Written on: 18. 11. 2011 in the category: Uncategorized

Athy in the Great War

This is the talk I gave to Athy about its role in the Great War

 

Though Athy was a garrison town, most Athy soldiers did not enlist here but in Naas or Carlow. Of the 87 Athy men killed as plain soldiers just 13 enlisted locally.

Basically three regiments recruited in the Athy area – The Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Leinsters and the Irish guards. It was this last regiment with which the first Athy dead of the war came – Private William Corcoran, on September 1, 1914. It was another Irish Guardsman who was the next Athy man to Die – Patrick Heydon, on September 4th. And it was a Dublin Fusilier, Edward Stafford, who was the next Athy man to lose his life, on September 24th. The first leinsters man from Athy to die fell next: Michael Lawlor.

The war already had an immediate impact on Athy, with the South Kildare Agricultural  show having to be cancelled that august 1914, simply because the military who were at its core were on their way to the front. Soldiers leaving for war were sent off from the station by large crowds of people waving union jacks.

 

So busy was the town with the impact of war that when the UDC sought tenders to build 37 houses for working class tenants, there were no tenders. Recruiting was reported to be heavy. The Athy Board of Guardians voted that all men going to the front should have their positions retained for them until the war was over.

 

In mid August, a pro-war women’s rally was held in the town  organised by Lady Weldon, whose husband. Lord Weldon was at the front with the Dublin Fusiliers. Lady Weldon said she could raise a battalion of women for the front – and complained about the numbers of able-bodied men still visible on the streets of Athy. Sir Anthony Weldon said he would look after any recruits who joined the Leinsters, to which someone cried “God bless you sir.”

 

Mr PJ Murphy proposed vote of thanks and it was passed by acclamation.

 

16th October, Athy Board of Guardians pass vote in support of the Irish National Volunteers stance on the war. A Mr Dunn said that the INV must defend Ireland the empire.

 

December, a concert in a full town hall for soldiers, ending with the National Anthem.

 

March 1915, was perhaps the high point of pro-war feeling ion thr town. Several thousand soldiers of the Munster and Dublin Fusiliers march through Athy. Mr E Doyle, JP, chairman of the Urban District Council gave an official welcome to the troops, and announced that 1,000 men from the Athy area had already joined the army.  A final peace between Ireland and England had been achieved, he said.

 

By the following April, E. Doyle declared that every able-bodied man in Athy was at the front. This was probably true of the Catholic middle classes of the town. Dr John Kilbride, son of the most eminent doctor James Kilbride had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. His uncle, Denis Kilbride was an Irish parliamentary party MP, and another uncle was an RM. John Vincent Holland, son of the local vet, had enlisted too, and had been commissioned in the Leinsters. So too did two of the sons of the protestant and we may presume unionist John Hannon

 

A concert in the town that same April 1915 was provided entirely by local soldiers home from the front, from many different regiments – most of them not Irish regiments, but all cavalry.

 

Athy gained national prominence with UDC opposition to the general restriction on the drinks sales, May 1915. But for the farmers, things were going very well;  the first cut of hay that summer fetched up to £5.10 a ton, which was apparently a staggering amount of money

 

That same month, word came through that Lt N Hannon, of Ardreigh House, with the King’s Liverpool regiment was missing in action. The Mallen family learnt that their boy was missing too.

In due course, the Mallens learnt their boy was alive, a POW; and the Hannons of ArreighHouse learnt that their boy Norman leslie was dead. He was 20. He had been at Trinity when was declared, and a members of the officers training Corps. He enlisted and was posted in the King’s Liverpool regiment. His brother John Coulter was in the same regiment. They both took part in the assault at Festubert, which was one of many costly but largely forgotten offensives in the year of 1915.

 

That summer, the Irish national Volunteers held a morale boosting meeting – perhaps to make good the numbers of men who had gone to serve on the Front. Canon Mackey told the meeting that the war was one of right against might, of justice against inequity, of purity against lust and barbarism.

 

Denis McBride MP told the rally that conscription would never come to Ireland so long as the Irish parliamentary Party were in parliament, A vote of sympathy for INV soldiers killed at the front.  Another vote of sympathy for the allies passed unanimously.

 

That summer it was learnt that a local man, Surgeon Peter Burrowes of the Royal Navy got a DCM/DSO for his work at the landings at sed El Barrh the previous April. He was the son of Gilbert Kelly, clerk of the Crown, and a Castleknock boy,

 

That September, the UDC refused to pay for gas from the Athlone gas company, because they said it was too expensive, and so the town went dark – and stayed dark

 

That same month, large numbers of local people attended a horse jumping contest to raise money for local POWs,  aided by cavalry regiments – it apparently was a very successful affair, and £165 went to local men at the front and to Athy POWs

 

November 1915: it was reported that 1,500 men from Athy now at the front; out of a town of 4000, but a recruiting meeting was told that farmers sons and shop assistants were still not joining up – at the end of the meeting, a large number of recruits enlisted

 

As winter fell, the urban district council still declines to pay for gas, and so 12 oil lamps were to be erected pending supply of electricity. So far I can see, Athy never got proper lighting throughout the war years.

 

That autumn of 1915, Mr M J McLaughlin, V/chaiman of Athy Board of Guardians joins the Pals battalion, 6thRDF

 

Appeared in uniform and was widely applauded

 

November 1915, there was another recruiting meeting and more recruits joined up

 

Private Albert Mullen, aged 18, 2nd irish guards reported missing in September now reported dead; Safe in the arms of Jesus said the death notice

 

Christopher Fitzpatrick, 21, 2nd Irish Guards, son of Peter  an RIC man, of Newton, died of wounds at Loos.

As local casualties grew, so too did a certain restlessness in the town. At a meeting of the UDC, Mr Dunne said of 80 Irish MPs, only four had joined up

Mr Byrne said they were sensible to stay at home

Clerk said that 60 of them were over age

 

Sgt Pender POW writes to thank Lady Weldon to thank her work

 

New Years day 1916 a monsoon and a hurricane, the worst in memory, Barrow overflowed and farms flooded

 

Local government officials were doing certainly doing their bit. Assistant to M Doyle JP, Joseph Spiddal, SIH was reported missing in action,

Athy getting £250 a week in separation money 1,600 men at the front

 

5 public houses in Athy closed because of lack of men

Pig prices up: 62/ a ctwt

Pigs getting 65/- ctwt

But life went on. Several people fined for cycling without lights in this lightless town. The boys of the Christian Brothers school performed Julius Caesar

White assizes in Carlow

In May 1916, sgt ryan was reported RDF missing, amongst the 623 irishmen missing after the gas attack at Hulluch,then came reports of other Athy men going missing: mulhall, Stapleton and Whelan.

No men of those names died then, but they were later reported to be wounded. Later men with those names did die: so maybe it was a question of destination deferred.

That summer, Mrs MA Sterrit of Chapel Hill learnt her son serving with the irish guards had died of wounds

Then it Sgt Power died of wounds

By this time, of course, there had been the Rising. In june, 600 deportees to British prisons: not one man from Athy was seen as being dangerous enough to deserve it

July, J Hegarty, IG, wounded

 

P. Dowey  and l Cpl Kavangh wounded

 

The brother of peter Kelly who had been decorated at Gallipoli was serving with the new Zealanders: Gilbert Kelly was killed in action in

Sgt James Price, son of james and eliza price Ballylinan, 1stRDF, KIA, three days before the battle of the Somme began. He was born in Athy, and was living in Athy when he enlisted in Athy.

 

In Athy show in the summer of 1916, the prize for the best 3yr old gelding went to the local vet John Holland. The prize for the best 4yr year went to the hannon family.

Three weeks later, the son of the vet, john Vincent Holland led a team of 25 bombers in an attack on German positions between Guillemont and Ginchy, as the 16th irish division took their position in the Somme battles. Only four men were still standing at the end of the assult, but all German positions and fifty men taken prisoner. Jv Holland was awrded the Victoria Cross

November Athy UDC unanimously passes vote of appreciation for Holland

But there was already a measurable distance between local feeling and central government. That summer the Local Government Board in Dublin asked Athy Board of Guardians – which had initially been so pro-war – to reconsider appointment of Dr Mclennan as Monstereven dispensary, saying he should be in army: the Board of Guardians reiterated its determination to appoint him, saying that he was not fit to join the army

 

The summer Athy UDC council vote to supply all children with a hot meal ever day, and to clothe and shoe all children in the town. Thjis makes no sense – and I can only suppose that it was a frantic attempt by the forces of redmondism to regain favour amongst an increasingly restless electorate

The RIC was still doing it job: that summer 110 men from Carlow and Kildare were summonsed for cockfighting and fined

2nd Lt John  Hannon youngest surviving son of Mr J hannon of Ardreigh house was killed that summer.

 

November 1917. Dev and Griffith in Athy a large rally, with men in uniforms and tricolours and hurleys. Mr Peter Doyle UDC presided. Rousing cheers. Dev’s speech punctuated by cheers. Is in part an anti-conscription meeting. “England will not conscript us” “we will sell our lives dearly” fighting conscription. If only using 10 ft pikes

 

“I believe in physical force,” said Dev

The Home Rule Bill – that unfortunate worthless bill

Redmond believed that fighting for france was fighting for Ireland (laughter)

If they were staunch and knew their rights, and were ready to sacrifice all, freedom lay before them. He appealed to people to join the only army, the physical force army, the moral force army, they had the people on their side loud cheers

 

Arthur Griffiths said that under the new Franchise the IPP would not get half a dozen MPs elected

 

Special meeting of the Athy UDC to discuss making presentation to Dev. Mr M E Doyle JP presided.

Mr Mahon said Dev not in favour of revolution: he had been misquoted. Malone Mahon and Baily agreed, they said he was not for physical force, his opinions had been falsified by the press, but if he was in favour of force, it was justified.

 

The forces of Redmondism – Mr M Doyle JP and Dr O’Neill opposed the dev motion, and amid scenes of confusion and uproar, Mr M Doyle stood down from the chair, town clerk took over, and it was he who decided that the presentation should be made

 

Athy Board of Guardians later voted to make a presentation to Dev

 

Uniformed sinn fein rally in Stradbally, presided over by PP Doyle of Athy, with tricolours and hurleys; feeling were high; there was hunger strike in Mountjoy and prisoners were being released. Doyle read out an address from the local priest, Father Burbage, who described redmondism as a pernicious unionist faction, who had misled the irish people. They believed in Up England Up the Union Jack, which is another way of saying Croppies Lie down,

 

The meeting ended with a resolution calling for the breaking up of grazing lands, especially of the reverend Mr Butler’s.

 

In June 1918, Athy number 2 Rural District Council elects Thomas McHugh of Sinn Fein as chairman, and Mr Malone as vice-chairman

 

August 1918, local schoolteacher, J J O’Byrne arrested, for participating in illegal rallies, and seen off by large crowds on his way to trial in Dublin, Sinn Fein flags on the station.

 

Four years after cancelling the show because of the outbreak of war, August 1918, South Kildare show went ahead at Athy, but this time with a large contribution from the army. Now Ireland was well and truly garrisoned.

 

One But of course, the war had been going on all this time. The third battle of Ypres had occurred; four Athy men had died in the evil mud plain of Flanders that August. Two more Athy men died in the great german offensive in March 1918. That summer came the great allied counter offensives. In all these melancholy affairs, I would guess that Athy casualties wwere barely registered in the town.

One of the last Athy men to die was 25 year old private Thomas O’Brien. Perhaps aware of the change in mood, his family put on  his headstone two words: a volunteer. Officially the last man to die was hugh fenlon, of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and then of the Labour Corps, who died on his injuries in a Hamshire hospital on the 29th October, 1918. But we can be sure that others died of the long term complications of war.

In all of this tragedy, some families were  hit more than once. One of the first Athy men to die Edward Stafford of the Dublin Fusiliers. Who was killed in september 1914.He was the son of Thomas and Julia Stafford. Killed in the battles in which Holland got his VC was Thomas Stafford, 24, also the son of Thomas and Julia.

Another of the first Athy deaths was of Aloysius Heydon, Irish Guards, on September 1914. Three years later his brother Patrick was killed in action. They were the sons of Patrick and Margaret Heydon of Churchtown House.

Two Kelly brothers from Athy also were killed. The sons of John and Mary Kelly of Chapel Lane, John was the first go, being killed in action on the ruinous fields of festubert in May 1915. He was aged just 20.  His brother Denis was killed just over a month before the war ended. He was aged 18. Another Kelly from the town, Owen Kelly, must have been in the same recruitment queue as john – one was 3626, the other 3636 –  and they died just a couple of weeks apart

The two Hannon brothers who had been killed in 1915 and 1917 were joined in death by their cousin, Reginald, in December 1917, serving with the Shropshire Light Infantry. He was resident in London, but his commononwealth war graves notice emphatically declares him to be of athy. A memorial raised in the church of Ireland church in 1919 actually says that four Hannons were killed – but I haven’t been able to find the fourth.

Finally, we come to the Curtis brothers, all three of whom had enlisted in Glasgow, where they presumably were living. I didn’t actually know that they were brothers until I read Frank Taaffe’s account. Patrick Curtis, Irish Guards, was killed in action in December 1914. He is the only Irish Guardsman buried in Sanctuary Wood outside Ypres. The cemetery register names his parents as John and Margaret Curtis of Kilcrow Athy. Two other brothers were to die. John Curtis, Royal Horse Artillery, killed in action in January 1917, and Laurence, killed in action in December 1917: but the cemetery registers make no mention of any family connections. Was it because these two men had been killed after 1916?  I don’t know.

The last Athy man to be directly killed in action was William Corrigan, formerly of the South Irish horse, and latterly the Dublin Fusiliers, who died on October 14, 1918, in one of the last actions of he war.  He is buried in Ledgehem cemetery 17 miles east of Ypres. In the same cemetery and killed in that same action is Coman O’Malley, 19, who enlisted in England and I suspect had run away to do so. He was one of six brothers from the Redmondite O’malley family of Glenamaddy to have served. Their father was a local GP there. Had history been different, that family would have probably turned out to be major players in Home Rule Ireland. But events, as we know, went in another direction.

The worst year for Athy deaths was 1915 – 32 enlisted men died that year. It’s quite clear from their ages and numbers that a good deal of these men were new recruits from the year before.

In the first year of the war, 8 were to die, 19 were to die in 1916, and 16 in 1917. Eleven died in 1918.

I draw your attention  to Christopher Power, husband of Esther, of the 8th Dublin Fusiliers, killed in action at hulluch at the astonishing age of 59,

I don’t know the figures for Athy officers, simply because officers origins are not listed in the official statistics, and for the most part they weren’t mentioned in national newspaper dispatches. But we know from references to the Kilbrides and the Hollands and the McLaughlins, that the nationalist middle class of Athy town did join up. But I suspect that rural Athy did not; either through Sinn Fein –type loyalities, or through an agricultural resistance to military service that was widespread in both Ireland and Britain. Allowing for the usual ratio of officers to men, it’s reasonable to accept that 100 Athy men were killed in the war. If you allow Castledermot casualties, the figure rises to well over 120

 

I don’t know what happened to most of the people in this story. The only surviving Hannon son became a clergyman, and got married in Ballymoney in Country Antrim in the 1920s. Their son became a bishop, and his son became the singer of the . The dead brother’s sistermarried a man named webb in the Church of Ireland church in the 1920s. Are there any Webbs in the house?

 

Athy at the time of the Great war had a population of about 4,000 people. Around one hundred men from Athy were killed in the war. About 1.7% of the population of Britain died in the war. The figures for Athy at 2.5% is proportionately 47% higher. And when I first spoke to people in this town on this subject, nearly 20 years ago, almost no-one in the town had any real idea that Athy had suffered in the Great war at all. I think that thanks to the efforts of the Taaffe family, that is no longer the case.