• Stephen Callaghan

The Military Service of the Stephens of Ferbane, County Offaly


The medals of James Stephens.

Recently a friend linked me to some medals for sale, the group consisted of the 1914 Star, the British War Medal and Victory Medal. The soldier who they belonged to was James Stephens, he had originally served in the Army Service Corps, but was later transferred to the Leinster Regiment.


While initially the medals seemed uninteresting, James’ pension card revealed he was Ferbane, County Offaly. Some more research revealed a good match on the 1901 census. James Stephens of Ballyvora, Ferbane. The name Ballyvora was familiar to me for some reason. It eventually clicked that I had seen a Queen’s South Africa Medal for sale a number of years ago to a soldier named Patrick Stevens (sic), my research at the time indicated that Patrick had died at Ballyvora in 1909, his profession listed as a Private, 3rd Battalion, Leinster Regiment. This was almost certainly James’ father, it also explains why he is missing from the 1901 census, as he was in South Africa! The following is what I uncovered about this interesting working class family and their relationship with the army.


Patrick Stephens was born around 1861, near Ferbane, County Offaly. Patrick married Elizabeth Mooney in St Brendan’s Catholic Church, Birr on 5 August 1883. Elizabeth was from Birr. Patrick was recorded as a labourer. Their first son Michael was born in Ferbane in 1885, indicating they remained in Ferbane. Their other children were Patrick, Francis, John, Mary, Alice and the above mentioned James (born 15 October 1895).


The 1901 census records the family living at house 1, Ballyvora. There were only four houses recorded on the census for the townland. Their house was single story, made of stone, brick or concrete with a slate, iron or tiled roof, a working class labourers house.


As previously mentioned Patrick was missing from the census, because he was serving in the Boer War in South Africa with the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, Leinster Regiment. As a militia man Patrick would have been embodied for service when the war broke out, however the battalion did not volunteer for service overseas until 1900. Patrick served in South Africa until the end of 1901, returning home early before the battalion was sent home in 1902. This was possibly due to sickness. His service in the war entitled him to the Queen’s South Africa Medal with the clasps Transvaal and Cape Colony.


Patrick died on 19 January 1909 from tubercular of the lungs. Without their father, the sons and daughters made their way in the world. James is recorded on the 1911 as servant boy for Cleopas Marcus Holmes, in Tullamore, a well to do custom and excises officer. It is interesting to note on the census, that there was a stable at house.


John enlisted in the Leinster Regiment at Birr in February 1913, already a member of the special reserve, this was likely a more to become a career soldier. This was not to be, the 23 year old farm labourer was later discharged from the army on 23 March 1914, as no longer physically fit for service.


Servant boy James followed suit and enlisted in the Army Service Corps on 10 December 1913. While his service papers do not survive we can gain some information from his service number T-33446, the T prefix indicating horse transport. He probably had enough experience with horses to be suitable for horse transport. With the outbreak of war, Driver Stephens went to France in August 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force, serving in No. 4 company, 2nd Divisional Train. This unit was part of the greater 5th Division, which saw action at Mons, including the retreat. The Division was heavily engaged on the Western Front, later moving to Italy in 1917.


Before the Division moved to Italy, Driver Stephens was transferred to an all too familiar unit, the Leinster Regiment. Possibly at his own request. He served with the 2nd Battalion until June 1918 when he was discharged to due to disability. His service in the Great War entitled him to the above 1914 Star trio and a Silver War Badge (not pictured).


James is recorded in 1939 as living at 160 Gibbet Street, Halifax, Yorkshire with his wife Lucy (née Hannam). James was a fixture setter and his wife a dressmaker. James died in February 1945 and was buried in Stoney Royd Cemetery.

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