I was in Kilkenny recently attending lectures to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the granting of city status to the capital of the Marble county. The Mayor of Kilkenny, Alderman Crotty, introducing the lectures, gave a short talk on the Crotty family whose name is synonymous with the business life of that city. My interest in the subject was immediately aroused when the Mayor spoke of Martin Crotty who set up a bakery in Athy just as the Great Famine was coming to an end.
Martin was the eldest son of Tom Crotty and Catherine Hayden and was born in Potato Market Carlow in 1832. After his mother died Martin’s father re-married and it was then that the eldest son, at just 15 years of age, moved to Athy. Five years later while living in Duke Street he married Ellen Rowan of Bert.
A few years later Martin and his wife Ellen and their eldest son Tom moved from Athy to New Ross where 10 more children were born, the youngest of whom was named James. In 1870 the Crotty family moved to Kilkenny and that city is still home to several branches of the Crotty family.
The brief connection between the Crotty family and Athy of the 1850s was to be renewed several decades later. The link was made by the earlier mentioned James Crotty born in New Ross in 1867 who when he joined the Dominican Order in 1884 took the religious name Thomas. Ordained in Rome in 1891, he returned to Ireland the following year to join the staff of Newbridge Dominican College. On 21st April 1900 he was appointed Prior of the Dominican community in Athy where he remained for just over two years. Subsequently he was Prior of the Black Abbey in Kilkenny before transferring to Rome where he was Prior of San Clemente for two periods.
In 1916 Fr. Crotty was appointed Chaplain to the Irish Prisoners in German prisoner of war camps. It was in that capacity that Fr. Crotty renewed acquaintances with some of the men who would have known him when he was Prior of Athy 14 years earlier. The prisoner of war camp at Limburg held British soldiers captured at Mons in the first month of the Great War, most of whom were members of the Dublin Fusiliers. Amongst them were Athy men Michael Bowden, Martin Maher and Michael Byrne. It was those same prisoners of war that Roger Casement sought to recruit for an Irish Brigade to fight against the British.
Geoffrey Parmiter who wrote a biography of Roger Casement which was published in 1936 claimed that Casement found Fr. Crotty to be ‘a raging Fenian’, who nevertheless confined himself strictly to his priestly duties. Casement was very friendly with Fr. Crotty and spent a considerable amount of time in his company. Indeed Parmiter states that ‘between Casement and Fr. Crotty there sprung up a great and everlasting friendship.’ Fr. Crotty is generally credited with helping Casement to strengthen his interest in the Catholic Church and this ultimately led to Casement’s conversion while awaiting execution in 1916.
The Athy men who were imprisoned in Limburg and were approached by Roger Casement in his unsuccessful attempt to gain recruits for an Irish Brigade did not live to see the end of the war. Martin Maher, who had lived in Athy but had enlisted in Carlow, died on 5th March 1915 from wounds he had received in the Battle of Mons some months previously. Michael Bowden, an Athy postman who had also enlisted in Carlow, left behind his wife and child when he went to the war front. Another child was born a few months after he departed for France and he spent almost four years in Limburg Prisoner of War Camp before dying on 27th May 1918. His townsman, John Byrne, who had been a gardener employed by local vet John Holland of Model Farm, died in Limburg just weeks before the end of the war. The war records show that Byrne passed away on 27th September 1918 and like his other comrades from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers he is buried in Niederzwehren Cemetery in Germany. A photograph of Michael Bowden and John Byrne taken while they were prisoners in Limburg was printed in the Saturday Herald of 10th June 1916.
Fr. Thomas Crotty returned to Rome at the end of the war and in 1921 he was a member of the Commission for the revision of the Dominican Constitution. In August 1924 he returned to Ireland to become Prior of the Waterford Foundation. In December 1927 he transferred to Newry where he died unexpectedly on 29th November 1930.
The Irish Times of 19th November 2007 carried a report by Derek Scally from Berlin of a German town which had restored a Celtic cross erected 90 years previously in memory of 45 Irish soldiers who died while Prisoners of War in Limburg. The 10 foot high cross made of sandstone was erected in 1917 on the initiative of Fr. Crotty, financed by donations received from the Irish prisoners in the camp. The 24 hectare Prisoner of War Camp held upwards of 12,000 Irish soldiers, but few traces of the camp remain today other than the Celtic cross. Prior to its restoration the cross was cracked and crumbling, while the names of the 45 Irish soldiers engraved on its base were no longer legible. The German community raised funds locally and received €10,000 from the Royal Munster Fusiliers Association and other military associations, while the Government donated €5,000. Two years ago the refurbished Celtic cross was blessed by a local priest and re-dedicated to the 45 Irish prisoners whose names were included on a new bronze plaque. The names on the plaque commence with 40 year old Frederick Reilly who was the first Irish man to die in Limburg Camp. The Council of the nearby town of Dietkirchen have recently named a new street in his honour.
From Martin Crotty of Duke Street Athy of the 1850s to Fr. Tom Crotty of the Dominican Friary of 1900 to Athy men, Michael Bowden, Martin Maher and John Byrne there are many connections and links stretching from Athy to a small German town not far from Frankfurt. Near that town the memory of the three young Athy men is preserved forever on a sandstone Celtic cross which the former Prior of St. Dominic’s Athy caused to be erected 92 years ago.