The link between ‘Klassic Cleaners and a heroic Roscommon man who died at sea


New face, same place – A series by Carmel Kelly-Palmer


What is the link between Klassic Cleaners in Church Street, Roscommon town, the name McNamara and The Royal Navy?

  On the site where Klassic Cleaners is now, John and Mary McNamara had a licensed public house, mainly frequented by residents of Church Street and Henry Street.

  The residents in the pub, John and Mary McNamara, had one son, James Michael, born on the 11th of June, 1902, who attended St. Coman’s School, Roscommon, and was later a student at University College, Dublin, qualifying in 1923 with medical qualifications – M.B., B,Ch., National University, Ireland. James Michael practised medicine from November 1923-March 1926 in Aberbargoed, Wales and in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England from July 1926 to December 1928.

  Aberbargoed is a small town in the Welsh county borough of Caerphilly, within the boundaries of Monmouthshire, South Wales. It once contained the largest colliery waste tip in Europe. Coal mining operations started in Bargoed Colliery in 1897 when Powell Duffryn Steam Coal Company started to sink the shaft. On 10th of December, 1908 it broke the world record for production when a 10-hour shift produced 3,562 tons of coal. By 1910, the pit employed 1943 miners and was the largest coal mine in Rhymney Valley and in 1921, just two years before James Michael McNamara took up his post, Bargoed had a population of 17,901. Accidents and industrial diseases were widespread among mine workers. 

  Portsmouth is documented to be one of the world’s best-known ports, considered to be the home of the Royal Navy and to two-thirds of the UK’s surface fleet. The city is home to some famous ships – HMS Warrior, Mary Rose and Horatio Nelson’s Flagship, HMS Victory, the world’s oldest commissioned war ship. Did the major influence of the history he was immersed in while in Portsmouth seal James Michael’s career? Perhaps it was an ambition he had as a boy in his home town of Roscommon. As a brave and dedicated young man he began his career in the Royal Navy.

  The following was his service as recorded in the British Royal Navy Records: Entered Royal Navy as Surgeon Lieutenant on 19th of December,1928; Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander 19th of December 1934; Surgeon Commander 19th of December 1940. (First entered as Surgeon Lieutenant for Short Service, transferred to the Permanent List on 6th of April, 1932).

  Amongst appointments held during his service were the following: H.M.S. CROCUS 1929-1930; H.M.S. LADYBIRD 1930-1932;H.M.S.ST VINCENT 1932-1933; HMS ALECTO 1933-1934; H.M.S. DANAE 1936-1938; H.M.S. HERMES 1939 until April 1942 when he died from wounds received on 9th of April, 1942.

  On the Hermes, James Michael witnessed naval warfare many times, including the pursuit of German warships. The Hermes’ aircraft were also involved in attempting to sink the French battleship Richelieu to prevent the German naval forces using it. While stationed in the Indian Ocean off Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka, Hermes was attacked by Japanese aircraft and sunk with the loss of 307 officers and crew. The Hermes and the H.M.A.S. Vampire were both sunk. The Vampire lost one officer and eight crew. The hospital ship, H.M.H.S. Vita picked up the survivors from both ships. It is recorded “James Michael McNamara died of wounds inflicted during the Japanese attack on the H.M.S. Hermes”, so it is likely he was picked up with survivors and later buried at sea.

  Surgeon Commander James McNamara’s personal effects – e.g. medals, photographs and other memorabilia – have been donated to Roscommon County Museum, The Square, Roscommon. There is also an informative leaflet which was the result of a presentation by Christopher Keane in Roscommon Library in April, 2016. The memorial plaque is in the Sacred Heart Church, Roscommon and Mr. McNamara is commemorated on panel 63, column 1 of a Memorial obelisk at Plymouth Naval Memorial, Devon, England.

The premises now – an established business

All of this history of James Michael McNamara and the McNamara family has an obvious link with Klassic Cleaners, now occupying what was once the McNamara home/premises in Church Street, Roscommon. Klassic Cleaners is managed by brother and sister Liam and Mella Stephens and, says Liam, “alongside us we have five very dedicated staff.”

  Liam recalls: “My uncle Joe Stephens purchased the premises and had an electrical business in operation there in 1963. Business was good until the bank strikes of 1966-1976 which affected many businesses. My parents (Alice and Padraig Stephens) purchased the building in 1973 and rented it to Larry Allen from Galway. He opened a Dry Cleaning business which means a dry cleaning business has been operating here for nearly 50 years. When Larry Allen decided to retire 24 years ago, we purchased it.”

  Liam describes the extensive work which had to be carried out. “Renovating the three-storey imposing building involved major work. We extended the workshop to incorporate a laundry and ironing service, making it more practical as a workplace. We revamped the whole area, endeavouring to give it a new and welcoming look.”

  The apartment upstairs was designed as Liam describes “to make it into a ‘snug’ apartment for us to live in when myself and Aisling got married.” 

  He continues: “Our business incorporates dry cleaning and wet cleaning, which is totally environmentally friendly, full laundry and ironing service, alteration and repair service, wedding and gown cleaning and preservation (including boxing your wedding gown).

  “In addition, we also provide a collection and delivery service to Day2Day, Ballygar, Meehan’s Londis and Heneghan’s SuperValu in Glenamaddy and Keane’s SuperValu, Lanesboro. This year we are renovating the shop.”

  That renovation work was carried out as the Stephens’ celebrated 24 years in business last month.

  Says Liam: “We look forward to many more years serving our customers. We would not be here without the valued support of our many customers through those years.”