A Journey of Remembrance: Wilson’s Hospital & the First World War

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), News, Volume 7, World War I

It all began in the classroom in Wilson’s Hospital school. Why, my Leaving Certificate history pupils wanted to know, did so many Irishmen enlist for the Great War. I endeavoured to explain. The class remained unconvinced. The formal reasons lacked a vital ingredient, human interest. We walked across to the chapel and studied the Roll of Honour. From such a small school—it numbered only thirty-five pupils in 1912—there were seventy-eight names on the list. Who were these men? Where did they live? Where did they fight? Why had so many been killed or wounded? The questions fell over one another. They had to be answered. From such small beginnings, a journey of remembrance began.
By the time of the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Wilson’s Hospital school had been in existence for 150 years. The warden from 1912 to 1945, Revd. Henry de Vere-White, painstakingly recorded the destinations of boys after they left the Hospital. It was from his copious notes that the first evidence of enlistment for war was found. As my class worked its way through the school register, a picture began to emerge. Names which had gathered dust on the walls of the chapel for eight decades took shape and substance. The first aspect to strike the eye was how ordinary and humble the lives of these men were. They were drawn from the ranks of apprentices and clerks, gardeners and servants. They were not the sons of the landed gentry or the professional middle class: they were the sons of the working class. Before the Great War, they had earned their living by the sweat of their brow. They were not the heirs apparent to Anglo-Irish estates. They were destined to serve on those estates. The boys from Wilson’s Hospital who enlisted in 1914 were poor, working class members of the Church of Ireland; a class which has almost entirely ceased to exist in the Republic of Ireland eight decades later. Moreover, they were as poor, Protestant and unionist as their neighbours who enlisted were poor, Catholic and nationalist.
Thirteen families sent thirty young men to the Great War, nine pairs of brothers and four families who sent three brothers. One can only imagine the range of emotions to which their parents must have been subjected; pride turning to anxiety; fear turning to grief as the news filtered back from the front. The record of the Savage brothers from Donaghpatrick in County Meath illustrates the concept of the supreme sacrifice only too well. Robert Savage was the eldest of the three brothers. He entered Wilson’s Hospital in 1896 aged nine. When he left four years later, he was sent to a general merchant in Carlow to learn the trade. In 1914, he enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Robert Savage was killed in action on 4 August 1918, only three months before the guns ceased firing. The second brother, George, entered the school in 1899. At the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps, later transferring to the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. He was killed in action on 4 March 1917. The youngest of the Savage brothers was Charles, who entered the Hospital in 1904 aged eleven. After leaving school, he became an apprentice gardener in County Mayo. Charles enlisted for war in 1915. He returned home wounded. Of the three Savage brothers from Donaghpatrick, two had been killed in action, the third seriously wounded. The grief and pain which their parents, Robert and Frances, must have had to bear for the rest of their lives provides a grim insight into the reality of ‘the war to end all wars’.
The Great War brought casualty lists to Ireland on a scale never witnessed before. Families waited in constant fear for the telegram which would bring news of fatalities. There was, inevitably, confusion. Men listed as ‘missing’ might subsequently be found. They were the fortunate. Tens of thousands of men listed as ‘missing’ were never even recovered for burial. Schools and parishes searched the casualty lists for names they might recognise. When Rolls of Honour were drawn up in 1918, mistakes and omissions were made. The original Roll in Wilson’s Hospital contained seventy-eight names, including eleven fatalities. Eighty years after this appalling conflict ended a new Roll of Honour has been dedicated in the chapel listing ninety-three names, of whom nineteen paid the supreme sacrifice. The list of survivors includes Pte. Gerry Leahy who tried to enlist when he was seventeen, but was turned away by the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was accepted two months later into the Royal Field Artillery. One who saw service throughout the war was Harold Woods from Moyne. He enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers aged eighteen in 1914, was promoted through the ranks and commissioned in 1918 before he returned home.
This journey of remembrance would not have been possible without the assistance of Pat Hogarty and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association. Deeds Not Words is a tribute, not merely to the sons of Wilson’s Hospital, but to all Irish soldiers, sailors and airmen who served and died in two world wars. These men have been airbrushed out of our history books as if they never existed. They are Ireland’s forgotten men, swept aside by an exclusive interpretation of our history. Such prejudice diminishes our integrity as a nation. It is time for balance to be restored, for parity of esteem to be accorded by Irish historians to all who aspired to the common name of Irishman.

David Robertson, Deeds Not Words , £10 (+ £1 p&p) Portnashangan, Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath, tel: (044) 71178, fax: (044) 71563.

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