Barbados to Birr, the story of Sergeant Gordon Brooker, Leinster Regiment. By Stephen Callaghan

The 11th March 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Sergeant Gordon Brooker of the Leinster Regiment, a soldier who for the best part of the last 96 years was buried in an unmarked grave in Clonoghill Cemetery, Birr. This is his story.

Gordon McNeill Brooker was born around 1886 in the parish of St John’s, Barbados. He was the son of Benjamin and Elizabeth Brooker. They lived on a plantation in the parish of St Philip. Gordon enlisted in Barbados for a short term of military service (3 years with the army and 9 years in the reserves) with the Lancashire Fusiliers on 11 September 1903, aged 18 years. He gave his previous trade as an engine driver at water works. Upon enlistment he was recorded as being 5 feet 6 and a half inches tall and having blues eyes and brown hair. He was tattooed on both forearms and his right breast.

Private Brooker served with the 3rd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers in Barbados until 8 March 1905 when he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, Leinster Regiment. Gordon’s elder brother Stanley was already serving in the Leinsters and had been in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1902). After Gordon’s initial 3 years of service he was permitted to extend his service to complete 8 years with the colours. He served in South Africa, Mauritius and India. On 25 November 1912 he was posted to the Depot, Leinster Regiment in Birr, then to the permanent staff of the 3rd Battalion, which was designated as a Special Reserve.

While based in Birr, Gordon married Alice Brennan in St Brendan’s Catholic Church on 7 May 1913. They had two daughters, Mary Elizabeth born on 27 April 1914 and Elizabeth Catherine born on 8 March 1918. Mary Elizabeth is later recorded as attending Crinkill Girls’ National School.

Sergeant Gordon Brooker

During the Great War Sergeant Brooker was posted with the British Expeditionary Force in France from 1915 with the 1st Battalion, Leinster Regiment. After service in the France the battalion was sent to Salonika, Greece. In 1916 Brooker was admitted to hospital with atrophy to muscles of his left leg and underwent an operation. The 1st Battalion, Leinster Regiment would then later go on to serve in Palestine, and after the war they were posted to India.

After service with the 1st Battalion, Gordon had various brief postings with the 6th (Service) Battalion, Depot and 3rd Battalion. Being a seasoned and experienced non commissioned officer he would have been able to assist with the training of new recruits. While posted with the 3rd Battalion, Leinster Regiment in Portsmouth Gordon was discharged on 5 March 1919 as he was found to be no longer physically fit for war service. Gordon died 6 days later from bronchial pneumonia and syncope in Alexandria Hospital in Portsmouth.

Gordon was brought home to Birr and he was interred in Clonoghill Cemetery on 17 March. This was possibly done at the expense of his wife considering the British Army did not repatriate soldiers; you were buried where you died.  His death seems to have escaped official notice of the Imperial War Grave Commission; the organisation set up for building and maintaining the numerous cemeteries and memorials after the war, the name later changed to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission in 1960.

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Gordon’s name wasn’t discovered until 2011 by chance when the author was researching military burials of Clonoghill Cemetery. Gordon’s name was brought to the attention of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission (CWGC) to see whether he met the requirements for official commemoration as a casualty of the Great War. With the evidence gathered Gordon’s case was put to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the final decision. In 2012 the MoD accepted that Gordon’s death was a result of his Great War service and his name was added to the CWGC database of war dead. In 2015 the CWGC erected permanent stone memorial on the small plot which had been unmarked for 96 years.

Further research is required to see what became of Alice and her daughters Mary and Elizabeth.

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Early Aviation in and around Offaly by Guy Warner

No 2 Squadron at Limerick in 1913.
No 2 Squadron at Limerick in 1913.

In 1910, about six weeks before the first successful powered flight in Ireland by Harry Ferguson in Co Down, the King’s County Chronicle reported as follows, ‘Mr Michael Carroll, cycle mechanic, conducted experiments in aviation in the hills adjoining Birr reservoir. An apparatus constructed from calico and bamboo made one or two fitful attempts to ascend. The incredulous may laugh at his efforts but it should not be forgotten that every great invention has its beginning in failure.’ One week later it was noted that the Engineering and Scientific Association of Ireland [founded in Dublin in 1903] had been discussing aviation, ‘The opinion was expressed that flying through the air was not an accomplished fact, though eventually it would be, that flying was not of any practical use and that men now engaged in a series of experiments in aviation would not die in their beds.’

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Offaly and the First Air War: Joe Gleeson

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2. D.H.4 bomber, aircrew posing with map (IWM, Q12021)

Offaly had a small but significant part in the early years of military aviation. In September 1913 Offaly was an important base for some of the earliest uses of aircraft in the annual British Army manoeuvres; some of the Royal Flying Corps’ earliest crashes took place in Offaly during those operations. Approximately 85 men who served in the Allied flying services were born or from Offaly, but their impact was far greater than would be expected. Ferbane hosted an operational wartime base at ‘RAF Athlone’, and there was a landing ground at Birr during the 1918-1920 mobilisation period.

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‘Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails'[Howard Bury of Charleville and Belvedere] by Jane Maxwell

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Charles Kenneth Howard Bury of the Royal Irish Rifles, probably c. 1914. Courtesy of David Hutton Bury.

At the beginning of the centenary commemorations for the War, at the Theatre of Memory Symposium at the Abbey Theatre in 2014, President Higgins spoke of the commemorative activities in terms of myth-making and ethical remembering. He remarked that ‘for years the First World War has stood as a blank space in memory for many Irish people – an unspoken gap in the official narratives of this state’. He suggested that ‘literary memoirs written during or after the War can be enabling sources for ethical remembering’ and advocated using the commemorative period to create ‘opportunities to recollect the excluded, to include in our narratives the forgotten voices and the lost stories of the past’. In the aftermath of the death in the last few years of all the veterans of the War, to find these stories and these voices we must go back to the archives and seek out the diaries, memoirs letters and photographs of those who served. The Library in Trinity has a fascinating collection of this kind of material, gifted and bequeathed over the decades and, to mark the centenary of the War, the Library decided to publish this material online.

Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails is the name given to the online project which allows free access not only to digitised images of over 1500 pages of WW1 letters and diaries from the Library’s special collections, but transcriptions of the texts are also provided. There are nine war-time authors involved – almost all officers – and altogether they produced three sets of letters, four diaries (including a very brief home-front diary by the single female author among them) and three memoirs (two of which are prisoner-of-war accounts). The authors served on both Western and Eastern fronts, and ranged in age from twenty years of age to thirty-three. Two of them won Military Crosses, and one of them received the DSO having been mentioned in despatches seven times. This was Charles Howard-Bury – the oldest of our authors; he was born in Charleville Castle, Co. Offaly in 1881 and was a career military man who went with the British army to India in 1904. He was present at the Battle of the Somme and was eventually taken prisoner in 1918.

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Birr Barracks WW1 Trench Dig, by Stephen Callaghan

As part of the events for the 50th Birr Vintage Week, a set of mock WW1 trenches were excavated in the training grounds of Birr Barracks. The excavation, which was the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland, helped provide further information about the training structure put in place to train men for life in the trenches. This article gives a brief overview of the barracks itself and its long colourful history. Continue reading

Wright and the other Volunteers: Birr, the Boer War and the Lindley connection. By Rosemary Raughter

This week’s blog is by Rosemary Raughter, an independent scholar, who has published widely on women’s and on local history. Her discovery of a collection of love letters, written 1898-1901, from her grandmother, Sarah Whelan, originally of Roscrea, to her grandfather, Thomas Eades of Birr, led her to research aspects of life in Birr at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the autumn of 1899 my twenty-one year old grandmother, Sis Whelan, was living in Newtownbarry (now Bunclody), Co Wexford. Far from home and friends, she kept up a regular correspondence with the young man whom she had met while working in Birr, and whom she would eventually marry.[1]  Like Sis, Tom Eades was a shop assistant: reared in Fortal, since his early teens he had been employed in Fayle’s hardware shop on the Main Street. Sis’s life was a narrow one, confined for the most part to the drapery shop in which she worked, to her lodgings above it, to the Methodist chapel across the square where she worshipped, and to the riverside paths and woods just outside the town where she walked on occasional free afternoons. Current national and international events impinged hardly at all on her consciousness, which was not surprising: as she told Tom, ‘we never see a paper here’.[2] Continue reading

The murder of Lieutenant Clutterbuck of Birr Barracks in 1865

By Stephen Callaghan

A previous blog post detailed the murder in 1843 of Lieutenant and Adjutant Robertson Mackay of the 5th Fusiliers at Birr Barracks. Mackay was shot dead by a soldier he was drilling, Private George Jubee. Jubee ultimately being hung for his crime. Some twenty two years later a detachment of 5th Fusiliers were stationed in Birr Barracks, with the brutal murder of Lieutenant James Henry Clutterbuck taking place on the River Brosna. Continue reading

Puttaghan, Tullamore: living on a powder keg 210 years ago

The older residents of Tullamore will know where the magazine was and will quickly tell you it was near the old footbridge in Convent View in the townland of Puttaghan. The magazine or arsenal on a site of almost one acre was built by the army in 1808 and the stores were surrounded by a nine-foot high wall, part of which survives at 21/21 Convent View. The high walls were designed to protect the powder magazine, store rooms and guard room. Other such walls surrounded the 1716 barracks and can still be seen near the garda station bordering Marian Place and a little more at Parnell Street (best viewed from the Marian Place off Kilbride Street). Little of the old Wellington Barracks (of c. 1800) survives in Cormac Street.

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Brigadier General James P. Cullen (retired U.S. army), a fine Offaly man who served Ireland and his adopted homeland, 1945-2017. Died, New York, 8 December 2017.

 

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Brigadier General James P. Cullen died at his home in Scarsdale, New York on 8 December 2017 at the age of 72. He was born in Queens, New York on 27 January 1945 to Agnes Gorman and Patrick Cullen but came to Ireland and to Rahan, Co. Offaly when he was four and spent almost four years in the Offaly parish before returning to New York where he took his first job soon after. Thereafter Jim never stopped working, giving of his time whether for remuneration or in a voluntary capacity. Continue reading