Michael James “Mickey” O’Rourke came to BC from Ireland and worked as a hard rock miner and logger. In 1915 he was on the construction crew building the CPR’s Connaught Tunnel at Revelstoke when he decided to enlist with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In 1917, at the age of 42, he became the oldest person ever and the first British Columbian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
During the war, O’Rourke worked as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines. He was awarded the prestigious Military Medal at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 for when
in the absence of order he initiated a counter attack against the advancing army, who had arrived within bombing distance of our trenches. He led the men in his immediate sector over the parapet [i.e., the “top” of the trench], maintained his position well in advance, successfully bombing the enemy from several points of vantage. He endeavoured to hold on to No Man’s Land.
For his role in the Battle for Hill 70 in August 1917, O’Rourke was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration offered by the British Empire. The following is the official account in the London Gazette:
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during prolonged operations.
For three days and nights Pte. O’Rourke, who is a stretcher-bearer, worked unceasingly in bringing the wounded into safety, dressing them, and getting them food and water.
During the whole of this period the area in which he worked was subjected to very severe shelling and swept by heavy machine gun and rifle fire. On several occasions he was knocked down and partially buried by enemy shells. Seeing a comrade who had been blinded stumbling around ahead of our trench, in full view of the enemy who were sniping him, Pte. O’Rourke jumped out of his trench and brought the man back, being himself heavily sniped at while doing so. Again he went forward about 50 yards in front of our barrage under very heavy and accurate fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, and brought in a comrade. On a subsequent occasion, when the line of advanced posts was retired to the line to be consolidated, he went forward under very heavy enemy fire of every description and brought back a wounded man who had been left behind.
He showed throughout an absolute disregard for his own safety, going wherever there were wounded to succour, and his magnificent courage and devotion in continuing his rescue work, in spite of exhaustion and the incessant heavy enemy fire of every description, inspired all ranks and undoubtedly saved many lives.
After the Battle for Hill 70, O’Rourke continued to serve despite the pain he suffered from sciatica, a medical condition he acquired on the battlefields of France. In the Battle of Ypres, he was subjected to poison gas attacks and hit by shrapnel. He was finally given a medical discharge in July 1918 because of his sciatica and overall deteriorating health after 27 months of service.
O’Rourke spent time in the US and worked as a fruit vendor in Victoria, but eventually ended up settling in Vancouver’s East End. He was diagnosed with “nervous irritability due to service,” or shell shock, what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because the doctor mentioned that his condition was exacerbated by heavy drinking, O’Rourke was initially denied a $10 per month pension until General Byng, the Governor General of Canada, intervened on his behalf.
Because of his poor health, O’Rourke had difficulty returning to work back in BC. He eventually ended up working on the waterfront in a granary and then as a longshoreman, but was unable to work steadily because of various health problems, which included chronic bronchitis, emphysema, cholecycitis, and gastritis in addition to post traumatic stress and alcoholism. His monthly pension was eventually increased to $11.25, but because pension amounts were derived from wage rates for unskilled labour, it meant that O’Rourke lived in extreme poverty when he couldn’t work.
O’Rourke played a key role in the 1935 waterfront strike. Longshoremen and their supporters attempted to march down to Ballantyne Pier, where scabs were unloading cargo under the protection of special police. Organizers of the demonstration expected police would try and stop the march, and wanted to project an image of striking longshoremen as a respectable lot that included men like O’Rourke who fought and sacrificed in the Great War and now deserved a fair shake. This was to counter the image painted by politicians and the fascist Citizens’ League of striking longshoremen as troublemakers and the dupes of Moscow. The lone surviving photo of the march (below) shows that the protesters were dressed in suits, ties, and hats, with O’Rourke at the front carrying a Union Jack flag.
The police attacked the parade after the marchers refused to turn back at the foot of Heatley, and what became known as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier followed. Sixty-one year old O’Rourke didn’t stick around for the full riot, but managed to get in a parting shot: “When I saw we were beat, I beat it. I heaved a brick at a mounted policeman’s head though,” he recalled.
Little is known about O’Rourke’s political leanings or motivations after the war, but his role in the waterfront strike and his irreverence towards the pomp and circumstance surrounding his military honours suggest that, like many other Great War veterans, he was unimpressed with the conditions that working class veterans faced upon their return to civilian life, which led to questioning the value of their wartime sacrifices.
On three different occasions, O’Rourke was invited to leave his skid road life and shmooze with royalty. The first was a banquet in London, England hosted by the Prince of Wales in 1929 for surviving Victoria Cross recipients. O’Rourke reportedly attended the event, but only after selling the new suit he was given for the trip and disappearing for three weeks.
During Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Canadian tour in 1951, O’Rourke declined an invitation to meet the royal couple at Vancouver’s City Hall. “They wouldn’t want to meet an old blatherskote like me,” he said. “Besides, my legs aren’t so good and I wouldn’t be able to stand up for the whole ceremony.” And finally: “the seabag with all my clothes in it is being held at my last rooming house and I can’t get it.”
Mickey O’Rourke did finally meet Elizabeth, back in London in 1956. She was now the Queen of England and the occasion was the centenary of the Victoria Cross. At first, O’Rourke refused the invitation, claiming it was a ruse to have him committed to Essondale, a psychiatric hospital. He eventually changed his mind, but by then the Department of Veterans Affairs told him it was too late, all the spaces had been booked. Finally a fellow veteran, a doctor who had his leg blown off at Dieppe, offered to pay for O’Rourke’s trip. According to news reports, O’Rourke had a good time in England but complained that he couldn’t get a Canadian beer.
Mickey O’Rourke died the following year at the age of 83. Although most of his life was spent in poverty, O’Rourke was given a hero’s funeral. The Province reported that it was a unique event because the motley crowd included seven Victoria Cross recipients, judges, aldermen, and generals alongside “Mickey’s old pals from the 7th Battalion … grey and grizzled dockworkers, and homeless old-timers from Powell and Main streets.”
For a more in-depth biography of Mickey O’Rourke, see Michael Kevin Dooley, “‘Our Mickey’: The Story of Private James O’Rourke, VC.MM (CEF), 1879-1957,” Labour/Le Travail, No. 47 (Spring 2001).