Most years my childhood holidays involved making the trek from Lancashire across the Irish Sea to my Granny’s cottage deep in the countryside of southern Ireland, in Coolcullen, Co Kilkenny. In the evenings, by the light of the oil lamps and the open fire, the conversation would usually turn to the old days and Granny’s own childhood in Coolcullen.
Granny was born Elizabeth Pierce in Coolcullen in 1905 and was the tenth of twelve children. Her mother was born Mary Nolan and she had married Lawrence Pierce, a farm labourer. When my mum was growing up in the 1940s, Lawrence had been long dead but Mary still lived around the corner from them (around the corner in Coolcullen means about a mile away, but still a close neighbour).
Some of the stories that interested me in particular were the ones about Granny’s older brothers who had gone off to fight in the First World War. The Great War 1914-1918 was popular in the English culture that I was growing up in. We learned about it in school. It was presented as a period that summed up the madness and sadness of war, when not a street in the land was untouched by bad news about some family member or other who had gone to war. But in Ireland it wasn’t really talked about, unless it affected specific family members. Four of Granny’s brothers had fought in the war. James Pierce was apparently shot in the arm and had to crawl through No Man’s Land under cover of darkness, avoiding the bombs, the bullets and the bodies, carrying the sleeve of his injured arm in his teeth. His brother John Pierce was forever known by the nickname German Jack when he came home on account of his being taken Prisoner of War on the Western Front and being sent to Germany. He had apparently not been well treated and suffered from nightmares on his return.
A Letter from the Priest
Memories of these stories prompted my mum to do some digging into the family history of the Pierces. She used a very effective way of kick-starting any search for Irish ancestors, writing to the parish priest – though you do need to know which parish your ancestors lived in. Mum wrote a polite letter of enquiry to the priest in Coan (Granny’s parish) and enclosed a small donation. She got a very charming and detailed letter back from a Father Delaney.
He was able to confirm that Granny’s mother Mary Pierce had been born Mary Nolan in 1868 and that she was the daughter of Michael Nolan and Bridget Ryan of Coolcullen. He also wrote that Granny’s father Lawrence Pierce was the son of Lawrence Pierce and Margaret Dormer from Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow. Mary Nolan and Lawrence Pierce were married in 1886 in Coan and their first son James was born a year later in 1887. He was followed by Mary 1888, Lawrence 1891, Michael 1893, John 1895, Bridget 1897, Catherine 1899, Denis 1901, Patrick 1903, Elizabeth (my Granny) 1905, Adam 1908 and Joseph 1909 (who died before his first birthday). Father Delaney kindly added further details of other Nolans and Pierces in Coolcullen who may well be connected. He ended by wishing her good luck, saying, “As for myself, I never look up my ancestors. You know what the Americans say, ‘Never look up your family tree. You might find too many nuts and monkeys on it!’”
Widowed, with 12 Children
Later I was able to confirm these dates via the Mormons’ free website FamilySearch, which has a new pilot search programme called Record Search, perfect for finding Irish birth, marriage and death records. I also discovered that Granny’s father Lawrence died in 1909 at the age of 52. This left Granny’s mother Mary a widow at the age of 41, with 12 children. Only 4 of those children had reached working age. The youngest, just a babe-in-arms, died within months of her husband. It’s hard to imagine the effect that all this had on her.
I turned to the the National Archives of Ireland to see what light the Irish census returns could shed on their situation. They explained that the original census returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed shortly after the censuses were taken. Those for 1881 and 1891 were pulped during the First World War, probably because of a paper shortage. The returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were, apart from a few survivals, destroyed in 1922 in a fire at the Public Record Office in Dublin at the beginning of the Civil War. The household returns for the 1901 and 1911 censuses of Ireland had, however, survived. The National Archives of Ireland understood that many of the Irish diaspora of over 70 million people around the world have a great interest in their family history and so digitised them for access on the internet. Although the census records for England, Wales and Scotland from 1841 to 1911 survived intact and are more comprehensively digitised, the majority are only accessible through paid sites such as . The beauty of the 1901 and 1911 censuses digitised by the National Archives of Ireland is that they are available to search and download for free.
Earning a Living on the Land
I was particularly interested in the 1911 census to see how the Pierces were coping in Coolcullen 2 years after Lawrence’s death. Mary Pierce was listed as the head of the household, as a widow aged 50. I knew that her actual age was 43, so there may have been some advantage to presenting herself as being older. Her occupation was given as cottager. A cottager leased a small plot of land with a cottage on it. The land usually had a family vegetable plot and maybe a few animals such as pigs and chickens. Most land was owned by larger landowners and tended to be passed on within the families. In Mary Pierce’s case the landowner was named as James Pierce, who was probably her late husband’s brother. The census showed that her own son James, the eldest, had moved out and was working as a farm servant for local farmer Robert Shirley. Her elder sons Michael and John were living at home but working as agricultural labourers, which seemed to be the destiny of most young men without land in Coolcullen. Her daughter Mary had presumably married and moved out – it can be difficult to trace daughters without a marriage record to cross-refer. Nor could I trace her son Lawrence. Her remaining 6 children were still of school age. As there is no more census data after 1911 available yet, my mission was to track down evidence for the WW1 exploits of the Pierce brothers. I decided to tap into Ancestry’s huge collection of military records, as we have an annual subscription for their UK and Irish records. Among their collection are Service and Pension Records, Medal Rolls Index Cards, and rolls of honour for soldiers who were killed. The Service Records are packed with personal information about each soldier, but the odds are against finding one for your relative. In 1940 there was a WW2 bombing raid on the War Office in London where the records were held. During this raid around 60% of the 6.5 million records were destroyed by fire. The surviving Service Records have become known as the Burnt Documents, although many of these records actually suffered water damage following the bombing raid.
Part Time Soldier
I struck gold with my search for James Pierce – his Service Record was more or less intact, but showed some signs of water damage (presumably from the efforts of an unknown London fireman). I was surprised to find that he had joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as a reservist 3 years before the outbreak of WW1. As an unmarried 22 year old farm labourer he had presented himself at Carlow on 2 August 1911 for attestation. He was 5ft 10ins tall, weighed 166lbs (or just under 12 stones) and had dark brown hair and grey eyes. His records contained a glowing character reference from his employer, Robert Shirley, heartily recommending him for service. He noted that James had been in his employ as a farm labourer for 3½ years. There was also a separate form with a series of questions completed by Robert Shirley which noted that he had known James Pierce all of his life, that his reason for applying was ‘a restless disposition’ and that his character was ‘very reliable’. So, while James continued working for Robert Shirley for 11 months of the year, he spent 27 days each summer between 1912 and 1914 in training a reservist at the Curragh Depot, Co Kildare, a 50 mile journey from home. When war was declared on 4 August 1914 he was mobilised, or brought into permanent military service, 4 days later. He was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force on 25 January 1915.
Shot on the Western Front
The next entry on his record 4 months later on 26 April 1915 lists James as a casualty, with a gun shot wound that had fractured his left arm. (So, this is where the story of him crawling through No Man’s Land, with his sleeve clamped in his teeth, came from). The date probably placed him at the Battle of St. Julien, during the Second Battle of Ypres. He was listed as seriously ill at the Australian Hospital, Boulogne, where he remained for 2 weeks. On 10 May he was evacuated to England on the hospital ship St Patrick, which before the war had been used as a ferry between Fishguard and Rosslare. On 11 May he was admitted to the 1st Eastern General Hospital, Cambridge. I’m not sure how long he was there as an in-patient, but over a year later, on 7 April 1916, he was discharged from the Army as no longer fit for war service, with the Silver War Badge and a weekly pension of 18/9d.
The record initially has his address on discharge as Coolcullen, Co Kilkenny, which is then crossed out and replaced with 7 Jordan’s Yard, Bridge St, Cambridge. So he obviously thought his future lay in Cambridge. And so it did. I checked on FreeBMD and saw that he married a local girl, Ida Gair, in 1917. In 1919, they had a son – John Lawrence Pierce. James ended up spending the rest of his life in Cambridge and died there in 1967 at the age of 80. James did return to Ireland with Ida to visit occasionally, as there is a photo of them on holiday there, but he had no desire to settle back in Coolcullen. My mum doesn’t really remember him as she was growing up, but she does recall letters and parcels to-ing and fro-ing between Cambridge and Coolcullen over the years.
Prisoner of War
My research on John (German Jack) Pierce was a bit less fruitful. His Service Record must have been destroyed, but Ancestry did turn up his Medal Rolls Index Card. Although the card looks a bit nondescript, it can hold a wealth of information and offer many lines of inquiry to follow up.
The card shows that he initially joined the Royal Irish Regiment and later transferred to the Leinster Regiment. As well as the British War and Victory medals he qualified for the 1914 Star, also known as the Mons Star, awarded for service as part of the British Expeditionary Force between August to November 1914. The card states that German Jack arrived on the Western Front on 7 October 1914. He applied for his Mons Star on 22 January 1920 when he was finally back in Coolcullen. It also notes that he was indeed a Prisoner of War, but when and where I don’t know. The International Committee of the Red Cross holds archives recording the fate of about 2 million prisoners captured during WW1. Lists of prisoners provided by German as well as Allied authorities in Europe, Africa and Asia were bound into 2,413 volumes covering the period 1914-1923. Individual cards were typed up for each name and updated if the prisoner was moved, received medical care or died. The ICRC can conduct a search of the archives via on online questionnaire, however, all WW1 searches cost a fee of 200 Swiss Francs (about £135 or €150) per prisoner and can take up to 12 months. It might be better to wait, as the ICRC plans to restore and digitalize the archives by 2014 (the 100th anniversary of the war’s start) and make them available on the internet.
The exploits of Granny’s other 2 brothers who were in the Army during WW1, Lawrence and Michael, have proved more difficult to trace – even though, according to the family, both suffered – especially Lawrence, whose shrapnel injuries cost him an eye and a torn wind pipe (he had a silver pipe fitted in his throat). They had all survived however, and in so doing had fulfilled a prophesy from the then parish priest at Coan. The family story goes that Mary Pierce, presumably in her bleakest hour since the death of her husband and baby, had gone to seek the priest’s reassurance about the welfare of her 4 sons who had gone off to fight. The priest had told her that they would all return alive, maybe harmed, but alive. Around 210,000 Irishmen served in WW1. They were volunteers, as conscription was not introduced in Ireland. Researching the predicament of the Pierces and the conditions they lived in, I do not think that they were motivated by the patriotic fervour that was raging in England at the time. Coolcullen was too remote from London and Dublin for that. It was probably even too remote from Kilkenny City for that matter. Like all young men, they would have been gripped by a shared sense of adventure, cameraderie, and a rare opportunity for regular meals, their own bed and a steady wage. Farm labourers like the Pierce brothers probably doubled their pay by joining up. If they had known of the horrors to come they probably wouldn’t have been so hasty to get involved. As living conditions quickly deteriorated in the trenches, and as cases of death, serious injury and sickness in the thousands became a daily occurrence, or, as in German Jack’s case, they found themselves facing months or years of captivity, what would have kept them going would have been their hardiness gained through a life working on the land, the notion that they were fighting for each other’s lives rather than for King and Country and, ultimately, the threat of being shot by either side.
Of the 210,000 Irishmen that served in WW1 arond 35,000 died. Around 100,000 men returned home at the end of 1918, meaning that almost as many, like James Pierce, chose not to. There had been changes while they were away. The Easter Rising in 1916 had highlighted growing alienation from the British Empire. In 1914 the politicians had persuaded them that it was in Ireland’s best interests to bring about victory for Britain and the Allies as a route to Home Rule. They also said that the glories of the Irish Army would be forever reflected in history. But for those survivors returning home, as with the returning armies of men all across the world, the fired-up words of the politicians now sounded hollow. Cheering crowds and bunting had sent them on their way in 1914 and it is typical of the good spirit of ordinary Irish people that mass welcome home parties and parades greeted them when they came back. They also had the relieved welcome of war-weary family members like Mary Pierce. But as political turmoil in Ireland continued in the years after the First World War, with the War of Independence, the creation of the Irish Free State, then the Civil War and eventually the creation of the Irish Republic, the costly contribution of the many thousands of Irishmen who had volunteered, fought and died in the European War became virtually forgotten by the state. Their history no longer fitted in.
The old British Army regiments, like the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Leinster Regiment that the Pierces served in were disbanded in 1922. Many Irish veterans of the British Army, Lawrence Pierce (despite his injuries) among them, joined the new National Army of the Irish Free State. As knowledgeable and experienced NCOs, the backbone of any army, they were vital in training this new one (when one of my mum’s brothers joined the Army some years later, he complained about how strict Uncle Larry was with them during recruit training!). However, the medals that they fought so hard for – awarded by a foreign king – now had no place on their new uniforms. Many, like the ones that German Jack applied for in 1920, probably ended up forgotten in drawers, or sold for a bit of ready cash. In the years immediately after the war, memorials to honour those who had been killed were erected around the country. Remembrance Day ceremonies were held, but provoked tension in the larger cities like Dublin as the occasions were exploited by both sides of the Civil War divide. So acts of Remembrance became ever more muted over the years and never officially acknowledged. Even the construction of the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Dublin, dedicated to the memory of the Irish soldiers killed in the Great War, was fractious and were not opened until 1948. It was not until 2006, on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, that the Irish state held its first official commemoration there for the Irish dead of the First World War, attended by the President of Ireland and the Taoiseach. This marked an important change for the Irish government. But, regardless of what the politicians do, I believe that it is ordinary Irish people, keen to discover the part their family members played in the Great War, who are changing the way the past is viewed. There are a huge amount of resources now available online to help them, such as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association website which was created to “promote a wider awareness of the forgotten Irish men and women who served, fought and died in the Great War 1914-1918”. The interest is out there. In the meantime, come Remembrance Day, the Pierce brothers will not be forgotten by me.
And finally…we made contact with a relative in Ireland who turned out to be Larry Pierce’s granddaughter. As well filling in gaps in dates and events, she had an amazing stock of old photos of the Pierces that not even my mum had seen before. With thanks to her, the ones illustrating this article are below: