November is the month we remember the dead, not only those of a recent generation but even more particularly the dead of World War 1. The war which started in August 1914 and was expected to end by Christmas saw nearly 10 million soldiers die before the 52 months of conflict ended at eleven o’clock on the morning of the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918. It was a war which brought untold pain, suffering and loss to many families and here in Athy brought news of death to many households.
While research is continuing into the casualties suffered amongst the reservists and enlisted men of South Kildare the current list of Athy men killed in battle numbers 122. These men, so many of whose bodies were never recovered and so have no known grave, were part of the town’s population of approximately 3,500 people. Their loss created immense social and financial problems for families left without husbands, fathers, sons and brothers.
Added to the grief of those left behind was the awful realisation that the country which had sent these men into battle turned against them on their return to Ireland. They had been cheered by family and friends as they paraded to the railway station to join up but on being demobbed they found that all had utterly changed. The church and civic leaders who had encouraged their enlistment were silenced by the emerging nationalist majority. The surviving men of the war-torn battlefields of France and Flanders found themselves ignored and sidelined in their home town.
Amongst those who returned home from the war were Patrick Berry of Kilmead and Jack ‘Skurt’ Doyle of Athy, both of whom survived years spent in the prisoner of war camp in Limburg. Not so lucky were Athy men Michael Bowden, John Byrne and Martin Maher who were also prisoners in Limburg. All these men had taken part in the Battle of Mons which opened on 23rd August 1914 and were captured by the Germans. Bowden, Byrne and Maher died in Limburg before the war ended. John Byrne who was a gardener employed by John Holland of Model Farm died on 27th September 1918 just weeks before the Armistice. His sister was married to Michael Bowden, an Athy postman who died in Limburg on 27th May 1918.
The surviving soldiers of World War I had memories which they did not share on their return home. For them remembrance of times spent in rat infested and muddied trenches in France or Flanders must have included recurring themes of death and suffering. It is difficult for a generation far removed from the savagery of war to understand the hardships endured by these men.
Recent research by local military historian Clem Roche has identified a number of men from landlocked Athy who served in the British Merchant Navy during the Great War. This discovery is an interesting addition to our knowledge of Athy men’s participation in World War I. Theirs is an untold story of bravery on the high seas in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Southern Oceans. Of those identified to date all appear to have survived the war.
The men who died during World War I were overlooked by the Irish public for many decades. It was 25 or so years ago that John MacKenna and some friends got together to honour the Athy men who died in war. The simple ceremony of remembrance was held in St. Michael’s Cemetery and has continued each year since on Remembrance Sunday. On Sunday next 9th November at 3.00 p.m. local people will again gather in St. Michael’s Cemetery to pay a deserved tribute to the men from Athy and district who died not only in World War I but in all wars. We will remember young men such as the three Kelly brothers, Denis, John and Owen of Chapel Lane, the three Curtis brothers of Rockfield, John, Lawrence and Patrick and the three Byrne brothers, Anthony, James and Joseph from Chapel Lane, all of whom died during the 1914/18 war.
This year also the oratorio ‘Still and Distant Voices’ written by John MacKenna with music composed by Mairead O’Flynn which was first performed almost 15 years ago will be again performed in the Arts Centre in Woodstock Street on Thurs. 6th, Friday 7th and Sat. 8th November, 2014 at 8.00 p.m. each evening.
Remembrance Sunday is a day to honour and respect the memory of those young men from Athy and district who died in the 1914-18 war. In this the centenary year of the start of the war it is perhaps more important than ever that we remember a lost generation. Do come to St. Michael’s Cemetery on Sunday at 3.00 p.m. and if you can attend the performance in the Arts Centre during the week.