Remembering Belfast’s war dead, before the war ended

On a wall of a side entry into the ornate St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in Belfast, a modest plaque speaks to a troubled time, and not the period most would associate with the city. The brass-on-wood message reads, in part:

“Pray for the repose of the souls of the sailors and soldiers who have fallen in this war.”

In this case, “this war” is the Great War, “the war to end all wars.” The plaque is dated August 1917 … 15 months before the November 1918 armistice.

Praying for the dead of any period or place is encouraged in Catholic belief, particularly during the month of November, and the priests of this parish have never removed this reminder of early 20th century sacrifice. They are still talking about it at Mass.

The plaque at St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in Belfast. Yes, that’s me reflected in the brass after the Nov. 9, 2019, Vigil Mass.

Ireland’s Memorial Records, a digital archive of the Flanders Field Museum in Belgium, lists 2,268 fatalities who were born in Belfast among 49,000 Irish soldiers killed in the war. The archive does not record their faith affiliation, let alone their home church.

Some 4,000 Catholic men from Belfast enlisted in the nine Irish regiments of the British Army, many joining the 6th Connaught Rangers, “the regiment of choice for Belfast Catholics,” historian Eamon Phoenix of Strainmillis University College says in a 2014 BBC podcast about the plaque. Many of these men supported pro-Home Rule nationalist John Redmond’s Irish National Volunteers and probably worshiped at St. Malachy’s, Phoenix says.

Of nearly 63,000 war recruits from the then nine-county province of Ulster, about 27 percent (17,092) were Catholics, at the time 44 percent of the region’s population. Overall, however, more Catholics than Protestants joined the war from Ireland in the years just before the island’s 1921 partition. More on faith affiliation and “the numbers involved,” from the Queen’s University Belfast Irish History Live blog.  

At this time, British officer Major Charles Blakiston Houston, a Protestant, was married to Norah Emily Persse, a Catholic woman and benefactor of St. Malachy’s Church. (Such “mixed marriages” were less than 1 percent of all unions in early 20th century Ireland, even more rare in Ulster, according to a 2015 study.) Norah convinced her parish priest, Fr. Dan McCashen, to install the plaque while the outcome of the war remained unresolved, Phoenix says.

“This must be very unique across the British Isles, a plaque that went up before the end of the war to remember soldiers; usually they went up afterward about 1920 or 1922,” he adds.

Why the early memorial? Phoenix speculates Norah sensed the shift from Redmond’s Home Rule nationalism to the post-Easter Rising surge of separatist Irish republicanism. If she anticipated the Sinn Féin election triumph of December 1918, she wanted to be sure the Redmond nationalists were remembered and respected.

“Many veterans returning to nationalist areas met grudging acceptance, hostility, or even physical violence,” the Queen’s History blog says. “For all of them the high public honor and celebration with which they had departed contrasted sharply with the changed circumstances of their return.”

A July 1919 press report of a Belfast event to honor veterans, however, included “a notable demonstration of the part played by Belfast nationalists” in the war. But it took until the approaching centenary of the Great War for it to become more widely acceptable, even expected, to recognize the sacrifices of Irish soldiers, especially nationalist Catholics.  

At St. Malachy’s, they have never stopped remembering and praying for the war dead, including at the Vigil Mass I attended Nov. 9. The priest noted the plaque during his homily. Otherwise, I would have missed it, since this feature is not described in the history section or other parts of the church’s website.

I sent an email to the church after returning to America and finding the Phoenix account. I’ll update the post if I receive new information.

***

Related: An Irish-American’s most perilous summer, 1918 Kerryman John Ware immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1910. Eight years later, he was shipped to France.

The Belfast Cenotaph commemorating World War I opened in 1929 at Belfast City Hall. July 2019 photo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *