Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Stafford Brothers and World War I

Within two months of the start of World War I Edward Stafford, formerly of Butler’s Row, Athy was killed.  He was just 27 years of age when he died on Thursday 24th September 1914.  He was survived by his widow Margaret of Churchtown, a young daughter Mary Bridget and two sons, Thomas and George.  Two years later his younger brother Thomas was killed.  Thomas was 24 years of age when he joined his brother in death on 6th September 1916 during the battle of the Somme.  Thomas’s remains were never recovered and he is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial, while his brother Edward is buried in the National Cemetery in the French village of Crouy. 

Until recently my knowledge of the Stafford brothers largely consisted of information available in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission files.  You can imagine my surprise on learning recently from my secretary of almost 40 years ago that she was a niece of Frank Stafford, an Athy man who fought in World War I.  Pat Walsh is a native of Donard, Co. Wicklow and her aunt, Mary Ann Heaney, her mother’s older sister, married Frank Stafford in 1921.  Frank’s father Thomas was a Wicklow man and I learned that Frank was the brother of Edward and Thomas Stafford and like them had also joined the Dublin Fusiliers at the start of the war.

It was Pat’s brother, Fr. Willie Walsh, a priest ministering in Kenya for over 40 years, who told the story of the Stafford brothers in an article in the magazine, ‘Africa’.   Pat sent the article to me and only then did I become aware of her connection with the Stafford brothers and particularly Frank Stafford who was not previously known to me.  Further research has unearthed more details in relation to another family member who also enlisted.

In the Stafford family in Butler’s Row were six sons and two daughters.  I have discovered that in addition to his three brothers Peter Stafford who was born in 1899 had enlisted on 27th October, 1915.  He claimed to the recruiting officer that he was 18 years of age but when his true age became known in March 1916 he was discharged for ‘misstatement of his age.’  The remaining boys in the Stafford family were Anthony born 1902 and John born 1904, while the girls were Elizabeth and Judy.

When I was Chairman of Athy Urban District Council in 1997 I was asked to send greetings to a former Athy resident who was about to celebrate her 90th birthday at her home in America.  I subsequently got a letter of thanks from Mae Vagts who turned out to be the daughter of Edward Stafford.  She wrote of her father ‘I do remember his goodbyes to myself, 7 years, and my two brothers, 3 years and 1 year old.  My mother went to the train station with him.  I also remember the notice of his death, it came by the postman that my father Edward Stafford was killed at the battle of the Aisne in France.  My mother was in shock as my father was only 27 years old.  We were all very sad.’

Growing up in Athy in the 1950s I remember John J. Stafford of Duke Street, the youngest member of the Stafford family, his sister Judy who married Andy Cleary and who lived in Janeville.  I knew nothing then of Edward or Thomas Stafford who died during the war or of their two brothers who also enlisted but survived.  Indeed like so many others in Athy I had no knowledge of the suffering and sacrifices of family who lost loved ones in the war of 1914-18. 

Two years ago Edward Stafford’s grandson, who was then living in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, arranged a remembrance mass for his grandfather and his granduncle Thomas Stafford.  This was held in St. Michael’s Parish Church, Athy on 24th September, the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Stafford.  So far as I can recall this was the first church service held locally in recent years in memory of victims of World War I.

Next Sunday, November 13th, is Remembrance Sunday and a Remembrance Day ceremony will be held at St. Michael’s Old Cemetery at 3.00 p.m. to honour the men from Athy and district who died in the Great War.  Fr. Willie Walsh, at present home on holidays with his 95 year old mother in Donard, will join us that day to remember amongst the dead of the Great War his uncles Edward and Thomas Stafford.

Clem Roche, genealogist and World War I historian, has written a book on the men from Athy and district who died during World War I.  His book ‘Athy and District WW1 Role of Honour 1914-1918’ will be launched in the Heritage Centre in Athy on Friday 11th November at 7.30 p.m.  An open invitation is extended to everyone to attend the book launch.  It would be particularly appropriate for family members of those who died in the war to come along to the book launch and to the ceremony in St. Michael’s Cemetery on Sunday and by your attendance honour the lost generation of 100 years ago. 

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