STEPHEN WALKER opens his book about Irish sportsmen who died in World War I with the story of Basil McLear.
He was in fact an English soldier and rugby player who had been overlooked by his own country’s selectors.
While stationed at Fermoy, he was picked for Ireland and made his debut, against England, at the Mardyke in 1905.
Ireland won 17-3. According to reports, McLear ran “like a fine full-blooded stag through the English back division and scored a truly magnificent try.” Ten years later, he was killed near Ypres by a bullet to the throat.
When the All Blacks toured Europe for the first time, also in 1905, McLear played against them four times: for Blackheath, Bedford, Munster and Ireland. This tour changed rugby forever.
The first sight of the haka was only part of it, but The Cork Examiner neatly captured the bewilderment: “The Irish team looked most foolish while this was going on, as they appeared to think they ought to do something, but they did not know exactly what.”
The All Blacks captain leading the haka was himself Irish. Dave Gallagher had moved to New Zealand from Donegal with his parents at the age of five. He was killed by a shell on the Western Front in 1917.
In a letter home from Gallipoli in 1915, Jasper Brett, another Irish rugby international, wrote: “some of the wounded were awful sights.” Brett suffered severe shell shock. He took his own life lying down in front of a train in a railway tunnel in Dublin in 1917.
The First World War has not lost its power to transfix. Many things account for this: the scale of the losses; the military and political reverberations that have shaken Europe ever since; and the myriad individual stories of destroyed potential, such as those of Basil McLear, Dave Gallagher and Jasper Brett.
Stephen Walker has opened up a new field of tribute to the fallen with his account of 40 men from seven sports who swapped places like Lansdowne Road and Croke Park, Portrush and Dalymount, for the Somme and Gallipoli.
Three GAA players feature in Walker’s book (in a chapter called ‘Forgotten Gaels’).
One of them, Jimmy Rossiter, played in two All-Ireland football finals for Wexford in 1913 and 1914. Both were against Kerry and both were lost, the second in a replay.
Rossiter was at one stage an Irish Volunteer, but by the autumn of 1915 he was a lance corporal on the Western Front. In one of his letters home he wrote: “I felt more nervous before playing an All-Ireland than an attack on the Germans.”
Rossiter died from a head wound at Loos in northern France.
Stephen Walker’s style is conventional and his approach methodical, and, perhaps as a result, the narrative sags a little here and there.
But he is often deft in the way he juxtaposes his subjects’ finest moments in sport with their final moments on the battlefield or in a field hospital (where detail is often in short supply).
He is reliably clear-eyed and sensitive, and never lapses into mawkishness.
He gives the political and cultural ramifications of decisions to enlist a sensible airing, but doesn’t allow them to crowd out the personal dimension. In short, Walker deserves great credit for restoring these men to national memory.
To return one final time, then, to the story of Basil McLear. As in so many other stories from the Great War, tragedy was heaped upon tragedy.
Two of his brothers also died at the front. His body was never recovered. His name is inscribed on the Menin Gate — one of the missing.
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