O'Meara's Victoria Cross medal set for Lorrha visit

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john.ocallaghan

The Australian Ambassador to Ireland, H.E. Richard Andrews, has, in a world first, formally loaned an Australian Government owned Victoria Cross medal to the National Museum of Ireland and the cross was owned by Lorrha man Martin O’Meara.

The medal is on loan to the museum for 12 months and it is expected to be brought to Lorrha for a weekend next year before it returns to Australia.

A number of invites were issued to a special ceremony held in the Australian Embassy on Thursday evening last where the VC was on display before the medal was formally handed over on loan for twelve months to the National Museum the following morning, where another special ceremony took place.

Ambassador Andrews thanked everyone for attending and he paid a warm welcome to Martin O’Meara’s relatives who travelled over from England, as well as those who had travelled up from Lorrha. He mentioned how he had met Noreen and Bridget O’Meara, grand-nieces of Martin, in Glasnevin Cemetery three years ago at Armistice Day Commemorations where five plaques were unveiled to VC recipients, one of which was for Martin O’Meara, and he said that was how he got to know Martin’s relatives. He also spoke about his trip to Lorrha with his wife and how much he had enjoyed that and getting to see Martin’s birthplace.

The Ambassador went on to explain that this loan marks the first time an Australian Government owned Victoria Cross has left Australian shores and “all the work that was going on in the background to make this happen. Until legislative changes were made to Australia’s Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, Victoria Cross Medals could not be exported from Australia for any length of time or any purpose,” he said before adding “following the late 2018 amendment of the Act, the loan of Sergeant O’Meara’s Victoria Cross is now possible and we are delighted to be able to do that.”

One of the men charged with escorting the VC medal from Australia to Ireland - Neil Dailey, Manager Army Heritage, Australian Army History Unit, explained how the VC came to be in Ireland. He mentioned how the National Museum was in touch with Ambassador Andrews as they wanted to get the VC over to the Museum, and then the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan TD was also in contact he explained. “The whole process was then set in trail and a lot had to happen to get it here,” he explained.

Noreen O’Meara, grand-niece of Martin, said when she was growing up the family had his photograph on the mantelpiece. “His story was quite well known in Australia, but not well known in Ireland. It’s a life-long ambition for all of us to see the Victoria Cross to come back to Ireland. My father was named after him, sadly my father is not around to see this happen. It would have made him very happy.

”We’re all very proud of Martin, and the stories of his bravery, his compassion for his comrades, and the tragic breakdown in his mental health, were passed down to us by our parents and grandparents,” she said.

”But,” she continued, “we’ve always had a sense of sadness and perhaps also a feeling of injustice that in Ireland his story was virtually unknown. There’s no getting away from the fact that until relatively recently the stories of men like him who served in the First World War were rather forgotten and overlooked, for reasons that I fully understand. But times have changed and we’re grateful that we finally have this wonderful opportunity to share Martin O’Meara’s story with the people of Ireland. We’re extremely grateful to everyone who has been involved in facilitating the loan of Martin’s Victoria Cross to the National Museum. Firstly to the Australian Government who changed the legislation, enabling the medal to be taken out of the country, to everyone at the Australian Army History Unit and the Army Museum of Western Australia who were supportive of the loan, and who have safely transported the medal here, also to Michael Madden and Doug Baird of the Victoria Cross Family Association in Australia who were able to talk to the right people when the family first suggested this. We would also like to thank Brenda Malone and everyone at the National Museum for all the hard work that I know has gone into preparing for this. Knowing that Martin’s medals will be on display in such a prestigious museum and will be seen by many people means a lot to us”.

Noreen then thanked the people of Lorrha and said “To those of you who have never been there, it’s quite a small parish but it has an incredibly long and rich history, going back to the 6th century and beyond. The people who live there are rightly proud of their heritage, and they recognise Martin as being an important part of that heritage, and if you visit Lorrha you will see right in the centre of the village a beautiful memorial. It has Martin’s name on it but in fact it is in memory of all the men from the parish who died in the First World War, and the money for it was raised by the Lorrha Development Association”.

In conclusion she said Martin O’Meara was a proud Irishman, “but we know that he loved Australia, and he certainly displayed an abundance of those special Anzac qualities of endurance, discipline and mateship. The loan of his Victoria Cross will strengthen the already strong bonds that exist between the two countries, and we feel sure that he would approve of this loan”.

On Friday morning The medal was placed on display in the First World War section of Collins Barracks by the Australian Ambassador, who said that the event was “indeed special, more so now than ever and the placing of it here in the Museum is a particularly special moment. We are all privileged to be here” he said as he placed the medal in the case and finished by saying “this is another chapter in the strong relationship that exists between our two countries”.

Martin’s British War medal and the medal for Victory was placed alongside the VC by his grand-nieces Noreen and Bridget and his grand-nephew Billy O’Hara.

Curator Brenda Malone said: “This is one of the big loans from Australia. We have a huge diaspora and sometimes when Irish people do amazing things, their medals end up in museums around the world so we are really grateful to have Martin’s medal back here and to tell his story in his own country.”

O’Meara’s VC will be brought to Lorrha for a weekend next year before it’s returned to Australia. It is believed that Martin probably had the medal with him when he returned for a short visit 102 years ago.

Martin O’Meara VC is Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War. He was born on November 6, 1885 in the parish of Lorrha. Migrating to Australia in 1911 he was a resident of Western Australia when he joined the Australian Imperial Force in Perth on August 19, 1915 and left Australia with the 12th Reinforcements for the 16th Battalion in December 1915. In early 1916, O’Meara joined the Battalion in Egypt where it had returned following the evacuation from Gallipoli. After undertaking training there, the Battalion moved to the Western Front in France.

On August 9–12, the 16th Battalion mounted an attack on German positions at Mouquet Farm near Pozières. During this period O’Meara, an Australian Army scout, behaved in a manner which led one officer to describe him as “the most fearless and gallant solider I have ever seen”. He was credited with having saved the lives of over twenty-five wounded men by carrying them in from no man’s land “under conditions that are indescribable”. At other times he had, on his own initiative, brought up much-needed supplies of grenades, ammunition and food. For these actions O’Meara was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Tragically, upon returning to Australia in November 1918, O’Meara had some sort of serious mental breakdown between November 8–13. A lack of surviving records make it difficult to accurately determine what actually happened. Institutionalised as someone suffering from “delusional insanity”, O’Meara never left institutionalised care and died at the age of 50 on November 6, 1935. His will left his Victoria Cross medal to the care of the 16th Battalion Association, which later donated the medal to the Australian Army Museum of Western Australia, where it has remained on display.

The loan of the VC to the National Museum of Ireland will likely be the second time the medal has visited the shores of Ireland. After receiving his VC medal from King George V, O’Meara later visited Ireland in October 1917. It is highly likely that he took his medal with him when he visited family in Lorrha some 102 years ago.

O’Meara’s life is commemorated in both Australia and Ireland. In Ireland, bronze plaques at Lorrha’s Roman Catholic Church commemorate him and in June 2013 a memorial stone was unveiled in Lorrha by the Lorrha Development Association.

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