The lost chalice: Harrowing war-time diaries of Donegal priest led to poignant discovery
When acclaimed musician Tracey McRory discovered her great-uncle's World War One journals, little did she realise the journey it would take her on, as she tells Ivan Little
Musician Tracey McRory will complete a remarkable journey in to the unknown as she plays an emotional Remembrance Sunday tribute on one of the very battlefields in Europe where her great-uncle, an army chaplain, was an unsung war hero and whose chalice she found after a transatlantic search.
Father James McRory, who came from Inishowen in Donegal, was shot and wounded in October 1917 as he ministered to soldiers amid the horrors of the trenches at the Battle of Passchendaele on the Western Front, and Tracey never imagined just how amazing a voyage of discovery she was embarking on as she started to research the story of the relative she barely knew existed.
It is a search which began quietly and without fuss in her home county and moved to Belfast and Belgium before its final, completely unforeseen, climax thousands of miles away in America, with the chance unearthing of the chalice – a stunning link to Father James, who had enlisted as a chaplain with the Connaught Rangers, an Irish regiment in the British Army.
In February the small chalice was returned to Tracey after it had been in the possession of another priest in the USA.
James McRory, was born in 1881 in north Donegal and was raised only a mile from the historic Dunree Fort.
It's an area which is still home to all-Ireland champion fiddler Tracey.
Fr James attended the local Desertegney National School and later went on to St Columb's College in Londonderry.
It was in the city that he honed his skills as a footballer, getting special dispensation from his school to play for the local Derry Celtic team.
But his real goal was to become a priest. And after training in Ireland, he was ordained in Rome in 1909, with his first parish in Croy in Glasgow.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Fr James enlisted as a chaplain with the Connaught Rangers, one of three local priests to do so. Father William Devine from Castlederg and Fr Hugh Smith from Moville were his contemporaries.
The horrors of war had a searing impact on James McRory who kept an astonishing 800-page diary about his experiences – which is now in the Public Record Office in Belfast.
Tracey McRory had no knowledge of the diary or her granduncle's wartime exploits until a few years back when, while researching another subject, she happened upon an article in a Derry diocesan magazine about him.
"That was the first time I knew he was in the First World War," said Tracey, "and the magazine also published a photograph of him, which enabled me to put a face to his name."
There were more shocks to come for Tracey who even before finding out about the diary had been fascinated by WW1 and had even written a piece of music which she was to call Passchendaele after the horrific battle which raged in Belgium.
"It was the beautiful name which attracted me," said Tracey, "but when I went to Belfast to read the diary, I found to my absolute amazement that Fr James had actually been injured at Passchendaele.
"It was as if I had been meant to write that piece of music for him."
The diary also revealed that Fr McRory had spent one six-week period trapped in the trenches, coming under almost continuous shelling from the Germans.
"He wasn't able to lift his head above the parapet in all that time," said Tracey, adding that her great-uncle's diary shows he was deeply disillusioned by the way the war was handled.
She adds: "He was a very intelligent man and, in his diary he was very angry about what he witnessed during the war.
"He was also angry at the generals, at their ignorance of what was happening, at top level inefficiency and at the mistakes they made in different battles.
"Being a Catholic priest, he was also furious that continued shelling destroyed convents and churches.
"He was annoyed that there was no respect for religion or for what he held sacred.
"Throughout his diary, he writes that the Germans knew that the convents were a place of safety for mothers and children but still shelled them to make sure they couldn't be used by snipers."
Tracey says that while he did record his thoughts extensively in his diary, he rarely spoke to his family on his return home from the frontline, leaving them to imagine what life – and death – was like for him in the battlefields, hearing confessions and listening to the last words of dying soldiers before whispering acts of contrition in their ears and writing letters for their grieving families back home.
The diary also held another stunning disclosure for Tracey.
"I realised that he had changed his name to McGrory, as if he didn't want anyone to find his writings until after his death," she said, adding that she felt an instant connection with Fr James as she started to read them.
"I thought 'My God, he's left the diary in the hope that somebody would come along', not necessarily a member of his family, but somebody to do something with them, to tell his story."
The diary was a catalyst for Tracey. "Looking at it for the first time and seeing his handwriting made me want to find out more. What is so good about his writings is that they aren't for academics or military historians who want to know about strategies and troop movements – even though that's in there – they are a human document. And they tell the truth about the war."
After he was wounded, Fr James was sent home.
He brought with him two shell casings given to him by a German prisoner of war who had decorated them with pictures of a young girl.
They were kept in Tracey's family home in Donegal but for a long time she had no idea what they were. She says: "I thought they were vases, not shells from a war. No one ever said."
Back in Ireland, Fr McRory served as a priest in Coleraine, Donemana, Claudy, Newtownstewart and Carndonagh in Donegal. He died at a nursing home in Warrenpoint in 1952, aged 71.
And it wasn't until many decades after his passing that Tracey became intrigued by his story and she was actually invited to play her music ... at Passchendaele.
She and three other musicians including her sister Donna and singer Eilidh Patterson were guests at a service to mark the 90th anniversary of the battle in 2007.
"It was a weird experience to play my music on the very battlefield where Fr James was shot and wounded.
"I did it in remembrance not only of him however but also of all the young Irishmen who died in that awful war," said Tracey.
It wasn't long after a visit to Belgium the following year that more bits of the Fr McRory jigsaw fell into place for Tracey who's been all-Ireland fiddle champion four times and who is also an acclaimed harp player.
After she came back to Ireland she was contacted by a woman who had seen her talking on television about the commemoration and about her great-uncle.
"She told my parents about a priest in a nursing home in America who believed he had a chalice used by Fr James in the trenches. Apparently he'd passed it on to him for safekeeping.
"Subsequently it emerged that the priest was called Fr Camillus McRory, a member of the Capuchin Franciscan order who was born in Belfast and he died on Christmas Day last year in California. He was a nephew of Fr James."
Tracey said: "Relatives of Fr Camillus living in Belfast – who we didn't know of – contacted us last year after he died to let us know that the chalice was being brought back from the United States.
"I told them I'd love to see it and arranged to travel to Belfast a short time later."
The Belfast family told Tracey that the chalice belonged to her family, adding: "It's your responsibility now."
Tracey said she was deeply moved after seeing the chalice. "When I first held it, I have to admit that a shudder ran through me," she added.
"To think that this very same chalice had been held by my great-uncle while he ministered to soldiers in the trenches – it really is an unbelievable story.
"In a sense it has now come full circle after almost 100 years. The chalice probably left here with Fr James when he departed Ireland and it's now home again. It's as if it was meant to be."
Tracey can't explain what triggered her interest in WW1 but it has played a major part in her life.
She and her partner Sam Starrett – a Drumahoe playwright and musician she met during a visit to Poland – had written new music and songs in the hope of creating a shared remembrance of the war among Protestants and Catholics.
Sadly Sam died from cancer in March 2007 but singer Janet Dowd's version of one of their compositions which they wrote with musician Richard Laird was named by respected folk musician Richard Digance as his song of the year on his BBC radio programme in Devon.
The song, John Condon, was about an Irish teenager from Waterford who was believed to have been the youngest Allied soldier to be killed died during WW1.
Tracey was recently commissioned to compose and perform a tribute to all the chaplains who served during WW1.
She called it In my Darkest Hour and said: "I couldn't help thinking of my granduncle's experiences on the battlefields and thinking of the many pleading eyes that looked to him for help."
Tracey will perform the piece on Saturday at a special commemoration at Crest Farm, Passchendaele, Flanders.