OUR FALLEN MEMBERS
Remarks by FELIX M. LARKIN at the launch of Michael Pegum’s book
Our Fallen Members: The War Casualties of the Kildare Street and Dublin University Clubs
Kildare Street & University Club, 17 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin
It is a pleasure and a great honour for me to speak at the launch of Michael Pegum’s book this evening. We Irish do book launches very well. They hardly ever happen in Britain and never in America, but they are significant events in the Irish cultural and social calendar. Indeed, I often say – and only half in jest – that, without book launches, I wouldn’t really have a social life. And there is one rule for those who attend book launches, and that is that you must buy the book. That’s why you’re being given all the free wine, canapés, etc. And this is a book well worth buying.
It is a remarkable book, the product of over a decade of careful research and writing. It is a book about heroes, and it is itself a heroic piece of work – for which no words of praise are good enough. But the heroine of the book is Michael’s wife, Colette, who has had to live with him and his pet project for all those years and who has travelled the world with him in search of military graves, war memorials, battle-fields and God knows what else in connection with the research for this book.
Reading the book, you get very close to the experience of war through the detailed and intimate accounts which Michael has given us of the lives of the men about whom he writes – all members of our antecedent Clubs, the Kildare Street Club and the Dublin University Club. By way of analogy, I remember many years ago when I first visited the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC, the famous black wall on the Mall in Washington, I was so moved that I wanted to identify more closely with the soldiers who are commemorated there – most of them almost exact contemporaries of mine – and so I went to the index, looked up my own surname and found that there were four soldiers listed with the same surname. I picked the one closest in age to me, and then found his name cut into the wall and paid silent homage to him. I think the readers of this book will find lives that similarly resonate with their own for various reasons, and will say: ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’.
The person in the book who most resonates with me was a member of the University Club, Captain Frank Browning, of the Irish Rugby Football Union Volunteer Corps, one of the so-called ‘pals’ units formed to encourage recruitment in the First World War by enlisting men from a particular district or with some other common bond and keeping them together. Most of the Dublin ‘pals’ were sent to the Dardanelles in 1915 and very many died there – but not Frank Browning. He was too old, 46 in 1914. Instead, he was posted to the Volunteer Training Corps here in Dublin – the ‘Georgius Rex’ or, as they were irreverently known, the ‘Gorgeous Wrecks’. Frank Browning was killed in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916 when rebels under the command of Éamon de Valera in Boland’s Bakery opened fire on the unarmed Volunteer Corps returning to Beggar’s Bush Barracks after spending the day on a training exercise in the Dublin mountains. In fairness, the rebels probably didn’t know they were unarmed.
Now I have read a lot of books about 1916, but I know of no more detailed or more authoritative description of this little-known encounter than the one that I read in Michael’s book. And I have no doubt his descriptions of other battles, great and small, are equally detailed and authoritative. And the forty-seven individual lives surveyed here have been located very skilfully for us in the general history of the First and Second World Wars by means of concise but well-judged chapters setting out the progress of the two wars year-by-year. So, as I have said, this book is a remarkable achievement. I commend Michael on it and I thank him, on your behalf as fellow members of this Club, for all his great work in bringing back to life the memory of our ‘fallen members’.