For the first time in my memory, and indeed I believe for the first time ever, the people of Athy have had an opportunity all of last week and continuing this week to acknowledge the sacrifices of the men and women from this area who played a part in the Irish War of Independence. The local Heritage Centre is hosting an exhibition which gives the story of the men and women of that time and the background to the events in which they were involved.
Strange to relate that in our local schools we learned our Irish history and even delved further afield as we were taught some aspects of the wider European story, but at no time did we learn the history of our own town. Several generations have grown up in Athy since the War of Independence and indeed since the subsequent Civil War ended. Each of those generations in turn remained unaware of what had happened in Athy and the South Kildare area during the 7 year period which started with the 1916 Rising in Dublin and ended with the ceasefire which brought the Civil War to a close.
Some might say that what happened was best forgotten. Others might take a more pragmatic view and regard the history of those times as holding important lessons for the present and for the future. Whatever one’s views, I suppose it has to be admitted that recovering the past was never going to be an easy task when faced with the silence of those who were active participants in the conflicts. The War of Independence was a stressful time and one which brought with it painful memories. The subsequent Civil War heaped pain upon pain and caused incalculable anguish to an entire nation. Understandably therefore the men who enlisted in the Volunteers and the women who served in Cumann na mBan seldom spoke of what they had witnessed. Their silence unfortunately was seldom, if ever, threatened because for decades there was no apparent public interest in the subject of the War of Independence. The untold stories were lost as the freedom fighters of the second and third decade of the last century passed away. It is an awful shame that even within the records so carefully compiled for the Bureau of Military History in the 1950s there is not a single account relating to Athy and district.
The exhibition in the Heritage Centre attempts to tell the story of this area’s involvement in the War of Independence by highlighting those men who were interned, as well as outlining the key events which marked this area’s contribution to an important part of our shared history.
As a young lad growing up in Athy I remember Gardai Jim Kelly, Johnny McMahon, Mick Tuohy and John O’Connell. They had served the community in Athy since the 1930s and earlier and all of them had been active members of I.R.A. units during the War of Independence. They were proud possessors of I.R.A. medals with active service bars confirming their participation in military engagements in their native counties of Mayo or Clare. I was not aware of this until recently for like all their colleagues in the old I.R.A. they never spoke of their combat experiences.
Similarly the men who were interned for periods during the War of Independence. My recent research has shown that ‘Bapty’ Maher, Joe May and Joseph Mullery were interned in Ballykinler Camp, while J.J. O’Byrne and John Hayden were imprisoned in Portlaoise Prison. Others who would live in Athy after the conflict ended and who had been imprisoned by the British authorities included Tom Flood, Fintan Brennan and Seamus Malone.
Tom Flood perhaps of all the ‘local’ participants in the War of Independence had a most illustrious career as an active member of an I.R.A. Brigade. Brother of Frank Flood, who was hanged in Mountjoy on 14th March 1921, Tom was captured after being wounded when a Dublin I.R.A. contingent burned the Custom House just two and a half months after his brother Frank died. Acute appendicitis on the eve of his trial caused its postponement and undoubtedly saved his life as the Truce was declared on the eve of his rescheduled trial. Tom Flood moved to Athy in the 1920s, as did Fintan Brennan, the Monasterevin man who spent some months in Parkhurst Prison. Seamus Malone, a teacher in the local C.B.S. after the Truce, had also been imprisoned. He served time in Frongoch and several other prisons following his arrest in Limerick after the Easter week Rising. He was later a member of the East Limerick Flying Column of which his brother Thomas (both of whom were from Tyrrellspass, Co. Westmeath) was Vice Officer Commander. Incidentally his brother Thomas later wrote of his exploits under the title ‘Alias Sean Forde’ which was the name he used when as his obituary notice claimed ‘he was the scourge of the Black and Tans’. Seamus Malone who taught in Athy in the 1920s wrote his autobiography in Irish which was later translated and published by Fr. Patrick Twohig under the title ‘Blood on the Flag’.
The ambush at Barrowhouse on 16th May 1921 and the Coolbawn Ambush just over a month later are both featured in the Exhibition. Strange to relate that both ambushes, despite being carefully planned, resulted in the deaths of two young Irish men at each of the ambush sites. William Conner and Jim Lacey died at the side of the road at Barrowhouse, while John Hartley and Nicholas Mullins perished at Coolbawn.
But it wasn’t just on the side of the I.R.A. that good decent young Irish men died. The ranks of the R.I.C. in the years prior to the War of Independence had been filled by young Irishmen. Their enlistment in the local Police force of the time was an accepted practice at a time when the Parliamentary Party led by Charles Stewart Parnell and later by John Redmond sought Home Rule for Ireland by parliamentary means. There was no objection to young Irishmen joining the ranks of the R.I.C. or indeed the ranks of the British Military forces but as the events of Easter 1916 unfolded the public’s attitude to the men in uniforms changed. Tragically during the War of Independence bitterness led to bloodshed and to the loss of many hundreds of R.I.C. lives, most of whom were Irishmen who had done little or nothing to deserve sudden violent deaths. R.I.C. men such as Joseph Hughes of Wolfhill and Edward Doran from Athy who were shot and killed by the I.R.A. in 1921.
Maybe the killing of men such as Hughes and Doran justified the silence which marked the events in Ireland from 1916 until after the Civil War ceasefire. Whatever the reason the time is long past when we should remember the good and the bad of a time in our history when young men and women sacrificed more than we can imagine so that we could enjoy the privilege today of complaining about our own duly elected government.
Go and see the exhibition in Athy’s Heritage Centre. It remains open until Friday, 24th April.