As some of you might know, I am the General Secretary of the Connaught Rangers Association whose only purpose is to honour the dead of that fine regiment of the British Army, to remember the wounded both mentally and physically who suffered for years as a result of wars and to remember the survivors who returned to a different country from that they left and who were generally ostracised by a new kind of political thinking that still exists to a great extent today 95 years after the end of the Great War. Our aims are to remember individually these long lost soldiers and to give succour to their present day families who are trying to find information on their ancestors by researching archive material.
To that end we had a fantastic weekend of remembrance at Markree Castle in Sligo, the home of the Cooper family whose ancestor, Bryan Cooper, the grandfather of the present day owner, Charles Cooper, was a captain in the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers and fought at Gallipoli in 1915. I had the absolute pleasure of giving the welcoming address to the assembled on Friday lunch. I append my opening words below and tomorrow I will issue my report of what turned out to be a historic gathering.
Speech of Welcome at the Connaught Rangers Gathering – November 8th – 10th 2013
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this remarkable and imposing edifice known as Markree Castle, the home of the Cooper family. I welcome you this afternoon not to glorify in the deeds of the Connaught Rangers but to remember their lives, the simple lives of mainly Irishmen from west of the Shannon brought together to serve in the British Army, their army. The Connaught Rangers was an Irish Regiment that over the years since its disbandment in 1922 has developed a certain cachet in the hearts and minds of people. Wherever I go in my duties as General Secretary of the Connaught Rangers Association, I hear people say “Well the Connaught Rangers are special”.
Well what makes them special? They were just a regiment in the British Army, one of many regiments, a regiment of mainly simple Irish soldiers from the west of the Shannon. Well that great British general, Arthur Wellesley thought them special 200 years ago, when he was taking all before him on the Iberian peninsula at Talavera, Bussaco, Fuentes de Onoro, Cuidad Rodrigo, Badajoz and Salamanca and where the Connaughts were in the vanguard of every attack and victory, earning them the title of “The Devil’s Own”
As an example of how heartily the Connaught Rangers were held in the minds of Irish folk, just over 109 years ago in May 1904, shortly after their return from the South African War, after their three and a half years stint fighting the Boers and having marched in that time 4777.5 miles all over Transvaal, Cape Colony and the Orange Free State, orders were given to the 1st Battalion to march to their Summer Camp at Finner in Bundoran which was 117.5 miles from their then Barracks in Mullingar, I suppose it was as much a PR exercise as anything else as they had already proved how fit they were in Africa.
The army were a god fearing lot and they did not march on Sunday, that was for church parade. In every town they camped each night, the local populace turned out in appreciation and all along the road the country folk cheered them on – 9 miles to Multyfarnon on the first day, 10.5 miles to Edgeworthstown, 9 miles to Longford, 11 miles to Dromod, 11 miles to Carrick on Shannon, 8 miles to Boyle, 9 miles to Hollybrook, 11 miles to Collooney here, 11 miles to Dromahaire, 9 miles to Manor Hamilton, 13 miles to Kinlough and a paltry 6 miles more to Finner. 117.5 miles in 13 marching days, with two Sundays off were a pleasant stroll in front of cheering crowds. It must have been a fantastic sight, a thousand men with all their whole kit and caboodle, the officers’ horses, the mobile kitchens, the transport and the whole population out in support. It must have been heart-warming for the soldiers and they must have felt it well worth the effort. After a few weeks camp and the job done they caught the train back to Mullingar.
When I was a child of six or seven in Manchester in the early 1950s, I used to sit on my grandfather’s knee or kneel at his feet while he regaled me with stories of the Connaught Rangers fighting in mysterious and romantic places like Spain and Russia and India and South Africa. It was grist to the mill for a young boy sitting amidst the deprivation and destruction of World War 2, it etched a picture in my mind, a picture that has never been lost.
My grandfather from Ballinamore Bridge in Co Galway was born on the 5th May 1874 and his father before him, my great grandfather was born in 1835. So between them they nearly lived for the full lifetime of the Rangers. Although my grandfather never enlisted, he was too busy shovelling coal into gas retorts, he lived through the Zulu War, the 1st Boer War, Wolseley’s and Kitchener’s exploits in the Sudan, the 2nd Boer War and the Great War of 1914-18 and he knew an awful lot about them.
He was only a lowly stoker in Bradford Gas Works in Manchester but he knew the Connaught Rangers. They must have been in the hearts and minds of everybody from these parts over a hundred years ago and I think that is why they are so special. “The Devil’s Own” were the OWN of the people of the West of Ireland, the Rangers were the brothers of every family. If the people of these parts owned very little, they owned the Connaught Rangers and they kept them close. That thought was their passport to the world and they used it freely, little caring for the dangers that lived alongside membership of the regiment. Life those days was hard anyways, one more little risk meant nothing.
So having had my initial education into the regiment at my grandfather’s knee, I remembered everything and has I remembered I grew and when I started to cast my eye on the female population of Manchester, I spotted this lovely Sligo girl and we started courting and sure enough there was talk of marriage but what really swung the deal for me was her father, a man by the name of Jim Towey, from the village of Rooskey, six miles north of Charlestown, who was a Connaught Rangers buff, another simple man whose heart and mind had been captured by the history of the Connaught Rangers.
So when it came to my turn to be a father and grandfather and as soon as I could, I got myself over to what I always considered my spiritual home, settled in Boyle and took up the God given mantle of the Connaught Rangers. After a couple of years in the front line I was lucky enough to be sent to Regimental HQ and promoted to temporary rank of committee man of the Connaught Rangers Association and after a couple of more years in the field another promotion to Secretary. If I have one gripe and it is not a gripe really, because the honour is so great, but the wages paid out by the Association are poor, in fact non-existent, the shilling a day paid out to Tommy Atkins puts him in the millionaire class compared to a Connaught Rangers Committee man.
I spend my dotage now busier than ever I was, talking to and e-mailing relations of long forgotten soldiers, forgotten for any number of political and familial reasons, but who are now raising their spectral heads and arms from far away battlefields and wanting now to be remembered. I am busier than ever answering questions from all over the diasporic Connaught Rangers family and with Oliver Fallon’s massive help and use of his fantastic database, a database of approaching 30,000 soldiers, all individuals, all personalities, putting the minds of present day relatives at ease, bringing their ancestors to life. Whether they be in Australia, America, Canada, South Africa or places in between, their joy is almost tactile, their relief honourable. Our service so special both for them and for us.
Just recently I have finished two stories on Connaught Rangers men that will be published in our annual magazine “The New Ranger” after Christmas. One was about a Co Louth man, one of seven brothers, one of whom won the VC. He came across the country and enlisted in the Connaught Rangers in 1906, which was a brave enough thing to do at any time. As I researched the story I met with his present day family and it got to a stage where I sat down for a meal with them and it was as though the seven brothers sat with us. The atmosphere was real and spontaneous as I told them stuff they did not know and they regaled me with family lore.
In the other story my hero, a Tyrone man served for 22 years, in South Africa, India and France and survived and married and settled down into civilian life, raising his family in Belfast between the wars and I was there in spirit weeping with his children when they buried their mother and father in Milltown Cemetery in 1942 when one of Hitler’s bombs fell on their house and killed the two of them and 37 of their neighbours.
As you delve into the life of a young soldier of 100 years ago, you actually grow to be one of his family, when you walk around the town he came from, you walk round with him, if you call in for a pint, you sit down with him, you talk to him, he is your friend, you feel his pressures, you agree with his reasons for enlistment, you grieve at news of his death. It is such an emotional experience, I would not be without it. Personally it has given me maturity, it has taught me patience, humility, steadfastness, empathy and honour.
And that is why we are all here today because the Connaught Rangers are SPECIAL because they deserve remembrance, because they are family, because they are friends. Welcome everybody, welcome friends, enjoy the weekend.