Authored by Richard Coplen and originally published in the Westmeath Examiner May 5th 2015.
The Doyles: A Mullingar family fractured by the First World War
The First World War was more destructive than any other war had ever been. It was the first genuinely global conflict, fought not just on the fields of France and Flanders, but up mountains, across deserts, at sea and in the air. Industrialization brought massive changes to warfare during the War. Newly-invented killing machines gave rise to novel defense mechanisms, which, in turn spurred the development of even deadlier technologies. When Europe‘s armies first marched to war in 1914, some were still carrying lances on horseback. By the end of the war, rapid-fire guns, aerial bombardment by aeroplanes and zeppelins, armoured tanks, sinkings by submarines and chemical weapon deployments were commonplace. Any romantic notion of warfare was bluntly shoved aside by the advent of chlorine gas, massive explosive shells that could have been fired from more than 20 miles away, and machine guns that spat out bullets like fire hoses. The First World War not only shaped the 20th Century, it also cost the lives of some 17 million people, decimating millions of families across the globe.
Exactly a century ago this week, readers of the Westmeath Examiner newspaper would have read with sympathy about one local family directly affected by two of these latest warfare inventions. Annie Doyle, 32, was a native of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, Ireland. The daughter of Thomas Doyle and Mary Doyle (nee Duffy), she had been working in New York City as a domestic servant. Whilst returning to Ireland in May 1915, the ocean liner which Annie was travelling aboard, Cunard’s RMS Lusitania, was torpedoed without warning by the German submarine U-20. Annie was one of the 1,198 passengers and crew lost when the ship went to the bottom within twenty minutes. She also had a brother, Patrick, who was fighting on the Western Front. Within an hour of learning of his daughter’s death, Thomas Doyle also learned that his son had been admitted to army hospital, suffering from exposure to poison gas.
Anne “Annie” Doyle was born in Killaskillen, Co. Meath, on the 13th of January 1883, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Doyle (nee Duffy). Her father was a coach smith and her mother a machinist by trade. Thomas and Mary had married on the 23rd of November 1879 in Mullingar, it being Mary’s hometown. Their first-born, Patrick, was born in the town on the 10th of October 1880. Although the family resided in Mullingar, the second child, Anne, was born in Meath, her father’s home county, in 1883, suggesting that they may have been staying with relatives at the time. Life for the young Mullingar family would have been comfortable given Thomas’ prized profession. Fate, however, was to deal the Doyles a different hand. Mary Doyle passed away after a three month long illness on the 11th of December 1885 at the young age of 27. The widowed Thomas was now left on his own to rear two young motherless children – aged just five and two. It seems that he was unable to cope, for he soon passed the children into the care of his late wife’s parents, John and Anne Duffy. Thomas then left Mullingar and took up residence in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. It was here that he married a local woman, Ellen Doyle, on 27th of September 1894. He and his second wife went on to have three children of their own – Mary, Thomas and Ellen.
Meanwhile, back in Mullingar, Patrick and Anne remained in the good care of their grandparents and, later, their uncles and aunts. A family photo, taken circa 1890, show Patrick and Anne to have been well-dressed and well-nourished children, albeit with sullen expressions. The experience of losing their mother and being left in the care of their grandparents while their father moved away to start a second family can only be imagined.
Thomas, together with his second family, moved back to Mullingar between 1897 and 1899, when his second child was born in the town. Thomas continued to provide for his second family by working as a coach smith. The children of his first marriage were now entering their late teenage years. Whether they had a fractious relationship with their father is unknown but, on the 26th of October 1900, Patrick travelled to the Curragh Camp where he signed-up as a recruit with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, a job which would take him abroad for many years. His enlistment papers record Patrick as being 19 years and 6 months old, 5 feet 5 ½ inches tall, 122 lbs. in weight with brown hair, grey eyes and a “fresh” complexion.
Within a year he was serving with the British army in South Africa during the Boer War. During the peacetime years between 1902 and 1908, he was variably posted at British army garrisons in Malta, Cyprus and Egypt. Patrick seems to have been a spirited character for his military service records are interspersed with no less than 19 disciplinary sanctions for “drunkenness” as well as numerous others resulting from such misdemeanours as being absent without leave, neglecting his uniform and “striking his superior officer”. The service records go on to sum up his conduct and character as “Indifferent. Addicted to drink”.
Patrick returned to civilian life as a reservist between 1908 and 1912. During that time he lived in Mullingar, working as a labourer and residing at his Uncle Michael’s household on Harbour Street. His father, Thomas, continued to live with his second family just a five minute walk away, on Blackhall Street. Thomas was employed at P.J. Carey’s coach-building establishment on Harbour Street, the same street that Patrick lived on. Whether father and son were on good terms is unknown but it is likely they were for Patrick repeatedly named his father as next-of-kin in his army documents. Life in Mullingar must have been monotonous to Patrick following his years of globe-trotting, something most Irish people at that time could only dream of. He returned to active military service in April 1912.
Upon Patrick’s initial enlistment in 1900, his younger sister, Anne, appears to have followed suit in leaving Mullingar for she doesn’t appear in the town in the 1901 Census. It would appear that she moved up to Dublin along with some members of the Duffy family and whilst there, took up the position of shop assistant. She next appears on the 29th of March 1906 when she is recorded boarding the White Star Liner Baltic at Queenstown (now Cobh), Co. Cork, as a third class passenger. Together with her Mullingar cousin, Anne Duffy, she had taken the decision to seek her fortunes in the United States. On the passenger list the cousins record themselves as both being 23 years old, with Doyle’s occupation recorded as a shop assistant and Duffy recorded as a dressmaker. The Baltic’s captain on this voyage was none other than Edward John Smith, of Titanic fame.
When Baltic docked in New York City a week later, on 6th of April 1906, the girls were landed at Ellis Island for processing. The records there tell us that Anne Doyle’s last address was Dublin. Her intended address in the United States was with her aunt, Kate McEvoy, a domestic servant of the Gilford family, living at 473. Lexington Avenue, New York. Anne Doyle is recorded as having $35 in her pocket whereas her cousin, Anne Duffy, had $45. Anne Duffy’s last address is recorded as being Mullingar.
The girls were permitted entry into the United States. What happened to them after this remains a mystery. The family story is that Anne Doyle found a job working as a nurse to the children of a wealthy New York family.
Just over nine years later, Anne Doyle once again found herself boarding another ocean liner for a transatlantic crossing. She boarded this one, the Lusitania, as a third class passenger at New York’s Pier 54, on the morning of Saturday, 1st of May 1915. The pride of the Cunard Line, the Lusitania, one of the world’s largest, most luxurious and fastest ocean liners left New York bound for Liverpool. She carried 1,265 passengers and a crew of 694. But there were rumours of a far more deadly cargo – munitions needed by the British for the war against Germany. Whether Anne was returning home to visit her family or whether she was moving home to Ireland permanently is unknown. Either way, it was a journey she was never to complete.
Six days out of New York, on Friday, 7th of May, the Lusitania reached the southern coast of Ireland. Soon after lunchtime, and in sight of land, she was hit by a single torpedo fired by the German submarine U-20. Moments later another much bigger explosion rocked the vessel. The great ship listed sharply to starboard and began to sink bow first. In just over fifteen minutes she disappeared beneath the calm flat sea. 1,198 men, women and children perished with her, among them Annie Doyle. Never before in naval conflict had so many innocent lives been so cruelly ended. Overnight Britain was cast as the helpless victim of a ruthless German foe. In the United States outrage at the loss of 128 American lives helped draw the country into the war on Britain’s side. At the battlefronts of Europe tens of thousands were dying every day but the fate of the great Cunard liner overshadowed them. As Annie’s body was never recovered, she has no known grave. She was just 32 years of age.
Within an hour of hearing about the sinking, her father also learned that his son, Patrick, serving with the British Army on the Western Front, had been hospitalised having suffered grievous injuries in a poison gas attack on the 4th May. Patrick was hospitalised and granted leave until 14th of August 1915 whereupon he returned to active service. The next two years saw Patrick fighting at Gallipoli before being returned to the Western Front. The war would ultimately claim his life also. 7275 Private Patrick Doyle, 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, having survived the 1915 poison gas attack, died at a casualty clearing station near Dozinghem, Belgium, of shrapnel wounds to his right thigh and right forearm on the 4th of October 1917. He was 36 years of age and just six days short of his 37th birthday. He was subsequently interred in Dozinghem Military Cemetery.
Patrick’s personal effects, returned to his father in January 1918, were found to consist of letters, a religious book, a belt, scissors, rosary beads, a knife, religious badges and a cotton bag – a few simple sentimental items and all that Thomas would have to remember his son by. With Anne lost at sea and Patrick buried in war-torn Belgium, Thomas didn’t even have the opportunity to pay his respects at his two eldest childrens’ gravesides. Thus ended the lives of two young and tragic siblings, victims of a global conflict which was unprecedented in its barbarity and destruction.
Richard Coplen is a History teacher, WWI researcher and expert in all things nautical. This article was researched in large part using collections available on Ancestry.