866 Company in Dublin 1916-1919
A brief visit to Dublin
I recently spent a few days in Dublin. It was my first trip to Ireland; I was there for the wedding of a friend from Australia, Simon More, who has made his home there. He and his wife Michelle were married at the City Hall, an imposing edifice squeezed in between city streets, not far from the famous Trinity College Dublin (TCD). I had arrived the day before and spent the day wandering the streets alone, trying to get a feel for a city to which I felt no connection at all. A broad river, the Liffey, crossed by numerous bridges, runs through the centre of the city. The streets were crowded and chaotic. Every nationality seemed to be walking the streets. I heard languages that I recognised and others that I didn’t. It seemed like the whole world had come to Dublin.
It felt remarkably un-British and I suppose that is not surprising since it is many years since it stopped being part of United Kingdom. In 1922, following a period of revolution in Ireland, twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland seceded from Britain to form the Irish Free State, which later became the Republic of Ireland. The currency is the euro, not the pound, and the Irish language is seen everywhere, on signs and in publications. Having said that I heard few people speaking Irish, although in the mish-mash of languages that are spoken on the streets of Dublin it was no doubt hiding there somewhere.
As well as the rather distinctly European (as opposed to British) feel, I was struck, as I browsed through a few bookshops, by the number of books on offer that focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916, realising that this was doubtless a reflection of the approaching centenary year. I also realised I knew pretty much nothing about that momentous event which is so significant in the history of modern Ireland. The names of the leaders of that revolt against British rule were unfamiliar to me, and their fate before a firing squad was something of which I was unaware. The Irish Republic which they proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916 lasted 6 days before it was squashed by the military might of the British Army.
When the ringleaders were executed they became martyrs for the cause of Irish Republicanism, attracting many who were previously pro-British to their side. There was a clampdown of British force, with a confusing train of events over the ensuing years. This so called revolutionary period in which the Easter rising was the first major militant attempt of the period to gain independence for Ireland, included repeated waves of civil unrest leading to the War of Independence (1919-1921), the creation of the independent Irish Free State (1922, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty), the Partition of Ireland (when Northern Ireland opted out of the Free State to remain within the United Kingdom) and the Civil War (June 1922-May 1923). The Irish Free State renamed itself Ireland in 1937 and declared itself a republic in 1949. Northern Ireland gained Home Rule for itself but remained part of the United Kingdom.
My first visit to Ireland therefore coincided with the centenary of a momentous period in Irish history, and as I wandered the streets of Dublin I realised that just as I knew almost nothing about that time, I knew very little about this country. A number of my ancestors migrated from Ireland in the 1870s and 1880s, notably from two families – the Byrnes and the Hicksons. However, both these families came from the other side of the country, from County Kerry. Why they left is still an unanswered question for me. One of them, John Christopher Hickson (who arrived in Australia in 1870), made return trips to the old country in 1893 and 1911, but after that it wasn’t till my parents visited Ireland on a number of occasions in the 1980s and 90s that there was any sort of reconnection. The connection became stronger however, when my father married Eunice Orr after my mother’s untimely death; Eunice’s mother was Irish, though she lived most of her life in Australia. She died just last year.
I found myself in Dublin, and wandering the streets I pondered my ancestral connections with this land, and this city. I knew of no ancestors from this side of Ireland, but as I pondered the events of 1916 presented in so many bookshop shelves, I remembered that my English great grandfather, George Simmonds, had served here with the British army during World War 1. He was in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and though he served in Europe during the first half of 1916, in Salonika, Greece, he was posted to Dublin in November of that year, some 7 months after the uprising. He spent the rest of the war here, some two and a half years, so he must have got to know Dublin quite well.
George Simmonds in Dublin
I was not sure however whether I was pleased with this realisation. The British army were, after all, the enemy, or at least it seems that way looking back. Of course there were many in Dublin at the time who saw themselves as part of Great Britain – not everyone was a republican, even if home rule was important to many. The Easter uprising of 1916 polarised the city and the nation however. The years that followed were years of unrest and uncertainty, but the cause of secession from Britain grew ever stronger. The British Army came to be seen as representing the enemy for more and more of the population, almost like an occupying force. George Simmonds was a part of that British Army.
But armed conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Army did not really erupt until January 1919, when Sinn Féin established themselves as the First Dáil (Assembly) and declared an independent Irish Republic. By that time George was close to the end of his tour of service in Ireland, discharged from the army in May of the same year. By that time the lines had been drawn: the IRA had became the official army of the Irish state, while the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) supported by the British Army, were loyal to the British Government. A War of Independence followed lasting a little over two years before a truce was declared in July 1921. The infamous Black and Tans was a force of temporary constables recruited in Britain toward the end of 1919 to assist the RIC in their struggle against the IRA. Many of them were WWI veterans who had seen action on the Western Front, although some were Irish. They were notorious for their brutality and their reprisals on civilians and civilian property.
However, George Simmonds was demobbed in May of 1919 and had left Dublin before this guerrilla war really got going so he missed the bulk of the violence, thankfully back home with his family and his market gardens west of London, where he could only read about the horrors unfolding in Ireland. Even while he was in Dublin he was not a soldier in the conventional sense, being part of the RASC. He was a member of a horse transport company, namely 866 Company, involved in support and supply for the army. He had performed similar duties in Salonika, one of the less remembered theatres of the European War, where he had also been in a Horse Transport Company, 483 Company of the 27 Divisional Train. His war service, both in Greece and in Ireland, was more focussed on transportation than on military tactics, more on horses than on humans. Although motor vehicles were becoming more numerous in the 1910s and 20s, horses were still the backbone of transport systems in the First World War. George had been involved in the transport industry before the war, a so called “carman.” During the war he continued what he knew best. But as in Salonika he could not avoid the reality and the effects of bitter armed conflict around him, in Ireland he felt the tensions, saw the effects of the conflict, and no doubt experienced the hostility of the local people in a city that was asserting its independence from the British Empire of which he was a proud citizen. It is hard to know whether he felt resentment or sympathy for them.
What stories of the IRA did he tell his young family when he returned to England? By the time he came home his oldest son, my grandfather, was 14 years old and there were four younger children in the family. Their father had been away for a good part of four years and certainly the younger siblings, James and Mary, who in 1919 were just 5 and 3 respectively, hardly knew him. My Grandpa Simmonds, who I never knew, would leave England forever just four years later, in 1923, and never see his parents again. Some years after his arrival in Australia he would marry my grandmother Gertrude Byrne, a first generation Australian, whose father George Byrne had migrated to Australia from Ireland in 1882. Her mother, Susie Hickson, was also of Irish stock. Both George and Gertrude knew Ireland only second hand, from stories their fathers had told them.
Healing the scars of the Great War
My mother said of her grandfather that he was scarred by his experiences of the Great War, and I suppose no-one from that era escaped unscathed. Mum told me that his lungs had been damaged by gas used in the trenches, and that had led to his early death in 1928 at the age of 52. Of course Mum never met her grandfather, who died 9 years before she was born, and on the other side of the world. What Mum knew of her grandfather must have been passed down to her from her father. I have not been able to find any evidence of lung disease in George senior’s military records. His pension application suggests that he was suffering from joint pain – arthritis which he felt had been worsened by sleeping in wet clothes on active service in Salonika. It also indicates that he was treated in hospital in Malta, and later in the UK. Many soldiers from Salonika were evacuated to Malta, but few of them for battle wounds. More were affected by infectious diseases and it is possible that George contracted pneumonia from his wet clothes. Many contracted malaria too.
The name of another hospital also appears on George’s pension application, though there is no indication of why he was admitted there, for what he received treatment. It was a hospital in England, a so called Voluntary Hospital, at Rainhill, in Lancashire. From what I have been able to find out, it would seem that Rainhill was a psychiatric hospital and the majority of patients there during WW1 were treated for shell shock, which we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. This has raised a whole lot of questions in my mind. Could it be that George Simmonds was a victim of shell shock? Was that the reason he was not sent back to Europe after his repatriation from Greece? What really happened in Salonika in the first half of 1916 that could have so traumatised him. The little I have read of that time in Salonika seems to indicate it was a relatively calm period, with most of the offensive occurring after George left.
There was also a hospital in Dublin in the years that George was there that specialised in the treatment of shell shock in returned Irish servicemen: the Richmond War Hospital. But if George had indeed suffered shell shock, his treatment was presumably over by the time he came to Dublin. Maybe Ireland was a place of rehabilitation for him, for though there was certainly violence in Dublin in the years 1916 to 1919, it hardly compared to the terror of the Western Front, or even the lesser known theatres of war like Salonika.
The Wicklow Mountains
The day after Simon’s wedding, another of my expatriate Australian friends, Jeremy Cavanagh, arrived from London. We drove south out of the city and spent two refreshing days tramping through the Wicklow Mountains. Though it is so near the city feels far away. The hills are barren and wild, and when we were there the heather was in flower. From a high road that crosses the mountains we followed a track down a green valley to Lough Dan. There was no-one about though we passed several farmhouses. We came to the lake between the mountains, its dark waters ruffled by a chill wind; a deserted farmhouse with padlocked doors stands forlorn between a thick growth of ferns on the valley floor, the stream running swift and silent through the trees nearby. We sat for a while on the little beach and stared out across the water before climbing the slopes beyond the stream and ascending through forest back to the barren heights. The next day, from Glendalough nearby, we climbed a steep path through another forest to emerge atop a precipitous escarpment far above that lake. We walked upwards into a broad shallow cirque, a glacial hollow between ancient hills. The treeless horizon made a stark silhouette against grey clouds scudding across the sky, patches of blue revealed from time to time through a parting in the clouds.
The green hills and heather clad heights of Ireland breathed life into my tired soul. I wondered if they had the same effect on George, raised so close to the great metropolis of London, scarred by the horrendous conflict he had witnessed across the sea. For George and his horses it may well have been that despite the tension and intermittent violent outbursts that he witnessed in Dublin, Ireland, with its green slopes and wild mountains, was a place of healing, restoring the peace of spirit he needed to return to his market gardens and his family and start over with the life he had left behind four years before.