Once-great family laid low by war

Lifestyle – One-hundred members of the extended Persse family from around the world served in the Great War. Author Gerry Kearney tells THOMAS HACKETT how their story inspired his new book.

The impact of the First World War on one of Galway’s most famous families is brought to life in a new book, In Days that Were: The Great War and Beyond. The book by Gerry Kearney chronicles the harrowing Great War experiences of the prominent Anglo-Irish Persse family from South Galway and their descendants.

The Persses suffered tremendous loss during the war, as their sons served in some of the bloodiest battlefields of the conflict. Of those who fought, 18 men of Persse heritage would never return.

Gerry’s book starts in Galway and its reach is broad as it records the lives of more than 100 people from around the world who had Persse blood in their veins and fought in WWI.

The book features names from Ireland, England, South Africa and Australia – what they all have in common is that they’re descendants of Dean Dudley Persse (1625-1699), a Church of Ireland clergyman who established Roxborough estate near Kilchreest, Loughrea, in 1685.

“He was the first of the Persses to ever come to County Galway”, notes Gerry.

The Persse family went on to play a pivotal role in the history of Galway City and County – and probably became best-known for establishing Persse’s Distillery in Nuns’ Island in the 1840s. One Ireland’s most successful distilleries at the time, its label proudly displayed ‘as supplied to the House of Commons’.  It closed in the early 1900s, but the ruins of the distillery can still be seen today.

The most renowned family members included celebrated playwright Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole Park, near Gort, who was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, and Sir Hugh Lane, who opened the world’s first modern art gallery in Dublin.

Lane was tragically killed when Germans torpedoed the Lusitania in May 1915, mere weeks after another Persse descendant, William Hugh Cornwallis Trousdell, was lost at sea following the sinking of another passenger ship, the SS Falaba.

“That was a real case of absolute murder, it was nasty stuff,” says Gerry of the Falaba incident.

His fascination with the Persse family history began while he was researching a previous book.

“I was doing a piece on my wife’s family called The Taylor Family of Ardrahan Post Office and, while in the graveyard of Kilchreest, I noticed many graves with the name Persse,” he explains.

He was hooked.

In Days that Were captures the history of the Persse family from the Tudor period of the 16th Century through to the Crimean War, the Great War and the Irish revolutionary period.

For more,  read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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