NUI Galway Research Leads to Return of a First World War Hero’s Medal

(l-r) Gerard ‘Del’ Delaney presenting James Murray’s WW1 Victory Medal to James’s great grandson Dr John Murray. Credit: Sue Delaney
Sep 08 2020 Posted: 12:10 IST

Research conducted by NUI Galway academic Dr John Murray has led to the recovery of a medal, thought long-lost, belonging to a Great War veteran from Dublin who was decorated for bravery.

The soldier, James Murray, first joined the British army as a young man and fought with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). After returning to civilian life, he married his first wife Mary in 1904 and they had two children. They lived in some of the poorest tenement slums in Dublin and by mid-1909, through a combination of sickness and tragedy, James had lost his entire first family. He remarried in 1912 and started a second family. During the First World War James re-enlisted with his old regiment and participated in both the Battle of Messines and the Passhendaele offensive in 1917. He received two separate commendations for gallantry and also the Military Medal for Bravery during those significant actions.

Dr Murray of NUI Galway’s School of Natural Sciences, has been researching his great grandfather James Murray over a number of years and commented: “During the Great War James had to leave behind a very young family, including my own grandfather Michael who was only three years old. They must have waited very anxiously at home for him during all of the times he faced extreme danger in the trenches of the Western Front. He was immensely brave and experienced a number of highs and lows in life. It was a privilege to unearth his life-story, and also something of an emotional roller-coaster.”

James Murray was reunited with his young family following the Armistice and returned to working class life in Dublin. He died in 1949 and his widow Jane survived him by some 28 years. Tragedy struck in 1963 when her dilapidated tenement home on Fenian Street catastrophically collapsed, killing two young girls. Jane lost everything in that disaster, and the event helped to precipitate the Dublin housing crisis of the 1960s, which eventually led to the clearing of the remaining tenement slums and the reshaping of Dublin’s urban landscape.

During the course of his investigation Dr Murray discovered, quite by chance, that eight years previously someone else had been searching for information online about the very same Great War soldier. Gerard ‘Del’ Delaney, originally from Dublin and now living in the UK, had inherited some old medals from his mother and one of them, a WW1 Victory Medal, clearly bore James Murray’s name and regimental number on the rim. With help from a member of an online military discussion forum, the pair made initial contact.

Del, himself a decorated former soldier with the Royal Logistic Corps who actively participates in commemorations and archaeological excavations on the Western Front, said: “I was never quite sure how James’s medal came to be in my family’s possession, particularly as no clear relationship could be traced back to him. When John and I first spoke by phone, I immediately realised the importance of returning this precious item to James’s direct descendants.”

Del and John finally met for the first time in Dublin last year and Private James Murray’s Victory Medal was presented back to the Murray family. On the occasion of its return, John commented: “My entire family had believed that so much of the story had been lost, particularly in the Fenian Street tenement collapse. We are all deeply grateful to Del for very kindly returning James’s Great War medal and providing us with a tangible link to our shared past. This literally feels like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Del Delaney also added: “It has been a privilege for me to have been a custodian of James’s medal and I am delighted that it is back in the family’s possession. You never know, the publicity surrounding its return may go towards helping establish the whereabouts of James’s other medals - stranger things have happened!”

Full details of James Murray’s remarkable life, the Fenian Street tenement collapse and the return of his Victory Medal are published in the current edition (September/October) of the magazine History Ireland. Editor Tommy Graham commented: “This is an amazing story, combining 'big picture' events like the Boer War and the First World War with the detail—and many tragedies—of Dublin working class life. And it has a happy ending of sorts, with the rediscovery of James Murray's First World War Victory Medal by his surviving family.”


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