A great grandson of Galway's World War I fighter ace Major Robert Gregory, Robin Murray Brown, read WB Yeats' famous poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death in Belfast last Sunday. St Anne's Cathedral was filled to capacity for a service to commemorate the centenary of the Royal Air Force (RAF ), which succeeded the Royal Flying Corps in which Major Gregory flew. Major Gregory joined the war effort in 1916 and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. He was also awarded the Legion d’Honneur — France’s highest honour.
Major Gregory was killed in northern Italy during the last year of the war, and his death had an impact on south Galway and on a wider world. The major's home at Coole Park was a beacon for artists and writers who gathered there to work; and in the words of Seamus Heaney, 'absorbing its inspirational landscape'.
His mother Augusta Lady Gregory enjoyed a very creative life. Having learned Irish on the Aran Islands and from local speakers, she gathered folklore, and with the help of Douglas Hyde, translated the ancient Fianna sagas for the modern reader. With the poet WB Yeats, with whom she had a long and loyal friendship, she co-founded the Abbey Theatre, writing more than 40 plays which were performed there.
Robert was Lady Gregory's only child. Understandably she was devastated by his death. Eventually Coole Park was sold to the Forestry Commission, Lady Gregory retaining life tenancy; but it was the end of the Coole Park dream. Following her death on May 12 1932, the house fell into disrepair and was pulled down.
But before that she, and Robert's widow Margaret, asked Yeats, to write a memorial for him. Over a period of time Yeats wrote five poems for Robert, often including elaborate descriptions of his sporting and artistic achievements. But the most successful poem by far was An Irishman Foresees His Death, regarded as one of the finest poems in the English language.
Robin Murray Brown, from Sussex, said: “I have been astonished by the number of comments I have heard from pilots in the air forces of almost every English speaking country when they talk about An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.
“That’s the poem they have Sellotaped on the inside of their cockpits and have done for much of the last 100 years. That is something that a lot of airmen have in common. It is just a very special thing.”
To mark the centenary, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, was joined at the service by his counterpart from the Irish Air Corps, Brigadier General Sean Clancy.
Historic links between north and south of ireland
The service recognised the historic links between the formation of the RAF and the formation of Ireland’s National Army Air Service, now the Irish Air Corps. Ireland made a significant contribution to the development of the Royal Air Force from the days before the World War I when the Royal Flying Corps made the first crossing over a stretch of water, the Irish Sea, in 1913.
In his words of welcome, the Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev Stephen Forde, said that the presence of both Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Hillier and Brigadier General Sean Clancy, was of particular significance ‘because those pioneer aviators of the RAF in the final months of the First World War included those drawn from across the whole island of Ireland.'
Recounting some of the southern Irish participants in the RFC and RAF, Rev David Richardson in his sermon brought the congregation on an imaginary flight around Ireland, landing first at Roundstone, Co Galway, the home of Tom Hazell, who scored 43 victories between 1917 and 1918. He was one of the top five British aces in the Great War – in fact three out of the five were Irish born.
"Heading east again we flew over Trinity College, Dublin, the University of County Clare man Sir Harold Maguire, staff officer in the Far East and later as an Air Marshal, Director of Defence Intelligence. Moving south west we came to County Laois, the home of Sir Dermot Boyle. Lord Trenchard's vision when he established the RAF College at Cranwell was that it would eventually produce the Chief of the Air Staff. Dermot Boyle was the first person to complete that journey.
"On the last leg, we head about as far southwest as we can go to Castletownbere, in Cork, for possibly the most remarkable story of all. Aidan McCarthy was a doctor who joined the RAF in 1939, and was posted to France. Evacuated through Dunkirk, he was a medical officer at RAF Honington in Suffolk when a Wellington bomber crashed. For his work in entering the blazing wreck to rescue survivors, he was awarded the George Medal. In 1941 he was posted to the Far East and was captured by the Japanese in Sumatra.
"En route to the Japanese mainland, his prison ship was sunk by Allied aircraft, and he ministered as best as he could to prisoners in the water before being picked up by a Japanese fishing boat. McCarthy's experience in prison camps was harrowing. In addition to the privations that all the captives endured, he was singled out for especial beatings by the guards who thought he must be related to General Douglas MacArthur.
"On the 9th August 1945, he was in a work party in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb dropped, and ministered to the survivors. When liberation came, it was McCarthy who stepped in to prevent the Japanese camp commandant from being lynched. The grateful officer's sword is back in Castletownbere. Fittingly, the RAF named a new medical centre at Honington in his honour last year. Later in life, Aidan McCarthy reflected that what helped him endure was his deep Christian faith. What the RAF today would describe as spiritual resilience – the ability to frame our lives in a bigger context of meaning."