The Great War of 1914-1918 had a profound and lasting impact on the town of Athy and its hinterland. Research indicates that upwards of 213 men from Athy and outlying districts died in what was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’. It is difficult to determine the actual number of Athy men who served in the war as many joined up in England, Scotland and some as far away as Australia and Canada. In June 1915 the Leinster Leader reported that 1600 men from Athy and its environs had enlisted and that number had increased, by how much we don’t know, before the war ended in November 1918.
According to the 1911 census figures, the population of Athy was just over three and a half thousand people, so it is reasonable to speculate that during the 52 months of the war almost every family in the town had a son, father, relative or neighbour who was at the war front.
William Whelan of Castledermot was the first man from South Kildare to be killed in action. He died on the 28th August 1914 and four days later William Corcoran of Offaly Street became the first Athy man to die in battle. Irish Guardsman Patrick Heydon of Churchtown died on the 4th of September and was buried in Villers Cotterets Wood along with 98 other officers and men of the 4th (Guards) Brigade who fought to cover the retreat of their comrades following the defeat at Mons.
Athy men fought and died in every major battle in France and Flanders and they are buried in cemeteries or remembered on monuments which are to be found all along the 400 miles of the Western Front. Nineteen sons of South Kildare are remembered on the Menin Gate in Ypres. Seventeen men who died at the Somme are remembered at the Thiepval Memorial, along with 70,000 others who died there between July 1915 and March 1918 and have no known grave.
Eight men are named at Tyne Cot, where those who died in the battle of Passchendaele are remembered. Five more at Loos, four at Cambrai, and two Athy men, Christopher Flynn and Andrew Pender, lie in Artillery Wood in the same cemetery as the Meath poet Francis Ledwidge.
Local man David Walsh is probably best known as a director of plays with Athy Musical and Dramatic Society and Athy Drama Group, but he also has a keen interest in the Athy men who fought in the Great War. Over the past ten years he has visited and photographed the graves of almost all of the Athy and South Kildare casualties who lie in France or Flanders. I’m told that at each grave or monument David left Irish and Kildare flags with some clay from ‘the Crickeen’ in Old St. Michaels cemetery, along with a drop of Irish whiskey to remember and honour the sacrifice of these brave young men, who in the words of Tom Kettle ‘Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,- But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed, And for the secret Scripture of the poor.’
It is therefore no surprise that David brings his two passions together for a performance in the Athy Community Arts Centre on Woodstock Street, with the staging of ‘Still and Distant Voices, an oratorio for the Men of Athy’ who fell in the Great War. Written by John MacKenna, with music by Mairead O’Flynn, the oratorio was first staged in Athy’s Presbyterian Church in 1990 and now on the centenary of the start of the war it is to be revived.
For this production David has drawn on the experience of the people he has worked with in the past, as well as some new faces; Chris Fingleton, Tony Cardiff, Noel Kavanagh, Eileen Doyle and Amanda Barry from Athy Musical and Dramatic Society, Damien Walsh and Deirdre Walsh from ONE4The Road Theatre Company, Gerard O’Shea of the Moat Theatre in Naas, as well as newcomers Brian Kelly from Kilmead and Susan Walsh who recently starred in the movie ‘All About Eva’.
The production is a poignant and moving story of the Great War as seen through the eyes of a young couple from South Kildare, a servant girl and her soldier boyfriend in the late summer of 1914. It is a tender and beautiful story told against the backdrop of death and destruction which one hundred years ago marked the daily lives of soldiers in that small part of a foreign land we now know as Passchendaele.
There are just three performances, Thursday 6th, Friday 7th and Saturday 8th November at 8.00 p.m. sharp in the Arts Centre on Woodstock Street. Tickets are available from the Gem and Winkles.
If you do nothing else on remembrance weekend, go and see this show in Athy’s Art Centre. I highly recommend it.