By David Lynch
From the blistering heat of Iraq during the Great War, to border duty at the height of the Troubles, Irish Travellers have a long, proud history of military service. Tales have passed down within families but among the wider community little is known about this tradition. David Lynch talks to Travellers about the role military life has played within their community and uncovers some gripping tales of heroism and tragedy.
It’s 1979 and a young Irish Defence Forces solider travels south from the disputed Lebanese-Israeli border to visit Nazareth. Walking around the religious sites, as any good Irish Catholic at the time would do, Michael McDonagh bumps into a member of the local Bedouin nomadic community. “I only spoke a few words of Arabic, but I could communicate with this man,” says Michael.
“I was able to describe to him my life as a Traveller back in Ireland and he described his nomadic life as a Bedouin. I was very far away from home, but there was a connection there. We could understand one another.” That scene under the blazing Middle Eastern sun is one of the most vivid in Michael’s memories of his tour of duty. “I enjoyed my time generally in the army. I was proud to serve, and also it was an adventure.” Stationed in the dangerous, but beautiful southern region of Lebanon, Michael’s presence there was no accident. You could say it was in the genes. “My family is steeped in military service. It goes back generations. Growing up I would have heard stories from my father and others about the army life.”
Michael is the fourth generation in his family to wear military uniform. Irish Travellers have served in the Irish Defence Forces at home and abroad. Previously members of the community served in the Irish Free State and fought in the War of Independence. Travellers fought in the Second World War- one of whom was awarded the much prized Distinguished Conduct Medal by the British state. During the First World War, young Traveller men fought and died in the trenches of the Western Front and in the Middle East.
“There are so many great stories that I grew up with about life in the army. I wanted to join the FCA, and I did so when I was very young.” The ‘Troubles’ had just begun in the North and border duty was the order of the day. It was inevitable Michael would follow his father into the full army. At one stage Michael, three of his brothers and his father were all stationed in Dundalk barracks.
His grandfather had also served in the Irish army and his great grandfather with the British army. Family lore has it that he was on duty in India for a period. William McDonagh from Exchange House has researched Irish Traveller soldiers during the First World War, and has begun to piece together some remarkable stories of bravery and heartache. His great grandfather Michael Ward from Tuam Co Galway, left his family to join the Connaught Rangers.
“Travellers joined the army for different reasons,” says William. “For some, especially the young it was adventure, others knew no different. But for others it was the need for work and money. Michael left a wife and family so for him it must have been economic reasons”. One of Michael’s son’s James also enlisted. Both men were to die far away from their west of Ireland homes and families. Serving in the Royal Irish Regiment, Michael was killed in action on 29 October 1915 in Mesopotamia, which is now modern Iraq. Less than five months later, his son James was also killed in Iraq. Their bodies laid to rest in the War Memorial Cemetery in Alexandria Egypt.
“I think about it sometimes what it must have been like for those men serving that far away from home,” says William.
“Of course it was difficult for everyone-but particularly for Traveller men, when family is so important, to be that far away from Ireland. They must have thought some nights, ‘what am I doing here?’ There are other infamous stories from the Great War- including the Furey brothers from Loughrea. Ten brothers enlisted in the army to fight on the Western front- six of them lost their lives. William Henry makes a special reference to Travellers who served in his book ‘Forgotten Heroes: Galway Soldiers of the Great War 1914-1918’. “Many Travellers did enlist for service in the Great War, and several of them were killed,” writes Henry.
“It is no surprise that the contribution and sacrifice made by these men was forgotten.”
Courage under fire
One day in the life of Christopher (Christy) “Jackdaw” Joyce always lived strong in his memory. The Westmeath Traveller served in the British Army fighting the Nazis during the Second World War.
He survived to tell the tale- but it was the gripping events of one day in Italy in September 1943 that stood out more than the others. Displaying extreme “gallantry in the field” during the dangerous landing on the Italian beaches- Joyce was awarded the prestigious Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) by the military top brass. It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster movie.
It began at 3am on 9, September 1943 and under intense German fire as he sprang ashore the Salerno beaches in Italy with the rest of 79 Company. German resistance was stiff- firing their guns upon the members of the Royal Pioneer Corps- who suffered many casualties. However Private Joyce reached the beachfront safely, as one of the decisive battles in the Allied Invasion of Italy raged around him. There is a breathless description of Private Joyce’s actions, by his commanding officer, in the original copy of the official DCM recommendation.
Joyce “spotted a machine gun post” and “without waiting for instructions he dashed forward, entered the post. “And at the point of the bayonet captured the gun and its crew of four gunners. Throughout the rest of the day engaged in the extremely important on Amber beach under continuous mortar fire. This soldier continuously set a fine example of energy and courage which was of immense value to the others engaged in this work.”
Private Joyce became the only known Irish Traveller to be awarded the distinguished medal-something that he and his family remained very proud of for the rest of his life.