Ninety seven years ago this week the Great War ended. Growing up I heard stories of the loss of nine “Mullaghduff men” in this war. At the beginning of 2014 I began to research these men and the greater local involvement in the 1914/18 war. In August of last year I brought this research together and displayed it in a week long commemoration to mark the centenary of the beginning of the war. It was the first Great War commemoration ever to be held in our parish of Annagry. During that week we had an ecumenical service which ironically also commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death of the first casualty from the Lower Rosses, James Ward who died on the first day of the Battle of Mons, the first action on European soil in 100 years. A display depicting the life stories of 120 Lower Rosses men who were known to do battle in the war, of which 38 souls would never return, took centre place.
On the final day of the event, I put together war memorabilia and possessions of local men who fought on display for the first time. By the end of a highly successful day, we had on display original documentation and artefacts from the Great War and from other conflicts. Free State Army, IRA and Cumman na mBan artefacts from the War of Independence, and many items from WW2 were exhibited.
This exhibition later formed part of the Donegal County Exhibition from October 2014 until April 2015 at the County Museum in Letterkenny.
When Owen O’Donnell died on July 31st 1917,
he was the 7th Mullaghduff man to be lost in the war. Owen the 4th son of the local shopkeeper, returned from Argentina where he worked with the Anglo American Bank in Buenos Aires.
By then two of his first cousins and four of his next door neighbours paid the ultimate price. One of these, Micheal O’Donnell, the youngest son of Owen’s uncle Paddy was killed in action 10 months earlier. After he fell, a letter was got on his person which was addressed to his father at home in Mullaghduff. The officer in charge sent the letter home to his father Paddy “Johnny” O’Donnell.
It read……“My dear Father and Mother, A few lines from your youngest son about to go into battle. I do not know what may happen to me. But if it is God’s holy will that I shall fall, remember that I will be in Heaven. Only a few days ago I lost my poor comrade. He was killed beside me. I hope, dear father that you will be provided for by my brothers, if God spares them. Dear Father, I am thankful for all you did for me. Goodbye to all my nieces and nephews and cousins, and all my friends in dear old Mullaghduff, goodbye forever dearest Father and Mother, goodbye niece Nora Sharkey. Erin go Bragh. P.S. If any fond comrade should find this, send to this address, and I hope God will reward them”.
Michael had four brothers and three nephews and at least two first cousins fighting in the Great War. His brother Maurice was a captain in the US army. Michael’s nephew James McGee died just 6 weeks after Owen O’Donnell at the tender age of 20 years, as did another nephew Dan Boyle from Middle Dore, Bunbeg who lost his life when his ship “S.S Tuncania was torpedoed off Scotland on February 5th 1918. Dan was just 20 years old.
Although their deaths and the carnage of the war was far removed from Donegal, their absence and that of the others still at war was evident in springtime when all available hands teamed together in meitheáls to cut bent(marran grass) to thatch their cottages and turf to heat their homes.
Economically there were winners and losers!
I take you back to life in this area at the start of the 20th century. After the land wars and near famines of the late 1800s the government set up the Congested Districts Board in 1891 to start industry for the first time in places along the western seaboard including the Rosses and other coastal communities in north and west Donegal. In the years up until the outbreak of the war the Congested Districts Board created a successful herring fishery in north west Donegal. Although it was a thriving industry, the tradition of seasonal migration to reap the harvest in the farms of the Scottish lowlands continued. It was after the harvest in 1914, that upwards on 500 Rosses labourers enlisted in various Scottish, English and Irish regiments of the British Army. One of these men was Charlie Sharkey from Mullaghduff, a neighbour of the O’Donnell boys previously mentioned. 21 years old Charlie migrated to Fifeshire in east Scotland were he found work in a coal pit.
In the autumn of 1914 Charlie joined the Irish Guards in the nearby town of Kirkcaldy. In December of that year he wrote a letter to his mother stating that 12s and sixpence would be send to her on a weekly basis, this was part of Charlie’s army pay. This money must’ve been a God send to his mother who for the first time had a regular weekly income. She was now able to pay off the credit she got from the local store. But this was short lived as poor Charlie was killed in September 1915.
The Congested Districts Board expansion ceased with the outbreak of war. They had just built a fleet of motorised boats averaging 65 foot in length and five steam drifters capable of dominating the fishing grounds of North West Donegal.
My grandfather also called Jimmy Duffy was one of those pioneering fishermen with his 69 foot motorboat the “Summer Star”. With the laying of sea mines by the German Navy along the shipping lanes close to the North Donegal coast, the fishery was now curtailed to waters close to the Rosses Shore.
As the old saying goes “It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow good for someone”.
As a result of the war the larger Scottish Steam Drifters that usually tried to dominate the Donegal fishery were requisitioned by the Royal Navy for war duties. Therefore the herring became more plentiful in inshore waters, and with the involvement of the English Fishing Fleet in the war effort, the fishermen of north west Donegal where now supplying the Empire!
Five local steam drifters landed 600 cran of herring into Burtonport harbour in one night in January 1915, with the price at 30s a cran, each boat averaged 30,000 euros in today’s money. By the end of that spring 40 fishermen lost their livelihoods when the same vessels were requisitioned by the navy for mine sweeping duties in places as far away as Dardanelles. In 1915 my grandfather bought his boat for £1000 stg, paid for after the winter fishing season. By the end of the war the good fortune enjoyed by fishermen such as my grandfather changed. They were the now victims of exurbanite inflation. Costing more and more to replace damaged fishing gear and the high price of petrol and parafin oil used to propel boats like the Summer Star, they found it increasingly more difficult to keep their enterprises alive. In the Congested Districts Board’s report for 1918, it stated that inshore fishermen using yawls to fish for whitefish and shellfish grossed £24,000 stg, which earned each boat £30 a day. Yawls were open boats about 26 feet in length and carried a crew of five.
On land, conditions were mostly difficult. Farmers like those in East Donegal were getting for the first time in recent history well paid for their produce. This increased the price of food in the Rosses as local shopkeepers bought their merchandise in Derry City. There was a shortage of the basics usually grown in the smallholdings in the Rosses owing to inclement weather in 1915 and again the following year. This coupled with the high price of farm produce and the decline of shipping owing to mined sea lanes, made life very difficult. With the able bodied men not able to migrate to Scotland as they were accustomed to, due to the risk of conscription, their only option available was to send their children to work as farmhands in the Lagan, where according to Mickie McGowan in his autobiography “The Hard Road to the Klondyke” was anywhere east of Letterkenny. The schoolteachers still recorded these children on school rolls so that the authorities weren’t alerted.
At a Donegal Guardian Committee meeting in February 1915, the following was stated……
“In the Donegal Congested Districts, where fishing is the mainstay of the people’s subsistence, it is enough to point out that owning to the war the industry ceased after mine laying of Donegal and the people being purchasers of foodstuffs have been doubly struck at, by the increased prices. They are consumers not producers, and as many of the migratory labourers (in one parish to the number of 500) have enlisted in Scotland, their earnings are lost”.
The same was echoed at a meeting of Old Age Pensioners in Dungloe in October 1916…… “Owing to much-inflated prices now current for the necessaries of life, the Old Age Pension of 5 schillings per week is insufficient for the maintenance of these deserving old people”. The government relented by giving an increase of 2s and sixpence to old age pensioners and £4 per annum to the teaching profession.
The demand for hand knitted garments such as socks, gloves and headgear increased due to the war. This cottage industry that provided supplementary income had in the past benefited greatly from the Crimean War.
In a letter sent from an elderly woman in Burtonport to her daughter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia, USA in 1917, she tells of the hardships endured by her and her contemporaries.
She writes ” You say the price of provisions is high over there, well, prices are going higher and higher here from week to week, and God only knows what may come of it in the end. Just fancy flour, which was less than 14schillings three years ago, is 28 schillings per cwt now. Oatmeal is over 40s per cwt, Butter 2 and sixpence per lb, potatoes which used to be 2 schillings and 2 and sixpence are now 8, 9, and 10s per cwt, Indian meal which cost seven and sixpence before this brutal war is sold at present for 21 schillings per cwt. That gives you an idea of what poor people must put up with”.
In all, the Lower Rosses paid a high price in this war, losing 38 young men with many others physically and physiologically damaged for the rest of their days.
Twenty four those fatalities were from a two mile radius of Annagry.
© Jimmy Duffy November 2015