We witnessed possibly the last old IRA funeral in the locality when we buried Jack MacKenna last weekend in Colestown Cemetery, Castledermot. Many times over the years the rural peace of South Kildare has been shattered by gun salutes accorded as a mark of respect to deceased members of the Defence Forces or deceased members of the old IRA. Throughout the 1950’s and later the gun salutes came courtesy of the old Enfield rifles which had seen service since the days of the first World War. But as I watched last week I saw that the guns raised and pointed to the sky were Steyr automatic rifles. The art of war has advanced and the weapons of destruction it spawned in it’s wake are sometimes raised as in Colestown Cemetery to honour the fighting men of a past generation.
I had interviewed Jack MacKenna a few years ago, ever mindful of his son’s warning that his father never let truth get in the way of a good story. The warning may well have been appropriate as Jack reminisced on unimportant tales and events culled from a busy life. However it was a different matter when he came to tell the story of the men and women who sacrificed their freedoms and sometimes their lives during the struggle for Irish independence.
Jack told me the story of those men and women as if he had a mission to rescue from obscurity those forgotten heroes who had once walked the streets of Athy and the villages of South Kildare. Time can be a great healer but can also be an avaricious shredder of reputations erasing from folk memory the people and events of times past.
When Jack revealed to me the hidden past of nearly 80 years ago he did so out of a sense of duty. It was important to him that future generations could understand and appreciate what made the young men of his day put their lives and livelihoods at risk. His own involvement in the National struggle was acknowledged by himself as of a peripheral nature. As a young boy in Athy he was a member of Fianna Eireann but in later years his contribution was recognised by the award of an old IRA medal and pension. In that regard he was luckier than another Athy man, now long dead, who was unable to achieve similar recognition although he had served over 12 months in Ballykinlar Prison Camp. Strange the ways of the then old IRA Pension Board and sad to think that someone who had done so much should have been denied what was his right.
The Volley’s fired last weekend over the coffined remains of Jack MacKenna echoed across a countryside which had once resonated to the sound of ambush fire during the Irish Civil War. The date was 24th October, 1922 and the fratricidal war which gripped the Irish countryside was to have three more young martyrs before the evening shadows had lengthened over the Graney countryside. On that occasion Irregular troops ambushed Free State troops as they returned in a crossley tender to Baltinglass following a planned trip to Athy. There were eight soldiers in the tender. In charge was Comdt. Kenny with Lieutenant Edward Nolan and the rest of the party consisted of five soldiers and a driver. They had originally left Baltinglass at about 12 noon to travel to Athy but ran out of petrol between Castledermot and the South Kildare market town. They abandoned their original trip and having refueled decided to return to Baltinglass. They spent upwards of 2½ hours on the roadway between Athy and Castledermot and their presence was undoubtedly noted by some members of the Anti Treaty Movement. When the Free State troops began their journey back to Baltinglass upwards of 20 Irregular troops were already in position in and around Graney Cross waiting to ambush the unsuspecting soldiers. When the crossley tender reached Castledermot it stopped at the Post Office where the eight men spent about five minutes. Close to 4 o’clock in the afternoon the motor lorry approached Graney Cross and as it took the bend a volley of shots rang out from a nearby cottage. The lorry crashed into the nearby ditch turning over on it’s side while the attackers pressed home their deadly advantage. It was all over in a few minutes and when the attackers left the scene taking with them the arms and ammunition of the Free State troops they left behind three dead and five seriously injured soldiers of the fledging Irish state. Those killed in the ambush were James Murphy of Baltinglass, Edward Byrne of Hacketstown and Patrick Allison of Carlow.
There is little doubt that the Irregulars who carried out the ambush were from the locality and that the ambush was planned after the Free State troops were first seen immobilised on the Athy/Castledermot road sometime between 12noon and 1.00pm. The ambushers had upwards of 2½ hours to put their men in place. Seventy-seven years later it is reasonable to assume that everyone involved on the day is now dead but equally certain is my belief that the full story of the Graney ambush remains to be told even if it can only be done from second hand sources.
At the outset I expressed belief that Jack MacKenna’s would be the last of the old IRA funerals in these parts. As a representative of an almost forgotten generation Jack got a great send off from his family, friends and neighbours. He had spent his working life on the railway in Athy and his involvement in public life saw him as a member of Kildare County Council and as a Councillor on Athy Urban District Council. He was of a generation which never shared in the economic boom which marks our own time. Their lot was best exemplified by the economic war of the 1930’s and the hungry ‘40’s and the ‘50’s.
As the mourners left the rain soaked graveyard of Colestown last week I glanced up the same road where 77 years earlier three young men had passed on their way to an unexpected and violent death. Those young soldiers and the old IRA man we had just buried were now united in death having shared in their own way in the development of the Irish Republic.
We owe it to the Jack MacKenna’s, the Patrick Allison’s, the James Murphy’s and the Edward Byrne’s of our past to ensure that their part in our history is never overlooked.