It’s that time of year again. No, not Christmas, rather the time set aside by people around the world to remember those lost in the carnage of World War I. Here in Athy we have more reason than others to remember that awful time over eighty years ago when young men rushed or walked to their deaths across the muddy ground which was Flanders fields.
Those young men came from rural or small town backgrounds and joined the British Army in their hundreds for reasons which we can never satisfactorily explain. Was it the prospect of wearing a smart uniform which first caught their attention? Was it the opportunity of shedding the perennial unemployment status which drove the Athy men into the recruiting station in Leinster Street? Perhaps the opportunity to go overseas, even in war time, was to many who had never gone further than the nearest village the reason they enlisted in such numbers. Maybe the answer is to be found in all of these possibilities, coupled with a manly and courageous response to a call for arms in aid of beleaguered Belgium.
For whatever reason almost half a million Irishmen fought in World War I at a time when their own country was nearing the end of it’s 800 years of subjugation to English Rule. Indeed some historians would claim that many of those men joined up in the belief that Home Rule would be granted to a thirty-two county Ireland at the end of the hostilities.
All of this fades into insignificance when we review the high number of Irishmen, believed to be in excess of 36,000 who died during the Great War. The effect their deaths had on communities throughout Ireland has never been properly assessed, but even now it may be claimed that this country is still unable to divest itself of the social problems which followed in the wake of that War.
For the town of Athy and District the loss of 188 men over the period 1914 to 1918 could only have had a most depressing effect on the psyche of the area. Accentuating this was the large number of badly injured men, pensioned off after the war, who remained for decades a constant reminder of those terrible days.
It is difficult to grasp the enormity of the losses suffered by some families whose fathers, husbands or brothers were never to return alive or dead. Their bodies were never recovered, being buried as they lay in the mud of Flanders or France. The families they had left behind in Athy were never to have the consolation of mourning at the graveside of their loved ones.
During the War the uniformed postboy who delivered telegrams at one time or other came to every street and lane in Athy. In his hand was invariably clutched the dreaded message which informed the next of kin of another death on a European battlefield. Sadly several local families received the awful news not once, but twice. Last April I received a letter from 90 year old Mae Vagts of Washington, U.S.A., daughter of Edward Stafford of Butlers Row. She recalled her father who had enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, leaving his house for the last time to walk to the railway station in Athy where he was joining other local men on the first leg of a journey which would end in France. Edward was killed in action on 24th September, 1914, leaving a widow and three young children, Mae, George and Tommy. Strangely his son Tommy died on the same day as his father 74 years later. Mrs. Stafford later re-married Paddy Shaughnessy and their son Danny died within the last year.
The telegram which was delivered to Butler’s Row announcing Edward Stafford’s death was to be followed by a second telegram when his brother Thomas, a lance corporal in the Dublin Fusiliers was also killed in France on 6th September, 1916. The Heydon family in Churchtown also lost two sons, Patrick, killed in France on 4th September, 1914 and Aloysius killed on 27th November, 1917. Brothers John Hannon and Norman Leslie Hannon of Ardreigh House also died in the War. Norman was 20 years of age when he was killed at Festubert on 16th May, 1915 while John was 24 years old when he died on 18th August, 1916.
On three separate occasions the messenger of death came to the houses of two local families during the Great War. Mr. And Mrs. Kelly of Mount Hawkins suffered the loss of son Owen on 3rd May, 1915 and 20 days later the loss of their other son John. A third son Dennis died of his wounds in France on 3rd September, 1918.
Jack and Margaret Curtis of Rockfield like the Kellys of Mount Hawkins also lost three sons in the War. Patrick was killed in France on 5th November, 1914 while his brother John was killed in action on 9th January, 1917 and his brother Lawrence died of his wounds on 4th December, 1917. Just before Christmas 1995 I received a letter from their niece, Mrs. J. Watts of Northold in Middlesex who as a young girl had worked in Hutchinsons Hotel in Leinster Street. She is a reader of “Eye on the Past” and in the course of a very nice letter thanked me for remembering the young men from Athy who died in the Great War. “You are the first person to mention them” she wrote which I felt was a somewhat sad indictment of the local townspeoples’ neglect of an important part of their own history.
On Sunday, 9th November a small group of local men and women gathered in St. Michael’s Cemetery to remember those forgotten men from Athy who died so young and so tragically during the 1914/18 War. In doing so they were publicly recalling the worst days in the history of warfare and possibly the most tragic four years in the long history of our Town. At the same time they helped recover from oblivion the memory of those local men who died in previous wars, especially the 1914/18 War. Their generous action serves to remind the people of Athy that Nationalists of whatever hue do no disservice to what they believe in by remembering their own dead.