An exhibition at Cork Public Museum shows how lives were transformed by the events of 1918, writes Niall Murray.
War may have ended a century ago, but conflict of a political and military nature was only beginning to heat up as Ireland faced into 1919.
These are the themes running through the ‘Victory, Virus and Votes’ exhibition in which Cork Public Museum shows how the lives of ordinary Cork women and men were transformed by the ending of war and the imminent political and military struggle on the home front as 1918 came to a close.
Among those whose stories are told is Christy Barry, who died a hero after being shot as he pulled an injured Royal Munster Fusiliers officer back into the trench in France.
On display is one of his final letters home, dated February 1915, showing his concern about whether his mother at home in Cork city was continuing to receive part of his wage. He also asked her to send cocoa and a copy of the Weekly Examiner, common requests from Corkmen in the trenches.
But financial concerns must have been furthest from his mother’s thoughts when she received another letter three months later with the solemn news of her son Christy’s death.
“Although wounded in two places, he succeeded in bringing back a wounded officer to safety. During the performance of this gallant act he was hit a third time and killed,” another officer wrote in the letter displayed alongside Christy’s posthumous war medals.
“His splendid courage was a fine example to the whole battalion and you may be quite sure that his name will not be forgotten in the regiment,” Mrs Barry was assured.
Christy Barry was born on Christmas Eve, 1894, a decade after the birth of the officer he saved, Maunsell Hawkes, from outside Clonakilty in West Cork.
A letter home later in 1915 from another Corkman in the Royal Munster Fusiliers described how Christy’s name was being put forward for the Victoria Cross medal.
“He was absolutely fearless, never happy unless running the most dangerous risks,” stated the letter, later reproduced in the Freeman’s Journal newspaper.
More fortunate to arrive home safely was Arthur Fitzgerald, who served as a messenger from 1915 in the British Army’s signal corps. He then became an airman in the Royal Flying Corps from 1916, ending his service there in 1919 after it had become part of the newly-formed Royal Air Force.
His family has loaned the medals and photos of Arthur, a member of the family that set up Fitzgerald’s Menswear in Cork city in the 19th century. But also on display are his binoculars, compass, and camera, one of a new type produced during the war by Kodak that allowed pilots photograph from the air while flying.
They are just some of the artefacts from the museum’s collection or loaned with the assistance of the Cork Branch of the Western Front Association.
Cork women feature strongly among an impressive wall of photos of over 150 people from the city and county to take part in the so-called ‘Great War for Civilisation’.
Although there is no known photo of her, one of Cork’s female participants was Violet O’Brien. The nurse is believed to have been born in India, and her journey to a role in the war was an unusual one.
After her training in the city’s North Infirmary hospital, Cork Public Museum’s acting curator Dan Breen believes she took up work in London.
It is there that she clearly became involved in the women’s suffrage movement, as one of her three medals in the exhibition is for being on hunger strike while in prison in association with a suffrage protest.
More notable, however, are the two metal bars across the ribbon, signifying that Violet was twice force-fed during her time on hunger strike, one of the occasions being in October 1909.
But she moved from service to the women’s movement to wartime medical support, earning medals for volunteering during the First World War in Serbia and in France, both of which are also on display in Cork Public Museum.
“They tell the extraordinary tale of a woman who had suffered trying to get female suffrage, but then also answered the call for volunteer nurses during the war,” said Mr Breen.
The editorial of The Cork Examiner on November 12, 1918, summed up the mood across Ireland as citizens came to grips with the long-awaited end to war in Europe.
“Out of the appalling tragedy that has ended in the triumph of the Allied cause, it is hoped that a new and better world will be evolved in which reason will supersede mere brute force, and justice to all nations, large and small, will be administered with an impartial hand.”
The lines feature on the opening panel of Cork Public Museum’s ‘Victory, Virus and Votes’ exhibition, documenting the momentous events as 1918 reached its end.
The case for the small nation of Ireland’s independence in the aftermath of the war was also being made in the peace conference in Paris that followed four years of war.
But the message of the people of Ireland was delivered strongly in the early December 1918 general election, dominated in Ireland by Sinn Féin at the expense of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had represented most of the country at Westminster for decades.
This momentous electoral victory is also marked with posters and electoral ephemera associated with the successes of Cork’s first republican MPs. They adopted the Sinn Féin policy of not taking up their seats, instead becoming TDs in the first Dáil Éireann that convened for the first time in January 1919.
But many were not there, including Mid-Cork TD, and future Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, whose presence at the time in Lincoln Jail is recalled in the exhibition by his prison badge and cutlery.
The impact on family life of MacSwiney and others imprisoned for the ‘German Plot’, a conspiracy manufactured by the British authorities, is also recalled in the visitors’ permit issued to his wife Muriel to visit him in Lincoln.
He had been in prison since before the birth of their only daughter Máire in May 1918, and was only released shortly before he and others had their first attendance at the Dáil, for its second meeting in April 1919.
Visitors to the museum’s exhibition can see material used for MacSwiney’s election campaign in Mid-Cork even though he ended up, like most Sinn Féin candidates in Cork, having no opponent.
Sinn Féin election posters and pamphlets — which held more importance in Cork city, where its candidates Liam de Róiste and Easter Rising veteran JJ Walsh had to fend off several other hopefuls — are also on display.