Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Commemorating William Connor and James Lacey, victims of the Barrowhouse Ambush 16 May 1921

The Barrowhouse chapel bell rang out at 4 o’clock on the afternoon of 16th May last. It was around that time 100 years ago that two young men from Shanganaghmore lay dead on the ditch side of the road at Barrowhouse. William Connor and James Lacey were just 26 years of age when they joined James’s brother Joe, Paddy Dooley, Joe Maher, Mick Maher, Jack O’Brien and Joe Ryan in an attack on RIC men travelling on bicycles on the road from Ballylinan. That same chapel bell which had summoned William and James and their family members to Sunday Mass was now reminding a new generation of Barrowhouse folk of the two young local men buried in the same grave next to the local school they had attended as young boys. At 4 o’clock also, Connor family members lay a wreath at the ambush site, while a descendent of the Lacey family performed a similar task at the grave of the two Barrowhouse freedom fighters. These were the arrangements made by the local Barrowhouse committee in the light of Covid restrictions. Plans are in place to construct a redesigned memorial at the ambush site and to publish a detailed account of the Barrowhouse ambush of 16th May 1921. The Nationalist newspaper of 28th May 1921 under the heading ‘The Last Post’ gave an account of what it described as ‘the last act of the sad scene of the grim tragedy that was enacted on Monday week at Barrowhouse’. The writer described Connor and Lacey as young men ‘fired with the spirit of patriotism ….. reared together, school mates together, play mates together ….. the friendship and intimacy of youth blossomed into the knowing comradeship of manhood and then – even in death united and buried in the one grave.’ Requiem Mass for the dead was celebrated at 11 o’clock that Thursday morning, 19th May 1921 by Rev. J. Nolan, curate St. Michael’s Athy, assisted by Rev. M. Ryan CC Kilmead and Rev. M O’Rourke CC Athy, with other priests from Athy, Castledermot, Moone and the Dominican Fr. John O’Sullivan in the choir. When the Mass was finished the two coffins were carried by I.R.A. Volunteers to the nearby grave and lowered into the double grave. The last post was sounded by a trumpeter, followed by three volleys fired over the grave by members of the Carlow Kildare brigade. The Barrowhouse group in charge of the ambush centenary commemoration is to be congratulated for its efforts to remember with dignity and pride the sacrifices of William Conner and James Lacey. Sunday 21st May also saw another commemoration when the National Commemoration Day to mark the Great Famine was held. Again because of Covid restrictions this year’s commemoration, following on the first formal State commemoration held in Skibereen, Co. Cork in 2009, was marked on Sunday by the President of Ireland in a ceremony in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin. Here in Athy we have joined for the last number of years the National Famine Day Commemoration by holding a service of remembrance in St. Mary’s Cemetery opposite St. Vincent’s Hospital. This cemetery served the needs of Athy’s Workhouse which was opened in January 1844, just a year or more before the Great Famine started. It was in St. Mary’s Cemetery that the victims of the famine who died either in the Workhouse or in the nearby Fever Hospital were buried in unmarked graves. The Workhouse records maintained at national level allowed me some years ago to calculate that 1,205 Workhouse/Fever Hospital inmates died during the years of the famine. This year because of Covid restrictions the local memorial service for the famine dead could not be held. The deaths of over one million Irish men, women and children during the Great Famine had a lasting depressive impact on the Irish people. As we emerge from decades of memory loss relating to the famine, we should embrace with thoughtfulness and with understanding the hardship suffered by so many Irish families just a few generations ago. In the famine cemetery of St. Mary’s there also lies those forgotten men and women who were the subject of the recent Mother and Babies Home Report. I wrote in a previous Eye on the Past of the work which has commenced to identify all those who died in the Workhouse and the later renamed County Home. I wrote a letter to the Mayor of County Kildare in March of this year asking for Kildare County Council to provide funding for the design and construction of a suitable memorial to honour those who died in Athy’s Workhouse/Fever Hospital and who were buried in unmarked graves. It is quite extraordinary to find that there appears to be no extant record of the names of those who died and are buried in St. Mary’s. As a community we have a duty to honour and respect our dead, whether it is a life which ended in armed conflict or a life expired in the drab surroundings of a Victorian workhouse or in an institution adopted by the Irish state and utilised by Irish society to further the culture of concealment and secrecy which was the hallmark of the first seven decades of the new Irish State.

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