WW1 and the GAA - Laurence Roche
By Dr. Will Murphy
Laurence ‘Larry’ Roche, born in Dromin, County Limerick in 1869, was perhaps the most prominent GAA athlete and official to both join and recruit for the British Army during World War One.
Roche was a member of that class of Catholic who emerged as the new elite of provincial Ireland in the last decades of the nineteenth century. He farmed, in succession, substantial holdings on the border of Limerick and Cork in the vicinity of the large towns of Kilmallock and Charleville, settling at Ballymuddagh House, near the village of Bruree, in 1913.
He was well-connected, holding the post of rates collector for Kilmallock Poor Law Guardians during the mid-1890s, and for Limerick County Council after its establishment in 1898. His brother Robert was secretary to Limerick County Council between 1900 and 1913, while Laurence was an associate of the Irish Party MP for Limerick, Thomas Lundon. For a time around 1910 he does, however, appear to have flirted with the All-For-Ireland League, a new party formed by Cork MP William O’Brien.
Roche had made his name as an athlete in the mid-1890s. In 1894 he won the All-Ireland title for slinging the 56lb weight at the Irish Amateur Athletics Association (IAAA) Championship, beating into second fellow Limerick man John J. Flanagan, who would go on to win three Olympic gold medals in a row for the hammer (1900, 1904, and 1908).
Roche’s career was shorter and more modest, but on switching from the IAAA to the rival GAA, he won All-Ireland titles for putting the 56lb weight (1895) and the shot put (1897). He also made a significant contribution to the All-Ireland football title victory of Limerick Commercials in the championship of 1896. He played in the final (held on 6 February 1898), but his influence on the Munster final, when not playing, was arguably more important.
During that match, Commercials were leading 3 points to 1 against Erin’s Hope of Dungarvan when the referee awarded them a controversial fourth point. The umpire had not flagged for it, but the referee awarded the score when Roche waved his handkerchief and explained that the ball had passed between the posts and come back out, having struck a spectator. Erin’s Hope disputed the score and left the field, with the referee then awarding the match to Commercials.
Simultaneously, Roche was becoming an official, being elected to the Central Council of the GAA in 1894 and one of its vice-presidents in 1896. This was a period when a new generation of sports-focused administrators took control of a GAA on the verge of collapse following a divisive IRB takeover in the late 1880s and the subsequent Parnell split. From the late 1890s, he was frequently listed as a judge at significant athletics meetings and acted as a referee at hurling matches.
In February 1906 Roche came close to death when assaulted while refereeing a match at Ballyagran, Limerick. He was chairman of the Limerick County Board for a period from 1904, and represented Limerick at the Munster Council and at Annual Convention over the following five years or so. In February 1905 he was elected to a new national athletics committee formed to manage that element of the GAA’s business.
In 1908 he unsuccessfully sought the removal of a series of recent rules. These had seen the introduction of bans on the playing of foreign sports and of groups such as RIC men, as well as rules that saw a breakdown in relations with the IAAA. He appears to have drifted from prominence in the association soon after.
By the summer of 1914 Roche was the secretary of the Volunteers in County Limerick. At the split in the Volunteers he followed John Redmond in his support for the war effort. In November, the newspapers reported that he had sought leave of absence from Limerick County Council and enlisted. He was given a commission as a captain in the 8th Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and became a significant recruiting figure from the final days of 1914 till the summer of 1915, first in the district of Kilmallock but later all over much of north Munster.
The provincial press reported his activity and his face appeared on posters. By the spring of 1916 he had been at the front for several months, and was now Major Roche, second in command of the battalion. As Ronan McGreevy recounts in his book Wherever the Line Extends, the 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers were with the 16th (Irish) Division occupying ground near Hulluch in northern France. While the Easter Rising unfolded at home, Hulluch was the site of a major German attack, between 27 and 29 April, during which the Munster’s colleagues in the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers lost 368 men.
On 1 May, German soldiers in position opposite Roche’s battalion placed two signs in front of their trench, taunting the Irish. One read, ‘Irishmen! Heavy Uproar in Ireland. English guns are firing at your wifes [sic] and children.’ Roche ordered the capture of the signs, and when this was done they were dispatched back to Limerick where they went on public display in the city as propaganda trophies.
Roche’s war ended in December 1917 due to ill-health. He returned to Ireland to his holdings and, for a period, he was employed by the Ministry of Labour to run a facility for disabled soldiers in Tipperary on a salary of £500 per annum. It was from Tipperary that he travelled to Marlborough Barracks in Dublin on the weekend of Bloody Sunday, November 1920.
He was there to give evidence for the defence at the General Court Martial of Michael O’Rourke. O’Rourke, who was accused of murder, had been arrested on 29 July in a sweep of a locality just outside Bruree, on the Bruree to Kilmallock Road, in the immediate aftermath of an IRA ambush. One British soldier, William Rodgers, and two IRA men, Thomas Harris and Patrick Duggan, had been killed. O’Rourke was acquitted of Rodgers killing and released.
This did not stop Roche becoming a target in the months that followed. In making claims to the Irish Grants Committee, established by the British to compensate those loyalists who were attacked or suffered loss during the Irish troubles, he stated that he had come to be thought of as an ‘alien’ or ‘damaged goods’. ‘I was a marked man,’ he wrote, ‘and was several times threatened and revolvers pushed in my ribs.’
An attempt was made to seize his lands at Bruree in June 1921 and in July 1922 Ballymuddagh was occupied by anti-Treaty forces. This resulted in a clash there with Free State forces that August during which the house was damaged and cattle lost. When, in May 1927, Ballymuddagh House went up for sale he had been living in Manchester for some time. Eventually, in January 1935 at Limerick Circuit Court, he received £100 compensation for the Civil War loss. He had already received £250 compensation from the British government for his losses during the period.
Roche died in Manchester in May 1947 and is buried there at Moston Cemetery.