Archive for Irish Volunteers

Over the Back Wall Irish Volunteer Joseph O’Neill

Over the Back Wall
Irish Volunteer Joseph O’Neill

By Maureen O’Neill

Published in Spring 2016 edition

I was a young adult back in 1972 when my grandfather Joseph O’Neill died – he was 74 years old. You know the famous quote of George Bernard Shaw, ‘Youth is Wasted on the Young’ – well that certainly applies here. Even though at the time my grandfather was given a military funeral, it completely went over my head. All we had ever been told was our grandfather had taken part in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. He had never spoken about it however, so we knew very little. The one thing that I did remember down through the years was the three-volley salute over his grave; but the significance of that never really registered with me back then; that was until much later in life when I developed a great love of history.

South Dublin Union, Marrowbone Lane and Roe’s Distillery 1916 Garrison reunion 1966. Joseph O’Neill is in the front row third from the left.

In 2008 my uncle died leaving behind a lot of old paperwork to be sorted through. Of course, there were the usual old photos – which are always so fascinating. The one that really grabbed my attention was the photo of South Dublin Union, Marrowbone Lane and Roe’s Distillery 1916 Garrison, taken in 1966; 60 men and women – all survivors of the 1916 Rising. There in the front row was my grandfather. How could I get more information on what my grandad was up to in 1916? I was advised by a friend to start by contacting Military Archives in Rathmines, Dublin – this was the beginning of a fascinating journey. We knew that he had taken part in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. He was born in 35 Cork Street, and worked all of his working life in a little bootmaker’s premises at 95 Cork Street. But that was all we knew.

When I rang Military Archives were kind enough to furnish me with some of the documentation that pertained to him. I received along with his Individual Application for a Military Service Pension (1935), copies of his Easter Rising 1916 Certificate and his 50th Anniversary Certificate. These have become family heirlooms and will become the topic of conversation for many years to come. There were however many gaps in the story as the pension application and certificates really only confirmed his service and that he had applied for a pension. In the 1966 reunion picture that I had found in my uncle’s you could see all the veterans wearing medals. Growing up I’d never seen these medals and no one knew where they were. The medals were identified as the 1916 and War of Independence Service Medals. To coincide with the 90th anniversary of 1916, in 2006 the then Minister for Defence, Willie O’Dea TD, announced that the State would replace these lost, stolen or destroyed medals with certificates. With the information Military Archives had sent I applied and was awarded the certificates.

In January 2014, the Military Service Pensions Collection was launched with an accompanying website, this website gave anyone with an interest the ability to research those who participated in period from 1916 to 1923. Some 300,000 documents and files have since been released. Everything to do with my grandfather was now digitalised and online; his birth cert, marriage cert, pension application and Military Service Pension documents, and his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement. The bigger story now began to come together.

The Military Service Pensions had been originally awarded in 1923 to wounded members, widows, children and dependents of deceased members of Óglaigh na hÉireann, eventually legislation was brought in that included the veterans of Easter week 1916, through to 30 September, 1923. These pensions were not handed out at will; the applicant had to prove ‘active service’ during this time and support their application with the relevant documentation before they could be deemed successful or not. In January 1935, my grandfather applied for his pension. The Military Service Pension stated that my grandfather was awarded a pension in 1935 of £20 per annum for four years active service.

Both the Military Service Pension and his Witness Statement put my grandfather at 17 when he joined C Company 4th Battalion Dublin Brigade Irish Volunteers in 1915. I never realised he was so young. The Witness Statement reads:

This is the sworn statement of Joseph O’Neill, (1321) made before advisory committee
22 February, 1935.

Q.    What did you do on Easter Sunday?
A. I think we were mobilised for Easter Sunday and it was
called off. I think I mobilised at Emerald Square on the Monday
and went into Marrowbone Lane Distillery. I was there until the
surrender.
Q. Did you surrender with the rest?
A. No, I saw Mr. McGrath going out over the wall and I had
heard that we were all going to get away. I followed them and
got away over the back wall, into Cork Street. I left my arms
behind me.
Q. You joined up again?
A. Yes.

So, my grandfather at the end of Easter week literally jumped over the back wall and went home. How he did not later get arrested in the roundup I do not know. Joseph O’Neill re-joined his volunteer unit in 1917. This time C Company was under the command of command of Major J.V. Joyce. He continued with his active service-attending company parades and training in the use of arms. One letter on file in Military Archives written by a Patrick Byrne testifies as to my grandfather, ‘carrying out all duties and orders assigned to him’.

The documents also say that in 1917 he attended Thomas Ashe’s funeral. Ashe had been force fed by the prison authorities He died on the 25 September, 1917. His body lay in state at Dublin City Hall and as it made its way to Glasnevin cemetery it was followed by 30,000 people led by armed volunteers – my grandfather was one of these volunteers. One fascinating story is in the witness statement from my grandfather – attested to by a Mr. Joseph McGrath. According to Mr. McGrath, my grandfather was responsible in 1920 for taking from shoes sent by McGrath who was then a prisoner in Brixton prison, an escape plan, which was then delivered to General Michael Collins and acted upon. Correspondence first came from Mr. McGrath’s private Secretary on 25 January, 1935 and went as follows:

Dear Sir,
I am instructed by Mr. McGrath to acknowledge
your letter of the 23rd Inst. I am to inform you that
it will be in order for you to give his name when
you are making application for a Service Pension.
Mr. McGrath will be pleased to vouch for the
incident you refer to, and generally in respect of
your service.

Yours faithfully.
Mr. McGrath’s Private Secretary.

Further correspondence from Mr. McGrath’s was written on 6 March, 1935, and reads as follows:

This is to certify that Joseph O’Neill of 11 Somerville
Ave, Crumlin was under arms in Easter Week 1916 at
Marrowbone Lane. I also certify the fact that O’Neill
was responsible in 1920 for taking from shoes sent by
me from Brixton prison a plan for escape which was
delivered to the late General Collins and acted upon.
If any further details are required, I will be glad if
possible to give them.

Signed: Joseph McGrath.

My Grandfather’s sworn statement on 22 February, 1935, went as follows:


Q. What incident is this which Mr. McGrath is prepared to certify?
A. I am a bootmaker, and when he was in prison in England, he sent me a pair of boots to repair. In the repairing of them I discovered the prison plans hidden in them. I immediately brought them to his wife and she told me on no account to mention it to anyone.

The stories of the Easter Rising and that period of history is made up of a large number of smaller stories, my grandfather’s contribution is part of that bigger story. The majority of the men and women who fought in 1916 never spoke about their experiences, and certainly never attempted to put them on record. I wrote this article in order to pay tribute to the memory of my granddad Joseph O’Neill and to acknowledge his small contribution.

Posted in: 1916 Rising, Family History, Irish Volunteers

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Irish Soldier, Aviator, Pioneer – Colonel James M.C. Fitzmaurice D.F.C. 1898-1965

Irish Soldier, Aviator, Pioneer – Colonel James M.C. Fitzmaurice D.F.C. 1898-1965

Irish Soldier, Aviator, Pioneer – Colonel James M.C. Fitzmaurice D.F.C. 1898-1965

By Michael J. Whelan – Curator: Irish Air Corps Museum (Images courtesy of Irish Air Corps Photographic Section)

Published Winter 2015

It is impossible to invest in an article of this size the magnitude of the career James Fitzmaurice who, during an adventurous lifetime; had survived the trenches of the Great War, was one of Ireland’s first military flying officers and had become a world famous aviator and an early pioneer of aviation’s potential in Ireland and abroad. But his eventful and courageous life during the dawning of the aviation story in the first half of the 20th Century has all but been neglected.

James M.C. Fitzmaurice D.F.C.

Early Life

James was born on 6 January 1898, when the family – Michael Fitzmaurice and Mary Agnes O’Riordan – were living on the North Circular in Dublin City. When he was aged four, in 1902, the family moved to a house on the Dublin Road in Portlaoise, Co. Laois, where James attended St. Mary’s Christian Brothers School until shortly before his sixteenth birthday. But James had a hankering for adventure and the life of a soldier was a good place to find it.

Ireland at this time was still part of the British Empire and much of the politics of the day centred around the possibilities or otherwise of Irish autonomy. James seems to have paid particular attention to the political scene and the seismic events happening around the world and their impact at home. By 1913 Irish society was fracturing over the divisive issue of Home Rule with the Ulster Volunteer Force being formed to oppose its introduction and the Irish Volunteers to defend it.  Both movements had started in earnest to covertly procure weapons and train thousands of volunteers for the possibility of civil war.

The Great War

In early 1914, James was said to have joined the Irish Volunteers and may have taken part in the landing of weapons at Howth Harbour. In August of that same year the Great War broke out and he immediately enlisted in a cadet company of the 7th Battalion Leinster Fusiliers, he was sixteen years of age. His father, discovering this, managed to pull him out. The required age for enlistment in the army was a minimum of nineteen years but many boys had lied about their age in the rush to take part in the war. James, however, was adamant and by 1915 he had re-enlisted in the 17th Lancers – the Death or Glory Boys – famed for their part in the actions at Balaclava during the Crimean War. He was still very much underage when he reported to the Curragh Camp in Co. Kildare for training, where he would learn the skills of the mounted soldier. James must have made an impression as he was soon promoted to Lance Corporal. But he soon discovered that the skills of a well-trained mounted trooper would not lend themselves to the warfare being conducted in the trenches of the Western Front.

News of the ever-worsening conditions at the Front must have been received with anxious trepidations when James arrived at the vast infantry training camp at Etampes in France in May 1916. James, now seventeen years old, was given the news that they would be going into the trenches as ordinary infantry soldier. The opposing front lines of the two warring armies were separated in many cases only by mere yards of No-Man’s Land. The arriving drafts of Lancers were split up and sent to various infantry units. The urgent need for replacements in formations due to the attrition of the fighting meant that Irishmen didn’t always end up in Irish Regiments and after handing in his Lance, sword and kit he was posted to the 7th Battalion the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment, the Second Regiment of Foot, which at the time formed part of the 55th Brigade of the British 18th Division who had been in almost continuous action since arriving in theatre ten months earlier. The regiment’s survivors were by now very seasoned soldiers and after a crash course on how to be an infantryman James felt he would benefit from their experiences.

By this time plans were well advanced for the greatest assault of the war, which would turn out to be one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare. James’ first exposure to actual warfare involved transporting food, equipment and other essentials up to the front lines over the broken ground of earlier battles, the detritus marking the routes with dead bodies, his first experience of seeing death. But he would go on to fight in many actions including the long Battle of the Somme, the first day of which saw over 60,000 casualties alone and in September his battalion took part in the successful but costly assault on the infamous and well defended German enclave known as the Schwaben Redoubt. In this and later actions James was noted for his daring and courage, often volunteering for night patrols and trench raids but he himself put these down to: ‘only going on those nerve-wracking expeditions because I dreaded staying in the trenches’.

Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force

He was injured twice during his active service on the Western Front. By the last months of the war James had received a commission and was successful in applying for pilot training with the Royal Flying Corps. By November 1918, he was eager to return to the Front but when his orders for sailing came through on the 11th, it was too late. Armistice meant James’ war was over but he did however serve in the Army of Occupation in 1919 with the Army Air Corps and it was during this period that he was selected to undertake the First Night Mail Flight (Folkstone to Bologne) and later for the Cape to Cairo Flight, the latter never getting off the ground. The experimental Air Mail Service ended soon after and between September and November 1919 James commanded the 6th Wing Working Party of the Royal Air Force assigned to the selling off of surplus useful materials and paying and demobilising of staff at six de-activated aerodromes in England. In December his orders came through and James was a civilian once more, spending the best part of the next two years selling insurance for North British and Mercantile Insurance Company. He was recalled to the newly formed Royal Air Force on a short-term commission of four to six years in May of 1921 with No. 5 Fighter Squadron but resigned again in August of that year.

The Fledgling Irish Air Corps and the Crossing of the Atlantic

The all metal Junkers W.33 aircraft ‘Bremen’ prior to take off in Baldonnel Aerodrome. (Image courtesy of Irish Air Corps Photographic Section)

In 1922 James joined the fledgling Irish Army Air Service in Dublin following the end of the War of Independence and the formation of the Irish Free State. The first dozen pilots were all Great War veterans. He served for the duration of the Irish Civil War and by October 1925 he was second in command in of the now named Irish Air Corps based at Baldonnel Aerodrome. On 16 September 1927, his first physical attempt at crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by air with Captain R.H. MacIntosh ‘All Weather Mac’ in their single engine Fokker F.VII called, Princess Xenia, G-EBTS aircraft was beaten back by weather after 500 miles. However on 12 April 1928, he once again took off from Baldonnel as co-pilot on the first successful East-West non-stop transatlantic flight with Herman Koehl, a German Great War veteran, and Baron Gunther Von Hunefeld as navigator in an all metal Junkers W.33 aircraft registered D-1167 named the Bremen. On route to New York and roughly half way across the Atlantic, the Bremen encountered severe weather conditions and mechanical problems and as a result the crew found themselves somewhat off course and worried about the success of their mission. Changing course the crew landed on a frozen reservoir on Greenly Island in Newfoundland 39 and a 1/2 hours after departing Baldonnel placing themselves and Ireland on the romantic mantle of world aviation history. They would be given many accolades beginning with United States President, Calvin Coolidge, presenting the crew with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first to be awarded to non-American Citizens. On returning to Dublin they were given the Freedom of the City before briefly meeting the abdicated Kaiser in Holland.

Captain James Fitzmaurice with Herman Koehl and Baron Gunther Von Hunefeld after their successful Trans-Atlantic Flight. (Image courtesy of Irish Air Corp Photographic Section)

Later Years

Captain Fitzmaurice was promoted to Major and in August to Colonel, his new rank backdated one year with pay. In February, the following year he resigned from the Irish Air Corps and spent some years in the United States and Europe, while involved in trying unsuccessfully to get a number of aviation related ventures off the ground. During the Second World War he operated a club for servicemen in London and in the late 1940s returned to Ireland in pursuit of work. Although celebrated in Europe at various times for his courageous feat over the Atlantic in 1928, James felt that he was forgotten at home in Ireland. He had always felt that the Irish authorities neglected his achievements and pursuits. Fitzmaurice, possibly because of post-independence Irish nationalistic conditioning towards anything English, was to a certain extent the victim of his own successes and what was said to be his invented English accent and persona.

Remarking on his earlier application to the Irish authorities to back an all Irish transatlantic bid using the Martinsyde type A, MkII aircraft – the ‘Big Fella’ (famed for being purchased and kept on standby to retrieve Michael Collins from London during the possible failure of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921 and being the first airframe owned by the Provisional Irish People and subsequently the Irish Air Service in 1922), he was quoted:

On Sunday, 27 September 2015, Brigadier General Paul Fry – General Officer Commanding the Irish Air Corps, during a ceremony in Portlaoise town, laid a wreath on behalf of the Air Corps at the Fitzmaurice Memorial to remember the life and career of Colonel James Fitzmaurice on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of his death. (Photo by Airwoman Laura McHale, Irish Air Corps Photographic Section)

‘If you have the misfortune to do anything useful for Ireland, they (the Irish) do everything possible to destroy you. Then when you are dead, they dig you up and laud your praises as a bolster to their own mediocrity’.

By the early 1960’s James had become frail and was living in Dublin at lodgings of various standards. The Irish Air Corps Museum collection holds a handwritten letter from James dated 1962, in which he thanks the officers for not forgetting him in his infirmities and for sending a £10 Hamper sent to tide him over the Christmas after they had discovered his rough circumstances. Soon afterwards he visited his old command at Baldonnel (by this time renamed Casement Aerodrome) and met some old comrades from the Bremen days. James died in Baggot St. Hospital on Sunday 26 September 1965, age 67. He was given a State Funeral, his coffin covered by the Irish Tricolour, and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

The Irish Air Corps are home to several artefacts and paraphernalia related to Fitzmaurice’s military career as well as the marked site of the Bremen departure in 1928. South Dublin County Council has also marked a number of sites using Fitzmaurice as a place-name in the county. In 1998 Portlaoise County Council erected a monument in the shape of the Bremen wing to their adopted aviator. The memorial has been recently refurbished and is cared for at Fitzmaurice Place by members of the Irish United Nations Veterans Association.

Posted in: Aviation Heritage, Bremen Flight, British Army, County Laois, Irish Air Corps, Irish Defence Forces, Irish Volunteers, Óglaigh na hÉireann, The Great War, World War One

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