Australian Ambassador Gary Gray beside Martin O'Meara's memorial in Lorrha
The people of Lorrha are seeking a Spring 2022 visit of a war medal that was awarded to one of their famous sons.
The medal is currently on loan from the Australian government and is being temporarily housed in the National Museum of Ireland (Collins Barracks) in Dublin. The repatriation of the medal needed an act of Parliament to leave Australia and arrived in Ireland in July 2019. The medal was on loan for a year but, because of Covid, that time has been extended. The community of Lorrha has been campaigning for its visit to their village ever since it arrived in Ireland but they haven't yet got a firm commitment from the Australian Embassy.
O'Meara's medal could return to Australia some time next year and the Lorrha community is worried this will happen without it visiting their village.
They were heartened therefore when the Australian Ambassador Gary Gray agreed to visit. The Ambassador made the visit on Friday and he was shown around the village by a number of locals.
The morning began in the Scéal Community Shop where tea and coffee were served, a few words were said and a drawing by local artist Ute Duggan was presented to the Ambassador. The community also presented a gift to an Embassy Official, James O'Donoghue, who accompanied the Ambassador for the visit.
Pat Cahalan, Chair of the Scéal shop, welcomed Gary and James to the village and said the community was very glad to see them as they are keen for Martin O'Meara's Victoria Cross to visit the village before it returns to Australia.
Gary Gray urged everyone to ditch “His Excellency” and simply call him “Gary.”
“My parents,” he said, “didn't raise me to enjoy the trappings of lofty positions but to be down to earth, therefore there is no need for 'Excellency'.
“Martin O'Meara arrived in Port Augusta in South Australia in the second half of 1912 where he got a job constructing the new Transcontinental Railway Line. Port Augusta is about fifty miles from Whyalla, where I grew up and where my Mum still lives. The Transcontinental Railway Line was a massive project at the time, running from Sydney to Perth, and Martin was employed as a sleeper cutter.
“Martin also spent some time in Fremantle, where my wife is from.”
The Ambassador said he's a lifelong member of the Labour party in Australia and is also a lifelong union member. He said workers' rights are very important to him. “They were also very important to Martin, who strongly believed in improving working conditions.”
Martin also lived for a time in Collie in Western Australia. “Collie was and is a solid, working class, Labour, union town,” said the Ambassador. “It's only returned a right of centre election candidate once to parliament in 120 years. Now Collie faces an uncertain future because its coalmine is probably going to close. It looks like the era of coal is coming to an end and it means financial worry for many in Collie.”
The Ambassador said Martin O'Meara had a reputation for being a proud and decent human being, a reputation which stayed with him whether he was a civilian or a member of the Australian infantry. The Ambassador said his grandfather fought at the Battle of the Somme. “My Grandad was there on the first day of the Somme when 20,000 men lost their lives. He was intentionally wounded, one of many to do so because they couldn't take the horror any more, and he was put in prison. All round, it was a very harsh, inhumane environment.
“Against all the odds Martin O'Meara managed to survive. His superior officer said he was 'the most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen'. In the most terrible circumstances imaginable he went above and beyond the call of duty. He wasn't a big man, he was only 140ibs in weight, but he was an outstanding Irishman who made an outstanding contribution in both Ireland and Australia.”
Gary praised his predecessors Ruth Adler and Richard Andrew who served as Australian Ambassadors in Ireland, who visited Lorrha and were very aware of Martin O'Meara's story. “Ruth was good friends with Bill Deane, a former Governor-General of Australia, who championed aboriginal rights, including their right to own land. Bill saw himself as the people's representative and he was uncompromising in his beliefs. Bill also took an interest in Lorrha, this beautiful part of the world. Ruth and Richard also loved their visits here. “
Local artist Ute Duggan then presented a drawing to the Ambassador depicting Martin O'Meara rescuing wounded men in No Man's Land.
Local historian James Heenan said Martin O'Meara donated €1,300 for the preservation of the village's Dominican Abbey. “That was a huge sum at the time,” said the Ambassador, “more than the average man would earn in five years.” James said it was obvious that Martin O'Meara greatly appreciated the village's local history.
The Ambassador added that Martin also donated a gift to the people of Collie. “He was a very generous man.”
Local historian Ger O'Meara said he published a book a few years ago called “Lorrha people in the Great War”. “Lorrha had a reputation as being a republican place,” said Ger, “but when I did a bit of research it in fact transpired that many people from the parish had lost their lives in the Great War.”
James Heenan then led the group on a history tour of the village. The Ambassador chatted to Lil O'Meara in The Friar's Tavern and to Pat Hough and Chrissie Dooley in Hough's pub. He drank a pint in Pat Hough's famous pub and was told that a pint of guinness costs €3.50 in the pub, a remarkably low price.
The Ambassador also laid a wreath at Martin O'Meara's memorial in the centre of the village. “A commemoration of war isn't a celebration of war,” he remarked. “And we should always bear in mind that in every conflict, on all sides, there are decent people. Martin O'Meara is not a great human being because of his soldiering skill and prowess but because he was so decent in his dealings with people. He is buried in Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth, where many great Australians are buried.Whilst we of course acknowledge his Irishness we also take great pride in the fact he was an Australian as well.”
Bill O'Hara, Martin O'Meara's grand-nephew, was present for the occasion and read out the Citation for the award of the Victoria Cross to his grand-uncle: “During four days of very heavy fighting he repeatedly went out and brought in wounded officers and men from 'No Man's Land' under intense artillery and machine gun fire.”
Ger O'Meara read out “For the Fallen” as gaeilge: “Ag lui na greine, agus ar maidin, cuimhneoimid orthu go léir.” Michael Hoctor read out the English version of “For the Fallen.”
“Today,” said Ger O'Meara, “we remember the heroism and the very challenging life of our fellow parishioner Martin O'Meara VC whose parents and family's resting place is only a few hundred yards away.”
The community of Lorrha must now wait for the Australian Embassy to come back to them, letting them know if the medal will be permitted to travel to the village.
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.