Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Trauma in India?

Some time ago (21 Sep 2011) I wrote about a Belfast family, the 'key' couple we know about being James  McIlhagga, a Flax Dresser, born about 1855 and his wife Rebecca Johnston. I recorded the fact that they had six children, the eldest of whom was Robert James, born 1 Nov 1878 (Ulster Historical Foundation). I had no idea what became of him. We do know that one of his younger brothers, Nathaniel, served in the Royal Irish Rifles for six years, 1902-1908. Recently when looking at Military documents I found not only those for Nathaniel but also both the Attestation Papers and the Discharge Documents for a James McIlhaga, also in the Royal Irish Rifles. I didn't know immediately to which clan family he belonged and at first didn't think of identifying him with the above Belfast family as his age when joining up on 25 Sep 1899, of 19 years 8 months, gave him a birth month and year of January 1880. However, when I came to the record of his next-of-kin, when helpfully he named two brothers, Nathaniel and William (a mistake for Wilson?) and two sisters, Eleanor and Jane, I realised he had to be a son of James and Rebecca, and the spelling of the surname, McIlhaga, was the same. Either he gave a wrong age or he wasn't sure of his age, or possibly there had been a first child Robert James born in 1878 and this Robert had indeed been born in January 1880, the first Robert having died. This is also possible as clearly the 1878 Robert had the second name James and there is no second name in 1880 Robert's Army papers.

In 1899 Robert was given the Military Number 5961 as he Attested on a Short Term Contract of 7 years (plus 5 in the Reserves). However, Robert's Army career was chequered and shortened in an unfortunate way. He had been a labourer living in the Shankill area of Belfast. He was 5 feet 4 1/2 inches in height and weighed 112 lbs. His chest measured 33-34 1/2 inches. He had a scar mark on his left calf and tattoo marks on both arms, cross flags on the right and 'RMC' on the left. Did 'RMC' stand for Robert McIlhaga? A year later, presumably when he was home on leave, he was in a spot of trouble and on 5 Nov 1900 was sentenced by the Civil Power at Belfast for assaulting a policeman, for which he was sentenced to one calendar month. The day after his sentence was over, he was posted with the Royal Irish Rifles, in the 1st Battalion, to India where he served for 3 years 113 days. This takes us to the date of his discharge 'for medical reasons', when he was invalided home on 30 March 1904. He had served a total of 4 years 271 days. His family was living at 25 Fairfax Street, Belfast, but sadly that is not where he went. He was committed to the Union Infirmary in that city. His discharge document refers to his conduct as having been "latterly good since August 1902". He was 'signed off' at Tyzabad, India on 21st February. Clearly there had been problems in 1902 but his state of mental health must have declined for his signature is omitted from the discharge document and in its place the word 'Insane' had been written. This is not a term which would be used today to describe a medical condition. We can only hope that he was helped back in civilian life to get through the traumatic experience of not being able to cope with whatever it was he had to face in India with the Royal Irish Rifles.

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