A forgotten memorial stone in a windswept graveyard was all that remained of the story of William Tally Mallon, a US soldier who died during World War One and whose remains were buried in Galbally.
What little was known about the life and tragic death of the Philadephia-born infantryman seemed destined to be forgotten.
Until Galbally man Plunkett Nugent, a barrister and keen amateur historian, uncovered the clues to this ninety-year old mystery.
The few poignant details which had been handed down over the years by Plunkett’s grandparents and neighbours were enough to whet his appetite and keep him very busy.
What followed were seven years of laborious research digging into military and national archives, as well as locating and interviewing relatives, and combing parish records. His investigations took him to the US on half a dozen occasions and resulted in him being awarded a medal for excellence by the Commander of the Battalion of the New York 69th.
Filling in the details was a painstaking but rewarding process.
Along the way he uncovered a hundred-year-old family bible, a dresser that had been refashioned from a coffin which carried the remains of another repatriated US soldier, numerous lost photographs and newspaper clippings.
He was also able to pinpoint the place in France, near the village of Seringes-et-Nesles, where William died in July 1918 at the age of nineteen.
The culmination of Plunkett’s efforts was realised in May 2012 when dozens of William’s relatives from both sides of the Atlantic, representatives of the US army, and local historians attended a special re-dedication ceremony at the grave in Galbally.
Three new memorial stones decorated with the insignia of the 69th Regiment of the US Army were blessed.
So what prompted Plunkett to go to such trouble over a man he did not know?
His passion began, he recalls, from stories he heard from his grandfather Hughie Nugent of Aughnagar and Owen McCaughey.
“This project was about remembering a young soldier’s life, to retrieve history before it disappears forever by unravelling the stories that lay hidden in people’s memories and in archives in the US”, he said.
It was a race against time, in many ways, as a total of eight of the collaborators who assisted in the project have since passed away, he revealed.
“I wanted this to be seen as a history-centred project based on a different narrative to those we are used to hearing. In many ways it is an untold story and one we were in danger of losing.”
At the heart of the narrative is a woman called Mary Ann McKane, born in Clonavaddy, Killeeshil in 1868, who sought a better life in America, only to return to Ireland in 1919 after enduring the death of her husband, William Mallon, her two brothers, both priests, and her only child, William Tally Mallon.
A year previously, William was killed by a German sniper’s bullet during the Allies’ final concerted push for Paris. His remains were buried like those of his comrades where he fell on French soil.
However, in a heartfelt letter, a copy of which Plunkett has obtained, Mary Ann implored the Adjutant General of the US army to have her son’s remains returned to Galbally.
“He was my only child”, she wrote, “and I would like to have him buried where I intend to be buried.”
She even offered to meet the full cost of removing and shipping his remains.
In an unusual move, the US government decided that as William was still a minor when he died, his remains could be repatriated to the place of his mother’s residence.
Consequently, William Tally Mallon came to be the only US born soldier killed in the Great War, whose remains are buried in Ireland.
In 1922, at the height of the Civil War, his body was carried from a French battlefield and brought to Galbally.
Plunkett plans to publish William’s story in book form. He also revealed that several TV companies are interested in making a documentary om the project, and there is also interest in making a movie.
“I would like to thank the numerous people who helped me, in particular the late Packie Joe McKane, who offered the most encouragement”, he said.