Her mother wore a poppy every Remembrance Sunday. She wore it around the house but seldom ventured outside the door that particular Sunday as she would ordinarily do every other day of the year. ‘Why do you wear that thing mother?’ her young daughter asked, her enquiry born of curiosity as much as a growing awareness of a young Free Stater’s dislike of emblems of a failed empire.
Some years were to pass before the mother explained to her daughter why she wore the poppy. ‘It’s to remember my young brother Michael – he was just 19 years of age when he died’. Michael Territt’s sister would continue to remember her long lost young brother, even as she grew into old age. For years she treasured the last poppy she was able to buy on the streets of Athy, keeping it for that one Sunday each year when with hundreds of other mothers and sisters her thoughts turned to a time when young men left Athy with high spirits never to return.
Michael Territt died of his wounds in Flanders on 22nd June 1916, aged 19 years. He had enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers the previous year, exchanging the Territt family home in Chapel Lane, Athy for the Military Barracks in Naas. He landed in Gallipoli in October 1915 and left the following January for Alexandria before travelling on to France. Wounded at Mailly Wood, Flanders on 20th June 1916 he died two days later. Michael Territt is buried in Mailly – Maillet Communal Cemetery and the army records show that he was survived by his mother Mrs. M.A. Territt of Chapel Lane, Athy. There was no mention of his brothers or sisters.
The story of Michael Joseph Territt and his part in the first World War is the same story told and retold hundreds of times in every town and village in Ireland. The euphoria of war time exploits shorn of the depravity of death and mangled bodies was in itself sufficient encouragement for young Irish men to enlist after August 1914. The boredom of unemployment, coupled with the opportunity for travel overseas, was more than enough to encourage even the most reluctant to don the khaki and shoulder the much vaunted Lee Enfield. Much encouragement came from the local Church and civic leaders, who from a recruiting platform positioned under the Town Hall clock in Emily Square called on the young local men to join the ranks, ‘to fight the Hun’ – ‘to fight for the cause of little Belgium’. The Parish Priest and the Chairman of the Urban District Council led the call for local recruits and the local men joined up in their hundreds. Those who enlisted were paraded to the local railway station behind the Leinster Street Fife and Drum Band, cheered on by the women folk of the town. The people of Athy it seemed shared a common mission, seldom if ever before matched or ever again equalled. There were a few disapproving voices, but only a very small minority who caught up in the Gaelic League Movement saw little reason to support the country which had denied Home Rule to the Irish people.
No one questioned the decision of the young men who volunteered to serve abroad following the declaration of war. No one questioned their motives and certainly no one questioned their allegiance to the country of their birth. The young men of Athy left these shores with the support and with the good wishes of those they left behind.
What happened while they were away fighting and dying in the mud of Flanders fields to turn that support into disapproval, culminating at the end of war into denial? When those young men who were fortunate to survive the war returned home after November 1918 they came back to a country which had experienced the Easter Rebellion of 1916. This was soon followed by the execution of its leaders and a shift in support for the emerging Sinn Fein organisation left the returning soldiers isolated and cut adrift from the public support they had previously enjoyed. As they returned to their homes having spent up to four years experiencing the horrors of war torn Europe these battle hardened young men found themselves, not as war heroes as they might have expected, but as an embarrassing reminder of an earlier failed parliamentary movement for Home Rule.
I remember as a young lad a number of local men who decades after the war were still suffering the effects of gas poisoning and other injuries sustained in France and Flanders. They were a forgotten generation, forgotten not just by local Church and civic leaders who had encouraged them to enlist, but also forgotten, indeed positively ignored, by a townspeople, some of whom actively, most however passively, had supported the drive for Irish independence. If the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War were difficult times for surviving Irish soldiers of World War I (some of whom were summarily executed), the post Independence period also brought its difficulties. The comradeship of war kept alive in British Legion halls throughout Ireland and by the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremonies held throughout the Free State in the 1920s disappeared soon after the election of the first Fianna Fáil government in 1932. De Valera’s nation building had no place of honour for the men of 1914-18.
It was a later generation, more tolerant and perhaps less prejudiced, which sought to recover for Irish history a past generation’s part in our common history. Twenty or so years ago it was inconceivable that any Irish person would wear a poppy in public on Remembrance Sunday or that any form of ceremony would be held in an Irish provincial town to commemorate the men who died in the First World War. But it did happen here in Athy and I am proud to say that I was part of a small group who publicly acknowledged the part that a past but forgotten generation of Athy men played in the ever developing history of Athy.
In St. Michael’s old Cemetery are the graves of six Athy soldiers who died at home during World War I. On next Sunday, 8th November at 3.00 p.m., a short ceremony will take place in St. Michael’s cemetery to honour the memory of all those men from Athy and district who died in the Great War. Many of those men have no known grave. Others like Michael Territt lie in graves close to where they died in battle. Remembrance Sunday is the one day in the yearly calendar when we can show our respects for our town’s war dead. I hope you can join in the Remembrance ceremony in St. Michael’s next Sunday at 3.30 p.m.
Last week Johnny Timpson passed away after a long battle with illness. He attended the Christian Brothers Schools in St. John’s Lane where he excelled as a Latin scholar and was a fine footballer in his day. Johnny came from an old Athy family and like many of those families he too had members of his extended family who fought and died in World War I.
Like me, Johnny was born of a generation which was not decimated by war. Michael Territt and his generation bore the brunt of war and in return got little or no appreciation for what they and their families suffered. We can still make amends for that omission.