100 years ago today, Private Richard Milligan, the man we believe is my great-grandfather, died of wounds sustained at Gallipoli. He was 30 years old and his mother lived in Portadown. We know very little more about him than that. He was killed before my grandmother was born, and wasn’t married to my great-grandmother. But we think (from his low service number and the regiment’s history) that he was a professional soldier rather than a Great War volunteer.
The 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were recalled from India in late 1914, arriving back in January 1915. Not long after, they took ship for Malta (for training) and then on to Gallipoli where they were part of the assault on X Beach and then Helles in late April and early May 1915. My grandmother was born in October 1915. You can do the maths.
My pregnant great-grandmother returned to the family farm in Co Fermanagh, probably as a ‘war widow’, like so many other women of the period. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to bring up a child in rural Ireland as a single mother during one of the most unstable periods in Irish history: the Easter Rising and its aftermath, the 1918 General Election, Partition and the Irish Civil War. What we do know, is that she had my grandmother adopted at the age of 7 (in 1922/23) so that she could get married. Her husband didn’t want to take on another man’s child and my grandmother had to live with that rejection by her own mother all her life.
Because of that complex history, these family connections to the Great War are still relatively new to the family. They’ve been pieced together by my mother’s family from bits of oral history and the limited records we have available. That process is still ongoing, but made more complicated by the adoption (which may have actually been a fostering brokered by the Church of Ireland, rather than a formal, legal adoption), the lack of records (including those that may have been destroyed by fire at the Four Courts in Dublin in 1922) and the historic silence about military service by Irish people during the Great War and WW2.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with formal acts of remembrance. As a child, I was made to go to Remembrance Sunday church parades. I had to stand in the November cold in my Guide uniform with no coat, while some people talked at the local cenotaph out of earshot. The whole thing seemed to come bound up with a sense of “we’re better than you” entitlement from former soldiers rather than genuine solemnity or acts of remembrance of sacrifices made.
It’s something I’ve come back to as an adult, in part as a consequence of living somewhere for a while where wearing a poppy was a deliberate and extremely political act. I choose to wear mine for deeply personal reasons: for the soldiers I have known professionally, and for the great-grandfather none of us knew. So today I shall be remembering him.