Battle of Kosturino: the Irish-Australian connection

December 7 marks the 101st anniversary of the Battle of Kosturino, a little-known action in the little-known Macedonian campaign during the very well-known First World War. While this minor clash in the Balkans in December 1915 is of little significance in the overall context of the war, its interest for me as an Australian is that the battle involved troops from the 10th (Irish) Division, recently transferred from Gallipoli where the division’s 29th Brigade had served alongside the Anzacs during the August offensive at Lone Pine, Quinn’s Post, Chunuk Bair and Hill 60. At the Battle of Kosturino a small contingent of Australian soldiers served alongside the Irish.


Romeo Drobarov of Salonika Battlefield Tours at the memorial to the 10th (Irish) Division at Rabrovo, Macedonia

While the centenary of the battle was commemorated last year, it is only recently that I visited Kosturino, prompting me to write this post and a short account of the battle: Battle of Kosturino: the Irish-Australian connection.

My visit to the battle site was facilitated by Romeo Drobarov of Salonika Battlefield Tours, who has a detailed knowledge of the battlefield and of the various actions that occurred in and around the locality during the Macedonian campaign. For Australians interested in going there, the journey is not difficult at all. It involves a flight to Athens and a train trip to Thessaloniki, from where Romeo will collect you and drive you to and around the battlefield.

22nd Australasian Irish Studies Conference, Adelaide

The Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand held its 22nd conference at Flinders University, Adelaide from 29 November to 2 December 2016. The keynote speakers were Professor David Fitzpatrick (Trinity College Dublin), Professor Melanie Oppenheimer (Flinders University) and Dr Maggie Ivanova (Flinders University). Numerous other papers were given on various topics under the common theme of “Change, Commemoration, Community”.

At the conference I gave a paper entitled “The Paradox of Prophecy: Hugh Mahon and the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal rights” in which I examine Hugh Mahon’s progressive approach to Australia’s indigenous peoples, including his unsuccessful parliamentary motion in 1901 calling for a constitutional amendment that was eventually adopted in 1967. Nevertheless, Mahon was also a strong supporter of the white Australia policy, urging strict controls on immigration and describing non-Europeans in the most disparaging terms. The paper seeks to resolve the apparent paradox between Mahon’s prophetic views on Aboriginal rights and his overtly racist and restrictive attitude towards Asian immigration.

21st Australasian Irish Studies Conference

The 21st Australasian Irish Studies conference will be held at Maynooth University from 18 to 20 June 2015. The conference series was initiated in 1980 by the renowned Irish historian Oliver MacDonagh. Keynote lectures will be given by distinguished scholars including Guy Beiner from Israel and the Irish scholars Margaret Kelleher and Terence Dooley. The strong international character of the conference is ensured as a result of proposals from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Britain, the United States, Spain, Belgium, Serbia, Italy and Korea. Those attending the conference will find it a rich and rewarding insight into the contemporary state of research and writing on diverse areas of Irish history, literature and culture. You can register for the conference online through the conference website.

Searching for Irish-Australia in Canada

Next week I am off to North America to see what I can find out about Hugh Mahon’s time there from 1869 to 1880. Mahon, the Irish-Australian politician who is the subject of a biography I am researching was a 12 year old schoolboy when the family landed in New York City in March 1869. From there they travelled to Ontario, Canada, where they lived for four years on a farm in Oxford County before returning to New York State and settling in Albany, where Hugh trained as a printer and journalist.

By 1880 the 23-year-old Hugh was back in Ireland, editing the staunchly nationalist New Ross Standard and heavily involved in nationalist and Land League politics that eventually led to his imprisonment in Kilmainham Gaol in 1881 and his emigration to Australia the following year. Methinks he learned more than the newspaper business while living in the Fenian homeland across the Atlantic. But evidence is required before speculation, however plausible, can be called fact.

If time permits, I would like to trace another Irishman with Canadian and Australian links whose life was influenced by the Fenians, though in a completely different way. Aisling Society member Myles Mooney put me on to the story of Timothy O’Hea (1846-1874), a soldier from Bantry, County Cork who was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in putting out a fire in an ammunition wagon that was attached to a passenger train. The incident occurred at Danville, Quebec on 9 June 1866 when the ammunition was being transported to the loyalist forces defending Fort Erie from Fenian raiders who had crossed the border from New York State. In total disregard for his own life O’Hea entered the wagon and extinguished the fire, thereby saving the lives of the passengers. His was the first (and perhaps the only) VC awarded for bravery other than in the face of an enemy.

Timothy O'Hea VC

Timothy O’Hea VC

A few years later O’Hea emigrated to New Zealand, where he served as a policeman, and then to Australia. In June 1874 he joined an expedition led by Andrew Hume to search for Adolf Glassen, believed by many to have been the lone survivor of Ludgwig Leichhardt’s ill-fated 1848 expedition to south-west Queensland. For a quarter of century the improbable, if not bizarre, story of Glassen’s survival when the rest of the expedition had perished  enticed foolhardy explorers to venture into outback Australia in search of the man who could tell them of Leichhardt’s demise. Some suffered the same fate as Leichhardt and his men, including the hero of Danville, Timothy O’Hea VC. Or did he?

The story has been told numerous times, including by the celebrated author of Australian exploration and bushranging Frank Clune in “The Man who Found Leichhardt”. But in 2005 Elizabeth Reid suggested in The Singular Journey of O’Hea’s Cross that the man who died in the desert was not Timothy O’Hea but his brother John, who had assumed his identity. Hmm, what was I saying about evidence and speculation.

In either case it is an interesting story which I had not heard before and I am grateful to Myles for alerting me to it as I prepare to uncover the story of another Irishman with links to Canada, Australia and perhaps Fenianism. But Canada like Australia is a vast country and Danville is a long way from Oxford County. So, the search for Timothy O’Hea might have to wait for another time.