Mayo War Veterans Film Archive:2007-2008
Almost a decade ago I read an article in the National Press about the last remaining survivor of The Great War living in the Republic of Ireland. His name was Albert Cross, a resident of the Jewish Nursing Home in Rathmines, Dublin. He was being awarded the 'Legion d'Honneur' by the French Government for his services during WW1.
I contacted the Nursing Home to see if it was possible to meet Albert. I wanted to meet a veteran of that war, a rare encounter for a person of my generation. My wife Mairéad and i were invited up and spent a very pleasant afternoon with Albert (aged 99 years) and his wife Milly.
Their story fascinated us. Initially Albert (an Englishman) joined up when he was 15 years old, was rumbled and rejoined when he was a little older. He served on the Western Front and in Poland. He was in charge of a team of horses used for hauling artillery. An interesting fact told by him was that during a gas attack, the mask had to be put on the horse first and then on the human!!! He had remembered on his first trip to the front line seeing dozens of soldiers asleep alongside the railway line, it transpired that they were corpses!!! And so the stories continued!!!
After the war he met and married Milly, a Belfast lady. They set up home in Belfast and during WW2 their house was bombed in the 'Blitz-more history!!! They also told us that because they were Jewish they had no problems living among the divided communities in the North, they were readily accepted by both sides!.
Their story touched on WW1,WW2 and modern Irish history,intriguing!!! Unfortunately, I didn't record them but subsequently when Albert died not long afterwards, it struck me how important it is to record such people, to get their stories written down or to capture them on tape or film, because, invariably, some day, it would be too late!
I mulled over this for a number of years. By then the generation of WW2 Veterans was beginning to slip away. It was imperative to preserve their stories.
I attended a Public Consultation Meeting of the Heritage Department of Mayo County Council, facilitated by Dr. Deirdre Cunningham, Heritage Officer. She was accepting submissions from the general public in relation to the formulation of the Heritage Plan for County Mayo. I gave an oral submission on the night and later a written submission outlining a plan for recording War Veterans in County Mayo. It was an urgent matter, buildings and ruins etc. would be there long after these people were gone!
As luck would have it, I discussed this project with Captain Donal Buckley (M.A. History) of Military Heritage Tours, a military historian, tour guide and author and we agreed to work together on it.
During the year 2006-2007, the school of which I am Principal, Templemary N.S., Carbad, Killala, was featured in a television documentary called 'Sunny Days, No Homework.' One of the camera people, Risteard O'Domhnaill, also an Historian, became interested in our project and so the Triumvirate of Educationalist, Historian and Technological Expert was formed.
We decided that we would film veterans of any major conflict, ie. WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Falklands, Gulf War, etc. The criterion was that the veterans could be natives of/residents of Mayo with the emphasis on the older veterans, as their generation was fast disappearing. Once their story was 'In the can' it was preserved forever.
The County Mayo Heritage Forum included the project as a action of the County Mayo Heritage Plan 2006-2007 and agreed to grant aid our project. Our intention was/is to interview on film ten veterans of these global conflicts and to have this archive available to future generations of historians, with a copy of it in Castlebar County Library, in the Council's Heritage Department, and copies also available for purchase to interested groups/individuals. It would be a direct human link with the future, for the present young generation to the people in their midst who have such interesting stories to tell, a valuable factual archive of the extraordinary lives of ordinary people and a reminder of times when the world, or parts of it were in dire straits.
At the time of going to press we have captured the fascinating stories of eight war veterans:
Geoffrey Salisbury, MBE, Westport, author of Yesterdays Flight Path and The Road to Kilimanjaro, R.A.F. Bomber Pilot and Veteran of the French Resistance, WW2.
Denis McCarthy, Swinford, Colonel, French Foreign Legion, Bodyguard of General de Gaulle, veteran of many combat parachute jumps. WW2.
Ms. Terry Murphy, Crossmolina/Ballina, Former Queen Alexandria Nurse, veteran of Burma.WW2.
The Three O'Byrne Brothers, Kilmeena, veterans of WW2 and Aden, (British Army)
Ms. Elizabeth Murphy, Castlebar, former R.A.F. Medic and veteran of the First Gulf War.
The interviews have been fascinating, hugely interesting, hugely educational, and hugely valuable. A remarkable archive!!! We will have completed the series of ten interviews by July 2008 and the collection will then be available. We feel that the Archive will be an invaluable addition to the history of County Mayo, complementing recent publications by authors such as Stephen Dunford, Ivor Hamrock, P.J.Clarke and Michael Feeney, Captain Donal Buckley, James Reddiough, etc.
(If you are a veteran or know of a veteran who is willing to tell their story, please contact myself, Captain Donal Buckley or Risteard O'Domhnaill.)
To conclude, I would like to thank Dr. Deirdre Cunningham and mayo County Council Heritage Forum for their kind assistance with this project and of course to thank the veterans themselves, their families and friends, and all who have assisted us in any way. Go raibh maith agaibh. Furthermore, on behalf of the The Mayo War Veterans Film Archive, I would like to wish Michael Feeney and the excellent committee, the very best of luck with the Mayo Peace Park, an outstanding example of community remembrance, honouring those brave Mayo men and women who lost their lives in various conflicts. Go n-éirí libh.
Jarlath (Chuck) Dunford, Ballina, 2008.