Hurleys for Salonika letter describes Irish life in the British Army during WW1

Soldiers who served in the British army at the Western Front during the First World War played rugby, cricket, and soccer.

However, many of the Irish who bravely fought beside them in that terrible theatre of war had a different sporting heritage.

And they took steps to display it with pride whenever they pulled back from the wet and muddy trenches.

A letter in the Cork Examiner on April 17, 1916, reflected what it was like to be a soldier from Ireland in the British army when people back home were marching to different drumbeats — those of militant nationalism.

Many who enlisted were from Dublin tenements, or were labourers from depressed rural areas, motivated by the need to escape from appalling poverty and to feed their families.

Others who joined included educated men in support of Home Rule, former British soldiers returning to the ranks and those from the prosperous upper classes who deemed it their duty to fight for king and country.

Sgt John V Mullins, Royal Munster Fusiliers, was typical of the men who answered John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to join the ranks. He revealed in a letter to an uncle how men in the British regiments played sport whenever they got a chance.

“Our fellows are longing for a good hurling match to show them that we are just as good at sport as we are at fighting,” he wrote.

He asked his uncle to send his letter to the Cork Examiner editor with an appeal for hurleys and sliothars.

Sgt Mullins’s letter was published under the heading ‘Hurleys for Salonika’, but there was no subsequent indication if any readers had responded. That was understandable because one week later the Easter Rising began in Dublin and nothing was ever the same again.

Sgt Mullins also asked his uncle to keep sending him the Cork Weekly Examiner and the Messenger of the Sacred Heart. He had one further request: “Write by return of post and send on a mouth organ if you can get one, as it is a great help to keep you alive in the trenches or on the march.”

Kilworth Military Camp, between Fermoy and Mitchelstown in north Cork, was where many British soldiers heading to the war from Ireland were trained. Trenches, and bunkers capable to hold up to 300 men, were constructed. They were similar to those that awaited them at the front.

Lt John Stainworth, who served with the Seventh Leinsters, recorded tough times at the mountain ranges.

“It has rained every day since we came here except when it snowed. I thought Hinderwell could be pretty bad and Oxford worse, but I never dreamed that God had made any spot like this,” he wrote.

Stainworth revealed there were no roads in the relatively new camp, only trampled mud cut up by the builders using traction engines.

“I have soaked and frozen feet all day and every day, but I am none the worse so far, though always drenched to the skin,” he wrote.

Yet, that training in the saturated Kilworth hills could not prepare those men for the horrors of trench warfare. They faced German gunfire and shelling, which did not differentiate between Irish and British, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist. Thousands were killed or maimed for life.

Parcels from home were anxiously awaited. They contained letters, sweets, tobacco, strong Woodbine cigarettes, brown religious scapulars, chocolate and other items that helped to lift their spirits.

Some of them were shocked, however, when they heard of the revolt in Dublin, where popular opinion was also initially against it.

However, the executions of the 1916 leaders and the arrests that followed changed the mood at home. People found new heroes and they supported the fight for independence.

Outside of their families and friends, many of the Irish who had fought in the trenches were shunned when they came home. Four of those veterans told RTÉ in 1966 they had backed the cause of Irish freedom by joining the British army to fight for the rights of small nations including their own.

“When we heard about the Rising, we felt we had been stabbed in the back,” said one of the men, none of whom was named in the programme. The issue was still clearly sensitive 50 years on.

Others who came back joined the IRA, however, and with their soldiering skills played key roles in the War of Independence.

General Emmet Dalton heard of the Rising while at Kilworth Camp. He thought it was madness because, as he told RTÉ interviewer Cathal O’Shannon years later, he believed it had no hope of military success.

Having fought at the Battle of the Somme, where he was decorated for bravery, Dalton later joined the Dublin IRA, helped establish the Free State Army and was with General Michael Collins when he was killed in the 1922 Beal na Bláth ambush.

A century or so has now passed since those times when revolution and conflict changed the country forever. Today, Irishmen and Irish women who fought in all wars and under different flags are collectively remembered by the State. They are recognised, respected and saluted.

It was all so different in 1916, when a soldier from Ireland in a British uniform waited in Salonika for hurleys and sliothars from home so he and his comrades could express their own identity.

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