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Monday 16 September 2019

The Irish village that sent most of its men to the battlefields in the Great War

As the world marks the centenary of the Armistice today, one Irish village stands out, writes Alan O'Keeffe

Woodenbridge First World War Memorial, Co Wicklow. Photo: Tony Gavin
Woodenbridge First World War Memorial, Co Wicklow. Photo: Tony Gavin
NEW GENERATION: Would today’s young adults sign up? Students holding differing views are (left to right) George Wild, Sarah Fox, Dylan O’Sullivan, Becky Canavan and Stephen Belton. Photo: Tony Gavin

Alan O'Keeffe

One Irish village has a distinction today as the centenary of the ending of World War I is marked with public remembrance ceremonies.

Rathnew once had the titles of 'the Bravest Village' and 'the Khaki Village'.

More men from the Co Wicklow village reportedly joined up to fight in the war during a considerable period than any other place in Ireland or Britain or the Empire, based on population size.

"Practically every able-bodied man in the village joined up," said John Finlay, chairman of Wicklow Historical Society.

Out of an estimated 190 adult males in the village, 129 signed up to fight - and that appeared to be almost every man of military age.

At least nine fathers from the village joined up to fight alongside their sons.

A letter arrived from Buckingham Palace at the home of Mr P Jameson in Rathnew in February 1916 in which an official wrote that King George V wished to express congratulations that six sons in the family and a son-in-law were serving in the army and the King "much appreciates the spirit of patriotism".

There were eight local men named Jameson in uniform and records show a father and son both died in 1917. Michael Jameson of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who died in January, aged 46, was the husband of Ellen Jameson. Arthur Jameson of the Royal Field Artillery, who died in May, aged 25, was the son of Ellen Jameson.

There were 13 local soldiers named Doyle, including two pairs of fathers and sons.

At least 12 soldiers from Rathnew died as a result of the conflict and many are listed as having "no known grave". A significant number were wounded. Private Robert Daly died in a German prisoner of war camp.

John Redmond, leader of the Irish Nationalist Party, had urged all members of the Irish Volunteers to represent Ireland by joining the British Army to fight for the freedom of small nations like Belgium which had been overrun by German troops.

Urging immediate enlistment, he addressed thousands of men in Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, in September 1914.

There is a monument at Woodenbridge with the names of almost 1,200 men from Co Wicklow who were killed in the war.

Rathnew's neighbouring village of Ashford lost 32 men in the war.

The village of Newtownmountkennedy up the road also had exceptionally high numbers of men who joined in the conflict.

Rathnew resident Stan O'Reilly, secretary of the Wicklow Historical Society, said there was widespread economic deprivation in the local area and many men joined the army out of financial necessity.

Their wives and families would receive at least £1 a week while they were on the battlefields.

Thanks to the upheaval that followed the 1916 Rising, men coming home from the war in 1918 failed to receive a heroes' welcome.

In 1921, an explosive device damaged the canteen of the Comrades of the Great War club in Wicklow.

In 2016, all the names of the Rathnew soldiers were displayed on a large Roll of Honour at a local exhibition.

But would today's young people from the locality be as willing to march away to war?

Mr O'Reilly and his wife Maeve accompanied the Sunday Independent to the local Youthreach education centre in nearby Wicklow town last Wednesday, where a group of young people expressed differing opinions about going to war.

"I don't think you would get a lot of teenage boys to fight nowadays," said Becky Canavan (19) from Wicklow.

"The odd few teenagers would fight but the rest would be afraid of breaking a nail. I don't think many of the lads I know would be ready for it all," she said.

She said she would be willing to work as a nurse in the appalling conditions that the soldiers endured in the trenches.

Dylan O'Sullivan (19), whose father came from Rathnew, said he would have been willing to fight in World War I, despite the terrible suffering endured by the troops.

"I definitely would have gone and tried to help. I would have gone if it meant I was fighting for Ireland and it was preventing wars like that from happening again.

"I would be willing to enter the trenches with the possibility of being wounded or killed. I greatly admire those guys in World War I," he said.

He said he was not sure if Ireland should join a European army to defend the European Union nations. He would be willing to fight if it was a defensive war.

"This is our country and we are part of Europe. We should stand our ground," he said.

Stephen Belton (19) said he definitely would not have joined the army in World War I, knowing what happened.

"It would not have been a big enough reason for me to risk my life. I would not go," the Wicklow man said.

He said Ireland should stay out of all wars and Irish defence forces were not strong enough for a war.

Neither did fellow student George Wild (18) feel that he could agree to fight in the conditions experienced in World War I. "I don't want to be killed," he said.

Sarah Fox (19), from nearby Ashford, said she would be willing to help the troops in a situation similar to the trenches of World War I.

"I don't think I'd be much help fighting but I would go and help with nursing and preparing food," she said.

She said she was against Ireland taking a fighting role in any modern war.

"The Irish should try to put an end to wars… Irish people should go to those places and try to stop the fighting," she said.

Mr O'Reilly, a passionate local historian, said poverty and patriotism often motivated the local men who went to war.

There was also a local tradition of enlistment going back to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

A number of local reservists who served in the Boer War with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were called up at the start of the war.

Local men continued to die from the effects of the war long after it was over.

He said mustard gas attacks had a devastating affect on the lungs of soldiers.

One ex-soldier, who died in Rathnew in the early 1930s, was suffering from flu but a gas attack in the war had damaged his lungs.

He said letters written in the trenches sent home to Rathnew conveyed some of the horror the men endured.

Local man Thomas Sullivan, a private in the Irish Guards regiment, wrote to his wife Martha in the early days of the war on September 13, 1914.

His letter was published soon after in the Wicklow Newsletter and County Advertiser.

Thomas wrote: "Dear Martha, we are getting it very hard and are in every battle… There are some terrible sights… One of the Cullens is shot dead - one of the three brothers… I hope in God this war will soon be over…

"Tell all in the quarry that I was asking for them, and tell my mother that I am going on well, thank God.

"With the help of God, I will be spared to see you and my child again."

Two days later, he wrote a more graphic letter.

After asking Martha to send cigarettes and socks, he said: "This is a terrible fight that is going on at present; this is five days going on without a stop night and day.

"I think if we win this battle we will have a lot of them wiped out.

"Our regiment captured a lot of guns and a lot of Germans but we lost a lot of men before we could get to surround them.

"We had to charge them with the bayonet or we could have been all cut up by then. We had given up all hope of ourselves, but we had someone's good prayer that saved us.

"We are going through some cruel hardship; we have never had our boots off since we started. I hope it will soon be over."

Thomas put two 'x's at the end of his letter "for Tottey," adding "Tell Tottey his daddy was asking for him."

It appears that Private Sullivan survived the war.

Sunday Independent

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