Thursday, November 27, 2003

World War I

Last month I was one of a group of Irish men and women who travelled to Belgium to visit Brussels and the European Parliament and while doing so availed of the opportunity to visit a number of towns and sites associated with the brutal war which we commonly refer to as The Great War.  For the second time in recent years I visited the Belgium town of Ypres where the monumental Menin Gate stands, with the names of 54,000 soldiers inscribed on its walls.  Those unfortunate men whose names appear on the Menin Gate were just some of those killed during the 1914 -‘18 War, but what marks them apart from their colleagues is that no trace was ever found of their remains.  Can you imagine the enormity of the conflict which could cause 54,000 men to disappear without trace.  Add to that figure another 75,000 men whose names are inscribed on the Thiepval monument in Northern France.  These were the men killed during the battle of the Somme whose bodies were never traced. 

Everywhere one travels in Britain, whether in the Highlands of Scotland, the Welsh hills or the English dales, towns and villages have commemorated, generally in stone, their losses in two world wars.  Monuments to the fallen are a common feature of the British townscape, a measure of each communities debt to a generation which never had the opportunity to live to old age.

I was talking to some friends recently about the changes which were brought about in Irish attitudes over the period of World War I.  When war was declared in August 1914, John Redmond called upon the Volunteers to enlist and they did so, with an unprecedented response which saw upwards of 35,000 Irish men enlisting over the following four years.  While the war was still raging Irish national feeling was stirred by the events of Easter week 1916, particularly the execution of the leaders of the Rebellion in Dublin. Where previously young men, who had enlisted to fight for the British Army, were greeted as heroes, after the events of 1916 they were made to feel strangers in their own country.  Soldiers returning home on leave from the trenches faced an uncertain welcome from the people of their home town or village.  It was no longer deemed appropriate to walk about wearing army fatigues.  Peoples attitudes to the war and to the British Army had changed and nowhere was this more evident than in the hostility faced by Irish men who had survived German bombs and bullets while serving in France or Flanders.

After the war which ended on 11th November 1918, returning soldiers might have expected to be received as heroes by those who had stayed at home.  They carried with them the horrific memories of friends and colleagues killed or mangled in battle, and in many cases they themselves bore witness to the crippling effect that war had on limbs which were once sturdy and supple.  Instead of a heroes welcome they were at best ignored or at worst treated as traitors to the Irish cause.  Much harsher was the fate of those killed during the war whose names quickly disappeared from the memory and the lips of their one time neighbours and friends.  The 567 men from the county of Kildare who died in World War I were not commemorated, as were their comrades in arms who bore Scottish, Welsh or English names.  An Irishman fighting in a British uniform may have been acceptable at the start of the war, but not four years later as Nationalist Ireland exerted its influence on the Irish people.

Athy, the Anglo Norman town on the River Barrow, the settlers town where religious diversity was part and parcel of daily life, the garrison town where men were prepared to wear a foreigners uniform and fight his war, would turn its back on the 105 young men from the town who perished in World War I.  It would fail to honour their memory as it did that of the other 83 men from the neighbouring countryside who also died.  Indeed, little or nothing was known of our townsmen who got on trains at the local railway station at the start of journeys which were to end in foreign graves.  The graves of Athy men who died in World War I are to be found as far apart as Turkey, France, Flanders, England and Germany.  For many not even a grave would mark the end of their journey.  Instead their names are inscribed on monuments at Thiepval and the Menin Gate, Ypres, confirmation that their very bones are lost forever amongst the bloodied soil of the French and Belgian countryside.

Joseph Byrne who was killed on 26th April 1915 is listed on the Menin Gate.  So too is Peter Carbery of Ballyroe who died 13 days later.  Commemorated on the Tynecot Memorial is John Deegan of Ballyadams who was killed on 16th August 1917.  His sister was Margaret Haslam who lived in a house at the corner of St. John’s Lane and Duke Street.  Another name on the Menin Gate Memorial is that of James Dillon who was killed on 26th April 1915, just a day after Moses Doyle whose body, like so many of his colleagues, was never found.  The Thiepval Memorial has many familiar Athy names including that of Martin Hyland, killed on 16th September 1916, and John Mulhall who was 20 years old when he died on 23rd October 1916.

Every year at this time I write of World War I and the local men who died and I remind my readers of that forgotten part of the towns history which was dusted off over 12 years ago when the first Remembrance Day Commemoration was held in St. Michael’s old cemetery.  For in that cemetery lies the remains of 6 soldiers, Athy men who donned British uniforms at a time when an Irish independent State was still an unfulfilled dream.  Because they did so, it was for so long felt inappropriate to commemorate them or the 182 other local men who died in the Great War.

Times have now changed.  Our President, Mary McAleese, inaugurated the Irish Memorial to the World War I dead at Messines in Belgium a few years ago.  Elsewhere our political leaders have acknowledged that the dead of World War I have an equal right to be commemorated with those who died in the Irish War of Independence or the Civil War.

I have often thought that Athy should erect a memorial to the war dead of our town, bringing together the names of those who fought and died in World Wars I and II with those who suffered a similar fate in Irish wars, whether 1798, the War of Independence or the Irish Civil War.  I wonder if our Town Council would consider this a suitable project to bring together once and for all the different strands of our local history.

In the meantime let me remind you that on Sunday, 9th November at 3.00 p.m. a short simple commemorative ceremony will take place in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery to honour the memory of those from our town and district who died in war, especially those lost in the first World War.  Why not come along to St. Michael’s on November 9th and say a prayer for the men from this area who over 85 years lost their lives in a futile attempt to bring peace to our world.

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