The knock on the front door was unusual. After all, the half door was always open and the neighbours never knocked. As she went to the door the woman of the house caught a glimpse of the uniformed telegraph boy standing outside. Her heart sank for she knew that he brought bad news just as he had to some of her neighbours since the start of the war. Those same neighbours were now gathering at her door, even as the telegraph boy passed over the telegram. As she feared the telegram from the war office read: ‘Deeply regret to inform you that your husband died of wounds on June 28th. Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy.’
The scene is an imaginary one, but in reality it was a scene re-enacted more than 100 times in the laneways and courtyards of Athy during the years of the 1914-18 war. The dreaded telegram was delivered to so many local houses during the 52 months of the war that neighbours readily recognised the scene even as it evolved. Sometimes the telegraph boy retraced his steps to the same house, not just twice but sadly in at least one case, three times. The Kelly brothers of Chapel Lane were to die fighting another nation’s war. Encouraged by local Church and civic leaders brothers Denis, John and Owen Kelly enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force to fight overseas where they died.
In many instances local men starved of employment and weary of the unsanitary and claustrophobic conditions in which they lived gave their names to the local recruiting sergeant in Leinster Street. They would after all be home by Christmas, or so they were told. The excitement of travel to foreign lands, pride in wearing a smart uniform and of course, the army pay, no doubt played a part in prompting the large scale enlistment of men from Athy and district. Perhaps even the promise of Home Rule played its part in encouraging many to join the ranks.
Later, as those who survived the war returned to their home town, their late comrades, the majority of whom had no known burial places, would be forgotten and overlooked by the general public and also by local church and civic leaders. Those who had encouraged recruitment now kept silent in the face of Sinn Fein’s rise in popularity. The pre war politics of the Irish Parliamentary Party had been overtaken by the political dominance of Sinn Fein. The local men who fought in France and Flanders and further afield were no longer war heroes. Their return to Athy was not marked by parades led by local bands as was their departure from the local railway station a few short years before.
The returning ex-soldiers would of necessity keep a low profile, apart from honouring their dead comrades once a year on Remembrance Sunday. But even that limited homage to the dead was not deemed appropriate to continue far beyond the election of the first Fianna Fáil government in 1932. The families of ex British soldiers of the 1914-18 war may have grieved privately and commemorated loved ones within family circles. Nowhere however was there any public recognition for those local men who responded to the call to arms and in so many cases answered with their young lives.
I have in the past expressed the view that we can remember our neighbours of long ago without in any way feeling that we are doing a disservice to what we ourselves believe. Whether you are a republican, a socialist or simply a political party member, commemorating the war dead of your town is not only a tribute to the young men of a past generation but also a mark of your respect for your town’s history.
Sunday the 10th of November is Remembrance Sunday, the one day in the year when the dead of World War I are commemorated. Here in Athy six soldiers who died in their home town and are buried in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery will be the focus of a Remembrance Sunday ecumenical commemoration service to take place at 3.00 p.m. The service, which will remember all the local men who died in World War 1, is not intended as a celebration of war but as a commemoration for a lost generation and an acknowledgement of the years of neglect of those men who died during the war as well as those who survived.
Local men’s participation in the 1914-18 war is a part of our local and national history and in remembering those men we are recognising their contribution to their communities and the losses sustained by their families. An open invitation is extended to everyone to join in the commemoration service at St. Michael’s Old Cemetery at 3.00 p.m. on Sunday next, 10th November.
No doubt many of you were puzzled to read of Mrs. Anna Duthie of 30 Duke Street. I’m afraid Homer nodded yet again as of course Duthie’s jewellery shop has always been at 30 Leinster Street.