WW1 and the GAA - William Manning
By Donal McAnallen
If there was one GAA player in the trenches whose story was closely followed at home, it was William Manning of Antrim.
His very departure in June 1916 inspired the following report in the press:
“There passed through the city en route for the front, on Wednesday, ‘Bill’ Manning, who will be remembered as the former Shauns, Ollamh Fodhla and Dalcassian player. The day previous this one-time All-Ireland hurler and footballer was entertained at a farewell party by several of his friends ...” (Ireland’s Saturday Night, 1 July 1916).
Manning’s fame had come from winning several Ulster Hurling and Football Championships in his early twenties, and playing for Antrim in the 1912 All-Ireland football final defeat to Louth.
County Down could lay claim to him too, however. Born in the fishing village of Ardglass in 1892, William Fox Manning was the elder son of Jane (née Fox of Dublin) and John Manning, an RIC constable originally from Co. Longford. The family moved to Belfast just a few years later, living at Oakman Street in the Falls district. William was still a young boy when his father died in the early 1900s.
The Manning family were prominent on the Gaelic fields of Belfast. William’s cousin, also named William Manning and living in the Falls area, but five years his senior, had won Ulster hurling and football medals in the 1900s. Young William came to the fore around the turn of the decade, not least when he won the Antrim Senior Football Championship medals with John Mitchel’s, Belfast, in 1912, playing alongside his brother John. The brothers also appeared to work together in the furniture business, William as a French polisher and John as a cabinet-maker.
Described in the press as a ‘remarkably clever exponent of half and three-quarter back play’, William played a key part in Antrim’s greatest-ever football victory – a twelve-point defeat of Kerry at Jones’ Road, Dublin, in August 1912. He went on to win Antrim Hurling Championship with the Seaghan-an-Díomais club of Belfast in 1915. Wherever he played, he was successful; and he was still only 24.
What inspired William’s enlistment in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers two years into the war is not clear. One likely explanation is that the family income was low, with his widowed mother having two young stepsons to look after as well. What we do know is that west Belfast had one of the highest rates of enlistment in Ireland.
At any rate, Manning proved to be an able soldier, gaining promotion to the rank of Lance Sergeant. His progress continued to be monitored in the Belfast sporting press. A report in March 1917 claimed that it was ‘freely stated that Billy Manning, the well-known and popular Shauns and All-Ireland hurler and footballer, has been killed in action.’ Follow-up reports, and a letter from Manning himself in the trenches of France several months later, clarified that rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated.
His luck did not hold out, alas. When the Germans launched their ferocious spring offensive, William Manning was in the front line near St Quentin. While on duty, he was hit by a machine-gun bullet and died instantly on 27 March 1918, aged 27. His death caused great grief among the platoon. His commanding officer, Captain G. Craddock, wrote home to Mrs Manning:
“He died without any pain, hit by a machine-gun bullet. He was my platoon sergeant for some time and I always placed the greatest confidence and trust in him. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so knocked out about anyone’s death...I feel I am expressing the opinion of officers, NCOs and men in saying that he was one of the finest men it’s been our lot to meet."