Rifleman McAlister : reprise

On Tuesday 20th Nov, I received an e/mail from Martin Cunningham. He informed me that his father was a nephew of Bernard McAlister.  I contacted Martin and arranged to meet him and his father on Wednesday 21st.

My wife and I arrived at their home in Cecil Street at 6.30 pm and were invited into the beautiful home of Peter and his wife Teesie.  Peter, Martin’s father who was reared in Kilkeel where his mother Hannah retired after her marriage, is 82 and he recalled some of the memories that he had of Rifleman Bernard’s mother Annie.  These are some of his recollections:

Annie had six children, 4 girls and 2 boys. The two boys were Bernard, who became a soldier and died in Belgium, and Peter who became a bricklayer. The girls’ names were Annie, Hannah (Peter Cunningham’s own mother), Rosie and the fourth he could not recall but said she married a man called Williams and went to live in Armagh.  Annie’s daughter Annie married a soldier called Bernard Larkin and two of their children, Peter and Bernard, stayed with Annie in Downshire Court and she helped to rear them.  Rosie married another soldier called Pete Rafferty.

Peter Cunningham’s Uncle Peter, the bricklayer helped build the Abbey Primary School.  He was a great boxer and boxed alongside John Fearon who also lived in Downshire Court.  Work got scarce and he moved with his own family to South Africa and Peter never heard from him again.

Annie, Bernard’s mother and Peter’s grandmother, liked to smoke a pipe.  She worked in Rooney’s (it was known as ‘The Big House’) in the Meadow. He said that was how Rooney’s Meadow got its name.  Peter recalled that she was a great lace worker and made patchwork quilts.  Two sisters who lived in the court called Ferris were also great at the needlework.  He said Annie died in the 1950’s but he had no recollection of Bernard’s father, John.  He assumed he must have died young.

Martin then took up the story.

‘My Dad told me many times about his Granny McAlister showing him the photograph of Bernard and about him joining the army. The photograph is now lost but he still could remember how proud his granny was of Bernard. He knew that he had died during that war but knew nothing of where he was buried.

I decided to find out as much as he could about my great-uncle Bernard and present my findings to my dad. I tried everything but to no avail. I then decided to try the internet and see if it would come up with anything. I was on the net for some hours, could find nothing when, as a last resort, I Googled ‘Rifleman Bernard McAlister’ and up came the story in ‘Newry Journal’. It made my day. I printed off the story and gave it to my dad. He was overjoyed.’

Before we left the house I gave Peter a copy of Bernard’s birth certificate, a photograph of the headstone of Bernard’s grave and a certificate from the Commonwealth War Graves showing exactly where Bernard’s grave is.

Peter and Martin hope to go to Belgium next year to visit the grave of their uncle, and great-uncle, 9704 Rifleman B McAlister 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles who may have died a lonely death in Belgium on the 22nd June 1917 but whose memory lives on and will live on because of a visit by a Newryman to a grave in Messines in June 2007.

Eamon Donnelly Remembered …

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