The experience of visiting places associated with our history is probably one of the most interesting aspects of historical study. There are few areas in Europe more closely linked with Athy than the town of Ypres in Southern Belgium and the villages and rural areas lying in the vicinity of the river Somme in France between Gommecourt and Maricourt. Ypres a former garrison town was famous for the production of flax, lace and cotton and for its Cloth Hall, the largest non-religious gothic building in Europe.
When Belgium became embroiled in the first World War on the 4th of August 1914 there was a little reason then to believe that the thriving country town of Ypres would soon become a symbol of the destructive power of warfare. When the war ended on the 11th of November 1918 the entire town had been levelled to the ground and in the surrounding countryside many thousands of Irish men had died. The Western Front across which the German army faced the combined Allied Forces became a burial ground as men fell in battle. Further south the river Somme was to be forever associated with battles between the opposing forces and the most horrific losses of human life imaginable.
I had occasion recently to visit Flanders and the Somme areas associated with World War I. The experience was an extraordinary one. I have often written of Athy men’s involvement in the war but have to admit that I never appreciated or quite grasped the enormity of the loss of human life which occurred on the Western Front during World War I. Everywhere I went in southern Belgium I came to realise that the entire Flanders countryside was a memorial to the dead. Here, there and everywhere, were cemeteries each with headstones of uniform size and shape reminding one of ranks of soldiers on parade. Those cemeteries, sometimes containing thousands of graves, sometimes hundreds or even smaller numbers, are found at the side of roads or located inland and accessed through fields. Each headstone carries the name of a soldier, his rank, regiment, the date he died and often his age and an inscription chosen by his family. Very often a headstone did not bear a name but instead the inscription “A soldier of the Great War” and the words “Known unto God”. This latter phrase was chosen by the English writer Rudyard Kipling who himself lost his son in the war.
The cemeteries, especially the smaller ones, located nearer to farmyards or in farmers fields, are generally battlefield cemeteries containing the remains of soldiers buried where they fell. The larger cemeteries are for the most part where the dead were brought for burial or where, after the war bodies exhumed from outlining areas were brought together. For many thousands who died during World War I there is no identifiable resting place. For that reason a number of memorials were erected in France and Flanders to record the names of those unfortunate men. In the town of Ypres in Flanders is to be found the famous Menin Gate Memorial regarded by many as the most important British War memorial in the world. It records on wall panels the names of approximately 54,000 men who died in various battles in and around Ypres and whose remains were never identified or found. The names of several Athy men are recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial and I was very conscious of that fact when I stood there last week as the Last Post was played by four buglers at preciously 8 o’clock in the evening. Every day of the year the traffic passing through the Menin Gate on one of the main routes into the town of Ypres is stopped while the Last Post is sounded. It is a moving ceremony which has taken place every evening since it was inaugurated on the 2nd of July 1928. The only exception was during World War II when Germans again occupied Ypres. On the memorial gate itself I noted the names of Patrick Flynn, Andrew Reilly, Michael Devoy, Patrick Leonard, Joseph Byrne, James Dillon, Christopher Power, Patrick Tierney, Moses Doyle, Edward Lawler and Henry Hannon all from the town of Athy. These were some of the unfortunate young men from our town who died fighting in Flanders during the first World War and whose bodies were never identified or found.
Just a few short miles outside the town of Ypres I came across the grave of another Athy man killed in that war. It was at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery that I found the last resting place of Patrick Curtis who was 28 years old when he died on Thursday, 5th of November 1914. He was a son of John and Margaret Curtis of Kilcrow and one of three brothers who died in World War I. His was the first World War I grave of an Athy man I came across in Flanders and when I journeyed later into Northern France I had the opportunity of paying my respects at the graveside of John Coulson Hannon who died on the 18th of August 1916 aged 23 years. He is buried in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near the village of Longueval and his gravestone carries the inscription “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven” put there at the request of his parents, Mr and Mrs John Hannon of Ardreigh House. John Coulson Hannon was a brother of Norman Hannon who was only 20 years old when he was killed in France on the 16th of May 1915.
Not very far away from Longueval is the small village of Guillemont where another Athy man John Vincent Holland won his Victoria cross. Outside the small village church in Guillemont stands a Celtic cross and as I stood there in the centre of the village my thoughts were of those Athy men who fought and died and those who survived what we still call the Great War. There was surely nothing great about a conflict which sent so many young men to premature deaths and to graves which are scattered throughout the countryside of France and Flanders.
While I was away Ger Prendergast and Dan Meany passed away. Full of years and part and parcel of life in Athy for decades past, both men contributed, each in his own unique way, to the social life of the town. Ger’s entire life was spent with racehorses and during his colourful life he contributed an extraordinary amount to the lore of the town where he had lived for so long. Dan Meany was a man whose interest in Athy and whose knowledge of the people and fabric of the town was combined with a an expertise which resulted in a photographic collection unequalled anywhere else in Athy. For decades he captured on film the events and happenings in the town and the results are an extremely important visual account of the social life of Athy and its people. Both Gerard and Dan will be sadly missed.
The Last Post which represents in military funerals, a last farewell to the dead is an integral part of the daily Menin Gate Memorial ceremonies in Flanders. This week St. Michael’s cemetery echoed to the sound of the Last Post played by two buglers of the Irish Army as a parting salute to their dead colleague, Sean Day. His sudden and untimely death and the manner of his death shocked his neighbours and friends and brought great grief to his family. His funeral in St. Michael’s cemetery was that accorded to a serving soldier and was marked with the military precision and orderliness which one comes to expect on such occasions.
As the Last Post echoed across the graves of St. Michael’s Cemetery I was reminded of the Athy soldiers from a previous generation who died fighting on the Continent over 85 years ago and who are remembered each evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres.
May they all rest in peace.