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8-SOMME

Remembering the forgotten Catholic men who fought and died in the First World War.

Dr Robert Corrins asks why some Catholic parishes have been slow to commemorate the Fallen, and describes a new initiative in one Coatbridge parish to remember those who died. By Dr Robert Corrins

AS NOVEMBER 1918 arrived, there were many in St Patrick’s Coatbridge who were aware that the 26th of the month would mark 70 years since the first Mass in the old church, which had stood on the site of the splendid new building which had replaced it.

But after four long years of war there was little call for celebration. The optimism of August 1914 had long gone. Some dared to hope that, with the German advance halted and the Allies at last making real progress, an end to the slaughter was really in sight.

When the Armistice was declared on November 11 it did not stop all the fighting and dying, but it did represent a historic moment, and it is fitting that we should mark its centenary.

Extensive coverage of the anniversary has made people very aware of the staggering scale of the slaughter. From school projects to TV documentaries, we have been told about the tens of millions who died.

The profound irony is that people are more aware of these large numbers than they are of their own dead

At a local level, many Catholic communities, and indeed many individual families, have lost almost all memory of their own sacrifice. I say Catholic communities because it is among them in particular that the loss of memory is so marked.

In the aftermath of the war there was a widespread movement to preserve the names of The Fallen and civic memorials were erected across the country.

In addition, plaques were installed in thousands of churches and schools recording the dead of particular communities.

Yet, the number of such memorials in Catholic churches, and most especially in areas of high Irish immigration, is surprisingly small.

The absence of these visible reminders has meant that with the passage of time the memory has simply faded away.

An important part of the explanation lies in the nature and development of the Catholic immigrant communities. In the decades before 1914, the issue of Irish Home Rule was a source of tension and debate. Coatbridge, which had been the scene of extensive Orange and Green riots in the early 1880s, was home to three of the largest branches of the United Irish League (UIL), and regularly hosted visits from the leaders of the Home Rule campaign.

With the crisis surrounding the 1912 Bill seemingly resolved in their favour by the Ireland Act of 1914, the Nationalists were eager to refute any suggestions that they were not committed to the war.

The UIL asked priests throughout Britain to record the number of recruits from their churches and the figures were published to show Catholic Irish support.

 

In February 1915, after barely six months, the Coatbridge Catholic parishes recorded a total of 1,096 volunteers, with 370 from St Patrick’s alone. Archbishop Maguire issued an appeal for recruits and his priests echoed this.

In April 1915, Fr Geerty chaired a meeting in Coatbridge at which 2,000 crammed into the theatre to hear John Dillon, who had accepted Redmond’s decision to support the war.

Although Coatbridge is noted as the birthplace of Margaret Skinnider, who fought in the Easter Rising, the great majority of Coatbridge Nationalists followed Dillon and Redmond and this was reflected in the flow of recruits.

The community paid a heavy price. It lost in effect one member each week for the four years of the war. On one day alone, September 25, 1915, fifteen were killed. Most died of course in the mud of Flanders, but there was deaths from Archangel to Basra, from Jutland to Macedonia and every battlefield in between.

They included 14 pairs and three trios of brothers and numerous groups of cousins and ranged in age from 18 to 50.

It is only when detailed individual family histories are reconstructed and linked to one another that something of the full extent of the collective communal tragedy experienced in one small community can be felt.

Take, for example, the Phee family. Peter Phee and his wife Margaret Clenaghan lost a son who fought, and died under the name Patrick Black, because his 16-year-old younger brother had used his older brother’s identity to enlist. Margaret’s brothers John and William Clenaghan were both killed.

Peter’s brother married a widow, Margaret Dillon, whose two sons William and David also died. David had married Elizabeth Martin whose first husband and brother-in-law had been killed. Peter’s sister Mary Ann married Michael Downie and her son Peter, step-son John and nephew Peter were all killed, giving a total of 10 deaths in one extended family.

Besides almost every Scottish Regiment, especially the HLI and the Cameronians, and many English regiments, the Irish regiments were of course well represented, but Canadian, American and Australian regiments also had casualties from St Patrick’s.

By the time peace arrived, mothers, fathers, wives, children and grandparents came to St Patrick’s to pray for more than 200 sons of the parish.

They, of course, did not need a plaque on the wall to remember the names yet it is still surprising that, as memorials were dedicated in numerous surrounding churches, none were installed in Coatbridge’s Catholic churches, and very few in the Catholic churches across the West of Scotland.

By this time, the moderate Irish party had been swept away by Sinn Fein, and perhaps the same factors which led to the Irish in Ireland virtually suppressing the memory of those who had fought for the King rather than those who had rebelled against him also led the immigrants to balk at placing patriotic dedications on the walls of their churches.

Much has changed in the century that has passed and the Irish Government has been making strenuous efforts to recognise and honour the dead of the First World War.

But in the face of the deficiencies in the official Scottish Public and Church records, it is arguably even more difficult here than in Ireland to recover the Catholic soldiers of such communities as St Patrick’s.

Yet as the interest and enthusiasm for the project has shown, there is now an unqualified pride in these men and their sacrifice. Long ago arguments about Empire and Home Rule no longer concern the present generation, and nor is the focus on celebrating military triumph.

Rather people are pleased to be able to learn the details of how their own ancestors lived and died. Although some held cherished family mementoes, many knew virtually nothing beyond a name.

St Patrick’s also forged a brief but no less intense link with another group of young men. Given the political climate in Ireland, many who wished to join the Army chose to travel to the UK to enlist. Some with known family links to Coatbridge came there to lodge with relatives while they enlisted.

But there were many others, running into hundreds, who had no known links to the town, and who came from as far south as Cork to enlist, by-passing such obvious ports as Liverpool and Glasgow. More than 80 of them were killed.

Given the central location of the church, only a few hundred yards from the principal recruiting office, it is virtually certain that Mass there would have been the last time they were to attend a proper church.

Given the new mood in Ireland, many, but perhaps not all, will no doubt be remembered in their home towns, but St Patrick’s will also call them back to mind.

As part of the worldwide remembrance, representatives of the great and the good will gather in St Martin’s Cathedral, Ypres, rebuilt from the ruins after the war.

Fittingly, St Martin, the soldier turned monk, is claimed as a patron by both soldiers and conscientious objectors, and November 11 is his feast day.

In a much more modest, but surely equally historic service, Mass will be offered in St Patrick’s for all the men of the town, of all denominations, but in a special way for those whose names and portraits are for the first time recorded on the wall of the church in which they once knelt.

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