Sgt Maj Coughlan VC
MILITARY HERITAGE TOURS LTD COUGHLAN VC DAY
Minister for Defence Mr. Michael Smith,
Col Downes representing Brig Gen Swords GOC 4 Bde
HE Mr Stuart Eldon, British Ambassador to Ireland and Mrs Eldon,
Col Cummings DA BE, and Mrs Cummings.
Sir Kenneth Bloomfield.
Military Heritage Trust of Ireland
Military History Society of Ireland
Descendants of Cornelius Coughlan VC, Patricia O’Callaghan and party from Glasgow and the Coughlins from Bradford.
ONE Castlebar and Air Corps.
Professors of History North and South
Distinguished military and civilian guests, historians, ladies, gentlemen and friends.
First of all I want to thank the people without whom this day would not have been possible:
Mr. Jim McNally, the Curator of this magnificently restored historic cemetery
Mr. Niall Halpin, who prepared the grave and produced this magnificent headstone
Col Cummings Defence Attaché in the British Embassy, whose assistance and advice was always forthcoming and generous.
The Chief of Staff Lt Gen Sreenan
I bid you a very warm welcome to this very special day, Sgt Maj Coughlan VC Day.
THE VICTORIA CROSS
The Victoria Cross is arguably, the world’s most prestigious bravery award, competing only with America’s Medal of Honour for this distinction. The Medal of Honour was won also by many Irishmen, three of whom were born very close to here. United States Navy Fireman “Iron” Mike Gibbons of the USS Nashville was awarded the Medal of Honour in the same action as Belmullet man First Sergeant Philip Gaughan USMC during the Spanish-American war. Iron Mike Gibbons is buried in Newport, eight miles from here. Robert Emmet O’Malley, whose father John was born in Rossanrubble, less than a mile from Iron Mike Gibbons home in Kilmeena, was wounded in action three times and was the first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honour in the Vietnam War.
HISTORY OF THE VC
Prior to Queen Victoria’s authorisation of the VC in 1856, there were few gallantry awards available to servicemen, none of which were applicable to all ranks.
The situation changed with the introduction of the Victoria Cross. It became the first totally democratic award. All persons were to be placed on a “perfectly equal footing” and “neither rank nor long service, nor wounds nor any other quality whatsoever, save the merit of conspicuous bravery” would qualify an individual for the award.
The metal from which the medal is struck comes from the cascables of cannon captured from the Russians at Sebastapol, during the Crimea War. These cannon had in turn been captured from the Chinese so the metal is in fact from the Orient.
It was deliberately not jewelled or diamond encrusted so that it’s value would be minimal in monetary terms (it was thought) in order to dissuade any recipient who fell on hard times from realising it’s face value.
Since it’s inception the VC has been awarded 1354 times. Research published by David Truesdale and Richard Doherty in “Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross” shows that at least 200 Irishmen have merited this award.
On 26 June 1857 the first VCs were awarded by Queen Victoria in Hyde Park. 62 soldiers and sailors of various ranks, paraded to receive their decoration. The first two men Queen Victoria decorated that day were Irish:
Both had been commissioned from the ranks as a result of their bravery in action.
Lt Charles David Lucas Royal Navy, and
Ensign Luke O’Connor 23rd Regiment.
Both later achieved ranks of Rear Admiral and Major General respectively. Out of the 62 servicemen on parade that first awards day Queen Victoria had the great honour of decorating more than 24 Irishmen.
To go through the history of all Irish VC’s here would be time consuming, as one will appreciate so let us mention just a number whom I have chosen;
Pte. (Later Sgt) Patrick Mylott VC, 84th Regt. Hollymount,
Pte Patrick McHale VC, 5th Regt. Killala,
Rough Rider Edward Jennings VC, Bengal Arty Ballinrobe,
Gunner Thos. Laughnan VC, Bengal Arty
Sgt Maj (Later Lt) Alex Young VC, Cape Police
Drummer Dudley Stagpoole VC 57th Regt, Kilunan,
Pte John Purcell VC 9th Lancers
Pte (later Colour Sgt) Patrick Greene VC 75th Regt
Pte (later Sgt) Thomas Grady VC, 4th Rifles Claddagh,
Pte John Duane/Divane VC 60th Rifles Loughrea,
Pte John Doogan VC 1st Dragoon Guards Aughrim,
And the two youngest VC’s
Hospital Apprentice (Later Apothecary)
Andrew Fitzgibbon VC
Indian Army. Age 15
Drummer Thomas Flynn VC 64th Regiment Age 15 Athlone,
Sgt Martin Doyle VC
And the Last Irish Recipient
L/Seaman James Joseph Magennis VC RN Belfast
SERGEANT MAJOR COUGHLAN VC
Sgt Major Cornelius Coughlan VC was born in Eyrecourt, Co. Galway in 1828. He joined the 75th Regiment (Later Gordon Highlanders) in 1846 and shipped to India the following year.
He was decorated with the VC for:
Venturing under a heavy fire with three others into a Serai occupied by the enemy in great numbers and removing Pte Corbett 75th Regt who lay severely wounded amongst a number of mutilated men, also for cheering and encouraging a party which hesitated to charge down a lane in Subgee Munday, Delhi, lined on each side with huts and raked by cross fire. Then entering a serai engaging with the enemy and destroying every man. For having also on the same occasion returned under crossfire to collect Dhoolies and carry off the wounded. A service which was successfully performed and for which he received great credit from the officers of the Regiment.
He served 21 years, 13 of which were in India, with this Regiment, reaching the rank of Sgt Maj.
He then served as a Sergeant Major in 3 Bn Connaught Rangers on the Permanent Staff for 21 years in Westport, Co. Mayo. Sgt Maj Coughlan VC lived on Altamont St., Westport for the duration of his service with the Connaught Rangers and until the end of his life. 40 years in total. He was a very popular and respected citizen of Westport.
The fact that this man served in an imperial army is not the point. The fact that he was denying the Indians their independence and imposing colonial rule was not the point. The point is that soldiers in combat are not thinking of ambition or lofty ideals, they are thinking of staying alive and their loyalty is to their comrades. The point is that Cornelius Coughlan VC proved his tremendous personal bravery by disregarding his personal safety and risked his life in horrendous circumstances in order to save others. The point is also that he again demonstrated his personal bravery and selflessness on another occasion when his officers were killed by taking over command and leading his wavering men to victory.
Sgt Maj Coughlan died peacefully in 1915 and was buried with full honours in Aughvale cemetery, near Westport, Co. Mayo, the grave to be marked in time.
The following year came 1916 and “a terrible beauty was born”. The political wind changed and blew and life was never the same again. The soldiers who wore the uniform that Cornelius wore were no longer welcome, his grave was consequently never marked and even he was eventually forgotten about, lying to this day 89 years later in an unmarked grave.
1918 CONSCRIPTION ACT
This was resisted strongly by the Nationalist leaders, primarily Sinn Féin and the Catholic Church. When the General Election was called in 1918 Sinn Féin candidates won the day. The old Nationalist Home Rule Party was wiped out forever. The majority of Irish people voted for an Independent Republic. In 1919 the duly democratically elected Dáil convened in the Mansion House in Dublin and the Declaration of Independence was announced.
History is what happened. We may not like some of it as it does not suit our notions of how we would have wanted it to be. But happen it did. Britain is our nearest neighbour in the biggest peace process around, the European Union. She is our biggest trading partner, our biggest contributor to our tourist industry and our biggest refuge for unemployment for generations. Her history in Ireland is a sad history, not at all covered in glory. We had our differences, we have our differences and I am sure that we in the future will have our differences but we also have shared traditions. We have shared traditions and shared military traditions on this island and in these islands.
We have to recognise how history was manipulated and how successive generations were manipulated with it. We should be proud to acknowledge the generations of soldiers that sacrificed themselves for what they believed in with the encouragement of Irish politicians. This is a tradition we share with Britain and we are all the richer for it. We are very proud of the traditions we share with other countries. Yes it means remembering our dead on Nov 11 like many other nations and yes it means sharing cenotaphs, memorials and symbols. These dead belong to us, to our people. They must be remembered. Let us as a nation, move on.
Last VC Recipient
The last Irish recipient of the VC was L/Seaman James Joseph Magennis from West Belfast.
Some details of his citation I want to read to you:
In the Johore Straits on 31 July 1945, L/Seaman Magennis was a diver on the XE3 midget submarine. He experienced great difficulty as he attached limpet mines to the Atago class Japanese Cruiser. The XE3 was jammed beneath the Cruiser and the diver’s hatch could not fully open. Magennis squeezed himself through the narrow opening, and had to remove barnacles from the bottom of the Cruiser before he could attach the mines. It was tiring work as he had to attach them in pairs by passing a line under the keel. He also was handicapped by a small leak of oxygen, causing bubbles to reach the surface. He completed the job, placing all mines in position, before returning to the submarine. On withdrawing, Lt Fraser discovered that one of the limpet carriers could not be jettisoned. L/Sman Magennis, despite being exhausted, immediately volunteered to go out again and free it. It took 7 minutes of nerve-racking work, but he managed to release it. He displayed great courage and showed no regard for his own safety.
When he came home from WW2 his own community spurned him because he was a “Brit” and he was just as spurned by the Unionist community because he was a “Taidhg”! He was to “both sides” an embarrassment. He died in 1985. Just 19 years ago. Who remembers? Who ever heard of him? A monument was erected in Belfast recently to perpetuate his memory but ask anybody in the streets of the Republic if they know of him?
Times are changing however
One notable group of people on this island who has never been tarnished by a closed mind is the Military History Society of Ireland. This illustrious body of ladies and gentlemen has since its inception, devoted themselves to the study of the Irishman at war. Religion, politics etc., never have clouded their study and presentation or attitude.
Now we also have the Military Heritage Trust of Ireland whose remit it is to perpetuate the memory of the Irish soldier. This distinguished joint North / South body is making tremendous strides to redress the neglect of the past 80+ years.
Another historic landmark will be the opening of the Military Museum in Collins Bks. Dublin. This should be a magnificent contribution to our neglected Military Heritage. The designers and planners are to be complimented and the content should be excellent. However, the main objective should be to portray the life and death of our soldiers throughout the ages and how they fought and suffered in the horrors of combat. People should leave this museum feeling shocked by the horrors of war and humbled by the story of the Irish soldier.
The plans for the Boyne Battlefield, so full of promise and enormous potential must also be fully realised. The plans initiated must be brought to completion.
And of course we have a progressive company Military Heritage Tours who is passionately dedicated to the education of all in the matter of Irish military heritage and the pursuit of peace in these islands through the presentation of unbiased history.
We organise tours, lectures, and seminars for all and we represent all traditions on the island.
Education is the key. Once our history is presented warts and all, and once it is taken out of the hands of the propagandists and manipulators, then we are on the road to mutual respect and peace and away from tribalism and hatred.
We are most privileged to be present here today. Today is a most historic one and part of the beginning of a new future. Would any one of us have thought that we would be so privileged to see it?
Here we are in the beautiful West of Ireland beneath the slopes of Croagh Patrick to honour an Irish soldier long forgotten about. Here we are Irish and British, Catholic, Protestant and probably Dissenter, Irish Army and British Army and Irish soldiers of both. The Irish Minister for Defence and the British Ambassador. The gravestones of Irish history surround us. Poor Famine victims with their poor un-etched little stones. Officers and men of Irish Regiments of the British Army. A War of Independence and Irish Army General later to be killed in the Civil War, Brig Gen Joe Ring and veterans of the Second World War.
We are here not only to dedicate Sgt Maj Cornelius Coughlan VC but a new understanding, a new tolerance, a new forgiveness and a new beginning. I think Cornelius will be pleased! Our forgotten and much maligned dead, are also watching us now and are just as pleased. But they also wait!
It gives me so much pleasure to hand over to the Minister for Defence to dedicate and unveil this headstone.
SPEECH BY MINISTER FOR DEFENCE MR. MICHAEL SMITH T.D.
At the Dedication of the Grave of Sergeant Major Cornelius Coughlan
Aughavale Cemetry, Westport, Co. Mayo.
We have travelled here today to commemorate an Irish hero. A soldier whose commitment to the troops under his command was so complete that he was willing to risk his own life to rescue an injured colleague. An Irishman whose leadership, initiative and courage were so exceptional that they earned him the Victoria Cross. That his heroism took place some four and a half thousand miles from his country is incidental - heroism is heroism whether it takes place in one’s back garden or at the opposite end of the world.
That he participated in a military campaign that many people may frown upon today should not overly concern us either. This afternoon’s ceremony is not a statement about 19th century politics or the rights and wrongs of the British presence in India. It is simply an acknowledgment of the bravery of a forgotten Irish soldier. We are all familiar with the cliché that hindsight is 20 - 20 vision, but in fairness to Sergeant Major Cornelius Coughlan - and indeed to the sixty other brave Irishmen who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the military campaign that followed the Indian Mutiny - we should consider his actions in the light of the times in which he was living - rather than seeking to judge him through the steely eye of complacent retrospection.
The Ireland of today is a vastly different place to the country that Cornelius Coughlan would have left behind him in the mid-1840s. He moved from his East Galway birthplace just as the potato famines were beginning to wreak their harvest of horror on hundreds of thousands of his fellow Irishmen and women. No parish in the West of Ireland was spared the ravages of the famine - indeed here in County Mayo, where 90% of the population depended on the potato for sustenance - things were particularly grim.
Like countless Irishmen and Irishwomen, Cornelius Coughlan left his home place and his loved ones and set sail for Britain. And like many thousands of Irishmen before him and since, he then joined the British Army. From then on, like all good soldiers, he did his duty. To paraphrase Lord Tennyson: “His was not to question why, his was but to do and die.” Happily for Sergeant Major Coughlan, V. C., he didn’t die, but returned safely to Ireland where he lived peacefully in Westport for 40 years before passing away in 1915, aged 87. But another Irish hero who followed in his footsteps only a few years ago was not as fortunate - Lance Corporal Ian Malone, a Dubliner who joined the Irish Guards in 1997, was killed in action in Basra in March 2003 aged only 28. I was moved to hear that, earlier this week, Ambassador Eldon you presented Lance Corporal Malone’s Iraq Medal to his mother.
Coughlan and Malone - two proud Irish soldiers from different times - linked by their bravery and the honour that each brought to his regiment.
I mentioned earlier that many of you have travelled long distances to attend today’s events. It is worth adding that Ireland too has travelled far to arrive here - for today’s ceremony is not simply another journey down a well-travelled path. Indeed for much of the past eighty years, the very idea of such a ceremony would probably have been unthinkable. Up to recently, there was a tendency in Ireland to discreetly overlook the many brave Irish men and women who travelled abroad to fight in foreign wars - to tiptoe past their memory. I am pleased that those days have passed, for to me, this indicates an Ireland that is maturing and coming to terms with the many dimensions of our turbulent past.
Today’s dedication ceremony is another small, but significant, step in our steady progress towards becoming a more inclusive and tolerant society. The men who served in the various Regiments of the British Army came from every corner of Ireland. Among them were Protestants, Catholics, Unionists and Nationalists, their differences transcended by a common commitment not to any flag but to their comrades and their Regiment.
In the history of Irish conflict, respect for the memory of one set of heroes has often come at the expense of respect for the memory of others. As former Taoiseach Sean Lemass, who himself was a protagonist in Ireland’s fight for independence, said thirty years ago- "In later years it was common - and I was also guilty in this respect - to question the motives of those who joined the British forces, but it must in their honour and in fairness to their memory, be said, that they were motivated by the highest purpose."
But, highest purpose or not, their memory was to fell victim to the maelstrom of events that led to the coming into being of the Irish State. The suppression of memory and the withholding of respect have hurt all sides, have distorted our perspectives and have skewed our relationships with some of our fellow Irishmen. Today we are keenly aware that if we are to build the culture of consensus promised by the Good Friday Agreement then we need to create mutually respectful space for differing traditions, differing loyalties and for all of our heroes and heroines.
All over Ireland there are relics of our shared past - places and communities that cherish the historic links which are part of their identity. The history of this island is a shared history - with different sets of memories - different interpretations of events - and different perspectives on the outcomes of those events. The pages of our shared history deal with a complex set of relationships - giving accounts of the storms and calms - of the victories and defeats - and of the fortunes and misfortunes of the peoples and traditions of this island.
The true measure of our success as a modern country - as a self-confident and mature people with a willingness to embrace diversity - is in our ability to recognise the different traditions and cultures that today make up this country. We must share in the commemoration of their histories - accepting that each has a right to their heritage and that theirs is a part of ours. Each has shaped the other - sometimes subtly and sometimes crudely - and each forms an integral part of our shared history and heritage.
We hope that the goal of peace promised by the Good Friday Agreement will be our gift to the next generation. We know that the overwhelming majority of the people in both parts of the island of Ireland wish us to pursue the path of peace, to dismantle the culture of conflict and to build a culture of consensus with space and respect for all.
There is a saying in Irish that a good beginning is half the work- tosnú maith - leath na hoibre. Well, we have made a good start but it truly is only half of the work. Building a new partnership between North and South, between the two traditions in Northern Ireland and between the two neighbouring islands is the task now entrusted to this generation.
Events such as todays do not invite us to forget the past but rather to remember it differently. We are paying our respects to the memory of an Irishman who was; above all else, a brave and steadfast soldier who has earned the right to his place among our island’s cherished dead. Sergeant Major Coughlan, V. C. is every bit as much an Irishman as are Lance Corporal Ian Malone, those who fought for her independence and those who fought against each other in our country’s civil war.
Before I finish, I would like to welcome one of our distinguished guests - Mr. Andrew McKinley M. P. who, I believe, deserves a special mention. For it was through his efforts that the “Hero’s Return” scheme was made available to Irish ex-servicemen who live in Ireland. Under this scheme many Irish-based ex-servicemen have been able to revisit the foreign battlefields where they fought and I know that this has meant a great deal to them. So thank you Ian, and well done!
Finally, this ceremony simply couldn’t have taken place without the vision and drive of Captain Donal Buckley. Congratulations Donal, and thank you for making today’s events possible. It is my sincere wish that this ceremony will contribute, in some small way, to enriching our understanding of some of the complexities of our history.
And now it is my great pleasure to dedicate this grave of Sergeant Major Cornelius Coughlan V. C.