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Here is my thoughts and the story of my grandfather, Walter Stephen Macken and how his life shaped him to volunteer to join the British army.
My grandfather, Walter Macken was born on the 26th of December 1888. He was one of eleven children, five brothers and six daughters. When he was born, he had a reasonable chance of having a secure good life.
His father, also called, Walter was the Chief Forrester for the estate of Ashford Castle. His job meant that he and his family had access to a house on the estate and his wife, Mary worked part as a cook in the Castle.
Everything changed suddenly when, Walter’s father died suddenly, quite possibly of a heart attack. The landlord immediately evicted the family from the house on the estate.
Of course, at that time, there were no social welfare payments for the poor and so their mother sent the boys on to the streets of Cong to beg. They were arrested and brought up before the district court where it was determined that since their mother couldn’t provide them with food or a proper home, they were to be sent to Letterfrack Industrial School.
Walter and Michael arrived there on the 1st March 1897 and two years later the 9th August 1899. Thomas and John were sent there too. They also had a fifth brother, however the Christian Brothers records have no mention of him. Perhaps he stayed at home with his mother.
I think that the five of the six sisters were also sent to orphanages in Galway. The four boys were all trained in Letterfrack to become skilled craftsmen. My grandfather became a carpenter, serving his apprenticeship with a carpenter who worked locally.
He was officially discharged from Letterfrack on the 11th February 1904, he was just 15. He went to live in Galway where his mother, Mary was living in Eyre Street. Within a very short time he had secured a job as a carpenter with a building company, Emmerson Builders.
He became a skilled carpenter and was employed by Emerson Builders until 1915.
Aside from working, he loved to sing and acted in local theatre companies. He appeared in a whole series of plays at a venue called The Racket Court which was in Middle Street, near where the Taibhdhearc is based now.
The original Racket Court had been a hall used by the Augustinian Order but when my grandfather appeared there it had become a music hall venue which regularly staged melodramas. My grandfather played lead roles in these melodramas.
When I worked in 1968 as a clerical officer in McDonagh Faison’s , I became good friends with some of the older dockers and one of them recalled seeing my grandfather dominating the stage in these melodramas.
He was also a very handsome man and a very good singer. When my parents met his sisters in New York in the 1950s, my father was playing the lead role in M.J. Molly’s play, “The King Of Friday’s Men,” and he sang, ” The West’s Awake ” for them, one of my grandfather’s sisters told my mother, “He is not a patch on our Wally, he is not at all as handsome or he can’t sing as well as our Wally. ”
So, my grandfather was full of talent as I could see in the letters he wrote to my grandmother, he had a talent for writing also.
After appearing on stage, the cast would visit the bar which was attached to the theatre. Serving behind the bar was a young barmaid called Agnes Brady. The Racket Court was owned by the O’Shaughnessy family and they were related to the Brady family of Ballinasloe. Agnes was the youngest of 15, all of whom had emigrated to the U.S.A. except for her brother, Frank who stayed at the home place.
My grandfather met Agnes at the bar each night and fell in love with her almost immediately. Agnes was 26 at the time, while Walter was only 20. Agnes was taken aback by my grandfather’s expressions of love for her.
Agnes’s best friend was a Mrs. Spellman (mother of the well-known, Galway comedian, the late, Pascal Spellman.
I had the good luck to meet, Mrs. Spellman and she told me how her best friend, Agnes had sought her advice about this young man as to whether she should accept him.
Mrs Spellman was the wife of the tailor to whom, my grandfather’s brother, Tom been apprenticed. Mrs Spellman met my grandfather and advised, Agnes to accept him.
Their courtship lasted about two years and I get the impression that it was a deep loving match. They married in May 1911, Eileen was born in 1912, Noreen (better known as Birdie) in 1913 and my father was born in May 1915.
They lived in a Galway Corporation house in what I always heard it referred to as St. Joseph’s Terrace, it is now known as, St. Joseph’s Avenue.
In the Spring and early summer of 1915, there was a massive recruiting campaign going on all over Ireland and then, there was also a massive recession and my grandfather’s employer summoned him in to talk to him.
He was going to let him go. My grandfather for the first time in his life was unemployed and a father of three children. Of course, there was no unemployment benefit at that time and my grandfather had no choice he decided immediately to go to Renmore where he joined up the British Army joining the Royal Fusiliers a British regiment.
He joined in June of 1915 and by August he was in Dover doing his trench warfare training. He trained for almost six months, digging trenches, and learning how to shoot rifles and machine guns.
By December of 1915 he was in the front line in France.
He had got home for a brief few days in October of 1915, as he recalls in one of his letters, “ I will never forget the sight of you in the railway station, Agnes with little, Wallie in your arms.”
My grandmother, Agnes continued to work part time in the Racket Court. She lived for the letters her husband wrote to her from the trenches. In March 1916, she had not received any letter from her husband.
It was early morning in the Racket Court and she was cleaning. There was no one around, she heard a sound behind her and then she saw her husband in full uniform standing there looking at her.
” Wally, ” she said, ” Why didn’t you tell me you were home? ”
But there was no answer, she realised that it was a vision that she saw. So, she was not surprised when she received the letter from the chaplain, Noel Mellish, telling her that your husband, 18092, Pt. Walter Macken was almost certainly killed on March 28th.
” This was the letter that broke my heart “my grandmother told my father. And it was so true. My grandfather had volunteered to go to war out of necessity and he left behind a broken-hearted widow who cried herself to sleep every night for years as my father witnessed and she had to try and live on a small British Army pension. This was my grandmother’s difficulty trying to survive without the love of her life
Ultan Macken (31/12/2020).
Ultan: Letter No 2.
My grandfather, Walter would I imagine have attended school in Letterfrack. I also think that his involvement in drama meant that he had to be able to learn drama scripts.
My grandmother, Agnes Brady was 28 when they married in 1911 so she was 33 when she became a war widow in 1916.
Walter Macken her husband was the love of her life and she never even considered becoming involved with a new man. She concentrated on seeking out a living for her three children. Therefore, she took in lodgers and continued to work as a cleaner in the Racket Court, she also was the person called upon to prepare corpses for their funerals. My father was her constant companion. He slept in her bedroom to give her company as she cried herself to sleep every night calling out her late husband’s name.
Each morning, they got out of bed very early and went to daily Mass at 6 am or 6.30 am in the Jesuit Church in Sea Road.
They moved by the Galway Corporation from St. Joseph’s Avenue to a larger house in Henry Street and this allowed my grandmother to have more than one lodger.
All the money she earned from her various jobs was to ensure that her three children would be able to attend primary and secondary school. Eileen, Noirin and my father all attended the Presentation Convent Primary school and the two girls then proceeded to study at the Presentation Secondary School.
My father after spending two years in the Presentation Primary School, (he was one of only two boys in his class) was transferred to the Bishops Primary School. He then went on to the Bishop’s Secondary School. Although when he was about 14, because he thought that he might have a vocation for the priesthood, he transferred to St. Mary’s College for one year. His mother had to buy him different schoolbooks for his schooling in St. Mary’s.
However, he discovered girls and decided that he did not have a vocation for the priesthood and also, he had a real dispute with the Greek Teacher and he left, St. Mary’s abruptly. He returned to complete his schooling at the Bish, and once again his mother had to purchase schoolbooks.
My grandmother worked so hard to provide food, a home and schooling for her three children all with no real help from anyone but her own hard work.
Her two daughters, Eileen and Noirin both emigrated to England as soon as they finished school and of course my father began working in the Taibhdhearc.