This November the men whose lives were brutally cut short on World War I battlefields are remembered as they have been for the last 76 years. The events of a generation now long passed could so easily be overlooked by the present were it not for the very real links we have with that War. Athy like many other towns and villages in Ireland paid a heavy price in the conflict which started on the 4th of August, 1914 and ended on the 11th of November 1918. During that period approximately 35,000 Irish men were killed, an average of 158 Irish men every week or 23 men every single day. Those men, all old enough to wear an Army uniform but too young to die, perished in the slaughter which was the Great War.
Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th of August, 1914 and the first troops of the British Expeditionary Force began landing at La Havre and Boulogne on Sunday, the 9th of August. On Thursday, the 1st of September William Corcoran, Army No. 4523, a Lance Corporal in the First Battalion Irish Guards was killed. He was a native of Athy and so far as I can find was the first of the many Athy men who were to die before Armistice Day in November 1918.
567 men from County Kildare died in the War. The greater number came from the South Kildare town of Athy and the surrounding district. Ireland’s War Memorials published in eight volumes lists the details of all Irish men killed in the War but included many non-Irish men who had enlisted in Irish Regiments and others who were included because they had names which were considered likely to indicate an Irish background. Recent research by Pat Casey of the Western Front Association confirms the Irish dead at approximately 35,000 and not the 49,000 or so included in the War Memorials.
The story of the War is one of unremitting death but even in the charged atmosphere of the time the month of April 1915 stands out as being particularly horrific. Gallipoli and Ypres, names familiar to every student of military history were the centres of fierce fighting that month which resulted in the death of 72 men from County Kildare. The names of the some of the Athy men who died that month reads like a litany of the living:- Joe Byrne and Anthony Byrne, William Wall, John Farrell, Christopher Hannon, Larry Kelly, James Dillon, Moses Doyle, Patrick Leonard, Christopher Power, Patrick Tierney, the list goes on and on. Upwards of 200 men from Athy and district died in the War and the dreaded War Office telegram which heralded death or if one was lucky an injury which offered temporary respite from the rigours of war left Athy Post Office with chilling regularity. To receive one such telegram announcing the death of a beloved son was a heartbreaking experience but what of the mothers who received two such telegrams or as in at least two known cases lost three sons in the war.
Athy man Eddie Stafford died on the 24th of September, 1914 just one month into the War. His brother Tommy was to join him in death on the 6th of September, 1916. Brothers Joe and Anthony Byrne of Chapel Lane were to die within two days of each other in April 1915. Joe who was a Sergeant in the Dublin Fusiliers was killed in action in France on the 26th of April and on the 28th of April his brother Anthony, a Private in the Leinster Regiment, was also killed.
The Kelly family of Meeting Lane lost three sons in the war. On the 23rd of May, 1915 John Kelly, a Private in the Leinster Regiment with the regimental number 3636 died of wounds in France. His brother Owen also in the Leinster Regiment with the regimental number 3626 was killed in action on the 1st of May, 1915. Clearly they had joined the regiment on the same day as evidenced by their regimental numbers. Their younger brother Denis later joined the same Regiment despite the pleas of his distraught mother who had already lost two sons. She followed him to the railway station on the day she heard of his intention to enlist and in vain searched the train for her son. As it pulled out of the station she stood on the platform in tears probably realising as only a mother can that she was to lose another son. Denis was to die on the 30th of September 1918.
Another local family to suffer the loss of three sons was the Curtis family of Kilcrow. Patrick Curtis, a Private in the Irish Guards was killed in action on the 5th of November, 1914. His brother John, an acting bombardier in the Field Artillery was killed on the 9th of January, 1917. Their brother Laurence a Private in the Irish Lancers died of wounds on the 4th of December, 1917.
The dead of the 1914-1918 War are to some just names on paper but to others they represent the generation which lost its youth as brave young men went to War in a cause which was to unite families in grief. For too long we pushed to one side their memory forgetting that bravery wears many uniforms. Their life sacrifices must always be a constant reminder to us of how our neighbours suffered, why are neighbours grieved and why their dead must always be remembered.