The war which was expected to end by Christmas was just three months old when Patrick Curtis of Quarry Farm was killed in action on 5th November 1914. He had joined the Irish Guards in Glasgow. His brother John had enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery from the same Scottish city. It was Scotland which in the early years of the 20th century attracted Irishmen to its bustling cities, for fellow Celts found Scottish life more congenial than life in the harsh industrial cities of neighbouring England.
The call to arms, no matter where heard, proved all too attractive for young spirited Irishmen. The Curtis brothers soon found themselves amongst the ranks of many other Irishmen who for a variety of reasons threw in their lot with the ‘auld enemy’. The promise of Home Rule, then temporarily delayed awaiting the end of the war, was in itself sufficient reason to enlist. For others the encouragement of church and civic leaders prompted a rush to join the colours.
A third Curtis brother, Lawrence Curtis, joined the Royal Irish Lancers. Like his two brothers, Lawrence was living in Glasgow but he travelled back to Dublin to enlist. The three Curtis brothers would not survive the war, with John joining his brother Patrick in death on 9th January 1917. On 4th December of that same year Lawrence Curtis died of wounds received in battle.
The Curtis family loss of three sons was similar to that suffered by the Kelly family of Chapel Lane, three of whose sons enlisted the Dublin Fusiliers. John was the first to die of wounds on 25th May 1915, to be followed just over two months later by his brother Owen who was killed in action on 1st August 1915.
They had enlisted in the early years of the war, having listened to the impassioned urgings of Athy’s Parish Priest Canon Mackey and with the encouragement of the town’s civic leaders including members of Athy Urban District Council. Athy men marched to the local Railway Station behind the Leinster Street Fife and Drum Band as family members, neighbours and friends cheered them on their way to enlist at Naas Barracks.
Denis Kelly enlisted, despite his mother’s best efforts to stop him from doing so. Mrs. Kelly having already lost two sons went to the Railway Station in search for her young son, hoping to stop him from enlisting in the Dublin Fusiliers as his brothers had done. However, Denis Kelly did manage to enlist and like his two brothers died of wounds in the field of battle on 30th September 1916.
The Curtis and Kelly families were just two of the many local families to suffer the loss of men folk in foreign battlefields which stretched from Flanders and France to Gallipoli in Turkey. The bodies of many of the Athy men killed in battle were never found and so even in death they were denied Christian burials. For their families back home in Athy the sense of loss would be accentuated by the absence of burial places where grieving parents, wives and children could pay their respects.
By the time the First World War ended at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month 1918 almost five million enlisted men and women had been killed on all sides of the conflict. Over 900,000 of those were listed as British, but included in that number were upwards of 36,000 Irishmen, of whom 230 or so were from the town of Athy and the surrounding district. It was a human tragedy on an enormous scale and nowhere was that more apparent than in the more than twelve and a half million men who were injured, many permanently, during the war.
The tragedy of loss and the suffering of injured soldiers were exacerbated by the change in public attitude to the men who returned from the war. The emergence of Sinn Fein as a powerful political force in Ireland left little room for ex British soldiers to enjoy the fruits of peace. Few of those Irishmen who fought in the 1914/18 war lived to witness the more recent acceptance of their war involvement as an essential part of our own Irish history.
The opening of the Irish Peace Tower at Messines on 11th November 1998 by President McAleese was the culmination of a long drawn out reconciliation process. We in Athy can be justifiably proud that several years before that we had moved to acknowledge our debt to the local men involved in World War 1.
We can do so again next Sunday, November 13th when an ecumenical remembrance ceremony will be held in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery at 3.00 p.m.