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Finding the unmarked grave of a Victoria Cross recipient

Today, we have a special guest post by previous contributor Fergal Browne. In this post Fergal recounts the life of Victoria Cross recipient John Sullivan, and how his unmarked burial place was found and marked.

John Sullivan circa 1875

On Tuesday 1st July 1884, a melancholy procession left the farm of John Sullivan, at Ballindeasig, Parish of Tracton Abbey, Co. Cork, and proceeded down the hill, passing the site of the current Rennies National School, before turning the corner towards Nohoval Village. Heading the procession was a coffin containing the body of Sullivan himself, and this was followed by a large crowd, which included Sullivan’s two remaining orphaned daughters. Unusually for a funeral procession where the deceased was a Catholic, the cortege did not stop at Nohoval Catholic Church, only completed 30 years previously.

John Sullivan had been a native of Bantry. Retired from Britain’s Royal Navy, he had only been living and farming in Ballindeasig for a short time. However, many present at his funeral on that Tuesday morning would have been aware of a significant fact about him. During the Crimean War, while serving with the Naval Brigade at Sevastopol, John Sullivan had been awarded the Victoria Cross – Britain’s highest award for bravery.

According to research completed by Liam Loughman, Sullivan was most likely born in April 1831, in ‘an old house at the foot of Ardnabrahair, on the left of the boreen leading to the graveyard’.  He joined the Royal Navy in 1847, when the Great Famine was at its height. In March 1852 he joined the crew of HMS Rodney. In September 1854, this ship was sent to the Black Sea, following Britain’s entry into the Crimean War earlier that year.

In October 1854, John Sullivan volunteered to serve ashore at Sevastopol, in Crimea, with the Naval Brigade. The brigade consisted of sailors and marines who were deployed on land-based operations. Sullivan was put in charge of one of the 68 pounder guns which had been landed from HMS Terrible and was being used to bombard Sevastopol. During the Battle of Inkerman, they helped to repel a Russian attack. In April 1855, Sullivan and his gun crew were transferred to ‘No. 5 Greenhill Battery’, which was shelling Sevastopol. This gun position was under constant bombardment from a Russian gun battery.

On 10th April 1855, the commanding officer of the Battery, Commander Kennedy, asked for a volunteer to go towards the Russian lines and place a flagstaff on a mound of earth to act as a firing point for the guns. This was required because the Russian positions on the other side of the hill were not visible. As the senior member of the gun crew, Sullivan volunteered to go. Despite being under constant rifle fire from Russian infantry, John Sullivan calmly climbed the hill and planted the flagstaff at its summit, even gathering stones to plant at the base of the flagstaff to secure it. Having completed the mission, he returned unhurt to Greenhill Battery. Commander Kennedy commended him for his bravery, and he was later mentioned in dispatches by Admiral Lyons – Commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, who were present at Sevastopol.

John Sullivan was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during this mission. The citation, discovered in the British National Archive in Kew by Shane McCormack, reads:

John Sullivan planting the flag at Sevastapol - the event which won him the Victoria Cross

For having on 10th April 1855, deliberately placed a flag on a mound in a very exposed position under heavy fire, to enable Battery No 5 to open fire upon a concealed Russian Battery that was doing great execution on one of our advanced works. This was reported by Commander Kennedy, commanding the Battery. Commander Kennedy speaks of this act in high terms of praise and observed that John Sullivan’s gallantry was always conspicuous.

Some years later, John Sullivan would also be awarded a medal by the Royal Humane Society when he jumped overboard to save a crewmate while his ship was at anchor in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Later in his career, John Sullivan became the Dockyard Master at Portsmouth Harbour. In March 1884 he was sent to the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar, in Gosport, near Portsmouth for treatment for an unspecified illness. In April 1884 he was discharged from the Royal Navy as an invalid. In his naval record, a note was added that he was being permitted to be discharged with the highest pension he could be given, the equivalent amount that he would have received if he had remained in service until pensionable age. It also recorded that ‘Admiral Herbert speaks in the highest terms of his zeal and efficiency’. It was later claimed, after his death, that he had been awarded a £150 annuity from the Navy due to his service, plus a further £10 a year for having been awarded the Victoria Cross.

Following his discharge, John Sullivan returned to Tracton Parish, Co. Cork, where his wife came from. She had died c.1870. The couple had 3 daughters. Sullivan rented a 44-acre farm from the Ballindeasig estate (now Tabor Lodge). The farmhouse that he rented was described as being ‘fit for a gentleman’s residence’ and it was stated that his landlord – John C. Hennessy, owner of the Ballindeasig Estate, held him ‘in very high esteem’, and that he was well liked in the neighbourhood, not only for his bravery and the medals that he had won, ‘but also for his quiet and affable manner and obliging disposition’.

For several weeks in early 1884, John Sullivan had been unwell and was described as ‘showing signs of mental depression’. However, both of his daughters who were living with him at Ballindeasig later stated that there had been no indication that he would do himself an injury. On Friday 27th June 1884, he complained of headaches, and went to bed for much of the day. On the following day, Saturday 28th June, he was working in the kitchen garden, close to the house together with another man, named Duff. Sullivan sent Duff to get him some tobacco at Nohoval, and when Duff had returned, Sullivan left the garden, heading in the direction of the house. One of his daughters, Mary-Anne, saw him approaching the house, but after some time, when he had not come in, she went to look for him. She found him lying face down in a dyke in one of the fields, a few yards from the house. He had cut his own throat.

Dr. Rosslewin Morgan, the local Dispensary Doctor, who lived at Ballyfeard House, was sent for, and he pronounced John Sullivan dead at the scene. Dr. Morgan, himself an ex-British Army Surgeon, registered the death on that same day, describing the cause of death as ‘Suicide’, though adding that this was uncertified as no medical attendant had been present at the time that the injury had occurred.

An inquest was convened in Ballyfeard on the following Tuesday, presumably taking place in the tiny courthouse in the village. The Coroner, M.J. Horgan presided. Mary-Anne Sullivan gave evidence of her discovery of her father’s body. She described sending for the priest and for Dr. Morgan, though John Sullivan had passed away long before either of them arrived. A knife, found on the body, was presented at evidence by Sergeant O’Sullivan of the Royal Irish Constabulary, based at Ballyfeard Barracks. It was believed that it was the knife the deceased had used day-to-day to cut tobacco. Duff, the farm labourer, gave evidence of working with John Sullivan in the kitchen garden and who Sullivan had left him to go towards the house after Duff had fetched his tobacco. Duff then heard Mary-Anne Sullivan crying out and was therefore the second person to arrive at the scene of John Sullivan’s death. Dr. Morgan then gave medical evidence as to the state of the wound and cause of death. The jury found that John Sullivan had taken his own life ‘while labouring under temporary insanity. Possibly to provide some succor to the family, they expressed the opinion that the cause may have been the excessive heat of the sun. They also attached a rider to the verdict expressing a hope that ‘in consideration of his great service, and that he was so short a time in receipt of his well-earned pension that the authorities would consider the claims of his orphan daughters who are rendered completely destitute by his very sad death’. The coroner undertook to raise the matter with the Admiralty, who ran the Royal Navy. Possibly because of this statement at the inquest, Dr. Morgan returned to the register and deleted the first registration of death that he had completed for John Sullivan on 28th June. He recorded the death a second time, this time stating that the cause of death was ‘hemorrhage from wound in throat – suicidal about half an hour’.

For many years there has been a dispute as to where John Sullivan was buried. It was often claimed that he was interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, and indeed Glasnevin did claim this once on their Facebook page. However, this has since been proven to be incorrect, as the John Sullivan interred in Glasnevin came from Dublin, and died in December rather than June 1884. There was also a belief that he was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in unconsecrated ground – due to Catholic teaching at the time.

The answer was eventually discovered in an article in a rather obscure newspaper called the Cork Weekly News. Its reporter, who was obviously present at the burial, wrote:

‘Notwithstanding that undisputed prejudice exists in the popular mind in the rural parts of the country against persons dying by their own hands, yet all such feeling had disappeared in the case of John Sullivan, whose mortal remains were on Tuesday followed to their last resting place at Nohoval by an immense cortege of sorrowing and sympathising people’.

The graveyard in Nohoval is in the grounds of the Church of Ireland – although it does contain Catholic burials. Presumably this graveyard was chosen as the burial place as permission only needed to be sought from the Protestant Rector – Rev. Meade, who came from a military family and would therefore have been sympathetic. John Sullivan was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard, presumably without a funeral mass or a priest being present. He was most likely waked at his house with prayers being said by his neighbours.

John Sullivan Headstone erected Nohoval

Today, Saturday 6th July – a headstone will be dedicated in Nohoval Churchyard in the memory of John Sullivan. The ceremony will be attended by the Cork Branch the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen of the Irish Defence Forces, the Cork Branch of the Royal British Legion, and M. Josselin le Gall, the Honorary French Consul based in Cork.

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