Fifty-six of the 74 Irish speaking soldiers returned home after the war. Twenty-three came home wounded, many seriously and permanently disabled. Only 33 returned to their families physically unscathed. For those who did return, there was a new challenge: between 1918 and 1919, Spanish flu killed over 1800 people in Belfast County Borough, its spread facilitated by the Armistice Day celebrations.
There were even greater challenges: the soldiers returning to Belfast came back to a city and a country in conflict. The Easter Rising in April 1916 and the War of Independence irrevocably changed the political landscape and further divided nationalists and unionists. While participation in the war had been a shared endeavour, celebrating the victory and the sacrifices made to achieve that became associated with Unionism. Political violence surged. In east Belfast it was centred on the shipyards, and between 1920 and 1922, 465 people died and over one thousand were injured in sectarian riots across the city.
Our soldiers’ stories reflect the political developments of the time:
Bernard Hughes who served with the Seaforth Highlanders returned to Belfast. In October 1920 he wrote to the War Office requesting copies of his War Record as his demobilisation papers had been destroyed in the riots in Belfast. The following year, 1921, his application for a pension was rejected and in 1934 he again wrote to the War Office requesting a copy of his discharge form, noting he was stone deaf and unable to continue his normal occupation.
Hugh McGauran was living in the Short Strand when he enlisted in 1917 when he turned 18. He served initially with the Royal Irish Rifles but in July 1919 he re-enlisted with the West Yorkshire Rifles, serving in the Machine Gun Corps. He was formally discharged from the British Army in December 1919 and subsequently enlisted in the Irish Army He was stationed at the Curragh in 1922.
The Irish language was also affected by the increased tensions and divisions. In 1915, Conradh na Gaeilge had supported calls for Irish Independence. The move alienated many Unionists who subsequently moved away from the Gaelic Revival Movement. By the time the war ended, the Irish language had come to be seen as the preserve of nationalists, just as celebrating the War had become that of unionists.
Life after the War
Many of those who did come home continued to live at the same address they had before the war and in some cases their family members lived in the same house for many decades afterwards. It’s possible that some of the soldiers were eventually housed in the developments specially built for those who had served in WW1. The Earl Haig Estate (Cregagh Cottages), just off Cregagh Rd was built for this purpose.
Some of the soldiers were able to resume their previous occupations, but others were too badly disabled to ever work again. Injured soldiers unable to work had to rely on whatever pension they were awarded by the Ministry as did the widows of the fallen soldiers and, sometimes, their parents.
Before the war, Edward Armstrong lived on Hatton Drive with his wife and two young children. Both parents spoke Irish. Edward worked as a lithographic printer and was employed by Messrs David Allen & Sons. He enlisted at the outbreak of the war and served with the 8th Royal Irish Rifles. He sustained wounds to his right foot in July 1916. Edward survived the war and was discharged in April 1919 when he was 43 years old. His discharge papers noted that he had hearing loss in his right ear and he was considered to be 20 per cent disabled. He continued to live in Hatton Drive up until at least 1932.
William Hunter Gammon and Jasper Pyne Gammon were brothers who lived with their parents and siblings on Harper St. All were Irish speakers. Both brothers worked for Workman Clark, William as a ship’s carpenter.
William Hunter enlisted in January 1915. He served as a sapper with the Royal Engineers and was deployed to France in October 1915. He was wounded and suffered shell shock in June 1916 after which he was transferred behind the lines. Jasper Pyne served with the 8th Royal Irish Rifles and like his brother was deployed to France in October 1915. He was injured in the early days of the Battle of the Somme, sustaining gunshot wounds and a compound fracture and was treated at the Military Hospital at Le Treport. He was discharged in November 1919 and was considered to have sustained 40 per cent disablement and was granted a pension of 16/=.
John Kielty was born in Bray, Co Wicklow in 1878 but had moved to Belfast where he married his wife Jane in 1909. In 1911, they had a six month old son and were living in Clonallon St. John worked as a dock labourer and Jane was employed as a spinner. They were both Catholic and both could speak Irish. It appears that John enlisted in the regular army prior to the war and served with the Royal Irish Rifles but was discharged for medical reasons in November 1914. He re-enlisted in March 1916 and was assigned to the Royal Engineers. However his military career was again cut short when, despite being noted as being of good character, he was found to be medically unfit and discharged in April 1916. At the time of discharge he had three young children and returned to live in Clonallan St He was declared to have a 30 per cent degree of disablement and was awarded a gratuity of £7.10 shillings.
James Ravenscroft had been born in Belfast around 1881 but at some point had moved to Scotland where he married his wife Isabella. The couple had five children born in Scotland and then returned to Belfast around 1909 where another child was born. The family could speak Irish. In 1911, the family was living in Victor St and James was employed as a labourer in the iron works. James’ enlistment date is not known but during the war he served with the Royal Irish Rifles. He was wounded twice but went on to survive the war and returned home to east Belfast.
The most recent date found for these soldiers continuing to live in East Belfast is in the mid 1960s, and many have descendants who continue to live or work in the area. Some of these are re-engaging with part of their ancestors’ legacy by learning Irish in Turas, the Irish language project of East Belfast Mission. Their efforts are keeping alive a little-known aspect of life in east Belfast.
James Rea was one of three brothers who fought in WW1. His family lived in Lisavon St in 1911 but they moved to Steen’s Row before the war. James worked as a labourer in the Iron Works. He was in his late thirties when he enlisted in the Royal Irish Rifles, 1st Garrison Battalions. During the War he was stationed in India. He was discharged from the army on health grounds in April 1919 and returned home to Steen’s Row where he lived until he died in 1965. He is buried in Dundonald Cemetery.
When I came across my Great-great-grandfather James Rea on the census around 10 years ago, I was fascinated to see he was recorded as speaking Irish. As I have found out more about my family history it has become clear to me that our notions of identity, language and place are often not as static as we would assume.
The Ervine family lived in Frome St in 1911. The father, John Snr and his two sons, John Jnr and Thomas enlisted. John Snr served with the 8th Royal Irish Rifles. Thomas served with the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and also with the Army Medical Corps. John Jnr served with the Royal Horse Artillery. All three survived the War and returned to live in east Belfast. John Snr died in 1924 aged 52 and is buried in Dundonald Cemetery.
I am full of admiration for the personal bravery and self-sacrifice of my grandfather and two uncles who fought in World War 1. Nevertheless I am deeply troubled by the bloody carnage and sense of futility and waste during that conflict and many times since. From the beginning of time, the tapestry of human history has dripped blood. Thankfully, our search for mutual understanding and respect can help mitigate the darkness.