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Irish heroes who left the sports field for battlefield

A new book charts the fascinating stories of Irish sporting stars from seven disciplines who volunteered to fight in the First World War a century ago and died in battle. Author Stephen Walker talks to Brian Campbell

Brian Campbell
01 October, 2015 01:00

TWO GAA All-Ireland finalists, the 20th century equivalent of Rory McIlroy and a host of big names in Irish rugby and football are among those who lost their lives a century ago in the First World War, an astonishing new book has revealed.

Now the stories of 40 Irishmen who swapped the sports field for the battlefield have been collected and chronicled in journalist and broadcaster Stephen Walker’s new book, Ireland’s Call.

Walker, from Ballymena but now based in north Down, had a hat-trick of launches for the book last week – in Dublin, in Bangor and at the home of Ulster Rugby, the Kingspan Stadium (Ravenhill).

He explains how the idea for the book – which also takes in names from cricket, hockey and athletics who went to war and never returned home – came about.

“I’d written two books before: Forgotten Soldiers, about the men who were executed during the Great War; and Hide and Seek, about Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who was a priest in the Vatican during the Second World War and who saved allied escapees. I’m interested in history and I’ve always been fascinated by the links between sport and the military.

“I knew a lot about what had gone on in Britain during the First World War, with sporting battalions and with clubs like Orient in London and Hearts in Edinburgh – with players signing up together and almost complete clubs joining up.

“I wondered about the link between sport and the First World War in Ireland, so I started to do some research and established that there were 12 Irish rugby internationals [who went off to war and were killed].

“Then I looked at football, cricket and hockey and started to think there was quite a pool there. I got to a tally of 40 men in seven different sports.”

One recruitment poster printed in Dublin, aimed at signing up as many Irishmen to join the war effort as possible, billed the war as a 'Grand International Match’.

“Irishmen wishing to play in this... should enter their names at once at the nearest recruiting office so that they may be thoroughly trained for the Great Day. Medals will be presented after the match,” read the poster.

“Sportsmen were valuable because they were fit and you want your soldiers to be fit; they’re disciplined and they know when to turn up and train; and then there’s already a team spirit and camaraderie there, so it just ticked lots of boxes,” says Walker. “It was perfect to use that poster in the book, because it links the two together very nicely.”

The book contains the stories of Olympic athlete Paddy Roche and a host of rugby players, footballers, cricketers, hockey players and the golfer Michael Moran.

Perhaps the lesser-known tales are those of the three GAA players who died on the western front – Tyrone’s Patrick Corey, Wexford’s Jimmy Rossiter and Antrim’s William Manning.

Many GAA players went to war and came home – with many of them choosing not to speak about their British army links – but Corey, Rossiter and Manning never returned.

Corey played soccer and Gaelic football and represented Tyrone in the 1909 Ulster Championship in 1909. He was killed in France under enemy shelling in July 1915 and was buried in Béthune. His name is on the war memorial in Cookstown.

Jimmy Rossiter was the man of the match in the 1913 Leinster Senior Football final when Wexford beat Louth. He joined the British army in 1915 and he sent a letter home to say that, “I felt more nervous before playing an All-Ireland than an attack on the Germans”. He found himself on the battlefield at Loos in France and was killed in October 1915.

Belfast man William Manning was an All-Ireland football finalist with Antrim in 1911 and 1912. The 1911 championship final was actually held in January 1912, so Antrim bizarrely played in two All-Ireland finals in the same year and they remain the only team to have done so. They lost both finals – to Cork and Louth.

After Manning joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers he too went off to war in France and was killed by machine gun fire in March 1918. His commanding officer Captain G Craddock wrote that Manning was “one of the finest men it’s been our lot to meet”.

“Obviously there was a big debate in the GAA as to whether members should be in the British army in the first place,” says Walker. “Manning was a much-loved figure. All the papers reported his death and one of them was so upset that they were basically saying, 'We hope this isn’t true’. He was a hero and they loved him in the army.

“His commanding officer wrote to Manning’s mother and said, 'I don’t think I’ve ever felt so knocked out about anyone’s death. He had one of the kindest hearts it’s been my fortune to meet.’

“So these guys were leaders on the sports field and leaders on the battlefield as well.”

Walker says he enjoyed reading up on Barney Donaghey, the Derry man who played football for Celtic, Hibs, Glentoran, Burnley and Man United, before he was killed at the Battle of the Somme.

“Then there was Harry Sloan, the first man to score at Dalymount Park in Dublin. He was a real 'gentleman footballer’. And Michael Moran, who at the time he was Ireland’s greatest golfer, is a fascinating character. He was the first Irishman to win money at the British Open.

“He narrowly missed out at the Open. He had a bad round and came third, but at one stage he was leading. He was the Rory McIlroy of his day. Had he lived, he may well have gone on to win more trophies.”

Walker’s day job is political correspondent at BBC Northern Ireland, so it’s no surprise that there were a host of political figures at his Ravenhill book launch, among them Vernon Coaker, shadow secretary of state.

The guest speaker was Walker’s fellow Ballymena man Willie John McBride, the former Irish rugby international.

And it’s a rugby international who Walker profiles at the beginning of Ireland’s Call – Basil Maclear, who fought with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and was killed in Ypres in 1915.

“He’s a rugby icon. You could spot him easily because of his handlebar moustache and his distinctive white gloves. He scored what’s regarded as one of the greatest ever tries against South Africa in 1906.

“His story is fantastic because he was rejected by England, got selected by Ireland and then – irony of ironies – his first game was against England and he was man of the match. Ireland won 17-3 and Maclear scored and the English selectors had to eat humble pie.

“He was the Brian O’Driscoll of his day, a real superstar.”

  • Ireland’s Call: Irish Sporting Heroes Who Fell in the Great War is out now, published by Merrion Press.
01 October, 2015 01:00 Arts

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