Farewell to the inimitable Joe McCabe who became an icon of the Laois junior hurling team in the 1930s and passed away earlier this year, three months short of his centenary. It’s now almost thirteen years since photographer James Fennell and I met with Joe and his great friend Micky Lalor at the McCabe home outside Abbeyleix. This is their story from the second volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series, subtitled ‘Further Chronicles of a Disappearing World.’
Micky Lalor is anxious to set the record straight. His daughter is married to Joe McCabe’s son. And Joe’s father was Micky’s schoolteacher in Clonad. And yes, okay, Joe’s father did have a wee romance with Micky’s mother. But that was a long time ago, before anyone was married. Above all, he and Joe are neighbours – and always have been.
It is clear that Joe and Micky regard the ongoing link between their two families as a happy coincidence. They are great pals. Joe swears Micky is ‘one of the best water diviners in Ireland – bar none‘. And Micky says Joe’s record as a hurler speaks for itself. The two were taking afternoon tea and cream buns when we called in to the McCabe house in Ballyroan outside Abbeyleix on a wet spring afternoon.
The two men sit in opposing armchairs chuckling at the old times, at stories they’ve heard a hundred times before yet which still carry an essential lightness of being. There is the story of the kindly fool who accidentally donated the entrance fee for a vital hurling match to the parish priest. Or the scoundrel who had the monopoly on bicycle tyres and wireless batteries during the war. Or the hurler who kept all his money in a matchbox but accidentally lost the box while making haycocks ‘so he had to unravel all his cocks with a pitchfork and start over again‘. Then there was Jack Lyons, a massive lad who had to get a bypass. ‘Doctor, a bypass is no good to me – I need a roundabout.’ Sometimes it is hard to grasp why stories are funny. It’s like trying to make sense of long gone currencies. And, as such, it is inevitable that older men look down in brief dismay that such wonderful memories can possibly lose their sheen over time.
But much of storytelling is about the way it is told and, eighty-seven years on, Joe McCabe’s endearing tales are as hypnotic as they ever were. Joe is the first of his McCabe line for four generations to not become a teacher. ‘I have sisters who were teachers. I have a daughter teaching – and a grandchild teaching too! But I was too thick for teaching!’
Instead, he evolved a passion for hurling. As a child, his native county still echoed with the roars of those who had carried Laois to victory in the 1915 All-Ireland Hurling Championship. The weather had been so wet that day the two teams played the second half in overcoats. One of his many colourful tales involves a midnight raid on a prosperous farm to pinch a lump of ash to make some new hurls. Luckily, even at the age of twelve, Joe could clearly run.
In the GAA’s Jubilee Year of 1934, the fifteen-year-old Joe McCabe, clad in short trousers, played for the Laois Minors in a match that saw them become Leinster Champions. Next up was Tipperary in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. What an astonishing prospect for any fifteen-year-old.
‘None of us knew Dublin,’ he says of the team’s arrival in the city. ‘We had nothing only our boots, tied together and thrown across our backs. And we carried our hurls in our hand. We had no cases, no pyjamas or anything at all. We walked along the quays and then up to Barry’s Hotel. We went to the pictures that night. The Plaza! I remember it was four old pence. We came out of it after and there was a chipper. We never had chips before but by jaysuz we got a tray of them and tucked in. I only had half a crown when I came to Dublin to play in an All-Ireland final. That’s all I had and there were lads who hadn’t even that! We ate the chips and went back to the hotel and we went to bed. We got up the next morning and went to mass and went on to Croke Park.’
Laois lost by a point after a second half that lasted forty-five minutes and Tipperary brought on nine substitutes. With teacher blood thick in his veins, Joe swears he took the train home straight after the match so that he could finish off his homework for the Christian Brothers in Portlaoise by the Monday morning. ‘We had a great big clock on the wall. I remember it was twenty-five to nine when I got home for dinner. My mother said, ‘You didn’t win today?’ – the hurling was on the radio or something – I said, ‘No.’ My father gave me a note for the Brothers in the morning.’
Joe is the only player to have been on the Laois minor team for five years in a row – 1933 to 1937. He continued to hurl until 1960 and says he got a welt from a hurl every time he went out. ‘We didn’t mind welts. We were working hard. That time we’d walk twenty mile and we’d work and walk home. We got so hardened. People were much tougher. There was nothing to eat only bread and butter and the bacon that hung above you. We’d eat anything, carrots or turnips or cabbage.’
After he left school, Joe’s father paid a welder to employ his son as an apprentice. Joe went without pay for the next three months – ‘to see was I any good!’ He got a salary of five shillings a week afterwards and ‘got up to fifteen shillings by the time I finished!’ His career path was set. ‘I welded all my life – the whole life I’m welding.’ He claims to have invented a crank shaft that cannot be broken – not even by a steam engine – but vows that he will take his secret recipe to the grave. In the end, he had a business of his own outside Abbeyleix, lately sold to make way for a residential estate.
Micky is a quieter man, one of six children born into a farming family from Portlaoise. At seventy-six, he has survived a bypass, a hernia and the complete loss of sight in his right eye. His gift for water-divining was revealed in his boyhood when his teacher – Joe’s father – asked everyone to give it a try. Micky was the solitary success, although his anxious father insisted someone was ‘codding‘ him. After school, he tried it again while checking on the cattle one evening and sure enough the magic sticks crackled over a source of water. ‘I don’t know is it a gift or not. It just works and that’s all. I’ve seen hundreds of people who say they can do it but I’ve only met two or three who actually can.’ He has four daughters and two sons but says none of them can divine. ‘It just doesn’t work that way.’ When Micky married, he gave up farming and bought a machine for well-drilling. ‘Every new house built around the country has to get water – and Mick is the man to find it,’ asserts Joe.
Another wonderful man gone onwards to ‘the great beyant’. Charming, ingenious Sam Codd of Aughrim, County Wicklow, passed away on 22 January 2019 in his 94th year. We met Sam at his home about this time eight years ago for a merry afternoon, after which I wrote the following account of his life and times for the third volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series. The photos are by my colleague and old pal, James Fennell.
Should you ask Sam Codd what a bone-setter does, he is quite likely to suggest that you throw your leg up on a stool so he can break it and then show you how to set it again. ‘If a leg is broke,’ he explains, ‘I put a splint on it, tie a bandage around and put you in plaster of Paris. The bone will fix then.’
He learned the skill from his father. ‘He used to set bones and I’d be tinkering around with him.’ At length he began bone-setting himself and ‘then one lad would tell another’ so that before long, ‘they started to come here from all over the country.’[i]
‘In cattle you have to leave the bone in plaster for about six weeks. In sheep it’s a little less, about a month. But it’s hard to set a horses’ leg unless they are under five years old. A horse has no marrow in his bone. The day a horse is foaled, its leg is as long as it ever will be. It never grows anymore but it thickens up. If you look at a horse the day it’s foaled, there’s a certain place to measure, from the point of the shoulder to the fetlock. Turn that up and that’s the height he will be when he’s done growing. It’s curious of them isn’t it?’
Horses have been a massive part of Sam’s life since he acquired a stallion pony at the age of twelve.[ii] His home, Granite Lodge Stud, is well known in equestrian circles as “The Home of Sammy’s Pride”. Sam purchased this sturdy stallion as a foal and stood him at the stud for many years. ‘He has foals and fillies all over the place! One went to England and won Horse of the Year three years running.’ [iii]
Sam was also famed for the manner in which he trained his horses upon the hilly meadows rolling around his home. He was often to be seen exercising them in his blue trap, pulling at his braces, tipping his cap at passers by. He also farmed the land with his horses. ‘Now it’s all tractors and pressing buttons but in that time everything was done with horses, working and walking alongside them all day, ploughing, harrowing, raking hay and everything.’ Sam continued to work his horses after he ‘got a tractor, same as everyone else’. But eventually he conceded defeat and gifted his last two mares to his daughters.[iv]
He has a handful of well-thumbed photograph albums in which his beloved equines graze, jump and occasionally dance. ‘Anything I asked that lad to do, he’d do,’ he says of one trusty steed. ‘If I told him to lie down, he lay down. If I told him to roll, he’d roll. I told him to stand on his hind legs and he done that too.’ He taught another horse how to sit down in a chair.
Sam was born in October 1926 and reared in Ballysallagh, near Hacketstown, County Carlow, on a farm which his brother now runs. ‘My people were there six or seven generations’, he says.[v] His father William Charles Codd married Susan Hawkins, a farmer’s daughter from Killybeg on the western slopes of Keadeen Mountain.[vi] Susan’s grandfather was a rugged Protestant mountain farmer called Sam Hawkins who married twice. He had twelve children by his first marriage and thirteen by the second. ‘It wasn’t just Catholics who had big families,’ concludes Sam. ‘At one time I had forty eight first cousins and forty of them were living around the Glen.’
Sam was the youngest of William and Susan’s children. ‘You could say I was reared on goat’s milk’, says he, referring to a puckaun (goat) he owned from an early age. ‘I always had goats.’
He left his school in Hacketstown shortly before his fourteenth birthday to help an elderly neighbour with the harvest and threshing. ‘And I was never short of a days work after that,’ says he.
He always made sure he earned his keep. ‘If you didn’t mind your job, you’d get a kick in the arse on a Saturday night and someone else would be in on Monday morning. You can’t sack anyone like that now – you have to give them redundancy!’[vii]
Days were long and there wasn’t much to do in the evenings. ‘You might sit by the fire and that’d be it. Next thing you’d get up in the morning and go back to work. We didn’t go to the pub at all really. There might be an odd card game or something in a farmer’s house. And there used to be dances after the threshing. They were great auld crack. I remember one lad, a fecker for doing tricks, who wasn’t asked to the dance. So he got a ladder up to the house and threw a grain sack over the chimney and smoked out the people inside. He said, “they asked me to the threshing, but they didn’t ask me to the dance”.’
In 1945, a bachelor cousin of his father passed away and Sam, aged only twenty, ‘fell into this place’, the forty acre farmstead on the road to Aughrim where he now lives.[viii] The house was thatched at the time but when combine harvesters took over from manual threshers, ‘all the straw was broken up so we done away with the good thatching’ and went for asbestos instead. In the summer of 2010, 85-year-old Sam replaced the asbestos with proper slate.
‘You had to be very fit to farm,’ says he. ‘That’s why I’m so fit still. I was never sick in my life. We used to be up at six o’clock every morning and to bed at ten or eleven at night. That was the custom. We had to work for a living. But we were all happy and healthy that time. It was a great old life. People had very little money but they were happy.’[ix]’ One particularly stocky job involved carrying grain barrels. ‘We’d be lifting the barrels and there’d be maybe twenty-three stone in a barrel. It’d take two people to lift it but there was a certain way of doing it.’
For a long time, Sam farmed cattle, thirty, maybe thirty five at a time. He milked them all twice daily, pumping the milk into tall aluminium cans which he then wheeled out to the roadside in a barrow. ‘The lorry came then and took the milk off to Inch Creamery.’ As technology evolved, so the creamery was able to pump Sam’s milk directly into a bulk tank and that was the end of the can.
‘We were paid on the milk according to the quality, the butter fat and all that,’ he recalls. ‘I was very lucky as I had the highest butterfat going into the creamery. That was because of the sort of cows I had. I started with Shorthorns – they gave good creamy milk – and I had an odd Jersey among them. Then I started on the Friesians and I built up a great herd from around here.’[x]
When the cattle were not in the fields, he kept them in a cow house beside his home. ‘Nowadays, cattle are all in on concrete floors and you might have three of four of them to a cubicle’, he says disapprovingly. ‘That’s why they’re slipping around and getting hurt.’
‘You can train a horse but there’s no great way of putting manners on pigs’, says Sam of his time as a pig farmer. ‘You just have to put up with them and give them the odd skelp with a stick.’ At his peak, he had ten farrowing sows and a couple of breeding boars that ‘went all over the country.’ Sam ran a tight ship and if a sow did not perform according to plan, she was liable to be ‘hanging up by the leg in Duffy’s bacon factory’ before the next full moon.[xi]
‘You’d always have a fat pig that time,’ he says. ‘You killed it and took two stone of salt to cure the bacon. You’d rub them on the table every night for a few nights, and when you’d be done rubbing and getting it cured, you’d hang them up on the ceiling. You had nothing to do then only cut off a rasher and throw it into the pan. And you’d have gravy enough to fry an egg. That time, you wouldn’t kill a pig until it was about twenty stone weight. Now they wouldn’t eat it because they’d think it’s too fat. They’d cut the fat off it! We lived off the fat!’[xii]
In 1947, Sam married Jenny Coe, a kinswoman of the bachelors who owned his farm. She passed away in 1987, leaving him with a son, three daughters and, at last count, fourteen grandchildren and half a dozen great-grandchildren.[xiii] ‘The auld years do slip by,’ says he.
As well as his bone-setting and horse-training prowess, Sam is well-known in the locality as the Morris Minor man. ‘The first car I had was a Morris Minor and I never had anything else,’ he says. ‘I used to travel around a lot, as a bone-setter, and I do be in a lot of the old farmer places and all that crack. I had two Morris’s here one time, one for taking the girls out on Sunday and one for everyday.’
With thanks to Philip Judge, Tara Quirke, Vanessa Codd, Susan Soden and Pamela Soden.
The Vanishing Ireland series and other books are available via all good bookshops nationwide, Kennys.ie and Amazon.
[i] It wasn’t just livestock with broken legs that Sam mended. He also attended to wounded humans, ‘with slipped discs and knocked out fingers and all that. ‘
[ii] ‘When I was a young lad, I always had horses. ‘ had my first stallion when I was about twelve year old. A stallion pony. I had several stallions along the way. And I kept mares here and bred with them and all that crack.’
[iii] ‘I used to keep horses and stallions here and everything. I’ve nothing now. I’m down and out and on the road’, he laughs. Sammy’s Pride, an Irish Draught stallion, was 16 3. ‘He’s over twenty years of age now but still to the good. He’s in Roscommon. I bought him as a foal. Lads used to come here from all over the country with their registered mares and they’d leave them here for a few days to get them in foal. He had a lot of foals and fillies.’ One of these was bred by Bridget Nolan, near Tullow, in a place called Rath, and won the Horse of the Year Show in England three years in succession.
[iv] ‘The last two mares I had here I gave to my daughters – one to a daughter living outside Bunclody and the last mare I had, Aughrim Mist, I gave to another daughter who is married up in Carrigallen, County Leitrim. She bred several foals from Sammy.’ Purple Joey was another beauty he bred but he was hit by the colic and eventually put down.
[v] They are distant cousins of George Codd in Paulville, as well as the Codds who live near Rathdrum, County Wicklow.
[vii] ‘When I was thirteen I spent the summer holidays working for an auld local farmer and when school started again I didn’t go back. The hay had to come in and then the harvest came in. and then we used to go around for a bit of threshing for the neighbours. I left a month before I was 14 and I was never short of a days work after that. That was it. You minded your job then because if you didn’t, you’d get a kick in the arse on a Saturday night and someone else would be in Monday morning. You can’t sack them now – you have to give them redundancy! It’s hard to get lads to work with farmers now.
[viii] ‘I fell into this place from cousins of my father here. I came here in 1945. There was three auld men here. They were all in their 70s. Two never married and worked around the country and retired back here. The other was an invalid in a wheelchair. They were Coles [or Coe’s?]. Their father married a woman who didn’t like the name Codd and changed it to Coe. They eventually died over the years and I came into this place then.’
[ix] ‘Most people have money now – some of them have too much.’
[x] ‘I was in the cows here for a while. I had thirty, thirty five cows and I’d wheel the milk in milk cans out to the road in a wheelbarrow before the lorry came and took them to Inch Creamery. Then there were bull [bulk?] tanks and the lorry collected it the same as the lads with the petrol, and he took the whole tank and that was the end of the milk can. We were paid on the milk according to the quality, the butter fat and all that. They were very particular about it. I was very luck as I had the highest butterfat going into the creamery. That was all because of the sort of cows I had. A lot of the lads went into different breeds of cow. I used to go to the auctions and buy a lot of springing heifers from Rothwells of Tinahely and so on. She’d calve in the spring then.’
[xi] ‘You’d sit up with sow the night they’d be farrowing. I bought one sow who was expecting and she had only the one pig. But I was lucky as three other sows farrowed that night and I took a few pigs off each of them and so she raised ten pigs. The next time she had only three piglets and I said that’s enough and next time she’s was hanging up by the leg in Duffy’s factory. She was never going to have any number’.
[xii] ‘When we had the milk cans we’d get back the skimmed milk to give to the pigs but when the bull tanks came in, that done away with that. They changed the system so I had to get meal lorry come around every Saturday from the co-op at Rath near Tullow. But at the end of it you’d have nothing only a heap of dung and it was costing you. So I got rid of the pigs then because the meal was so dear, feeding them.
[xiii] I married a lady [in Kilpipe church] who was reared in a cottage over the road. Her father was a brother of the Coe lads who lived here. Jenny Coe was her name. We had four chaps, three girls and Vanessa’s husband. The girls are now scattered all over the country. One in Leixlip, one outside Bunclody, one in Carrigallen and married to a lad by name of Mervyn Richardson. I have fourteen grandchildren and half a dozen great-grandchildren. About that anyhow?’ I make my breakfast every day but I get my dinner from my daughter-in-law. She lives about a mile down the road and gives me a bit to eat and all that crack. My son drives a lorry for people down Avoca way.’
This morning I called into the Tipperary village of Kilsheelan where the late Joe Hanrahan lived. Joe was one of the most remarkable people we met during the Vanishing Ireland project and went on to enjoy a good deal of local celebrity as the cover star of the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. Poor Joe had a sad finale, when his house burned down in November 2015. The site is now a fine grassy lawn but there is also a bench to Joe’s memory at the crossroads in the village centre. Walking past his vanished home, I recalled our lovely experience of meeting him as he took us back through his life and told us of his time as a farm labourer and trap driver. This is Joe’s story.
For the first eighty-one years of his life Joe Hanrahan did a pretty good job of keeping his eminence relatively confined. Sure, most people who lived in and around the Suir-side town of Kilsheelan knew him. The fellow with the wild hair and the sharp, affable eyes, always standing out by the gate of his cottage, dog at heel, raising his stick in friendly salutation at the motorcars passing him by. His face had a countenance that made people smile.
That’s why we couldn’t resist putting him on the cover of the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. It made him something of a celebrity. Across the parish, the county, the province, the country … the poor man even had groupies calling into him from the faraway USA before the first year was out. And yet, I’m assured he adored it, that his unexpected latter-day fame was a source of great pleasure to him, which is in itself a tremendous consoling pleasure to me.
I first set eye on Joe Hanrahan, standing by that same gate, back in the early days of 2011. I was on a grand tour of Ireland at the time with my friend, the photographer James Fennell. Having united on two successful volumes of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series, we were voyaging through Munster in pursuit of more wonderful old timers to charm and enlighten us with their unspoiled spirit of the old world. The phone rang and it was a close pal with a keen understanding of the essence of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ project. She explained how she had lined up a very strong contender for us and suggested we make a b-line for Kilsheelan.
Within a few forgotten hours, we were seated inside Joe’s house, listening to his life story. Here’s how his story subsequently ran in the third volume:
When Joe left school at the age of twelve, the Second World War was three years old and, across the Irish Sea, Britain was practically the only other part of Western Europe that had not fallen to Fascists of one form or another. Churchill’s people needed a lot of things to survive. Faith, courage, fortune, resilience … and rabbits.
The rabbit trade between Ireland and Britain was massive in the early 1940s. And life for the bunnies who lived alongside the banks of the River Suir in County Tipperary became singularly less promising when Mrs. Prendergast, the Kilsheelan postmistress, began her conquest of the area.
‘She used to get loads of maybe four of five hundred rabbits at a time,’ recalls Joseph. ‘She had a pony and cart and I was her driver. We went all around County Waterford, gathering rabbits up from all the farmers. The rabbits were caught in traps beforehand. We’d put the carcasses onto crates and then she’d ship them all across to England. They lived on rabbits in England during the war.’
Mrs. Prendergast paid Joseph half a crown a week to drive her around the county, as well as her twice-weekly trips into Clonmel town. ‘Things were poor enough around here that time,’ he says. And jobs were ‘scarce’, so he was thankful for the work. Besides which, anything was better than school. ‘Oh Christ stop,’ he says. ‘I didn’t like school. Oh God, I didn’t. The teacher was fine but he was very hard. He knew how to work the cane.’
Joseph’s father Thomas was a ploughman who harrowed fields all around the area with a pair of workhorses. Joseph was the seventh of eight children who all grew up in the same house where he lives today. Also living there were his parents and his grandfather Thomas Hanrahan who died in his 75th year. ‘We got kind of squashed all right,’ he chuckles. ‘But I lived here from when I was very small until I was grown up.’
He strikes a match with his fingers and lights up a Sweet Afton. He casts the match into the open fire around which his living room is focused. Timber from the woods of the nearby Gurteen Kilsheelan estate is piled optimistically either side of the fireplace, an axe gleaming in the nearby darkness. But, despite the cold day, he has not lit the fire yet. Along the mantelpiece above the fireplace is an impressive collection of cigarette lighters, gathered ever since he smoked his first cigarette at the age of twelve. Cigarettes and black pints, the source of enjoyment for so many of Ireland’s 20th century bachelors.
In the summers of his youth, Joseph’s once-nimble fingers explored the surrounding woodlands for fleshy vitamin-rich bilberries, known in these parts as hurts or, in Irish, fraochán. ‘We used to go any place and pick them and sell them for a couple of pence to the old postmistress. She’d send them off to England, with the rabbits!’ The bilberries were traditionally gathered on the last Sunday in July, known as Fraochán Sunday. They were also collected in August for Lughnasa, the first traditional harvest festival of the year, and the quality of the bilberries was considered a good way of predicting the quality of the other crops come the harvest. ‘But there’s no demand for hurts now’, says Joseph, ‘and the bushes have all been smothered.’
All of Joseph’s brothers and sisters married and emigrated to England. ‘So I was left alone,’ he says. ‘But I was never tempted to emigrate. I never got the idea into my head.’ In 1948, six years after he first started with Mrs. Prendergast, he took on a job as a labourer for a neighbouring farmer with a wage of a crown a week. ‘I was too young to be drinking at that time so the money lasted well,’ he laughs. ‘But then I got bigger and I started having a pint and the money became valuable!’ For the next half a century, Joseph worked all around the Kilsheelan area, ‘a bit here, a bit there, anywhere I could get a few bob.’ For nearly twenty years he was employed at the nearby Gurteen estate to look after their cattle and poultry.
Joseph never learned to drive a car but rode a bicycle with confidence and reckons he could ride a horse too, ‘but badly’. The farthest he has travelled is Dublin, to which he once journeyed by train to watch Tipperary win the All-Ireland. He also used to frequent Thurles for the Munster Final, particularly savouring those occasions when Tipperary beat Cork. ‘We used to say Cork beat and the hay saved,’ he says wistfully.
As a youth Joseph hurled ‘for the craic’, although he dismisses the notion that he was ever a sporty type. He also used to be something of a card shark, flipping out winning hands of 25s in Sullivan’s pub in Kilsheelan. ‘But the money got bigger and then you’re gambling so I got out of it,’ says he sagely. Whilst he has occasionally been to the coursing competitions at nearby Ballyglasheen, Joseph was never one to wager his money foolishly, ‘not on man, dog or horse’. Instead he derives considerable pleasure from ceilidh music. ‘I don’t play and I can’t sing but I love it,’ says he. ‘I wouldn’t give tuppence for anything else I hear on the wireless except ceilidh.’
Joseph has always lived a quiet life, at ease with a newspaper, a cigarette and, so long as it’s ceilidh time, a radio. He often sits on the bench by the crossroads in Kilsheelan, peaky hat over his eyes, watching the world whizz by. A dog called Blacky is by his side and Joseph endeavours to walk him every day, irrespective of weather.
‘I’ve seen a lot of changes’, he says. ‘But for the good or the bad I don’t know which. People say they are happier now than they were but I don’t believe they are. Money is not all. In the old days you could go out in the morning and pick up an odd job. But now you won’t get work like that anywhere. It’s a very different world.’
After his portrait graced the cover of ‘Vanishing Ireland – Reflections of Our Changing Times’, Joe’s fame grew swift. The local community united and gave him a clock by way of a congratulatory present. And then the strangers began to arrive, looking to talk to him about rabbits and bilberries and ceilidh music. Some just wanted his autograph. One visitor from Pittsburgh, snapped a photo of him holding up her signed copy of ‘Vanishing Ireland’ outside Sullivan’s Pub last April, and spoke of him as a picture of health and joy.
When I learned of Joe’s tragic death on a Monday morning in November 2015, I posted an obituary to him on the Vanishing Ireland facebook page. It clocked 1000 likes in 24 hours as well as 200 plus comments. Many were by people who knew him, recalling a kind, friendly character who loved pottering about in his yard betwixt his chickens and his dogs. The granddaughter of one of his friends told how she would miss ‘your voice grumbling at me, or you waving your stick at me, giving out.’
Another told how she had moved into a new housing estate behind Joe’s house nine years ago. ‘There were still diggers and big machinery everywhere. Joe was standing in his driveway, looking back at it, somewhat lost and bewildered, scratching his head. I remember thinking how sad for him to have all the townies come in and invade his village. [It was] practically his back yard’.
Joe Hanrahan was a wonderful man and it was an exceptional honour to have him as a cover star.
By 8 November 1918, 100 years ago today, it was so nearly over. The war in Western Europe, I mean. Battles would still rage across the planet in the coming years, Ireland included, but the Big War, the Great War, was nearly at an end … 4 years, 3 months, and 16 days after it had started.
That long, brutal, bloody, futile war, so crammed full of sadness and twists and horror, was one of the most cataclysmic events in human history.
A century later, we are still grappling with its repercussions.
We have recalled so many events since the Centenary commemorations began … sometimes I feel as if I’ve been living a dual existence between the present day and a second life that took place a century ago.
First we marked the civil war that almost broke out between Unionist and Nationalist here in Ireland until Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo – and, in doing so, detonated the Pandora’s Box that was to become the Armageddon of the First World War.
Within weeks, the Germans had launched their astonishingly brutal invasion of neutral Belgium as the Kaiser’s army set its sights on Paris.
I think of the Wexford-born Dame Josephine, one of the Benedictine nuns at the Irish convent in Ypres, who, in her eighties, beseeched the Heavens as the German army rumbled ever closer, “Dear St Patrick, as you once chased the serpents and venomous reptiles out of Ireland, please now chase the Germans out of Belgium.” In her youth, Dame Josephine had known nuns who lived through the French Revolution; she would not survive the exhausting flight from Ypres to the coast.
It’s so confusing trying to understand the Great War – all of the alliances and ententes, the battle fronts and troop movements and military strategies … as all of those armies – vast and small – rushed to borders across Europe, north, south, east and west. And then the long slow grinding trudge … the relentless trench warfare, which – from an Irish perspective – led to so many grim battles on the Western Front – the Marne, the Somme, Cambrai, Amiens, Passchendaele …
The No-Man’s Land of machine gun nests and barbed wire entanglements, of artillery shells and pom-poms and Maxim guns and flamethrowers and gas masks and trenches caked in mud and blood. The clouds of poison gas that, for instance, spilled into the Irish-occupied trenches of Hulluch in France in April 1916, and killed more Irishmen than died across all of Ireland during the Easter Rising that very same week.
4,000 Irishmen died die in the bleak heat of Gallipoli. We have remembered Gallipoli – Suvla Bay and Seddelbahr – and all those forgotten fronts – Salonika, Serbia, East Africa, Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula, Mesopotamia … it goes on.
We have remembered too the poignant moments – the Christmas truce, the football matches and Silent Night, Stille Nacht, drifting on the winter winds from trench to trench. The nurses and orderlies doing what they could to treat the casualties of war and, by 1918, trying to contend with a new horror, the Spanish Flu influenza which would kill more people than the war itself.
We have recalled the war at sea – naval battles like Jutland and the U-boat campaign – the German submarines that prowled around the Irish coast sinking troop ships and merchant vessels and passenger ships like the Lusitania and the RMS Leinster.
We have looked to the air above us – there’s a memorial in the North Transept beside me to the Royal Air Force, honouring Irish air aces such as George McElroy and Mick Mannock who gave their lives taking on men like Baron von Richtofen, the Red Baron, as a new age of dogfights and aerial bombardments began.
I might add that on 10 November 1918, Erskine Childers very nearly blew up Berlin. The novelist, who became such a stalwart supporter of Eamon de Valera during the war of Independence and Civil War, was working as an Intelligence Officer with the RAF at this time. He was one of the brains who masterminded a major air raid — the first of its kind — which was scheduled to take place on Berlin on 10 November. The attack was postponed for 24 hours on account of bad weather. That was one of the greatest blessings Berlin has ever had because at 11am the following morning, the Armistice was signed and the Great War ended.
We have remembered so much of the war. And in between all that, our own commemorations of 1916 and the rise of Sinn Fein who swept to victory in the General Election 100 years ago this very month … as a new battle for independence began in this small nation.
In 2014, the Bushy Park Ironworks in Dublin was commissioned to design a memorial to the First World War for St Patrick’s Cathedral. They conceived the Tree of Remembrance, a lonesome wrought iron tree, ensnared in barbed wire, onto which visitors to the Cathedral could pin paper leaves, inscribed with messages of support and love for all those who suffer from conflict, past and present. The novelist Jennifer Johnston wrote and ‘barbed’ the first leaf. Every evening all the leaves were removed, ahead of the coming day, and placed in a box. By the autumn of 2018, over 220,000 leaves had been collected. By coincidence, this approximated to the number of Irish thought to have served in the war. To mark the Armistice on 11 November 2018, St Patrick’s brilliantly selected 36,000 of those leaves – each one representing an Irish man or Irish woman who died in the Great War – and threaded them them through long strands of fishing line that now hang down from the Cathedral’s roof, recalling all those who died in the war, serving as soldiers, sailors, pilots, nurses, engineers, medical corps, veterinary corp … many wearing the uniforms of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and, needless to say, there were Irishmen in the German army too.
Statistics are hard to grasp but a measure of the First World War’s violence can be seen in the casualty figures for the final days before the Armistice. 6600 lives were lost in the last three days of the war, 6600 men killed during the final push across the River Meuse. 11,000 were killed or wounded during the last morning of fighting. That’s more than all casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day in the Second World War, the difference being that the Allies had already won the war when all those soldiers died on 11 November 1918. The last British soldier to die was Private George Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. He was killed at Mons (where he had also fought in 1914) at 9.30am, just 90 minutes before the ceasefire.
On the Western Front alone, it works out that over 2,000 men died every single day of the war. The French lost 27,000 men in a single day. That’s the entire population of Kilkenny. At the Somme, 4,000 Irishmen died in a single day. On Bride Street, which borders St Patrick’s Cathedral, 31 men from the street were killed in the war.
All told, between 15 and 19 million men, women and children, lost their lives in the war, because of the war. And think of all the war widows and war orphans whose future lives were so harshly shaped by the conflict. Or the untold thousands of veteans who died in the decades after the war because of the war, who died of their wounds and the drink they drank to forget all those weeks and months spent wading through those poisonous trenches, watching their fellow men being blown apart in circumstances we cannot imagine. Thank goodness our understanding and empathy for what war does to a person has come on so much in 100 years.
As I say, these numbers are too overwhelming to get our heads around, but when you walk through the graveyards of the Western Front, you begin to get a sense of just how intense it was. At the Tyne Cot cemetery in Flanders, I was entirely overwhelmed by the immensity of it all when I walked alone down a path through line after line of those proud white headstones, with a wall blocking the view to my left. I thought I might have become immune to all the death by then but when the wall ended, I looked to my left and I slumped … because, behind the wall, the field of graves was replicated again and again as far as I could see, like the saddest dream ever dreamt. Endless rows of white upright slabs, framed at one end by the ‘Memorial to the Missing’ upon which were written the names of tens of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never identified.
And for what? To fulfil the ambitions of a bad run of egotistical monarch’s and war-hungry generals? That’s too simplistic, I know, but 100 years on, you have to wonder how it would have played out if there had been more enlightened leadership at the time.
And more fool them. Because when the Great War finally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, and when the world stopped to count the dead and the maimed, the shattered families and burning cities, most of those empires had fallen … Imperial Russia was no longer an empire, its entire Royal family murdered. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empires – they were all gone too. Britain, once the world’s impeccable creditor, was on the cusp of revolution and now hugely indebted to the banks of New York. Was that what they fought for?
I think of the Rev. Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin better known as Woodbine Willie, so named for his propensity of handing out Woodbine cigarettes to the wounded and dying in No Man’s land. He won a Military Cross at Passchendaele and went on to become one of the world’s most outspoken pacifists. ‘When I went to the war, I believed that the war would end to the benefit of mankind,’ he declared. ‘I believed that a better order was coming for the ordinary man, and, God help me, I believe it still. But it is not through war that this order will be brought about. There are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war.’
I think of Flora Sandes, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman from Kerry, a veritable tomboy if ever there was one … she went out to Serbia as a Red Cross nurse and then, by dint of her sharp-shooting and excellent gait in the saddle, fetched up as a sergeant major in the Serbian Army, marching through the icy mountains of Albania, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Bulgarians – for we were at war with the Bulgarians too. She won the Star of Karaðorðe, the highest decoration of the Serbian Military. ‘I never loved anything so much in my life’, she said of her time in the army. ‘I felt neither fish nor flesh when I came out of it. The first time I put on women’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’ And spare a thought for her commander, Colonel Dimitrije Milic. He was so shocked by the sight of his former sergeant major in a dress and hat that he threw his hands in the air and ordered her to put on a uniform without delay.
I think of those who did not join up, the conscientious objectors, who were handed White Feathers and castigated as cowards and traitors until they too threw themselves into the insanity of war. And I think of the pacifist Archie Brockway who received so many white feathers that he turned them into a fan.
There is tragedy in every family, in every graveyard, but the Great War was a different type of tragedy. After an unprecedented breakdown of diplomacy, we launched a ferocious civil war between our species, an existential assault by the human race on the human race.
A huge number of people in this country today were defined by what happened to their families a hundred years ago. My mother lost two great uncles; the last sons of their line. My father lost a great uncle at the Western Front; his grandfather returned home battle-scarred like the artist William Orpen and, like Orpen, he did not live for very long afterwards. I have no doubt that many of you who are reading these words also mourned the premature death of men and women in your families 100 years ago. The ripples of pain and tragedy and loss and hurt and heartache affected the next generation and the next and the next, right down to the present day. That is why we must remember. Because we are who we are because of that war.
In the Ireland of my youth, the history books seemed to suggest that the only wars that the Irish ever fought were to break the shackles of Britannia’s rule. I think we have matured immensely since the Centenary commemorations began. We have moved on. The silence is over. We need not agree with the reasons for the war – but surely we can now openly and freely acknowledge all those Irish men and Irish women who served. And, as the centenary of the Armistice approaches, it is right that we remember all of those who lost their lives in that hideous conflict.
Perhaps, by remembering them, we can also acknowledge in our hearts and minds how fortunate we are with all of our present-day creature comforts, and do what we can to end the unacceptable situation of so many souls across the world today who continue to suffer from the barbarity of war.
[A longer version of the above formed the basis of a talk I delivered at the launch of ‘Fallen’ in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 1 November 2018]
The sinking of the RMS Leinster, just one month before the end of the First World War, remains the single greatest maritime disaster on the Irish Sea. At least 550 people died when a German submarine sank the mailboat on 10 October 1918. The centenary will be the key historical event commemorated by the Irish state in 2018.
There were 22 men in the ship’s Postal Sorting Quarters when the first torpedo struck. Most were Dubliners. It was standard practice on a mailboat like RMS Leinster to ‘sort’ mail as the ship voyaged the seventy miles between Kingstown (as Dun Laoghaire was then called) and the Welsh port of Holyhead. On this morning, there were over 250 sacks of mail to go through.
The banter would have been free flowing among the postal sorters. They knew each other well. Together they had gone on strike the previous April as…
Kathleen Lynam of Abbeylands, Castledermot, County Kildare, who died on Monday 13 August 2018, was a tremendous friend to ‘Vanishing Ireland’ photographer James Fennell all his life. As well as being one of the loveliest people I have ever met, Kathleen was also among the very first to be photographed by James for the project, alongside her late cousin Kathleen Keogh. This is their story from the very first ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book.
‘At the end of it all, I’m just a jackeen from the Coombe,’ says Kathleen Keogh. The words elicit a hearty chuckle from her younger cousin, Kathleen Lynam (nee Keogh). The two Kathleens have known each other since the summers of their youth when the jackeen was dispatched south to spend some time with her Keogh kinsfolk in the Wicklow Mountains. The Keoghs were blacksmiths and their forge stood just outside the County Wicklow village of Kiltegan.
John Keogh, the man of the house, died young in 1934 and Bridget, his widow, was left with two small sons, Jack and Peter, and a little daughter, Kathleen. Bridget was a capable woman. She got on with the show and raised her children – and their visiting cousin – as best she could.
‘It’s amazing to think of her now,’ says Kathleen Lynam of her mother. ‘And what she did for us. It was a different world. There was no taps, no sinks, no nothing. We only had a few oil lamps. We done our homework by candlelight. We got our water from the well and we ate our meals on stools. We always had porridge for breakfast, big plates of porridge, with lots of milk.’
Bridget kept a vegetable garden and excelled at making bread and current cakes. (How about starting the quotation here: ‘Once a week she would walk the seven miles to Baltinglass with a basket on he arm and come home with some beef. (and delete this ‘) ‘There wouldn’t be any luxuries, mind you,’ laughs Kathleen. ‘But there might be colcannon. Potatoes and cabbage all mixed together, make a well in the middle and put a big lump of butter in it … ah, we used to love that!’
Kiltegan was a happy place to be a child. They played road-skittles and pitch ’n’ toss. They milked cows and hid in the woods. They rowed the lakes of Humewood in ‘leaky boats’. When they got out on the lake, Kathleen Lynam – ‘the only girl amongst eight or nine lads’ – would be given ‘an auld rusty bean tin’ and instructed to fish all the water out. ‘I got no sympathy,’ she says. ‘I was just a skivvy.’
When they weren’t on the lake they were clambering up the old Round Tower. Its rotten stairs still make her shudder today. ‘I don’t know how we ever made it to the top.’ Although raised as Catholics, the Keogh children were not discouraged from mingling with their Protestant neighbours. ‘We had as much fun with them as we did with anybody,’ she says. ‘And that’s the way it should be. I was never able to understand why people made such a thing about the difference. We’re all talking to the same God.’
In time, Kathleen’s brother Peter took on the family forge. ‘The Keoghs were always blacksmiths,’ he says. ‘They shod every horse that ever passed through the Glen of Imaal.’ They were ‘tenant blacksmiths’, or farriers, to the Hume family. They paid their rent by shoeing the Hume’s hunters and they made their living shoeing everybody else. Much of the metalwork at Humewood was crafted here – gates, fences, fire-grids, grain forks and such like. Peter says his grandfather was ‘an exceptionally contrary old man’. ‘No one could sledge right for him – except the wife. She had to do all the sledging for him!’
Most forges have a clay floor. The Keogh’s one was made from wood so that the draught horses could come in and crush the coal nuggets into smaller, more heat sensitive chips.
The wooden floor had an added bonus. ‘Nobody had electricity then – and a warm house could be scarce enough.’ With the fire burning, the Forge offered heath, light – and entertainment. ‘A lad with an accordion would get the dancing going,’ recalls Kathleen, who hosted a dance here after her marriage in 1949. ‘We’d only ever have half-sets; there wasn’t room for a full set. But that was where all the courting was done!’
And it was done without drink. The Keoghs are Pioneers. They took the pledge at their confirmation and have never tasted wine nor stout in their lives. ‘I never tried to stop my own children from drinking,’ says Kathleen, talking about her ten children, ‘although I have one granddaughter now who is a Pioneer too.’
Dancing at the forge faded out in the 1950s with the emergence of purpose-built venues like the Parish Hall and Village Hall. The local priest was also eager to keep a close eye on his courting flock. In the 1970s, the GAA revitalised set dancing with their SCOR programme. A teacher came up from Wexford to remind everyone how it was done. Today, set dancing takes place in the Kiltegan Town Hall every Tuesday night and the Blacksmith’s Reel is still among the more popular tunes.
Kathleen was predeceased by her husband Lar and son Peter. Deeply regretted by her loving daughters Mary, Kay, Lily and Anna, sons Jim, Larry, John, Albert and Willie, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, relatives and a large circle of friends. She was laid to rest in Crookstown Cemetery on 15 August 2018.
Every time I walked back to my apartment, I went a different way. I’d learnt that it doesn’t matter which way you go in Monte Carlo. You’ll still get there. So long as you know the approximate location of the place you’re heading, all you need to do is fasten onto an angle and walk with dogged persistence in that direction. You may have to walk through a tunnel or a shopping mall, or whoosh up a cliff encased in a metal box, or clamber up a thousand steps. But you will get there.
Apart from once when I found myself face to face with an elderly lady in a pinstriped suit who was filling a bright red kettle. She smiled, even as her eyelashes fluttered wearily. I was evidently not the first to spin off piste and wander into her kitchen.
My preferred commute from my quarters in Beausoleil to the Princess Grace Irish Library took me down by the Eglise St. Devote and westwards around the bay to the ancient steps running up from Fort Antoine. And then, ruddy-cheeked and breathless, I would pile into the Princess Grace Irish Library and do my best to distract those therein from whatever tasks they were otherwise engaged in.
On my final night in Monte Carlo, I was reflectively rambling through the streets when I came to a halt by a fountain. I about turned and found my gaze cascading over a series of further fountains towards a massive building that shone bright and golden in the dark blue sky. And lo it occurred to me that despite all the time I had spent in Monaco, I had yet to visit the Casino de Monte Carlo. I recalled a text message from my brother-in-law a week earlier requesting me to place €10 on black 29 for him.
I returned to my apartment, donned a jacket and tie and ambled on down, a solitary but crisp €100 note secreted in my wallet. Aside from a drunken soiree in Aberdeen, I had never been to a Casino before and I was suitably wary about my immediate future. I figured I’d play Roulette and play it safe, €10 on red, €10 on evens, that sort of thing.
There was only one Roulette table in operation when I arrived and not a seat to be had. The silver ball was already hop-skipping around the colours. And I swear on all the Gods that have been and gone that as I watched, it popped into black 29.
So that tripped me up because I thought ah, well, black 29 ain’t going to show up again tonight. So I went to watch some Blackjack for a while.
Then I noted a second Roulette table opening up. I cruised over, waving my €100 bill at the croupier, feeling kind of cool. He looked at my banknote as if it were a soiled nappy and counselled me that it was €200 minimum on his table. While I was recovering my composure, he span the wheel. And the darned ball popped into black 29. I have no reason to kid you, and I assure you I kid you not.
I ended up watching an Italian guy who looked like me, and his pretty moll, as they blew €100 on the Blackjack, €25 a round. They probably got 12 rounds out of it all told, winning and losing, hugging and shrieking, moaning and frowning, before they realized their 100 bucks was gone and they stumbled off a little dazed.
And I reckoned that’s exactly what would happen to me. So I returned to my apartment and as I swirled a nightcap to celebrate my final night in Monaco, I figured I was doing pretty well because not only had I enjoyed a formidable month in the sun, and written a massive chunk of my book, but I still had a crisp €100 note in my wallet.
Michael ‘Ducksie’ Walsh, arguably the greatest singles handball player of all time, died aged fifty on 4 August 2016. Just a couple of weeks earlier the Kilkenny man defeated the then No. 1, Eoin Kennedy, in the final of the open singles at his home court of Talbot’s Inch. I was fortunate enough to meet Ducksie in 2010 to interview him for the book ‘Sporting Legends of Ireland’, for which James Fennell took the photograph that accompanies this post. The story I wrote about our encounter follows below in tribute to an incredible sportsman.
One of the most unusual citizens of Kilkenny City during the early 20th century was Ellen Bischoffsheim, the daughter of one of Europe’s wealthiest bankers. In 1881, this London-born Jewish heiress married the Earl of Desart and settled amid the sumptuous surroundings of Desart Court near Callan, Co. Kilkenny. In 1911, ‘Countess Ellen’, as she was known, became President of the Kilkenny branch of the Gaelic League. In 1922, she was appointed to the first Seanad of the Irish Free State. Her appointment stemmed from her good works in Kilkenny, primarily the establishment of the model village of Talbot’s Inch, with its woodworking and woollen industries.
One of the Countess of Desart’s other less well-known legacies was the construction of the Talbots Inch Handball Club in which was opened by President W.T. Cosgrave in July 1928. Indeed, the club has sound claims to be one of the oldest, and certainly the most successful in Ireland.
Six of Ireland’s national handball champions were created upon the hallowed grounds of Talbot’s Inch. However, none can hold a match to Ducksie Walsh.[i] At the age of 44, he is able to confound most statisticians by stating that he won 38 All-Ireland titles in the space of sixteen years. The way this works is straightforward.
Handball is played on a choice of two courts, some 60×30, some 40×20. There is an All-Ireland championship for both and Ducksie has single-handedly won 23 of them. And then of course there is the doubles championship for both, which accounts for Ducksie’s other 15 titles.
One of Ducksie’s favourite partners has been Kilkenny hurling icon DJ Carey who, when not whacking sliotars through the air at Croker, is also a dab hand at handball. DJ partnered Ducksie to three national titles. ‘He never beat me though’, smiles Ducksie, standing outside his furniture warehouse in Callan. Ducksie, it should be said, has also been a finalist in two World Handball Championships.
The Walsh family have been in Kilkenny for many eons. Their traditional demesne is the area known as ‘The Butts’, set beneath the Gothic shadow of St. Canice’s parish church. In medieval times, this was where the Earl of Ormonde’s archers practiced with bows and arrows, using mounds of earth as their targets. Ducksie’s grandfather Paddy Walsh was born here in the late 19th century and was employed as head gardener at Newtown House, one of Kilkenny’s big houses.
His other grandfather, William Burke, ran a successful drapery store in the city for years and it is through the Burke’s that Ducksie discovered his passion for handball.
‘I was inspired by my first cousin Billy Burke’, he says, referring to another All-Ireland handball champion from Talbot’s Inch. Young Ducksie, or Michael as he was then, frequently watched his cousin play. At the age of nine, he began playing at the two Corporation courts down beside St Canice’s. It was winner stays on and, with money up for grabs, Ducksie quickly became utterly hooked on the sport. ‘I’d be there all day Sunday’, he says. ‘And I’d come home with a good few bob’.
He then started playing at the indoor courts in Talbot’s Inch. At the age of 10, he won his first All-Ireland (under-12) medal. Ducksie’s hand-eye coordination caught the eye of the late coaching legend Tommy O’Brien. In 1981, O’Brien selected the 14-year-old for the first Irish team who participated in the US national junior championships. The duo became close friends and in 2001, Ducksie gave his newly won senior medal to O’Brien in appreciation for all his support.
He quickly learned that the key to success is practice. ‘I trained fierce hard’, he says. ‘And I always have. Six days a week, from two to two and a half hours each time. If you can stick with that, it pays off’. He learned how to blast his opponents off the court with a miscellany of superb serving, exquisite passing and merciless kill shots.
‘To win is the thing. I might tell my wife and friends that it’s only a game at the end of the day. But, if you’re in the All-Ireland, you’re there because you want to win.’
‘Its not about strength, or how fast you can get around’, he counsels. ‘It’s about technique. I write with my left hand and I brush my teeth with my left hand and I hit a hammer with my left hand, but I serve with my right and I made sure my right was as good as my left.’
Ducksie won his first senior All-Ireland title in 1985 when he was 18. ‘And I went unbeaten for thirteen years’, he says matter-of-factly. ‘Then I was injured but I played anyway and I was beaten and that was the end of that run.’
Christened Michael, he was by now much better known as Ducksie. ‘A lot of Walsh’s in Kilkenny are called Ducksie’, he says, but he is at a loss as to why. ‘My father was called Ducksie and my brothers were called Ducksie and when I started winning, they had me down as Ducksie too. And so the day I got married, even the priest called me Ducksie!’
Ducksie’s father Sean worked as a security guard, while his mother Vera raised him and his seven siblings in the Butts. After he left school, Ducksie became an apprentice cabinetmaker for Bill Rafter of Deane Furniture [sic]. He then spent eight years with Paddy Sinnott before opening his own business, manufacturing and installing kitchen and bedroom interiors.[ii]
By 2001, Ducksie was struggling with alcoholism, sustaining his habit with the ritualistic drinking sessions that accompanied his every victory. One morning he awoke to see that the man in the mirror had a very battered face. He had no memory of its cause. As the doctors stitched his chin and patched up his eyes, he accepted his predicament, checked into the Aiseiri Treatment Centre in Co. Tipperary and began following the 12-steps. Seven years later, he remains dry.
Aiseiri suggested he use his handballing skill to help his regeneration. In August 2006, he became World Over-40 champion at the Handball World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. The following year, aged 41, he earned considerable applause when he returned to contest the 2007 All-Ireland final. In 2009, he and his partner Michael Clifford narrowly missed out on a place in the All-Ireland senior doubles final. He still trains on four or five nights a week, running, skipping, cycling, and is going strong at Masters level. ‘One of the great things about handball is that you can keep on playing forever.’
The game has become increasingly international and, with sixteen countries on board, including Papua New Guinea and Puerto Rico, this ancient Irish sport is looking gradually more assured of a place at the Olympic Games. It undoubtedly helps that the requirements are so rudimentary – three walls, a pair of hands and a small ball is a promising start.
Ducksie has also made his mark as a fund-raiser. In 2008, he orchestrated a 72-hour handball marathon which raised over €50,000 for the Aislinn Adolescent Addiction Centre in Ballyragget. In 2009, he joined forces with DJ, Noel Skehan and others for a charity walk up Croagh Patrick in aid of the Kilkenny O’Neill Centre for Cerebral Palsy. He has also organised a series of Aiseiri benefit tournaments. His son Dylan won the Under 15s handball in Los Angeles in 2010. ‘He has it alright’, says Ducksie. ‘But like every young fellow in Kilkenny he also likes to hurl’.
[i] The club can boast of having produced players that have won over 100 Senior All Ireland medals. As well as Ducksie’s 38 titles, the club was home to Joe Gilmartin who won 24 senior crowns.
[ii] Michael ‘Ducksie’ Walsh, Kitchen & Bedroom Interiors, manufacturers and installers of Fitted Kitchens, Wardrobes, Sitting Room Units, Dressers and Free Standing Units for our customers. (http://michaelducksiewalsh.com/)
[iii] In 2012, I recieved an email from Tom Carew which included the following details: “My late maternal grandfather, Michael Davin, was the Countess of Desart’s Steward in Talbots Inch until she died in 1933 and very involved in Handball. he was born in South Tipperary 1869 and spent his life in Kilkenny. He was the first national Vice-President of the Irish Handball Council from his election in Croke Park in Jan, 1924 until 1929. Handball was organised under the GAA only from late 1922, starting with the GAA Leinster Council; he had been involved in the game long before that. He was also President of the Leinster Handball Council in that period [having been Secretary at the first Leinster Handball Council meeting on May 5, 1923], and its Vice-chair in 1930 before the Provincial Handball Councils were abolished from 1930 to 1950. He was also the first Chair of the Kilkenny County Handball Board from Nov 1922 [the first established in Leinster] to 1929, and Vice-Chair from 1936 to his death in Sept 1942 and while Chair, his London-born employer, the first Jewish parliamentarian in Ireland, a Senator from 1922 to her death in 1933, Ellen Lady Desart, President of the Club, gave a site for the Talbot’s Inch Alley, which was one of the few covered alleys in that era, and opened in July 1928 by President William T Cosgrave.”
In the last days of July 1918, Ireland lost two of its foremost World War One air-aces, Mick Mannock and George McIrish McElroy. In memory of the two men, this is their story, extracted from my book, ‘The Glorious Madness.’
It was during the farewell dinner for Gwil ‘Noisy’ Lewis in July 1918 that Mick Mannock pulled McElroy aside and gave his protégé an earful. ‘Don’t throw yourself away,’ he barked. ‘I hear you’re going down to the deck. Don’t do that. You’ll get shot down from the ground.’ Within ten days of that dinner, both pilots were dead, killed in two separate incidents, victims of the very ground fire Mannock had spoken of.[i]
Precise figures for which pilots won more aerial victories in the sky can become a matter of considerable dispute, but it is generally agreed that the top three World War One air aces from Britain and Ireland were Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock with at least 61 kills, James McCudden with 57 and George ‘McIrish’ McElroy with 47. All three were destined to die in the war.
All three men had strong Irish connections.
Mannock was born in Ireland to a mother from Cork. McCudden’s father was born in County Carlow. McElroy, who was born and raised in Dublin, was the son of a Roscommon man and his Westmeath-born wife.
Mick Mannock, the eldest of the three, was born at Ballincollig Barracks in County Cork on 24 May 1887. His mother, Julia O’Sullivan, grew up in the nearby village. In the summer of 1881, Julia befriended Edward Mannock, the son of a Fleet Street editor, who was serving as a corporal in the Royal Scots Greys, then stationed at Ballincollig. The couple, both Catholics, married the following spring. Five years later, after postings in Glasgow and Aldershot, the Mannocks returned to Ballincollig with two small children, Patrick and Jessica. Edward (‘Mick’), their third and youngest child, was born soon afterwards.
Mick’s father then left the army but, having drank his way through his army gratuity, he re-enlisted in 1893, becoming a trooper in the 5th Dragoon Guards. His family, including young Mick, accompanied him to India when the regiment was posted to Meerut. During his six years in India, Mick was nearly blinded in his left eye by an amoebic infestation. His father had a violent temper and a drink problem that worsened after his service in the South African War. Shortly after his return from the war in 1901, Edward Mannock deserted his family and vanished.
While Julia moved to Canterbury, young Mick Mannock headed for the old Saxon town of Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, where he found work in a grocery and then in a post office. By 1911, he was a skilled telephone engineer. Always outspoken, he became a passionate socialist and was elected secretary of the Wellingborough branch of the Independent Labour Party. Proud of his Irish ancestry, he supported the ILP’s call for Home Rule for Ireland.
When the war broke out, Mick Mannock was 1,500 miles from London, laying cables in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) for the National Telephone Company. Shortly after the Ottoman Empire formally joined the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was arrested by the Turkish authorities. After several failed escape attempts, he was sent to a concentration camp at Stamboul in the heart of Constantinople. He remained there until April 1915, when he was repatriated in an exchange of prisoners.
Inspired by the exploits of air ace Albert Ball, he joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in August 1916. Life expectancy for wartime pilots was never great. Of 14,000 airmen killed in the war, more than half died while training. Mannock swiftly mastered the rudiments of flying, but his convoluted background did not immediately win him friends amongst the public-school educated elite who dominated the RFC. Lionel Blaxland, one of his fellow pilots, recalled Mannock as ‘a boorish know-all and we all felt that the quicker he got amongst the Huns, the better that would show him how little he knew’.
In the spring of 1917, Mannock was assigned to the RFC’s No 40 (‘Forty’) Squadron and given a Nieuport 17, a nimble French biplane fighter. Considered superior to any British plane of the time, it was particularly well suited to bursting observation balloons and low-level, hedge-hopping attacks on enemy spotters.
It took him several weeks to adjust to his new life. April 1917 was the most devastating month in the RFC’s short history. Two hundred and eleven aircrew were dead or missing and a further 108 had been taken prisoner. Such statistics inevitably played on pilots’ nerves and when Mannock repeatedly held back in flight patrols, some began to question the courage of a man who, at 29, was much older than most men in the squadron.
He was, by his own admission, frightened. At length, he took hold of his fear. On 7 May he scored his first hit when he shot down a German balloon. He would go on to become one of the most deadly fighter pilots on the Western Front. There is still considerable debate about just how many enemy aircraft he shot down, but the figure was at least 61 and could have been as high as 75.
The War Office in London warmly welcomed him to the fray, bedecking him with not one but three Distinguished Service Orders as well as a Military Cross and, ultimately, a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Mannock’s tally soon earned him the absolute respect of ‘Forty’ Squadron and he excelled as a patrol leader. He was one of the finest mentors in the RFC, which was to be a major plus for a curly-headed young Dubliner called George McElroy who arrived at ‘Forty’ in August 1917.
The McElroys were Protestant farmers from Kiltycreighton, just outside Boyle, County Roscommon. George Edward Henry McElroy was born in a Protestant school at Beaver Row on the banks of the River Dodder in Donnybrook, south Dublin, on 14 May 1893; his parents Samuel and Ellen had established the school shortly before his birth.[ii] George, the eldest of eight, grew up to be a particularly bright boy. From Beaver Row he went to the Educational Institute in Dundalk in 1906. Three years later he went to Mountjoy School, where he excelled at rugby and showed himself to be of a mathematical, mechanical mindset.
In 1912, he went to Rosse College, the Dublin business school on St Stephen’s Green, after which he went to work as a clerk in the civil service. Most of his summers were spent in Roscommon, where his uncle kept a large rowing boat for George and his siblings to indulge their passion for fly-fishing. Aged 21 when war broke out, he volunteered as a Despatch Rider on 13 September.[iii] He almost certainly brought his own motorcycle to the service, for which the army would have paid him. Just over two weeks later, he was one of 34 Despatch Riders who landed in France with the British Expeditionary Force, serving in the latter days of the Great Retreat from Mons.
On 8 April 1915, he was sent to the Cadet School at Bailleul to train as an officer and, just over four weeks later, 2nd Lieutenant McElroy went to the front line to join the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR). During the ensuing battle of Ypres, he was nearly choked to death by one of the deadly clouds of mustard gas unleashed by the Germans.
McElroy was recuperating with his family in the Irish capital when the Easter Rising broke out. As a soldier, he was drafted in to put an end to the rebellion. Eight men from the Royal Irish Regiment were killed and 16 more were wounded, but McElroy apparently refused to fire on his fellow Irishmen. Fortunate to escape serious punishment, he was assigned to menial garrison duty for a short period.
On 1 June 1916, he gained entry as a Gentleman Cadet to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and relinquished his commission in the RIR. He graduated from Woolwich in February 1917 and joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant. By this time he had developed an infatuation with flight and, the same month, he began training at the Central Flying School in Upavon on the River Avon in Wiltshire.[iv]
In August 1917, just six weeks after he became a flying officer, McElroy joined the 10th Wing of ‘Forty’ Squadron at Bruay, west of Lens, where he was to be instructed by the now legendary Mick Mannock.[v]
It is not known how Mannock reacted to the 1916 Rising. It seems likely he would have empathised with the rebels and that he would have been duly impressed by McElroy’s refusal to fire upon them. In any event, the two Irishmen became friends. Mannock already had one ‘Mac’ in his squadron — a Scot called George McLanachan — so to simplify things, he rechristened McLanachan “McScottish” and McElroy became “McIrish”.[vi]
The rugby-loving, song-singing McElroy would go on to become the star of the mess, according to Gwil Lewis. However, his initial outings in the Nieuport biplane so beloved by Mannock did not suit. After wrecking two of these valuable fighters while landing, he was on the cusp of being sent home as a failure. Mannock intervened on his behalf and McElroy was given a single-seat SE5a fighter shortly before Christmas 1917. It was one of the quickest aircraft of the war; its top speed of 138 mph (222 km/h) was faster than any of its German rivals.[vii] This was the plane in which McElroy came into his own and racked up all 47 of his aerial victories.
On 28 December 1917, McElroy claimed his first victory at Drocourt-Vitry, while two other pilots from ‘Forty’ also scored hits. That night, the men stayed up late, with McElroy singing Irish ballads, accompanied by Mannock on his violin, while everyone knocked back the squadron’s signature cocktail, the ‘Ladykiller’, a concoction of whiskey, brandy, port and grenadine.
By January 1918, McElroy was soaring through the skies like ‘a terrier let loose in a rat-infested barn’. He shot down two German planes and, the following month, knocked out three enemy observation balloons in a 72-hour period.
January was also the month in which Mick Mannock was given eight weeks’ leave. He went to find his family in England but, to his horror, his mother had become an alcoholic and his sister Jessie was working as a prostitute. Unable to handle this situation, he persuaded the RFC to take him back early. In February, he was appointed Flight Commander of the newly formed No 74 (Training) Squadron in London, which he then took to France.
Mannock still had his sense of humour. He once took his squadron on a mission to bomb the Mess of the RFC’s No 1 Squadron at the Clairmarais aerodrome near Ypres. The bombs comprised 200 oranges. The pilots of No 1 retaliated with a banana attack soon afterwards. The two squadrons then joined forces at the George Robey café in St Omer for ‘a memorable evening’.
However, Mannock also had a hard edge that sometimes stunned his men. In April 1918, Manfred von Richthofen — the notorious Red Baron — was shot down. When some English pilots raised their glasses to salute their deadliest foe, Mannock growled, ‘I hope the bastard burnt all the way down.’[viii]
The following month, Mannock ruthlessly downed 20 German planes, sometimes zoning his guns on the stricken crew with a terrifying callousness. On a single day he claimed four kills, bursting into the mess afterwards with the words ‘Flamerinoes boys! Sizzle sizzle wonk.’ Thereafter, any German aircraft that went spiralling down in flames became known to the men of ‘Forty’ as a ‘flamerino’.
In fact, Mick Mannock’s greatest nightmare was to finish up as a ‘flamerino’. When he flew, he kept a revolver in the cockpit so that, as he told McScottish, he could ‘finish myself as soon as I see the first signs of flames.’[ix] Behind his bravado, he was suffering intense trauma, tormented by the apparent cheapness of life and haunted by the memory of so many dead faces, friend and enemy alike. His diary hints at a fragile mind. ‘I felt exactly like a murderer,’ he wrote after seeing the body of a German airman he killed. On another occasion, he wrote: ‘Feeling nervy and ill during the last week. Afraid I’m breaking up.’
By the time Mannock went on leave to London in June 1918, some of his closest friends feared that he was indeed breaking up. There was some respite in London when he became close friends with Jimmy McCudden, the most decorated British airman of the war, who was also on leave.[x] The two men had much in common. Unlike most pilots, neither had been to public school. They were also both sons of military men of Irish stock; McCudden’s father was born in County Carlow.[xi] A good deal of their time in London centred around a West End dancer called Teddie O’Neill whom McCudden, a Victoria Cross winner, took out for a joy ride. McCudden had also befriended the Irish artist William Orpen; they played ping-pong together and Orpen painted his portrait.
Mannock’s new-found friendship ended on 9 July when Jimmy McCudden’s plane stalled after take-off and crash-landed near a small RAF airfield at Auxi-le-Château. Mannock was greatly upset when he heard the news.
Meanwhile, George McElroy, his old protégé, was fast becoming the leading light of the RFC. In March and April, the pipe-smoking Dubliner spent eight weeks as Flight Commander of No 24 Squadron at Matigny on the Somme. One of his pupils was the future American air ace Bill Lambert who later recalled: ‘George McElroy, without a doubt, was one of the most fearless men I have ever met. He was also most considerate of the pilots under him and at all times tried to keep his pilots out of trouble. He would not allow me to go out until he felt I was ready and I think I owe my survival to his teaching.’[xii]
During his time with No 24 Squadron, McElroy claimed 16 of his 46 victories and was awarded the Military Cross.[xiii] By now a highly skilled dogfighter, he established himself as a master of the SE5a’s dual gun system. The biplane was equipped with a Vickers machine-gun up front, synchronised to fire through the propellers, while he also had a Lewis machine-gun pitched up on the top wing. The Lewis was set upon a sliding rail, so that he could yank its breech back down to the cockpit and load fresh ammunition, or clear stoppages, while he was flying. Between the two guns, he could either fire both guns forward, or use one to attack an enemy aircraft from behind and below. At all times, he made sure his guns were meticulously oiled and clean.
As one colleague observed, an analysis of his flights ‘reveals the hallmark of the high-class fighter, low expenditure of ammunition… he would only fire a few short bursts and the trick was done. Unlike most great fighters, however, he used frequently to open fire at comparatively long range, and being a wonderful shot, the fight was sometimes over before the victim had time to realise it had begun.’
McElroy prowled the skies with terrifying belligerence, repeatedly risking his life and barging into scenes where the odds were stacked against him. The only thing he could not handle was the cold, particularly when he had to fly high. Much to the amusement of his fellow pilots, he endeavoured to counter this problem by purchasing a ‘pocket warmer’, a small cylindrical tin containing a chunk of smouldering charcoal. He stuffed this into his trouser pocket, so that he could keep at least one part of himself warm during such flights. Unfortunately, it overheated while he was flying and, unable to access the pesky thing through his heavy, fur-lined coat, he fetched up with a burn the size of a chicken egg.
On 1 April, the day the Royal Flying Corps was reborn as the Royal Air Force, McElroy was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross for showing ‘skill and determination… most praiseworthy’.[xiv] One week later, he claimed three victories on a single patrol but, as he came into land, his plane clipped a treetop and he spent the next two months recovering on the sidelines.[xv]
When his convalescence was complete in June, McElroy rejoined his old pals at ‘Forty’ Squadron in Bryas, shortly after the squadron leader, Australian air ace Stan Dallas, was shot down. In his first eight days back with ‘Forty’, he took out eight planes, as well as bombing several key German strong points along the front. By the end of June, McElroy had taken his tally to 30. In July, he went ballistic and, during the first three weeks, there was hardly a day in which he did not return to base having shot or destroyed some form of enemy aircraft. His score of 17 new victims in that time was one of the most remarkable in the history of fighter aviation and put him on a par with the Red Baron.
On 20 July, McElroy again crash-landed his plane, but despite being left shaken and bruised, he made it to Gwil Lewis’s farewell dinner that same evening. This was the occasion that Mannock accosted him for flying too low. The two men had known each other less than a year and strong words between them were by no means unknown. ‘Each was convinced that the other was rash, and took risks,’ recalled fellow squadron member FT Gilbert. ‘Each reproved the other and issued solemn warnings. To hear them on this was amazing. But McElroy was less berserk than Mannock and … his nerves showed little sign of being on edge, except in a new petulance when he could not get combats.’
Mannock, now commanding 85 Squadron, was still in deep depression after Jimmy McCudden’s death. Those who knew him said the 31-year-old should never have been allowed to fly. His nerves were shot, his wit and sparkle depleted and, as Gwil Lewis remarked, he had been ‘kept out on the battlefront too long and he’d suffered in losing his judgment’. When Mannock shot down yet another German aircraft two days after Gwil’s farewell, a fellow pilot said: ‘They’ll have the red carpet out for you after the war, Mick’. Mannock grimly replied, ‘There won’t be any “after the war” for me.’[xvi]
He was correct. On 26 July, Mick Mannock set off alongside a young New Zealand pilot, Donald Inglis, crossing the German front line. Ignoring his own wise words, he flew too close to the ground, apparently to view the wreckage of an enemy two-seater they had shot down near Robecq. A German machine-gun opened up and, in moments, his plane was engulfed in a bluish white flame. He never used his revolver but instead jumped from the blazing plane. His body was found 250 yards from the wreck but, bizarrely, it was never formally recovered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission so the precise whereabouts of his remains are unknown.
After intensive lobbying by friends, Mannock was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in July 1919. It was presented to his father, Edward, at Buckingham Palace. Contrary to the explicit terms of Mick’s will, his father also secured his other medals. He sold the whole lot for £5 soon afterwards. They have since been recovered and, having been on display at the RAF Museum in Hendon, they are now displayed on rotation in the ‘Extraordinary Heroes’ exhibition at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum, London.
On the day Mannock died, McElroy received the second Bar to his Military Cross for his ‘most enterprising work in attacking enemy troops and transport’.[xvii]It was his greatest ambition to be awarded the DSO, which would put him on a par with Mannock. After Mannock’s death, the DSO became a fixation for him, more powerful even than his competitive urge to beat Mannock’s victory tally.
Early on the morning of 31 July, McElroy set off in a new SE5, a plane so crisp that it had only logged 11 hours’ flying time. When he didn’t return, the squadron feared the worst. At length, the Germans dropped a note to say that the 25-year-old Dubliner had been killed and buried. Precise details as to how he died remain a mystery but it is thought he was shot down over Laventie by anti-aircraft guns shortly after he had taken out a German two-seater.[xviii]
‘We took [the news of his death] very quietly’, recalled FT Gilbert. ‘There did not seem much to say. And somehow, he doesn’t seem dead even now for we all drew something from him, to become a part of us. We worshipped him for his prowess, and loved him for himself. 40 Squadron thought there was no one like him, and we shall never forget him.’[xix]
On 3 August, McElroy received the posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross for ‘his dashing and skilful leadership’.[xx] A Bar followed six weeks later.[xxi] He never received the DSO he had so desperately sought.
George McElroy was buried in the Royal Irish Rifles cemetery at Laventie, 12 miles west of Lille. Whilst it is unlikely to ever be proven, there is an extraordinary possibility that the nearby grave of an ‘Unknown British Aviator’ is that of Mick Mannock.
‘A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds…
The years to come seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.’
WB Yeats, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’
Extracted from ‘The Glorious Madness – Tales of the Irish & The Great War’ by Turtle Bunbury (Gill & Macmillan, 2014). Available here from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com
OTHER IRISH AIR ACES
To become an air ‘ace’, one has to have destroyed at least five enemy aircraft. At least 38 of the Royal Flying Corps’ top fighter aces were Irish, including:
Tom Falcon Hazell of Roundstone, County Galway, who scored 43 victories between 1917 and 1918, making him the third most successful Irish-born pilot after Mannock and McElroy
Standish Conn O’Grady of Donnybrook, Dublin, a son of WB Yeats’s friend Standish O’Grady
Paddy Langan-Byrne of Clogherhead, County Louth
Joe Cruess Callaghan of Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin
Oscar Heron of Banbridge, County Armagh
Ronald St Clair McClintock of Rathvinden, County Carlow
Eddy Hartigan of Ardagh, County Limerick
Amongst the notable Irish pilots who didn’t quite make it to ‘ace’ were:
Neville Usborne of Cobh, County Cork, who was killed in a test flight in 1916.
Robert Gregory of Coole, County Galway, a son of WB Yeats’s friend Lady Gregory.
James Fitzmaurice, the Dubliner who later completed the first successful transatlantic aircraft flight from East to West in 1928.
Erskine Childers who flew as an observer over the North Sea, Gallipoli and the Holy Land.
Hector James Toler-Aylward, father of Nicky and Ada, who was in the RFC before being hospitalised by pneumonia; his wife Zinna Knox was a voluntary nurse. They both survived the war.
William Dunlop Hamilton FRCS (1897-1984) served as a pilot in the RFC and RAF, and later became an eye specialist in Liverpool; he told his great-nephew James O’Fee that he served mainly in Palestine & Lebanon.
With thanks to Philip Lecane, Joe Gleeson, James Burke and James O’Fee.
[i] The calm and quiet Flight Commander Captain Gwil Lewis, DFC, nicknamed ‘Noisy’ by ‘Mick’ Mannock, downed 12 planes during his tour of duty. He returned to England, where he lived until his death in 1996. He was the next to last surviving British ace from the war.
[ii] George’s father Samuel McElroy, BA, was the son of farmer George McElroy (1828-1909) and his wife Kittie (Katherine) (1836–1905) of Kiltycreighton, just outside Boyle, County Roscommon. At least three of Samuel’s siblings emigrated to the USA, and some of the McElroys ended up in Montana. Samuel’s Westmeath-born wife Ellen Synnott, described in 1901 as a ‘work mistress’ was the daughter of farmer Edward Synnott of 38 Glengariffe Parade. They were wed in St George on 18 July 1892. The McElroy family headstone is in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin.
[iii] Mountjoy School, a boarding school on Mountjoy Square, Dublin, was located in the same building as the Incorporated Society for Promoting Protestant Schools.
According to Scott Addington in For Conspicuous Gallantry: Winners of the Military Cross and Bar During the Great War, McElroy initially joined the Royal Engineers as a Corporal with the regimental number 28292.
[iv] Initial training was completed at Reading and basic flying training at Nos 14, 6 and 54 Training Squadrons.
[v] McElroy would go on to become the highest scoring ace of the unit
[vi] “On my return from leave, the gap in the flight caused by Kennedy’s death had been filled by a sturdy, curly-headed young Irishman, McElroy. To differentiate between the two “Macs” in his flight, Mick (Mannock) called McElroy “McIrish” and me “McScottish”, names which stuck to us until I left the squadron. Unlike the majority of new pilots we had had, McElroy immediately fitted into the working of the flight. A new pilot was nearly always a danger to himself and to the others; if he was too cautious he was liable to be left behind to be sniped off by an astute enemy when the flight attacked; or, if he were courageous, he was just as liable to be “downed” in his first scrap because of his ignorance of what was going on around him. In either case, his misdemeanours were likely to incur special dangers for the rest of the flight. McElroy never caused us any anxiety. His attitude towards the war was that of a terrier let loose in a rat-infested barn. Both in the mess and the rugger field, his sturdy scrappy was a source of great pleasure to the flight.” Quoted in George McLanachan, Fighter Pilot.
[vii] Designed and built at the RAF Factory in Farnborough, the SE5a was, along with the Sopwith Camel, pivotal in ensuring that the Allies regained control of the west-European skies after the horrors of ‘Bloody April’ 1917.
[viii] The greatest air ace of World War One was Manfred von Richtofen, with 80 victories.
[ix] ‘The other fellows all laugh at me for carrying a revolver. They think I’m going to shoot down a machine with it, but they’re wrong. The reason I bought it was to finish myself as soon as I see the first signs of flames.’ — Quoted in George McLanachan, Fighter Pilot.
He was greatly disturbed when Henry Dolan was shot down in flames by Raven Freiherr von Barnekow on 12 May. Dolan had been amongst Mannock’s best pupils and had shot down seven enemy airplanes by the time of his death.
[x] Traditionally, the British preferred to praise the team rather than the individual and, in contrast to the way the German media had elevated the Red Baron to superhero, Britain’s air aces were rarely acknowledged unless they died. However, Lord Northcliffe, the Dublin-born newspaper tycoon, changed all that in January 1918 by splashing an illustrated feature on McCudden across the pages the Daily Mail.
[xii] Quoted in In Clouds of Glory: American Airmen who Flew with the British During the Great War by James J Hudson (University of Arkansas Press, 1990), p. 78.
[xiii] By 26 March 1918, when he was awarded the Military Cross, he had upped his scalp collection to 18 “kills”. His tally would ultimately include four enemy planes sent down in flames, with a further 23 planes and three balloons destroyed. Nicknamed ‘Deadeye’ by some of his colleagues, he also sent at least 16 enemy craft spinning ‘out of control’ and thereby out of the fight.
[xiv] The Bar to his Military Cross was given on 22 April 1918 with the following citation: ‘When on an offensive patrol, observing a hostile scout diving on one of our aeroplanes, he opened fire, and sent down the enemy machine in an irregular spin out of control, when it finally crashed completely. Later in the same day, he sent down another enemy machine in flames. On another occasion, when on offensive patrol, he singled one out of four enemy machines, and sent it down crashing to earth. On the same day he attacked another enemy machine, and, after firing 200 rounds, it burst into flames. On a later occasion, he opened fire on an enemy scout at 400 yards range, and finally sent it down in a slow spin out of control. In addition, this officer has brought down two other enemy machines completely out of control, his skill and determination being most praiseworthy.’
[xv] This was at Conteville, the aerodrome to which ‘Forty’ squadron were obliged to retreat on account of German advances on the ground.
[xvi]An Incomplete History of World War I by Edwin Kiester (Barnes & Noble, 2007), p. 117.
[xvii] McElroy’s citation of 26 July read: ‘While flying at a height of 2,000 feet, he observed a patrol of five enemy aircraft patrolling behind the lines. After climbing into the clouds, he dived to the attack, shot down and crashed one of them. Later, observing a two-seater, he engaged and shot it down out of control. On another occasion he shot down an enemy scout which was attacking our positions with machine-gun fire. He has carried out most enterprising work in attacking enemy troops and transport and in the course of a month has shot down six enemy aircraft, which were seen to crash, and five others out of control.’
[xviii] The two-seater, a Hannover CL, would be chalked up on some accounts as his 47th and certainly final victory. There is a theory that he was shot down by a novice, Unteroffizier Gullmann of Jasta 56, who claimed to have shot down a SE5 south-west of Armentieres at 10.15. No other SE5 was shot down that day. See ‘Who Downed the Aces in WW1?’ by Norman Franks (Barnes & Noble, 1998).
[xix] ‘McElroy of “Forty”’ by FT Gilbert, with a foreword by John Simon. From private manuscript courtesy of Rob McElroy.
[xx] His posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross citation on 3 August read: ‘A brilliant fighting pilot who has destroyed thirty-five machines and three kite balloons to date. He has led many offensive patrols with marked success, never hesitating to engage the enemy regardless of their being, on many occasions, in superior numbers. Under his dashing and skilful leadership his flight has largely contributed to the excellent record obtained by the squadron.’
[xxi] The citation for his Bar arrived on 21 September and read: ‘In the recent battles on various army fronts this officer has carried out numerous patrols, and flying at low altitudes, has inflicted heavy casualties on massed enemy troops, transport, artillery teams, etc., both with machine-gun fire and bombs. He has destroyed three enemy kite balloons and forty-three machines, accounting for eight of the latter in eight consecutive days. His brilliant achievements, keenness and dash have at all times set a fine example and inspired all who came in contact with him.’