When we in Offaly History set out early in 2021 to mark the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland in our eighty plus contributed blogs on the Decade last year little did we think that an article on Belgian refugees to Ireland and the First World War would have resonance in the Ireland of 2022. Now we are talking of at least three million people forced out of Ukraine and have concerns about a third world war. Our efforts for the Belgians in 1914 look very slight when put beside what is needed today. In 1914 we were wholly reliant on the printed newspaper with no radio or social media.
The plight of the Belgian refugees following on the outbreak of the First World War caught the imagination and as early as November 1914 a county organisation was formed in Offaly with immediate suggestions for the use of Charleville Castle, the Tullamore barracks and the big house in High Street (the home of the late James Hayes and now Donal Farrelly Solicitors). Hotels were few and the only major institution with beds was the workhouse.
The County Secretary, Charles Kingston wrote to the local press on 5 November 1914 to advise:
At a meeting of the Kings County War Relief committee held on Wednesday evening it was resolved to inaugurate County Fund to be known as “the King`s Co. Central Belgian Refugees Fund “for the purpose of aiding and supplementing the local efforts to be made for the maintenance and accommodation of Belgian Refugees whom it is proposed to locate in various parts of the county.
The subscribers to the fund included:
Mr J and L Goodbody Clara £50; The Lady Emily Bury. £50 ; E J Beaumont Nesbitt D L £50 ; J Perry Goodbody D L £25; Mr and Mrs Lewis Goodbody £25; Ernest H Browne D L £25 ; D E Williams LTD £20 ; J A Lumley Chairman of Tullamore Urban Council £10 10s. Henry Egan £10 10s. ; Very Rev, Philip Callary P P. Tullamore £5 5s. Walter Callen R M £5 5s. ;Ulster Bank Tullamore £5 5; Mrs Kingston £5 5s.
The treasurers of the fund were Very Rev. Philip Callary P.P. Tullamore and J. Perry Goodbody, D. L., lnchmore Clara, Vice Chairman of the County Council. Both were practical men and not reluctant to cross the religious divide when the need arose.
Garrycastle/ West Offaly had its first relief committee meeting in early November with Dean Monahan, P.P. as chairman and the indefatigable R.H. Moore as secretary. Other suggested accommodation in the county included Arlington School, Portarlington and in November fourteen Belgians arrived in that town. In Tullamore over £400 was collected by mid-November 1914 with street collectors appointed. Eight Belgians arrived in December and were met at the Tullamore railway station by ‘a respectable committee’. They were placed at Richardson’s of Mullaghhill, Killurin (or perhaps Mullaghcrew) where opportunities were available for market gardening. (Both houses were burned by Republicans in 1923 during the civil war.) A further nine Belgians arrived in January. Within a year to fifteen months the Belgians had gone from Kilcormac and Banagher (where they had stayed at Curraghvarna owned by a Mrs Horton). The support for the Belgians appeared to be an all-middle-class activity cutting across religious divides.
It seems the refugees were scarce: the Midland Tribune reported (perhaps mockingly, as it was not a supporter of participation in the war).
Belgian Refugees [wanted in south King’s County]
‘A number of persons who have made provision for the accommodation of Belgians in the King’s County portion of the Roscrea district, have been disappointed. They cannot get the refugees. They are catered for before they reach this part of the country. Mrs White-Spunner succeeded only because she met the boat. The efforts of Mr Darby and others who set aside cottages and arranged for the supply of provisions, have been so far, in vain. In addition to the old gentleman whose arrival at the Monastery we mentioned last week, there is a little Belgian boy going to the College.
In an article published in Offaly Heritage in 2005 by the late Ronnie Mathews he took up the story of the refugees in Portarlington.
When the German army invaded Belgian in the summer of 1914 many of the locals fled their homes and attempted to get across the sea to England and Ireland, as had the Huguenots from France in earlier years. It is estimated that upwards on 250,000 managed to make the trip, nearly twice as many as at the end of the seventeenth century. Oddly though much is recorded about the Huguenots migration, very little is written about the unfortunate Belgians.
By September of 1914 a Central Committee for Refugees had been set up in Dublin to try and find places of shelter throughout Ireland. Outside the capital the towns of Naas, Celbridge and Portarlngton were amount the first to provide some accommodation and help, while Limerick also expressed a willingness to take a large group of the refugees.
In October 1914 the Leinster Express reported. “A meeting of the Portarlington General Committee of the Belgian Relief Association was held in the Courthouse, on Monday last. Rev. Cannon Cole M.A. presided, with Rev. Thomas Kelly, Emo; Rev. Father Beauchamp, Portarlington; Rev. Dudley Fletcher, B.A. B.D., Coolbanagher, and Rev. M. Vincent were present, in addition to a large and representative attendance of ladies and gentlemen. The hon. Secretaries, (Messrs. Joseph Shanley and J. Cummins) intimated that the subscription towards the fund amounted already to £180, roughly.
In the course of the proceedings it was stated that Arlington School, was capable of accommodating some 300 persons and had been renovated for the reception of the refugees; that the secretaries were in communication with the Central Relief in Dublin as to the number of refugees to be sent to Portarlington; that the committee were prepared to maintain fifteen refugees, who must be either lace-makers, wood-carvers or carpet-makers, and that infirm people and babies who had lost their parents would not be received.
A resolution was passed to the effect that if the King’s County Association decided to send any refugees to Arlington School they would be accepted, the rate of maintenance to be fixed by the Portarlington committee. Rev. Dudley Fletcher suggested that in addition to the ordinary church collection that monthly collections be held in aid of the funds. He would be glad to give any help if the suggestions were carried into effect.
Meanwhile a proposal was made at a meeting of the nearby Cloneygowan and District Council by Mr. Michael Dempsey “that the Government should take over AnnavilleHouse from the occupier of the farm, Mr. James Dunne. He claimed no rates had been paid for several years by Mr. Dunne, and that the house was lying unoccupied, had over fifty rooms and was admirably suited for the purpose of housing the refugees”. His proposal, seconded by Mr. Patrick Flanagan, was passed unanimously by all present. It was also agreed to forward copies of this motion to the local M.Ps; Mr. Birrell, the Prime Minster, Mr. John Redmond and the Lord Mayor of Dublin.
On 9 November 1914 the first group of the Belgian refugees arrived at Arlington House. They numbered fourteen and were met with brakes and cars (horse drawn), placed at the disposal of the committee by Mr. Wm. J. Browne of the Imperial Hotel, Main Street. A large crowd assembled to welcome them, and several motor cars were also in readiness to assist in their transport if required. The vehicles were all gaily decorated with flags of all Allied nations. On their arrival at Arlington they were fed and were evidently delighted with the quarters prepared for them.
Six weeks later it was reported that; ‘The Refugees have quite settled down in Portarlington now. They are quite habituated to the town and vivaciously express their thanks in broken English, of course, as far as they can speak it, at the kind and generous manner in which they have been received and treated by the people of Portarlington. They feel their position keenly and would rather be back in their own country, but it is the fortune of war. A meeting of the Belgian Refugee Committee was held on Wednesday, and the usual accounts for payment were passed. It was resolved to notify the traders of the town that all accounts must be henceforth furnished weekly on Wednesdays, if payments are to be made that week. Mr. A.H.M. Odlum, Chairman occupied the chair, and there were also present – Messrs. W.H.M. Cobbe, J.P.; H.C. Carey, and Henry Farrell. Mr. Joseph Shanley, assistant hon. sec. was also present.’
That by the beginning of 1915 it is evident that the many refugees who had come not only to Portarlington, but to other centres throughout Ireland, had blended into Irish life. For from that period they were no longer a ‘news itemr, and were seldom mentioned in the newspapers of the time. It is remarkable today that less than ninety years since the Belgian group, who were numerically far greater than the earlier Huguenots and who also lived in Ireland and the U.K., are completely forgotten. Why is this? Was it that they brought little wealth etc. with them. Or could it be there was in general a clash of national identity and personality between the Belgians and their Irish hosts?
To support this theory, I recollect a story about one refugee, M. de Winters, who worked in our family business as a “pastry cook”. It seems that because of bad feeling between him and one of our regular bakery staff, that a gold ring, a treasured personal belonging of the Belgian, which he had removed during his working day, was placed within a cutting machine which he was operating thereby causing the valuable ring to be cut in two. The ensuing altercation can easily be imagined.
Then in the memoirs of Lord Carlow (late of Emo Park) he recalls Portarlington’s Dr. Thomas Rice thus “in his self-assumed position as advisor, he had to cope with drunks, Belgian refugees, with which the town was unavoidably encumbered, rogues, ruffians, representatives of the law, fugitives as such, and also my father. With the exception of the last mentioned they regarded him as all powerful and never questioned his authority”.
Could it be that the reason for Dr. Rice’s rather poor opinion of the Belgians can be based on a twinge of professional rivalry, for in another issue of the local newspaper we read; “that, at the funeral of the town’s Dr. Joseph Manley Tabuteau, many others attended including a number of the Belgian refugees”. Was Dr. Tabuteau their officially appointed doctor?
One of the few people in Portarlington who I could find that even remembered the refugees was the late Mrs. Keenan, Patrick Street, who as a young girl had befriended some of the Belgian children at Arlington. She recalled that by mid 1915, quite a good number had arrived in the town. She remembered only two of the families’ names, De Blett and De Winter. The latter I believe was the unfortunate man who had his gold ring smashed in our bakery. She also recalled how after the War he went to live in Newcastle in the North of England, and that for a few years he had kept in touch with her brother.
 Ibid., 5 Nov. 1914, 12 Nov. 1914, 26 Nov. 1914.
 KCC, 12 Nov. 1914.
 TKI, 17 Oct. 1914.
 TKI, 19 Nov. 1914, 24 Dec. 1914, 9 Jan. 1915.
 MT, 5 Feb. 1916, 24 June 1916.
 MT, 30 Jan. 1915.