Luke O'Connor was the first soldier to receive the Victoria Cross

Major General Sir Luke O'Connor was born in Hillstreet, County Roscommon in 1832. He was destined for a life of tragedy in his early years, but to a life of fulfilment and reward in later years.

Hillstreet is a small village six miles from the town of Elphin and five miles from Carrick-on- Shannon. His uncle, Rev. Peter was Curate of Croghan Roman Catholic Church. Indeed there is a plaque dedicated to the memory of Rev O' Connor on the wall of Croghan Church.

The house where Luke was born still stands and is occupied by a distant relative. In the mid-1800s, Ireland was not a very attractive place to live and tenant farmers found it tough to make living off the land.

The O'Connor family (six children) were uprooted by their parents and emigrated to Canada to try and make a better life in the New World. On the outward voyage, Luke's father and shortly after arriving in Quebec, his mother and brother died. With no prospect of surviving in Canada with young siblings, the family decided to return Luke with his eldest sister to the family relatives in Boyle where he could learn a trade in the grocery shop owned by his uncle.

At the tender age of 17 years, the hedge school educated Luke O'Connor. His dream of being apprenticed to the grocery trade was dashed when he found himself degraded to the position of boots and porter boy in the hotel, also owned by his uncle. The disappointed Luke took revenge on his relatives by turning on the barrel taps and absconding from the hotel. Luke moved to London where he had an uncle who served in the medical corps under Sir De Lacy Evens in Spain.

Luke joined the army (1847) and enlisted in the 17th Lancers, but not before being attested after paying smart money. His uncle, himself an ex-army surgeon, helped enlist him in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

From the beginning, he was recognised as a good soldier and prior to the Crimean War, he had reached the rank of Colour Sergeant (1850). On September 24th, 1845, ten days after his arrival with his regiment in the Crimean at the battle of Alma, a young Lieutenant Anstruther was carrying the regimental colours. Lt. Anstruther fell mortally wounded. Sgt. O'Connor, although wounded in the chest himself, grabbed the colours, raced to he head of the regiment and planted the colours on the redoubt before those of the enemy, who were near at hand, could realise their perilous position. The effect on the rest of the battalion was instantaneous. The Welsh Fusiliers saw the heroism of Sgt. O'Connor and pressed onward to his support. The Bayonet attack on the enemy position was successful.

A year later, wounded in both thighs, Sgt. O'Connor showed remarkable gallantry and was later awarded a commission. He went on to serve bravely during the war and was involved in the attack on the Redan and the Quarries.H e was also present at the fall of Sevastopol in the Indian mutiny of 1857. He was with Welsh Fusiliers in 1858 at the relief and capture of Lucknow and the defeat of the Gwalior contingent of Cawnpore.

Later Sgt. O'Connor was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. He became the first soldier to win the coveted award and was presented with his medal by Queen Victoria in Hyde Park on June 26th, 1857.

In 1873, the then Cpt. O'Connor returned to Boyle. The whole town and surrounding area turned out to meet him. A large sum of money was subscribed to provide a presentation. His own choice was that of a silver centrepiece for the regimental mess should be specially commissioned. This very elegant piece depicts Sgt. Luke O'Connor on a pedestal waving a flag at Alma.

Luke recalled his time in Boyle in his autobiography: "It was not strange that my earliest ideas had a military tendency, for Roscommon is famous for giving soldiers to the service, and, indeed, many of my own relatives have served in the army all over the world. My first and greatest delight was in playing at soldiers and drilling other children in the street; also occasionally making raids into the barracks, in defiance of the sentries, instead of attending school, for which I often received a severe trashing. Little did I then think that later in life I should become a captain commanding a two-company detachment in the same quarters."

At this time he was second captain of the second battalion of the 23rd Welsh Fusiliers alongside his colleagues, he feared that he would have to retire on age grounds but he was saved by the outbreak of war. Luke O'Connor went on to serve in the Ashantee War, with the rank of brevet Lt. Col., but was returned to England, having suffered a severe fever off the coast.

On June 24th, 1884, he succeeded to the command of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and in 1886 he went on half pay with the rank of Colonel. It is said that he is the only private soldier to win a VC and reach the rank of General.

Lord Wolseley once gave advice to young cadets: "If you want to get into the army, the first thing you should do is get shot". General Luke certainly earned his promotion at the mouth of the canon.
He was granted the Distinguished Service Reward and retired on March 2nd, 1887 with the rank of Major General. Luke was created a CB in 1900 and a KCB in 1913and in 1914 was appointed honourary Colonel of his old regiment.

Sir Luke O'Connor became ill and after lingering in a critical condition for some time, he died in London on February 1st, 1915, in his 84th year. The remains of the late Major General Sir Luke O'Connor were buried in St.Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Kensel Green, London.
Sir Luke never forgot his humble upbringing. The beautiful baptismal font in the Roman Catholic Church in Elphin as well as the tabernacle light were a gift to the church from Sir Luke O'Connor, as was the beautiful baptismal font in the Old St.Joseph's Church in Boyle. The church in Boyle was destroyed by fire in 1974.

In his will, Sir Luke remembered the local nuns in Boyle and Elphin, as well as other religious institutions. He admired their charitable work and commitment to the local community.

Courtesy of Danny Tiernan and the Roscommon Herald