Thomas George Heenan was nineteen years old when he went to war in the service of his country.
His life as a soldier was short-lived. Eight months after arriving in France he was killed in the Somme region at the end of a night-time raid on German trenches.
Thomas George was born in 1896 in Hillsborough,Co. Down a small community about 19km from Belfast. He enlisted at Lisburn sometime in 1915, joining the 13th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. This was a service battalion that had been formed in County Down in September 1914 from the Down Volunteers. They set sail for France on October 4, 1915 as part of the 108 Infantry Brigade.
The brigade's war diary describes how they took a train from Boulogne the following day and then marched from Flesselles to Rubempré in the Somme department. They spent the next 12 days in billets, undertaking musketry and other training. By the 18th October, 1915 they were on the move closer to the front line. Their first experience in the trenches came on 21st October which was reported to be a quiet day. But the following day saw heavy shelling and the first casualties (described as not serious).
In the remainder of 1915 and into first half of 1916, the battalion moved locations multiple times and came under shell attack during their turn in the trenches, though on many days the commanding officer reported simply that it was a quiet day spent repairing trenches or drilling. There were a few moments of light relief when a film was shown at night and on St Patrick's Day every man was given a shamrock and a holiday until the evening when a working party was sent out to dig a new trench.
On the day Rifleman Heenan was killed a night time raiding party captured a German officer and 12 servicemen from other ranks. The diary then records: "... but on returning through the barrage, the following were killed: 2 corporals, 1 Lance Corporal and 3 riflemen."
He is buried in the Martinsart British Cemetery. Unusually the graves in this cemetery are marked by stones made from red Corsehill or Locharbriggs sandstone, rather than the Portland stone found in most other military cemeteries from this period.
He was posthumously awarded the 1914-15 star in recognition that he had served in France in those years. In 2016 people in Hillsborough gathered at the village's war memorial in tribute to Rifleman Heenan and other local men who lost their lives in World War 1.
Rifleman Heenan’s family
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission indicate that Thomas George Heenan was the son of the late Richard and Mary J Heenan of Hillsborough, County Down. Census returns show that his parents ran a pub in Main Street in Hillsborough.
The couple married in Hillsborough in 1891. At that time Richard Heenan, the son of a labourer, was described as a shopkeeper but by 1894 when Slaters directory of Ireland was published he is described as a spirits dealer with commercial premises at Main Street. They had a daughter, Mary Jane born in about 1891, a son James in 1893, Thomas George in 1896 and their final son Richard in 1898.
Richard Heenan died in 1901, at the age of about 41, leaving the pub and his estate of £1,177 to his wife Mary Jane. She continued to run the pub on her own until her death in May 1915. It then passed to their son James (known as Jimmy) who was working as a shop assistant, though by that time the value had decreased significantly to £252.
Jimmy passed Hillside in turn to his son James Armstrong Heenan who managed the premises until he moved to the United States in the 1950s, at which point control passed to his sister Hazel. She and her husband Bert Knowles ran the place, until they too moved to the United States and the reign of the Heenans came to an end.
According to local residents the pub was officially called "Hillside"; but was known more generally simply as "Heenan's". It still operates today though has been substantially upgraded to a restaurant as well as a bar.
The memorial in Hillsborough stands outside St. Malachy’s Church. The plaque reads:
IN HONOUR OF THOSE FROM THIS DISTRICT WHO LOST THEIR LIVES FIGHTING FOR KING AND COUNTRY IN THE GREAT WAR.
THIS CROSS IS ERECTED BY THEIR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBOURS IN GRATITUDE FOR THEIR LOYALTY AND DEVOTION.
- Marriage of Richard Heenan and Mary Jane Walker, Parish Church of Hillsborough, County Down. Source: General Register Office
- Census of Ireland 1901, 1911: Published by irishgenealogy.ie
- Richard Heenan’s probate: Administration granted May 1900. Source Find My Past
- Mary Jane Heenan’s probate: Administration granted June 1915 Source Find My Past
- Thomas George Heenan’s death: Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Thomas George Heenan’s war medal entitlement. Source The National Archives WO 329; Piece Number: 2806 Published by Ancestry.com
- The War Diary of the 13th (Service) Battalion Royal Irish Rifles: Source: The National Archives,WO 95Piece 2506: 108 Infantry Brigade