The week in which the loss of Athy men of a previous generation was marked with the unveiling of a plaque on the Town Hall saw the passing of four local men. The week opened with the sudden death of Bobby Miller, a well known figure in Athy who collapsed and died while watching a football match. The place of his passing was significant for it was on the football field that Bobby laid the legacy of his life achievements both as a player and a mentor.
I first met him in 1982 shortly after I returned to Athy, when with Ted Wynne and others I was invited to a meeting in Bobby’s office which was then in Stanhope Street. With Willie Mahon, then chairman of Athy Gaelic Football Club, Bobby as chairman of the Clubhouse Development Committee was embarking on a project which would culminate in the construction of a clubhouse for the local club. It was a project which was successfully completed, but not without its heartaches.
My next vivid memory of Bobby was captured by me on camera as he came off the field at half time in the 1987 Kildare County Championship final against Johnstown Bridge. Athy were leading by a remarkable 9 points (if my memory serves me right) and Bobby, the centre half forward playing team manager ran almost as if in slow motion towards the dressing room where I had positioned myself to record what would be a historic victory for Athy. Without Bobby Miller to manage and lead that team I have no doubt that Athy would have had to spend many more years seeking a championship title to place alongside their previous success achieved in 1942.
Bobby took over the Athy senior team just the year before and as befitting the man who managed the Leinster Railway Cup team he moulded the Athy players into a championship winning team. On the way to the 1987 final Athy defeated Kilcock and defending champions Sarsfields in the semi-final. His contribution to Gaelic football was enormous and his talent for team management extended far beyond the town where he had carried on his accountancy practice for many years. His sudden death is a great loss.
The day after Bobby’s death I met and talked to an old friend Tommy Keegan. Both of us were attending a function in the G.A.A. clubhouse which Bobby Miller had helped to bring about. Within a few hours Tommy too had passed away, just a few months short of his 84th birthday. A community activist, Tommy involved himself in lots of local organisations. He was a bit of a character, likeable and sociable and remarkably in this day and age devoid of the rancour which can so often mark relationships when we become involved in the local community. Tommy was a good man who gave of himself for the good of the local community.
Later in the week Mick Hegarty of William Street passed away, again like Tommy at an advanced age. Michael called to me about two years ago in response to an article I had written on the pig market in Woodstock Street. We had a most interesting chat which we promised each other would be continued at a later date, but unfortunately Michael’s health subsequently deteriorated and so the opportunity passed. He had spent his long adult life in Athy and to my regret his memories of times spent with the Lefroys of Cardenton and in Athy of the 1930’s and ‘40’s were never recorded. Pat O’Connor died unexpectedly later in the week at just 63 years of age. I met Pat several years ago and his sudden death came as a shock to me and his many friends.
On Sunday, the deaths of many more local men which occurred over a 52 month period almost 90 years ago were for the first time commemorated in their home town. The names of those men, all young, some married, many single, are recorded in records of the war dead and in some cases their images are captured in fading photographs. These are the only records of the 219 men from Athy and district who died in the awful conflict which has been so inappropriately named The Great War. There are perhaps some elderly sons and daughters still alive who have childhood memories of fathers who left home to go overseas. These personal memories, if they still exist, are the only living memories of a generation of Athy men who died in the 1914-18 war.
The plaque erected on the Town Hall by the Town Council is the first official recognition given to the local war dead by the town whose Church and civic leaders were united during the war years in encouraging young men to enlist. Sadly, the 2,000 or so men who responded were to find themselves wrongfooted when in their absence overseas the political canvas of the island of Ireland changed dramatically following the Easter rebellion of 1916. The volunteer soldiers who had paraded to the railway station to the cheers of the local people returned at the end of the war to be met with indifference, and in some cases even hostility.
Invited by the Town Council to speak before the unveiling of the plaque I referred to the sidelining of the returned soldiers, many of them who suffered physically and mentally as a result of their time in the trenches. Like many others I too had little thought of these men or their participation in the war until about 16 years ago when local writer John MacKenna wrote a play and subsequently a novella which he called “The Fallen”. Based on his own research on World War I the two characters in “The Fallen”, Marie Lloyd and Frank Kinsella, explored their relationship against the backdrop of Frank’s involvement as a Volunteer soldier in the war.
MacKenna’s research encouraged him to organise a memorial ceremony in November 1991 in St. Michael’s cemetery where six soldiers who died at home during the war are buried. His thoughtfulness and indeed his courage in doing that prompted my own interest in the subject and ever since I have been researching and writing about the forgotten men of 1914-18.
Happily John MacKenna’s initiative and my own involvement coincided with a re-appraisal by successive Irish Governments of the part played by Irishmen in the first World War. This culminated in the opening of the Irish monument at Messines some years ago by President McAleese in conjunction with the Queen of England and the Queen of Belgium. Since then the Irish army and the Irish Government have participated in Remembrance Sunday commemorations each year. The erection of the plaque on the Town Hall is one of the final chapters in the re-claiming of a part of our history which for so long had been unfairly ignored.
At the end of the ceremony I expressed the hope that the 1798 memorial commissioned in 1998 and ready for the last eight years might in the not too distant future find it’s place in the front square near to where the flogging triangles were erected during the 1798 Rebellion. I wonder will it be in place before the outer relief road, or indeed even the Ardreigh road alignment are finished?