The Utterly Random Side of Life

There’s a very bad dose of flu going around at the moment. Thankfully most people who catch it see the effects wear off within a few days. They may miss work or school but there’s no lasting damage. It was not, and may not always be, thus.

Whenever you read an article about flu, the thing which is always mentioned is the 1918 flu pandemic (a.k.a. Spanish flu). This was flu at its most deadly, infecting as it did one third of the entire human population at the time. The first confirmed outbreak was in Kansas, USA but in a few short months it swept through every country in the world. (Including the Artic and remote Pacific islands) 15% of those who caught it died. Unusually, the victims were adults aged 20-40, rather than the very young and old which are normally worst hit. Estimates of the worldwide death toll range from 50 -100 million and in county Clare too, the infection visited every parish. In Newmarket-on-fergus, it brought about one particular death which illustrates the utterly random side of life.

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Four years earlier…

June 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated by a Serbian Nationalist, precipitating a chain of events which leads to World War I.

August 1914. The Clare hurling team arrive at the Markets Field in Limerick for their Munster semi-final. The game must be refixed however, as the British army have commandeered the pitch for war drills.

October 1914. Clare beat Laois to win an All-Ireland for the first time. There are four Newmarket-on-fergus players on the team. Jim Clancy, Rob Doherty, John Fox and Jim Guerin. The latter is the youngest of the quartet and hero of the hour having scored three goals.

I imagine these four men in that moment, at the pinnacle of sporting success, a summit which no Clare team will reach again for 81 years. Presumably they smile, laugh and slap one another on the back. Probably they twirl the ends of their moustaches. All four have spent their lives up to that point in Newmarket and been hurling together for several years, winning Clare County medals two years previously. What they cannot know is that fate will soon take them in different directions and they, all four, will never play together again.

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Jim Clancy was a stonemason. He lived and worked in Newmarket for the rest of a long life before dying in his 80’s. He would win four more county titles and be the last remaining survivor of this Clare team, still being selected in 1928.

Rob Doherty worked as a labourer, a gamekeeper, then on the railways. He won one more county championship with Newmarket then spent a season playing with Thurles Sarsfields. After that he moved to the capital where he won four county championships with Faughs and two All-Irelands with Dublin. He represented Ireland in the Tailteann Games. After that he married a Newmarket woman, Mgt McNamara, and emigrated to America.

John Fox joined the British Army shortly after the All-Ireland win. His regiment was the Royal Munster Fusiliers and they saw action all along the Western Front. Flanders, Ypres, Passchendaele and most infamously at the Somme. Reckoned as perhaps the deadliest battle in history, there were one million casualties. This was a new kind of war unlike any that preceded it. Trenches. Machine Guns. Shelling. Poison Gas. Tanks. Barbed wire. No-Man’s-Land. Soldiers also had to contend with some age old problems. Rats. Lice. And vast amounts of mud.

The exact details of Private Fox’s war have been forgotten save for two things. At the end, he returned home alive and unharmed, barring a piece of shrapnel lodged in his head.  Secondly, on one offensive, he fell wounded and was dragged back to safety by another soldier. This turned out to be Martin Faulkner, also a native of Newmarket who had been in the army since before WWI, stationed in India.

The Ireland to which Fox returned had a very different political climate to one he’d left. The aftershocks of the Easter Rising were about to spark the War of Independence. Many GAA members would become involved and there was a specific rule of the association (21) which barred former British soldiers from playing hurling. This was not applied to John Fox in Newmarket. He resumed playing and won two more county titles. As late as the 1960’s, he and Martin Faulkner were both regulars at O’Neill’s pub.

Jim Guerin, the three goal hero, was a labourer. He continued to hurl for Newmarket and Clare. In November 1918, World War I came to an end and millions of soldiers were demobbed. Sent back to their homes all over the world. Two hundred thousand of them returned to Ireland and a huge percentage were carriers of the most deadly variant of flu virus ever known. They brought it to every corner of the land, Newmarket included. Jim Guerin was one of the victims. He died, aged just 24, on the 16th of December, one hundred years ago.

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