Private James Durney, Royal Irish Regiment: a soldier of the Great War

By James Durney

My great-grandfather James Durney served in what was called ‘The Great War for civilization,’ and had the scars and medals to prove it. He died in 1957, four years before I was born, so I knew basically nothing of his life. That is until I got ‘old’ enough to be interested. By this stage, my father, James Durney, had also passed on so I asked my uncle, Paddy Durney, about James the Great War soldier. He told me that James had been in the British army during WWI and had been wounded by a shell explosion while pushing an artillery piece across a bridge somewhere on the Western Front. All James could remember was an explosion and then waking up in a hospital where they took seven pieces of shrapnel from a head wound and inserted a metal plate in his skull. The shrapnel pieces were displayed in a glass on the mantelpiece in his house at Skeaugh, Callan, Co. Kilkenny.

All British servicemen received at least two medals – the British War Medal and Victory Medal – so I decided to have a look for James Durney on the UK National Archives website ( for the Medal Rolls Index Card which contains an entry for each person who received one or more medals. The card will usually show the name, regiment, rank, number and medals awarded. It may also show the ‘theatre of war first served in’ and the date of entry therein. The remarks column may note if a soldier was killed in action. The address is not usually recorded. There is a small sterling charge to get a copy of the index card, which is emailed to you.

I assumed James Durney was in the Royal Field Artillery or Royal Horse Artillery, because of the story of the artillery piece and the Medal Rolls are particularly useful if you do not know the service number, regiment, etc., of the person you are looking for. Durney, however, is a unique name so I found James Durney quite easily. There were several other Durneys on the rolls and the National Archives sent these along, six records in total, on an A4 page. I now had James Durney’s service number (5779) and unit (Royal Irish Regiment). However, no address was provided, so I was not totally sure this was my great-grandfather. In 2012 Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan published Kilkenny families in the Great War, compiling a nominal roll of Co. Kilkenny WWI veterans. There were five Durney entries in the book, including James Durney, service no. 5779, Royal Irish Regiment.

Herein lies the value of local histories as this book contained James Durney’s address, probable birth date, age, occupation, parents names and that he was reported wounded in September 1917. It also recorded that his two brothers Patrick and Matthew had also joined the British army. Their details were also provided. Both Patrick and Matthew had appeared on the medal card index I earlier received from the NA. I now had a lot of information and searched for James Durney’s personnel service record, but found nothing. Unfortunately, about sixty per cent of the WWI personnel records were burned during the London Blitz in WWII and James Durney’s record was more than likely one of them.

I located James Durney in the 1901 and 1911 census, but basically that was that. There did not seem to be much more to do. However, my father’s anniversary mass fell on 15 March 2014 and during the day, over a pint, of course, I asked my uncle Paddy about James Durney the Great War soldier. Did he know him, were there any other details? Paddy recalled that he and my father used to visit from Newbridge, Co. Kildare, to their grandfather James, in Skeaugh, Callan. He also said that both James and his brother, Mattie, had died on the same day, an hour apart – James in Callan and Mattie in England – and that there was a report in the newspapers. This revelation led me to search and lo and behold I found, in the Kilkenny People on 8 June 1957, a headline: ‘Brothers die on same day.’

This entry gave me some wonderful family information that you could only wish for: James Durney was seventy-two and a ‘respected member of an old and well-known Callan Family. Deceased was an ex-British soldier, who had served with the forces in France during the first world war. He is survived by a widow, a member of the Keogh family, Ahenure, and leaves five sons and three daughters…’ A list of chief mourners – names and addresses –  was given, which included his son and my grandfather, Patrick, Newbridge. The final resting place of James Durney, a soldier of the Great War, was recorded as the family burial ground, Newtown, Callan, Co. Kilkenny.