Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Wednesday 27 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
# Great War
Family legends, ghosts, and nuns: The real Irish lives of WWI
Meet Jack Leslie, aged 97.

THE FASCINATING STORIES of Irish people who served in the First World War are told in a new exhibition organised by the National Library of Ireland.

They reveal lives touched by the tragedy of war, and that hundreds of families were left scarred by the fighting.

The curator, Nikki Ralston, said: “In this exhibition is we’re dealing with an enormous subject and really complex subject, and the responses people had to the First World War were in themselves very varied and very complicated.”


“The war was something that impacted across Irish society”, she added.

The exhibition gives an overview of the huge event, but also takes visitors to the very personal level of first-hand accounts.

“We have to recognise that those who lived 100 years ago, their thoughts and opinions were as wide and nuanced as ours might be,” said Ralston.

You can find out more about the exhibition here. We spoke to some of people connected to the four featured in the exhibition, and here’s what they told us.

A ghost, a sword, and a castle

NO FEE WORLD WAR IRELAND 3 Marc O'Sullivan Marc O'Sullivan

“I’m 97 years old,” booms Jack Leslie. “I was captured in the First World War, and was a prisoner of war for five years in Germany.” He’s from one of Ireland’s most prominent Anglo-Irish families, of the Castle Leslie estate in Co Monaghan.

A strikingly tall figure, he’s just one of the Leslie family members to have fought in last century’s major wars. A fighter in World War II, he followed in the footsteps of his uncle Norman, who fought – and died – in World War I.

Norman’s life is featured in the NLI exhibition. “It’s quite a moving thing,” said Mark Leslie, Jack’s nephew.

Norman is very much remembered and revered. His presence is still about the place, people see him from time to time at Castle Leslie.

“History is about ordinary people and about everyone. History affects everyone.”

Mark described Norman as “a very popular ladies man who had a very nice life, and yet curiously he was impelled from his letters – there was a very strong sense that he was going to die.”

“I think late Victorian Europe, and this wasn’t just Ireland or Britain or Germany, people got bored by all this Victorian smugness. And the leisured classes, where I came from, felt that their life had very little meaning and when this war came along, suddenly they felt ‘here’s something bigger than me’.

“There was this huge sense, from his letters he said individuals don’t matter – better to die with honour than not be tested. ‘This is my chance to be tested as a man, to show what I’m made of.’

“Suddenly here was a chance to say ‘oh, this is a real war, with real enemies: this has real meaning’. He said ‘both my life and my death will give meaning’.

“We had a strong sense of him as an individual because of the miracle of his sword coming back. The very sword he was carrying when he was leading men fell into the mud and was lost. And 18 years later a Belgian farmer found the sword while ploughing, found the name of the Great Duke of Connaught giving it to Norman Leslie, was an honest farmer and handed it in to the authorities, and it found its way back to Ireland.

“And so we feel this is a lucky sword.

NO FEE WORLD WAR IRELAND 5 Marc O'Sullivan Marc O'Sullivan

“The message of the sword is Ireland is part of Europe, members of our family died in the Napoleonic wars, the Crimean wars. It wasn’t about being British or Irish, it was about being European, and a European destiny.

The sword was said to say to my family: ‘unfinished business’.

So the next generation of the family, shortly after the sword [was recovered] were inspired to go fight in the Second World War, to fight Hitler. So my father was a spitfire pilot, Jack was in the Irish Guards, Bill was a submarine commander, my aunt Anita was a secret agent. And the sword was very much like King Arthur’s sword.

Norman’s ghost was seen the day before he died, at his home, said Mark. A dinner was prepared for him, as it was presumed he had gone for a walk. But he was never seen again, and a telegram appeared a week later saying he had died. His ghost has subsequently been seen in the house, said his grand-nephew.

The nurse who became a nun


Mary Martin was a widow and mother of 12 from Monkstown in Co Dublin. She had three children who served overseas: two sons, one of whom died in the war, and one daughter, Marie, who was a nurse and survived.

Some time after the war, Marie became nun, and then went on to found the Medical Missionaries of Mary in 1937. Sister Isabelle Smyth is in the Medical Missionaries of Mary, and her research into Marie Martin’s life was used in the NLI exhibition. Here’s what she has discovered:

“I discovered that she had been not only a VAD – that’s the Voluntary Aid Detachment – nurse during WWI, she served in Malta from October 1915 for six months.

And then she was called up immediately again and she went to France and she served during the Battle of the Somme, which is the most famous, or infamous battle of the first war. She was nursing in a field hospital on the coast in France and she was there through the whole of the Battle of the Somme.

More significantly, her younger brother Charlie, he was killed in the war, in December 1915 and that absolutely changed her world view.

They were from a well-off family and had a very good social life. And if the war had not come, she would have gone on with that responsible but enjoyable life. The experience of nursing the sick and the wounded changed her, and it had to understand the role of healing of medicine and nursing when people are sick. She just embraced that.

The day she got the news that [Charlie] was dead, [six months after he was declared missing], confirming it, it was the second day of the Battle of the Somme, 2 July 1916.

She had been doing extra hours that day with these terribly wounded soldiers coming back from the front. When she went off duty that evening she got a letter from her mother, confirming that Charlie was dead.

She just said: “How difficult it is to think we will never see his face again”.


We have 40 letters she wrote to her mother while she was in Malta, 1915 – 1916, and then we have more letters she sent during the Battle of the Somme.

She also had a boyfriend in the war, Gerald, and every day they posted up the lists of wounded from the battlefronts. And every day the girls would all go and read the lists of wounded. And she would be hoping she wouldn’t see her two brothers – Tommy, who survived, he was wounded twice, and Charlie who was killed – and her boyfriend Gerald.

She probably would have gone on and married Gerald. Except her whole world view changed and she saw she had to do something different. In 1917 she was in prayer one day… and she decided, no, marriage is not for me. She met [Gerald] the next day.

She didn’t know what she should do, and it took 20 years before she was able to achieve what her dream was.

She died in 1975, she was nearly 83 when she died.

Like all of them, she never spoke about the war. We are just lucky to have this collection of letters.”

Read: These are the real-life stories of Ireland’s World War I fighters>

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.