War veteran Johnny (90) still keeping the memory of fallen heroes alive

Aileen Hahesy

Aileen Hahesy

A 90 year-old World War 11 veteran from Cahir has received a letter of thanks from President of Ireland Mary McAleese for his tireless efforts in maintaining his hometown’s war memorial for more than 20 years.

Johnny O’Brien from Mountain Road, Cahir visits the memorial on Castle Street several times a week to ensure it is kept clean and to tend to the flowers, plants and wreath at its foot.

On Armistice Day (November 11) every year he pays his own private homage at the memorial to the soldiers of the Great War and his comrades who fought in World War 11 by laying a wreath of poppies and singing the Last Post.

It’s a ceremony he repeats in the cemetery of Cahir Abbey at the grave of his father Michael, who fought in some of the major battles in the fields of Flanders in World War 1 and was seriously wounded twice.

A few weeks ago, President McAleese sent the retired gardener a letter praising and thanking him for his “tireless efforts” and “long and faithful service” in maintaining the memorial.

In the letter, President McAleese wished Johnny well in his continuing care of the memorial and expressed the hope that his “noble work will inspire others in the community to continue to cherish the memory of those Irishmen, who died on foreign battlefields”.

Johnny started looking after the monument more than 20 years ago because it had become dilapidated after years of neglect.

“It was gone grey and dirty looking, and children, being children, were just running, climbing and jumping around the place. I had it power washed and then I got going with the planting. I put a poppy wreath there all year round and place a fresh wreath there on Armistice Day every year.”

For many years, Johnny cycled to Castle Street to tend to the memorial but now Marian Moroney from Avondale in Cahir, whom he describes as a “wonderful lady”, drives him to the monument.

He says it was nice of President McAleese to send him the letter but feels he doesn’t get much encouragement otherwise for his work as the monument is often subjected to vandalism.

“A few nights ago the containers were kicked around and dropped in the river. It’s just the result of drink and drugs. It’s going on everywhere; there isn’t much you can do about it. When you ask the Gardai about it they say they don’t have enough manpower so I don’t go to them anymore to complain,” he told The Nationalist.

Cahir’s War Memorial was erected in 1930 to commemorate 88 soldiers from Cahir and its hinterland including the villages of Ardfinnan, Ballyporeen and Clogheen, who died in the Great War (1914-1918).

Their names are engraved on the monument, which was built on a parcel of ground on Castle Street donated by the late Lt. Colonel RB Charteris of Cahir Park and funded by public subscriptions. The memorial was rededicated in 1996 to include all local men and women of Cahir and district, who died in armed conflict at home and abroad.

Johnny’s father served in the Royal Irish Regiment for 23 years and fought in some of the bloodiest Western Front battles during World War 1 including Ypres and Mons.

“My father fought in the Boer War at the turn of the (20th) century. He was just 16 at the time. A lot of Irish boys, and English lads too, put up their age by two years to join up,” he recalled.

“He came home safely after three years and then the Great War began in 1914 and he was called up straight away because he was in the reserves. He went with his brothers and was severely wounded twice.

“He got a bullet in the lung at Ypres and was a very lucky man but they sent him out again and he was gas poisoned. He was picked up unconscious and the Germans had him in a POW camp for the last 12 months of the war.

“When it was over he came back to the barracks in Cahir that was later burned out by the IRA and then the British pulled out of Ireland. He was discharged from the army on medical grounds. I don’t remember him as I was only two and a half years old when he died at the age of 41.

“He left behind six children. I don’t know how my mother kept us alive but she did. She joined a gang of war widows who went out into the fields picking potatoes. She was marvellous really.”

If losing her husband so young was not bad enough, Johnny’s mother Julia (née Murray from Clogheen) also suffered the awful tragedy of her youngest child Tommy dying three weeks after his father’s funeral. He was just one year old and was buried at the feet of his father in Cahir Abbey.

There was terrible poverty in Ireland in the 1920s and 1930 and Johnny and his two older brothers were forced to emigrate to England to earn a living. His eldest brother Michael left Cahir at the tender age of 14 to work in a racing stables near Stockport in England and “joined up” when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939.

His other brother Patrick took the boat to England when he reached the age of 17 and went to London and joined the Royal Irish Regiment. Johnny won a scholarship to Rockwell College and studied with former Irish President, the late Patrick Hillery. But after school he also left for England and worked in the civil service in London for a while before following his brothers into the army.

His brothers spent the War fighting in Europe while Johnny was posted to the Far East where he served in India and fought the Japanese in Burma and along the border with China.

He managed to make it through the war without suffering any physical injury.

“I was lucky. Two lads I went to school with were killed not far from me and I didn’t even know. The jungle is so dense in places that sometimes you didn’t know what was going on. “

Their names were Denis White from Market Street, Cahir and Michael Brunnick from Bongurrah, Cahir. It’s Johnny’s hope and wish to erect a plaque in memory of them and the other men from the Cahir area, who died in World War 11.

Johnny’s brothers survived the War and he met up with them in London when it was all over.

“I will never forget it. We were like three strangers; our lives had been shattered by early emigration and we really hadn’t got to know each other. It was a strange feeling but it was also a good happy feeling. Then we parted and we didn’t meet for years more again.”

After the War, Johnny returned to work in the civil service in England for a while before his yearning to work in the open air prompted him to change direction and become a market gardener.

He returned home to Cahir to look after his mother when her health started to fail. He spent seven years working in the forestry and then set up his own market gardening and landscaping business. His mother died 13 years after his return from England and he has lived alone since. He is now the only surviving member of his family.

Johnny found Ireland an unwelcoming place for returning World War 11 veterans. He recalled that around 1950, he and another ex-British army man applied for a postman’s job in Cahir along with several former Irish army soldiers.

The two of them never even got an interview and the job went to one of the Irish army men. It was later confirmed to him that instructions were given that only Irish army veterans were to be considered for the job.

Johnny says some Irish people still have the same mentality today.

“They think that because I wore a British army uniform that I am against a united Ireland. I call them armchair patriots, fellows who never did anything for any country.”

He points out that he has great admiration for Tipperary’s War of Independence heroes Dan Breen, (whom he personally knew) and Sean Treacy and the leaders of the 1916 Rising because they took on the might of the British Empire when it was at its most powerful.

Indeed, he strongly believes that people like him who fought in World War 11 were fighting for Irish freedom and democracy just as much as the freedom of Britain and Nazi occupied Europe.

If Britain had fallen to Hitler, Ireland would have followed quickly. Johnny said very few people realised that just weeks after Dunkirk, Hitler actually launched an invasion attempt on Britain that failed and the country was saved by the fact that shortly afterwards the dictator turned his attention to invading Russia.

He says he was pleased to see Queen Elizabeth 11 and President McAleese honour them at Islandbridge during the British monarch’s recent historic visit to Ireland.

Johnny was invited to the ceremony but couldn’t attend as he is no longer able to make such long journeys.

“I was pleased to see her (Queen Elizabeth) and there should be a lot more of it. It wouldn’t do any harm. The Irish army gave a wonderful display of drills at Islandbridge. I was delighted with the exhibition they gave and the way they received the Queen, and I think she was quite pleased.

The only thing that irked him about the ceremony was the type of wreath laid by President McAleese.

“The Queen was handed a very fine wreath of poppies because our men died among the poppies. Mary McAleese should have been handed one too in deference to the Queen’s feelings but instead she was handed a horrible wreath of green laurel leaves.

Nevertheless, Johnny is appreciative of the work President McAleese has done to honour and commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of the Irish men who fought in the two world wars during her presidency and describes the letter she sent him as quite a nice gesture.

“I was going to write a reply to her and ask that in God’s name she stay on as president for another term,” he laughs.