Among those who attend St. Michael’s cemetery each November to honour Athy’s dead in World War I is to be found a sprightly man of advancing years who proudly steps forward to place a cross on the grave of Michael Byrne who died in November 1918. In honouring his mother’s brother Joe Walsh, known locally as “Lowly” remembers also his fallen comrades who served with him in World War II.
Son of master tailor Joseph Walsh and Teresa Byrne, “Lowly” was born almost seventy-five years ago in Barrack Street. His nick-name comes from his maternal grandfather’s ready response to the oft repeated enquiry from neighbours as to the health of his small, then sickly grandchild. “Lowly” was to remain Joe’s name thereafter.
Having left school at ten years of age he started work one year later in P.P. Doyle’s brick yard with all the other young fellows from Dooley’s Terrace where his parents were then living. The winter months were spent picking stones out of the yellow clay while in summer he was put to “hacking” bricks, building them up one on top of the other ready for firing in the kiln. His older brother Michael also worked in the brick yard but sadly he died at nineteen years of age.
When the asbestos factory started in 1936 “Lowly” got a job there. With the outbreak of World War II like so many other Athy men he called to the local Garda Station to enlist in the Irish Army. Garda Connell took his details and the next day “Lowly” was brought with a number of other locals to the Curragh Camp. Conditions in the Irish Army were not good. Indeed his abiding memory of his three years spent in the Irish Army is what he still recalls after a lapse of fifty-four years as the “scandalous Army food”. Conditions in the Army were so bad that there was wholesale desertion by the disenchanted recruits who travelled by train to Belfast to join the British Army.
“Lowly” followed the same path and in 1942 he joined the RAF. He was stopped on his way to Dublin by two military policeman but was lucky to escape the fate of his friend Bobby Bachelor, also a deserter, who spent ninety days in detention following his arrest by “Cushy” Ryan, a military policeman from Athy. An indication of the large number of Southern Irish Army deserters can be gauged from “Lowly’s” description of the fifty or sixty recruits who on arrival at Belfast railway station with him marched with practised steps in strict military formation to the recruiting barracks.
While training to be a rear gunner “Lowly” responded to a request for volunteers to go to France and joined the Motor Transport Light Repair Unit. He passed through Caen where even the graveyards had been bombed and on into Ghent in Belgium where his unit camped for some time. Moving into the Ardennes forest they were attacked by the Germans. This was the arena where Hitler gambled on an offensive against the allies. The Germans were first checked by the Americans and eventually routed by an Allied Counter Offensive in January 1945 which became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
“Lowly’s” unit passed on into Holland and he still recalls the abject poverty of the war-torn people of that country and Belgium after the Germans had retreated. The people were starving, unlike the soldiers who were liberating them. Cigarettes and bars of chocolate supplied each week to the Allied soldiers sustained a barter system in these countries whose economies were destroyed during the War. “Lowly” eventually ended up in Berlin where he stayed two weeks in the stadium which had hosted the Olympic Games in 1936. He also recalls visiting the Reich Chancellery where Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker in May 1945.
Demobbed in June 1946 “Lowly” was unable to return to Athy until Bill Norton, the Labour T.D., successfully raised in the Dail the possibility of an amnesty for deserters from the Irish Army. The numbers involved were such as to necessitate the granting of this amnesty, otherwise the Irish Army authorities would have been overwhelmed by the number of the soldiers returning to their homeland. Anyway it was privately acknowledged that the unsatisfactory conditions in the Irish Army contributed hugely to the mass exodus across the border.
“Lowly” returned to Athy in June 1947 and for the second time got a job in the Asbestos factory. He married Kathleen Brennan of Crettyard in July of the following year and they lived in Geraldine before moving in time to Convent View where they still reside. Later on he joined Bord na Mona, continuing to work there until he retired in 1985.
“Lowly”, a good soccer player, played for Carlow A.F.C. as did the late Gerry Sullivan, a Waterford man, both of whom with “Cymbal” Davis of Joseph’s Terrace and Louis Poperlensky founded Athy A.F.C. in or about 1950. Mick McEvoy of St. Joseph’s Terrace was the first Treasurer, with Willie O’Neill, commonly called “Woodbine Willie” and Gordon Prole Snr. as Club officers.
Another club in which Joe was involved was the handball club which was re-started by George Ryan, Mick McEvoy, Shay May, James Delaney and Joe “Lowly” Walsh. The handball alley was out of repair and those involved each paid six pence a week to pay for the repairs which enabled many to continue playing the game which had such a long tradition in Athy. Good handballers remembered by Joe included brothers Jack and Henry Foley, Tom Day and George Aldridge, all of Barrack Street, Mickey Costello of Shrewleen, Willie Frazier of Higginsons Lane, Jack Delaney and George Roche, both of Woodstock Terrace, Bill Aldridge and George Ryan.
“Lowly” Walsh has a wonderful life story to tell, only snatches of which I have been able to relate. His delightful recounting of times spent both in and out of his native town give an interesting insight into events of national and local interest. His recall is sharply focused as he re-lives both the happy and sad experiences of a life lived to the full. The “Lowly” child of the 1920’s who outlived many of his contemporaries has carried throughout his life a nick-name which age has demonstrably shown to be a less than accurate description of his constitution.