Forgotten Irish sporting heroes of First World War

Robbie Smyth, who played rugby for Ireland and the British Isles, died in April 1916 after being gassed
Robbie Smyth, who played rugby for Ireland and the British Isles, died in April 1916 after being gassed

A hundred years ago as war raged across Europe, hundreds of Irish sportsmen enlisted in the British armed services and volunteered for military action.

Their number included rugby players, footballers, cricketers, hockey players, GAA stars and athletes.

The Ireland hockey team that played Wales in 1912. Robert Morrison is sitting at the front on the left. Beside him is Harold Simms and behind him sits the captain Edmund Smyth. All three would die in the Great War

The Ireland hockey team that played Wales in 1912. Robert Morrison is sitting at the front on the left. Beside him is Harold Simms and behind him sits the captain Edmund Smyth. All three would die in the Great War

Ulstermen Robbie and Edmund Smyth were two brothers who played international sport for Ireland, saw service in the Western Front and died during the Great War.

Robbie was educated at Royal School Dungannon and played rugby for Ulster and Ireland. In 1903, he toured South Africa as a member of the British Isles team.

His younger brother was a talented hockey player with Banbridge and he helped the team become one of the best sides in Ireland.

Edmund made his Irish debut in 1911 and he played for his country on four occasions and went on to captain the side.

Robbie, who trained to be a surgeon, was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps and during the Great War he saw service in France. He rose to the rank of major and was mentioned in despatches for his “gallant and distinguished service in the field”.

However, he became seriously ill in 1916 after he was gassed and he was sent to London to recover but he was in a very poor state. In April 1916 he died and his body was brought back to Banbridge for burial.

Today, his name appears on the war memorial in the town and it is also recorded at Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital in Dublin where he worked.

His brother Edmund saw service as part of the Somme offensive in 1916 and he nearly lost his life when he was injured near Thiepval.

Like his brother, he displayed the same characteristics in uniform that he showed in his hockey shirt. He was honoured for his exploits in battle and was awarded the Military Cross.

On December 3 1917 he was with the Royal Irish Rifles near Cambria and he was killed by a German shell.

The news of his death reached Banbridge a number of days later and since he was a well-known sportsman it was reported in the local newspapers. One of his commanding officers wrote to his family and said Edmund was “one of the finest officers in the Brigade and is a great loss to us”.

The Smyth brothers are just two of the 40 sportsmen who feature in ‘Ireland’s Call’, a book which chronicles the story of sporting heroes who died in the Great War.

Many were history makers who made headlines before the conflict and who volunteered to swap the excitement of the sports field for the horror of the battle field.

People like George McAllan from Dungannon who was the first schoolboy to play rugby for Ireland. Then there was William Victor Edwards who studied at Campbell College and who was gifted at rugby, swimming and water polo. He played rugby for Ireland and was the first person to swim across Belfast Lough in 1913.

A century ago, they were all swept up in the rush to war and their careers were cruelly cut short.

Once they were feted as Ireland’s sporting elite but in the decades since they answered the call to arms they became a forgotten generation.

• Ireland’s Call: Irish Sporting Heroes who fell in the Great War, is published by Merrion Press.

Stephen Walker is a political correspondent at BBC NI