Mary Kenny: More men from Rathnew volunteered for WWI than from anywhere else
The conclusion of the First World War in November 1918 will be a major European commemoration this month. In Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, a somewhat smaller ceremony will take place in the middle of the month in the beautiful local World War I memorial there - a landscaped park with simple headstones which list the Wicklow men who served and died in that terrible war. They are remembered just by name, without military or regimental identification because the community chose to make Woodenbridge a place of peace, ecumenism and memory.
The names are on stone after stone, sometimes brothers, or even fathers and sons: Michael Kane and Patrick Kane from Baltinglass; Denis Doyle and James Doyle from Ashford; many Byrnes from Aughrim; from Roundwood, Charles Barton - a cousin of Erskine Childers - and from Rathnew, George Hunter, a family member of the celebrated Hunter's Hotel. There were six Kelly brothers from Newtownmountkennedy who joined up: three survived.
The Wicklow military historian Brendan Flynn - himself a retired Irish Army soldier - says that more men from Rathnew volunteered, proportionately, than from anywhere else in Ireland or Britain. Rathnew, in 1914, was a village in which many worked as farm labourers, dwelling in thatched cottages. These look picturesque but the conditions of living under a thatch could be awful: in winter, the rain came in and the floors would be turned to mud.
"Farm labourers were mainly single men. They couldn't marry because they had no steady income. In the winter, they had no income at all," says the local historian. The opportunity of joining the military, where they lived in clean, well-organised barracks, with proper toilets and bathrooms, recreation facilities and with access to dentists and doctors, and a guaranteed pay packet - plus a pension - was one that these volunteers willingly grasped.
Wicklow men joined not only the British Army, as it was then, but overseas armies too. Brendan Flynn has traced 100 Canadian soldiers born in Wicklow, 60-80 Australian troops who were Wicklow men, eight to 10 New Zealanders, and about half a dozen South Africans.
During the First World War, the savings accounts in Wicklow post offices doubled and then trebled, because of soldiers' allowances and remittances sent home. It was a considerable alleviation of the rural poverty that afflicted so much of Wicklow at that time. And yet, says Brendan Flynn - who has been studying the military history of Wicklow since compulsory retirement at 55 - the men who joined up in 1914 weren't only doing so for the opportunity of better living conditions. They regarded themselves as patriots. They saw the Irish Volunteers as Ireland's army. John Redmond's pledge to support the Allies fighting against Germany - the speech he made at Woodenbridge itself - was then seen as an appeal to Irish patriotism. "Home Rule had been secured: men joined up with great enthusiasm."
Some 98-99pc of the Wicklow men were Catholic, and defending Belgium from invasion by the Kaiser was considered a just cause, Brendan says, having now trawled through so many of the archives. He also visited every church and graveyard in the county - along with his wife, Mary - as part of his research, which started around 2003. Only two Catholic churches have memorials to the Wicklow men who died during 1914-18: Kilquade, which has a memorial to Willie Redmond, the Home Rule MP who died on the Western Front (his last speech in the House of Commons was about the touching spirit of unity between Irishmen, North and South, in the trenches) and one at Aughrim parish church.
As we know, the events of 1916 changed the political landscape completely (although some historians now see Easter 1916 as being part of the First World War) and the soldiers who survived returned to an altered state. Indeed, even when Brendan Flynn started on his research, he came up against a taboo. His own father had said to him: "What do you want to be asking about that for?" But the perspective of time has a mellowing effect and the 1914-1918 war is now seen as a European war: if Ireland is part of Europe, then it is part of this centenary commemoration. And the Woodenbridge memorial park, with its roots in localism, is so evocative. The entrance to the site is marked by a quotation from Francis Ledwidge, the war poet from Slane who died at Passchendaele.
The memorial park is entirely an initiative of the local community in which Billy O'Brien, the proprietor of the nearby Woodenbridge Hotel, played a key role. Funds were raised by the community, the land donated, and Wicklow stonemasons from Byrnes of Aughrim constructed the striking stone columns from Wicklow shale. A "bunker" underneath a disused railway bridge is also under development, so that visiting school students can get a sense of the war experience of from a soldier's viewpoint.
I was introduced to Woodenbridge by an old school friend, Eileen O'Sullivan, who lives in the Avoca area, and we walked around the memorial park on a lovely autumn day, under tall oak trees: a place of remembrance, and a thoughtful serenity.
John Bruton will give the memorial address at Woodenbridge at 2pm on Sunday, November 18.