Tuesday, June 5, 2018

War and South Kildare - 'To Stem the Flowing Tide' by Michael Fox

One of the many hidden stories from Athy’s past is the part played by local men and women, many now forgotten, in the development of the Republican Movement following the 1916 Rising. Athy and South Kildare, in the aftermath of the retribution imposed on the local population during and after the 1798 Rebellion, was unlikely ever again to be a centre of rebellion against English rule. The granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 as a measure to forestall the possibility of further rebellion no doubt offered further inducement in that regard. The Fenian Rising of 1867 made no impact on the South Kildare region and the rise of a Catholic middle class largely comprised of shopkeepers and publicans saw commercial success rather than national sovereignty as a common objective. At the same time the labourers living in squalid conditions in the courts and alleyways of the town and for the most part unemployed, were more concerned with family needs than issues of nationhood or sovereignty. The drift to war culminating in the declaration of war on 4th August 1914 was received with enthusiasm in every Irish town and village. The work of Arthur Griffith and the Gaelic League was then just a few years in being and had yet to overtake the Irish Parliamentary party’s role in leading the drive for some form of parliamentary independence for Ireland. Here in Athy civic leaders such as M.J. Minch, then Chairman of Kildare County Council, the members of Athy Urban District Council and the local parish priest, Canon Edward Mackey, encouraged the young men of the town and surrounding district to join the British Army to fight for the rights of small nations. It was a call answered with enthusiasm which when examined after the elapse of 100 years raises questions as to why did young men from Athy and district enlist in such large numbers to fight overseas. For young men born in the town which had traditionally been home to garrison troops for several centuries the culture of soldiering for a living was an accepted way of life. Even when parts of the country broke out in rebellion in 1798 the English Army and Navy had amongst their ranks many men from Athy and South Kildare. The tradition of soldiering was to continue during the Crimean War, the Zulu wars and the Boer wars. It was a tradition which offered a meaningful role in life for young men who faced perennial unemployment at home and who lived amongst the widespread poverty which marked Irish provincial town life of the 19th century. It was against this backdrop of English military involvement stretching back many years that the rising tide of nationalism began to harness support in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. Here in Athy the public support for the World War I effort so obvious during the first year of the war began to wane as the casualty numbers mounted up. The local church and civic leaders enthusiasm for sending young men to fight overseas continued apace but despite this a build-up of support for Irish nationalist ideals lead by school teacher J.J. O’Byrne and others emerged. That support came from men and women, some of whom we have been able to identify such as Eamon Malone, Bapty Maher, Joe May and the Hayden brothers of Offaly Street. The role of the Christian Brothers in shaping the nationalist outlook of these men who had attended the local school in St. John’s Lane cannot be underestimated. The arrival of the Christian Brothers in Athy in 1852 to open a school was, I believe, a pivotal moment in the gradual re-awakening of what would in time become the local men’s drive for Irish independence. One family which gave sterling service to the Irish Republican cause were the O’Rourkes of the packing stables at the Grand Canal harbour. Brothers Michael, Thomas, James, Frank, Joe and Dinny were members of the local I.R.A. company. Michael O’Rourke, a Grand Canal company employee, was captain of the A Company 5th Battalion Carlow Kildare Brigade. During the subsequent Civil War Michael O’Rourke and his brother Jim were interned in the Curragh. Their story and that of the many other men and women from Athy involved in the War of Independence have begun to emerge with the release of military pension records. One man who has researched the O’Rourke family’s involvement in the Irish War of Independence is Michael Fox of Dublin. A grandson of the O’Rourke brothers’ sister Elizabeth, sometime ago he published a short account of the O’Rourke brothers’ involvement in the independent movement under the title ‘To Stem the Flowing Tide’. Michael Fox has now offered to present the O’Rourke I.R.A. veteran medals to Athy Heritage Centre. The presentation will take place on Thursday 7th June at 7.30 p.m. in the Heritage Centre during which there will be a talk delivered on Athy’s involvement in the Irish War of Independence and the involvement of the O’Rourke brothers.

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