John Rourke

Co. 65

Private john Rourke

John Rourke was born into a poor family in Rathcore, Enfield, Co. Meath in the year 1895. ​His father was an illiterate general labourer, who would have worked on harvests, on building sites, or wherever he could find employment to scrape a living, just like so many other poor Irishmen of the era. Rourke's mother was literate, but again like many of her era did not work. Tragically, she died in childbirth when John Rourke was eleven. While Rourke may have been poor, this was not always true of his family. They reportedly resided on "a farm of 340 acres" in Rathcore. ​The family likely went bankrupt in the Great Famine.​ Rourke was better educated than many of the time; he is listed as a "scholar" at the age of fifteen.

Joining the fray

Rourke joined the second battalion of the Connaught Rangers while they were recruiting in Naas during the earliest days of the war.​ In his own words, Rourke joined up "to see the world and to earn money," much like many other Irishmen when the war broke out — soldiers were paid reasonably well.​ His battalion landed at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, in the Pas-de-Calais département of France on the 14th of August 1914, just 79 days before he died.

In Action

Rourke's second battalion were involved in a lot of fighting around Ypres. Notably, they served in the rearguard action of Le Grand-Fayt, the Battle of the Aisne and the First Battle of Ypres.​ They were honoured for their participation in these battles.​

The Death of rourke

John Rourke died on Sunday the 1st of November, 1914, fighting in the First Battle of Ypres with his battalion. ​He was one of 2,447 people to die on that day.​ He was buried in Poelcapelle British Cemetery, just north of Ypres, the only person to die on that day to be buried there.

What can we learn?

The most important thing to learn from John Rourke is one of nationalism versus loyalism.​ Rourke was the first cousin of Thomas Allen, an Irish Volunteer and purported subordinate of Michael Collins. He fought in the Four Courts during the 1916 Rising, dying in action.​This earned Allen acclaim and a monument in his home village.

Rourke on the other hand was forgotten about by his relatives at home. ​His story was only uncovered by a descendant, Owen O'Rourke, a century after his death.​ Rourke's story shows that we must not only consider those who died fighting for nationalist causes, noble as they were, but anyone who fought in the wars of the twentieth century.

John Rourke died on a Belgian battlefield on the first day of November, 1914. Did he die for the glory of a cause? Did he die for the honour of combat? No he did not. Rourke was a victim of the games of kings, in which he could never be more than a pawn? But did that make him any less of a hero, a brave man? No it did not. It is men like John Rourke who are truly great.

My story

It must have been early December, I suppose, when I sat down in my history class for a lesson on, er, history. This history class was different from the rest, however, as my teacher introduced us to the project. Heads nodded, questions were asked and after a few minutes, I had decided to give it a whirl. Such a whirl was given, my teacher was happy to submit my application and that was the last I heard of the project until about two months later, when the same teacher came into my English classroom with a wide smile on his face. He was thrilled about the opportunity the project would give me, but he didn't have any idea about how positive an experience it ended up being.

From the very first meeting, in the Palatine Room of Collins Barracks, it was clear that we Irish students would get on famously as we learned about the project, broke the ice and got to know each other. Then came the research, the nitty-gritty of the project and I could feel myself becoming more connected with the history. I was lucky enough to speak to a relative of my soldier. Owen O'Rourke, John's great grand-nephew, had already done a sterling amount of research on him, so I was lucky enough to be able to use his work in my project. Without him, I doubt I would have been able to uncover very much at all about the life of John Rourke so I am very grateful.

While I never got to present this work at the next meeting, I was honoured to view the work of my confederates. The amount of effort they had put into their projects left me quite dumbfounded. After this meeting, there was only one month left until the trip. I spent most of this month in apprehensive excitement, but all my nerves disappeared immediately upon reaching the airport, when the entire group coalesced into a circle just inside the door of Departures, swapping stories and exchanging laughs. This air of camaraderie did not fade as we got onto the plane, touched down in Zaventem (amid a bomb threat), arrived in the Irish College or met the German students the next day. 

As we bonded with the Germans through well-prepared activities, we appreciated the difference between our two cultures, along with learning more about them as individuals. This first meeting would certainly foreshadow the amount of friendliness between the Irish and German students as the trip progressed.

As it did so, the most important two days were upon us, as we visited the war cemeteries, British and German. The British graveyards - Tyne Cot, Messines Ridge, Poelcappelle (where Rourke was buried) certainly struck me but I don't think anything on the trip was as poignant as the German cemetery of Vladslo, where mass graves stood in the group as far as the eyes could see. It was as austere as anything I have seen in my life, and more sobering than anything I ever expect to see. Mass grave after mass grave lay under the ground, in the shadow of tall, deciduous trees which gifted the earth their eerie shadows. This sight impacted how I saw the war more than anything I had ever come across. So much death can never be warranted for any reason, and because of this we must remember the Great War, never letting it be replicated.

The way I see it, this project was about three things. First, to remember the Great War in a personal fashion. Second, to form bonds with my fellow historians. And third, to form an understanding with German students. To all of those ends, it was a wonderful success. John Rourke's story and my trip around Flanders has made me consider the war in a way I never might have otherwise. To make it with German students and to understand their way of reflecting was a wonderful idea, and to make it with friends was a better one. I'd like to thank Gerry Moore for starting the project, and everyone involved with this truly life-changing experience. And finally I'd like to thank each of the students whom I travelled with. You made the trip so special, all of you are my friends and I'm so glad that this project gave me the chance to meet you all.