Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Athy and World War I

On 2nd February 1918 there appeared in the Nationalist and Leinster Times the following death notice.

“Somewhere in France my son lies
Rolled in a Union Jack
Tears may flow, but still I know
I can never bring him back
I never knew the pain he bore
I never saw him die
I only know he passed away
And never said goodbye
Could I, his mother have clasped his hands
The one I loved so well
To kiss his brow when death was near
And whisper, Laurence farewell.”

It had been inserted by Mrs. Curtis of the Quarries, Athy in memory of her son Laurence, a private in the British Army who was killed in action in France the previous December.  News of his death reached his mother towards the end of January.  She had already lost two other sons in the same war, both of whom also died in France.  Her son Patrick was the first to die, killed in action on 5th November 1914.  His brother John died of wounds received in battle on 9th January 1917.

The war in which Britain, France and Belgium were allies fighting the combined forces of Germany and the Austro Hungarian empire opened on 4th August 1914 in the confident expectation of an allied victory before Christmas.  Hundreds of young men from Athy and the neighbouring countryside seized the opportunity to escape from the tedious boredom of Irish country life by enlisting in the British Army.  The prospect of overseas service coupled with the generous wage packet on offer was sufficient inducement for most.  Any doubts that might have lingered were dispelled by John Redmond’s appeal to the Irish Volunteers in which many local men had previously enlisted.  Redmond encouraged those same young men, who in their thousands had become members of the Irish Volunteer Movement, to join the British Army in the fight against Germany so as to copper fasten Ireland’s claim to Home Rule.

For them fighting in the War was an extension of their commitment to the Volunteer movement and when they enlisted they did so with the active encouragement of the local clergy and with the support of the local Urban District Council and business leaders of the town.  It was a war for which every proud young Irishman was encouraged to enlist and the men from the town of Athy and its hinterland responded to that call in their hundreds.  Recruits were cheered as they marched to the Railway Station in Church Road to catch trains to the various regimental depots.  The Leinster Street Fife and Drum Band often paraded before groups of new recruits as they took leave of their family and friends.  For many it was their first time to travel outside of their home town and few, if any, had ever before taken a trip outside Ireland.  Now after a short period of training they would embark for the Continent and for many attached to the Dublin Fusiliers, to the Turkish Peninsula which later generations of Irish men and women would readily identify by its name - the Dardanelles.

The men who were regarded as patriots as they marched through Athy to cheers and shouted good wishes from the local townspeople knew little of what awaited them on the battlefields and on their return home at the end of the war.

Dr. John Kilbride whose father was the Medical Officer for Athy enlisted, as did Thomas Monks, a Solicitor who practised in the town.  Dorothy Hayden’s two brothers, Patrick and Aloysius, also enlisted.  They were from Churchtown House and as the Hayden Brothers marched to war their sister entered the Brigadine Convent in Tullow.  She would be professed as Sr. Vincent de Paul on 13th August 1918, but by then her brothers Patrick and Aloysius were dead and buried in French soil. 

John Malone, youngest son of local Urban Councillor and Woodstock Street publican “Crutch” Malone also enlisted.  He was one of the lucky survivors of the war but would suffer serious injuries which required lengthy hospitalisation.

The first Athy man to die in the war was William Corcoran who died on 1st September 1914.  By 7th September 1914 seven Athy men had been killed in battle.  Recruitment was not apparently affected, due no doubt to the censorship imposed by the British authorities.  Young men continued to enlist, encouraged by press reports  such as that which appeared in the Kildare Observer of 30th January 1915.  “There is at present no less than 5 sons of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas King of Narraghmore in active service”. 

In February 1915 Athy UDC, still actively promoting the cause of the war effort , voted to equip two beds to be known as “the Athy beds” in connection with the conversion of State Departments in Dublin Castle for use as a Red Cross Hospital for wounded soldiers.  In June 1915 the Council directed that a “Roll of Honour” be compiled of local men who enlisted to fight in the war.  Clearly those men still retained the support of the local people and their public representatives but that was to change as the war progressed and the Irish Republican Movement mushroomed after the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.

Many of the men who had been encouraged to enlist to fight the war would never know that those who had once cheered and encouraged them would later reject the survivors of the 1914-18 war.  They never knew of this rejection, dying as they did in the heat and noise of battle, unaware of the change of direction taken by the newly emerging militant wing of Irish Republicanism.  They too had been supporters of Irish Home Rule before embarking for the Continent.  While they fought, some dying, some surviving, those who stayed behind in Ireland seized the opportunity to escalate the demand for Irish Independence.  The men on the continental battlefields were cut adrift from the cause which they had supported. 

The change in the publics attitude which started with the Easter Rebellion would see the survivors of the war returning to Athy without the cheers and public acclamation which had greeted their departure.  Events in Ireland during the four years of the World War had created an enormous shift in public opinion and the men who fought and survived the war were no longer regarded, as they were at the start of the war, as patriots whose participation guaranteed Home Rule for Ireland.

After the War of Independence and the Civil War the Irish Free State held no place for the survivors of World War I.  Left in the background, their sacrifices were forgotten until 14 years ago in Athy John MacKenna with some friends started what is now the Annual Remembrance ceremony in St. Michael’s Cemetery.  St. Michael’s holds the graves of six young Athy men who died during World War I and their graves have been the focus of remembrance ceremonies in the intervening years.

Next Sunday, 14th November at 3.00 p.m. an ecumenical service will be held in St. Michael’s Cemetery to remember the war dead of all generations, but especially the forgotten men of World War 1.  Why not come along and help to redress the shameful way in which the lost generation of the 1914-18 War were, until recent years, erased from our history.

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