Christy Grimes and the Connaught Rangers
Anyone who has seen the movie Black 47 will probably wonder why the hero of the picture Feeny, a British Army deserter, could also kill other British soldiers, judges and landlords without compunction. The answer lies in how British Army regiments were raised and deployed in Ireland prior to 1922 when those regiments raised in the Free State then handed in their colours to the King and disbanded. Feeny’s regiment, the Connaught Rangers was one such regiment and although notionally it was raised in Connaught and its home depot was Galway city, recruitment to the regiment was from across Ireland and during World War One other British cities too. British army policy was to deploy Irish regiments away from Ireland as the volatile political situation in Ireland could lead to mutiny amongst the ranks. In fact the Connaught Rangers did mutiny in India in 1920 and 21 years old James Daly was the last British soldier to be executed at Dagshai Prison on 2 November 1920 for mutiny as the regiment learned of the Black and Tans operations in their homeland. So Feeny the Connaught Ranger coming home to famine Ireland before going on a revenge spree when he realised the injustice of British policy in Ireland is not beyond the realms of the imagination and also makes for a great movie too.
For almost all the Irish Regiments the Easter Rising became the defining event that changed their history forever. For 200 years the British Army was an escape from the poverty of rural Ireland or the slums of Dublin and Belfast yet post 1916 recruitment to the southern based regiments began to dry up leading to those regiments reducing and amalgamating to survive the huge losses of WWI. Their sacrifices, lauded at the time, became forgotten in the shadow of Pearse and Connolly and although some soldiers fought and died as hero’s at Gallipolli and the Somme, their sacrifice was shunned even shamed after the war. So the regimental story of Connaught Ranger’s such as Christopher (Christy) Grimes who was killed in Vere Street in the 1941 Blitz has been almost wiped from the pages of history until now.
Christy Grimes was born in the Galway City area in 1877 and enlisted in the Connaught Rangers around 1895 just in time for the Boar War where he served with the Connaught’s. He was deployed with the regiment to India where the regiment meted out rough justice to the natives and who were renown for their ferocity in battle, in fact they were known as ‘the Devil’s Own.’ Christy gained service medals which he kept proudly until the night he was killed but like almost all Catholic ex-servicemen he didn’t talk about his military service. He retired from the British Army with a pension around 1912 yet when World War One broke out he decided to enlist again to fight for Ireland and Home Rule.
Christy enlisted at Blackdown aged 38 which was an incredible age to re-enlist in any army during wartime and he probably was only allowed to re-enlist due to his previous war service. Nevertheless, Christy must have been a tough man to survive another army boot camp and training for the Western Front. Christy’s pay on enlistment was the standard shilling a day and he received an extra 3 pence a day when he volunteered for the Machine Gun Corps. Christy fought throughout 1916 at the Somme, Guillemont, Ginchy and finally Cambrai. He was one of the Connaught’s who marched to Windsor Castle to hand in the Regimental Colours in 1920 when he finally retired from the Army and he and his wife moved to a small house in the York Street area of Belfast to live out a peaceful retirement and they had a son (Christy Jnr) and a daughter in 1921.
Christy must have expected that he had seen enough of war however Belfast became a target once again during the second world war and the city suffered terrible losses in two accurate attacks by the German Luftwaffe in 1941. Christy and his wife and son were sitting at their fire on the night of the 15th April 1941 when a German bomb aimed at York Street Mill exploded and topped a huge factory wall on top of the houses in Vere Street.
Christopher Jnr, who got a job as the projectionist in the Classic Cinema in Belfast, remembers reassuring his mother before a loud crash was heard and he became buried below his crushed house. Unaware of the fate of his mother and father, Christy Jnr, who was presumed dead by his rescuers, was dragged out and taken to the Mater Hospital Belfast, where he was thrown onto a pile of bodies outside the hospital. He found salvation when a Priest who was walking by noticed he was alive and took him inside the hospital to be treated. When Christopher came around he was paralyzed down the left-hand side of his body. Christopher was taken into the Mater hospital but as the next air raid loomed overhead the hospital was evacuated and Christopher was taken from his ward and placed in an air raid shelter as German bombs rained down on North Belfast. When he was returned, the window above his bed had been smashed by a bomb and a roof beam was lying across his hospital bed. Christy Jnr had escaped death a second time! His father and mother however were not so lucky. Christopher (Senior) was killed outright and his mothers body was never found however its believed she might be buried in the mass grave at Milltown Cemetery around 10 yards from Christy Snr’s grave. The 5 medals which Christy Snr won for his years of active service were stolen when the family house was raided and have never been found.
Christy Jnr left hospital to live with his sister and return to his work in the Classic cinema where he became the manager. Yet the memories of the events that took place on that night in 1941 have never left Christy Jnr. The cinema closed in 1961 and Christy Jnr worked the next ten years in the bus industry. He had by then married and subsequently has had 2 sons of his own. Trouble again however would catch up with him. Belfast in 1973 was experiencing the height of the sectarian ‘Troubles’ and the Grimes family decided to leave their home in Belfast and move to Co. Clare where they still live to this day.
Christy lies to this day in an grave in Milltown Cemetery and in another irony he does not have a British Service headstone and his grave is not looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Association. But a few years ago I and a few other history scholars had the honour of marking Christy’s grave and sacrifice amongst others and an Irish piper played a lament for all those Irish who fell in battle. It was a remarkable day that remembered such remarkable people. The most fitting Gaelic tribute to the sacrifice of Irishmen and women who fought and died in the many wars of Britain serving in the British Army is inscribed on the large Celtic crosses erected on the battlefields of WWI. ‘Gloire De agus Onoir na hEireann’ (for the honour and Glory of Ireland.)
Brown’s Square March 2020