THE WEEKEND AT MARKREE AND REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY AT KING HOUSE, 8th – 10th November 2013
Well it is over and what a remarkable weekend it was in the splendid comfort of Markree Castle in Collooney in Co Sligo.
The idea was born over a year ago now, when Charles Cooper, owner of Markree, his business partner, Pat Timpson, and Charles’s daughter, Patricia, invited me to call in and see them to discuss an idea they had. Their ancestor, Charles’s grandfather, Bryan Cooper, had been a captain in the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers at Gallipoli and with the oncoming year of the Gathering 2013 about to take place in Ireland, why not celebrate and remember the regiment at the home of one of its officers. After the war Bryan Cooper went on to become a distinguished writer and member of parliament, both at Westminster and at Leinster House after Ireland achieved its Independence in 1922.
I broached this information to the committee of the Connaught Rangers Association and they grasped the idea immediately but between that initial surge of enthusiasm and the actual weekend itself there was a lot of hard work put in by both the Coopers and the Association.
The art of a good conference is in the choice of speakers, where each speaker can talk on his subject but not be overlapped by the others but for each talk to blend into each other with a general theme. Whether this happened by accident or design, I do not know, but if it did it worked perfectly. The idea was to remember the Connaught Rangers as a fine regiment of the British army and to commemorate those who had fallen, who were wounded both physically and mentally and indeed those who survived, to enter a new and equally difficult stage of life in a different Ireland after the war. The theme was to bring this forgotten and hidden part of Irish history to the fore to make sure everybody realised 250,000 men, 50% of the 20-40 year old male population took part and 50000, 10% never returned and at least 20% were maimed for life, leaving a tremendous burden on the female, child and mature sectors of the people. This reality has been forgotten and hidden from taught Irish history for generations by a state that wanted its own image , its own brand of history firmly pressed into the minds of its people. This has been so since the 1920s and is only now coming to the surface with people of all ages coming forward with a wish to know more of their ancestors who have been long forgotten.
The weekend started for me on Thursday, when I travelled down to Dublin to pick up a remarkable man from the airport. Anand Sethi, an Indian business man, had contacted me a couple of weeks before, asking if he could come to the Markree event. I immediately told him to get over and quickly accepted his offer to give a talk. Anand was from Dagshai, a military town in the Himalayan foothills on the road up to Simla, the one-time summer residence of the viceroy of India. The Connaught Rangers knew the place well having been stationed there at various stages and it was where the last vestiges of the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers soldiers took place where the mutineers were imprisoned and where James Daly, the last British soldier to be executed, was shot by firing squad in 1921. Anand and his lovely wife Deepa had built up a museum in buildings in the prison given by the Indian Army in this beautiful hill-top town. There is as much action and effort going on in India as there is in Ireland to remember the historic presence of the British Army in these two now independent states.
Not only did Anand want to come to Sligo from his Himalayan home but he wanted to partake and learn. So with pleasure I picked the intrepid pair up at Dublin airport and then called into central Dublin to pick up another guest speaker. Hedley Malloch and his wife, Fiona, had flown into Dublin the day before from Brussels, Hedley is a lecturer at Lille University Business School in Northern France and he is also a military historian and researcher. Both himself and Fiona are old friends of the Association and he has been instrumental in founding a memorial to a group of people who were executed by the Germans in February 1915, five of whom were Connaught Rangers.
The five of us had a really pleasant journey back up the N4 to Sligo and for the whole two and a half hours the conversation flowed and never flagged, five strangers who had immediately become old friends as they regaled each other with tales from India, Europe and Ireland as the miles flew by as we followed the 1st Battalion’s 1904 march to summer camp, 117.5 miles from Mullingar to Finner Camp in Donegal.
At this point we must remember the hard work of the Connaught Rangers Association committee. The chairman and treasurer worked their socks off in bringing our museum in King House up to Markree and displaying it to its finest over the whole area of the Markree lounge; photographs, artefacts, medals and literature of the Connaught Rangers, with the day to day regimental diaries being of particular interest to visitors. The whole display was remarkable and brought gasps of admiration from all who witnessed it. Our thanks go to Willie and Gary for their devotion to duty.
The Friday started with this magnificent display and with Oliver Fallon, our archivist, beating out a tattoo on his laptop, searching out soldiers from his remarkable database of Connaught Ranger for all enquirers. People were coming in and finding out facts of long lost relations, stuff they had only ever dreamt of seeing before.
So after lunch the day really got under way with my welcoming address where I tried to explain why the Connaught Rangers were special and why they needed remembering. The quality of the speakers for the weekend was matched by the superb quality of the visitors; knowledgeable, discerning people who had a thirst for the subjects that were about to be discussed. The whole was set in the historic ambience of the chapel in Markree Castle, wood panelled walls, ornately decorated side pews and the speakers expressing their views from the altar. It felt like and was a special occasion.
Hedley Malloch was first on the floor explaining his esoteric tale of charity, lust and bitterness in small town 1914-1915 France, a remarkable but very human piece of unknown history with one of the star but unwitting parts played by a local Sligo man, Terence Murphy No 8713 of the 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers who was sadly killed at Guise in front of a German firing squad.
Our own Oliver Fallon stood up then and gave a quick history of the later part of Connaught Rangers history explaining in his own inimitable style the horrors the soldiers went through, especially in their martial journeys round Europe and the Middle East from 1914-1918. His talk was refreshing in its ability to transport the listeners to the killing fields these soldiers attended, ordinary men from mainly the West Of Ireland.
Then came John Morrissey, who had flown in from London. John is on loan to Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge from NUI Galway. John is a demographic historian who explained vividly how the state of Ireland should start to remember those Irishmen from the Great War. In that it is as much part of Irish history as the 1916 rising in Dublin and the War of Independence. He explained how this journey could only be attained by a change in emphasis in the educational syllabus at second level education; a remarkable lecture which got the whole audience thinking.
The last speaker of this very full day was Anand Sethi, this man who had travelled half way round the world to explain Indian thinking on this massive subject. How India were inspired by the deeds of the Connaught Rangers and the small state of Ireland in searching out Independence for themselves 25 years later. The remarkable but simple illustration of this fact is that the Irish National flag, the tricolour is the same flag and colours of the Indian flag, just the inclusion of the star of India being different; the colours of India running laterally whilst the Irish flag’s colours are in a vertical relationship.
Well what a day we all had, people were buzzing as we went into dinner, that evening after a lovely meal, the social context adjourned to the bar for more discussion and light refreshment: and so to bed with the thoughts of tomorrow to come.
More of the same displays as yesterday but with the addition of a superbly encased collection of military medals, the war diaries again came to the fore and more from Oliver with his computer full of secrets from the past, the lot recorded by a film crew that had come over from Dublin. They filmed and interviewed people all day for a television programme they are hoping to broadcast next year.
Immediately after lunch Tom Eldin from Westminster School in London arose, fresh from Knock Airport where he had landed that morning. Tom who is a member of the Cooper family, a cousin of Charles, spoke at length about Bryan Cooper’s contribution to Ireland’s military and domestic history in the first third of the 20th century. Bryan had been an officer with the 5th Battalion in Gallipoli but exposed to the terrible living conditions there, he eventually caught dysentery and had to be invalided out, only to return in even worse conditions in Macedonia, a few months afterwards. This experience with his men broadened and revolutionised his thinking but medically affected his body for the rest of his life, he died a young man in his 40s, some 15 years later.
Oliver stepped up to the plate once more to explain to everyone of what Bryan Cooper and his soldiers had gone through in Gallipoli, what a horrible experience it was for all, Turk and Allies alike and what a complete and utter disaster in terms of military thinking the whole episode was.
After a short break, David O’Morchoe came to the dais to talk about the work of the British Legion in Ireland. David is a fantastic man, a retired major general in the army, he retired in 1979 and now and for the last 20 years has been at the forefront of most remembrance ceremonies in Ireland and the pushing of this true and hidden part of Irish history to the fore of people’s thinking. He conducted the Queen round the memorial gardens at Islandbridge last year, the state visit that planted the seeds of reconciliation into the minds and hearts of Irish and English people. Wherever you go in Ireland and a few old soldiers are gathered, you will see David tirelessly continuing his life’s-work for ex-soldiers. He is now in his eighties but his abilities have not waned. He explained the great work the British Legion have done and are continuing to do, how difficult life was to the returning soldier in the 1920s both in finding work and slotting back into society.
With that the Markree side of the conference was over but the talking continued over the conference dinner that evening where we had some fine grub from the Markree kitchens. Another social evening followed and then to bed and an early start for the trip down to King House for our Remembrance service.
At this point I would like to thank all the visitors who arrived to take part in the proceedings. People had travelled from England and all over Ireland to be present and I think they all thought their journeys were well rewarded. I would also like to give a big vote of thanks to the Cooper family for opening up their house to us all and for facilitating the conference in such a relaxed and friendly manner. Lots of unrewarding work was done there and I want to thank them so much.
Sunday morning for some was hectic, moving the museum back to King House and preparing for the ceremony that afternoon, Tommy Egan, the manager at King House deserves a special word of praise, he worked non-stop in his efforts to make sure the day went off well. Ronnie Barker from the Church of Ireland and Donal Morris from the Catholic Church in Boyle injected their message into the ceremony and the occasion went off in fine style with an additional film crew in attendance and a good gathering from all over. Families from Galway, Limerick, Mullingar and Dublin and the locality turned up for this very emotional moment. I thank them dearly.
The Remembrance service was followed by a gem of a talk from retired colonel Colm Doyle, who was head of the European Union Military mission in Bosnia in the early 1990s and who was then co-opted into the United Nations Mission by Lord Carrington. He gave us an eye witness account of the horrors he faced out there and his personal views on the principal players including Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and he became a prosecution witness at their trials in the Hague. He admitted himself that he had been promoted into a position far higher than his officer status should have allowed but Carrington admired him and the Serbs, Bosnians and Croats respected him because of his honesty, truthfulness and neutrality. Anybody else but an Irishman would have been bringing allegiances to the negotiating table. Colm brought himself and nothing more. An absolutely fine man in a horrible situation, who to a certain extent suffered emotionally afterwards as an after effect of the pressures he was under, a fact he did not dwell on but which was an immediate result of his experiences. And that was that, we all tramped off home, weary but enlightened after three days of intensive but wonderful bombardment. Thanks to everybody who was part of it, who worked hard for it and who contributed to it.
As a footnote to this posting, on Monday evening after the weekend whilst I was writing this report, I spoke to my son who is in 3rd level education down in Cork and I quizzed him on his history syllabus. He took his leaving Certificate (A Levels) in 2011 and I asked him what was he taught in his history lessons. Remember these were kids on their way to university. They were taught nothing about the 1st World War, nothing about the Civil War in Ireland 1922-1923 and nothing about the 2nd World War. The 20th century truth was written off, all they knew about was the 1916 rising and the War of Independence 1919-1921. It makes you want to despair but makes you realise that taught history is bunkum