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Uncovering the 'extraordinary' stories of the GAA members in World War I

By Declan Bogue

There we were in the auditorium of the Tyrone GAA Centre in Garvaghey on Monday evening, for a lecture delivered by Dr Donal McAnallen, when a sheet was being circulated through the audience requesting you enter your name, email address and what club or society you come from.

In the spirit of investigative journalism, it would have been rude not to have scanned through the names. And, although the evening was about Tyrone GAA members who participated in the First World War, it would still have taken you aback to see that a few in the crowd put 'RAF' as their club.

'Tyrone Talks World War I' was not untypical of the nature of these lectures in Garvaghey. Those that are involved have continually pushed the boat out in seeking to learn more about this county and the subject matter is far from typical GAA material. In the past, they have hosted the 'Friends of the Somme' group, who touched on Tyrone people who fought in the First World War, and they have staged 'Midsummer's Night Dream' - replete with extra-thick Tyrone accents, on a summer's solstice evening a few years back.

However, the genesis of this work came from Dr McAnallen and the curious case of a Tyrone county secretary, Patrick Holland, who decided to enlist as the War was coming to a close. Internet searches will only bring you so far, however, and with the help of funding through The O'Fiaich Library and the Heritage Lottery Fund, he was able to get his claws into some heavy duty research.

What he, along with the help and military expertise of Jonathan Gray of the Killeeshil and Clonaneese Historical Society unearthed, was fascinating.

Just to give a flavour; they have a team-list of Cookstown Brian Óg club from 1908/09 that included two men who died in World War I; the secretary of that time, Robert Lawless, who joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and died at the Battle of Festubert in 1915, and Louis Boyle, who joined the Canadian Infantry and was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Then there was Alex Donnelly, who was recorded as having played football with the Cookstown club in the early 1890s but later moved to Belfast and actually won an Ulster Senior Hurling Championship with Antrim - the medal for which he is pictured wearing on his suit. The curiosity over Donnelly was that he enrolled at the age of 47 with the Royal Engineers. After the war, he would later work as groundsman at Corrigan Park, Belfast.

Records exist of Tommy Bradley playing football for Tyrone in 1913. He was also mentioned 12 years later as playing for Tyrone in 1925.

The input of the other speaker on the night, the aforementioned Jonathan Gray, was critical to the project.

"The link-up with Jonathan Gray came about because initially I became aware of Patrick Holland and John Mooney, the story of these two GAA officials who had joined the RAF in October 1918. A very curious story, particularly because Holland was a county secretary," explained Dr McAnallen.

"Both names seemed to have connections with the Killeeshil area, and Brendan Holland, who is an active member of that society, is good friends with Jonathan Gray - he got Jonathan to help him with research, and a few years ago they got Jonathan to dig out his RAF record.

"It is only when you get into the military records and the births and deaths records and ancestry and so on, that you can really corroborate and invest in different sources and establish what is a definite link and find out more about their lives," he said.

Other curios also emerged.

The founding of the GAA was discussed and the ongoing work of researching the descendents of John McKay, the Downpatrick-born journalist who was one of the original founders of the GAA in Hayes' Hotel Thurles on November 1st, 1884.

Mark Conway of Club Tyrone told of another character of that number, JK Bracken - an unrepentant Fenian - and how his son Brendan became Winston Churchill's right-hand man and the founder of a newspaper empire that included The Financial Times and The Economist.

Conway added the tale of a young man from Loy Hill, Cookstown by the name of William John McVeagh, who went off to fight. His battlefield was Gallipoli.

And what stands now at the house McVeagh left 100-odd years ago? A Turkish kebab shop.

What an evening like that leaves is that our appreciation of these stories need to constantly evolve. Traditionally it wouldn't have been 'the done thing' to acknowledge the war efforts of those from a vaguely nationalist background, but that is changing.

In May of this year, the Dublin senior football team visited northern France, paying their respects at Ulster Tower and Thiepval Wood.

"We were over paying respects to the Irish who fought in World War I," said midfielder Michael Darragh Macauley after the trip.

For Dr McAnallen, uncovering these stories is essential to our understanding of the past.

"Some would say that these people were whitewashed from history. It is not always as simple as that," he explained.

"Somebody comes back from a war and they had all these traumatising experiences and, let's face it, commemoration in this part of the world has been done through the British Legion with unionist trappings and therefore have alienated nationalists.

"Certainly, it was enlightening to me as much as anybody that two lads could go out from Coalisland and fight in a war, from the Coalisland club, and come back and play again Gaelic Games afterwards."

He continued: "The fact John Pat Daly and Thomas Bradley did is an example. The fact that a county secretary, the man who is the main organiser of Gaelic Games in the county and the main referee in that part of the county, was inclined to go off and join the RAF towards the end of the War was extraordinary."

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