I read in the local newspapers this week of the decision of Kildare County Council to compile a list of those men from the county of Kildare who died while soldiering during the first World War. I use the word “soldiering” rather than “serving” or “fighting” as it perhaps serves better to encompass anyone, either male or female, who died in any uniform during the 1914 - 1918 conflict. It is right that Kildare County Council should undertake this task now for a similar decision taken by Athy Urban District Council during the course of the War does not appear to have been acted upon. At least the results of whatever research, if any, which might have been carried out at that time has not come down to us today.
I have always been interested in the effect that the slaughter on the battlefields of France, Flanders and elsewhere had on post-war life in Ireland and especially in Athy and south Kildare. It is now generally accepted that for whatever reason Athy and district gave a disproportionate number of young men to the war effort at a time when the first evidence of Irish nationalism was becoming apparent. The history of military enlistment in south Kildare so far as native Irishmen are concerned goes back to the closing decades of the 18th century. Even during and after the 1798 period when rebellious activity was never far away, young Athy men were enlisting in the British Army. What was the motivation for doing that? Was it a desperate attempt to get away from the poverty and misery which was to be found everywhere in provincial Ireland of that time? If it was what benefit, if any, resulted for those who stayed at home?
The same question asked in relation to enlistment in the British Army during World War I seems easier to answer. This was the war where a separated women’s allowance of 12/6 per week was paid to the wives of men who enlisted and to dependent mothers. An allowance of 12/6 per week was paid for each dependent child. Given the poor living conditions which were then to be found in Athy as elsewhere in Ireland, surely these financial inducements offered sufficient encouragement in themselves for any young man to take the “Kings Shilling”. The Irish War Memorials published a few years after the November 1918 Armistices give the names and details of 49435 men believed to be Irish who died in the war. Research carried out in more recent years indicates that the true mortality figure for Irishmen is somewhere nearer to 36,000. What is certain however is that Athy and District suffered a loss of upwards of 180 men in the 1914 - 1918 war. Very few of those who died were ever found and their names for the most part are recorded in memorials and monuments. Of those who were identified and buried in graves which recorded names, very few lie in their own country. In St. Michael’s cemetery in Athy we have the graves of six soldiers, each from Athy, who died while at home on leave from the war. They were :-
James Dwyer, Thomas Flynn, Martin Hyland, Michael O’Brien, Michael Byrne and John Lawler. They ranged in age from 27 to 37 and two of them, John Lawler and Martin Hyland, were married men.
In Geraldine Cemetery lies another Athy soldier, Martin Maloney who was 33 years old when he died on 13th March 1917. He was survived by his widow Ellen Maloney of Castlemitchell. Alfred Coyle who was a private in the South Irish Horse died on 27th August 1917 and his is the only military grave in Nicholastown Cemetery. Further out at Crookstown Cemetery is buried Andrew Delaney who died on 31st May 1915 in Netley Hospital in England from gas poisoning. His remains were brought home from hospital for burial in his own village cemetery.
World War I soldiers from Athy are to be found buried in many parts of the world. The English mainland provides the last resting place of Laurence Dooley who at 43 years died on 12 May 1915 leaving his widow Brigid Dooley, then living in Meeting Lane. He is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Lincolnshire and he probably died at the 4th Northern General Hospital which during the war was located in the Grammar School Lincoln.
John Kelly, son of John and Mary Kelly of Chapel Lane, Athy died on 23 May 1915 aged 20 years and was buried at Netley Hospital, England. His brother Owen who died just over two months later is buried at Brewery Orchard Cemetery in Nord, France, while his other brother Denis who was 20 years old when he was killed on 30 September 1918 is buried in a Military Cemetery in Belgium. A Levitstown man, John Reilly, son of James and Brigid Reilly found a resting place in Ripon Cemetery in Yorkshire. He was 21 years old when he died on 6th May 1918. The Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton records the name of Michael Ryan, an Athy man who was drowned at sea on 17 November 1915. He was on the hospital ship Anglia when it sank off Dover and his body was never recovered. Grenwich Cemetery in England is the last resting place of Athy man William Nolan, a driver in the Royal Army services who died on 18 September 1915. It is possible that he may have died in the nearby Herbert Hospital, one of the permanent military hospitals in England during the first World War.
SEAMUS, HALF WAY POINT
Turkey holds the remains of John Farrell who died aged 31 years on 30th April 1915. He was the son of Thomas and Mary Farrell of Janeville Lane and he is buried in the V Beach Cemetery. In the same cemetery is Laurence Kelly of Chapel Hill, Athy who was 23 years old when he died five days before John Farrell, as well as Christopher Hanlon who was killed on the same day as John Farrell. Another Athy man buried in Turkish soil is Frank Fanning from Chapel Lane whose grave is in the Twelve Tree Copse Cemetery. He was killed on 12 July 1915. His brother John also enlisted in the British Army as a drummer boy at the age of 16 years. However, he survived the war and died in 1956. The body of William Moran who died in Gallipoli on 9 August 1915 was never found and his name is recorded on the Helles Memorial in Turkey with that of another Athy man, Daniel Delaney who died on 12 July 1915.
Two of the loneliest grave sites are those of Christopher Whelan and Martin Hurley who were both from Athy. Christopher Whelan was 19 years old when killed at Gallipoli on 10 October 1916. He is buried in Salonika Military Cemetery in Greece. Martin Hurley died in India on 22 August 1916 and he is buried at Karachi which is now part of Pakistan.
Three local men whose graves are in a cemetery approximately ten kilometers south of Kassel in Germany are Michael Bowden, Martin Maher and John Byrne. All three were members of the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and on being captured by the Germans spent the remainder of their short lives as Prisoners of War. Martin Maher, son of Martin and Ellen Maher of the town was 30 years old when he died on 5 March 1915. His fellow townsmen John Byrne and Michael Bowden died in 1918.
Many more Athy men died during the war but their bodies were never found or identified. Listed as missing, these men were eventually commemorated on one of the many war memorials erected after the Armistices. The Thiepval Memorial which is a memorial to the missing of the Somme bears the names of 72,000 officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force who died during the Battle of the Somme. Many of those names are those of men who a few short years before walked the streets of our town. Their names, or some of them at least, will be familiar even down to the present generation. Robert McWilliam, Edward Dowling, Richard Daly, Joseph Murphy, Johnny Mulhall, Thomas Connell, Robert Hackett and John Delaney. Two men from Offaly Street are also listed on the Thiepval Memorial. James Dunne from No. 3 Offaly Street was 20 years old when he died on 13 November 1916 while Thomas Stafford was 24 years old when he died on 6 September of the same year. He was one of two brothers to die in World War I.
The Menin Gate is one of four memorials to the missing in Belgian Flanders which covers the area known as the Ypres Salient. The Salient was formed during the first battle of Ypres in October and November 1914 when a small British force pushed the Germans back to the Passchendaele Ridge. The second battle of Ypres began in April 1915 when the Germans used gas for the first time which they released into the British lines. The British Army suffered many casualties as a result and significantly at least six Athy men died during that April battle. The first to die was Moses Doyle who passed away on Sunday, 25 April 1915 and on the following day he was joined in death by four Athy men who were all members of the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Patrick Tierney, a young man of 22 years was son of Jack and Julia Tierney of Foxhill. Christopher Power was also 22 years old and was survived by his parents Thomas and Sarah Power of Canal Side. The other two Athy men to die on 26 April 1915 were Joseph Byrne and James Dillon, both again members of the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Patrick Leonard of the same regiment and of the same town died three days later. Their bodies were never found.
Another five men were to die in the same locality. Edward Lawler of 6 Meeting Lane, aged 21 years was killed on 21st May, while Henry Hannon, formerly of Ardreigh House, Athy died on 9 June 1916. He was 23 years of age. Michael Devoy, a married man and 43 years old, died on 30 July 1915. The final two Athy victims were Andrew Reilly and Patrick Flynn. Flynn of Leinster Street and his companion were killed on 11 August 1917. The names of these eleven Athy men whose bodies were never recovered are listed on the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium.
Of the 188 men from Athy and district who died during World War I a considerable number would never have their deaths dignified by having their remains recovered, identified and committed to the ground in a marked grave. The call which emanated last week from Kildare County Council to record the names of all those from the County who died during World War I is a timely acknowledgment that we should never forget the terrible price our townspeople had to pay in terms of lost fathers, husbands and brothers. Truly can it be said that Athy in the second decade of the last century lost a generation whose remains are locked in the soil of countries as far apart as Turkey, Greece, Pakistan, Belgium, France and England.