As regular readers of my blog will know, I had the absolute privilege of helping to put on a couple of live performances of a play From the Shannon to the Somme written by Neil Richardson which in a quiet way showed the changing face of Ireland in the years 1914-1918. The play tells the story of a couple of Connaught Rangers, a great regiment of the British Army since 1790, stuck in a war they hated but worried about the Ireland they had to return to. The heroes of 1914 becoming mainly enemies of 1918. Men who had fought for England, who by 1918 had become a hated controller of Ireland, were not welcome back on their own soil.
Many writers recently have written about this volte-face, notably Sebastian Barry and Alan Monaghan but the nationalist movement from 1920 onwards propagated this feeling until in the minds of the people of Ireland, the First War was forgotten about and the people who fought in it were ignored. This led to families who had heroes in their midst, keeping their heads down and burying the evidence of their families military past.
However has history has proved time and again you cannot bury the truth forever and from about 1990 their has been a gradual renaissance of interest in these old men, all now gone. Their present families more and more interested in that great sacrifice of 100 years ago. The Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar in Mayo being a great example of this reawakening brought about by a committee of earnest historians.
I am General Secretary of the Connaught Rangers Association, an organisation with members living all over the world, formed 11 years ago to remember those soldiers who served with such distinction for their regiment, their country and for their fellow soldiers. It is our absolute pleasure to help these enquiring relatives relive the lives of their forgotten ancestors by delving into the massive data base, the product of one man’s determination to bring the Connaught Rangers regiment to the fore of people’s minds. Oliver Fallon, our archivist has built up this massive piece of work over the last ten years and it must now be the largest private collection of military records of one regiment in the British Isles and Ireland. There are two lifetimes work in it, with another two lifetimes to go and his conundrum is, what happens to it when he dies. It is too important a work for it to be buried with him, but that’s for another day.
I would now like to enclose the text of my introductory address prior to the plays performance, which tries to take you back those 100 years to enable one to feel for these men that we need to remember..
We in the Connaught Rangers Association are committed to remembering the thousands of men from the proud Connaught Rangers regiment who died nearly 100 years ago. We are realising with each successive day how the people of Ireland and the present day relatives of these soldiers scattered all over the world, are becoming more and more aware of the sacrifices and brave deeds of their great grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers and grand uncles and all who served during the Great War of 1914-1918. We as an Association spend much of our time helping people who contact us, to trace relatives that history, both national and familial, for one reason or another, has chosen to forget.
The play tonight opens in 1913 more or less 100 years ago tonight and Ireland 100 years ago was part of England, as much part of England, as Lancashire and Yorkshire are today. The Land Wars forgotten, the Irish tenant farmer owned his own land at last, there was an air of well-being throughout the country and except for the bigoted Carson in Belfast, peace and calm ruled. But there was still unmitigated poverty, not always but especially in the populated cities still recovering from the devastating general strikes that racked their existences in 1913 and continued into the early part of 1914.
However there was hope in the air, the 4th Home Rule Bill was a certainty. Ireland was going to be Irish for the first time in 700 years and their was a whiff of nationalism in the air. Unfortunately war broke out in August 1914 and to soften the political process and also has a route out of abject poverty, Irishmen in their hundreds of thousands enlisted in the British Army
Our town of Boyle, traditionally a military town, was no different than any town in Ireland. Young men who were not already in the Army enlisted; there was no conscription. You have to remember that the British Army had been the biggest single employer of men, certainly in the West of Ireland, for over 100 years and the Army in the form of the Connaught Rangers had had an imposing barracks in the town, at King House here, which gave the local merchants a raison d’etre. Boyle was not a big town, you could walk around it in five minutes and it has hardly changed since then. It had a population of about 2000 but 120 men plus from Boyle were killed in this conflict. Going off military statistics that suggested that there were at least 500 seriously wounded. Think what that burden must have had on the remaining population of this small town of ours. 20% of the males in the 20-40 age group killed and most of the rest injured or in need of long term care. The responsibility that was put on the old folk, women and children was enormous and is not generally realised.
Tonight two medals will be presented to our chairman, Mr Gary Egan, two original medals, donated by Mr Alan Deane of Boyle and a Kildare man, Mr Chris Nolan of Athy, which will be displayed in our museum here in King House. These medals were awarded to two Boyle men, a grand uncle of Mr Deane’s, Private Patrick Sharkey who fought from Day 1 and survived the war and Private John Daly, the first man from Boyle To be killed in the war, he survived for five days. Both men lived on Green Street in Boyle only 100 yards from where we are tonight, a street that lost at least 12 men in this terrible conflict.
So as I have explained before, the play went off perfectly, great acting, great direction, great writing and a great response from the audience who travelled from all over Ireland to watch this historic performance of a play about Connaught Rangers performed in the historic home of the Connaught Rangers. 90% of the audience travelled more than 50 miles to attend What did surprise me was the poor response in attendance from the people of Boyle. This renaissance I spoke of does not seem to have arrived in Boyle, the burghers of the town do not yet seem to have confronted the truth. Except for a handful of locals, Boyle was not represented at all but our thanks go out to Frank Feighan, our TD and The Mayor of Roscommon, Tom Crosby and two town councillors who gave up their time to attend. Local County Councillors were indeed apparent by their absence but they were probably down the county on important business. Seeing as most families in the town could trace in their ancestry a lost soldier, I can only presume theatre going is not the forte of most and perhaps it is a little early for some, still swaddled with twaddle from De Valera’s management of the country.