Seamus Cullen, farmer, historian and writer, travelled to Athy on Tuesday night to give a wonderful exposition during a lecture in the Heritage Centre of the part played by County Kildare menfolk and womenfolk in the Easter Rising of 1916. His assessment of Kildare’s involvement in the Rising prompted me to look afresh at those men and women, small in numbers, who took part in the Rising and those who were involved in the Nationalist movement before and after 1916.
Athy, a garrison town, so called because of its long historical association with the English army, was surprisingly the first place in County Kildare where the Irish Volunteers were formed. The Volunteers were established following a meeting in Dublin in November 1913 and within six months Athy had its own Volunteer corps. A second company was formed on 13th June 1914 and this may have been a cavalry corps which was one of the few such companies in Ireland at that time. Athy also holds the distinction of having the first Cumann na mBan branch in County Kildare. It was formed in July 1914 just three months after the ‘League of Women’ was founded as a woman’s auxiliary corps to the Irish Volunteers.
Athy can also claim to have formed the first County Kildare branch of Fianna Eireann when on 23rd August 1914 young boys from the town became part of the youth organisation founded some years earlier by Bulmer Hobson and Countess Markievicz. All of this suggests that nationalist feelings amongst the townspeople of Athy which had been submerged in a deluge of military harassment and punishment during the 1798 Rebellion was again coming to the forefront.
The funeral of the Fenian O’Donovan Rossa in Dublin on 1st August 1915 was effectively a public showcasing of those Irish Volunteers who had refused to follow John Redmond’s call for men to enlist in the English army at the start of World War I. St. Michael’s Fife and Drum band, known locally as the ‘Leinster Street Band’ travelled from Athy by train to attend Rossa’s funeral where because of their ability to play Irish tunes were allocated a prominent position in the funeral parade. Frank O’Brien, father of the current holder of the name, trained the band which was an integral part of the Volunteer movement in Athy.
I have previously written of Athy man Mark Wilson’s involvement in the Easter Rising but it was the aftermath of the executions of the rebel leaders and the imprisonment of volunteers such as Wilson which saw the emergence of the Republican movement in Athy.
Sinn Fein as a radical nationalist party founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith and Bulmer Hobson was not involved in the 1916 Rising but because of its opposition to the British authorities it was widely, but wrongly, held responsible for the Rising. As a result the post Rising Nationalist Movement which emerged in 1917 in Athy and elsewhere soon began to replace the Irish Parliamentary Party. The election of Eamon de Valera as President of Sinn Fein in 1917 when Arthur Griffith stood aside cemented the link to the Easter Rebellion.
Local Sinn Fein sympathisers held a concert in the Town Hall to raise funds for the families of prisoners released from English jails in December 1916. The concert held on 18th January 1917 was followed a month later by the Athy Hibernian players in the play ‘The O’Carolans’, the cast of which stood to attention at the end of the performance for the singing of ‘A Nation Once Again’. The men involved, who would later figure prominently in the local Sinn Fein club which was formed in June 1917 included John Coleman, Joseph Murphy, J.B. Maher, Michael May, Joseph May, Joseph Walsh, W.G. Doyle, T. Corcoran, Robert Webster, J. Webster and C. Walsh.
Differences of opinion led to the local Ancient Order of Hibernians withdrawing use of its rooms by a local pipe band which had been started by J.J. Bergin of Maybrook just before the start of World War I. Bergin declared for Sinn Fein, and Peter P. Timmons, Secretary of AOH, annoyed that the pipers had paraded with local Sinn Feiners, declared that the band could no longer practice in the AOH premises ‘as the AOH refused to be identified with Republican lunacy.’
The Sinn Fein Club organised another concert in the Town Hall for Thursday 19th July 1917 to raise funds for the families of those killed during the Easter Rising. Arthur Griffith attended that concert and addressed the audience. De Valera, accompanied by Arthur Griffith, visited Athy on Sunday 4th November 1917 when de Valera was presented with an address of welcome by Athy Board of Guardians and Athy U.D.C. It was the same Board of Guardians which in May 1916 condemned the revolution in Dublin.
Attitudes had changed in the meantime and people of the onetime garrison town of Athy would play their part in the Irish War of Independence which lay not too far ahead.