Photo of John Brennan aka
John McCartan c.1917
John Brennan aka John McCartan
Born on the 17 August 1892 at Coopers House*, Ballickmoyler,
Co. Laois., the son of Mark Brennan (1841-1902) and
Catharine (Kate) Lalor (1859-1893).
(Coopers house was a row of houses belonging to the Cooper
Family of Cooper Hill)
John McCartan Rifleman Reg No. 975 was serving with Royal
Irish Rifles when he was killed in action on the
14 October 1918., somewhere near Gulleghem, during the
Battle of Courtrai (Kortrijk) in Belgium. This battle was
part of the second phase of the northern Allied offensive
against the German Hindenburg Line. He had just returned
from England where he was recovering from previous injury’s.
At the age of 26 years John was already an experienced
soldier having served 3 years fighting at the front before he
Date of embarkation to France was 21 December 1915.,
according to the Medal Roll. We believe he carried out at
least two active service tours to the battle front during
In a photo we have of John we now suspect that this was
taken while he was in England probably in 1917 because he is
wearing three overseas service chevrons (12 months each) and
there is also two vertical stripes on his lower left arm
indicating that he was wounded twice. He was probably back
in England recovering from his injures. We can also see on
his upper left arm a chevron on an armband indicating that
he was attached to 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles.
The 'H' probably indicates that at the time of the photo he
was on Home Service in some capacity. So, he has already
been to the battle front and then he returns sometime in
1918 only to be killed shortly after.
The 1st RIR wore a green and black vertically separated
inverted triangle on their upper arm of their uniform. This
view is enhanced by the fact that his cap still retains the
wire to give it shape, which was the first thing most of the
soldiers removed when the troops went abroad. The buttons on
the tunic have not been 'blacked' again a procedure carried
out by regular soldiers overseas.
John may therefore have been temporarily attached to the 3rd
(Reserve) Battalion or 4th (Extra Reserve) Battalion, both
of which provided reinforcements for 1st and 2nd Battalions.
Both 3rd and 4th Rifles were based at Larkhill, Salisbury,
Wiltshire. England in 1918 and the likelihood is that John
was attached in some form of training capacity as he had
recent front line experience.
The reason the connection was made is because a document
which was found in the National Archives tells us that on
the 13 February 1917 he made a hand written informal Will
stating that: "In the event of my death I leave all my
property and effects to my sister Christine Bulger of 74
Ignatius Rd. Drumcondra, Dublin".
(John's sister Christine Brennan had married a Joseph Bulger
in Dublin 21 Aug 1904.)
Change of name
We have documentary evidence from parish records of John
Brennan’s birth; he was born on 17 Aug 1892, in
Ballickmoyler. Co. Laois, the son of Mark Brennan and Kate
(Catherine) Lalor. In various other documents that were
discovered during the research he was also born in Co.
Antrim Northern Ireland and St. John's. Newfoundland.
We can assume that John changed his name to John McCartan
sometime between the 1901 census and the 1911 census of
Ireland. According to the 1901 census he is recorded as John
Brennan living with his father Mark Brennan aged 7 years
(correct age was 9 years) in Ballickmoyler. Co. Laois. In
the 1911 census he has moved to Ballyminymore *Glenavy, Co.
Antrim NI, and his birth place is listed as Antrim and he is
a Farm Servant and he is aged 19 years. According to the
Forces War Records website his birth town is listed as St.
John's. Newfoundland, Canada., and he is recorded as
residing in Carlow and his Nationality is British and his
Rank is Rifleman.
*Glenavy is about 14 miles west of Belfast where his brother Martin
Why did soldiers change their names?
There are several reasons why, they could be trying to hide
from marital problems, paternity issues, the law,
bankruptcy, former military service or a criminal record. It
is my belief that John was trying to hide his enlistment
from his immediate family so that they couldn't trace him
after he joined the British Army. Irish families of the day
did not agree with their sons or daughters joining the
British Forces and if they came home they would probably not
be very welcome especially in their own community and would
find it difficult getting a job. Another theory is that he
wanted to protect his family in the event he was captured by
the enemy and it would have been very difficult to trace his
linkage back to his family.
The situation in southern Ireland during this period was
proving very difficult and Irishmen joining the British Army
were considered to be traitors to their own country because
England was considered to be the enemy. There was obviously
some split with the family and he knew that his dad Mark
Brennan wouldn't agree with him leaving home and joining the British
Army, but who knows?
His mother died in 1893 when John was less than 1 year old,
nine years later in 1902 his father Mark Brennan died. The
eldest girl Hannah had to step in and take the place of the
mother and look after the youngest children. At some point
John’s sisters Hannah, Christine and Anne decided to go to
Dublin probably to look for work. They must have taken John
and probably his brother Martin with them. Martin went on to
work in Belfast
sometime later and may have taken John with him.
Now why did he choose the name McCartan? Could it have been
a girl friends name or a work colleague.
This is a mystery we will probably never solve. The name
does not appear anywhere in our family tree. He obviously
wanted to disassociate himself altogether from the South.
His brother who worked in Belfast all his life and when he
came home to visit us in the early 1960s I remember him
having a very strong northern Irish accent. I never met John
but I did meet his brother Martin; we walked from Cooper
Hill to Carlow and back one Saturday. He struck me as a very
educated and well informed man. Did Martin come up with the
name McCartan? Or, was it his girlfriend’s name? We will
Martin Brennan died on 27th Feb 1963, in the City Hospital
Belfast. He was living at 1 Adela St, Antrim Rd,
Belfast 15. His death certificate states he was a widower.
We don't know who Martin's wife was or when or where they
got married. We also don't know where Martin worked in
1911 Census of Ireland:
McCARTAN J -
Kingdom Rifleman 975 Royal Irish Rifles 14/10/1918 IV. F. 35.
New British War Cemeteries:
Forces War Records:
information we have
available it is
likely that J
entitled to the
Victory medal, also
called the Inter
Medal. This medal
was awarded to all
who received the
1914 Star or
1914-15 Star and,
those who received
the British War
Medal. It was never
These three medals
referred to as Pip,
Squeak and Wilfred.
is a campaign medal of
the British Empire
which was awarded to
officers and men of
British and Imperial
forces who served in
any theatre of the
First World War against
the Central European
Powers during 1914 and
From the information
available to us, it is
very possible that J
McCartan was entitled
to the British War
Medal for service in
World War One. This
British Empire campaign
medal was issued for
services between 5th
August 1914 and 11th
The medal was
in the event of death
on active service
before the completion
of this period.
I have been
searching the Belfast Papers and the National Archives
to see if I could find any evidence where John changed
his name I then came across the following:
Finding proof of
a change of name
It’s always been possible in Great Britian, and
Ireland, to change
your name without having to register the change
with any official body. It’s still perfectly
legal for anyone over the age of 16 to start using
a new name at any time, as long as they’re not
doing so for a fraudulent or illegal reason.
of a change
of name will often find that it simply
doesn’t exist. Historically, many people
preferred not to draw attention to their change of
name. For example, when divorce was more
difficult, some people simply took their new
partner’s name to allow them to appear married, and
to make any children appear legitimate.
thanks goes to the following people who helped me
with the research:
Eileen Alan & Michael Boran who provided the photo
of John in Uniform, Kevin Bulger, Brian McCleaf,
Terry Curran, Michael Purcell and Michael Nugent. c.2017
who helped me with much of the research.
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