We are facing into a series of centenary commemorations over the next 10 years or so. These will include the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and in 2016 the centenary of the Easter Rising. As a school boy growing up in Athy the Easter Rising was regarded by our Christian Brother teachers as the most important event in Ireland’s long history. That history stopped so far as the students of the 1950s were concerned with the 1916 Rising and the subsequent execution of Pearse and his colleagues. As for the First World War it was never mentioned in the Christian Brothers classroom.
As youngsters we listened to and heard of the events in Dublin in April 1916, seeing them as events which scarcely touched the town, the streets or the families so familiar to all of us. After all there was no connection with Athy, or so we believed. However, when I delved further into the detail of Irish history and the minutiae of local history I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Dublin Rising of 1916 did have an Athy connection. Amongst the outnumbered and outgunned Irish volunteers and members of the Irish Citizens Army was Mark Wilson from Athy. This information comes to us from the statement made in May 1953 by Patrick Colgan, formerly of Maynooth but then living in Killarney, whose statement is now in the Bureau of Irish Military History.
The relevant part of the statement dealt with Colgan’s arrest and that of a number of other volunteers who had taken part in the rebellion. The prisoners were marched via the North Quays to O’Connell Bridge and the statement continues:- ‘in the rank in front of me was a volunteer in uniform. When people shouted out at us to keep our heads up he used answer that they were never down. He was a source of great encouragement to me who could easily have cried at the thought of being driven out of Ireland. This volunteer was Mark Wilson, a Kildare man, a native of Athy who was living in Dublin.’
Who then was this man from Athy who took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin? I have discovered that Mark Wilson and Patrick Colgan were detained in Richmond Barracks Dublin following their arrest and were transferred on the 8th of May 1916 to Stafford Detention Barracks. Wilson’s Dublin address was given as 48 North King Georges Street and also 2 North Kings Street which leads me to believe that it was a corner building fronting on to both Georges Street and King Street.
In St. Michael’s Old Cemetery there is a gravestone dedicated to James Wilson who died in 1925, aged 50 years and his wife Margaret who died in 1985, aged 85 years. They were survived by their daughter Nanny. Was there, I wonder, any connection between this family and Mark Wilson, the 1916 volunteer? I would like to hear from anyone who can help identify Mark Wilson, the only Athy man so far known to have participated in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.
Another interesting piece of material which I have recently come across is the reference to bomb making in Athy during the period the Irish Volunteers were developing in late 1917, early 1918. Patrick Burke, an Irish Volunteer Lieutenant in Bagenalstown, made a statement to the Bureau of Military History over 50 years ago in which he detailed bomb making efforts by his volunteer colleagues. With the help of a De La Salle brother in the local school the volunteers contrived to make a quantity of explosive material which was stored away for future use. He continued:- ‘Sometime in the year 1917 a man named Eamon Price came down to us from Dublin on a volunteer organising campaign. When he heard about the powder we had made he told us of chaps in Athy who could cast bombs similar to mills bombs, but cruder and worked with a fuse in which this explosives of ours could be used. I told him we might be able to do some casting of the bomb in Bagenalstown if I could see how the lads in Athy did the job. I went to Athy where in a disused building some men were engaged making bomb casings on the pattern of the mills bomb. With a lathe I made in wood a copy of the mills bomb casing and sent it to the men in Athy to make a casing in metal of the mills bomb type.’
Obviously even then the age old tradition of foundry making, with which Athy is still linked today, brought an involvement in revolutionary nationalism which predated by a few months the start of the War of Independence. It is rather a pity that the information now being available through the witness statements made over 50 years ago is unlikely to lead to a full picture of events in Athy in those days. However, I give the information now available in the faint hope that someone, somewhere, might be able to fill in more details about events of the second decade of the last century.
The story of Athy folk’s involvement in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War is one which will take a lot of work and some luck to unravel. If you can help identify Mark Wilson or the places or persons involved in the 1918 bomb making in Athy I would be delighted to hear from you.