Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Remembrance Sunday and the Athy men who died in World War 1

In recent weeks Athy remembered and honoured the local men and women who participated in the fight for Irish independence. The War of Independence exhibition in the Town Hall which has just concluded was a fitting reminder of the debt which the present generation owes to those brave men and women of an earlier generation. Next Sunday on a day designated as Remembrance Sunday we will have the opportunity to remember and honour a generation of local men who responded to the call of Church and civic leaders by enlisting in the fight against Germany in the 1914-1918 war. Athy, the town founded by the Anglo Normans at the end of the 12th century, and located on the Marches of Kildare was garrisoned from an early age to provide a first line of defence for the settlers living within the English Pale. That continuous long-term military presence had a beneficial effect on the growth of the town of Athy and also helped create a tradition of military service amongst the local men. Even as the 1798 Kildare rebels planned their uprising many of their neighbour’s sons had already enlisted to serve overseas in the British army and navy. Local recruitment increased during the Crimean war and the Boer war and reached a peak during the First World War. That latter war occurred at a time when local men were largely dependent on seasonal employment on local farms and in the local brickyards. They responded positively and in large numbers to the call of their parish priest Canon Mackey, encouraged by the chairman of Athy Urban District Council, to enlist for the duration of the war which everybody confidently expected would be concluded by Christmas 1914. Those who enlisted were cheered as they paraded behind the Leinster Street Fife and Drum Band en route to the regimental depots in Naas and Dublin. The prospect of serving overseas for men who had never previously left their hometown, coupled with the prospect of an apparently exciting life in uniform, appealed to young men whose largely unemployed lives had been lived out in the poverty-stricken back streets of Athy. Sadly, upwards of 133 young Athy men never survived the 1914-1918 war. For many of those who died there are no known graves, their bodies even if recovered were never identified. Other men including Athy natives Michael Bowden, his brother-in-law John Byrne, Martin Maher and Jack ‘Skurt’ Doyle were captured following the Battle of Mons and spent years in captivity in the prison of war camp at Limburg. ‘Skurt’ Doyle was the only soldier of the four named who survived the war. Bowden, Byrne and Maher died in the prison of war camp and are today buried in German soil. Of the 133 Athy men whose lives were lost during the 1914/’18 war six are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Martin Hyland of Offaly Street died in Cambridge Hospital, aged 29 years and at the request of his young widow his remains were brought back to Athy. Michael O’Brien of Meeting Lane was killed at Carlow Railway Station while at home on leave. He was 27 years of age. John Lawler of Ardreigh, aged 37 years, had served in South Africa during the Boer War. He was survived by his widow Elizabeth. Michael Byrne was 27 years of age when he died 10 days after the war ended, a casualty of the influenza epidemic. James Dwyer, aged 39 years, died on 31st March 1918, while Thomas Flynn from Whitebog, one of four brothers who had enlisted, died on 26th February 1915 aged 28 years. The soldiers who survived the war and who returned to Athy, lived out their lives in a country where politics and allegiances had changed radically since the start of the war. The rise of Sinn Fein prompted by the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising saw Irish support for the 1914-1918 war decline rapidly. The 1,600 men from Athy and district who had enlisted in the first nine months of the war were cut adrift by a political movement which was fast growing back in their hometown. The community wide support they received when enlisting had gone and on their return to Ireland they were the forgotten soldiers of a conflict which had engulfed the world. The present generation fully accept that those men are an important part of our shared history and as such deserve to be remembered and honoured with dignity. At 3 p.m. on Remembrance Sunday the people of Athy as they have done for the last 20 years or so will gather in St. Michael’s Cemetery to remember and show respect for an earlier generation of local men whose lives and ambitions were cut short by a savage war.

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