Last week our President, Michael D. Higgins with the Heads of State of twenty one other countries attended various Gallipoli centenary commemorations in Turkey. As part of his visit, he attended a commemoration at the Cape Helles Monument followed by a visit to the cemetery of V beach where so many Irish casualties of the Gallipoli landings are buried.
It is difficult to understand why so many Irishmen perished on the Gallipoli beaches in a forlorn attempt to knock Turkey out of the first world war. For the men of the short grass county who had enlisted in the first battalion of the Dublin Fusiliers, their baptism of fire would be at dawn on the 25th April 1915. The men of the First Battalion, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers waited in the hold of the Steam Collier River Clyde in the company of their fellow Irishmen of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. As dawn broke, the men disembarked from the River Clyde into a series of smaller boats carrying one hundred and twenty five men each. An earlier bombardment of the Turkish positions by the ships of the Royal Navy gave the Turkish defenders fore-warning of the proposed landings.
Captain Moloney of the Dublin Fusiliers wrote
`The boats came in, they were met by a perfect tornado of fire, many men were killed and wounded in the boats, and wounded men were knocked over into the water and drowned, but they kept on, and the survivors jumped into the water in some cases up to their necks, and got ashore; but the slaughter was terrific. It was a terrible affair, and a few minutes of such fire decimated the battalion'.
Laurence Kelly, a 23 year old from Chapel Hill, Athy was killed that morning. He was followed in death five days later by Athy men John Farrell and Christopher Hanlon killed defending the precarious beachhead from a ferocious counter-attack by the Turks.
John Farrell, who was 31, was a son of Thomas and Mary Farrell of Janeville Lane and he lies buried in V cemetery. Close by are his comrades Kelly and Hanlon, amongst whose graves our President walked, in homage last week.
That day's slaughter was a harbinger of the death and destruction which would be visited upon the Irish troops over the following months on this rocky and sandy peninsula of Turkey.
On that same day, the Carlow poet and soldier John P. O’Donnell was serving with the Australian forces on the peninsula. One of his more evocative poems was composed at Gallipoli in July 1915 titled 'Australian Graves'.
“The Ghastly Moon goes creeping
Across old Sari Bahir,
The sobbing winds go whispering
Its mortal news afar.
The stars looked down upon the land,
The white mist covers all
Those gallant hearts who shed their blood,
And heard their countries call.”
Over the suceeding months a number of Athy men would die including Frank Fanning from Chapel Lane, killed on the 12th July 1915. His grave is in the Twelve Three Copse cemetery. William Moran would die on the 9th August 1915 and his body was never found but his name is recorded on the Helles memorial in Turkey with another Athy man, Daniel Delaney who died on the 12th July 1915.
A new influx of Irish troops would arrive in the peninsula in August 1915 with the Suvla Bay landings at which many more Dublin Fusiliers would die. Two of those were the Duggan brothers, George and Jack, killed on the 16th August 1915. Their surviving brother George, a Civil Servant in Dublin Castle would publish a book of poetry entitled “The Watchers on Gallipoli' inspired by and dedicated to the memory of his two brothers.
“March away, my brothers; softly march away;
The waves are hissing round us, the East is turning grey.
The coast, the cliffs are silent. Gone are we all but they
Watch ever in the stillness that falls o'er Suvla Bay.
A year later another Athy man wearing an Irish Volunteer uniform figured prominently in Dublin’s Easter Rebellion. Unlike many of his fellow townsmen who fought overseas Mark Wilson survived. On Tuesday next the 5th May at 7.30 pm in the Athy Heritage Centre-Museum Seamus Cullen, historian and author, will give a talk on ‘Easter Week in County Kildare’. Admission is free for what promises to be an interesting and thought provoking talk.