‘The remains of men who fought in the war are still unearthed from time to time.’ That simple sentence, culled from a newspaper article some months ago reminds us that so many of those killed during the course of the 1914-18 war never had the dignity of a Christian burial. How many lie in unrecognised and unmarked graves is not known. The fatality figures for Athy men which I have been compiling from different sources has increased to 121, with the addition of Robert Bloomer, a local postman from St. Michael’s Terrace. Bloomer, who left a young wife and family, died in India and is buried in Poona.
Looking through the list of names of the men who left Athy to enlist for the duration of the war it is obvious that few local families were not represented on the battle fields of France and Flanders. Many families such as that of Mrs. M. Mulhall of William Street had several family members involved. I have no information on the Mulhall family other than that extracted from a report in the Nationalist newspaper of 19th January 1918 which mentions Mrs. Mulhall’s three enlisted sons and the award of a Parchment Certificate of the Irish Brigade to one of them, Lance Corporal P. Mulhall. Was he, I wonder, a brother of John Mulhall, a 20 year old Private in the Dublin Fusiliers who was killed in France on 23rd October 1916?
Athy man, Frank Redmond, who is now living in London, has been researching for some time past the World War I dead from Athy and County Kildare and he recently sent me part of his findings. He has found that at least 39 of the Athy men killed during the war have no known graves and their names are recorded on war memorials at Thiepval, Arras, Helles, Tyne Cot, the Menin Gate in Ypres and other similar memorial sites. Sadly their mangled remains sank into the ground, never to be found and even if found in later years were never identified.
Fellow soldiers and townsmen who died in battle and were buried in known graves include Denis Kelly who was only 20 years old when he was laid to rest in his grave at Poperinge in Belgium in October 1918. His brother John had also reached his 20th birthday when he died in Netley Hospital, Hampshire in England three years previously. He is buried in Netley Cemetery. Another brother Owen, who had enlisted at the same time as John, was also killed in the second year of the war and he is buried in Le Treport Military Cemetery. Their parents, John and Mary Kelly, lived in 4 Chapel Lane. I have been trying for some time to get some information on the Kelly family and I have found two memorials in St. Michael’s Cemetery to Mary Kelly who died on 6th May 1964, aged 86 years and John Kelly who died on 4th May 1940, aged 66 years. His memorial was erected by ‘his wife and sons’. Were they the parents of the three young Kellys from Chapel Lane who were killed during the 1914-18 War?
The slaughter of the 1914-18 battlefields resulted in the death of almost ten million soldiers, which with the civilian losses of life during the same war give a total of over 19 million war fatalities. The death of 219 men from Athy and the neighbouring hinterland seems little in comparison. However, within the small close-knit community of Athy the loss of so many in such a short period most certainly had serious repercussions for the social fabric of the local community. Those difficulties were exacerbated by the advent of other wars which this time was fought on Irish soil. The War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War effectively kept the Irish countryside in a continuing state of emergency for almost 9 years. Frank Aiken’s call in May 1923 for anti-treaty forces to dump their arms brought an end to the Civil War and to years of armed conflict which started with the outbreak of hostilities on the Continent in August 1914.
The soldiers, demobbed after the ceasefire on 11th November 1918, returned home to Athy where for a decade or so they felt able each year to come together to remember their fallen comrades. The election of De Valera’s Fianna Fáil government in 1932 coincided with a growing public disenchantment with the annual old comrades parade on Remembrance Sundays in provincial towns such as Athy. The parades ceased to be held from the early 1930s and thereafter the events of 1914-18 and the men who had participated in them were largely ignored. For many local families however, especially those who had lost family members in the Great War, the 11th of November held a special meaning. It was a day set aside to remember and grieve for the young men who had died in the war but for decades that remembrance was held behind closed doors within close-knit family circles. There was no public acknowledgement and no public recognition of what a generation of Athy folk had suffered.
In recent years attitudes have changed. We can now pay a well deserved public tribute to our neighbour’s children knowing that their participation in a foreign war, irrespective of the uniform they wore, is a valued part of our shared Irish history.
This year the usual Remembrance Sunday ceremony in St. Michael’s Cemetery will not take place. This is due solely to the absence on the day of a number of people who have organised it in the past. Instead on Tuesday evening, 11th November at 8.00 p.m., the Heritage Centre will host a short talk with poetry reading, music and the showing of a short video as part of the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day. The performance under the title ‘In Some Faithful Heart’ will be Athy’s contribution to that anniversary and admission to the event is free.
Commemorating past events and remembering those people involved in them is one of the ways in which we can pay tribute to past generations of locals who once walked the same streets as we do today. It is particularly gratifying to acknowledge the part played by Athy Town Council in putting up a plaque on the Town Hall to the local men involved in the First World War. Less pleasing however is the failure of the same Council to erect in Emily Square a memorial to the Athy men and women who suffered during the 1798 Rebellion. I am at a loss to understand the Council’s neglect in this regard and fail to see why the Memorial designed and sculpted by Brid Ni Rinn cannot be erected. Ten years have passed since Brid Ni Rinn completed the commission given to her by the Council and her finished work still languishes in the Council yard. Is there a possibility it might be put in position before the local election next June?