SIXTY-NINE servicemen from the Blackpool suburb of Cork City left their homes and families to fight in the First World War and never returned.
Little was known about them, and their sacrifice was forgotten, until author Mark Cronin’s new book, Blackpool to the Front.
Cronin, a native of Blackpool, wrote it to highlight the men’s contribution to ‘The Great War’, from 1914-1918; so people recognise their ultimate sacrifice and to commemorate their lives.
Cronin — who still lives in the suburb — says the book is the first of its kind, as it details the war’s impact on an Irish community.
The Blackpool story mirrors the experience of the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who joined forces to fight overseas.
“It was a bit of a shock to me, realising that nearly every street and laneway of the city of Cork, in 1914, had a soldier or sailor who had died in the war and, of course, this applied to my own locality as well,” Cronin says.
“A small community where 69 people were killed is significant. It’s one of the most defining events of our history and nobody knew about it,” he says.
“Blackpool had forgotten these men, an amnesia that was replicated all over southern Ireland and most particularly in urban areas. I thought it was a revelation. I thought, ‘that’s worthy of a book’.”
Blackpool to the Front paints a picture of Blackpool as those servicemen knew it before the war, and of the suburb it became when they set off on unknown journeys to battles in Palestine, Flanders, Gallipoli, the Western Front, the Somme, and the high seas.
Blackpool to the Front tells of the bloodshed and lives lost, and the heartache when the news was relayed home by letter or telegraph.
It also touches on Cronin’s own story — his grandfather, Gus Birmingham, and granduncle, Mick Birmingham, from Dillon’s Cross, both enlisted in WW1.
Blackpool to the Front refers to a rallying cry first heard at Étreux, in August 1914, when the Royal Munster Fusiliers halted an entire German army corps.
Cronin discovered that his granduncle Mick — a member of the Royal Munster Fusiliers — was captured in Étreux by the Germans on August 27, 1914 and, as a result, held as a prisoner of war for most of WW1.
Cronin, 42, was unaware until five years ago of this important piece of family history, just as he was only vaguely aware of his own grandfather’s participation in the war.
His family-upbringing was, he says, “largely ahistorical in its engagement with the world”.
He developed a love of history at the North Monastery School, in Cork, but learned little about WW1 and nothing about his community’s intricate historical connection to it.
“I asked myself how a community could forget such a grievous wound,” Cronin said.
“I grew up in Blackpool, knowing only its links to the War of Independence — the murder of the Lord Mayor, Tomas MacCurtain, at Thomas Davis Street, Blackpool, and the killings of the Delaney brothers, Jer and Con, at the top of Dublin Hill.
“How is it that, from those very streets, 69 Blackpool men had died in the Great War over the previous five years?
“This question applies to nearly everywhere in southern Ireland, but in particular to urban Ireland.”
Cronin says this was due to the victory, in the post-war period, of the Sinn Féin Party, whose leaders had opposed Irish recruitment to the British Army.
“Part of the process of forgetting the war, and Ireland’s involvement in it, has been to, at times, glibly dismiss it as a colossal waste of life and a futile war.” he adds.
Blackpool was a microcosm of the transition, in urban Ireland, from the moderate nationalism that supported the war to the extreme nationalism that rejected the British connection.
In wartime, Blackpool was an industrialised area.
The servicemen who enlisted were factory workers, sons, husbands and fathers, who, when war broke out, responded to the call from the far reaches of the Empire; some enlisted to escape poverty and some to defend “the rights of small nations”.
Their families supported the war effort through donations and by working in factories that supplied the war machine.
Some local companies increased employment during the war years.
To cope with an influx of new military contracts, the number of jobs at Cork Spinning and Weaving Company — a dedicated supplier of linen for the wrapping of airplanes used by the Royal Flying Corp — was increased from 650, in 1900, to 1,000, in 1919.
Employees of local companies, Murphy’s Brewery and W&HM Goulding Ltd, were promised jobs on their return from deployment, and W&HM Goulding even offered a financial supplement to enlisted employees’ wives and children.
It wasn’t until Cronin became involved in a project committee, ‘A Great Sacrifice’ — which lists all the soldiers and sailors from Cork who died in the First World War — that he truly began to research his own family’s history and the history of the war.
And it was only then that he — a member of the Blackpool Historical Society and the Western Front Association — came across the names of those 69 Blackpool servicemen who were killed; 53 of them soldiers, six sailors with the Royal Navy, and 10 of them merchant seamen.
Cronin hopes ‘A Great Sacrifice’ can pave the way for others to research their own community’s World War 1 connection, just as it has for him.
Blackpool to the Front, a 264-page book, published by The Collins Press, goes on sale on April 25, which is otherwise known as ANZAC Day (a day that commemorates the Australian and New Zealand artillery corps’ contribution to WW1).
September marks the centenary of the First World War.
With that milestone in mind Cronin is encouraging others to trace their own history and their connection to The Great War.
“The centenary of the war is coming up and I think there’s a need for a reawakening of the community’s history and of its memories of the war,” Cronin said.
“We all have hidden history — our families and our communities — and I think this book will show how individual communities, like Blackpool, were connected to The Great War; not only through the servicemen, but through industrial connections to the war — so, directly and indirectly.”