It may not have taken place sufficiently long ago to justify inclusion in an “Eye on the Past” but given that the local newspapers did not carry a report of what was a significant local event, I’m moved to devote this Eye to Athy’s 90th anniversary commemoration of the 1916 Rising held on Sunday, 30th April.
It was organised by the three main stream political parties represented on Athy Town Council, all of whom displayed unusual but welcome unanimity in the way that the historical occasion was to be celebrated. The proceedings commenced with a parade to Emily Square from the four main roads leading into Athy. Members of the Monasterevin Historical Society marched down Stanhope Street, all dressed in volunteer uniforms. From the Carlow Road, the same route where Preston and his troops retreated at the height of the Confederate Wars in the 1640’s marched a contingent from Wexford dressed as ‘98 pikemen and bearing pikes as did their forebearers over 200 years ago. The other marchers included members of Athy Town Council accompanied by local school children, all parading to the accompaniment of a lone piper.
They all assembled in the back square before the platform which had been set up in front of the Courthouse. On the platform were the Town Councillors, well most of them anyway, with Ministers of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Church. The opening address was given by the Chairman of the organising committee, Eugene Doyle, who said:-
“Today we remember the men and women who in Easter week 90 years ago struck the first blow which would eventually culminate in the founding of the Irish Republic. Pearse and his colleagues were involved in a supreme expression of unselfish idealism and their actions were to awaken amongst others throughout Ireland and here in Athy the desire for Irish independence. People like J.J. O’Byrne, a school teacher and secretary of the local Sinn Fein Club, who in this very Square in August 1918 read the Sinn Fein Manifesto to a gathering of local people. He was arrested the following day, court marshalled and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. Men like Joe May of Woodstock Street and John Baptist Maher of Duke Street who as members of the local Sinn Fein Club were arrested and imprisoned in Ballykinler Camp. Men like Eamon Malone of Barrowhouse, Commander of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade I.R.A. who was arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail. We are honoured to have with us today members of the O’Byrne, May and Maher families, all direct descendants of those brave men who sacrificed so much so that we could enjoy the freedom we have today. We remember all those men and women who made so many unselfish sacrifices and endured great hardships during the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War in a continuation of the struggle for independence which had commenced in Dublin in Easter 1916. We remember those young men who were killed in this area during those dark days. John Byrne of Gracefield, Ballylinan; John Lacy and William Connor of Barrowhouse; Thomas Dunne of Cowgate, Castledermot; Sylvester Sheppard of Monasterevin; Laurence Sweeney of Stillorgan, Co. Dublin; Edward Byrne of Hacketstown; Patrick Allison of Harristown and James Murphy of Baltinglass. Today we affirm the legacy of the men and women of 1916 and those who followed after them - it is a legacy of freedom and democracy in this part of the island of Ireland, the final chapter of which has yet to be written.”
There then followed an ecumenical prayer service led by the four clergymen present, after which the tricolour was lowered to half mast by Kieran Browne of Athy Community College. The 1916 proclamation was read in Irish by Fiona Mahon of Scoil Mhuire, Athy, followed by a reading in English by Scoil Eoin student, Ger Lyons.
The last post was sounded by bugler, Charlie O’Neill and following a minutes silence observed by the assembled crowd, the reveille was played, followed by the National Anthem. The impressive ceremony concluded with music and dance by the Marie Caffrey School of Dance and the Hazel Flanagan dancers, followed by a play performed by sixth class students of Churchtown National School.
The importance of the 90th anniversary commemoration lies in the fact that for the first time ever those I.R.A. men from this area who were interred in the aftermath of the Easter Rising were publicly recognised and honoured. “Bapty” Maher was the only one of those living in 1966 when the 50th anniversary was held, the others, Joe May, Eamon Malone and J.J. Byrne having died before then. It was wonderful to see the sons of Joe May and Bapty Maher and the daughter of J.J. Byrne represent their fathers on the platform during the commemoration ceremony. Regrettably Eamon Malone’s daughters were unable to attend. Incidentally Malone, who was for a period Commandant of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade I.R.A., was remembered some years ago when a new Council housing estate at Woodstock Street was named “Malone Place” in his honour.
There was a large attendance at the ceremony in Emily Square, a clear indication, if one was ever needed, that the people of this country are reclaiming those events in our history which, in a period of historical revisionism were in danger of being unjustly devalued. It prompts the thought that no-one has taken up the suggestion I made some time ago that the memorial, which once marked the spot where Sylvester Shepperd was killed by Free State soldiers in July 1922, should be restored. Given the success of the 1916 commemoration event would it not be appropriate for its all party organisers to take on the task of commemorating those men who like Sylvester Shepperd paid the ultimate penalty for their involvement in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. Indeed I would go further in suggesting that it is entirely appropriate that the political parties at local and national level should be so involved as a defining measure of the unity which has evolved in Irish political and social life since the terrible events of the Civil War.