Enlistment in the English Army was for many young men a refuge from the pervasive poverty which was a feature of life in rural Ireland in the 19th century. Other reasons might well explain why Athy men Laurence Fitzsimons, Peter Brennan, James Little and William Knowles joined up in 1798 at a time when the United Irishmen were engaged in an unsuccessful attempt at a national uprising. For whatever reason Athy was for a long time a fruitful source of soldier material for the English army. A manuscript Memo Book dated to the end of the 17th century exhibited at a quarterly meeting of the Kilkenny and South East of Ireland Archaeological Society later the Royal Society of Antiquaries held at Kilkenny on 10th July, 1867 had the following insert.
“In Athy in Ireland lived at the time of Ye revolution Mrs. Munford who had nineteen sons riding at the same time in Captain Wolseley’s Troop not regimented. She lived to bury them all.”
This is one of the earliest records we have of Athy men soldiering in the services of England. Another early reference is that of John McGrath, aged 21 years, a Captain in the Regiment of Clare of the Irish Brigade who was captured at sea by British Forces in 1745. He was part of a French attempt to invade the English mainland, which was successfully repulsed and on his capture he was confined in prison at Hull. His ultimate fate is unknown.
Serving in the English Forces around the same time was another Athy man who like McGrath was also a captain. He was Captain Robert Pearson of the Royal Regiment of Foot who served in France and Flanders under the Duke of Marlborough. McGrath was a Catholic, Pearson was a Protestant and therein lies the explanation why two local Athy men found themselves in opposing Armies at the beginning of the 18th century. Pearson eventually returned to Athy at the end of his Army service and was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery next to his parents Richard Pearson and Mary Jackson.
An interesting insight into the views held by the Irish American Peter Welsh on those who enlisted in the English Army can be readily gleaned from the letter he wrote on 1st June, 1863 to his father-in-law Patrick Prendergast of Athy.
“I consider an Irishman who voluntarily enlists in the British service merits the utter contempt of his countrymen.”
Contrast this with his views on service in the Army of the Union during the American Civil War.
“Here Irishmen and their descendants have a claim, a stake in the Nation and an interest in it’s prosperity. Irishmen helped to free it from the yoke of Britain and to build on this soil the best and most liberal government in the world ….. Irishmen have rushed by thousand to the call of their adopted country in the present unfortunate struggle. Their blood has stained every battlefield of this War.”
Writing from the camp the 28th Regiment near Falmouth just eleven months before he died Welsh proudly claimed
“I am a colour Sergeant of my Regiment. I carry the green flag of Erin, all the Irish Regiments carry the green flag as well as the National flag ….. I feel proud to bear the emblem of Ireland’s pride and glory and it shall never kiss the dust while I have the strength to hold it.”
In contrast Irishmen in the service of the British Empire were never allowed to show any emblems of their own national identity.
When the Boer War broke out in 1899 a considerable amount of sympathy in Nationalist Ireland lay with the Boers. The local newspaper of 6th January, 1900 reported that some Athy men had raised a Boer flag over the Town Hall much to the embarrassment of the Town Council. While several Athy men were fighting on the English side in the War, the Irish Transvaal Brigade chiefly organised by John McBride and consisting of upwards of 250 Irish and Irish Americans allied themselves with the Boers. Amongst the members of the Irish Brigade was James Crosby of Kildangan. Crosby with the other members of the Irish Brigade took part in the Boer attack on the town of Dundee during which the Irish Fusiliers with the Dublin Fusiliers sought to capture Talana Hill. It was during this military operation that local man Captain George Weldon of Kilmoroney was killed. The battle for the town of Dundee in which Irish on opposing sides fought against each other gave rise to a comical ballad, one verse of which read :-
“On the mountainside the battle raged there was no stop or stay,
Macklin captured Private Burke and ensign Michael Shea,
Fitzgerald got Fitzpatrick, Brannigan found O’Rourke,
Finnegan took a man named Fay and a couple of lads from Cork,
Sudden they heard McManus shout ‘hands up, I’ll run you through’,
He thought it was a Yorkshire Tyke - t’was Corporal Donoghue,
McGarry took O’Leary, O’Brien got McNamee,
That’s how the English fought the Dutch at the Battle of Dundee.”
The Irishman’s involvement in English Wars was not to end with the Boer War and the gathering storm of World War I was but twelve years away. It was however the Spanish Civil War of 1936 which like the Boer War provided the next battlefield where Irish men soldiering in different uniforms fought each other in War.
Late in 1936 two different groups of Irishmen set out for Spain - one headed by General Eoin O’Duffy, the former Garda Siochana Commissioner, was mostly comprised of members of the Blueshirt Movement. They were to fight on the side of General Franco while a smaller group of Irishmen referred to as the International Brigade under the leadership of Frank Ryan were to oppose them under the Banner of Spanish Republicanism. I have not succeeded in discovering the involvement of any Athy men in the Spanish Civil War but County Kildare was represented in Duffy’s Irish Brigade by B. Brogan, Pat Dunny, Peter Lawler and Michael O’Neill while the International Brigade had the services of Kildare man Frank Conroy who was killed at Cordova in December 1936. A total of 59 Irishmen were killed in Spain while serving as members of the International Brigade. Some commentators in reference to the involvement of the two opposing Irish Groups in the Spanish Civil War saw the conflict insofar as the Irish participants was concerned as a continuation of our own Civil War of twelve years previously. Mercifully while the opposing Irish combatants were stationed in relatively close proximity to each other during part of the Spanish War, unlike their soldiering ancestors of the 17th and 18th century they never had to engage each other in battle. Even in death the former leaders of the two competing Irish Brigades cannot be separated. Frank Ryan and Eoin O’Duffy lie only a few yards from each other in the section of Glasnevin Cemetery set aside for those involved in the fight for Irish Independence.