief of staff.

He died in 1991.

Tom McCaughren is a journalist, broadcaster and award-winning author

Sunday Independent