RIFLEMAN WILLIAM KERR. KILLED IN ACTION, 16TH AUGUST 1917
As a child in the 1950s I was always fascinated by a plaque that hung in the hallway of our Andersonstown home. It was a wooden shield, the sort that is given out for victory on the football pitch, and in the centre was a round brass disc which looked like a large penny. It was inscribed with the name of ‘William Kerr’. When asked, my mother told me that it was a medal that her uncle had received for fighting in the First World War. Her father had given it to her because in all of the Kerr family of twelve children, she was the one who polished it. No one in her family had talked much about him. Indeed in the 1970s in West Belfast not very many people talked freely about family connections with the British Army. In the course of time the medal, which I now know to be the ‘Death Penny’, issued to the families of all those who perished in the First World War, passed to me and hung in my hallway, a link with the past that became more and more important as in turn each of my mother’s sisters and brothers, bar one, passed away.
Eighteen months ago it was suggested to me that I write a new play for the centenary of the First World War. I knew comparatively little about that conflict beyond ‘the lions led by donkeys’ cliché, the war poets and, of course, Frank McGuiness’s master-piece, ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.’ I knew about the pity of it all but very little about the involvement of Irishmen, north and south, in the conflict. But I did know about Uncle Willie and I wanted to know more.
In the past year the research process for this play has been like a crash course in the contribution of Irishmen, loyalist and nationalist, to the First World War. Whilst the play is underpinned by historical detail gleaned from academic sources, it is inspired by the personal stories I encountered in archives, diaries and from the families whose great grand- fathers and great-uncles appear in the play. I am indebted to Mrs Jean Lamb who first told me that my Great-Uncle Willie went to War with her uncle, Herbie McBratney, and other young men who used to gather round a shop at the top of Forthriver Gardens on the Springfield Road. I also offer thanks to Judith Blair who provided details about the life and death of her Great-Uncle, Tom Martin.
My cousin Deirdre Brennan has been an invaluable support in pointing me towards the stories of her grand-father and great-uncle, Robert and Michael Brennan. My own search for Willie has yielded tantalising fragments of information which raise as many questions as they answer. I was able to trace his war journey by following the movements and engagements of his regiment, the 14th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, throughout the course of the war. A trip to Lijssenhoek Military Cemetery in Belgium where he is buried provided more information. However, the central dynamic of this play was suggested by the fact that in the midst of the Home Rule Crises, a time of great unrest between Nationalists and Unionists in Ireland, William Kerr, a West Belfast Catholic, chose to join Carson’s predominantly Unionist 36th Ulster Division, instead of one of the Irish regiments… And thereby hangs the tale.
Willie Kerr and Tom Martin were real persons, that much we know for certain. They lived two doors away from each other in Forthriver Gardens. We know they were in the same battalion and company. It is highly likely that they were friends. Tom’s death in a trench collapse in the lead up to the Somme is well documented. As for Willie, I was able to ascertain that he was killed near St Julien during the battle of Langemarck and that he was dead on arrival at Remy Siding Field Hospital. There were so many deaths that day that records were sparse. Consequently I could only guess how he might have died as suggested by the facts that are known. Gerry Brennan and Ernie Brady are entirely fictional characters but based upon the experiences of real people. The job of the historical dramatist, as opposed to that of the historian, is to mould , lovingly and respectfully, the flesh of the imagination on to the bones of the facts. This is what I have tried to do.
For me the act of writing and directing Medal in the Drawer has been a reclamation of my family history which has never been properly commemorated. What you will see tonight seeks to rectify that situation.