“I'm a survivor of the Holocaust”. These were the opening words spoken by Zoltan Zinn Collis when giving his talk in the Town Hall last week. The chilling words were spoken in the relative comfort of the room where over 200 years ago, the notorious hanging Judge, John Toler, later Lord Norbury presided over the trials of local men whom he sentenced to death. Death is to be seen everywhere throughout the history of Athy. It was a constant threat for Irish Rebels of the 1798 period as it was for the local families living in the unsanitary hovels which lined the laneways of Athy at the beginning of the last century. Listening to Zoltan's account of Belsen Concentration Camp brought home the numbing horror of genocide and the horrific savagery of war.
Just outside the room in which the attentive audience listened to his story was the town centre square named after Emily, Duchess of Leinster, mother of the 1798 leader, Lord Edward Fitzgerald. It was in that same square that civic and church leaders of almost a hundred years ago standing on platforms placed in front of the Town Hall urged their listeners to enlist to fight in the First World War. The year was 1914 and the young and the not so young Athy men who joined up did so to fight an enemy who less than thirty years later would unleash a terrible campaign of genocide against Jewish families. Zolton and his sister Edith survived those terrible days but at what cost. Broken in body but not in spirit, Zolton continues to tell the story so that we who were spared the horror of war do not ever forget the awful consequence of armed conflict between nations.
His compelling story was inspiring as is the story of the young men from this town who responded to the call of Church and civic leaders of their day to march off to war. They paraded to the local railway station feted by the local townspeople while one or other of the local bands played Irish martial airs. They were heroes before they had even fired a shot in anger, but for many of them, that parade up Leinster Street to the railway station was the last time they would see the town in which they had been born and reared. For many would never return, but even in death their lifeless bodies were denied burial in the soil which they had worked as farm labourers. Blown to pieces by exploding shells, these men were never to have the dignity of a grave with a name marked on a simple grave marker. Instead, their names would be marked on the great war memorials at Ypres or Tiepeval where the names of over one hundred and twenty thousand soldiers whose bodies were never found are recorded in stone. Some of the young men who once walked the streets of our town whose broken bodies were never found include Joseph Byrne, James Dillon, Moses Doyle, Martin Hyland, Patrick Leonard, John Mulhall, Patrick Tierney and Patrick Deegan.. Moses Doyle served with his friend Joseph Murphy who was twenty five years old. Doyle at home on leave in Athy prior to his own death told how his friend on the day he was killed spoke of a dream where his dead mother bandaged his injured head. Later that same day, Murphy was shot through the head as he looked over the parapet of the trench.
Many of the young Athy army recruits died, theirs lives extinguished by gunfire and so they became part of the remembered dead in graveyards which are to be found everywhere the sound of war echoed across the countryside during 1914-1918. More than 219 men from Athy and district died in the First World War and of these 121 came from the small market town of Athy. The horrendous loss of life had a devastating effect on the future development of the town. To the pre-war poverty of local families was now added broken family relationships and ties which many believe led to problems within families and the local community for decades thereafter.
Hundreds of men who enlisted returned home after the war some broken in mind and body. Others were dispirited by the rejection which they encountered. The lost limbs, the crutches and the primitive wheelchair were a regular sight around Athy after the war. So too were the men who suffered the after effects of gas poisoning and those unfortunates who lived out their lives as shell shocked army veterans. There was no band to greet them at the railway station on their return, no church or civic leaders to praise them for what they had endured. They returned to a country where the political scenario had changed after they had departed. Irish Republicanism was in the accendancy, Sinn Fein having achieved remarkable success at the November 1918 elections. The fight was not now with Germany . It was nearer to home and the working class men who had joined the British Army during the war were by and large excluded from the rising tide of Irish Nationalism.
How did men like Hugh Holohan of Belview who fought in the Dardanelles feel on his return home? He served in the Leinster Regiment and in 1948 he died at the age of 76 years. How about Michael Rowan, originally from Derryoughter, Kildangan who also served in the Dardanelles and who came back to this country suffering from shell shock. He later married Alice Wall and they lived at 41 St. Joseph's Terrace while Michael worked with Tom Brogan the blacksmith. These men and their colleagues lived out what remained of their lives in a town which in their lifetime did not acknowledge the part they had played in a horrific world war. This year, the Town Council to its credit remedied that omission by unveiling a plaque on the Town Hall wall which in earlier years had formed the backdrop for the recruiting platforms of 1914 and later.
Next Sunday, 12th November we will gather as many of us have done over the last fifteen or so years at old St. Michael's Cemetery at 3.00 p.m. to remember the war dead of this town. The rejection and neglect of over seventy years can never be totally eradicated but at least now that our nations history acknowledges the sacrifices of the men of the 1914 – 1918 war, we can remember them without in any way feeling that we are doing a disservice to what we ourselves believe in . Whether you are a Republican, a socialist or party political member, commemorating the war dead of your town can be a tribute, not only to the young men of a past generation but also to your own respect for our towns past history.
Later on Sunday 12th, there will be a performance of the Oratorio “Still and Distant Voices” composed to commemorate the men of Athy who died in the 1914-1918 war. It was previously performed approximately fourteen years ago at a time when many of the generation which succeeded those men of the Great War were still alive. Manyof the sons and daughters of the war veterans attended that performance which was put on in the Presbyterian Church in the Dublin road. Next Sunday, the Methodist Church in Woodstock Street will be the venue. Music for the Oratorio was composed by Mairead O'Flynn and the words provided by that wonderful wordsmith John McKenna. Performing on the night with be the author himself John McKenna with Charlie Hughes and Mary McCormack. The singers will be Jacinta McDonnell and Sean Loughman with music provided by Mairead O'Flynn. The Oratorio is an impressive piece of work and is being specially put on next Sunday the 12th as part of the Remembrance Day ceremonies for the war dead of Athy. Incidentally, admission is free and the performance starts at 8.00p.m.
The events of Sunday 12th November follow on after the ceremonies held earlier in the year for the 90th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising. That we can celebrate our Republicans traditions while acknowledging and respecting the part played by our townsmen in a world war while wearing a British uniform is surely a measure of our maturity as a nation and is society.