Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Athy Men in World War I

Each November we recall the ending of the horrific war which time and distance has allowed us to remember, if not with nostalgia at least with something bordering on sentimental detachment.  Eighty-seven years have passed since the last guns were fired and the remaining bodies of what were once young men were collected and hurriedly buried in the muddy plains of Flanders.  Many are the sad stories which collectively make up the folk history of Athy’s involvement in that war, a war which although fought in foreign lands would have long term repercussions for the South Kildare town.  However, amongst the tears and the sadness of that time there was an occasional cause for happiness as evidenced in the story of Patrick Holohan of St. John’s Lane.  Patrick, although under age, enlisted as a private in the Leinster Regiment and his father subsequently joined up in order, as a member of the family understands, to keep an eye on his young son.  Patrick went missing in October 1916 and was presumed dead.  His name was included in the War Memorials of the Irish Dead which was compiled at the end of the war.  Some months ago his granddaughter contacted me to relate the strange story of how Patrick Holohan returned home safely from the war, yet his name is still listed amongst the Great War dead.  In fact Patrick who with his father resided in the soldiers houses at the Bleach died at a comparatively young age in the 1930’s.

One of the sadder stories of the war concerned the fate of three Athy men who joined the Dublin Fusiliers in August 1914.  They took part in the Battle of Mons which opened on Sunday, 23rd August 1914 when the Dublin Fusiliers were part of a larger contingent of British army personnel positioned between the Belgium towns of Mons and Conde.  The Germans attacked and surrounded the Fusiliers capturing many of them before the British began to retreat.  Amongst those captured in that first month of the war were Athy men Michael Bowden, Martin Maher and Michael Byrne.  All three were to die while prisoners of war.  John Byrne died in Limburg Prison of War Camp on 27th September 1918.  Michael Bowden died at Niederzwhehrn Prison of War Camp on 27th May 1918 where his colleague, Martin Maher, had died on 5th March 1915.  Bowden, a postman in Athy prior to the war and Byrne, gardener to local vetinerary surgeon John Holland of Model Farm, were photographed while in Limburg and that photograph was subsequently published in the Saturday Herald of 10th June 1916.  While in Lumburg both men met the Dominican Priest, Fr. Thomas Crotty, who was sent from Rome to act as chaplain to the Irish prisoners.  They had previous known Fr. Crotty who had spent some years in the Dominican Priory in Athy before he transferred to San Clemente in Rome and from there to Limburg.

Recent controversy regarding inaccurate reporting in some national newspapers is a reminder, if one was ever needed, that newspaper accounts, no matter how old, cannot always be taken to be factually correct.  The Kildare Observer of 30th January 1915 reported that “there is at present no less than five sons of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas King of Narraghmore on active service, all five in the South Irish Horse, a highly credible voluntary contribution from one County Kildare family”.  I have since been informed by a member of the family that three King brothers, Jim, Willie and Tommy and not five as claimed, volunteered.  Willie was killed in action in France on 19th June 1917, while his brother Jim was captured and held as a prisoner of war for the duration of the war.  He survived, as did his brother Tommy, who however took matters into his own hands by absenting himself, without leave, from the front. 

Two other brothers, both of whom died in the war, were Patrick and Christopher Flynn, sons of James and Bridget Flynn of Whitebog.  Their sister Ann married Jack Dalton, whose grandson, Mark, is one of our local County Councillors.  I have before me a copy of a letter which Patrick Flynn started to write while serving with the Irish Guards in France on 27th June 1916.  The letter was continued over five pages and clearly shows that he wrote it at three different stages over a period of time.  The letter was addressed to Sr. Mary Bernard of the local Mercy Convent to whom he had previously corresponded and he relates how his battalion was regarded as “the lucky Irish”.  He expressed the hope that “war will soon come to an end as no-one realises what war is until they see the awful sight of death.”  The letter makes sad reading when one realises that the man who took the trouble to write to the nun who had taught him in St. Joseph’s School was to be killed in action just a few weeks later.  Patrick Flynn died on 14th September 1916 and his brother Christopher was killed the following year on 28th July.

Another correspondent from the front was William Harris of Shrewleen Lane who wrote a letter to his mother Ellen which was published in the Leinster Leader of 7th August 1915.  It gave a first hand account, and a graphic one at that, of the awful realities of war.  Here is what he had to say of the Dublin Fusiliers landing on the Dardanelles.  “On April 25th before we got within 200 yards of the shore we were under the heaviest shell and rifle fire that was ever known in the history of the war.  When we came within 25 or 30 yards of the shore our boats stopped.  There was nothing for it only to swim ashore.  Some got out all right, others were wounded and some never came out and may God rest them.  It was only by chance anyone got out for whichever way you swam that day you faced death.  I will never forget when we got on land that morning at 5.30 a.m. in our wet clothes.  Byrne and I, a chap named Keegan from Dublin and our officer were the only ones left of our platoon.  We fell on our hands and faces and dare not move from that position for if we put up a finger we were shot.  We lay there for 13½ hours and I saw some of our brave friends, the Munsters, alongside me blown to pieces - heads, arms and everything off.  Byrne was right behind me, his head touching my boots, yet near as I was I was afraid to twist my head to see if he was alive.  The officer and Byrne got wounded later, I think I am the only member of the platoon who was not, but thank God.”

Harris’ letter recounted previous narrow escapes which allowed him to survive the war.  Not so lucky was his friend Joe Byrne who like Harris was from Athy.  He would die of his wounds on 25th July 1915. 

Young men from the locality enlisted in their hundreds to fight in the war and their reasons for doing so were many and varied.  Their actions did not signify any lack of allegiance for their own country, indeed it is arguable that by enlisting they were hoping to guarantee the long promised Home Rule for Ireland.

What motives could we ascribe to fifteen year old Jack Murphy who enlisted, despite being under age, before being taken out of the ranks by his mother.  He later re-enlisted under the name “Michael Dobbyn” and survived the war.  His older brother Michael Murphy was a member of the Carlow Kildare Brigade I.R.A.  The Murphy family in having family members in the I.R.A. as well as in the British Army were not unusual in that respect and it merely confirms that in the early years of the war before the rise of Irish nationalism following the execution of the 1916 leaders, enlistment in the British Army was seen as a manly, if not a patriotic act.  All was to change however before the enlisted men returned home at the end of the war.  The 216 men from Athy and surrounding district who died during the 1914-18 war are brushed out of our history and those maimed and crippled ex soldiers who returned to Athy were never to reap the fruits of their hard fought victory. 

At 3.00 p.m. on Sunday 13th November the Athy dead of World War I will be remembered in St. Michael’s cemetery, as they have been for the past ten years or so.  There are few families in this area who do not have a family member to remember on Remembrance Sunday, the day set aside to honour the dead of World War I.  It is right and proper that Athy men’s involvement in the 1914-18 war can now be reclaimed and remembered as part of our shared history, a history which recognises the contribution of soldiers in the uniform of the British Army, as much as it does the part played by their brothers and friends in the Irish War of Independence.

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