Voices from the Past

Family history is a superb source of inspiration for creative writing, and a gripping back-drop to any tale, be it a love story, an adventure or comedy. I recently wrote a play, ‘Cake’, a work of fiction, that was based on events in my great-grandparents’ WWI experience – though it primarily explored the impact  of the era on women.

Interestingly, a writer friend of mine who is familiar with my play ‘Cake’ was recently researching 1916 newspapers in Ireland and came across an actual letter written from my great-grandmother to the editor of the “Waterford News” informing him of her husband’s death in battle (the letter was written from Walthamstow in London, where the family lived for some years before returning to Ireland). Also printed in the paper, were two further letters, one from my great-grandfather’s Major to his Priest and another from a comrade. I’ve decided to share these letters here in tribute to my great-grandfather.

But first, I must give some background to Ireland’s relationship with the Great War. The First World War is less of a contentious issue in Ireland now than it used to be – for a good seventy years afterwards, Irish soldiers who fought, and died, with the British 1914-1918 were at best snubbed, at worst viewed as traitors for taking the “Saxon Shilling”.

Thankfully, there have been recent moves to acknowledge and remember the more than 200,000 Irishmen who fought with the British forces during WWI. Their reasons for joining up were varied and complex. Certainly, poverty was rife and a soldier’s wage offered steady income. Many others believed that their service would be rewarded by Ireland being granted home-rule. More were convinced by the ‘save small Catholic Belgium from fearsome Protestant invaders’ narrative, which was really pushed in recruitment drives in Ireland. And. at that time, Ireland was part of the UK, so there were some who saw joining up as a patriotic duty. I don’t know my great-grandfather’s own reasons for going to war, and indeed this question was a through line of my play.

The Easter Rising took place in 1916, violently challenging British rule in Ireland and changing Ireland forever. Thereafter, Irish soldiers who were lucky enough to have survived the trenches of the Somme, came home to an Ireland at war with England (the Anglo Irish war (1919-1921), followed by a civil war (1922-1923) and in the shadow of these two home-grown wars, the veterans of 1914-1918 were ignored.
However, these men should not be forgotten. The youngest soldier to die in WWI, 14-year old John Condon, was from my home city, Waterford. My great-grandfather Lance Corporal Joseph Bohan O’Shea of the Royal Engineers died in the Somme and is buried at the Quarry Cemetery, Montauban. At the same time, his identical twin brother Michael fought with the Irish Republican Volunteers against British rule in Ireland, and eventually emigrated to America after the War of Independence – and my family is not unusual in this sense.

Here are the letters from my great-grandmother, to the “Waterford News” (some words are unclear due to age of paper):

10 Cornwallis Road,

Walthamstowe,

London,

NE

August 17th 1916

To the editor “Waterford News”

Dear Sir,

Would you kindly make mention in your paper, this week if possible, of the death of one of your fellow citizens, my husband, Joseph Bohan O’Shea, son of Joseph Bohan O’Shea, late Relieving Officer, of 42 Grattan Terrace, Waterford.

Deceased was a pupil of Mount Sion Schools, and was only 30 years of age. He leaves myself and four little children to mourn his loss. His death is a very heavy blow, as he was one of the kindest and best husbands and fathers. But the burden is light when I know he died such a noble death – in fact a hero’s death. He was killed as he was carrying an officer off the field under heavy fire, and I am sure his death is an honour to the city of Waterford and that he will be deeply regretted by his very numerous friends and companions. He was employed with Sir William Arroll and Co., Bridge Erectors, from the age of 17 years, when he started on the Barrow and then the Suir bridges, and had been on the Blackfriars Bridge, London where he was awarded a medal for a life-saving in 1909. He joined the Royal Engineers in April 191? and had been through the Battles of Loos and Mons, and in fact, had never been out of danger. He was made Lance-Corporal in May 1916. He was killed on the 19th of July.

I am sending you some of his companions’ letters and also one of his major’s letters to our priest here. I am also enclosing his photo, and would you kindly let me have letters and photo back at your earliest convenience.

Trusting, dear Editor, it’s not imposing too much and thanks you in anticipation,

I remain, yours sincerely,

Mary J. O’Shea

August 7th 1916

Dear Father,

I was not present when Corporal O’Shea was killed, but it occurred as he was helping to carry one of our officers, who had been wounded in a trench which the enemy was shelling at the time. It was a brave action, because it was done under fire.

Corporal O’Shea had been in the company under my command for nearly two years. He was a quiet man and a good workman, one of many who have sacrificed themselves for the honour of their country. It is owing to the quiet sacrifice of men such as he that we have raised an army which even the Germans now respect, and which contains many individuals such as him, whose quiet heroism has excited the admiration of the nation and their comrades will not be forgetful.

I am glad to think that I was able to let Lnc Corporal O’Shea get home to see his wife and family before the action in which he fell. If I remember right, I was able to help him in this matter on his request.

With sincere gratitude for the prayers you are making for our safety, and I assure you we need them.

Yours very sincerely,

R. Hearn

August 5th 1916

Dear Mrs O’Shea,

It is with feelings of sorrow and deepest sympathy that I now write these few lines to you. I know one of our chaps has written but I feel I must express my sympathy towards you for the loss of your dear husband. We are all sorry to lose him as he was such a good, genuine (Pal) ??? and one of the best men I have ever worked with. I went on my first route march in Bordan with him and I was in the same section until about three months ago. We have shared blankets and parcels from time to time and I can assure you, although I am a single chap, I used to admire Joe for the love he had for his wife and children and few men thought more of home than he did. I went for a (wash/watch)??? to an old post with him the same morning as he passed away that night, but he was doing his duty when he died as he was helping one of our own officers that was badly wounded.

We read it is God’s Word that “No greater love hath no man than that man who lays down his life for his friend.”

My address is Sar. R. Baines, 34th F. T. McCoy. ??? I have his diary that one of our chaps gave to me as it would have been destroyed. So, I will send it along as soon as I have the opportunity. I left a photo he gave me ?? home when I went on leave in May, and if I live through I shall treasure it more carefully and I know someday I shall meet him in a better world. I pray that God may support and sustain you and yours in your hour of sorrow and trial. But Joe was loved by all who knew him and we are all very sorry to lose him, yet we do not know who the next might be, so may God bless you and sustain you. I do not forget you all in my prayers to the One above. With deepest sympathy, I remain your sincere friend.

R. Baines.

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About suehealy

Irish writer/playwright Sue Healy’s work has been supported and developed by the Abbey Theatre, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, the Heinrich Boll Association and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Her play ‘Brazen Strap’ ran at the King’s Head Theatre in May 2016, funded by Arts Council England. Her work has also shown at the Hackney Attic and the Etcetera Theatre in London, with readings in Norwich, Brighton and Cornwall. Sue’s nine radio dramas have broadcast on BBC Radio 4, WLRfm, KCLR96fm. Awards, Residencies and Bursaries: 2017 – Claremorris Fringe Award, Heinrich Boll bursary and residency 2016 - Peggy Ramsay Foundation playwriting grant, Tyrone Guthrie Centre residency, Arts Council England funding 2015 – BBC Opening Lines Award, Arte Studio Ginestrelle residency 2014 - University of Lincoln Ph.D. fees funding 2013 – Escalator Award, Áras Eanna Inis Oirr residency 2012 - Meridian Short Story Prize 2011 – The Molly Keane Memorial Award, Sussex Playwrights’ Award, the HiSSAC Award 2010 - Ted O'Regan bursary, Tyrone Guthrie Centre residency (2016 - Finalist for the Eamon Keane Playwriting Prize, Nick Darke Award and the Old Vic 12) A UEA Creative Writing MA alumna, she spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. Presently, she is London-based, researching a PhD on the Royal Court Theatre. Sue is Deputy Literary Manager at the Finborough. View all posts by suehealy

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