Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The unveiling of Athy's War Memorial

More than 100 years after the end of the war in which 131 young persons from Athy died the people of south Kildare witnessed the unveiling of a war memorial in their memory. The memorial unveiled on Sunday last by the Chairman of Athy Municipal Council, Mark Wall, recalls the names of the 130 men and that of Nurse Eleanor Orford. Their story and that of the men and women who served in the war were for too long written out of our history. This, despite the fact that the young men who enlisted to fight overseas did so with the active encouragement of church and civic leaders of the time. Here in Athy Canon Mackey, the local parish priest, was a fervent supporter of army recruitment and with the then Chairman of Athy Urban District Council often spoke at recruitment meetings held in Emily Square. While those young men were fighting and dying overseas attitudes in their hometown changed following the execution of the 1916 leaders. It resulted in the young men who survived the war being ostracised on their return home while their dead comrades were written out of our local history. Twenty years or so ago John MacKenna, David Walsh and myself got together to honour on Remembrance Sunday each year the men from Athy who died in war. That annual ceremony has continued and some years ago Athy Urban District Council had a plaque erected on the Town Hall to honour the men from Athy who died in World War 1. More recently a small committee, led by Clem Roche, decided to erect a war memorial listing the Athy dead of World War I in St. Michael’s cemetery. That committee included some members of the group which had honoured the local 1798 activists by having the 1798 monument erected in Emily Square. That act of remembering the Irish republicans of ’98 and more recently organising the War of Independence Exhibition in the Town Hall, coupled with the unveiling of the World War I memorial in St. Michael’s Cemetery, should encourage us all to ‘embrace our history and learn from it’. I was honoured to address the following words to those attending the memorial unveiling. ‘For decades the subject of remembering and honouring the Athy men who fought in World War 1 was taboo. Athy suffered the loss of 130 men and 1 woman, Eleanor Orford, in the Great War. Men who were young, men who were single, men who had wives and children and a young woman who was survived by her parents. Their deaths scarred the local community for decades afterwards. They enlisted with the active encouragement of church and civic leaders and in doing so felt they were doing what was right and honourable. Athy men like many other Irish men from a nationalist background enlisted because the British Army offered opportunities not available in civilian life. The majority of those men who left Athy to join regiments in Naas and elsewhere were members of the Catholic church. A small minority were of the Anglican and Presbyterian faiths and their contribution to the Great War is memorialised in our local churches. There is no memorial remembering the local Catholic men in our Parish Church as unlike the other faith churches there was no tradition of having such memorials in Catholic churches in Ireland. Some of those men were members of the local GAA club, but not even one-time team allegiances were sufficient to allow those who remained at home to embrace the deaths of their former teammates as a community loss. The deaths of 131 young persons from Athy left an emotional community wound that was not healed even as the new independent State rose from the ashes of Ireland’s Civil War. For while the men were fighting and too often dying the country they left behind and the town they called home had changed forever. After the 1916 Rising those soldiers of the Great War found themselves ostracised. They were on the wrong side of Irish history. For many years Irish life was characterised by a failure to pay tribute to the fallen of the Great War even though we must accept that those who enlisted were motivated by the highest purpose. Kevin O’Higgins, Minister in the first Free State government, whose father served as Medical Officer in nearby Stradbally and whose brother Michael was killed in action in France, said of the men who enlisted “no-one denies the patriotic motives which induced the vast majority of those men to join the British Army to take part in the Great War.” We remember the idealism, the valour and the courage of these men and Eleanor Orford remember their sacrifices with gratitude and humility. Our commemoration today of those locals who died in the Great War focuses on reconciliation and a shared memory of the loss of a young generation. The unveiling of this memorial is confirmation that the people of Athy are now remembering with dignity the soldiers and the nurse of the Great War who for far too long were consigned to the unwritten pages of our local history.’ The people of Athy now share a memory which transcends political visions and recalls our common humanity.

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