Living in Lurgan during Great War

Colin Cousins with the cover of his new book. INLM3211-135gc
Colin Cousins with the cover of his new book. INLM3211-135gc

LURGAN man Colin Cousins has written a book detailing the social, economic and military impact of the First World War in County Armagh.

Lurgan features prominently with archived copies of the ‘MAIL’ providing a useful research tool for this hard-backed historical book that seeks to go beyond the ‘blood and bullets’.

There’s plenty of stories centred on Lurgan during the Great War as Colin attempts to paint a picture of life on the homefront during and after the conflict.

Colin grew up in Mourneview and first developed a passion for the Great War through his grandfather’s stories.

His grandfather, John Cousins, served with the 13th Royal Irish Rifles.

Colin said: “Early conversations that I had with my granddad were always about the First World War. He survived the Battles at the Somme, Ypres, Messines

“His brother James was killed on September 7, 1914. He was with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

“My grandfather joined in the same month in which his brother was killed.

“He’d have enlisted when he was 16. When he came home he was around 20. He’d have been in his late 60s and 70s whenever he was telling me the stories.”

Colin said there wasn’t that much about his family in the book as it focuses on County Armagh. His grandfather and great uncle came from Dollingstown in County Down where volunteers would have transferred into the British Army via the 13th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. In Lurgan it was more common to have transferred into the 9th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Colin himself served with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the West Indies, the Arctic and the USA.

Following retirement from the service, he completed a PhD in Modern History at Queen’s University and is a member of the Birmingham Centre for First World War Studies, the Western Front Association and the Military History Society of Ireland.

Colin, who is married and now living in Richhill, told how he came to write ‘Armagh and the Great War’: “It had its genesis during my Phd,” he said.

“I’ve spent the last two years re-writing it and making it accessible for anyone who has an interest in the First World War. I’ve tried to make it both academic and accessible.

“I’ve tried to relate it to stories about local people. It’s based firmly in the towns and villages around County Armagh.”

While Irish historians have provided some excellent accounts of Ireland’s military involvement in the Great War, little is known about how those at home endured the conflict. In his book, Colin argues that the Great War affected everyone, including those who were indifferent to its progress or opposed to its prosecution.

He added: “It’s not a blood and bullets book. It’s a social history of what occurred in Armagh between 1914 and 1918.

“It’s about the people - where they came from, what made them enlist and what made them stay behind.”

Included in the book is the amazing story of the bravery of Lurgan man Tom McAlindon, a Catholic serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles.

There’s also mention of 14 men from George Street in Lurgan who gave their lives in battle, including five brothers from the same family. To put it in context of the overall loss during the Great War, George Street only had 47 houses.

Colin details how, while Belfast was involved in munitions, Lurgan was very much a linen town and during the war the linen took on a new significance, being used to construct aircraft. Some of the linen factories even had contracts with the French Government.

Colin commented: “You would think most of the resources would have been in County Armagh, but I spent a great deal of time on research in London, Dublin and Belfast.”

He said archives of the Lurgan Mail were one of the best resources when researching what life was like in County Armagh during the First World War.

“The ‘MAIL’ was the link between the battlefront and the homefront,” he said.

“The ‘MAIL’ published lists of soldiers and what became of them in the conflict. They had an extensive database. I think the Lurgan Mail was probably the most thorough of all the papers.”

He added: “Often letters from commanding officers would come home to families telling them their loved ones had died. These letters often found their way into the hands of local papers, sometimes before some families members had even read them. The ‘MAIL’ decided these letters were too personal and exercised a censorship of these letters while some papers couldn’t get enough of them.”

Colin will be hosting a book launch at Newforge Country Club in Belfast on August 18.

His book entitled Armagh and the Great War is published by The History Press Ireland.

It is available at a hardback price of £21.99. Stockists include, Amazon, Waterstones and WH Smith.