Riches of Clare: Medal of Honour

Clare Champion, Friday, April 18, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, John Rattigan writes about a prestigious medal, which is part of the museum’s collection.

In the collection at Clare Museum, there is a Medal of Honour that was presented by Colonel R H Car-Ellison to a T Mc Mahon of the Royal Hibernian Military School (RHMS), who was selected by his peers as the most deserving of this prize in 1924. What became of T Mc Mahon is not known, but the origin and the eventual demise of the Royal Hibernian Military School is well recorded in military archives, though it is not known generally. The school began when the Hibernian Society was founded in 1764, by a group of wealthy Dubliners. The society was concerned at the plight of poor and destitute children of soldiers who were serving abroad, or who had died on active service.

A charitable organisation, the society quickly raised funds by subscription for the building of a school, designed by architect Francis Johnston, and opened in 1765 in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. With the addition of a hospital in 1767, the two buildings became known as the Institution of the Hibernian Society. In the early years, the institution resembled something of an industrial school. Girls carried out the traditional duties of domestic work and clothes making, while boys worked in the garden and learned trades useful to make a living.

From about 1800 however, the character of the institution, now known as the Hibernian School, began to change rapidly. The financial problems of the Hibernian Society, relying exclusively on charity that never fully realised all the monies required to run the school, left the society seeking long-term government funding.

Major General Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (later of Battle of Waterloo fame), a Dublin native and Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, mentioned in correspondence that he was keen for the Hibernian School to be maintained by parliament. In fact, the timing was right for such an intervention, as the government needed to source soldiers for the army to meet the emerging French threat. In return for a government grant to run the school, boys upon reaching the age of 15 years who wished to enlist in the army were encouraged to do so, while girls whose numbers had never exceeded 50, were gradually phased out of the school.

Most, if not all the boys at this time, were protestant. Thomas Philip Le Fanu, a descendent of a Huguenot family, was chaplain there from 1815-1826. His son Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the father of the Victorian Irish Ghost Story, is now largely forgotten, but was a profound influence on the writings of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. In a tenuous link with the Banner county, it is worth noting that the Le Fanu family spent their summer holidays at Kilkee. For the first fifty years of the 19th century however, as a source of recruits for the army, the school was something of a failure.

During the period 1800-1850, less than 10% of boys enrolled at the school went on to enlist in the army. Parents, predominantly mothers, preferred their children to be apprenticed, presumably in the occupations they had been taught whilst in the Institution, although the military style discipline of the school must also have been off-putting. In the second half of the 19th century, changes in how the school was run saw the numbers enlisting in the army rise to over 50%, with an 80% enlistment in 1898. It was at about this time that the institution became known as the Royal Hibernian Military School.

The outbreak of the First World War saw former RHMS boys serve in all theatres of the war, including France, Flanders, Palestine, the Dardanelles, East Africa and Mesopotamia. A total of 62 former RHMS boys of all ranks were killed in action, or died of wounds or disease. One former pupil, Corporal Fredrick Jeremiah Edwards, from Queenstown, Cork, was awarded the Victoria Cross, for his successful lone attack on a machine-gun position at Tiepval, France in September 1916. Corporal Edwards had entered the RHMS a month short of his tenth birthday, and enlisted five years later on 30 October, 1908. He survived the war, and died in 1964 in Richmond, London, where he is buried.

The Irish Free State was established in 1921, and the Royal Hibernian Military School ceased to exist in 1924, the year T Mc Mahon received his medal. All remaining boys were transferred to the Duke of York Military School in Britain. The 18th century building complex that was the home of the RHMS, continued to serve a purpose, and was taken over by the Irish Army and used as a military hospital until 1948. From then on it became a civilian hospital, for patients with chest complaints (mostly TB), while today it forms part of St Mary’s Geriatric Hospital. Reminders of a military past can still be seen on the walls of St Mary’s Hospital to this day. They take the form of plaques and memorials to the Irish soldiers now at rest in foreign fields, who were once educated there as boys.

Visit Medal of Honour, 1924 from the Riches of Clare Exhibition

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