A discovery in the loft of a Presbyterian Church has led to a project to identify a series of slides of men from Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland who served in the Great War. Karen O’Rawe tells JOANNE SAVAGE why a forthcoming exhibition at the Red Barn Gallery could help families identify loved ones who served
IN April a box of lantern slides was discovered in the organ loft of Alexandra Presbyterian Church, York Road, Belfast. Tucked away among the dusty boxes was a visual historical treasure trove: image after image of sailors and soldiers who had served in the Great War, members of Castleton Church as it was then known, posing in their military uniforms, dapper and spic and span as they looked out from the lanterns produced by Belfast photographer Alex R Hogg.
The committee minutes of the church from 1918 show that Hogg was asked to put together a lantern slide exhibition ‘of our men at the front’ which was to be shown on December 16, 1918. Tickets for the lantern slide show were sent to the families of serving men.
Somehow the images came to be stored away in the loft of a Belfast church, gathering dust and forgotten - until now.
The slides were left unnamed but staff at Alexandra Chuch, on making the discovery, immediately set about trying to find out more about the servicemen captured in these black-and-white shots that so vividly evoke a moment in time; a blog was set up, pictures were put up online, and so far some 20 men - largely relatives of Alexandra Church’s congregation - have been successfully identified.
In a bid to enable families to see their ancestors’ images - there are 77 slides and 136 images in total - Karen O’Rawe, an arts administrator with a passion for local history and genealogy, has launched a community project, Castleton Lanterns, with Belfast’s Red Barn Gallery.
The project will see all the slides go online as well as being exhibited at the Rosemary Street art gallery from October 3 through Remembrance Day until November 15, so that people can view the pictures and see if they can identify any of these men.
Some of those already identified have brought compelling stories to light.
James McCann, from Belfast, was identified as Slide Number 58 when a relative, David Morrow, saw the image on the Castleton blog. James McCann served with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and was killed at the Somme; his photo was listed in the Belfast Telegraph when he died - this helped match a name to the recovered image. Other men identified include James’s brother Francis Earnest McCann, who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, survived the war and went on to marry and have children; and another man identified was James Magill of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was wounded in France. One of O’Rawe’s great uncles who served in the war has also been pinpointed among the slides.
O’ Rawe said: “One of my uncles, Thomas Robinson, from Mountcollyer in north Belfast, served in the Great War. I was able to identify him from the slide because I am really interested in history and have studied quite far back in my family tree. I discovered that he came home on leave and married a girl from the Shankill. When he returned six months later he was killed in the battle on August 16, 1917, aged 32.
“Being able to identify men in these slides just brings history to life and gives you an immediate sense of the sacrifice these young men made.”
O’Rawe adds: “I think it’s important to find these men’s stories and tell them, to understand their lives and remember them, especially coming up to the anniversary of the start of the Great War.
“It is sad to hear the stories of those who were lost or wounded beside those who lived and flourished.
“We are asking everyone who had relatives around the York Road at the time to visit the exhibition, and to log on to our website at castletonlanterns.co.uk. We’d love to hear your stories and see your family photos.”
To help identify the men featured in Castleton Lanterns visit castletonlanterns.co.uk/ or visit the exhibition at the Red Barn Gallery, Rosemary Street, Belfast, October 3 until November 15.