Lt. Matt Comiskey (SM) Retd.
Chairman Irish Naval Association
Pte. Patrick Keegan,
Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers,
16th ( Irish) Division,
Pte. Patrick Keegan,
9th. Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers,
16th ( Irish) Division, British Army"
As a boy I prayed every night for my deceased Grandparents, and for my Uncle Matt and my Uncle Patsy. Matt was easiest to imagine as my sisters used to rave about the handsome, charming, younger brother of my mother and whose photo seemed to endorse all they said about him. All we had of Patsy, my fathers only brother, was a photograph in my granny's, of a young soldier, enclosed within the picture frame were two military medals. My father died in 1980, when I was in my fortieth year and he never talked much about his family, and I regret very much the fact that I did not encourage him more because I know he would have had many an interesting story. Now that my own family has grown up and left the roost, I have, together with my two sisters begun to research my family tree.
My father's parents, Thomas Comiskey and Mary Keegan were married in St. Michael's Church, Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in 1898, in 1899 their son Patrick was born, in 1900 their second child Brigid arrived, and in 1902 my father James was born to them. Shortly after Mary got married, her mother, who was in her early forties died on the birth of her son Edward, and she also left a toddler, Michael.
Thomas wanted to take his family to Boston to a better life but Mary refused to leave her father to fend for his young ones, and so it was decided, like so many other families before them that Thomas would go and prepare the way for the extended family.
Thomas left for Boston in 1906 and Mary stayed with her father to rear her brothers Mike and Ned and her own children Patsy, Biddy and Jimmy. The smaller children were as often addressed by the neighbours as Keegan, (their granddad's name) rather than their actual name, Comiskey. Eight years after Thomas left Ireland, Germany declared war on France and violated Belgium's neutrality.
On his appointment in 1914 as Sec. State for War, Lord Kitchener demanded the formation of seventy extra divisions for the army. In addition to the vast numbers of Irishmen already serving with the British Army and the tens of thousands that would join in Britain, three of the new Div's. were recruited in Ireland. The 10th (Irish) Div. was drawn from all four Provinces, and together with the 9th (Scottish) Div., 11th (Northern) Div., 12th (Eastern) Div., 13th (Western) Div., and 14th (Light) formed then "First New Army".
One month later, Sept.1914, the "Second New Army" was authorised, and this included the 16th. (Irish) Div. The leader of the Home Rule party Mr. John Redmond M.P. believed that Ireland should give complete support to the war effort and that this loyalty would result in self government for a united Ireland after the War. Mr. Redmond and many other nationalists encouraged the young men of Ireland to go to fight for the freedom of small Nations. Prominent nationalists like Willie Redmond M.P., Tom Kettle M.P., and the poet Francis Ledwidge volunteered to fight in defence of small nations and in the hope of securing independence for Ireland, all three of these great men died not far from each other at Messines Ridge and on the Somme where young Patsy also died. Most of the young people like Patsy who went out had little political motivation, what they had was a great desire for adventure, they saw the troops marching off to glory, and heard the bands playing exciting music, and they heard the speeches from the eloquent gentlemen and army officers in the town squares, and they wanted to be a part of this great event before it was all over.
The third of these new divisions to be recruited for the war was already half formed. The men of the 10th and 16th Div's. Were almost exclusively nationalist and up to this time Messrs Carson and Craig were keeping a tight rein on the Unionists for fear that the Republicans might get the upper hand in Ireland if the Orange Men went off to war. It took a lot of persuading by Kitchener and promises from the British government but eventually in October 1914 the 36th (Ulster) Div. was formed exclusively of loyalists.
The popularity of republicanism after the bloodletting of the 1916 Rising almost obliterated any reference to the sacrifice of the men of the 10th and 16th Divisions from history books in our country, by comparison the contribution of the 36th Div. is well documented.
Major Willie Redmond like his brother John, believed the way to achieve home rule for Ireland was to give total support to the war effort, but he felt that if he was to ask his fellow Irishmen to risk their lives then he must do so also. At 53 years of age he was the oldest man to enlist in the British Army for the 1 st World War. In their efforts to dislodge the German troops which were dug in on Messines Ridge, which is near Bruges, the British spent over a year digging twenty-four mines, which they filled with explosives. On 7thof June 1917 they ignited 19 of these and detonated one million pounds of high explosives. Following the explosion the 36th (Ulster) Div. and the 16 (Irish) Div. advanced on the ridge. Major Redmond sustained a wound to his wrist and another to his leg, because of his age he never recovered from his injuries and died some days later in the nearby convent at Locre. Willie Redmond requested to be buried outside the British Cemetery at Locre in protest at the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, and to this day the people of the village lovingly tend his grave.
Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge in his short life had worked as a miner, a farmer, and a shop clerk, but before he went out to fight and die in defence of small nations he had established himself as one of Irelands greatest romantic poets. He continued to write while in the trenches, but now it was to tell of the pain and misery of war. He was 26 years old when he was shot dead while laying a roadway through the mud near Ypres.
Lieutenant Tom Kettle was a leading nationalist and before going out to fight ''not for England, but for small nations'' had been elected M. P. for East Tyrone. He was Prof. of National Economics at U C D, he was an outstanding journalist and poet and had several volumes published before and after his death. On the 9th of Sept. 1916, Lt. Kettle was leading his men of B Company, 9th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, in an assault on the German positions in the village of Ginchy on the Somme River, when he was fatally wounded with a shot through the chest. He was 36 years of age and ill, but had insisted on leading his men into battle. The officer leading the Company immediately behind Lt. Kettle was his friend, 18 year old Lt. Emmett Dalton, later to become a General in the Free State Army and close friend of General Michael Collins whose death he also witnessed.
Private Patrick Keegan (or Patsy) was not studious like the older boys Mike and Ned, who won scholarships, and went on to become senior civil servants. At the outbreak of war Patsy and his younger brother Jimmy were 15 and 12 respectively. They could catch buckets full of herring when they shoaled into the corner of the harbour, and replenish the traditional barrels of pickled fish outside the back door of the houses of Kingstown at that time. They knew the going rate for working one of the many coal boats that used the small quays near the west side of the harbour, and how hard it was to shovel out a hold until you had ''floored'' it out. All this was learned from the men who stood on the corner of Cumberland St. waiting for an incoming vessel. They knew the Blackmores and the Shortalls, the families who owned the moorings in the harbour and stood in the stern of their dinghy's like gondoliers to 'skull' the yacht owners out to their boats for a fee. They also knew of the practice of hobbling, when the seafaring men of Kingstown would read up the shipping notices and would sail as far south as Arklow or north to the Rockabill, to put a grappling hook onto, and board a vessel bound for Dublin to claim the right to secure the vessel alongside in the port, or sometimes even to pilot it up the river. Patsy was a bright boy who left school at 14 years of age and tried to join the Army at 15 at the very outset of the war. His mother had him brought home, but he went off again and was killed in the same place as Tom Kettle on the same day in the same battle, he had just turned 17.
Patsy was one of the 4,500 Irishmen who died during the battle for Ginchy. This battle was fought over a six day period in September 1916. Over 300,000 native born Irishmen fought in WW1, over 50,000 were killed.
When I was going to Belgium and France in 1998 for the opening of the Irish Peace Park in Messines and to visit some of the war sites I was making enquiries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for information on Patrick Comiskey but to no avail. When I was returning this year with another group from the Irish Naval Association, I decided to try a long shot and requested for information on Patrick Keegan, and the information came back a perfect match with Mary Comiskey as next of kin. When we arrived to lay our wreaths from the Comiskey family and the Naval Association at the Thiepval Memorial where he is remembered, and I was asked to say a few words,I thought I would have no bother.But when I thought of Mary who would have received that telegram, and with her husband so far away she must have held onto 14 year old Jimmy and promised herself that she would not lose him too, the same way.
The day we got there was the 9th of Sept, the day on which Patsy died in 1916. It was also the centenary of his birth, he was born on 9th September 1899. May he and his brother Jimmy (my father) and all their family rest in peace