Book review: Finding James

Aedín Johnston was intrigued to learn of her granduncle’s time in the British Army during the First World War, despite coming from a Republican background. She spoke to Colette Sheridan.

Aedín Johnston €12.99;

A PORTRAIT of a man in a British soldier’s uniform hanging on the wall of a kitchen in Blackpool in Cork saved the lives of three IRA men from the Black and Tans in 1920. 

The subject of the portrait was James O’Connor, a Cork man who fought and died in the First World War.

When the Black and Tans broke into James’s sister’s tiny house at 23, Back Watercourse Rd, she was knocked to the ground. 

Her brother, John, and two comrades from the IRA, who were in this ‘safe house’, had received a warning from their sentry outside and were holed up in the bedroom with a revolver. 

But when the officer in command of the raid spotted the portrait and enquired about it, he declared that the house was “a Tommy house” and called off the raid.

The story of how James O’Connor was “protecting” his family from beyond the grave intrigued his grand-niece, Aedín Johnston, who recently published Finding James.

This teacher of English has always been interested in the fact that James was in the British Army despite coming from a republican background. 

And so she embarked on a journey to unearth the story of James, keen to find out as much as she could about him for her father, who used to visit graves in France on family holidays in the hope of finding out where his uncle was buried.

The book suffers from a dearth of information about James although his final resting place is located in Boulogne-sur-Mer, north of Paris. 

Because of the absence of any letters, diaries or fleshed out accounts of James’s life, Johnston relies on what is officially known about James and describes her journeys to France and London to examine military archives.

Finding James reads, at times, like a primer on the First World War. When it comes to her granduncle’s role as a driver with the Royal Field Artillery, the author can only speculate about the sheer graft involved in tending to war horses, going on long marches, surviving the rat- infested trenches, and finally, succumbing to gas poisoning, just before the war ended.

But it’s a worthwhile endeavour nonetheless. It seeks to counter the post-1916 Rising “tide of opinion that went against the 200,000 Irish men that fought with the British Army in the Great War. The fact that they were British soldiers was sometimes regarded as shameful by their families. 

"Their time as soldiers was veiled in secrecy. As a result, many of their descendants did not realise that they had a relation who fought in the Great War.”

Some 30,000 of these men never returned home. Most were not repatriated and were buried thousands of miles away from Ireland. Some “didn’t get that privilege as their bodies were never found”.

Johnston says that James wasn’t an object of shame in her family. Her grandmother, Mary Twomey (neé O’Connor, known as ‘Dotey’) “kept his memory alive as did my father, Tom Twomey”. However, the portrait of James has been lost, possibly given away, says Johnston.

She reckons that James joined the British Army “out of economic necessity.

“He joined in 1909 and left in 1912. Then he had to go back in 1914 because he was a reserve and was obliged to fight. But originally, it would have been a job for him.

“Going on the census records from 1901, James was living at home with all the family at 7, Lady’s Well View, off Back Watercourse Rd. But by the time of the next census in 1911, his mother had died and James was no longer there.

“I have been told that his father would have been difficult to live with so I figure that he had to join up for economic reasons so that he could get out of the family home and make his way. 

"I’m supposing he didn’t like the army because he left to do something else but was then dragged into the war. It’s all supposition. It’s like trying to piece a jigsaw puzzle together.”

When Johnston started her research, she was told “a couple of family facts. One was that James took his brother’s identity because he was too young to sign up for the army. The other thing I was told was that he never got to see his only daughter.”

But James’s correct name is on his death notice and on his grave. “When I eventually found his military service record, he was under ‘John’. 

I can’t figure out why he went under his brother’s name because John was younger than him. In the 1911 census, John was only one. James was 28 when the war started. He didn’t need his brother’s identity. 

The only thing I can figure — and I hated investigating it — was that maybe he had a criminal record. But the Cork city files had been burned in 1922 so I never got to the end of that. And I found nothing in the Irish criminal records held in the National Archives in Dublin.”

What Johnston is “almost positive of is that James never got to see his first and only child. He went back to the army on August 5, 1914. His daughter Mary was born ten days later. James was in Ballincollig at that stage. The men had received their orders to go to England. 

"Once the orders were received, they were not allowed out. They would have travelled direct from Ballincollig to the port of Cork and onto England. The day that Mary was being christened, James was disembarking in England.”

Unfortunately, Mary died in her 60 just before a relative, Sean O’Halloran, found where her father was buried. He visited the war museum in Ypres on the Belgian border where there’s a computerised record of the men that died in the First World War.

“Mary had a sudden heart attack. The details of her father’s resting place were put into her coffin as a symbolic thing.” James’s widow (Mary O’Connor, neé Hornibrooke) never remarried, bringing up her daughter, helped by a military pension.

When Johnston visited her granduncle’s grave, she simply said: “We didn’t forget you” and adds that she felt the spirit of James guiding her. She rang her father who asked her to get a Mass said for James.

Johnston is happy that her father (who died last year) lived to find out where his uncle was laid to rest. She planted shamrock on the grave.

The extended family of James O’Connor have had reunions in honour of him. Real life got in the way of Johnston’s research which started in 2006. She had to stall it when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008.

“That experience made me appreciate things more. You learn to seize the day. It definitely made me even more determined to write down what I had found. I figured that I had so much information that if anything happened to me or my computer, it would be all gone. It was a labour of love for me.”

Johnston feels she’d have liked her granduncle James who died at the age of 31on April 28, 1918, just before the war ended.


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