My Great-Uncle James in his uniform in 1914. He is buried in a grave by The Rock of Cashel Co Tipperay
It’s a honourable place to bury a man who was in his life called a hero for his action in rescuing men and a gun during in the chaotic retreat from Mons in 1914. Wounded in action and decorated for bravery James O’Brien, named for his father, my maternal great-grand father, had come home in 1915 to our small family home in William Street in Cashel. His sister, Catherine, my grandmother, had by then married one of the sons of their next door neighbours, Michael McDonnell. They had already moved down to a small house on what was then the edge of the town in Boherclough (an Irish word meaning stony road). By the time her brother died my grandmother already had had three children of her own. They named one of their sons for my Great-Uncle James.
The special leave had been granted to James as he was wounded in action but more importantly in recognition of the military honours awarded to him. And in 1915 and the town gave him a hero’s welcome. It was in the local hospital that he had to have his wound redressed. He was returning to the Front when he collapsed. His head wound had become infected. His agony was mercifully brief. He died of toxic shock.This of course was a time before antibiotics. His death caused a great stir in the town. He was buried with military honours – his coffin drawn through the town on a gun carriage. Nor was he to be the only one to serve – his brother Martin also served in the later years of the war. Part of his tongue was blown away by a piece of shrapnel. His speech was badly affected but he bore the affliction with good humour. He and my grandmother adored one another – as isn’t always the case with siblings. After the war Uncle Martin worked in the Post Service and lived to see my brother Peter born.
The events of 1916, the declaration of the Free State and the subsequent bitter Civil War wiped these men and their sacrifice from the annals of Ireland’s history. Now, in a new century once more we can shine a light on these honourable men and well reflect on their courage. Today we tend to use the word ‘hero’ too freely. This over-use debases its extraordinary gift of love. But if there is no greater Love than to lay down your life for your friend – then by that test these men were indeed heroic and we should remember that and esteem them for the greater Love they gave when called upon to serve.
I’ve put this up a little earlier than I first planned as I will be away in November but I will add a few further details including his medals in a few days. Above is the last picture taken of him shortly before he died.
Requiescat in Pacem.
The Great War 1914-1918
Remembrance is quiet, unassuming, shy, hardly noticed – like birdsong in the morning; like dew fall set on lonely hills; or like the warm farewell of an orange sunset. It is the unknown hand that holds our hand. It is the unseen love that travels on with us when we’ve gone-on.
Remembrance is a due willingly paid for lives willingly lost. It isn’t brassy; it makes no trumpet voluntary; it waves no flags. It doesn’t march to martial music. It stands silently in place where others might have stood had they not stood to serve.
Make no temples; garland no statues; play no pipes. Neither weep empty tears nor make empty promises you cannot keep. Instead, in their stead, look each day you may at the rising sun. Stand still, cold perhaps in day’s first light, but although you stand alone – you stand at once with them – as once they also stood cold and alone, expectant, waiting to be called.
In that same sweet peace of early day, listen. Listen for the sound of a whistle crisply carried on the brittle air – strain to hear as once they strained to hear a Hudson-whistle blow – the eerie whistling sound that blew their hope of life away – on some dead dawn long, long ago – and remember then what was lost to War and remember why it is that we must not forget.