Thursday, November 8, 2007

Remembering the fallen in the First World War

Remembrance Sunday, 11 November, will this year fall on the 89th anniversary of the day that the First World War ended. At 11 o’clock on the morning of 11 November 1918 the guns fell silent across the battlefields where almost 10 million men and women had lost their lives during the previous 52 months. The carnage of war was unfortunately to be replaced by an even more relentless destroyer of human life as the great flu epidemic which marked the final months of the Great War took its toll throughout the world. More people worldwide were to die during the few months of the influenza outbreak than were killed in the 1914-18 war.
The killing of approximately 35,000 Irish men in the World War and the maiming of even more men and women must have had a depressing effect on the national psyche at a time when the Irish people were about to embark on the final push for independence. 129 Athy men were killed in the war, the vast majority of whom were blown to bits or submerged in the mud of Flanders, never again to be found. Few bodies were recovered from where they fell and so the families of these dead men never had a graveside at which they could grieve. Perhaps even more tragic however, insofar as the fathers, mothers, widows and children of these men were concerned, was the change in attitudes back home in Ireland brought about by the emergence of Sinn Fein and the drive for Irish independence. Men who paraded to the railway station in Athy, accompanied by the Leinster Street Fife and Drum Band to the cheers of the townspeople, found on their return from war that they were at best ignored, but often times regarded as an embarrassment in an Ireland where Republican nationalism had gripped the public’s imagination and set the course for the island’s political future.

However, freedom for Ireland was a desire also shared by many of the men who fought in the First World War and indeed there were many amongst them who had enlisted in the belief that by doing so they were helping the cause of Home Rule. After all, had not the local Urban District Councillors actively encouraged them to enlist to fight in France and Flanders as soon as war was declared in

1914. The same encouragement was coming from every quarter. Canon Mackey, the Parish Priest of Athy, had often canvassed their support for the war from public platforms in Emily Square, as had many other highly regarded and respected persons in the town. No wonder then that the young men of Athy and the surrounding countryside enlisted in their hundreds and joined the British Army in the fight against Germany.

The shame of it is that those thought lucky or fortunate enough to survive the human carnage which was the First World War returned to a country and a town whose people rejected the overseas war and those who had fought in it. Not only were the survivors of the war rejected, but shamefully those who died were ignored. That is until recent years when a more reasoned response to the events of the 1914-18 period and its aftermath caused us and our Republican government to re-assess the contribution which the World War I soldiers made to the shared history of our country. The Irish Peace Tower at Messines now stands as our Nation’s symbolic remembrance of the Great War dead and in Athy the plaque placed on the Town Hall wall by the Town Council last year is Athy’s acknowledgement of our gratitude to the local men who died and those who survived the 1914-18 war.Local men like the Kelly brothers, Denis, John and Owen, the Curtis brothers, John, Laurence and Patrick, the Hayden brothers, Aloysius and Patrick and the Stafford brothers, Edward and Thomas. I could go on and on until the 219 men from Athy and district who died in the Great War were all listed. Theirs was a lost generation, lost not only to family and friends, but also to the collective memory of a community which should never have forgotten these young men. They were of our town, friends and neighbours and their deaths created a void within families, neighbourhoods and the wider community which took several generations to replace.

Next Sunday, November 11th, there will be an opportunity to remember the memory of all Athy men killed in the 1914-18 War and by so doing acknowledging the debt we owe them and their families for what they suffered. At 3.00 pm in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery a short service of remembrance will take place at the graves of the six Athy men who enlisted and died during the First World War and who are buried in the local cemetery. Later that evening at 8.00 p.m. in the Methodist Church at Woodstock Street a presentation of theatre, music and poetry will take place to remember the men of Athy and district who died in the war. You are encouraged to attend either or both events. After all, one hour or so of your time is little to offer in return for those who lost their lives all those years ago.

It’s a coincidence that on Friday night next, 9 November, John MacKenna who over 15 years ago initiated the Remembrance ceremonies in St. Michael’s Cemetery, will have his new book launched in the Heritage Centre. “The River Field” is a book of short stories, all set in a 12 acre triangular field near Castledermot and covering the period stretching back as far as 1763. John is regarded as one of the most accomplished writers in this country and his talents have been recognised with awards for his fiction and most recently for a radio play which won an international prize in New York. It’s good to see his writings in print because after the last of his first three books which was published in 1998 he waited another 8 years before publishing his most recent book, “Things You Should Know”.

The 55 year old Castledermot man, often regarded as a successor to McGahern’s literary genius, has yet again produced a body of work which shows a masterful literary talent at work. I understand the official launch of the book will be by Joe Taylor of RTE fame and will take place in the Heritage Centre on Friday, 9 November at 8.00 p.m. It will be an opportunity to join in the celebration and to buy a signed copy of a book which I believe will be a best seller. Even better still you might take the opportunity to disagree with something he might have to say on the night and so keep up the tradition which is slowly building up of controversial debate within the confines of the Town Hall!

No comments: