Tuesday, August 12, 2014

World War 1 - Victims and Survivors

World War I has got our attention over the past few weeks with the Irish media giving plenty of attention to the subject which went largely unnoticed up to a decade or so ago.  Athy has more reasons than any other Irish town to remember the 1914-18 war.  In fact it has 122 reasons.  For 122 Athy men, mostly young men, died in that war.  Their families mourn their deaths, but for at least 40 of those who died there was to be no known last resting place.  Their names chiselled on war memorials are the only reminder of short lives once lived in a small provincial town in County Kildare.  These forgotten men are the reason why in this the centenary year of the start of the Great War we commemorate their lives.

Men like Christopher Power of 8 Plewman’s Row who was killed in action in France on 26th April 1915.  At 59 years of age he was the oldest Athy man to die in the war.  Power was survived by his wife Esther and three children.  His namesake, Christopher Power of William Street, was just 22 years old when he died of wounds received in battle on 28th April, 1916.  Both men served in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

At the other end of the age scale we find 17 year old Anthony Byrne of the Leinster Regiment who was killed on 28th April 1915.  Christopher Gleeson of Upper William Street was also 17 years old when he died in France on 1st May 1916.

I was reminded of these men and of the other World War I soldiers from Athy when William Walsh of Lusk, County Dublin called on me during the week.  William at 80 years of age is the son of an Athy father whose name he proudly bears.  William Walsh, the father, lived with his father, brothers and sisters at No. 5 Janeville Lane in 1911.  The head of the family at the time of the 1911 census was John Walsh, aged 55 years of age, who in 1901 lived with his wife and family at 13 Offaly Street.  That house, still standing, was next to the malt house and in later years was occupied by the Keatleys. 

John Walsh was a tailor in Meeting Lane whose father Brian Walsh originated from Kilkenny but came to live in Athy when he married.  William Walsh, his grandson, enlisted in the Leinster Regiment in November 1911 as a member of the 4th (Extra Reserve) battalion based in Maryborough.  It was usual in 1911 to join the Special Reserve for an initial period of six years, the first six months of which was spent in full time training.  Thereafter, unless called upon for active service, the enlistee was required to attend training for three to four weeks a year.

Called up as a reservist on the declaration of War William Walsh landed in France on 25th October 1914 as a member of the Leinster Regiment 2nd Battalion.  He was present at the Christmas truce in 1914 when German and English soldiers laid down their arms on Christmas Day and mingled with each other before returning to the trenches.

William Walsh, who survived the war, spoke of how he was fortunate to survive a German artillery attack which killed four of his colleagues just after he had left the trench where they had been resting.  He was also involved in the first battle of Ypres, which in October 1914 resulted in heavy casualties for the Leinster Regiment.

The Athy soldier who on demobilisation lived in Dublin, spent two years working with the Dublin tram company driving the Tram 21 which travelled between College Green and Inchicore, Dublin.  He later worked in Guinnesses.  His brother Joseph also joined the British Army during the 1914-18 war but took the wise decision on returning home on leave not to return to the battle front.  Joseph later lived at No. 2 Dooley’s Terrace.  A younger brother Edward was the father of John, Eamonn, Helen and Myra Walsh, all of whom still are living in Athy.  The story of William Walsh, World War I veteran, was told to me by his son William whom I had the pleasure to meet with his daughter Ann-Marie and his son -in-law this week.

There are so many stories to be told of the Athy men who fought in the 1914-18 war.  Unfortunately for 122 of those men their stories can never be told.  All we know is of their deaths and sometimes of their burials in graves maintained by the Commonwealth Grave Commission.  But for so many men from our town, young and middle aged, there is nothing but names chiselled into the stone of foreign war memorials.  Their names are recalled, but not the short lives they lived or the families they left behind.  They are part of our hidden past.                          

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