Newry and Mourne Museum: Local impacts of the First World War

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

The Newry Roll of Honour—the common thread of the exhibition.  (All images: Newry and Mourne Museum)

The Newry Roll of Honour—the common thread of the exhibition.
(All images: Newry and Mourne Museum)

This exhibition is a good example of bringing a global event down to the local level. The objects on display are not a random selection; groups are related to each other in being tied to a particular person, with the common thread being the Newry Roll of Honour, a recent donation to the museum.

The local situation in Newry is placed in its historical context. During the Home Rule crisis there was serious tension in the town between the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers. Once war was declared, however, these differences were largely set aside and both nationalist and unionist leaders urged enlistment, with mass recruitment rallies, some of 5,000 men or more, taking place. After the war, commemoration largely belonged to the unionist community, although it is worth noting that Newry’s official memorial was not erected until 1938. One poignant item is a roll of honour of those who enlisted from the 1st Newry Troop of Boy Scouts.

The main display cabinet contains a private’s uniform of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the formal uniform of the deputy lieutenant of County Down.

The main display cabinet contains a private’s uniform of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the formal uniform of the deputy lieutenant of County Down.

Newspaper cuttings, postcards and photographs tell the story of the men who went to war. One attractive feature is a photograph, biographical details and medal of a soldier all together in one frame. One person so featured is C.S.M. William Taylor, who had been a regular soldier and then a UVF drill instructor before enlisting again in 1914, when he was in his fifties. He was killed with the 13th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, at the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. His son, who was serving in another regiment, was denied leave to attend his funeral.

The first display cabinet contains medals and plaques commemorating local men who served, as well as medical guidebooks and instructions for nurses. Perhaps most interesting is the storybook Swollen Headed William, a propaganda book for children. In a nearby case are silk-embroidered postcards of various designs, from Allied flags to ‘Greetings from Newry’. In the centre is a pincushion sent by Connaught Ranger William McGrath to his wife in Newry.

A pincushion sent by Connaught Ranger William McGrath to his wife in Newry.

A pincushion sent by Connaught Ranger William McGrath to his wife in Newry.

Take note of the names associated with these cards since, like many other items here, they occur again on the Roll of Honour, which is hand-written on vellum and contains the names of local casualties of the conflict. There is a facsimile of the book that you can leaf through, while reproductions of each page are mounted on the wall nearby, listing the names, service details and local addresses of those who died.

The various medals on display are a reminder of the different branches, from the ambulance corps to the mercantile marine, in which Newry men and women served besides the regular army. One information panel tells us that on 17 May 1918 a German U-boat attack sunk five fishing-boats from Kilkeel, with the loss of many lives. Look out, too, for the small photograph of the 4th earl of Kilmorey in the rather splendid dress uniform of the Life Guards, the regiment in which he served.

The main display cabinet contains a private’s uniform of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at one end and the formal uniform of the deputy lieutenant of County Down at the other. This belonged to Arthur Charles Innes-Cross of Dromantine House. Although he died in 1902, both his sons were officers in the Irish Guards when war broke out; one, Sydney, died at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, while the other survived and won a Military Cross.

Perhaps the most attractive item here is the charcoal drawing by William Conor of Captain Roger Hall of Narrow Water Castle. He served with the Royal Fusiliers and won the Military Cross. Artwork of a different kind takes the form of decorated shell casings, and there are other unadorned casings and artillery shells on display as well. Class differences may be observed in the cutlery set, field glasses and compass issued to officers—a far cry from the more basic equipment for other ranks also on display here.

Other aspects of the period are covered, too. The people of Newry suffered shortages and price rises as a result of the war, and local industries found it hard to obtain raw materials. Although the information panel does not say so, in the long run the town did pretty well economically from the war. Another set of postcards date from just after the 1916 Rising and show the damage done to Dublin. They are a reminder of another Irish response to the war.

I have probably not done justice to this exhibition. It is certainly worth a long and studious visit, as you can follow the story of particular soldiers and families through the exhibits. A photograph and medal here are linked to a postcard there, while ultimately the soldier in question ended up on the Roll of Honour. Thankfully there is no obvious ‘message’ here. It is a close-up and personal look at those involved in war, and we can draw our own conclusions about why people joined and what they endured.

Tony Canavan is the editor of Books Ireland.

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