1916 was a difficult year for the town of Athy. The Great War had entered its third year and there was no sign of it ending. The patriotic fervour and martial ardour that greeted the outbreak of war in 1914 had long since diffused. The town had grown accustomed to regular reports of casualties from the western front and a number of Athy men had been invalided home. The year began badly with torrential rains, the worst in memory occasioning the overflow of the Barrow and the flooding of many farms in the Athy area on New Year’s Day 1916.
By that year over 1600 Athy men were serving in the war and the separation allowance paid to the families of soldiers was a significant bulwark against the endemic poverty of pre-war Athy.
Life in both Athy and Ireland however was itself not without incident. The Easter Rising would erupt in Dublin in April 1916 and one Athy man, a young Irish volunteer Mark Wilson, would find himself at the heart of events serving in the Four Courts garrison. At the same time Sir Anthony Weldon, a fellow townsman from Kilmoroney House and veteran of the Boer War, was in command of the Limerick Military district. His humane and sensitive treatment of the Irish Volunteers in Limerick in the aftermath of the Rising was much applauded at the time as no doubt his avowed beliefs as an Irish Home Ruler contributed to his benevolent approach. He himself would not survive the war, dying at home in 1917 from the after effects of gas poisoning
1916 would mark for Michael Bowden of Athy his second year in captivity in Germany as a Prisoner of War. The publication of his picture in the Saturday Herald newspaper on 10th June 1916 with that of his brother in law John Byrne was of some comfort to his family, but he would never return home, dying in the camp on 7th May 1918 without ever seeing a child born after his departure for France on the front in the late summer of 1914.
I have no doubt that Bowden and the many other Athy men imprisoned in Limburg would have derived great comfort from the masses they celebrated with Fr. James Crotty, the Dominican friar who had been Prior of the Dominican community in Athy for two years from April 1900 and whose parents left Athy for New Ross in 1867 shortly before Fr. Crotty's birth.
Some aspects of life continued as normal. The South Kildare Agricultural Show which had been cancelled in August 1914 because of the outbreak of the war was held that summer and local vet, John Holland, received the prize for having the best three year old gelding in the show. His son, John Vincent Holland, recently returned from working on the railways in Argentina and now an officer in the Leinster Regiments, would win greater acclaim on the Somme battlefield in September where his actions in leading a bombing party would see him awarded the Victoria Cross. While local vet John Holland enjoyed his success, his former gardener, John Byrne, remained in captivity in Limburg where he would die as the war headed towards its conclusion in September 1918.
The Hannon family from Ardreigh secured a prize at that same agricultural show for having the best gelding in the four year old category. The grief and loss they suffered in 1915 when a son was killed would be compounded by the further loss of Lieutenant John Coulson Hannon in summer of 1916.
1916 was also a defining year for the Kilkea born Ernest Shackleton. On the day that the Irish volunteers struck for freedom in Dublin on Easter Monday Shackleton set out on an extraordinary 800 mile boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia with his Irish comrades Tom Crean and Tim McCarthy.
It was ultimately with the assistance of the Chilean Navy tugboat ‘Yelcho’ commanded by Commander Luis Pardo, that the rescue was effected on 30th August 1916. This dramatic event will be celebrated in Athy Heritage Centre Museum next Friday night, 7th October, with a reception to be hosted by the Chilean naval attache to Ireland, Mr. Ronald Baasch. The reception will be followed by a lecture, at 7.45pm by the distinguished Chilean navy historian, Dr. Fernando Wilson. All are welcome to attend.
100 years on Athy and Ireland has been transformed and none more so in the prominence of women today in Irish life and society. This has been particularly apparent in sport, with the extraordinary level of participation of young girls and women in our national game, Gaelic football. It was particularly uplifting to see the County Kildare ladies football team take the Intermediate All-Ireland title in Croke Park last Sunday in front of a capacity crowd of 35,000 people and I extend my particular congratulations to the two representatives from Athy, Orlaith Moran and Niamh Mulhall on their wonderful achievement.