Last Sunday in St. Michael’s Church of Ireland at the top of Offaly Street an ecumenical service was held to remember the men from Athy and district who died in the 1914-18 war. This was the first time that the different churches in Athy came together in a church setting to commemorate those men who 100 years ago enlisted in their hundreds to fight in France and further afield. It was appropriate that the centenary of the start of the 1st World War was marked in this way given that the young men from Athy were encouraged by Church and civic leaders of 1914 and later years to join the English army.
The service, organised by Reverend Olive Donohoe and Fr. Gerry Tanham, commenced with a hymn and was followed by the following reflection on the war:
Those born in times of peace do not recognise the true face of war. Similarly those of us born decades after the war which shattered the lives of so many from our community do not perhaps recognise those lives lost in the muddied battlefields of France and Flanders.
Encouraged by Church and civic leaders young men from our town enlisted in their hundreds during the 1914-18 war. Many did not return. Many were never found – for they lie today where they died.
In the public domain acts of remembrance for those who died in the war were overtaken by political instability and conflict. As a result the grieving process for deceased fathers, sons, husbands and brothers retreated into the privacy of family homes. For decades the war dead were forgotten and overlooked by a people whose lives were immersed in the War of Independence, the subsequent Civil War and an emerging and developing statehood. They were a forgotten generation – young men whose dreams were never realized. The great shame was that of later generations who failed to recognise the sacrifices made by the young men of 1914-18 and who failed to disentangle public acts of remembrance from the political legacy of the new Irish State.
In this the decade of centenaries we are remembering so many elements of our shared Irish history – including the beginning of World War I, for we now accept that it was an important part of Irish history and of a past which influenced and shaped our local community. Athy lost at least 122 young men during the 1914-18 war. The loss of life for the town and its hinterland was in excess of 220 men.
In 1966 the then Taoiseach Sean Lemass, a one time critic of Remembrance ceremonies in Ireland, acknowledged that Irish men who had enlisted during World War I were motivated by the highest purpose and died in their tens of thousands believing that they were giving their lives in the cause of human liberty everywhere not excluding Ireland.
It is appropriate that here in Athy some members of the local community took a lead almost 25 years ago to remember the local men who died in the 1914-18 war. Commemoration ceremonies have been held each year since then and today in the centenary year of the start of the war we come together for an ecumenical service in the Church which records on wall memorials the sacrifices of the Hannon brothers and their cousins from Ardreigh House.
The various religious denominations here in Athy share a common heritage – a heritage of loss and sacrifice endured by the men from Athy and district who fought in the 1914-18 war. Our collective remembrance respects and acknowledges different traditions and loyalties and it is appropriate that we come together to commemorate the men of Athy and district irrespective of any underlying cultural or political differences.
The poet Lord Dunsany was moved to write his poem ‘to the fallen Irish soldiers’ following the Irish government’s refusal in 1928 to allow a war memorial to be built in the garden of Merrion Square.
“Sleep on, forgot a few more years, and then
The ages, that I prophesy, shall see
Due honours paid to you by juster men,
You standing foremost in our history,”
Dunsany prophesised that attitudes would in time change and that due honour would be paid to the Irishmen who died in war. Today we gather to pay that honour to a generation we did not know, but whom we should always remember for sacrifices suffered on the battlefields of the Great War.
Towards the end of the service the names of the 122 men from Athy who died in the 1914-18 war were read out, starting with Frank Alcock’s name and ending with that of Francis Verschoyle. Amongst those names were William Corcoran of Offaly Street, the first Athy man to die in the war. At 17 years of age Christopher Gleeson of Upper William Street was the youngest Athy fatality, while Christopher Power of 8 Plewman’s Terrace at 59 years of age was the oldest. Three Athy families each suffered the loss of three young sons. The Byrnes, the Kelly’s and the Curtis families are forever linked to the awful destruction of young life during the war.
The Sunday afternoon service was a unique event, bringing together members of our local community in a common act of remembrance for a lost generation.