The town twinning between Athy and Grandvilliers saw visitors from the French town spending a few days in Athy over the County Show weekend. Part of the weekend’s programme for the visitors was a history walk of Athy. It was interesting to notice the reaction of the French visitors when recounting to them some elements of the town’s story and especially the links between the Irish and the French nations.
The founding of Athy by French speaking Normans whose forebearers came from Normandy and surrounding parts of Northern France was the first documented link between Ireland and France. It was the 1798 Rebellion which provided the next connection between the French and Irish people. The French Revolution nine years prior to the United Irishmen Rebellion provided the impetus, as indeed did the earlier American Revolution, for the legislative and religious freedom aspirations of the Irish people. The 1798 monument in Emily Square provoked particular interest amongst the French visitors and seemed to be the most photographed scene on their tour of Athy.
The plaque on the Town Hall honouring the men from Athy and district who died during the first World War is evidence of the most recent link between France and Athy. It was of course that four year conflict fought on different fronts but primarily in France and Flanders which brought so much hardship and sorrow to Athy families in the second decade of the last century. The bodies of many of those unfortunate victims of war from Athy were never found and today they lie in French soil far from their family members who for the most part are themselves buried in St. Michael’s or one of the other local cemeteries.
As part of the twinning programme a small group is travelling this month from Athy to France to visit a number of World War sites, including the Somme battle site. I understand the opportunity will be taken to visit the graves of a number of local men who died during the 1914-18 war. The graves of Athy men who fought in World War 1 are to be found everywhere throughout those parts of the world touched by that war. One such place is India and the Delhi War Cemetery holds the remains of the only Athy man to be capped as a full international on an Irish rugby team . He was John Benchman Minch, son of Matthew J. Minch and Elizabeth O’Kelly of Rockfield House. John was born on 29th July 1880 and two years later his father who was the proprietor of Minch Nortons Maltings firm was elected Member of Parliament for South Kildare. As a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party he held the South Kildare seat until 1903.
John B. Minch was educated at Blackrock College Dublin and won the first of his five international caps playing for Ireland against South Africa at Landsdowne Road on 30th November 1912. The following year he was capped twice playing against England at Landsdowne Road on 8th February 1913 and against Scotland in Edinburgh on 22nd February. His final two caps were earned in internationals against England at Twickenham on 14th February 1914 and against Scotland at Landsdowne Road two weeks later.
Having qualified as a doctor he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in September 1914 and rose through the ranks, becoming a captain on 1st April 1915. He served in India as a medical officer from 1915 and apart from periods spent in Palestine and Malta in the 1930s John B. Minch spent the rest of his army career in India. He died on 8th November 1942 and is buried in the Delhi War Cemetery.
His brothers Willie and Sydney also enlisted during the First World War. Both survived the war and both had attained the rank of captain at the war’s conclusion. Willie Minch died on 29th March 1927 from the after effects of gas poisoning. He was 32 years of age. His brother Sydney died on 25th March 1970. Both are buried in Barrowhouse Cemetery.
The links between Athy and France are very real and tangible. What commenced with the arrival of an invading force on our shores in 1169 was strengthened with the blood of young men from Athy spilt on the fields of France and Flanders nearly 750 years later. It is appropriate that today Athy and Grandvilliers share a bond of friendship which has as its foundation historical links stretching back to the founding of our town by French speaking Normans.
The author Hugh Oram has contacted me regarding a book he is presently writing on the history of Flahavans oat millers of County Waterford. The business was apparently founded in or around 1785 by Dunn family members who were originally from Athy. He is interested in getting background information on the Dunn family. If you can help give me a call and I’ll pass on Hugh’s contact details.