The Truth Behind
O'Hea's Victoria Cross
By ELIZABETH REID
Did you ever read an item that itches in the corner of your mind? Did it intrigue you so that you just had to know the truth behind it? Meet a 30-year intriguee!
Three lines in a book stated that a Private Timothy O'Hea won a Victoria Cross in Danville, Quebec, June 9, 1866, for putting out a fire in an ammunition freightcar. The highest award for valour in the world? Won in Canada? What was that about?
I searched for answers in England in the War Office, Windsor Castle, Public Records Offices and archives, in Ottawa, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the Irish offices in London, where, during a hectic time of IRA troubles, I located some O'Hea family biographers in England.
Researchers found nuggets of information, or hints that led to more enquiries - or nothing at all. It was a costly game, but I had become a gambler, besotted with what I was learning. Each week I looked forward to letters with bits and pieces of the puzzle. No internet when I started, of course.
An historian interested in O'Hea's story reminded me that "history repeats itself, historians repeat each other," explaining why pieces of absurdity were not questioned, for so long.
Twenty-three-year-old Pvt. Timothy O'Hea, from Cork, was stationed in Montreal when the Fenian situation hotted up with the invasion at Ridgeway, Ontario. O'Hea was a member of the escort on a train carrying supplies, including a ton of gunpowder, to Canadian militia at Cornwall.
As the train slowed through Danville station, eastern Quebec, a Grand Trunk railroader hollered the alarm that the freightcar was on fire.
O'Hea took the keys to the car from his sergeant's hand, climbed into the car and gave battle. Happily for the village of Danville, the passengers and railroaders, several hundred people all together, the assault he led on the fire diverted disaster.
The obstacles to O'Hea's award is another unexpected chapter of this strange tale of the only VC ever awarded for an action on Canadian soil. It was also the only one officially gazetted to a special hidden warrant. There would be five more awards under the special warrant, but not officially acknowledged, and it was never used again.
Then came stories of O'Hea turning up in Australia. Died of thirst on a trek in the outback, it was claimed. Australian versions conflicted with what I had learned. What emerged was an impostor. Imposture involved Timothy's whereabouts. Where was he? More queries.
Later a Victoria Cross with Timothy's name on it turned up in London, at auction. Forgery and fraud! Surprisingly, that Cross was to have a tale of its own. Today it is a collector's item.
I believe that O'Hea's Victoria Cross should be recognized as the special award it is, not under "has a connection to Canada." Whoever put it there just didn't know the whole history. We do know it now. O'Hea's Victoria Cross is unique.
[To learn more about the young Irish hero who saved a Canadian village from disaster and stuff of legends, visit: www.oheascross.com.]