‘Flu epidemic killed our Private Ryan

Richard Ryan

By John Lucey

NOVEMBER 11 is Remembrance Day when those who died in the Great War that ended in 1918, are commemorated. The month is anniversary of Armistice and also the death of Private (Sapper) Ryan of Kilkenny.

Richard Ryan was born on November 8, 1885 and died two days before his 33rd birthday, November 1918, five days before the end of the Great War in which he fought. It was influenza epidemic that killed an estimated 50 million worldwide.

Richard was son of John and Catherine (née Costello) Ryan of Castlegannon, County Kilkenny. His father was a school master and lived at Castlegannon National School House, Knockmoylan, Mullinavat where his mother also taught.

Richard joined the Post Office as a clerk in 1902 aged 16 and worked in Thomastown from where he went to the west of Ireland. It was in Westport that he met and married Agnes Kelly from Islandmore, an island in Clew Bay. They were married on December 28, 1910 by Rev William Kelly, a relation of the bride. Agnes was daughter of Thomas and Margaret (née McHale) Kelly one of 15 children. The Kellys of Islandmore were distant relations of Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco.

In 1911 Richard with his wife moved to Callan and then to the city’s Butts Green before moving to the Dublin Road. They had four sons John Thomas, Richard Joseph and Godfrey and a daughter Mary Angela. Their daughter died of influenza, aged 16 months, in the same year as her father. They lived at 3 St John’s Terrace, Dublin Road, Kilkenny.

Richard enlisted in the British Army (Royal Engineers Corps) on a Short Service Engagement in Kilkenny in 1916. At the time plans were being finalised for the Easter Rising which began three weeks later in Dublin. Although there was some discord among his family about him enlisting, his wife Agnes supported his decision. Ironically, her cousin Major John McBride (1868-1916) was executed for his part in the Easter Rising. His grandmother Mary Kelly of Islandmore was a sister of her grandfather Austin Kelly.

Unlike many others who joined of necessity Richard already had a good public service career in prospect. Like Michael Collins he was a Post Office clerk before becoming a soldier and like Collins he died in his early thirties.

Richard Ryan headstone

His service record shows that just six months after joining up he was en route to the theatre of war in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) which was then part of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.

He spent from October 1916 until March 1918 with the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force where conditions were extremely difficult with temperatures rising to120 degrees Fahrenheit.
During the early part of that that campaign the casualty rate was enormous with over 11,000 killed, almost 4,000 dying of wounds and 13,000 from sickness with some 13,000 missing or captured.
Commanding officer General Stanley Maude died of cholera in 1917 eight months after capturing Bagdad.

His replacement General William Marshall with General Alexander Cobbe gained overall victory in 1918. The Mesopotamian campaign from 1914 to 1918 cost 92,000 British soldiers’ lives.

Sapper Ryan joined the Signal Service Department and on his return to Ireland transferred to the Special Signal Company in Dublin. He was a highly skilled Telegraphist and was very valuable to the British Army as a Code Breaker. Richard was awarded the British War Medal and British Victory Medal. He is buried in the family plot at Knockmoylan.

Mary Angela, their only daughter, died on October 30, aged 16 months and her father Richard a week later. His Death Certificate has two anomalies: Richmond instead of Richard with 34 as age last birthday – but he was born on November 8, 1885 and died November 6, 1918 so he was just two days short of his 33rd birthday. The duration of his illness is given as seven days so he would have succumbed to the influenza and pneumonia, about the time of his daughter’s death. He died at the Military Hospital in Kilkenny, part of what is now McDonagh Junction.

Agnes was a widow at 27 with three young children. With the help of the British Army two of the boys were educated at Rochestown. One refused to go and was educated in Kilkenny. She opened St Philomena’s Nursing Home, later Lacken House. Despite her young age and many suitors she never remarried. Agnes wrote in her diary in June 1926: I hope I do not pass down the stream of life disrespected and soon forgotten, leaving no footprints on the sands of time. She died in1965.

Richard and Agnes enjoyed less than eight years of married life but with her fortitude she managed to raise their three sons. Two set up businesses in Kilkenny, electrical and jewellery that have endured through the generations and the third was a doctor.

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