Riches of Clare: Medal Glory for Serving in China

Clare Champion, Friday, April 4, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Tomás Mac Conmara writes about Ennis native, Cornelius Shanahan, who received a war medal for service in the Boxer Rebellion.

Emigrants from Clare, and Ireland as a whole, have often found themselves at the four corners of the earth, fighting in the armies of great powers, if not fighting against them. One such individual was Cornelius Shanahan. A native of Ennis, he served in the British armed forces and received a war medal for service in the Boxer Rebellion in China. This medal is now in the collection at Clare Museum.

The Boxer Rebellion has its origin in the two Opium wars with the British, beginning in 1839, which forced China to allow the importation of Opium and also to open certain trade routes with the West. Then, in 1858, Russia seized Chinese territory north of the River Amur. Then in 1860, France under General Charles Cousin-Montuban, joined by Britain, accused China of violating the Treaty of Tientsin, marched on Peking (Beijing) and burned the Summer Palace. They also sacked the Manchu seat in the Forbidden City which caused enormous offence and resentment.

In addition, Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan and even the United States, all seized large tracts of land from the Chinese towards the end of the 19th century and were all subsequently involved in the suppression of the rebellion against western greed led by a group known at the Boxers. This secret society of rural Chinese natives known as ‘I-Ho-Chuan’ (the Righteous and Harmonious Fists) embarked on a terror campaign to dismantle the “spheres of influence” created by westerners.

The Boxers origin is unclear. Various authorities have decided that they were an offshoot of the most powerful secret society in contemporary China the White Lotus as well as having affiliations with the Eight Diagram Sect, the Red Fists and the Long Knives. According to a contemporary writer the ‘Boxers wore red belts and red cloths tied around their heads”. The uprising began initially in Shantung and spread rapidly to the neighbouring province of Chihil. It was due to their use of martial arts that they were to become known to westerners as Boxers.

Trouble first erupted in March 1900, when churches were burnt, offices destroyed and civilians killed by the Boxers. Any foreigners or foreign sympathisers were in the direct line of the boxers wrath. Although publicly condemning the outrages, the Empress Dowager Tzu Shi privately aided the rebels. Resenting external constraints as much as anyone, the Ching Dynasty planned to use the Boxers as a vanguard in a military expulsion of the foreigners.

Today, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-1901 is remembered by Westerners as a mere stirring of the natives, lasting sporadically throughout the year of 1900, escalating in the summer months before being crushed by a coalition of western imperial forces. One of the fundamental reasons why the Boxers were defeated was their own misconception that through sorcery and incantation they were impervious to foreign bullets and that the imminent arrival of 8 million ‘spirit soldiers’ would ensure their success.

The Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902) overshadowed the uprising in China. However, over 30,000 people were killed in the rebellion, many of them Christian missionaries or Christian converts. This hatred was in response to the imperialist ambitions of the Western Powers. It is ironic that many of the countries that united to suppress the rising would face each other on the battlefields of Europe fourteen years later in the Great War. At the end of the rebellion, China was forced to sign the Boxer Protocol of 1901 which forced the payment of £33 million in reparations.

The Boxers, their origins, their grievances and methods of alleviating those grievances are comparable to the agrarian societies of 18th and 19th Century Ireland. The ‘Whiteboys’, the ‘Terry Alts’ and the Defender’s’ were also clandestine agrarian movements who sought to protect their interests against external influences beyond their control.

The rebellion, which drew soldiers from ten different countries, saw many men with Irish blood earn repute. One soldier, Private William Clancy, who was born in Limerick, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour by the United States Government for his service in the same conflict. The medal awarded to Cornelius Shanahan has impressed on its edge his name, rank and serial number. The obverse of the medal carries the crowned bust of Queen Victoria. It is surrounded by the legend VICTORIA REGINA ET IMPATRIX (Queen Victoria and Empress) while the reverse of the medal depicts a war trophy, with the British Arms set on a shield resting against a palm and the legend CHINA 1900.

But what happened of Cornelius Shanahan?
At the end of his military service he returned to Ennis and established a painting business which still flourishes today under the family name.

View the Cornelius Shanahan Boxer Rising Medal

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