Thursday, October 24, 2002

World War I and South Kildare

On Sunday, 10th November, a short ceremony will take place in St. Michael’s Cemetery at 3.00 o’clock in the afternoon. Its purpose will be to remember those local men who died in World War I on what will be the 84th anniversary of the end of that war.

There is no truly accurate account of the worldwide casualties suffered during the conflict which started in August 1914 and ended in November 1918. The number of men and women killed or injured will never be known as compiling records during warfare was understandably never easy. The best records available to us indicate that in excess of 8½ million men were killed in action or died of wounds or gas poisoning during the 52 months of the war. A staggering 21 million or so men were wounded. There was not a town or village in Ireland which did not contribute some measure of its youthful generation to the grim slaughter which was the Great War.

County Kildare suffered a loss of at least 567 men whose deaths are recorded, while the south Kildare area sustained proportionately greater losses than the rest of the county. Over the years I have often written of Athy men who died in the 1914/18 war, but it was not until this year when I visited Flanders that I came to realise the magnitude of the human slaughter which we rather oddly refer to as The Great War. There was nothing great about the war cemeteries which pitted the Flanders landscape with stone memorials to the dead. The regularity with which one came across war cemeteries was frankly upsetting, while the small Commonwealth grave markers over each grave bore testimony to the sad and awesome harvest of death reaped during the war.

Following the war, here and there throughout Ireland local committees compiled lists of soldiers from their area who had been killed. In Castledermot such a list was compiled, while I have in front of me a Roll in Honour of those from Longford town and county who fell in the Great War. I have mentioned in previous articles that the Urban District Council of the time agreed to compile a list of Athy men who fought in the War. The list if it was ever compiled was not published and indeed a record of the soldiers from this area who served in the War has not survived.

There were few Athy families unaffected by the War and while I have identified about 105 townsmen and a further 83 men from the Athy rural area who died in World War I, no doubt my list is incomplete. Who recalls Edward Conlon of Brackna, a private in the Leinster Regiment who died at sea on Sunday, 20th October 1918. William Corrigan, a Private in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was another unlucky Athy man killed in the last days of the war on 14th October 1918. Alfred Coyle from Nicholastown was only 22 years old when he died from gas poisoning on 21st August, 1917. Was he any relation of Thomas Coyle of Nurney aged 28 years who was killed in action at St. Quintin in France on 25th August 1918?

The story of Andrew Delaney of Crookstown who died of gas poisoning in Netley Hospital on 31st May 1915 forms part of the World War I display in the local Heritage Centre. A married man, his body was brought home for burial in the local cemetery. He is the only World War I casualty in the Crookstown cemetery, although the former Parish Priest, Fr. Stafford, who was an army chaplain during the war is also buried there. I have been trying for a long time to get information on Fr. Stafford, and would welcome hearing from anyone who could help me. Was Andrew Delaney in any way related to William Delaney, also of Crookstown who was killed in France on 13th March 1916?

The list of names of Athy men killed in the war is like a role call of present day families in the area. Alcock, Bell, Byrne, Connell, Corcoran, Corrigan, Coyle, Cullen, Curtis, Delaney, Devoy, Dillon, Dooley. The list goes on and on, all the time recalling the local family names with which we are so well acquainted.

Earlier this year in company with teachers and students from Wellington College, New Zealand I visited war graves and battle sites in France and Flanders. On looking over the names of the war dead from Athy and district I was intrigued to find one man who had enlisted in the First Battalion of the Wellington Regiment from New Zealand. He was Gilbert Kelly known to his friends as Bertie who was killed in action on 25th September 1916. He was from Ballintubbert and being a Kelly was quite possibly a descendent of Rev. Thomas Kelly who founded the Kellyites in the early years of the 19th century. Bertie Kelly had emigrated to New Zealand but even there he could not avoid the conflict which was raging in Europe. The chances of war in all probability brought him into contact with other men from his hometown of Athy. It was the Battle of the Somme which ultimately claimed Kelly’s life as it did so many others whose early years had been spent in the fields around south Kildare.

Last week I mentioned the Memorial which hopefully will soon be erected by the Town Council to commemorate the townspeoples’ part in the 1798 Rebellion. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful gesture if the Council erected a Memorial to the generation of Athy men who over 80 years ago lost their lives in World War I. It would be a timely gesture and one which would go some way to redressing the awfully sad way in which mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters felt compelled to mourn in private their loved ones who were for so long written out of Irish history.

I can recall it was nine years ago that Athy Museum Society hosted a seminar in the Town Hall on World War I, with particular reference to its impact on County Kildare. It was probably the first time that an Irish provincial town had commemorated its World War dead in that way. Kevin Myers of the Irish Times said at the time “it does no disservice to our nation or what we believe in that we should remember the World War I dead here today”. How right he was and how right it is that we should not forget the men whose last view of Athy was from a train pulling out of the railway station on the first leg of a journey which would end in a foreign grave.

Next Sunday at 3.00pm some of us will gather in St. Michael’s cemetery to remember the young men who lost their lives in World War I. I hope you can join us.

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