Review of Cork Voices of WW1 by Jean Prendergast (Amazon, 2017)
Paperback, 241 pp
Minnie Kearny, a nurse from the town of Dunmanway, Co Cork, was one of the Irish people who witnessed the suffering of the Belgian people caused by the German invasion of their country in the early days of the Great War. After Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, Minnie volunteered to go to the front with the Nursing Sisters of St. Andrew’s Hospital in London. Like many of the nurses who volunteered, she had no idea what awaited her but she would soon discover the reality of modern warfare. Fortunately, Minnie survived her introduction to war and managed to return to London. Back in St. Andrew’s Hospital she put pen to paper to tell her mother what she had witnessed. Her letter appeared in the pages of The Cork Examiner on 19 October 1914:
Chaplain House, St. Andrews Hospital, Dollis Hill, London N.W., Saturday. – My Dearest Mother – I hope you got my wire. Father sent it from Flushing. You will be happy to know that I am safe and well, although we had a very narrow escape. We have been in the direct firing line, and for weeks did not know whether we would ever live through the noise of cannon and shells. We have something to thank God for. What the Germans have done is something too dreadful. I shall tell you all when I go home. It is a sad sight to behold – poor women and little children flying from their homes, which are in flames, after their husbands and sons being shot. Our nursing nearly all consisted of German soldiers unfortunately for us. In the beginning, we had a fair number of French, but the misery of Belgium is untold. Two of our nuns, with father, went to bring in some wounded villagers during the shelling, and were nearly shot. We had to stand about 5 minutes, with revolvers pointed at us, simply because we were coming for the wounded. They are devils let loose. I am sure it is only the mercy of God and all your prayers that have saved us. I shall go home next week. Father wants me to have a good rest before I go home. I spent the whole day in bed yesterday; today I did not get up until 2. We have not had a proper night’s sleep for the 9 weeks we are out. We have no idea of what war really is until we are in the midst of it. There is no knowing where it will all end. Heaps of love to all. I shall write and let you know the day I am going. Much love – MINNIE.
Now that I am saved, you must be willing to give me to the Lord, as I have promised my life to Him, if we were saved. I shall stay at home until after Christmas if all is well.
While Minnie lived to tell her tale, thousands of Corkmen serving with the British and Allied armed forces would not be so lucky. In the first winter of the war, Private Charles McCarthy, from Little William Street in Cork was serving on the Western Front with the Irish Guards. In a letter to his mother that appeared in The Cork Examiner on 14 December 1914 he spoke of his experiences on the front line and the losses suffered by his unit:
The weather here is very cold. The country is covered in snow. We are relieved out of the trenches this past 14 days, and are having a rest in a village about fifteen miles away from the fighting. We lost a lot of men. Out of those who left with me from London, there are only forty-three left. We were then eleven hundred strong. I saw by the ‘Examiner that a chap named Donovan was killed. I knew him well. There is also a boy from Blackpool. He was wounded, but I think he was not picked up and is missing. I have no idea when this war will finish. I wish it would finish soon. The wounded suffer very much on account of the cold but they are well looked after. We get plenty of clothes; more than we can carry. We are also very well fed.
Sadly, the war would end for Charles McCarthy on 18 May 1915 when he was killed in action, one of over 4,000 servicemen with connections to the city and county of Cork who lost their lives in the war.
The words of Minne Kearny and Charles McCarthy are only two of the Cork ‘voices’ that we read in the pages of this first book by historian and founding member of the Cork Branch of the WFA, Jean Prendergast. Jean has spent years pouring reading all the Cork newspapers that were published during the war. During that time, she was carefully recorded the letters and reports relevant to the Corkmen serving on land, sea or in the air. Her book includes the words of those who served in all the main theatres of the war. By reading them we can get a first-hand account of their experience of war. We can also try imagine the grief felt by those at home who lost a loved one in the conflict and who would treasure the last words they wrote forever.
This is the first of a number of books on Corkmen in the war written by Jean Prendergast. In Jean, the Cork veterans of the Great War have found a worthy scribe who will ensure that they, the part they played in the war and the sacrifices they made are never forgotten.
Jean’s books can be seen and purchased online at Amazon UK or by contacting the Cork Branch of the WFA.