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'Offaly and the Great War' fills a void in local history

Egis Paulikas

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Egis Paulikas

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egis@alphanewspapers.com

There is nothing new under the sun as the saying goes, but in this case, there was very little published work relating to Offaly in World War I, the 1983 essay by Vivienne Clarke which is republished in this volume being a first and rare examination of the period in Offaly, until Tom Burnell’s Offaly War Dead in 2010, and 2014’s Edenderry in the Great War by Catherine Watson. And so nearly every essay published in Offaly and the Great War represents new and original historical research and findings, a very exciting prospect in the world of history publishing.

As mentioned earlier the contributors to this volume gave freely of their time and have generously shared the fruits of their investigations with us. Historical research of this nature is incredibly time-consuming and involves combing through sometimes endless source material before conclusions can be reached and then written up in a neatly packaged essay which can belie the effort expended in producing it. Our contributors have submitted essays that cover every aspect of the war and from almost all corners of the county. In his opening essay, Michael Byrne provides a detailed overview of the political, economic and social landscape of King’s County between 1914 and 1918. Throughout the volume there are specific essays on Edenderry, Tullamore, Ferbane, Belmont, Ballycumber, Clara and Birr. Notable establishment figures from Offaly such as Major the earl of Rosse of Birr, Col Howard Bury of Tullamore, Francis Hitchcock of Kinnitty, William Tyrell of Edenderry are each examined in turn. The participation of the Catholic middle-class is exemplified by the Sherlocks of Rahan and the Egan brothers of Tullamore.

The historical record is oftentimes skewed by retention of documentation relating to the leading class in society, and the sources for the study of the First World War are no different. The surviving source material for the nobility or establishment participant heavily outweighs the written record of the ordinary or unknown soldier. It follows then that the published histories can be top-heavy in accounts of the officer-class as the source material is more plentiful. This book attempts to rebalance that with essays featuring the ordinary Offaly soldier and works towards a full listing of participants from various areas. Paschal Sweeney describes the short life of Denis Geraghty of Ballycumber who was killed in action in April 1918 at the age of 19 years. P. J. Dooley recounts the lives of sixteen men from Belmont and Ferbane who were killed in the war. Eamonn Larkin similarly lists 82 men and women from the Ballycumber area who participated in the war, the name of 11 of whom were uncovered during the course of the research. Of immense value is the work by Michael Byrne in his comprehensive listing of participants from Tullamore drawn from multiple sources and a similar listing for Clara.

The theatre of war is described in essays relating to specific battles and conflict locations. Maurice Egan describes the action for the Egan brothers in the Battle of Messines and Joe Gleeson outlines Offaly participation in the First Air War, with descriptions of the air battles of the Waller brothers of Banagher who were highly decorated for their efforts. Without Joe’s research, many of us may not have known of the existence of an operational airbase at Ballylin House in Ferbane during the war. Or that Gerard Sherlock of Rahan Lodge may have been the first Offaly man to fly. Guy Warner in a broader essay on aviation in Offaly discusses the Royal Flying Corps aerial manoeuvres in Ireland in 1913 and the appearance for the first time of aeroplanes over south Offaly. Michael Byrne discusses the first aerial photograph of the town of Tullamore taken by the RAF in 1918 as part of a voluntary recruitment drive.

Soldiers, battlefields, airplanes, lists of killed or injured men – military histories tend to focus solely on the action and aftermath from the point of view of the men involved and this is only natural, but the war did not affect just the men on the front line – it affected every aspect of society, every class and creed, every man, woman and child whether on the frontline or not. The more recent examination of the social history of the war rather than the traditional empirical military and political histories or the histories of great men and soldiers, means that perhaps it is only now we are able to look back at the lives of women during this period with a greater understanding of their wartime experience. For example, Fionnuala Walsh’s essay focuses on Offaly women’s voluntary work for the war effort with the Red Cross, the impact of the war on ordinary women’s employment opportunities and its effect on household management, the effect of the so-called separation allowances provided to dependents of British soldiers and the lasting effects of the war for women with regard to bereavement and employment. In a similar vein the essay on Lois, countess of Rosse, and her management of a large scale prisoner of war relief scheme from Birr Castle, reflects women’s war effort at the top tier of society in Offaly. In the reading earlier, we saw how the forced repatriation of a German-born Birr resident, Dr Otto Boeddicker and his Kilkenny born wife, revealed the lack of agency suffered by women at this point in time. That her nationality was assumed into her husband’s upon marriage is something we can barely comprehend in this day and age but this was the legal reality for women at the time, and her life and that of her unmarried daughter, similarly without agency being a dependent, was forever altered by these circumstances and not for the better. Margaret Hogan discusses how the end of the war was a catalyst for change in terms of suffrage for women, with Irish women (but not all, as it was limited to married women over 30 years of age) voting on 14 December 1918 for the very first time. And while on the subject of women’s participation in the war, it is fitting to point out that while, traditionally, military histories were written by the boys for the boys, there are six women writers represented in the list of contributors in this volume producing a balanced analysis of the effect of the First World War in Offaly.

The Irish war experience is inextricably linked with the nationalist revolution and it could be argued that the latter might not have occurred without the former. Sean McEvoy’s insightful essay charts the rapid rise of Sinn Fein in Offaly in the post-Rising period between 1916 and 1918 and outlines the changed political landscape in Ireland by the end of the war which would in some respects become an unwelcoming homeplace for returning soldiers from the British Army. In his essay on William Tyrell, Ciaran Reilly discusses the increasingly hostile reception faced by the Tyrell family of Ballindoolin House, near Edenderry, in the aftermath of the war, with the house attacked during the War of Independence by an IRA party. The essay on the wartime experience of the fifth earl of Rosse reveals how the severely injured earl returned to a changed Birr, and the fact he had campaigned against Home Rule before the war was not forgotten, with some protestations against his election to local councils and committees, and a seemingly mean-spirited attempt to discredit his dairy enterprise by the Council.

The aftermath of the First World War is further explored in chapters on commemoration and the uneasy relationship official Ireland has had until recent years with honouring the sacrifice of Irishmen in the 1914-18 conflict. It took until 1926 for a war memorial to be erected in Tullamore due to the political sensitivities of the period. The presence of the British Legion in Tullamore and its holding of annual Armistice Day parades and ceremonies until the northern Troubles in the 1960s is documented in an essay by Michael Byrne, and Stephen Callaghan provides for the first time a complete listing of the memorials erected in the Church of Ireland churches throughout Offaly.

As an archivist, one of the most interesting aspects of this body of research is the use by many contributors of original manuscript sources, in some cases newly discovered. In particular, fellow archivist, Jane Maxwell, in discussing the diaries and memoirs of Col. Howard-Bury, provides a fascinating examination of the genre of war-time diary writing and the more retrospectively and carefully curated genre of memoir, and how the use of historical written artefacts fills the gap in the official narrative of this period in Ireland. Memory writing again features in Ruth Barton’s analysis of the published memoir by Francis Hitchcock of Kinnitty of his experiences of serving with the 2nd Leinsters. Ciaran Reilly uses unpublished diaries and correspondence of the Tyrell family of Ballindoolin to underpin his research and a hitherto unexamined cache of approximately 750 prisoner-of-war letters sent to Lois, Countess of Rosse from Irish soldiers interned in Limburg and other German prisoner of war camps which have lain undisturbed in Birr Castle for 100 years have also been brought to light. On behalf of Offaly History, I am delighted to announce that with thanks to Heritage Council funding, through the unstinting support of Amanda Pedlow, Offaly County Council Heritage Officer, and to the generosity of the Earl and Countess of Rosse, these prisoner of war letters, many from ordinary Offaly soldiers, have been digitised and will be available to view on the website offalyarchives.com. A sample of about 50 of the letters is currently live on the site and over the coming weeks the remainder will come on stream.

While each of the essays stands alone as remarkable pieces of research in their own right, it can truly be said in the case of this volume that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that is testament to the skill and dedication of its editor. From the original concept of the book to the careful selection and editorship of the contributions, Michael Byrne has succeeded in collating and shaping a valuable record of our county in a pivotal point in history. I have no doubt that this volume of essays will be used as a reference work for years to come and will be the definitive work on the Great War in Offaly. Books such as these can often remain as good intentions. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his sincerely held conviction of the importance of local history to the community and while we are all catching our breath after this launch, you can be sure he is already knee-deep in researching the next publication, and long may that continue!

Lisa Shortall is the Manager of and Archivist at Offaly History Centre, Tullamore.

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