When it comes to the story of Galway and World War I there is no better man than William Henry. He came upon ‘the secrets in the attic shoe box’ some years ago when writing in a parish magazine he mentioned a relation of his in that war, and surprisingly opened a Pandora’s Box. People met him on the streets and told him that their grandfather, great-uncle, or cousin, or family friend also fought in that war. They had a box of their medals and uniform, letters or diaries somewhere at home.
We all know the reason why the military exploits of that older generation remained hidden. At a time of huge unemployment, the wages and pension in the British services seemed attractive. Some were genuinely motivated by the propaganda prompted by Germany’s invasion of Belgium; others believed that if Britain won the war Irish Home Rule was guaranteed. Anyway the war would be over by Christmas, so it was better to join up quickly, and get in on the adventure.
Four long and bitter years later, with an extraordinary 16 million deaths, and more than 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history, the men and women returned home. Galway casualties were probably in excess of 1,000. But there was no mourning, no ‘welcome home’, no period of reintegration. Ireland had changed dramatically since 1916. Britain was now seen as the enemy. The Connaught Rangers, in whose ranks most Galwaymen served, was disbanded in 1922. Most people who served in the British forces just did not talk about it. It was soon forgotten. Or at least not talked about.
William Henry wrote about the Galway experience in that war, notably Forgotten Heros, Galway Soldiers of the Great War. He was one of the principal motivators for a joint religious service to reconcile past conflicts, which gave many Galway families the freedom to look on their photographs of old soldiers with pride.
No official record
Some British military records (mainly dealing with Irish recruits ), were destroyed, ironically, in the bombing raids on London during World War II. Whereas families looking for information on a relative’s role during the war, may be lucky. For a small fee they may find where their relative served. But clearly there are gaps. There is at least one mystery, however. There is no official record of all the deaths of the six Furey brothers from ‘The Hill’, Loughrea, who were killed or missing. Their story was told to a journalist, with the encouragement of a commanding officer. Only some of the deaths are recorded in official records.
But if it is true, that six brothers were killed, then it was the biggest single sacrifice that any individual family was called to make in the terrible slaughter of that war.
A ‘mourning widow’
Eight sons of William and Mary Furey joined the army at the outbreak of the war August 1914. Their father, William, who had died 11 years previously, had served in the Connaught Rangers for 21 years. The Fureys were a highly respected travelling family. There were also three daughters: Bridget, Elizabeth and Catherine. How much Mrs Furey knew of her sons’ death is not known. The Tuam Herald, in an article August 28 1915, rather idealistically described her as a mourning widow whose image should be ‘ chiselled in marble like the mourning widows of the great Serbian sculptor Mestrovic.’
Mrs Furey, however, was a quiet reserved lady who did not wish to have her the story of her sons made public.
The Tuam Herald had picked up the story from an article in the Daily News by a J Doughlas. One of the Furey boys, John, was recovering from wounds in a hospital in Kinsale. His commanding officer, Colonel Lewin DSO, encouraged Johntotellthejournalistthat hisfive brothers were killed. And it appears that either John, or another brother, also died from wounds bringing the total of deaths in this family tragedy to six.
William Henry has tried to research the story. There is evidence that Malachy, Martin Francis, Willie, Willie John, and Alex were probably all killed at Ypres April 7 1915. It is difficult to differentiate between three of the brothers with ‘Willie’ in their name. Perhaps the military records office had the same difficulty. Whatever about the accuracy of the various reports, six of the Furey brothers did not return to Loughrea.*
The Final Bell
The hammering sounds of the tinsmiths last, the bantam crows at will. The piebald pony prances, on the rocky stony hill. The fiery headed youngsters, who raced around boreen come. And the women who stood at the doorways, when the final bell was rung The flashing light on bayonets, that jerks the youthful mind
The love of an adventure, and the loved ones left behind Like bluebells on the lake shore, on that April sunny day The young enlisted foolish, left, to give their lives away.
All the Fureys’ have enlisted, they have answered to the call They will fight for king and country, in the nineteen fourteen brawl Their widowed mother stood beside them,astheylineupfromthecrowd Somehow through her sadness, she felt, their father would have been proud
There was John, and Tom, and Mikie, and their brother Willie John And young Edward who got accepted, when he put his long trousers on. Their mother was there weeping as they marched down to the glen TheFureyshaveenlisted,herlittle boys are fighting men
The marching sounds from soldier’s boots, as they set along the way Down Barrack street and cross west- bridge, to the outskirts of Loughrea The sun was shining in their face, the drum was beating loud They’ll fight for king and country, it would make their old man proud Tomorrow all the rabbits, can rest on Knock Ash Hill The half bread one-eyed greyhound, has performed his final kill And the half stripped naked fighters, who fought like the great John L They’re all memories now, of life that was then, before that final bell. (Eamonn McNally )
NOTES: I am taking this story from Galway - Through Time and Tide (Volume 1V ), a collection of William Henry’s weekly articles, on sale €19.99, published by Galway Independent newspapers.