Friday, July 31, 2015

Nobody's Children

Michael Robinson & Redmond's volunteers
Click any image for a larger version

Yesterday's (30/7/2015) lunchtime talk in the National Library of Ireland was entitled Nobody's Children:The treatment for Shell-Shocked Great War veterans in the Irish Free State and it was given by Michael Robinson of the University of Liverpool's Institute of Irish Studies. The talk was based on part of his research for his PhD.

I always enjoy going to these talks. Even if I don't learn something directly relating to my family history or local history, or meet with new contacts, there is always some aspect of the thing to file away for the future.

I had an uncle who died on the Somme and a grand uncle who returned from WWI wounded. While I gather the latter's wounds were physical, I don't think there is any way anyone could return from at least three years in the trenches and still be completely right in the head.

So I was really interested in Michael's take on how the shell shocked returnees fared.

I was aware of the shame of it: them having fought for the monarch who was occupying Ireland and against our potential ally, the Germans. Indeed, had I known about either of the above soldiers at the time I would certainly not have mentioned them in the school I went to and would probably have felt quite bad about the whole matter. Thankfully, however, they have been allowed down from the attic for some time now and we have a better appreciation of the reality of those times.

What I hadn't appreciated was some of the nuances that Michael highlighted.

For example, had these shell shocked returnees been given special treatment by the Free State, would the same have been required for those who suffered in the War of Independence, and in the Civil War (including, God forbid, the anti-Treatyites)?

Also, poverty and unemployment were rampant at the time and there would have been very little inclination to give special treatment to the returnees anyway. While Michael has established that they were not actively discriminated against they certainly did not benefit from any positive discrimination such as we might see as desirable today.

And if there had to be any prioritisation, it would surely have been for the physically disabled whose disabilities would be more obvious to all.

And then there was the general stigma attaching to mental illness at the time, not just for the victim but for the whole family.

There were only three institutions in the whole of Ireland at the time which took in these shell shocked returnees. That clearly was only a drop in the ocean.

There was a scheme called the King's National Roll which employers signed up to and where they guaranteed to allocate 5% of jobs to ex-servicemen with disabilities. However, that scheme was not implemented in the Free State where the attitude was that these men fought for the British so the British could look after them.

Also, the benefits the British Legion brought to those in Britain and Northern Ireland were not replicated in the South where the Legion was very disorganised and underfunded.

Some employers, such as Guinness, did undertake at the outset to re-employ returnees and they did honour this undertaking, but that still left a lot of returnees fending for themselves or living a life of panic and despair under the cloak of caring families.

John Burgess, his wife Tess (née Fitzsimons)
& firstborn Sadie (c. Sept. 1910)

The story of my wounded grand uncle, John Burgess, is an interesting one. His father Christopher was a master bootmaker with premises in James's Street. The father was approaching retirement and John, who worked in the business, and even had a company house provided nearby, was the heir apparent.

When John enlisted, possibly as late as early 1915, his father disinherited him and threw his wife and children out of the company house. They took refuge in Oxmantown Rd. on the northside and when John eventually came home wounded he was unemployed.

He got a temporary job with a shoemaker in Capel Street whose sons were not quite old enough at the time to do the work. That didn't last and he subsequently got a job in the Gas Company and eventually in Dublin Corporation. I suspect his getting the latter two jobs were not unconnected to his campaigning for Alfie Byrne in Corpo and Dáil elections and to a brother-in-law being a prominent member of the Corporation itself.

So, at the end of the day, he could have come out worse. But, of course, most of the returnees wouldn't have had those sort of connections.

John Burgess's ex-UK-serviceman's Irish medical card

Since originally doing this post yesterday, I have just come across John Burgess's medical card, issued by the Irish Department of Social Welfare, but based on his WWI military disability discharge. So despite what was said above, the Irish State, albeit at a later stage, did seem to accept some responsibility or agency in the matter.

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