A bird's eye view of the Eire sign at St John's Point.
I spent a fascinating afternoon recently at St John’s Point with historian Michael Cunningham and his fellow volunteers from Dunkineely and the surrounding area.
As you can see from the attached photos, four letters and a number have been resurrected after more than 70 years in the ground. As Michael outlined to me, there are a number of things that have marked the landscape in Southwest Donegal, and have left us a lingering reminder of World War 2.
There is the Local Defence Force’s Lookout Post at St John’s Point, marked 10, and the EIRE sign denoting neutrality from where volunteers kept an eye on the unfolding drama offshore. And what indeed was Irish neutrality?
On the 24th May 1941 a senior diplomat in Department of External Affairs, called Joseph Walsh, produced a document entitled "Help Given by the Irish Government to the British in Relation to the actual Waging of the War"; it was marked "Most Secret"! It set out in some detail how Ireland was assisting Britain in its war efforts.
It mentions the Donegal Corridor, for Allied Aircraft, that had recently been agreed. For example, to facilitate the rescue of downed Allied planes, from June 1941, a British armed trawler, the Robert Hastie, manned by eleven personnel, was stationed at Killybegs to provide assistance to Allied shipping casualties and to supply planes that had run out of fuel.
Throughout, Ireland, in close proximity to each of the LDF Lookout Posts was an arrangement of whitewashed stones that spell out the word ‘EIRE’, that could be clearly seen from the sky. In one way it could be looked upon as a declaration of Irish independence, sovereignty and neutrality, but just beside each of the ‘EIRE’ signs was a number.
The one at St John’s Point was 70, the next one along the coast at Carrigan Head is 71; in fact, each of the 83 Lookout Posts around the Irish coast had an identifying number that could be seen from the air. These signs, and later the numbers, were added at the request of the David Gray, the American Ambassador in Dublin.
All of the 83 Lookout Posts were built on site to an identical design from 137 pre-cast blocks. As mentioned above, St John’s Point Lookout Post was number 70 of 83. The volunteers who manned the post during the war were Patrick Byrne, Daniel Carr, B. Cunningham, D. Cunningham, D. Davidson, P. Dawson, E. Gallagher, P. Harvey, Pat Ireland, J. Morrow, D. McCloskey, J. McCoy and P. McDyer. Each of the volunteers had a service number that was recorded in the Lookout Post’s log when they signed on and off each of their eight hour watches. They were supervised by Non-Commissioned Officers J. Craig and P. Tighe.
Thanks to Michael and his colleagues, the St John’s Point signs can clearly be seen again and is a timely reminder of the strategic importance of our coast in WW2. For example, the sinking of the Arandora Star was the fourth worst British merchant shipping tragedy of WW2. 868 people died when the ship sank, that included internees, troops and crew. From the time of the sinking and through the month of August 1940 bodies were washed up all along the Irish coast as well as the west of Scotland and a lot of them were laid to rest in various small cemeteries along the coast. One of those was Trooper Albert Freeman who was identified and is buried in St. Peter's in Killaghtee.
THE LETTERKENNY WAR HERO
On the 1st of July 1916, the first day of the Somme, Sergeant Jim Maultsaid was seriously wounded.
To quote from his diary as he lay in no-man’s-land ‘The most awful cries rent the night air…it was a shambles…it was ‘Hell’ with the lid off… “ Unlike many of his companions, Jim survived and was hospitalised.
After a spell in Northern Ireland, he was selected for officer training at Cambridge. He was then commissioned into The Chinese Labour Corps and now, in two publications, his words and art work throw fascinating light on his extraordinary life.
I had the privilege of attending the launch in Donegal County Museum at the launch of ‘War! Hellish War!’, the second of Jim’s illustrated diaries, and have just recently finished reading both. He is a Donegal man to be very proud of, and basking in the deserved collective pride were his grandson, John Rosborough and granddaughter Barbara McClune.
Her’s has been a labour of love, publishing both books in the past few years and ensuring that this artistic, humorous, compassionate and brave man’s tale is preserved for posterity. As one reviewer has noted: “War! Hellish War! is more than a Great War diary – it is a masterpiece and a collector’s item of great historical and educational value. Despite the countless records of this conflict there is nothing to compare it with.”
Although an American citizen, Jim Maultsaid's parents returned to live in Letterkenny, and though he left school at age 13, the author was naturally gifted in both writing and drawing, with a great eye for detail, and has often been described as the unofficial war artist.
Jim's personal style of writing is engaging, and along with his brilliant sketches and illustrations, takes the reader on a journey through not only the dark days and misery but also reveals the gritty humour that helped him and his 'chums' cope with the horrors of life in the trenches.
The diaries offer in words and illustrations, a true insight into the thoughts of the ordinary soldiers, and are filled with untold stories from the Great War, covering aspects that have never been addressed in other books.
"Star Shell Reflections," he wrote, "is dedicated to those chums of mine who soldiered down the years with me side by side.
Many whom I mentioned in the book sleep their last long sleep on soil that is foreign to us…” A member of the Royal Irish Rifles, his battalion was part of the 36th Ulster Division which took part on the Battle of the Somme on the first day, suffering horrendous casualties. By the time the battle started Jim was a Platoon Sergeant.
"He was a very quiet man, a very gentle type of man," Barbara recalls. She doesn’t remember her grandfather ever speaking of this wartime experiences: "I think maybe doing the diaries was his way of coping with what happened and what he went through."
He was badly wounded on the first day of the Somme, shot through the right shoulder.
"I think he lay in no man's land for a while and then he was lucky enough to get rescued," explained Barbara. "He was in hospital up until September, after that he came back to Belfast.
"He was in Newcastle, County Down for a while, training cadets, from there he went to Cambridge to officer training, from there he got a commission to the Chinese Labour Corps.
"He actually didn't leave the war until early 1920. After the war, he did suffer from a lot of night tremors and had trouble sleeping for a long time. It was post-traumatic stress apparently, which wasn't recognised then. There are five large diaries, he worked on them for years.
"I think it was a therapeutic thing for him after the war, he didn't talk about it…”
The books are beautifully presented by publisher Pen & Sword. Sergeant Jim Maultsaid was a true hero...he deserves to be celebrated and remembered in his native county.