Founded in the twelfth century as an Anglo Norman settlement, Athy from its earliest days was always of strategic military importance. Troops were garrisoned in White’s Castle, built in 1417 by the Viceroy Lord Furnival to protect the bridge over the river Barrow and to serve as the first line of defence for those living within the Pale which extended to within a few miles north of Athy. Three hundred years later a purpose built military barracks was erected in the area known as Greenhills near to the thirteenth century castle of Woodstock. It was the base for successive regiments of cavalry troops, amongst them the Princess Charlotte of Wales Dragoon Guards, which was regularly garrisoned in Athy. In 1811 Athy’s military barracks accommodated four officers and cavalry troops as well as 86 infantry soldiers on temporary assignment to the town due to ongoing agrarian troubles in the area. The army barracks remained in use until shortly after the end of the Crimean War.
Not unexpectedly, Athy, like so many other similar towns in Ireland, was known as a garrison town. It was an appropriate description for a town which owed much of its commercial prosperity to the military presence. The relationship between the troops stationed in Athy and the local population was generally harmonious and trouble free, with the exception of the period of the 1798 rising and Emmet’s Rebellion five years later. Despite the difficulties of that period, which saw the arrest, imprisonment and in some cases the summary execution of local men believed to be involved in rebellious activity, men from the town of Athy and the rural areas of South Kildare continued to enlist in the British army.
When the first recruits from the South Kildare town joined the British army, we cannot say, but a manuscript memo book dating from the end of the seventeenth century exhibited at a quarterly meeting of the Kilkenny and South East of Ireland Archaeological Society, later the Royal Society of Antiquaries, on 10th July 1867 had the following note.
“In Athy in Ireland lived at the time of Ye revolution Mrs. Munford who had nineteen sons riding at the same time in Captain Wolseley’s Troop not regimented. She lived to bury them all.”
This is the earliest record we have of Athy men soldiering in the services of Great Britain. The enlistment of local men in the British army was understandable in an area where the majority of the local population depended on the tenant farmers of South Kildare for employment. Work in the locality was seasonal and poorly paid and throughout the town of Athy men, married and single, faced the perennial problems of unemployment and poverty. The military presence extending back centuries, coupled with large scale unemployment among the male population, inevitably led to Athy and district becoming a fruitful source of recruits for the British army. Not all of the military service of local men was with the forces of the crown. John McGrath, an Athy man aged 21 years, a Captain in the Regiment of Clare of the Irish Brigade was captured at sea by British forces in 1745. He was part of a French attempt to invade the English mainland, which was successfully repulsed. Following his capture, McGrath was confined in Hull prison. His ultimate fate is unknown.
When the Boer War broke out in 1899 a considerable amount of sympathy in nationalist Ireland lay with the Boers. The Town Commissioners of Athy passed a resolution protesting against “the unjustifiable war waged against the Boers” and tendered the Council members sympathy to the Boer President, Kruger. As the new century arrived the Boer flag was hoisted at night time over the town hall in Athy, much to the annoyance of the local loyalists and the Royal Irish Constabulary. A local newspaper reporting the incident claimed that “The Athy boys have not lost their originality and keen sense of humour.” While several Athy men were fighting on the English side in the Boer War, the Irish Transvaal Brigade, chiefly organised by John McBride and consisting of upwards of 250 Irish and Irish Americans, allied themselves with the Boers. Amongst the members of the Irish Brigade was James Crosby of Kildangan, who took part in the Boer attack on the town of Dundee during which the Irish Fusiliers with the Dublin Fusiliers sought to capture Talana Hill. It was during this military operation that Athy man Captain George Weldon of Kilmoroney was killed.
Captain Weldon, son of Colonel Thomas Weldon of the Indian army, was grandson of Sir Anthony Weldon of Kilmoroney, Athy. He continued the family tradition of service in the British army, as did his two brothers, Francis Weldon and Waller Weldon, who served in the Sherwood Forester’s and Manchester Regiment respectively. Commissioned in 1886 into the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, George Weldon served during the Burmese expedition of 1887/1889 before being promoted to the rank of Captain in 1896. Just before the outbreak of the Boer War the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were despatched to the Northern Natal town of Dundee in anticipation of the Boer invasion. The Boer forces occupied the crest of a hill called Talana which rose some 600 ft. to the North of the town giving it a commanding view of the British position. On the morning of twentieth October 1899 the Dublin Fusiliers, with the 60th Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, were ordered to take Talana Hill. The Irish men attempted to advance up the hill under sustained fire from the mauser rifles of the Boers with Weldon leading a company of the 2nd Battalion. Their advance being checked by heavy rifle fire Weldon and his men sought the shelter of a stone wall. Captain Weldon went to assist one of his men who had been wounded and while dragging him to safety, was himself shot dead. He was buried that same afternoon in a small cemetery facing Talana Hill. Captain George Weldon had the unenviable distinction of being the first British officer to die in the Boer War.
Despite the fact that many families in Athy and district were linked by service and by financial dependency on the British armed forces, the growth of Irish nationalism in the second decade of the twentieth century found a ready response in the town. On 9th May 1914 a local branch of the Irish Volunteers was established. Within two months the Cumann na mBan had formed in the town and on 23rd August 1914, a branch of Fianna Éireann was set up in Athy. Not since the 1798 Rebellion had there been such public manifestation of nationalist feeling in the one time garrison town.
When Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, made his call to arms on 7th August 1914 the response from the men of Athy and district belied the town’s developing interest in Irish nationalism and represented a renewal of the centuries’ old tradition of British army service. In hindsight the response was not unexpected. After all, the war in some quarters at least, was confidently expected to be over by Christmas. In addition, the prospect of service overseas coupled with the glamour of life in uniform must have appealed to many of the local men whose unemployed lives were lived out in unsanitary hovels in the back lanes and alleys of Athy. A further incentive was the separation allowances provided by the War Office for the wives and dependent children of soldiers serving overseas.
The tradition of Athy men soldiering in the service of Great Britain would continue through the First World War and into the Second World War. It was a tradition which grew and developed largely out of economic hardship but a tradition which was to be put to the test during the period of the First World War and the emergence of Irish Republican politics.