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  • Writer's pictureStephen Callaghan

Remembering Vol. John Gunning on the centenary of his death

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

Around 15 years ago, while going through burial records for Clonoghill Cemetery, Birr, I came across an entry for a “John Gunning”, what was interesting about him was that his profession was listed as “soldier of national army”, and his cause of death was listed as “effects of wounds received in action”. Clearly John had been involved in the Civil War. On the centenary of his death his story, and the marking of his grave is an appropriate post.

Register entry showing Gunning was a soldier of the National Army

Burial register entry showing Gunning died from wounds received in action

John Gunning was born on 1 June 1891 at Ballitore, County Kildare. He was the son of Ellen Gunning (Nee Brown), a charwomen. John’s birth cert lists no father, nor does several of his siblings.

The 1901 census records John, and his siblings Francis (aged 1), Mary (aged 7), Lizzie (aged 13) and William (aged 17) along with their mother Ellen as living in house 10, Ballitore. Ellen who is recorded as a widow, has her surname recorded as Gunning with her children recorded by her maiden name of Brown. Out of all her children William is the only one with a recorded father, William Gunning, whose profession is listed as a labourer.

The 1911 census shows John living with his mother and brother William, their surnames now all recorded as Gunning. John’s profession listed as labourer. John enlisted for service with the Leinster Regiment on 12 July 1911. His initial training would have taken place in Birr at the regiment’s depot.

After training John was posted for service to the 1st Battalion, and was stationed in Faizabad, India until war broke out in August 1914. Returning to Europe, the 1st Leinsters saw service in France and Belgium and later Salonica and Egypt.

Upon Private Gunning’s time expiring (after completing his agreed term of service) he reenlisted in the Leinster Regiment at Mena Camp, Cairo, Egypt on 10 February 1919. He was posted for service at the depot.

John married Johanna O’Sullivan on 4 April 1920 in St Brendan’s Catholic Church, Birr. Johanna, the daughter of Timothy and Ellen Sullivan is recorded as being a housemaid from Crinkill and who lived on Military Road with her family.

Private Gunning continued to service with the Leinster Regiment until his discharge on 3 July 1922, just weeks before the regiment would be disbanded, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and cutbacks in the British Army. Upon his final discharge, his conduct was described as exemplary, also despite this and his extensive war service he did not qualify for an army pension.

It is hard to know when John exactly returned to Ireland, but in all likelihood he probably witnessed the burning of Birr Barracks on the 14 July by anti-treaty forces. It is hard to know what emotions he would have felt seeing the place that trained him and provided him with a livelihood go up in flames.

Post War of Independence, John and Johanna remained in Crinkill, probably living with Johanna’s parents. In August 1922 Johanna was in court over claims of assault and having been called a spy. Johanna had stated when the National Army came to the town, they searched all the houses and when neighbours saw them searching her house claimed she was a spy, she was also struck twice in the head with a milk jug by a neighbour, resulting in her being cut and covered in blood. The event left her shook, considering she had been a resident of Crinkill all her life.

On 14 February 1923 John joined the National Army, as a well trained and experienced soldier his abilities would have been most welcome in the newly formed National Army. While we don’t know his motivations for joining, the fact he didn’t get a pension is likely a main contributor, so he could support himself and his wife.

Volunteer Gunning was posted to 2nd Infantry Battalion, Athlone Command, and soon found himself thrown into the Irish Civil War. On 28th February, he was part of a cycle patrol with 11 other men, apparently having been called out to settle a land dispute at Crimblin, Moneygall. Around half a mile from the location, the patrol was split into smaller parties. Sergeant Byrne, Private Gunning and Corporal D’Arcy comprised one party and given the task of approaching a house, heading in the direction of the house, they came across armed men, giving a warning, the armed men were told if they gave themselves up, they would not be fired upon. When the small party of National Army soldiers got closer to the house shots were fired and Private Gunning was fatally hit. In the ambush, Sergeant Patrick Byrne also receiving fatal wounds and died later that day and a Sergeant Doyle was wounded. Other shots were fired from a nearby hill. Three anti-treaty men were captured along with three rifles, one revolver and some ammunition. It was believed that the force had been around 25 men, and they made their escape via the mountains.

Volunteer Gunning succumbed to his wounds on 1 March at Roscrea Castle Barracks, his remains were brought to Birr with his funeral taking place in St. Brendan’s Catholic Church and his remains were interred in Clonoghill Cemetery on 3 March. His coffin covered with the tricolour, three volleys were fired over his grave and the Last Post sounded. The National Army covering the funeral expenses, however his grave was never marked.

An inquest was held in Roscrea and witnesses revealed that the at the time of being wounded, the men had their rifles slung over their shoulders and the attack was a complete surprise and they had no idea they were going to be ambushed, considering they had initially been called to carry out arrests. The inquest came to the verdict of “We find the deceased, Vol. John Gunning, and Sergt. Byrne died from bullet wounds, while in the discharge of their duty, fired by persons unknown, and we consider it to be an act of murder”.

Volunteer Gunning's new memorial

Special thanks to Noel and Patrick McDonnell, Seamus Doherty, Grant Engineering, Richard Healy (sculptor of Gunning’s memorial) and all those who generously donated towards the cost of the memorial.

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