Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 10 January 2019
Tales from 1919: Permits, Parcels & Prisoners of War
Nearly three hundred men, natives of Munster who had been prisoners of war, were given a warm welcome on 7 January 1919 at the Imperial Hotel, Cork, by the members of the Cork branch of the Irish Women’s Association. A special food permit was obtained to have a dinner, which together with entertainment were held in the decorated ballroom. The event was described in detail by the Cork Examiner and gives an insight into the support base back home in Cork whilst Cork soldiers were on the front line. The Branch also had regular meetings, which were minuted and published in the local press. The January 1919 event also took place against the backdrop of a campaign by Westminster’s Ministry of Labour to get returned soldiers and officers back into their old jobs before they left.
Those present at the Cork branch dinner were representatives of all the Irish uniforms – the strongest contingent being from the Royal Munster Fusiliers and many others from regiments, corps, and the Navy. The Fusiliers had lost nearly 180 officers and over 4,000 men in the World War. Over 10,000 had seen the inside of German Prisoner of War camps. In the ballroom, the gathering was one of war worn soldiers, some of whom had over 25 years’ service and who had fought and survived many times before the war they had just returned from. Others had answered the call to help from 1914 onwards. Many had been prisoners from 1914, with a few been captured in 1918. Some amongst them were maimed and crippled from wounds received in battle. Some suffered from the treatment they were subjected to in Germany. Those present were appreciative of the work of the Cork Women’s Association who supplied parcels to the frontline.
The Cork Branch of the Irish Women’s Association was founded by the Countess Bandon on Christmas week in December 1915. The volunteer work was organised and led by Mrs Ethel Helen Peacocke from Skevanish House, Innishannon (wife of Lieutenant Colonel Warren Peacocke, who was executed as a suspected spy of IRA activities in 1921). The Cork branch first sent parcels to a small number of Corkmen who were prisoners of war from the 6th and 7th Battalions of the Royal Munster Fusiliers in Salonika Greece. The remainder went to France for the benefit of the Cyclist Corps of the 1th Division. The number of men catered for grew as well as the content of the parcels from food initially to gloves, caps, pocket handkerchiefs, vests, milk tablets, soup tablets, soap, socks, foot powder, playing cards books to hurley sticks, balls and footballs. Parcels were posted once a fortnight to Limburg POW camp in Germany through the help of the British Diplomatic Office in Berne, Switzerland and through the Irish Women’s Association, Kensington Palace, London. From time to time, the Cork branch sent parcels to the Munster men in the fighting zone. It also provided parcels to soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment and Cork men in the Connaught Rangers. The army supply of many provisions was regulated by the information received from the commanding officers as to what was most necessary.
All the parcels could not be done, without funds. To meet the expense Mr James F McMullen, Branch member (and City Engineer), organised two Munster wide flag days. The first, which took place in December 1915, realised over £1,000, and the second, in November 1916, raised £651. After these, the scheme called “Godfathers and Godmothers” was instituted. This simply meant that the funds for each prisoner’s parcels were supplied by the godfather or godmother.
Ethel Peacock managed the Cork branch well, ably assisted by many willing volunteers who devoted their time. Her able co-worker was Miss Niva Delacour Gregg. The branch was given a premises at 37 Grand Parade on Christmas week 1915 to pursue their work. At the depot, items as they arrived had to be classified, made up into parcels, addressed and dispatched. At the peak of its work, up to 77 parcels were sent fortnightly. Besides keeping up a constant supply of parcels the branch were able to send £100 to General Hickey in France to assist in buying a motor cinema, to show short films for the Irish regiments at the front, and during Christmas 1918 £100 was also sent to France to help in providing a Christmas dinner for the Munster Fusiliers. In addition, James F McMullen on behalf of the Association sent substantial subscriptions to Lady McDonald and the Hon. Anne McDonald, in London, for the Irish Women’s Association, which was doing similar work for Irish soldiers from other Irish provinces.
When the armistice was signed, and the prisoners began to arrive home, the Cork Branch decided to devote the funds remaining on hands to provide dinner and entertainment on 7 January 1919. Before and during the dinner the Rev Mr Nicholson’s string band played an entertaining programme. Photos were taken by Messrs Guy and Co, and General Travers welcomed the men and thanked the ladies for their work. The comedy troupe, the King’s Jesters, had a two hour programme.
Most of the food was the gift of generous donors, and each man was given cigarettes and a box of matches. Ethel Peacocke expressed the wish that any other Munster men in any regiment or corps who had had been prisoners would communicate with her at the Association’s depot, 37 Grand Parade, Cork, as it was intended to host another event for them (on 11 February 1919). Before the event concluded the guests were given tea, and with the singing of “God Save the King” the event was brought to a conclusion. The Cork Branch closed it depot at its final meeting on 22 March 1919.
Missed a column last year, check out the indices at Kieran’s heritage website, www.corkheritage.ie
Kieran is also showcasing some of the older column series on the River Lee on his heritage facebook page at the moment, Cork Our City, Our Town.
979a. Grey building on right, Caseys, marks 37 Grand Parade, former depot of the Cork Branch of the Irish Women’s Association, 1915-1919 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)