Century-old chess board belonging to Martin Sheen’s family to go on show in NI
A century-old chessboard once belonging to the uncle of Hollywood actor Martin Sheen is to go on display for the first time in Northern Ireland.
Michael Phelan was a member of the IRA who fought in the Irish War of Independence a century ago and was interned at Ballykinlar camp near Belfast.
His name was inscribed on the chess set along with a description linking it to the remote beachside spot. It was donated to historians who plan to open a restored and recreated camp hut next year.
Mike King, heritage manager at Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, said: “It was a desolate place, it was called the world’s end camp, and it was difficult for whoever was there.”
The chess set was given by a benefactor from Cork to a major Northern Irish history project run by Mr King.
After he was incarcerated, Mr Phelan’s sister, Sheen’s mother, was sent by her parents to stay with some relatives in the US for safety from the British Black and Tans forces.
Sheen was born in 1940 and went on to act in television political drama The West Wing and war film Apocalypse Now.
Historians are researching the legacy of the Co Down Army base and prison, which would have been covered in barbed wire to keep the prisoners in during the War of Independence in 1920-21.
Inmates included future Irish taoiseach Sean Lemass.
Internees smuggled a camera in inside a cake. They took Irish lessons, played Gaelic Games and had violin classes.
The huts were built in 1914 during World War One for 36th Ulster Division soldiers training for the Western Front.
Mr King said: “They had no light in their huts, and they had very simple wooden beds made of planks, it was bad weather, it was muddy.”
In 2012, one of the Armstrong huts was taken down and artefacts were found below the structure.
The work is funded by the Special European Union Programmes Body through its Peace IV Programme, and the board and the hut will be on display at Down County Museum in April 2020.
Mr King said: “It is about understanding war in order to help build peace.
“That is really our message, that although this is about war it is about the hardships of war and how we want to avoid it in the future.”
He is seeking information about refugees from Malta who were housed there.
US soldiers used the base from 1942 to 1945.
Mr King has photographs of an Italian American from New York, who went right through North Africa and Italy with the First Armoured Division.
He is aged 100 and lives in New York.
A dog tag dropped in the camp helped historians contact another soldier’s family in the US.
A German prisoner of war thought to have been in the Luftwaffe was still there in 1947 and became very friendly with local people.
Mr King said they were seeking more information about him.
Terry Andrews, deputy chairman at Newry, Mourne and Down Council, said it was important to keep memories alive.
He said: “A lot of their memories and the information and experiences were never spoken about in the first place.
“It will be something for future generations after us to remind them of a very important part of history.”