(Photo: James Fennell)
Over 35,000 Irishmen were killed while serving with the British Army during the First World War. But for more than 315,000 Irish veterans who returned home with missing limbs and shell-shocked memories, there was to be no let up. As Ireland advanced towards independence, those who had fought for Britain were castigated as traitors. At least 200 war veterans were killed in Ireland during the ensuing Troubles.
However, Mike Harte disputes the concept that all Irish war veterans were treated badly, at least ‘not in these parts.’ ‘People understood that the army was a good job with great pay,’ he says. ‘When they came out of it, they got a pension. Most of them sold the pension for a lump sum, which was half the value. But when they got the money, they drank it and never stopped.’
Mike remembers the veterans well. ‘We knew them all by what they used to drink,’ he says. ‘They were all alcoholics. Every one of them. Once they had a few drinks, they were up with the moon, sky-high. And those who weren’t alcoholics were touched. I knew a lot of men who fought in the war and I can tell you it affected every one of them.’
Mike grew up on a farm in the townland of Ballymullen on the northern banks of the Royal Canal in County Offaly. ‘And the road is that crooked you’d nearly see the back of your own head going around the corners,’ warned a neighbour as we sought directions from Daingean, a couple of miles to the east.
Daingean was once the seat of the O’Connor Faly clan, chieftains of this eastern part of Offaly for a thousand years before the English ousted them.[i] In 1556, Offaly was shired as ‘King’s County’ by Queen Mary Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VIII. Daingean was simultaneously renamed ‘Philipstown’ in honour of her husband, King Philip II of Spain. It was not until 1922, when Mike was a three-year-old boy, that the county and town were renamed ‘Offaly’ and ‘Daingean’ respectively.
Mike’s mother descended from the O’Connors of Offaly and, while he is proud of the association, he is still angry at the manner in which this once noble clan were stripped of their lands and reduced to living in mud wall cabins. ‘Cromwell tried to drive them all to Hell or to Connaught but they didn’t all go,’ he growls. ‘Some stayed behind and built their houses in the bog and somehow they survived.’
Amongst those who stayed and survived were the O’Connors, his mothers’ family, who owned the farm where he lives today. His grandfather John O’Connor was born in 1842 and died in 1913. And for the first thirteen years of his life, Mike shared a house with John’s widow ‘Granny Tess’ who was born during the Great Famine. A part of the house where John and Tess originally lived still exists today as a shed. However much of the structure was so riddled with woodworm that Mike was obliged to take it down. To his considerable surprise he found several Jacobite muskets hidden within the three-foot wide mud walls. ‘The ramrods and the leather pouches for carrying gunpowder were there too but unfortunately they were all rotten.’
Mike’s mother was Mary Kate O’Connor, the eldest daughter of John and Tess. Born in 1883, she married Michael Harte from Rahugh, a few miles from Tyrellspass in County Westmeath. Ten children followed with Mike ‘somewhere in the middle.’
Mike was only a toddler when his two oldest sisters sailed for New York. ‘They were both cleaning houses over there. I remember the letters coming back with a few dollars in them. One time there was five dollars. That was a lot of money. When I retired I went out to visit them and their children. One had ten children, the other had four and whatever way America works, they were able to educate them all. My nephews and nieces all got good jobs as electricians, foremen, nurses, teachers and things like that. And my sisters accents never changed from the day they left Offaly.’
Mike’s memories of school are bleak. ‘It’s hard to be bitter on someone who is dead but what they did to children at local schools in Ireland was unbelievable. It happened to me and they got away with it. But I knew of children brought out from my school bleeding. They were brought to the doctor and the doctor kept his mouth shut. It was terrible. Children were only second-class citizens. Even a priest saying Mass might hit a child if he was in bad humour. Imagine doing that to a child!’
Mike feels it important that children of the present day, his own grandchildren included, understand how lucky they are, ‘now that the kicking and the abusing has stopped.’ His school days were made no less miserable with the premature death of his father, as well as Granny Tess.[ii]
‘I remember my father going to Mass one Sunday and my mother giving him a ha’penny for the collection. Ah, they were tough times. Some of his children were very small when he died. There were lots of things I’d like to have known but I wasn’t old enough to ask him.’
The Second World War broke out when Mike was twenty years old. ‘The war was a bad time. The wages were bad. Everything was bad. I was working with a farmer and there was an awful scarcity of tea and tobacco. There were plenty of house parties that time but there was no food. You wouldn’t even get bread or tea.’
When a Local Defence Force was formed, Mike joined ‘in case the Germans came.’ His eyes turn skywards as he recalls how some of his neighbours heard the German planes going over ‘the night they bombed the north of Ireland.’
In time, Mike took on the family farm which his only son Michael and grandson Declan run today. In Mike’s day, dairying was not lucrative enough and so, for much of his working life, he earned a supplementary income collecting peat from the surrounding bogs for Bord na Mona. ‘I was out there nearly every day, especially in the good weather. A young fellow would milk the cows for me in the morning. I’d milk them myself in the evening. And I’d work the bogs in between.’
In 1954, Mike married Teresa Larkin, the daughter of an ambitious farmer from Cappincur near Tullamore who grew tobacco and sugar beet during the 1930s. Mike and Teresa had a son and two daughters. ‘And when they got older, they’d milk the cows for me while I was on the bog. They’d put the milk into a churn which had our number on it. A tractor and trailer would come then and take it off to Tullamore. That’s the way it worked back then but of course the whole system has changed since.’
Mike Harte passed away on 6 July 2015. His memoir ‘From the Cradle to Ninety’ was published in 2010 and is available from the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society.
With thanks to Mrs. Margaret Martin, Michael Harte, Seán Dunne and Imelda Fox.
[i] The name derives from ‘Daingean Ua bhF·ilghe’ meaning ‘fortress of the UÌ F·ilghe clan’.
[ii] Teresa ‘Tess’ Connor was born circa 1841 and died in 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress. John Connor was 71 when he died. Michael Harte was only 56 when he died. Mary Kate Harte was 93 when she died in 1976.