Welsh historians seek to trace veteran’s Irish relatives

Welsh historians who discovered the remains of a Cork-born veteran of the 1879 Battle of Rourke’s Drift in a pauper’s grave have honoured him and are now looking to trace his relatives.
Welsh historians seek to trace veteran’s Irish relatives

Michael Caine in 1964’s ‘Zulu’, which told the story of the Battle of Rourke’s Drift.
Michael Caine in 1964’s ‘Zulu’, which told the story of the Battle of Rourke’s Drift.

Welsh historians who discovered the remains of a Cork-born veteran of the 1879 Battle of Rourke’s Drift in a pauper’s grave have honoured him and are now looking to trace his relatives.

Historian Peter Hall discovered the unmarked grave of Private John Connolly, originally from Berehaven (now Castletownbere), in a pauper’s graveyard in Swansea and together with others erected a headstone to his honour, with full military honours.

Mr Hall said Connolly is even portrayed in the famous film 1964 film Zulu, starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.

It tells the story of how 150 British and Colonial troops held off 4,000 Zulu warriors at a trading station near Natal, South Africa, which was owned by Irish merchant James Rourke.

Connolly was in a makeshift sick bay having suffered a dislocated knee when the Zulus attacked.

They set the roof on fire and Private Henry Hook, who was also in the sick bay, is seen in the film carrying Connolly out to safety.

The film portrayed Hook unfairly as a malingerer, much to the anger of his relatives, as he was one of 11 soldiers at Rourke’s Drift who were later awarded the highest British military honour, the Victoria Cross, for their bravery.

It was the largest number of Victoria Crosses ever awarded in a single action in British military history.

“A lot of Irish people came over to Swansea after the potato famine and we believe Connolly was one of them,” said Mr Hall.

He would have settled down in an area known as Green Hill, or Little Ireland. He got married in Swansea on July 25, 1885 and we believe his wife, Catherine Crowley, was also from the Berehaven area.

Little Ireland was known as an area rife with poverty.

Mr Hill pointed out it could not have been easy for the couple as records show they had seven sons to feed, which is probably why John Connolly ended up being buried in a pauper’s grave when he died on November 6, 1906.

The Welsh have erected a proper gravestone to him and the ceremony was conducted with full military honours, including a British soldiers dressed in the uniform worn by those who fought in the famous battle.

“We have traced some of Connolly’s relatives in Wales,” Mr Hall said. “It would be nice if we could also trace some in Ireland as well because it will be of historical interest to them.

“The records we have show John Connolly stated that he was born in Castletown, Berehaven in 1859, the son of a fisherman also named John Connolly.”

Although the men who fought at Rourke’s Drift came from a Welsh regiment another Corkman also served in the battle.

A medal awarded to Michael Minihan after the battle was sold at auction in Britain four years ago for £84,000.

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