Stories of the Cleenish Island Soldiers

A new film shines a light on the First World War veterans whose hardships were fatally prolonged by a remote Co Fermanagh resettlement

In 1918, at the end of the First World War, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George promised returning servicemen a land fit for heroes. The Irish Land (Provision For Sailors and Soldiers) Act, 1919 allowed for ex-servicemen from north and south Ireland to apply for housing under a scheme funded by the treasury and administered by the Irish Land Commission. The men were advanced money to buy homes and in some cases farmland with low interest loans.

On Cleenish Island in Upper Lough Erne, where St. Sinnell founded a monastery around 550AD and where Columbanus was a scholar, one such resettlement scheme provided eleven holdings of between 26 and 40 acres, each with a superior two-storey farmhouse, stone-built and slated with Bangor blue tiles. The builder was John Bloomfield of Brookeborough who made his contract viable by quarrying the stone on the island. The farms had some of the best fattening land in Fermanagh.

There was however one major drawback to this apparently idyllic site. In the absence of a bridge to the mainland, the only transport for man and beast consisted of a heavy wooden cot and later an iron ‘float’. Despite best intentions, the project failed to take into consideration the underlying poor health of the men, many of whom had been wounded and mentally scarred during the war. By 1956 when a bridge was finally constructed only one of the original eleven, Johnny Balfour, remained on the island.

A new film entitled Making It Home, directed by Michael Brown and commissioned by the Bellanaleck Local History Group who carried out the research, reveals the individual stories of the war veterans, the hardships they faced and their ultimate plight.

The ex-servicemen were required to farm the land, make a profit and repay their loans, but because the island houses had cost twice the average price to build, the annuity amounted to one pound an acre which was big money in those days.

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During a particularly poor summer in 1924 little hay was won and malnourished cattle were struck down with liver fluke. A hurricane caused extensive damage on the island. The islanders tried to bring their hardships to the attention of the authorities and campaigned to have a bridge built. A petition signed by all eleven men was sent to Sir James Craig at Stormont Castle in February 1926.  

The Bellanaleck Local History Group unearthed an internal memo written by civil servants which states somewhat callously, 'these particular men were given the most advantageous terms possible and the situation of their holdings was taken into full consideration in fixing the resale prices to them on which their purchase and annuities were based. They are at present no worse off than any other tenants save perhaps like men of their class.'

In reply to a further plea for help, a letter was addressed to one of the settlers, Thomas McAloon, who had served with the Irish guards, had been hospitalised five times during the war and was now having to row his six school children to and from the mainland twice a day. It read, 'I am desired by the Prime Minister to point out that the matter of the terms of agreement is entirely one for the Imperial Government.'

Nevertheless, in 1930, Lord Craigavon did visit the island but rather than sanction the building of a bridge he ordered the refurbishment of the float to include a winch. Still heavy and perilous to handle in rough weather, this addition did little to alleviate the isolation of the farmers who needed ready access to the creamery, shops, places of worship and schools.

In this centenary year of the Battle of the Somme during which the 36th Ulster Division lost 2,000 men, the film serves as a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by brave individuals and their families. Cleenish settler Alexander Boyd was one of six young men from the same Fermanagh parish who went over the top on July 1 1916, the first day of the battle.

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Alexander Boyd

All five of Boyd’s friends were killed and Boyd himself was left for dead on the battlefield but was found to be alive when he was taken back behind the lines. He had been badly wounded but he recovered sufficiently to serve at Messines, Ypres and Cambrai. Like so many who fought in the war, Boyd lived for the rest of his life with the physical consequences of his injuries and the memory of traumatic sights on the battlefield.

Clemence Cluff, who fought at the Somme, Messines and Ypres, was badly gassed in the trenches. At the end of the war he married and his three daughters were born on Cleenish island but he died prematurely in 1929 from the effects of lung damage.

For the most part the war heroes refused to talk about their experiences.  When asked about the war, another settler, Henry Carruthers, would say, 'Have you nothing else to talk about.'  Carruthers joined up along with two brothers, one of whom was killed on the first day of the Somme and the other died of heat stroke in Mesopotamia. Henry was wounded at Thiepval and later suffered severe frost bite which permanently affected the circulation in his legs so that he walked on his heels. 

On Cleenish, where he lived with his sister, he was reclusive but he loved gardening and planted trees around the house. The snowdrops which carpeted his front lawn still appear each year and were photographed by Mark Rhead who has made a special study of the derelict houses on the island for his Master’s degree in Photography from Nottingham University. After 16 years Carruthers moved to a small home in the village of Bellanaleck. Although the cause of his death in the County hospital in 1950 aged 68 was noted as heart failure, it is believed he took his own life.

Francis Brennan and his under-age brother enlisted with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1912 and in 1914 were part of the expeditionary force who went to France. Brennan fought at Gallipoli but was invalided back to hospital in England. He returned to service but again suffered a gunshot wound to the left thigh. Brennan’s farm on the island was sold in 1927. He married and lived in Glasgow where he died in 1964.

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Thomas Bannon, who joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1916, had been severely traumatised during an incident when he and a fellow soldier were trapped in a deep shell hole and only escaped with great effort. Suffering from shell shock and living by himself on his island farm, he found he could no longer cope and attempted to take his own life.

In April 1923 the Fermanagh Times reported that Bannon had slit his throat from ear to ear. He was admitted to the mental hospital in Omagh and released some months later into the care of his brother. He was later re-admitted to the same hospital where he died, aged 74, in 1951.

Two of the settlers, Francis Suttle and James McNally, had become friends in the trenches when McNally saved Suttle’s life. A first class marksman and army boxing champion, McNally joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1904 and served for six years in India. On the Western front he was wounded twice and in March 1918 was taken prisoner and sent to Cassel. He escaped but fell asleep on a train and was recaptured, returning home when the war ended. Suttle suffered from chronic bronchial asthma due to the effects of gas poisoning and when he eventually gave up his holding on the island due to ill health, he settled in Clabby.

Throughout the war, Humphrey Boyd saw action with the North Irish Horse. In the film, Australian historian Philip Tardiff, author of the book The North Irish Horse in the Great War, who discovered Boyd’s photograph in a collection of glass plates found in a barn in France, arrives in Fermanagh to meet with Boyd’s grandson Geoffrey. They visit the former Boyd house on Cleenish and Geoffrey recalls being told how his grandfather would wade across on his horse to the mainland shore at Tamlaght.

Another cavalryman, Thomas Dickson, was shot through the left shoulder and seriously wounded at Ypres. Along with his war medals, his family have kept the small New Testament bible which he carried in his breast pocket, visibly spattered with blood stains.

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Humphrey Boyd (seated, right)

Dickson’s injuries left him with little power in his left arm. His grandson Willie Magee remembers the way his grandfather used to rest his silver cigarette case on his knee, take out a cigarette, then tap it on the case before lighting it, all with his right hand. Dickson sold his island farm in 1927 and developed the family quarry business on the mainland. He maintained his interest in horses, however, and owned a racehorse named Fever which was ridden by Lester Piggott.

Johnny Balfour served with the Royal Irish Rangers. Though he rarely talked about the war, he was interviewed in the mid 1970s by Helen Madden for the BBC radio programme Up Country. In a most affecting extract he summed up the horror of his war experiences thus: 'I seen them blew into bits, legs blew off, arms blew off, and I seen them lying knee to knee, the dead. The Divil can throw nothing at me that I haven’t seen already.'

In one of the most moving scenes in the film, relatives representing all of the settlers take part in a tree planting ceremony on the island. Collected from Flanders battlefields where Irish soldiers fought and fell, the soil used to plant the oak tree is presented by Nic van der Marliere, the Government of Flanders General Representative in London. He speaks of the sacrifices made by Irish soldiers and the harrowing trauma suffered by so many of the survivors, men like the Cleenish settlers.

'Men returned from hell and lived here in these beautiful surroundings. For them the war didn’t end in 1918; the consequences endured for many years after that. Everyone should keep remembering the sacrifices they made for freedom, for human rights and for civil society. Let us not forget them.'

Making It Home will be shown at the Ardhowen Theatre on September 9. To book tickets visit www.ardowen.com. An by exhibition which includes Mark Rhead’s photographs will be staged later in the month at the newly refurbished Enniskillen Castle Museum. For news and updates go to www.enniskillencastle.co.uk.