The McDonald Family of Birr and the Great War: one story of many from Offaly about those who fought in the Great War, 1914–18. Stephen Callaghan

Newspaper report on the McDonald brothers and their brother in law

In July 2018 an interesting Great War campaign medal appeared on eBay, a single 1914–15 Star awarded to Private Frederick McDonald of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The description provided by the seller stated that Frederick was born in Birr, and that he had been killed in action during the war.

Further research unravels a forgotten story, which gives insight into the life of Frederick and his family. It is a story not too dissimilar among the many working class Catholic families in Birr, because serving in the British Army was a source of steady employment and a means to support a family.

Frederick was born in Birr on 4 August 1894, his parents were George McDonald and Mary McDonald (née Jones) of Sandymount Street. George was a general labourer and an active member of the militia, the 3rd Battalion, Leinster Regiment having joined in 1884. Mary was born in either England or Wales and worked as a laundress.

Frederick was one of ten children, he had four older brothers. With his brothers he was educated in the Presentation Brothers School at Moorpark having been registered as a pupil on 5 August 1897. His attendance was quite poor only being 3 days for his first year, no attendance in his second year and 136 days in his final year.

With the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, the British Army urgently needed reinforcements to fight the conflict in South Africa. This resulted in the local militia volunteering for active service overseas, and led to George being absent from his family for two years, the militia returning in May 1902. Mary would have had to look after her family by herself, perhaps with assistance from older children.

Once Frederick finished with school it is likely he would have ended up working as a labourer, as his family would not have had the means to further his education, especially with the death of his father in 1909 and later death of his mother in 1911. Things changed when another option opened up to him, when he became old enough to join the army in 1913. The army would have been something Frederick was quite familiar with having grown up in a garrison town and seeing soldiers about the place. His dad and their neighbours in Sandymount such as Edward Long and Anthony Nevin had also served; his older brother Henry had also only joined the army in 1908 and this would have influenced Frederick’s decision to join. Joining the army provided him with regular meals a roof over his head and a steady income. Although still only 17 he would have been easy able to lie about his age to the recruiter. Frederick enlisted in Birr and joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, a fine historic regiment of the British Army, his service number being 10555 put his date of enlistment around early to mid 1913.

With the outbreak of the Great War there was a huge recruiting campaign for Lord Kitchener’s New Army, which greatly increased the fighting capacity of the British Army for a large scale industrial war, the likes of which the world had not seen before. With this in mind it is not surprising that two other McDonalds joined up, John serving with the Royal Field Artillery and Edward in the Royal Irish Rifles.

Frederick landed in France with on 24 November 1914 and he was part of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. At his stage of the war Frederick was probably aware that his older brother Henry and his sister’s husband also named Henry, who were both soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, Leinster Regiment were missing in action. Both were later confirmed as having being killed in action on 20 October 1914 during the Battle of Armentières, where the Leinsters were part of the attack on the village of Prémesque.

Frederick McDonald’s 1914-15 Star

The Inniskillings endured a difficult cold winter in the trenches. In May 1915 they took part in a major battle, the Battle of Fesburbert. This was the first battle where the British would be attacking at night as the previous daylight attack on 9 May had failed. Before the assault a 60- hour long artillery bombardment took place to soften up the German lines along the planed three-mile front. The night of 15 May the attack was launched, the Inniskillings gaining significant ground during the attack but also suffering heavy losses. Private McDonald was one of the casualties on the second night of the battle. The word back at home in Birr would be that he was missing in action, later being presumed killed in action on the night of 16 May. In total 252 officers and other ranks died, and several hundred wounded over the nights of 15 and 16 May, an enormous loss for the battalion. The village of Fesburbert was ultimately captured after renewed attacks, but the cost was not light with some 16,600 British causalities.

Frederick McDonald’s 1914-15 Star, Reverse with service details

The two remaining McDonald brothers were more fortunate and survived the war. Private McDonald’s name is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial, France, his brother Henry and brother in law Henry are both buried in Canadian Cemetery No. 2 cemetery, Neuville-Saint-Vaast, France.

This is just one story of many, which revealed itself from the name impressed on bronze campaign medal.

[On Sunday 11 November services and events will be held to mark the end of the First World War and the 35,000 to 45,000 killed. In Tullamore we have a day of activities in Tullamore Central Library with the launch of Offaly and the Great War at 2. 30 p.m. Mass at 11. 30 p.m. and a service in St Catherine’s in the evening. Birr has a service in St. Brendan’s at 3 p.m. Ed.] The volume of essays includes one by Stephen Callaghan on the war memorials in the Church of Ireland churches in County Offaly.

Offaly and the Great War Cover - FB ver