Each year at this time I write of World War I and the men from Athy who were involved in that conflict. Just a few weeks after starting the “Eye on the Past” column I wrote in November 1992 of John Vincent Holland, Athy’s only holder of the Victoria Cross. Holland, son of a local veterinary surgeon, was born in Model Farm on the 19th of July 1889 and received the highest military award for gallantry in an attack on Guillemont in September 1916.
One year later I wrote of the Hannon brothers, Norman and John, both of Ardreigh House who died in the Great War. Reference was also made to their cousins Henry Hannon and Thomas Hannon who also perished. I mentioned how in November 1991 and every year since then local people came together to commemorate the men of Athy who had died in World War I. Their memories were recalled in prayer and poetry in a simple ceremony in St. Michael’s cemetery where six of the Athy dead are buried. Elsewhere I referred to Andrew Delaney of Crookstown who died in Netley Hospital, London from gas poisoning on 31st May, 1915 and whose remains were brought home for interment in Crookstown cemetery.
In November 1993 I listed the names of 105 Athy men, all soldiers who were killed in action during the 1914/18 War. Another 86 men from the rural hinterland around Athy also died representing a terrible loss to a small Irish provincial town. The tragedy of death was compounded when the War Office telegram arrived, not once but three times at the same hall door. Such was the experience of “Jacksie” and Mark Kelly of Mount Hawkins who lost three sons, Denis, John and Owen in the Great War. Owen died on the 3rd of May, 1915, his brother John twenty days later and Denis on 30th September, 1918 just eleven days short of the cease-fire. Other parents who suffered the horrendous loss of three sons were Jack and Margaret Curtis of Quarry who lost their son Patrick, killed in action in France on 4th November, 1914. In 1917 two more Curtis brothers were killed, John on the 9th of January and Lawrence on 4th December. Their father Jack worked as a farm steward for Michael Dooley, one of the foremost Irish nationalist figures in Athy during that period.
Remembering the dead is a proud tradition of all communities but particularly we Irish who hold dearly to our memories of loved ones. Sometimes we must grieve silently as did the many Irish families who for decades found it inappropriate to publicly acknowledge their dead, especially when they died fighting in the uniform of the “auld” enemy.
Times have changed and since November 1991 those unfortunate Athy men who died in action during the 1914/18 War have been remembered each year. Many of those who died no longer have families in Athy but amongst us there are many who bear the name of a dead soldier.
World War I or The Great War ended at 11.00 a.m. on the 11th of November 1918. Ten million men were killed and another thirty million were wounded or missing during the fifty three months of the War. In County Kildare we lost five hundred and sixty-seven men killed in action and an incalculable number amongst the wounded and maimed. In Athy our losses were proportionally greater than most with the deaths of one hundred and five men from the town and another eighty-two from the neighbouring countryside. Most of those men were buried where they fell, some were never found, their names recorded in stone in the War Memorials in Belgium and France.
St. Michael’s Cemetery holds the grave of six soldiers from Athy who died during the Great War.
• Private M. Byrne, Leinster Regiment, died on 21st November, 1918 aged 28 years
• Private James Dwyer, Royal Irish Army Service Corps, died on 31st March, 1918 aged 30 years
• Private Thomas Flynn, Connaught Rangers, died on 26th February, 1915 aged 28 years
• Private Martin Hyland, Offaly Street, Dublin Fusiliers, died 19th September, 1916 aged 29 years
• Lance Corporal J. Lawler, Ardreigh, Dublin Fusiliers, died on 3rd October, 1918 aged 37 years
• Private Michael O’Brien, Irish Guards, died on 26th December, 1917 aged 27 years.
The Irish War Memorials recorded that Martin Hyland died of wounds in France. It is highly unusual therefore to see his burial place in Athy. However, he probably died in Athy of wounds received while on service in France. Three of the soldiers interred in Athy cemetery do not appear in the Irish War Memorial records. The name of Private M. Byrne, Private James Dwyer and Lance Corporal J. Lawler must therefore be added to the list of Athy’s dead.
On Sunday, 12th November at 3.00 p.m. we will gather again in St. Michael’s Cemetery to honour the men from our town whose lives were lost so many years ago. As we stand at the graves of each of the six Athy men who were buried in their native soil we can recall all those husbands, fathers and brothers who died, especially those who lie, some in unmarked graves, far from their own place and far from their families and friends in Athy.
Maybe you will visit St. Michael’s Cemetery on Sunday, 12th November and say a prayer for those men and their families. It is the least we can do for those who once walked the familiar streets of our town.