The Snowhill War Heroine

Snowhill, Co Kilkenny is now little more than a place-name on the river, but it once graced a fine Georgian mansion with an extensive farm and demesne and boat house on the river. I previously wrote about the house, which prompted a memory in an older neighbour of mine, Mrs Bridget Power. Bridget recalled as a girl wandering up through the estate to visit her grandfather who ran the mill at Rathpatrick. Passing the house an older lady in a wide brimmed hat used to welcome them as they passed and offered refreshment.
That lady was most probably Violet O’Neill Power, then owner of the Snowhill estate, the last of the family to own the property. Violets upbringing had been far from traditional it seems and from an early age she showed a strong will and a self determined streak.
Violet in her FANY uniform

In 1907 she was one of the first volunteers to join the FANY; First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. This unit was formed by Captain Edward Baker as a consequence of the miseries he had witnessed in the Boer War. The unit was trained to operate in war fronts as aid and assistance to wounded troops, but as it was staffed by women it was roundly criticised and at times lampooned, given the times and norms associated with them.

Following the outbreak of WWI Violet was in the first unit to be dispatched to the front, arriving at Lamarack hospital in Calais, France on the 27th October 1914. The training of the unit included nursing, first aid and motor mechanics. Their work included tending wounded soldiers and civilians, transport from the front line to hospital, and transport to convalescence homes. The motor mechanics was obvious, keeping ambulances in working order and on the road.
Violet is standing, third from left via

When they weren’t providing vital services to wounded and injured, they helped boost moral. Violet was one of a performing stage troop called “the Fantasticks”.

On the 23rd August 1918 she received her first commendation for services rendered the Croix de Guerre with silver star. This was followed by the Order de Leopold II, one of only two to be received by the unit.  What makes Violets awards all the more significant, is that she was a volunteer, received no pay, and in fact fund raised to maintain the operation and she supplied at least one vehicle to her unit.
After the war the FANY unit continued to operate on the front, repatriating refugees, providing transport, continuing with nursing and first aid duties as required and assisting the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission. The unit was stood down in 1920.
At this stage it would appear that Violet had returned to Ireland to nurse her ailing mother, Margurite. Her father, Joseph Edward, had predeceased his wife in 1897. She inherited the house thereafter, buying out her half brothers share. And there she tried to get back to normality, or whatever that could be following the war. It would appear that like many other landowners she struggled in the new Ireland, her war record and landed background possibly not helping.
Snowhill House

When Bridget would have met her in the 1930s she was in her fifties and trying to maintain an ailing enterprise. Bridget recalled her once bringing her inside the house to view a wasps nest.  Perhaps an indication of the decline in the house. She married a horse breeder from Tipperary in 1945 dividing her time between her home and her husbands. She finally sold Snowhill, perhaps when it was already too late, in 1954. The new owners had it demolished in 1955.

Violet died on March 27th 1965, childless but having seen more of life than most. Its fitting as we commemorate those who went to war in WWI that she is remembered as much as anyone else
I’m indebted to James Doherty for assistance with this piece.  Much of the details were accessed from: McDermott Alice. ‘…Defy(ing) the Tyranny of Precedent’ The life of Violet O’Neill Power, Twice Decorated Irish Great War Nurse.
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