Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Athy's War of Independence Exhibition

The War of Independence did not figure at all in the history curriculum of Irish schools until very recent years. For that reason I grew up in Athy like everyone else unaware of the part played in the War of Independence by local men and women whom I knew and whom I met on the streets on a regular basis. Their contribution to the cause of Irish political freedom went unacknowledged by local men and women who were unaware of what they had done, but worst of all was the failure of the Free State government to honour many individuals who subsequently fought on the anti-treaty side during the Civil War. The aftermath of the War of Independence was a difficult time, not only for our country but also for men and women who had experienced hardship and deprivation during the Irish struggle. It was only in more recent years that knowledge of past involvement in the events of 1919/1922 has begun to be known. The opening of the Military History Bureau records and the various other data bases now readily available on the internet provide an invaluable series of platforms to extend our knowledge of the past. Here in Athy, as in most parts of County Kildare which had the largest British military presence of any county in Ireland, the level of War of Independence activity was not comparable to that of Counties Cork or Tipperary. Nevertheless Athy, the garrison town of old, in its post Easter Rising years became a stronghold of Irish nationalism which saw the formation of a Sinn Fein club and branches of Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann. Athy and south Kildare in the early years of the Irish Volunteers had one of the largest Volunteer companies in the county and the only Volunteer cavalry company in County Kildare. This had followed on the earlier opening of Gaelic League classes in the town. Many in the town drew inspiration from the events of 1798, the last time the town of Athy and South Kildare witnessed a resurgence of nationalist fervour. That short lived resurgence was quickly and brutally quenched by several executions carried out near the Grand Canal harbour and floggings at the triangle in the Market Square. Emmett’s Rebellion of 1853 was to have Nicholas Gray, a resident of Rockfield House, Athy leading the men of County Kildare as they advanced on Dublin. It was not to be, as Gray was arrested shortly as he set out from Athy. He was incarcerated in the Whites Castle gaol before being transferred to a Dublin lockup. The later Fenian Rising was similarly ineffective and there appears to have been no involvement at local level here in Athy or the surrounding countryside in either of these unsuccessful attempts at an uprising. Similarly the drive for Home Rule in the latter part of the 19th century saw little involvement by those living in Athy or south Kildare. Alexandra Duncan, a shopkeeper of Duke Street and a member of the local Methodist Church, was a Home Ruler and in the fashion of the largely Presbyterian inspired struggle for civil and religious liberties in the 1790s spoke out in favour of political freedom for the island of Ireland. It was the aftermath of Easter 1916 which fanned the flames of Irish nationalism and here in Athy men such as J.B. Maher, Joe May, Richard Murphy, Paddy Hayden, John Hayden, J.J. O’Byrne, Michael Dooley, the O’Rourke brothers and Eamon Malone, to mention just a few, played their part. The members of Athy Cumann na mBan who were also active at that time included Christina Malone, Julia Dooley, Esther Dooley, Sheila Maher, Julie Whelan, Kathleen McDonnell, Rose McDonnell, Mary Malone, Margaret May, Gypsy O’Neill, Mrs. John Whelan, Miss Murphy, Alice Lambe and Margaret Darcy. These are the names recorded as members of Athy’s Cumann na mBan but regretfully many of those named have not yet been identified. On this Tuesday 20th August at 7.00 p.m. a War of Independence exhibition will be officially opened in Athy’s Heritage Centre. The exhibition presents a unique opportunity to remember a largely overlooked part of our town’s history and to honour those local men and women who participated in the War of Independence, as well as those men who later came to live in Athy. Men such as Tom Flood, Peter McNulty-, James Kelly, Johnny McMahon, Michael Mahon, Robert Hayes, Mick Tuohy and Michael O’Connell. The last six mentioned were Gardai who served in Athy. The exhibition is curated by Clem Roche and marks not only a contribution to Heritage Week but also a welcome addition to our knowledge and understanding of an important period in Irish history and in our own local history. Admission to the exhibition is free of charge and an invitation is extended to one and all to attend the official opening at 7.00 p.m. on Tuesday

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