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  • Writer's pictureStephen Callaghan

Tracing the Story Behind a Photo - Jim O'Brien DCM

The following article appearing in a previous edition of the genealogical magazine, Irish Lives Remembered.

Jim O'Brien pictured with his son

Online auction sites are full of genealogical curiosities, such as photos, postcards and other ephemera. Sometimes photos in particular are named, and we can establish a tangible link to the past. One such named photo I purchased online turned into a research delight as I delved into the history behind the people picture in the photo.


When I first saw the photo for sale, it was only of moderate interest, however as the time drew nearer and nearer to the end of the auction, I was drawn to it and had to acquire it. Placing the successful bid my journey of discovery began.


The picture depicts two soldiers of the Leinster Regiment. An older Colour Sergeant who is seated, holding a pet dog, he wears the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Queen’s and King’s South Africa medals for the Boer War and a Long Service & Good Conduct medal. To his left stands a plucky young private. Handwritten on the reverse of the photo is the text ‘Uncle Jim (O’Brien) & Cousin Jim. Uncle James O’Brien (by marriage), married aunt Mary (Dad’s sister)’. This information indicated that the younger soldier is his son.


Service records reveal that Jim O’Brien was born in Killaloe, County Clare in 1868. He enlisted for service with the Leinster Regiment at Birr, King's County (County Offaly) on 19 January 1886. He gave his previous trade as a servant. He was previous a member of the 7th Brigade, South Irish Division, Royal Artillery. Upon enlisting Jim was recorded as being 5 foot 5 inches tall, having grey eyes and dark brown hair, and of the Roman Catholic faith.


Private O’Brien was posted the Leinster Regiment’s depot at Birr. Birr was made the depot for the regiment upon its creation in 1881. Private O’Brien served with the 1st battalion from June 1891 until June 1903. He served with the battalion during Second Anglo Boer War (1899-1902). During the campaign he was slightly wounded in his left eye and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). The DCM was awarded for gallantry in the field. O’Brien also received the Queen’s and King’s South Africa campaign medals which were presented to him at Fermoy Barracks, County Cork in 1903 upon the battalions return from South Africa. From June 1903 until January 1910 he served with the 3rd (militia) battalion. The Dublin Daily Express noted his retirement from the army took place in December 1909, where he was presented with some valuable gifts including a magnificent gold Albert (chain). Under close examination, the chain is actually visible in the photograph which dates it to December 1909, and the location it was taken as Birr.

1st Battalion, Leinster Regiment at Fermoy in 1903 having returned from South Africa

Jim married Mary Anderson in India on 28 January 1893. Mary was a widow, her previous husband Alexander Anderson, was a Colour Sergeant in the Leinster Regiment and had died in India on 9 October 1891. Alexander and Mary had two children, Margaret (born at Fort William on 16 March 1888) Philip (born at Agra, India on 15 August 1891). Philip kept his fathers surname as his middle name. Jim and Mary had one son; James William (born India on 4 November 1893).


The 1911 English and Wales census records Jim, his wife Mary, daughter Margaret and a visitor Mary Robinson (from Birr) living at the Golf Club Pavilion, Llandrindod Wells, Wales. Jim and his wife working as stewards and Margaret as a waitress. After this the family moved to 33 Springfield Road, Bangor, County Down.


With the outbreak of the Great War, Jim reenlisted for service. He was posted to the 6th (service) Battalion, Leinster Regiment, and the later the 3rd Battalion where he gained the rank of Company Quarter Master Sergeant.


Philip had enlisted in the Leinster Regiment in 1906. He received as a commission in the 1st Battalion as a Second Lieutenant in December 1914. He was wounded on 31 January 1915 and later died on 9 March 1915 from his wounds. He is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, France. His name is commemorated on the war memorial in St Brendan’s Church of Ireland Church in Birr, which was unveiled on 24 April 1921.


James William has enlisted in the Leinster Regiment at Birr on 12 July 1909. He served with 1st Battalion during the Great War and was posted to the depot of the Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) after the disbandment of the Leinster Regiment and other historic southern Irish regiments in July 1922. He had married Mary Elizabeth Roycroft in St Nicholas, Cork on 4 October 1916. They had several children; Philip Anderson (named after his half brother) born in Cork; Marion Charlotte and Francis Margaret both born in Birr.


Jim was finally discharged from the army on 3 February 1920. He remained in Cork with his wife and lived in 20 Alexandra Villas and later 5 Grosvenor Place.

Family grave in St Finbar's Cemetery, County Cork. Image courtesy of Tony McGrath

Jim died on 7 October 1935 at his home on Grosvenor Place, from heart failure. He was buried in St Finbar’s Cemtery. Philip’s name is also commemorated on the grave, along with James William who died in Middlesex on 6 July 1938, and family Mary who died in Cork on 22 January 1943.


An interesting story recounted through the chance purchase of an old photograph.

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