Sunday 19 November 2017

Hunt is on to remember the Great War's golfers

Royal Curragh
Royal Curragh

Dermot Gilleece

By the time centenary celebrations are taking place 12 months from now to mark the end of World War I, it is hoped a full picture will have emerged of the Irish professional golfers killed in the conflict. To that end, the PGA are currently seeking any relevant information from sources in this country.

The search is being spearheaded by Phil Weaver, who happened to be joint chairman with Neil Coles of the Ryder Cup committee which chose The K Club as Europe's venue for the 2006 matches. He has since been appointed curator of PGA Heritage, which has led him on this ambitious quest.

As it happens, some fascinating new information has already been unearthed through the help of Colonel Bill Gibson Retd, the distinguished historian from Royal Curragh GC. Like the fact that Michael Moran, the finest Irish professional of his time, had been keenly interested in military matters, some time before enlisting in the British army in 1915.

Moran was a 32-year-old acting lance corporal in the 7th Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, when he died of battle wounds in a German field hospital at Le Cateau, France in April 1918. It has now emerged, however, that as early as June 1904, he enlisted in the 3rd Militia Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, giving his employment as "Messenger" to his then "Master", a Mr Hood of Clontarf.

This was Tom Hood, the professional at Royal Dublin, where Moran was born in a cottage in Curley's Yard, located between the third and 13th holes. Hood later became the first professional at the newly-formed Clontarf GC in 1912.

Meanwhile, we're told that Moran had graduated to clubmaker by December 1905, when he signed for "short service" with the 6th Dragoons Cavalry of the Line, which was essentially part-time soldiering, more familiar to later generations here as the FCA. Two years on, he was assistant to Hood at Royal Dublin before joining Galway GC as a fully-fledged professional in 1908.

Galway was still his attachment a year later when he played what was described as "an interesting money match" at Royal Dublin against Bangor's James Edmundson, the reigning Irish Professional champion. Soon afterwards, Moran would usurp Edmunsdon's crown, leading to a record run of five successive Irish titles up to 1913. That particular year also marked his finest achievement, which was to be tied third with Harry Vardon behind JH Taylor in the Open Championship at Hoylake.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, professional golfers who enlisted in the British army formed a section of the 12th Battalion King's Royal Rifles Corps known as the "Niblick Brigade". They included Rowland Lewis of Royal Curragh GC.

As was customary, Lewis's position was kept open, pending the end of hostilities. In the event, he survived, being discharged sick from the army in March 1917, a consequence of having been gassed in France. And for Gibson, there was previously unavailable information regarding Royal Curragh members, given that all club records prior to 1922 remained in British army hands when they finally left the Curragh Camp in May of that year.

Weaver came across an article in the magazine 'Golfing' of February 1915 under the heading "Bravo! Royal Curragh!" Written just six months after the Curragh golfers had departed for France, it painted a graphic picture of casualties during the period August to September 1914.

It read: "As the Royal Curragh Club, County Kildare, is essentially an Officers' Club, practically the whole of their members are on active service, the majority of them serving with the famous 5th Division, which so distinguished itself during the retreat from Mons. We have not the exact figure as to casualties, but you will be able to form some idea of how heavy they have been when we state that of the Committee alone, six were killed or wounded before the end of September [1914]."

Moran, meanwhile, had taken an appointment at Seaham Harbour GC in Durham but he, too, entered the fray in September 1915. His standing in golf beyond these shores was reflected in a piece in the 'Dundee Courier' of December 31, 1915, which informed its readers: "Moran received several offers of professional appointments in America, but he has preferred to don the khaki."

By way of explaining his current mission, Weaver said: "When the British Legion set about commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme last year under the banner of 'Sport Remembers', the 'Niblick Brigade' was featured from the golf sector. The PGA [Britain and Ireland] wholly embraced this campaign and I was given the task of trying to identify all golf professionals and assistants who fought in World War I and never returned."

So far, he has 91 names in his files, of whom a small number are known to have been Irish. "I'm trying my hardest not to exclude anyone," he said. "It is the PGA's intention to create a permanent memorial, so that professional golf in general and PGA members in particular can appreciate and remember the sacrifices made by those of their own."

Apart from Moran, the Irish professionals on Weaver's list include Christopher Anthony McGowan. Born in Dublin in 1884 as the eldest of seven children, he was recorded in 1911 as being attached to Grange Park GC in St Helens, Lancashire. McGowan fell in action during the Battle of the Somme on September 9, 1916 and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to The Missing.

Another is Albert Cottrell, born in Dublin of British parents on August 13, 1894. Soon afterwards, the family moved to Yorkshire and went on to produce a story of remarkable sacrifice, not unlike the famous Sullivan brothers of World War II, which became a movie in its own right and has since been fictionalised in Saving Private Ryan.

There were four Cottrell brothers, all of whom became professional golfers and the older three enlisted, only to be killed in action. As a desperately sad detail of their final moments, Weaver has discovered that Albert (20) and his brother Henry (27), died in each other's arms during the Suvla Bay landings in 1915.

For all its horrors, few images of war could project greater heartbreak.

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