Wexford stories of Great War heroes

Davidf tucker

Published 11/08/2015 | 00:00

Edward R. Richard Orpen
Edward R. Richard Orpen
James Ryan
John Barry
Michael Barry
John Barry
ABOVE: Michael Whelan: RIGHT: Frank Forde
Minnie Mason
Philip Doyle

WEXFORD'S World War One heroes loom large in a National Library of Ireland (NLI) exhibition at Dublin's Templebar which sheds fresh light on the often forgotten and neglected history of the roles played by the county's men and women during the Great War.

Appropriately titled 'Portaits of the Invisible' the material draws largely on material gathered by the Europeana roadshows, one of which visited Wexford last year, drawing a great response from local people who arrived with pictures, medals, war records, cap badges and an assortment of memorabilia, and best of all their memories, passed down over the years, some of which are recounted in podcasts on the county library website

'They were fairly impressed with the stuff that came out that day,' said Wexford Librarian and historian Celestine Rafferty, who helped in the research and whose great uncle Michael Whelan, from Piercestown is one of a dozen Wexford people featured in the NLI exhibition out of 50 nationally.

It's no small achievement and shows the level of interest in the Model County in the Europe-wide research project, the digitising and cataloguing of which was led by Oxford University.

'My poor old great uncle would never have thought that his photograph would have been hanging in the photographic archive of the national library...and it's amazing that Wexford has such a presence at it.

'Many of the stories are recounted by the families of the people in the exhibition in their own words. They are all ordinary stories of ordinary people,' she said.

One of Celestine's colleagues, Anne Long, who works at Wexford Library, is a descendant of another of the people featured in the exhibition, Minnie Mason, who served as a stewardess of the ferry to Fishguard throughout the war despite the ever-present threat posed by German U boats and their deadly torpedoes.

According to the information provided by the NLI about the exhibition:

'In March 2012 the National Library of Ireland held the first Irish European World War 1 roadshow. Families were invited to have personal items connected to WW1catolgued and digitised and to tell their family stories about the war. They brought photographs, letters, diaries and objects that had been crafted in the trenches and in Prisoner of War camps, were eager to have them added to the Europeana WW1 online archive, the day was so successful that further roadshows were held in Trinity College, Dublin, Wexford and Limerick.

All the material in the exhibition was selected from the Irish element of the digital archive which represents WW1 experiences all over Europe.

In the years that followed the war, families dealt with their memories in different ways. Some proudly hung photographs on their walls, Other families were reluctant to talk about their involvement reflecting how much Ireland had changed politically between 1914 and 1918.

Many soldiers were simply traumatised by their experiences to discuss them. For many of the contributors, the roadshows were one of the first opportunities to speak publicly about a relative's involvement in World War One. Others had only found out recently that family members had been involved, when a chance discovery in an attic revealed a piece of family history.

The photographs that make up this exhibition are not in pristine archival condition. Some were very small and are worn and battered having been carried around as memento. Others show the prolonged exposure to light and some are in surprisingly good condition. The photographs were scanned on the days of the roadshows (and are) an authentic representation of the memories of many Irish families and their involvement in WW1.

Wexford soldiers, sailors and air force personnel displayed in the NLI exhibition with details displayed beneath their photographs in uniforms on the wall at the exhibition are:

* Michael Whelan - born at Hayestown, Piercestown in 1876, the son of John Whelan, a labourer and Bess Carroll. His service record was among those destroyed during the blitz in London in 1940 but he appears to have been a career soldier, joining the Royal Irish Regiment sometime after 1901. In 1911 he was serving in India. His niece, Mollie Whelan Murphy remembered him coming home on leave shortly before the outbreak of World War 1 to visit his fiancée whom he hoped to marry on his next home leave. His regiment deployed to France on August 13, 1914, departing Southampton and landing at Boulogne. After several gruelling military engagements, he was killed in action during the battle of La Bassée on October 19, 1914. His body was never recovered but his name is listed on the Le Touret Memorial in the Pas de Calais region of northern France. Coincidentally, another Michael Whelan, also in the Royal Irish Regiment and also from County Wexford (New Ross), was killed on the same day. Both Michael Whelans' names appear beside each other on the Le Touret monument. (Recounted by Celestine Rafferty).

* James Ryan was born about 1887, the son of James Ryan and Catherine Roche of Raheen, Tombrack, Ferns. He was a 2nd Lieutenant with the 47th Infantry Brigade, part of the 16th Division of the British Expeditionary Force and later with the 7th Leinster Regiment at Rouen, France. A poignant letter from James to his cousin John Breen, dated 26 August 1917, has survived in which he expresses his feelings at being back on the battlefield after a short period on leave in Ireland: "I am back in France in the thick of the old scrap again. It did seem rough after a few priceless days at home when I got back to this old place with its graveyards and desolation. Most my chaps got scrapped in the last show. We are now in comparative quiet to what it has been. Ireland looked well while I was at home. There is no country feeling the effect of this old war less than Ireland. This is a quare [sic] old war. Nearly all the chaps who came out with me are long since gone out of mess. 'On Fame's eternal camping-ground/ Their silent tents are spread/ And Glory guards, with solemn round/ The bivouac of the dead.'" James managed to survive the battlefield, but was killed in a railway accident on his way to rejoin his base depot at Calais on 13 January 1918. After the train stopped at Serqueux station, James was found seriously injured on the tracks. He died a short while later and is buried at St Sever Military Cemetery, Rouen. Recounted by Marese O'Connor)

*Edward R. Richard Orpen, Captain, Army Services Corp. A distant relative of the famous poet William Orpen and son of historian Edward, was born in London but brought up in Monksgrange. A farmer and mechanical engineer, he was 32 with a young family when he joined the Army Service Corps in 1916. In 1948, Edward was appointed to the Seanad as independent senator.

* John (Jack) Mitchell, Captain, Royal Field Artillery and Royal Flying Corp. Hailing from Waterford, John(Jack) Mitchell was enlisted as a private in the Royal Field Artillery in 1914 before being commissioned in 1915.

Jack fought on the Western Front and also in Mesopotamia where he won the Military Cross in April 1916 at the battle of Sheikh As'ad.

He joined the Royal Flying Corp in 1917, but during an engine test flight his plane crashed leaving him with a steel plate in his head and unfit for service. Jack played rugby for the British army, football for Leicester and Waterford and cricket for MCC and Northampton. He became Egyptian squash champion in the Cairo garrison. After the war he continued his sporting lie when he coached cricket in Waterford's Newtown School.

* Minnie Mason, stewardess in the Merchant Service 'Minnie Mason was my great-grandmother and she was by all accounts 'a tough cookie'. She was born Mary Joseph [sic] Devereux on 24 May 1872, in Johnstown, Waterford, the daughter of a merchant, James Devereux. She joined the Mercantile Marine about 1896 as a stewardess and worked on the cross-channel ferries until her death in 1927. Through her work she met and married Joseph Mason, a ship's steward from Liverpool. They had one daughter, Evelyn Mary, who was born in Liverpool on 15 July 1900. The baby was taken back to Waterford and placed in the care of Minnie's sister Johanna while both parents resumed their jobs on the ferries. Sometime around 1912, Joseph Mason disappeared. It was rumoured that he had been on the Titanic but other stories suggested he had gone to the United States. Minnie continued to work on the cross-channel ferries during WW1 despite the danger from German U-Boats active in the Irish Sea and St George's Channel. When the war was over she was awarded the British War Medal with clasp and the Mercantile Marine medal. In 1927, as her ship was docking at Rosslare Harbour she suffered a stroke and died, aged 55 years. Her funeral was attended by the indoor and outdoor staff of the Great Western Steam Shipping Company. She is buried in Ballygunner cemetery in Waterford.' (Recounted by Anne Long.)

* Michael Kennedy, Merchant Service (recounted by Mary Forey) 'My father Michael Kennedy was in the merchant navy and his ship was torpedoed. He was from Slade and they would all have been seafaring people. According to my brother, my father was taken prisoner after his ship was torpedoed and he probably didn't make it back from Germany until after the war was over. We think he was probably around 19 or 20 years old when he joined up. I have his war medals and also his merchant navy lapel badge. There's a 'For Loyal Service' badge as well. I also have some medals belonging to Thomas Mason, my father's brother-in-law and childhood neighbour. Thomas's ship was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean and he spent 53 days adrift on a life raft. He died of yellow fever and is buried in India, in Bombay or Calcutta, I'm not sure which. I also have a British War Medal belonging to Mathew Ronan who was in the Royal Engineers (Service No. 270918). It was with my father's medals but I don't know if Mathew Ronan was a relative or one of my father's friends. After the war my father and mother (Annie Berney Kennedy) went to Liverpool and lived there until shortly before his death in 1943.

* Joe Kendrick, 1st Cyclist Batallion, 10th Corp, 36th Division. Fought at the Somme and at Ypres, was severely gassed in 1917 but was still alive when armistice was signed. His brother Bill was also gassed but he too survived the war. Joe was interviewed by the Irish Times on the 60th anniversary of the battle of the Somme. He thought his survival was down to pure luck; his number had just not come up.

* Frank Forde, Private, D Company, 10th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers. A clerical worker in the Pierce Ironworks Foundry in Wexford, Frank Forde joined up aged 16. In early August 1916, he arrived with D Company, 10th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in France and fought at the Battle of the Somme. However, just a few weeks before his 17th birthday, Frank was grievously wounded during the Battle of the Somme and died while being brought back to the trenches for medical attention. His platoon commander, Lieutenant A.W. Henchy wrote to Frank's parents and called him' a fine courageous fellow and a gallant soldier of whom his family should be proud'. Frank was buried in Trachee de Mecknes Cemetary in the Pas de Calais in France. In his military will, he left everything he possessed to his mother.

* Philip Doyle from Wexford joined up in the early days of the war and was assigned to the Devonport navy before a hurried deployment to Belgium. He was part of a 10,000 strong force called the Royal Naval Division made up of Royal Marines, fresh naval recruits and two Naval Brigades. They were ordered by First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to assist Belgian forces to defend the vital port of Antwerp. Philip remembered Churchill standing on a box telling them they would fight the enemy but they were all old men. 'Well we found out our mistake, they weren't all old men. And we had nothing at all only Japanese rifles and Japanese bullets' The land-based sailors helped delay the enemy advance but the Germans took back the city. Philip survived the war and re-joined the Royal Navy in World War Two.

* John, Michael and William Barry (recounted by Vincent Doyle) were my great-uncles, my grandmother Mary Barry Whelan's brothers. Their parents were John and Bridget Barry of Neamstown, Kilmore Quay, Wexford, Ireland. My great uncle, John Barry was born on 30 November 1888 and joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in January 1915. His service number was 17986. He was killed in action in the Balkans on 7 December 1915, aged 26. His name is inscribed on the Doiran memorial in Greece.

'My grandmother, Mary Barry Whelan kept a diary of all the events related to her brothers and kept their scrolls and photos on the wall of her hallway. They were the first things you saw when you went through the door. Michael Barry was born in June 1890 and joined the Welsh Regiment on 20 July 1916. He was killed in Cambrin in France on 23 July 1918 at 10:25 pm. Michael had arrived in France on Christmas Day 1916. He and some other Wexford men are remembered on a plaque in Maesteg church about five miles from Bridgend in Wales.

William was born on 22 May 1896. He walked from Kilmore to Wexford town on 17 May 1917 to join the Royal Irish Regiment, service number 157749. He served in the Machine Gun Corps and was seriously wounded on 23 March 1918 in France. He was discharged in 1919 as no longer physically fit for war service. He was permanently disabled and bedridden and my grandmother looked after him and spent much of her time going up and down to him. He died in Nemestown about nine years late and is buried in Grange cemetery there.

'Unfortunately for the family the remaining brother Tommy died young also in 1926, so that was all the Barry sons deceased in the space of ten years. From 1911 to 1927, Bridget Barry, my great-grandmother lost her four sons, her husband and one daughter. Three girls remained and they married and lived to old age. My grandmother, Mary Barry always kept their memory alive. She married Myles Whelan who enlisted in the Royal Munster Fusiliers in 1916 and was discharged in 1918.

Anyone who wishes to find out more should visit http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu or http://www.wexford.ie/wex/Departments/Library/WorldWar1Podcasts/

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